Thursday, June 25, 2009

Ice Cream

Here’s another story about my New Mexico friend, Louis Rice.

As a young man – a very young man, maybe 16 or 17 years old – Lou worked in a place that made ice cream. His job was to take big sheets of vanilla ice cream and cut it into squares for ice cream sandwiches.

It was a tiring, repetitive task. The day wore on. His right hand ached from all that slicing and slicing. So he started cutting the ice cream with his left hand.

His boss came by and said, “I see that you are ambidextrous.”

“No,” said Lou. “I’m Catholic.”

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Italians in Albuquerque

This is an ethnic story. I was prompted to write this when an Italian-American friend forwarded an e.mail with “42 things in the life of an Italian child.”

Before talking about the Italians, I will tell you about my Anglo-Mexican friend, Louis Rice, whom I knew in multi-ethnic Albuquerque. Lou’s father was an Anglo from Arkansas who worked for the Santa Fe Railroad. His mother was a Mexican; he told me she came to New Mexico with Pancho Villa. His parents met when his mother was working as a Harvey Girl in Los Lunas, New Mexico.

Lou was born in 1919. He was baptized in old San Felipe de Neri Church on the plaza in Albuquerque, one of the oldest churches in the U.S. On his baptismal certificate his name is “Luis.”

His parents divorced, and his mother worked as a waitress to support her two boys. She rented a small house near where the Federal Court House now stands. As a child Lou and his brother played with Lawrence and George Domenici, who lived in a big house across the street. Lou was occasionally invited to share supper with this large Italian-American family. He was surprised to see even the smallest child drinking wine, although the ratio of wine-to-water was adjusted according to age, the father drinking straight red wine, the baby mostly water.

Italians dominated Albuquerque business, owning shops, the bank, and radio station. The Domenicis were in the wholesale grocery business. New Mexico’s Senator Domenici is a cousin of the boys Lou knew.

(Later I met a woman who married a Domenici and went to Italy with her mother-in-law. She said everyone she met in Lucca, Italy, had the same last names as people she knew in Albuquerque.)

The Rice and Domenici boys remained friends as they grew up and went off to World War II. Lou came home a lieutenant. No longer the poor little Mexican boy from across the street, in his freshly pressed uniform with bars on the shoulder, he dated George and Lawrence’s sister, Theresa, who had grown up to be a beauty.

One night he and Theresa planned to go to the movies. He went to the big house to pick her up, but her father asked him to come into his library before they went out. Solemnly Mr. Domenici closed the library’s double oak doors. He turned and said, “Lou, we like you a lot. You are a fine young man, but in our family we only marry Italians.”

That was the end of the romance.

Sixth years later Lou was invited to a party to celebrate George’s 80th birthday. A big crowd gathered at George’s house. I sat with the men on the patio when Lou asked George, “Is Theresa here today?”

“Yes, she’s in the kitchen with the other women.”

“I’ll go see,” I said. (Maybe I belonged inside anyway, but the only person I knew there was Lou.) I took a woman aside and asked, “Which one is Theresa?” She pointed a gray-haired woman out to me. I went outside and told Lou, “She’s the one in a white blouse with little flowers on it.”

Lou stood on the patio looking through the sliding glass doors into the kitchen. A look of puzzlement came over his face. He came back to me and said, “She’s changed. I wouldn’t have known her.”

After 60 years, she changed. He was surprised.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day

I am late in posting this. Father’s Day is almost over. I must have a compulsive disorder. As readers of this blog know, I feel compelled to comment on everything that happens.

My father died twenty years ago at age 85. He was 31 when I was born; in those days that was considered old to become a parents for the first time. I always knew he loved me, but as a child I felt he was remote. Now I think he was unsure in his role as parent.

My parents were both quiet, unassertive people. They never voiced any disagreement with each other. I never heard either of them raise their voices.

They never argued with anyone. My mother said, “It is not polite to argue.” I think they were repressed. For whatever reason, both were afraid to express their feelings or their rights.

Daddy was not a success in business. To supplement his meager salary at the bank, he worked extra jobs at night. He always came home for supper, then went out again to balance the books and prepare monthly profit statements for a used car lot, a wholesale florist, and other small businesses. We children did not see much of him.

Twice, when I was a teenager, Daddy came to my aid. I was 14 when, at supper one night I begged to be able to wear lipstick. “All the other girls do.” The next night Daddy brought home a tube of lipstick and handed it to me. I burst into tears. I had lipstick, but I had not been permitted to select the color. Now I realize how brave he was. He never contradicted my mother in any way, but that time he did something my mother never would have thought of doing: buy something especially for me.

My clothes were dreadful. My cousins, who were 7, 9, and 11 years older than me, gave me their hand-me-downs. They were good clothes, good quality and expensive when they were new. My mother did not see any need to buy me anything else, even though all the skirts and blouses I wore to school were out of style by the time I inherited them. I never had a twin sweater set like “all the other girls” were wearing.

I was to introduce the speaker at a program before the entire student body of Paschal High School. Again, at supper, I burst into tears and begged for a suit to wear at this public event. The following Saturday my father took me to Robert Hall and let me select a blue wool suit to wear as I stood proudly on the stage before all those critical classmates.

That all happened more than 65 years ago. I still remember, and I am grateful.

To any fathers who read this: What will your children remember?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Traveling in Russia

For twenty years, I traveled, as the cliche goes, “extensively.” At least one big trip a year, often to Europe and once each to China and Thailand. Now I wonder what all those journeys meant.

Traveling with a group has advantages: I don’t have to cope with luggage (a big deal!), and I get to see interesting places. Looking at a photograph of a church is not the same as stepping onto the cold stone floor of a cathedral and looking up at light streaming through 12th Century stained glass. But on organized tours with other Americans I was insulated from ordinary people.

It takes effort to “get the feel” of a place. People told me how beautiful St. Petersburg is. Didn’t they see all those gray apartment buildings with broken windows and crumbling balconies? Surely I learned more than the woman who went into East Berlin and thought she had been to Russia.

I’ve been to Russia twice. On the first trip, on a bus, I bumped over pot holes on a two-lane “highway” between Moscow and St. Petersburg. At the only “rest stop,” our guide said, “The last time I was here a woman went into the privy, and the floor boards collapsed under her. I suggest that you ladies follow me into the woods this way, and the gentlemen follow our driver into the woods the other way.”

That was seeing Russia from the ground up. We passed dismal villages with log houses and no shops, not even one gas station on the entire trip. In Moscow subway stations I saw statues and murals. I also saw a line of women trying to sell their clothes for money to buy food. Russia has a long way to go to give her people a lifestyle comparable to ours in the U.S.

That trip left me wanting to see more of one thing: the paintings in the Hermitage. To avoid the miserable hotels I took a river cruise from St. Petersburg to Moscow. My cabin mate was a sweet lady from Albuquerque. Before the trip the tour director told me, “You’ll love her.” Each time our ship docked, she got off and bought postcards. She did not like the Hermitage. She said, “I don’t like looking at pictures.”

Why do people travel? Some Americans I met on my trips seemed to travel only for opportunities to shop. Or maybe they just want to “Get away from it all.” The prizes on Wheel of Fortune are often to resorts in Mexico, the Caribbean, or even more distant places. All those resorts look alike. I stayed at such a place in Thailand and enjoyed my luxurious room with balcony overlooking an enormous swimming pool and tropical gardens.

That trip was an Elderhostel. While staying at that resort, my fellow Americans and I were taken to a mountain village where I met a family who lived in a hut with a dirt floor, a few wooden benches, and a “kitchen” which consisted of a small fire surrounded by stones to support an iron pot.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

My Nurse Went to Russia

A new nurse came to take my temperature and to listen to my heart. She was a chatty woman with long, stringy blond hair, carelessly tied back. We sat facing each other at my dining table, with my leg propped up on her thigh so that she could take my blood pressure on my leg. (It has to be done that way, since I have two bad arms, the right swollen due to breast cancer and the left full of tubes for dialysis.)

Cheerfully she told me about her children, a 16-year-old daughter and a 21-year-old son, who loves to play with their two dogs, one a “friendly” pit bull and the other – I don’t remember. She is more of a talker than I am. Somehow travel was mentioned, and she said, “I lived in Berlin for three years. My husband was in the service. We lived near the Wall.”

She said, “It is so beautiful there.” (My brother Don will vouch for that.) “So clean, no trash on the street like you see here.”

“Did you get to travel to other places in Europe?”

“I went to Russia.”

“How did you get to Russia?”

“On a bus.”

“On a bus? How long did it take you?”

“We had to get up at six in the morning and didn’t get home until after dark.”

“I went from Moscow to Berlin on a bus tour. It took three days. Are you sure you went to Russia?”

“Yes, we went to the other side of the Wall. We had to show our passports, and they lifted this big gate for the bus to drive through. I went to Russia.”

It was obvious: Her husband was stationed in Berlin during the Cold War, when the Berlin Wall stood between the East and West zones of Berlin. She had been into the Russian Occupied Zone. When I tried to explain this to her, she did not listen. She said, “I was so lucky to get to go to Russia.”

So what? Many Americans travel all over the World and never leave home. This is a cheerful, gregarious woman. If she somehow was transported to Paris, I am sure she would have a wonderful time, and it would not matter if the French thought she was uncouth.

She does no harm. On the other hand, I am not sure I want medical advice from someone who thinks Russia is adjacent to Berlin. Where does she think Poland is?

Also, I am glad we don’t have a vice-president who thinks Africa is a country. Such a person would not be as harmless as the little nurse whose job is limited to taking temperature and blood pressure.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Bloody Business

Back in February my primary doctor asked the dialysis center to draw a couple of extra tubes of my blood for some additional tests she wanted done. “We could do it in my office,” the doctor said, “But if it is done at the dialysis center, you won’t have another needle stuck in your arm.”

After hooking me up for dialysis each week, the attendant draws blood out of the tube attached to my arm before starting the machine. It is a routine thing to check on how efficiently the treatments are cleaning the junk in my blood not removed by my damaged kidneys.

So the blood was drawn. I was told that the tests would be done at Baylor Hospital, about 200 feet across the street from the dialysis center. (My house is in a quiet neighborhood less than half a mile from a big medical center. It takes me five minutes to drive from my house to all my doctor appointments – a big advantage for an old lady.)

In today’s mail I found a “Medicare Summary Notice” for those blood tests. I was surprised to read that the bill came from Spectra East, Inc., Boston MA. This is the kind of inefficiency in our medical system President Obama talks about. Why should tests done in Texas be billed in Massachusetts?

Even more shocking was the bill. Spectra sent in a claim for $1,528.52. That’s what it says clearly: $1,528.52.

I was relieved to see that Medicare only paid $158.09. To me that seems reasonable. Remember this when medical professionals complain that Medicare is cutting their payments.

Thanks to John, I have excellent health insurance. I never pay a doctor or hospital bill, and my prescriptions cost only $4 for a three-month supply. Even if it does not affect me personally, I am outraged at the amount charged for medical services. That includes doctors. We depend on them to keep us healthy. But how much is just compensation for a 5-minute office visit? Surely $350 is about ten times too much.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Supreme Memory

Memory is a curious thing. I saw a small item in the Dallas Morning News: “Today in History”:

“1967: President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated Solicitor-General Thurgood Marshall to become the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.”

At that time my family was living in Irving, Texas. I cleaned house and prepared gourmet meals for my demanding husband. My son Karl was slouching through junior high, making barely passing grades, while daughter Martha worked hard for her A’s in fourth grade and practiced piano without a reminder from Mommy. My little one, David, was only two.

I was involved in Girl Scouts, church activities, and the League of Women Voters. I was a busy woman. But you would think I would be aware – and remember – the public reaction to the historical nomination of a black man to the Supreme Court. I don’t.

I follow Supreme Court decisions, as they affect us in our lives daily. I have a good memory, most of the time. Why can’t I remember if there was opposition when Thurgood Marshall was nominated? He served with distinction.

Now there is all this hubbub over the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor. I am outraged at the opposition by right-wing Republicans over this highly qualified nominee, especially since the current black man on the Court is Clarence Thomas, whose qualifications were minimal.

Sotomayor’s nomination will be confirmed. The Court and the U.S. will survive. And this old lady will die and be forgotten. But, as long as I am still alive, I will examine my memories carefully. What important things have I forgotten?

On the other hand, maybe I would be happier if some memories slipped entirely away.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Summer Storm

Texas always has storms in summer. This one was so bad it was reported on CNN. Wind blew down trees. Over eight inches of rain pounded down in twelve hours, flooding streets and drowning cars. I stayed home and let it roar.

This morning, sitting in my recliner, I watched my plasma tv as the storm spread across the map of the Metroplex and saw video of two little girls pulled out of a flooding creek in Garland. Outside I heard, like one of those modern symphonies, rain beating the ground and lashing against my windows, while lightning crackled and thunder boomed. Charlie, my cat, curled up in his favorite chair and slept all day, as usual.

The Dallas Fire-Rescue department announced, “Normal chaos.”

I laughed out loud. Charlie did not even flick his ears.

Remember SNAFU? That came out of World War II. Don’t think it ever made the dictionary. “Situation Normal All Fouled Up.”

Now Dallas has “normal chaos.” That phrase describes the World perfectly. Things that we can not control are always happening. Chaos is normal.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Anne Frank and Me

This week is Anne Frank’s birthday.

As I stepped off the streetcar in Amsterdam, I faced a statue of a young girl. Less than life-sized, and looking more like a Degas ballerina than the photos I had seen, it was a memorial to Anne Frank. I remember my shock as I looked at the dates inscribed below: 1929-1945. I, also, was born in 1929.

I walked around the corner and along the canal to the building where Anne and her family hid from the Nazis during World War II. Is there any one who reads this who has not also read her diary? Or seen the play or movie? While Anne was writing her diary, I sat in my great-grandmother’s rocking chair in an upstairs bedroom in Fort Worth, Texas, pouring over old issues of the National Geographic and wondering if anything would be left of Europe after World War II. How I longed to see those palaces and cathedrals!

I climbed the steep stairs. Amsterdam staircases are the steepest and narrowest of any in the world; I climbed one just like it to my hotel room. At the end of the hallway was the bookcase, set ajar to permit passage into the secret passage which led to a separate building, behind the first, where two Jewish families lived in secret, until betrayed and carried off to German concentration camps, where all but Anne’s father died.

I entered the Franks’ hideout and walked the rough boards of those bleak, empty rooms, where the pictures Anne cut from newspapers were still pasted on the walls. Anne was only 15 when she died, along with her sister, of starvation and typhoid, in a Nazi concentration camp, just two months before the war ended. All I could think was, “She was so young. She had no opportunity to have all the things that I have had: a husband, a family, a home.”

That was in 1983. I had come to Europe to see the places I dreamed about and also to escape. I was at a low point in my own life. I was 54 years old and a failure. The man, to whom I devoted my entire adult life, had married someone else and abandoned me. During my 27-year marriage, at times bad and other times good, I realized that, all in all, those were mostly happy years, especially when my children were young. And I had children, which Anne was denied.

I left the Anne Frank house in tears. I also left with a renewed feeling of gratitude for all the good things that happened to me. In 1983 I had no premonition of the life I would experience in the next 26 years: great years of living in New Mexico and a brief but supremely happy second marriage to my Polish prince. Well, he always said his ancestors were slaves of the baron in Poland, but to me he will always be royalty.

Now I am 80 years old. For me life is good. But I do not forget: Life is not so good for some 15-year-old children In Darfur and Iraq. Also in Garland, Texas, where there is poverty. Still, the U.S. is a great nation, where even the poor have television sets. Sirens in the night mean an ambulance is carrying someone to Baylor Hospital, not the police carrying off children to die in concentration camps.