America, Family History, Politics, Privilege, Racism

A Culture of Remembrance – Take Down the Flag

I grew up in a house in which hung a print of “The Last Meeting of Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson Before the Battle of Chancellorsville” (engraved by Frederick Halpin, after Everett Julio), that classic emblem of the Lost Cause. This was common then in my neighborhood in Old Town Portsmouth, Virginia. My father, a Civil War buff who would tell me about the battles as we drove around Virginia, never indicated that the cause was just, but honored both men as soldiers, tacticians, human beings, Virginians. Yet in his political life he angered people including his own political party, to the point of death threats, by his political stands against the institutionally-protected racism of Massive Resistance.

I’m not sure how to reconcile these things.

I still have the print, no longer hanging anywhere, but I don’t quite know what to do with it. I don’t want to send it out into the world, nor do I want to destroy it, simply because it reminds me of my dad. Let me be clear; he was a soft-spoken intellectual, not a gun-toting guy with a truck bearing Confederate flag decals. I told you, in his time, he was considered radical in his politics. Well, radical for Virginia.

Yet, we have this heritage, this culture of remembrance of the men who gave their gifts to what was in every way the wrong side of a terrible war, evil as war always tends to be and doubly evil in pitting, as I learned in school, brother against brother, and even brother against sister in the case of the Jackson family, and ultimately evil in the lies people told themselves and the world about the reasons, praising chivalry and states’ rights, denying that the profit to be found in owning other people and considering them to be less than human drove the cause so rightly lost.

Lee and Jackson on a plate
Lee and Jackson on a plate

Somewhere among my books is a large pictorial biography of General Lee, awarded to me for outstanding work in Social Studies in the 5th grade at an Episcopal girls’ school, St. Agnes, in Alexandria, Virginia. It was presented by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. What about the stack of Lenox commemorative dinner plates sold in the 1970s to fundraise for the restoration of the White House of the Confederacy? I never saw them used, never knew they existed until after my parents were dead. I can picture him writing a check for the sake of historical preservation.

Is it defensible because we should not forget?

Can we remember without glorifying?

What to do with these things?

As a child, I remember sitting on the rug, playing with a figure of Lee seated on his horse, Traveller. That at least is long gone.

I am not the only one who doesn’t know what to do with all the things that carry the taint of revolution and racism. I don’t want to get rid of them and thereby circulate them.

I do know what *not* to do with them, not to celebrate them, not to display them in our homes or our cars or our public monuments, not to imbue them with some holy power.  

Please, South Carolina, take down the flag.

Family History, Guns, Sabbatical, Suicide

A Fork and Knife (On Guns)

My father had a collection of duck decoys so numerous you might have reasonably assumed he hunted. And he did. Once. Oh, he didn’t have a gun. But my mother’s Cousin Jimmy coaxed him along to the duck blind once. Once. Daddy bought the right kind of jacket, and after he died in 1997, I found it hanging in the upstairs back closet with the hunting license still in the pocket, dated in the early 1950s, when he and my mother were newlyweds.

I was a grown-up before I thought of the decoys as tools. To me they were just pretty. We like ducks, I thought. (They’re all living at my brother’s house now, or I would include a picture.)

During the time we lived in Northern Virginia, we would go to church on Sundays at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, and often we would stop after church to visit one of Daddy’s law school classmates, known fondly to us as Uncle Willie. We would go into his rather fabulous den, decorated with animal heads and shiny firearms and lie on the rug and read the funny papers while the grown-ups drank a fabulous Bloody Mary, usually with the little celery leaves still on the stalk. The walls also featured prints of people on horses wearing scarlet jackets and jumping horses over fences. I knew about hunting from “Mary Poppins.” I felt sorry for the fox. Uncle Willie’s house seemed entirely exotic. It bore no resemblance to my reality.

Going Out at Epsom, Sir Alfred James Munnings (1878-1959) -- My dad bought the print in England, while serving in the Army Air Corps during WWII.
Going Out at Epsom,
Sir Alfred James Munnings (1878-1959)

My father liked to go to the races. The prints at our house included this one. (#1 Son now has custody.) Daddy bought the print in England, while serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Of course he learned how to fire a weapon in basic training, but his job was behind the lines, installing radar systems in airplanes. And I’ll never know now whether it was his Methodist “Mumma” or his knowledge of the ways his friends were killed and maimed in the war, or his own fairly peaceful temperament, or even his lack of ease with technology of all sorts that made him not a gun person.

But he was not a gun person.

People use the resources available to them and for the most part embody the values and practices learned unconsciously in the homes where they are raised. Yes, some people are “raised right” and go in another direction, and yes, some people are raised terribly and turn out, by the grace of God, beautifully. But most of us spend a lifetime either unconsciously living out what we learned in childhood or trying hard to overturn the patterns of many generations.

If you grow up in a house with guns, you will think of them as a tool people use.

A person raised in a house where books and music and writing are the tools employed might write a scathing letter or a heart-wrenching poem or a grief-struck ballad or a piece of painful electronic music to  express anger at bullies. If guns aren’t as common in your life as a fork and knife, you’re less likely to consider them a tool for personal use when you’re beset by social rejection. I’ve been plenty hurt and plenty mad (or angry, as my father always told me to say instead), but I DID NOT GROW UP WITH GUNS and therefore no matter how oppressed I felt as a bullied grade school student or an unpopular teenager or an unhappy young wife or a depressed new mother, I never thought of harming myself or others with a gun.

Read that sentence above again: “I never thought of harming myself or others with a gun.” To be clear, I never thought of harming others, but I certainly thought of harming myself in one of those periods in particular. By the grace of God, I asked for help and got some.

When I thought of harming myself, I considered doing it with a tool in common use in my life. I’m writing this weeks after Newtown and a day after a young man walked into a classroom in California to shoot at kids who bullied him. There’s no question we need services for people who are troubled and support for parents raising kids with mental illness. But we also need guns to be categorized as something a little less ordinary, acceptable and available, as expected in everyday existence as a knife and fork.

Adoption, Family History, Genesis 17:1-7 and 15-16, Lent 2B

Suppose God Named You

I’m not sure why God felt the need to give new names to Abram and Sarai. I sometimes wonder if it’s just that there were two sets of stories about them, with two sets of names, and someone clever made the difference in names a shift in names instead, and connected that difference to the change in circumstances that led to a new reality for Abraham and Sarah.

God remade their future. So I suppose it’s possible God named them for it.

This doesn’t begin to answer the question “What’s my excuse?” It’s almost comical how many names I’ve had. Marriage and divorce and return to my maiden name. Lather, rinse, repeat. But even before I had that “maiden” name, I had another one, the name given to me by my birth mother.

Martha is … Martha. Plain. Simple. Maybe she bakes, or is a competent needlewoman. You trust her with the silver, or to make sure the children stay out of trouble.

Surely she is neither dashing nor intriguing.

Read about her. Amazing.

Or she’s awful. I just read an article saying pastors shouldn’t make out-of-date cultural references, but honestly, growing up when and where I did, I couldn’t help hearing stories about Martha Mitchell, a “political prisoner” of Watergate. That voice, that hair, that name…yes, I was a Washingtonian political child, if not prisoner, and I hated sharing her name.


She was a Republican, to boot.

This isn’t really about me, of course, although it’s certainly true that in childhood I found my name dull. Someone once thought my name was Nancy, and that was probably the only time I preferred Martha over every other possibility in the world. Not that there’s anything wrong with being called Nancy. (Please, no letters to the author.) It’s just that every now and then I identify with my name, and that’s a relief.

But other times I wonder what it would have been like to go through life with a different name. This is probably the fantasy of most adopted children. What was my “real” name? Who gave it to me? What were those people like?

I’ve written about this before, I think. The name on my first birth certificate is Elizabeth, and in a strange set of coincidences, my adoptive mother was a former social worker and had been friends with the social worker named Elizabeth for whom my birth mother named me.

Tasha Tudor’s take on Martha (l.), The Secret Garden

Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to go through life as Elizabeth instead of Martha. They’re both Biblical names, and both those ancient gals had important proclamations to make.

They’re both names you might hear in a British novel, although Martha is surely more likely to be the housemaid than the lady of the manor.

Elizabeth, Lizzie, Libby, Betsy, Beth — they all sound pretty, don’t they? Elizabeth is one of those women who can manage anything. Lizzie is fun and funny, with a wit that sometimes makes you want to take a step back. Libby attracts attention whenever she walks down the street. Betsy wears a ponytail and climbs trees. Beth is kind and quiet and plays the piano sweetly, and everyone who takes the trouble to listen loves her.

Some of those impressions come from literature, and some from the memories of girls I knew growing up. Some of them come from the fun of a name that has so many possibilities. (Eliza, Liz, Libba, I could keep going…)

Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to be one of those girls.

I can flirt sarcastically like Elizabeth Bennet (and on those Jane Austen quizzes, I always come out as Lizzie), and I have moments of being as sweet as Beth March, sometimes, and I used to climb trees just like Betsy Ray.

But that’s not me.

I’m Martha.

That’s the name I was given, a family name, the middle name of a treasured grandmother who was a political and religious leader in my hometown.

And it affiliates me with the woman — hear that! the woman!!! — who made the Christological confession in John’s gospel, the woman who said out loud who Jesus really was.

It affiliates me, too, with her bluntness and bossiness and short temper. (See Luke’s version.)

That’s okay.

Suppose God named me?

Maybe it wasn’t family heritage that mattered, really.

Maybe that’s the name I needed to be fierce and fabulous for Jesus.

Suppose God named you?

(It’s a bit of a walk around the block, but I did start somewhere in the neighborhood of Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16.)

Family History, Gaming, Rheumatoid Arthritis

A Perfect Analogy

In the midst of a shift of medications for RA, I have a side effect that I haven’t had since the summer of 2008, and last night I was telling my friend the Vicar of Hogsmeade that I remembered writing a blog post about it. The  analogy I used made her laugh right out loud, which was good medicine for me, and if you know her, you can surely hear it in your mind right now.

Then this morning, I got a new comment on that very old blog post, deeming it “a perfect analogy,” so I decided to reprint it here. It’s from a different time in the family history, of course, but it’s part of who I am.

So…from July 1, 2008, I give you “Scorching Ray.”

Today I took the third dose of methotrexate to treat my Rheumatoid Arthritis.
I guess there are a number of ways it’s dosed, but I’m taking one dose per week, 7 little salmon colored pills, all at once, with food. They’re little, and they’re easy enough to swallow, not like the big fish oil capsules and lysine tablets I’m taking, too.
They’re little, and they’re easy to swallow, and they represent hope, hope that I will feel better soon, that I will avoid deformities, that I will be “myself” again, at least approximately.
They also come with possible side effects: mouth sores (that’s what the Lysine helps prevent, for the most part so far I’ve just had prickling, except when I eat something spicy, which is easy enough to stop doing, so I have), thinning hair (not so far, and fortunately I have a lot of hair) and nausea.
Nausea is not my best event. I have a morbid fear of vomiting. So I wondered what would happen on the day after taking the medicine, which was predicted to be the worst day.
And I got an unpleasant feeling in my stomach, but it wasn’t the sort of queasy I expected. At dinner last night, our first meal with #1 Son since he returned from an out-of-town job, I tried to explain it.
I turned to that great source of metaphors, Dungeons and Dragons, casting my mind back to the day when I was Trillium Giantsbane, a 5th level Druid with a full complement of fascinating spells.
“I think it’s like Fireball,” I said, “sort of a feeling of hot metal in my stomach.”
“Fireball is more of a dispersal spell that affects a general area,” #1 Son said.
“Well, I don’t know what else to call it,” I said.
“It sounds more like Scorching Ray,” my son told me helpfully.
THAT’S IT!!!!!!!!
I guess the real question is, is there a Saving Throw against it?
And if so, can I make it?
I later learned there is no saving throw against Scorching Ray; you just have to hope your opponent will miss. So I wait, hoping I will get used to the dose of methotrexate again, and that one of these weeks, this side effect will miss. 
Family History

Telling Tales

At church we’re using Carol Howard Merritt’s book, Reframing Hope, for a Lenten study, and I’m loving the study guide she put together. It had us start with drawing a family history, which got some great and varied responses. I am decidedly non-artistic, so usually an assignment such as that one makes me nervous enough to want to leave the room, throw up or figure out how to replace it. But I’ve learned that at least giving it a try usually brings me to some new way of looking at things, even if the product doesn’t meet my ridiculously perfectionist standards for myself. (Not possible, which is silly, I admit.)

Bravely, I drew a stream emanating from two small stones, leading to a lake with an island in the middle, which then empties over a waterfall into a stream that includes tributaries leaving the main stream, and one that crosses it. The initial stream is the heritage of my birth parents. The lake portrays my life growing up, all centered on my father, the island in the middle. Then I went over the waterfall into adulthood, married, had children. I indicated each of the people with a different color in the stream. Eventually, the stream for my first husband veers off a bit, but still runs approximately parallel. After all, he is very much in our lives. Further on, a stream crosses ours (my second husband), and shortly after there are two little streams going off on their own, though they are closely parallel (my sons, who remain close and are living parallel creative lives). The crossing stream moves on in its own direction and ends, at least where we are concerned. The main stream continues on, in the colors representing my daughter and me, still broad, running to the edge of the page as do my sons’ streams and my first husband’s. It’s a story that hasn’t ended, with adventures to be discovered as we turn to another page.

I won’t tell other people’s stories, of course, but I will say I loved the different approaches people took and the thoughts elicited by the exercise.

From there we went on to talk about secrets and how we discover them in our families. Sometimes we deduce the truth, or discover it by accident. I thought my mother was born in 1927 (a year younger than her sister-in-law) until a relative of my dad’s sent us a family history with a family tree that included birth dates. Suddenly she was two years older!!! When I asked why she let me think she was younger, my mother told me she felt old to be my mother. By today’s standards, she wasn’t old at all, just 35 then they adopted me, but as someone who watched her friends having babies all through the 1950s, she felt like an older mom.

I had the strange experience of feeling both young with my first and way old with my second, and I’m now going to contradict my earlier assessment of my mom’s age by telling you I had the first at 24, almost 25, and the third at 34. But it just happened that #1 Son had a lot of friends who were the first children of Baby Boomers who waited until their 30s or even 40s to have a kid, and that LP has a lot of first child friends whose parents started earlier.

My parents were both pretty good about answering questions, if asked, but neither of them volunteered information. One of the ways I know a story about my family history is true is if my mother and my father told it the same way, independently. It’s important to understand, they were not prone to colluding with one another on the telling of stories. They didn’t talk about anything enough for that.

My mom did tell one story about life before children that I doubted. After driving my dad from Portsmouth, VA, to Charlottesville for a football game, then back to Norfolk, VA, for some big dance, she described herself as exhausted. They went to the home of friends to change into their fancy clothes. My mother’s friend, the mother of numerous young children, said, “Don’t worry, Virginia. Just take one of these! You’ll feel wonderful!” She then gave my mother uppers.

I took this one to my dad, giving as few details as possible. He gave a chagrined chuckle. “I had to peel your mother off the ceiling that night.”

Disaster Relief, Family History, Japan


Overnight there was an 8.9 earthquake in Japan, followed by devastating tsunamis.

LP has tears in her eyes about Japan. It’s such an odd thing, to have had a grandmother in love with Japan and now a daughter who is the same way. And as I think about it, how amazing was it that my grandmother, by the late 1950s, was loving Japan enough to go there, after her husband and son had been at war against Japan only 15 years earlier?

Uncomfortably, I know she went there thinking she was going to save the Japanese by making them Christian.

And maybe she did “make” a few Christians, but mostly she made friends, and they would be devoted to each other for the rest of her life. For my family, it meant many visitors from Japan, and three special young women who came to live with us, one after the other. I remember Hideko as gentle, kind, sweet. She taught me to play the piano. Takae was prettier, less approachable. Yoko was just fun. She was the youngest. She was more help around the house! It’s a class thing, my mother said. Upper class girls had a Jane Austen life; middle class girls had to learn to do actual useful things.

My heart is full of Hideko, the one who kept in touch with us over the years, and her husband and her daughters and her beautiful grandchildren. I’m thinking of Takae, and of Yoko, more ephemeral in our lives. I wonder if they are afraid, if they are safe, if they have the resources to protect themselves. They must all be in their 60s now, retirement age nearly, if they retire there when we do. Will Hideko’s husband–Nobuo, I finally thought of his name–be involved in recovery efforts via YMCA? Are they offering shelter to others?

They are on my mind this morning. I’m looking at horrifying pictures of the tsunami waves, fiery debris flowing across farmland like a scene out of SimCity, boats and cars being thrown around like Matchbox toys in a bathtub. 
8.9 would be the fifth most severe earthquake since they started keeping records in 1900. 

The first family quarrel I ever knew anything about was the one between my mother and everyone on her side of the family about whether my grandmother should make a final trip to Japan. I was about 18. Grandma G had the trip planned, and then she had a car accident, and her son, my Uncle Walter, put his foot down, saying there was no way she could go on that trip. He was worried she would have another small stroke, or even die, while she was in Japan.

It never occurred to me at the time that he might have his own reasons for hating Japan, for hating the place his mother loved. And I may be reading in something that was not there.

My mother wanted to let her mother go. She could travel through airports in a wheelchair. The host family had already built a ramp to make life easier for her (or did they do that after the accident? maybe). They were prepared to care for her.

With the cold-bloodedness of youth, I said, “What does it matter if she dies there? She’d be happy about it! It’s not like they can’t fly her body home.” And my mother apparently agreed. And maybe hearing my young ruthlessness helped her to stand up to her brother on her mother’s behalf. I don’t know.

It’s a scary world. Anything can happen. This morning, or rather tonight in Japan, people are trying to figure out where their loved ones are, feeling considerably more sentimental about the whereabouts of bodies than I did all those years ago. I’m a mom now myself, inclined to nervous insanity where my loved ones are concerned, but I hope I’ve raised children who would support me in pursuing my happiness even if I were so old it shouldn’t seem like it would matter anymore.

My grandmother was 80 when she made that final trip to Japan. Oh, and she lived to be 86, so it didn’t kill her. It was a happy, happy time for her. In pictures from the trip she looks positively gleeful at being back in the country and among the friends she came to adore. In the end, the friends in Japan saved her by giving a middle-aged widow renewed purpose and a sense of joy and connection that extended over oceans and years to a somewhat bossy elderly lady in a wheelchair who had to get back there one more time to feel complete.

I’ve never been there, but my heart is in Japan today.

All the Single Ladies, Family History

All the cheese in Wensleydale

Every Sunday night our public TV station shows “All Creatures Great and Small,” a show so deeply loved by my mother that it still makes me tear up to watch it almost eighteen years after her death. She watched the first run and then the reruns, faithfully. The first time I heard the theme music after she died, I sat down on my kitchen floor and wept.

Which is why I usually flip right past it. Sunday night is not a great night for a preacher to be wistful, when the work of the day is over and the darkness draws in and it’s hard to avoid reviewing the little things (or big) that didn’t go well in worship or after, and really the best solution is a tonic more along the lines of “Desperate Housewives.”

But tonight I saw their young faces, James’ and Tristan’s and Helen’s, and I wanted to hear their voices, and once they started talking to me, and I could see dogs wandering around on the set, I had to keep watching. It was the last episode of the original run of the show, first aired in 1980, and World War II had begun, and in between attempts to heal various ailments of dogs and a pony, Siegfried (not so young as the rest) and James are preparing to go off and join the military. The two of them reminisce, giving each other the credit for their successful practice together.

And James avers, “I wouldn’t have missed it for all the cheese in Wensleydale.”

And I think of the time that has passed, since the show was made, since my mother died. I think of how I didn’t know anything about Wensleydale then, and what I was like in college in 1980, and how little I knew about myself and how much I loved some boy I thought I would marry and how wrong I was about that, among other things. And I think of 1993, and what I expected from life and the people around me, and how wrong I was about those things, too.

And then I wonder what I will think when I look back on this time, wonder if I will feel sorry for this me, or give her credit for having handled things well or wonder what in the world she was thinking.

I wonder if I’ll feel like there was any forward motion.

All the cheese in Wensleydale…well, at least now I know what James meant, thanks to the Wallace and Gromit fans I’ve raised.

That’s some progress.