Monday, June 29, 2015

Lady Liberty

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” -- Emma Lazarus

Our cruise ship pulls into New York Harbor at 4:30 in the morning. Like the city that never sleeps, I am wide-awake as I worm my way up to the open deck in hopes of finding a space on the starboard side.
The NYC skyline is kicking up her heels with more sass and bling than a chorus line of Rockettes. “Look at me,” she sings, “I’m the most exciting city in the world.”
Hanging onto the side of the ship, I think how my great-grandfather must have felt when first he glimpsed Lady Liberty.
I hope someone told him the story of how the statue came to be constructed from toe to crown, and how ships transported it piece- by-piece from France to America. He probably never heard the story, but I bet he wiped away tears as he stood at the railing and allowed The Lady’s glow to shine the light of freedom on him.
What might he have said to his little brother standing next to him, both of them having recently fled the devastating potato famine in Ireland and both of them scared out of their Irish britches?
“Look ovah dere, lad, at the ol’ gurl hursef. That’s our noo mum. Don’t ye be frettin’ none.”
Lil’ brother likely whimpered at the mention of their mother, a victim of poverty and neglect, buried a mere month before the boys set sail. Perhaps he moved a wee bit closer to his big brother, the one charged with his welfare as soon as they set foot on American soil, the one who would find work however he could in order to feed, clothe and properly school them in the new country.
My guess is they looked across the New York Harbor that day at the torch held high by The Lady and were warmed by her light, just as I am today.
They came here with nothing, having left everything behind in the fallow potato fields. In time, their losses would be replaced with fulfilled dreams made each night as they were growing into men and good Americans. Like so many immigrants throughout the history of our country, their earnest prayers were answered, their hopes rewarded.
Many Americans will never have the chance to look upon The Statue of Liberty at daybreak or at any other time of day. Seeing her at least once should be a requirement for citizenship to our great country, but one thing that makes us great is that it is not required.
The Lady’s power too often gets lost amid the information overload we are fed and must sift through day after day. But she is patient. She is willing to stand her ground and remain strong for all of us. Lest we forget what The Lady symbolizes, Emma Lazarus’s poem is engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty.
The Lady lifted her lamp to a homeless, tempest-tossed Irish boy and his brother and because she did, our country was made stronger. My great-grandfather became a proud citizen and later served his country with honor.
The accomplishments of his descendants would have filled him with awe: A talented symphony musician; a NASA Engineer; a Criminal Defense Attorney; an Episcopal Priest; a Psychologist; a Writer; a Teacher. Each one of his descendents is a good American.
Nothing can ever diminish the spark of hope woven into the fiber of our Statue of Liberty, and nothing should ever diminish the humanity of those who come to America seeking a better life.

“Give me your tired, your poor —”

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Give A Whistle For Father’s Day

Old as she was, she still missed her daddy sometimes.~ Gloria Naylor

June is upon us and that means kids out of school, family vacations, cookouts, picnics, watermelons and mosquitoes. June is the month we set aside a day to remember, reflect, and honor our fathers.

When summer sunsets begin to peek through leaf-filled trees or hot afternoon breezes purr up and down shady streets, I become a girl again peddling my bike through my old neighborhood.

Smoke is spiraling up from the Johnson’s charcoal grill. I sniff the thick burgers they’re cooking and my stomach growls in response. Many back yard grilling sessions will take place over the summer because cooking outdoors is what we do during hot weather in the South.

I continue to peddle my bike where down the street, my friend Linda is sweeping the driveway for her dollar a week allowance while her daddy pulls weeds and stuffs them into a basket to mulch his vegetable garden. Linda’s daddy grows the best tomatoes on the block. Every Saturday morning, he and his teenage boys do the picking; that afternoon, Linda and her mother share nature’s bounty with the neighborhood.

I meet up with some friends and we revel in the fact that we have no homework now that school’s out. We talk about the cute boy who’s moved to town from Charleston, the new Revlon lipstick shade, my hot new bathing suit and Friday’s shag contest at the river pavilion. We flap our hands a lot.

Pretty soon I hear the sound for which I have been half-listening. No, it’s not the musical tones of a cell phone interrupting our girly conversations. It is way too early in the century for microchips and fiber optics to govern our lives. Black telephones are the norm, with no dials or touch-tones. Forget about texting. It’s not even on Buck Rogers’s radar screen.

I stop talking and hand-gesturing when I hear a particular sound, and immediately listen for the second one. My daddy whistles for my brother and me to come home for supper.

All the neighborhood fathers whistle, but Daddy’s is unique, used only for calling my brother and me home. With two fingers in his mouth, he rolls up his tongue and somehow blows through his fingers. The whistle has its own timbre and gains in pitch as it reaches a final crescendo. ‘Whew-a-WHEW!’ It’s loud enough for us to hear it a block away.

Although the other whistles are recognizable, it is to my daddy’s distinctive sound that I respond. He whistles twice, allowing ten minutes for us to stop what we’re doing and start peddling.

For supper, Mama has made a big pot of soup and a full steamer of rice. The soup is thick with vegetables straight out of Linda’s daddy’s garden with added chunks of stew meat for even more flavor. My brother and I fill our tummies with soup, corn muffins and big glasses of milk left on our doorstep in quart bottles before the morning sun came up.

If any soup remains in our bowls, we sop it up with the crusty corn muffins smeared with Aunt Polly’s country butter — a sweet, slightly tangy taste of which Land O’Lakes can only dream.

After supper, Mama and Daddy retreat to the living room to quietly read the Times and Democrat newspaper. My brother and I are consigned to the kitchen to do the dishes and try not to kill or permanently disfigure each other.

We say grace before meals; my brother washes the dishes and I dry. My parents read the day’s paper directing only an occasional comment to each other. It is the ritual played out by our Southern family of four and it is how we close the door on another day.

It all begins with Daddy whistle.

Electronics now play an essential role in all of our lives, and cell phones provide a far better form of communication between parent and child. However, electronics can never replace the warmth that fills me on summer evenings when I inhale the aroma of grilled hamburgers, when I recall the importance I placed on buying a new bathing suit every June, or when it’s time to cook a pot of vegetable soup and call my family to supper.

I wish I could hear Daddy’s whistle again. If I could, I would tell him how that small piece of himself has now become a part of me.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

It's The Pits

"I been through some junk. It ain't all been peaches and cream." —Timbaland
Mary Sue’s princess training began back in the Sixties when Heloise was the self-anointed Kitchen Queen, the Dr. Oz of housewifery. While Mary Sue read and recited Heloise to anyone with ears including her cockatoo, I tried to memorize  Peg Bracken’s book, I Hate to Housekeep Book. Heloise wrote about bake day bliss; Peg’s chapters included: Dinner Will Be Ready As Soon As I Figure Out What to Cook. Peg was my kind of woman.
Mary Sue quoted Heloise’s every syllable. No matter how ridiculous the hint, Mary Sue’s excitement morphed into a human version of Secretariat, snorting and stomping at the kitchen door with foam gathering around the spoon bit in her mouth.
“I just learned about pants creasers. Do you know about them?” She was so worked up I thought maybe she’d just discovered the multiple orgasm.
“FYI, Mary Sue. My pants don’t need help getting creased,” I said.
She reached across the kitchen table and brushed S’mores crumbs from the front of my coffee-stained T-shirt. She sighed. “Oh girlfriend, you’ve just gotta buy you some. I’ll even remind you to run the pants in the dryer for ten minutes before putting them on the creasers.”
I rolled my eyes. “And I should do that because?”
“Becaauseee … it removes wrinkles so you won’t have to iron the pants, you silly thing.”
“Give me a freakin’ break, Mary Sue. Babe would sooner spread his pants down on hot pavement and run over them with the car than trust me with a hot iron.”
Her fascination with Heloise kept her off the streets and for that, her husband Earle was grateful. He was patient all the while she spouted daily hints as though quoting scripture.
“Thou hamburger patties shall have no frayed edges,” she told me once. “If thou uses a number two and a half can to pull them into shape. Amen.”
I got up and began to search inside closets and under beds for the candid camera.
Mary Sue’s dedication eventually took on a devotion more suited to a monk. Mantovani background music played as she read her housekeeping Bible. She would open the book at random and whichever hint her finger landed became her personal message.
“Save those peach pits,” the Kitchen Queen proclaimed to her one morning. “When placed under pillows, your guests will enjoy sweet smelling dreams.”
Mary Sue felt as though she had hit the jackpot, the loving cup, the mother lode. She dashed to the Piggly-Wiggly, bought four-bushel baskets of peaches and proceeded to go peach pit crazy. What her family didn’t eat, she froze. Ten years later, she served spiked punch at her daughter’s wedding reception, fermented from those leftover peaches. It wasn’t half bad as I recall.
Grinning like Julia Roberts, she announced, “I put a hundred peach pits under my pillows.”
I seriously wondered how long her coffee had been laced with peach schnapps.
“Mary Sue, if I put peach pits under my pillows as you suggest, will it remove Plantar's warts and nose hair? Help me out, here. Give me one good reason to think that you and your peach pits are not tooling down a squirrelly highway on your way to the Cracker Factory.
“Heloise says it’s the best method of freshening pillows.”
“Uh, Mary Sue? You don’t have a hundred pillows in your house, do you””
She leaned toward me, her eyes dancing like Peter Pan on crack. As if she were about to impart the meaning of life, she said, “I like being prepared.”
Mary Sue’s peach pits eventually lounged forgotten under the guest room pillows, abandoned that is, until Earle’s boss, the honcho of honchos, showed up from NYC for an overnight visit.
Mary Sue and Earle wined and dined him royally. She cooked one of Heloise’s best recipes and even shamed the Yankee boss into eating okra.
After dinner, Blotto Boss staggered upstairs and turned down the covers. When he began to fluff his pillow, a nest of forgotten peach pits began to rock and roll. Being from the North, he naturally assumed that they were cockroaches and he freaked. Reeling backwards, he stumbled into an heirloom lamp. The light sputtered and crashed, further terrifying the man.
Earle and Mary Sue rushed upstairs and found him huddled in a dark corner sucking his thumb and crying for his mama.
Mary Sue wrote a nasty letter to Heloise blaming her harebrained peach pit idea, not only for the entire incident but also for Earle’s subsequent unemployment. She didn’t mention his need for long-term therapy.

Ever creatively gracious, Heloise replied. “Life is the pits, Toots. Get over it and move on.”