Stuck in my house since March due to the pandemic, I now write short essays and letters instead of major 50,000 word pieces. I think short pieces are easier to follow, and from letters I seek understanding.
Last year, I completed a document detailing my experience being treated for lymphoma. Now I hate to remind myself about anything to do with that. I can’t look at the piece. It sits in my computer, like a sulking neglected child. It cries to me and makes demands, but I resolutely ignore it.
Instead, I started a blog. I also write letters to my grandchildren. These are actual paper letters, written by hand, placed in an envelope with a stamp, and delivered by the post office. Remember what those are?
Last week I received my first response, from my fourteen- year- old granddaughter. She writes, “It’s been forever since I’ve had to write a letter. Emails just aren’t the same.”
What a clever girl!!
She can write, and her handwriting is less cursive and much easier to decipher than mine. My writing is cursive destroyed by years of practice and annoyance at how long it takes to put my brain on paper. After all, there’s much more in my head than a few written words can say.
When I started my essay about lymphoma, I thought about my own personal history. For my generation, major events were communicated by letter. People understood what was happening from letters. I guess that’s why I write to grandchildren.
Understanding Letters and Family History
For example, in my family, letters went back and forth constantly. My mother lived in New York City, as did two sisters and three brothers. Two more sisters and a brother lived in Richmond, Virginia. My two aunts from Virginia came to visit every year when my grandfather was alive. They took the train and spent their time on board playing canasta, evidently with numerous other people taking the same trip. Always arriving with pockets full of cash and newly minted silver dollars which they used for gifts to the children, they came with stories, gossip, and jokes. The rest of the year, they exchanged letters with the New York family.
My mother wrote her letters using Hebraic letters, but they were not in Yiddish. She used the Hebrew script to write letters in English, as did her sisters in Richmond. The Virginians always ended their letters with a “Love y’all,” phonetically written out using Hebrew script. They understood each other’s letters without difficulty, though I’m sure I couldn’t decipher them easily.
In contrast, my father treated a letter from a brother in Europe or a sister in Brazil as a major event. He wrote most of his correspondence in Russian and kept his family’s letters to himself. The letters told him about the events of World War II, the murders of his parents and his brother’s serving in the Russian army at Stalingrad. He hid a few photos in a small drawer away from everything else, as though if we were to touch or see them they would bring harm of some kind. My father never spoke out loud about these letters, although in response to them we sent regular CARE packages to his family in Europe after World War II ended.
Letters, Meaning and Understanding
Letters aren’t like electronic texts. When we understand them, they show force and strength, weakness and sorrow, love and happiness. Every person has a unique handwriting and choice of how to say things. Understanding written letters allows us to know something personal about the person who wrote them.
Physical writing isn’t easy. A writer looks at the blank page and knows that somehow it needs to be filled with something meaningful that another person can understand. The way a person writes can tell a lot about the writer, apart from the words being inscribed. Letters are about understanding meaning.
All of my historical novels introduce fictional characters who read and write authentic letters that carry the story. The more recent the time period, the more material exists in libraries. Letters held in libraries sometimes are originals; sometimes they have been transcribed into typed versions. Seeing the old letters, the wording, the size of the script, and the force with which script was put on paper, gives us some understanding of the character of the writer.
Revolution and History as Seen from an Understanding of Letters
My latest book, Washington’s Shadow, is based on the personal correspondence of Leven Powell with his family and about his work for George Washington. Powell knew Washington personally and worked for him in many capacities for over thirty years. In his later years, at Washington’s request, he ran for office and served as an elector in the 1796 election.
Washington Surveying the Field
Leven Powell was a supporter of revolution and an owner of a mill and a farm. Like Washington, he looked to the west. He wanted growth and expansion, and the settlement of new land. Serving as a colonel in the field during the revolution, he spent much time writing his wife detailed letters. Here is one excerpt, describing his feelings about a meeting of truce with representatives of his enemy, the British military:
I have been uneasy at not hearing from you for some time… Since my last letter, this neighborhood has been honored by the company of great men… As the head of a flag of truce…I had the honor of breakfasting on the best Hyson Tea with the Commodore, General Clinton, Lord Dunmore and several gentlemen Officers. I was received and treated with great politeness by the whole…On board the “Kitty” vessel I found 12 or 15 Officers, the most hospitable, kind people I ever met. …their treatment of me was so exceedingly kind that on my return I sent them a present of 20 bushels of oysters, 30 loaves of bread, a goose and a turkey. It grieves me to see men of such sentiments as those engaged in such a cause.
What His Letters Say About Leven
Understanding this letter tells a lot about Leven. When he wrote it, he held the rank of colonel and led a small army. Favoring the American cause from the earliest days leading up to the first hostilities, he’d served in militias and was a friend of George Washington. And he was a gentleman. Leven didn’t see the British officers he met as monsters and enemies to be slaughtered. He found them to be kind, and favored them with a generous gift of food.
Washington’s Shadow is a novel, a story of Leven Powell’s children and the first wave of western expansion. Washington’s presence permeates their decisions. They took meaning from their father’s letters. The plot is mostly fiction, but the place and the events are historic and recorded in letters.
The Written Record and More Recent History
In 1940 Germany began massive bombing of Britain, known euphemistically as “The Blitz.” Letters, films, and official and private postings showed the bombings and their effects. When we understand the personal letters, films and postings we can see what it was like to live at the time.
For example, Britain’s Richmond Golf Club posted the following temporary rules after German bombs hit the course in 1940:
- Players are asked to collect Bomb and Shrapnel splinters to save these causing damage to the Mowing Machines.
- In Competition, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
- The positions of known delayed action bombs are marked by red flags at a reasonably, but not guaranteed, safe distance therefrom.
- A ball moved by enemy action may be replaced, or if lost or destroyed, a ball may be dropped not nearer the hole without penalty.
- A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place. Penalty one stroke.
These written temporary rules meant, “Let’s muddle through.” Muddling through at this golf club meant keeping the game going, regardless of circumstances. They were serious. In golf, a player normally can replay a ball from the same place and take a one stroke penalty. Bombs, in this club’s rules, are to be ignored.
My granddaughter, a high school junior, plans to take a course in which she’ll be learning about American history this summer. Likely it will be a virtual course delivered by zoom over the computer.
I wonder what constitutes history to today’s teenagers. Personally I can remember the end of World War II and its aftermath. Parades marched down the main streets and veterans returned home with missing limbs. I hid under my school desk in drills to protect me from a Russian nuclear attack. The Cuban missile crisis felt like the beginning of World War III and I remember the assassination of President Kennedy.
My own children have no living memory of any major war: World War II, Korea or Vietnam. They and their children know nothing about the gas shortages of the 1980s and Jimmy Carter’s inflation that destroyed our small community banks. They do know about wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the destruction of the twin towers in 2001. My grandchildren don’t even remember that.
What do they teach in American history courses in today’s high schools? I hope they do a better job than they did when I went to school. But I know they won’t be teaching early history. I was told this by quite a number of history teachers when I served as a docent at Jamestown Settlement, a historical museum that commemorates the first landing of three English ships in North America in 1607.
Peter Minuit Buying Manhattan: Learning Early New York City History
What I Learned about Early American History
Growing up in New York City, I began learning about American history in kindergarten and the first grade. For instance, I remember learning about three ships arriving at Jamestown and the pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock. There, at Plymouth Rock, they apparently celebrated the first Thanksgiving. I know we were shown a painting of Peter Minuit buying Manhattan Island from the Indians with twenty-four dollars in trinkets and a bottle of rum.
Look at the painting closely. We can see that all of the Indians are covered head to toe in deerskins. Several wear elaborate feathered headdresses. An Indian woman wears a cotton print dress under her deerskin. We know that Western Indians in the nineteenth century dressed like that, but Manhattan Indians in the seventeenth century likely looked quite different.
No matter to the kindergartener. We made deerskins to wear and feathered headdresses—all out of brown paper, colored and pasted together any way we liked. I remember we also made pilgrim hats, but they were black and out of card board. In comparison, it was much more fun to be an Indian; they got to prance around and make loud noises.
Whatever people learned in school, to most people the founding fathers fell out of the sky in powdered wigs and silk stockings. Therefore, the hundred and fifty years between Pocahontas and George Washington remain a blank.
American History and Genealogy
At Jamestown Settlement I met many genealogists, anxious to see if they had an ancestor on one of the first ships. Though they were interested in learning about American history, I had to tell them that those people were probably not people they’d want to meet. My teachers never taught this in school, but the settlers came to fight and make fortunes. They fought with each other and the native tribes nearby, and most of them died early gruesome deaths from starvation, disease, warfare, and simply fighting with each other. These early sailors weren’t ancestors of anybody.
Descendants of Pocahontas (there are many) are generally not the genealogists; they know their family lines very clearly and don’t have to prove anything. While their “history” goes back to 10,000 B.C., they come to the museum to see history as relevant to today. They come to see the building of the country, from sailing up the rivers, establishing plantations, trading crops for credit, and developing a way for different people to live together.
About a third of the sailors on the three original ships “married” Indian women. The Indians helped to build James Fort, and Indian wives did most of the cooking. Indian-made cooking utensils have been found on the site of the original fort, and in the earliest days only the Indians would have known what was edible. The earliest surviving settlers learned a great deal from the Indians. If you date your family to seventeenth century Virginia, Pocahontas is probably your relative.
Some Perspective on Learning about Early History
Early history isn’t taught because little is known about it, and what’s written is partisan, controversial and probably incorrect. We don’t learn about early American history in school, but where else can we learn about it?. Were the English barbarians, out to kill and rampage? Were the Indians savages, out to starve out the new arrivals? Didn’t they trade and learn from each other? How did they really build towns and colonies?
Let me end with a cartoon by James Stevenson (1966) from The New Yorker:
Learning about American History: Indians and Settlers: Friends or Foes?
Cartoons don’t settle anything. They just keep the arguments going.
On Saturday. May 30, my grandson received his bachelor’s degree from Cleveland State University (CSU) in a virtual graduation ceremony. For him it was a great achievement and represented long hours of preparation and work. His degree is in computer science with a minor in mathematics.
May 30, many of us will remember, was the date on which Memorial Day used to be celebrated. I remember some of my parents’ generation called it Decoration Day. That day families went to the cemetery to decorate the graves of the war dead.
For my parent’s generation, the war dead were near and numerous, not theoretical. World Wars I and II in some way touched every family and Memorial Day was somber, not the beginning of summer as it is now.
Graduations used to come in June, and took place before large happy crowds of people. This virtual graduation event was certainly the first of its kind for the university.
A Virtual Graduation
My husband and I sat in front of the zoom screen on my computer and listened to remarks by the president of the university, the mayor, the lieutenant governor of Ohio, and several previous CSU graduates. I was able to locate my grandson’s major department on the computer screen.
The names of all computer science graduates marched across the screen individually, with appropriate graduation day background music. When my grandson’s name arrived, we saw a video of him, in cap and gown, looking very happy. He smiled and thanked his parents and grandparents for help and support.
We have attended many graduations, and this was the first one where we heard every speaker and actually saw the face of the graduate. It reminded me of my daughter’s graduation from a small college outside Richmond, VA. Then we sat in folding chairs on a field on a very hot day, quite far from an outdoor stage. Nearby, a level railroad crossing bisected the town.
Amtrak kept its schedule that day. Fairly frequently, a train came through the town at a slow speed, blowing its whistle all the way. We barely heard any of the speeches, but we did see our daughter at a distance.
My grandson is now a graduate and I’m grateful for the computer and zoom. We were able to join the family electronically that evening to congratulate him.
Another Graduation Day: Me and Lymphoma
My grandson is not the only member of our family to face some final test results this early summer. On Thursday, I am scheduled for a mammogram. Two years ago a mammogram led to a diagnosis of an aggressive type of lymphoma for which I was treated over six months and for which I have undergone numerous lab tests and PET scans.
While I’m of the age that I may have avoided a mammogram two years ago, for some reason I didn’t. My radiologist found something funky on the picture and that led to biopsies, CAT scans and further lab tests and scans. After three months the doctors came up with the lymphoma diagnosis.
I can’t say I’m looking forward to the mammogram, nor am I looking forward to a PET scan now scheduled for July. The PET scan is sort of a graduation day for me. If they find nothing, I will be considered cured with no further tests or medical procedures.
For me, none of this will be virtual. The tests will be done according to normal procedures and the results will either be good or bad.
Graduation, Old People and Old Jokes
As the grandmother of a college graduate, I am an old person. Here is a story about old people:
“Six retired Floridians were playing poker in the condo clubhouse when Meyerwitz loses $500 on a single hand and drops dead at the table. Showing respect for their fallen partner, the other five continue playing standing up. Finkelstein looks around and asks, “So, who’s gonna tell his wife?”
They draw straws. Goldberg picks the short one. They tell him to be discreet, be gentle, don’t make a bad situation worse.
“Discreet? I’m the most discreet person you’ll ever meet. Discretion is my middle name. Leave it to me.”
Goldberg proceeds to the Meyerwitz apartment and knocks on the door. The wife answers and asks what he wants.
Goldberg declares, “Your husband just lost $500 and is afraid to come home.”
“Tell him to drop dead,” says the wife!
“I’ll go tell him,” says Goldberg.
Mother’s Day in a lock-down requiring social distancing was bound to be different than the norm, but for me it actually wasn’t. As in most years, I received phone calls and promises of future calls and maybe a future zoom meeting.
My children and grandchildren are busy people. I know they are stuck in their houses and they continue with school and music lessons. In time for Mother’s Day, I received a video of two granddaughters playing piano. The video showed them individually and I could see their hands hit the keys. They were socially distanced from everyone when the video was made. Nobody heard me, but I applauded loudly for each of them, just like a grandmother should.
I received delivered gifts: a box of candy and a bottle of dessert wine from my daughter and her family; a box of candy and flowers from my son and his family. I did not have direct contact with the delivery man, just as in previous years, but this time I practiced social distancing.
Since Mother’s Day was still “locked down”, the florist called to say he’d be delayed. The good flowers weren’t yet available. Since I wasn’t going anywhere, I thanked him for the call and the information. The flowers arrived two days later and were worth the wait. Here is a picture (including the box of candy):
Mother’s Day Roses and Lilies
The roses opened to about six inches in diameter, and a week later, the lilies were still open and wonderful to look at. But they didn’t compare to my outdoor Russian iris:
Russian Iris: No Social Distancing
Social Distancing: the New Normal?
We’ve had a warm and wet May and the birds and flowers are loving it. They have no thoughts of masks and barriers and social distancing. Whenever I go out on the porch there is a jumble of tweets and loud sounds from a mass of small birds. I’m sure many of them are a lot closer to me than six feet.
We have been advised by the local authorities and some local businesses that we should get ready to go back to work, shop and live in the world again. This will be different from before, if everyone takes these rules seriously. For a haircut, there will be no shampoo; I will have to arrive with my hair already shampooed. There will be no children or pets allowed in the place. I will have to wash my hands before being issued into wherever the hairdresser will be located.
Social Distancing and Health Care
The Cleveland Clinic sent me their directive on their “new normal.” They are ready to resume in person healthcare services, but they encourage patients to use “virtual” visits. The notice states that with a virtual visit the patient can see a provider right away, or schedule an appointment for routine care using the smartphone.
I’ve already had one virtual appointment with my doctor and it was hardly a medical exam. There were no tests, and because I couldn’t figure out how to turn on my camera, the doctor could only speak to me. He saw nothing. We both agreed to schedule a regular in-person visit in September. Likewise, my dentist will see me in October. Maybe over the years I’ve been overdoing it with annual doctor’s visits and semi-annual dentist visits. Routine care doesn’t have to be constant care.
As with my hairdresser, the Cleveland Clinic will not permit patients to bring anyone with them for an appointment. On the other hand, children, elderly patients, those with special needs and those having surgery requiring an overnight stay may bring a guest. That probably accounts for a large percentage of the non-routine procedures done at the clinic. The notice states that the clinic is among the safest places in healthcare.
A few years ago, after I was released from a hospital stay, I was taken by a nurse to the entrance of the hospital in a wheel chair. As I got out of the wheel chair, the nurse said to me, “Take care, and don’t come back.” We both knew that hospitals are unsafe places.
Do the masks protect everyone? People now own them and wear them, but if you can’t see someone’s face, how can you trust him or her?
Insecure? It’s Happened Before.
I remember a Woody Allen story. Feeling insecure, Woody moved to an apartment building in the city because it employed a doorman for protection. On his second night, when he returned to the building, Woody was mugged by the doorman.
Let me end this with a Henny Youngman story about doctors:
A guy says to a doctor, “I’m having trouble with my love life.”
The doctor says, “Take off twenty pounds and run ten miles a day for two weeks.” Two weeks later, the guy calls the doctor, “Doctor, I took off twenty pounds and I’ve been running ten miles a day.”
“How’s your love life now?”
“I don’t know. I’m 140 miles away!”
Spring has come to Virginia. The state still is closed down and we venture out only for groceries, about once a week. But spring has arrived: we have birds, flowers, warm sun and corona-virus lock-down.
We live in a marina where the docks, moorings and supporting structures have been under construction for about a year. Staying outside, for example, on my porch, is an ear-bending experience. We have views of massive cranes and hear the sounds of giant generators. But the corona-virus lock-down has made staying at home more than a construction experience.
We have become much more vigilant about the immediate surroundings, and not just the construction. This year we really saw the coming of spring, and the birds and flowers have been stunning.
This year we see and hear the birds. Not that we could have ignored them. Over eighty varieties of birds have been counted by birdwatchers in my neighborhood. I really don’t know much about them, but this year one of our bird houses has been occupied by bluebirds.
They are amazing neighbors. They sing to us almost constantly, and they seem to chirp to us personally. Every time we go out on the porch and say something, we are greeted by a loud song from some little bird. I’ve never seen the little loudmouth. The song is two notes repeated four or five times, but in a rhythm that sounds very much like conversation. We’ve gotten used to whistling back or talking to the bird. In the evening we say good night. It reminds me of having a two year old, a small living thing that talks all the time.
While I’ve never seen our talking companion, I’ve taken my camera to the water’s edge. This year brought some unusual sights. For example, for the first time I’ve gotten a shot of what I think is a young eagle, perched on a pole near my house. He’s quite young, but has those white head feathers and an imperial beak:
It’s spring, so I imagine that the birds I see are all young. They chirp loudly and seem very happy. The eagle looked lost, not sure of what to do now that he was atop a tall pole. He stayed there for quite a while. I’m sure he can fly, but maybe he has no nest to go back to. Eagles fly very high and coast like kites in the air. This one is bigger than a baby, but not fully grown. He’s like a teenager sent out into the world, not sure of what’s next.
I also took a picture of a heron. We see lots of herons near my house. They come to fish, and are striking when they dive looking for their next meal. Here is the heron:
You can see the heron is also young and thin. He has a beautiful takeoff and a graceful flight. He hovers like a helicopter over the houses before landing near the water.
In addition to birds, we’ve had to confront the spring flower situation. Since we’re stuck in the house, we have no annual flowers. I usually plant some pots of petunias and geraniums. I also normally prepare a few tomato plants in pots. Now I have to be content with the plants that carried over from last year.
We’ve had a very wet spring and seem to get rain every other day, but the weather has turned warm with temperatures mostly in the 70’s. I haven’t fed or watered anything. We still have three pots of pansies from last fall, and they are spectacular. About five mums never went away, and one seems ready to blossom (mums in May?). I also have a window box full of some light purple petunias.
We had a profusion of daffodils and crocus, and now a rainbow of irises and peonies, all from previous years. Here is a picture of some cut flowers, a peony and a few irises:
Peony and Irises
Coronavirus and Jokes
I’m sure we will survive this pandemic and remember the lock-down as a little overkill. But, like the birds and flowers returning from last year (or never leaving), old jokes are also making a comeback. Here are some I received last week:
“A dentist and a manicurist married. They fought tooth and nail.
No matter how much you push the envelope, it’ll still be stationary.
If you don’t pay your exorcist, you can get repossessed.”
I hope all are staying safe and healthy.
The current corona virus pandemic, which now requires all of us to keep a safe social distance, comes with the march of technology. For me, a member of the old and vulnerable class, the last few weeks have provided some major learning experiences.
Several years ago my son and daughter-in-law decided my husband and I should have smart phones and we received them as gifts for Christmas. My husband keeps his in a nice box that he doesn’t open, except when he takes business trips. At least he knows where it is. My phone migrates to a comfortable place in my bag, but almost never rings. I usually have difficulty finding it. The phones come into play when we are traveling. We use them to make hotel reservations, to figure out where we are, and to call our children when we’re on the road.
During this pandemic my husband and I spend our days at home, with a few short trips to the grocery store. Though we know about the corona virus, we don’t think about technology. We haven’t used our cell phones. My son had other ideas.
Using the Cell Phone
We were advised to get our cell phones ready, and I used mine for the experiment. On an evening last week, using the smart phone, my son connected my daughter-in-law (at home in suburban Cleveland), my granddaughter (at home in Chicago), himself (in a town house in downtown Cleveland), to my husband and me in Williamsburg, VA. My husband and I used the smart phone speaker apparatus so we could both hear and speak to everyone. All of us were able to speak and listen, and in general, communicate. The experience was a bright spot in a dull boring week of too much television.
We’ve done this kind of call twice so far, and I don’t know how my son arranges it, but I’m amazed at the clarity and immediacy of the sound. When you enjoy it, technology is wonderful.
Understanding the Computer
I managed to get onto the system. I saw and heard the doctor, and he heard but couldn’t see me. The glitch was due to the fact that I had no idea where my computer camera was located or how to turn it on. Nevertheless, my doctor was happy with my answers to a few questions, renewed my normal prescription and said “see you in six months.” The examination lasted five minutes, the normal amount of time I spend with my doctor in a routine examination. When it was over, his office immediately called to set up real appointments for the next visit.
Following the doctor’s exam, I contacted my IT specialist, via the internet, about the picture problem. He sent me a photo of my computer indicating the location of the camera. It was attached to the back of my monitor and I was required to pull it up into position. I was now ready for my first “Zoom” meeting with my writers’ critique group which took place two days later.
“Zoom” allows groups of people to have meetings. They can see and hear each other on electronic devices and computers, if everyone’s equipment is working and turned on. I managed to enter the Zoom meeting without a problem, but I had trouble turning on the sound. I could see people, but I could not hear them, nor could they hear me. Eventually I found the Zoom audio switch and now I’m an expert.
My family is planning a Zoom meeting connecting all of us in a week or so. My daughter already cooks an evening meal together with a sister-in-law; she is in Chicago while the sister-in-law is in Massachusetts. Over a dozen people are in attendance at those communal meals. I don’t know if it improves the food, but it’s a fun way to spend time in an epidemic.
Corona Virus, Technology, and Old Jokes
The technology accompanying corona virus appears to come with old jokes. Over these last two weeks, I’ve received, over the internet, samples of stuff that apparently keep people from going crazy with boredom. The jokes fall into several categories, all somehow related to coping with the corona virus. Here are some examples:
“Where there’s a will, I want to be in it.
“Jewish irony: Passover canceled because of a plague.
“We’re about two weeks away from seeing everyone’s true hair color.
‘You do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive twice.
“Many parents are about to discover the teacher is not the problem.”
All this and videos too. I now have a long one about two cows. Without the corona virus and technology, I wouldn’t know so much about two cows.
A reminder:. From now till the end of June all of my historical novels will be available in the ebook version at a 35 per cent discount. Order them from ipgbook.com and use the code BMSpring2020.