Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Gentle Woman Has Died

I did not know Suzanne well, only having had her pointed out to me when I arrived as a college freshman.  She was older than most of my classmates.  Her voice major nearly guaranteed that we would have few classes together.  Our schedules seldom coincided.

Suzanne, always pleasant, gentle, and Japanese, seemed exotic although she would have been bewildered to hear that.  Her low-keyed, unassuming demeanor ironically mirrored my own reticence.  Suzanne was a Hiroshima survivor.  My awe of her was subsumed by a sense of embarrassment. Political and military arguments aside, she and her family had been through a great ordeal.

It is now, after fifty years, that I begin to know Suzanne.  It is now that it is too late to have the honor of her friendship.  As our fiftieth college reunion approached each classmate was invited to write their own life story for a memory book. [Her words, between quotation marks, are taken from her memory book account.] The stories were honest and amazing, but few more so than Suzanne’s. 

Her exposure to music began in a centuries old cathedral after the bombing of her home city.  To ease the pain of loss and displacement, the Jesuits working in Hiroshima began an evening program of songs to which all were invited.  “…many people joined to sing together happily under the beautiful star lights.  Of course I always joined in…”

Suzanne tells us little of the loss and pain of those years, preferring to focus on her opportunities for education, musical training, and travel to Hawaii which was provided by an uncle who had immigrated to the Islands.  When she returned home to work as a secretary for the U.S. Navy she organized two choirs.  Good fortune followed her and she was invited to become a foreign student at Mt. St. Scholastica College to study voice and music.

Throughout her story, Suzanne pauses to celebrate her “unbelievable good luck” and her determination to “accomplish every moment of the chance.”  Her hard-won achievements and lasting friendships were gifts, blessings. Each opportunity was embraced gratefully, humbly, and fully. Each new challenge was met with energy and a determination to “accomplish every moment.”  Suzanne succeeded at all she attempted because she viewed each ‘lucky break’ as a gift she must make herself worthy of possessing.

After college, her odyssey brought her home where she found employment with an Italian company.  She helped set up their Japanese branch.  Her modesty is again apparent, “When I was asked, being a person who loved to take any chance even with foreseen difficulty, decided to agree.”  She was more than successful, working in her home country and attending exhibitions all around the world.  I imagine that she grew to know every sales engineer and manager in the company.  When she retired, Suzanne was honored with celebrations in Paris and Bologna, where friends invited her to re-settle.  How proud she was of the engraved gold medal she received! “The fourth one received since the establishment of the company.”  Yet she was humble, retaining her simplicity, viewing herself as a loyal employee and faithful friend.

Retirement meant many changes.  First on Suzanne’s agenda was to get a driver’s license at the age of 65, a “big surprise to every teacher.”  She needed to have one to better care for her aging mother—besides their home was “located up the hill.”  While several “youngsters” failed the course, Suzanne sailed through with flying colors!

For seven more years, Suzanne cared tenderly for her mother. She “tried to make her days enjoyable and happy.”  It was her privilege to do so, expressing great joy when her mother was baptized into the Catholic faith in 2002 on the fiftieth anniversary of Suzanne’s father’s conversion.  

Suzanne’s modestly lived life of service, peace, and happiness has not been blessed with good health. The seeds sown on August 6, 1945 sealed her fate even as it radiated hope within her young heart.  She fought several cancers, painful and unrelenting.  Yet each day that remained to her was a blessing.  Her younger sisters provided care and comfort in her last illnesses.  Suzanne’s last wish for her classmates was expressed, “Praying for you and your loved ones that utmost peaceful and happy days continue.”

Suzanne died this month surrounded by family, comforted by her faith, and grateful for her journey.

aDieu*, Suzanne.

*aDieu—where the center holds and the end folds into the beginning there is no such word as farewell. (P.L. Travers, What the Bee Knows)

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Is the Sky Really Bluer in New Mexico?

Entrance to the Taos Pueblo
The Three Sisters

Museum of International Folk Art - Bottle cap Rattlesnake

Last month my husband and I participated in a Road Scholar program in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  It was our third trip to the state and our second to Santa Fe.  I was especially eager to return to Santa Fe after having read Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. 

This was our first summer trip to New Mexico and I will have to admit that the extremely dry air and high temperatures were more of a challenge than they had been twenty years ago.  Santa Fe’s elevation is more than 7,000 feet so it took a few days to adjust.  Our program was active from the first, keeping me breathless for a while.   It was worth it because the beautiful New Mexican sky and landscape proved breathtaking.

There were so many things to fit into a week.  We hiked along the well-marked trails to see the ruins at the Bandelier National Monument, an area we had never visited before. Our trip continued on to nearby Los Alamos.  Security was tight at Los Alamos on this trip.  On our first visit we parked our car right in front of the Administration Center of the National Lab, and enjoyed a stroll through a wooded area with a generous female scientist who accompanied us to the entrance of the (old) Bradbury Museum.  This year some gates were closed to our bus and we found that the Museum had been “glitzed-up” and relocated to the city of Los Alamos. 

The journey north to Taos was a first for us.  Taos is a great place to visit and to live. Many artists, writers, and other cognoscenti lived near there for part of their lives, not the least of which was Georgia O’Keefe.  There are a couple of must dos if you go.  Plan to have lunch at Eske’s Brew Pub and Eatery just a couple of blocks off the Plaza—great food eaten al fresco! I can still taste the thirst quenching raspberry iced tea; my husband enjoyed a couple of their craft beers.

I am a bit of a book store snob and sure enough I found a really nice one in Taos in the John Dunn House Shops.  Moby Dickens, “A Real Bookstore,” fit the bill nicely.  Moby Dickens has a nice mix of new and used books, each title chosen with loving care by people who love reading and know what’s good.  The store features frequent guest author talks and a well-attended kids’ story program.  The staff is helpful, knowledgeable, and friendly.  Needless to say, I liberated a few books for my personal collection.

While in Taos we were able to visit the Taos Pueblo which remains untouched by modernity per the choice of its members. The Pueblo is a UNESCO Heritage site.  A personable young man from the Pueblo conducted us on a tour of some village sites.  When asked what the inhabitants do for cool showers, TV, or laundry facilities he smiled and suggested that they might just have family members outside the Pueblo proper with some of the necessities…

South of Santa Fe is the largest city in New Mexico, Albuquerque which, they tell us, has lost an “r” somewhere along the way.  We have visited this city twice before and can recommend the drive to the top of the Sandia Forest for a fantastic view of the city and surrounding area. I understand that there is a sky lift now, but I’ve had no experience with it.  We did have some experience with a great restaurant in the city though.  El Pinto Authentic New Mexican Restaurant serves a variety of excellently prepared Native, New Mexican and Mexican foods.  The open courtyard was a lovely place to dine.  As for culture the city’s museums are good. I especially liked the Natural History Museum and I have visited the Pueblo Cultural Center twice.

On the way back to Santa Fe we stopped in Bernalillo to visit the Coronado State Monument and ruins of the Kuaua Pueblo.  I enjoyed this place for two reasons, first there was a nascent garden demonstrating the Three Sisters method of planting that the ingenious Pueblos used for farming in this water-starved and nutrient poor area.  I love stuff like this!  The Pueblos were savvy farmers.  Their staple crop was corn but it leaches nutrients, especially nitrogen, out of the soil quickly depleting the ground.  They got around this problem by adding two other plants in groupings of all three plants.  They planted beans which used the corn stalk as a beanpole. Beans brought nitrogen back into the soil. They also planted squash which grew close to the ground shading the other plants and helping to retain moisture. The squash benefited from the nitrogen given back by the beans.  I have included a picture taken at Coronado showing the three sisters planted together as they would have been hundreds of years ago.

The second interesting feature of the State Monument was the Kuaua Mural Wall consisting of 15 panels of original murals excavated from one of the rectangular kivas at the ruins.  The docent explained the significance of the paintings to the ritual lives of the Pueblo inhabitants.  It was suggested that the paintings were used for a particular ceremony or season, erased, and another drawn in its place because of evidence of paintings underneath the ones found.

Lest you think I’m ignoring Santa Fe, I can recommend three of its museum that were new to me:  The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, The Museum of International Folk Art, and the Pablita Velarde Museum of Indian Women in the Arts.  As I mentioned my husband and I had visited Santa Fe before so we did the walking tour and visited the artists under the portico at the Governor’s Palace.  The shops are more like museums with extremely beautiful and costly merchandise—not my thing.  I am a sucker for folk museums (see the bottle cap rattlesnake photo) and I especially enjoyed the Shirone kite exhibit. It seems that once a year, in a particular Japanese town, the citizens create magnificent kites which they launch to do battle with other kites.  It’s a ruthless, high-flying game.  The kites vary in size but there were a couple of huge ones on display.  Apparently the winners are determined by how much kite string the team can capture.  The video was great fun!

If you wish to learn Pueblo history directly from the source, the Indian Arts and Culture museum does an admirable job covering the history and culture of Native Peoples in a beautiful building.  The Pablita Velarde contains a variety of crafts—pottery, weaving, painting—made my Native women.  One of my favorite artists was Helen Hardin, the daughter of Pablita Velarde.  Some of her sketches were displayed.  I was struck by her originality as well as what influenced her work. Some of the sketches cried out Pablo Picasso as the seed of inspiration.  This museum had a fantastic video on the creation of pottery within the family of a famous Pueblo potter. The entire process, from selecting the clay, molding it all by hand, incising the design, polishing the piece to perfection, and finally the firing, takes a very long time.  No wonder some of the native pottery costs many thousands of dollars!  
Flamenco at The Lodge

Lest you think it was all bus trip and museums, we had great fun and an excellent candlelight dinner at The Lodge of Santa Fe.  A flamenco troupe fresh from Spain entertained our group with some intense performances.  I’ve included a photo of the promotional sign.  The male and female principals were outstanding. The Lodge commands the hillside over Santa Fe, revealing not only the city but also the large Veterans’ Cemetery.  Santa Fe is the state capitol so it has the honor to have the cemetery.  So many, many white markers…

It was a great trip, well planned and executed by the Road Scholar people in Santa Fe. I would certainly recommend a trip to any and all of the places I’ve mentioned.  And, yes, the sky really IS bluer in New Mexico.  If you don’t believe it, book a trip soon.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Women Forged Before the Fall

Recently, my college graduating class had its 50th reunion.  In preparation for this momentous event a memory book was created, featuring auto-biographies of many of the students and brief descriptions of the lives of the few who had died.  At the time, our college was for women only, although there was a male college located conveniently in the same Kansas town.  The ladies were known collectively as The Mounties, the men as Ravens.  Both schools were Catholic institutions, operated by the Benedictine Order; they have since merged.

The Class of 1964 graduated sixty-eight women.  Ours was the class to experience the election and assassination of John F. Kennedy.  We would see the beginning of the United States’ exploration of space as well as the deadly Vietnam conflict that would later divide the nation. The struggle for equality and civil rights began in earnest while we were students.  We welcomed the Beatles to America.

We were members of “The Silent Generation.”  Most of our lives have been spent in the shadow of the vocal, self-absorbed “Baby Boomers.”   We grew up in times of stress, our parents entering adulthood during the Great Depression.  World War II, the Korean Conflict, Hiroshima, the Berlin Wall, and the Cold War painted images of uncertainty on the canvas of our young minds.  We were not raised to feel “entitled” nor did we believe ourselves “special.”  The battles of the ‘60s and ‘70s—Civil Rights, Vietnam War Protesters, and Flower Children—announced an adulthood that would be inspiring, confusing, and sometimes frightening. 

The Women’s Liberation Movement began more than a decade after our Commencement. Had we really been suppressed, undervalued, and oppressed?  Had our “literature” been neglected?  Were men our natural enemies?  Were we finally to become EQUAL?  Oh my, once we had been thought to be not equal, but better!  She stoops, not to conquer, but to be equipollent—hence commenced The Fall.

The situation for women before Women’s Lib was not by any means idyllic.  Few were encouraged to seek professional careers in STEM areas, although the Mounties can claim a few. Employment was not an equal opportunity experience.  My own experiences illustrate the times:  1) In an interview at a large bank I was told, “I can’t hire you—although you’re fully qualified—because you are a woman, a Catholic, and engaged to be married.  You will get pregnant and quit to raise a family.” 2) At an even larger bank recent college graduates were hired for the management training program.  Men were assigned time in major departments where, after a month or two, they would write up their impressions and what they had learned before moving on to the next department.  Women trainees were assigned as needed—on Mondays we opened mail and tallied lock box payments, on other days women would be assigned to fill new check orders or to some other menial task.  3) I topped out on a programmer aptitude test for another large company, but was discouraged from accepting the training position because the interviewer stressed all the negatives, including the necessity of coming into the downtown in the middle of the night whenever problems occurred and being constantly “on call.”  None of these scenarios appealed to a soon to be newlywed. It was 1964 and it was legal.

Before The Fall women were often encouraged to go into teaching, nursing, and other social welfare professions because it was assumed that marriage and children would employ most of our lives.  Our class memory book records the career satisfaction of thirty-three teachers and about a half dozen social workers. Most of our classmates, no matter their careers, were stay-at-home moms for at least part of their lives.  And moms we were—with a total of 185 children, 278 grandchildren, and the total of great-grans mounting. Of the seventy-one women who are listed in the memory book (about a dozen did not graduate from our college), sixty-three married and only eight divorced.  Six chose to remain single, having equally fulfilling lives, devoting their talents to fulfilling professions and volunteer work with animals, social services, and religious projects.

Despite the inequities of the ‘60s Mounties got on with their lives.  My classmates seem never to have been cowed by men; they have not pined for “liberation.” Most of their married lives reflect a loving partnership with their spouses. Although nary a bra was burnt, we managed to obtain thirty-one master’s degrees, four PhDs, two JDs, a Registered Pharmacist degree, and several Medical Technician certifications. Two had successful military careers.  We even had a Nobel Peace Prize winner!

The Class of 1964 came from farms, small towns, large cities.  Our class included women from as far away as Japan and Kenya.  A few were from affluent families. Several had to work to earn their way sometimes interrupting their studies for a year or more to pay the yearly $1000 tuition, board, and fees. Many had campus jobs. Almost all found summer and holiday employment.  We worked and sacrificed to achieve our educational goals AND we have used that education for the benefit of our families, communities, and selves.

We were diverse; we were so alike.  The stories of our lives record our successes and failures, sorrows and joys. Our families, communities, and faith ground our very being.  The ladies of the “silent generation” had unshakeable values, inculcated from the cradle—sometimes missing a GI dad—and our schools which stressed responsibility and respect along with the basic 3Rs.  We were honest, hardworking, and considerate.  We cared for others above self: we were intelligent, but not proud:  we were tough but never crude.  We could wait.

The Class of 1964 was imbued with the Benedictine Spirit of SERVICE.  Equality meant the Other not the self.  The Mountie Honor Roll of Volunteer Service is long and varied.  The stories related in the memory book reveal an appreciation for the gifts of love, trust, and learning so liberally bestowed by parents, teachers, families, friends.   Mounties acknowledge those gifts when they actively participate in their communities. The needy are fed, clothed, and sheltered: the ignorant educated: the abused and aged protected.    Military families are supported: youth receive structure and guidance: animals are respected.  The Class of 1964 has given its all in a way characteristic to women forged before The Fall—without resentment or regret, without ego or self-aggrandizement.  Each life story teems with contentment and satisfaction. For the Class of 1964, the road taken—the paths well signposted by faith, families, and the “silent generation”—has “made all the difference.”

The Women Forged before The Fall didn’t miss out on a thing.  Congratulations on fifty wonderful years.