Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sunday Morning

Sunday is the one day in the week when I do not go down to the dining room for breakfast. Instead, still in my nightgown and bathrobe, I make myself a cup of tea and sit on the couch watching television. I’ve done that ever since CBS started the “Sunday Morning” program more than 20 years ago.

In the beginning I cut off the program before its end to rush to 9:30 church at
St. Andrew’s Episcopal in Downers Grove, Illinois. After I moved to Albuquerque, I had time to get dressed and make the 11:00 a.m. service at St. John’s Cathedral. Now, in Garland, Texas, I don’t try to go to church any more. I call myself a sinner and relax on Sunday mornings.

Today’s program ended with ducks swimming in a pond at the Bosque del Apache Nature Preserve in New Mexico. I’ve been there many times, not to see ducks but sand hill cranes. These great (over three-feet high) birds spend each winter there. I watched at dusk when hundreds of cranes flew back to their nesting sites from feeding grounds, swooping down, wings spread wide, reminding me of World War II photos of fleets of bombers returning to base at England after raids on Germany.

Once, on a warm day in early spring, I was in a car driving the sandy road around the three-mile loop which circles the preserve. Sam said, “Is that snow over there?”

In the distance an open field was covered in white stuff. As the car passed closer, the “snow” became Canada geese, hundreds of them, packed closely together.

Not the first time I’ve seen something from a distance that proved entirely different up close. I’ve visited a lot of foreign countries. Never did I see a place that was exactly as I expected.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Eighty One-der-ful

It happens every year. Everyone celebrates my birthday with parties and parades. Every place I’ve lived the entire city celebrated: in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Dallas. I’m not Irish, but I had a bit of Irish luck, being born on St. Patrick’s Day.

I remember many birthdays. Many celebrations. Once I was on a tour to Turkey with my friend Nancy. The Turks do not celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. A knock on the door of our hotel room, and a young woman came in carrying a cake. The last person from whom I expected to receive a birthday gift was Conrad Hilton! Not a St. Patrick’s Day celebration but a birthday cake, especially for me, in Ishmir, Turkey.

Today I am 81. People say I don’t look a day over 65. My emotional response to this event is surprise. How can I be alive and enjoying every day at this age?

When I was a little girl and we visited my father’s parents, my grandmother was a little old lady, thin gray hair pulled back in a bun at the back of her neck, wearing a long black dress and little black patent-leather shoes. I was still a small child when she died before her 76th birthday. I could not imagine being that old. I was sure I would be dead before the year 2000.

Last week I rushed to a doctor’s appointment, driving on Dallas’s 635 expressway, at various times a raceway or, with frequent accidents, a long parking lot. That afternoon I concentrated on following the car ahead while looking up at the mirror where a big truck closed in behind. A quick glance down at the speedometer showed my speed approaching 80 mph.

The proper name of the 635 is the “L.B.J. freeway.” Another expressway, parallel about a mile north, is the “President George Bush” toll road. I’m grateful to keep up with cars and trucks speeding like stampeding cattle without having to pay. The rich buy “toll tags” to enjoy the less-crowded Bush highway. Are they all Republicans?

Today I am grateful to still be alive, to still be interested in Democrats and Republicans, and to still be driving at 75 mph when the legal speed is 60. Hay! I’m just keeping up with traffic.

Pretty good for 81. Eighty Wonderful.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Omaha Beach

Except for Tom Hanks’s movie, “Saving Private Ryan”, few Americans remember the invasion of France during World War II. But for those of us who were alive in June 1944, the Normandy landings are fixed in our memories as one of the most important events in the 20th Century. Our troops were carried across the English channel by the over 1,000 ships, the greatest armada ever assembled.

I was 15 years old. I woke up that morning hearing the news on the radio in my parents’ bedroom. I remember almost trembling with excitement as I ran downstairs to listen to further news on the kitchen radio as our family ate breakfast. I could not imagine that 43 years later I would marry a man who was on one of those ships, waiting to wade ashore, carrying his gun over his head, four days later.

John said it was an amazing sight, looking out from the deck of his troop carrier on the sea surrounded by big gray ships – troop carriers, cargo ships, destroyers, cruisers – an ocean filled with ships as far as he could see in all directions.

Landings took place on five beaches. The most famous, and the bloodiest, was Omaha. The first day, June 6, many men died under German machine guns as they fought their way to the top of the cliffs behind the beach. John came ashore on Omaha beach on the fourth day, after the fighting had moved inland.

Today, on the bluff above the beach, is the American cemetery. No one can stand there without tears, looking at the neatly trimmed green grass and over 3,000 white marble crosses. John was with me – or, more correctly, I was with John – at the cemetery in 1988.

This was the first time John had been to Normandy since 1944. We climbed over the low wall with a sign warning against wild boars. (Are there really ferocious beasts ready to attack, or did the authorities simply want to discourage hordes of tourists from disturbing the sandy cliffs?) We scrambled down the cliff side, now covered with low, thorny shrubs. It is quite steep. I could not imagine how any of our young men managed to climb to the top with Germans killing their buddies all around them.

John walked along the beach, where the waves lapped quietly against the sands. I took his picture. He said it looked exactly as it did 44 years before.

John was a young 2nd lieutenant in a supply company. A few days after he landed, a ship dumped supplies on the beach in mountain-high heaps. The major in charge gave John the job of getting all this stuff organized. To help him, he was assigned a group of captured German soldiers. Most of them were Poles, who had been given a choice of Hitler’s army or concentration camp. They eagerly surrendered to the Americans. John’s parents were from Poland; he spoke fluent Polish.

John put the prisoners to work sorting out the various cartons: boxes of beans, canned peaches, corned beef hash, etc. They took heavy cartons off the piles and set them up in orderly groups, ten boxes wide, five boxes high, and a football field in length. As one of the prisoners lifted another carton onto the top, he said to John, “Why did the Germans think they could win this war? They never could have won. You Americans have too much stuff!”

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Looking at Russia

Some travelers keep tally of trips they made. A woman in Albuquerque will tell you proudly that she has been on 52 tours with Sun Travel. Unfortunately she was my cabin mate on the river cruise in Russia.

In St. Petersburg our group saw palaces, tall columns and facades like Wedgewood with white wreaths and festoons against backgrounds of gold or blue or green. We walked up marble staircases into rooms decorated with gold leaf on the walls and paintings of gods on ceilings. Everyone exclaimed, “How magnificent! St. Petersburg is the most beautiful city in the World!” I looked out the window of the bus and saw endless miles of dreary gray apartment buildings, door frames crumbling, iron railings falling off balconies, broken windows patched with cardboard or plastic.

On the ship chugging softly as we floated down the Volga, I spent hours looking out our cabin window. My companion lay in bed, her back to the big window, reading romance novels.

For four days I saw nothing but trees, endless miles of tall pines, dark green against the cloudless blue sky. Surely, I thought, Russia’s principal export must be timber. I climbed four flights of steep iron stairs to hear a young man lecture in barely accented English on current history and economics. He told me that Russia’s leading export is not lumber, but oil. They sell their oil to India.

My companion only left her bunk to go to the dining room to join her friends from Albuquerque for our gourmet lunches and dinners. She came home with a stack of postcards to show where she had been.

Every place I’ve gone – to Russia and China or to the arts center in Mesquite, Texas, – I looked and listened. Each time I learned something to help me better understand this marvelous and complicated World we live in.

Other people travel all over the World and never leave home.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Destruction in Normandy

By e.mail a friend sent me a series of photos of Normandy, France. Each frame showed a pair of pictures: on the left a black and white made during World War II, on the right colored photos made recently with the camera in exactly the same spot.

I surmise – that is, guess – that the black and whites were made by a U.S. Army photographer to record our troops as they entered villages in Normandy following the landings on the beaches in June, 1944. Every photo shows American soldiers, armed with guns and marching in double files or riding in jeeps through shattered towns. These were the men who fought the Germans across Normandy in the summer and fall of 1944. In the background are buildings showing damage from bombs and shells during the fierce battles of that bloody campaign.

In a few of the 1944 photos houses and shops show very little damage. In the color photos American soldiers walking two by two with their packs and guns are replaced by shiny new cars.

However, in most of the old pictures the buildings have windows without glass and roofs blown off. Many look like empty shells. What surprised me in the companion color photos was that there is no new construction. The buildings are the same, completely restored. Broken windows are repaired with all new glass. New roofs are in traditional tiles.

In the wartime photo a church lost its roof and a large portion of the high brick gable of its facade. The new photo shows the front of the church restored with brickwork exactly matching the original. These Normandy villages look just as they must have looked in 1939, as if there never was that devastating war.

Recently here in Dallas a church was damaged by a tornado. Will it be repaired? No, it will be torn down. The church is asking for donations to build a big, new church.

When my family lived in Irving in the 1960's, the Dallas Cowboys built a new stadium which was proclaimed as the most modern football facility ever built. This year the Cowboys moved to an even bigger and grander stadium in Arlington. Ticket prices are astronomical; parking near the stadium costs $50 for each game. Experts are installing dynamite in the 1960's stadium. The television sports reporter says it will take only one big blast to destroy it completely. Spectators are invited to come watch.

Unlike the French, Americans want everything new and up-to-date. This demonstrates American enterprise, not treasuring the past but tearing things down to make way for the future. That’s the right way to do things, even if we go into debt to do it. Aren’t we the smart ones?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Don't Call Me Madame

As I hoisted myself up into the maroon van, I overheard my driver talking on her cell phone. “I’m picking up Mrs. Durkalski,” she said. “We are coming right back.”

I sighed with gratitude. It is always good to be going home, even when “home” is an apartment in an old folks home, euphoniously called a “retirement community”. I anticipated an evening of curling up in my recliner, watching television with Charlie on my lap.

My driver, Jackie, is an overweight black woman who for the past five years has taken old people to doctors’ appointments and Wal-Mart, or anywhere else they need to go. She astonishes me by wearing nothing heavier than a white tee-shirt, even when getting out of the van in freezing drizzle to help old folks into our van.

On Thursdays she takes three old ladies to the beauty shop. I wait for her to pick them up before she comes to get me. After dialysis I am wiped out. I am grateful when she comes to get me, as I am so tired I could not hold the steering wheel.

I buckled my seat belt, and she took off, expertly maneuvering into the left lane. She braked to a stop behind a line of cars waiting to turn onto the freeway.

“Jackie,” I said, “You called me ‘Mrs. Durkalski.’ My name is Ilene.”

“If my Mama heard me call you that,” Jackie said, “she would have hit me up the side of my head.”

Yes, I also remember when black people were called by the “N” word, and a little girl was “Miss Ilene” while the old black woman who ironed my dresses was simply “Stella.”

The car sped up the ramp. Jackie concentrated, looking for a break between the speeding cars in the next lane.

I waited until our van was moving smoothly behind a black sedan going 65 mph. Then I said, “Jackie, times have changed.”

From now on she is calling me Ilene.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Independent Texas

Texas Republicans voted to nominate Ric Perry for his third term as governor. He wants Texas to secede from the U.S. and become an independent nation again. I thought that idea was settled by the Civil War, but Texans are not known for being reasonable. They will probably elect this nut again.

At dialysis yesterday the technician who stuck needles in my arm is from Ethiopia. She did not know that Texas was once an independent nation. On March 2, 1836, a group of men, all formerly from the United States, met at Washington-on-the-Brazos and declared Texas independent from Mexico. Nine years later Texas became the only state to join the United States by treaty.

(That lead to the Mexican War and other historical events. I’ll skip all that.}

At the retirement home where I live we celebrated Texas Independence Day with our dining room converted into a Western town, a “chuck wagon” barbecue, and cowboy hats, bandanas, and Texas flags on every table.

Of course, flags. When my grandsons came to visit from Chicago, they were surprised to see the Lone Star Flag of Texas all over town. Big buildings have two flagpoles with U.S. and Texas flags equally big and proudly flying side by side. Grandson Richard said, “I don’t even know what the Illinois flag looks like.”

Texans are different. I read in a recent magazine (Time or Newsweek, I can’t remember which) that environment can shape the way our brains function. That is definitely true of Texans. They don’t think like other people. They are absolutely convinced that Texas is the best place to live in the entire world, that Texas is the most beautiful state in the Union, and that Texas has the biggest and best of everything.

On a river cruise in Europe I had dinner one night with a couple from the Dallas area. From the choice of entrees, they selected cat fish. The waitress placed before them beautiful fillets with an exquisite sauce. The Texans were outraged. Cat fish was supposed to be fried!

In this Texas retirement home I pick up the menu and read, “Today’s entree: fried cat fish.” It happens every Friday.