Monday, November 9, 2020

My Grandmother and Strong Women as Role Models


I knew her as Nanny, that most British of words for grandmother. She immigrated to Pennsylvania from Manchester, England in the early 20th century. I have no diaries, no records, just sepia-toned photographs of a woman with pale brown hair, ebony beads and eyes which remind me of my own. 

This week I encourage you to remember and write about that strong woman in your life, the woman who made a difference in who you are today. Maybe read your story and hers to another, share it together.

For me, one woman comes to mind. My grandmother, Annie Beatrice Dean Weidener. Her influence was indirect. She died when I was five. But I know this. Nanny defied expectations, a woman fearless enough to cross a vast ocean and start a new life in Pennsylvania, whose wooded green spaces reminded her of England. She was the influence who made my father a man who believed that a woman could, and should, have every right to success as a man. She is the reason, as the daughter of an enlightened father, I married a man who believed in me and loved me unconditionally—who boasted about my accomplishments to anyone who would listen and encouraged me to be strong. I never could have married any less of a man than John. 

Role models offer a template for accomplishment, fortitude and bravery. Through my work as a journalist and writing teacher and author, I've met many strong women. Women who ran school districts, wrote books and traveled extensively to help the poor, the disenfranchised. I interviewed the first woman ordained as an Episcopal priest ... a grieving mother who started a nonprofit after the death of her child from a rare disease. Role models shape us in a way that we, too, can become role models.

Maybe Nanny was proof to me, in my own family, that woman can defy the odds, or, perhaps, as her only granddaughter, I romanticize her story. I view my grandmother as an early-day feminist, supporting herself and running a small business. Although I grew up in an era where women would not see the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and would endure the defeat of the most experienced presidential candidate in modern history because she was a woman, I see progress. Against the roar of a thousand voices saying ‘no’ and an even louder roar saying ‘yes’, we have a female vice president. 

Nanny married my grandfather Andrew Weidener and bore her only child, a son, my father, also named Andrew. I vaguely remember her brick twin house on Maplewood Avenue in the Germantown section of Philadelphia ... the lace doilies on the pie-crust mahogany table in her sitting room with a view of rhododendron and azaleas. In my mind’s eyes, I see china tea cups decorated with roses and a tabby cat purring on the windowsill. She crossed the Atlantic with her aunt, a woman who never married. Her name was Mary and she also helped raise my father. 

My grandfather, Nanny’s husband, traveled as a salesman and left home for long stretches. Stress and cigarettes killed him at fifty-nine. Nanny raised her son and after her husband died took in boarders. She had to earn a living. She taught my father to believe that a woman can survive on her own; a lesson he bequeathed to me.


As a final postscript: When Nanny was about to come and live with my parents, she met a man named Jones, a widower, who lived on Maplewood Avenue. She was seventy-four. He courted her. He proposed. She said 'yes'. Shortly after they announced their engagement, my grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Dad held her hand when she died.

When people ask if there is one person you could have dinner with—living or dead—I think of Nanny. Had she found happiness with Mr. Jones or was she simply tired of being alone? Had she, against all the odds, discovered love right around the corner, a companion to admire and comfort her in old age? I imagine us laughing about life and love and the trials and triumphs of widowhood, sipping lemon-flavored tea in rose teacups, her cats purring on the windowsill in the house on Maplewood Avenue. 


How about you? Can you share a memory of a female role model, a strong woman who helped shape you?

Friday, October 30, 2020

A Woman Alone in 'Where the Crawdads Sing'


The premise of a girl living alone in the marshes along a North Carolina seaside town didn't motivate me to want to read Where the Crawdads Sing. Then, like many, with pandemic life upon us and ample time to read, after weeks of being on the wait list I was able to borrow it through the library. I wanted to understand how one book, a first novel written by a woman in her late sixties, had remained on the bestseller list for over a year. Now I know.


I found the novel a surprisingly beautiful read. The evocative descriptions Delia Owens, an award-winning nature writer, entwines throughout every scene envelops the reader. The intricate and programmed dance of nature and its species, including us humans, makes for an educational and moving page turner. This description, for example, of hummingbirds offers spiritual moments: “Ordinary light is shattered by microscopic prisms in the feathers of hummingbirds, creating the iridescence of its golden-red throat." 

While the plot never could have worked in the present day due to the Internet and the ability to Google people and learn their whereabouts, it was a relief to be taken back to a simpler time. Owens sets her story in the 1950s and 1960s. Kya, the main character, has been abandoned by her parents and siblings and learns to live alone, first as a child then a young woman. The unfolding tale of a woman whose constant companion, other than birds and tidal rhythms, is loneliness was poignant and timely. 

Despised by the people of her village as “marsh trash”, except for Jumpin’ Jack and Mabel, who live in “colored town,” Kya confronts deep-seated discrimination and shunning. Her one friend, Tate, the man she comes to love, but who betrays her trust, teaches her to read and mentors her growing talent to understand, paint and write of the marsh.


The plot centers around an unsolved murder of the town’s football hero, Chase Andrews, which the Marsh Girl is ultimately accused of committing. Here’s where every woman can identify with the ‘heart is a lonely hunter’ theme of loneliness and longing for romance and love. Too bad that Chase is a liar and a womanizer, especially when he runs into a formidable female like Kya who he uses and then casts aside as so much trash. Whether he loves her or is merely infatuated with her, is not the point. She's not ever going to be allowed into his inner circle of  'respectable' society. The reader is tipped off early that this is a woman’s story of revenge when Owens writes about the female firefly’s changing signals given to the male firefly, first to lure them in and then eat them. “The females got what they wanted—first a mate, then a meal—just by changing their signals.”

The author has more to say about men and their nature. She writes of the alpha males and the weaker males who linger around the edges hoping for the scraps (females) he leaves behind. In the case of bullfrogs, “they parade their smaller forms around in pumped-up postures or shout frequently—even if in shrill voices ... pint-sized bullfrogs in the grass hide near an alpha male who is croaking with great gusto to call in mates. By relying on pretense and false signals, they manage to grab a copulation here or there.”

Of the male peacock, Owens writes: “Over eons of time, the males’ feathers got larger and larger to attract females, till the point the males can barely lift off the ground. Can’t hardly fly anymore.”  The narcissism of the male is unmistakable.

The ending to Where the Crawdads Sing is unsurprising considering what we know about Kya. She is the wildest of the wild ... of that place where the crawdads sing. The story couldn’t have ended any other way since this novel is ultimately, at least to this reader, tribute to a woman alone. A  woman scorned, who treads carefully after rejection and abandonment, a woman who is no man’s fool, who takes no prisoners in her quest to survive. It is what it is. “Judgement,” the author writes, “had no place here. Evil was not in play, just life pulsing on, even at the expense of some of the players. Biology sees right and wrong as the same color in different light.”


Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Zoom Calls Us To a 'Dark Winter' Of Despair

A rainy day, crows caw and a damp chill steeps the last Tuesday in October with dreariness. This weekend we push the clocks back an hour. A dark winter lies ahead. That's what we hear, anyway. Poets have written about winters of despair. In “Snowdrops” Louise Gluck writes:

Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you

I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light

of earliest spring–

afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy

in the raw wind of the new world. 


(Two weeks ago the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Louise Gluck. She received it “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”)



In “the raw wind of the new world" we're now living, a world none of us has ever before lived, the news media tells us one in four young adults has considered the possibility of suicide. A friend recently returned from visiting a loved one at the hospital where nurses say they have been overwhelmed by people incapacitated from drug and alcohol abuse. Still, I believe that with a purpose to our days, making the small moments count, we stay sane and healthy. The ordinary days infused with a touch, a smile, lunch with a friend ....



I appeared on a local author’s Zoom call organized by the library. It was the first time this year I had the chance to connect with my readers, other than through this blog, which is why I accepted the invitation. As I talked on Zoom to those little squares of faces listening to me share my thoughts about writing fiction and memoir, I noticed that my eyeglasses looked like headlights. They had caught the reflection from my dining room chandelier. I hadn't been prepared for my eyeglasses looking like headlights. Had it distracted my listeners, few as they were? Looking back, it was actually pretty funny. I’d show you a picture of me with the headlights for eyes but the librarian forgot to tape the interview, which is just as well.

Fire up the laptop. Hop on Zoom. Talk to your doctor and financial advisor on Zoom. (Unfortunately, Zoom spelled the ruination of legal analyst, author and journalist Jeffrey Toobin's career.)

The church I attend apparently received a grant to install audio equipment and cameras in the sanctuary to expand its Sunday Facebook audience. Maybe this is the way it will go now, I think. This is how we find God. Online. No one has to dress the kids for Sunday School. The memory returns ... him and me teaching Bible Study to preschoolers in a sunlit room with crayon-colored pictures of Jesus surrounded by children taped to the walls. At the church, Zoom is the preferred method to discuss the pressing issue of racism as it relates to our spiritual journey.

Writing allows us to make “individual existence universal.” It offers intimacy with others through sharing our stories. Our stories form a collective. We experience much the same. We are in this together.

The acknowledgement in Gluck's poem is that we all experience despair. It's what we do with that, what we learn from it and how we survive, despite it, that tells our story. When this is over, will we take the risk to 'open again'? Will we survive the 'raw wind of the new world' and find the intimacy that brings joy?

Monday, October 12, 2020

Memories of John and Writing As a Passionate Lover


Yellow roses in a Lenox vase that once belonged to my parents grace my kitchen table. Thirty-seven Octobers ago, John brought me a dozen yellow roses when our son, Alex, was born. He entered my hospital room wearing turquoise-tinted aviator sunglasses. The world was ours. 

It was twenty-six years ago today, Columbus Day, that John died after his grueling and his inspiring battle with colon cancer. His bravery born out of soldiering at West Point serves as my template for honor and resilience. John gave all he had to give to me and the boys until he drew his last breath.

In his honor, I watched Casablanca, John’s favorite movie, last night. "As Time Goes By" was our wedding song. We danced as if there were no tomorrows. We danced with the abandon and the greed of true love, throwing all cares to the wind. “Here’s looking at you, kid,” as John used to say to me.

I write this in my office with its view of a maple tree slowly turning crimson. It evokes memories of years past. Its trunk dappled with gray and green age spots, the tree is no longer the scrawny sapling when John and I bought this house, thirty-two years ago.  I have lived without him now for twenty-six Octobers. As I wrote in my memoir, despite it all, I would journey with him again in a heartbeat. 

***

I love movies. Last week I watched Phantom of the Opera. A story of passionate love set in the Paris opera of the 19th century, its passion and grief expressed in moving melodies and lyrics remind us of what we all want and need—love and a creative life to hold close like a prayer. I took my sons, Alex and Daniel, when they were little boys to the Philadelphia Academy of Music to see Phantom. I still remember the glass chandelier swinging across the stage to the delighted screams of the audience, and while the boys grumbled at the time that they didn't want to go to the theater, they tell me their memory of that night remains with them to this day.

My favorite scene in the movie is when Christine falls against the Phantom. As his fingers linger over her throat and breast, she swoons with eyes closed, red rose tucked behind her ear. Together they sing “The Point of No Return. 

The games we've played are at an end.
Till now are at
An end...
Past all thought
Of "if" or "when" -
No use resisting:
Abandon thought
And let the dream
Descend...


Writing is a passionate lover. It demands. It exacts beyond the point of no return. Those of us who write, know this. We know there's no resisting it, that it's as necessary as breathing. It allows me to remember my childhood bedroom with its pale green walls and windchimes tied to window latches. It holds in its grasp intricate memories of the man who walked into my hospital room with the turquoise sunglasses and an armful of yellow roses, who I always knew would make a wonderful father, and who was. Writing's calming presence caresses me with reflection and dreams of new possibilities, a new journey … of John who still walks beside me, now as I write this.


Alex and me and John 


Say you'll share with
Me one
Love, one lifetime...
Lead me, save me
From my solitude...

Say you want me
With you,
Here beside you...
Anywhere you go
Let me go too -

Monday, September 28, 2020

Reflections on Aging, Women and Cinderella's Pumpkin


Several years ago I began writing a story about a woman alone. It never occurred to me that a pandemic might make its title and subject more prescient than ever. The story was about an older woman living alone for the first time in almost forty years—a way to sort through my own jumbled thoughts about this business of women and aging. Here she was, an empty nester, looking back on her life and her choices, while wondering if she was one of those “widows” so often captured in novels—old women with their dogs or cats in a “lonely” house. 

As I wrote, I realized how many of us live solo. According to the Wall Street Journal, “35.7 million Americans live alone, 28% of households. That is up from 13% of households in 1960 and 23% in 1980, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Delayed or foregone marriage, long life expectancy, urbanization and wealth have contributed, demographers say.”  

Women tend to live longer than men. And for many older women there was joy in having our “own castle”. The trope of the old widowed woman in a cluttered dirty house smelling of dogs, had become not just antiquated, but laughable.

Yesterday I bought two pots of bright yellow mums and planted them along my walkway. I bought a white pumpkin, too. “Oh, you’re like Cinderella with her white pumpkin,” the lady at the store enthused. I gave up on the glass slipper, the white carriage and Prince Charming long ago, but not so much the fairy godmother. Although no magic wand is going to make me thirty years younger, I am still a romantic at heart, a believer in the possibility that when you least expect it, magic shows up on your doorstep in one form or another. It gives me courage and hope.


Poof! I can go out West for three months or stay home. All it takes is a will and a way.  Years ago, I learned the value of slowing down, taking your time and thinking things through. I’m lucky because I don’t have to work. Still, I do my own grocery shopping, clean my own house, attend to my finances. There is satisfaction in scrubbing down the kitchen, cleaning out closets. I prove my own resilience on a daily basis. There is satisfaction, too, in raking leaves in the backyard and watching my dog Lily roll with abandon in the grass. My friends and I do what we can. We meet in twos or threes in the park and social distance at a park bench as we read our stories. We talk on the phone for hours. We take long walks and share moments of our days.

As I once wrote here on this blog: The single woman's journey and the writer's parallel each other. We have confronted the difficult, the complex, the unspoken in polite company. A solitary and independent breed, we also identify with the collective journey; the need to give each other assistance.



Still, loneliness is real, it’s acute. Wearing masks, when we finally did emerge from lockdown, didn’t lend itself to animated conversations or seeing that smile, although maybe the twinkle in the eye. Aging is real too. I know because with temperature checks at the dentist and at church, my body temperature hovers between 95 and 97.8 degrees. I read that lower body temperature has to do with losing muscle and fat as we age. Fortunately, it's normal and nothing to worry about.

I enjoy the first cup of coffee in the quiet of the morning with no distractions. I enjoy making dinner when I want and preparing what I want. I enjoy stretching out on the sofa in the afternoon with a good book, knowing I don’t have to be anywhere or deal with anyone. 

As always, writing saves me. As always, reaching out by sharing my story saves me. As always, making a connection with you saves me. I hear my voice echoing in the chamber of my own quiet space. Trust your intuition, it says. Trust that the narrative is yours to create. Keep writing ... and poof!

“I write because I am alone and move through the world alone. No one will know what has passed through me ... I write because there are stories that people have forgotten to tell, because I am a woman trying to stand up in my life ... I write out of hurt and how to make hurt okay; how to make myself strong and come home, and it may be the only real home I'll ever have.” ~ Natalie Goldberg, American author. 





Monday, September 14, 2020

On Beach Vacation, I Dream of Him—A Journal






Friday, September 11

When morning comes, a gold light suffused with scent of salt water greets me. The muffled  roar of ocean sounds just beyond the cottage on Seagull Way where I vacation for a week. 

It was never supposed to be like this, I think. This being alone on a beach vacation on a barrier island in the Atlantic. Last night winds whistled and thunder boomed. Nicknamed the Graveyard of the Atlantic, the Outer Banks in North Carolina is a stormy treacherous meeting place of southern and northern winds and water that shipwrecked many. 


I deserved to be with him today. It's his birthday, September, 11. He deserved to be here, taking in this time and place—surf and sky, calm now. I shake the feeling of wondering the impossible.


I sip my coffee on the deck. The news on my cellphone is more the same. Fires raging out West. A virus out of control. Riots in the streets. When people belittle and scorn each other, everyone—and everything—is corrupted.

I finish my coffee and slip on bathing suit and shorts, glance at the woman in the mirror. Not young anymore, but not bad. Oh well. Maybe when I get home, I'll join a dating site, forestall the loneliness, although how lonely is it to meet a stranger for coffee?

It’s a short walk to the beach, up a sandy path, across a golden windswept dune. Crashing waves with curled silver manes inspire the poet's muse. Although no poet, I find journaling therapeutic and the thoughts written here come to me later when I want to write, not when I feel forced to write. 

A couple strolls the water's edge, holds hands. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. He wasn’t supposed to die. I wasn’t supposed to be alone. I dream of a strong man in my bed. I dream of him, walking the beach.



I walk toward the shore. Swirling around my ankles like a rite of redemption, the riptide's surprising force pulls at my legs, my toes dig in deep to keep me from falling. I breathe in where sky meets sea. It is suddenly very warm. Where have the years gone? This is my vacation, my beach vacation. I let it all go.


Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Pandemic Pause: A Writer Muses Time and Choices

Fall has always been a harbinger of new beginnings, a fresh slate. Schools reopen, churches return to normal services, community craft fairs and fundraisers abound. But this is pandemic life and for many of us this fall portends a continuation of staying home and limiting travel and activities. What to do with all this newfound time? As J.R.R. Tolkien wrote: "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us." In this post, writer Marilyn Gilpin muses her choices when the 'cosmic pause button' is pressed. Please welcome Marilyn back to the Women's Writing Circle.

***

There have been times in my life when I wished for a “pause” button. Even before there was such a thing. Sometimes, I felt overwhelmed by life, responsibilities, deadlines. I needed time to catch up. 


This was especially true in college. There were always papers to write. Projects to complete. Rehearsals, exams, classes, campus job. There was never a moment when nothing was due. I wanted to stop the world for a little while until I finished a few things. I pleaded with the universe:

“Just let me finish this report before I get a new assignment.”

“Just let me memorize my lines before the next rehearsal.”

“Just let me pass this test before I have to start on that project.” 


After college, there were other pressing matters. Work always got in the way of the important stuff. I have several bookcases filled with hundreds of books that I haven’t read. When will I ever get the time?

Many years ago, I started a list of films that I missed when they were in the theatre that I hoped to catch when they came on television. That list is now a dozen pages long. How will I ever see them all?

Suddenly, the cosmic pause button is pressed.

Stop.

Right.

Now.

I cancel all vacations, trips, theatre and concert tickets, outings, luncheons. I can’t go anywhere. 



The world has stopped. There are no appointments, no deadlines.

Breathe.

Rest.

Be.

I should be thrilled, right?

Well, yes I am.

But I am overwhelmed again. Too much free time. Too many choices.

Which of my 639 books to read first?

Which of 297 films on my list to watch tonight?

The cosmic voice says: JUST PICK ONE!

What are you choosing now that time is on your hands?


Marilyn Gilpin has been an avid reader and writer for as long as she can remember. Some of her pieces have been published in The New Sweetwater Reporter, the newsletter for East Nantmeal Township in Chester County, Pennsylvania. She is a passionate gardener, theatre lover, and student of piano and has contributed to numerous Women's Writing Circle read arounds. So far, Marilyn has made some progress on her lists: she has watched Hidden Figures, and her reading has included two classics – East of Eden (John Steinbeck) and A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving). Contemporary works include Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and A Marriage Story by novelist Tayari Jones. She lives in Glenmoore, Pennsylvania with her husband, Michael, his many guitars and their four cocker spaniels. 

(Photos courtesy of Marilyn Gilpin.)