A Special Place in My Heart

Young couple kissing
first love

Do you remember the first person you fell in love with? I bet you do.  And maybe, like me, the place in your heart that person occupied has remained theirs for years after. It will most likely never be given to anyone even though you will have greater loves, more endearing loves, maybe even permanent loves.

Even to this day, I can never scramble eggs without feeling my first love, hovering behind me. It was he who taught me how to make them “just right.” The sight of the yellow whirls in the frying pan evokes his presence like incense burning in a lamp.

high school sweethearts
Vintage classroom scene
Photo by Jeffrey Hamilton

Mike and I were sweethearts in high school. We never actually met one another. Rather we slowly came into one another’s radar. I cannot pinpoint the moment when we realized that we were “together.”

I felt like I knew Mike long before I actually came face to face with him. By the time I was in junior high, I had determined that I wanted to be a journalist when I grew. When a ninth-grade English teacher required our class to interview an adult working in our hoped-for future career, I called Dorothea Bump, who wrote a weekly column for our local newspaper. Ms. Bump and I had a delightful conversation. She didn’t pull any punches about how challenging it was for a woman to succeed in the world of journalism, but she encouraged me to pursue my dream.  While we talked, I learned that she had a son my age.

different spheres
Basketball game
Photo by Klara Kulikova

My curiosity piqued, when I started high school the next year, I paid attention in classes and at school events to see if his name showed up.  And it did. Although it was a huge school and we didn’t have many classes in common, he was on the football team.  At a high school in central Indiana, this was not the big deal it is in many other places in the United States.  At our school, basketball was king.  Football games were not well attended.  In fact, girls, who wished to be cheerleaders for the basketball games, tried out at the football games.

More notably, Mike was very involved in student government and in speech and debate clubs. That meant he appeared on stage at student assemblies. A charming and persuasive speaker, he was a popular choice for campaign manager for kids who ran for office. At that time, however, I had an enormous crush on a guy from my junior high and Mike didn’t cause my heart to turn over.

enter drama
Actors on Stage
Photo by Kyle Head

Junior year brought us into the same circle. My best friend, Nancy, dreamed of a career in theater. She was involved at some level in every production our school put on.  Usually, she played a lead role as she was (and is to this day) a fine actor.  I had no theater ambitions, but I liked being where Nancy was. So, I signed on to build sets, procure props, and help actors learn their lines.

Mike’s closest friend Kelley was another young actor.  Kelley’s involvement with the school theater drew Mike in.  Mike had no desire to act, but he had a fine voice and got “volunteered” for the chorus for musicals – not just to sing, but to lend his strong back to scene construction.

backstage romance
Backstage of a theater
Photo by Jonny Rothwell

This convergence of interests put Mike and me backstage on the sidelines with the rest of the support crew for long periods of time. Most of us tried to get some homework done as we curled in whatever comfortable corner we could find, but with all the comings and goings of the rehearsals, concentration was pretty hard.  We couldn’t distract the actors, so we would converse in notes. Finally, Mike got frustrated enough by this abbreviated way of communicating that he asked me to go for a coke one evening.

meant to be

The rapport that began backstage blossomed at the diner. I don’t remember that Mike actually asked me for a date after that. We simply started being together.  Anything he was involved in, I engaged in as well. He did the same for me.  We attended all the school dances as a couple for the next two years.

New York City neon
Photo by Florian Wehde

In senior year, he, for some reason, decided not to take the class trip to Washington D.C and New York City. But as soon as our bus pulled out of the station, he realized he had to share it with me.  He hitchhiked to New York. Washington had been fascinating, but lonely. What a wonderful surprise to find Mike sitting in my hotel lobby when my classmates and I arrived in New York.  I fell in love with New York with Mike.  It’s still my favorite American city.

Our romance unraveled when we graduated high school and attended different colleges. It wasn’t easy. We both ended up with broken hearts. Few people marry their high school sweethearts.  Those who do often don’t stay married to them.  It’s way too early for most young people to make a life-long decision. That doesn’t make the end of the relationship any less harsh or the memories any less poignant.

The love lesson of our romance, however, never faded.  Mike taught me that I could be loved wholeheartedly for exactly who I was.  Because he believed that, I could believe it.  The knowledge that I am worthy of unconditional love was his gift to me long after our young romance slipped away.

Like a Rainbow

Rainbow over Waverly

Over the last several post, I’ve been sharing memories with my readers.  Some have been stories from my childhood. Others are tales shared with me about my parents’ or my grandparents’ lives.

Today, I return to my earliest post. This one was published over two years ago. It asks readers to join me, to share their stories and to share photographs that illustrate those stories.  It’s a BIG ASK. But, boldly, I do it again.

somewhere over the rainbow

Yellow brickroad to OzLike a rainbow, families begin and end in misty places we never actually see.  Some of its colors we perceive quite clearly. Others are not so easily defined. But together all these hues represent who we are and what we can be.

Every known human society has had distinctive ways of constructing family relationships.  All have recognized this web of intimate inter-connection as essential to human survival.

Our own contemporary Western culture is no different.  The turmoil of immigration and mobility has severed our links to our ancestors. Feeling uprooted, yearning for connection, we turn to genealogists to find out who our great-grandparents were and where they came from.

That only gets us names and dates.  It doesn’t connect people to one another.  Even if I unearth some photos to go with the names,  I mostly find myself staring at …..strangers.

Back to the Future

Old photosI cannot undo the past. But there’s another impossibility I may be able to pull off. I can travel “Back to the Future.”  Before you start calling in the guys with the straight jackets, let me assure you that I am not planning on building a Time Machine.

Rather through memory and imagination, I will visit the past as I knew it and bring back stories of those times and those people, preserving them for today’s children and also for the children at the other end of the rainbow.

I invite you to companion me on my quest.  Share your stories of our families’ past adventures and everyday events. Send me photos that illustrate those tales. Don’t limit yourself to the past. Today will soon be yesterday. So let’s hear what’s happening in the family right now, especially the funny stories that will tickle the ribs of future grandchildren and great-nieces and nephews as well.

sundays at nana’s house

Jay having dinner with Terrence's familyMany of us remember a time when almost every Sunday, the extended family gathered at a grandmother’s or great-aunt’s home for Sunday dinner.  It takes events of great joy or deep sadness to bring us all together today.  This blog will be a virtual “Dinner at Nana’s House,” a place and time to celebrate that in some way everyone here is family.

I am reaching out to everyone I have been fortunate enough to call “family.” Here we’ll ask real questions, not fill in some fantasy quiz. We ask because we truly want to know the answers.

Asking is not probing.  There will still be secrets.  Every family has them. But we will so much more about each other than we do now. Day by day we’ll be more and more connected. Knowing will enable caring. Caring will engender a tradition of support. This will be our legacy.

abundance of connection

At my father's Wisconsin cabin
John DeJager’s Lake Cabin

My life’s journey began in the midst of abundant family. On the day I was born my four grandparents lived nearby, my two uncles were fighting in World War II, one in Europe and one in the Pacific. As the first child of two oldest children, I did not, as yet, have any aunts, siblings, or cousins.  Those would come later. I was, however, blessed with an abundance of great-aunts and  great-uncles, a slew of second and third cousins, and best of all, two lovely great-grandmothers.  It is my great hope that all these wonderful folks will star somewhere in the dramas to appear on these pages.

No more photos without names. No more names without faces. Future children of the clans will inherit the rich narrative of their origins.  knowing where they come from will give them true direction as to where they can go.

“Families are like branches on a tree, we grow in different directions yet our roots remain as one.” https://www.treasurequotes.com/quotes/families-are-like-branches-on-a-tree-we-grow

Might Southern Oak
Photo by Andrew Shelley

Let the Clan Gathering Begin.

 

The Sky Is The Limit!

Irises

Over the last two blog posts, I’ve shared two events in my own “coming-of-age” experiences when my world suddenly became much wider.

This week a guest blogger, Nancy Louise, weaves a tale similar and yet very different than those stories of a time in her childhood when the door to a possible new life opened up for her.

Hitting Rock Bottom

Huge family of young childrenRight before my ninth birthday my Daddy was killed in a car accident in Shreveport, Louisiana, one of the many towns I’d lived in over the course of my short life. His death left my Mama with six young’uns, under the age of ten to raise on her own. I was the second oldest. Unable to consider employment and with no means of support, Mama moved us into ‘The Projects,” free housing for indigent families. We froze in the winter and sweltered in the summer, but we stayed together with a roof over our head.

Housing project
Photo by Joel Muriz

The Federal Housing Projects of the 1950’s was very basic. Everything was concrete and hard metal. And HOT! Hard Edged. Teaming with kids. And noisy. Always very, very noisy. I loved to escape—if only for a little while, if only in my imagination.

a trick of the imagination

Girl in African dress
Photo by Magdalena Manchee

Of course, we had no car. We lugged our groceries home on foot. As the oldest girl —that task frequently fell to me. From our apartment house, in one direction on Southern Avenue stood the A&P, the source of most of our groceries. But in my fantasy world, I trekked not to a supermarket, but to deepest Africa. On my way home, I strode down Southern Avenue precariously balancing dry goods, such as a 25-pound sack of flour on my head. As I bounced along, I swayed my hips and sang nonsense words what I told myself was “jungle language.” I was no longer a Southern school girl; I had morphed into a bearer on Safari! The blessing of a great imagination lit up my dull, everyday life!

In the other direction on Southern was “The Cotton Boll”—an early convenience store with higher prices and, therefore, only used for “emergencies” —like when we ran out the baby’s milk a.k.a. a can of Pet.

secret garden

Deserted lot by railroad tracks
Photo by Wil Steward

One fine spring day Mama sent me up to the Cotton Boll to fetch something-or-other—she probably hoped quickly! On the four-block walk, I passed by a huge empty lot that backed up to a ridge with the railroad tracks on top. The lot looked nasty, filled with high weeds, scrubby bushes, rusted out car parts and trash.

Girl picking blackberriesAlways a curious child, I forgot my mother’s urgency, and I decided to “explore” the lot, just as any self-respecting adventurer would do.  Also, I was in search of blackberry bushes, which I knew grew plentifully along the top of that ridge on the rail road tracks. Blackberries were the only fresh fruit we could afford growing up because they were free for the picking. But I didn’t find any blackberries.

Instead, there in the back corner of the lot I found something I never expected to see. An enormous patch of purple irises in full bloom! I have no idea how they got there. Perhaps in the far distant past there had been a house on the lot and had irises graced the back yard. Or perhaps one bulb floated in on a strong wind one day, took root and multiplied as irises are wont to do.

a place for dreaming

Irises under blue sky
Photo by Roberta Guillen

But for whatever reason…there they were. Totally unknown to the world. . .except me! I got down on all fours, crawled past the brambles and weeds into the patch, I carefully turned over on my back in such a way that all I could see was a wide, open sky framed by the purple blooms. As I lay in total quiet of my hidden garden, my heart swelled and out of nowhere, as though spoken by the wind, words swept into my head, “THE SKY’S THE LIMIT”.

I never shared the secret of the irises with anyone. But each spring for years after, I would make a pilgrimage to “my garden,” lie in the blooms, and dream – very big dreams of a life that would take me far beyond “the projects.”

the journey begins

Painting of nuns singing
@Eurpeana

As a first step toward the dream, at sixteen I entered the convent. While I prepared for a life of dedicated sisterhood, “progress” came to my old neighborhood. Southern Avenue was ripped up.  The A&P and the Cotton Boll were torn down to make room for the Interstate. My irises disappeared forever.

After four years, I left the convent, a good, but heartbreaking decision. The move thrust me unawares into the American 60s.  New things were “Blowing’ in the Wind”. I couldn’t go back home. My dreams still tugged at me. I went into training to become an airline stewardess. (Never a “flight attendant” mind you. But that’s another story!) My “stew” job launched me into a career in travel.

Airplane wing w sunset
Photo by Nick Pryde

Just as I dreamed in my garden, I left the projects far behind. I spent my life leading tour groups to every corners of the world. With each and every trip, I grew more and more aware of that God always walked with me, showing me those Limitless Skies.

Back Country Cure

Banff, Canada
permission to disconnect

Man riding horse in wilderness
Photo by Hector Perez

I recently discovered an article in the National Geographic that warmed my heart and spun my memory back three-quarters of a century.

Ray Knell, a Green Beret and a ten-year Afghanistan combat veteran undertook a 1,000-mile wilderness ride from Colorado to Montana along North America’s Continental Divide. He completed his trek using wild mustangs because the horse gave him focus and allowed him to disconnect. This he needed to do to heal his own PTSD. He also hoped to set an example that other traumatized veterans could follow.

an ancient syndrome – a new guise

WW I - Men in trenches
Photo from British Library

The term PTSD didn’t enter my vocabulary until the early 1980s. Many of my classmates, men and women, had served in the armed forces in the Vietnam Conflict. They returned home suffering from a disabling array of mental disturbances. Due to the controversial nature of the war, their suffering may have been worse than that experienced in the past. But it was not a new syndrome. Ancient documents describe post-combat symptoms similar to the high levels of stress and anxiety the young combatants of the 1970s experienced.

One evening after my children were in bed, a close friend from college, now decommissioned and on his way home to St. Paul, stopped to spend the night at our home. He arrived at ten at night, hungry and tired.  I fixed him a B. L.T. “Ah,” he said, “this is the kind of food we dreamed about in ‘Nam.” He and I sat up long past midnight. I tried not to cry as I listened to the horror stories he had to tell. I prayed there would be a source of solace for him once he stepped again on Minnesota soil.

And I finally understood the full meaning of a journey I had taken when I was not quite four years old.

detour on the way home

1946 ChevroletEarly in the morning of the Memorial Day weekend, 1946, my dad John De Jager, slid behind the enormous wheel of his family’s retooled 1942, four-door, Chevy sedan. His right arm across the wide front seat, he checked to make sure all was set in back. His brother, my Uncle Jimmy, sat in the passenger seat, resting a brawny arm along the open car window. In the back I commanded one window seat and my grandmother, the other. My brother John, who was almost two years old, sat on a booster chair between us. The trunk of the car had been piled high with suitcases, and we still had some containers under our feet. As my Dad turned the key and started the big engine, I knelt up and leaned my arms on the back ledge to wave a wild good-bye to family we left standing in the drive-way.

WW II Sailor kissing girl
Photo by Jorge Gardner

World War II had officially ended the September before when U.S. General Douglas MacArthur accepted Japan’s formal surrender aboard the U.S. battleship Missouri, anchored in Tokyo Bay.  Sometime during the winter my uncle had been discharged from the Navy. Throughout the war, he had served on ships in the Pacific as a radar specialist and seldom saw the light of day. On the evening he had returned to us, he swooped in and grabbed me and swung me around the room. Then he plopped his navy cap on my head.  “Here, Judy,” he said. “It’s all yours. I’m done fighting.”

to be whole again

Ranch in Canada
Photo by Jon Phillips

It seemed that we had my dad’s happy-go-lucky brother back. But we didn’t. What I wouldn’t know until later was that Jimmy wasn’t able to concentrate at the job that was waiting for him. He joined his family on Sunday at church, but no longer joined in the hymns. Worst of all nightmares caused him to wake the family in the middle of the night with his screams. The family doctor advised a “rest cure.”

Because his mother had grown-up on a ranch in Alberta, Canada, the family decided what Jimmy needed was time away from Detroit, its crowds and its demand. He needed the wide-open spaces and the down-to-earth labor of the ranch to help him regain his equilibrium.

Jimmy wasn’t the only one suffering from the aftermath of the conflict that had taken the lives of millions, leaving the survivors reeling in shock.  My mother’s only brother, John, had died in combat in Belgium, shortly after her father had succumbed to a heart attack. Deep in mourning herself, she struggled to stay strong for her mother.

Grieving older woman
Photo by Christian Newman

My grandmother sat in darkened rooms staring at old photos and shunning society. She had been a woman who loved dancing, singing, cooking and entertaining. She had given the reception for my mother’s wedding in her backyard, doing all the decorations and food preparation on her own. But now, nothing interested her. My mother fear for her mental health. Her concerns for her mother distracted her from caring for my brother and me. She did not, of course, neglect us, but could get no real joy from being a mother.

What I understand today is that my entire family lived under the pall of post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet, they had no name to give it. They only knew the world was at peace, but that peace eluded them.

follow the sun

Yellowstone National Park
Photo by Paula Hayes

The little girl happily waving goodbye from the backseat of the Chevy only knew she was off on an adventure. For my Dad who would be returning to Detroit and my mother, this was his vacation. Everything about it looms in my memory like scenes from a fantasy or a fairy tale. The geysers at Yellowstone National Park both frightened and delighted me. The mountains in Glacier National Park suggested hidden homes of giants and elves. I was certain that the hotel on Lake Louise as we neared our destination was actually a palace.

Our last stop before the ranch was my Great-Grandmother Koopman’s home in Banff. I’ve never forgotten that since wasn’t at home when we arrived. So, my father hoisted me on his shoulders to crawl in through the open kitchen window.  I landed in the sink and scrambled down to the linoleum. It was getting dark and I didn’t know which way to go in the strange house, but my father was shouting, “Find the front door.”

I tentatively peered through a door. No ghosts.  Just a gigantic dining room table and chairs.  I crept around it, holding onto the backs of the chairs as though I needed to be anchored to the floor.  Through an archway, I saw a living room full of plastic-covered heavy furniture, and, thankfully, a big white paneled door. I let go of a chair and ran to the door, twisted the lock and let my family in.  My Great-Gran was quite surprised to find us all sitting in her living room when she arrived home. It was late at night when we turned off the gravel highway onto the rutted, dirt driveway into the ranch, but my Great-Aunt Elsa waited with a lantern on the back porch as we drove up. She engulfed me in a giant bear hug that felt just right.

living with heroes

Cowboy on ranch
Photo by Flo P

From that moment on the whole summer was one magical adventure for me. I trailed my great-aunt wherever she went. Together we fed chickens, milked cows, baked bread, and tended her kitchen garden.  I suppose my little brother was there somewhere, but in my memory, it’s just my great-aunt and me.  I do remember we had a second birthday party for my brother and all the cowhands attended.  The cowhands lent a great deal of mystique to that summer. Their worn, wide-brimmed leather hats and the leather chaps that protected their Levi’s transformed them into mythical creatures for me. I loved getting up at the crack of dawn so I could share their breakfast hour.

daring deeds

Soaring hawk
Phot by Ezequiel Garridao

My other favorite ranch characters were my teenage cousins, who worked the ranch, but took particular pride in protecting the chickens from the hawks. This entailed getting behind the wheel of an enormous pre-War auto and careening around the ranch.  One cousin would drive while the others clung to the running boards, rifles in hand.  They let me ride on the back window ledge for these excursions.  As we hurtled along back and forth, the boys would take aim and more often than not bring down a hawk. Why my great-aunt let me go on such outings I have no idea, but child raising practices were different back then.

some happy endings

Child hugging older woman
Photo by Ekaterina Shakharova

At the end of the summer Dad brought my mother with him to pick us up.  After a summer on the ranch, my uncle felt better able to resume civilian life. had been just what he needed. My parents stayed a few days to rest for the return trip to Detroit. But when it was time to go, I clung to my great-aunt and begged to stay.  I told her, “I want you to be my mommy.” The look of betrayal on my mother’s face is one I’ll never forget.  Yet, I persisted. Instinct warned me perhaps that life with my traumatized mother would never be easy.  But four-year old don’t get to decide their fate. I had to give my great-aunt one last hug and climb in the car.  It was the last time I visited Alberta. Maybe my mother didn’t dare take me back.

“We were not allowed to speak of the unseen wounds of war. We were not allowed to prepare for them.” Thank You For Your Service Brig. General Loree Sutton,

What are your earliest memories of human warfare?

Learning to Love Unconditionally

Couple looking over horizon
From one generation to the next

Grandmother in kitchen w grandson
Photo by CDC

Almost from our first meeting, my husband Jay and I recognized each other as steadfast, loyal people who held deep affection for family members and friends.  We both enjoyed sharing stories with one another about our families. We could not help but admire the authentic fondness we each felt toward our parents, our siblings, and the many members of our extended families. One of our favorite ways to spend time then and now is to reminiscence about our grandparents.

Our grandparents had helped to mold the persons we had become. We treasured them individually. Yet, we didn’t realize how fortunate we were that between us, we had six living grandparents, all of whom attended our wedding. They had just always been there for us. So, it seemed perfectly natural that they should share this important moment.  I regret that neither we nor anyone else took a photo of all six of them together that day.  We do, however, love the various shots of all of them joyfully celebrating the marriage of their oldest grandchildren.

a legacy of great worth

Couple grasping arms
Photo by Elahe Motamed

Now, a grandmother myself, I fondly reflect upon the hours and days I spent with my grandparents as I grew up. I realize now that our grandparents’ lives taught Jay and me the very traits that drew us together – steadfast loyalty and devoted affection. When Jay and I lost our grandparents to death, they left no monetary inheritance, but the legacy they left us was far richer than any financial gain. They left their stamp on our character.

The deep affection we received from our grandparents, we quite naturally pass along to our grandchildren.  Through sharing their stories in my writing, I also hope to leave a legacy not only for our grandchildren but also for their children. I want them to know how greatly they were loved even before they existed.

leaving an old world for a new one

Cattle Ranch
Photo by Lukas Gachter

In planning my blog post for the next year, I chose as a theme, “Leave a Legacy.” I begin today with one of my favorite memories of my Grandmother Wilhelmina DeJager. I know only the vaguest outlines of my Grandma Minnie’s life before she became my grandmother. What I do know is fascinating enough to make me wish I could uncover more. As a teenager, she migrated from The Netherlands with her parents and siblings to Alberta, Canada, in the early 20th century. They left behind city life in Amsterdam to settle on a cattle ranch.  It sounds so much like the “Little House on the Prairie” stories that fairly breaks my heart that the story of those days is nowhere recorded.

Minnie met my grandfather, Ted, also a Dutch immigrant, when he was working on building the trans-Canadian railroad. They fell so deeply in love that when Ted migrated to the Detroit, Michigan, and wrote to ask her to come and marry him, she did. Imagine trusting love that much!

a twentieth century dutch homemaker

Braided rug
Photo by Viktor Fopgacs

Only twenty years old when she gave birth to my father John, Minnie had every skill needed to be an accomplished homemaker and mother. She could sew clothes for her whole family. The braided rugs for the floors, the curtains on the windows, and all the bed linens were also her creations.

Grandma planted a garden. At the beginning of every winter, she canned fruits and vegetables to last until spring. When I was a child, she canned enough for our family as well. And, of course, she cooked. I loved sitting in her kitchen and dreamed of having one that would look just like it someday because the white cabinets with red trim entranced me and the smells of stews and roasts made my mouth water.

a favored grandchild

Patterns for little girls' dresses in the 1950sAbove and beyond all else, Grandma Minnie loved me unconditionally. She had only had sons and thrilled to the fact that her first grandchild was a girl.  She’d been waiting twenty-five years to make like girl clothes! The lovely thing was since she was a grandmother, there was no subtle rule that kept her from making me her favorite. Those restrictions apply to parents, but grandparents needn’t abide by them. Thus, many times during the year I had the chance to skip out on my role of “mother’s helper” in my family of five siblings and become the “one and only” pet child of my grandmother.

These opportunities would usually begin following Sunday dinner at my grandparents’ home. Instead of going home with my parents, brothers and sisters, I would stay at Grandma’s house until the next Sunday. Those weeks were truly magical. My grandmother never gave me chores to do. Although she kept busy all day long with gardening, cooking and sewing, I was free to either tag along and chat or I could entertain myself however I chose.  Both alternatives were heavenly.

a magically ordinary household

Bright kitchen
Photo by Douglas Bagg

I loved watching her feet pumping the wheel on the sewing machine and marveled at the garments that arose from under the needles. My imagination took me back in time when she covered my head with a sunbonnet and gave me a basket to hold strawberries from the garden.  She didn’t mind at all if I became bored and dug for worms instead. If she was canning, I stood on a kitchen chair right at the stove – something my mother never allowed.

Carpentry shop
Photo by Adam Patterson

My grandfather had an enormous workshop in their garage.  Despite working all day as a ship builder, he still loved crafting with his tools once he was home. For me, he created a dollhouse with four rooms of furniture. He also built a child-size hutch to house my doll dishes and doll clothes.  I had a full wardrobe of clothes for my two favorite dolls because every time my grandmother made an outfit for me, she would make identical ones for my dolls.  Grandpa also crafted a dolls’ bunk bed for them for which my grandmother made mattresses, pillows, sheets, blankets, and quilts.

total belonging

Furnished dollhouse
Photo by Krysztof Kowalik

Often, I would wander away from my grandmother’s activity to curl up on her cushy sofa to read a book.  Sometimes, I’d turn her whole living room into a stage for my paper dolls. At home, my play was relegated to a basement playroom.  Children were not allowed in the living room. Most weekdays, at five-thirty, I’d walk to the end of their block to wait for the city bus that brought my grandfather home from work. Neither of my grandparents drove a car. Then, as we headed home, he’d tell me stories about the ships he was building. How I wish I could have written those stories down! At home, he strode into the kitchen and encircled Grandma’s waist and kissed the back of her neck.  She always said, “Oh, go on with you, Ted. Mind the child.” He would turn to me and wink.

On Sunday morning, although my grandmother was a staunch Presbyterian, she would walk me to St. Peter’s Catholic church several blocks away to attend Mass. My father had converted to Catholicism when he married my mother.  A stipulation of allowing my grandmother to have me at her home was that she promised to take me to Mass on Sunday.  My grandfather would pick me up when services were over. As a child, I often sought solitude and actually loved being able to attend church all on my own.

being loved for being you

I have no memories of anxiously awaiting my family at dinner time.  Mostly I felt sad that I was leaving my grandmother.  These visits stretched out from the time I was five until I was thirteen. Even when I was little, I suffered pangs of guilt at being so happy to be away from home and felt bad that I got my grandparents all to myself so often.  But the joy I experienced in my grandmother’s home more than compensated for any remorse I felt over my lack of homesickness.

Not for one moment of my childhood did I doubt that I was the light of my grandmother’s life. As sure I was of this truth, I realized that she loved my siblings and my cousins very deeply as well.  It didn’t diminish our relationship in the least.  At home my parents tried to be even-handed in their treatment of five very different children. I didn’t feel cherished as “Jule,” someone unique. My parents, I felt, most valued me as the oldest, the one who could help.

John and Jule at Latrouelle FallsMy grandmother’s unconditional love had no strings attached. I did not have to earn it. Experiencing such love taught be to be openly affectionate without fear. This is a trait my husband recognized early and treasures still.

“Grandparents hold our tiny hands for just a little while, but our hearts forever.”

Please share a favorite memory of your grandparents?

 

The Light Returns and We Are Glad

Northern Lights in Norway
My Favorite Day of the Year

Christmas tree in Scandinavia
Photo by Samuel Bryngelsson

Today is Winter Solstice. The winter solstice is the moment in the year when Earth is tilted as far away from the sun as it will be all year. For the northern half of the planet, the winter solstice results in the shortest day of the year, meaning it has the longest period of darkness.

For as long as I can remember, I have loved this day, loved the whole idea that the light that slowly seeped away from us over the last six months is about to return.  The darkness cannot overtake us. I rejoice to know that I, along with millions of other earthly creatures, am tilting back toward the sun. At the same time, I delight in the grand array of artificial light my own species threads throughout the habitats of humanity. These cheerful beacons do not deny the darkness. Rather they proclaim that we recognize the allure of sparking light against velvet darkness. This magic combination lifts spirits and call us to make merry. Every couple must, I claimed at the beginning of this series of posts, grasp every possible reason to celebrate that comes their way.  This time of year is one of the best.

Introducing Jul

Norwegian town in winter
Photo by Vidar Nordi Mathisen

I have an odd but intent affinity for the season. My name, Jule, is an Anglicized version of the Norwegian word for Christmas, “Jul.” In Nordic tradition “Jul” stretches out for weeks. In pre-Christian times, it began around what would be for us today, mid-December and lasted until mid-January.  The time period was a month called “Ylir.” It was associated with the god, Odin. One of his many names is Jólnir which comes from the word Jól. In those ancient days, Odin traveled around Midearth more than usual visiting the locals. The children will fill socks with hay for his horse Sleipnir, and Odin might give them a small gift in return.

julenisse
Photo by j pellegen

Even today Santa Claus is not the most common Christmas icon in Norway. That honour goes to julenisse. A creation from Scandinavian folklore, a nisse (tomte in Sweden) is a short creature with a long white beard and a red hat. Julenisse means the gift-bearing nisse at Christmas time.

The real yule log

You may be more familiar with another Anglicized version of “Jul,” which is Yule. This pronunciation most likely came about because the letter “J” in Norwegian and Swedish sounds more like the English “Y” than the English “J.”  This means that while all my life the sound of my name has been identical to the word, “Jewel,” it would be more properly pronounced “Yoo-laa.” But I’ll save the whole story of how I came to be named one name and called another for another day.

The total abandonment to merriment that is the focus of the “Jul” entrances

Extra large burning log
Photo by elijah Hiett

me. There are so very many ways these people of the far north have of pushing back against the dark and the cold it can be breath taking just to read about them. We’ve all heard of the Yule Log.  For many of us, it’s a kind log-shaped cake, one of many mouth-watering sweets in which we indulge at this time of year.

The cake, however, takes its name from a very special Norse ritual. Their tradition calls for a whole tree (not just a log!) to be brought into the home to burn for the entire 12 days of Christmas. I feel all soft and fuzzy inside writing about that single tree giving Yule-Log Cakeits whole life to bring light and warmth to a family in the midst of the frigid darkness. Humans could do well to emulate the tree. Just in case you don’t have a whole tree to burn, here’s a recipe for the cake.

now that’s a party!

Those hearty Nordic folk are not, however, spending their time curled up on cozy sofas staring into the fire. No way.  They are off celebrating at multiple julebord. I have to admit – it’s super cool to share a name with such a spectacular tradition. These communal gatherings serve up trays ladened with traditional food. The most common popular dish Christmas Eve dish is ribbe,

Pork belly roast
Photo by Sebastian Coman

or seasoned pork belly. It’s usually served with sauerkraut and redcurrant sauce. Christmas sausages, cranberry sauce, and fried apple slices with honey are other common accompaniments. Here’s one that might not sound wonderful to you, but 70% of Norwegians feast on pinnekjøtt sometime over the  season. Pinnekjøtt, which translates literally into English as ‘stick meat.’ is dried and salted sheep ribs. https://www.lifeinnorway.net/christmas-food/

Clinking beer glasses
Photo by Yutacar

Usually guests and hosts consume large amounts of alcohol and then head out to a late-night party. With true festive fervor, every company, school, sports club and social group hosts their own julebord. Over the season, one most Norwegians attend two or more of these events. So, it’s no wonder that after the somewhat quieter family celebration of Julaften (Christmas Eve), the day when Norwegians exchange gifts, Norwegians welcome romjul.

time in between times

Romjul is their name for the period between Christmas and New Year’s. It roughly translates to mean a time when no one knows what to do. I can totally relate to that. If any of you have ever been at work, as I have in the past, during this particular week, you probably know what the Scandinavians mean.  Doldrums set in at work.  By Christmas, we’ve wrapped up most big project.  There’s not enough time to launch a new venture. Everyone’s still a little hung over from all that Christmas cheer while gearing up to celebrate New Year’s Eve.

And that’s just at work. At home the Christmas bubble deflates as the letdown of no more gifts sets in for the kids and diet regret takes over the adults. No one wants to watch their favorite Christmas movies any more. Going out to play is a major process of gearing up and doesn’t last for long. Yes, I have to go along with the Norwegians.  That week deserves its own name and romjul sounds just right.

year end for julewardwrites

When it comes to this blog, I think it’s only fair to let you know, I’ll be observing romjul and giving you a break from reading it for a week.  See you in 2021. Until then – –

Gingerbread house cake
Photo by Bruna Branco

God Jul! & Godt nytt år

What’s your favorite Holiday tradition?  I’d love to hear!

 

Home Alone

Couple alone in a dark room
a tree for two

Couple building snowman
Photo by Toa Heftiba

Home Alone is the theme of Christmas, 2020. Most of us face this wise choice face with deep sadness. We’re also pretty angry although we may not know where to direct our anger. For some, like my husband Jay and I, being “alone” for Christmas means not absolute solitude, but attempting to celebrate the holiday as a couple without any gathering of family. We haven’t had to do this since our honeymoon. At that time, being alone was delicious, a retreat from world of family and friends, from school and work, a quiet time to just let it sink in that we were married.

yearning for much more

Couple and their tree
Photo by S&B Vonlan

Trying to recapture that same sense of delightful togetherness is much harder this year because after that first Christmas, we always celebrated with large groups of extended family members. Once we became parents, our children were the focus of every year’s celebration. This tradition continued even after they grew up. All four children came home for Christmas every year until our grandchildren were born. After that we took turns gathering at our children’s homes for Christmas. All of us even traveled to Argentina in 2006 when our third daughter and her family lived in South America for the year.

seeking solace and wisdom

Couple holding hands
Photo by Nani Chavez

We have been fortunate. We know that. Still, we are filled with angst and pain as we confront the Christmas without the family. We try to cheer each other up, but haven’t been having a lot of success. So, when the Gottman Institute Blog’s post, “How to Support Your Partner When You’re Hurting Too,” by Donald Cole, landed in my email box it felt like a godsend.

As I read Dr. Cole’s advice, I could see ways Jay and I could avail ourselves of his wisdom to get through this hard time. I could see there parallels to my own themes of intentional marriage.

intentional listening magic

He begins with “Set aside time to listen to each other.” Jay and I are pretty religious about this already.  As busy as we might get with separate projects during the day, we put them aside at six o’clock to sit and have a drink together. During the challenge of this season, this may be a time to use that quiet hour to remember past holidays and bring up happy memories, or even just share how hard it’s going to be this year.

no one is a mind reader

Couple in deep conversation
Photo by Joanna Nix

Ask for what you need,” Dr. Cole cautions. I feel he’s looking right at me. Jay has always depended on me to be the “gift-giver” of the family, and often depends on our adult children to purchase the gifts for Christmas for me. If we’re going to be alone this year, clearly it’s up to me to specify what gift I’d like and help him know where to purchase it – the hard part will be to do this graciously.

Being just the two of us for several different celebrations is bound to up the stress level on both of us. So, I can see that it will be important for us to set aside a regular time for tough conversations – something we both might be more inclined to avoid because “after all it’s the holidays.”

acknowledge stress and tension

Practice stress reducing conversation,” he continues. This is listening and sharing, not about relationship difficulties, but about those things outside the partnership that are causing stress. The difference struck me as very important. The response, Dr. Cole suggests, “What’s the worst part of this for you?” really resonated for me.

But at times when you are both hurting, it’s also important, he insists to “repair the damage” inflicted on the relationship. All couples hurt each other. If we realize that, we can be courageous enough to tell our partner when they hurt us and big enough to hear this and try to change.

most of the time – make merry

Blazing fire in fireplace
Photo by Hayden Scott

Two of Dr. Cole’s maxims go together for me, “Engage in non-demand affection,” and “Make time for good things between you.” Jay and I are ordinarily a pretty affectionate couple.  Yet, without the hugs and kisses of the children and grandchildren and the warmth that just radiates through the room when the whole family gathers in one place, we need to ramp up on the hugs, kisses and cuddles at home – and maybe roll back the rug, turn on some music and slow dance.

Just before Christmas our wedding anniversary pops up. On the occasion of our first anniversary, we were both still in school and had minimum wage jobs. Our financial obligations far outweighed our income, but we went ahead and splurged anyway. We went out to dinner at Fanny’s, an Italian restaurant.

Italian restaurant
Photo by Svend Nielsen

The check was $10 for two, which was as much as we usually spent on groceries in a week.  That anniversary set a precedent. Every anniversary since then we have gone out to fancier and fancier restaurants. For most of those years we coupled the dinner with tickets to the theater.

Faced with the quandary of how to make our anniversary a “good time” this year, we know we cannot go out to dinner.  But I feel the “good times” are greatly diminished if I have to cook. We will have to be very intentional about choosing a take-out or delivery that feels celebratory enough. We’re pondering as well what might be a great movie to watch? The best music to listen to? Of course, we’ll have a fire in the fireplace.

If you, kind readers, have any suggestions I am open to all ideas.

 

Seasonal Ambiguity

Snowy December Night
advent dilemma

Advent Wreath
Photo by Grant Whitty

In my heart of hearts, if I could wish away the season of Advent, I would.  I have never been able to “make it work.” Within my faith tradition, Christianity, Advent is one of the holiest seasons of the year. During the month before Christmas, our church calls us to fast and pray, to give alms and burn candles as we await the coming of the Light of the World, Jesus Christ. Although Jesus came into human history over 2,000 years ago, every year on the date, designated to celebrated his birth, Christians all over the world prepare to welcome him into their lives once again.

So, why would I vanquish such a sacred time? Because I live in a time and place where my culture overwhelms the spiritual meaning of the season with rampant worldly festivities, ones that lift me up and carry me through the dark, cold days of winter. Sadly, although most of this merrymaking has a tentative connection to the Nativity of Jesus, it has lost its solemn mode of quiet reflective waiting. And in truth, I don’t want to go back. As guilty as it makes me feel, I revel in our modern Christmas celebrations.

believe in santa claus

Toy department Marshall Field's

When I was a child, guilt about secular tradition never bothered me at all. It wasn’t until I became a mother myself, that the remorse set in and dogged my footsteps, taking little nibbles out of my joy, as I followed the traditions of my culture. Early in December, my husband Jay and I trekked through the snow-filled alleys of our Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago to the Fullerton “L” stop with all four children in tow. We rode the train to Randolph Avenue, getting off right in the basement of Marshall Field’s Department Store. We squeezed into a crowded elevator with other families and sped up to the sixth floor, a veritable children’s paradise, a square block of toys for sale.

The line to see Santa Claus usually stretched all the way back to the elevators themselves. My job, whether I cared to take it or not, was to hold a place in that slowly inching river of people. Jay had the equally challenging task of weaving with the children through the various display aisles as they concocted Christmas wish lists. Finally, it would be their turn to march up to “Santa” and sit on his (or one year her) lap and recite this list while a bored young photographer captured the less than memorable moment.

fine dining with kids!

Tree in Walnut Room
Photo by Claudio Schwarz

Next, we paraded up the escalator to the eighth floor so that we could admire the gigantic tree that stood in the center of the store’s premier restaurant, the Walnut Room, a carpeted, paneled space, reminiscent of the Victorian era.    The height of the tree always loomed far over our heads, and each year it had a different theme. By now almost exhausted and very hungry, we happily took our reserved place in the restaurant.  This experience tended to be a bit on the stressful side because fine dining and multiple children under the age of ten don’t make for a good mix.

Ringing the Salvation Army bellThe day’s rituals were not, however, quite complete.  After lunch, we joined the throng outside Field’s, sometimes in absolutely frigid weather, to circle around the store and admire that year’s Christmas windows, which most often depicted a favorite children’s story. Always, the children loved this part of the day best.  Before descending to the subway station, we performed the only authentically Advent action of the day, we each dropped several coins in the bucket of the Salvation Army bell ringer. When the children were older, we all volunteered bell ringers ourselves.

choosing the perfect tree

Christmas tree in a Victorian House

Most families have their specific ways of doing a Christmas tree. Jay had grown up with a flocked one.  To me that wasn’t quite authentic, but we weren’t die-hard enough to drive out to the country to cut down our own tree.  Rather we had our favorite close by our house, where all six of us milled around the lot, each choosing a different tree and then the negotiations began. Once we brought it home, of course, everyone agreed that we found the perfect tree.  Then the rest of us got out of the way while Jay with much under his breath cussing put up the lights.

There was one bad year. The kids had moved out of the house for college or residential living. I decided that we had decorated long enough with the ornaments that the children had made in preschool. I boxed these up and got rid of them. Then I proceeded to decorate the tree in shiny new ornaments. When the kids came home for Christmas, there was great wailing and gnashing of teeth. As far as they were concerned, I might as well have given away the family cat.

what does christmas truly mean?

Holy Family with Mary nursing and Joseph sleeping
Photo from Birmingham Museums Trust

If all this sounds to you like delightful, if exhausting celebration of annual traditions, your response is natural.  Why then did every step of the way drive virtual, yet painful, stones into my soul? There was always some part of me, that famous Catholic guilt, that chided me that I shouldn’t be giving into these materialistic rituals.  Why, I would ask myself, couldn’t I focus my children’s attention more explicitly on the religious meaning of the season.

Clip art nativity scene

We did attend Mass each Sunday, but that was no more than we did the rest of the year. I always put out an Advent Wreath, but we didn’t always remember to light the candles. Somehow writing dozens of Christmas cards seemed more important. On Christmas Eve, when the children were in grade school, they took part in the enactment of the birth of Jesus, usually as an angel or shepherd.  None of them ever quite made it to Mary or Joseph.  But our family, like many other families, gathered at the Christmas Eve afternoon Mass because Christmas morning would be completely given over to discovering what “Santa” had left under the tree – always more than there “should” have been.

let it go

Lit-up JOY
Photo by Tai Captures

Finally, however, as I matured and the children grew, I let go of my guilt and brought a sense of humor to the season. Humor is not only a necessary ingredient of any successful committed partnership, it is a great asset for all of family life. Sure this season gets a little out of control at times, a lot over the top, but at the same time, it can be so much fun! When I can take a more relaxed approach to this “happiest time of the year,” it has a better chance of fulfilling its promise.

How do you balance the sacred and the secular aspect of the winter holidays?

“Once again, we come to the Holiday Season, a deeply religious time that each of us observes, in his own way, by going to the mall of his choice.” – Dave Barry

October: Love Among the Pumpkins

Kristy in a pumpkin patch
turn to each other

Older couple embracing
Photo by lotte-meijer

Celebrating whatever we could whenever we could added reserves to our marriage’s emotional bank account, a concept offered by John Gottman in his relationship guide, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.  This principle works just like a monetary bank account. Every day couples have opportunities to turn toward each other in small and big ways that build up a reserve of trust and goodwill. Couples can draw on this through stressful and conflictual times. https://psychcentral.com/blog/7-research-based-principles-for-making-marriage-work/

maximize the “maxi-moments”

As much as such crucial feel-good mini-moments have contributed an overall sense of well-being to our marriage, Jay and I have also regularly relied on turning as many of them as we could into “maxi-moments.” In other words, we sparkle the glitter of celebration’s magic over life’s small achievements and imbue them with extra joy. We are now

martini splashing
Photo by Amy Shamblen

coming into the time of year that is a heyday for celebration. The pall that has been cast of 2020 causes some people to feel as though hoopla and revelry might be out of place, but the rest of us are proclaiming, “Not at all.  Never has there been a more crucial time than now to commemorate life small joys and blessings.

Through the past year I’ve taken my readers along with Jay and I through many adventures and good moments during our earlier married years – the time before we were parents. Once, we began welcoming children into our family, lots of things changed – even our love for each other. It became deeper and more meaningful as it blossomed into new life. The times and ways we celebrated also evolved.

getting ready for halloween

When our children were young, Halloween beckoned them from the end of every October, transforming the entire month into one of almost daily merrymaking. Often planning for costumes began even before October 1.

Fairy in woods
Photo by Anthony Tran

Almost daily, my children feasted on stories about dragons and princesses, fairies and witches, sprites and elves, magicians and wizards. For most of the year, those wondrous creatures were confined to the pages of fairy tale books.  On Halloween, they came alive.

My children planned their costumes with dedicated enthusiasm and amazing creativity. They didn’t simply “dress up” as some fantastical character.  At the core of their being they transformed into their roles. For that one night, they’d be actors on national stage. They took their parts in that performance very seriously.  Many educators have noted the academic, social and emotional benefits of “dressing-up.”

Child as dinosaur
Photo by Jeremy McKnight

https://blog.bellalunatoys.com/2016/10-benefits-of-dress-up-play-for-children.html But my children didn’t need grown-ups to tell them this. They could no more resist the pull of this alternate reality than they could resist the clanging of the ice-cream truck.

a month is a long, long time

But waiting for Halloween, even with all the costume preparation, can seem very long.  A month is a big percentage of a small child’s life. Thus, like many other families, we built other rituals into October, milestones on the way to Halloween. They didn’t equal the excitement of the big day, of course, but they enhance both family bonding and holiday exuberance. Among these traditions, a visit to the pumpkin patch was, perhaps, the most anticipated.

Pumpkins
Photo by Kathleen DeNapoli

Like the grape stomping featured in last week’s blog post (https://julewardwrites.com/committed-relationships/laugh-together-stay-together-side-effect-of-grape-stomping), a visit to the pumpkin patch offered the chance to flee the city for the day.  While we all loved the vibrancy and convenience of city life, a trip to our favorite country haven helped our children learn first hand about the source of our food through a learning process that felt to them like sheer fun. Instead of heading toward Michigan, the pumpkin search took us north out of the city to Wisconsin.

city family’s day on the farm

All Southern Wisconsin, many working farms opened their gates to city

Girl holding bunny
Photo by William Daigneault

slickers like us, giving our family a peek into rural life at its best – at harvest time. We didn’t always choose the same farm because we loved exploring new places, but the experiences often mirrored one another enough that we were never disappointed. We enjoyed picking apples, drinking cider, and, of course, selecting a pumpkin for each child to take home and carve. The kids usually demanded that a corn maze and a petting zoo be part of the experience.  They loved hold and petty fuzzy bunnies and feeding goats kernels of corn right from their hands.

Hayride
Photo by Indianapolis Chronicle

We usually ended our day with Jay accompanying the kids on a hayride. I never wanted to go because I remembered the hayride of my childhood on my cousin’s farm. Horses pulled those wagons. At the Wisconsin farms, giant, rumbling tractors pulled the load of high-spirited kids and parents.  They loved it. But it wasn’t for me.  Instead, I’d wander into the farm stand and buy cider, apple butter, and pies. They were expensive but so worth it.

carve the pumpkins, eat the seeds

It would be evening by the time we headed back to the city with a car full of tired children. The next day we’d carve the pumpkins so they’d be ready to put on the front porch for Halloween. I would painstakingly clean all the strings off the seeds so we could salt and roast them. My children would not ordinarily have eaten anything quite so gritty, but it was part of the ritual. So, they savored them.

emotion bank account: in good shape

October filled our family’s emotional bank account. We would drawn down on the reserves of joy and enthusiasm in times of challenge and stress, grateful that we made plenty of space in our lives for the renewable resource, celebration.

If you are thinking that this sounds like something your family is up to, there’s sure to be a welcoming farm somewhere near you wherever you are. https://www.travelchannel.com/interests/fall/photos/top-10-pumpkin-patches

Making cider
Photo by Rosalie Barley

” I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumn sunshine by staying in the house.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne.

https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-1-d&q=Quotes+about+pumpkin+patches

 

 

To Ukraine with Love

American flag in field
For better, for worse, but not for a pandemic

Love means being enough for one another – at least, some of the time. That is the most potent lesson, Jay and I are taking away from the pandemic. From the moment we first became a committed partnership, we have instinctively known that we could not fulfill each other’s every need for companionship. As a “sheltered-at-home” older couple, we have been thrust into a place where the principle won’t hold. Jule and jay

The Fourth of July celebration weekend that just passed really brought that home to us. The holiday found us in our own backyard, no fireworks, no BBQ, no gathered family and friends – just raising a glass to each other and toasting the freedom of being alive. The day contrasted sharply with every other Independence Day tribute I can remember. Some have been fairly laid back and others have been spectacularly festive. None has been as staid as this one.

lots of way to celebrate

Fireworks over Chicago
Photo by Antonio Gabola

Being quarantined has spurred me to write these past weeks about escape through travel.  In the past, whenever we remained at home in Chicago for July 4, it was a grand affair.  We joined Jay’s sailing buddies on the deck of the Columbia Yacht Club for the traditional feast and an upfront seat of the spectacular fireworks display the city set off at the end of Navy Pier. And behind us in Grant Park music by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra resounded across the harbor synchronizing John Phillips Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” with the grand finale of the fireworks.

Fairly often, however, we were traveling during the first week of July, which means we shared other people’s traditional festivities. In the summer of 1991, we left behind our whole way of life to explore another world.

an alien place

During our childhood and into our college years, the Russian nation and the other Soviet Republics, were as remote to us as though they had been on another planet. They lay behind the “Iron

Iron curtain
Photo by Artem Sapegin

Curtain,” the frightful barrier between what we understood to be the “free world” and the world of Communist oppression.

Yet, Jay had fallen in love with Russian literature in college and studied Russian so that he might be able to read it in its original language.  Even so, he never believed he might have the opportunity to visit Russia itself. That is how forbidden it felt to us.  And then suddenly it seemed, the curtain fell. (The whole socio-political history behind the dissolution of the iron curtain is far beyond a mere blog. If you are curious about it, I would recommend  the clear, concise The Dissolution of the Soviet Union by Myra M. Immell (Editor) )https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12199957-the-dissolution-of-the-soviet-union?from_search=true&from_srp=true&qid=x8yWVVPKDW&rank=5

for love of tolstoy

Palace in St. Petersburg
Photo by Dusan Smetana

In January, 1991, I slugged through dirty snow in the face of freezing west winds and into the overly warm interior of De Paul University’s Schmidt Hall.  Being almost anywhere but in the middle of a dreary Chicago winter would have sounded appealing at that moment.  So, it’s not at all surprising that the notice on the bulletin board at the foot of the escalator stopped me in my tracks. “28 Days in Russia. Experience the Land of the Midnight Sun. See St. Petersburg. Moscow. Kiev. $2850.”

Here was my chance to gift Jay with the dream of a lifetime. At the bottom of the poster the name of the sponsoring professor and his phone extension were printed in bold black letters.  My hands were too full to write anything down. So, I just kept repeating the numbers to myself until I reached my fourth-floor office. I tossed my backpack and other paraphernalia on a chair, shrugged out of my coat and, still standing, punched his extension into my phone.

mystique of the unknown

Every detail of the journey Dr. Richard Farkas laid out for me was a further enticement. The trip began in St. Petersburg (which had only that year regained its ancient name) during the time of year when the sun never set. From there we’d fly to Moscow. After three days in Moscow, where we would witness the U.S.S.R.’s first democratic election, the group would fly to Kiev and

Moscow
Phot by Serge Kutuzov

board a river boat for a cruise of the Dnieper River all the way to the Black Sea. Dr. Farkas’ excitement crackled across the line. I listened as a child does to a fairy tale, but this was a story I could actually enter into.

Our journey turned out to be even more magical than I could have imagined. Were I to include all the wondrous moments we experienced, this would turn into a travel blog – and that is not its purpose. Rather my focus is to examine the past in the light of the present to see what they teach me when they sit side by side.

a ukrainian fourth of july

Whenever our American Independence Day celebration rolls around, one particular day of that trip captures my imagination again with the vitality of a stage play.  I still see the colors, hear the sounds, and taste the foods of Fourth of July in the Ukraine.

Our travel companions, who all had some connection to De Paul University, were a motley and delightful crew, ranging from a school janitor to an Illinois Supreme Court judge. And we all loved partying as much as we loved traveling. Every night after a day’s excursion, we gathered to swap tales over vodka, which we had discovered was cheaper than water. When the Fourth of July was imminent, we wondered if we would have to skip the usual celebrations since we were 5,000 miles from “America.”  But Dick, as Professor Farkas had come to be called, had a much better plan. Our river boat was moored for three days in Kiev to allow us to see everything that lovely city had to offer. The final day was July 4.

Dnieper River, Kiev
Photo by Robert Anasch

On that day, the American Consulate in Kiev threw an Independence Day celebration to which we had all been invited.  The picnic took place along the banks of the Dnieper River. To all intents and purposes, it was a true old-fashioned American BBQ. Red-and-white checked table clothes covered long picnic tables. Blazing grills cooked hamburgers and sausages – although they tasted quite different than anything we’d had at home. Cold beers stuck out from deep stashes of ice in giant buckets. And, of course, there was a small bar where a guy in jeans (not easily come by in Russia in those days) was willing to concoct any beverage you could suggest. A small band played patriotic favorites.  Plus, we received red, white and blue baseball caps, embroidered with July 4, 1991, Kiev.

they were beautiful dreams

The counsel gave a touching speech about the growing accord between the United States and the U.S.S.R. and waxed eloquently about the growing freedom for the Russian peoples.  I wish I could remember what he said because my throat constricts when I remember what high hopes, we had for the future of democracy at the beginning of the 1990s.  Yet, as I write this their president has just acquired the right to preside until 2036, and my own country’s president wields his powers like a despot rather than the people’s representative.

picnic -large gathering
Photo by David Tod McCarty

At that time, I was not alone in my optimism. As we partied along the banks of the river, the people of Kiev sat along the hillside on either side.  Some groups of families had picnics with them.  Others simply viewed the American celebration as though it were a spectacle put on to entertain them.  Maybe it was to some extent.  In less than two months, on August 24, 1991, the Ukraine would declare her freedom from the U.S.S.R., an act that would encourage several other former Soviet Republics to revolt as well.

Was all that optimism misplaced? What the world has since witnessed is not a resounding evolution of democracy across the globe. Certainly not. Things are considerably messier than that. Scary much of the time.  Encouraging every once in a while. Still, I smile as I recall that wonderful day almost thirty years ago.  This year I feast on memories rather than barbecue.

What Fourth of July celebrations do you remember with special fondness?

low angle of statue of liberty
Photo by Burgess Milner

”It is necessary to fully revive in the party the atmosphere of principled attitude, openness, discussion, criticism and self-criticism, conscious discipline, party comradeship and unconditional personal responsibility and business-like approach.” Mikhail Gorbahev, June 18, 1988

https://www.upi.com/Archives/1988/06/28/Quotes-on-key-subjects-Gorbachev-addressed-at-Communist-conference/6271888122941/