Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Gifts

When you get to be my age, there is little to get excited about Christmas.  There are no little children in the family to fill the house with their joy and wonder.  My grown children are far away.  David enjoys Christmas with his family in California, Martha with hers in Illinois. 

As for my son Karl, I had not heard from him in eight years, since I refused to pay all the bills and he took his guns and moved out of my house in Albuquerque and went to Arkansas.  From time to time I sent him a check or a gift of fruit and/or cheese, without ever receiving a thank-you note or telephone call. 

David lets me know how Karl is coping; he pays for Karl’s telephone.  But not hearing from Karl directly broke my heart.

There was nothing I could do about that.

At Christmas time it cheers me to hear from old friends and to know they are still alive.  Old in two ways – I’ve known some of them for more than 60 years, and most are truly old, in their 80's and 90's.   On Christmas Eve, an old college friend, Betty, called from Galveston, where she lives in a retirement home similar to mine in Garland.  I remember her smooth black hair, but she tells me she is gray, like the rest of us.

On Christmas morning Doris called from Albuquerque.  A tiny little woman, she was an English war bride who met her husband, a New Mexico Hispanic, when he was an Air Force cook stationed near her home in Cambridge during World War II.  She learned to make chili, speak Spanish, and adapt and love her Hispanic in-laws.  Now she is in bad health and will never again see England and her sisters.  Yet she cheerfully told about the adorable little dog her daughter gave her.  Empatheticly, she asked about my big white cat, Charlie.

With calls and letters to cheer me, I went to the mail box and found a small package.  Inside was a Christmas pin, a tiny white cat next to a Christmas tree.  It was from my son Karl!

I called David to get Karl’s telephone number.  I phoned him, and we talked pleasantly for 30 minutes.  For the first time in eight years!  That was one of the best Christmas gifts ever!

David called this afternoon to wish his Mom “Merry Christmas.”  He has four years of work to do in the next six months, but he will try to come for my birthday in March.

Martha arrives tomorrow to spend a few days with me before heading back to Chicago and her own busy schedule.  She just completed her second M.A. degree, this one in tax accounting.  She is responsible for U.S. corporate returns for an international company, plus she has a husband and two boys at home.  Yet she finds time for Mom.

Receiving love is the best Christmas gift.  I do not need anything else.   

Friday, December 14, 2012

Me and My Kidneys

Three days a week I go to the dining room at 11:00 a.m., gobble down my lunch, and at 11:30 rush out to climb in the van and go to dialysis.   

The other day, as I waved goodby to my friends who were lingering over their chicken and potatoes, someone said to me, “You are so brave!”

No way.  There is nothing brave about my routine. 

My kidneys do not work well.  Also, I have sleep apnea and sleep with a CPAP machine.  I have a ridiculous body, topped with a flat chest (due to a double mastectomy) plus a bulging belly.  A freak intestine makes me look like an eight-months pregnant great-grandmother.  Otherwise, I am in excellent health.

I asked the doctor, “Couldn’t I skip dialysis for a week and take a little trip?”  (I would love to spend a week in San Antonio or on the beach at Galveston, or, best of all, return to see my friends in the mountains of New Mexico.)

The doctor said, “If you miss dialysis treatments for a week, you will die.”

That is incentive to continue. 

Hey!  I am 83 years old!  Still driving my car.  Still writing my own checks and balancing my bank account.  Still walking without leaning on a walker.  I do not have to be “brave” when I am still active. . 

I am in much better health than everyone else I see at the dialysis center.  My kidneys were damaged by medication and still function (i.e., I pee freely); they just do not filter the poisons out of my blood.  The other patients all have more complicated medical problems.  Many are diabetic.  A hefty gray-haired man is brought in on a stretcher; his torso is big and strong, but he lost both legs due to diabetes.  I talk to a patient, an older woman, her legs swollen to three times the normal size, who has not peed in ten years.  A 21-year-old comes in munching on bags of chips; he was born with non-functioning kidneys and has been on dialysis all his life.  

For me dialysis has become routine.  Just as at 10:30 every night I brush my teeth and go to bed every night with Letterman on the television, three days a week I go to the dialysis center, climb into my recliner, let the technician stick two needles into my left arm, and sit for three hours and 15 minutes watching “Family Feud” (I have my own little tv screen and ear phones).  I also read the weekly editions of Time and The New Yorker, the latter with cartoons as an antidote to the depressing news in the former.

The only problem is that with dialysis consumes three days a week.  I have little time for anything else.  When am I going to complete the two books I am writing?

One of the old ladies who lives with me at the retirement home is a tall, distinguished looking black woman, a former school teacher.  When I ask her, “How are you doing?” she always says, “I am still kicking.  Not very high, but I’m still kicking.”

That’s me, too.

Monday, December 10, 2012

My Yellow T-Shirt

On Friday I wore my new yellow T-shirt. At breakfast everyone who saw it burst out laughing.  Across the front is a picture of big brown Hershey bar and the words, “I could give up chocolate, but I’m not a quitter.” 

At the dialysis center that afternoon I stood in front of Patsy, the big black woman who sits in the chair next to me.  She, too, laughed out loud when she read the inscription on my shirt. 

I sat in my own chair, and Janell came to stick me with the needles.  I said, “Look at my new T-shirt.”  When the expression on his face did not change, I said, “Read what it says.”  

He read the words aloud but did not even smile.   Janell is from the Philippines.

One of the Indian nurses came to check the machine which cleans my blood.  She read the words on my shirt.  She also seems puzzled by the meaning. 

Except for two black women, all the technicians and nurses at the dialysis center are foreign born.  Most are from India, although a group is from the Philippines and one young woman (a favorite of mine) is from Ethiopia.  The head technician is from Eutreia, a small country on the east coast of Africa that he and I seem to be the only ones who can locate it on a map and only he can spell correctly. 

I won’t speculate here on why there are not more native-born Americans in these jobs, when so many people are looking for work.  The technicians at my facility skillful in programing the machine which cleans my blood and in sticking the needles into my arm to draw blood from the artery and push it, cleaned of poisons, back into the vein.  They work incredibly long hours, starting at 5:30 in the morning and sometimes staying until 11:00 p.m.  I do not now the pay scale, but one young man is going to school to become a licensed vocational nurse, saying he can earn more that way. 

All the technicians and nurses at the center worked on my left arm at some time.  I thought I knew each of them, when they came to the U.S,, the ages of their U.S.-born children.  All came to America seeking a better life for themselves and their children.  Raphael, the man from Eutreia, has paid for all four of his children to graduate from U.S. colleges.  Angie, who earns little as a dialysis technician, has a son who is a doctor in residence at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

All of them talk fluent English of a sort, but for some it is limited.  The doctor ordered the use of a longer needle to reach the deep vein in my upper arm.  The technician kept saying she would use a “big” needle.  She used the right length, despite not understanding the difference between “big” and “long.”  

I should not be surprised when none of them got the joke about eating lots of chocolate because “I’m not a quitter.” 

Friday, December 7, 2012

Remember Pearl Harbor

President Roosevelt called it, “a day which will live in infamy.”  It was the day that catapulted the U.S. into World War II, and hundreds of thousands of young Americans died. 

Everyone who is old enough to remember can tell you exactly where he/she was on December 7, 1941.  Mariam, who is 92, was a young woman working in Bloomington, Illinois.  That Sunday she went home to her parents’ farm; the happy family dinner was interrupted by news of the surprise attack.  Even Layton, who was only six in 1941, still remembers exactly where he was.  

I was twelve, and even as a child, riding in the back seat of my father’s car and hearing on the radio a man say that Japanese planes attacked U.S. Navy ships at a place in Hawaii, I knew that my life had changed forever.  

I had another shock this morning – a mild one, like static electricity when brushing my hair, compared to Pearl Harbor, which was like being electrocuted.  I live in a retirement home with 100 other “old folks.”  Sitting at breakfast with three men, I realized that all three were born after the war and have no personal memory of the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

For most Americans, World War II is ancient history like the Civil War.  Two days ago Bobby was telling me about his time in the U.S. Army and how much he enjoyed his service in Germany.  “I liked Germany.  The country is beautiful, and the people were so friendly.”

It is comforting to know that the Japanese and Germans are now our friends. 

In spite of today’s problems, I feel optimistic.   The Middle East is in turmoil, as usual.  Our economy is in a recession, and most people do not understand economics.  In Congress recalcitrant Republicans oppose anything Obama proposes.  By three votes, Santorum and his bunch blocked the treaty to protect people with disabilities – a treaty which 125 other nations have signed and which received bipartisan support from reasonable Republicans.

What gives me hope?

Look at history.  We had quite a few mediocre presidents.  Franklin Pierce, Martin van Buren, Zachary Tyler, Chester Arthur, Benjamin Harrison.  Dare I add George W. Bush?  And then there was our paranoid leader, Richard M. Nixon. 

The country survived.  And thrived.   In 50 years the turmoil of 2112 will be forgotten.  I wish I could be here to see it happen.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Dear Mr. President

Even my Republican friends agree that we need a simplified tax code.  I’ve written to President Obama several times stressing the importance of a simplified tax plan and urging him to present it to Congress. 

The President receives thousands of letters every day.  I doubt that the minions who read his mail will even forward my letter to him.  But here it is.

                                    Garland, Texas
                                    November 30, 2012   
Barack Obama, President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President:

When are you going to present Congress with a simplified tax code? 

This is what 99% of the American people want.  Give Congress no alternative but to vote for it.

Don’t ask for a “small” increase in taxes on the rich.  Demand a return to pre-Bush taxes on those with incomes between $250,000 and $1,000,000 a year.  But a BIG increase in the tax on incomes over $1,000,000.   How much money does a man need, anyway?  We’ve seen that giving the rich more money does NOT create more jobs.  Don’t let the Republicans continue to use that argument.

DO NOT LET CONGRESS CUT BENEFITS FOR SOCIAL SECURITY OR MEDICARE.  The public does not want that.  Insist on more cuts in the Department of Defense.  No more $185 million dollar fighter planes.  Such aircraft are out-of-date in today’s battles against terrorists. 

A small way to help Social Security: No income cap on FICA payments.  If a person has a salary of a million dollars, he/she should pay into the Social Security Fund on ALL of it.  But there should be a cap on Social Security payments.  Suggestion: $2,000 a month for an individual, $1,000 a month for dependents. 

Again: Please tell me WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO PRESENT CONGRESS WITH A SIMPLIFIED TAX CODE?  This is a simple question that deserves a simple answer.  Give me a date.

                        Yours sincerely,

                        Ilene Durkalski

Monday, December 3, 2012

Dear Congressman

Texans are conservative.  In the 2012 election the Democratic Party simply gave up Texas to the Republicans.  They did not support any opposition candidates.  I did not know the name of the Democratic candidate for Congress in my district until I saw a name on the ballot.    

My Congressman is a Tea Party Republican, one of those who votes “No” on everything Obama proposes.  Even since the election he refuses to compromise on anything.  I wonder if he will reply to this letter I sent him on November 30, 2012:

Congressman Jeb Hensarling
129 Cannon House Office Bldg.
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Congressman Hensarling:

What’s with you Republicans?  Don’t you listen to the people? 

You live in North Dallas, surrounded by rich neighbors.  You attend St. Michael and All Angels, also known as St. Mink and All Cadillacs.  Are they the only ones you listen to?

I live in your district, on the border between Garland and Mesquite.  I am surrounded by blacks, Hispanics, and working class whites.  Most of them voted for you because the Democrats gave them no alternative. 

As Barnum said, “You can fool all of the people some of the time.”    Beware!

Giving your friends, the rich, more money does NOT create jobs.  That’s obvious to anyone who has really looked at what has happened in the last 12 years.  It is time for the rich to pay more taxes . . . and time for you to recognize this and vote for Obama’s tax plan. 

Under no circumstances should you vote to cut benefits – even future benefits – in Social Security and Medicare.  To do so would end your career in Congress, even in a “safe” district like yours. 

                        Yours very truly,

                        Ilene Durkalski

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Keeping Cool

December 1 and the air-conditioner is whirring in my apartment.  Incredible!  Even for Texas.

Before I went to bed last night I opened the door from my bedroom to my third-floor patio.  The room was so warm I could not sleep.  At 2:00 a.m. I climbed out of bed, closed the door, and turned on the air-conditioner.  I heard the noise of its blowing like a hurricane keeping me awake until I moved into my recliner in the living room at 5:00 a.m. 

Actually, it isn’t that hot outside.  The television weatherman said the temperature was 65 at 7:00 o’clock this morning. 

So why is my apartment uncomfortably warm?  I think the heat rises from the apartment below.  The woman who lives there is a tiny, frail little thing.  An old woman with no flesh on her thin bones.  To feel warm she holds the temperature in her apartment at 85 degrees.   

I would rather open my doors and enjoy fresh air.  Instead, I waste electricity to keep cool.  That’s life.  We make adjustments to have a comfortable life.

David missed Thanksgiving with his children to come be with me.  While here he spent one entire day on the computer putting into a special document all the blogs about the trip to Europe when he was 13 years old.  Now I can spend the next six months editing it for publication as a book. 

I could get fresh air by sitting on my patio and enjoying the plants in my flower boxes.  Thinking it would freeze by now, I had my sister-in-law Mary bring me pansies to replace the begonias Martha planted in March.  But the begonias are still blooming like mad, and I do not have the heart to pull them up and plant the pansies. 

A trivial choice for me.  Not like the hard choices awaiting Congress.  Do any of those old men have the courage to make real changes?

I wrote to President Obama and to my Congressman (a Tea Party Republican) advising them on the tax situation.  I’ll post copies of the letters next week. 

Yep!  Ilene is ranting again.  Are you ready for this?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Marina Oswald's Landlady

When I cleaned out a closet this week I found a long letter from Ruth Paine.  After Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President John F. Kennedy, Ruth Paine was described as “Marina Oswald’s landlady.” 

In 1963 Oswald was living in an apartment in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas, while his wife and children were in suburban Irving in the home of Ruth Paine.  Reporters who were unfamiliar with the city surmised that Oswald moved to Dallas to be nearer to his job at the Texas School Book Depository.  Actually, the commute was equally as easy from Irving as it was from Oak Cliff.  Lee and his wife were separated. 

Ruth Paine was a Quaker who took Marina Oswald and her babies into her home to protect the young Russian woman from her abusive husband.  She permitted Lee to come and stay for just one night on November 21, the night before he killed the President. 

He had hidden his rifle inside a rug in Ruth Paine’s garage.  As a Quaker, Ruth was a Pacifist;    
she was horrified when she learned the murder weapon was in her home. 

My family moved to Irving in 1966.  Ruth had not seen Marina since the Secret Service took her into protective custody after Lee Oswald was arrested.  When I met Ruth she had established a Montessori school for the poor black children who lived in the slums of West Irving, hoping to give them a step towards a good education.  

I never was a close friend of Ruth’s, but we had a mutual friend, June Allyson, a dumpy little woman in her late 30s (the same age as me), rather plain to look at but full of energy and enthusiasm which made her a fun companion.  When June was devastated by divorce, Ruth took June and her children into her home, just as she had provided a refuge for Marina Oswald.

Ruth’s home was a handsome brick “Texas ranch” with an in-ground swimming pool.  Conspiracy theorists hinted that she bought it with “hush money” for her part in the assassination.  Ruth herself told me she bought the house with an inheritance she received from her father. 

In 1970 Ruth decided to move to Philadelphia.  Her husband, from whom she was divorced, came from a Pennsylvania Quaker family.  Ruth wanted her small children to grow up near their grandmother. 

Ruth went to Philadelphia to look for a new home, leaving our mutual friend, June Allyson, to housesit.  All that summer I took my children to Ruth’s house to visit my friend June.  My children and I swam in Ruth’s pool with June and her children. 

Ruth returned to Texas to finalize her move, while my family packed up and moved.  Wally was transferred to his company’s home office – in the same city where Ruth was moving, Philadelphia.  We went to a lovely old three-story house in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania.  

That fall Ruth wrote to tell me that June had been killed.  She  was crossing a busy street in Irving when she was hit by a speeding car. 

Ruth wrote to me, telling about June.  She also told me that both her children were enrolled in Friends schools in Philadelphia and she had  been appointed as principal of her son’s Quaker school, the Greene Street Friends School.

At Christmas time Ruth came to dinner at our home in Drexel Hill.  We stood beside the Christmas tree and talked about our sadness at the loss of our mutual friend, June.  That was the last time I saw her. 

Now it is Thanksgiving time again.  Kennedy has been dead for almost half a century.  When out-of-town visitors come to Dallas, I urge them to go visit the Sixth Floor Museum and look out the window where Oswald aimed his rifle at the President passing below in the open car. 

After less than three years in Pennsylvania, my family returned to Chicago.  Wally and I divorced, remarried, and then lost our second spouses.  Wally is dead, too.  I lost my wonderful husband John 20 years ago, but he left me happy memories. 

I have a good life,.  I live in a retirement home in Garland, Texas.  Even though I go through dialysis three days a week, I have pleasant companions and days of good health, when I have fun..  On Friday a friend and I went to a wonderful concert by the Garland Symphony.

I saw on television that Ruth retired and moved to Florida.  I hope she has had a good life, too.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

3 X 22 November

This year Thanksgiving is November 22.  That day is also my son Karl’s 58th birthday.  Also, the 49th anniversary of the day President Kennedy was shot. 

Yesterday my son David rented a car at DFW Airport when he arrived from California.  This morning we will drive to Decatur, Texas, for dinner with my friend Sally and her family.  I will give thanks for friends, especially Sally, who has been a devoted friend since high school.  (We graduated in 1946!)  Karl will not be with us. 

In 1963 Karl was nine years old.  I was down in the basement of our house in Birmingham, Michigan, hanging up balloons for the after-school party, when the door bell rang.  I ran upstairs.  My next door neighbor, Dottie Kendall, had come to tell me about the tragedy in Dallas.  I ran to the radio in our high-fi cabinet, and we listened together as Walter Cronkite told us that the President was dead.

After school, ten little boys in Cub Scout uniforms, arrived, all of them jumpy and upset.  One little boy said, “Mrs. Gaarsoe, did the Communists kill the President?”

Being a former Texan, I thought I knew Dallas.  I told him, “No.  Dallas is a very conservative city.  There are people in Dallas who hate the President just because he is a Democrat.  They wanted to see him dead.”

I was wrong.  Kennedy was killed by a nut, Lee Harvey Oswald.  He went to Russia where the Communists wanted nothing to do with that psychopath.  Contrary to what some people believe, the Russians were happy to send him and his Russian wife back to the U.S.  He was not a Communist agent, but as a loose cannon that they wanted to get ride of.  

Two years later Wally was transferred.  We went to Michigan with two small children.  We left with three.  David was less than a year old when we moved to Dallas. 

One of the first places I went after we moved into our house in Irving was to a DAR meeting.  I bought a new hat, a fake fur pill box, to sit among those conservative old women and hear a woman lecture us about the Russian conspiracy to kill Kennedy.  She said ominously, “Mrs. Paine had a Russian typewriter.”

Ruth Paine was described by the media as “Marina Oswald’s landlady.”  While we lived in Irving, we became acquainted.   This slim, dark-haired young woman – a newly-wed, younger than me – was a Quaker, a Pacifist, who devoted her life to helping people.  She felt sorry for this young Russian girl who was abused by her husband.  .Ruth took Marina and her babies into her home out of the goodness of her heart, without any compensation. 

In my next blog I’ll tell how Ruth happened to write two letters to me, which I found last week when I cleaned out my office closet.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Letters from the Past

On Friday I posted the blog about David and me returning from our trip to Europe.  I thought that was the end of my story of those adventures. 

Then I cleaned out the closet in my 2nd bedroom, the one I use as an office.  I found boxes and boxes of old letters.  We used to write letters the way young people today text messages on their telephones.  My letters were longer and more detailed than my blogs. 

Among other things, I found a stack of post cards sent to Wally during that trip.  I do not remember mailing him any cards.  Yet here they are.  They give a whole different view of our trip.  I will post them on a blog.   But later.  I have several other things to tell you about first.

I have only gone through a fraction of the letters stored in my closet.  Who knows what events I’ve forgotten and will come to light when I open all those faded envelopes? 

I found a letter my grandmother wrote to my mother when my parents were visiting my family in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, at Thanksgiving time.  I do not remember my parents being at our house for Thanksgiving.  In truth, I do not remember my father ever coming to Pennsylvania.  Yet here is my grandmother's letter.

When I read the letter to my sister-in-law, Mary said, “I wonder why she didn’t go with them.”  My grandmother usually was with my mother, except when Mother stepped into the bathroom. 

This is what my grandmother wrote, exactly as she wrote it, misspelled words and all:  “Don came and took Cotten (her sister) and I to their home for “Thanksgiving Dinner.”  the first that Mary had cooked – her turkey was fine – but she did not know how to make gravey – I helped her with that.  And all of us enjoyed it.”

Mary has no memory of that meal.  Was it in the house she and Don built in Arlington?  She does not remember Aunt Cotton ever coming to their house.  And maybe Mary knew how to make gravy.  My grandmother frequently insisted on helping where no help was needed.

In her letter my grandmother continued, “Don brought us home and when I would not go home with Cotton and stay she decided to spend the night with me – and slept with me – would not sleep in your room (my parents’ bedroom) – the men across the street worked on an old car alnight and skept us awake -- but moved it out Friday – so all it quiet again at night.”

I can just see those two old women.  Aunt Cotton, who was in her 90's, had lived alone since the 1920's yet was concerned about her “little sister” staying alone while my parents were in Pennsylvania.  My grandmother resented every minute of it!   The two were always quarreling yet talked to each other every day.

My grandmother added a post script: “Lyle came by and visited Friday and took Cotton home.”

In my closet I also found two letters to me from Ruth Paine.  It will take another two blogs to explain how I happened to receive letters from the woman described in the press as “Marina Oswald’s landlady.”

Friday, November 16, 2012

Going Home

David and I flew back from Frankfurt to Chicago.  As I sat crammed beside David in the narrow coach seats of the plane, I had hours to reflect on what we had seen and done. 

It had a different trip from the one I hoped to take.  I wanted a second honeymoon with Wally in Paris.  I got a three-week ramble around Germany, Austria, and The Netherlands, as well as France, and my companion was a 13-year-old child, my son David.

I had vivid memories of World War II.  I had not wanted to go to Germany. On this trip I discovered window boxes overflowing with flowers in pretty German villages and met friendly Germans. 

I was terrified when I killed the motor of the rental car while going up a cliff in the Alps, but Hay! I never would have had that kind of adventure in Chicago.

I was 49 years old, and I had never lived alone.  I lived at home with my parents until I married Wally, and I had been with him for the next 26 years. 

Except for a few nights in Paris, I scarcely thought about my husband during the entire trip.   The man had a contrary streak in him.  If I made a suggestion, he insisted we do something different, and we always did what Wally wanted to do.  If he had been with us, we would not have seen or done a quarter of the things David and I did.

From the first night we landed in Frankfurt and Karl failed to make hotel reservations, I was on my own.  I determined where we would sleep and eat and where we would go the next day.  David had no choice.  He had to go wherever I took him. 

At 13 David was still a little boy, small for his age and not yet a rebellious teenager.  I tried to do things he would enjoy.  Without him I would not have spent the day in Paris at Les Invalides.  I enjoyed that, especially meeting the German woman beside Napoleon’s tomb.

“Did you have a good time?” I asked David, as the stewardess took away our luncheon trays. 
“Oh, yes!” he said and closed his eyes to take a nap.  

I wished we had time to go to Italy. I wanted to see Florence and Rome.  And Venice, where Katherine Hepburn fell in the canal.  I also wanted to go to Norway, as my daughter Martha had been an exchange student.  I determined to go back to Europe.  When?  As soon as I could. 

At O’Hare Airport, Wally was waiting when we landed. 
“Did you have a good time?” he said.
“Yes, we did,” I said.

The next year we were divorced.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Army Security

The recent attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi provoked raucous protests by Republicans about the lack of security to protect our diplomats at that post in Lybia.  The uproar reminded me of the total LACK of security on the U.S. Army base where my son Karl was stationed in Frankfurt, Germany. 

The front gate was always open.  An MP would step out of a little kiosk and wave my German rental car through without a challenge.  I drove in and out many times.   

The day David and I were to leave Frankfurt we drove to the base in the morning to say goodbye to Karl.  My biggest problem was finding a parking place.  The only empty spaces were the ones reserved for generals in front of the main building, the art nouveau “sky scraper”.which before World War II had been international headquarters of a German arms manufacturer.  When I finally found a parking space at the far end of a lot full of hundreds of cars, David and I had quite a hike to get to the front door.

We jumped on the crazy elevator with constantly moving platforms which took us up to the ninth floor offices of Army Intelligence.  Here was where Karl spied on the Russians.  David and I walked right in and asked, “Where’s Karl?”

The sergeant behind the desk looked up, only slightly surprised to see us there.  He said, “He isn’t here today.”

A man standing beside him that said, “He is out in the trailers this morning.”
“The trailers?” I asked.
“There are a bunch of trailers behind the building,” the unidentified man said. 

David and I rode down those nine floors on another of those terrifying platforms.  Sure enough, behind the main building were a long row of white trailers without any identifying markings.  They were strung together like boxcars on a train, only there were no railroad tracks. 

David and I walked through trailers on a narrow aisle between hundreds of desks with electronic equipment.  I assumed this was apparatus for surveillance on the Russians.  There was no one to confirm or deny this assumption. 

After going through six or eight trailers, we met a young serviceman – I think he was a corporal – coming the opposite direction.  He said, “What are you doing here?”

“We’re looking for Karl.”
“He isn’t on base today.”

David and I gave up.  We went to the PX where I had a cup of tea for five cents.  At that time, a cup of tea or coffee off-base was a dollar.  I understood why Karl and other servicemen stayed on base and saw very little of the surrounding German city.  After drinking a second cup, David and I got in the car and drove to the airport. 

Even at the time the whole incident seemed bizarre.  It had been over 30 years since the U.S. Air Force bombed German cities into rubble and our Army invaded the country.  In the long arc of history, that was a short time to turn enemies into friends.  Yet I was never afraid to take my young son any place in Germany.  David and I met wonderfully friendly people throughout the land. 

Remembering that gives me hope that the U.S. can emerge from this whole rotten situation in North Africa and the Middle East and become friends with Muslims throughout the World.  I wish I could live to see it.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Pity Poor Royal Brides

Czar Nicholas II was a totally incompetent ruler, but while, most royal marriages were political alliances in which the couple had no choice, Nicholas and Alexandra were truly in love. 

Royal marriages were arranged as treaties between countries.  Usually the bride and groom had no choice.  History is full of these marriages, and many child brides became unhappy wives.

Ferdinand and Isabella wanted an alliance with England against France, so they shipped their pious, Catholic 15-year-old daughter Catherine off to Protestant England to marry the heir of Henry VII.   She did not speak any English and clung to her Spanish ladies-in-waiting for support.  In spite of that, the marriage seems to have been happy until Catherine failed to produce and heir and Henry VIII met Anne Boleyn. 

Empress Maria Theresa of Austria sent her youngest child, 14-year-old Maria, to France, where she learned the language and became the fun-loving Queen Marie Antoinette married to a dull, dim-witted husband.  The French revolted; Louis XVI and Marie lost their heads. 

American’s remember England’s George III as the hated “tyrant” of the American Revolution.  He was only 22 when he became king, a young man under the influence of his mother.  He wanted to marry an aristocratic English lady, but Mama objected.  She imported a German bride for him. Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was a little, ugly girl, portrayed in cartoons as monkey-faced.  George was a good and faithful husband.  They had 15 children.  But as an old man he issued an edict dissolving all the marriages in England.  By that time he was insane, confined in Windsor Castle, and no one paid any attention. 

Czar Alexander II of Russia demanded that his son choose a German bride.  Nicholas went off to the wedding of Elizabeth of Hesse-Darmstadt to his uncle, the Grand Duke Serge.   Nicholas met Elizabeth’s younger sister, Alix, and fell in love.  Their deep affection for each other sustained them until the day they and their children were taken into a cellar in Siberia and shot to death. 

From another book I learned that Elizabeth’s life was even more tragic than Alexandra’s.  She didn’t have the glory of being married to a czar, and unlike Nicholas, his uncle was a brute and a pervert.  Elizabeth’s marriage was a sham.  Unhappy and childless, she became a nun and devoted her life to helping the poor.  When the Bolsheviks seized power, they killed as many of the royal family as they could catch.  They murdered Elizabeth and threw her body down into a well.

No one I know is of royal blood.  We choose whomever we want to marry.  Yet how many of these marriages, begun so hopefully and based on love, end “‘til death do us part” with a lifetime of devotion like Nicholas and Alexandra? 

We do not get executed like European royals, but a common cause of murder in the U.S. is spouses shooting each other.  The lucky ones simply get divorced.  Over half of American marriages end in divorce.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Nicholas and Alexandra

“Nicholas and Alexandra” is one of my favorite movies.  The film tells the tragic story of the last Russian czar who, with his wife and their children, was murdered by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution. 

Alexandra was the daughter of the ruler of Hesse-Darmstadt, a city only a few miles from Frankfurt.  David and I had one last free afternoon of our trip to Europe, so we drove out to Darmstadt, hoping to see the castle.  I had visions of seeing the room where the ill-fated couple met and fell in love. 

I could not find the road to the castle.  I ended up out into the countryside at a little village. As in most German towns, houses and church clustered at the base of a hill topped with a castle.  Not the castle I was looking for, but a ruin. 

I drove up the hill and parked in a grassy meadow.  David and I were the only people within earshot.  A herd of goats wandered around chewing on grass and weeds growing among the stone ruins.  David had a fine time climbing on the ruins, while I walked around, trying not to step in goat droppings and praying that David did not fall from that crumbly tower.  The afternoon was warm and sunny, a pleasant way to spend an hour or so, just not what I expected to do that day. 

We drove back into Darmstadt and found a shop, where I revived on an excellent cup of hot tea.  Maybe David had tea, too.  I don’t remember. 

I asked the shop keeper how we could find the “schloss” (German for both “castle” and “palace”).  She told me it was only a few blocks away.  After paying the bill, David and I drove to find a big brick palace, a duke’s attempt to mimic Versailles.  A uniformed guard at the gate greeted us kindly and told me, yes, the palace was open to the public but unfortunately it had just closed for the day.  If we had come 30 minutes earlier . . . .

The castle would open again the next morning, but we could not return.  Our flight back to the U.S. left the next day.  I was bitterly disappointed.

Today I took off my bookshelf “The Tragic Dynasty, a History of the Romanovs” by John Bergamini.  I read the pages about Nicholas and Alexandra and learned that I had been mistaken about the part the palace in Darmstadt played in Alexandra’s life. 

She did not grow up in Darmstadt.  Her mother died when she was six, and she grew up in England with her grandmother, Queen Victoria.  The young people met at the wedding of her sister Elizabeth to his uncle Serge, but the wedding was not in Darmstadt but in St. Petersburg.

Nicholas and Alexandra became engaged at another family wedding, not in Darmstadt but in Coburg.  During their engagement they got to know each other while visiting “Granny” (Queen Victoria) in England. They weren’t even married in Darmstadt but in the chapel of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. 

All I thought I knew about Darmstadt proved to be false.  So what?  Now I don’t regret not seeing the castle.  David enjoyed playing in the ruins among the goats more than he would have being drug through a palace with heavy German furniture and faded portraits of long-dead Dukes of Hesse.  

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Greetings in Germany

David says the thing he remembers about our trip to Europe was, “How friendly everyone was every place we went.” 

Because of the Nazis, I felt uneasy about going to Germany, but every place we stopped in Germany, people were kind to this little kid being drug around Europe by his middle-aged mother.. Even the Austrians and Belgiums, two proud and stiff people, were polite.  

The way people greet you makes all the difference.  On the night we returned to Frankfurt, David and I drove to the little hotel on a side street where we stayed before.  It was late at night.  After the terror of driving for hours through white-out fog, I was exhausted.  When we walked in, the same desk clerk was leaning against the counter, eyes closed, asleep standing up.  Our footsteps woke him.  He looked up, recognized us, and smiled. 

He did not speak English, but his genuine smile said it all.  He was glad to see us.  

Such a smile makes your heart sing.  For several years, a long time ago our family lived in Texas.  Once a month I left David, just a toddler, with a babysitter and drove into Dallas for lunch with Ilene Timmerman.   In the afternoon I returned to pick him up.  My little boy would be solemnly playing with toys in the middle of the floor.  When he saw me, he jumped up and ran to me, arms outstretched, an angelic smile on his chubby little face.  That is one of my happiest memories.

Now the radio blasts out Beethoven at 6:30 a.m.  I wake feeling, “I don’t want to get out of this warm bed.”  My cat Charlie jumps on the bed and meows in my face.  He isn’t saying, “Good morning.”  He just wants me to get up and turn on the faucet so he can have a drink.

I force myself to climb out of bed and get dressed.  I go downstairs to breakfast.  Our waitress Felix brings me a cup of tea and gives me a smile and a hug.  At once the day becomes bright and wonderful. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

In a Fog

Last week I went into Dallas to order a new custom-made sleeve to support my swollen right arm.  Afterwards I lingered too long looking at the Valazquez portraits at the Meadows Museum.  I drove out into a city with such poor street lighting that it was as black as New York after Sandy’s flood.   

In the center lane on Northwest Highway I was completely surrounded by speeding cars.  I drove mile after mile, pressing down on the accelerator as I tried to keep up with the car in front of me, while a pickup loomed up like a black monster in my rear view mirror.  No chance of moving into the right lane, as lines of cars sped. forward just as fast in that lane, too.  As miles and minutes passed and my terror mounted, I thought, “Maybe I’ve died and gone to Hell.”   Hell for me would be to spend eternity trapped in speeding traffic.   

I’ve been in frightening driving situations before.  On another black night I listened to travelers’ warnings on the radio as I drove across the New Mexico dessert on an icy highway barely visible through blowing snow.  No one else was so foolish as to be on the Interstate on such a night, and if I had slid off the highway and crashed, there were no lights on the horizon to indicate even one remote ranch house to go to for help.

That night in New Mexico, I was alone and in a deep depression.  I didn’t care what happened to me.  I did not see that in the coming years I would have a great, wonderful, happy life.

On a terrifying night in Germany, Karl and David were with me, and I was responsible for their lives.  After we left the Romantic Road and went through the mountains to the autobahn, we ran into fog.. I hesitated on the ramp leading down to the highway.  Karl said, “Mother, you drive like a little old lady.”

“Karl,” I said, “I am a little old lady.”

I took a deep breath and pushed my foot down as hard as I could.  A deep, white blanket of fog  concealed everything except two little red spots of taillights as Mercedes and BMW’s sped past me.  I tried to follow those bits of red lights.  They were the only guides I had to curves in the highway through the mountains.  But the speeding cars disappeared into the fog.  I crept along in at 80 mph and prayed that any German in a Porsche going 125 would see my feeble little taillights before crashing into me. 

There was no way I could get off the highway and wait for the fog to clear.  Karl had to report to the Army in Frankfurt the next morning.

I drove for hours in that thick potato soup of fog, hours of constant fear and terror.  The fog was so thick that I couldn’t see the exits at Frankfurt.  I missed the right turnoff, and we had to work our way back through the city to drop Karl at his barracks after midnight. 

They say, “God protects fools and little children.”   I am not a child.  But what do you think of an 83-year-old woman who has had the experiences I’ve had and continues to endanger the lives of herself and others by driving at night in rush hour traffic? 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Castles on the Rhine

Leaving Rotterdam, we crossed The Netherlands and into Germany.  We drove along the banks of the Rhine River on “The Romantic Road.” 

I did all the driving.  David was too young to have a license.  With his Illinois license Karl was permitted to drive Army vehicles, but the Army forbid his driving civilian cars.  David sat quietly scrunched up in the Opal’s narrow back, while Karl’s role was criticizing my driving. 

On the sunny side of the river, vineyards rose in neat tiers of vines almost to the top of the mountains.  For years my favorite drink with dinner was white Rhine wine, but I never thought of where the grapes were actually harvested.  I marveled that farmers could tend vines on such steep slopes. 

Wild forests covered the mountains on the shady side of the river up to castle walls.  And there seemed to be a castle on top of every mountain.  The views were spectacular, ever changing, like in a Cinemax movie.   The settings were romantic, like a book of fairy tales where every page has a different picture.  But I couldn’t help thinking that these many castles, with their thick stone walls, were built when every village distrusted everyone else and lived in constant fear of attack by its neighbors.

Most of the castles were in ruins, but when I saw a sign saying “To the Marksburg” I turned off.  And went straight up the mountain. 

I was on one of those heart-stopping, narrow, twisting mountain roads, with many switchbacks. I rounded a curve and yelled, “Holy Moses!”  Coming down the mountain towards me was a huge bus full of tourists.  The road was so narrow, I didn’t see how we could pass.  I pulled the car with its right wheels on the edge of the cliff.  Somehow that bus driver squeezed that mammoth machine between the solid rock of the mountainside and my little car without scraping a border or a fender or pushing me over the cliff. .  

At the top there was actually an open space with a parking lot with half a dozen cars.  Karl, David, and I left our car and ran towards high, forbidding walls.  We passed under a portcullis, through an arched stone passageway, and into an interior stone-paved courtyard where a uniformed attendant sold us tickets and told us to hurry ahead to join the last tour of the day.     

We were given a complete tour of the castle, up and down narrow, winding stone staircases, through rooms large and small and along the battlements.  I looked out a narrow slit of a window. Far below the village beside the river was exactly as if I was looking at it out of an airplane.  

With many small rooms, I could see how in the 17th Century the castle was a prison, but I was surprised when told in the last century it had been an old folks home.  At 50 I was already coping with pain in arthritic knees.  I could not imagine elderly people living in those cold, damp rooms with uneven stone floors, and especially going up and down the many twisting stone steps. 

Since we were the final tour of the day, I drove down the mountain without meeting any other vehicles coming up. We had seen up close what it was like to live in a fairy tale castle, and it did not look like one bit of fun.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Shared Sorrows

Reit and I sat on the beach watching ships go out into the North Sea headed for who knew where – the ferry to England and merchant ships perhaps to Buenos Aires or Jakarta or Galveston.  It was a quiet time, when nothing much happened.  Yet that was one of the most memorable events of all my travels, more memorable than the Louvre or Versailles or Chartres Cathedral or any of the other great “sights” of Europe. 

Why?  Although Reit spoke English haltingly and with gestures to indicate words she did not know, we understood one another.  Talking with someone “from the heart” is as rare as being given the Hope diamond.

My heart ached for her when she told about the death of her son Tony from a drug overdose.  Losing a child must be the worst thing that can happen to a woman.  Reit’s voice betrayed her sorrow, yet she calmly told me how Tony wasted his young life. 

My heart ached for her, as I, too, have a son with problems.  Not David, but Karl.  He does not smoke, drink alcohol, or do drugs.  He is still alive.  But he creates situations.  No one can “get along” with him.  He does things that alienate everyone. 

Before David and I went to Europe, I wrote asking him to arrange a place for us to stay in Frankfurt.  The day we arrived, we spent the afternoon sightseeing.  After dinner Karl said, “I have to go to class.  I hope you can find a place to stay.”

While David and I were in Rotterdam, Karl wrote that he was coming to meet us, due to arrive on the 8:00 p.m. train.  It took an hour for Kees and I to drive from the apartment, through a tunnel under the Maas River, and into the heart of the city and the railroad station.  Kees and I waited on the platform when the 8:00 p.m. train arrived on time.  Karl did not get off the train. 

We got back to Oldegaard Place at 10:00 p.m. and left again at 11:00 to drive back to the station.  Karl stepped off the train at midnight.  Without a word of apology for the inconvenience he caused, Karl talked excitedly about the big cathedral he had seen from the train window. 

“That must have been at Cologne,” I said.
“No, it wasn’t,” Karl said.  “It was Koln.”
“The German is Koln,” I said.  “The French call it Cologne, and we do, too.”
“It was Koln,” Karl insisted.  “It was not Cologne.”

That was Karl.  He had an answer to everything and refused to consider any other alternative.  Not a tragic life, like Tony’s.  But he makes it impossible for anyone to live with him.  He now lives alone in a dilapidated trailer in Rogers, Arkansas.  He has not called to wish me “Happy Mother’s Day” or sent me a Christmas card in eight years.

That’s my sorrow.  But, like Reit, I accept the situation.  I can not change him.

Monday, October 29, 2012

On the Beach

I spent several days with the Bouws at the Little House.  Every morning Kees left on his bicycle to go to work in Rotterdam, and Riet and I went shopping.  Since the Little House had no refrigerator, she shopped for food every day. 

London had been extremely hot that summer, but at the beach in The Netherlands the air was crisp and cool.  I wore a sweater as we walked along the street past similar tiny cottages, where elderly Dutchmen called out “Da” (Good Day).  That was one Dutch word that I could pronounce, so I returned their greetings.. 

Riet explained in broken English, with gestures, that all the people who came to this little “resort” were old, as young people preferred to vacation in warmer climates.  Every year Margaret and her family rented a “caravan” and went camping on a beach in Spain.

In one of the little shops Riet and I bought needlework kits to make pictures of birds.  On rainy afternoons we stayed inside the Little House, talking little as we worked tiny cross stitches into the linen, she with red thread, me with blue.  I still have my blue bird in its little oval frame on the wall beside the mirror in my bathroom in Garland, Texas, a daily reminder of those pleasant afternoons.

After supper on my final evening, Riet and I climbed through the dunes behind the Little House.  We emerged on a wide, sandy beach facing the cold, gray North Sea.   Riet and I sat on the sand.  The air was cool, but I was comfortable in a light sweater.  I took off my shoes and wiggled my toes in the sand.  That too was cool. 

I looked out at the sea.  In the gray light of evening, the water was calm, low waves lapping a slow rhythm against the shore. 

Riet pointed to a ship moving slowly across the horizon.  She said, “The ferry to England.”  In the quiet of that calm evening, it seemed strange that less than a mile away was one of the busiest ports in Europe.

The first time I came to Rotterdam, Riet was shy about trying to speak English.  She asked Margaret to translate for her.  I tried to learn a few Dutch phrases but never got my throat and tongue around any word except “Da”.   By the time we sat in the sand, Riet had become comfortable with me, and we had a long, woman-to-woman talk.  I felt more at ease with this Dutch woman than with many of my talkative American friends.

She asked about Wally.  I told her I was devastated when I found it necessary to divorce him.  My children loved their father; I never told them how he hit and kicked me. 

She talked about her son, Tony.  The baby for whom Mother sent clothes had grown into an adult drug addict.  He married “a nice girl”, and Riet was sad when the young woman divorced her son.  Then he died of an overdose.

Somehow talking about our sorrows, with few words and broken English, was comforting to both of us.

As the light faded and the sea turned from gray to black, I thought: Not everyone can escape to a place where it is always hot and sunny.  We have to make the best of wherever we are.  If it rains, stay indoors and make a pretty picture.  When it clears, go to the beach.  The sand may be cold on the feet, but it is still fun to wiggle your toes in it.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Little House

Before I went to Europe, Kees wrote that he and Marie had received an inheritance and bought a “little house” at the Hoek of Holland.   The first time I visited, at their fourth floor apartment in Rotterdam, Marie – on Riet, as Kees called her – told me how tired she was of climbing stairs and how much she loved summers when they went to stay in the Little House. 

While Mother, David, and I were visiting, the Bouws urged me to come back later that summer.  After Mother and David returned to the States, I spent three weeks in London taking a course in script writing.  Then, once again, I took the overnight ferry from Harwich.

Travelers traditionally cross the Channel from England to the Continent on the ferry at the Channel’s narrowest point from Dover to Calais, France.  But to go to Northern Europe, ferries leave from Harwich and cross the North Sea.  I’ve shipped out from Harwich to Belgium and Hamburg, Germany, as well as to Rotterdam.  Only once did I come back through Calais.  As we approached the English coast, I finally saw that there really are white cliffs at Dover.  .  

Kees was on the pier when I stepped off the ship at the harbor in Rotterdam.  He gave me a big Dutch smile and picked up my suitcase.  “Now we walk to the Little House.”

The Hoek of Holland is a long strip of land, shaped like a pirate’s hook, which stretches out into the North Sea to protect the port of Rotterdam.  It is The Netherlands’ busiest port, but I don’t remember going through much industrial area before we were walking along a sandy road beside the dunes.  

With his long legs, Kees could have quickly outpaced me, but as I remember it was a leisurely stroll.  I did not tire as we walked – not far, perhaps half a mile – to a village on edge of a resort community of tiny cabins lined up close together, each with a tiny scrap of a front yard enclosed in low, improvised fences.  It was like being in Madurodam again, only there were big Dutchmen saying “Da” (“Good Day”) to greet us as we walked along the street. . 

Riet met us at the door of what was indeed a Little House.  The entire structure was no more than 16 feet square.  Kees had me pause to admire his “garden”, a tiny plot in which he lovingly cared for each little marigold and petunia. 

Inside, the “big” room, 12 x 16, had in one corner a sink and a hot plate to serve as the kitchen. Along the opposite wall were two 4 x 6 “sleeping rooms” and a closet for the toilet.  Because of the tiny space, doors opened outward into the big room.  My “room” had a twin-sized mattress with just room beside it for a small stool holding a bedside lamp.  My suitcase sat outside the door, as there was no space for it inside the bedroom.  I wondered how Kees and Riet, both big people, managed to squeeze into their equally small room to sleep. 

On Sunday, Riet’s relatives came for a picnic – aunts. uncles, cousins, and a niece named Annaliese – all big, robust Dutchmen.  All crowded into the Little House.  Somehow there was room for everyone, laughing, talking, and drinking beer.

When I think of today’s young people who believe they can’t be happy unless they have a 3,0000 foot house with five bedrooms, six bathrooms, a media room, and a three-car garage, when I think of them, then I remember the Little House.  How much space does a family really need to have a happy life?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Sightseeing in The Hague

Michelin Guides list “attractions” with stars, three stars for “must see” with one star indicating a place to see if you have nothing better to do.  Actually, there are no “must see” places.  Various people enjoy different things.  Some tourists spend all their time shopping.  That’s okay, if that is what gives them the most pleasure.  

I admire great art and go to museums as often as I can.  On my first trip to The Netherlands, Kees and I went to Amsterdam to see two of the World’s most famous art museums.  At the Rijks Museum we saw paintings by Rembrandt.  At the Van Gogh Museum Kees bought a poster of colorful boats pulled up on a beach.  It was not a typical Van Gogh, but it was his choice.  His wife Riet was thrilled when he showed it to her.

Going to museums is not what typical tourists do.  And not where the Dutch go on their holidays.  During Mother’s visit, we went to The Hague to see three of Kees’s favorite places. . 

The city is the seat of the Dutch Parliament and the home of Queen Beatrix.  The Hague is also the site of the Peace Palace, where the International Court of Justice tries war criminals for “crimes against humanity.”  We did not see any of those important buildings.  Instead, Mother was thrilled when Kees took us to the Queen’s Rose Garden, where Mother enjoyed the color and aroma of thousands of blossoms. 

David’s treat was Madurodam.  This is a mini-city with hundreds of Dutch buildings rebuilt in miniature exactly to scale.  It was great fun watching tiny cars and trains running about between churches and landmark buildings, old and modern.  In Dallas every year people go to North Park Mall to see a model train exhibit.  Everything is big in Texas, but Madurodam was ten times as big and elaborate than the Dallas train set.  .

Kees also insisted that we see what he called “the Moog Panorama.”  The Dutch language is extremely difficult for English-speakers to pronounce.  According to Wikilinks, “The Panorama Maesdag” was by Henrdrik William Maesdag.  “Maesdag” must sound like “Moog” to American ears.  In the movie “Lust for Life” Kirk Douglas played Vincente Van Gogh who, as a young man went to The Hague to study painting under his “Uncle Moog”. 

We paid our fees at the ticket booth and walked down a dark hallway and out onto what felt like a wooden pier, where we were surrounded by a beach scene.   The painting was over 42 feet high and completely encircled us.  It was as if we stepped back 150 years with women and children in 19th Century dress standing and sitting in the sands as they enjoyed a sunny day at the seaside.  

In his day Hendrik Maesdag was “one of the most famous painters of The Hague School.”  He painted the panorama in 1881, when his nephew was discovering the color and light of French Provence.  Now tourists flock to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, and only the Dutch go to Maesdag’s panorama.

People decorate their homes with pretty pictures.  My daughter-in-law fills her walls with works by Thomas Kincaid.  I go to museums to see great art.  Rembrandt’s self-portraits are superb, but I do not want that sad face in my bedroom.  

After being pushed and shoved by the mobs in the Van Gogh Museum, I thoroughly enjoyed a quiet hour surrounded by the tranquil beauty of Uncle Maesdag’s Panorama.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Windmills on My Mind

When I took Mother to The Netherlands to visit the Bouw Family,  Kees insisted we go to Kinderdijk, a village a few miles east of Rotterdam. 

Before I went to The Netherlands the first time, I imagined a land dotted with windmills.  On my first trip with David, we drove south from Rotterdam to Oud Beyerland and, on another day, went 90 miles north to Amsterdam and did not see a single windmill.  I began to think that windmills as a symbol of Holland were as scarce as eagles in America.

At Kinderdijk we saw windmills - and how!

Kinderdijk means “children’s dyke.”  Before I saw it, I imagined a place where the Dutch boy stuck his finger in the dyke to keep the sea from flowing through.  That story is impossible.  A dyke is a big earth barrier, high enough that the sea laps a few feet below on one side while farmland stretches away many feet below on the other side.  On top the dyke was so wide it had a paved road with grass verges.  Margaret’s husband, Joop, drove us on a road on top of a dyke as we approached Kinderdijk. 

There we saw an amazing sight: 19 windmills all in a row.   Yes, amazing!

Uncle Dick had a windmill on his ranch in West Texas.  A tall structure, made of metal pipes like the Eiffel Tower, it clanked constantly as it turned in the wind, pumping up water from deep underground to provide water for his cattle, and for us.

The Dutch windmills are different.  They look like the pictures I saw in National Geographic, only bigger.  Kees had an uncle and aunt, now deceased, who lived in a windmill.  The windmills at Kinderdijk were erected in the 1500s and did not make a convenient home, but it was considered a privilege to be in charge of a windmill. 

Another thing I learned: the Dutch did not build windmills on their inland farms.  Rain brought plenty of water for their livestock.  Dutch windmills are on canals near the sea.  They pump excess rain water off the land and pour it back into the sea.  Just the reverse of what Texas windmills do.

This was another day of getting rid of preconceived ideas.  “Things are not always what we think they are.”

Saturday, October 20, 2012

My Mother Goes to Europe

At the end of World War II, Europeans suffered severe shortages of everything.  When our cousin Mabel asked me to write to Billy’s pen pal in Holland, my mother also got involved.  She sent instant coffee to Kees and Marie and clothes for their baby.   

Many years later, the year my father died, David and I went to Texas for Christmas with my Mother.  Standing in Mother’s kitchen, I put my arm around her and said, “David is graduating from high school in May.   I plan to sell my house and go to Europe.  Would you like to go with me?”

“No,” she said firmly, “I don’t want to go to Europe.”  She thought for a minute, then added, “I would go to England.”

In May we flew off on schedule.  At Gatwick Airport I took the wheel of little red rental car with David beside me holding a big book of detailed maps and serving as navigator.  With Mother in the back seat, we took off for a month of driving around England, Scotland, and Wales, staying in farm houses and seeing country houses, castles, and cathedrals. 

As we drove down between hedges on a narrow country lane, I said, “Mother, it is too bad you didn’t want to go to Europe.”

My Mother said, “I didn’t want to go where they don’t speak English.”  

I should have suspected that.  When Mother came to visit us in Pennsylvania, I took her to Bucks County to look for records of her Quaker ancestors.  On Sunday I urged her to go with me to a Quaker Meeting.   She refused. 

I was disappointed.  Mother was a Baptist, accustomed to loud hymn singing and long-winded preachers, very different from the way her Quaker ancestors worshiped.  Quakers do not sing hymns or listen to long sermons.  They sit quietly and wait for the “inner light”.  Someone may stand up and make a brief statement.     

Over brunch, when it was too late to attend the services, Mother confessed, “I didn’t think I could keep my head bowed that long.”

“Mother!” I said, exasperated, “Quakers are quiet during their meetings, but they don’t bow their heads.”

In England I was annoyed.  I said, “Mother!  Most Europeans speak English.”

Mother said plaintively, “I would have liked to meet those people in Holland.”

My Mother was afraid to step out of her familiar “comfort zone”.  Not me.  I am always ready for a new adventure.

In the middle of our trip around Great Britain, I drove to Harwich.  We parked the rental car in the lot at the port and took the night ferry across the North Sea.  Mother and I slept in narrow berths in a tiny cabin shared with two other women.  David was down the passageway with other men. 

We spent a weekend in Rotterdam with the Bouw-Noest family.  Thus my Mother made her one and only visit to Europe.  

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Master Race

After years of hiding in rooms secreted behind the bookcase, the Frank family was betrayed to the Germans and sent to death camps.  Anne and her sister died of starvation and typhoid.  Of nine people who hid in the house on the canal, only Anne’s father survived to find and publish her diary. 

I came down from the hiding place and went into the adjoining building.  This museum tells the story, not just about the Franks, but of the entire German occupation of the Netherlands during World War II.  The Nazis were relentless in rounding up Jews and sending them to death camps.  The war was nearing its end when the Frank family and their companions were discovered.  If only Anne had lived a few months longer, she could have been saved to become as old as I am.

“If only” . . . .  one of the saddest phrases in the English language.

In the Anne Frank Museum I stood beside a big, middle-aged man.  Both of us had tears running down our faces.

Hitler told the Germans they were a super race.  The Jews were vermin who deserved to die.  The Nazis tried to exterminate them all, young men, old men, women, and children. 

On later trips to Europe I visited Holocaust memorials in Prague and Budapest.  In an old synagogue in Prague I read on wall after wall names with birth and death dates of thousands of individual Czech Jews killed by the Nazis. 

The Budapest memorial is a  weeping willow tree; made of shining metal, every leaf carrying the name of one of the 600,000 Hungarian Jews killed in Auschwitz.  This beautiful and touching memorial was a gift from the actor Tony Curtis, whose Jewish grandparents came from Hungary.

Over 6,000,000 died in the Holocaust.  Anne Frank has become a symbol for all of them.

Yet Iran’s Ahmadinejad dares to say it never happened!

Some people are unable to accept the truth.  They are frightened by people who are different in color, religion, or political persuasion.   When will we learn that no group is superior to another? 

I am prejudiced against prejudiced people.  Al called a sweet old lady a “Nigger”  I stood up and told him I found both his language and attitude offensive.  He said, “I have a right to my opinion.” .  

No, Al, this is not a matter of opinion.  It is a question of right and wrong. 

It is my opinion that Al what Southerners call “White Trash”.  I will not call him that.  To do so would be impolite.  I do not want to disparage another person, even if he is a misguided, ignorant louse like Al.  But sometimes I feel compelled to stand up and say, “You are wrong.”

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Anne Frank House

On my first trip to Amsterdam, Kees and I did not have time to visit the Anne Frank house.  Five years later, I returned alone.  As I rode the train into the city, I knew what I wanted to do.  Besides return visits to the Rijks and Van Gogh Museums, I wanted to see the house where the Frank family hid during World War II. .

First, after I stepped down from the train, I went to the tourist bureau in the station and booked a room.  The  hotel was the same vintage as the one where David and I stayed in Paris: an old building in a row of equally old buildings, probably built in the 18th Century.  

My room was on the second floor.  In Paris David and I climbed a narrow, winding stairway.  In Amsterdam the stairs went straight up, the narrowest, steepest steps I ever saw.  Each tread seemed to be nine inches high and only six inches deep.

I unpacked and then, using Dutch coins I’d exchanged dollars for at the train station, I boarded a trolley.  Just before a bridge over a canal, the driver, who spoke excellent English, told me it was time to get off.  I stepped down, and there she was: a little statue of Anne, looking more like a Degas ballerina than a Dutch teenager, with her birth and death dates: 1929-1945.

I was stunned.  I also was born in 1929.  Somehow I never realized Anne and I were the same age.  I’ve had this incredible life – not always easy but always interesting and definitely long.  I am now 83; she died before she had a chance to live.

I walked along the sidewalk with a row of typical old Amsterdam townhouses facing the canal.
There was no street, just a sidewalk without a railing between the houses and the waters of the canal.  In mid-block two adjoining houses bore signs identifying the Anne Frank House and Museum. 

I’d read Anne’s diary, seen the movie, and my daughter played Anne’s sister in a high school production of the play.  Yet I never understood the typography of the house. 

I climbed another of those long, narrow, steep stairways. (Are they typical of Amsterdam?)  I walked along the second floor hallway to where the bookcase stood ajar.  Yes, there really was a bookcase hiding a low doorway.  I slipped around the bookcase and onto a kind of bridge to an entirely separate building. 

The hideaway consisted of several small rooms on two floors connected by a small interior stairway.  Here is where during World War II the Frank family and other Jews hid from the Nazis for several years before being betrayed and taken to death camps. 

There were windows, but I can’t remember what they looked out on.  Evidently the Franks felt secure enough not to fear being seen from the building behind. 

All the furniture was gone.  In Anne’s room I saw the tattered and faded newspaper photos pasted on the wall.  That’s where Anne became real to me.  She was the one who cut out and fastened to the wall the picture of two little girls, the English princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret.  They were about the same ages as Anne and her sister.  Margaret lived to middle-age and died years ago, a fat and largely forgotten princess.  Elizabeth still reigns as the gray-haired Queen of England.  On Anne’s wall they remained forever children.

Just as Anne remains forever a young teenager, a symbol of man’s cruelty to man.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Van Gogh

At the Rijks Museum, Kees and I went straight through the building, gallery after gallery, from front to back.  At the back door we walked down the steps and there it was!  To the right, almost in the shadow of the big Rijks Museum, was the modern building housing the Van Gogh Museum.  

In his lifetime Vincente Van Gogh sold only one painting.  His family inherited a vast store of masterpieces.  They sold off many, which are scattered in museums throughout the World.  Even Dallas has one.  Finally they gave what was left to their country.  Every year thousands make pilgrimages to Amsterdam just to see the Van Gogh Museum.

Frankly, I was disappointed.  I had seen a wonderful special exhibit of Van Gogh paintings at the Detroit Institute of Arts and a similar show somewhere else.  The collection in the Amsterdam Museum seemed to display mostly small, second tier paintings.

The exception was the big “Hay Wagon in Wheat Fields.”   When I was in college, I spent many hours between classes in a little lounge in the Fine Arts building which had a full-size reproduction of this painting.  I marveled a the range of colors.  It was a thrill to see the “real thing”, a masterpieces. 

Several years later I returned to Amsterdam and repeated my visit to the two museums.  I enjoy going to the same museum time after time, going to see favorite paintings – such as Van Gogh’s Wheat Fields -- just the way I visit old friends. 

When I worked in Chicago, I went to the Art Institute during my lunch hour to listen to gallery talks and to visit the beautiful Monets.  My spirits lifted by the sunny landscapes.  Among my favorites was a row of poplars against a bright blue sky.  .

In Philadelphia I went to the art museum every week to visit the Tyson Collection, a room of wonderful Impressionist paintings, including a Cezanne landscape and one of Van Gogh “Sun Flowers”.  Charles Tyson was president of the company Wally worked for.  I wondered, “How could his family give away these beautiful paintings?”  Then I went to Princeton see paintings loaned to the university by alumni for a special exhibit.  There was a magnificent Cezanne view of Mt. Victoire which the Tyson family had not given to Philadelphia but kept for themselves.  How nice it must be to be rich! 

When I went to Amsterdam again, I went through the Riks Museum, front to back.  Once more I walked out the back door. I stopped short and said, “Whoa!” 

I remembered coming out of the Rijks and walking directly into the front door of the Van Gogh.  While I was away, the Van Gogh Museum had rotated on its axis 180 degrees.  The back of the museum faced the Riks, and I had to walk around the building to get to the entry.

Of course that building had not changed.  My memory was wrong. 

I write about this trip as I remember things.  Is it factual?  I hope so.  But this is just a silly book about a woman and a boy on a journey of discovery.  It does not matter if I can’t remember exactly whether we went to Amsterdam on a Saturday or Sunday.

But there are times when it is important for memory to be exact.  Everyone’s mind is stuffed with memories.  Details become distorted .  Honest men have stood up in court and sworn on the Bible that they remember the face of the man who shot So-and-So.  Their memories played tricks on them, and innocent men were executed. .  .    

Thursday, October 11, 2012

An English Princess and Rembrandt

Amsterdam was a two-hour drive from Oud Beyerland, but the Opal chugged along steadily, and Kees was pleasant company.  Our time was limited.  We went to two museums, the Rijks and the new Van Gogh.  After that I was too tired to do anything else but drive back to Margaret’s house and collapse.

The Rijks Museum, “the museum of the Netherlands”, with a magnificent collection of Dutch paintings, is housed in a monumental, neo-classical structure, like the Metropolitan in New York and the Art Institute in Chicago, typical of art museums built in the 19th Century. 

Tourists who are in a hurry can follow little signs with arrows directing them to “The Night Watch”, Rembrandt’s most famous painting.  In Paris similar arrows show tourists in the Louvre the direct route past all the other great works of art to the Mona Lisa. 

At the Rijks Museum, Kees and I took our time, pausing to look at all the paintings.  I remember a full-length portrait of the delicate young English princess who was mother to William of Orange, who became King William IV of England.  History books seldom point out that William and Mary were cousins.  She was the elder daughter of England’s King James II.  William was the closest male heir to the crown.  That’s why the English, who refused Mary Tudor’s request to give her husband Philip of Spain the title of King of England, welcomed the Dutchman and made William and Mary joint rulers.  After Mary’s death, he ruled alone, and no one protested.

To me his mother’s picture portrayed a young woman who was shy and sad.  As a teenager she was shipped off across the North Sea to marry this Dutchman, whom she did not know and who was rumored to prefer boys to girls.  However, pictures, even photographs, can be deceiving.  I hesitate to read too much into them.  Maybe the English princess and her Dutch husband had a happy marriage that produced this only son who was destined to be King. 

Deep in the museum, besides the “Night Watch”, was an entire room of Rembrandts.  Some superb portraits, but also a full-length painting of a beef carcase, correct in every detail of blood and guts.  I thought, “Ugh!”  

Just because it was painted by Rembrandt did not make it a fine painting.  I hated the ugly bloody thing.  Even the great Rembrandt could make a mistake.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Of Tulips and Cowboy Boots

Before going to Europe, I read so many books and articles about Europe that they would have made a stack as high as the First National Bank, the tallest building in Fort Worth.  Then I went to Rotterdam and some of my ideas about Europeans turned topsy-turvy.

I thought the country’s name was Holland, with fields of tulips and little blonde, blue-eyed girls wearing white caps with turned-up corners, a blue dress with a white apron, and wooden shores.  As a child I had a little ceramic figurine that looked like that.  They told me it was a typical little Dutch girl.

From Wally’s stamp collection I learned that Holland is a part of the Netherlands, as Tarrant County is a part of Texas.  The proper way of spelling the nation’s name is Nederland, but my computer thinks I made a mistake when I spell it that way.  My computer’s spell checker is wrong. 

Then Margaret walked into her parents’ apartment.  She had blonde hair, lots of it, tumbling around her shoulders. She wore blue jeans and cowboy boots.  Later I found out this was her every day attire.  Even when cooking and serving meals I never saw her don an apron.  

As for the tulip fields, in several trips to the Netherlands, crossing the country from north to south, I never saw a single tulip in bloom.  The tulips were there; I just did not see them.  Last week when I told Stacy I was writing about the Netherlands, he said, “It is such a beautiful country.  I rode a train across the tulip fields.  On both sides, as far as I could see, were tulips in bloom.  All the gorgeous colors!”

My trips to the Netherlands were made in summer and fall.  Instead of tulips, I saw horses.

Shades of the Old West!  One of the first things Margaret suggested we do while visiting her was go to a farm and ride horses.  Her son Dimitri rode every week.  My son David had never been on a horse. 

I knew David, after spending weeks with no company except his middle-aged Mom, would enjoy spending time with this kid his own age.  On Sunday, Margaret’s husband Joop took David and Dimitri to the farm.  We left Riet to enjoy time alone with her daughter. 

And Kees and I went to Amsterdam to see the museums.

Friday, October 5, 2012

A Rose by Another Name

For over 30 years Kees Bouw and I exchanged letters.  When I told people about my Dutch pen pal, I pronounced his name to rhyme with “geese.”  Then I went to Rotterdam.  As soon as I walked into the apartment and Marie said, “Kees is working,” I found out I had been wrong for all those years.

Then there was his wife.  When Kees wrote about her in his letters, I assumed “Marie” was pronounced in the French way.  Then, where he talked about her, I heard “Mary” like my mother’s name, Mary Sue.

Things got more complicated when he called her “Riet”, to rhyme with “meet” and “greet.”  I figured out that “Marie” was her formal name, while “Riet” was the familiar, family name.  Her name was Marguerite. In Albuquerque I have a friend named Elizabeth Lackmann; I always call her Betsy.  By my second visit to Rotterdam, I was calling my Dutch friend “Riet.”

All of us have assumptions about people and things.  We grow up thinking everyone thinks the way we do.  Also we think that anyone who has a different religion or skin color or political belief must be wrong, inferior, and/or dangerous.  That’s wrong.  Can we learn from our mistakes?

In Texas in1952, just before Wally and I were married, a woman came up to me in church and told me how sorry she was to hear that “You are marrying a Yankee.”   It took me years to realize that Wallace had some basic character flaws, but it was not because he was a Yankee.

I learned a lot in Rotterdam, besides learning how to say names correctly.  Most important was being with a family who had very little in material wealth but who seemed truly happy. 

Kees was a tall, lanky Dutchman with a happy smile on his long, horse face.  When he walked into the sitting room in that spare apartment, the whole world seemed warmer and brighter.  It was as if Danny Kaye had stepped out of his role in Hans Christian Andersen.  His wife’s face lit up with joy. 

The feeling of domestic contentment continued when we went to stay with their daughter Margaret in Oud Beyerland, some 40 or 50 miles south of Rotterdam near the Belgium border, where David and I had just come from.  Margaret insisted they had plenty of room for David and me and her parents.

The family lived in a row of town house with small rooms stacked three stories high.  What I remember best were the macrame hangings Margaret made to decorate the windows instead of draperies. 

This was home to Margaret and her husband Joop (rhymes with “rope”), their son Dimitri, and a big – very big – dog named Kees after her father. 

The dog was always in the middle of things.  As I sat in a chair in the small living room, the dog’s tail wagged, swishing across the calves of my legs. If he was in the way, someone patted him on the head and gently squeezed around him.  I never saw anyone in that household show any sign of annoyance or irritation with anyone else, including the dog.

What a wonderful family!  They welcomed us and told us they genuinely wanted to share their home and their country with these strangers from America. 

Sunday, September 30, 2012


Paris was memorable for the places David and I saw, places I’d read about and seen pictures of all my life: the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Louvre.  There were few surprises in Paris.

Rotterdam was even more memorable, but not for sightseeing.  In 1939, when Hitler went on his conquering rampage across Europe, he sent planes to bomb Rotterdam.  The city was destroyed.  In effect, he said to the Dutch, “Surrender, or I’ll do the same to the rest of your country.”  The Dutch surrendered.  After the war Rotterdam rebuilt, becoming once more the Netherlands’ most important seaport.  But it was not famous for architecture or historic sites.

Rotterdam was memorable for the people we visited.  Kees Bouw and I had exchanged letters for more than 30 years, yet visiting his family was full of surprises.

The first surprise was where they lived.  I knew Kees was not rich, but I did not expect to find him and his wife living in near poverty. 

In those days before GPS systems, I used a city map and only made four or five wrong turns before parking the car in front of Oldegaard 92.  It turned out to be one of many doorways in a block-long building.  David and I climbed four flights of concrete stairs to reach the Bouws’ top-floor apartment.      

The building on Oldegaard Place was the first public housing to be built after the war.  Because they had a baby, Kees and Marie were among the first few to be awarded apartments.  They were still living there 30 years later.  The facilities were austere.  There was no central heating, no bathtub or shower, and all those stairs to climb. 

As a young woman Marie was grateful, in the midst of the housing shortage, to have a place of their own, even if it meant hauling the groceries up to the fourth floor while also carrying a baby on her hip.  Teunis became a toddler, and she urged him up the steps ahead of her while she carried baby Margaret along with the bread and potatoes. 

Now both children were grown, married, and on their own.  Marie was middle-aged, a big, heavy woman with bad legs. She had to go out daily to shop, as her refrigerator was tiny.  Climbing stairs with groceries was extremely painful, yet she apologized to David and me for asking us to walk up to the fourth floor.  We Americans with strong, sturdy legs were not expected to do what she did every day.  

David and I arrived in mid-afternoon.  Marie welcomed us into a cozy sitting room, warmed by a small electric space heater. (I learned later that this was the only room they kept heated.)  Haltingly she explained that Kees was at work.  “I no speak English,” she said.  “Margaret comes.”

A short time later Margaret arrived, a pretty 30-something woman, who spoke fairly good English with a slight Dutch accent.  Several years before her father wrote me his concern during Margaret’s long struggle with cancer.  She nearly died and lost all her hair.  Now I met an energetic young woman with abundant blonde hair – wearing cowboy boots. 

Margaret had come to take David and me to her home in the village of Oud Beyerand, where we spent the next several days with her and her husband and their son, Dimitri, who was about David’s age, and where Kees and Marie joined us the next day.

It was the beginning of the best part of our trip.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Pen Pals

For three weeks David and I roamed around Europe, going from country to country without any communication with David’s father, back home in Chicago.  In those days long distance calls were expensive.  I never considered making a trans-Atlantic telephone call. 

The World has changed.  In Mesquite, Texas, the other day I was pushing my cart down the grocery aisle in Target when my cell phone rang.  Gertrude was calling from New York to ask how I was doing.  “Fine,” I said, and we chatted as easily as if she had been walking beside me as I went looking for cottage cheese. 

We both have health problems.  We agreed: “Getting old is miserable.  But we are still alive.”

Thirty years ago we would have kept in touch solely by mail.  In high school I had a pen pal in Connecticut.  Marcelle and I wrote letters back and forth every few weeks until each of us married, then it was every few months.  My family moved to Michigan, and Marcie and her family came to Detroit to visit her sister.  The Creans brought their three children and spent an evening with us.    Marcie sat holding her baby on the blue couch (the one I still have in my living room), while I sat in my rocker cuddling David, who was only a few weeks old.  

Today Marcelle and I are old ladies, widows living in retirement homes.  I came back to Texas; she never left Connecticut.  We still keep in touch via the U.S. Mail.

My cousin Billy Stephenson also had a pen pal.  During the 1930's Billy wrote to a boy in Rotterdam, Holland.  When World War II came, Billy’s older brother Richard was drafted into the Army, went ashore in the Normandy invasion, and fought across Europe with the U. S. Infantry.  He wrote to Billy, “Don’t go into the walking Army.”   Billy joined the Navy and died of meningitis during boot camp.     

After the war Kees Bouw wrote from Rotterdam asking, “What happened to Billy?”   Billy’s mother asked me to answer the letter.  That’s how Kees and I became pen pals.   For the next twenty-plus years we wrote letters, telling each other about our marriages, the births of our children – the Bouws had two, we had three – and all the trivia of daily life.

When Wally gave me the tickets to Frankfurt, I wrote to the Bouws and said, “I am coming to see you.” 

At the time it seemed perfectly reasonable to send a letter announcing that David and I would arrive on a certain date.  Now that I think about it, I am ashamed by my audacity. 

We left Bruge on a cold, rainy morning – there are lots of cold, rainy days in Northern Europe – and drove across Belgium.  As we approached the Netherlands border, I told David, “Get out our passports.”   Without any check point or even a sign asking us to slow down, I drove into the Netherlands going sixty miles an hour.

I drove on to Rotterdam, confident of a welcome from these Dutch people I had never met.  Marie Bouw was alone when we climbed stairs to the fourth floor apartment.  A tall, heavy woman with a plain, Dutch face, she did not speak English, but her smile welcomed us into our first visit in a European home.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

History Lesson

A new movie transports us into the future, as if anyone could know what the World will be like 100 years from now.  As for me, I live in my own time warp.  During the routines of daily life, I return to memories of Bruges, Belgium, and how nothing in history turned out the way people planned and expected.  .

In Innsbruck, David and I walked around a big room lined with bronze statues of royalty that the Emperor Maximilian intended to adorn his magnificent tomb.  In a small chapel in Bruges we found Max in a marble sarcophagus (quite regal, but nothing like what he had planned) next to a matching tomb with a life-like effigy of his young wife, Mary of Burgundy.    

Max and Mary were teenagers when their marriage was arranged by their parents, the German Emperor and the Duke of Burgundy.  Mary inherited all of what are now Belgium and the Netherlands, plus the County of Burgundy in France.  She enjoyed being Empress for only a few years before dying in a freak hunting accident while still in her early twenties. 

She left Max with two young children, for whom he craftily arranged double marriages with the eldest son and daughter of Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella.  When F and I’s only son died, their daughter Joanna (“Juana the Mad”) became heir to the Spanish throne.  She and Max’s son Philip had half a dozen children, who grew up, some in Bruges and some in Spain.  It never was fun growing up royal, especially when Papa Philip died and Mama the Queen of Spain is so crazy she had to be shut up in a tower. 

The unexpected result was that Max’s grandson Charles – or Carlos in Spain and Karl in Austria – became at age 20 the ruler of more territory than any other monarch in the history of the World.  Charles V was Holy Roman Emperor over Austria, a bunch of petty German states, and parts of Italy.  He was also King of Spain, with more of Italy inherited from Grandpa Ferdinand of Aragon.  Then, thanks to Columbus, there was all of the New World. 

So what happened?   First, shortly after this young man became Emperor, a German Monk named Martin Luther began to cause all kinds of trouble.  Charles’s scattered possessions became too much for one man to manage.  In middle age Charles V retired to a monastery, giving his Spanish possessions to his son Philip II and his German territories to his brother Ferdinand.  With all of Europe in turmoil over religion, Bruges, where Charles grew up, became insignificant. 

So it remained for David and I to stroll around and gawk at in 1978.  And since then?  By chance at a party in Albuquerque, I met a young American couple who lived in Bruges.  He was stationed there with NATO.  Belgium is headquarters for the European Union and has major NATO facilities.  The young man told me Bruges has grown into a modern city of over 100,000 people. 

As I said, history shows us that nothing ever turns out the way people plan. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The City That Time Forgot

What will parents do for their children?  Anything!

For Martha it meant typing checks for Fireman’s Fund for $4.00 an hour and other low-paying jobs for five years to pay for her college tuition.  For David it meant climbing 365 steps up a bell tower in Bruges, Belgium. 

After leavings Paris I drove to Belgium specifically to see Bruges – or Brugge, as they call their city.  I remembered an article in National Geographic that I read many years before as a teenager. It described Bruges as “the city that time forgot.”  A major commercial center in the 15th Century, other cities became more important.  Bruges became so insignificant that it was not worth bombing during World War II.   The magazine pictured “the Venice of the North” with canals lined with picturesque late Medieval buildings

The Geographic was right.  In the center of town narrow, cobbled stoned streets and the old, half-timbered buildings looked as if nothing had changed since Maximilian I was Holy Roman Emperor.  David and I boarded a little flat-bottomed boat which chugged through the narrow canals, making great “photo opportunities” at every turn.  This was one place which lived up to the hype.

The tourist bureau, where we booked our canal ride, was in the center of the old town just off a large, cobbled-stoned square.  Next door was the town hall, an imposing brick building with an extremely tall bell tower.

“Let’s climb the tower,” said David.
“Go ahead,” said I.  “Have fun!  You climb right up there.”
“I want you to come with me.”
“Oh, no!  Not me.  I don’t want to climb that thing.”
“I won’t go unless you come with me.”

I felt guilty about dragging this poor kid all around Europe, going to places I wanted to see, while he probably would have preferred to stay home in Illinois playing board games with his friends.  I climbed the tower.

The wedge-shaped stone steps wound round and round in tighter and tighter circles as we climbed higher and higher.  After about 150 steps I was exhausted.  David got behind and pushed.  “You can do it, Mom.” 

Finally, just before noon, we emerged through a trap door onto a platform.  Breathing heavily, I leaned on the waist-high brick railing.  The view over the tile roof-tops of the old city was beautiful. 

Then the bells, just above our heads, began to ring the noon hour.  Clang!  Clang!  Clang!  I covered my ears.  Big bells made a deep, loud noise which could be heard miles away – and they were just six feet over my head.  Bong!  Bong! Bong!

Finally the bells fell silent, but the ringing continued in my ears as David and I slowly – very slowly – climbed down the 365 winding, stone steps.   For David, climbing the Bruges bell tower was one of the highlights of the trip.