I once knew an older woman, named Sarah Ettenheim, who knitted while presiding over loud, contentious, racially divided community meetings. She would recognize people to speak, insist on proper decorum, and quote Robert’s Rules of Order, chapter and verse, all while clicking her wooden needles and adjusting the ball of yarn on her lap. She was often looking down to watch her stitch but she was entirely present as if there was no place she would rather be than in the middle of a difficult political scrum with her knitting.
She was brilliant and calm.
So it struck me the other day that maybe I should learn how to knit. Maybe it would give me the aura that Sarah wore so well. I could be an elegant lady at peace amidst chaos.
I asked my friend who knits how to learn to knit. Go to a knitting store, she said…
There is the news and then there is the coping. And the coping can make you wear wool socks and heavy boots in the middle of summer. Or strip you to your underwear and send you skating across paper thin ice. Coping is unpredictable and you can’t pack for it.
If you believe that anything can happen and if history has proven you right, it changes how you look at the world. You learn that lives can change in a split second because of a good decision or a bad one. You learn that you can’t trust anything. The ladder could, in fact, fall on you this very minute.
I’m coming outof an anything can happen experience. And because the anything that happened wasn’t the worst that could happen, I express my gratitude to the world. But in my head, I am jumpy. I fight against it…
In the upstairs bedroom, at the back of the house, down a hallway with burnished hardwood floors, past the bathroom with the porcelain bathtub with claw feet and where my grandfather’s shaving brush lay on its side in the medicine cabinet as though he’d used it just that morning, my great grandmother sits up in her single bed, her ancient hands spread on the lace coverlet as she waits for dinner.
Grandma Yule is bedridden. I have never seen her downstairs at supper or sitting on a chair in the front room. I have never seen her walking or even standing up. I wonder how she got to the upstairs bedroom but I don’t ask. Someone must have carried her up the stairs. I wonder if it was my dad.
Grandma Yule sits still in her bed. She wears a cotton nightgown that is white with a print of small pink rosebuds. The nightgown has long sleeves with elastic cuffs and a high neck gathered with a pink ribbon that is tied in a bow. Her skin, what can be seen of it, drapes in folds and waves as if any moment it could slide into her hands and on to the bed. Her thin gray hair is parted in the middle and braided, the braid lays on her chest like half a necklace.
What else do you remember?
I remember there was a rocking chair next to Grandma Yule’s bed. It was small as if for a child, made out of a deep dark wood cut to show the grain. It is my chair now. I took it from my mother’s house after she died. She kept it in her sewing room in the basement. Now it’s in my office.I never sit in it though. It seems too small for me. I just look at it.
Is that all? What else do you remember about that room?
There was a tall thin window that looked out over the back yard and there was a tree in the back yard that had roots that had broken through the ground like whales swimming next to a boat.I remember that Grandma Yule’s bed didn’t face the window so she probably didn’t see the tree or know about the roots.
And there was a bedpan, a white one with black trim. The bedpan was kept under the bed but I could see it because the blankets and bedspread on the bed hung just a foot on either side so all of the floor could be reached by a dust mop. And I remember that the bed pan was always there and always gleaming white and clean as if never used although it had to have been. Grandma Yule was bedridden after all.
Was she nice, your great grandmother? Did you like her?
I don’t know. She seemed nice enough. We didn’t spend much time with her. She was so far away from all of us. Later, when my grandmother decided she couldn’t take care of her anymore, Grandma Yule went to live in an old age home, that’s what they called them then, and when she turned 99, the local newspaper came and took her picture. In the picture, she is wearing a pink quilted bed jacket and her hair is pinned up, no braid.There is a birthday cake with dozens of candles. I don’t have the picture but I can see it in my mind’s eye.It’s as real as if I was holding it in my hand right this minute.
Is it a bad memory, the memory of your great grandmother in the upstairs bedroom?
No. She seemed content, upstairs in the back bedroom. I don’t know why. Maybe she was glad to be somewhere where she could ring a bell and someone would come help her. Maybe she was used to not complaining. That would make sense considering the times. I don’t know what she thought. She never told me. I never asked.
Are you glad you wrote this?
I think so. Grandma Yule had a life. I need to try to remember it more. She was someone before she was in the upstairs back bedroom. She did other things. I should know what they were.
It occurs to me that if I am washing used tin foil that we probably didn’t save enough for retirement. To say the market dives are worrying me would put it most delicately. Instinctively, as I have every time I’ve hit economic white water, I channel my mother, a woman who grew up in the Great Depression and really knew her way around a sack of potatoes. I bought the $1.00 pasta at Meijer’s today but stopped short of looking for powdered milk, a staple in our house growing up. I can still see it in the cupboard above the refrigerator, the big red and white box with one of those little metal spouts on the side. Sometimes, we mixed it with regular milk but not always. It’s a thin blue brew on its own, like milk Kool-aid. The trick to drinking it was to make sure it was insanely cold, but, just to warn you, that didn’t always work.
My dog, Swirl, ate half of one of my bras the other night, the new one without underwires. Such a cheeky thing to do, just chewing up half, so when I held it up by the end, it looked as if my mother (here she is again) had taken her pinking shears to it. What was it with pinking shears that made it so lovely to cut things? So tidy, I guess. Uniform. Orderly. Anyway, that’s how my bra looks. Pinked.
For the overly responsible among us, please practice President Trump’s extraordinary words from his press conference today because if it’s good enough for the leader of the free world, it’s good enough for you: “I don’t take responsibility at all.” After that, after he’d denied having any responsibility for dismantling the pandemic capacity at the White House or for stymying the deployment of tests so as to not hurt his re-election, after that, he shook hands with all the ‘experts’ in attendance and, what’s more, they let him.
All of Wisconsin’s schools are closed for a month. It’s a wise thing to do but it will bring great difficulty to parents who have to work and have no access to decent child care. And then there’s the issue of food. We have many, many children whose breakfast and lunch are provided at school. School closes, what happens? People will step up, I know. They always do. But it’s a lot harder right now to step up and keep oneself safe.
Speaking of safe, if you know of a shelter, street outreach, or community meal program in your town, show them some love. These are survival resources for people who are homeless. Overnight, these facilities are having to come up with prevention and containment strategies to address COVID-19 with the same staff and volunteers they had last month or last year – no fleets of medical personnel are showing up to relieve them. It takes amazing courage to open a shelter door to a family who may have been exposed to COVID-19. We need to support the folks who keep the doors open. If you’re in Milwaukee, United Way has started a special COVID-19 fund. Please donate. Elsewhere, contact your United Way and ask how you can help.
If you are estranged from a family member, you might not know whether he or she is still alive. This is an odd concept for many of my friends whose families vacation together, babysit each other’s kids, and celebrate every holiday together. Would anyone tell me, I wonder, if my sister died? And what would my reaction be? Assuming I didn’t hear about it months after the fact, would I go to her funeral? Would anyone there know who I was? Would they even know she had a sister?
You see, I come from a long line of family estrangement Olympians. We’re not amateurs here given to snits that last a week or two. Ruptures aren’t measured in months or years but in decades. Children go from diapers to driving cars during our estrangements. People get gray hair and lose their hearing. They change careers and move across the country…
For his entire career, my husband, Howard, has been a white man working in a black neighborhood.
And that’s been kind of a kaleidoscope experience, a lot of realities at play. But he was just himself, an East Coast Jewish man, transplanted to the midwest, with all the sensibilities, street smarts, and imperviousness to criticism inherent in his Philadelphia roots. He was never afraid to just walk right into it, to just take his alien self into a gathering, a neighborhood, a controversy and just stand straight up, his feet planted in his old wingtips, his tie tied just so, sometimes a pocket square, sometimes not, and just be who he was, always looking out for jobs and opportunity for people.
He had every reason to feel uncomfortable and to flee to a safer place, maybe a downtown bank or reinvestment corporation where he could ply his economic development skills without, you know, having to mingle with the masses, but that apparently never occurred to him.
He was never a big campaigner about race. He was never one to be embarrassed about his white privilege; he never held back on what he saw that was wrong because it might have had a racial dimension. He just focused on work that would create jobs. Every day was about jobs – how could he convince companies not to leave a hard neighborhood? How could he encourage companies to relocate from the suburbs to Milwaukee’s central city?
So, two months ago, he left the organization he founded 37 years ago. He gave his staff Christmas week off and he walked out of the place he loved without telling anyone it was his last day. Better that way. He’s been hunkered down here at home ever since – starting work on a book and fixing the things in the house that have waited their turn for 37 years.
Last night, though, the fading off into the sunset ceased. There was a wonderful retirement party for him at the Brewers Miller Park – probably 200 or more people – with lots of proclamations and funny stories. Posters and scrolling photos from the past. Friends he hadn’t seen in years, colleagues sorry to see him go. And a crowd that was half white and half black.
I looked around and thought – this doesn’t happen very much in this hyper-segregated city where people have to keep score at every gathering that there are enough of the “other” to pass muster. It doesn’t happen that you just put out a call for the friends and colleagues of a guy and the resulting crowd is so effortlessly and unconsciously black and white, each one with a story about Howard.
About how he questioned them, challenged them, turned them down, made phone calls for them, hired them, mentored them, told them to come back another time, complained to them, lobbied them, joked with them, educated them, and inspired them. Black and white.
It was a sight to see, I’ll tell you that. Like how a farmer must feel on harvest day with the wheat glowing in the sun. He did a good job, a very good job. The best of all jobs. I didn’t always see it while it was happening but I sure see it now.