The Aftereffects

Alfons J Kazmarski, Army of the United States Technician Fourth Grade, 115th Quartermaster Bakery Company, Asiatic Pacific Theater, India, enlisted 11 May 1942, discharged 21 Mar 1946.
Alfons J Kazmarski, Army of the United States Technician Fourth Grade, 115th Quartermaster Bakery Company, Asiatic Pacific Theater, India, enlisted 11 May 1942, discharged 21 Mar 1946.
Alfons J Kazmarski, Army of the United States Technician Fourth Grade, 115th Quartermaster Bakery Company, Asiatic Pacific Theater, India, enlisted 11 May 1942, discharged 21 Mar 1946.

My father and I were in the kitchen of the house where I grew up one morning in 1987, having a nice conversation. This was not a typical event because I’d never had a substantial conversation with my father before that, nothing more than one-word answers or brief sentences.

I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, but I think it was just chit chat, something about the weather, maybe a news story or something. Winter morning sun streamed through the windows over the table and in the back door and diffused through the white sheers on the dining room window in the tiny ranch house as we stood there exchanging words. He spoke with some animation, responding to what I’d said, asking questions of what I thought about something.

I was 25 and don’t remember ever hearing his natural conversational voice aside from the subdued, minimal answers he gave to questions and occasional brief comments. Just a year before he had injured himself in the small bakery where he worked, a very unusual circumstance for all the years since his childhood working in the family bakery, through service in WWII and then in other family and otherwise small bakeries after the war to that point. He was treated for the injury to his hand but the wise emergency room doctors and nurses had noticed some respiratory and cognitive issues. He was diagnosed with lung cancer the day before the Challenger shuttle broke up over the watching nation of students and teachers and citizens, and I think I cried hard for that tragedy in large part because the shock of the diagnosis had just begun to wear off. The mass was right at the point where his lungs separated from his trachea and impacted both lungs. The surgery was long and difficult, but when he was healing well physically and was not returning to a full mental state they realized his cognitive issues may not have been entirely due to the cancer.

After tests and trials of a few medications doctors determined he had parkinsonism or Parkinson Syndrome, evidencing the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease like the fixed, unblinking gaze, shuffling gait, rigidity and slow movements. The cause is usually unknown but is usually induced by certain drugs or environmental toxins, head trauma or brain damage. The doctors traced it back to a nearly fatal malarial fever my father had had while serving in India in the Asian-Pacific theater of WWII that likely caused mild brain damage at the time, but may have unknowingly caused enough damage in the right areas that he slowly produced progressively less dopamine and more symptoms over a period of decades. This concurred with what others had seen—one of his Army buddies visiting said he’d never been the same after he was sick.

By the time I remember him he was the silent, stone-faced person at the dinner table, or driving the car, or sleeping on the couch before he went to work in the bakery in the middle of the night, the person holding me in the photo.

My father and me, spring 1964.
A Conversation with My Father

Apparently the current medications and treatments were somewhat effective considering his comparative ease of movement and his conversational ability. The conversation continued for a while and then he left the kitchen to talk to my mother who was in my old bedroom at her vanity getting ready to leave the house.

“She’s a really nice girl,” I heard him say. “Who is she?”

I didn’t hear my mother’s response.

My mother was getting ready to leave the house because my father was going to the hospital for tests and observation and I was there to drive them and help them through admissions. The medications and treatments had indeed loosened up his body enabling him to move and speak as he hadn’t in years, but it wasn’t consistent. His mind was quickly becoming fragmented and he was developing frequent pneumonia and had also had prostate surgery. Because he hadn’t driven since his surgery I had arrived at the house in the morning ready to take them to many appointments during the previous year.

My father would not return from this one. After an extended hospital stay it was determined that skilled nursing care was necessary to manage all his conditions.

I was the youngest. I was the first family member my father “forgot” as his mind marched backward in time through the next four years and he seemed to relive his life in reverse, slipped deeper into dementia, and lost speech entirely along with any control over his body.

Even though my father had no idea who I was, the person he was in that moment found that I was a nice person. I’ll take that. I’d discovered with my mother under medical circumstances that the person underneath the mask of lifelong undiagnosed issues sometimes surfaces with great clarity at odd moments. I got to see for just a moment who that relaxed, broadly smiling person was in a photo I found in my brother’s baby book taken just four years earlier than the still-faced photo of him holding me.  And I found out where my deep dimples came from.

My father smiling and laughing, summer 1960
My father smiling and laughing, summer 1960

How many other families also lost a family member slowly over decades after military service? Some conditions are recognized for long-standing emotional aftereffects, like PTSD, and some for physical aftereffects, like Agent Orange and other chemical pollutants service members encountered during service. How many other children wondered who this person was, how many spouses wondered who was the person who came back, or who changed fundamentally years later?

On Memorial Day I listen to the stories of others whose loved one died in service, that horrible reality. I also remember my father whose life was fundamentally changed, and the aftereffects on the group of us, my mother, sister and brother, whose lives were very different from what they would have been otherwise.


Read an essay about the photo of that smiling man, Father’s Day.

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“Belly up to the salad bar!” a vigilant mother goose seems to say as the five goslings line up to enjoy some mixed grasses and clover. As I photographed I couldn’t believe they actually lined up like this. It’s a joy to watch such curious innocent creatures, like children exploring and playing outdoors at recess.

On my walk back from the dentist I saw a very large group of goslings, 14 at the highest count, being escorted along the edge of a parking lot by four or five adult geese. I decided to take a detour to stroll the sidewalk between that edge of the parking lot and the street, with the idea of photos in mind, of course, as well as simply enjoying the geese.

I took some wider angle photos to get the scope of this field trip, causing the goslings and the adult geese to move away from the sidewalk and into the parking lot. I changed to my telephoto lens so that I could get detail photos while I stayed far enough away from the little ones that the adults wouldn’t have to hiss a warning at me. Don’t mess with an angry gander.

The goslings were so happy. I don’t usually ascribe human emotions to animals, but each clump of wood sorrel they encountered growing though the cracks in the parking lot and sidewalks caused them to race toward it and bibble and dance a little as they surrounded it then began quickly nibbling with those little beaks. In all that, I simply sensed more than contentment from filling their bellies. “Look! Wood sorrel! It’s wood sorrel! My favorite! Come on, let’s race! It’s the best wood sorrel ever!” as they nipped all the yellow flowers and bits of the stems. “Look! It’s grass! Let’s go have some grass! I love grass!” The grass grew from a rectangular opening in the concrete sidewalk as if something set into it had been removed. The goslings hurried over, bibbling, and ran into the grass with innocent abandon, pushing through it, nipping a few pieces, then turning around to do it again as if they enjoyed the feeling of grass on their bodies as much as the taste of the grass.

In time the goslings grouped off with adults and each group went in a different direction, as if the parents had organized an afternoon walk, and now they were all heading home to enjoy a rest before a later meal. I followed one group of three littles and a male and a female as they moved across the parking lot in the direction I had come from.

We have quite a large flock of geese in this town who seem secure and content in where they live. They nest along the creek, and their little puffball children pop into the water from the greenery on the steep banks, bobbing up and down between two parents, growing, strengthening, evolving in their colors, and learning to be geese. Most pairs start out with six goslings or more by my observations and years of photos, but this family with only three goslings by this age is not unusual. There are predators, foxes and raccoons along the creek, there are high-water flows on the creek after storms strong enough to wash away small trees. Living outdoors in the wild fluctuations of a Western Pennsylvania spring in itself can be hazardous, and they cross the streets, oddly enough almost always at an intersection, and impatient or oblivious drivers run them over. Their parents’ vigilance is no match for outside factors.

This is the reality for geese living in the wild every day, and no doubt sometimes for domestic geese as well. Though they are protected by the Migratory Bird Conservation Act they are still hunted in season, not here, but not far from here. They are part of the food chain and their parents can’t protect them from that, or accidents.

And in this country today our human children are just as innocent and vulnerable as the goslings, even as their parents stand by and accept the fact they may be shot and killed while at school. At least the geese have laws protecting them as wild animals with punishments for persons who kills geese out of season, and in that way they have more protection than our children if someone with a gun decides to act out a mass murder, targeting the place where they gather, in school.

It seems children in school are always in season for mass shooters. Today was not a good day for 19 children who lost their lives, at last reporting, and all the children who witnessed and somehow survived the attack. We can stop this, but just as I can’t fully grasp the violent deaths of 19 innocent children in their school, neither can I fully grasp the motivations of those who will not work to control guns so that the possibility of this happening is at least reduced, or turn down the foul and angry rhetoric that intentionally depersonifies whole groups of people and infects and grows like a cancer in some minds. So again we give thoughts and prayers to the grieving families and the traumatized children, until tomorrow when we do it all again somewhere else in this country. Because we just did it three days ago with African-Americans in a grocery store.

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Mothers Day


My mother died on January 25, 2011, and each year around that date I remember her in a post and share the poem I wrote for her the day she died.

She had been ill for years, and this last time she’d gone to the hospital in congestive heart failure it was clear she would not recover. Kept comfortable by the hospital staff, we waited around her bed for her last breaths.

Later, after clearing out her room at the nursing home, all the necessary phone calls, a visit from a friend and more calls, I had my time alone and was up quite late. As I sat outside in the quiet of the January night watching the snow gently fill the air and fall whispering in a soft blanket on all around me, the poem came to me in nearly one complete piece. So that I would not distract myself from the flowing words in my head I carefully went inside and tiptoed to my desk for a tablet and pen, quietly went back outside to the swing and wrote it down slowly, line for line, all as if I was afraid I’d scare it away, all the beautiful words I’d been thinking, or maybe I’d break it, like a bubble. I changed very little in a rewrite.

I read this poem at her memorial. And I had decided I would go through with my poetry reading scheduled for just two days after my mother died, because it was an opportunity to share her with others and to read the new poem.

I could never encapsulate 86 years of a life into one blog post or one photo or one poem. The photo above is the one we placed in our mother’s casket, her wedding photo from 1946 when she was 21 years old. The little scrap of red in the lower left corner is the red blouse she wore, the one she loved best, and I knew she’d want to be remembered in it; our mother was one who could wear a red chiffon blouse in her casket and be proud.

About My Mother

Regardless of the many outstanding qualities any person may have
we are essentially remembered for only one of them.
In my mother, all would agree
this one would be her remarkable beauty.

All through her life the compliments trailed her
as she carefully maintained “the look”, her look, so glamorous,
from tailored suits to taffeta dresses to palazzo pants,
hair perfectly styled, nails manicured and painted
a collar set just so, cuffs casually turned back,
hair worn long, past the age of 50,
a dark, even tan and shorts into her 80s,
lipstick always perfectly applied,
and even at 84
people marveled on her perfect skin,
dark curly hair,
and big bright smile.

I see that smile
when I see my sister smile,
and I see my mother’s active, athletic bearing
when I look at my brother,
and her gray eyes are mine.
In each of her grandchildren
and great-grandchildren
I see her round face,
graceful hands, pert nose,
proud upright posture
and a million other of her features and habits
and in all of us
her wild curly hair
is part of her legacy to us.

When we look at each other from now on
we will see the part of her she gave to each of us,
this little cluster of people who came from her
and who were her greatest treasure,
and when she looks at us from wherever she is
she will know that
she cannot be forgotten.

Poem About My Mother © 2011 Bernadette E. Kazmarski

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Someday They Will Sing

This is what happens when I wake up and the snow is enchanting and I hear that a maternity hospital in Ukraine was bombed by Russia and I have to do something with all of it.

Someday They Will Sing

where have all the flowers gone,
long time passing,
young ones have picked them,
every one of them
gone for soldiers,
returned to graveyards
and graveyards gone to flowers,
long time ago,
and again and again
and again
when will they ever learn,
why did they never learn

Copyright ©2022 Bernadette E. Kazmarski

(#SlavaUkraini, and for all other people oppressed by war.)

I drafted the poem on the trail on Saturday, what happens when I come face to face with nature on a trail feeling the earth beneath my feet and the sun and breeze filling my head and my thoughts. I have been singing the song since the invasion began and was singing as I walked along, and every so often wrote another line of my thoughts.

Someday They Will Sing

The song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” was inspired by a traditional song of the Cossacks, Slavic peoples who lived in rural regions of both Ukraine and Russia, though the source of the song is Ukrainian. Pete Seeger adapted some of the lyrics and wrote the first three verses in 1955, Joe Hickerson wrote the rest in 1960.

It once was that men marched off to war while women stayed behind and tended the flowers in the graveyards, but I have heard a few folk singers (can’t remember) who have sung lyrics updated to reflect that young women become soldiers as well as young men, in fact, young people of all sorts become soldiers. With both society’s norms and folkways and beloved folk songs, breaking the mold can be difficult, but I could finally feel an update was natural.

I watch the creative soul of Ukrainians in this fight, so many musicians, artists, poets, writers, playing piano at the borders, making art to describe the conflict and their opposition, making Molotov cocktails instead of beer, a brass band of soldiers standing in fatigues to play the Ukrainian national anthem around the spot where a Russian missile hit, and the least I can do is awaken my own, possibly my inheritance from my Ukrainian ancestors, to reflect my support.

Where Have All The Flowers Gone

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Barefoot on the trail six months after my hip replacement.
Barefoot on the trail six months after my hip replacement.
Barefoot on the trail six months after my hip replacement.

“Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.” ~Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

My mother told the story that, when I was a baby, she just couldn’t get any shoes on my feet. Whether the baby shoes or the knitted booties, I would kick and curl my toes. Eventually she got them on, but as soon as I could, I took them off. I apparently learned this wasn’t a good thing soon enough since I wasn’t arriving barefoot at school or when visiting relatives.

But I clearly remember going out the back door to the yard and taking off my shoes on the porch when I was young enough I had to stay in the back yard. Later, I can picture myself taking off my shoes and stuffing them into my pockets or leaving them somewhere I could retrieve them before heading out on one of my “hikes”, day-long walks I’d take alone, feeling the cool earth and grasses in the abandoned pasture near our house in the morning, steaming pavement under my feet on roads in mid-summer, the cool tickling of the water in our shallow local creek as I walked down the center of the channel, though it was so polluted I’m surprised it didn’t strip off my skin.

I always managed to keep my shoes on at my workplaces, unless I worked late and happened to be the only person there. Around the house, unless it’s cold, and even sometimes then, I am barefoot, or I’ll put on a pair of socks if my bunions start to hurt from the cold. Except for cutting the grass, or if I’m working in a particularly rough area of the yard…barefoot in my own back yard.

When I started walking and biking public trails, I tended to keep my shoes in cooler weather, but even now, when temperate weather arrives, my shoes are once again tucked into pockets or backpack or even my camera bag. I even ride my bike barefoot, except if I’m on a public street.

Mist remained among the trees like an unworded thought.
Mist remained among the trees like an unworded thought.

So it was yesterday, as early as March 5, when the temperature hit 72 degrees locally. I took two hours in the afternoon to walk some of my favorite trails up and down hills along the Panhandle Trail, not far from me. The sun was bright, the trees still bare, the shadows misty and mysterious. Chickadees chick-a-dee-deed among the branches and blue jay screeches echoed up and down the hills, woodpecker hammerings heard like distant construction and I found the litter of wood chips they’d left behind. The leaves that had fallen last autumn were flattened against the earth, but fluttering in little circles just above the packed clay of the trail as breezes whistled down from the sky and around and past me.

The trail had been a railroad line and at some points is very deep in a valley. I walked up and up and up a north-facing hill, then across, then up, then around, following a trail that pulled my feet to it, tracking bright green mossy logs and trickles of water, all the while feeling the soles of my feet press against the earth and bounce back up, feeling the energy seep into my feet and legs, feeling a long week spent in a chair at my computer relax out of my back and shoulders, hips and calves, in a way that walking in shoes can never do.

Some mud between my toes.
Some mud between my toes.

I feel fully a part of all that is around me, I am not an observer but am as essential to the day as the birds and their songs, the sun and wind, the trickling water, and even the laughter of children, the muted conversations, the barking of dogs on their leashes rising up from the trail far below and drifting through the woods around me. Though I am alone, I am part of of all that is this life, and contribute my part just by existing within it.

Some people, not necessarily scientists, insist there is a positive return for humans to walk barefoot, that it helps your immunity to come in contact with all that’s on the earth, that the earth itself has an energy we absorb that contributes to our general wellness, that walking on the earth makes us literally “grounded”, firm in our selves, our needs, our own truth.

I’m not concerned if there is scientific proof for this one. Apparently it works very well for me, and I’ll continue as long as I can. If you haven’t, give it a try sometime. I understand it can be uncomfortable if you are accustomed to shoes, but in time the joy of feeling the earth beneath your feet is as good as feeling the warm sun on your face in spring.

Have to clean my feet before I get in the car.
Have to clean my feet before I get in the car.

“The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment, to appreciate the peace and beauty that are available now.” ~Thich Nhat Hahn, Teaching Peace

NOTE:  at this time of fear and sadness in Ukraine, I will add that I am of Ukrainian heritage, and though I never knew that country, never even knew the grandparents who came from there, I feel that my connection with the earth, my love of nature and animals, and my creative spirit all derive from this heritage. I am so sad to see these people crushed by autocratic terrorism. No one on this Earth deserves to suffer in this way. I am putting my heart and my hope with the strength and independent spirit of the Ukrainian people, as well as the rest of the world, as we pull together to oppose this war, and hopefully, all wars.

Resources to read a little more about walking barefoot:

“Walking Barefoot Can Make You Happier & Healthier”,

“Going Barefoot Is Good for the Sole”,

“What is ‘Earthing’ and can it improve your health?”

Celebrate barefoot walking

Here are two paintings I’ve done, and added text to prints as well.

Running Throught the Woods: Kahlil Gibran
Running Through the Woods: Kahlil Gibran
Paths I Have Walked: The Miracle
Paths I Have Walked: The Miracle

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Strength and Independence

1911, my grandmother on the right in the darker dress, as a young teenager soon after arriving here.

In 1910 my mother’s mother, Paraskewia Swentkowsky, emigrated to America from what was then called Ukraine. She came from a village near Lviv, in an area that in any given minute in that era between Czarist Russia and WWI could have been ruled by the Russians, Poles, Hungarians, Austrians or Germans.

If not for the courage of that young teenager sent over here for a better life than what that turbulent country in that violent era could offer, I, or some version of me, might be in the midst of a Russian invasion right now. That is, if we had all survived being in the stomping ground in WWI, starved and slaughtered by Stalin before WWII, being stomped on again during WWII, and living imprisoned in the USSR until the early 90s when the country broke up and Ukraine finally became an independent country.

She had lost both parents and as an orphan been moved around from one relative to another on the small plots of land they farmed. As a young teenager someone packed her off to the land of opportunity, alone, to meet up with a few relatives who had already emigrated. I know nothing of her life before she emigrated aside from that legend, and nothing of her journey, except that she had had her long blonde hair shaved off at Ellis Island because of lice, and it grew back in strawberry blonde. That was apparently a more interesting detail to my mother than how a 13-year-old got from New York to Carnegie, PA to join up with distant relatives and start a new life, not speaking English, with no education, and probably very few skills that matched with jobs in this land so very different from the one she’d left.

But she did, and lived as full a life as one could live in America in the aftermath of WWI, the Roaring 20s, the Great Depression, WWII, and the Happy Days of the 1950s. She died when I was very young so I never got to know her or hear her stories.

But I know that Ukrainians, and Poles, the other side of my family, having lived through generational traumas of wars and famines for centuries, are strong and determined people, and have fought for their independence as individuals and as nation every time the invading force looked away for a moment. As they watched this act of war become a reality, they could have looked at the overwhelming monster coming to stomp on them and either run away or capitulated, but they did not. This act of war will not end well for anyone, but my bet is that the Ukrainians, especially with the support promised by the rest of the world, will have their freedom, and their country, at the end.

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Living Up to The Dream

Favorite feral tabby.
Favorite feral tabby.
Favorite feral tabby.

This year the message on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is to not celebrate, but activate. Take an activist role in achieving his dream of equality and justice for all, for righting the historic wrongs done to black people as well as the wrongs still done today, and most of all to pass laws to ensure the right to vote.

Equality in opportunity of all sorts and inclusion in society’s processes is still not achieved if we look around us, recognize the portion of the local population that is black or non-white, and see that they are not represented in anywhere near the numbers they should be to truly be included in decision-making anywhere, in government, in business, even in individual workplaces.

One of those areas where black representation is deficient is animal welfare. In leadership positions at shelters and humane organizations of all sizes, the representation, or lack thereof, is embarrassing. Yet about a century ago black people were leaders in the nascent animal welfare world in this country, even as they worked for the welfare of their own people in the era of segregation and Jim Crow, often at risk to their own lives. Coming around to today and studying the history of animal welfare, we don’t see those pioneers. They are barely mentioned, removed from the stories, just as their accomplishments and their selves were removed from the history of societal changes in this country.

This is an excerpt of an essay I published on The Creative Cat in honor of Martin Luther King Day. Please visit The Creative Cat to read the rest of the essay: Living Up to The Dream

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I Don’t Want to Be Colorblind

I Don’t Want to Be Colorblind

I Don’t Want To Be Colorblind

I don’t want to be
I want to paint
what I see,
the colors of our faces
like flowers,
not different
but tones of each others’
as we turn toward the light,
we blend so beautifully.

poem and artwork © 2014 Bernadette E. Kazmarski

The illustration above is a sampler of all the shades of pastel I’ve used while painting portraits and sketches of people of all different “colors”, skin tones and ethnicities. All of them appear in all skin tones. Tell me, who is “black” and who is “white”? And what does “colored” mean?

In truth, we are all “colored”. Each of our faces has the darkest and lightest tones and all those in between, and even some colors we’d be surprised to find in skin tones. I can tell you that all the colors I smudged there have appeared in the highlights and shadows and mid-tones of every face. It largely depends on where you are standing in relation to the light.

Some people have suggested that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of black children and white children going forward hand in hand, the ideal of seeing a person not for the color of their skin but for the content of their character, had the goal of a “colorblind” society. That’s a noble ideal on one hand, where we just don’t notice the color of a person’s skin in any situation and go on from there.

But does that truly bring justice to wrongdoing and change society in a way that makes the injustice people have suffered because of that color unacceptable? To suddenly begin to ignore the color of a person’s skin and jump immediately to integration is to jump right over the injustices done to people because of the color of their skin. It’s also ignoring an essential part of another person, shutting the door on a section of their life, a part that makes them distinctive. King did not use the term “colorblind” in any speech or written document, but his point is described by historians as a more “color aware” society where we recognize our differences, celebrate them and thereby heal through those very differences among ourselves.

When I create a piece of visual artwork I look for what makes the subject inspiring to me, what makes it distinctive, what makes me excited to share it with you. I like contrasts, I find what makes my subject different in its class, what makes it stand out from its surroundings. It’s my joy to find and share “the extraordinary in the ordinary”. If everything I painted looked the same, what need would there be for artwork?

Looking at people has always been like looking at a field of flowers for me—I find it hard to settle on one before I skip to another while I enjoy the visually exciting effect of all those different colors and shapes and heights and structures. Then I can can pause on each one and get to know each in its own unique detail.

When I rode the bus, long before I painted anything let alone a human portrait, I quietly studied all the faces around me for color and shape and texture, eye color, the hair that framed it, accessories and jewelry, and was often started by a stern expression of someone who didn’t understand why I studied them so intently. I was just looking for the things that made them unique and beautiful—not in the classic sense of beauty but in the classical sense, in that beauty is truth, in being true to who we are inside showing that on the outside, like the flower in the field that can’t help but be what it is.

If we are colorblind, we intentionally ignore some of the fundamental differences that make each of us irreplaceable. That denies a basic part of our personal existence and of human existence as a species; it denies a portion of our very identity as an individual.

That takes an awful lot of effort. Why not admit to our differences and get to know each other in full, and find the beauty in each of us. We have always been and will always be different from each other and might as well get used to it.

This 1996 essay entitled “Misusing MLK Legacy and the Colorblind Theory” explains more about King’s “color awareness”. This essay can also be found on a new site:


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Indigenous People’s Day

Autumn in the Valley, pastel, 31″ x 27″, 2010 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski
Autumn in the Valley, pastel, 31″ x 27″, 2010 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski
Autumn in the Valley, pastel, 31″ x 27″, 2010 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

Growing up in this hilly tree-covered landscape festooned with waterways I loved the land I walked on. That love formed my forever connection with it through my art and photography and just to be, wading the streams, standing in falling snow, walking barefoot on the soil and feeling the strength of the earth through the soles of my feet, growing my vegetables and flowers.

I had no idea that the “Indians” people spoke of when I was little weren’t the western savages they’d been made out to be, but had actually been people who lived where I stand now. In time I found the truth of what happened to them. They had been forcibly removed from the land they had loved for centuries, living in harmony and leaving very little but footprints, and then their culture was removed from them wherever they lived. This had once been a fertile hunting ground, a summer home, or a permanent residence. I lived where others once lived, they were removed so that I could be here. I wondered why no one seemed to know this, and no one seemed to care when I tried to tell them. I wore my long hair in two braids in support and memory of those who had once stood on the hilltop where our ranch houses were built and watched the sun set. It was about as much as a preteen girl could do in those days.

Once I learned the truth, as I explored the farm fields overgrown with grasses and native plants, and wandered the woods still bearing tall sturdy oaks and understory trees with fruits and nuts, and the occasional deer and fox, I thought of other children my age, who loved as much as I did the whispering among the trees just before sunset, feeling the grasses brush against bare legs on a sweet summer morning, following the song of each bird, and the wonder of watching seeds sprout and grow into food that you will eat. I still feel a sadness, even in my joy.

Finally, we are reckoning with what we’ve done, not only to millions of individuals over hundreds of years right up to today, but to entire cultures, and to the land itself. And still, it’s a fight to start setting things right. It’s about time we finally let go of the “discovery” myth and replaced that day with recognizing and celebrating the people who were here first, and loved this place with all their hearts.

About the artwork

Sloping hills blaze with autumn color at a rocky, rippled bend in Chartiers Creek, yet on the horizon deep gray-purple clouds hover; although the day was sunny I remember it being distinctly chilly with a sharpness to the breeze, especially on the water in a canoe, and winter is literally on the horizon.

My painting “Autumn in the Valley” depicts the Catfish Path, as the original inhabitants of this area called it because of its bounding population of catfish. It is the only navigable waterway of all the small tributaries into the Ohio River in this area. It carried local populations up and down the valley, and hunting parties from what is now the state of Ohio into the hills and valleys where I live now, where they would hunt and fish all summer in the primordial woods and streams, then return for the winter.

We call this waterway Chartiers Creek, Pierre Chartiers being a French trader who set up shop along the way and traded with indigenous populations and Europeans. The creek runs right through the town I live in. It’s been settled along, heavily polluted by industries, cleaned up and its course amended to stop the annual flooding that covered the flood plain where most of this town is built.

I have wandered Chartiers Creek all my life, a meandering waterway that runs 52 miles along its full course, 26 miles in the part I know best, the Lower Chartiers. I have watched the waters renew, and populations of catfish and great blue herons and kingfishers return. In some areas where humanity has had very little obvious impact I can always feel the presence of the generations before me who wandered to its banks on a lovely autumn afternoon, or a summer morning, or a winter dusk after a heavy snowfall, or to see the thundering freshet of the spring thaw.

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September 11, and September 12

September 12, 2001
September 12, 2001

The mornings this September have had that particular autumnal cool with a little mist and I thought the spell might have been broken. But the morning this September 11 is sunny, blue, and warm, and eerily quiet, so much like that morning 20 years ago.

September 11

Aside from being in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, I am nowhere near New York or Washington DC. I am, however, barely an hour away from Shanksville. On the hot sunny morning of September 11, 2001, I was just finishing work outdoors in my back yard when I heard on the radio that a plane had the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Thinking it was an unfortunate accident I continued listening to the radio for details and 20 minutes later heard that a second plane had hit the South Tower and knew instinctively, as I’m sure we all did, that it was no accident.

My radar for tragedy was sensitized; just a few months before my mother had unexpectedly nearly died after lung cancer surgery, held on for six weeks then miraculously awakened from a near-coma one day and gone on to recover, rehabilitate and return home, though weak and fragile, needing my constant support. The previous year my brother had suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident and at that time lived in a nursing home 30 miles away. I was integral to their recoveries and care and was legal guardian and power of attorney, and my carefully-planned self-employment was unraveling.

When I heard the news, I was out on my garden patio by the basement door, putting another coat of paint on some vintage wooden chairs I used on my deck before winter would peel the last of it off. Garden cat Moses was dozing on the warm bricks, soaking in the sun, the tip of her tail gently tapping the bricks in contentment. I always worked in my garden and did small projects early in the day to make sure they got done before I hit my computer, and to make sure I didn’t hit the computer as soon as I got up and stayed on it all day long. It was a hot, sticky late summer morning, my verdant garden a green jungle, birds twittering everywhere stocking up for migration and winter, and work waiting for me indoors. The first report that it was likely an accident, planes had hit buildings in the past, staved off some worry. Then the second plane hit when everyone in Manhattan was looking at the towers and saw the direction, the turn, the increase in speed prior to hitting the tower, and suddenly a perfect morning had turned unreal.

Jets fly overhead all the time. I have lived in the flight path for Pittsburgh International Airport all my life, and just as close to an Air Force base, and not only do they fly overhead, they circle and slow down and make noise and fly at crazy angles as they come in for a landing. A noisy plane flying low overhead is something I didn’t even notice. But two planes had just hit the two towers of the World Trade Center and a third had hit the Pentagon. I suddenly noticed that the sky was very quiet for that time of the morning.

After the plane hit the Pentagon, I put Moses inside the basement, much to her consternation, as if she needed to be protected from what might be happening, and I suddenly felt exposed under the clarity of that blue sky. As the story grew I thought of my mother and brother and if I should get them and put them somewhere just to make sure they were safe too. Everything seemed suddenly slightly askew.

Then in the increasing quiet as traffic cleared the roads, in that empty perfect clear blue September sky, a single plane went overhead and my hackles rose, a cold tingle running to my fingers on that warm morning as I watched it seeming to struggle through the sky overhead. Shortly thereafter we heard about the crash in Shanksville and I imagined the comforting familiarity of perfect green rolling hills of my Western Pennsylvania home bathed in morning sun, now wrenched open and strewn with the wreckage of violence.

I hurried inside, no longer feeling safe under that warm blue sky. I thought of my mother in her home about a mile and a half away, still weak and needing daily assistance for most activities, many prescriptions and home oxygen. If all this was suddenly disrupted, what would I do? Should I go to her house now? Should I try to get her to a more secure place, like a hospital?

And my brother in the nursing home 30 miles north of me, continuing his recovery from a traumatic brain injury the previous year, also requiring a lot of daily care, medications and supervision. Should I try to move him closer? What if I couldn’t get to him?

And my sister a few miles away with her younger daughter and grandchild? And my niece and her three babies, one of them just six days old, a few miles in the other direction? Should we all find a place to go?

Anyone else would have run for the television, but I didn’t have one then, and I don’t have one now, so I never got to see the very first images that showed up on CNN that morning, heard the fear in the newscasters’ voices. I listened to the familiar voices of the local and NPR reporters describing the events on my radio, feeling calmer listening to their words and being able to move around my house than I would have being trapped in front of a television. I called my mother and later went to her house and watched there.

Did any of us know what to do in those first hours and days, even those of us so far from the terrible scenes of death and destruction more horrible than we could imagine?

It wasn’t until the gentle, perfect beauty of September 12 that the effects of what had happened became reality for me. Not only do I live very near Pittsburgh International Airport, I am also at the intersection of two interstates right outside of Pittsburgh and hear the noises of all this traffic every day, especially in the morning. The next day, with travel restricted on land and in the air, was so eerily quiet. The beauty of the warm sun and clear blue sky, the peaceful twitters of birds and hum of bees we could rarely hear with traffic and daily noises, the clear views of the tree-covered hills made the morning seem like paradise at first, as if everything would be okay after all. But the clear stillness became unnerving as the hours of daylight passed and we had no more of our questions answered, nor knew the extent of the damage and death as it was still unfolding in all three areas.

Perhaps those perfect September days were given to calm us before we learned how our lives had changed.

September 12

Today looks no different from yesterday
but forever against the backdrop of a blue September sky
we will now remember the loss of our innocence.

September 11 was a blur of images and fears and unknowns, and for me it wasn’t until September 12 dawned and brightened into another seemingly perfect September day, blue sky and all, that what had happened, and the permanent change it brought, really settled in.

poem September 12 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

Read more:   Essays   ♦  Short Stories  ♦  Poetry

All Rights Reserved.   ♦   © Bernadette E. Kazmarski   ♦


Visit my PATREON page.

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