We’ve had the first ever cases of COVID in my building. Sigh. Cases still dribble and we have to be K95 masked, but the breakfast regulars who were or near the infected are back, enjoying treats and each other, and creating false rumors, as only the hard of hearing, sitting 6′ apart in a noisy dining room can do. I love breakfast, even with the crankies.
But with each COVID threat alert, Charlie worries about me and frets that I may die before preparing some kind of “clippings file” to ready him for memorial comments, as his dad did. I’m sure this current fret arises now also, because John Madden and Harry Reid and, earlier. his dad died at 82, which now I am also. So he asked me, again, to tell him “my stories.” I’ve explained that any story needs a reason and an audience because the particulars of the story may vary. It’s the Irish way. He humphed. He is a great humpher.
Then, as I read Bob Moses’ NYT obituary, which included his work with teaching math to children, and Charlie taught math to often ill-prepared undergrads, I aha-ed and regaled Charlie with a story.
When I was about 4 or 5, during the War, my dad took me with him to work. He owned the Coast to Coast hardware store in a building with a basement bar which dad tended, sometimes with me in tow. I still remember climbing up on the bar stool between two regulars who taught me numbers by pulling tabs or tickets from a jar. I had great fun. “It was a speakeasy!” Charlie noted with unseemly glee. “No, it was not. I’m not THAT old, for heaven’s sake. Prohibition was long over, and dad was the Mayor.” “Yeah, but the jar of tickets or tabs was clearly gambling and probably illegal!” he said with ever more glee. “And speakeasys were dens of illegal gambling. You grew up gambling in a speakeasy. You were an early criminal! ” I protested, but he was off to share the news.
Clearly, retold stories are not the way, but his frets remain. Building on the criminality of my speakeasy days, I offered to tell him the stories behind the art on my walls. Charlie enthusiastically proclaimed “copyright violation!” I said it was a one time, personal use, which was allowed. He countered, “You only own the paper and paint, not the picture, and, also, you might make money!” I pointed out that my twelve blog readers, quadrupled from my pre -facebook three, were hardly a threat. And somewhat smugly, I noted that I was not misusing anything; I was creating a new experience of telling about storied art with a floppy pointer, which I call “Incorporation Art.”
For example Nina Simone’s commissioned watercolor of the first home of Schaumburg Township Public Library is the background for stories of my time there, and, thus, my first foray into Incorporation Art. The stories ae many. I was 24 with a half-finished library science degree and ready to leave teaching high school English and math. I spotted the posted notice on a 3″x5″ library card: “Wanted: Someone with the pioneer spirit. Call 529-3373.” I did and, with no experience, sone imagination, and a lot of energy, the Board gambled, and we were off. During the next 4 years, The Township awarded us money to build, plus extra for air-conditioning, and I got to plan the new library building, walk possible sites, host a 6 a.m. groundbreaking to catch the commuters, design and furnish the interior, and have Charlie just in time for him in his playpen to be part of moving day with a book-chain and lots of volunteers. The Board commissioned 4 watercolors to celebrate and remember our founding home. Today’s Schaumburg Library is bigger and in some ways better, and so is Charlie, but the founding years were keys, as the stories tell.
Below the STPL, Charlie’s picture, backed by a very faded box of “Wheaties, Breakfast of Champions” is my second example of “Incorporation Art”. Someday, maybe, they will have narration, too. I think Charlie’s is his college graduation picture.
On a different track, I considered using Nikki Giovanni’s poem, “My Favorite Teacher,” as a story springboard, and substituting my similar early library adventures, after my mother called the librarian and told her to let me take out any books I wanted. But whereas Nikki Giovanni’s choices suggest a mind expanding onward and upward as she grew into a whole person of note, mine were, shall we say, generously, evolution of a core-less generalist. I’ve had, and till have, great fun seeing the world through the eyes of many others.
This is Nikki Giovanni’s poem, “My Favorite Teacher“.
The reason Miss Delaney was my favorite teacher, not just my
favorite English teacher, is that she would let me read any book I
wanted and would allow me to report on it. I had the pleasure of
reading The Scapegoat as well as We the Living as well as Silver
Spoon (which was about a whole bunch of rich folk who were
unhappy), and Defender of the Damned, which was about
Clarence Darrow, which led me into Native Son because the real
case was defended by Darrow though in Native Son he got the
chair despite the fact that Darrow never lost a client to the chair
including Leopold and Loeb who killed Bobby Frank. Native Son
led me to Eight Men and all the rest of Richard Wright, but I
preferred Langston Hughes at that time and Gwendolyn Brooks
and I did reports on both of them. I always loved English because
whatever human beings are, we are storytellers. It is our stories
that give a light to the future. When I went to college I became a
history major because history is such a wonderful story of who we
think we are; English is much more a story of who we really are.
It was, after all, Miss Delaney who introduced the class to
“My candle burns at both ends; /It will not last the night; /But, ah, my
foes, and, oh, my friends— /It gives a lovely light.” [Edna St. Vincent Millay poem]
And I thought YES. Poetry is the main line. English is the train.
The library books I remember without really trying were, in no particular order, a biography of Hetty Green, my first miser, Louis Auchincloss‘s books about NYC’s “upper crust”, Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country and Too Late the Phalarope, about appalling apartheid in South Africa, Thomas B. Costain‘s English history, Nancy Drew, Erle Stanley Gardner, Agatha Christie began my lifetime of loving mysteries, Mikhail Sholokov’s And Quiet Flows the Don and other fat Russian novels during one summer, Neville Shute’s On the Beach, my only post-apocalyptic novel, and Cleveland Amory‘s books about Boston society. Freshman fall semester of 1957, the flu broke out and kept us infecting and healing in the dorm, where I read the only non-textbooks I could find, which were Peyton Place by Grace Metalious and J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. As I compiled this, all I could think was “AARRGGHH!!! My mind has no there there!”
So, to give Charlie something bookish, but more substantial, to remember me by, I made a list of my favorite memoirs, each of which twigged something of me as I read. Here it is. I love each one all over again in my thinking about them:
Fourteen of my long time, most favored memoirs, 2021 list: Fishing with John, by Edith Iglauer Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren The Scotch, The story of a community where money was the root of much vir, by John Galbraith Old Books,Rare Friends: Two literary sleuths and their shared passion, by Madeline B. Stern and Leona Rostenberg Swimming Studies, by Leanne Shapton Principles of Uncertainty, by Maira Kalman Travels with Herodotus, by Ryzard Kapucinski Caught in the Web of Words: James A.H. Murray and the OED, by K.M. Elizabeth Murray The Snoring Bird: My family’s journey through a century of biology, by Bernd Heinrich The Thread, A Mathematical Yarn, by Philip J. David The Double Helix: A personal account of the Discovery of the DNA, by James Watson So Many Books, So Little Time, by Sara Nelson Frankie’s Place: A love story, by Jim Sterba A Place in Normandy, by Nicholas Kilmer
I haven’t checked with Charlie yet, so so-far so-good. He hasn’t humphed. Asking “Who am I?” gets trickier when first trying to figure out “Who does he think I am?”.
Coming soon: The Poetry Club’s most memorable recent moments, which include a new-ish poem form, and the question, “Does a joke require someone else laughing?