Weekly column, Berkshire Eagle
Monday February 18, 2013
A few wishes
from the land
Sometimes, a bit of Camelot would be a fine thing. Not all that kingly nonsense about a legal limit on how much snow may fall, but just a few Camelotty things like rain holding off till after sundown. That would lift the spirits of humans and newly transplanted lettuces alike -- most everyone, in fact, except for people on the lawn at Tanglewood, would go for night-rain only.
It matters little when the fog lifts here since it’s rarely so thick that it’s dangerous. King Arthur wanted fog only at night – we’d actually prefer it in the daytime. Coming back from Amherst one night, with a visiting Russian journalist in the car, we were suddenly enclosed in the dense fog of Route 9 at the top of Windsor.
“Pea soup,” I said, and he said, “What?” So I tried my best to explain that silly idiom. The thick part was easy, but why green? He didn’t know and certainly I didn’t, either. Then he wondered if I could navigate the pea soup. We made it.
BULLET HERE PLS
Camelot had its beautiful moments, even when a variety of human appetites threatened to storm the castle. My smallish Camelot would have a law against a glassy driveway, gleaming with scary ice. You can leave the car in the garage, but you can’t tell the Sheltie that his morning outings are no go. At least he’s polite enough to take it easy, taking his cue from the unaccustomed ski pole and the inching-along gait on the other end of the leash.
Lots of people would like Camelot’s law about winter exiting “March the second on the dot,” but not me. When March runs away too early, the shoulder season is mush and mud, bad for skiing, for walking, for driving, for looking out the window.
My Camelot would have lots of eggs but no chickens, more fields than lawns, landscaping on the moonscape that now surrounds the Pittsfield “Municipal” Airport. (The quotation marks indicate that it’s not much like other municipal things – you can use most of them, but the airport is more exclusive than the Pittsfield Country Club was in days gone by.
A hoary redpoll would show up among the 50 or so common redpolls in our yard if this were Camelot. I’d even settle for a pine siskin, but so far these flighty adorable birds are keeping their own company. Something about the red cap and the black chin strap gives them a bit of a frown, but they chatter cheerfully.
My Camelot would have a Fed Ex delivery person who rings the doorbell. A knock won’t be heard over the TV or in the far reaches of the house. But the doorbell goes everywhere. A Valentine box of flowers and a box of ripe plums nearly came to grief because the bell did not toll for us.
A single sheet – well, maybe both sides – for tax returns would be the legal limit in my Camelot. Just put down the income, list the allowed deductions, multiply – and pay. And sign a pledge that you’ve told the truth.
A bit of Camelot would mean no bad hair days, no cavities and no three-putt greens. It would mean those marvelous snowdrops not buried in snow and a brave daffodil or two by mid-March.
If we were touched by just a smidge of Camelot, the summer rains would slide over instead of through the driveway, a pileated woodpecker would pause on our fence post, the maple trees would shed all their leaves in a pile, the bluebirds would again approve our housing, and no one we know would get shingles.
As for finding a “more congenial spot” for all of this, the king had it quite wrong. We have the Berkshires, and we’re pretty sure it’s as congenial a spot as any, real or fantastical.
Ruth Bass mows maple leaves and monitors bluebirds in Richmond.
Home or away,
Perhaps since time began, the term “working mother” has meant a woman who has children and a paying job. The phrase was never intended to denigrate those women who focused on home and raising children. What is true, in the midst of what is close to an absurd “issue,” is that some “working mothers” would give their right arm to stay home with the kids and others would give their right arm to not stay at home with the kids.
Both kinds of mothers can bring up great kids, and both kinds can fail miserably. So when the stay-at-home trumpets the success of her offspring, it’s ridiculous. Having a job doesn’t make or break a marriage or a kid, nor does staying home guarantee virtue all around.
Amazingly, with all that women have achieved in recent decades, many still don’t accept that it’s fine to stay home or it’s fine to work. Some of these (Lucy would call them blockheads) are men, like the Richmond town official who once remarked that we didn’t need to pay market rates to the town treasurer and tax collector because these were pin money jobs for women. (But they were expected to perform as professionally as if they were in the marketplace.)
Remarkably, some of the naysayers are women, like the prominent local resident, gainfully employed outside her home, who scornfully asked at a public meeting, “What do those women who stay home do all day?” One thing they do is drive the car pools that take working mothers’ children to after-school activities.
They are also volunteers. Professional women may pitch in, but the stay-at-home mom is far more likely to be involved not only at school but in a host of other community activities. More working moms may be one reason we have trouble finding volunteers these days.
Just before our first baby arrived, I quit my job, knowing I was the appointed caregiver. It was upsetting. I didn’t even know this small person, and I was giving up a career I loved so I could feed him, bathe him, change his diapers, accept the fact that it would be months before he talked to me – and hope five o’clock would come quickly so I’d have an adult to talk to.
It turned out to be a fine experience, certainly enhanced by the fact that I quickly became a free-lancer who could work at home. That baby must have wondered why the other women in his life weren’t attached to typewriters. His mother was. Later on, when I had to be away from home free-lancing, it was obvious that some of the stay-at-homes were clucking a bit with disapproval.
BULLET HERE PLS
We have a long way to go, not just on the equal pay issue, before women will be properly recognized for what they do in either milieu – at work or at home. The mother who is at home “don’t get no respect,” as Rodney Dangerfield used to say. And the mother in the workplace, who still has to field calls about problems her offspring are having, may put up with a lot of junk from the unmarried professional females around her.
What a stay-at-home mother deals with all day is what working mothers have to handle after their work day. And in many workplaces, no quarter is given for issues that may arise on the home front. Both have pressure cooker days, but the stay-at-home mother has little fear that a mistake will get her fired.
I’ve stood in both places and in between. None of it was simple, especially when a 40-hour job came along and the family had the crazy idea that mom would be gone all day, but nothing would change in their lives.
That’s ages ago. In the meantime, we apparently haven’t gained much in the way of respect for our decisions. It’s not an “us and them” thing. It’s we.
Ruth Bass, a former Eagle Sunday editor, is author of two historical novels.
Column for January 26, 2009
Lots of people say they can’t cook, which either means they won’t, they don’t want to, they are afraid to, or they can’t follow directions. Reading is the basic talent needed for cooking, and if a translator is present, even those too young to read can cook.
For children, it can be not only fun but one of those things that fills up the part of the day when everyone is a little tired and a lot hungry. The most inventive cook among our offspring is the one who was rolling meatballs at the age of three, basically because of a need to fill the time before lunch and a nap.
Making meatballs isn’t all that far from making mud pies – nicely messy and absorbing – and far more productive. Her next major foray into cooking was making Christmas cookies with a babysitter, who probably had a similar need to use up a quantity of time and also achieve something.
To this day, the increasingly inventive cookies are turned out every December –from traditional gingerbread boys and girls to wreaths, dreidels and stars, each painted or frosted or decorated with the hard silver balls that she favors and that we all remove so we won’t break our teeth.
The grandchildren have stirred a thousand batches of pancakes here and during the annual Cape Cod vacation. They graduated from standing on a chair to needing only a stool, to being tall enough to reach. After a number of admonitions, they learned to hold the bowl with one hand and the whisk with the other. They moved from mere stirring to measuring to – sometimes with parental disapproval – to cracking the eggs (and immediately washing their hands).
Some have made whipped cream. Some have made brownies or the time-consuming meatballs. One made strawberry jam, then labeled Sam’s Jam, almost as good a marketing name as being a Smucker. With all this, it was no surprise in November when one of them accepted an invitation to help prepare chicken at our son’s house. Minutes later, Emily joined Summer, and we formed an assembly line.
After the chicken was pounded into submission, the girls coated the pieces with flour, dipped them in beaten egg, then into bread crumbs. Fingers thick with eggy crumbs, they transferred the cutlets to the pan.
Back home, Summer announced that she could make Chicken Milanese now, and when could they get the ingredients. From memory, she took her mother through the process and produced the dish. Time-consuming, not difficult, messy, delicious.
Then Emily became chief assistant for the same dish on New Year’s Eve at her house. And Summer wanted another round at the other end of Connecticut, which is when Max, previously a mere pancake maker, wanted to help. His sister, known to be a little imperious at times, said, “Max, you have to learn from Grandma first.” She shut him out totally, moving his mother to ask when he might serve his apprenticeship.
The dish is a tradition at my husband’s birthday, something that goes back to the memorable day when he and Don Miller, late publisher of The Berkshire Eagle, were introduced to it at Alfredo’s in Rome.
They were served by Alfredo himself, the very man who made Fettuccine Alfredo a household word and who tossed the Americans’ introduction to cheesy noodles with golden utensils given him by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
We just toss ours in the pan they were cooked in and heap all the chicken and fettuccine on a big platter so everyone can get at it. But everyone knows the story of when Chicken Milanese was introduced to the patriarch.
So in mid-January, there was Max, dipping chicken in flour and egg, periodically running off to get the goo off his hands and start over again. There was Summer, managing to get out of doing the sticky part but tall enough to turn the pieces in the skillet.
At one time, it took longer to make anything if the grandchildren insisted on helping. Now they make things more efficient.
But little Hannah is coming – she’s not yet two, but she’s observant. Whenever the kitchen counter is uninhabited, she pushes the step stool over and climbs up to look around.
She’ll be wanting her fingers on the whisk soon. As for me, I’m thinking of introducing the big kids to knives, now that their parents have stopped fussing about the cracking of eggs.
Column on patriotism, November 3, 2008
We fly the flag. It’s not a conservative flag. It’s not a liberal flag. It commemorates forever the courage of thirteen colonies who chose freedom over a king’s rule, and it has 50 identical stars to represent 50 non-identical states. The flag is American. It’s patriotic.
We’re patriotic. Liberals are patriotic. Conservatives are patriotic. Women are patriotic, feminist or traditional. Evangelicals are patriotic, along with American atheists, agnostics, Catholics, Congregationalists, Hindus and Zoroastrians.
Patriotic Americans come in all sizes and colors, from many countries and cultures, from poverty and from wealth. Trying to define them politically is nonsense. Being a patriot means believing in the nation, and that belief will engender a variety of visions for the country.
While still known for generosity to those in need, at home and far from home, we have somehow lost our sense of generosity toward each other.
Differences of opinion do not define patriotism. It is OK to be against a war. It is OK to be pro-choice or anti-abortion. It is all right to be for or against gun ownership, stem cell research, the death penalty, gay marriage or regulation of corporations.
These are matters for debate, not pillars of patriotism.
Under the banner of unpatriotic are things like bigotry, hatred, misogyny, greed or outright treason, as in the Benedict Arnold tradition. It’s worth remembering that in Canada, statues honor Arnold, making clear that one country’s traitor is another’s hero.
“We patriotic Americans,” our Texas nephew started to say, a number of years ago, after he had delivered a long diatribe that pretty much indicted everyone in the northeastern United States. We had listened politely, New Englanders taught not to raise prickly subjects at the Sunday dinner table, but that phrase tore it.
My usually mind-mannered husband, a World War II veteran who pushed through Holland, Belgium and Germany at an ugly and dangerous time, abandoned Emily Post and made it very clear that all patriots do not live in Texas. When he was finished, it was a few silent seconds before we could comfortably get back to the superb potato salad.
The man who married one of my aunts was a World War II conscientious objector. That didn’t mean he wasn’t patriotic, although some members of the family seemed dismayed. He was morally against killing people for any reason. So he took on whatever the government wanted him to do and was never forced to carry a gun.
Sometime during the Vietnam War, a visiting friend was stunned that an American flag was attached to our split rail fence. She had been taken in by the idea that the flag belonged to the hawks, and she was worried we had turned into warrior birds.
“It’s our flag, too,” my husband reminded her. “I won’t let anyone take it away from me.”
The hawks tried to brand those who objected to the Vietnam War as anti-American and themselves as patriots, defenders of the flag. But whenever the nation absorbs itself in the “I’m a patriot, you are anti-American” thing, it gets nasty, with those claiming exclusive rights to the term creating a situation not far above the level of a playground fight or a game of King of the Hill. Whoever shouts the loudest or who has the most strength at the moment prevails, only to be toppled another day.
If the discussion were more elevated, people could think about what it means to love one’s country and recognize that it’s not the same thing to everyone, any more than it was for my uncle who chose a hard road during what many choose to call “the good war.”
Despite swift boats, nephews and present-day naysayers, there’s nothing in the word patriot that puts it in the conservative or liberal column. A patriot can be either. It is shameful in a country that boasts of free speech that we have patriotic souls who have no space for anyone who doesn’t agree with their political agenda.
Like my parents and grandparents, we fly the flag. With the help of our incomparable neighbor Roy Rawson, we eventually installed a real flag pole and held a special ceremony when it was ready, complete with a somewhat astonished girl who was here for a sleepover, a daughter playing the clarinet and a Shetland sheep dog sitting at attention as the flag rose for the first time. It was a very American scene, both solemn and funny.
To keep that banner waving, America’s patriots – a motley crew – must vote tomorrow. Patriots vote – and pay their taxes.
Column for Monday March 30
The patient on “Grey’s Anatomy” the other night didn’t want to go under anesthesia until the surgeon gave her verbal reassurance, some specific words that would let her believe everything was going to go right. Since the surgeon was the pointedly cool Christina Yang, the patient had to plead – but Yang heard and provided what no pill or clinical description can give.
No one ever had to beg Hazel Dickson, Richmond nurse par excellence, for reassurance. It came as naturally to her as breathing, and two towns basked in the combination of her earnest caring and her optimism for many, many years. Her death recently, at the age of 92, must have touched off personal memories for hundreds of people in Richmond and West Stockbridge – and many who have moved away.
It was Hazel who explained to us that it didn’t matter whether we had a pediatrician of our own or not -- we still could (and she gently implied that we should) have our offspring examined by Dr. Tom Hayden at school. This wasn’t a service for children who couldn’t afford a doctor – it was for everyone.
And so they went to well-child conferences, and we found she was right. We loved hearing a second opinion, even if we didn’t need it, and we came to call the annual adventure the wild-child conference, peaceful though it actually was.
You’ll want to see the dentist, too, Hazel said, and my husband muttered something about this Republican town we lived in having socialized medicine and not even knowing it. But we sent the kids to the school dentist and to our own. Did they mind? Heavens, no. They’d have minded if they were the only ones in the class left out of the process.
For Hazel, multitasking came naturally, too. She was simultaneously school nurse, the town nurse, administrator, fund-raiser and the idea person. She coped with patients, school kids, teachers, a board of directors and townspeople at large. (She also found time for her church, her home and her family.)
Perhaps she didn’t like all the changes Medicare imposed on the agency, but she certainly liked creating change so CHA could evolve and keep up. Thinking that too many residents were not getting eye exams, for instance, she persuaded a leading Pittsfield ophthalmologist to spend a Saturday morning in Richmond doing glaucoma tests – free.
Certainly Hazel would have liked all the eyes to be perfect, but she could not help being pleased when a problem was uncovered and thus was en route to being treated or fixed. After the success of the glaucoma tests, the Richmond Health Fair for adults was born.
Dozens of doctors and nurses, many of them town residents, were persuaded to give their time on a Saturday morning. Huge numbers of volunteers were recruited by members of the town committees, and the only problem was that most of the slots were overstaffed, something volunteer seekers today can only wish for. But people then figured if it was a CHA event and Hazel Dickson wanted help, they’d be there. It was hard to say no to her.
The agenda included blood profiles, breast exams, Pap smears, tetanus shots, eye exams and hearing tests, among others. Health agencies set up booths and discussed all kinds of health issues with the visitors. And the turnout for the area’s first health fair showed that if you tested it, they would come, especially since no money changed hands. Everything was free.
It would be fair to note that Hazel tended to bustle about nervously when these major events were getting under way, but she kept smiling and didn’t admit aloud that she had any doubts about the mission at hand, even the periodic inspections from the Medicare people, who for some reason spent more hours at the Richmond office than at Berkshire Medical Center. It’s also fair to note that she could dig her heels in when she felt strongly about something.
Small wonder that so many smiled with pleasure on hearing that Hazel had traveled across the country at the age of 90. Some of us remember her as the nurse who put a Band-Aid on a skinned knee at school, some as the competent professional who changed a dressing for a patient at home. We trusted her work and warmed to her compassion, realizing her nursing came from both mind and heart.
Cure? Sometimes. Reassure? Every time. Gone? Yes. Forgotten? Not likely.