Topsy Turvy Tale

Well loved, the book is worn and tattered, and the cover is gone. Somehow it survived a dunking in the toilet, thanks likely to my little brother. Geraldine Belinda, by Marguerite Henry, was published in 1942. She also wrote some 60 other children’s stories, including a number of horse stories. This one is a sweet story intended to be read aloud to younger children. The soft sepia-toned illustrations present a cute little girl with pigtails who has been given 25 pennies to spend. It’s a fun story.

Geraldine Belinda tries to decide how she will spend her pennies and finally settles on furnishings for her dollhouse. She walks to the “notions store” (yes, alone!) with her pennies clutched tightly in her muff. After picking out a stove and a sink for the kitchen and a drum for the music room, Miss Belinda tells Mr. Tweedle that she really needs a “Topsy doll” for the kitchen, but she’s not sure she has enough pennies. He adds it up, and sure enough, “That will buy you a little colored doll and a stick of candy, too.”

The story is a moral tale. Geraldine Belinda tries to ditch her friends so she doesn’t have to share anything she buys, like candy. On her way home, while running to avoid her friends,, all her purchases fall out of the bag, one by one, along the way. She’s in tears when she discovers they’re all lost, but her friends appear at the door, having rescued all her treasures.

But somehow the biggest moral of this story was missed. A “Topsy doll?” Heard of it? Topsy is a character from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a little black girl who is spirited and fun, and just a little scatter-brained. We also get our expression “topsy turvy” from her. Today these dolls are antiques, often handmade and double-ended, a white doll on one end and a black doll on the other end, joined by a flouncy, layered skirt in the middle. The idea, seemingly, was that if a black child was playing with the black doll, it could instantly be turned over to show white, should any white supervisors come close.

Miss Belinda’s doll is just a single Topsy doll, black, and all ready to move into the dollhouse where she belongs, along with the sink and the stove. The kitchen would now be complete.

Growing up in a small town in the Midwest, I like to think that I was never exposed to any racism. Well, perhaps the warnings to stay away from the groups of the very black Bahaman men, singing as they returned on a Saturday night from our small town, back to the corn factory at the end of the street, not unlike Topsy’s trip back to the kitchen. I never saw those men in any other place in our town.

However, Miss Belinda’s Topsy is another matter. This is education for young children. The book was written in the mid-1900’s, well past the time of slavery. What message would a little black girl reading this book take from it? Knowing my mother, she likely skipped over or changed a few words. She probably even made Topsy a resident chld or visitor in the dollhouse. I doubt many parents would have done that.

As a child, I knew books were magical. I believed them! This book was obviously loved to have survived almost 80 years and a toilet dunking. This was racism in one of its finest forms for young children to absorb. Remember the song from South Pacific, “You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six, or seven or eight, to hate all the…….”

You never know what’s in a dollhouse until you stop, get down on your hands and knees and peer inside. What’s in your dollhouse?

Fight to the Finish

If you are a gardener, you may think you’re in charge of your garden. Big mistake. I spent about 35-40 years trying to kill one plant. Silly me. I thought I was in charge.

Every spring a large-leaf plant emerged next to the house foundation and behind the blueberry bushes. Not a good place for a plant, I decided. For years, I simply pulled the leaves out of the ground. That did slow it down, but I was never able to get the root. Eventually the spring came when I tried to dig it up. I thought for sure I was finished with it. A few weeks later, it emerged, as strong as ever.

Finally, out of patience, I sprayed it with a deadly poison. It died back that year. I thought I had it made. The following spring it popped out of the ground with what I swear was a smug expression.

Last spring I finally surrendered and admitted defeat. I simply ignored it. It grew a large leaf, and then another. It looked like a hosta. I know how they can take over and spread. It would likely expand and crowd out the blueberries. But for that year it stopped with only a few leaves.

This spring it grew stronger than ever and then, after all the leaves had opened, it started sending up big, sturdy stalks. The day came when I glanced over and saw it–five huge white calla lilies! Two of them are as tall as I am.

It’s still not a good place for it to grow. Those gorgeous white blossoms don’t show up well against the white house. We have, however, agreed to coexist. I admire its tenacity, and I think I heard it mutter something about my being a worthy adversary.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that, “Earth laughs in flowers.” I think I can hear those calla lilies hooting and howling with laughter. More recently, Martha Stewart said that “Gardening is a humbling experience.” That it is.

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Breakfast with the Other

I think I brushed elbows with some of those who raced up the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. We were all fixing our breakfasts together–pouring our coffee, dishing up scrambled eggs and sausages–when we bumped elbows.

The potter and I were exploring the lower Columbia River about 6-8 years ago. We drove up one side of the river the first day, and then did the other side the second day. And we were doing it in style! We’d won a free night at a luxury motel in Vancouver, just across the river from Portland.

The only time you mix with other motel guests is in the breakfast room, an intimate situation. People are yawning, grabbing a newspaper and coffee. Usually there are other older couples like us, sometimes a family with children, often several business people. Generally, people grab their bowl of cereal and coffee, eat, and get back on the road.Some take their breakfast trays back to their rooms.

I was curious. What kind of people would frequent a luxury motel?But when we walked into that breakfast room, something was way off. Almost all the tables were full. Some people were eating, but many were just sitting around drinking coffee. And this was not a “luxury” crowd. They were dressed as casually as I was–worn jeans, sweatshirts, t-shirts. Perhaps about 30 people in the room, all ages. Not many children. Some seemed to be acquainted and were visiting, but several looked like loners. I had a clear feeling that I was interrupting something and of being an outsider in the room. It was rather quiet and subdued for that many people. What were they waiting for? I remember being uncomfortable, but people were not unfriendly and no one confronted us.

I looked to the couple sitting at the next table, hoping to catch the young woman’s eye and maybe make conversation, but they were keeping to themselves, and she never made eye contact. No identifying t-shirts or hats among the group, but I did spot one gun-rights t-shirt across the room. What was this? Perhaps more men than women, but at one point an older woman came in with two teen-age girls in tow, both barefoot.

As we finished our coffee, a couple of better-dressed men came bustling in, greeting people here and there. One was obviously some kind of leader, known to this group. The owner/manager of the motel was at his elbow, so very attentive.

On our way out, I stopped at the front desk to ask about what was going on. Who were all these people? The two young women seated behind the desk didn’t answer me at first. They looked at each other, paused for more than a few seconds, and then one of them said, “Oh, there’s a softball tournament in town this weekend.” And then she smiled. I almost laughed. Softball players? No way.

These people had traveled from a distance that required a motel stay, and for whatever reason, had chosen a very pricey motel. As we got in our car to leave, we checked out the cars in the parking lot. Nothing unusual except for a couple of motorcycles. Most of the license plates were from Washington State.

A day or two later, at home, I heard about the serious rioting in Portland over the weekend, initiated by a far right group. It was one of the first big and very violent, riots in downtown Portland, resulting in a number of serious injuries. I knew then who we’d had breakfast with that morning. I’m guessing that they had been given some kind of group rate. Or was a benefactor picking up the bill? Either way, it was a well-organized operation, coming in from out of state to downtown Portland.

Some of that group had been trained and they were ready. Even before realizing who they were, what I remember most from that breakfast, was the intense feeling of relief as we drove out of the parking lot that day.

Aging Antics

This sailboat aged way faster than any of us have. Six months ago it was a beautiful boat in great shape when it was abandoned a short distance from where I live and now it’s a wreck. This is taken at low tide. At high tide, it’s almost covered with water, only the mast showing. Its name? “Time & Patience.”

Nothing was wrong with my friend deciding to keep his mother’s powered recliner chair. It elevated his feet and legs into the air, and then later would lower and deposit him onto the floor, similar to the workings of a forklift. Nor was it a mistake for him to let it become his favorite chair. The problem came when both he and the chair grew old on the same timeline. Synchronized aging. Metal parts wear down and tendons weaken. When they give out at the same time, it’s a serious situation.

He was sitting comfortably one afternoon in his electric chair–or, rather, his power recliner, with his feet and legs stretched straight out in front of him in the “up” position. However, when he pushed the “down” button, nothing happened. The chair did not move.He is a sturdy walker with strong legs, but when he chose to exit this trap by crawling over its arm, he joined the chair in malfunctioning. It was not a graceful fall from grace. The doctor thought he might have injured his “miniscus,” in his knee, one of those body parts that is best kept happy and painfree.

I’m sorry to report that I found this all pretty funny. Did I laugh? Possibly. However, about the same time he was recuperating with the attractive, wonderful, and lovely physical therapist Mimi, I was the one who was facing my own senior experience. I badly needed a new pair of glasses. After I had carefully picked out frames (wearing my old glasses that were none too helpful), I noticed a “Two for One” sale sign. I quickly grabbed a lovely lavender frame to use for reading glasses. What fun! And stylish! When the technician fitted my new glasses several weeks later, I swear he smirked as I put the lavender pair on. And he gave me a little purse-type case for them that had handles, not unlike one you’d give a five-year-old. Why would he do that, I wondered?

A few days later I finally noticed the little “Hello Kitty” decal on the frame stems. I had bought a pair of “Hello Kitty” children’s glasses. I imagine I could have exchanged them, but I was way too embarrassed to go back. They probably have a note in their file on me, “This woman may need special handling.”

My friend has a new powered recliner and a knee that works just fine, plus he’s added a fancy gizmo with a big battery that will continue to power the chair should the electricity go out while he’s up in the air. My Hello Kitty glasses are long gone. Lavender, I decided, is not really my color.

We lose a lot as we age, including beloved family and friends. We don’t need to lose those little moments to laugh at ourselves. Madeleine L’Engle once said, “A good laugh heals a lot of things.” Fred Allen also wisely warned, “It is bad to suppress laughter. It goes down and spreads to your hips.”

Underneath the Layers

My Cousin Carolyn, sturdy woman that she is, emailed from Minnesota yesterday, “We had a blizzard Wednesday night through Friday and got 5.5 inches of this lovely, fluffy snow with high winds, so the drifts are everywhere…..wind chills for the next three days are going to be -30 and even -50 in some areas of the state! I ventured to the mail box to mail some bills and get yesterday’s mail and froze my balls off!”

Another cousin once descibed winter clothing she endured as a child in the Midwest, “We wore long underwear and over that we put on long stockings that were held up with a parachute harness type of garter contraption, wooly type of snow pants and buckle overshoes, jackets, wooly caps, wooly mittens….I remember how cold my toes would get.”

One of the best parts of a Montana winter that I remember was the winter thaw in March or so. The temperatures would ease, the sun would come out, and suddenly we’d have only patches of dirty white instead of the white blanket that covered everything. It was a muddy mess, but it would always expose a few toys we had left outside in October–old friends, uncovered.

We live with layers in our lives. I think one gift of the last four years has been the stripping away of some of those layers. We had openly white supremacists in the White House, advising our President. They’ve always been there, but we’ve never seen them as much as we did in the last four year. They’ve come out from under cover. It’s right in front of us.

My white friends are grappling with the Black Lives Matter movement. I am amazed at how many of them arre reading books on the subject and asking questions. They’re looking for actions they can take, support they can give. My son and his family have a Black Lives Matter poster in the front window of their city home. A dear friend, a gentle friend, recently said to me, “You know, I never thought I’d ever say this, but I think I’m racist.”

Me? I’ve always longed for some neighbors who would move into my neighborhood and give it some color and diversity. On the other hand, it is so easy for me to avoid talking or thinking about “racism.” Those issues are happening in other places, not here. And then I read the words of a large black man who describes not feeling safe to take a walk around his city block unless he has his little white, fluffy dog on a leash in one hand. and maybe his young child holding his other hand. Never alone. And I remember every single black parent in this country who has to indoctrinate their children on how NOT to attract attention, on how to avoid any suggestion of suspicion. How can we think this is an acceptable way to live?

A friend once told about a festive dinner party she and her husband attended with several other couples many years ago. The host told an ugly racist joke. Everyone laughed, but not my friend. The host apologized to my friend’s husband–but not to her. She now regrets not speaking up. When I asked her if the same thing happened today, would she speak up?

“Well, of course I would!”

We’ll continue to hear those kinds of comments, but they’re much subtler now. We’ll hear criticism of black athletes who risk their careers to protest the continued killings of unarmed black men and women. We’ll hear someone lump together all the destructive behavior under the Black Lives Matter banner, even though millions marched and protested peacefully. We’re getting better at being able to hear the racist comments. Now it’s time to speak up, as well as find ways to support action for change.

Lots of mud and dead plants and mess under the layers of melting snow, but glimmers of hope and growth, too!

“A distain for history sets us adrift, and makes us victims of ignorance and denial. History lives in and through our bodies right now, and in every moment.” –Resmaa Menakem

At Home with the Range

My kitchen stove ranks over all the other kitchen cookware–toaster oven, microwave, my new instant pot, waffle iron, popcorn popper, and even the barbecue out the back door. It reigns supreme. But my kitchen stove was about to bite the dust–or rather, the old brick-patterned linoleum. The oven element was toast and two of the burners were acting up. Yay! Time to get a new stove!

It’s orange. It reminds me of a rotting pumpkin. A kitchen designer might call it “burnt orange.” Or maybe “poppy orange.” It’s one of those garish appliance colors that oozed out in the 1970’s, along with a dirty gold and an “avocado green” that was more the color of split pea soup. Yes, my stove is almost 50 years old. Would I be able to find another stove that would last 50 years?

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I don’t like to replace any appliance that still chugs along. I love the Earth enough that I don’t want to dump any more junk onto it than I have to, plus if I’ve got enough money to replace an appliance on the basis of its color only, I’ve got enough money to feed a struggling family meals for a month or two.

That stove had seen me through a sizable portion of my life. For all those years our sons were growing up, it baked 2-4 loaves of bread every week or so. Every fall it processed jars and jars of grape juice, applesauce, and sliced pears. Cooked dozens of blueberry pancakes for hungry grandchildren. Produced Thanksgiving dinners for 12-20 people for many years. Endless apple crisps, Christmas cookies, birthday cakes, and Sunday pot roasts. Clam chowder after beach camping and sourdough bread and pancakes.

After thinking it over some more, and on the suggestions of two friends, I called Bill, our favorite appliance repairman. As he entered the kitchen, he brushed past me and headed for the stove, “Wow–when was the last time I saw one of these?” He replaced the oven unit and the two burners, and suggested we might replace a control knob at some point, but thinks that stove will last “forever.”

I was wrong. The stove’s not the color of rotting pumpkins. It matches the color in the wallpaper and the old brick-patterned linoleum. It’s more the color of fire. It’s one hot baby!

The Common Good and the Pooper Scoopers

Some quiet people move among us and only occasionally do we notice these angelic beings.

I was driving to the supermarket not long ago when I saw her. A tall woman warmly dressed in a long coat, striding along with a huge plastic bag of garbage in one hand, and a “grabber” tool in the other. One of my good friends! She walks long distances every day. Several times a week, she picks up trash from our city streets as she walks. She’s identified a couple of businesses that will let her use their dumpsters, as there’s way too much for her own garbage can. I asked her what the most common piece of litter is. She said it is, sadly, the little liquor bottles. People have started to notice this woman who looks out for our community.

A retired teacher walks my trail, too, and she also has a grabber. We don’t have quite so much litter here, away from the bustle of downtown, but like a neighbor once told me, “The road in front of our house is located exactly one Happy Meal away from MacDonald’s,” so she finds plenty.

A woman walks the Grand Forest, not far from me, with a child’s rake. Besides pedestrians, horses use this trail, and she rakes off anything they leave.

Another woman walks the Fort Ward park trail with a child’s beach bucket and tongs to pick up after dogs whose owners are not looking out for us. She is a special woman who deserves a clean walking path of gold in her next life.

All women? Not always. Before Covid, an older man walked our road several times a week with a clippers in hand. It’s a popular walking path, but bushes along the road reach out to grab you if you’re not paying attention. He clipped those wandering tendrils as he walked. Sure, one day’s clippings hardly made a difference, but after months and months of doing this, he maintained that trail for us.

I had to check definitions of “the common good.” Ordinarily, the “common good” refers to those things that benefit everyone in the community, like roads, libraries, fire protection, and public education. Public art is a common good. I know not everyone would agree, but I think health insurance is a common good because the more we eradicate communicable disease–viruses, etc, the healthier the whole community is and in the long term, we save money. We all benefit. But that’s a subject for another day.

These pooper scoopers are working for our common good without asking anything in return, and I love them for it!

“We don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.” — Howard Zinn

Riding out the Storm, Holding Course

“Batten down the hatches!”

We’re dead in the water!”

“Man overboard!”

“Land ho!”

Even we landlubbers know what action is necessary for each of these phrases. If we were anywhere near water and heard someone shout, “Thar she blows!” I’m guessing most of us would be scanning the horizon for a whale.

“Hold the course!” may have had its origins in horse-racing, but it also had early connections to keeping the ship on course by tightening and adjusting the ropes on the sails. Hard work!

You’re holding the course today. And it’s not easy.

Death Valley registered 130 degrees this summer, the hottest temperature in world history. My son, living in northern California, says it’s not a question of whether their house will burn. It’s a question of when. Not only fires, but hurricanes that are stronger than ever. A friend in Austin wrote about the “anguish” that the Texas summer heat brings. This summer, a forecast of not one, but two hurricanes heading toward them was actually good news. She explained, “The only thing that can fracture the daily hammering heat is a biblical collision of storms against the massive heat dome.” In spite of widespread fires and ever stronger storms, many environmental standards in our country have been reduced significantly over the past four years.

We hold the course. We try to eliminate buying and using so much plastic. We grow veggies and we buy from farmer’s markets. We try to lessen our dependence on fossil fuel and we live smart. Many of us replace our old cars with electric ones–that economists now are saying are cheaper in the long run.

A pandemic has killed over 220,000 people in our country. Millions have lost their jobs and many of those have lost their health insurance. We have a President who has made mask-wearing a political point rather than a life-saving one.

We hold the course. We donate to food banks and help where we can. We socially distance. We wear our masks. I have only once seen someone in my grocery store in the past six months or so not wearing a mask. He was elderly and seemed confused. My part of the county averages 2-3 new cases a day, often fewer.

Our President calls respected news outlets “fake news.” Who refuses to denounce white supremacists and has emboldened them to new extremes. Who routinely confuses truth and lies. Who has some choice names for women. Simply put, a bully who divides rather than unifies.

What do we do? We hold the course. We treat others like we would want to be treated. We work locally to make changes. We live and love well and we make good choices. We learn about the issues and we vote. We recognize that words matter and that everyone does better if everyone does better. Basic kindergarten stuff. And then we take time to smell the fresh sea breezes. We know the routine. We simply tighten the sails batten down the hatches, and hold the course.

Walking beside the waves, low tide in May

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Choose Your Horse–Time to Ride!

I still remember learning about the Pony Express in maybe fourth or fifth grade. Sound familiar? It made for a great story for kids of that age. Teams of young riders plowing through the snow on their sturdy horses. Fast horses! They rode back and forth at breakneck speeds between Missouri and California.

In reality, beyond the romanticized picture, the Pony Express only operated for 18 months before it went broke. But it was still impressive. Riders couldn’t weigh more than 125 lbs., rode night and day, and were “changed out” every 75-100 miles. In an emergency the rider was allowed to ride a double shift of more than 20 hours.

The Pony Express was not a part of the U.S. Postal Service. It was a business. Even with all the California gold making its way across the country and a strong and very experienced businessman at its helm, the company never lasted two years.

What it did do, however, was to show that one well-connected and organized communication system for the entire country was possible. I like to think it contributed to the further development of the USPS.

The USPS, unlike the Pony Express, was never intended to be a business. It was developed as a service for its citizens. It gets mail to and from all the little towns and rural communities in our country, something a profit-minded company could never do. It delivers social security checks and medications, Christmas cards and gifts, even baby chicks! It employs many veterans who are given preferential status when they apply. And the USPS delivers absentee ballots to our citizens. My state, among several, votes completely (and very successfully) by mail.

Every few years we citizens need to fight for proper funding for this service. We need to remind our representatives, and this year even our President, that this is a service and not a business, and we expect it to be adequately funded.

It’s time to call Republican senators (since the funding bill has passed the House) and demand adequate funding for the USPS. Maybe even suggest an experienced and knowledgeable person to lead it?

From Missouri to California, we need to swamp those offices with postcards and telephone calls until they get the message. We did it once before when mothers and babies were being separated at the border–the huge outcry from all over the nation stopped that. If you know your senators will support a funding bill, you might call or write Republican senators in other states. Sure, they give more weight to people in their own state, but a huge pile of mail sends a message in itself. Phone numbers and addresses are easy to find on the internet.

We don’t have to ride a horse for 20 hours through a snowstorm, nor do we have to defend that mail pouch with our very lives. All we need to do is speak out and speak loudly. it’s what we do in a democracy.

Clear Thinking and a Kidney

When I called my mother on her 98th birthday, she told me she was thinking about donating one of her kidneys. She had watched a tv show on organ donation.

“I  sit here when I could just as well be of some use to someone.” She went on to say that she’d had a couple of  surgeries over her lifetime and they weren’t so difficult. She’d probably be in the hospital a week or so. And if she died at the age of 98, well, that would be OK, too.

My mother had spent her life in selfless, giving acts, but this was a bit much. Before I had a chance to think how to respond, she went on.

“But I got to thinking about my surgeries. What were they? Yes, the hysterectomy…and then I remembered–I already had a kidney removed! I have none to give!”

She thought that was pretty funny, but I gasped.

“I don’t remember your having a kidney removed!” I had just a moment of panic wondering how I had missed that rather significant surgery.

“Mom, I think it was a gall bladder you had removed.” Silence for a few seconds.

“Oh, yes, I think you might be right. So I DO have a kidney to give!”

Usually lucid, clear-thinking and well-informed, Mom’s thinking process had become a bit muddled from time to time.

Our thinking through the pandemic hasn’t always been crystal clear either, and we don’t have the excuse of 98 years behind us. It’s in situations like a pandemic or widespread protests that it’s imperative that clear thinking prevail. We need logical, informed, educated people who are willing to talk to people, listen, read, and think things through. It’s not enough to use generalized platitudes and negative thinking.

“It’s always been this way. It’s never going to change. Why bother?”

“It’s just the flu.”

“It’s just a few bad officers–there’s some in every precinct.”

All kinds of possibilities exist out there and we have an opening now to explore them. Police and criminal justice reform, major efforts to re-build a first-rate public school system, healthcare reform, mental health funding instead of incarceration. Costly? Of course. But the cost if we don’t will be much higher.

I emailed my siblings that evening after our phone conversation. I told them to keep an eye on Mom or she might be short a kidney.