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.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Seeing 9/11

Is it possible?  Has it really been 11 years since terrorists highjacked planes and drove them into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon?  I am not alone in remembering that day vividly.  We all remember. 

In the years since we have become accustomed to the technology that lets us be “right there” when anything happens.  A newsman stands in the street in New Orleans, and we watch hurricane winds tear at his jacket.  Ordinary people get in the action.  A tornado sweeps across Texas, and someone takes pictures with a cell phone, which are broadcast on local television. 

I still remember my horror, as I sat drinking my breakfast tea in my living room in Albuquerque, and watched the towers collapse.  It was like a movie.  I thought, “This can’t really be happening.”

It happened, and through the marvels of modern technology, I was there. 

My friend Gertrude lives in a 19th floor apartment on W. 20th Street in Manhattan   From her terrace she had a view over her New York neighborhood to the towers, taller than all the surrounding buildings.  On the morning of 9/11 she was in the basement washing a rug and did not know about the collapse of the towers until she finished cleaning the rug and started upstairs.  She met a woman crying on the elevator.  Thousands of miles away I saw it happen, while Gertrude, within a few blocks of the towers, was totally unaware as she scrubbed away stains on a little rug.

Now it is 11 years later.  Lots of things have happened.  I moved back to Texas and am now chained to dialysis three times a week.   Gertrude is still on W. 20th Street.

I met Gertrude when we were randomly chosen to be roommates during an Elderhostel in Sicily.  Both of us were short and neither of us was pretty.  I was the one with a big “Hebrew” nose.  I was a Texan with pure Anglo-Saxon ancestry, a product of Southern Baptist, covered wagon pioneers.  Gertrude was a New Yorker, granddaughter of Jews who fled the pogroms of Czarist Russia (think “Fiddler on the Roof”).    We hit it off immediately.  It was more than both of us being Democrats and lovers of books and theater.  We had similar views of life. 

I never had a more generous and thoughtful friend.  In Fort Worth there are three Christian women who have known me for more than 60 years.  The only time they came to see me was for my 80th birthday party   They do not invite me to Fort Worth.  They seldom call.  Gertrude calls me every couple of weeks and asks anxiously about my health. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Traveling North

Our time in Paris ended.  I bailed the rental car out of the underground garage, paying almost as many francs to the attendant at the exit as I’d given to Madame to settle our hotel bill.  Well, the garage was new and well-lighted, which can’t be said of the place on the Rue de Gay-Lusac. 

David and I headed north.  We drove through beautiful countryside.  I marveled at the farms with lush, fertile fields that have yielded bountiful crops for 2,000 years.  No dust bowl in France.  How do they do it?  I have no idea. 

At lunch time the highway passed the town of Senlis.   Tourists do not usually go to Senlis.  It is a very old town with a 12th Century Gothic cathedral.  France has lots of towns with old cathedrals.  The map is dotted with them like raisins in a loaf of Sara Lee raisin bread.  The most famous is Chartres.  The one in Senlis is listed in the Michelin Guide as “undistinguished.”  David and I did not stop to look.

Instead, I turned into the gravel parking lot of a wayside place which looked like a Swiss chalet.  This was strictly serendipity.  It was lunchtime, and here was a restaurant.  That’s where David and I had our finest meal of the entire trip. 

I vividly remember the waiter bringing the appetizers.  I think I had a pate.  David faced a bowl of “fruits de mer” (fruits of the sea).  Using a little fork he dug little sea creatures out of their shells.  David ate clams and winkles and even snails.  He ate it all with enthusiasm.

Throughout the trip I was delighted when my teenager cheerfully went for new experiences, whether it was climbing up the crumbling walls of an old castle or selecting his dinner from a menu written entirely in German.  In Germany he discovered jagger schnitzel (thin veal cutlets smothered with mushrooms) but learned never to order spaghetti Bolognese in Germany.  It was spaghetti topped with catsup. 

I don’t remember what else we ate in Senlis.  It was an elegant four-course meal which began with the appetizer and ended up with fruit (I chose a juicy comishe pear) and a tray with a choice of about 10 varieties of cheese.

We traveled without advance reservations, relying whenever we could on local tourist bureaus to find rooms for the night.  Green Michelin Guides were invaluable for sightseeing – those stars mean something: Three stars (***) are a must see; one star (*) is “if you have time.”   For meals it was hit or miss.  A good meal was a base hit.  Senlis was a home run. 

I loved traveling that way.  The most fun were the unexpected, the things that happened that were not planned: A German woman in Paris telling me that “Texas is gross.”.  Or stopping for lunch expecting to get a sandwich and eating a four-course gourmet meal.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Remembering Paris

I wanted to go to Paris with my husband.  As it turned out, I went to Europe with 13-year-old David on a trip that began and ended in Frankfurt, Germany.  

Paris should have been the romantic climax of our trip.  You know: like Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant in “Charade” or Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in “An American in Paris,.” Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman looking into each other’s eyes and whispering, “We’ll always have Paris.”

Instead, for me Paris turned out to be just one more round of sightseeing, and we left with one more week to go before returning to the U.S.

I was able to return to Paris several times after that.  Now it is only memories.  With dialysis three days a week, I can not make any more trips abroad.  I do not have the energy to drive the 40 miles to Fort Worth to see the 40th anniversary exhibit at the Kimball Museum.  

Except for a few months in 1983, I have not lived in Fort Worth for 60 years.  My four college friends who still live in Fort Worth have gone on with their lives as typical Texans.  The only one who seemed interested in reconnecting with me was Emma, and now she has moved to Austin. 

Sally and I never lost touch.  For years both of us were housebound with small children – she on Wise County farms and for a while in Oklahoma City, me in Illinois, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.  Long letters went back and forth almost weekly.  Sally’s husband Hugh took her to Fort Worth to visit my mother.  While I lived in Pennsylvania, I drove once a month through Amish country from Philadelphia to Lancaster to visit Sally’s mother.

Today I am a two-hour drive from Garland to Sally’s place.  When I first came back to Texas, I did it a couple of times, but it was exhausting.  Now I wait for David to come to Texas and take me out to the farm.  Sally is in a similar situation.  Only since Hugh died has she steeled herself to drive the few miles from the farm to Decatur.   Several times she has persuaded her daughters to bring her to Garland to see me.  Sally and I talk on the phone.

Hugh never wanted to travel.  They stayed on the farm, raising prize beef cattle.  David loved getting in the pickup truck, which they did morning and evening, bouncing across the pasture to see the cows.  Sally’s escape was in reading.  Her house is stuffed with books, on shelves in every room and down the hallway, enough to stock a good-sized branch library.

Sally never saw Paris.  Frankly, most of my times in Paris were rather dull.  The closest I came to the Bogart-Bergman experience was in 1988, when my second husband, John Durkalski, and I spent a week there.  I have a picture of the two of us drinking Coca-Cola at a sidewalk cafĂ©.  Our most romantic evening was strolling down from the Invalids to the Eiffel Tower.  The night was calm and warm; the lights on the tower were beautiful.  We took the elevator up to the platform, where we could not get a table with a view.  We still sat down and ordered ice cream.

After that I can say, “We’ll always have Paris.”