Thursday, May 31, 2012

Bloomfield Hills

TIME magazine’s cover story this week features how Mitt Romney’s parents, especially his mother, influenced his political career.  The article brought back memories of when my family lived in Michigan. 

Mitt grew up in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.  He was 15 years old in 1962 when his father, George Romney, became governor of Michigan.   That was the year my family moved to Birmingham, Michigan, and I started taking my children to monthly programs at the Cranbrook Science Museum in Bloomfield Hills. 

My son David was born in Michigan.  He was a baby when Mrs. Romney, Mitt’s mother, gave a talk at the mid-week luncheon for at St. James Episcopal Church.  I left David in the church nursery, where he cried so furiously that the ladies dining in the church hall could hear his screams.  He quieted as soon as I picked him up, then sat contented on my lap as if listening to Mrs. Romney’s talk.  I remember Mrs. Romney’s warm reception by the rich, Republican ladies, but I don’t remember a thing she said. 

David does not remember Michigan.  He was only 10 months old when Wally was transferred to Dallas. 

Birmingham was a Detroit suburb which, in the 1960's, had a reputation rather like Highland Park, in Dallas, had when I was a teenager in the 1940's.  Big houses for rich folks.  Also, brick bungalows where middle-class families paid a premium to live in this exclusive suburb because of its excellent public schools.  That’s why we bought our little three-bedroom, one-bath house at 2073 Derby Road in Birmingham.

Bloomfield Hills, right next door, was even more exclusive than Birmingham.  The community was entirely devoted to the large estates of the super rich.  The Iococcas lived in Bloomfield Hills, as well as the Romneys.  There were two expensive restaurants on Woodward Avenue; Jimmy Hoffa disappeared after eating lunch at the Fox and Hounds.  Otherwise, there were no shopping centers in Bloomfield Hills.  The rich came to shop at the boutiques on Maple Avenue in Birmingham.

People who lived in Bloomfield Hills did not send their children to public schools.  They had the expensive, private schools at the Cranbrook Institutions: Brookside Elementary School, Kingswood (a high school for girls), and Cranbrook Academy for boys. 

I loved to take my children to Cranbrook.  In the heart of Bloomfield Hills, I turned into the driveway drove through the landscaped grounds, past the handsome buildings of Cranbrook Academy, designed by the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinam, father of the American architect, Eero Saarinam.  (I’m not sure of the spelling, but both were famous as revolutionary modern designers.)

At the top of the hill, I paused to look at the sculptured figures standing in the spray of the large, round fountain designed by the Swedish sculptor, Carl Milles.  Cranbrook was a feast for the eyes even before I stopped at the steps of the modern Cranbrook Museum of Science, where we had a family membership. I took my children there several times a month. 

The neighborhood where children grow up makes a difference.  Living in our little house in Birmingham, my children were privileged to go to good schools, use the town’s excellent library, enjoy the interactive exhibits at Cranbrook’s science museum (Dr. Leaky came from Africa and gave a talk there), and, yes, attend a rich church with a 65-voice trained choir, where every Sunday was a classical concert. 

What my children failed to know was people who were less fortunate than we were.  They had no idea of what it was like to grow up in the slums of Detroit, where their father went to work in his center city office.   The year after we left, bloody race riots killed dozens and burned down whole neighborhoods.

I am not surprised that Mitt Romney has difficulty relating to “ordinary” people.  He grew up in isolation among the rich in Bloomfield Hills.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

My Old Neighborhood

Sally sent a clipping from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram telling about a house tour of the Fairmont Neighborhood.  It is an officially labeled “Historic District”. 

My family lived in that neighborhood when I was a child.  Our neighbors, living in small, old frame houses, were working-class families just scraping by during the Great Depression.  My father was lucky; he had a job making $100 a month at the bank.  Our next door neighbor worked for the W.P.A.  (Works Progress Administration), a government project providing jobs for the poor.

The neighborhood was shabby then, it became worse later.  As times got better, residents moved into newer neighborhoods with bigger and better homes.  We did that, too, moving to a big, brick house on Cooper Street, near Harris Hospital.  The streets around our old home became primarily rentals.  Most tenants were Mexicans, newly arrived from South of the Border, who did nothing to take care of the property.  The area became a slum. 

I was astonished when my old neighborhood, which is near downtown Fort Worth, became “gentrified.”  Young professionals bought the late Victorian houses – hardwood floors and quaint front porches – and updated the kitchens with granite counter tops, etc.    

Houses on the tour include one at 1800 Washington, just a block from our old house at 1824 S. Adams.  Another tour house is just around the corner at 1906 Henderson, across the street from where my brother Don’s wife, Mary, grew up.  Mary’s old home burned a few years ago, and a new house built in its place is in the Queen Anne style of the other homes in the neighborhood.

Don and I, who argue amicably about gun control and global warming, agree on one thing: our childhood home was awful.  A little frame house, built about 1900, had an “L” shaped front porch leading to a small entry hall and five square rooms.  Without an interior hallway, each wall had a door.  My front bedroom had doors from the entry, the dining room, and my parents’ bedroom.  A tiny closet was added in the corner of each of the two bedrooms. 

I had to cross my parents’ room to go to the bathroom.  Don and I believe the house originally had a privy in the backyard.  A porch across the back of the house was enclosed to make a bathroom, a back hall, and a tiny room for my brother Lyle.  The ice box (later a refrigerator) was in the back hall.  The 20-gallon gas water heater was in the kitchen next to the cook stove.

I could not imagine any way that house could be updated to make a livable residence.  I said, “It should be torn down.”

“It was,” said Don.  “The last time I went past, the house was gone and a foundation had been poured for a new house.”

I wonder what cute little fake Victorian house will be built to fit into the Historic District  Will it have “gingerbread” decoration on the front porch?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Home Sweet Home

People everywhere think that the place of their birth is the best place possible in which to live.  Some never leave home physically.  It is estimated that more than half of the 350 million people in the U.S. live within 30 miles of the place where they were born.

Of the other half, the ones that move away, many take with them the mental attitudes they developed as children. 

My great-grandfather, living in a log cabin in an isolated community 30 miles from the tiny village of Dallas, needed a gun to protect his family from marauding Comanche Indians.  Do I, living in the same area, need a pistol to protect myself from a stranger creeping up to my third-floor apartment to attack me?  I don’t think so.  My brother Don, living nearby, is a gun collector and a staunch supporter of the National Rifle Association.

I grew up thinking Texas was the best place in the World.  A paradise on Earth.  In July and August we dealt with the horrendous heat by opening all the windows and plugging in the electric fans.  “Oscillating” fans were the best, as they turned side to side, stirring the air.  We went to the “picture show” several times a week; movie theaters were the only places in town that were air-conditioned.  It was summer, and summers were hot everywhere.  Right? 

As a young adult I moved to Chicago and discovered another kind of heat.  Temperature plus humidity.  At 90 degrees I sweltered, more miserable than I’d been in Texas when the thermometer registered 100.   People who grew up in Chicago told me to forget my Texas way of thinking.  Wasn’t I now living in Chicago, “the most wonderful place in the World”? 

Thirty years later I moved to New Mexico and found what to me was the ideal place to live: a high, dry desert, not too hot in summer, not too cold in winter.  Best of all, it had diverse people.  I had friends who were highly educated, others with only three-years of schooling.  My friends included Hispanics, Indians (American and Asian), Anglos, blacks, whites, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Quakers, gays and straights.  I liked that.  As a bonus, coming from the plains of Texas and Illinois, I could sit on my patio and enjoy my view of the Sandia and Monzano Mountains.

My son David grew up in Chicago.  He escaped those brutal winters and found his ideal place in Southern California, where he lives in a predominately Chinese and East Indian neighborhood  within a thirty-minute drive from the ocean.  Different from me, but right for him.

Some people get stuck in the attitudes of the place where they were born.  Others are able to change as they mature.  Darned if I know how to encourage the former to become the latter.  No individual needs an automatic weapon to defend his home against an unlikely burglar, but I will never convince my brother of the importance to gun control. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Working Women

Mitt Romney was outraged when a young woman said, “Ann Romney never worked a day in her life.”  That just shows how out of touch he is with the lives of average Americans.

Yes, raising children is hard work, but most of today’s young mothers hold down two full-time jobs.  Some women have careers – doctors, lawyers, those fashionably dressed, highly paid women we see on television.  But most jobs open to women are not glamorous and poorly paid.  Women hold jobs outside the home because the family needs the money.  They go to work 40 hours a week (or more); then they come home exhausted and put in another 40 hours being Mom.

I was a working mom.  Wally urged me to “get a job.”   Martha and Karl were only three and five when I spent two years teaching seventh grade in a junior high in Illinois.  After school, exhausted, I would sit in the baby-sitter’s kitchen, drinking tea and holding Martha on my lap, thinking, “How I wish I could spend more time with my little ones.”

We moved to Michigan.  For the next 12 years I had the luxury of being a “stay-at-home” Mom.    The children and I had happy times when I was “not working.”   We climbed the battlements of Old Fort Wayne (built as our defense against Canada – yes, Canada! – during another time of military hysteria) and laughed a puppet shows at the Detroit Art Institute.  At home we had theatricals in the basement and clothes line art shows in the backyard. . . . . And so much more. . .

David was born in Michigan.  Then we moved to Texas and, four years later, to Pennsylvania. 
Martha and David say they had “a wonderful childhood”.  Even Karl, who is angry with me for other reasons, agrees with that.  Lucky is the mother who can work full-time – at home.

We returned to Illinois when Karl was in college, Martha was in high school, but David was only in second grade.  Wally’s job was in jeopardy.  I went to work, as a typist for a temporary agency in Chicago’s Loop, to have an income “just in case.”  Instead, Wally found a better job.  He persuaded me to continue working to pay for Martha’s college. 

David became a “latch-key” child when he was only seven years old.  Martha, forced to be my teenage babysitter, told me she wished she could come home and find me there, “even if we just sit and read jokes out of the Reader’s Digest.”

Yes, being a Mom is an important job.  It is too bad that many women are in circumstances making them to do double duty by also going to work outside the home. 

Tell that to Ann Romney, who raised five boys, and who had money for nannies, maids, and any other help she needed.  Ann Romney and I agree on one thing: Motherhood is the best job in the World.  It is sad that many women can not do it full time.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Martha and David

The way most Americans measure success, my son and daughter are highly successful.  Martha and David both have demanding careers.  They make lots of money.  They also have children and are good parents.  They don’t have much time for Old Mom. 

I envy my friends whose children live nearby and see them every week.  Martha lives in Naperville, Illinois.  David is in Irvine, California.  I’m stuck here in Garland, Texas. 

I call them on weekends.  David often isn’t home.  His wife says, “He’s taken Adam and Alli to the park.”  If I call in the evening, Martha’s husband tells me she is at a concert with Richard.  Their middle son plays the cello, and Martha spent years taking him to lessons and rehearsals.  I’m pleased that both devote time to their children.   

In March, Martha and David both came for a weekend to celebrate my 83rd birthday.  The big thrill was when Martha’s oldest son, Doug, a senior at Illinois Southern University, didn’t go partying at the beach with his college friends during spring break, preferring instead to come spend a week with his Grandma. 

I can’t expect them to come again soon.  But I did feel a little neglected on Mother’s Day when the day passed without even a phone call. 

I was writing my blog at 6 p.m. when David called.  He had a busy day, starting with serving Lee breakfast in bed, taking care of his children and cleaning up after a party they had last night.  He was ready to make supper, but he found time to call his Mom and say, “Happy Mother’s Day.”     
At 9 p.m., as I was finally washing my breakfast dishes, the phone rang again.  Martha called from a hotel in Kansas City.  On Friday her family drove to Doug’s graduation in Southern Illinois.  On Saturday after the ceremony they packed all Doug’s stuff into their already crowded car for the long drive back to Chicago.  They didn’t get home until 10:30 p.m. On Sunday, instead of a relaxing Mother’s Day, Martha flew to Kansas City to defend her company in an IRS audit.  Exhausted and ready for bed, yet she took time to call and say, “Happy Mother’s Day.”

I wish Martha and David both had easier, less-complicated lives.  Adult children make their own decisions.  I think of my own life.  Not the way I planned it.  Not always easy.  Bad things knocked me down, but no matter what happened, in my life things always turned out better in the end. 

At bedtime on Mother’s Day, after spending the day alone, I turned on the bedroom tv to a repeat episode of “As Time Goes By”.   I pumped up my electric bed, put on my CPAP mask, and pulled up the covers.  Charlie jumped up on the blanket beside me, and the two of us went to sleep, as happy as kittens.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mother's Day

Two of my daughter’s sons, my grandsons, graduate this month.  After six years, Doug completed his electrical engineering degree from Southern Illinois University.  His youngest brother, Joseph, graduates from high school in Naperville, Illinois.  

Because of dialysis, I could not go to either graduation.  Also due to dialysis, I don’t have time for shopping.  It was not until yesterday that I drove to the closest strip mall to buy cards to send to the young men.  Where I expected to find the Hallmark shop, blank windows held a “For Lease” sign.  Politicians talk about saving “small businesses”, yet everywhere the big chains are taking over. 

So I went next door to the Tom Thumb, part of the international Safeway chain.  (I have a photo of one in England.)  I found the graduation and Mother’s Day cards.  After selecting my cards, I lingered in the front of the store where dozens of glass vases, big and small, were filled with flowers, offered as gifts to take to Mom on Mother’s Day.  Florists, like card shops, seem to be replaced by super markets.  I was attracted to a tall arrangement of roses, then horrified by the price tag.  Would someone pay $50 for flowers from the grocery store?  After that, $20 for a pot of tulips didn’t seem so extravagant.

Would anybody send me flowers for Mother’s Day?  Not likely.  My children came to see me for my birthday in March, expensive trips, Martha coming from Chicago and David flying in from California.   David gave me a Kindle, and Martha bought a whole flat of begonias, and, best of all, planted them for me in flower boxes on my patio. 

I couldn’t expect more than that. 

Alone on Mother’s Day, I went down to lunch.  The dining room was half-empty. I discovered several who were as flower-less and gift-less as I am.  Jean’s daughter came from Virginia for a week and started home yesterday.  Sue’s son, here a couple of week’s ago, has gone home to Oregon.  Lola’s daughter and her husband are away on a cruise.  While other mothers were taken out to dine with families, we who were left alone joined together and found things to laugh about.

Then Vista came by, pushing her walker and greeting everyone cheerfully.  She wished me, “Happy Mother’s Day.”   I felt chastened.  Vista lost her son, her only child, when he was 20 years old.  She has no one.  No other son to move away and spend holidays with his wife’s family.  She will never have grandchildren. 

Lucky me!  My five grandchildren all live far away.  I don’t see them often.  But they are there.  Doug cared enough that, instead of spending his spring break at the beach with the other college kids, he came to Texas and spent a week with Grandma.  Lucky me!

Wherever you are and whatever your circumstances, I hope you counted your blessings and gave yourself a Happy Mother’s Day.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Going to Chicago

In 1952 I married Wallace Gaarsoe and went with him to his hometown, Chicago. It was like moving to the Moon.  Outwardly it did not look much different from the Texas in which I grew up.  But the culture was totally different  

Wally’s ancestry was Danish.  His mother and stepfather lived in a neat, red brick “Chicago bungalow” on the far northwest corner of the city.  Years later, when Wally and I went to Copenhagen, we stayed in a bed-and-breakfast in a similar red brick bungalow.  The newer neighborhoods in Denmark’s capital looked almost identical to the one where Wally’s parents bought their brand-new home in Chicago in 1940

Wally’s parents lived in Norwood Park, a neighborhood of Scandinavians and Germans.  Restricted to “Caucasians”, my mother-in-law said proudly, “We don’t let any of them Caucasians move in here!”  She had disdain for the “Polocks” who lived in the adjoining Jefferson Park.

My family attended College Avenue Baptist Church morning and night on Sundays and again every Wednesday evening.  His parents came to Texas for our wedding.  They were disappointed  with cake and non-alcoholic punch at the reception.  Louie said, “Where’s the beer?”

In the 15 years I knew her, my mother-in-law went to church less than half a dozen times.  They came to Episcopal churches for the baptisms of our children.  She also went to church after the burials of her husband and brother.  She explained, “After a minister conducts a funeral, you should go to church the following Sunday as a courtesy to the minister.” . 

The childhood of Wally’s mother was harsh.  From the time she was only five years old, she and her brother, Holgar, lived in to the Danish Orphanage in Chicago.  She only went to school through the third grade, then was placed with a woman who ran a boarding house.  She literally grew up in a boarding house. 

One evening at supper, I asked, “Please pass the butter.”  Wally’s stepfather, head down, concentrated on forking up his baked potato.  He looked up and said, “What’s the matter?  Don’t you have arms?”  

Except for Sundays with his parents, Wally and I led an exciting life as young marrieds in Chicago.  We found a basement apartment in Rogers Park, a Jewish neighborhood with a Chinese restaurants, where we ate chow mein and egg foo yong once a week.  We rode the “el” to the Loop, where I worked at The Billboard, while Wally attended Roosevelt University, in an historic building on Michigan Avenue. 

On evenings when he had a late class, we’d meet for supper; then he would go to his history class and I’d walk down Michigan Avenue to the Art Institute of Chicago, where I took courses in interior design.  After class, I would go upstairs and, in an hour or so before the building closed, I wandered through the galleries, delighting in seeing “original” paintings where before I had seen only cheap commercial prints.  I especially enjoyed the Monets, sun-drenched seascapes and fields of poppies in one of the World’s greatest museums.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Before the Museums Came

I grew up in Fort Worth “before the museums came.”  As a teenager I wore braces on my teeth.  Each week I rode the bus downtown to the orthodontist’s office to have the braces adjusted.  (In those days children, like myself,  rode city buses all over town and no one noticed.) 

After the dentist tightened the braces (my jaw always ached) I walked six blocks to the Public Library to return five books and check out five more.  Then I’d go upstairs.  To reach the little room at the back of the building, where I listened to recordings of classical music, I crossed the large second floor lobby with paintings on loan from a Mr. Kimball. 

Beside the door to hallways was an Eakins of nude boys at a swimming hole.  On an end wall, dominating the room, was enormous portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence of a homely 18th Century English lady with a headband around her short curly hair,  white satin shoes peeking out beneath the hem of her diaphanous, white, Empire-style dress. 

Those paintings spiked my interest in art.  In college I audited two semesters of history of art.  Sitting in the back of the darkened classroom, as the professor flashed slides of famous paintings on the screen, I longed to see the originals. The paintings at the library were the only art I saw, except in commercial prints, before I married Wallace Gaarsoe and moved to Chicago. 

Fifty years passed in which my life changed in many ways.  Then in 1984 I returned to Fort Worth to live for a year with my Mother.  At 54 I was too old to become Mother’s child again.  We were both miserable.  My solace was going to the art museums and walking in the Japanese Garden. 

While I was away, living in Northern cities and traveling to Europe, Fort Worth also changed.  Amon Carter endowed the museum which bares his name.  The lobby displayed bronzes of cowboys and Indians as well as paintings by Remington and Russell. I enjoyed going there, but my favorite museum was the Kimball. 

Kay Kimball made his fortune in oil.  He and his wife had no children.  They left their entire estate to establish the Kimball Foundation, with an annual budget for acquisitions of about $7,000.000.  Each paintings in their museum (a Rembrandt, a Goya, a Caravaggio, a Monet) is among the artist’s finest work.  The Kimball has a Munch (famous for “The Scream”), a painting, girls on a bridge, is one of the few of this Norwegian artist’s work on display in the U.S. 

Today people come to Fort Worth from all over the World to visit its art museums.  Besides the Kimball and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, the city has a stunning new museums of modern art.   The three museums are in a row on a hillside, just west of downtown, in striking modern buildings.  Philip Johnson’s Kimball, with its vaulted ceilings, is considered one of the famous architect’s finest designs.

Since the Kimball’s collection is primarily European art, the Thomas Eakins has moved up the hill to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.  As for Lawrence’s homely lady in her beautiful, gauzy Empire dress, she is no where to be seen.  Perhaps she is in storage and will debut again when the Kimball completes its new addition, now under construction, to display more of its permanent collection. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

My Low Brow Roots

I confess: I am a “high brow.”  I like George Strait, but I would rather listen to Chopin.  I don’t know why I am this way.  Certainly my parents were “low brow.”  

Both my parents were descended from pioneers.  My ancestors came west in covered wagons, just like the movies.  My father’s great-grandparents, born in Virginia before the American Revolution, built their log cabin in Kentucky in 1790, when that was the “wild frontier” of Daniel Boone and black bears.   

My mother’s people came to Texas “in the days of the Republic.”  They were the first settlers in Rockwall, now a Dallas suburb. Comanche Indians were a constant threat, and buffalo wandered across the plains of North Texas.  They were not concerned about listening to Beethoven or acquiring fine paintings.  

My father grew up in a tiny hamlet in Comanche County, Texas, consisting of a general store, a school, a one-chair barber shop, and three churches: Baptist, Methodist, and “Campbellite”, all conservative Protestants.  The only book in my grandparents’ home was the Bible. 

As a child, my mother lived in Sherman, Texas, but after her father died in the 1918 flu epidemic, my grandmother brought her and her brother to live in the city – Fort Worth -- where she attended high school.  Mr. Paschal was principal at Central High, the only high school in town.  

Mother attended TCU for two years.  TCU stands for “Texas Christian University” with the emphasis on “Christian.”  The campus consisted of half a dozen buildings strung out in a single line along University Avenue.  I never saw any evidence that Mother acquired any sophistication from those two years of “higher learning.” 

The Fort Worth of my childhood was technically a city of more than 100,000 people.  We had 20-story buildings and street cars.  It was an overgrown hick town.  Citizens proudly called it “Cowtown.”  The economy was based on the Armour and Swift slaughtering plants on the North Side of town.  Southsiders prayed that the wind never blew directly from the North.  The odor was overpowering,. 

With this “low brow” background, how did I grow up with a deep interest in music and art?  Credit must go to my teachers in the Fort Worth Public Schools. Little old ladies, none of them married, some of whom had taught my mother in the same red brick building, now renamed Paschal High, one of six high schools in Fort Worth.  (I have no idea how many there are today, probably more than a dozen.)

Why didn’t my mother develop similar interests?  All I know is that Miss Creed introduced me to the beauty of classical music.  She gave me tickets to concerts at the Woman’s Club.  My English teachers introduced me to literature, which I continued to develop on my own; when I went to Chicago I read a translation of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” on the “el” as I rode to my job in the Loop .  Miss Beck and Miss Mixon inspired me to learn more and more about history.  Today I read more non-fiction than fiction.

As for my interest in art, I don’t know how that developed.  I remember going downtown to the Carnegie Public Library and in a loan exhibition seeing for the first time a genuine Cezanne, a still-life of oranges.  I was just a high school girl from a “low brow” family, but I recognized it as a Cezanne and I was thrilled.