View Laurie Levy's profile

My Micro-Road Rage by
50
(55 Stories)

Prompted By Road Rage

/ Stories

Not me but could be

When I think of road rage, I picture my father leaning on the horn and swearing at drivers who were too slow or who cut him off. And my mild-mannered husband, who expresses his rage more subtly by creeping up too close for my comfort to the rear bumper of drivers who exhibit the same behaviors. Perhaps that’s more of a guy thing, because my version of road rage is more like a slow boil I feel most days when I’m behind the wheel. I suspect that, like many women, my road rage is a micro one, more directed to my gut than to another driver.

September is National Courtesy Month, so I am making an extra effort to stay calm and be a polite driver. Just wish others would do the same.

I have lived in the pretty urban suburb of Evanston, Illinois, home to Northwestern University, for 45 years. In that time, navigating the streets has become increasingly like an obstacle course. In addition to increasing traffic brought on by adding so many high rises to the area, bikes are a big thing here. We have tons of bike lanes, which is a good thing except for the danger of needing to make a right turn just where the bike lane seems to vanish. I suspect the biker should not speed through those intersections, but that’s usually what happens. I’ve learned to be careful but that’s not what drives me to feel angry and stressed behind the wheel.

Rather, it’s the bikers who travel with me on roads with no bike lanes. Two bikes traveling side-by-side so their riders can chat on a two-lane street means I have to travel fifteen miles per hour until I find a safe place to pass them. Of course, because they do not obey stop signs and traffic signals, these bikers continue to overtake me, and we are once again playing cat and mouse. I have never yelled at them or honked my horn, but my internal rage grows. I’m sure my father would have (his choice of words) “let them have it.”

It’s not only bikers who inspire my micro-rage. Delivery trucks, cabs, ubers, lyfts, and inconsiderate folks picking up friends block side streets so I can’t pass. Apparently, if their flashers are on, that’s fine. What is particularly annoying is that generally there is a spot to pull over somewhere on the block, but it may mean someone has to walk a few houses to deliver the goods or pick up the rider. Today, I had to back out of such a street and take an alternate route just to get to the drug store. When I returned ten minutes later, the same flashing car was still there, minus the delivery truck. At least I could get by and shoot him a dirty look, which I’m sure he didn’t see.

Don’t get me started on road construction season, which starts in the Spring and ends when the snow starts to fall. I’m a never-late person, so I leave a good five minutes before when my GPS tells me to go. This summer, so many of my usual routes are reduced in places to one lane, with a flag person deciding when I should get a turn. As I wait, I can feel that anger churning in my gut. Surely, the oncoming lane of traffic is getting much more time than mine. I may even hit the steering wheel with my hand or swear to myself. Never out loud like my father. Never showing my frustration if I have a grandkid in the car.

What I think is my passive-aggressive style of road rage does not discriminate. Much to my husband’s chagrin, I almost flipped off (subtly, I would argue) a police officer. In my opinion, it was well deserved. An unmarked car zoomed onto the highway, almost hitting my side of the car while simultaneously turning on its flashing light. I put my hand up on my window, part reflex and part to show him how close he came. He proceeded to weave in and out of lanes until he pulled over a car that was apparently speeding. Maybe the driver of that car was doing something worse, but car chases often lead to terrible accidents. This one could have, so I felt entitled to what I still contend was a mild expression of my fear and rage.

Here’s another micro-rage situation that makes me an angry driver on a daily basis. This is a side street near my house that I use several times a day. Notice how trucks and a dumpster are parked on both sides of the street. This means I generally have to pull over to the curb to allow vehicles who turn onto the street to get by.

Because I am aware of the situation, I drive down the street cautiously, thus being the one who has to make room for the other car to pass. This has been going on for two years since there was a fire in the corner house. Whoever bought the house (probably a flipper) feels entitled to use this street as a personal parking lot.

The fact is, there are too many cars on our roads and most areas are badly in need of infrastructure projects to remedy traffic congestion. Ironically, September is National Courtesy Month, so I am making an extra effort to stay calm and be a polite driver. Just wish others would do the same.

I invite you to read my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real and join my Facebook community.

“There are Far Worse Things Than to Steal a Book” by
50
(55 Stories)

/ Stories

On a hot August day back in 1979, my kids, ages eight, six, and two, were running in bathing suits through the sprinkler on my front lawn. Yes, they were likely fighting and screaming like banshees. That’s how we rolled back then. A tall African-American man in a suit approached me, reached out his hand, introduced himself as the incoming principal of Lincoln School, and handed me the start-of-school packet. My kids stopped screaming and stared. Who had ever heard of a principal who came to your house to meet you? I shared their amazement. When we walked to school the next week, there was Mr. Cherry standing outside the door in his three-piece suit, greeting children and parents alike with handshakes, high-five, and hugs. This was our welcome to what he called his “Love Boat” (yes, I am dating myself). And we happily got on board.

Warren taught me through example what it really meant to be a mensch, a good human being.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, Warren Cherry became my mentor as an administrator, educator, and community builder. More importantly, Warren taught me through example what it really meant to be a mensch, a good human being. During the first year of his tenure as principal of Lincoln School, Warren earned the trust and respect of the students, parents, and teachers alike by making himself available and approachable. He was more often found outside of his office in the hallways and classrooms.

Because Warren always made himself available, I did not hesitate to go straight to him with what I saw as a huge ethical dilemma.  At that time, I was the PTA volunteer in charge of the Bookery, a school book store that enabled children to buy books for as little as 25 cents used or $2 new, and to swap books for free. As a lover of children’s literature who once dreamed of opening a children’s bookstore (this was during an era before these cozy places were swallowed up by Barnes and Noble), Bookery was the perfect volunteer opportunity. I got to select the books, display them, and help children make selections. But it was Warren who taught me what really mattered: getting a book into the hands of a child.

When I understood that having the book was what really mattered, I learned a profound lesson about educational priorities. In retrospect, I am so glad Warren was patient and respectful enough to hear my compliant. Because the Bookery was located in the foyer in front of the auditorium, it was easy for some students to steal books, hide them under the seats in the auditorium, and retrieve them on their way home.  Once I caught on to this scam, I marched into Warren’s office filled with righteous indignation. How could I catch the perpetrators and stop them from what I saw as a gateway into a life of crime? While Warren made it clear that he didn’t condone stealing, I’ll never forget him saying, “There are far worse things to steal than a book.” His empathy for a child who had to steal a book to possess one taught me to overlook minor infractions and bend the rules if the result was good for children. Many years later, I invoked a version of Warren’s thinking as in my early days as director of Cherry Preschool. While I was aware of budgetary issues, I often decided to fill an opening with a child whose family could not pay tuition or to keep in school a child whose family owed us money. From Warren’s taught example, I learned that the needs of a child always trumped strict adherence to the rules.

Over the years my children attended Lincoln School, Warren taught me many other lessons about education and administration. He was a man who cared more about walking the walk than talking the talk. Following my stint at Bookery, I was PTA President, and by then I was totally enamored with his style of leadership. Warren created a true community in which staff and parents worked together on behalf of the children, his beloved “superstars.” He always had time for a warm greeting and loved to mingle with the children and chat up the parents. The man was truly amazing, serving on numerous community boards and actually doing hands-on work rather than just lending his name to the list of executive board members. Warren’s inclusive and generous model of community building informed my approach to being a preschool administrator. I learned more from his example than from all of the classes I took to earn a Master’s in Early Childhood Leadership and Advocacy.

Warren died on July 11, 1990, long before people shared almost everything with their online communities. But I am certain he would have been saddened by the way social media has profoundly impacted face to face connections.  We are “virtually” connected to a huge number of “friends” (over 500 is not uncommon) and belong to many groups in which we share our most intimate thoughts with people we never meet.  More time spent communicating via Facebook, texts, and Twitter means less time experiencing actual give-and-take, face-to-face time with family, friends, and neighbors.

Luckily for my children, they had a principal who was not glued to a computer screen analyzing data from the latest test scores. He was out there walking the halls, putting an arm around their shoulders, and even scaring them straight by delivering a loving lecture after they sat on his dreaded red bench awaiting discipline. His routine at assemblies was to call out, “1,2,3. I hear talking after 3.” This was generally followed by, “Ben, do you want to embarrass yourself in front of this fine student body?” The Bens never wanted to let Mr. Cherry or their classmates down, so they would immediately stop whatever behavior was disrupting the program. Love and respect. Hands on leadership. Knowing each child personally. This was the glue that bound Warren’s community of students, and bound so many of us to him.

The last time I saw Warren is etched in my memory as a true moment of grace, dedication, and professionalism. My kids had moved on from elementary school, but I was at a crossroads in my life. The preschool I had directed for seven years, the one all of my children had attended, was falling apart due to philosophical differences with the new minister of the church that housed it. I saw the writing on the wall and called Warren for some common-sense guidance. Should I go back to teaching? Did it make sense at my age? I had heard he had been ill, but he still came to work every day and told me to come on in.

When I walked into his office, I was shocked by how sick he looked. He was thin, pale, and coughing. Sadly, the rumor going around that something was seriously wrong with him was true. My impulse was to give him a hug and leave him be. How could he come to work in this condition? How could I come to him with such a trivial and narcissistic problem? Why did he agree to see me when he clearly needed all of his strength to get through the day? Out of respect for Warren, I stayed and asked for his advice. To have acted otherwise would have embarrassed him. As always, he listened with great interest and offered me practical advice. Wish I could remember what it was, but that really didn’t matter. It was his courage and grace that mattered. If he could do this, surely, I could find the strength to persevere and find a solution to my dilemma. Warren died a few months later, but the example of kindness and caring he set during our last encounter was all of the guidance I really needed. He was truly an unforgettable and very special person.

Warren Cherry in the background of a program I attended with my youngest daughter for her older sibs. He was always there.

This post is an excerpt from my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

Kindergarten over Three Generations by
50
(55 Stories)

Prompted By Kindergarten

/ Stories

People who remember the cloak room or folding a piece of paper into eight sections probably started kindergarten in the fifties like I did. That was an era when parents were more ghosts than helicopters and when The Teacher’s word was respected and feared.

My youngest grandchild starts kindergarten next week. Here’s hoping he gets a loving teacher who understands that young children learn best in a play-based kindergarten.

I started school in Detroit at Maccullough Elementary, about six blocks from our house. I remember it as an old red brick building with doors at either end. Right after Labor Day in 1950, a few days before my fifth birthday, I walked there with my mother. I held her hand tightly. In my world, no one went to preschool or childcare. I’m not sure what I did for five years. I think I just played, as in “go outside and play.” Aside from being left in the Hudson’s Department Store play area while my mother and aunt shopped, or in the care of my aunt or grandparents, going to kindergarten was truly my first step away from my home. It was a huge deal. But parents didn’t really worry very much about children’s feelings in the fifties.

Back then, there was a rhyme that greeted kindergarteners,

Kindergarten baby, Wash your face in gravy

Kindergarten baby

It didn’t make any sense back then and is pretty mild as teasing goes these days. But it ran through my mind as my mother took me to school that first day. I remember her handing me off at the door. I was terrified but knew enough not to embarrass her by crying. The teacher seemed nice enough, but there were so many rules. The room smelled of chalk dust and Spic and Span. Aside from the cloak room, I have very few memories of what we actually did in the few hours a day I attended kindergarten.

The cloak room, however, is a metaphor for all of my fears about starting school. It was a huge, open closet filled with hooks for our jackets, but it doubled as a place of banishment for bad behavior. Rumor had it that children sent there for not complying were somehow attached to one of the hooks to ensure they wouldn’t leave until their punishment had ended. I’ll never forget a red-haired boy named Mark B. because he spent so much time in the cloak room for various infractions. Is it possible the teacher really attached him to a hook by his shirt? Hopefully not, but that’s how I remember it. Being sent to the cloak room was a fate I avoided by keeping my head down and saying nothing. Great start to elementary education.

Miss Francis from Ding Dong School

My own kids went to a play-based preschool before they started kindergarten back in the late seventies and early eighties. As an educator, I was disappointed by their kindergarten experience. It was a half-day hybrid of attempts to learn to read a few words, “writing” using invented spelling (none of them could decode what they had written), music, and free play. They still had a housekeeping play area, art easel, and dress-up clothing. The teacher was pretty old-fashioned (Anyone remember Miss Francis from Ding Dong School?), and all three of my kids stood in long lines to have her inspect their “work.” She chastised my son for coloring outside of the lines, and told my older daughter (a child not yet five whose fine motor skills were still developing) she should try harder to print neatly on paper with no lines to guide her efforts. With my youngest, all I remember is her being punished for flushing the baby cow down the toilet.

The baby cow flusher and her big sister — first day of kindergarten

I had high hopes things would be better for my grandkids. If anything, they were worse. With a full day to fill now, kindergarten was more like first grade had been for my kids. Unfortunately, child development doesn’t change and having unrealistic expectations only makes children feel like failures at five. One of my grandsons, a generous, creative little boy, started kindergarten when he had just turned five, making him the youngest boy in the class. I hoped school would bring him as many happy moments as the Star Wars backpack he proudly carried would hold. At the same time, I worried about the demands of formal schooling, given the trend since Bush’s No Child Left Behind, followed by Obama’s Race to the Top, for setting unrealistic standards and developmentally inappropriate expectations for young learners. Would kindergarten crush this free-spirited and rather young boy?

Son of the “cow flusher”

My grandson had three specific questions at the start of school:

1) Will my teacher be nice?

2) Can I get cookies?

3) Do they have a tiger robot in their toy area?

Of course, cookies were out because snacks needed to be healthy. Sadly, there were no toys, so tiger robots existed only in his imagination. But things began well enough and he seemed to love his teacher. On the first day, she taught my grandson what was to become the highlight of his kindergarten year, the Ants in Your Pants song. She had them sing this to relieve the restless tension they all felt from too much sitting and too many worksheets. At first the song seemed to do the trick.

As the year progressed, while his teacher was nice enough, she was also bound to a curriculum and expectations, complete with homework, that would have been challenging for most first graders. Her evaluation as a teacher would be based on how well these five-year-olds learned the prescribed curriculum, as measured by tests. So, while things began happily enough, kindergarten soon devolved into a high-pressured school experience that required external motivators to keep these young learners in line. And every week homework packets filled with developmentally inappropriate tasks were stuffed into his Star Wars backpack. My grandson felt betrayed. Somehow, Darth Vader had slipped into his kindergarten experience.

Math homework: “Write the number 13 five times in your notebook. Be sure to use the finger space between your number 13’s. Say the name of each number after you write it. Draw 13 squares in your notebook” He couldn’t resist turning those boxes into robots.

The first public kindergarten started 146 years ago in St. Louis, Missouri. It was based on the model created in Germany by Friedrich Froebel, a “kindergarten” (a garden of children), in which teachers served as the “gardeners.” In his program, young children learned through play rather than being drilled on facts. Perhaps the kindergartens of my and my children’s childhoods weren’t exactly play gardens, but they were typically a part-day experience designed to help children acclimate to a formal school environment. The main lessons were to learn to behave, follow directions, and get along with other children. This was by no means perfect, but it was better than today’s pressure cooker.

As an early childhood educator, I firmly believe that play is the work of young children. Children learn by doing, creating, and exploring. Memorizing facts, drilling children to take tests, and trying to teach every young child to read begins far too early in our society. The sad result is the loss of play and fun in the lives of many children. As the wise Fred Rogers said,

When we treat children’s play as seriously as it deserves, we are helping them feel the joy that’s to be found in the creative spirit…It’s the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives.

My youngest grandchild starts kindergarten next week. After several years in childcare, he’s far readier than kids of my generation were. Still, he’s a young boy who deserves an experience better than mine or his father’s, who got to play but was criticized for coloring outside of the lines. Here’s hoping he gets a loving teacher who understands that young children learn best in a play-based kindergarten.

To read more about inappropriate kindergarten expectations these days, check out my posts Kindergarten Homework is Absurd, More Absurd Kindergarten Homework, and Last Weekend’s Inappropriate Kindergarten Homework. I’m pretty passionate about this topic.

I invite you to read my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real and join my Facebook community.

 

 

What’s Today’s Weather? by
50
(55 Stories)

Prompted By Weather

/ Stories

In the long-ago era before cell phones, my husband and I would try to stay awake through the late-night news to hear the weather report. I must confess that, even when I didn’t doze off, I could never remember it the next morning. Even now, I check my weather app when I get up and have forgotten the forecast by the time I have to get dressed for the day. Given the fact that climate change is here, I guess I should pay more attention.

What’s today’s weather? We really need to pay close attention.

Growing up, weather wasn’t a big deal. I actually lived through four distinct seasons as a Midwesterner. Summertime (Gershwin), The Autumn Leaves (Nat King Cole), Winter Wonderland (in my house, the Frank Sinatra version), and It Might as Well be Spring (Nina Simone) were the soundtrack of my childhood. My mother opened the front door every morning and declared what clothing and outerwear the weather dictated for that day. Since shorts and pants were forbidden for girls (except for Bermuda shorts Fridays in high school), I either needed a sweater or not and bobby socks or tights. A seasonal jacket, snow boots or an umbrella, hats and gloves or none – Mom declared what was appropriate for our walk to and from school.

Near the end of her life, my mother lost her matter-of-fact approach to the weather. Now she was consuming lots of cable news, and “breaking news” of huge snow storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, record rain, excessive heat, and wildfires frightened her. She worried that anyone she knew who lived in the same region as a weather catastrophe was at risk. Thus, I would get frantic calls asking if we were safe in Chicago when it had snowed six inches or if my son’s family in Boston had been spared from a Nor’easter. I had to tell her to stop watching MSNBC all day, as she also became extremely distressed by all things political.

Now, I fear I have become my mother. I worry about this past July having been the hottest month on record worldwide. Extreme heat in Europe gives me pause about summer travel to Paris, where the thermometer hit 109 degrees and many places lack air conditioning. A heat wave in Japan has me worried about athletes who will compete there in the 2020 summer Olympics. When we took an Alaskan cruise 20 years ago, we needed jackets and gloves. Now we would be warm in shorts and t-shirts, and the glaciers are much smaller. And while we don’t get the wildfires or hurricanes in my neck of the woods, it did rain the entire month of April with some pretty big storms accompanied by tornadoes. Yes, climate change is real, and it’s here now.

So yes, I do worry about the weather. I worry that, as parts of the earth become uninhabitable, huge numbers of people will try to migrate to places that don’t want to take them in. I worry that crops won’t grow, that there will be food shortages. I worry that my grandkids will be living in a very different world, a world in which they won’t be able to forget the weather forecast, a world in which the beaches they currently enjoy will disappear, a world in which the sins of my generation ignoring climate change will be their burden to bear.

What’s today’s weather? We really need to pay close attention.

I invite you to read my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real and join my Facebook community.

Woodstock, a Movie Best Seen Stoned by
50
(55 Stories)

Prompted By Woodstock

/ Stories

Woodstock was another huge moment of 1969 that happened when my husband and I were on our grand tour of Europe, Greece, and Israel. While almost a half-million “hippies” formed a community of peace, love, and music on Max Yasger’s farm, we were tooling around Israel blissfully unaware it was happening.

Seeing the documentary movie version the summer of 1970 shaped my Woodstock experience.

Thus, it was seeing the documentary movie version the summer of 1970 that shaped my Woodstock experience. We were visiting my family in the Detroit area and my parents were out for the evening. While we were celebrating our second anniversary and I was a high school English teacher and my husband a medical school student, we still felt young and carefree. After all, we were many years away from being thirty, the age at which people were no longer to be trusted in those days.

My younger college student brothers were heavily into pot back then. Amazingly, my parents had no idea this was happening. In fact, my mother found cigarette rolling paper and what she thought was tobacco under a sofa cushion and was upset that my brothers were smoking cigarettes. She asked me why they would choose to roll their own rather than just buy them in the store. “I have no idea, Mom.”

The four of us determined that Woodstock was an experience best seen stoned, and we proceeded to get high before departing for the movie. It was playing at one of those old, ornate movie palaces downtown, so we piled into my brother’s car and drove to the theater, erratically changing lanes on the expressway and laughing hysterically while the radio blasted. As my brothers predicted, the movie blew our minds. Actually, I don’t remember it all that well except for euphoria of sharing the experience.

By the time we returned to my parents’ apartment, the magic had worn off. We were confronted with the mess we had left and by the need to air the place out to remove the smell of marijuana, although I doubt my parents would have know what that strange smell was. Despite the fact that I would be a mother by the following summer, I felt cool and carefree that night.

My generation was haunted by political assassinations, upheaval over civil and women’s rights, and the threat of being drafted to fight an unjust war in Vietnam. Songs like Freedom by Richie Havens, I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag by Country Joe and the Fish, We’re Not Going to Take It by The Who, and Jimi Hendrix’s amazing rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner spoke to our passion and anger.

A recent PBS American Experience Documentary, Woodstock, Three Days That Defined a Generation, brought the experience of being young and politically angry in 1969 back. What really struck me, 50 years after Woodstock, was the story of Max Yasgur, the man who agreed to allow the festival to take place on his farm. He was a conservative Republican who supported the war in Vietnam but also wanted to close the generation gap and believed older Americans should try to understand the younger generation’s views. When food concessions ran out of goods, he and the local citizens donated food and water to ensure that the kids attending the concert were fed and cared for. Yasgur was a very different Republican from today’s breed. His son described him as an individualist governed by his principles and belief in freedom of expression rather than by profit or greed.

He told the town board of Bethel before the festival:

“I hear you are considering changing the zoning law to prevent the festival. I hear you don’t like the look of the kids who are working at the site. I hear you don’t like their lifestyle. I hear you don’t like they are against the war and that they say so very loudly. . . I don’t particularly like the looks of some of those kids either. I don’t particularly like their lifestyle, especially the drugs and free love. And I don’t like what some of them are saying about our government. However, if I know my American history, tens of thousands of Americans in uniform gave their lives in war after war just so those kids would have the freedom to do exactly what they are doing. That’s what this country is all about and I am not going to let you throw them out of our town just because you don’t like their dress or their hair or the way they live or what they believe. This is America and they are going to have their festival.”

On August 17, 1968, Yasgur addressed the crowd at Woodstock, saying:

“I’m a farmer. I don’t know how to speak to twenty people at one time, let alone a crowd like this. But I think you people have proven something to the world… This is the largest group of people ever assembled in one place. We have had no idea that there would be this size group, and because of that, you’ve had quite a few inconveniences as far as water, food, and so forth… You’ve proven to the world is that a half a million kids – and I call you kids because I have children that are older than you – a half million young people can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music, and I God bless you for it!”

Can you imagine a man like Yasgur saying that in 2019? That was the true magic of Woodstock.

I invite you to read my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real and join my Facebook community.

That Family Tree Assignment by
50
(55 Stories)

Prompted By Genealogy

/ Stories

Photo by Abir Anwar via Flickr Creative Commons

These days, one size rarely fits all.

I wrote this for Midcentury Modern Magazine via Medium, January 10, 2018. It’s a different take on genealogy and family trees.

Over winter break, I spent several hours with my eleven-year-old granddaughter being interviewed about the family history on her mother’s side of the family. She also interviewed her aunt on her father’s side. What she learned fascinated her and made her even more curious about her heritage. But then the anvil fell. Her answers on the worksheet were somehow “wrong.”

I love genealogy but am questioning the wisdom of assigning kids to create a traditional family tree. When this same grandchild was in first grade, a teacher gave the class an “all about me” worksheet that began with a line for the child to print her full name. My granddaughter happens to have three middle names. No, she’s not royalty. Rather, she has Jewish and Korean middle names and a belatedly-added name after her Nana died. The teacher told her only one middle name was allowed. Rather than deny a part of her heritage, she wrote only her first and last name and tore up the paper when she brought it home.

When I think about all of my grandkids, I have to question the wisdom of that family tree assignment which most children confront in school. Three of my grandchildren have Jewish-Korean heritage. Because the family tree of one side dates back many centuries but their father was the one who immigrated here with his sister and parents, their answers typically don’t fit neatly on the worksheet. My family tree, which my father used to call a shrub, is a more typical immigration story — but doesn’t go back further than the mid-19th century.

Two of my grandchildren are African American and joined our family through adoption. How will they fill out that worksheet when they are old enough to be given this assignment? Their parents have very limited information about the heritage of their birth families. Will they be satisfied to share the history of their parents’ family trees? What do the great-great grandparents who immigrated here from the shtetls of Europe have to do with who they are?

Then there is the issue of divorce. I have three grandchildren who would be unable to provide much about their birth father’s side of the tree as he is no longer in the picture. My daughter can share a handful of names but no real stories. Can they claim their stepfather’s heritage? What about my other three grandchildren, their step-siblings. How many trees would these children have to create as they also have step-siblings from their mother’s remarriage?

If I were a teacher these days, I would tread very lightly with that family tree assignment. There are all kinds of ways to create families these days, so the conventional concept of two opposite gendered biological parents is often not the reality for many kids. Perhaps a better way to have children share their heritage is to let them tell their own stories in whatever way makes sense to them. Asking an older relative to share an interesting story seems like a reasonable assignment, but maybe not to a child in foster care who has no one to ask. I certainly would never pass out a one-size fits-all worksheet to children and expect their answers to fit neatly into the boxes.

I invite you to read my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real and join my Facebook community.

If I were a teacher these days, I would tread very lightly with that family tree assignment.

Finding a Grandmother Lost to Mental Illness by
50
(55 Stories)

Prompted By Genealogy

/ Stories

When we finally found the grave of my husband’s grandmother, Pauline Rose Levey, it was at the end of a long row next to a chain-link fence. I’m sure we were the first and only visitors. In the Jewish tradition, we left stones on the grave. This is a Mitzvah called matzevah or setting a stone. It shows that you know the burial site exists and that the person is remembered with something solid.

Pauline’s life had been destroyed by mental illness and institutionalization. But what had happened to her children as well as her grandchildren and great grandchildren? Was there a way to make something solid and meaningful from this tragedy?

The first time I shared this story in May of 2014, we were at the start of a journey. Through my husband’s old-fashioned detective work, we discovered that Pauline’s life had been destroyed by mental illness and institutionalization. Her absence impacted the lives of her children, including his father. But what had happened to them as well as her grandchildren and great grandchildren? Was there a way to make something solid and meaningful from this tragedy?

My husband never knew his grandmother. His father told him she had died, and since his father grew up in an orphanage, it seemed like a plausible explanation. But she didn’t really die until 1966. All those years my husband was growing up, she was buried alive in a mental institution only three hours away, where she died alone.

We learned the truth about Pauline after my husband’s father died in 1972. At that point, my mother-in-law thought it was safe to share the family secret. Abandoned by her husband and left with four young children and no means to support them, she had what was called back then a “nervous breakdown.” Her children were disbursed among relatives, her husband disappeared, and she was institutionalized.

When we first heard this story, my husband and I were young and just starting our own family. So we stored this information in the back of our minds and went on with our lives. But my husband was always haunted by this puzzle on his family tree. As a psychiatrist, he wondered what had happened to her and why this shameful secret destroyed his father’s family.

Ironically, fourteen years ago, we found a picture labeled, “The whole darn family.” On the back it said, “Indianapolis, Indiana.” Since our daughter had just moved to Indianapolis, it seemed possible that we might be able to unearth more information about Pauline and the mental illness that destroyed her life and separated her children from one another.

Photo labeled “the whole darn family.” My husband’s father was the baby.

On a visit to Indianapolis, my husband called the only Jewish funeral home in the area. The home had a record of his grandmother’s burial as well as where she had been living at the time of her death: Central State Hospital in Indianapolis. After proving his relationship to Pauline, and possibly because he is a psychiatrist, my husband was able to obtain her hospital records. Here’s what we learned:

Pauline was born on September 1, 1884 in Russia and came to the United States in 1893 at the age of nine. She had some education in Russia and then attended school in Iowa from ages ten to sixteen. She skipped a grade and was said to be a good student. She quit school because her father told her she had to go to work. Pauline was one of ten children.

In 1904 at the age of twenty, Pauline moved from Iowa to Indianapolis, Indiana. About 1907, she married a tailor named Ira Levey, who was born in Russia and had come to the United States in 1900.

In 1908, Pauline had her first child, Alice (later known as Billie). By 1910, the family had moved to Chicago where the next child, Marie, was born. In 1913, Bertha (Bertie) came along, and in 1915, my husband’s father, Albert, was born. Ira’s business failed in Chicago, and by 1917 the family had moved back to Indianapolis.

In 1920, when she was 36 years old, Pauline became mentally ill, and in December of 1920, she was admitted to Fletcher Sanitarium in Indianapolis. At the end of January of 1921, there was an insanity inquest with her husband as the primary witness. She was committed to Central State Hospital on February 3, 1921 with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia.

At that time, she was described as having dark hair, grayish-brown eyes, standing 4 foot, 11 inches, and weighing 95 pounds. She told the admitting doctor that her husband kept her in rags. Her sister Zell said that Ira did not care for Pauline as he should have and that Pauline was too easily dominated. Another woman who knew Pauline when she was first married said she was a lovely woman, attractive and from a good family. She said that Pauline’s husband was extremely cruel to her, and that Pauline had become disturbed because of her difficult home situation and family pressures.

Pauline hospitalized, 1930

It is not clear what happened to Pauline’s family after her hospitalization. By April of 1921, Ira is listed at a different address in Indianapolis. What became of him after that is still a mystery. Pauline’s three daughters were split up among relatives. The youngest ended up in Texas and went on to marry and live in Dallas. It is not clear who took care of the two older sisters when the family broke up. By 1930, both were living in Chicago.

Pauline’s son and my husband’s father, Albert, went to live with his uncle, Max Rose, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa at about age six. Because his uncle was a professional gambler and a bachelor and therefore unable to care for Albert for very long, he was sent to Chicago to live with his Aunt Gerry and grandmother Lena Rose.

Albert in Cedar Rapids, 1923

When his grandmother became ill, Albert was sent to the Marks Nathan Orphanage in Chicago around the age of ten, where he stayed until he graduated from high school.

Al at Marks Nathan Orphanage, second from left

As for Pauline, there were not many progress notes from the hospital until near the end of her life. During her 45-year stay there, she had few, if any, visitors. She worked in the dining room at the hospital.

In 1965 at age 80, Pauline was placed in Borenstein Home for the Jewish Elderly because she was no longer able to climb the stairs to do her job in the dining room of Central State Hospital. Sadly, at the end of her life, Pauline was returned to the mental hospital. All the years of institutionalization had taken their toll and she could not function outside of its walls. She died there on August 17, 1966 and was buried at Bnai Torah Cemetery in Indianapolis.

After learning the details of Pauline’s life, we began our quest to find any descendants of Pauline and her nine siblings to help us learn something solid about this life destroyed by mental illness and institutionalization. In a blog post, I listed names of people we hoped to find. At that point, they were just a bunch of names from a very incomplete family tree. What followed was pretty amazing.

My husband always loved puzzles and reconstructing his father’s family tree was the ultimate challenge. Through a combination of Ancestry.com, old census reports, white pages, and good old-fashioned snail mail, he started assembling the puzzle pieces. A cousin whose name he remembered ironically lived near my family in Michigan. Meeting with him led to learning the details of Pauline’s siblings. A name from the 1940 census led to Bertie’s branch of the family. And an email to someone with the same last name as Marie completed her branch. Although they are scattered from the east coast to the west, and from Chicago to the southwest, some of these newly found cousins actually have met, and online connections have been made.

By completing the puzzle of Pauline’s family tree, we also honored the memory of a life sidetracked and forgotten due to mental illness. As we add more branches to her tree, we also set more stones for Pauline Rose Levey.

I invite you to read my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real and join my Facebook community.

My Neighborhood – Both Actual and Virtual – And a Lost Tortoise by
50
(55 Stories)

Prompted By Neighbors

/ Stories

Sometimes, it takes a neighborhood to rescue a tortoise. I was driving down my alley when I spied an animal ambling along the entrance to my garage. Was it a possum out during the day? A wounded cat? I got out of my car to avoid hitting it and… it was a huge tortoise.

When we work together, there is a greater chance we can solve the problem, from rescuing a tortoise to tackling the huge issues that plague our neighborhoods and our country.

It slowly lumbered past my garage and stopped for a moment by my next-door neighbor’s fence. Now, she and I go back four decades as neighbors, and we have some history with attempting to rescue small birds that our cats used to catch back in the day when folks let their cats roam. But we had never encountered a critter of this magnitude.

My neighbor and I decided the best course of action was to capture the tortoise in my recycling bin before a car crushed it.  We called her husband, her visiting daughter and son-in-law, and their five-year-old son for reinforcements. Now we had five adults with differing opinions about how to get the tortoise into the container, and a small child worried that we might hurt it or it might hurt him.

Turned out the creature loved the bagged salad I was planning to eat for dinner. Following a trail of fancy greens, it eagerly entered the bin that we had agreed to put on its side. Now we had to figure out how to get the tortoise, which was pretty much as big as the bin, to end up on the bottom, shell side up.  Somehow, the guys gently shook it into position, with the women and five-year-old cautioning them to be careful.

We called animal rescue, only to have a recorded voice tell us to leave a message. Then we tried the local animal shelter where we reached an actual human being who laughed as she told us they only dealt in cats and dogs. The local pet store owner was a bit more helpful.  She knew of this tortoise because it had escaped before, and other folks thought she might want to take it in. She declined but also confirmed it was someone’s pet.

Now we couldn’t just release it into the wild, so it took up residence on my neighbor’s back porch. I rushed to pick my granddaughter up from school and called my daughter to see if my grandchild could come back to my house to see the tortoise.

Here’s where the social media community entered the picture. My daughter thought the situation sounded familiar, like something she had seen on one of her Facebook group pages. So she searched Evanston Mommas using “tortoise,” and voila – we now knew for certain that our hard-shelled friend belonged to a neighbor at the other end of our block. This fact was confirmed when another neighbor’s son, who came to check out the tortoise, recognized it as his schoolmate’s pet.

Next step – contact the owner. The Facebook post claimed her phone number was on the tortoise’s tummy, but no one was willing to flip this critter over. Although we now knew the owner’s name, we had no phone number or email, and no one appeared to be home when we tried her house. But my clever neighbor remembered that the owner was a real estate agent and had sold a home to a woman in her French club. That woman was home and able to provide contact information. Messages were left and eventually the tortoise was returned to its home safe and sound.

The more I thought about the lost tortoise, the more it confirmed my belief in the importance of neighbors forming caring communities, both physical and virtual. When we work together, even to help a lost tortoise, the power of connectivity is so much greater than anything we could do on our own. Villages can take all forms, but when people care enough, even about a lost pet, they demonstrate the power of community.

The saga of the tortoise felt like something the late Fred Rogers would have talked about on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He believed we needed to share responsibility, see what needed to be done, and respond, even when a situation was not our problem.  Mr. Rogers told us,

I hope you’re proud of yourself for the times you’ve said yes, when all it meant was extra work for you and was seemingly helpful only to someone else.

Saying yes is the cornerstone of caring communities. When we work together, there is a greater chance we can solve the problem, from rescuing a tortoise to tackling the huge issues that plague our neighborhoods and our country. We are indeed stronger together.

I invite you to read my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real and join my Facebook community.

Banishing Boredom for Kids by
50
(55 Stories)

Prompted By Boredom

/ Stories

Bet you didn’t know that July is National Anti-Boredom month. I guess it makes sense because the dog days of summer can be hot, lazy, and less structured, especially for kids. But boredom is a state of mind that doesn’t need to exist, especially for children, no matter the season or weather. If adults didn’t suggest to kids that they are bored, I wonder how much more creative children would be.

Boredom is a state of mind that doesn’t need to exist, especially for children.

As the director of an early childhood program, I used to give talks about what to expect in kindergarten. Parents had a myriad of concerns, but one that always bugged me was the worry their child would be bored. Sometimes, the parent thought her child was gifted. Other times, the parent wondered if what his child had learned in preschool would be repeated in kindergarten, making it boring.

I always shared the story I am about to tell now. My first child was probably gifted but I was a young mom and, luckily for him, I didn’t know much about what kids were supposed to do. Yes, he could read when he was two-and-a-half, but he was still wearing diapers and sleeping with his stuffed humpty dumpty. At preschool, he learned to share and play with others. He seemed like the other kids except for the reading, but no one read in preschool so it wasn’t a big deal.

But starting real school, that was a different matter. In kindergarten there was a reading series of 26 paperbacks labeled from A to Z. The teacher expected everyone to start with A and complete all of them. She saw no reason to be flexible for my son and let him choose a library book to read instead. As a former educator, I was pretty sure this was bad practice, but he was my first child in school and I didn’t want to make waves or offend his teacher. I worried he would be bored, but I never shared that with him.

Guess what? He was not bored at all. He turned it into a challenge to himself to see how quickly he could get from A to Z. Books with eight-word vocabularies and no plot were fun because he could finish them in a flash and move one to the next one. This kid was way smarter than I when it came to finding ways to make a much too simple task interesting. He turned the requirement into a game and was allowed to move on to library books when he finished Z.

I was so glad I had not asked him if he was bored. He may not have received much reading instruction from completing the 26 books, but he learned something far more important – how to make lemonade out of lemons. It was a pretty important lesson for him as he worked his way through a one-size-fits-all public school education, at least until he got to high school. There was the occasional teacher who gave him challenging work, but when that didn’t happen he found a way to be creative and make the assignment interesting. If he finished his homework very quickly, he read books at home that expanded his knowledge.

As a child growing up in the fifties, there was no such thing as boredom. My sibs and I were expected to go out and play or find something to do on our own. It helped that we lived in a two-flat with cousins close in age and in a neighborhood filled with kids who had no structured lessons, summer camps, or after-school activities. Even after we moved to the suburbs, kids were pretty much on their own. I could spend a free day riding my bike to the zoo with friends or walking to the library and taking out a pile of books.

I tried never to use the word “bored” with my own children. I suspect my grandchildren are so used to a faster-paced, programmed life that they may experience boredom if the charge runs out on their electronics or phones, or if they have a day with nothing to do. In their defense, every other kid is busy with structured activities, so down time can leave them at a loss.

It’s too bad kids no longer have the time simply to find something to do, because when they do, boredom takes a back seat to fun. Last weekend, my Indiana grandkids came to visit. We had hoped to spend time at the beach, but it rained. I have a limited number of toys, and the older ones got up super early to participate in a 10K race. When the little ones woke up at 6:00 am, I worried I wouldn’t have enough to entertain them. But after realizing we couldn’t go to the park at that hour in the rain, they asked if I had flashlights. After two hours of playing “spying,” we read The Lorax in the dark with the flashlights. They actually had a great time, and no one was bored.

I invite you to read my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real and join my Facebook community.

Why I Missed the Moon Landing by
50
(55 Stories)

Prompted By Moon Landing

/ Stories

I never actually saw the moon landing on television until long after it happened. On July 20, 1969, my husband and I were on what turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime, eight-week trip to Europe, Greece, and Israel. We had a vague notion that American astronauts had walked on the moon by looking at photos in Italian newspapers. Two days earlier, when Senator Ted Kennedy drove his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick island, killing 28-year-old passenger Mary Jo Kopechne, we also noticed pictures on the front page of papers in Florence newsstands. Neither story seemed real to me at the time as I attempted to piece together what had happened by looking at the pictures published in the Italian press. Not being able to read Italian made it challenging. But for me, these events were forever connected.

Carefree in Naples, July 18, 1969

I vividly remember the space race that was part of the Cold War with the Russians. When the USSR launched Sputnik in 1957, Americans were devasted and humiliated. Our educational system was criticized for not being able to produce scientists capable of putting a satellite into orbit first. On April 12, 1961, the Russians beat us again when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space.

It was in May of 1961, when I was in high school, that our new, young president, John F. Kennedy, made his famous moon-shot speech to Congress, in which he asked for financial support for the goal of putting a man on the moon. This was the one part of the space race where we had a chance of beating the Russians. In September of 1962, JFK spoke to a large crowd at Rice Stadium in Houston Texas to drum up popular support for the Apollo program, with its goal of landing a man on the moon.

“But why, some say, the Moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?… We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”

A little over a year later, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963, but the Apollo project continued partly as a memorial to JFK. Ironically, the man Kennedy defeated, Richard Nixon, was president when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon and proclaimed, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Trying to figure out what was happening from Florence, Italy, I may as well have been on the moon.

July 26, 1969 at the Vatican

For some reason, the Ted Kennedy disaster was a big deal in the Italian press. I guess even back then, a juicy scandal upstaged putting the first man on the moon. Thus, these two events were linked in my mind. Chappaquiddick represented the end of having a Kennedy as president again. Bobby had been assassinated a little over a year earlier and now Teddy had disgraced himself. His story was still making headlines when the moon landing, which was his brother’s legacy, happened.

I wish I had been in America on July 20, 1969, so I could have experienced the wonder of what we had accomplished with others who viewed it live on television. Instead, my husband and I traveled to Pisa the next day and took the obligatory photo in which we appeared to be holding up the leaning tower. At the time, we were blissfully uninformed about the details of landing a man on the moon. By the time we went to Greece and Israel, it was all yesterday’s news. No one seemed to be very interested.

The Manson murders happened August 9-10 when we were in Mykonos. We also missed Woodstock, spending those days in the Jordan Valley, Sea of Galilee, Nazareth, and traveling by bus to Jerusalem. By the time we returned to earth (or Chicago) on August 26, 1969, the moon landing felt like a surreal event.

Forgive me if I will always remember the moon landing as part of the summer we got away from all things American, both the good and the ugly. The summer of 1969 was the trip of a lifetime for a young married couple. We spent $1,600 of our wedding money and actually managed to stay within Frommer’s Europe on $5 a Day budget. We celebrated our first anniversary marveling at the Chagall windows in Jerusalem. Although we missed the moon landing, we were over the moon sharing our amazing journey.

August 16, 1969 at Bet She’arim

I invite you to read my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real and join my Facebook community.

 

 

 

 

<< Older posts