Reading Michelle Obama’s memoir

Since she became a public figure during the first presidential campaign of her husband, I have felt an affinity with Michelle Robinson Obama. While on the surface it would seem that an African-American woman from the South Side of Chicago couldn’t have much in common with a European-American from a tiny New England town, there are a number of similarities. We are close in age, having been born in the last few years of the Baby Boom. I have long felt that we youngest of the Boomers, who were young adults during the Reagan recession when unemployment was high and mortgage rates even higher, are fundamentally different from the elder members of our cohort. Michelle and I are both mothers of two daughters and women who have been blessed with a close and long relationship with our own mothers. We have close women friends and mentors. We are both community-minded, and also recognize the importance of educational opportunity for ourselves and others. We each have a long, loving, and intact marriage. And we are both women of our time, which means we have experienced sexism and the challenge of tending to both our private and public lives.

Becoming, Michelle Obama’s memoir published late last year, reinforces my sense of her on all these points. She writes honestly and beautifully; I was especially impressed with the way she wrote about her feelings about what was happening and not just the events themselves. She also frequently gives context of what happens either before or later with a particular place or event, such as the changes over time in her South Side neighborhood.

I particularly enjoyed reading about Michelle’s childhood, teen, and college years, as the stories from that time before she was a public figure were mostly new to me. I also appreciated knowing how she felt about many events and causes during the campaigns and her eight years in the White House, as well as her take on the current president.

What was most enlightening to me was hearing how being a black female impacted her life at every stage and added to the pressure to excel and to be an exemplary person at all times. As the first African-American first family, it seemed that every move the Obamas made was scrutinized. I admire that Michelle and her mom, who was also in residence at the White House, were able to protect First Daughters Malia and Sasha from most of the intrusiveness of the press corps so that they could grow up (mostly) out of the public eye.

Many people share my admiration for Michelle Obama and her accomplishments. Her book tour includes venues that seat thousands of people and her book has sold over three million copies, making it the bestseller of 2018.

She can definitely add best-selling author to her already impressive resume.

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saying good-bye to Pat

The Binghamton NY area lost one of its stars. Literally. Patricia Donohue, an actor and activist, who has a star on the Binghamton Walk of Fame, died in September. Pat had a long career on the stage, as a young woman with Tri-Cities Opera and then many decades as an actor in our local area and beyond.

The first time I saw Pat perform was as Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst, but I will remember her most fondly playing Jeannette Picard in Solo Flight, a one-woman play about the balloonist and wife/mother who was ordained an Episcopal priest before it was officially approved.

I knew Pat because we were both members of Sarah’s Circle, a small group of (mostly) women grounded in the Catholic faith tradition who supported women’s ordination and full participation in the life of the church. A number of members felt called to ordination themselves. We met for prayer, discussion, and mutual support but sometimes did public events, such as prayer services.

For the twentieth anniversary of the ordination of Jeannette Picard and the rest of the Philadelphia Eleven, Sarah’s Circle sponsored Pat performing Solo Flight in Columbus Circle in Syracuse, in front of the Catholic cathedral.  We were met by a raucous group of counter-protesters. Pat, the consummate professional, performed spectacularly, despite protesters marching within arm’s length, at times. Toward the end of the performance, we were finally able to get the police to clear the public area in the Circle for which we had a permit and the protesters did not. Instead, they shouted the Rosary from the Cathedral steps, which is a misuse of a lovely, contemplative prayer. It was a shame that they never bothered to listen to Pat recreating the remarkable life of Jeannette Picard.

Although I marveled at Pat’s abilities as an actor, it was her passion for people that shone most brightly. She was often seen, sporting one of her favorite hats and leopard print scarves, at rallies with Citizen Action for a variety of progressive causes, such as civil rights, access to affordable health care, and environmental protection. She performed with and wrote songs for the Citizen Action “Raging Grannies” – although she preferred the moniker “Swinging Seniors.” She also performed with the Mental Health Players, bringing attention and support to those with mental health issues.

She was always ready to share her time and support with others. Because both my daughters were interested in theater, Pat would attend their performances. She even let T borrow from her beloved hat collection for her role in Damn Yankees. Many of Pat’s hats were lost when the storage room of her senior apartment building flooded, but T was happy to see that the hats she had borrowed had survived and were part of a display at Pat’s memorial.

I was also touched that, draped over the end of Pat’s casket, were an Irish-themed quilt – Pat was proud of her Irish ancestry – and the stole she had worn when performing Solo Flight, which featured hot-air balloons, because Rev. Jeanette Picard had, in her younger years, been a stratospheric balloonist.

I’m sure that Pat would have approved of the memorial. The friends and family members who spoke all had wonderful stories to tell recalling her flair, passions, and wit. Our Sarah’s Circle friend Pat Raube sang a hymn that she had sung as a prelude to Pat’s performances of Solo Flight; I admit it was hard not to cry at that point. Another friend, Father Tim, was the presider for the service.

While we will all miss Pat, I am grateful that she was granted so many years among us and that she was active into all but her final days. We will each need to give a bit more of our energies to causes she cared about, although no one can truly replace her in our personal and community lives.

I’m sure her spirit will live on.

father, farmer, and builder

This week, my daughters and I sang in the choir for the funeral of our friend Nancy’s dad. Nancy is a long-time church musician and liturgist, so many current and former choir members and friends arrived to support her by participating in the liturgy. We had 43 singers and 3 instrumentalists. The music was a beautiful and meaningful part of our prayers for Joe and being surrounded by so many musician-friends helped Nancy to play the funeral mass.

I know from personal experience how difficult it is to play for a loved one’s funeral or memorial. Because you have to concentrate on doing your job musically, some of the mourning that one would typically do at a funeral is deferred. My hope is that the memory of the music we shared will be a comfort to Nancy when she reflects on the funeral in the coming days.

The reflections offered centered around Joe’s roles in the community as a father of five children, a farmer in his younger years, and then a long-time builder of homes in our area. Each of these roles has many scriptural and faith references which were woven throughout the liturgy.

It was my privilege to write the universal prayer for the funeral. I served on the liturgy committee with Nancy for many years in our former parish and learned so much from her; I was honored that she asked me to write the petitionary prayer that closes the liturgy of the word.

Nancy and I have been supporting each other through an extended period of multi-generational family caretaking. Strangely, some of our most stressful periods have coincided. Fifteen years ago, I was staying at the hospital with one of my daughters when Joe had a serious stroke following heart surgery. I missed Nancy’s mom’s funeral when my mom had a heart attack while my dad was in the hospital for surgery. Now, Joe’s final illness and death happened while my mom is in a hospice residence.

I am truly thankful for Nancy’s support, friendship, and gracious example. I pray for solace and peace for Nancy and her family. Rest in peace, Joe.

flowers from Joe's funeral luncheon
Joe’s favorite color was blue, so there were blue hydrangeas and white roses on the tables at the funeral luncheon.

 

 

The end of reunion and the “after-party”

On Sunday morning, I went to breakfast early and was able to say good-bye to some of my classmates who were heading out before the official end of reunion to beat the Sunday afternoon traffic. Everyone was very appreciative of the events and very happy to have had time together. It is amazing how easily we relate to one another, even if we only see each other in person every five years, or even if we had not known each other well during our student days.

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Helen Hills Hills Chapel Smith College Northampton MA

At nine o’clock, several dozen alumnae gathered at Helen Hills Hills chapel for a service of remembrance. I arrived early and had a few moments to talk to the college organist about changes over the years. His role and the life at chapel are very different than in my years at Smith. When I was a student, there were Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish chaplains and weekly services at chapel for each tradition, along with a network of faculty and community advisors for other traditions. There were three choirs who periodically provided choral music for services, plus a student led gospel choir which sang for some of the ecumenical Christian services and other student volunteers who most often led music at Catholic Mass. (As a Catholic and an organist, I played often at Mass over my four years at Smith, as well as serving for two years as accompanist for one of the choirs and playing almost every organ piece I learned as a prelude or postlude for the Protestant services.)

Now, there are no chaplains and no regularly scheduled religious services on campus. There are advisors available in different spiritual traditions. The chapel still has space for prayer and meditation, but the main body of the chapel is now a multi-use space for concerts, lectures, classes, and the occasional service, such as the one we were gathering for that morning. The chapel was built in the New England Congregational style, but the pews on the main floor have been removed and the floor was changed to wood. It is jarring to me to walk into chapel. I do understand the need to make the space more versatile, but I think it could have been done in a way that was more in keeping with the architecture had the floor been New England hardwood and the chairs less clunky and modern in design. Even more, I lament the loss of service and leadership opportunities in their faith traditions for current students on campus. It was powerful to have services that were planned and attended almost exclusively by women; this basis has been a rock on which I have relied often in the storms that have followed in subsequent decades.

Sorry. End of rant. Back to our service of remembrance…

The prelude and postlude were Bach and we sang three hymns drawn from various traditions and a fellow ’82er sang a solo. There were readings from the Bible, the Qur’an, and from Rumi. Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Matilda Rose Cantwell prepared and led the service very gently and thoughtfully. The most moving part of the service was when Rev. Cantwell invited alumnae to come forward and give a remembrance of someone close to them. People from many different reunion classes spoke about classmates, professors, and family members. Two of my classmates who were from Northampton spoke movingly about their parents’ relationship with the town and the College. My college roommate, who served as one of the deacons of the Ecumencial Christian Church, spoke about two of her fellow deacons who died, Beth, during our senior year, and Amy, who died just weeks before reunion.

After the service, we visited Beth’s memorial tree beside the chapel.

Then, we continued on to our final official reunion activity, Sunday brunch. Our table did express our disappointment that our favorite sour cream coffee cake was not on the buffet.

We went back to our rooms to pack up and make sure that our headquarters was squared away before we left.

Several of us decided to stay in Northampton another night in order to process and decompress, particularly to support our two housemates who had chaired the reunion for our class. We decided to visit the Art Museum, which had a special exhibit on the villas of Oplontis near Pompeii. We then dispersed for hotel check-in and reconvened at Fitzwilly’s in downtown Northampton for dinner, joined by a housemate from the class of ’81 who lives locally. We then went back to one of the hotel rooms and proceeded to talk and talk and talk, with quite a bit of laughter mixed in!

We spent Monday morning doing what we needed to do, in my case, catching up on a bit of shopping, including buying some Massachusetts maple syrup to bring home for us and for Nana and Paco. We met for a final lunch together at Paul and Elizabeth’s, a restaurant at Thorne’s Market that was new when we were students. More eating, talking, and laughing and then a round of good-byes.

Before I left Northampton, I had one more visit to make. Another business that opened in Northampton when we were students is Steve Herrell’s Ice Cream. I always visit when I am in town. They have redecorated since my last visit, giving more area for seating. I splurged and ordered a sampler so I could have four flavors: black raspberry, malted vanilla, peppermint, and apple cider. Yum! I was happy to have the company of my in-town friend. We lingered for a long while, catching up on our lives and marveling at how Smith friends, even when they don’t see each other often, can immediately re-connect on a deep level.

Eventually, though, I had to head for home, although I could not help but feel that reunions are too short and too far apart.

 

 

One-Liner Wednesday: family and country

After watching President Obama’s farewell address last night, I want to thank him, Michelle, Malia, Sasha, and Grandma Robinson for their example of familial love and service to the country and wish them all well in their post-White House years.
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This (somewhat sappy) One-Liner Jot is part of Linda’s One-Liner Wednesdays and Just Jot It January. Double dip! Join us for one or both of these series. Find out how here:  https://lindaghill.com/2017/01/11/one-liner-wednesday-jusjojan-1117-prompt-shovel-buddy/

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Haiti project

In these divisive days around the US elections, I have been clinging to any positive news of people reaching out and offering love, hope, and acceptance. I want to share this story from this past Sunday at my church.

There is a parishioner who co-teaches a service learning course at the local community college. Part of this course is a service trip to Haiti, to a village in the northern section of the island. The church has raised funds and donated materials for the projects on a regular basis over the last several years, so she gives us periodic updates.

The group went to Haiti in October. Because of flooding and hurricane Matthew, the village had endured damage to many of the mudbrick and straw buildings, but other repairs had already been made. The water system that protects the people from water-borne diseases was back in service. The two-classroom school that was part of the earlier iterations of the project had re-opened. Two more classrooms will be added soon. They and the adjoining church, which also serves as a community gathering place, are powered by solar panels and there is enough energy storage to allow the children to do homework at the school after dark, using LED lights. Computers that were donated are part of the school curriculum. There is also a newly-opened sewing school with donated machines that is helping local people learn a useful trade.

Last year, land was cleared for a community garden which grows food for the schoolchildren’s lunch. They had been growing staples like corn and beans which can be dried for later use, as there is no refrigeration available. The community had decided to grow rice as well, which wound up being a fortuitous decision; when the floods came, the rice crop continued to grow nicely and they just had their first rice harvest, with many bags of rice in storage for future school lunches.

The school lunch program is especially important as many of the children will eat their only meal of the day at school.

School costs the equivalent of $25 a year, but that sum is too much for some of the families, so there is a new scholarship fund in place to help more children attend school. There is also a plan to add a kitchen with solar ovens to the school, so that the cooks who make the school lunch can also bake breads and pies for sale to benefit the lunch program.

The people in the village are filled with hope, as they work steadily toward making their lives safer and more comfortable with the help of their friends and partners from our area.

We all need hope. We all need to reach out to each other, to help each other, to recognize that every person has inherent dignity.

Thank you to the villagers in Haiti for reminding me of the power of hope.

 

final gathering

Yesterday, we reached another milestone in our process of saying good-bye to Grandma, gathering together with extended family for a graveside committal service back in Grandma’s hometown in Massachusetts, where her ashes would be laid to rest beside Grandpa’s in a plot that had been a wedding gift to them in 1953.

Grandma had been a member of the First Congregational Church since she was a girl and had retained her membership from afar over the last 6+ years she lived in a senior community near us. She had not wanted to have a wake and funeral, preferring instead the simplicity of a graveside service of her cremains. This gave us the ability to set a date well in advance, allowing travel plans to be made for the more far-flung relatives, including a cousin from Washington State.

This also afforded the opportunity to gather all four grandchildren, working around college and graduate school commencements. It was especially important to arrange flights for our elder daughter E and her spouse L, who were able to stop on the East Coast while flying home to Honolulu from visiting L’s family in London. It also gave E the opportunity to introduce L to our Massachusetts/Vermont extended family and B and I to show him where we had grown up, met in high school, and fallen in love.

As the family member with the most liturgical planning experience, I took on the duties of making arrangements for the service and for getting the information out to the relatives. We were blessed to have Rev. Carolyn of First Congregational preside for the service. Though she had never met Grandma, having come to pastor the church after Grandma had already moved out near us, she thoughtfully wove together some favorite Scripture passages, including psalm 121 and 1Corinthians 13, with references to Grandma’s life as a mother and grandmother, aunt, cousin, teacher, friend, and community member.

To close the service, I had asked our daughters E and T and son-in-law L to sing the traditional round, “Dona Nobis Pacem”(grant us peace). E and L have degrees in music and T is a long-time choral singer, including collegiate level. Everyone so appreciated the lovely sound of their voices, singing Grandma off to rest. I had forgotten that their relatives had not heard E and T sing since Grandpa’s memorial service almost eleven years ago; they were struck by how beautifully our family trio sings.

We were also blessed with a gloriously sunny, warm-but-not-hot morning for the service. Given the time of year and outdoor location, we had decided to forgo men in suitcoats and women in dark dresses for more spring-time clothes. I’m sure Grandma would have appreciated the floral prints and lace-accented tops we wore, which complemented the multicolor carnations we had ordered from her favorite florist shop.

After the service, we gathered for lunch at a favorite local restaurant. We had reserved a private room and had three tables of six, which made conversation easy. Although the reason we were together was sad, we appreciated the opportunity to catch up with family that we had not seen often in recent years. I was especially grateful for our daughters to spend time with their first cousins; given that their geographic distribution is about to be New York, West Virginia, Arizona, and Hawai’i ,they may not see each other together for years.

I’m sure Grandma would have been pleased and proud to see them all sitting together, chatting about their now-adult lives, even though she would still think of them as the children they once were.

Rest in peace, Grandma.