My birthday was this month. We all have celebration traditions. Mine are Birthday Breakfast and anchovy pizza.
Birthday Breakfast is a tradition my mother created 67 years ago to offset likely evening obligations my father’s Foreign Service work required of both my parents. Why wait to celebrate with a post-dinner cake when you can blow out candles and eat (coffee) cake at breakfast while wearing a crown?
All my life, family birthdays have begun with this celebration, except for the year we forgot Birthday Breakfast on my mother’s special day when my sister and I were selfish teens and our father was up to his eyeballs in diplomatic work.Awful us.
Pizza buonviaggio party on my 9th birthday
Why anchovy pizza is on my birthday menu is another story.
In the fall of 1963, when I had begun fourth grade and my father had begun his second two-year tour as Press Attaché in Rome, the US Information Agency in Washington decided they needed him in Bogotá, Colombia. ASAP. We would not be able to take time to see family in Minnesota, but instead go directly to Bogotá after Dad’s briefings in Washington.
My last day of school at the Overseas School of Rome fell on my ninth birthday. My mother brought personal pizzas to my classroom for a combination farewell-and-birthday party. My pizza came loaded with anchovies, a preference I’d developed during our three years in Italy. As I looked around the room, I understood that leaving was our normal. Packing up just the four of us, on to our next lives.
You might assume that pizza would be associated in my heart with sadness, but instead it became a salty touchstone through which I could always connect with my childhood, especially on my birthday.
Time to go for the gusto again
We’re not fast-food eaters, and the pandemic has only reinforced our home cooking norm. However, pizza entered my consciousness again recently, just in time to join another birthday.
A month ago, I closed the door on a fifth grader selling coupon books for her school. It’s the kind of hustle I participated in when our daughter was little, going door-to-door in our upstate New York neighborhood hustling products for the PTA and the Girl Scouts. In fact, as I said, “No, thank you, we don’t buy anything,” I reminded myself of the old crone who turned our daughter away. “We don’t eat cookies.” I’m still furious at her.
“We don’t buy anything.” Wow, that’s a pandemic phrase. We don’t go anywhere. We don’t buy anything. Unless it’s on Amazon. And even then, if it doesn’t fit into the routine inside our bubble, it isn’t happening. We have become entrapped in our survival routine.
I was shocked at my behavior. There was a quick fix. I called the girl’s mother to ask the youngster to come back, and minutes later shelled out twenty-five bucks for a book advertising discount deals at local vendors that we are unlikely to use. But I at least I’m a better neighbor.
Our daughter flipped through the book when she stopped by. ”The pizza place I like is in here,” she said. My husband stays away from tomatoes and spice. “You know, Dad,” our daughter said, “You could have a little from time to time.” And, I reminded my husband, there’s always white pizza, although that doesn’t really match the standards of my Brooklyn-raised honey.
When my birthday came, our daughter and her fiancé surprised us by having delivered to our home two delicious fresh trattoria-style pizzas: one white, and one tomato and anchovies. What a birthday dinner!
In the aftermath of the exit of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez, an enraged mob surrounded the headquarters of his dreaded secret police, the Seguridad Nacional. Hundreds of Venezuelans had disappeared into that fortress. The National Guard, a military force sent in to control the crowd, fired instead on the fortress when the trapped secret police began shooting from inside. After the military smoked out the secret police, prisoners, some barely able to walk, emerged into the arms of their families. Looters sacked and set fire to the building.
When a couple of Dad’s colleagues investigated the damage, they found several letters to Embassy staff that the Seguridad Nacional had intercepted and opened, including one from Dad’s boss’ mother saying she was coming for a visit. She arrived three days later.
The Seguridad Nacional was no more, and the police were in hiding. A group of military men and civilians from the underground movement asserted some control, but mobs continued battling throughout the city for the next three days. Hundreds died, and thousands more were wounded. Slowly, looting ebbed.
A fragile democracy takes shape
A fragile democracy took shape. The leaders of the three dominant political parties created a governing body, the Junta Patriótica, which the United States formally recognized. Previously clandestine revolutionaries took positions of leadership in the government, media, and the business community.
For the first time in a decade, Venezuelans could read uncensored newspapers. Mom and Dad could once again use the telephone without fear of being listened to. Trying to reach my father at the Embassy one afternoon, Mom had been told by a harsh, Spanish-speaking male voice, “This is the Seguridad Nacional. You do not have anything to tell your husband.”
The new political scheme gave Dad’s job enhanced meaning. He had made many good friends among the media in producing a USIS (as USIA was called overseas) television program, “Venezuela Mira a Su Futuro,” “Venezuela Looks to Its Future.” Now he could enjoy the freedom of tapping into a larger pool of journalists. The programming at the binational Centro Cultural, a key to USIS activity, expanded as well, drawing in greater and more relaxed audiences. The Embassy’s lending library saw English-language books flying off the shelf.
Information propaganda was USIA’s bread and butter, but sharing America’s rich culture was the long game, as my father’s contemporary Ambassador Samuel R. Gannon would later recount:
You make all your mileage out of culture, the long-term, slow moving crafty exploitation of the parts of your culture that have made you worthy of respect and admiration.
Nat King Cole and other cultural ambassadors visit
Dad and Mom’s cross-cultural communication responsibilities grew richer as the junta settled into the business of governing. Taking advantage of the calm in the wake of revolutionary violence, USIA in Washington beefed up the cultural envoy trips. The great Nat King Cole arrived for a series of concerts, fresh from the Tropicana in Havana, followed by Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman, and composer Aaron Copeland flew in for an afternoon of music and conversation at the Centro Cultural.
Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic flew down for a May 1 concert at Central University, where they played the Venezuelan national anthem with appropriate emotion in counterpoint to the May Day labor union march downtown. At the press conference before the event, Dad got a kick out of helping Bernstein work his renowned charm on the local press. The headlines in the newspapers the next day spoke of “international understanding.”
Diplomatic normal life resumed
Mom and Dad resumed evening hours’ “representation” at dinners, arts events, and other opportunities to engage with Venezuelans while Susie and I stayed home with Fina.
In the afternoons, my mother took Susie and me to the pool at the Circulo Militar, the private military club that diplomats were deemed members of. Paddling in the shallow end, with Mom holding me up by the back of my suit, I had no idea I was enjoying a priviledge, just as I would take for granted throughout my childhood that my diplomatic passport would sweep me to the head of the line at customs.
Years later, my passport no longer special and relegated to the same line as everyone else when returning to the United States after overseas travel, I cringed to see how we treat visitors to our country.
My parents watched the procession of looters shuffled by, the sounds of their humble slippers, the Venezuelan alpargatas, mimicking the sound of prairie wheat blown by the wind. The parade disappeared into the night. In just hours, dawn would peak over the Andes, ushering in the first day of Venezuela’s freedom from tyranny.
“It’s going to be a long day,” my father said. ”Might as well get a little sleep.”
My mother lay at his side, eyes shut and mind wide open. Never in a million years had she imagined while growing up in Winona, Minnesota that she’d be a 30-year-old part-time diplomat, mother of two bilingual kids, and boss to a live-in maid, trying desperately to figure out how was she going to her household through a South American revolution.
Dad muttered something in his sleep, and Mom rested her hand on his shoulder. The baby-faced blond GI who’d wooed her at Macalester College had charmed her with his intelligence, wit, and gift of gab, and she knew that her smile, chestnut hair, and dancer’s grace made them look elegant wherever they were. He’d been looking for adventure, and boyohboy they were in it now.
The pitter-patter of little feet told Mom that I was up and in search of Fina, leaving Susie to sleep in for another hour. Slips of quiet Spanish made their way from the maid’s room beyond the kitchen. Mom roused herself to get the coffee water on, an old habit.
Fina had become my world when she rescued me, wailing, from the spot between the bed and the wall I wedged myself into the day my parents and I were at the home of another Embassy family. In short order, Fina had moved in with us, and I had my first full-time playmate. Spanish was my first language. After my sister arrived, I knew I could still steal my Fina time first thing in the day.
I danced into the kitchen in my pink robe and Venezuelan alpargatas sandals. Like baby Susie, my fair hair and blue eyes revealed my parents’ Norwegian heritage. “Buenos días, Mommy!”
Mom scooped me up. “Good morning to you.” She kissed the top of head, remembering our first year in Caracas when my scant hair and lack of pierced ears had caused caraqueños to think I was a boy. She gave me a squeeze before depositing me onto my regular chair at the little kitchen table.
Josefina walked in, smoothing the skirt of her cotton dress and tucking back a strand of her black hair. She had on one of the flowered dresses Mom had insisted she wear instead of the head-to-toe black outfit Fina had worn when she first came to work for us. Mom would have no mourning clothes here. To my mother’s midwestern sensibility, somber clothing was appropriate for funerals but not for the everyday wardrobe. Cheerfulness would be the order of the day.
“Fina.” Mom nodded with what she hoped was confidence. There was no need to get her going again.
The living room phone rang. Dad spoke into the receiver briefly.
“Well, looks like we’ll make it,” Dad called out.
“That’s good,” Mom said, waiting for more.
Fina tied on her apron. “Señora.” She smiled, holding her lips tight over her bad teeth. “Yo me ocupo.” I’ll take it from here. “¿Geni, Corne Flex?” The Kellogg’s cereal was a staple in our house. She poured me a bowl.
Mom smiled to herself, remembering Fina’s first days with us, when she’d carried the box of Betty Crocker cake mix to the breakfast table thinking it was cereal. “Gracias, Fina,” she said, and joined Dad in the living room.
“Well, things are settling down,” he said, “but the communists are emerging. The Boy Scouts, in fact.”
“But that’s an American organization, isn’t it?” Mom said.
“International, but this region is headquartered in good ol’ Havana. So these kids, commie-trained maybe, have seen an opportunity to be helpful, and, damn it if they aren’t doing just that. They’re directing traffic all over town.”
“Well, the craziness of last night could hardly continue,” Mom said.
“It’s been months brewing, Nan, so, no, it’s still crazy,” Dad said.
Fina brought in their coffee. “¿Algo más?”
“No, gracias, Fina,” Mom said.
The maid nodded and returned to the kitchen where I waited to chat away about our day’s plans. I had no idea anything was going, and Mom wanted to keep it that way. Happy and normal.
“So,” Dad continued, “Things will be more crazy as Caraqueños realize the shackles are gone. Best we stay off the streets for a while longer.”
And so our little family spent the rest of the day indoors. While Dad kept the telephone tree information flowing through the Embassy, Mom worked up a batch of Grandma Amerson’s lemon bars, and Fina oversaw Susie and me playing in the aluminum washtub next to the cement laundry sink behind the kitchen, keeping an eye out for the rats that lived in the drain. A poison-laced banana had kept the varmints away during my grandparents’ visit.
The day limped along. Mom typed her weekly letter to her parents. Susie and I played store with Fina in Spanish, had lunch, napped, played dress-up in Mom’s old modern dance costumes and Fina’s Sunday shoes, had dinner. After our baths, we cozied into our hooded towels while Mom read us a bedtime story. If you ignored the radio, it would have been just another family day at home.
But it was my father’s job to stay tuned in. As the press attaché, Dad had developed a wide network of contacts among journalists and newspaper editors, academics, and political players. The American press included trusted contacts as well, like Tad Szulc of the New York Times, who covered the growing resistance to Pérez Jiménez. Many of the Venezuelan journalists and professors Dad first met in 1955 had become involved in clandestine work against the military dictator. Periodically, things would come to a head in their conversations, the Venezuelans questioning how America, beacon of democracy, could support the tyrant. Dad’s personal sentiments bled through his official response.
Now that the reviled Pérez Jiménez had been overthrown, Dad would be able to celebrate the success of the revolution with his contacts.
If they survived. The radio blared the latest: shots had been fired as a mob surrounded the headquarters of the dreaded national police.1
1Pérez Jiménez’ Seguridad Nacional enforced press censorship, restricted organized labor, and banned political opposition. (Amerson, Robert. How Democracy Triumphed Over Dictatorship, The American University Press, 1995. p. 4)
His newly-minted BA in electronic engineering secured my friend and neighbor Oscar a coveted summer internship with Amazon — that is, unless an offer from the aerospace giant McDonnell steals him away to fulfill his childhood fantasy of building spaceships. Either way, it’s a promising start for a new college grad with a 4.0 GPA.
What makes the achievement even more remarkable is that Oscar is in his 50s. This is his second BA and his third career. And he thanks failure for making it all possible.
Oscar, who is from Colombia, spent his formative years inspired by the machinery of a steel mill company town, where the amenities were plentiful and the freedom to explore was unlimited. His academic and leadership skills made him a star at home and in the community.
I was the president of the school theater club, the captain of the swim team, and the provincial director of the Red Cross. I was the center of the universe.
Grew up too fast
When Oscar moved to the Colombian capital, Bogotá, for college, he quickly realized that being the solitary high-achiever — the big fish in a small pond — had not prepared him for the challenges of university life.
He hadn’t learned how to do the normal childhood things, like playing or hanging out with friends. And the rest of the students had gone to prestigious private schools, where they’d learned English well enough to handle the American engineering textbooks.
I was at the bottom of the food chain. I didn’t know shit about anything.
Academic failure and renewal
Distracted by weekend volunteer work that tapped into his leadership skills, Oscar soon found himself on academic probation. His mother interpreted the situation as the system’s failure and scraped the funds together to have Oscar study English in the United States. He stretched those limited funds to cover a full academic year and returned to Colombia with a command of English, a new networking ability, and renewed purpose.
Oscar sailed through the rest of his college work and graduated with a degree in electronic engineering.
Oscar’s first job out of college in Colombia was as a software engineer designing the systems that made ”point of sale” terminals work.
The sound of a terminal printing a receipt still makes me ridiculously happy.
However, when it came to innovation and money, engineering proved a dead end. The opportunity was in sales. Oscar pitched his skills to high tech companies, inventing Latin American sales jobs for himself with Colombian, then American, and finally, Chinese companies.
I went over to the dark side for 25 years.
He was a self-made success, supporting his wife and children in their new South Florida life.
Business failure, reinvention
But, as the tech business shifted to China, initiative and hard work could not overcome an inflexible business model and haphazard customer support half a world away.
When fifty percent of your success doesn’t depend on you, that’s an awful feeling.
Oscar toiled away against diminishing returns until, exhausted and defeated, he found himself unemployed at age 51.
Oscar had one special asset: his wife, Coni. She had seen her husband in his glory leading Red Cross volunteers in Colombia, and she suggested that he return to the work that had brought him so much satisfaction. He’d supported their family while she was home with their children, learning English, and developing a career, and now it was her turn to support him.
After a quarter century of non-stop travel and never-ending problems, the simplicity of helping a hurting person sounded like a balm. Oscar decided to become a paramedic.
Physical failure, reinvention
Oscar quickly secured his EMT certification, but being a paramedic in Florida requires getting firefighter certification as well. Oscar, still an accomplished athlete, welcomed the challenge, knowing that he would be ”the old man” of the class. He made it through six months of grueling training under the blistering tropical sun, wearing heavy gear and lugging even heavier equipment, as his body grew haggard and his skin pale from exhaustion. Only weeks from completing the certification, he felt his shoulder rip. Unable to use his arm, he was out.
But Oscar would not quit. After extensive physical therapy, against medical advice and knowing full well the risks, he reenlisted in the rigorous program. Six more exhausting months, and his body again failed him. He was done.
My physical abilities have always defined me. But here I was, for the first time in my life, unable to finish something I started.
Back to engineering dreams
As her husband nursed his physical and psychological wounds, Coni again saw a way forward: Oscar should continue his engineering education.
When Coni said I should go back to school, I said, “I can’t do that.” But she kept encouraging me. And so I did.
All those years of experience did not translate into current engineering knowledge, so Oscar found himself starting from scratch with challenging coursework. And he was twice the age of the other students.
But Coni was right. He is really good at this stuff, and the joy he has found in recovering his academic skills infuses his life. He is beloved by his classmates and respected by his professors, on tap for a prestigious internship, and back to being an early-morning regular in our community gym and swimming pool.
Thank God that I could not finish my paramedic training. It would never have been enough.
My father lifted an arm and waved at the corner of the living room ceiling as the sound of the Venezuelan president’sairplane faded away. ”Adios, el president.”
Our maid Fina let out a short cry, and my mother shot Dad a look. Wit had its time and place, and the early hours flight into exile of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez was neither. “¿Fina, café?” She said.
The maid headed to the kitchen, mumbling rosary incantations under her breath. My mother followed to check on Susie and me. We were still curled into our sheets. The resiliency of kids. She walked back into the living room and dropped onto the edge of the couch next to Dad, her hands on her knees as if awaiting instructions.
“The telephone investment seems healthier now, eh?” Dad said. The $250 purchase and $24 a month had been prohibitive when we’d arrived in Venezuela.
“Yes,” Mom said. “Do you think we should call Mother and Dad?”
“Well, no need to alarm your folks, I think. Let them keep the Caracas of their visit.”
“I suppose.” Mom sighed. She was grateful that her parents had avoided this mess when they visited two years before. Tonight, Caracas felt like a different place from the easygoing, eternally springtime city she and Dad had fallen in love with.
My father turned on Radio Caracas. Sporadic news bulletins interrupted the familiar rhythms of Venezuelan folk tunes on the nightly program, Música Criolla. Each announcement reflected a still-evolving scenario. That the completely united army had overthrown the regime. That some army rebels, along with other armed forces and civilians, were taking the credit. That there was violence downtown. Excited voices urged citizens to stay at home, to remain calm, to refrain from harming foreigners.
“So, should we be doing something?” my mother said. “What’s the plan?”
Dad turned down the radio and leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “We’re to sit tight. Hard to tell what’s going to happen, but better to be here together than to get caught up by a crowd in the street.”
He wasn’t sure how much my mother had heard about the deadly chaos of rampaging mobs in the coup d’état that had brought PJ to power in 1952. The folks at the Canadian Embassy had approached their American counterparts several months before about consolidating evacuations. That had seemed like a remote possibility, but maybe not anymore.
The Embassy was in downtown Caracas, several miles away from Zucatarate, the tree-lined residential neighborhood on the western edge of town where we and several other Embassy families lived. It was time to touch base with one of those colleagues.
“Let me give Russ a call.” Dad spoke quietly into the receiver as Fina arrived with the coffee.
“¿Algo mas?” the maid said.
My mother forced her lips into a smile.“No, gracias, Fina.”
The maid nodded. “Pues, buenas noches.” Fina returned to her room.
My mother nodded and took a sip of the strong brew. None of that wimpy American coffee down here. There was so much they truly loved about this place. She took another sip, allowing the liquid heat to relax her back into the sofa.
Dad hung up the phone and turned the radio back up a bit. “Okay, so maybe there’s something,”
My mother snapped to high alert.
“We may want to hide the car,” he said.
“Hide the car?”
“They’re looking for PJ’s head honchos. Russ just had a mob in front of their house thinking his diplomatic plates were Venezuelan issue for the regime. Lucky for them, the men headed down the block before Russ shot his gun.”
“His gun?” Mom sat up straighter. “We don’t have a gun.” She paused. “Dad’s hunting gun.” Her father had given his duck-hunting rifle to Dad.
“Well, yes, we have your father’s gun, but no, I don’t think it’s going to come to that.”
The radio crackled as an enthusiastic announcer broke in. “¡Periodistas!” Newspaper editors! He continued in Spanish. “You are finally free. Tell the public that the dictator is gone!”
“Imagine that,” my father said. “An uncensored paper. First time in ten years.”
“The car?” my mother prompted. The diplomatic plates on the Oldsmobile sitting in our driveway a few feet from the street could easily be confused with those issued for the Venezuelan government. “Do you think maybe we should put out the American flag? I mean, we’re the good guys, right?”
My father considered the suggestion. “Well, we know we’re the good guys,” he said, “but I’m not so sure everyone agrees. Better play it safe. Got some Crisco?”
My mother retrieved the blue tub from the refrigerator. Dad scooped out a handful. He opened the front door slowly, paused, and stepped out. The air was still and heavy with the scent of ripe mango. The pop-pop-pop of fireworks echoed from downtown, or was that gunfire?
My mother huddled in the doorway as Dad took three long strides across the little yard to the Oldsmobile and crouched down to smear the license plate with grease and dirt. Satisfied, he hurried back inside. My mother shut the door and secured the lock.
Dad turned off the radio. “Let’s try to get some sleep.”
The words were barely out of his mouth when a car careened around our corner, brakes screeching, horn blaring in defiance of Pérez Jiménez’ edict against honking. My mother froze, her eyes wide. Would the Olds’ camouflage work? Would my grandfather’s shotgun be necessary? But the driver and his euphoric passengers flew by cheering and continued toward downtown.
“Like winning the big game,” Dad said, downplaying the anxious moment with a shrug of his shoulders. Another car swept loudly past. “I think all the action’s downtown. Nothing more to do except get that rest. It’s going to be a long day.”
Mom looked in on us girls again. Susie and I were still fast asleep, untroubled by the noise and innocent of the drama unfolding around us. Mom wondered if she’d be up to the task of creating a routine in a city that was in chaos. My preschool would be closed, so both us kids would be home, and Mom hoped that Dad would stay home as well. She’d need to watch Fina. Susie and I would absorb her mood without understanding it. Everything needed to be normal.
She climbed back into bed.
“Everyone okay?” Dad said.
They lay still, eyes closed and ears open. Another few cars gunned past. In the distance, car horns bleated off-key against the staccato rhythms of gunfire. The night wore on.
As dawn made its tentative advance, they heard a whispering from the street, like prairie grass in the summer wind. It grew steadily louder. They crept to the living room window and peered through the glass slats and metal bars. Out of the fading night emerged a parade of men and women, their passage marked by the soft whoosh-whoosh of the alpargata slippers worn by the people that lived in the shacks up the hill. It was like an Easter processional, only instead of the statue of a saint, each person carried a chair or a television or a file cabinet.
“Looters,” my father said. “They’ve broken into the police station.”
Next time from EMBASSY KID: A MEMOIR: How this young Midwestern family — a farm boy and a small town girl, and their two daughters — found themselves in Venezuela
Tom Rhiel, one of the three angels behind Kaleidoscope Wojo — who included my essay Surviving Amsterdam in a recent anthology — wrote a touching tribute to his niece Kate, a young woman whose life was longer than predicted but way too short for those cheering her on. Kate’s optimistic and altruistic commitment to life inspired her circle of friends throughout her life. Tom’s tribute — portions of which I’ve included here, with Tom’s permission — allows Kate to inspire those of us she never met. Tom says that Kate would have liked this idea, too.
The question of why certain things happen to people — and particularly you — isn’t as important as what you did while you were here. You taught us so much. We never stopped learning about ourselves as we watched you live your life.
Kate was born with frailties that normally mean a very brief life, and she underwent 200 surgeries. Maybe being aware of the finality of those hours made Kate’s life mean so much to those she loved. As the Tim McGraw song goes, if you live like you were dying, you fully live. And it’s never long enough. My close encounter with death in 2019 was my own wake-up call, but it’s easy to forget. I am so glad to be reminded that this is all fleeting.
You got to know all too well the finality of death at such an early age as dozens of the children you became friends with at Children’s Hospital succumbed to their illnesses. Contained within the sadness of losing these people in your life was the celebration of life that you shared with each other.
The news of your passing hit like a hundred hammer blows to the gut. How many times had we recoiled at the possibility that this day or that day could be your last on earth? You always amazed and delighted us by pushing on, staying with us for 38 years. Except that wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough.
It is so easy to be inward looking. The pandemic has only reinforced our social isolation. Kate put others first, even when she had the chance to keep things for herself. During her Make-A-Wish Foundation visit to the DC Disney store she could pick out anything she wanted.
Attendants quietly bagged anything Kate seemed to like. When the shopping trip was followed a restaurant meal, Kate made sure that the limo driver was also having lunch.
And Kate’s close understanding of death even led her to want to help others through this inevitable conclusion through the study of thanatology in the Montgomery Scholar college honors program. How about that? Such maturity at such a young age, when many of us hide our heads in the sand.
You were wearing Big Girl pants long before anyone knew what that meant.
This was the ultimate gift this remarkable young woman gave her friends and family: letting them do for her. That’s grace. Inspirational.
As your world was narrowing because of ever growing health challenges you began to let more people in. You discovered just how caring people can be as the number of cheerleaders grew and a community formed around you, ready at a moment’s notice to start prayers, the sending of positive thoughts and energy and any other force they could muster for you to cling to, for you to draw strength from. You touched so many in such a powerful way.
We want to think of you now blasting across the universe, Sammy in your arms, as black holes come ablaze as you whiz by the two of you grinning mischievous smiles, hoping you’re causing a bit of trouble for the cosmos.
And, finally, there remains the mantra of love, such an important reminder that we must tell the people we love how we feel. Since 2019, I do not leave words unsaid. Since 2020, none of us can afford to stay mute.
Every phone conversation, every in person gathering ended with the same expression: “I’ll love you always and forever.” Time is infinite, Kate. We will love you always and forever.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about enjoying the chance encounters with neighbors that help us connect as a community, Why Small Talk is Big Time. That piece inspired my friend N in Boynton Beach to share how she took on the challenge one morning to offset all the negative chatter in this crazy world with some happiness.
Here is what N told me.
The news is full of quarrel
Before I went out to do a few errands, I read the newspaper and saw all the now-usual stories or people rudely shouting at each other without either side listening to the other. And as I headed to the bank, I decided to spread (as someone or other once said) sunshine and light.
N, a reader in Boynton Beach, FL
Harassed bank teller all smiles
The customer ahead of me at the bank was absurdly slow. When I got to the teller, she was obviously fuming and immediately began apologizing. I held up a hand and said, ” You obviously did your job efficiently, you were just being polite to a person who needed to chat. Please don’t apologize, just take a deep breath. I’ll be quick and I hope the rest of your day is better.”
Wow! She almost jumped, before she took care of me and asked me to please come back tomorrow. (I didn’t, but oh well.)
N, a reader in Boynton Beach, FL
As if she’d gotten a new Mercedes
Then I went to the post office. Someone was struggling with two boxes. We were both masked. So, I took one and helped her inside.
She was so happy to be helped, you would have thought I had given her a new Mercedes.
N, a reader in Boynton Beach, FL
Chiming along makes his day
Walking out I heard a postal worker loading his truck with difficulty, start to curse, pause to control himself and then continue in a totally furious voice,”Mary had a little lamb.”
He was so mad it almost sounded obscene, but I decided (from 25 or so feet away just in case he was mad enough to attack) to keep my game going, so I sang out, “Its fleece was white as snow.” And he started cracking up.
N, a reader in Boynton Beach, FL
A 90 minute shower of sweetness and light
So in under 90 minutes I spread three bits of sweetness and light during a pandemic.
N, a reader in Boynton Beach, FL
Wow. How easily we ignore these opportunities to make someone’s day, or, worse yet, let others’ anxiety and anger spill over into us.
This is the first of a new series of inspirational stories I’ll be posting as I continue my path of recovery. I hope they will inspire you to appreciate each day we are given — whether you have palm trees or pine trees or buildings outside your door, it’s a great day.
Leylah Annie Fernandez had a goal
Earlier this year, when Leylah Annie Fernandez was a little-known 18-year-old Canadian tennis player living in South Florida, she said that her goal was to be in the top ten professional women players in the world. The sport writers were skeptical.
Not anymore. She turned 19 on the day before playing for the trophy in the finals of the US Open tennis tournament, having beaten top-ranked opponents on the way to Arthur Ashe stadium, beginning with Naomi Osaka. She’s zoomed into 23rd place on the roster.
In the on-court interview after her stunning victory over Osaka, she was asked if she ever believed she could best Osaka. ”Yes,” she responded with a huge smile. ”Just before the match.”
She stepped up
There’s a lot to be said for someone like Fernandez, who has lost a lot of first and second round of matches on the WTA tour this year, producing a completely different level of tennis under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe stadium, for stepping up in close matches against a series of true champions and executing better than they did. That’s what great players do.
It’s steel honed by hard work. The daughter of immigrants from Ecuador and the Philippines, Fernandez moved from Montreal to my neighboring town of Boynton Beach in 2018. I assumed that the move was to permit her to train at a prestigious (and expensive) tennis academy, like Chris Evert’s school. Then I read that she trains on public courts and at the beach, and that her father, a former soccer player, is her coach.
Check out this training video, and remember that it’s hot and humid — sweat dripping off your face when you go for a walk — down here.
…a world-class fighter who walks between points with the steely determination of someone on her way to break up a bar brawl.
Fernandez didn’t win the US Open championship. That went to another brown-skinned daughter of immigrants, England’s Emma Raducanu. These multicultural, multilingual teenagers have just set a new bar for grit, resilience, and joy in the game.
While Raducanu — the first qualifier to win a Grand Slam title — expressed wonderment at her unlikely win, Fernandez, whose top-100 ranking got her into the tournament, may have been tripped up by really, really being sure she would prevail. Recovering from this loss, she said during the on-court interview, would be hard. And then she added this.
I know on this day it was especially hard for New York and everyone around us. I just hope that I can be as strong and resilient as New York has been the past 20 years.
This quote from Tom Bissell’s New York Times book review resonated as I took in the passion of a stormy sea at our favorite South Florida beach recently. The waves smashed onto the beach, releasing some of that pent-up energy into the air and the rest onto the sand with such force that my bare feet tingled.
…human presence is only a thin film stretched over mystery.
Scott Russell Sanders
Yet we have polluted it
And yet, thin film though we are, humans are managing to meddle with nature with irrevocable results: sea level rise floods more and more of our coastal areas; warm ocean waters gin up hurricanes with wind and deluge that rend lives and livelihoods; wildfires burn out of control across the globe.
We are off-handed in our support of the status quo, blaming convenience as we buy what want, toss it out when we’re done, and turn a blind eye to the results. But look at the results, plastic that I collected on this very beach.
By including local municipalities, businesses, and organizations and having them show their support and involvement through our buckets and encouraging them to hold multiple cleanups throughout the year, we will be creating even more awareness and cleanup events throughout our communities to get involved in.
Let sunlight flame in a blade of grass, let night come on, let thunder roar and tornado whirl, let the earth quake, let muscles twitch, let mind curl about the least pebble or blossom or bird, and the true wildness of this place, of all places, reveals itself.
The Amersons are celebrating my Aunt Jeanie this weekend
My Amerson family is gathering this weekend in St. Paul, Minnesota, to celebrate the life of my Aunt Jeanie, who died on January 17, slipping away quietly in her sleep. My sister (in Colorado), and my daughter and I (in Florida) have been stayed by the pandemic from our mission to be with these people, our bedrock long before my father’s death.
Instead of traveling to their side, we will witness Saturday’s program on our computers. On Sunday, when my cousins continue the reunion in the beautiful lakeside home where Rog and Julie were married in 2018, we will have to settle for revisiting pictures of that happy occasion.
What we said when Jeanie left us
Here is some of what I wrote in January, along with other family remembrances, when we were all adrift in our sorrow.
A child of the prairie
Jeanie was a child of the South Dakota prairie, born at the family farm on a snowy day in early spring. The youngest of my father’s sisters, she was small, slender, blonde and cute, my Aunt Snooky wrote, and a positive force during “hard times.” She was also smart, absorbing everything from farming information to the lessons of the one-room schoolhouse, where she got straight As. She went on to become valedictorian of her high school class.
She was a beautiful life force who will be sorely missed.
My cousin Bob
A counter culture protester
Jeanie followed my father’s lead by attending Macalester College, paying for her year there by selling some sheep. She completed her studies in journalism and English at the University of Minnesota, where she met her husband Carl Brookins and became engaged in protests against the blacklisting of Pete Seeger. Her prairie liberalism led her through the Sixties counter culture movement.
I have a thousand Jeanie stories. I’m just so grateful to have experienced her wit, joy, love and pain. Everything was truth. She taught me about raw, full, truthful love.
My cousin Laina
An exalted editor
Jeanie had a 32-year career at the Minnesota Historical Society and rose to become Director of the MHS Press, which she she drove to heights of academic excellence with her research, writing, and editing. Among the publications Jeanie oversaw was my father’s memoir of growing up in South Dakota, From the Hidewood.
A year ago, she carefully reviewed an early copy of my childhood memoir, giving me copious edits and an earful of very strong opinions about where I’d made poor choices in the draft. She (and Aunt Snooky, another wonderful wordsmith) helped it become a better book.
She was a life force, a sister who could harmonize, a friend, an intellectual wonder, a gifted individual.
My Aunt (Mavis) Snooky
A ready ear and all the time in the world
She and Carl discovered the pleasures of sailing in Lake Superior, Puget Sound, the Caribbean, and the Adriatic, and they traveled extensively after retirement. She became a devoted gardener, and her backyard was a favorite gathering spot for friends and family.
Jeanie and Carl flew in from the Twin Cities to my wedding in NYC and pulled my new husband into the family with one huge embrace. She waited for our visits to the Midwest with a warm welcome, a spare bedroom, and all the time in the world to listen to what we had to say.
Jean was a boon companion to her husband, a great mom, provider, and role model for her daughters, a home maker, a constant friend, a supporter of family and friends.