Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Time A Jew Partnered With the Klan For Justice

I published his back in March when I was just beginning to blog.
since I had few visitors then, I'm guessing that few of you have read this. So I'm repossting what I think is a fascinating story!

I swear this story is true. In her final years, I met and befriended a sweet old Jewish woman named Miriam, who is no longer with us in this world. Or perhaps she is, and I can just no longer see her. Miriam died about 5 years ago. She was 93 years-old when she passed from this life and I still remember what a big heart she had. She loved to tell stories of her childhood and parents and the people she knew and loved. The year before she died, I visited her in Corpus Christi, and we sat together on her sofa and talked. She told me this story, which I am now about to pass on to you.

When Miriam's father, Hiram, and her mother, Hannah, emigrated to this country, they entered through Ellis Island, like many refugees from all over the world. After being processed and checked for head lice and other contagious illnesses, they were allowed to pass through customs, and, mingling with the many other tired strangers, they headed for the train station.

They bought train tickets with their meager remaining money and headed south, thinking south was about as good a direction as any, having no other intuitive or directional compass. They did not know anyone in this strange new country, but they were determined to make a new life free from religious persecution.

When the train finally reached the end of the line, they found themselves alone, standing by the tracks in a small rural decaying Mississippi town. Without anywhere else to go, however, Hiram and Hannah decided to stay there and raise their family. It was a time of fear mixed with expectation and hope, each day taking their feet further along the path into the unknown and away from their past.

When they got settled, they discovered that there was another Jewish family living there, also immigrants, also from Eastern Europe. The father of that other family hired himself out as a handyman, finding work where he could. Times were tough, but they all got by, and were always able to put some food on the table.

This small Mississippi town was all-white and all Protestant, except for these two Jewish families with their strange traditions, odd way of dressing and thick accents. And although many in the town looked down upon these two families, they were tolerated because they had skills the community needed.

The Black families, most descendents of freed slaves, lived in their own community a few miles down the road, not exactly being encouraged to settle near the whites. Catholic immigrants, especially the rowdy intemperate Irish and noisy Italians, were looked upon with suspicion. These townspeople didn't especially cozy up to Pope-lovers either. They shimmered with an inbred quality reminiscent of the story of Narcissus, who saw his reflection in the mirror, and fell in love with himself.

Miriam’s father was a cobbler, and after a time, his hard work paid off and he was able to open a small shoe store. They co-existed peacefully with their neighbors, for they maintained a humble profile (code for knew their place) and kept to themselves.

There was a bit of trouble once when Miriam was a teenager. She was given the title of Tri-County Beauty Queen, for she was the most beautiful girl in the three neighboring counties. Miriam didn’t exactly brag about her youthful good looks, she was beyond that when we met, but I saw a picture taken on her wedding day, and she was quite lovely.

The town had never selected a Jewish girl as the County Beauty Queen before and some Klan members were not happy with the election results, especially those who had daughters of the right age. These men and some women saw Miriam's reign as an insult to white American womanhood, saw Miriam as taking this title from their own girls.

Some muttered that the coveted position of Beauty Queen was something that defined the town, and should be given only to white Christian girls. They felt in her winning as if something pure, some part of their tradition was now lost to them, as other Southern traditions had been lost in the Civil War. The Civil War always lurked in the background of their psyches, never to be forgotten, never to be forgiven. It was an invisible cord that both bound them together and strangled their ability to change and move forward.

When the radiant Miriam rode in the parade float down Main Street, triumphant and somewhat giddy, she was unaware of this ill-feeling toward her. In an instant, she said, she went from ecstatic to terrified, as the float was doused with kerosene and set ablaze by one of those unhappy lost men.

The hem of Miriam’s dress caught fire, being one of those ruffled Southern confections. She nearly burned, but for the quick-thinking efforts of a classmate, a young man who grabbed a blanket and smothered the flames on her dress, leaving her with only minor burns.

But the fact of Miriam being set on fire for rising above her station is not the story I want to tell. This is a story about domestic violence .

Making a Deal with the Devil

One day when Miriam was a small child, years before the Beauty Queen incident, she was playing with marbles on the wooden floor of her father’s store. She was young, about 6 years old at the time, so this would make it around 1913, right before World War I. When the other Jewish family came into the store to buy shoes for their children, Hannah noticed that there was something wrong with the Jewish man's wife. His wife kept turning away and hiding her face.

Hannah quietly went over to her, to ask a question, and saw the dark bruises hidden beneath her headscarf. Her question died away and she said nothing, when, looking into the woman's eyes, she saw her shame. She knew what caused those bruises. Hanna knew, in the way, that women sometimes know these things, that her husband was beating her.

Hannah was disturbed. Jewish men were not supposed to beat their wives. It was wrong and made all Jews look like animals. Back in the old country, the extended family, the community and the Rabbi worked together to stop this sort of thing, but there were no Jewish relatives, community or Rabbi here, only these two families.

The pieces came together in Hannah’s head. She had visited the woman a number of times over the years, bringing food and other small gifts, as she knew they were poorer of the two families. In this farming community, poor was always a relative term.

The woman always made excuses not to visit her back, but neither Miriam, or, I suppose, her mother Hannah, took "no" for an answer, both being strong, determined women with a stubborn streak. The woman finally confided that her husband didn’t like her to leave the house and got very angry when she disobeyed him.

She told Hannah that she knew a good wife was supposed to obey her husband, so she couldn't leave the house without his permission. Besides, she added, it only made it worse, because he drank and took it out on her and the children.

Hannah knew she had to do something, but didn’t know what. She prayed for guidance. Then she talked to her husband, asking him to reason with the man, but Hiram refused. Hiram said it would do no good, the man was a brute. But Hannah persisted and kept pestering Hiram until he threw up his hands in resignation and decided to take drastic action if only to get some peace and quiet at home.

It was in the late summer when the local sheriff came into Hiram’s store. Hiram approached him because he knew the sheriff was a Klan member, if not the leader. In small Mississippi towns, there are many secrets and no secrets.

These were not good times for a lot of folks economically, and this man had five children. Shoes for five children cost a lot, relatively speaking. Hiram asked the sheriff if he would like free shoes for all of his children to help them start school. The sheriff, not a stupid man, understood that Hiram wanted something, and they talked. In fact, they came to an understanding and the sheriff went home that night with new shoes for all of them.

A few nights later, there was a burning cross in the front yard of the abuser’s home. The Klan members called him out into the yard and hit him a few times, not enough to really damage him or keep him from working, but hard enough to hurt and to mark him. The Klan leader, in full regalia, told him that if he ever hit his wife again, they would kill him and burn his body in the woods. They put the fear into him.

And after this "come to Jesus meeting" he never hit his wife again. And that is how Hiram ended one family’s domestic violence problem in Mississippi and the strange, unholy alliance between one Jewish man and the Klan.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

And The Survey Says

A new study shows that altruistic love is related to happier marriages. I read this with interest being married to a very giving person who washes all the dishes and is a great cook. (Hey, I do all the laundry and am a fanatic duster and cleaner of dog fur!!) I also share the cooking, but I’m not sure that this is what the article is really talking about. However, these are the issues often seen in many marriages, besides the usual stressors around money, sex and power.

The article looked at empathy; who has it, who doesn’t and who is willing to give a kidney or take a bullet if needed. Findings indicate that those marriages where one partner places the other person first seem to have a higher success rate. I guess the marriages where one spouse is secretly dating other people is considered less empathetic and altruistic, and is a marriage deal-breaker for a lot of folks.

Here are a list of findings and my commentary on the side:
“Smith also analyzed empathy, described as feeling protective of others or concerned for the less fortunate. Some of the findings:
• Women have a greater feeling of empathy than men. (Well, I think most people would go along with this one. However, it’s important to note that there are a lot of non-empathetic women out there at least once a month.)
• Children from two-parent homes are more empathetic. (Unless there is domestic violence going on in the home, emotional abuse, neglect of the children, drug abuse and/or alcoholism. Some kids in bad situations become really empathetic, others don’t, but may role model the abuser.
• Girls raised by a single father are the least likely to develop empathy. (No mother to role model empathy?)
• Financial status bears little on altruism or empathy. (Agree with this one…emotional development is not dependent on your pocketbook, race, or religious views, with the exception of those religions that favor child sacrifice.)
• People who vote are more empathetic and altruistic. (Disagree with this one, after all, I assume Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfield both vote.)
• Empathy is higher among those who fear crime. (Those who fear crime may have had first hand experience with the pain of being a crime victim.)
• Empathy is higher among those who support increased spending on social programs.“ (Where this gets confusing is when you look at those who don’t want ANY spending on social programs, and who vote that way.)

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

So Many Ways to Scream

Edvard Munch's The Scream took shape while painter was walking along a road called
Ljabrochausséen in Oslo.

Recent political opposition to the war in Iraq has inspired internet artists to create another reason to scream.

Angels in The Architecture


I was thinking about my maternal grandmother recently. This is a picture of her, standing with her younger sister, Marion, whom we knew as Aunt Teet.

Although few people know this, she was probably responsible for ending World War I. She had a steel will, a great laugh and a strong impact on my life. When I was a child she lived about two miles away from us and was a frequent presence in my life. She was a good cook and often brought over desserts or came just to visit and talk. My grandfather, who had planted multitudes of red amaryllis around the entire house, often went outside to tidy up the flower beds.

Momo, as we called her, made most of my clothes since I was the only girl in the family at the time and she loved to sew. By the time I was 6, all I had to do was draw a picture and she would whip up a pattern and make whatever I desired, not that I cared much what I wore at that age. I remember drawing a picture of myself sitting on the bank of a creek with a cane fishing pole. By my side there was a can of worms. I was sort of a tomboy. I loved to go down to the "scramble tracks" as we called it with my brothers to find crawdads in the storm ditch by the woods.

I showed her the drawing and asked for a simple dress with that picture on the front. She nearly laughed herself silly. She told me with tears in her eyes that it would be very hard to find fabric with worms printed on it. She made the dress, but we substituted another fabric, although I cannot remember what it was. What I do remember was that she took me to J.C. Penney’s and let me pick out the fabric I liked, which made me feel very grown-up and tremendously pleased with myself.

Here is a picture of me and two of my four brothers when I was in about the 4th grade. She made my coat. It had a velvet collar. We are standing in front of my dad's 1950 Studebaker.

Even as an old woman, Momo had a beautiful smile, with deep dimples and blue-gray eyes. Her skin was white as milk and as a young woman, her hair was a rich sable. Her sister, my Aunt Teet, once told me that when Alice was young, she was called “The Belle of New Orleans” because she was so beautiful and had so many beaus.

My great-aunt Teet was not beautiful, but she was handsome and original-looking, which I thought was more interesting. She had a clever, frank and generous disposition and her eyes twinkled when she looked at me. Some people just look at you when you are a child, but I liked it when their eyes looked into mine and saw me.

And I liked to look into grownups eyes and "see" them, which sometimes made them uncomfortable. Sometimes I made grownups look back at me so they wouldn't underestimate me just because I was a child. I let them know I was watching them. It was my way of feeling that power of the stare and showing them that I knew my own worth, so they'd better not trifle with me.

But I digress. Teet was never jealous of her sister, in fact, she probably did not care for beaus. Or for being pretty. She was quite intelligent in a thoughtful way, a voracious reader and was hooked on the New York Times crossword puzzle, which she did every night in bed up into her early 90s.

I have a picture of her on a horse in English riding jodhpurs. She dressed well, never married and was a career woman before women managers were accepted in the workplace, especially in the South. When I traveled to Tulsa for her 80th birthday party, she wore a sweatshirt with “The older the violin, the sweeter the music” printed on the front. She laughed at her many wrinkles and said she was just glad they didn't hurt.

Aunt Teet and her schoolteacher companion, whom we called Aunt Susie, lived together for 50 years in Tulsa and were devoted to each other. They took trips around the world together and brought back fabulous slideshows for us to see of Hawaii, Paris, Italy, all exotic faraway destinations for a kid growing up in Texas. My mother adored her aunt, and my grandmother was also close to her sister.

My grandmother, Alice Madeline Leleu, was a devout lifelong Catholic. She collected angels before angels became acceptable icons among the Protestant sects. Her house, kept meticulously, was full of angels. She had big ones, small ones, paintings, sculptures and angel coffee cups. She even had pink ceramic mother and baby cow angels with wings and shiny gold haloes. In retrospect, she was probably somewhat obsessive-compulsive about all her enthusiasms, but I just thought she was fun.

The walls had special shelves that my grandfather made to hold her collection of over 2,000 angels. We always knew what to get her for her birthday. A trip to the dimestore and we would bring her our small offerings. She prized our gifts with all the reverence she gave to the ones her brother brought back from Denmark or Italy, where he lived for a time.

But her angels weren’t just for show. She was in relationship with them. She talked to them daily, asked favors and made deals. When she needed a parking space, she would start talking to them while we were still about a block away from our destination. She would said, “OK, little angels, fly your little wingies and find me a parking spot.” She said you had to give them travel time to get the job done. Sure enough, there was always a car pulling out right near the door of the department store. I don’t remember her ever not getting what she asked of them.

My grandmother was born in 1898 in New Orleans’ French quarter. She lived on Canal Street in a house that was torn down many decades ago. Her father, a Sorbonne-educated artist, grew up in a 16th century chateau in the south of France. Her mother was of Irish descent, the daughter of an engineer who oversaw the building of the New Orleans canal. Alice met my grandfather Joseph when she was 19. Her mother died a few years earlier from what we believe was cancer.

Joe was in the army, the youngest of eleven children who grew up on a hardscrabble farm in Severy, Kansas. He was playing the trombone in the Army band when they met at a military ball. He was 32 and not a Catholic, but she was not deterred. World War I was still in full progress and my grandfather was about to get sent to the front.

It was love at first sight, she told me. They knew each other only 5 days when he proposed. I figure that he had met his match in my grandmother. They got a dispensation from the priest and were married immediately.

Her family scraped some money together as a wedding gift to pay the hotel for their wedding night. My grandfather was leaving the next day for Europe. I remember my grandmother telling me that she prayed to all the saints and to her special angels to spare my grandfather from the war. Her French male cousins were all dead, killed early in the war, as was an entire generation of young Frenchmen and she didn’t want him to go.

She said that when she woke up the morning after her wedding, they heard a great racket down on the street. There was yelling and singing and strangers were kissing. When they opened their hotel window to ask what was happening, they were told that the Armistice had been signed and the war was over. We used to joke that she made a deal with her angels to end the war so that her Joe would not be sent away, and maybe we were right. And that’s how my grandmother personally ended World War I.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Musing About Betty Friedan

Goodbye, Betty Friedan. Your voice made more of a difference than you knew.

This is a picture of me in high school, Dallas, Texas, class of 1969. I was co-editor of the school paper and sang in the choir. In my junior year I tried to form a girls' track team. Several times a week, about six or seven of us started going out on the field after school in our ugly white gym all-in-one baggy bloomers.

I played on a girls' basketball team for 3 years before public high school when I was in Catholic schools and didn't see why we girls couldn't have a team of our own. It didn't occur to me to ask permission even though it was on school grounds, because it was after school and I mistakenly assumed that the outside schoolgrounds belonged to the community.

Our school had no sports teams for women, it was considered unladylike. Only boys could do active things, we were suppposed to be passive and cute. We were supposed to be cheerleaders to their efforts or prom queen contenders.

After a few weeks of running and jumping hurdles, one of the women gym teachers spotted us out on the school grounds and reported us to the principal. My mom got a call from him. The text of the conversation went something like this:

Principal: Mrs. N, we I am calling to let you know that your daughter has been trying to start a girls' track team. This is not sanctioned by the Dallas Public School system and we are going to suspend her if she continues to run around flaunting herself in front of the male track members in those skimpy bloomers. No self-respecting young woman should be doing that. I'm sure you'll agree with me.

Mrs. N: Well, I didn't know she was doing that, but I believe I pay taxes for both my sons and my daughters and you are not suspending her. So why don't you have a girls' track team?

We also were required to wear dresses to school, no slacks allowed. And panty hose were required. They didn't care how short our skirts were because the male teachers enjoyed it when the girls crossed their legs in class, revealing a bit of ass.

Betty Friedan wrote about what I was thinking and feeling back then, but was unable to articulate until later. And somehow I ended up working as a therapist at a rape crisis center and then, as the first staff person on our statewide sexual assault coalition.
And I no longer have to wear the damned panty hose.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Happy Birthday, Dear Kelly

To my wonderful daughter Kelly: I am so proud of you, child of my body, heart and spirit. You are a doer, a leader and a sensitive, wise old soul.

Here is the birthday cake I made early this morning, chocolate two-layer with homemade buttercream frosting and fresh strawberries.

Kay Bailey Does an Intervention on Miss Laura

The always lovely, smiling and radiant naturally blonde Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, affectionately known as KayKayKay to her friends, has called on Laura Bush to drop her mid-life crisis punkgrrrl lifestyle and return to her duties as devoted wife to W. and hostess to all blue-blooded loyal Americans.

The gently-coiffed Miss Kay Bailey has remonstrated to Miss Laura that she is not expendable to the Neoconservative movement as she is one of the few Republican Texans who not only promotes reading, but can actually read.

In a true showing of old-fashioned good-old-girl solidarity, she has offered to help Miss Laura B. break her post-midlife musical "addiction to ska music" by having an American Girl doll named after Miss Laura and allowing Miss Laura to join her own Southern Belle support group, faciliated by none other than by Sugarland's sweetheart, Tom Delay's wife, Christine.

Miss KayKayKay is best known for being the first woman to represent Texas in the U.S. Senate, the first Republican since 1875 to hold the senate seat previously occupied by Lloyd Bentsen, and the first U.S. senator from Texas to come under criminal indictment. As evidence that God works in mysterious ways, she was indicted by District Attorney Ronnie Earl of Austin Texas, also mastermind of the vicious attack against Tom Delay, but charges against her were later dropped.

Miss KKK was also a cheerleader while a student at the University of Texas, a true icon for all gently-bred patriotic women to follow and proof of her all-American, God-given femininity.

In related news, Tom Delay is allegedly spending his days in internet chat rooms sadly drinking a fifth of Jim Beam every morning for breakfast.

Miss Laura Bush, Deer in the Headlights?

Breaking news!
First Lady, the always gracious Laura Bush has announced she has formed her own punk/ska band, to be called "Deer In the Headlights," after the look often seen in her eyes. She has culled popular acclaim from her vocal talents in the recently released hit single, "Read, Read Read the Talking Points." She plans a tour of middle schools with her all girl band after her husband, George W. is impeached for the NSA eavesdropping scandal.