Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Give me that old time mountain music

This past August 2021 marked the 85th annual Old Fiddler's Convention in Galax, Virginia. The Galax Fiddler's Convention is the oldest and largest music festival of its type, celebrating traditional mountain music. Galax is an incorporated "city" at the southeastern edge of Grayson County. My father was born about 20 miles away, in the small town of Troutdale, also in Grayson County. He grew up in Troutdale and other Southwest Virginia communities. As a child we frequently spent summers in Troutdale, visiting with Aunts and Uncles. 

Oddly, not once in all my childhood and adolescence of being around my father's family and being in southwestern Virginia did I ever hear traditional mountain music or even bluegrass or country music. I have concluded that this was a social class issue, my grandfather was a shopkeeper, a politician, battling to make his family "middle class" and above the "riff-raff". He once castigated my eldest Aunt Mary for her association with Sherwood Anderson (the great American author, who also lived in Troutdale in his last decades) because Anderson wrote scandalous tales about moonshiners and hillbillies in his newspaper, and my grandfather did not want his daughter associated with "ruffians". So my father and my aunts all listened to classical music and big band music, and never once that I knew of listened to traditional mountain music, bluegrass or country music.

It was not until I was a graduate student in Sociology at the University of Kentucky that I heard and fell in love with traditional music. My first introduction to it was in the winter of 1977-78, at a fundraiser concert for the union coal miners of eastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia who were engaged in a major strike against the Bituminous coal companies in Appalachia.  From that moment on I was in love with the music of the mountains. 

One of my most precious memories from grad school came during the August of 1978, while I was living and researching my master's thesis in my father's home town of Troutdale. A group of friends piled in the hay-filled back of a farm truck and drove to Galax for the Fiddler's Convention. Some of my friends were musicians and they also knew many of the traditional musicians in the region. While we spent a little bit of time in the arena listening to the contests, we spent most of that very long night wandering about the campsite, where dozens of small jams of musicians occurred. 

This video, from August of 2021, reminds me so strongly of that wonderful night and how much amazing music could be found just wandering from campsite to campsite. 

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Being Political

My parents were fairly political, especially for a working class family. I doubt that they made many political donations when I was a child because money was very tight, but they discussed political and social issues a lot, wrote letters to their representatives, signed petitions and voted in every primary and election. I can remember going to the polls with my mother or father and standing along side them when they pulled the various levers on the big mechanical voting machines that were used in California in the 1950's and 60's. 

The issues that my parents cared about and talked about constantly with us included civil rights and racial equality, economic inequality and workers rights, and in the 1960's they were opposed to the Vietnam war. So it seemed only natural that when I started college in 1969, that I would march against the war, engage in sit-ins at a selective service office, and work for anti-war political candidates. 

The voting age was still 21 when I started college, but that did not prevent me from working for a political candidate. The house director for my freshman dormitory was married and her husband was the areas' elected Democratic representative to the Ohio House of Representatives, and I worked on his re-election campaigns in both 1970 and 1972, doing things like stuffing envelopes, and making phone calls.  

Back in the 1970's voter registration rules were specifically designed to keep college students from voting in the communities where they went to college (unless of course their families lived in those communities). So when I first registered to vote in 1972 at age 21 (the same year that the voting age got lowered to 18), I had to register from my parents address in California. Through an interesting quirk of the times, I actually registered the first time as a Republican. 

In 1972 Richard Nixon, whom I hated with the white hot passion of youth, was running for his second term. The local Congressman for San Mateo, Paul Norton "Pete" McClosky Jr. was a liberal Republican. I know, a liberal Republican seems crazy these days, and in fact, according to Wikipedia Pete McClosky switched to the Democratic Party in 2007. However, back then, such a thing was actually fairly common. McClosky stood up and opposed Nixon and the war in Vietnam, and decided to try and "primary" Nixon in 1972. So I and all my family registered as Republicans so that we could vote for McClosky in the primary against Nixon. Of course, that challenge was unsuccessful, and in the summer of 1972, I was "clean for Gene" and voted for Eugene McCarthy in my first presidential election. 

Between 1972 and 1975, I voted by absentee ballot as a Californian in every primary and election, but was not engaged in other ways in politics. Then I moved to Kentucky in 1975. As a graduate student living year-round in Lexington, and considered an "in state student" by virtue of my assistantships and researchships, I registered to vote in Kentucky.  

I still remember the conversations. All the life-long Kentuckians made it very clear, that if one wanted to have any real say in elections in Kentucky one had to register as a Democrat regardless of what one's political leanings actually were. Kentucky had been and continued for some decades still to be so dominated by the Democratic party that all the real political decisions for local offices, state offices, and federal representatives like senator and congressmen, were made in the primaries rather than the elections. We can still see the effect of that reality in Kentucky in 2020, where registered Democrats still out number registered Republicans, even though both houses of our legislature are dominated by Republicans, both Senators are Republican, and the state went overwhelmingly for Trump in both 2016 and 2020. Yet in eastern Kentucky, most of our county and town leadership are still Democrats. Politics in Kentucky have always been "the damnedest." 

Professionally and personally I became much more interested in local politics in the late 1970's and early 1980's. As a sociology graduate student I was reading Floyd Hunter's Community Power Structure, John Gaventa's Power and Powerlessness, Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz Power and Poverty, Arthur Vidich and Joseph Bensman Small Town in Mass Society, and  Robert Dahl Who Governs?  All of which  used community politics and decision-making case studies to develop theoretical perspectives about the exercise of power.  I was doing my own research on political conflicts in southwestern Virginia (my father's home community). My dissertation focused on conflicts between local  communities and the U.S. Forest Service over recreational developments in the Jefferson National Forest region.   Also during that same time, I had a paid job as a research analyst over two years on a huge community survey of Kentucky municipalities. Personally I was also paying more attention to Kentucky's gubernatorial races and Lexington school board issues. Nonetheless, I was more observational than participatory during those years, limiting my participation to voting in every primary and election, but did not work for any candidates or make any donations. 

After graduate school during the 1980's, my first full-time professorial job was in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. I paid close attention to national politics. I raised money for Mondale and Ferraro, and helped the local democratic party plan a visit by Ferraro who did a press conference at the local airport. The idea of a female VP was intoxicating.  Four years later, I fundraised and worked for  Michael Dukakis who visited Johnstown on a cross country train stop. During the same years I donated to and worked for Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter, probably the last of the great liberal Republicans.  However, I am ashamed to say that I have no idea who was mayor of the city, or how the city was governed, and I paid little if any attention to who were my representatives at the state level, or even my congressional district. 

I didn't change much when after seven years in Johnstown, I moved to Wise, Virginia to teach at another branch of a great university (this time UVA). I put my focus on presidential politics, senatorial politics, and maybe on the governorship, but not much else. I did at least know who my local congressman was, but that was about it.  I was taken by surprise when my blue district "suddenly" went red, in the 1990's. 

This I believe is the great failing of liberals of my generation. We looked at the big issues we felt were important, such as the environment, civil rights, reproductive rights, and we decided that the best way to attack those was at the federal level and through the courts, rather than trying to fight in each and every statehouse. Most of us failed to think about the role of the statehouses in controlling access to voting, to defining districts, and setting the ground rules.  We never thought about a day when the Supreme Court would strike down major parts of the voting rights act giving free reign back to the states. The Republicans never made that mistake. They worked the local and the state offices and came to dominate state politics even in states where ostensibly the majority of voters were liberal, and elected Democratic presidents and Democratic senators. 

Part of the problem comes from the fact that many highly educated liberal voters of my generation (Ok Boomer), held jobs that often involved major moves. In academia, I taught at three different institutions. People in business and finance often had to make major moves to advance in their careers. Local politics is so much about who you know and how long you or your family have been in the community that it is hard for more transient residents to get to understand how it works. 

Moving to Kentucky for my final academic position (that I was in for more than 21 years), finally gave me the roots to get firmly involved. I know who all my county and community leaders are, I can stop them on the street and talk to them. I know who my representatives in the Kentucky legislature are, and feel free to chat them up when I run into them in the grocery store, or the local farmers market.  I know the people in my community, not just those that I worked with at the community college. I know the sheriff and many of the deputies and town police in the county (many are former students).  The local level is far more important than I realized when I was younger, despite the fact that as a community sociologist I should have recognized that. 

A Panic over Memory

One of the things about aging that scares me is that I will lose my mind the way my mother lost hers, becoming entirely delusional and thinking that it is the rest of the world that is crazy.  The day I wrote the material below (April 7, 2021) was one of those scary days. However, it turned out there was nothing wrong with my memory at all. Instead I had stuffed my drawer so full that several shirts, including the one that I was looking for had fallen down behind the drawers and then under the bottom drawer. My husband figured it out and rescued my missing shirts, and I calmed down. It is useful for me to remember this, so that I don't panic the next time something goes missing.

Yesterday was a difficult day. Early in the morning, I went to my dresser and pulled open the drawer with all my graphic t-shirts to get the newest art tee that I had purchased last week. It wasn't there. I pulled everything out of the drawer and it wasn't there. I looked in every other drawer in the bedroom and in the closet just in case I had hung it up. I searched all the laundry baskets, and went through the trash. I l looked on the shelves with the towels and in the containers where the sheets are stored. No art tee. 

Next I completely tore apart my office, moving boxes and books, checking the drawers where art supplies, tools, and medical supplies are kept. I looked in the sewing box and the art project box and the bag of knitting. Then it was on the kitchen, where I checked cabinets and drawers and shelves, trash beens and garbage. I went outside and pulled bags from the trash cans and searched them.  In the living room I shifted through all the blankets and pillows and baskets where things are stored.  

Then I involved my husband, and we checked his study and his closets, his laundry baskets, his drawers. He went with me and we went back again over the bedroom and all the dressers, pulled clothing out of all of them, both mine and his, unfolding and refolding every black t-shirt, to make sure it wasn't the missing one. 

At the very beginning when I first opened the drawer to get the tee, I had been certain that it would be there. As the day went along, I became less and less certain. I could remember the box arriving and opening it. I could remember getting the shirt out and showing it to my husband. He could remember me showing it to him. But now I was no longer certain that I actually could remember taking it in the bedroom and putting it in the drawer. 

Every few hours throughout the rest of the day, I would go through the search process again. There was no sign of the tee anywhere. It caused me to think that I had done something irrational like put it in the garbage. Even on the very rare occasions that I throw away any clothing, I always put it in the trash cans, not in the garbage - i.e., food waste and used cat litter. But since the shirt had vanished and I had searched the trash both inside the house and in the outdoor cans, I began to think that some how I had walked into the kitchen and thrown a brand new t-shirt in with the wet, smelly and disgusting garbage. This was so out of character that it was disturbing. 

But then a lot of disturbing things have been happening with my memory in the last few years. I have always had a poor memory. When I was in the first grade, my teacher Mrs. Davis, repeatedly told me, and not in a kind or kidding way, that "Sue Greer, if your head wasn't screwed on tight you'd forget that too." I was an absent-minded and disorganized child, but I wanted to do well in school and I was disciplined so I taught myself a whole host of tricks and techniques to remember and keep track of things. I lived by lists even when I was seven years old. As a college freshman I immediately realized that without a system I would always be looking for my keys and my id (essential if one wanted to eat). So from the time I was 18 I always had a clearly specified place for keys and other essentials, and always made sure that I left things in that place. To this day I do not misplace my keys because they  belong in one place and always go in that place.

Growing older is not for the timid, it is a scary country! 

Saturday, January 30, 2021

The End of January - almost

 It is closing in on 1 am, my husband has been asleep for hours, but my brain won't shut down. I worry about getting up in the night, it might disturb the doggies, and if they get restless they would wake my husband, and he needs his sleep. I can always take naps in the daytime, one of the many benefits of retirement and aging. 

snow and trees

It is cold tonight but not so cold as to require a trickle to be run in the tub. The thermometer on the back porch read 25 degrees F, when we went to bed at ten. There is still snow on the ground from Wednesday night/Thursday morning, but not much. We have not had any long stretches of deep cold this winter so far. Only two nights in December when the temperature dipped into the teens, and exceedingly few days when the afternoon temperatures have stayed below freezing. Just Tuesday the afternoon high was 62 degrees F. 

I am very ambivalent about this. There was a time when I loved winter. When I walked a mile from graduate housing to the Patterson Office Tower in 20 degree or lower weather and found it exhilarating. I had a whole hierarchy of clothing depending upon temperature. Below 20 degrees I set aside the jeans and got out ankle length lined wool skirts with long johns underneath.  Age, rheumatoid arthritis, and asthma triggered by cold air, make walks in temperatures below 40 degrees no longer feasible. I no longer enjoy the cold weather. But I know that these milder winters are not a good sign. No one mild winter of course can be blamed on climate change, but the pattern of milder winters that we've seen in the last couple of decades most certainly shows the influence of global warming. 

Moreover, while winters have become more pleasant and less harsh, spring and summer have become hotter and more humid. The fleas and ticks have boomed in recent years with mild winters. As a family with dogs and cats this has become a major expense issue. We can no longer stop flea treatments in the winter months, with so much mild weather. The lower costs for heating do not offset the higher costs of flea treatments when one has 11 cats. 

Eastern Kentucky, on the northwestern flank of the Appalachian mountains, is well situated for a changing climate. While our summers are definitely getting warmer, we are higher in altitude, surrounded by forests, and living in hollers which provide shade. The prevailing winds bring eastern Kentucky plentiful rainfall, rainfall that has been increasing over the past couple of decades. While there are occasional periods of drought (in late spring or early fall), they are both rare and short. 

The population here is declining and aging. The coal industry has been in decline since it peaked in the 1920's, but it has become nearly non-existent in the past decade. Environmentally this is a good thing, but little has replaced those jobs, so communities and families are struggling. The biggest employers in most eastern Kentucky counties are hospitals and schools. However, I suspect in the long run, if we manage to maintain our society (and I sometimes have my doubts about that), eastern Kentucky is likely to become a very desirable place to live, not too cold, not too hot, and plenty of fresh water available. I do not know if I will live to see that day. 

Monday, January 25, 2021

What is old?

 I keep waiting to feel old. 

I'm not talking about my physical body. That's been aching and creaking, and dysfunctional since my early 50's. Between osteo-arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, bursitis, type two diabetes, asthma and obesity my health has been rocky for some time. 

But my spirit, my being doesn't feel old. I thought maybe when I reached 65 and got on Medicare I'd feel old. Nope. Or when I retired a few years after that, but no. Nor do I expect turning 70 in less than two weeks will make me feel old either. 

I spent most of my life working with young people, college students (most, but not all, younger than myself). I always felt more akin to the students than the "grownups" I saw around me. Took me some time to realize that many of those "grownups" really were not, any more than I was. There were some faculty, almost always men, who seem to have completely lost touch with what it was like to be 19 or 20 and in college. Who were always grumbling about "what's wrong with kids these days." So maybe some people do feel old, and lose touch with their young selves. 

But I think that maybe I'm never going to feel old, never really going to feel like a "grownup," and never really going to know for sure what I'm going to be when I grow up. 

Thursday, January 21, 2021

This Day

 This feels the beginning of the new year to me, January 21, 2021. This is the day I feel like making resolutions, starting fresh, shaking off the doldrums of the past 10 months; to do more than just float through the world on a sea of anxiety. 

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Shedding Tears

A sad thing happened this morning. I was driving one of my cats, Tippecanoe, to our vet to have his stitches removed. About 2 miles from the vet's office on a stretch of four lane I felt a sudden thud under one wheel and in the rear view window I could see a small black cat with legs flailing.

Living in a rural area I'm very consciously always on the lookout scanning the shoulders for animals, everything from deer and bears to cats and dogs may suddenly dash across the road. This time I didn't see anything before the sickening thump. There wasn't a good place to turn when I saw what happened so I quickly drove on to my vet where I could leave Tippecanoe and go back to the scene. Every moment that I had to wait before the receptionist got off the phone and I could tell her what I needed to do was torture. 

I hopped back in my car and flew back to the scene.  I did a u-turn across the four-lane and pulled up on the shoulder next to the little cat. It was immediately obvious that the poor thing was dead, but I couldn't just leave it there to be run over again and again. So watching for a break in the traffic I ran out and scooped the little limp thing up in a towel and brought it back to the car.

Right there on the side of the road holding that limp little body in a towel I began to sob uncontrollably. I climbed behind the wheel and shook and cried for several minutes before starting the engine again. I probably wasn't really in any shape to be driving, but did so anyway, tears running down my face, sobbing and moaning. 

And I realized right away, that as sad as the situation was, I wasn't really crying for the dead kitty. The death of the little cat had just simply been the mechanism to release all the pain, fear and sadness of the past four months. I was crying for Breonna Taylor and George Floyd,  and for all the more than 140,000 people that we've lost to COVID 19. I was crying for the losses of connection and dislocations that the pandemic has caused all of us, and I was crying for all the fears and uncertainties that we face about the fate of our democratic society.   

Saturday, January 25, 2020

My brief life as a farm worker Part 3

What was most important to me about working at Yoder Brothers during the summers of 1970 and 1971 was my fellow workers. It is also the hardest thing to write about. One reason for that is that 50 years later I recognize how self-absorbed I was at 19 and as a result I did not learn very much about the women with whom I worked, nor did I do much to keep in touch with them when I went back to college. Yet those women touched my life and my ways of thinking much more deeply than I realized at the time. It was their fellowship that brought me back to the job for a second summer, not the $1.30 that we earned per hour.  

This is something I haven’t mentioned yet. Minimum wage in 1970 was $1.65.  At college working as a waitress and in the cafeteria, I earned federal minimum wage.  I knew what it was. When I applied for the job, I was told we’d be paid minimum wage; when the first paycheck came, I was flabbergasted. We were being paid $1.30 an hour. My first thought was that this was illegal, that they were taking advantage of the fact that most of the workers were immigrants who only spoke Spanish and could not really advocate for themselves. I called the same Cooperative Extension agent that had told me about the job in the first place, and he explained reality to me. There was a separate, lower, minimum wage that applied to farm workers.  Therefore $1.30 was completely legal, but my view that it was exploitive and taking advantage of immigrant workers was also true.  I learned later that the men who worked there earned $1.65 because they had more options as to jobs and would have left to work somewhere else if paid less than non-farm minimum wage.

The First Summer

 When I started work there in June 1970 all of the other women who worked there were Hispanic in that they were all native Spanish speakers – despite significant differences in dialect. They came from several countries. The largest number were from Mexico, but there were women from both Central America and South America, the four countries that I am sure about are Guatemala, El Salvador, Columbia, and Peru. All but one of the women had come to the United States as either teens or adults. That one woman, Conchita, had come to the U.S. as a very small child with her parents and had attended school entirely in the U.S. While she had grown up speaking Spanish at home with her parents, she was truly bi-lingual and spoke unaccented, colloquial English like anyone person who went to school here.

Connie as she was called, was my life-line in the beginning, helping me get up-to-speed in my Spanish. Like most kids growing up in California in the 1950's and 1960's I learned some Spanish vocabulary in grade school, and by middle school was taking formal classes in Spanish every year.  I studied Spanish in school for 4 and a half years (middle school, high school, and a semester in college) and earned mostly A's (except in college) but really wasn't fluent until working at Yoder Brothers. Connie helped me with the work specific vocabulary, that hadn’t been covered in my classes. She also helped ease me into the social network by inviting me to her home for dinner twice, where I got to meet her mother, husband, and six-year-old son – and have my first truly authentic Mexican cuisine! Yoder Brothers was a temporary stop for Connie who with a high school diploma and other skills soon found a less physical office job somewhere else.

It was harder to be part of the group after Connie left since everyone else spoke only Spanish, but nothing teaches a language faster than necessity and total emersion. I soon made my best friend at Yoder Brothers, Gloria. Gloria had come to the U.S. because her brother suffered from a congenital illness than could at that time only be treated properly in the U.S. Like the vast majority of immigrants, she had not really understood how difficult it would be for her to find skilled work like she had in Mexico, especially lacking English language skills. She was having difficulty saving up enough money to bring her brother to the U.S. working as a field hand.

Gloria was breathtakingly beautiful. She looked like the fairy tale description of snow white: ivory pale skin, ruby lips, shining dark hair. One of the things that I was quick to observe at Yoder Brothers was that “Hispanic” covers a very wide range of racial and ethnic groups. Gloria looked like she would have been at home on the streets of Madrid. By comparison the oldest, most senior worker at the plant, Irene from Peru had the deep bronze skin and high cheekbones that we Americans associate with native Americans. The rest of the women ranged somewhere in between those two poles, representing a wide mix of indigenous people and European invaders.

In many of their home countries these differences in racial and ethnic heritage mattered a great deal, social status and opportunity varied based on a person’s degree of European heritage. Here in the United States those differences were largely obliterated; from the point of view of the larger society and employers they were all Hispanic immigrants, they could not speak English, and they were vulnerable to deportation, even documented immigrants though the undocumented were especially so. Here tenure in the U.S. and knowledge of how the system worked were the primary forms of status, not racial and ethnic differences within the group.

Sitting and talking with Gloria before work, at lunch, and after work really pushed my Spanish fluency. Unlike the other women whose conversations revolved around their families or their relationships, food and clothing, Gloria wanted to talk about music, politics, and religion or perhaps more properly about beliefs. She wanted to tell me about her life in Mexico and her family and learn about my life and my family. We explored our similarities and differences and we taught each other songs.  I can only remember one of the many songs she taught me, because I have sung it often over the years to cheer myself up.

Ven a contar conmigo,
Si tristes estas.
Cuando te sientes deprimido
Ven a contar conmigo
Y el sol saldra.  

Translation: Come sing with me if you are sad. When you are feeling depressed sing with me and the sun will come out.

One of the funniest things that happened to me that first summer was due to an odd lacuna in my Spanish vocabulary. Gloria lived in an apartment with Bonita another one of the Yoder Brothers workers, about a mile and a half from the Yoder Brothers plant.  It was walkable, there were sidewalks the entire distance. But there was heavy traffic and in the summer it was hot. So early on, I suggested that I at least give them a ride home at the end of the day.  It was on my way and not at all inconvenient.  Our first ride was quite comical.  Neither Gloria nor Bonita knew the name of the major cross street where I would need to turn, so I told them to let me know before we reached the intersection. So I’m driving along, and the first major intersection is coming up so I ask izquierda [left] or derecha [right],  they replied “derecho” which I took to mean I should turn right, so I started to signal and make the turn and they started yelling “no, no, no” and pointing straight ahead.  We went through this two more times. Finally, I stopped the car and looked at them and gestured to the left saying “izquierda?” they nodded, then I gestured right and said “derecha?” they nodded. Then they pointed straight ahead and said “derecho!” In all my years of studying Spanish I had learned left and right, but I had never learned that “straight ahead” is derecho.  For days afterwards this was the subject of much discussion and laugher at lunch time.

In addition to providing Gloria and Bonita rides every day, I several times invited them to come to my parents’ house (where I lived) for meals, providing transportation to and from. At least once they both came, but two other times only Gloria came. They would invite me to eat with them, and I would accept their hospitality as to do otherwise would have been rude and insulting, but I would try to eat very little because they had so little. I felt very close to Gloria and I think she also felt close to me despite all our differences.

fairy stone crystal
At the end of the summer of 1970 when it was time for me to go back to school, Gloria and I exchanged lots of hugs and tears.  She also gave me an amazing gift one that I felt terribly guilty about accepting but knew that to refuse it would hurt her immeasurably. We had talked a lot about our religious beliefs, and one of the difficulties that I encountered in doing so was that for Gloria, a Spanish speaking Catholic, no distinction in her conversation was made between Jesus and God, she referred to both indistinguishably as “Dios.” As a consequence, I had been unable to explain to her satisfactorily how while I had a deep and abiding faith in God, I was not a Christian. This was probably made more difficult because I wore a necklace that had a small locket and a fairy stone cross on it.  I wore the fairy stone not because it was a cross, but because it was given me by my favorite Aunt and reminded me of trips on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I was overwhelmed when at parting she gave me the exquisite gold crucifix that she wore all the time when not at work. It had been a gift to her from her deceased mother.
At that point in my life I was pretty sure I wanted to be a Jew even though I was still ten years away from formal conversion to Judaism, I would have felt sacrilegious wearing a traditional Catholic crucifix with a tiny Jesus impaled upon it.  In response I removed my own necklace, removed the small locket, and gave her my fairy stone cross, explaining how it was a natural mineral that grew in the shape of a cross, and who had given it to me.  I kept Gloria’s crucifix close to me for the next 12 years, never wearing it, but holding it often and thinking about her. In 1975 my first graduate school roommate was a physician from Belgium, Arlette Lepot.  Arlette’s primary language was French, but she was fluent in Spanish and German. We discovered quickly that I was marginally more fluent in Spanish than she was in English, so we sometimes spoke Spanish together rather than English. For a variety of reasons Arlette reminded me of Gloria and I ended up telling her the story of Gloria’s crucifix and gave it to her, because she would wear it and honor it.

Gloria was the only woman at Yoder Brothers that I kept in touch with after I went back to college. We wrote letters to each other in Spanish. Mine were pretty simplistic. So I learned that after I left that she and Bonita had been able to get better paying (but still very hard, hot and miserable) jobs at a laundry. Then the letters stopped and my last letter was returned. I lost touch with her and it was not until the next summer that I was able to learn why. Both Gloria and Bonita were undocumented so an INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) raid on the laundry where she worked, caused her to go underground and leave the area. I’ve always wondered what happened to her after that.

Monday, January 20, 2020

My brief life as a farm worker Part 2

During the summers of 1970 and 1971 between years of college I worked at Yoder Brothers commercial horticultural plant in Redwood City, California as a farm worker. 

Women's Work in the Greenhouses

As I wrote in my previous post the primary work that we women did at Yoder Brothers was take cuttings of 2 and 1/2 inch shoots from chrysanthemum plants that were then shipped to other Yoder Brothers plants to be rooted. This constituted about 80 percent of our work load. 

But before the plants could grow to a point to have their shoots harvested, it was necessary to plant them. Planting was also a job that women did. The beds were prepared by the men. Preparation included sterilization of the beds. Each bed was tightly covered in plastic and scalding steam was piped under the plastic. Fertilizer, fresh top soil and other chemicals were applied to the sterilized beds by the men.  Then the women went to work. 

Taking cuttings was a job that could be done standing up, but planting could only be done kneeling. The beds were about a foot and a half high, so that even kneeling we sometimes had to lean over to work in the soil.  The packed dirt isles between beds were about 3 feet wide, which was enough to comfortably kneel perpendicular to the edge of the raised bed. We were given thick rubber cushions to strap over our knees, however, the isles were always dusty and often muddy so the bottoms of my pants, my socks and the tops of my shoes were usually filthy after a day of planting. 

Of course, I did seem to get dirtier than everyone else. Probably because I didn't mind getting dirty, because I was luckier than most of my work mates for whom this job was the difference between survival and starvation or homelessness. I had a home with my parents and was earning money to pay for college. Also I could afford to have clothes (even if only old ragged jeans and work shirts) that I only wore for work in the greenhouses. When I got home I could dump my clothes into the washer and put on something fresh. Many of my fellow workers could not afford separate sets of work clothes and home clothes; a lot of them would cover up at least their tops with old, worn, over-sized men's shirts to prevent staining. Some of it was a matter of choice - the young women did not want their novios or husbands to see them in dirty work clothes. I on the other hand had no one to impress with my femininity at that point in my life. Also many of them lived in apartments where they had to pay for laundry while I did my laundry for free in my parents' washer. Note that I did do my own laundry and did not leave it for my mother to do. I was often teased about getting so dirty. They said I was like their niƱos, who loved playing in the dirt. 

While the beds as a whole was three feet wide, thick wooden sides left the planting surface was about 30 inches. The surface of the bed was marked off in 5 inch squares by wire, so there were six squares across the width of each bed. We were given huge plastic trays of seedlings, each in it's little square of soil similar to the tomato or pepper seedlings at your local greenhouse or Lowe's in the spring. We had to make sure that the wooden stake labeling our tray of chrysanthemum seedlings had the same type name and number  to the wooden stakes labeling the bed we were planting in.  Rarely two women worked together on the same bed, one to a side facing each other, but most often we worked alone doing first one side and then the other. 

The soil was soft so we used no tools, only our fingers and hands. There was always dirt under my finger nails during those summers. We began with the square closest to the middle (the third square in from the side), so that we would not crush plants closer to the edge as we leaned out to reach the middle. Three seedlings were planted in each square in a triangle, the apex of the triangle pointing away from us.  I would gently pull a little seedling with its attached soil out of the tray with my left hand, while I simultaneously created a thumb sized hole in the bed with my right. I would plop the seedling in, and use my thumb and fingers to pinch the soil of the bed around it. Then reach for the next seedling and poke the next hole. I would usually do all of the third row squares I could comfortably reach from one kneeling location first, then the second row, and finally the first row, before "walking" on my knees to the next location. The pressure to be productive meant that there really wasn't time to stand up and straighten out between each location, just scooting on our knees. 

Physically planting was far more difficult than taking cuttings. Even with the thick rubber pads being on my knees for hours hurt. I'd get cramps in my calf or my thigh sometimes. In the early mornings there was greater risk of burning oneself on the heating pipe running around the bottom of the bed. But mostly it hurt my back to lean out over the bed to reach the middle rows.  And yet, I actually liked planting more than cutting. 

When you were cutting even though the job was really repetitive and boring you always had to pay close attention because you had to be counting the number of cuttings. The quality control was really strict, your 200 cuttings per box had to be exactly 200, not 199 or 201. If you let your mind wander while taking cuttings and lost count, you would have to stop and carefully count every cutting in your hand to make sure you knew where you were. Of course, stopping to recount cost time and that cut into your production which you couldn't afford to do if you wanted to keep your job. 

But planting required almost no thought at all, it was a purely mechanical process. So my mind could wander wherever I wished. Sometimes I sang softly to myself. Sometimes I composed letters or stories in my head. One could just simply daydream while planting, so time spent planting generally passed far more quickly than the hours spent taking cuttings. On those uncommon occasions that two women were working across from each other on the same bed one could actually have conversations, something not at all possible while you are counting cuttings. Too bad that planting was such a small part of the job during the summer months. The permanent workers did much more planting, being responsible for getting all the beds started in the late winter and early spring. 

Taking cuttings was the biggest part of the job, next in frequency and importance was planting, and finally when the productivity of plants had ended, we had to rip dead plants out and clean up the beds so the men could come in and prepare them for the next round of planting and harvesting of cuttings.  This was the only job that was truly social. It was always done by at least two women at a time, and sometimes a whole crew of women might be assigned to work on cleaning up an entire greenhouse. Since all we were doing was yanking plants out of the ground and piling them in huge piles there was plenty of opportunity for conversation, joking and singing. It was working on ripping crews that taught me all my best Spanish curse words, most of which are unfit for publication. 

Most of the time ripping out and cleaning up was a very short lived task centered on a few beds in an otherwise active greenhouse with many other rows of green, growing plants being actively harvested for cuttings. I have very vivid memories, however, of one afternoon in my second summer (1971) a crew of six of us were set the task of ripping beds in a greenhouse where everything was dried, brown and dead or dying.  This was a large task that was going to take the six of us the entire afternoon to complete. 

In an active greenhouse full of green, growing plants it was very humid and the high temperatures were usually in the high eighties or low nineties. That's not particularly pleasant, but its bearable and one becomes adjusted to the heat.  This particular greenhouse we were sent to work in was dry as a bone, and the temperature in that greenhouse when we started was 110 degrees Fahrenheit. It would reach 124 degrees before we were finished. We knew this because there were thermometers hanging from the overhead pipes. It was awful!  As the heat rose and it because harder and harder to work, I had a sudden inspiration. I stood up on one of the beds and turned on the faucet of the overhead water pipe and stood under it. I soaked myself completely my hair and clothes were dripping wet. Most of the others followed my example. We could then work in reasonable comfort for a period of time enjoying the coolness of the evaporating water. Within about 20 minutes I would be dry again, and need to soak myself once more. This tactic allowed us to complete the task without anyone succumbing to heat stroke or heat exhaustion. The only downside was that all the dust and dry leaves stuck to us and we were totally filthy from head to toe by the time the work day ended. 

We were required to be on the job site by 6:45 AM, but could not clock in until a minute or two before 7 AM. We were luckier than most open field workers in that there was a toilet with running water on the property, but we were only suppose to use it before we clocked in, during the 10 minute morning break, and during the 30 minute unpaid lunch period we were given. Most of us found ways to slide into the bathroom when nature demanded, especially when moving from one greenhouse to another without getting into trouble. The end of the day came at 3:30 PM. 

The Yoder Brothers and Scientific Horticulture

The job was hard, hot, dirty and mostly tedious, but Yoder Brothers (now Aris Horticulture, Inc) as a whole was a fascinating business. Begun in 1920 by two Mennonite brothers Menno and Ira Yoder of Barberton, Ohio, Yoder Brothers had grown by the 1970's to dominate the chrysanthemum market in the US.  Some eighty percent of all chrysanthemums blooming in the U.S. in the 1970's had begun their life in one of Yoder Brothers' greenhouses. Even in 1997 the greenhouse in Letcher County, Kentucky where I got my autumn mums bought their chrysanthemum seedlings from Yoder Brothers. 

One of the reasons I think that the plant manager hired me was that he wanted someone he could talk to. He was proud of the organization and its "scientific" techniques and found me a willing listener.  So I learned many details about the Yoder Brothers corporation and its operations that the other workers knew nothing about. 

Yoder Brothers was engaged in plant research, and had developed a highly systematized, rationalized, program to maximize chrysanthemum output and quality. They collected extensive data from each of their plants on temperature, moisture, and production, then developed complex formulas and programs to predict the most efficient and efficacious was to produce chrysanthemums. Each week the plant in Redwood City California received computer printouts mailed from the company headquarters in Ohio. The printout dictated precisely which beds in which greenhouses would be targeted for harvesting that week, which beds would be uprooted and cleaned out, which would be sterilized and treated for new planting, and which would be planted with new varieties.

We greenhouse workers often made fun of these printouts as they frequently dictated harvesting from beds that were producing almost no new shoots, while telling us to tear up beds that still had days if not weeks of production left in them. However, it appeared over the two summers that I worked there that on the average the computer program optimized their production.

Each day, at the end of shift, the precise number of boxes (each with 200 cuttings) of each variety of mum and each bed in each house, would be tallied on a sheet.  Because the first summer I was the only employee other than the manager for whom English was a first language, I was tapped to report each day's production to the home office.  I had to make a long distance call to Ohio and recite pages and pages of variety names, location identifiers, and numbers of boxes. These numbers would then be fed into the computer program that determined what the activities for each bed would be the next week. For some reason the need for concentration and accuracy on this task would trigger a yawning reflex in me. Halfway through the task I would start to yawn, which would make me struggle to continue reading the numbers.  Just writing about this has triggered a bout of yawning for me. 

Towards the end of my first summer, the home office sent a huge teletype machine to California to be used for reporting the production information. The plant manager (who spoke little Spanish) trained me how to use the teletype, and then it was my responsibility to teach the process of typing the report to my fellow worker and friend Gloria, an immigrant from Mexico who had been a executive secretary in a large corporation in Mexico and could type much faster and more accurately than I could, but who had no English at all. At that point I spoke Spanish fluently but my vocabulary was limited in odd ways: I knew the word for push, but not the word for button! But Gloria was smart and a quick learner and she filled in the gaps.  I was glad to give up the job of reading all those numbers every day and the weird yawning fits that it brought on. 

Stay tuned for part 3, where I will talk more about the women I worked with, made friends with, and cared about. Also I'll talk more about the Hispanic immigrant community at that time in that place. And at one funny story about speaking Spanish. 

Sunday, January 19, 2020

My brief life as a farm worker Part 1

About a year and a half ago, I saw an interesting article about a 1965 program that attempted, unsuccessfully, to replace temporary migrant workers from Mexico with American high school students:

This article reminds me of my experience as a farm worker during the summers of 1970 and 1971 between years of college. Oberlin College (Oberlin, Ohio) which  I attended between September 1969 and May 1973 expected students with financial aid to earn income during the summers to contribute to their own education.

Unlike the young men described the NPR article, the job I worked on was not out in the open fields, but in greenhouses; the workers lived in their own homes and commuted to work every day, so we did not experience the dreadful living conditions of most fieldworkers. Nonetheless, the work was physically hard, very hot and humid, very low pay and seasonal without any benefits or security.

How I Came to Become a Farm Worker

At the end of my freshman year I was really tired of being cooped up indoors, so when I returned home to California for the summer in May 1970 I decided to inquire about outdoor jobs. San Mateo County on the peninsula just south of San Francisco was a mixture of very urban/suburban and rural farms.  The urban/suburban belt was on the east side of the peninsula along the San Francisco Bay. Up the spine of the peninsula was the low coastal mountain range that in the 1970's was mostly forest and open land, including a large protected areas such as state and county parks and the large Crystal Springs reservoir sitting right on top of the San Andreas fault. The western side of the peninsula facing the Pacific Ocean was in the 1970's mostly agricultural land with a few very small towns. There was vegetable farming (brussel sprouts and pumpkins I remember in particular), but most of the farm land in San Mateo County was devoted to the growing of flowers. The floral industry was a major economic factor in the county. 

I contacted the Cooperative Extension program staff in my county about outdoor jobs, such as working in agriculture. They did not keep any type of systemic clearing house, but the man that I talked to happened to know that a large commercial horticultural company, Yoder Brothers, was hiring summer workers for their greenhouses.  He gave me the number and I put in an application. I was surprised to discover that Yoder Brothers plant was not in the western, agricultural part of the county, but situated right in the middle of Redwood City, the county seat of San Mateo County, surrounded by shops and businesses, and residential areas. 

The manager of the Yoder Brothers plant in Redwood City didn't quite know what to think of me. All of his other workers were Hispanic immigrants, most legal, but some illegal (as I learned later that summer).  Many spoke no English, and only one woman I met there was fluent in English having immigrated as a child. The manager never had anyone who was not from the Hispanic community inquire about employment before. But he was willing to take me on. I think he looked on me as someone to talk to, as his Spanish was limited and his wife who worked in the business was deaf. 

I started work the second week in June 1970 and worked full-time until time to leave for Ohio again at the end of August 1970. Despite the physical demands and discomforts of the job, I liked the people I worked with enough to come back the next summer between sophomore and junior year. 

A Description of the Greenhouses and the Workplace

The Redwood City Yoder Brothers' plant was located off one of the city's major arteries Woodside Road, between two major north/south routes  El Camino Real and the Alameda de las Pulgas. The plant had about 10 large greenhouses made of wood and glass lined up along a central narrow paved road off Woodside Road. Six greenhouses were on the west side of the road into the plant and four were on the east side.  The east side also had a large, blue, metal building near the entrance to the plant that contained the offices, the shipping dock and provided storage for some of the machinery used. 

Most of the greenhouses were about 60 feet wide and 80 to 85 feet deep, front to back, a couple were slightly smaller.  A wide isle perhaps 5 feet ran across the front of each greenhouse and a slightly narrower isle at the very back of the greenhouse.   The greenhouses had from six to eight raised beds running from the front of the greenhouse to its back, a distance of about 70 feet. Each bed was about 3 feet wide and raised about a foot and a half above the ground.  There was a 3 foot isle between each bed. The isles were packed dirt, which could at times become very muddy. 

Insulated pipes ran along the bottom outside of every raised bed that carried hot steam to warm the beds during winter time and chilly, foggy summer nights. Even though the heating pipes were insulated, I had to be careful not bump bare ankles or calves against them in the morning because burns were possible. Water pipes ran overhead about 5 feet above each bed to provide water for the plants. Thermometers dangled from the water pipes in several places around each greenhouse. I was often obsessed with seeing if I could guess what the temperature was and checking my guesses against the thermometer. I got so that I could accurately perceive very small differences in temperature change. An afternoon that was 84 degrees felt different (and more bearable) than one that was 86 degrees. 

Cooling for the greenhouses on sunny days was provided by six huge 5 foot diameter fans across the back of the greenhouse. In front of of each fan was a fiber mat through which cold water trickled continuously; the moving air from the fans was cooled by passing through the mist of water on the mats.  This is a cooling method that works well in dry climates like the California coast. I learned to my dismay many years later that a swamp cooler (smaller version of the greenhouse cooling system) did not work at all well in humid Pennsylvania. 

The outside temperature in Redwood City in the summer could range from the low 40's or 50's 6:30 AM when we arrived for work to high 70's and occasionally low 80's by the late afternoon when we clocked out. Inside the greenhouses, however, steam heat overnight meant that the morning temperatures were always at least in the  mid-60's and then as the sun rose through the day interior temperatures were normally between 80 degrees to 98 degrees with 100% humidity in greenhouses filled with living, productive plants. It would be marginally cooler at the very back of the greenhouse within a few feet of the fans. 

My first summer (1970) at Yoder Brothers I was also taking an evening class in cultural geography at community college in San Mateo. The professor in that class was a big fan of "environmental determinism" and spent some time talking up a book he'd recently read titled Hell is a Hot Place. One particularly hot and difficult day working in the greenhouses I decided that hell was indeed a hot place, but "heaven is the back of the greenhouse". 

The Organization of Work in the Greenhouses

 Work at Yoder Brothers was segregated and assigned by gender. A small crew of six or fewer men operated the machinery that tilled, prepared and sterilized the growing beds. The men were also responsible for the frequent, heavy applications of pesticides and herbicides to the beds and the growing plants (more on this later).  Men also monitored and recorded the temperature multiple times a day in each section of each greenhouse.  They turned on and off the sprinkler systems that watered the plants on a precise schedule, and they monitored and maintained the fans and water mats that were used to cool the greenhouses. About half of the men worked year round, the other half only in the summer months. 

The primary production jobs at Yoder Brothers belonged to women. The number of women varied during the summer months (May to August) from as few as 10 women to as many as thirty women. Less than six of the women were kept on during the winter months. Those women were all documented immigrants and slightly older than the seasonal workers. They had all been working at Yoder Brothers since the previous year, and all of them were still there when I came back again in the summer of 1971. The summer workers were far more transitory and a number were undocumented, only a couple of the summer workers I knew in 1970 came back to work at Yoder Brothers in 1971. One important example was Rosa, who had initially been a seasonal worker but in the autumn (after I'd left for Ohio and college) was hired on permanently. Not only was she there when I returned in 1971 but she had been promoted to greenhouse supervisor.  

The women's jobs involved more physical labor than those of men, but no machinery. The women spent more time in the greenhouses with fewer breaks outside in cooler air compared to the men who came and went from the greenhouses frequently. The men were provided with protective gear, the women were not. All of the women's work was done with bare hands. We could have brought our own gloves, but then we'd lose much of the dexterity we needed for the task and have had to wash the gloves ourselves. It was quicker, easier and cheaper just to wash our hands.  

The fact that we women had constant contact between our skin and the plants meant that we had far more exposure to the pesticides and herbicides that were sprayed on the plants than the men. They may have done the spraying, but they work protective gear, including gloves and respirators, and left the greenhouse as soon as they were finished spraying. The women frequently walked into a greenhouse to begin production work within 15 to 20 minutes of the plants being sprayed. One of the several pesticides used by Yoder Brothers was DDT which was not banned in the United States until 1972, a year after I last worked there.

An aside: In 1972 I purchased a lovely poster for my dorm room, the art was by Teresa Woodward and the poem by Henry Gibson went thus:

I have DDT in me
Inside of me is DDT
If you could see inside of me
Then you would see DDT
(Which is okay, I guess, if you like
to swallow live bugs...)

The women's primary task to cut small shoots from non-blooming chrysanthemum plants for eight hours a day.  If we were lucky the plants we were working with were full grown and we could stand upright to take cuttings. But mostly plants were at various earlier stages of growth and so that one had to lean over slightly to access the plants.  Sometimes we would help each other out with shorter and taller women switching beds so that each of them could work without leaning over. But this was not generally approved of by the management as it was viewed as cutting into our productive time. 

The cuttings all had to be precisely 2 1/2 inches in length measured from the top leaf bud excluding leaf length (see the red arrows on the photo) to the bottom of the cut stem. We each had a small metal plate (no sharp edges) that was the precise length needed and about 1 inch in width. We slipped the first three fingers of our dominant hand (for me the right hand) into an elastic band on the back of the cutter. We placed our fingers with the cutter behind the tip of a small flowerless shoot, lining the top edge up with the tip of the shoot, then closed our thumbs on top of it and flipped our wrist to snap it cleanly off. 

The cuttings went into plastic lined cardboard boxes. Each box was suppose to have exactly 200 cuttings in it. If at the end of a row you could not find exactly 200 healthy appropriately developed cuttings, you were allowed one incomplete box, but it must hold some multiple of fifty: 50,  100, 150. 

The quality control was very exacting. Boxes were inspected by the manager's wife. If you had too many cuttings that were not precisely 2 1/2 inches, or too many boxes that did not have precisely 200 cuttings you were in trouble and if you did not improve quickly you would be let go. Moreover there were quotas for the number of boxes you produced. When I first began I needed to be sure I produced at least six boxes per hour to remain employed, then the expectation rose to eight boxes per hour which was considered the minimum to retain employment. The experienced, year round workers could produce from 10 to 12 boxes per hour. 

The combination of the requirement for precision and production was very stressful at first. There was no time to carefully line up each cut. I had to learn to be able to reach out, grab an appropriate shoot precisely lined up and snap it off all in a single smooth move. Each new cutting would be transferred to my left hand to hold until I had exactly 50, then I would take a moment to walk forward to box stand and put the cuttings in. After a while I got so that I could hold 100 at a time securely but without crushing them because walking back and forth to the box took time away from production. 

At the head of each row or section of a particular type of chrysanthemum was a post with a white plastic bucket filled with 1" x 6" flat wooden stakes. Each stake had the name of the type of chrysanthemum in that row or section printed on it. The stick had a place to write your employee ID (a 4 digit number) and the number of cuttings in the box (preferably 200). When you filled a box, you penciled in the information and slid the stake into slots on the box as a label. Then you dropped your finished box on the ground in the isle. One of the women, usually someone who had trouble making production quotas consistently was given the task of running up and down the isles collecting the boxes and putting them in a rolling cart. When the cart was full, the gatherer would roll the cart from the greenhouse to the office building where they would be inspected and then placed in a large walk in cooler. The gatherer would pick up and empty cart and wheel it back to the greenhouse and begin gathering up filled boxes again. 

At the end of each day hundreds of boxes of cuttings were loaded into refrigerated trucks and taken to other processing facilities and greenhouses where they would be placed in chemical baths to grow roots. These about half of these rootings would then be sold to commercial nurseries to produce hundreds of varieties of mums for gardens, homes, and offices - the rest would be cycled back to greenhouse facilities like ours where they would produce new cuttings. 

At the Yoder Brothers greenhouses in Redwood City the plants were never allowed to flower.  The flowering of chrysanthemums is triggered by the declining length of days (which is why the majority of chrysanthemums are sold and displayed in the late summer and autumn. To prevent any of the plants from flowering growing lights automatically came on before sunset every day and stayed on until past sunrise. The plants were fooled into thinking it was perpetually mid-summer so they never bloomed. 

This was the most frustrating aspect of the job, all that hard work and we never actually saw a chrysanthemum blooming! I wondered then what the bloom of the variety called Fuji Mefo looked like, because the name intrigued me. Today, because of the miracle of Google and the internet, I finally know what the flower looks like. 

This is a good stopping point. Stay tuned for Part 2 of My Brief Life as a Farm Worker! 

Sunday, June 30, 2019

A Concerted Cultivation Childhood

Sociologist Annette Lareau developed the concepts of "concerted cultivation" and "the accomplishment of natural growth" as two different patterns of child rearing practiced by different social classes with "concerted cultivation" being the preferred child rearing style of the middle and especially upper middle class parents, and "accomplishment of natural growth" the preferred child rearing style of working and lower class parents.

Although I grew up in a blue-collar, working class neighborhood, where my father, a machinist, was one of the lowest earning workers, both of my parents had come from middle class families. My father was the only one of his siblings who did not go to college (due to his having graduated high school in 1930 just after his family was financially devastated by the stock market crash), and my mother had gone to college and gotten a teaching certificate and spent seven years teaching school before marrying.

The result was that my childhood experiences were highly controlled, scheduled and focused around education (concerted cultivation), while those of my neighborhood peers were unstructured, largely free of supervision and centered around fun (accomplishment of natural growth).  This was most obvious in the summer time.

When school ended each June, my neighborhood friends were usually pushed out of the house each morning by their mothers, who didn't want their children in the way while they were cleaning house and watching soap operas. This was California, in the SF Bay Area, where rain was non-existent in the summer time, so bad weather never forced kids inside during the summer time. The children were left to entertain themselves and only grudgingly allowed back in their houses to use the bathroom, get something to drink or eat, then encouraged back outside.  Every child had a bike, most children had roller skates (the metal kind that clamped on to shoes) and the neighborhood had excellent level, continuous sidewalks on which to ride and skate; games of tag, hide and seek, four square, kickball, catch, and many others spontaneously erupted.  Girls also played jacks, hopscotch, played with dolls outside. Boys had comic books, and some access to tools and wood to build things like skate boards and other small items.

While our friends spent their summers in almost total freedom of unstructured play, our summers were quite different. Our mornings were always organized into some type of educational activity.  My mother's obsessions changed from year to year. One summer she focused on math, and we spent several hours doing math problems. Another summer our lessons focused on learning Spanish. Another year we spent a lot of time reading the Bible and memorizing Psalms. Whatever the focus, two to three hours of every summer morning were organized around some type of learning activity.

Every summer involved substantial time for reading. My mother took us to the public library near us (about 3/4 of a mile away) at least once a week, if not more often. Each of us selected books that we would read ourselves, and my mother selected books that she would read aloud to all of us in the evening - all of the books by P. L. Travers (Mary Poppins and more), Beverly Cleary's books (Beezus, Henry and Ramona, etc.), as well as classics like Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson, etc.

Even when we were allotted playtime, we rarely had the same degree of unsupervised freedom as our friends. My mother would recruit the other children to come to our yard and teach everyone games from her childhood. She taught us  Red-light/Green-light, Simon Says, Duck-Duck-Goose, Puss in the Corner,  and many more whose names I've forgotten.

Unlike the other mothers in the neighborhood, my mother had little interest in housekeeping (beyond the necessities of cooking and laundry). Moreover, our household furnishings were old and shabby second had pieces, and we lacked carpeting.  So unlike the other mothers she did not mind having dirty, noisy, children tromping in and out of the house. She encouraged other neighborhood children to play in our yard, and to join us indoors for afternoon for organized arts and crafts activities.

My father was also unlike most of the other fathers when he was at home. He cared little for having the perfect lawn and put little energy into yard work. As a result he did not mind having children digging holes in our yard, or building forts or other things in the yard.  He preferred to spend his time at home in his workshop building things, and liked showing children how to use tools and make things.

My family's relationship to television was different from the other neighborhood children as well. In the other households the television reigned supreme in the evening hours, with both adults and children watching programs during prime time. Our television was almost never on in the evening. My father took classes at the community college through our entire childhood and he was often studying in the evenings. He had little interest in situation comedies or the other staples of 1950's and 1960's TV. My mother on the other hand loved TV and comedies, but in deference to my father did not watch TV in the evenings. Instead she watched TV during the mornings when the popular situation comedies of the day were "stripped" five days a week. Almost all of my familiarity with television in my childhood came from watching with my mother on summer mornings.  When I was really little  we watched things like O Susannah (Gayle Storm), George Burns and Gracie Allen, and George Benny; as I grew older her favorite shows became the Dick Van Dyke show, Bewitched, Donna Reed, Father Knows Best, etc.

As a child I was often envious of my friends and their freedom in the summer.  It was only as an adult that I came to appreciate the was in which my mother shaped our time around learning.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

In Memory of Mat

My cousin Matilda was 8 years older than me. Growing up she was an exciting, awesome figure in my life. I didn't get to see her but every couple of years, but each encounter was fraught with significance. She was smart, funny and sassy and I admired her enormously.

I have a number of extremely vivid memories of Mat from childhood.

One summer when we were all together in our parents' childhood home of Troutdale, Virginia, Mat (then a young teen) took a whole troop of children including me and my little brother Charlie as well as several local children on a hike down to the creek and the swimming hole, without telling the parents where we were going. We came back hours later, hot, sweaty, sunburnt, our legs scratched from the brambles, and deliriously happy with great memories of water striders, newts, crawdads, and wading in the cold stream. I think the grownups yelled at Mat for scaring them.

A couple of years later, also in Troutdale, I remember Mat showing me how the neighbor's baby goats like to climb on things by getting down on the ground and letting the goats climb on her back.

When Mat was 18 (and I was 10), she had a VW Beetle - a convertible VW Beetle! This was the most awesome thing I'd ever seen. This was about the same time that I learned that Troutdale a little town I knew and loved was in located in "Appalachia" - a place that took on mythical proportions in the early 1960's. I made a vow about that time in my life that when I grew up, I was going to be a school teacher in Appalachia and have a VW Beetle (maybe even a convertible!).  It was by no means an accident that my first car (in 1975) was a VW Beetle, and I drove it all over Appalachia while I researched my Masters Thesis and Dissertation.

One of my best Mat memories is from when I was 18 (Mat was 26) and I graduated from high school. I had my very first trip on my own as an "adult" to visit Mat in San Diego where she was a Navy nurse. She took me all over San Diego, to all the tourist spots (Marine World, the San Diego Zoo, etc.), in her sporty little MG convertible. The best part of the trip was the party she and her roommate threw: they invited not only their nurse friends but a whole bunch of young Navy men! Men, dancing and beer! How could one not idolize a cousin like Mat.

As we got older the age difference mattered less. We became friends, who wrote, called, and visited. Mat's the reason I got on Facebook, she kept bugging me because she wanted to share pictures. Another way that we were able to keep touch with each other.  I will miss my cousin Mat. May she rest in peace.