One Teacher, Thousands of Minds


When I was in junior high at my parish grade school, St. Peter’s, I walked home on warm-weather days with my good friend from up the block, Andrea. We chatted about mundane events of the day, caught up on vital social matters, and made plans for the next sleepover. About halfway home, we’d hit Edgevale Road, a side street that sliced through the grid of our neighborhood at an angle.

At that point, our conversation would turn to English class, and, more specifically, the short story we were reading in our literature anthology. We’d discuss the piece, kick around some ideas raised in the critical thinking questions which appeared at the end of each story, and try to decide which question we were going to select for our one-page responses.

Why would adolescents just let out of school talk voluntarily and excitedly about homework? Because they had an inspiring teacher like Mrs. Shirley Renaud, the 7th and 8th grade English teacher. Mrs. Renaud created a classroom environment like no other we had ever experienced: she allowed us to choose which critical thinking question to answer, she expected us to generate thoughtful and complete responses supported by evidence from the story, she highly valued originality in our ideas, she had us read our responses aloud in class so we could consider and discuss perspectives different from our own, and she gave us immediate feedback in class and later in writing when she collected our responses.

A recent photo of Mrs. Renaud and me with my brother Mark.

A recent photo of Mrs. Renaud and me with my brother Mark.

This was the first time an adult had really paid much attention to what we thought about anything. She clearly respected our views as long as we could support them. And did we ever notice! We stepped up to the challenges she issued, took pride in our work, and strove to exceed her expectations, all the while developing confidence in ourselves and our ideas and a healthy respect for the ideas of others. She also taught us to plumb the depths of the literature we read, mining the language for clues about the story, the plot, the characters, and the images the author had presented. Her approach made us want to come back to class the next day to find out what everyone else had to say.

Those learning experiences in junior high forever changed how I operated in school and in life. I didn’t realize it until much later, but I took with me to high school, college, and graduate school the lessons Mrs. Renaud taught us about critical thinking, audience, multiple perspectives, feedback, critique, collaboration, discussion, originality, insight, evidence, support, and writing.

These lessons eventually informed my own teaching and powerfully influenced my interest in helping other teachers foster the same teaching and learning strategies in college classrooms through the Writing Across the Curriculum program I directed.

Most of my schoolmates didn’t end up in the field of education, but given their extraordinary successes in all kinds of industries and endeavors, it would appear that the early cultivation of critical thinking and communications skills more than paid off—in school, in work, and in life.

Such is the power of a single teacher on upwards of 1,000 minds over the years. And that conservative estimate doesn’t take into account her indirect impact on my students and the hundreds of instructors I trained. In faculty workshops, I would invite instructors to share the story of a previous writing experience and connect it to their path to teaching. I would then trace my own teaching and writing life back to Mrs. Renaud.

In 1972, we were just kids, after all, focused on navigating the complex whirl of the school cafeteria and negotiating terms for the next slumber party. Mrs. Renaud masterfully saw to it that our brain development far and away surpassed what our social psyches would have ever permitted. And for this, I thank her from the bottom of my heart.

And now for the obvious question: who was your Mrs. Renaud?


Comfort and Joy

About the joy…

When I was growing up, my dad put the magic in our Christmas. Every year, he hunted down items on our list with great tenacity and stayed up all night assembling complicated toys in service of us having the best Christmas ever. He would troop us to a city park where an enormous manger scene with live animals was created on a baseball infield temporarily converted to a cave, making quite an impression on wide-eyed children. We would take evening drives through the Plaza to see the lights. If it was enchanting and joyful, he located it and shared it with us. No one enjoyed giving to others more than my dad. He was a lover of joy.

He was also intrigued by how things work and, to that end, spent many hours tinkering and creating and inventing because he had that kind of mind. He always marveled at what others would create whether it was art or simply a well-designed utility.

A few years ago, my husband surprised me with an IPad for Christmas. This is a photo of me on Christmas Day showing it to my dad—he was 80. I believe it captures the utter joy he felt at seeing an invention that pushed the envelope and illustrates his tremendous capacity to be awed.


And here is the comfort part…

When reading a favorite blog this holiday season, Privilege, I shared this family memory in response to Lisa’s post about family gift-giving traditions:

Our gift-giving traditions never revolved around a single item; each person had their own gifting signature, if you will. Which is how my siblings and I, in adulthood, came to treasure my dad’s gigantic gift bag of emergency-preparedness accoutrements every year. Oh, he’d give us all money, of course, but he’d also spend hours combing hardware stores to put together just the right mix of things each of us might need in case of a car breakdown on a single lane highway in the wilderness during a 10-day blizzard or a flat-out nuclear holocaust. Think Harrison Ford in Mosquito Coast. For all of our private eye-rolling, what do you suppose we missed most last Christmas, our first without him? Yep, the flashlights and blankets and jumper cables and cans of windshield de-icer.  😉

Wishing you all much comfort and great joy this holiday season!

Give Us a Call When You Get to Town

This is a letter to the editor of the Kansas City Star written by a San Francisco Giants fan. So glad he came to KC and I wish he had come to see Game 7 rather than 6, but it sounds like he still really thoroughly enjoyed his time out at the K!

Royals treatment

I am a San Franciscan and a Giants fan who attended game six of the World Series in Kansas City.

Let me just say that never in my life have I enjoyed being so terribly outnumbered and, by evening’s end, absolutely clubbed into submission.

From the moment I hit the parking lot at Kauffman Stadium in my Giants gear, folks made a point to walk over, introduce themselves, welcome us to Kansas City and wish us good luck. People offered to buy us beer and brats.

Most mind-bending was the woman who apologized for the lopsided score.

My wife and our friends spent the better part of our flight home marveling at the generosity and warmth of the Royals fans and wondering whether we’d dropped into a parallel universe.

At some point, I recall announcing to my wife that I was prepared to move to Kansas City as soon as possible.

They refer to your part of the country as “flyover states.” Folks should make a point to actually drop in to Kansas City for a heaping helping of an America most people only dream about.

John Pritzker

San Francisco

KC Star

In this same issue, I read the obituary of the dad of a grade school chum of mine. It mentions that he was a successful pharmaceutical salesman who turned down many opportunities for career advancement because he didn’t want to take his family away from Kansas City.  My own late father made similar decisions during his lifetime. I guess the secret is out…now you know why they and the rest of us chose to stay here.

Oh, about the title of this piece: I heard my dad say that about a million times in phone conversations with far flung family, friends, and customers. And trust me, he meant every word. ; )

The Robe

In a phone conversation with my dad the other day, he casually asked when next I’d be going to Costco. I told him “soon” and he put in an order for an industrial-sized container of baby aspirin and a vat of Benodryl. I told him “will do” and then as the conversation drew to a close, he uttered, quite unexpectedly, the word that nearly caused me to careen into a cement divider on the busy highway I traverse daily: “robe.”

<--break->In my family, no one takes the word “robe” lightly, not in fabric, not in form, not in function. Years have been devoted to the pursuit of the perfect robe in every conceivable retail environment from expensive, high-end merchandisers to big-box discount warehouses.

Robes for my family members have been handmade to complicated specs by various seamstresses, some under arduous conditions and with constraints no sewing machine should have to endure. Needles have launched like missiles from their secure station at the helm of the machine under the rigorous demand and whole sewing machines have exploded under such sartorial diress.

This family has overseen the making of multiple perfect robes, engaged in power shopping for perfect robes, scanned newspaper ads and store aisles for perfect robes.

Let’s back up, shall we? Let me give you a brief synopsis of robe history in my family over the past—well, fifty years that I know of, anyway.  And, in case you are wondering, I couldn’t possibly make this up.

I have resigned myself to the fact that much of the robe phenomenon in my family involves the thrill of the hunt, but a hunt that is on par with, say, the search for the Holy Grail. Early on, I chose to rebel and break the cycle, letting go of the idea that I might ever find a perfect robe.

My best robe?  A starched, white, cotton lab coat bequeathed to me by a college roommate and one that may or may not have once been the property of a large Midwestern research university.  I am now on record as officially admitting that I abandoned wearing robes entirely as an adult, which is especially easy now that clothes resemble pajamas and can be worn grocery shopping or sleep walking.

I think robes meant something more to people in previous eras, much as the old “house coat” or “duster” of my mother’s generation signalled some modicum of status regarding leisure time in addition to its fashion-challenged but effective advocacy of modesty.  Thankfully, that layer of over-garments bit the dust before I reached adulthood.

People once regularly clad themselves in cover-ups as they moved about the house, even among those they resided with. I would point out that the shift away from such apparel represents more than the mere loss of an archaic cultural artifact since I have to remind my teenage son that THIS IS NOT A DORM and therefore full-bore clothing is required.

There are plenty of Christmas morning snapshots from our childhood where we all sported robes.  I had a quilted red one with tiny white flowers that matched my sleeping bag.  One such photo shows my younger sister, wrapped present in hand, puffed up like a hot air balloon in an oversized blue quilted robe (which matched her sleeping bag), her tiny head popping out of the top of the slab of stiff, floor-length material.  Robes and matching sleeping bags strike me as quaintly redundant now that Snuglis have been invented.

My younger brother Mark has perhaps the most famous robe in the family.  His was handcrafted along with three others by my late grandmother, an extraordinary seamstress who assembled these robes for all of the men in the family, most of whom are over 6 foot, from gigantic bath sheets my father had gathered in his retail travels.  Each robe weighed about 20 pounds dry and had a hood, perhaps a nod to my father’s early schooling by Benedictine monks.

Mark’s robe was a deep Kelly green and it became notorious in family lore when he accidentally left it in Paris twenty years ago after he had served as a nanny to a friend’s kids while she taught law classes one summer.  This mishap spawned an international search which required my mother to make a frantic transatlantic phone call to someone she did not know speaking a language she had no training in.

The conversation went something like this, “Bonjour.  Mark’s le verde robe? LE ROBE.  LE ROBE????”  The homeowner haltingly claimed to have no knowledge of said robe and it was thereafter presumed lost in that black hole of robes known as France.

Some years later, Santa brought my brother a dark, forest green robe sewn to the same specs by a professional seamstress.  That year, Santa also brought my sister and I longsleeved nightgowns made of striped broadcloth clearly intended for upholstery use.  I know, I know: it’s the thought that counts.

My husband, on the other hand, having never been much inclined to travel abroad, still has his original handmade towel robe, some 25 years later.  His is chocolate brown and he swears it has medicinal value because he wraps himself in it and parks on the couch whenever he falls ill.

My grandmother did sew at least one robe of her own volition: a soft, lightweight, pale blue robe she gave my son for Christmas when he was two.  She put in a large hem and left ample room to let the sleeves down as he grew.  He wore it for several years and passed it on to his younger sister who wore it for several years as well.  It’s a treasured remembrance of “Gram” and hangs in the closet for them to give their kids someday or simply cherish.

When my older brother was in town last summer to help my parents move, he spent most of his time searching for a new robe to suit my dad’s new abode.  He scoured Macy’s, Dillard’s, and finally found at Marshall’s what he was certain was the ideal robe for my dad to wear as a swim cover-up at his new home: a blue pinstripe Nautica robe of medium weight and perfect length.  My dad did his best to feign happiness at my brother’s gift, but deep down he could not bear to keep a robe that did not meet his true expectations and later asked my sister to return it.

My dad enlists co-conspirators in his efforts to get to stores now that he no longer drives. Even though the bus at his retirement home transports residents to retail stores throughout the metro area nearly daily and he rides to every venue everyday, he is convinced the robe is beyond the ken of the bus trips. He doesn’t know particulars about Internet—you can guess why we think keeping that information at bay is a good thing—so he does this the old-fashioned way: by phone—a landline not a cell.

Finally, his research had yielded a lead.  The planets aligned and a friend was available to shuttle him to the Bed Bath and Beyond where he finally made the purchase he’d been contemplating for months.  Frankly, I deeply feared his going and discovering that the robe of his dreams was less than that, perhaps some shoddily sewn number or one composed of cheap fabric. This I knew would result in yet more searching and discussing and phone calling and vilification of manufacturers and subsequent registering of disgust with declining robe industry standards.

But from what I gather—albeit secondhand— he is gloriously happy with this new, thick, absorbent, white, hotel-quality terrycloth robe and plans to wear it daily to the pool for his hydro-therapy.  But I wouldn’t know for sure because I dare not ask.  There are those times, after all, when ignorance is truly bliss.

Epilogue: I made a general inquiry of my sister about the new robe.  That was my first mistake.  She asked me if I had heard the latest chapter in what I have come to understand is an eternal saga.  I assured her I probably had not.  On a post doctor-visit shopping trek with a friend after Christmas, my dad happened to discover a deep azure blue Ralph Lauren robe heavily discounted at Macy’s and evidently far more beautiful and luxurious than the white one.  This, of course, begs the question: why was he in the robe section of Macy’s?  According to my sister, he bought it for a song and plans to return the white one, which has hung unworn on a hook in his closet as she says, “like a shrine.”



The Christopher Hogwood Story or When Worlds Collide

My younger brother Mark is notorious for giving thoughtful and ingeniously nonreturnable gifts, like, say, Irish citizenship or tickets to an 8-hour production of a play based on the Charles Dickens novel Nicholas Nickelby.   (Fortunately, my mother’s gift to me that year was a home-cooked dinner we consumed during the two-hour intermission.)  To help me celebrate Mother’s Day one year, he took me to hear a traditional Celtic music group called Cherish the Ladies, a charming band of  females, each of whom had learned to play her respective instruments from her father. 

But no gift will probably ever top my birthday present twenty-some years ago when he invited me to a concert by Christopher Hogwood and his Academy of Ancient Music.  In addition to being extremely generous, Mark is also disposed to being well-intended.  Thus, I tried to suppress my feelings of disappointment when he divulged a couple of weeks before my birthday that he had actually neglected to purchase the tickets and the concert was now sold out.  He mentioned that his name was first on the waiting list and he was certain some tickets would free up before the night of the concert.  I wasn’t nearly so optimistic; the date crept closer and nothing came open.

He called me, ecstatic, the day before the concert to report that, indeed, he obtained the tickets, and, even better, they were in the second row!  It was on a week night and I was in graduate school, teaching and attending classes at a university 45 minutes away.  I made sure I made it back to the city that night with time to spare since we planned to catch dinner first at a downtown hotel across the street from the theater.

We arrived at the restaurant, pleased that we had chosen an establishment so strategically located.  We were only slightly concerned that the place was packed and we had to wait a few minutes to get a table.  Once seated, we ordered wine and glanced at the menu.  It took a bit to get our order placed due to the unexpected crowd.  We realized as we chatted that a number of other events were going on downtown that night as well, not the least of which was a major basketball tournament, the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics), which was always a huge regional draw featuring Division I schools and held the week before the better known NCAA tournament.

We enjoyed our wine with bread and dinner salads and started watching the time closely.  Eventually we noticed that other diners were waving their checks frantically, attempting to gain the attention of the wait staff, and some bounding toward the doors.  It was clear that there were not nearly enough servers for the amount of guests; apparently the restaurant had not anticipated multiple events on a weeknight.

I admit I started to panic, in part because I am prone to, and not because I hadn’t eaten the entree but because I feared we might be made late.  You simply can’t walk into a theater and expect to sit in the second row after a concert has begun.  I told Mark we should just leave and get dinner afterwards.  He relunctantly agreed, having wanted to treat me to dinner as part of my gift.   As he settled our check, he painstakingly tried to explain to our non-English speaking server why we were leaving prematurely.

We dashed over to the theater and arrived minutes before the lights went down.  The first few notes played by the ensemble were breathtaking.  Christopher Hogwood is a world renowned British conductor and musicologist and founder of the group he was conducting that evening, the Academy of Ancient Music.  This group plays classical music on period instruments to create the kind of sound that would have been produced in the time the music was composed.  They attend particularly to the music as written without embellishing it or indulging in lush arrangements, both popular trends during the 1980s.  I had been a devotee of their music for years and it was a dream come true to get to hear them perform live.

The musicianship was incredible and it was exquisite to watch such accomplished instrumentalists perform.  The musical sound achieved with the period instruments was distinctively muted and rich.   Mark noted at intermission how fascinating it was to sit so close and observe the interplay between the musicians.  It wouldn’t have been visible even ten rows back, but in row two you could spy every facial expression, head nod, and exchange among the players. 

We were among the last to leave when the concert ended since we’d been seated at the front.  We walked out into the frigid night air and decided to head over to another hotel a block away to find some food.  Mark knew that our favorite local jazz band, the City Light Orchestra, was performing in the hotel’s rotating rooftop restaurant, making it seem a perfect way to cap off the evening.

As we crossed the street, we noticed the musicians from our concert hurrying past us, instruments in tow.  We laughed when we saw them enter the hotel ahead of us and figured that’s probably where they were staying.  When we stepped into the nearly full elevator to ride to the roof, we immediately felt conspicuously short, which was unusual because by most standards we would both be considered tall.  By the chatter of the others, Mark discerned we were riding with NAIA basketball players and a few cheerleaders. 

We all spilled out of the elevator when it hit the top floor.  Mark and I entered the nightclub and grabbed a small table near the dance floor where the City Light Orchestra was already in full swing.  We ordered drinks and appetizers as they were no longer serving dinner and sat back to enjoy the music.  The floor to ceiling windows offered a starlit view of the city skyline and the barely perceptible rotation of the restaurant allowed different points of view throughout the night.

We had been following this band for some years; they had a regular gig at a new restaurant in the neighborhood where we’d grown up.  Traditional jazz was the mainstay of this six-member band and the men were an interesting mix of ages and backgrounds: three older African American jazz veterans and three thirty-something white guys who had been mentored by them. 

They had a great repertoire of standards as well as some lesser known jazz works.  They always played their signature piece and audience favorite, “Watermelon Man,” at some point during their performance.  During that song, the audience was encouraged to create the sign of the letter  “L” with their fingers or arms to acknowledge the band’s saxophone player, LaVerne Barker, when the words “watermelon man” were sung.

The band was in perfect sync with the snapping fingers of the singer and drummer, a swarthy baritone in a zoot suit and fedora.  His voice was perfectly suited for jazz by its mellow undertones and his liquid phrasing.  As the lead singer held court with his understated but dramatic countenance, Mark nudged me when he spotted out of the corner of his eye a smiling Christopher Hogwood standing at the bar.  Other concert musicians started drifting into the club area shortly thereafter.

Another familiar face dropped by that night: Speedy Huggins, a locally famous figure from the heyday of the jazz scene in this city, which had once been home to and launching pad for many famous jazz artists.  Speedy was one of the last living jazz legends of  his era, part of a famous group of jazz musicians known as the Blue Devils, whose music and lives were recounted in a documentary called Last of the Blue Devils.  Speedy was a stylish fixture in jazz clubs around town, a stocky man with oversized black rimmed glasses, his thick snow white hair all but glowing against his dark black skin.  This night, Speedy sported a burgundy smoking jacket and sat in with the band for a few numbers, crooning some of his favored jazz ballads and playing drums.

The night quickly faded into what later seemed like a dream.  As we enjoyed the jazz and the nightclub steadily filled to capacity, Mark and I watched an unusual sequence of events unfold on the dance floor from our front row vantage point.  City Light Orchestra is to be credited for sensing the energy of their audience and encouraging dancing.  They definitely got some results on the ample parquet floor, though Mark and I wisely refrained. 

Before we knew it, the dance floor was full of concert musicians and basketball players and cheerleaders among others.  The classically-trained British musicians were letting loose by demonstrating their version of slam dancing, which had just become popular in the U.S. thanks to the punk rock movement recently imported from England, but was rarely seen in jazz venues.  The young American basketball players rose to the occasion and displayed their fine athletic prowess in their dance steps as they deftly lifted and flung the cheerleaders in rhythm with the swing tunes the band played.  Even Christopher Hogwood himself could be seen dancing the night away.

The evening reached a crescendo when the strains of “Watermelon Man” began.  The crowd was cheering and clapping and completely captured by the mood of swing.  The lead singer knew he had the audience in the palm of his hand when he gave the instructions for making the “little L, “ the “medium L,” and for those who dared, the “Big L,” which involved extending both of your arms entirely to form a right angle.  The dancers got it and played along as each instrument took its turn in the improvisation. 

The joint was literally jumpin’ as the saxophones dutifully wailed and the piano keys pounded right before each acappella utterance of “watermelon man.”  As the song powered on and the band connected with the raw enthusiasm of the crowd, the basketball players hoisted cheerleaders onto their shoulders and lifted some in the air, creating with human bodies what was undoubtedly the largest “L” the band had ever seen.

Mark and I looked at each other, both slack-jawed at the improbability of this scene.  No one in that room save the two of us knew who all of these people were and how unlikely it was that their paths would cross in quite this way. 

The evening came to a unique end as well.  Around midnight, Mark and I got on the elevator and found ourselves alone with Speedy who appeared lost in his thoughts with his eyes cast downward.  Mark gently asked, “So, I guess that was a little different than the nights back on 12th Street?”   Speedy looked up at him, realizing he was with somebody who knew about the old days, and nodding slowly, he replied, “Just a bit, just a little bit.” 

We watched him turn left as he exited the front door of the hotel and shuffle down the pavement to his car as we turned right to head to the parking lot, neither of us saying anything and both of us not at all sure of what we had been witness to this night other than pure magic.

Before Her Time

Mrs. Jordan was our next door neighbor during my years of growing up in Edgevale.  She was also the mother of my childhood best friend.  Her daughter Jenny and I, though close, were as different as night and day in how we looked and behaved.  Jenny was tan and blonde and I was fair and brunette.  When we were out together, people frequently assumed I was Mrs. Jordan’s daughter because she, too, had dark brown hair. 

Jenny was adventurous and daring.  I had not a risk-taking bone in my body, though I dreamed of becoming daring as I plowed through the entire set of Nancy Drew volumes at my school library.  We had matching Barbie dolls with bouffants whose hair color and skin tone corresponded to our own.

Since her parents were divorced, Jenny lived with her mother during the school year and with her father in another city during the summer.  She and I spent every waking moment together after school and on weekends.  Jenny attended an exclusive private school and I went to the parish grade school. The Jordans were Catholic but didn’t attend Mass with the predictable regularity of my family. 

Jenny and I forged each other’s childhoods through imaginative play, the dramatic play young girls often engage in, as well as through the pick-up games of football, basketball, kickball, volleyball, and baseball we enjoyed with the rowdy family of boys who lived across the street. 

Our dramatic play involved pretending her entire house was another universe where each bedroom was an apartment, the kitchen was a restaurant, the living room a store, and her mother’s office a design studio, which it actually was.  

We created different characters whose persona we could assume for the day: always young single women with interesting lives and careers of travel and adventure.  We skillfully navigated the social waters of our imagined world, negotiating first who got to play which character and with which selected attributes and circumstances, and then, within the play itself, the conflicts that arose through the interactions of these characters.  I can’t imagine a better rehearsal for real life.

We rode bikes together all over the neighborhood and to the small retail area nearby.  Hers was a classic Schwinn, deep lavender and white, with a wicker basket fastened by leather straps to the handlebars, and mine was a pearlized blue-green model from Sears with a metal platform secured to the back fender for packages or a rider.  We hung miniature license plates bearing our names from the seats and planted city license decals on the frames.  

We would bother the mailman on his walking route and tag along uninvited when the neighbor from around the corner walked her dog.  We spied on the teenagers who lived on our block whenever they offered public displays of affection on a front porch.  We knew which elderly widows were likely to chastise us if we ran through their yards.

We ventured off of our block occasionally and without parental permission to discover uncharted areas of the neighborhood since we could disappear for hours back then without anyone wondering where we were. 

We also knew intimately the terrain of each yard, front and back, and would take this into account when making rules for outdoor games.  Every crack in a sidewalk or driveway, every hole in the asphalt, every shrub on a terrace, and every tree on an easement was known by heart and warranted a slight alteration in the rules governing any given sport.

Our travels led us sometimes to a large triangle lot on the the next block up.  The entire city was laid out in a grid, making it easy to find your way around and maintain a sense of direction.  Sometimes a street curved to preserve a hill or offer visual interest and would create a triangle rather than the typical rectangular plat of most city blocks.  This large flat lot behind the houses lured children to play because it was imperceptible from every kitchen window that faced it thanks to the tall bushes growing along the fence lines, making it a private space where we could meet other neighborhood kids, like the large family of a classmate whose property abutted the lot.

Jenny’s bedroom window faced mine and we would talk to each other through them on summer nights after we went to bed.  Since her window swung open at the top and had no screen, Jenny would sometimes crawl onto the roof over her mother’s office and come to the gutter a few feet from my window to chat into the night. 

I was ferociously allergic to cats, then and now.  Their dander incited minutes-long sneezing fits and itching eyes.  The Jordans were definitely cat people and owned three cats whose glowing neon eyes could be detected for miles in the pitch black of night.  These felines had an other-worldliness and certain beauty: Fanny, a plump matronly cat with fluffy black fur, content to plop for hours and take in the world; Josephine, sleek of body with glossy black fur, moving furtively throughout the two-story house as if dispatched by some covert spy ring; and the youngest, Gwendolyn, the classically featured, grey, blue-eyed, aloof princess among the matriarchy. 

The presence of cats did not deter me in the least.  In my mind, the Jordan home was a country estate. Spending time at their house felt like a vacation regardless of how my cat allergy pained me: no little brother or sister trailing me, no chores to do, no mundane errands like grocery shopping and picking up laundry; it was an impeccably appointed retreat and free from the clutter four kids could generate at the drop of a hat.

Mrs. Jordan was a divorcee and single mother and professional, three strikes against a woman in the early 1960s, most especially if she were Catholic.  Her circumstances were somewhat unusual in that Jenny’s father was a movie producer in a western state and owned a location where many TV shows and movies were filmed.  He was movie-star handsome and counted John Wayne among his close friends.  I suspect Mrs. Jordan relied on some financial support from Jenny’s father, but she still carved out a career for herself as an interior decorator. 

She had exquisite taste in home furnishings and clothes and crafted rooms according to her clients’ tastes but always with her own elegant flair.  Her office was packed with samples of rugs and fabrics and paint, dangling from giant metal hooks and arranged by color.  Jenny and I spent hours with her mother in upholstery shops, furniture stores, fabric studios and luxurious homes.  These excursions were a world away from mine and I always jumped at the chance to accompany them.

And then there was her car: a 1966 pale yellow Ford Mustang hardtop with white leather interior and an automatic transmission in the floor.  It was sporty in image, yet demure in design.  Quite a departure from the wood-panel station wagons the other mothers drove. 

She would occasionally take in borders to supplement her income, all young female college students from the nearby dental school who stayed in the guest room and spent their spare time studying the intricacies of plaster impressions and scribbling in enormous lab books to master the principles of dental hygiene. 

When I was young, I had no idea how unusual Mrs. Jordan was: strong, independent, self-sufficient, attractive, smart, sophisticated in her taste and demeanor.   Today perhaps you wouldn’t notice her as much for these traits, but back then she was a woman before her time.  She dated off and on over the years, but never married again.  She spent considerably more time engaging with friends and family than she did dating or exhibiting any anxiety about not dating.

One interest of hers I found curious was that of astrology.  She purchased large horoscope magazines and mini booklets from racks in the grocery check-out line and devoted her leisure time to the study of them.  I could never quite reconcile her astuteness and intelligence with what seemed to me the stuff of fatalism and random chance. Maybe this avocation helped her impose order on her world or perhaps it simply delighted her to ponder the fact that both she and Jenny were Leos.

Within popular culture, there was definitely a surge of interest in all things astrological by the time I was in junior high.  I had plenty of zodiac jewelry and room accoutrements representing my own water sign, Pisces, the fish.  It was fun and novel then to celebrate your sign with tokens like these and to consider the irony of certain horoscopes published daily in the newspaper.

But by the time I was in high school, it struck me as absurdly illogical.  I was busy watching gavel to gavel coverage of the Watergate hearings, probing current events for their political significance, and nurturing a passing interest in journalism.  Though planetary alignment might have been a great excuse for much of what occurred in those now historical realms, the events could hardly be touted as destiny when adults overtly chose to behave badly.

Throughout my youth, she would frequently entrust me with the keys to  her house whenever she went away for a weekend.  I was her official pet-sitter.  In addition to the cats, they had a pudgy and squat black mutt named “Henrietta,” the first dog I was ever attached to as my family owned no pets.  Henrietta was a great neighborhood dog and routinely followed Jenny and me on our adventures, long before leash laws were enacted.   This was my first job before I was old enough to babysit.  I would follow her instructions to the letter; I felt responsible and important and she paid me well.

After Jenny grew up, Mrs. Jordan used her design savvy to flip a few houses in the area where my family still lived.  This, mind you, was a good 25 years before HGTV and other cable programs popularized this practice.  I used to bump into her now and again in the retail area near our old neighborhood and catch up with her on news of Jenny and other folks we knew.  She attended my wedding in the early 1980s and appears in a few photos from the reception, elegantly dressed, smiling, and obviously enjoying herself.

Last fall I attended an annual handcrafters fair I’ve been attending for years where talented crafters exhibit their unique wares.  I see some of the same crafters each year, but most come from out of town and every year there are new faces.  This year, I observed a tiny, vaguely familiar woman whose booth displayed gorgeous silk jackets and colorful handbags she sewed from fabric she purchased in France.   As I bought a lovely sachet with lavender from Provence, I recognized her voice as that of one of Mrs. Jordan’s friends. 

I introduced myself, knowing full well she wouldn’t remember me but with the intention of reminiscing about Mrs. Jordan.   She spoke fondly about her friendship with Mrs. Jordan as she rearranged some of the purses on the table and then turned directly toward me to say: “You know, she died far too young, really, before her time.”  I nodded in agreement and responded, “She definitely did. Way before her time.”

Mrs. Jordan had died of cancer quickly and quite brutally over twenty years ago.  The disease was found too late for her to launch an attack against it or make any attempts at a valiant recovery.  She had been a lifelong smoker.  Even now I can see her dropped wrist, the cigarette perched between her perfectly manicured fingers bearing the frosted peach nail polish popular at the time.

She smoked as did nearly every adult I knew, including my parents.  Cancer claimed her lungs, then, rather quickly, her brain.  I never got the chance to fully grasp the scope of her illness or say goodbye.  Her funeral and burial were private and for family only.  The week after Mrs. Jordan died, my mother and I visited Jenny at her mother’s house to express our profound sorrow.  Jenny lives out of town and I haven’t seen her since. 

But I continue to think often of Mrs. Jordan and what a powerful influence she was in my life without either of us ever really knowing, much less acknowledging.  When my only daughter now communicates her aspirations to be a professional designer some day, I smile and remember what an extraordinary life that could be.

On Going Home

I have lived my life in semesters.  Exactly how many–I have lost count.  They have given my life its rhythm, which is marked by the beat of regularly scheduled new beginnings.  I was always someone who loved school.  School was the premier place to hang out with friends, have ridiculous amounts of fun, and learn something new every day.  Grade school, high school, college, graduate school.  What was not to like? 

I can vividly remember every year, every teacher, all kinds of activities and events, especially K-12— where I was a junior member of an extraordinary community.  It was never about the place so much as it was about the people.   

At the turn of the previous century, my great grandparents settled in an exclusively Irish area of the city, not too far from the river bottoms, which would have then been the southern edge of the city.  Each successive generation, including mine, moved south and west of their parents, following the trail of economic development within the city, with most stopping far short of the furthest edges of the vast suburban sprawl that now envelopes the city proper.

The Catholic community I grew up in was like a small town.  Whenever I brought home a new friend from school, my parents could cite the name of every family member, living and dead, in that kid’s family tree.  My parents, of course, had gone to high school with that kid’s parents, and that kid’s grandparents had lived in the same parish as my grandparents, and that kid’s uncle had been in my mother’s cousin’s ordination class, etc. 

Though in my late teens and twenties I tried hard to escape the tentacles of this far-reaching network, I later sought to replicate my childhood for my own children.  I eventually discovered that while you can go home again fairly easily, you can’t exactly re-create that home, which may have been one of the toughest lessons of my adulthood. 

I was reminded of how idyllic my childhood was when I attended an 80th anniversary celebration of my grade school early last summer.  I’d gotten an inkling when I had attended a class reunion in 2002 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of my 8th grade graduation, and found it a truly delightful experience.  My siblings’ classes had reunions with some frequency over the years, but my class waited a total of 30 years before pulling one together.  It was well worth the wait.

The 30-year reunion had been about a year in the making by the time we gathered one chilly Saturday night in October in the school cafeteria. I had gone to school early in the day to help set up and decorate.  Upon entering the building, I was startled to note that the stairwell leading to the cafeteria had shrunk to half its original size.  Or had it? 

We plastered the pillars and walls in the room with mod cardboard flowers in the psychedelic colors of the day: pinks, purples, orange, yellow, chartreuse.  We hung blow-ups of our First Communion composite photo and our 8th grade graduation composite side by side.  One classmate generously shared his collection of retro artifacts from the late 60s-early 70s, including his own Stingray bicycle with a banana seat.  Honestly, the room rivaled the set of the Brady Bunch by the time we finished. 

We sold modestly-priced tickets to cover the cost of the simple deli trays and desserts obtained from a local grocery store which were supplemented by potluck dishes from a few classmates.  Beer and wine were served as well.  Frankly, it was a kick to go into the kitchen to obtain our drinks where we had long stood in line to purchase cartons of milk with tiny pink tickets. 

I was struck by the fact that the real guiding force for this event was a threesome of boys from the class who recruited three local girls, including me, to help them organize it.  Mark, Pat, and Jay focused on tracking classmates with laser-like precision, utilizing all professional and personal contacts to locate the missing.  They scheduled biweekly conference calls to coordinate the plans and phoned far-flung classmates personally to encourage their travel and attendance.

Since I’d attended an all-girls high school, I was pretty familiar with the dynamic of females reconnecting through reunions, and having attended most of my husband’s, that of high school reunions in general.  After my own 10-year high school reunion, spouses and partners were banned because the women were far more interested in catching up with each other in the limited time available. Introducing spouses was a time-consuming task and eventually deemed an unnecessary complication. 

So, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the latent sentimentality of these men.  That is, until the night of the event.  Their faces radiated pure joy as they greeted former classmates, especially their football and basketball teammates. 

Someone had unearthed old video footage of their basketball efforts that one of the dad-coaches had captured with what would now be regarded an antique camera.   The film was grainy and the action sputtered in the same muted earth tones as most of the still photographs from our youth–not exactly black and white but not even close to the rich saturated color that digital cameras now yield.  No matter how distorted the film, the camaraderie was crystal clear.  There simply are no friends like old friends.

No one seemed to care too much what anyone was doing for a living, just where they were living now.  Folks greeted each other with hugs and asked about family and kids and aging or deceased parents.  Everyone seemed comfortable in ways I’d never seen at other reunions. 

But then what pretenses could you have around the people who knew you intimately as a kid and were privy to all of the embarassing details of your youth?  We had been nerds and jocks and pretty and plain and popular and unpopular and quirky and funny and smart and clever and devious and coordinated and uncoordinated, and most of us all of these things at one time or another during our grade school years.  We were amorphous back then, still in stages of development, not yet able to fashion or define a persona the way we could and would in high school.

We all knew each other’s stories and lives: who threw up in the hall in second grade, who was in afternoon kindergarten, who had to stand in the corner in third grade, who got locked in the storage cabinet under the stage in the old gym as a prank, which route each of us walked to and from school, who our square dancing partners were in fourth grade, which Mass each family attended on Sunday, who had crushes on whom each of the nine years we shared together.

We were pleasantly suprised that our teachers showed up as did the former principal, and, importantly, the nuns.  During an impromptu program, a couple of classmates shared humorous memories of our time together and honored class members now deceased.  One of our principals, Sr. Johanna, confessed that she had probably been as scared of us as we were of her!  I had a chance to thank my junior high English teacher whose wise counsel and critical feedback in my adolescence had profoundly shaped me as a writer and thinker and even as a teacher.

My class had the good fortune to attend Catholic school during an unprecedented time of flux in church history which allowed us to hang on to our innocence a bit longer than we might have otherwise.  We entered school post Vatican II, so we escaped most of the horror stories our older siblings lived when boys and girls were segregated in junior high grades and nuns resorted to more corporal forms of punishment. 

By the time we arrived, the nuns were young and excited about teaching, wearing more contemporary and less intimidating attire than their former black floor-length habits.  We never memorized so much as a line of the Baltimore Catechism.  Guitars accompanied modern folk music at Mass, now played in lieu of traditional hymns.  Our aging pastor was a kindly man who resembled Santa Claus and exuded the sweet countenance of a Bing Crosby-Barry Fitzgerald movie priest.  He patiently explained each part of daily Mass to us so we could better understand what was going on.

By our birth dates, we are regularly categorized as Baby Boomers, but throughout most of our lives we have missed by minutes the seminal events that shaped that generation.  Turns out, we are really someone else.

When Kennedy was shot, we were  in kindergarten.  I doubt anyone came to notify us about it during class the way so many other people remember.  We were learning the alphabet and eating paste with the wooden sticks used to scoop it from the large communal clump placed in the middle of each table.  My own mother was in the hospital, having just given birth to her fourth child.  My gravest concern that week was how to avoid eating the horrible food and burnt cookies prepared by the woman my parents had engaged to take care of us while my mother was away.

We were in fourth grade when Martin Luther King was assassinated, and again, too young to fully grasp who he was or the implications of this tragedy.  What we could notice, however, was how anxious the adults were when they wouldn’t let us walk home during the race riots that ensued just blocks from school in the days after his murder.  Traditional evening services during Holy Week were shifted to afternoon so we could be back in our homes by the curfew established by the police department.

Some kids probably barely noticed Bobby Kennedy’s death that June since it occurred when school was out, but I knew of it because my Irish Catholic family was, to put it mildly, Kennedy-obsessed.  Profiles in Courage was prominently displayed on the living room coffee table and an expressionless plaster bust of JFK sat on a shelf in the family room.  My grandmother, a special education teacher and early advocate of mainstreaming, was an acquaintance of Eunice Shriver and served on the board of a Kennedy Foundation which promoted services for the developmentally disabled; Rose Kennedy represented to her the epitome of a Catholic mother.  JFK and Jackie were revered by my parents.  My mother chose a powder blue palette for our living room and took her fashion cues from the First Lady.

My classmates and I were far too young to know about much less attend Woodstock and could see the large teen rallies (or love-ins) every Sunday at a local park only from a car window as our mothers drove past and shook their heads.  The Vietnam War was but a story on the nightly news, rarely discussed in front of us and over before we were close to being draft eligible as our older brothers had been. 

The space race fueled our imaginations and led us to believe that anything was possible. The Cold War was still raging but invisible to us except for the fallout shelter signs hung over the basement doors of most public buildings.  We ducked and covered in the southwest corners of our basements during tornado drills, which were far more frequent and relevant in our Midwestern city than fears about Russian invasions.  The women’s movement opened doors for us that we passed through often without realizing they’d ever been closed.

Our lives were not perfect by any stretch nor were our families or our parents, but whatever limitations, shortcomings, or difficulties any single family had, another helped cover.  And that is precisely what made it such a rich community.

The special homecoming for the whole school last May was held in the new and improved gym.  It began with Mass and quickly swelled into a large-scale party with folks drifting in as the night wore on.  Every direction I turned I saw a familiar face: classmates, friends, neighbors, older and younger siblings of classmates, family friends, parents, teachers, all there to reconnect with each other and celebrate the extraordinary life we knew as children.  I felt as if I was walking through the hall when school let out at 3:00 pm 37 years ago.  And just as in a fairy tale, I didn’t want this briefest of glimpses into the past to end. 

As we drove home, my husband and I chatted about what a wonderful evening it had been and thought of one person, now deceased, who would have absolutely reveled in this kind of get-together, having hosted so many gatherings of these families at the school and in her home over the years. 

Yes, gregarious and sociable with a delicious sense of fun, Mrs. G. would have been in her element at this party.  The next morning, I emailed her daughter Bebe to tell her just that since it was she who had spearheaded this historic homecoming and, by the way, whose grandfather and my great uncle served as best man in each other’s wedding several years before the doors of St. Peter’s Grade School opened, some 80 years ago.