Tag Archives: memoir

“Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” by Jennifer Chiaverini

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker: A Novel

This enjoyable historical fiction novel introduced me to Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907). She was born into slavery and purchased freedom for herself and her son. (Her son’s life history would also be worth a novel – he enlisted to fight for the Union in the Civil War by “passing” as white at a time when free African Americans were not accepted into the military. He died in combat.) Ms. Keckley became modiste (we would say “stylist”) and confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln herself is an interesting historical figure, mostly because it isn’t clear whether she was sane.

Ms. Keckley was an extremely talented dressmaker, and had the sewing and business skills to support herself and send her son to America’s  first historically black college, Wilberforce College in Ohio.

This book gives insight into

  • The Civil War, especially as seen by residents of Washington DC.
  • The unpopularity and suffering of Abraham Lincoln, now often described as our greatest American president.
  • The evolving status of African Americans during the complex process of emancipation.

After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Ms. Keckley published an account of her experiences entitled Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. The book was simultaneously derided as too good (how could a “nigger” have written it?) and too bad (such a disgrace to write about one’s employers). Mrs. Lincoln eventually forgave her, but Ms. Keckley ended her life in straitened circumstances and seclusion.

The historical record of Ms. Keckley’s life in incomplete, so this fictional characterization necessarily contains considerable speculation. Keeping that in mind, I recommend it.

“Call the Midwife – A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times” by Jennifer Worth

This well written memoir was published in 2002, the first of three books about practicing as a midwife in the poverty stricken East End area of London (the Docklands) in the 1950s. The BBC produced a television series based on these books, broadcast beginning in 2012. Having seen just one episode, I was expecting Call the Midwife to be humorous and exciting. Instead I found it to be gritty and very sad. I actually skipped one chapter (about the workhouse), not feeling up to it.

The first surprise for me was how BAD conditions were in postwar London. Wartime damage to buildings had not been repaired. Housing was limited, so poor people lived in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Not every apartment had a bathroom or hot water. Men readily found employment on the docks, but the work was hard and poorly paid. Women married young and had many children. If they worked, they were poorly paid.

Nonetheless, there were positive aspects to life in the Docklands. People knew their neighbors well, and extended families were very supportive. Nurses and doctors were so respected that they were safe even in violent neighborhoods, where the police worked in pairs. Worth also mentions in passing the richly expressive Cockney dialect, almost a distinct language. She understood it most of the time, but certainly never spoke it.

Having just read  Empty Planet – the Shock of Global Population Decline by Bricker and Ibbitson (see blog entry dated August 15, 2019), I found myself pondering the “demographic transition”, the shift of a community from high birthrate with high death rate to (eventually) low birthrate with low death rate. Sometimes countries at these two extremes are described as “third world” and “developed”.  East End London in the 1950s was in a transitional state, with high birthrate and low death rate. It was challenging and (inherently?) unstable. The conditions described were so bad, I had trouble remembering that I was NOT reading about, say, the year 1900.

The quality of obstetrical care provided in this teeming slum was amazingly high. Midwives and nurses were well trained. Doctors and hospitals could deal with a wide range of emergencies. Most babies were born at home, attended by a midwife. Follow up as extensive as three nursing visits PER DAY might continue for several weeks. Doctors also made home visits, and extreme emergencies were handled by an Obstetric Flying Squad which could transport mother and baby to a hospital quickly if necessary. The maternal and infant survival rates were high. Little was available by way of contraception, so families with more than 10 children were common.

Death rates also fell because antibiotics became available and communicable diseases were increasingly controlled.

In the introduction to Call the Midwife, Worth attributes the disappearance of the Docklands community to “the closure of the docks, slum clearance. and the Pill”. When oral contraception became available, women chose to have much smaller families. The midwifery practice in which Worth was employed saw births fall (over a few years) from 80-100 per month to four or five per month! One can only speculate about how things would have changed if this reproductive revolution had NOT been accompanied by job loss and the wholesale destruction of old (but potentially useful) housing.

This book should be read by urban planners. Some experts think that the most sustainable human future will arise from high density urbanization.

Memoir – the Columbine High School massacre, April 1999

I found this document quite by accident. My computer, like my house, is cluttered with “stuff”, and I’m trying to get rid of some of it. I don’t remember writing this, but I find it to be entirely accurate and painfully relevant.

Why post it NOW? I’m under a general request (from a family member) to share memories. Every once in a while, I come up with something odd or interesting. “Write it down!” says my son. Okay… Another reason is that violence, especially among and directed towards the young, continues to prey on my mind. I follow the news, worry over loved ones, and recently overheard a conversation that disturbed my soul. More about that later. Maybe.

This is what I wrote in May of 1999, a few weeks after Columbine, when my sons, ages 9 and 14, went off to public school daily. I have not edited it in any way:

Since the disastrous murders in Littleton, Colorado, I’ve been thinking hard about schools, and one direction my thoughts have taken is the path of memory. What was it like to be a teenager? What worked and what didn’t in the school system I traversed? How did we get along? Who were the disaffected? The successful? How tight were our cliques? How hurt were our outcasts? I found one memory that seems to be important. It’s very clear and coherent. And I don’t think I’ve ever discussed it with anyone.

I was thirteen, sitting in math class. I was the kind of kid teachers want in class, well behaved and easily able to learn. I wasn’t “popular”, but I had friends. I was a “brain” in a town where that was mostly OK. I wore glasses and was a little off-the-mark in terms of dress and hairstyle, but nothing drastic. I was supported and protected by a home and community that were reasonably consistent in their expectations. There is nothing wrong with this picture. The important memory is what, in that idyllic time and place, I was thinking about.

Unfolding in my head as I sat there in math was a violent fantasy. I was very systematically destroying the school. I smashed (with a baseball bat?) everything breakable, overturned desks, savaged textbooks, broke windows. I was very, very thorough. I must have spent lots of time on this fantasy, to be able to find it waiting so clearly in my head, 35 years later. What was I so incredibly ANGRY about?

I don’t find an answer in any of the expected categories – abuse, change in family structure, etc. I think my problem was junior high school. After seven years in what is now called the “self-contained” classroom, we switched to a seven period school day. Ten different teachers when you add in homeroom, gym, etc. Three minutes to get from one place to another. I know I bitterly resented the regimentation, but I think my anger was based on the fact that NO adult knew me. Not the way (for better and worse) my elementary school teachers knew me. A kid with high test scores and a good behavior record merited no particular attention. All my other traits – creativity, capacity to love, longing for adventure – were ignored. And I was furious. The sociological term, I think, is alienation. I had a bad case of it.

To me the message of junior high (or middle school) is “You kids are poison”. Too nasty to be around the cute little tykes and not big and smart enough to mix with the high schoolers. What kind of a message is this for children on the brink of physical adulthood? Meaningful adult contact is lost and the peer culture moves into the vacuum. It was luck, not good rearing, that kept me from serious trouble.

From this derives my first suggestion for school change. Bring back the K-8 school. If its necessary to shift students around to fit the expertise of teachers, do it so a student has three teachers, not ten. Everyone says teachers “should have noticed” something wrong in Colorado, but a teacher who sees more than 100 students each day just isn’t going to.  Make seventh and eighth grade special by adding privileges and (much more important!) responsibilities. By eighth grade every student should do meaningful work for the school, and in a K-8 setting opportunities abound. Play and read with the kindergartners, run flashcard drills and clean up after art with the second graders, work in the Library and office. Plant a garden. Organize classroom parties and put on good assemblies. Eighth graders can do all this.

What to do about high school? I’m open to suggestions here – it’s time to try anything and everything. We know specialized schools work well in cities. Perhaps we should regionalize and specialize. Make high schools smaller – how about a top size of about 1000? Move some teachers along with the students when they enter high school. Selected teachers could alternate between 8th and 9th grades to provide continuity. Look for other opportunities to keep student/teacher groups together for more than one year. Increase guidance counselors and reduce teaching loads until meaningful mentoring is available for every student.

Why I Support Medical Aid in Dying – death of a friend

I remember…

Karl (not his real name) was my friend from 1975 until he died in 1997. He was a retired Professor of Physics and an avid tinkerer, installing solar hot water on his house in 1976! We were neighbors, and in lived in identical tract houses. Whenever something went wrong at my house (plumbing, or birds nesting in the dryer outlet), I called Karl and he told me how to fix it.

Karl and his wife moved away in 1987, but we kept in touch. Karl was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease around 1990. It was treated with some success, but inevitably, over time, it progressed. Karl hated dropping things, and stumbling. He detested the idea of losing his independence and wanted control of his fate.

In January of 1997, Karl shot himself in the head. This action was carefully and thoughtfully planned, though not explicitly announced in advance. He made sure his wife was not alone when his body was found.

Karl died alone, and he died by violence. These two circumstances were in total contradiction to his life and values. Karl was sociable and extensively connected to family and friends, and certainly he was never violent. What a shame that he had no better choice. What a shame that my memory of him is darkened by the grim thought that at least he got it right on the first try.

Please, listen to that again.  At least he got it right on the first try. Something is profoundly wrong when this is the best that a dying person can hope for.

I doubt that New Jersey’s new (and still controversial) Aid in Dying law would have helped Karl. Would any doctor attempt to project the life span of a person suffering from Parkinson’s disease? Possibly not. But, as medical science continues to prolong life, we need to consider and reconsider how best to support human dignity and autonomy at the end of life.

 To brighten my dear friend’s memory, a cheerful anecdote: One day I spotted Karl in the restaurant next to the local Post Office, drinking coffee. I didn’t have time to stop for a cup, but I dashed in. “Karl, let me smell your coffee!” I inhaled deeply over his cup – wonderful! We exchanged 30 seconds of news and I rushed off. Unfortunately, I was recognized by somebody as “that lady from the Health Department” and a rumor started that there was something wrong with the water, or the coffee, or the restaurant! I had to reassure anxious neighbors that no health department ever evaluated drinking water (or coffee) by smelling it.

“Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race” by Lara Prior-Palmer

Every heard of the Mongol Derby? Nope, neither did I. In fact, I was unaware of the sport of equestrian endurance racing.

The (modern) Mongol Derby originated in 2009, but is based on the sophisticated communication system created by Genghis Khan in 1224. Messengers on horseback connected Khan’s vast empire. Every year a new route is selected for the modern 1000 kilometer, multiday race. Each rider mounts a different horse daily, selected from those at a “horse station” in the Mongolian outback.

Ms. Prior-Palmer won the race in 2013, the first woman to win and the youngest competitor to that date. Her account is gripping. She was an experienced rider, but this race was an exceptional challenge in harsh, isolated terrain. Her book subtitle refers to loneliness. Riders are on their own most of the time, and language issues complicate their stays with nomad families along the course.

Much of the structure of the race is designed to protect the horses. Riding is restricted to certain hours, and veterinarians check on their condition (most heart rate) after each 40 kilometer segment.

It’s interesting to learn about the nomads still living traditionally on the Mongolian steppe, and to get some feel for the Mongol empire at its peak.

If you like travel, adventure or Asian history, you will enjoy this book.

PS – The 2019 Mongol Derby was won by a 70 year old Robert Long of Boise, Idaho. The race, which had 41 competitors, ended on August 14. Long described the race as a “death march”.

“When I Was White – A Memoir” by Sarah Valentine

 

Another lucky grab from the “New Arrivals” shelf at my local library. Sarah Valentine was a mixed race child born into an otherwise white American family.

Ms. Valentine’s childhood was in most respects idyllic – suburbia, good schools, friends, family (including two younger brothers). Her parents were devoted to their children. She was athletic as well as academically talented.

Her parents kept from her the fact that she had a different father from her two younger brothers. She was told that her skin tone (darker than her brothers) and relatively curly hair came from her father’s Greek and Italian ancestors. There’s too much for me to summarize here. Ms. Valentine still identified as white when she finished college, but considered herself African American or multiracial when she finished her PhD (in Russian literature) at Princeton University.

One thread running though is book is the power of secrets. The choice to keep a secret, to withhold important information from another person, is weighty. Secrecy distorted Ms. Valentine’s relationship with her mother and greatly troubled her brothers.

Ms. Valentine was a very high achieving child and continued to earn academic honors during college and graduate school. In this respect, she reminds me of Michelle Obama, whose memoir I reviewed on December 14, 2018. I wonder if the two ever met? Each is a very accomplished woman, but Ms. Obama has never had to wonder who she was or where she came from. Her identity was secure, though she occasionally encountered criticism for being “too white”. Ms. Obama, who has spent at least 15 years in the public eye, may envy Ms. Valentine’s “private citizen” status.

“When I Was White” is a wonderful, energetic autobiography and a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion of race in our country.

“Drawing Fire – A Pawnee, Artist and Thunderbird in World War II” by Brummett Echohawk with Mark R Ellenbarger

University Press of Kansas, 2018, 215 pages plus Glossary (Native American Terms and Phrases, also designations of weapons), Dramatis Personnae (Echohawk and his comrades used both Native and mainstream names, as well as tribal affiliations) and Index. More than one hundred portraits, sketches and photographs.

In early June, my local public library featured a display of books about World War II, in honor of the D-Day anniversary. I grabbed two books. Drawing Fire caught my attention because of the generous inclusion of artwork, most produced on the battlefield by the author.

Don’t you love the name Echohawk? Brummett Echohawk was born in 1922, into a Pawnee family long connected with the American military. At age 18, he joined the Oklahoma National Guard. His unit, which included more than 1000 Native Americans, was deployed in the retaking of Italy in 1943. This memoir is a battlefield classic.

Echohawk identified as both a soldier and a warrior, bringing TWO lives, languages, skill sets and worldviews into the war. “Warrior” carries profound cultural/spiritual weight in addition to what English speakers generally mean by “soldier”. In addition to being bilingual, the Pawnee (and members of other tribes) used sign language (hand signs) which improved their communications. They also used animal calls to communicate between units, usually just to say “We’re here, good night” but occasionally to warn of danger.

It’s not clear to me just how Echohawk wrote these memoirs. Diaries and journals are discouraged (forbidden?) on the battlefield, because they could reveal classified information to the enemy. Echohawk was a diligent artist, drawing at every opportunity. Some of his sketches are on stationery provided by the Red Cross – many are tattered and stained. Most are annotated with names and locations. He sketched prisoners of war as well as soldiers from various allied nations. Many of his subjects were his closest friends, not all of whom survived.

The recapture of Italy was grueling and sometimes seemed impossible. At one point, Echohawk’s infantry division was told to prepare for the possibility of being overrun and captured. He ripped out the front page of his Bible, because it identified his Army unit, but then he hid it in a sketchpad. The native American fighters discussed their dilemma – Pawnee warriors (who call themselves “Men of Men”) do not surrender, but American soldiers follow orders, surrendering if their superiors tell them to.

The war ground on and on. Everything was in short supply, even water. The soldiers rigged improvised weapons and haunted the first aid stations (from which the injured were being evacuated) to replace their destroyed uniforms and to scavenge parts for their guns. The scale of waste and suffering and loss is hard to comprehend.

Echohawk survived the Italian campaign, returned home and died in 2006, after a distinguished career as artist and illustrator. Read this book!