Thursday, July 29, 2004

I just had an encounter that sent me back 40 years.

I stood at the crosswalk at Lakeshore and Trestle Glen, feeling impatient about the long stoplight.   A boy (he looked about ten) seemed to feel the same way I did -- he kept banging his fist on the "Press for Crossing" button.  I looked down at him, and said, "These things sure do take forever, don't they?"  and he grinned at me and said, "Yeah."  We were instant allies.  Just then, the light changed and the signal to walk flashed at us.   I stepped off the curb, and the kid yelped at me.  I stopped, and a car screeched to a stop (she had been about to run the light).  Without missing a beat, the boy galloped across the street, and I hollered, "Thanks!"  He didn't even look back.

As I got to the other side of the street, I saw him run over to a woman a little older than myself.  When I reached the curb, she turned to the group crossing over, holding out a copy of "Street Spirit", a weekly published by the American Friends Service Committee, that is sold by homeless folks around here.  "Buy a copy?" she said, rather tentatively, "My grandson is here with me, I'd like to take him to the fair."

I stopped (after all, her grandson just saved my silly neck.)  "I just met this young man -- he kept me from walking in front of a car," I said.  She beamed.  "Do you have kids?" she asked me, "Because there's a nice little street fair, and we're going to take the bus over so he can ride the rides."  "Oh, my kids are grown," I said, digging in my purse, "Big guys.  But I hope you have a good day.  Some of my best days were going places with my grandmother."  I handed her the cash from my wallet.  She gasped, and turned to smile at her grandson.  He wiggled and smiled back up at her.

All of a sudden I missed my own grandmother so much that my eyes were filling up with tears.  I wished them luck and a good day, and half-ran into a nearby coffee house (where I am sitting now).  I looked out the front window after I emerged from the ladies' room, and they were gone.  I hope they have a good day at the street fair.

I remember some great days, when I was that kid's age, sliding around on the front seat of her old Buick while she drove from Franklin to Murfreesboro through Triune.  We'd have had cottage cheese and tomatoes at her house, and then we'd stop furtively at Ole Taylor's Candy Kitchen in Smyrna (where they make Saturn cars today) and get a piece of chocolate. 

Then we'd hit an antique shop in Murfreesboro that we both loved; she'd pay a dollar for which we could fill a grocery bag with used books.  Thanks to Meme and the Antique Barn's back room, I read Dickens and Twain from old books that sometimes smelled odd but that were always nicer to hold than a paperback.  We'd examine the china and she would tell me all about France, where they make Limoge china and where my father spent his Army service.  She'd never been to France, would never in her life travel outside the United States, but she'd talk about it as if she had.  

She'd show me old tools and we'd talk about how people lived in "old times."  I remember a thing that looked like a wastebasket with teeth:  it was a cranberry picker.  She said people had to wade in water to scoop the cranberries for Thanksgiving dinner.  I am pretty sure that Ocean Spray has something more sophisticated, but I never eat cranberries without thinking of men standing in cold water.

Other times, we might drive up to Nashville and stop by Elder's Bookstore on Elliston Place, where she'd chat with old Mr. Elder, while I'd watch young Mr. Elder organize books on the shelves.  She had an arrangement with old Mr. Elder:  she'd bring in a bag of paperback murder mysteries, and exchange it for another bag.  We'd talk  history with the Elders for a while, then get back in the car and drive to the Cathedral, where Monsignor Albert Siener lived in the rectory.  Before he went off to seminary, he had gone to Cathedral Grade School in the same class with Meme.  He lost a leg to phlebitis, but before he got sick and they sent him back to Nashville, he and the man who became Pope John XXIII had been friends and fellow-students in Rome. 

We'd visit with "Msgr. Albert"  for an hour or so.  Meme would hand him the bag of mysteries, and he'd hand her the bag we'd brought last time.  Msgr. Albert was the holiest man we knew.   I learned a lot from listening to the two of them talk -- everything from old Irish Catholic Nashville stories to Vatican politics -- but the most important thing I learned was the humanity of the very holy:  Msgr Albert loved mystery stories, and he kept licorice candy in a jar, and when little girls got bored during a long Cathedral Mass and got squirmy and irritated their parents, he'd beckon (and since he was Msgr Albert, my parents simply waved me off to him).  We'd go to the back of the church and he'd hand me the tails of his cincture (rope belt) and we'd be off, me "driving" him in his wheelchair back and forth across the back of the church while the service droned on.  He believed that children should not be miserable in church.

[A side trip:  I get angry these days, when I hear jokes about Catholic priests and pedophilia.  First of all, the horrors that have come to light recently are no joke.  But secondly, the sick priests (and the bad bishops who protected them) were not the whole church:  in my childhood, I knew lots of priests and lots of nuns, and they ran the gamut from kind and saintly to crazy as a bedbug.  There are some I could have done without, true, but there are others, like Msgr Albert Siener, without whom I wouldn't be the person I am today, people from whom I got a glimpse of holiness.]

But back to the day:  we'd leave of Msgr Albert with his mystery books (he had lots of theology books, too; but Meme was his source for the fun stuff.)   We might go downtown to window shop at the Cain-Sloan department store, or at Harvey's, and then we might -- might! -- stop by Candyland for a dish of peppermint ice cream with chocolate sauce.  (Do you notice the recurring theme?)

Over ice cream, we'd talk about books, and history, and life.  I got advice from my grandmother that I value to this day: 

"Don't ever sign anything you haven't read, no matter who tells you to." 

"Vote every chance you get."

"A woman should always have a little money of her own."

"You need an education, Punkin.  College.  I only went to one year at Belmont, but you're going to get an education."

There was also information that -- well, she was opinionated.

"The liquor business is bad luck.  That's what happened to the Kennedys.  He made his money bootlegging, and now poor Rose has to live out all that bad luck.  Don't ever have anything to do with the liquor business."

"You can't tell me I'm descended from a monkey.  God made monkeys and he made people.  And little babies have been growing in their mother's stomachs ever since Adam and Eve."

"We're lace-curtain Irish, not shanty.  And your ancestors were kings in Ireland."

... and so on.  Actually, I did some research, looking for her in reference books the terrible summer after she died -- she was right.  The Carrolls were kings of Ely, in Ireland, in about the year 1000.  "King" meant something a little different in 1962 than it meant in 1000, but still, she was right. 

She died 30 years ago this past spring, and I still miss her.

I hope that boy has a good day with his grandmother.  I cannot bear to imagine my grandmother begging; I feel sick that his grandmother has to. 











Sunday, July 18, 2004

I've spent a very pleasant morning repotting african violets.   In March, I gave my big plants a haircut and used the castoff leaves to start new plants; now the new plants are big enough to graduate from their plastic cup homes (with the tacky but effective Ziplock "greenhouse" covers) to real pots of their own. 
No "Pomp and Circumstance" in the background but I got satisfyingly grubby, and now the windowsill here in Oakland is full of little green guys who will either make gifts for unwary friends or travel back to LA with me at the end of the month. 
I needed a hobby that would engage the right side of my brain and require me to get really dirty from time to time, without requiring so much time and attention that I couldn't deal with school.  I also missed having pets.  The violets fill the bill nicely:  they are fussy enough that they do require attention, but they don't need sitters or litterboxes. 
I can't speak for the rest of the world, but I need to live with other living creatures.   I suspect that the violets keep me from annoying my children too much, and worse yet, from inflicting my mom-energy on colleagues.    They aren't quite pets, and they certainly are not children, but they do remind me that I am the partner of God in miracles: they wouldn't thrive without water, food, and fussing.  Once upon a time, they grew wild in Africa, someplace where their leaves never got wet and their roots were watered regularly, but with a bit of help, they are nice to have in an apartment that is a little too quiet sometimes. 
Apparently I'm not the only person who feels this way about saintpaulia.   There's a national society devoted to the little devils, which sponsors shows, contests, trading events, and so on.   
I used to worry that someday I'd be one of those old ladies with 100 cats.  I don't think that's likely now, but I may become the middle-aged lady with 100 furry little plants!

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

On June 17, 1996, I sat in an armchair in the small shul at Congregation Beth Jacob in Oakland, CA, and answered the questions of a beit din [rabbinical court]. I recall three things clearly: (1) I was petrified (2) I had no idea how to answer the question about Israel and (3) One of the members of the beit din asked me, after an answer I gave to one question, whether I'd ever thought about rabbinical school. I couldn't tell if he was serious, or just trying to break the tension with a little humor.

Then we went to the mikveh [ritual bath], where management had forgotten to turn on the heater. I dipped a toe in the tank of ice-water, and asked myself the ancient question: well, how badly do you want to be a Jew?

Today, for the first time, in that same little room, I sat as a member of the beit din while we asked questions of first a young man I was meeting for the first time, and then, later, of a young woman from my congregation. I witnessed their readiness for conversion, and then we walked down the hall to the mikveh room (which was blessedly humid -- the heater was on!). I stood outside the door and listened as the young man said the blessings and immersed himself in the water. Then, later, I guided my candidate through the blessings and the rite of immersion.

There have been a lot of milestones in my Jewish journey; this one leaves me pretty much speechless. It is a privilege to be with someone at the beginning of his or her Jewish life, to study, to be a companion and guide, to decide, with three other Jews, that yes, indeed, we recognize a yiddishe neshomah, a Jewish soul.

What a blessing!

And now I can quit having nightmares about something going wrong. The worst nightmare was the one that had to do with a brass band marching through the mikveh room.... oy. I was glad, today, to have two senior rabbis with me, to keep me from messing up! They, too, were a blessing.