I'm pleased that "'Til Death or Dementia Do Us Part" is featured this week by the wonderful AlzAuthor's group. If you or a friend is looking for a book that offers insights into understanding and/or caring for a loved one with dementia, there is a wealth of material at: alzauthors.com.
"'Til Death or Dementia Do Us Part" is avaialble at www.marilynreynolds.com, www.riverrockbooks.com, alzauthors.com, on order through your independent bookstore, or on Amazon and other online bookstores
The Writer's Almanac email post this morning reminded me of what a life saver Bel Kaufman's humor and insights were to me as a new teacher at a California Continuation High School. I learned more about teaching from this one book than from all of my education classes put together:
Today is the birthday of Bel Kaufman (1911) (books by this author). She was born in Berlin and grew up in Odesa and Kyiv. Granddaughter of the writer Sholem Aleichem, who wrote the stories that became Fiddler on the Roof.
Kaufman taught in the New York public school system for 20 years. She had a terrible time passing the oral exam to get her teaching certificate because of her Russian accent, but she finally did and eventually turned the frustrations of her teaching career into a novel. It was called Up the Down Staircase (1965), and the story was told through a collection of letters, notes, and school memos.
Kaufman died July 25, 2014, at the age of 103.
Demonstrations against the killing of black men by police, reactions to Black Lives Matter marches from white supremacists, a seventeen-year-old arrested for shooting and killing two protesters, plus a pandemic. What a complicated, difficult time for teens to be coming of age in our country! I'm aware this is just one small step, not a cure-all, but my hope is that connecting with Eddie and others in Eddie’s Choice may provide readers a safe, non-threatening space in which to reflect more deeply on their own personal responses to racism and social injustices. Learning the details of Jason’s experience with a white supremacist group may also prove thought provoking.
Lately I’ve been thinking about Conan, the Black teen who is such an important character in Love Rules. I wonder if he’s out there demonstrating with Black Lives Matter, or if he’s worn down because so little seems to have changed in the decades since his friend’s “murder by cop” went unpunished. He would be thirty-six now, still living in a world where “murder by cop” is all too prevalent for Black men. I wonder if Lynn, who is white, is on the streets with Black Lives Matter, having gained a deeper understanding of racial injustice through her long ago loving connection with Conan.
Maybe this is all worthy of online class discussions?
From Love Rules, a few days after a troubling incident with the local sheriff in which Conan is treated as a criminal while Lynn helplessly looks on. Now during lunch, Conan, who has been withdrawn since the experience, asks:
“What did your folks tell you about cops when you were a little kid?” he says.
“You know. If I was lost or in trouble, I should go to a policeman. Policemen were my friends. The usual.”
“See that wasn’t the usual in my family. They told me if I was lost, find an older black woman and she’d help me. Stay away from policemen. Stay away from whitey. If for any reason a policeman approached me, be polite, give my name and address, but no more.”
Like in the old war movies, I think, where prisoners gave only name, rank and serial number.
“When I got my driver’s license, my grampa made me go through this whole routine. First he showed me tapes of that guy, Rodney King, being beaten practically to death by L.A. cops. ‘That’s what happens to niggas who never learned what I’m about to teach you,’ he told me. Then he made me practice what I’d do in all kinds of circumstances.”
“What kind of circumstances?”
“You know. Circumstances like when we were stopped the other night . . . My grampa made me sit in the car, at the end of our driveway. He drove up behind me and flashed his lights. ‘I’m a honky cop,’ he yelled. ‘What’re you gonna do?’ I opened the door to get out and he yelled ‘You’re dead! Assaulting an officer with intent to do bodily harm!”’
“That’s sick,” I say.
“He wanted to keep me safe. He made me practice sitting still in the car, with my hands resting open fingered on the steering wheel—not moving until he gave me instructions, and then I was to follow those instructions to the absolute letter.”
“It sounds like that training stuff they did during Vietnam—what to do when captured by the enemy.”
“Absolutely. We practiced for two weeks, every day, before I was allowed to drive on the streets.”
“Don’t you think that’s a little extreme?”
“Maybe. But I’m still alive. Not like my friend,” he says, once again turning his attention toward the tree. The warning bell rings. I want to stay right at this table, next to Conan, and hear the rest of his story. I want to know about his friend who’s no longer alive. But he’s already standing and has his backpack slipped over a shoulder.
Conan retreats to his shell, leaving Lynn puzzled and hurt, worrying that he no longer loves her. Finally, because it is so difficult for Conan to talk about the earlier loss of his friend, he writes of that time in a letter to Lynn. They meet at a local coffee shop where Conan hands Lynn the letter and asks that she read it. He sits with a book at another table, while she reads his account.
Dear Lynnie, I’m writing this because it’s so hard for me to talk about what happened, but I want you to know. I don’t want us ever to hide anything from each other. Getting stopped by the cops the other night, and having them rip apart the stuffed dog my sister loved so much, made me think about some things I’ve been trying to forget. Things I’ve not had to think about too much since we moved to Hamilton Heights. Where I lived before was in what’s considered a bad part of L.A. Drive-by shootings, drugs, gang stuff, poverty, you know. I pretty much stayed out of trouble--it helps to be big. I went to a magnet school in another part of town, played football, avoided that gang shit. My best friend Mark, from when I was five, did the same. My grampa met us at the bus every day, walked us home, made sure we did our homework. Mark’s mom worked until late, so he usually had dinner with us. When I went to a magnet school, Mark did too. When he signed up for football, I did too. That’s how it was. No drugs, no alcohol, no gangs, just clean-cut American boys, living a clean-cut American life.
Mark’s dad was almost never around, but now and then he’d show up and try to make up for lost time, be the big man--he’d bring video games, or take Mark to a Lakers game or a Rams game. They usually invited me to go, too, but my grampa always said no. When I appealed to my mom and dad, they said no, too. When I asked why it was “because I said so, that’s why.” So one day Mark’s dad showed up in this black Lincoln Continental, straight off the showroom it looked like. And he tossed Mark the keys. Told him to be back by midnight. Mark came straight to my house. It was one of those rare times when no one was home to tell me no. I climbed into the passenger side and we took off. We drove to the beach, and up in the Hollywood Hills, then around the observatory. It was like riding on air. Mark wasn’t a reckless driver. We didn’t speed, we just took it easy and drove all over, feeling good. We were on our way back to my place about eleven or so, allowing plenty of time for Mark to get the car back. Cops pulled us over on a side street off Vermont--a dark, industrial area. As soon as the red lights hit, I put my hands on the dashboard, fingers spread apart. We didn’t do nothin’! What kinda shit is this? Mark said. I told him to calm down, put his hands on the steering wheel, but he opened the door and got out.
This is my dad’s car! he yelled. I’ve got a license! I saw him reach into his jacket pocket, to show I.D. Don’t! I hollered--but my voice was lost in gunfire. I saw him fall and I knew he’d never be up again. I sat there, frozen, my hands still on the dash, my fingers still wide open, like my grampa taught me. They handcuffed me. Made me sit on the curb, like the other night. Only that night I watched the cops take their time calling an ambulance. I watched them step over Mark’s body like it was nothing more than a dog turd in the street. I watched the ambulance attendants look for a pulse, then pull a blanket over him. It took hours for the coroner to arrive, before Mark could be moved. It turned out the car’d been stolen. They said the cop thought Mark was reaching for a gun when he reached into his jacket. All I know is Mark’s dead, and he didn’t deserve it. That’s what I couldn’t tell you. No one else here knows, and I don’t want them to. But it’s different with you.
I doubt that Conan and Lynn are still together, but wherever they are, they carry with them all that they learned from each other nearly two decades ago—they carry expanded empathy and understanding which, if it can spread throughout the nation, will put an end to the horrors that go with unpunished “murder by cop” practices. Maybe this is all worth Zoom classroom discussion?
It's been thirteen weeks since my last mani/pedi, eleven weeks since my last haircut, ten weeks since I've been inside a market, four weeks since the mostly mini-poodle mutt, Lily, has been groomed, and two weeks since the first of a series of bedbug bites appeared on .my arms, neck, and torso. I've since stripped my bed, vacuumed every inch of both the mattress and box springs, damp mopped the floor, wiped every nook and cranny of my bedroom and generally outdone myself in the cleaning department. This morning I had all of the bedding, (mattress cover, sheets, pillow cases, blanket, bedspread) packed in the trunk of my car ready to go to the local wash and fold laundry. I'd made an appointment for Lily to be tubbed and scrubbed and was happily anticipating a return to a bug-free life. Last night, because the bed was bare, I slept on the chaise in my office, and area which had also undergone a more thorough cleaning than it gets with my usual slovenly practices. The first indication that things might not go as planned was that I woke up with, you guessed it--more bed bug bites. Next the groomer called to say they wouldn't groom her because she'd been exposed to bed bugs. When I took my bundled bedding to the Wash and Fold laundry with the big open side in front, it was closed. A phone call clarified that they would remain closed through the duration of the pandemic. I'd turned the Prius engine off in the Wash and Fold parking lot and when I turned it back on, all of the warning lights, red, yellow, exclamation marks, flashed on. I called my trusted auto repair shop. No answer. Although the menacing lights demanded otherwise, I drove the half mile home and parked safely in my driveway. I know not to ever ask the universe "what else could go wrong today?" Nevertheless, the sunshiny mood of early morning had turned cloudy and dark. I took a few deep breaths, went inside, and headed to the gratitude jar that sits on my desk. I pulled a few of the still blank strips of paper from the jar and wrote: Health! Family! Friends! Food! Shelter! Laughter! Washer! Dryer! Cleaning supplies! Hot water! The day ahead! I dropped the papers back into the jar and screwed the lid on tight Best to thwart any possible escape of gratitudes.
40 days and 40 nights since the "stay at home" directive. That's how long it rained while Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham, and Japeth bobbed around in their handmade ark. Their unnamed wives were also with them, along with every beast and every creeping thing that creeps on earth. Whenever I start to get that trapped, closed-in feeling, I remind myself of Noah's unnamed wife, cooped up in the pre-dramamine ark--the roiling sea, the named men, and every beast and every creeping thing that creeps on earth. She probably had to do all of the work, cleaning up after all of those men, and beasts, and creepy crawlies. I hope the daughters-in-law pitched in. Even so it had to be a lot.. On top of all the work she was trapped there with Noah, who was in his 600th year. I bet he was one grouchy old man. So here I am in my dry land ark, with an undemanding companionable dog.. Maybe there are a few unseen creepy crawlies, but not so's you'd notice. Groceries delivered to my door. The phone, Zoom, the Internet connections. My thanks to Mrs. Noah for reminding me of that expansiveness of my life, even during this "stay at home" time.
My heart goes out to so many who've lost jobs during this pandemic, and to the over worked and under protected health care workers putting themselves at risk for the sake of others. I worry that restaurants and other small businesses may not survive these months of shut downs. I know I'm extremely fortunate to be safe and comfortable at home, living without fear of a personal financial hardship. Nevertheless, there are challenges that go with the stay at home directive, and with the resulting social isolation. One of the challenges may be getting into my regular clothes after months in sweat pants, snacking at will. For now. though, I miss the personal contact with friends and family that I've long taken for granted. I'm ordering groceries on line these days and I miss being able to pop into the grocery store, or any other store, at will. I miss my monthly poker games! That said, I'm also experiencing unforetold benefits with this process of sheltering at home. I'll save that information for the next blog. In the meantime, I hope you are all staying healthy, nurturing your soul with good books, and managing the challenges this strange time brings to you.