Friday, December 30, 2011

Goodbye to 2011

Looking at 2011 from my recliner, the World is in pretty much of a mess. The “Arab spring” was amazing, until it disintegrated with the military torturing protesters in Egypt and the dictator slaughtering his own people in Syria.

Like everyone, I rejoiced when the President finally bought the troops home from Iraq, leaving the Iraqis to blow each other up (as they always have done), and 90,000 American boys facing the same hopeless situation in Afghanistan.

In our own country, farms and ranches produce so much food we have a problem with obesity. Manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and in this global economy are not coming back any more than the horse-drawn plow. Congress is paralyzed and unable to deal with the horrendous unemployment.

Now we have the spectacle of the Republican farce starring candidates for President. In Texas the Democrats were so ineffectual Rick Perry was reelected as governor. Now he’s made a laughing stock of himself, yet some people still consider him a serious candidate for President of the United States.

I comfort myself with history. Before the Civil War, Congress bogged down in acrimonious debates. Henry Clay was a big hero for his speeches protecting the rights of slave holders. We had mediocre presidents. George W. Bush is the most recent, but there were also Franklin Pierce, William McKinley, both the Harrisons, and others. Does anyone remember them? The country survived. Somehow.

This year we’ve also survived the assaults of Mother Nature. Even the most hardened World War II veterans sympathized with the Japanese for the loss of life due to the earthquake and the Tsoumi (can’t spell that – but you saw the pictures). Joplin, Missouri, where I used to sleep in motels on my treks back and forth between Albuquerque and Chicago, was devastated by a tornado.

As I sat, wrapped in a blanket like a warm cocoon in my recliner, I watched all this on television and realized how lucky I am to have excellent health insurance and a secure income. My life seems insulated against all catastrophes. My son David is in earthquake-prone California, but I’m in Texas, which is the place in the U.S. “less likely” to have earthquakes.

Then it happened. I was sitting in the recliner, as usual, with the cat dozing on the little green chair facing me. The chair began to shake. Not violently, but a definite tremble. Then the glass shade on the “Tiffany-style” lamp beside me began to rattle.

Charlie woke and sat up. I said, “Kitty, we’re having an earthquake.” The trembling stopped. Reassured by my calm voice, the cat lay down and went back to sleep.

The next day the television told me that it was indeed an earthquake. The epicenter was up in a rural area of Oklahoma. It did little damage, but the shock was felt from Iowa to Dallas.

What will happen in 2012? Mother Nature and the Arab extremists are sure to provide surprises. Hurricanes will roar out of the Gulf; perhaps this time FEMA will be prepared. Let’s also hope voters will wake up and throw out all of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans. And if they don’t – well, we survived both Franklin Pierce and Henry Clay.

Finally, I hope 2012's disasters are no more serious than the earthquake, which didn’t frighten the cat enough to make him jump off his chair.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Day After Christmas

Twenty-five years ago today John Durkalski and I were married in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Downers Grove, Illinois. That began the happiest four years of my life.

I was 58; John was 69 and had been retired for 12 years. He had nothing to do but make me happy. We traveled all over the U.S. Twice we went to Europe. Any time we encountered a problem, John would make a joke about it – and then work at solving the problem. .

He had his “Polish Solutions”. In the little house in Albuquerque, the garage settled, pulling the wall away from the door to the house. I held my breath when John got out his drill and made several holes in the wood of the door frame. He put heavy bolts through the holes and pulled the door frame back against the wall. I thought, “He’s ruined the door. It will never look right.” John filled the holes with spackle, then painted over. No one noticed where the holes had been. The man was a Polish genius.

I get excited about things. I get angry. John would say, “Let’s sit down and talk about this.” Then we would sit down and talk. Calmly he listened. He never called me names, like “You are stupid to act that way.” Not even when I was stupid to act that way. He knew exactly how to show me a better way to react.

(I wonder what he would say about my diatribes against the greedy rich, recalcitrant Republicans, and the stupidity of Tea Party members. Oh, well, John listened to me, which no one else does.)

The big test came when I had cancer. John showed no disgust when my breast was cut off; he tenderly drained the tubes which hung out of my chest after surgery – and then insisted I put on a coat and go out to breakfast in our favorite restaurant. He wasn’t going to let me hide after my disfigurement.

When I was too sick from chemo to get up off the couch, he cooked Polish sausages and put frozen pizzas in the oven, then sat down next to me and made jokes about whatever was on television. He kept me laughing during six months of chemo and six weeks of daily radiation.

I got well, and John died.

John taught me how to live. The years since he has been gone have not been as glorious as the few years of our marriage, but I continue to have a good life. I became a fearlessly independent woman. I traveled. I went to China, where he would not have gone. I moved back to Texas and bought a house – at age 77. I’ve had 20 happy years. .

To avoid being lonely at Christmas, I used to go away. I spent Christmas in Rome, in Portugal, and in New Orleans. This year I am tied down by dialysis. So I put a wreath on my door and invited other old people who live in this retirement community to come to my apartment for cookies and cider. We had our own merry little Christmas, and it was good.

Today I do not weep for my lost past. On the day after Christmas I give thanks for happy memories and additional thanks for continuing a happy life today.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Too Busy

I have not posted a blog for over a week. With dialysis taking so much of my time, I am always busy, but this has been an unusually busy time.

My friend Lois sings in the choir at Garland’s First Baptist Church. On Sunday I went to hear her sing at their Christmas program, with a pageant of little children as angels and Mary cradling in her arms a real baby. The mystery of Christmas: How did she keep the infant so quiet?

On Tuesday I drove into Dallas, only a twelve minute drive from my place to the home of Betty Smith, for a luncheon reunion of “girls” who graduated from Texas Woman’s University in 1950. In past years there gathered a large group of alums living in the Dallas area. On Tuesday there were only ten of us. We passed around pictures of great-grandbabies.

Wednesday a group of us boarded the Montclair bus for another trip into Dallas. This time it was a 30-minute ride to the theater in the old bath house at White Rock Lake. We saw a play about a Catholic family celebrating Christmas in Pittsburgh, when the son shows up with a Jewish fiancé.
I thought it an interesting play, using humor to show love overcoming prejudice. As so often happens, our reaction to things depends on our previous experiences. Something similar happened in my husband John’s family. In a Pittsburgh suburb, his sister and her husband, devout Catholics, must have been dismayed when their only child, a daughter, became engaged to a Jew. Now Maggi and Stephen have been married for 30 years and have two accomplished sons, one of them an M.D.

On the bus going home, I asked the old lady sitting next to me if she enjoyed the play. A fundamentalist Christian, she was offended by the whole concept of the play. “That’s not my God. It was all lies.”

Since I skipped dialysis on Wednesday, I had to go on both Thursday and Friday. There were special events at Montclair afterwards each afternoon. On Thursday I grabbed a couple of cookies and went to my apartment and collapsed. Yesterday I felt better and went down for the chili cooking contest before another evening of recliner television. Again “Christmas in Washington, D.C.” brought back memories. The concert was in the National Building Museum, which impressed my 10-year-old grandson Doug when we went there as part of an intergenerational Elderhostel. Now he’s a senior at Southern Illinois University.

This afternoon Lois comes to go with me to the Christmas program at the Garland Senior Center. That will end this too-busy week. I’m tired. Too much activity. I’ve become over-scheduled.

A great thing about the trip I made to Europe with David: We had no fixed schedule. Each morning we got in the rental car and started out, sightseeing haphazardly at places we discovered along the way. When darkness came, we stopped at a roadside inn for supper and then looked for a place to sleep. No rush. No trying to “make it” to some specific event. Every day was a surprise. As I said, it was great.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


There are fashions in art, just as there are fashions in clothing, interior decoration, cars (anybody looking for an Edsel?), and everything else. If you watch “Antique Roadshow” you know how popularity in painters affects prices. Right now the most fashionable of “old masters” is Caravaggio.

In The New Yorker I read an article about a Texan who married an Italian prince and is now restoring his palace in Rome. The story barely mentions the Michelangelo sculpture in the garden, while going into detail about a ceiling of Roman gods painted by Caravaggio. Neptune floats above so that the viewer looks directly up into his crotch.

In Rome some years ago I toured churches. Lots of churches in Rome (over 300) and all of them filled with art. In one gloomy old church I stood on the cold marble tiles while our guide lectured for thirty minutes on Caravaggio’s “Crucifixion of St. Peter.” The saint asked to be crucified upside down, as he felt unworthy to be crucified in the same position as his Lord. The painter pictured the saint being nailed to the cross, arranged diagonally across the canvas with the saint’s face writhing in agony in the foreground. Against a black background, the painting was as dramatic as a horror movie. I did not feel inspired with religious ecstacy.

Doubtless Caravaggio is important in the history of art for introducing paintings of ordinary people, such as beggars and card sharps. In a painting of the nativity, the guide pointed out that the shepherd, kneeling near the crib, had dirty feet.

Now the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth has an exhibition of paintings by Caravaggio and his followers. The exhibit is considered so important that the museum placed a full-page ad in the New Yorker. That advertising costs mucho dinero.

I still drive, which surprises some people. Going to doctors’ appointments I drive on the 635 expressway. But I don’t drive to Fort Worth. For an old lady, that trip is simply too tiring.
While David was here, he took me to meet my friend Emma at the Kimbell.

Emma told me, “Barbara and I often visit museums together.” (Both were art majors in college.) “Each of us looks at art with different mind sets. Barbara is an artist and interested in how effects were created. I have more of an emotional response to art but know enough of the difficulty of creating to appreciate the creative skill of an artist.”

I guess I look at art the same way as Emma. After spending an hour in the Kimbell’s Caravaggio exhibit, with a whole room of St. John the Baptist by Caravaggio and others, Emma said she found it interesting how he and his followers treated the same subject, but “I don’t really like his paintings.”

I said, “I feel the same way.”

We ate lunch of quiche and salad from the Kimbell’s buffet. David wandered off to look at more of the museum, while Emma and I lingered over our iced tea glasses. It had been over a year since we sat down together. This chance to talk made it a splendid day.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tilman Riemenschneider

Until David and I went to Germany, I never heard of Tilman Riemenschneider. Maybe he was mentioned in that History of Art class I took 20 years before, but I doubt it.

As David and I ventured out of Frankfurt, one of the first places we went was Wursburg. The old town sits at the base of a mountain, with an enormous castle brooding on top. I navigated the rental car up the steep, narrow streets lined with old houses, through numerous switchbacks right up to the base of the massive walls of the castle.

I parked the car outside the gate, and David and I walked into an enclosure with a church and a number of other buildings housing several museums. Naturally, I headed for the art museum. And that’s where I discovered Tilman Riemenschneider.

To say he was a wood-carver would be to denigrate his work. He was an artist, a sculptor who worked in wood.

The museum displayed a collection of his statues, some almost life-size. I remember a beautiful St. Ann, the folds of her drapery following the grain in the golden wood.

A few days later David and I saw his altarpiece in the cathedral in Rothenburg. That is a charming, walled town. David had a great time climbing the stairs and running around the walls which completely encircle the town. Coming down to the cobbled streets, we shouldered our way through tourists gawking at shop windows in every narrow street.

Most tourists seemed intent on buying Bavarian nicknacks. I wonder how many stepped inside the church to see Riemenschneider’s altarpiece, a typical German triptych with small panels telling Bible stories with dozens of little figures carved in high relief. Very intricate, very skillful carvings. But I preferred the large, individual statues I saw in the museum in Wurzburg.

Riemenschneider worked in Wurzburg from 1460 to 1528. How do I know? I looked in a big, heavy book I have in my bookcase: “A World History of Art” by Gina Pischel. “Painting, sculpture, architecture, decorative arts from prehistoric times to the present day.” That’s also where I found out how to spell that difficult German name, Riemenschneider.

Pischel dismisses the German’s work by writing, “The elaborate, pretentious sculpture of Tilman Riemenschneider . . . has little appeal.”

Well, maybe it does not appeal to Pischel, an Italian who saves her praises for the white marble statues of the Italian Renaissance. To me, the warm wood tones of Riemenschneider’s statues are appealing indeed.

When it comes to art – or music or books or movies – who says we all must like and admire the same things? Who says we must see the same things when we travel? Okay, I like museums. If you prefer to shop, that’s okay, too.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Opening My Eyes

Every morning when music from the radio wakes me, I dutifully push myself out of bed and stumble into the bathroom to brush my teeth and swallow the first two pills of the day. I am a creature of habit. The saying is, “I can do it with my eyes closed,” I don’t open my eyes until I pop those pills into my mouth.

What happens when something happens that disrupts the routine?

Life has a way of changing plans. Sometimes big and dramatically. I never foresaw spending my old age languishing three days a week in dialysis, unable to travel. Last week my 46-year-old son David took me to Fort Worth for the first time in a year and a half. It was as big a thrill as the first as the first time I saw Paris with him when he was 13.

There are also little breaks in routine that can be annoying. To pass the time during dialysis I read current magazines: TIME on Mondays, New Yorker on Wednesdays, Newsweek on Fridays. Last week I read the New Yorker as usual on Wednesday. I discovered an unexpected interest in an article on apples. After years of selling nothing but Washington Delicious and Macintoshes, growers are rediscovering the taste of old varieties.

The mailman must have decided to read Newsweek himself before bringing it to me. It did not show up in my mailbox. So? On Friday I read the Smithsonian. I did not regret missing Newsweek. The Smithsonian was full of interesting bits of information. In one of the first pages I learned that last year China produced 36 million tons of apples, eight times the amount grown in the U.S.

An article on the great defense attorney Clarence Darrow explored the ethics of bribery and perjury. Darrow was accused of bribing a juror to prevent his clients being sentenced to death for murder in a Los Angeles bombing that killed 20 printers and newsmen. Put on trial for bribery, the author found evidence that Darrow bribed another juror to obtain his own acquittal.

Was Darrow justified in committing a felony? Darrow claimed his conscience was clear. His friends forgave him “because they shared his conviction that the vast power and wealth arrayed against labor unions, and the often violent and illegal tactics of corporations, justified such extreme measure to spare the defendants.”

My reaction: With today’s bombings in Jerusalem and Kabul, does anyone remember when terrorist attacks were perpetrated by our fellow Americans in Boston, Oklahoma City, and Los Angeles? It is always difficult to climb over the fence and look at a situation from the other side.

Meanwhile, in Saturday’s mail I found new copies of TIME, the New Yorker, and Newsweek. Now I am all set for next week. If I don’t find anything to rant about, I’ll finally get around to telling you more about the trip to Germany and discovering Tilman Riemenschneider.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

My Navistar Stock

Georgeson Inc.
PO BOX 43023
Providence, RI 02940-3023

To whom it may concern:

Another offer to let me purchase stock in Navistar for a ridiculous price. I am insulted.

My late husband, John Durkalski, worked for International in the truck division. He was proud of those big International trucks and for the company where he worked for 40 years. He bought stock, paying as much as $40 a share. When he retired, he sold that stock for $4 a share.

Later I persuaded John to buy 100 shares “for sentimental reasons” at the same $4 per share. After he died, Navistar had a “stock reduction” scheme, and I ended up with only 10 shares.

I feel the company stole 90 shares from me. Now you offer to let me buy 90 shares by sending you a check for $4,500. Really! To buy back stock for which we paid $360.

You say you would save me “the inconvenience and cost of brokerage commissions.” Fortunately, the other stocks I own comprise a large enough portfolio in my Wells-Fargo PMA account that I never have to pay commissions on the rare occasions when I buy or sell stock.

I’ll keep my 10 shares and let Navistar send me the annual reports where I can read about the enormous cash payments and gifts of thousands of shares of stock to company officers and board members. What a lousy deal for long-time stock holders, like me, who never receive a dividend!

That’s the way the American industry works these days. It is all legal, and every corporation is run by a bunch of greedy crooks! Is anyone surprised that the U.S. economy is in a mess?

Yours very truly,

Ilene Durkalski

CC: Navistar, Inc.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

My Cat Charlie

Daisy moved down from her third floor apartment next to mine to one on the second floor. Now when she meets me in the dining room, she does not ask, “How are you?” She says, “How is my friend Charlie?”

Friends call from New Mexico and New York. It is the same thing. They always ask, “How’s Charlie?”

Charlie is just fine. When I come home from dialysis, he meets me at the door. Each evening when I sit back in the recliner to watch “Jeopardy”, he climbs on top of me, but for “Wheel of Fortune” he moves over and stretches out on the coffee table.

He’s once again asking to go outside the first thing each morning. During the heat of summer he would not venture out of the door of the apartment (Not such a dumb cat!) But when the weather cooled, he still was reluctant to go out until one morning when I pushed him out the door. Now I let him out before I go to take my shower. After a brief stroll along the balcony, Charlie sits staring up at our doorway. Jim McMullen or Faye Scandlin let him in as they pass on the way to breakfast.

Charlie was always a slow learner. I don’t know what happened to him before he adopted me at the animal shelter in Albuquerque twelve years ago. He is a beautiful cat; he must have been someone’s pet. But he was picked up as a stray. The shelter sold him to me for $5. I took him to the vet, and it cost $100 for shots and to have him bathed and the matted knots cut out of his hair.

I suspect he had been poisoned. He still will eat only dry food. He always hopped up on the bathroom counter to drink running water out of the faucet. Only in the last year, with arthritis in his hips, has he learned to stay on the floor and drink out of a bowl.

For years he was terrified of men. My neighbor LeRoy came every Thursday to take out my garbage, and Charlie ran and hid under the bed. After ten years he finally let LeRoy pet him. Last week I was pleased when my new neighbor Everett came to the door to say “Hello”, and Charlie, lying on the carpet in the living room, merely looked up as if to say, “Oh, just another of Grandma’s visitors.”

So even an old cat can adjust to changing times and situations. I’ve always thought I was pretty good at that, too. But . . . .

My son David is here for Thanksgiving. He put Charlie’s photo on the blog for me. Now he says, “Mom, you do one.” I’m not even going to try. I am “technology challenged”. Besides, I have a son who is an expert. I’ll ask him to do more photos when he comes again next March. Meanwhile, all my pictures will be word pictures. You will have to imagine the rest.

Monday, November 21, 2011

My Hobby

People collect things. Wally collected Scandinavian postage stamps. My brother Don collects Ford Mustang cars. I collect museums.

I don’t know why I developed a passion for fine art. My parents never showed the slightest interest. My mother did not know the difference between a Rembrandt and a Picasso.

In art class in high school I scratched charcoal on paper, drawing portraits of other students. I soon realized I had no talent. My joy in art became limited to admiring the work of others.

That was “before the museums came” to Fort Worth. Most of what I knew about art I learned from looking at cheap reproductions. Not very good in those days before printers could give us inexpensive color photographs.

My only experience with fine paintings came each week when I rode the bus downtown to have the sadistic Dr. Terrell adjust the braces on my teeth. Afterwards I’d stop by the Fort Worth Public Library, check out five books, and go upstairs to visit the paintings loaned by Mr. Kimball on the second floor landing, mostly 18th Century portraits of elegant ladies.

Once there was a special exhibit. I was thrilled to see an actual Cezanne still life with oranges. How did I recognize that it was a Cezanne? I don’t know. All I remember is that I hungered to see more “real” paintings.

In my senior year in college, I took 21-hours each semester so that I could audit a two-semester course in the History of Art. I absorbed the slide shows as if they were cake and ice cream. Afterwards I’d sit in the little art department library staring at a large (4x6 foot) Van Gogh reproduction, admiring the variety of colors in the different fields of wheat.

On my first vacation after I went to work for the Press, Emmy and I took a wild trip east. I’d bought a used ‘46 Chevy, and we drove off, not like Thelma and Louise, but more like two Brownie Scouts who had somehow obtained drivers’ licenses. I expected great things at the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan in New York – and saw them – but was amazed by the wonderful collection at the National Gallery in Washington, everything from a Fra Angelico nativity to a bust of Lorenzo the Magnificent to Monet’s ladies with parasols on a sunlit beach. .

As a bride in Chicago, I took courses in interior design at the Art Institute. Going through the main museum to reach the basement classroom, I fell in love with the collection of Monets: seascapes, rows of poplars, fields of poppies. It was a heady experience, going to a great museum every week for two years.

I was hooked. I wanted see more museums. Like a heroin addict, the more I saw, the more I wanted. It did not matter that I could never own a fine painting. I spent an hour absorbing Monet’s waterlilies in the Orangery in Paris. In my memory I owned them forever.

Wherever we lived, I joined the museums and went to gallery talks and programs. In Detroit my children obediently looked at the Diego Rivera murals, as afterwards we ate chocolate almond ice cream in the courtyard. In Philadelphia I sat for hours in the Tyson Collection wondering how anyone could give away that Cezanne landscape with the view of Mont St. Victoire. When we returned to Chicago, I went back to the Art Institute on my lunch hour.

Looking at art became my hobby, just as others go to movies or play video games. In my travels I visited most of the great museums of the World. The Louvre held few surprises; I’d seen colored slides of most of the paintings in my History of Art class at TSCW. But Vienna – Ah! That’s a great museum with comfortable couches to sit in while admiring the paintings.

Now I am back in Texas. This week David comes for Thanksgiving. We will go to Fort Worth to see the Caravaggio exhibit at the Kimball, the fine museum of European art endowed by the man who loaned the paintings I saw at the library when I was in high school. I wonder if in storage is that big portrait I admired of a lady in a long white “empire” style dress by Sir Thomas Lawrence. It is never on display.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Approaching Thanksgiving

Holidays are coming. My son David comes to celebrate Thanksgiving with me. I’m thrilled and grateful to him for leaving wife and children in California to spend the holiday with his aged mother.

My brother Don will meet David at DFW on Tuesday evening; then on Wednesday, Mary and Don will drive up to Oklahoma for Thanksgiving with her relatives.

My friend Sally invited David and me to have Thanksgiving dinner with her family. Every day, not just at Thanksgiving, I am thankful for this friend and for others who, in difficult times in my life, provided comfort.

Sally and I have been friends since high school. Hers is a true “only in America” story.

Sally came from a Pennsylvania German family. Her grandfather was a doctor. Her mother studied Latin and archeology at Bryn Mawr, read Montaigne’s essays in the original French, and met Sally’s biological father, later a famous research scientist, when he was a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania. It was at their house that I first picked up from the coffee table and read The Atlantic and the New Yorker.

The family came to Texas during World War II, when Sally’s stepfather, Lt. Commander Charles Hastings, was in command of the Navy’s air station in Fort Worth. After the war Sally stayed in Texas to graduate from Paschal High School and to go to college with me at Texas State College for Women.

Sally dropped out of college to marry Hugh Pegues, whose family, like mine, has been in Texas “since the days of the Republic.” She was a Democrat; he was a Republican. She was high church Episcopalian; he was Church of Christ. They had five children and were still skinny dipping together when he died, just before their 60th wedding anniversary.

Their children and grandchildren are totally Texan. The great sorrow was losing their son Alan to a brain tumor when he was only 52. His two sons are now in college, one at Rice and the other at nearby North Texas University in Denton. I don’t know if they will be with us for dinner on Thursday.

Now 82-years-old and a widow, Sally raises prize beef cattle on the farm near Decatur. Daughters Amy and Cece live nearby and help with the farm, as does son Guy. The third daughter, Sara, is flying in from Maryland for Thanksgiving. It should be quite a party. Amy wants to cook the turkey with cornbread stuffing – the kind her Texan grandmother made.

On Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, David and I will go to the Kimball Museum in Fort Worth to meet Emma Hill, another friend since college, . We’ll have lunch, see the Caravaggio exhibit, and take time to sit and talk.

Speaking of art (Kimball and Caravaggio) I will detour from my travel blogs to write about art. Then I promise to get back on tour with my discovery of Tilman Riemenschneider (that's spelled correctly)in Wurzburg, Germany.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

What I Learned in Germany

My first trip abroad was with my son David. He was only 13, with no memories of World War II and no preconceived ideas of what to expect. I discovered a Germany that was not at all as I imagined it. Germany is a democracy, the leading economy in Europe, conquering through trade.

The cities, with modern buildings, look as if never bombed; Germans forget the war we fought against them. A woman, a small child during World War II, said to me, “My mother told me that when the American soldiers came, they would eat little children. Then they rolled into our village in their tanks and turned out to be these big Teddy Bears who gave me chocolate.”

I thought about this yesterday when Al, sitting across the table from me at lunch, said, “I went around the World three times before I was 19. I have no desire to go back to any of those places.”

I said, “I’ve learned something every place I’ve gone.”

Al hates everyone who is not white. He scorns all Asians, even if they are not “Japs”. Al brags that when he was in the Merchant Marine, any black or homosexual who dared to join the crew went overboard during the first storm. Our black waitresses listen politely to his tirades.

We are all products of our backgrounds. Growing up in Texas, I took it for granted that Yankees were horrible people that burned down people’s houses. I loved Robert and Edna, the black folks who worked for my grandmother. I used the “N” word without knowing it was an insult. Of course white people were superior to all other races. As for religion, the Baptist Church was the only true way of believing; all others – especially Catholics – were going to Hell. .

Why did I change? Daddy said to me, “I’m sorry we let you go to college because you left the church you were brought up in.” In college I studied journalism. I learned to think critically and to look for “the story behind the story.” Even facts can be misleading. I realized that many of the ideas I was taught to “believe” as a child were wrong.

Then I married Wally and went to Chicago. I was thrown into a totally different culture. For my grandmother the only way to stuff a turkey was with cornbread “dressing”. My mother-in-law never made cornbread; she stuffed her turkey with prunes and apples. It was different, but that was okay.

Chicago is a multi-ethnic city with Italians, Jews, and more Poles than Warsaw. My friends were Catholics and Lutherans, all wonderful people. No one was kinder and sweeter than my Mormon sister-in-law. I discovered that people with different ways of thinking are also good U.S. citizens.

Later I traveled. I found that, yes, people in other countries have different ways of cooking and eating, but that is not important. All people want jobs to support their families. They want to feel safe in their homes. They want to enjoy life. And most Europeans do just that.

Europeans come to the U.S. to shop, to buy jeans and tee shirts, but they don’t want to live here. I have friends and have visited in homes in England, France, the Netherlands, Norway, and Germany.

Let’s face it. Europeans have a more satisfying way of life than most Americans. They work fewer hours and have five or six weeks of vacation every year. We hear propaganda about the dangers of “socialized medicine”, yet Europeans spend less on medical care and have better health care systems than we do. They have democratic governments; a higher percentage of Europeans vote than do Americans.

I am an American. I don’t want to live in any other country. But we can learn a lot if we open our eyes, ears, and minds.

I wish I could return to New Mexico or live in Southern California with its great climate and my grandchildren, but if wishes brought Mercedes, we’d all be riding in German cars.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Our German Enemies

As I drove the German autobahns with my 13-year-old son David beside me in the little rental car – the damned Opal wouldn’t go over 80 miles per hour, and the Mercedes passed going 135 – I was uneasy about the German people. I have vivid memories of World War II, when the Germans were our enemies.

I was just a kid in high school. All I knew was what I read in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and what I saw in newsreels at the Saturday matinee at the Tivoli Movie Theater. After the war I found out what really happened. At one time I had several books about the war, which I gave to my grandson when he heard about World War II in his high school history class.

My husband John, whom I didn’t meet until 40 years after the war, in 1944 was a young Army supply officer in the Normandy invasion and followed the troops across Europe to meet the Russians at the Elbe. He told me his personal experiences in the war.

This week I gave a program on June, 1944, Normandy invasion, the greatest amphibious operation in history. The object was to kill Germans and drive them out of France. The worst fighting was on Omaha Beach were German machine gunners on the bluff killed thousands of American boys before many of them could wade out of the water onto the sandy beach.

Today the cemetery on the bluff above Omaha Beach is serene with row after row of white marble crosses. Over 9,000 young Americans are buried there. A few miles further down the coast is the German cemetery with 21,160 graves.

I’ve been to Normandy three times. My first visit was with John, who had landed on Omaha Beach on “D-Day plus 4". That was June 10, 1944, after the Germans had been driven back. We had a friend in Albuquerque who landed the first day as an Army sergeant. By the time he was wounded at St. Lo, he was a captain. Forty years later John walked along the water’s edge and said, “It has not changed a bit since I was here in ‘44.”

But of course it has changed. The whole world has changed. Roofs have been repaired, glass restored in windows in all the village houses. Church steeples again point to Heaven. Normandy looks as if there never was a war.

When David and I drove around Germany, one of the first thing I noticed was that we were never out of sight of a castle. In the valleys every little village backed up to a mountain topped by a castle. All very picturesque, but it made me realize how unsafe life was a thousand years ago. No one knew when the lord of the next village would attack. No one trusted their neighbor. Today all the castles are in ruins.

England and France were enemies for centuries. One conflict is called “The Hundred Years War”. The English defeated the French at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Then the English and French joined (with our help) to fight the Germans in World War I and World War II.

Today Germany and France are partners in the European Union, sharing the common currency, the Euro, and working together to shore up Greece and Italy. Every time I went in Europe, I saw German tourists and said to myself, “They didn’t need to invade other countries with their army. The Germans bring Euros, and everyone welcomes them.”

Recently I talked to a guard at the Dallas Museum of Art who was stationed in Germany a few years ago with the U.S. Army. He kept repeating, “Germany is so beautiful. I love Germany.”

Monday, November 7, 2011


One of the first places David and I went in Germany was to Aschaffenburg. I don’t know why we went there. This city is not on the usual tourist route, and it has nothing of particular distinction.

Before the unification of Germany in the 19th Century, Germany was carved up into dozens of little independent states, some ruled by dukes and counts and some ruled by prince-bishops. Aschaffenburg was once the “capital” of a principality owned by the Catholic Church.

David and I did not tour the bishop’s palace but went instead to the museum in what had been a monastery. We walked around on the wide plank flooring through many rooms looking at church art.

A guard motioned to David to come up a short flight of stairs into a small, white-washed room. It was a torture chamber, with heavy chains to attach men to the walls, just like in the cartoons, only this was for real. This was also the first time I saw an actual rack for stretching men’s bodies until their joints broke.

The guard showed David other instruments of torture. Surprised, David said, “A torture chamber in a church?”

I told David about the terrible wars over religion. The Thirty Years War in Germany was particularly brutal, Catholics and Protestants torturing, burning down churches with people inside, and killing each other as viciously as Shias and Sunnis bomb and fight among themselves today. The fanatical Muslims who want to kill Christians are following examples set by Christians who killed Christians in the 16th Century.

With that gruesome lesson in mind, we walked through the rest of the rooms in this former monastery. I could not find a cloister. In Medieval times monasteries were built around courtyards, where monks could walk under the porches which surrounded the enclosed gardens while they meditated. (I almost wrote “medicated”.) We call these enclosed gardens “cloisters”. In New York City there is a beautiful museum of Medieval art, called “The Cloisters”, with cloisters transported from several European countries. But in the former monastery in Aschaffenburg I went through many rooms but could not find a doorway into the cloister.

I went to the front desk and asked the little, gray-haired woman on duty, “Where is the cloister?”

I don’t speak German. Her English was limited. When I kept repeating, “Cloister?” She looked puzzled, then said firmly, “Here is Kloster.” She waved a slender hand around to indicate the entire building.

Finally I understood. In German “kloster” is the word for “monastery”.

Just another example of how things are misunderstood between people of nations and cultures who speak different languages. It also happens between individuals who think they are speaking the same language.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


I told Wally I wanted to go to Paris. Instead, he brought home tickets to Frankfurt. So my first European trip began in Germany.

If I made a list of places I wanted to visit, Germany would not even be on the list. I was a teenager during World War II, when the Germans were destroying Europe. My brain held pictures of bombed cities and piles of dead Jews in concentration camps. I did not want to go there.

In later years I traveled to many places. When I arrived at a place I read about, it never was exactly as I envisioned it. That first trip to Germany was a total surprise.

David and I spent several nights in Frankfurt, sightseeing in the city and venturing on day trips in the countryside, returning each evening for dinner with Karl. From studying history I knew that Germany had been torn by war after war since the original tribes clashed with the Romans. In World War II, British and American bombs (that’s us) destroyed all the German cities, leaving factories and houses as burned-out shells or piles of rubble. .

The big surprise in 1978 was I saw no evidence that there had ever been a war. Instead, I saw picturesque villages, with flower boxes at every window, each set against a backdrop of a castle on the hill, looking like pictures in a child’s book of fairy tales.

I remember little of Frankfurt. The cathedral had several big wooden altarpieces with panels filled with dozens of little figures telling Bible stories. On the table in a large “Last Supper” the little wooden fishes, apples, and loaves of bread, carved in high relief, were so real they looked like I could pick them off and carry them away in my oversize purse.

We went to Goethe’s house, which gave me an idea of how upper middle-class Germans lived in the 19th Century. Comfortable, but dark, with heavy furniture, carved with scrolls and lion paws for feet. I pictured a society of fat, complacent burghers. Probably another mental distortion.

David and I also visited a big hall with portraits of all the kings of Germany. The biggest portrait, on the end wall, was a 10-foot high man in Medieval dress labeled “Karl der Grosser”. After that, I couldn’t think of Charlemagne without associating him with a grocery store.

Yes, Germany was full of surprises. Frankfurt was only the beginning.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Nancy's Last Boy Friend

About the time John and I married, Nancy met Tom. They came to dinner as John was disposing of things in his condo in anticipation of moving with me to New Mexico. Nancy’s new boy friend was a tall, dignified man, wearing a dark gray suit matching his hair. He seemed rather quiet, but when he did speak, his manner was brisk, decisive, and intelligent.

On the wall behind the dining table was a large picture, a print of a painting by Pizzaro. Tom admired the Paris street scene, and John sold him the picture for $10. I thought it was too much to pay for such a cheap piece of junk art with a damaged frame, but John and Tom seemed happy with the deal, so I said nothing.

John’s apartment was an exact duplicate of Nancy’s, where I spent so many nights wishing I had one like it. The week after we married, John went out one day and came back with the deed to the apartment. As a wedding present, he put my name on the property as joint owner. We rented the apartment to someone else and moved to New Mexico.

Nancy and I remained friends. Each time John and I returned to the Chicago area to visit our grandchildren, we took Nancy to lunch. She came to visit us in New Mexico.

John and I were happy in the little house in Albuquerque. After John died, I sold the condo in Illinois and used the money to pay off the mortgage on the house in New Mexico. I had wasted a lot of time envying Nancy her condo. .

Each time I returned to Illinois to visit my daughter’s family, Nancy drove 30 miles from Darien to Naperville to have lunch with me. She took an antihistamine before she came, as she was highly allergic to Martha’s cats. The pills upset her stomach, but Nancy said, “I had to see you.”

Sitting across from me at a local restaurant, she talked about Tom. A physicist at Argonne Labs, he had money to take her to dinner at expensive restaurants and to the Lyric Theater and Chicago Symphony. She told me, “I arranged his calendar and introduced him to cultural things.”

Tom and Nancy had a close relationship for 20 years. He developed cancer; she took care of him, just as she took care of me in when I was homeless and crazy. She was hurt when his family would not permit her to see him when he was dying. I could see Nancy in hysterics at his bedside, and the family deciding to keep her away and let him go in peace.

Being Nancy, no one ever grieved as excessively as she did. Nancy’s life also seemed to collapse. Now in her mid-80's, her health deteriorated. For hours she hovered over her inhaler trying to breathe. She spent the last two years in a nursing home. Even in that dismal situation, she looked for ways to enjoy life. She told me it brightened her day when her daughter Sandy brought printouts of my blogs.

Sandy took the brunt of the ordeal as Nancy lapsed into dementia and paranoia. I can’t remember her that way. Nancy was a loyal and generous friend. She also was a woman who greeted all the changes in her life with enthusiastic optimism. From her I learned that no matter what happens, life will be fun.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Beauty and the Batty Babe

Why did John prefer me to Nancy? John stopped dating Nancy before he met me. Why?

Certainly my appeal had nothing to do with personal appearance. Nancy was always perfectly groomed, with perfect makeup, pretty scarves at the neck of perfect dresses worn over a slim, perfect figure.

I was overweight and ugly. From the time I was a teenager, my brother Lyle convinced me that I was the ugliest girl in Texas. I gave up trying to improve my ugly face with makeup. I never had money for clothes, and by the time I knew Nancy, my basic wardrobe was five and ten years old. Even my shoes were worn and shabby.

While I was often depressed, Nancy had an upbeat, enthusiastic approach to life. Maybe too enthusiastic. She also had a naive conviction that hers was the only way to look at things.

She never understood why I didn’t want to sing with her in the barbershop chorus. I told her, “I’m glad you enjoy singing with that group.” I never said, “I will come to your concerts and listen politely, but I don’t really like barbershop music.” She would not believe that.

Nancy bombarded me – and everyone else – with questions. “Why did you do that?” “Why don’t you do this?” She told me, “You should have waited to divorce Wally until he was at the top of his profession. I waited to divorce Otto until he was at the top, and I got a good settlement.” (Yes, and a beautiful two-bedroom condo, while I was homeless.)

She ignored the fact that I filed for divorce after Wally put his big hands around my neck and chocked me. I was miserable because I still loved Wally but could not live with him because in his angry outbursts he might kill me.

I also suffered the extreme highs and lows of manic-depression. Even after my mental illness was diagnosed, I was not properly medicated. As I traveled back and forth between New Mexico and Illinois with no settled location, the doctors could not keep track of the effects of medication. So I had episodes of wild activity (driving 75 miles an hour in a 55 mph zone) or extreme lethergy (couldn’t get out of bed until noon).

In spite of my condition, Nancy took me in. She was a true friend. Still, she could be overwhelming. After I knew John, I understood why she annoyed him. But why did he choose me?

I used to say, “John was a care-giver, and when he met me, I was the woman who most needed taking care of.”

John had a wonderful, calming effect on me. He had a great wit and could see the ridiculous side of any situation. We had such good times together. After we married, we immediately went to New Mexico, where the doctor put me on lithium. My mental condition has been stabilized ever since.

After John died, one of his sons said, “You are so much like our Mom.”

Jack said, “I couldn’t see it at first, but, yes, you are like our mother.”

“I don’t look at thing like her,” I said. Vera was a tiny (size 1) brunette, much prettier than me.

“You have her personality,” my stepson said. “When you and Dad were in the next room talking, it was just like Mom and Dad.”

It did not matter that I was overweight or how I fixed my hair. It was my personality, something over which I had no control. And which fit perfectly with that wonderful man, John Durkalski. How did I meet him? That was just dumb luck!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Nancy Meets John

Nancy and I huddled to talk while waiting for the others to assemble for our divorce support group. As usual, she was excited. telling about what she had done the previous week. Nancy was always excited about her life, but this time she had real news.

“I’ve met a man who lives in Lake-of-the-Woods, the same condo complex where I live,” she said. “We have so much in common. He plays golf, and he likes to take bike rides. Isn’t it wonderful! We can do so many things together, and he lives just five minutes from me in the next building.”

Yes, it sounded perfect. For a few weeks I spent my days and evenings huddled watching television in my bedroom at my son-in-law’s house, as Nancy had no time to meet me for Saturday movies or to go to Cantigny.

Then she called and asked me to meet her for lunch on Sunday after church. As we waited for the waitress to bring our apple pancakes, Nancy confided, “Wednesday night after choir practice I stopped at John’s condo. He gave me a little glass of wine, as he always does, and said, ‘Nancy, I have something to tell you. I’ve met a school teacher in Chicago. I won’t be dating you any more. This lady and I are going steady.’”

Nancy was amused that this 68-year-old man used the phrase, “going steady”. That’s what we said when we were in high school 50 years ago.

“Nancy,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s all right,” she said. “I was getting tired of him any way.”

A couple of months passed. Nancy and I did all the usual activities. She met a new man. I went to a writers’ group at the Downers Grove Library. Then one Wednesday, Nancy called me at my son-in-law’s house. “Parents Without Partners is having a mid-week break at the Plantation tonight. Would you meet me there after choir practice?”

I looked in my purse. I had $1.50 to last until the end of the month. I went to the local bar, the Plantation, and put down my $1.50 for a coke. Nancy did not show up. A little man asked me to dance. The band was playing disco. I never danced disco in my life, but I got up and moved it around.

We kept dancing the rest of the evening. He asked me to go across the street to Denny’s for “breakfast.” I had tea and cinnamon toast. I asked him where he lived. He said, “Lake-in-the-Woods.”

I said, “I have a friend who lives there. Do you know Nancy Vosahlik?”

He gave me a serious look and said, “Yes, I know Nancy.”

That’s when I realized this was the man who had dated Nancy. The one with whom she had such much in common. The next day I called Nancy and told her I met John. She said, “I wonder what happened to the school teacher from Chicago.”

A few days later John called me. He said, “I know you are a friend of Nancy’s. If you and I were to go out, would it cause any problems? I don’t want to make any trouble between friends.”

I realized here was a thoughtful, caring man. I said, “I told Nancy I met you. She says it would be all right.”

John and I were married for two years before John told me, “There never was a school teacher in Chicago. I just didn’t know how to tell Nancy I didn’t want to date her.”

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Nancy's Boy Friends

After the divorce, Nancy said, “I couldn’t wait to start dating again.”

She remembered the fun she had as a young college girl during World War II, dancing with officers from a nearby U.S. Air Force base. To her the forty years since were a mere interlude. After all, she was still slim and attractive.

Nancy paid over $2,000 to join a dating service that sent her lists of ten or twelve eligible men each month. She told me about the interesting men she met for coffee. She was charmed by a tall, dark Spaniard. One night as we entered a restaurant, she spotted him sitting at the bar. She ran up to say “Hello.” The man looked over his shoulder, said, “Hi”, and turned back to sip his drink.

Nancy and I went to our table. As we picked up our menus, I asked, “What age men did you ask to meet, Nancy?”

She said, “Why. . ?” She fumbled with her fork before saying, “In their fifties. Older men don’t do anything but watch television. I’m still active. I want to go places and do things.”

None of the men she met through the dating service asked her for a second date. Finally she confessed, “I was getting lists of men’s names, and the men were all getting lists naming other women.” She canceled the dating service and joined “Parents Without Partners”.

Through “Parents Without Partners” Nancy met a series of boy friends. One lasted over a year. He was good-looking, slim, and young enough to be her son. He brought her flowers and sent her love poems and cards with tender sentiments. She bought theater tickets and took him to tea at the Ritz-Carlton. She also paid for repairs on his car and even helped him pay child support.

When this man went to Springfield to see his children, she invited me to spend the weekend with her. All night she sat up in bed complaining. She did not understand why he wanted to see his children when he could have spent the weekend doing fun things with her. “Why does he want to spend so much time with little kiddies?”

He said he wanted to buy her a ring. They went to a jewelry store, and Nancy picked out a pretty opal set with small diamonds. He forgot his credit card. Nancy paid for her own ring.

Shortly after that, they broke up.

Nancy was never daunted. Soon she was again dancing at Parents Without Partners, always confident she would soon meet “Mr. Right”.

Monday, October 24, 2011

With Nancy at Cantigny

Nancy defined perpetual motion. She taught in a nursery school, sang in a church choir and in a women’s barbershop chorus. She looked for more things to do. She joined Parents Without Partners. She yearned for a man to date, but when she could not find one, she sought female companionship.

After my divorce, I also wanted to go out to dinner and to plays and concerts. Our friendship started with the two of us getting together on weekends.

We went out to dinner, to movies, and to plays. I tend to be critical, saying, “I enjoyed it, but . . . ." For Nancy every performance was wonderful. She was a fun companion who always lifted my spirits.

I always paid for my own tickets. My income came from selling real estate. It never occurred to Nancy that the market crashed and I had little money to spend on anything. Lucky for me, Nancy also was eager to go to any event listed as “free” in the local newspaper.

Both of us enjoyed Sundays at Cantigny. Col. McCormick, the famous publisher of the Chicago Tribune, named his mansion and the surrounding grounds in Wheaton after a French village, site of a World War I battle. When he died, he left his estate to be open free to the public.

The park-like grounds looked like a staging area for battle with tanks and artillery on the lawn. (My boys loved to go there to play soldier.) A white marble building housed a museum dedicated to the Army’s First Division, where the colonel served in World War I.

Nancy and I preferred walking the gravel paths in flower gardens and going into the mansion for Sunday afternoon concerts. We listened to string quartets and Russian choruses in the elegant library with its concealed bar where Winston Churchill once got trapped behind the secret doors when he went searching for whiskey in the middle of the night.

One weekend Nancy said, “The roses in the Cantigny gardens are so beautiful. Let’s go early and stroll in the rose garden before the concert.” I tried to tell her we had done that several months ago. She insisted. So we went early. It was November. Nancy was surprised and disappointed to find not a bloom on dry, brown, leafless stalks on all the rose bushes. Her reaction: “I wonder what happened to the roses.”

At times I wondered if I was simply a person Nancy chose to see when she did not have a boy friend to take her out. I moved to Albuquerque. Then I returned to Downers Grove to sue Wally for support. I had no money to rent an apartment. Martha and Don did not want me and told me so. That’s when I learned Nancy was my best and truest friend in Downers Grove. For the next three years, whenever I needed her, Nancy invited me to stay with her on weekends.

She had a beautiful, two-bedroom condo. The little bedroom was full of costumes Nancy wore in the chorus’s performances. In the big bedroom I lay in the twin bed wishing I had a place like hers, while in the other bed Nancy, her face creamed and her hair wrapped in netting over big rollers, talked until 4 a.m.

I was penniless, crazy, and depressed. Nancy did not notice. I was a friend who needed help, and she took me in.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Meeting Nancy

What can I say about Nancy? Quite a lot. For two weeks, since her daughter wrote to tell me she died, I tried to sort out my feelings about this long-time friend.

I met Nancy soon after I was divorced. She sat across the table at the support group which met in an upstairs room at the First Congregational Church in Downers Grove, Illinois. A slim, neatly dressed woman, with dyed red bangs above a skillfully made-up, heart-shaped face, she joined enthusiastically in all the discussions.

Nancy was a 60-year-old woman who thought she looked 45 and acted like a wide-eyed teenager. Through the years I was alternately annoyed and then admired the way she faced situations. Divorced, she believed by making herself physically attractive she would find love.

She was always immaculately dressed with a scarf or a bow at the throat to hide the wrinkles in her neck. Her makeup was perfect, and she slept with huge rollers on her head to maintain a flattering coiffeur, with little bangs to conceal any lines in her forehead.

Nancy still wore the same size l0 as when she was a college girl during World War II, dancing with young officers from the nearby air base. That was before the Army Air Corps separated to become the Air Force; in Nancy’s mind she was still that young, vibrant 20-year-old.

She loved good food but ate sparingly. After I’d spent the night with her, she would greet me with a smiling face. (Just what I needed first thing in the morning!) She would say, “Look what I have for us!” and show me a little carton of fresh strawberries or raspberries. Then she would carefully spoon out three strawberries or four raspberries to top my corn flakes.

Was she deluded in thinking she could stave off old age by all this effort trying to look young? For her it was the right thing to do. She enjoyed every aspect of life until she reached her 85th birthday. She taught me that I didn’t need a whole bowl of strawberries, to simply enjoy each, single little bite.

We were friends for 30 years. I need several blogs to tell more about my friend Nancy.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Did you miss me? I have not written a blog in two weeks. I’m okay. A bit depressed over the death in Illinois of Nancy, my friend for 30 years. Even more upset by a change in routine.

One Saturday during dialysis I was sitting in my recliner when the nurse interrupted my reading the article on Rick Perry in "Newsweek". (Honestly! How could anyone take seriously that cowboy’s candidacy for President?) The nurse handed me a slip of paper and said, “You wanted to come to dialysis on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, instead of Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You will start on Monday.”

“I can’t start on Monday. That afternoon I’m giving a program at my retirement home.”

I requested the change many months ago. I was told three people were ahead of me on the waiting list. I had to wait for people to die before I could make the change. I put it out of my mind and filled up my calendar with events for Mondays and Wednesdays.

The change was postponed for a week. On Monday I talked to a half dozen old ladies about Van Gogh and Romans in Provence, how I ate ice cream at the café painted by Van Gogh and drove my BMW across the Roman arches of the Pont de Garde, the often-photographed 2,000-year-old aqueduct in the South of France.

I also changed my appointment with my dermatologist. In August I postponed my annual visit with Dr. Smith because my car was in the shop getting a new engine. (Did I write about that?) Now I had to put it off again. I will see the doctor in November.

I was surprised how upset I became over shuffling my schedule. I’ve had so many changes in my life, I should take changes in – well, I don’t stride any more -- but without stumbling.

I’ll soon be settled in my new routine, writing blogs between dialysis days. I will write about my travels. I will continue telling about seeing Europe with David, when he was 13 years old. The ultimate destination was Paris, but so far I’ve only told about our first day in Frankfurt, Germany. On that trip we had no set schedule. I made it up each day as David and I climbed into the rental car. .

That miserable little Opal was a bitch to drive, but that didn’t stop me. So what’s the big deal about changing an appointment with a dermatologist? He is going to tell me, “You’re doing fine. Come back next year.”

Coming soon: More adventures in Germany. But first, a word about Nancy.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Roman Sandals

My grandsons can’t imagine living without cell phones, the internet, and colored television. Technology is changing our lives so drastically my poor old brain can’t keep up.

Sixty years ago, as a young newspaper reporter, I typed my reports on an old manual typewriter, reaching up with my right arm to sling back the carriage to begin each new line When my children were in school and I went back to work, it was my skill as a typist that enabled me to make $4.00 an hour during temporary work for all the major corporations headquartered in the Chicago Loop. By then the latest thing was the IBM Selectric, the electric typewriter with a little ball which spun around to print the letters. I gave mine away when I left Albuquerque to move back to Texas.

For the past 35 years I’ve written all my fiction and correspondence on my personal computer.
I forget what it was like using a typewriter.

With difficulty I try to imagine what life was like 2,000 years ago, when Germany was on the frontier, and the Romans built a series of forts to protect the Empire from the Barbarians, much as the U.S. Army built forts (including Fort Worth) across West Texas to protect settlers from the Comanches. The difference was the Indians were no match for the U.S. Cavalry and were vanquished to Oklahoma, while the Barbarians overran and conquered Rome. .

The Romans abandoned the forts along the Rhine. Before they packed up and pulled out of the fort at Bad Homburg, they threw a bunch of stuff down a well. In the ooze at the bottom, enough was preserved to put on display in the small museum inside Kaiser Wilhelm’s “restored” fort.

Looking at the 2,000-year-old objects in glass cases in the museum, the big surprise was not how much had changed but how many things looked the same! A set of carpenter’s tools, hammers and chisels and planes, could have come out of my father-in-law’s tool box. Even more amazing was a glass case with several shelves of shoes. The Roman sandals were identical to styles for sale this summer at the Town East Mall.

Two thousand years ago Romans had indoor plumbing and a “modern” sewer system. In Albuquerque houses had privies in the backyard until after World War II. I knew a man who lived in one of those houses. It was built of adobe and had floors of hard-packed dirt. When Lou and his brother came home from the war, they added a bathroom and put in wooden floors, which lowered all the doorways to less than 6-feet high.

Every day I use technological wonders – computer, television, cell phone – which did not exist when I was a child. At Bad Homburg I was reminded that some basic things, like hammers and chisels and summer shoes – have not changed since Roman times.

Some other things, like honesty, loyalty, and fidelity, were the standard of behavior among all peoples and religions since the Jews were exiles in Babylon. Sadly, the ancients also had liars, cheats, greedy patricians, and power-grabbing politicians -- just like today.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Kaiser

The Roman fort at Bad Homburg was “restored” by Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Emperor of Germany at the beginning of the 20th Century. Does anyone under age 70 remember him?.

The Kaiser fancied himself an archeologist. He supervised digging up the remains of this fort and rebuilt it, complete with high walls and square towers at each corner. Perhaps the Kaiser thought he knew more about Roman military architecture than any historian. He was wrong. Karl took us around the walls of the restoration and explained that the rebuilt fort to looked less like a true Roman outpost from the First Century A.D. and more like an early 20th Century German garrison.

Kaiser Wilhelm II was mistaken about many things. Born with a “withered” right arm, he strutted about in fancy uniforms with lots of medals on his chest. With the title of Emperor, he thought Germany was the greatest military power in the World. In the 1870's hadn’t they .
defeated the French in the Franco-Prussian War? (Maybe he failed to notice that as a result another emperor, Napoleon III, lost his throne, and France became a republic.)

In 1914, when the Austrian Archduke was assassinated in Serbia, all of Europe went to war. Kaiser Wilhelm’s army invaded France, expecting a quick victory. The result was the bloodbath of World War I, which destroyed a whole generation of Europe’s young men. Every American hated The Kaiser for forcing the us into that war, just as we hated the Emperor of Japan during World War II.

With American help, our allies won that World War I. That was also the end of the German Empire. Deprived of his throne, Wilhelm II retired to live the rest of his long life quietly in a small village in Holland.

In Germany the people still harbored the delusion that they were a great military nation. They smoldered under defeat and eagerly embraced Hitler’s promise to conquer the World. It took World War II and thousands more dead – six million Jews and twenty million Russians, plus our own losses – to convince the Germans that they could win more by trade than by killing people.

People cling to delusions because they accept what they are told as truth. They buy into stupid slogans. “Lower taxes, less government” will bankrupt this big nation if the Tea Party forces its policies through Congress. Cheney blows his trumpet and millions believe that the U.S. should bully other nations with its military might and “bring freedom” to people who wish we would keep our Army out of their homes.

People can be sincere and still be deluded. Listen carefully at what people say. Be skeptical about everything you read on the internet. The Kaiser was wrong in the way he reconstructed the Roman fort at Bad Homburg. That doesn’t matter. But he was also wrong in his belief in the importance of Germany’s military glory. Millions died.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The German Frontier

I had not slept since David and I left Chicago the day before. I drove cautiously through the hills northwest from Frankfurt to the picturesque village of Bad Homburg. It was a beautiful sunny fall afternoon. The bucolic countryside looks so peaceful, I found it hard to invoke Germany’s centuries of turbulent history. We came to see where the army of Ancient Rome built a fort to protect its empire from hordes of Germans.

Roman soldiers in Germany? In the early centuries of our Christian era, England and Germany were on the frontiers of the Roman Empire. When Jesus was born – the Bible tells us Augustus was emperor – Rome controlled all the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, in a great circle from Spain across Southern Europe,. aching down through the Eastern Mediterranean, including the Holy Land, and continuing westward across all of North Africa.

When the Romans tried to expand northward into Germany, they were met with fierce resistance from tribes of “barbarians”. Initially the Romans expected to subdue these uncivilized wild people as easily as they had annihilated the tribes in Britain. Rome’s legions were the best trained and most disciplined fighting force the Ancient World had seen, and they were opposed by groups of uncivilized, unorganized tribes. Augustus’s successors sent armies into the woods of Germany only to have their legions be the ones who were wiped out.

The emperor ordered a whole string of forts, not a wall, like Congress prepossess to build along the Rio Grande, but strong fortifications to control the border along the Rhine River. If they could not conquer the Germans, they would keep them outside the empire. It did not work.

Franks swept past the forts and took over France. Saxons moved into England. The “long beards” settled in Northern Italy; in the area now called Lombardy. The legions were recalled to protect the city of Rome.

Roman was betrayed by its own citizens. The enormous Aurelian Walls, which still stand around the old center of Rome today, didn’t keep Goths and Vandals from sacking the city.

Our schools do not teach history. Our Congressmen don’t even know American History, else why would they make ridiculous claims about our Founding Fathers establishing a “Christian nation”? Or act as if we are still living on the frontier with every man needing guns to protect his homestead from murdering Indians? How can we expect them to know anything about the mistakes Roman emperors made trying to control people who refused to be conquered?

The fort at Bad Homburg was my first experience with the remains of Ancient Rome. In later trips to Europe I saw where archeologists dug up a Roman settlements from Portugal to Romania. We bombed Cologne in World War II and uncovered a trove of Roman artifacts, now housed in a museum where I marveled at the collection of Roman glass. In the city of Rome itself, Ancient Rome is buried under the modern city. Men still dig under streets and buildings and make new discoveries. In France I went to St. Remy to see the asylum where Van Gogh was a patient and discovered a triumphal arch the equal of anything I saw in Rome.

The Ancient Romans vanished like the Mohicans. Their ruins remind us to study history.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

My Son Karl

The Jesuits say, “Give us a child until he is six years old, and he’ll be a Catholic for the rest of his life.” Or something like that. Maybe it was the Baptist who said, “Train up a child in the way he should go.” People argue about which is more important, heredity or environment.

All I know is that children are born with distinct personalities. Every mother – well, most mothers – do the best they can. Children grow up, and parents are surprised.

From the time he was a small child, my son Karl was fascinated by all things military. He was about nine years old when someone gave him a book of “Great Battles of History”. By the time he was eleven he knew all the great military campaigns from Alexander the Great through Napoleon and World Wars I and II.

He learned about warfare – weapons, armament, organization, tactics. He acquired armies of toy soldiers. As a teenager, when other boys were outside tossing baseballs or practicing football, I would find Karl in his room, either reading a book on military history or hunched over his table, painting blue and gray uniforms on tiny toy soldiers from the Civil War.

He joined the U.S. Army as an expert on the Russians: the weapons they used, where troops were deployed, numbers of soldiers in each unit. He taught himself Russian in order to read their military publications. That’s how he came to be stationed in Frankfurt, Germany, with Army Intelligence. .

I am a Pacifist. I oppose wars, not because I am an isolationist, but because they are a waste of precious lives and seldom have good results. Over 58,000 American boys died in Vietnam. What was the result? Bush sent thousands more to die and be maimed in Iraq and Afghanistan. My Congressman claims we “liberated” those countries. Who is the fool? Me or those who believe the Congressman?

I won’t have a gun in my house. How did I produce a son who is obsessed with warfare and who owns a dozen rifles?

Mothers try to understand their kids. Even when they are puzzled by their children's choices, mothers do things to make their children happy. I knew Karl was interested in the Ancient Roman Empire. He knows as much about Roman legions as he does about Russian missiles. That’s a lot. That’s why, when David and I arrived in Frankfurt, the first place we took Karl was the “restored” Roman fort in the village of Bad Homburg, a few miles northwest of Frankfurt.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


After leaving Karl at Fifth Corps Headquarters, I drove our tiny rental car all over Frankfurt, Germany, looking for signs that said, “bahnhof”. David and I saw lots of signs with arrows and incomprehensible long German words.

“David, I have to watch traffic,” I said. “Do you see the word ‘bahnhof’ on any of these signs?”
“No,” said David, a tired 13-year-old, who always spoke quietly to calm his excitable mother.
“Are you looking carefully on both sides of the street?”
“Yes,” he said firmly, “I don’t see anything that says ‘bahnhof”.

I drove for over an hour around busy downtown streets and wide avenues. I saw lots of cars, big and little; buses, always big, with two cars in tandem like a train on wheels. Many traffic lights, typical of cities everywhere. Few advertising signs but many signs marking one way streets and arrows indicating the way to places with long German names. No arrows to “bahnhof”.

As I drove down an avenue with little traffic, on the sidewalk I spotted coming towards us a young woman carrying a parcel. I pulled to the curb. I told David, “Roll down the window and ask that young woman if she speaks English.”

As the young woman came abreast of the car David stuck his head out the window and said, “Pardon me, miss, we need help. Do you speak English?”

The young woman laughed.
“Sure,” she said. Her voice was American. She was from New Jersey and, like Karl,was a member of the U.S. Army stationed in Frankfurt.

“What you want,” she said, “is the hauptbahnhof.”
“What’s that?”
“Hauptbahnhof. All one word: Hauptbahnhof or ‘high station’ – the main railroad station here in Frankfurt with a tourist office to help people who come here from all over the World.”

We thanked her. Sure enough, within a couple of minutes we found an arrow pointing to the hauptbahnhof. It was a simple. I followed the “hauptbahnhof” signs to the station, only to find the street in front of the station all torn up. Frankfurt was repaving the street for a couple of blocks. It took an hour to find a way around the construction by back streets and allies. Inside the terminal a gracious young lady, who spoke excellent English with a German accent, called a hotel and made a reservation for me and David. She gave me directions and a map. It still took another hour of driving up and down one of the main avenues before I found the little side street where the hotel was located.

In this small hotel hidden away on a quiet cul-de-sac David and I slept for several nights in a room which was clean, comfortable, and cheap. A real jewel, even if no one in that hotel spoke English.

Lesson of the day: If directions are wrong, don’t keep following the false path. Go in a different direction. (I wish Congressmen would learn they are all going in the wrong direction to end this recession.)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Finding Karl in Frankfurt

Only a fool or a madwoman would fly off to Germany, where she did not speak the language, get into a rental car with a stick shift, which she had not driven for 20 years, and drive on the autobahn, where Mercedes passed going 130 mph., and drive straight into a strange city, where she had only a vague idea where to find her son, whom she wrote the date and time of her arrival, and who failed to meet her and David at the airport.

I was crazy. Perhaps I was a fool. I am also a woman. I stop and ask for directions.

Karl was at the Army’s Fifth Corps Headquarters. Someone who spoke English (I don’t remember whom) told me how to get there. I drove up to the gate. I told the guard I wanted to find my son, and he waved me through. Later I saw many cars with German license plates going in and out of this major American Army base without even a pause at the gate for a security check. This was 1978. Al Qaeda would not attack for another 22 years. .

On a street bordered with rows of parked cars, I drove into a large facility resembling a college campus with many buildings scattered between parking lots and grassy lawns. The main building, built in the 1920's decorative style of New York “skyscrapers”, reminded me of the old GM headquarters in Detroit. I learned later that before World War II it was headquarters of a major German munitions manufacturer; I think it was I.G. Farben.

After passing all those cars without finding an empty space, I spotted spaces right in front of the headquarters building. David and I were getting out of the car when an M.P. marched briskly out of the front door and told me those spaces were reserved for generals. David and I immediately got back in the car. When finally I found a place to park the rented Opal, we had a long walk back to headquarters.

This time the M.P. politely told me Army Intelligence was on the 9th floor. We crossed the lobby to the strangest elevator I ever saw. I faced two elevators without doors. In one platforms went continuously up; in the other platforms were going continuously down. After watching uniformed service men nonchalantly stepping into the “up” elevator, I held my breath, grabbed David’s hand, and, following a sergeant, jumped onto the moving platform.

With David trailing behind, I boldly walked into the offices of Army intelligence without being challenged. Karl came out, the only one who looked surprised at this civilian woman and young kid showing up in this top secret facility. The major told him to take the afternoon off.

We drove out to Bad Homberg to see the restoration of an ancient Roman fort, then returned to the Army base for supper at the NCO Club. By this time I had been without sleep for more than 24 hours. I felt groggy. I said, “Karl, please take David and me to where we are going to sleep tonight.”

The Army has a hotel on the base to house dependents who were being transferred. Karl went inside and came back a few minutes later, saying, “Sorry. They don’t have any vacant rooms tonight. I have a class, and I’m going to be late if you don’t take me over there right away.”

I was annoyed but not surprised. He acted just as his father. How many times had I asked Wally to do something? He always failed to do it, then became angry if I reminded him. In front of the Army’s education building, as Karl picked up his books and got out of the car, I calmly said, “Where are David and I going to sleep tonight?”

Karl stuck his head in the car window and said, “Go to the railroad station. The tourist bureau there will find you a place.”
“Wait a minute,” I called as he walked away. “How do I find the railroad station?”
“There are signs all over town,” Karl called over his shoulder. “Just follow signs that say, ‘to the bahnhof’.”

I drove away confidently. Married to Wally for more than a quarter of a century, I was used to dealing with difficult situations. And I knew how to follow directions.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Packing for Paris

I had not expected Wally to set the two airline tickets down beside my plate at the dinner table; I grabbed them and held them close to my heart. In just three weeks David, 13, and I would fly off to Germany. It was a frantic time.

I broke the news to my boss at the real estate office. She told me to go ahead, but I would get only a small part of any commissions on sales made to my clients while I was gone. I might lose several thousand dollars. But my job would wait until David and I returned.

For three weeks David and I would travel around Europe, visit my older son, Karl, stationed with the U.S. Army in Frankfurt, and tour Germany, Austria, and France. At last I was going to Paris! Romantic Paris with a thirteen-year-old kid. Not the way I’d dreamed about it. Married to Wally for more than 20 years, I learned to compromise and enjoy whatever I did.

I drove to the bank to take David’s birth certificate out of the safety deposit box. At the post office I applied for a passport for David Christian Gaarsoe. (I had mine from our trip to Iceland and Denmark two years before.) I wrote to Karl (in those days we didn’t phone overseas) telling him when we would arrive and asking him to reserve for a place for David and me to stay near where he was stationed.

Working like crazy at home and at work, the only other advance preparation I did was to send for some pamphlets on Germany. I also went to the local AAA office and reserved a rental car to be picked up at the Frankfurt Airport.

A couple of days before we were to leave, David’s passport arrived with his name misspelled, “David Christina Gaarsoe.” He said with injured pride, “I am not Christina.” I said, “We don’t have time to get it changed.”

I was still showing houses to prospective clients. One night I stayed up until midnight doing laundry, taking clothes out of the drier and putting them directly into suitcases. Somehow I pulled it off. Wally took us to the airport, and we flew off over the Atlantic. I was so excited I could not sleep in the cramped seat on the long, overnight flight.

Groggy and fatigued, we got off the plane. It was 2:00 a.m. in Chicago, l0:00 a.m. in Frankfurt, Germany. David and I went to the rental car counter, where I filled out forms. We were shown to a tiny Opal. We stuffed the luggage into the back of the car and climbed in with barely enough room to wedge myself behind the steering wheel.

I had not driven a stick shift in 20 years. I put my right foot on the brake, my left foot on the clutch, and the key in the ignition. I let out the clutch. And killed the engine. I turned the key again, put in the clutch, moved the gear shift down into first gear, slowly let out the clutch, moved my right foot from brake to accelerator – and killed the engine again. Four more times I tried and killed the engine every time. I thought, “I’m going to spend the next three weeks in this parking lot!”

On the seventh try, I got the car going. I eased out of the parking lot and immediately drove onto the autobahn. Mercedes and BMW’s whizzed past going 130 miles per hour. I floor-boarded the Opal. It wouldn’t go over 80. David and I were on our way into downtown Frankfurt, Germany.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Change in the Weather

Bears hibernate in winter. I’ve hibernated this summer. I went out my back door a couple of times a week to water the plants on my patio. In spite of my venturing into nature’s oven, they all dried up and died in the intense heat of the afternoon sun. Now I look out my bedroom window at the brown stalks of what had been an “evergreen” bush I hoped would grow into a potted Christmas tree.

Texas baked for months. The hottest and driest summer ever. Temperatures hit 98 and 99 in May. In June began the 100 plus days. Last week the thermometer hit 107 again. Without any rain, wildfires swept over the dry grasslands, burning areas in Texas the size of the State of Connecticut. The worst was in the Austin suburb of Bastrop, where over 1,000 homes burned to the ground, leaving only brick fireplaces and chimneys standing.

Now the ordeal is ended.

Rain, blessed rain! Friday night high school football, so dear to the hearts of Texans, delayed because of rain. Parents cheered as they waited under dripping umbrellas.

This morning as I stepped out of my apartment on the way to breakfast, my face bathed delightful cool air with that just-after-rain freshness.

As I crossed the courtyard, I looked at the scrap of dead lawn. Where the grass had turned as brown as my dead chrysanthemum, the courtyard was dotted with clumps of green with the prettiest purple flowers I’ve ever seen. Flowers growing out of the desolation of summer thrilled me. .

Vista, a tiny old lady who a few weeks ago lost her husband, came out of the dining room, humped over her walker. I called to her, “Come out into the courtyard. I have something to show you.”

Vista, 90, can’t stand upright and moves with caution. She stopped, still hunched over her walker, and turned her head. When she saw the flowers, she beamed and said, “Aren’t they beautiful!.” As she moved on towards the elevator, she said, “Thank you for showing them to me. I love flowers.”

Vista was only 16 when she and G.C. were married 74 years ago. Besides the grief of losing her lifetime companion, she is learning to live alone and manage her finances for the first time in her life. All her friends are amazed at how this 90-year-old is adjusting to the changes. When she comes into the dining room, she brings love and hugs to each of us every day.

Saturday breakfasts are skimpy compared to weekdays when we get “cooked-to-order” eggs, blueberry muffins, homemade biscuits, and either bacon, sausage, or ham. Many residents don’t bother to come down for breakfast on weekends. When I walked into the dining room, only a few people were eating bagels and cream cheese.

I went from table to table, saying, “Did you see the flowers in the courtyard?” The constant oppression of those miserable days when the thermometer hit 107 is already fading. That’s good – except for us who worry about loss of short-term memory.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Remember Pearl Harbor

After lunch five of us lingered after finishing our tuna casseroles and apple pie. We talked of 9/11. We remembered watching on television as the towers collapsed.

I was in Albuquerque. Mariam, Sara, and Becky were in their homes in the Dallas area. In the ten years since the attack, all of us sold our houses and came to live in this retirement community. Richard, a retired Naval officer, said he was in Norfolk, Virginia, “working on the Wisconsin Project.”

I wondered, “How come he was involved in Wisconsin when he was in Virginia?”
Richard said, “The admiral came in and told us, ‘Turn on the television.’”
I made the connection. I said, “Your project was with the Battleship Wisconsin, not the state.”
“Yes,” said Richard, “We were restoring it. It is still in the museum in Norfolk.”

I said, “Four of us here remember where we were the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.” (Becky, the youngest of our group, was not born until after World War II).

Sara turned to Richard and said, “Where were you when Pearl Harbor was attacked?”
“I don’t remember,” Richard said.
“You were eleven years old,” Sara reminded him. (We keep track of each other’s birthdays.)
“Was it Sunday afternoon?” Richard said. “We didn’t have the radio on. I didn’t know anything about it until I went to school the next day.”

I remember vividly December 7, 1941, sitting in the back seat of the Daddy’s Hudson as on the car’s radio H. V. Kaltenborn told us Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor. I never had heard of Pearl Harbor, but even as a twelve-year-old kid, I knew something terrible had happened.

This trivial conversation reminded me that our reaction to events depends on the information we receive, whether we see it “live” on television or hear it third hand or read some nonsense published on the internet. Also, how much do we understand of what we see and hear? I confused the state of Wisconsin with a battleship.

During World War II we hated “Japs”. In the years since, most of us changed our attitude. In New Mexico I knew men who survived the Bataan Death March and four years in brutal Japanese prisons. Without exception they held no bitterness against the Japanese people. A man from Taos Pueblo told me, “It was their culture.”

Yet Curtis, a World War II veteran who fought in the Pacific, says angrily,. “I will never buy a Japanese car.” Curtis is angry about many things. Toyota is the best-selling car in the U.S.

I hope those who publish vitriolic diatribes against Muslims will realize that the small group of fanatics who spread terror throughout the World distort their religion. Thousands of U.S. Muslims are better citizens than the fanatical fundamentalists who would force their religious beliefs on the rest of us.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Towers

My friend Gertrude Bergen lives in a 19th floor apartment on West 24th Street in New York City, about ten blocks north of the World Trade Center. She has a terrace from which she could see the towers.

While the towers were being constructed, I lived in Texas. I never heard of these extra-tall buildings. After we moved to Pennsylvania,I went on an all day bus trip to New York with the League of Women Voters. Starting home after dark, our bus went through the Hudson Tunnel. As we came up on the New Jersey side, I looked across at Manhattan and was surprised to see those two giant rectangles rising high above all the other skyscrapers, thousands of lights shining against the black sky.

In the following years we moved back to Chicago. I was divorced, took a six-month trip to Europe, spent a year in Texas with my mother, moved to Albuquerque, bought a house, married John, mourned his death. (I’ve had an eventful life.)

On 9/11/01 I ate breakfast, made a second cup of tea, and carried it into my living room. I sat down on the couch and sipped my tea, anticipating a leisurely morning watching television. The plane flew into the North Tower.

I forgot to drink my tea as I watched the horror before my eyes. I saw the South Tower collapse. Like everyone else, my thought was, “This can’t be happening.” Nothing was left but a huge avalanche of black dust and debris chasing people down the tunnels of surviving buildings.

That night I called Gertrude. She assured me she was all right. Then she told me that when the planes hit the towers, she was in the basement of the building washing a rug her cat threw up on. She had no idea what was happening until she got on the elevator to go back upstairs. A woman on the elevator was crying. Between sobs, the woman told Gertrude about the planes hitting the towers and their collapse killing thousands.

Ten years later it still impresses me that I saw instantly the collapse of the towers thousands of miles from New Mexico, while in New York, Gertrude, only a few blocks away and in sight of the towers, knew nothing about it.

We have become blase about seeing things happen on the other side of the World. In Tripoli rebels wander through Omar Gaddafi’s ruined palaces. Do we fully understand what is before our eyes? Do we know what is happening in our own neighborhood?

Thursday, September 8, 2011


On Elderhostels my traveling companions were Americans. I traveled with doctors, college professors, scientists, wealthy engineers, etc.

In Sicily I met a federal judge and his wife, Italian-Americans from Pennsylvania. One day they skipped the scheduled outing to rent a car and drive to a remote Sicilian village to see his father’s old uncle. That night at dinner I remarked that the ethnic Americans I knew (Greek-Americans, German-Americans, Norwegian-Americans, Italian-Americans) seemed to have more in common with each other than they had with relatives in the “Old Country”, whether it was Greece, Germany, Norway, or Italy. The judge said, “How true! How very true!”

In Sicily I also met Gertrude. With only a high school education, she told me she felt intimidated by all those doctors and Ph.D.’s. She had no need to feel that way. She is highly intelligent. Gertrude is also the kindest, most generous, and most tolerant person I know.

We hit it off immediately. We talked about books and theater. We laughed at the same things. As my roommate in Palermo, she didn’t complain about my noisy CPAP machine. One night I pulled the plug in my sleep. Gertrude woke and said, “What happened?” She laughed as I got me to plug it in again, saying, “The noise didn’t keep me from sleeping; the silence woke me up right away.” .

Our backgrounds could not be more different. I was raised as a Southern Baptist with ancestors who came to Texas in covered wagons. Gertrude lives in New York, where her Jewish grandparents fled from Russia a hundred years ago to escape the pogroms.

Gertrude has a friend in Albuquerque. When she came to visit Mary, she always took me to lunch and brought me gifts of tea and other goodies. When I went to New York, she arranged theater tickets. She never let me take her to lunch. Although she has a limited income, she always wants to entertain me. She says I am one of the two people she invites to stay in her tiny studio apartment.

Now that I am on dialysis and can not travel, I doubt we will see each other again. She sends me books. Gertrude is the only one, friend or relative, who calls every week to ask about my health. She has a serious heart condition. When I ask what her doctor says, Gertrude says, “I don’t want to talk about it.” She tells me about the off-Broadway plays she has seen – very few since tickets are now prohibitively expensive. We talk about politics. That, too, is an area where we totally agree.

Gertrude and I love cats. You know my Charlie. Gertrude had a cat which hid under her sofa. Who but Gertrude would feed and care for a cat for ten years and the beast never allowed her to touch him? As I said, the kindest, most generous, and most tolerant person I know.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Travel Tips

Before Wally and I left on the trip to Denmark and Iceland, I did a lot of advance preparation, going to the library for books about the two countries and writing ahead for reservations in the places we would visit. (International phone calls were expensive, and the internet had not been invented.)

The next year I left on the spur of the moment to go camping with David. I had no plan except to return to Pennsylvania where I had been happy. It worked out just fine.

When Wally brought home tickets to Frankfurt, Germany, the only advance preparations I made were to reserve a rental car and to write Karl that we were coming.. David and I bounced around Europe for three weeks finding places to eat and sleep as we drove from town to town.

After Wally and I divorced, a friend persuaded me to take to Europe with us a third party, a woman I had never met. The two were not interested in anything I wanted to see. We went to Switzerland just because the other woman wanted to buy a watch. I learned: Rather than letting uncongenial people dictate the itinerary, I enjoyed my trips more traveling alone

Then came my “big trip”: six months in Britain and on the Continent. I bought a new car, which I picked up in Germany and drove alone all around Western Europe. In some places I went, no one spoke English. With smiles and gestures, I managed.

The only place where I had trouble was in France. With two years of French in college, I thought I understood the lingo. At a restaurant “Alsace” in Chartres, the menu was utterly confusing. The waitress did not speak English. I ordered the “specialty”, expecting a delicious French meal. I was served a big platter of sausages and sauerkraut, a dish I hate. I forgot that for centuries Alsace-Lorraine was disputed between France and Germany. Now a part of France, the people are predominately German-speaking. Lovers of sausage and sauerkraut.

I married John. Every day I spent with John was a joy. He kept me laughing during the six months I was on chemo after cancer surgery. We didn’t let cancer keep us from traveling. From our home in New Mexico we drove all over the U.S., from San Diego to Vancouver, Canada, and from Florida to New York, plus annual trips to Chicago.

John took me to Europe twice. One summer we exchanged our little house in Albuquerque for one in Ipswich, England. Better than traveling alone is going with a perfect companion.

After John died, I went on tours with Elderhostel and Grand Circle. I let someone else arrange for places to eat and sleep. Most important for me, someone else handled my luggage. I was tired of lugging my big suitcase in and out of the car. Let someone else put it on the bus.

Most of the time I let the tour find me a roommate. Some I never saw again. I also made true friends. My dearest friend, whom I met in Sicily, is Gertrude Bergen from New York City.