Friday, January 13, 2012

Why it's been so long since I last wrote

This is my mother, who left this life on August 14, 2008. And on the right is my father, who is still very much with us. The photo of Mama was her last Mother's Day, and she was still able to smile, if not to speak or walk. Her last six months were spent in the nursing unit of a locked ward, where dementia patients are cared for without the threat of their wandering off. Mama had been wandering off, sometimes in the middle of the night, from the apartment she shared with my dad in the same retirement complex that contained the nursing unit. After a fall in which she was not physically injured, she spent some time in the hospital and was returned to a rehab room, never to move back in with my dad and sleep in the same bed with him as they had for 63 years.

I never understood whether her dementia came about because of Alzheimer's or strokes, but it had become clear in the preceding years that her mental faculties were slipping away. She had grown more and more withdrawn and had adopted a penchant for Publisher's Clearing House magazine coupons to the extent that every drawer, nook and cranny in her house was filled with trinket boxes of paste jewelry "rewards" for ordering magazines she did not read. By the time I got her to a geriatrics doctor, she was unable to tell him what it was about watching the evening news that was so compelling, or what country we were at war with ("Germany?") . Her downhill slide was devastating to my dad, who was devoted to her care but unable to carry on, even with my help, once she lost control of her bodily functions. For him her death came earlier than for the rest of us, and I was concerned that his grief might take his life also. Fortunately, that has not been the case. He is a thriving nonagenerian as of February, and we will celebrate with family from all over on February 18.

I am amazed at how long it has taken me to write about this, but I had to do it in order to resume blogging. It's long past the time for the constant tears that visited me after she died. It was nearly a year before we could bury her, because we wanted her remains at the new National Veterans Cemetery at Montevallo, Alabama, where both my parents could be buried with military recognition. Her urn was kept in the church basement until the cemetery opened in June 2009 with great fanfare and a special service for the first persons buried there. Mama would have loved it, having an honor guard carry her ashes, the Mayor of Montevallo placing her urn in the ground, the 21-gun salute, and taps playing. She was of the Greatest Generation, as is my dad, and a real patriot. When they married on July 15, 1945, he was a fighter pilot in the Army Air Corps. He was called to the Pacific theater right after a weekend honeymoon in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. The very day I was likely conceived was the first atomic bomb explosion ever, so I rightly claim the label Baby Boomer.

Dad and I visited the Veteran's Cemetery on Christmas Eve, and you can see the resilience in his face, this man who nursed my mother through the worst illness known to the elderly. I admit to being Daddy's Girl, but I had no idea how much I loved my mother until she was gone.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Night of the Lizard Kings

Below is a fine "desert poem" from a man I first encountered on an Internet site several weeks before the Iraq War began. We threw our pearls before the swine on the site for months, maybe even two years, attempting to bring reason to a bunch of crazy Bubbas and outright warmongers. For a couple of years I knew him only by his online moniker, "Romulus," and he knew me only as Lawbabe and my husband as Gumbody. We eventually met when he was driving with his mother through Birmingham and they had dinner with us. I felt an immediate solidarity with him when we first "met" on the Internet and have grown even fonder of him over the past five years.

Romulus is from Minnesota but winters somewhere down south every year, to stay warm, ponder things and write. As you can see, this past winter he stayed in Silver Springs, New Mexico, very near where Gumbody and I traveled by car on our way to Tucson. We had a lovely steak supper, grilled outdoors at a public rest stop, just over the hill from Silver Springs. Here are a couple of photos from our trip: one of Gumbody cooking our steak and another of the lovely sunset that was our background:

Gumbody, the rest stop chef

and now for the poem:


trading sacred salt,
for forever shallow graves,
breathing in the desert air,
under raven's wings above,
how the moon adorns their skin,
dead alive in their graves,
so the world turns again,
and the leaders would pretend,
not even tides abide,
nor mountains in their gloom,
will praise these lowly kings,
caught in their own desires,
snags the frozen waves,
bends the sacred into bows,
hurls spears of defeat,
makes no flowers bloom,
sours water everywhere,
and the clouds write their names,
where everone can see,
the peace we decry,
is thunder's only hope,
and the lightning flashes in their eyes,
dead eyes for all to see,
and the people mourn for peace,
and the people are complete,
in their horror of the wars,
and the blood upon the stones,
let the howling winds make free,
all that would set all men free,
let the freedom ring on stones,
hammers on their bones,
and the tears fall away,
and the judgment is the womb,
and the world is our doom,
until everyone agrees,
we are the people of all lands,
and the sand falls like rain,
on the shoulders of the poor,
on the famines in our brains,
we are our own deceivers,
when kings are just believers,
in our dooms.

so now the world must answer,
the echoes in our hearts,
and all hearts are beating,
all minds are pleading,
and gold is never sacred,
and the lizard skins are drying,
baking in the sun,
and the sun is always shining,
somewhere on this earth,
and the moon is always rising,
the stars are just as blinding,
as the dead eyes are finding,
their vision in those graves,
which no one should follow,
for that is the way to war,
where only violence is victor,
and every human loses.

how then shall the world answer,
and how shall you answer?
by what means shall the whole world find peace forever?
and by what means shall we otherwise suffer forever?
one is in the flower,
the other is in the tomb,
the choice is ours to make,
a choice we could have made thousands of years ago,
but for lizards who would be kings,
and the hearts did not stop them,
nor did the waves upon the seas,
the sun did not prevent them,
nor the moon in its risings,
nor did their gods pause to ponder,
but threw the bolts that enslaved us,
and today who is truly free?
not the sailors on the waters,
not the soldiers in their fields,
nor the bankers in their laundries,
not the bakers of our bread,
and by the lonely fires,
cold hands adorn the motions,
of dreams in living fire,
for the nightmares yet to come,
or the peace of flowing waters,
smooth stones in our palms,
fingers turning over,
thoughts are never dead,
find answer in the embers,
in the ashes of our past,
throw them to the winds,
let them scatter in the breeze,
there is partial answer,
and the leaves will always answer,
in the spring.

in this ages old winter of our despairs,
comes the hint of spring,
but who shall attend to it,
and how shall it grow?
by what human means,
shall human needs find answer?
their hands or your hands,
my hands?
the black hand or the red hand?
yellow hand or white?
all hands together?
how shall this be done?
how shall one hand feel another hand?
which hand moves first?
I hear no certain answers,
I see no hands moving,
brains are worthless,
if no hands move,
all wealth is worthless,
if no hands move,
who shall move the hands?
who shall move their own hand?
when a hand moves,
what will the other hand do?
some hands are bony and weak,
some hands are stained with blood,
and many hands are simply terrified,
some hands are greedy,
some hands give everything away,
some hands are kissed,
others are crushed.
here is my hand,
it moves forward,
who will take it?

Michael Eliseuson
Silver City, New Mexico
March 19, 2008

Friday, April 4, 2008

40 Years Ago. . .just as applicable today

Today we mark the fortieth anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis. I remember that day vividly, as many of you will also, no doubt. I was a senior in college, washing my clothes in a laundromat with my best friend, when the news was rushed in about the killing. My friend and I clung to each other and cried.

If you have a few minutes, listen to his speech on his opposition to the Vietnam War. He refers to the day when the lion and the lamb will lie down together--just as my ancestor Edward Hicks has painted above. Dr. King was aghast at the cost of the war then, not only in the dollars spent but in the human resources lost. Imagine what he would say about the cost of the Iraq War now.

The valley is gray today, in a rainy mist, as I look out over the train tracks, and I feel a deep sadness.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Winter has come and gone. . .

Oh happy day! As atoms start warming they move faster, and so do I. It's been a cold, cold winter in Alabama, but at last it's over. Now that my fingers have warmed up, perhaps they will touch the keyboard with more regularity.

There is much to tell since last autumn: a November driving trip through the Wild, Wild West, a Christmas goodbye to my son, who joined the Air Force, and a sad New Year's memorial gathering for my friend (see below) on the Gulf Coast. Then there was another driving trip to see our son graduate from basic training at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas, and the ride home through New Orleans on Mardi Gras. All wonderful times, marred only by the sadness of seeing my mother go into full-time nursing care when we returned home.

The pink dogwood in the front yard is almost in bloom, and Easter music is singing in my head.

I have photos, and stories. Keep in touch.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

“Raised like a son by Sallie Jenkins”

The phrase above is being inscribed on a bronze plaque covering the ashes of a good friend who died last Monday, along with his name and years of birth and death.

My friend and I practiced law in the same space for around eight years, before he moved away and married another dear friend. He was only 63 years old when he died, and it was a shock to me to hear of it. He had been suffering from advanced melanoma for over a year, but he didn’t want anyone to know. I won’t name him here because he was a private person and wouldn’t want that, but many of you will recognize his photo and know him for the true friend that he was and is.

A person of privilege like my friend has many options that most of us don’t enjoy, and that was my friend’s life until he reached a point of awareness in the 1960's. Like many of us, he turned from the traditions of his small Alabama town and sought answers elsewhere, leaving a post on the city council and riding off on his motorcycle, “Easy Rider” style. He had some connection with the American Indian Movement and then came to see the my priest friend (yes, the one in the orange jumpsuit below--most of my friends wear their politics well, don't they?), who introduced him to another side of life, that of the wealth of love among the poor black communities of West Alabama’s Black Belt area. He and I were mere acquaintances back then, as we both worked in a Congressional campaign for a progressive woman who eventually lost her race, but I didn’t really get to know him until years later. I had been practicing law a few years and was looking for office space close to home. I had my baby boy in a basket when I visited the house he had renovated for his own law practice space. There were a slew of other young lawyers there, also renting space from him. We hit a deal immediately, and he helped me outfit the office and get settled.

As we grew closer as colleagues, our friendship became more personal, and we spent time at the office discussing the law and politics. There were also fun times together with family and friends. He especially enjoyed the company of my young son and also his brother who was born a short time later. For the older son's first birthday, he gave him a Mr. T doll with such a fierce demeanor that my son tuned up and bawled. It was all we could do to stifle our chuckling as we consoled him. My second son got a more comforting gift, a red Radio Flyer wagon with detachable wood sides (here's a photo of one just like it--with somebody else's children).

I will never forget lying in the hospital bed just hours after giving birth and hearing those squeaky new wheels rolling down the hall.

He was a fierce believer in civil rights and had no use whatsoever for the racist institutions we grew up in. He had maintained a close relationship with an elderly black woman from his hometown who had reared him when his parents died early on, and he often made reference to things she had taught him. Others of his station would have treated her as merely a household servant, but to my friend Sallie Jenkins was his mother.

We seldom saw each other after he moved away, but when we did, he would quote Chief Dan George: “My heart soars like the hawk to see you.” He made all his friends feel welcomed in such a way.

Before he died, he instructed his widow to bury his ashes in the home town he refused to visit unless it was to see Sallie, and not to bury them in the segregated white cemetery, but in the black cemetery next to her grave.

We will miss this fierce warrior, who as I write as being welcomed into the tribes of the Big Sky.

Monday, October 1, 2007

The death of habeas corpus?

Lawbabe is the online moniker I chose several years ago when I realized that the Internet often demands anonymity. It was a phase, but it stuck with me. Now there are people all over the country who know me only by that name. My colleagues in the bar snicker at it, since they know that I haven't been a babe for a long time, and it seems a counter-intuitive handle for someone as serious as I can be about serious things.

Take human rights, for example.

Here is a photo of one of my personal heroes, walking in a Fourth of July parade as a handcuffed version of habeas corpus.

He is an Episcopal priest who guided me through a return to political consciousness after several years of being a sixties Hippy Babe. I will let him remain as anonymous as I am for now, since he is so well-hooded in this photo. However, he has never been anonymous in his years of asserting the case for human rights, and he actually seems to have even stepped up the pace lately.

This is patriotic action, in case you don't recognize it. Nothing is more precious to our U. S. citizenship than these words from the U. S. Constitution:

“The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.”

A little elementary Latin in case you slept through Civics 101: Habeas corpus is translated as "you have the body." It is an ancient legal writ used by those imprisoned to seek their release when no cause for their detention has been presented. The Military Commissions Act of 2006 has permanently suspended this right in the post-9/11 "war" on terrorism. Many legal scholars believe that the suspension of habeas corpus violates the above provision from the Constitution, in the absence of an actual invasion or rebellion. Even the Republican Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member, Arlen Specter, thinks Congress should rethink the issue of the legal rights of detainees.

The current occupier of the White House wishes to preempt any potential rebellion and invasion to such an extent that we must be willing to set aside the very rights upon which this country was founded and pretend that it is true patriotism. Ah, if he had only an iota of the patriotic loyalty that my priest friend has.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

How shall we get there???

Have you ever tried to paint a room without prepping the walls first? Then you know the paint won't stick. It's hard work moving furniture, filling cracks in the sheetrock, sanding it down, scraping and washing woodwork, etc., but it's necessary if you want the paint job to look good. Oh, you can slop paint on the wall without doing all that, but you can tell the difference.

The folks who run the metropolis in our valley these days have not figured that out.

I've worked downtown for 41 years, and visited downtown since a child, so I've been watching Birmingham a long time. Downtown was a magic place when I visited as a child. The grand movie houses, like the Alabama and Lyric Theaters, were places of gilded wonder, and the department store windows at Loveman's and Pizitiz were like looking into a fashion magazine. Britling's Cafeteria was an immense eatery with dumbwaiters serving two floors. Joy Young's Chinese restaurant offered exotic tastes from lazy susans in the center of round tables. Terminal Station, with its Beaux-Arts glass windows and bustling passengers, was a marvel.

But downtown was also dirty. Steel was still king in the valley then, and the king belched mightily from his smokestacks in the steel plants of west Birmingham. It was said that in the bottom of the valley one breathed the equivalent of three packs of cigarettes a day. The trees, streets, and sidewalks downtown had a layer of soot on them that even a hard rain would not wash away.

In the seventies the city fathers decided to paint the town, but they didn't realize how important it was to prep first. They gentrified downtown with flowered medians and new light poles, and took the bus lines off the main drag, 20th Street, thinking department store business would make a comeback from the suburban mall trend. They hoped to lure white folks back, after the turmoil of the 1069's Civil Rights Era. But the white folks had already streamed into the suburbs, taking their school children and shopping lists with them. The main people who venture downtown now are those who have to because of work. The courthouses and banks are still centrally located. Parking garages hve gone up where distinctive landmarks went down. The Temple Theatre, old YMCA, and the Birmingham Terminal railroad station went down. Glass and steel replaced these original landmarks with buildings that have windows that do not open to the outside air that no one wants to breathe. Parking garages are attached to these new buildings so that it is no longer necessary to go outside on the street.

Such detachment only highlights the poverty on the street, where the displaced lounge on the prettified sidewalks and park benches designed for the ones locked up in their daytime buildings. The street people eat hamburgers and hotdogs, if they can afford food at all, while those in office towers lunch in their own private dining rooms on the top floors. Up there, the view draws the eyes to the spectacle of Red Mountain rather than the now-smokeless chimneys of the steel mills.

There's a developer in Atlanta that's figured this thing out, though. Tom Cousins is his name, and I read about him in a Leonard Pitts, Jr. column yesterday. Mr. Cousins understands that to bring an area out of entrenched poverty you must introduce poor people into the better environment. He took a hellish housing project and rehabilitated it, got its kids playing golf at the adjoining neighborhood golf club (which he had also restored), tore down a windowless school and erected a modern one. Residents' average income went from $4,000 a year to $18,000 a year.

Why hasn't Birmingham figured out this out? It's like painting without prepping first.

We have a mayoral race here on October 9. None of the candidates seems to understand that a chain is as strong as its weakest link, or if they do, they aren't talking about it. Everybody wants to talk about a domed stadium and tourist draws. What about the poor people who can't afford to come in there? Won't the crime of our poverty repel the tourists anyway? I wonder if we're just getting another bad paint job or if there is a chance we might elect a leader who knows how to paint the town.