September 11, and September 12, 2001

September 12, 2001
September 12, 2001
September 12, 2001

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 early morning work in my garden and yard when the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Thinking it was an unfortunate accident I continued listening to the radio for details and shortly thereafter 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. The previous year my brother had suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident. I was integral to their recoveries and care, and my carefully-planned self-employment was unraveling.

When I heard the news just before 9:00 a.m. that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, 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. 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 was that it was likely an accident, planes had hit buildings in the past. Then the second plane hit the other tower, and even though we had no proof it seems we all knew it was intentional. Everyone in the area was looking at the towers at that point and saw the direction, the turn, the increase in speed prior to hitting the tower, and suddenly a perfect morning had turned unreal.

After the plane hit the Pentagon, I put Moses, my garden cat, inside the basement, much to her consternation, as if she needed to be protected from what might be happening, and 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.

Jets fly overhead all the time. I have lived in the flight path for Pittsburgh International Airport all my life and close enough 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.

Then in the growing quiet, 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, just back from several months in various hospitals after lung cancer surgery that unexpectedly nearly killed her. She was still weak and needed 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 was in a 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.

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. I live very near Pittsburgh International Airport and 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 but became unnerving as the hours of daylight passed and we had no more of our questions answered, nor know 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


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My Own Labor History

090417-IsalyApron-letter-1000px

First published in 2013

When I was a senior in high school I began my first full-time job as a cook at a local deli, Isaly’s in Pittsburgh. Working part-time nights and weekends until graduation I trained in the day cook’s position of opening the kitchen at 6:00 am to cook the lunch entrée and heat up the soups, open the doors of the shop at 7:00 am for the first customers wanting coffee and a pastry or a brown bag lunch to go, serve meals and beverages and offer counter help at all the stations as needed, plan the weekly lunch specials and soups and order accordingly, also using leftovers, with as little waste as possible, keeping the kitchen and walk-in freezer clean, and deep frying 50 pounds of fish every Friday for a community that still observed this particular weekly fasting menu. Whew!

For this I was paid my full-time wage of $3.50 per hour for all the hours I worked and was an apprentice member of the Hotel, Motel, Bar and Club Workers’ Union, a subsidiary of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union, which ensured that my employer gave me what he’d promised—a reasonable schedule for a high school student, maintaining the hours and wages agreed upon, full training for the job I would undertake, and the ability to question or file complaint if anything didn’t meet the standards we’d discussed when I was hired. In addition, the union as well as the shop oversaw my performance, that I learned what I needed to and worked as expected. I guess I did because when I graduated in June the day cook could finally retire as I undertook her 40 hours of weekly duties and also became a full union member, and received full health and life insurance benefits, guaranteed raises and vacation, pension, plus all other union benefits of assistance with further training in my field and the ability to file grievance if I felt one was necessary, and my employer could also appeal to the union if they felt my performance wasn’t adequate.

Now that’s job security.

It was 1979, minimum wage in Pennsylvania was $2.90 per hour. Using the US government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics calculator for wages and inflation, my full-time wages of $3.50 per hour today translate to $11.26 per hour. My 1979 annual salary of $7,280.00 translates today to $23,423.95. Out of my wages I paid $20.00 monthly union dues, but all the rest after taxes was mine, and with that amount of income I could have moved out of my parents’ house into my own place and started my life as an adult, purchased my own clothes, food and necessities, bought a car and other commodities, and even managed to save a portion of it for retirement, a house, vacation, or even investment. In other words, I could live independently on the salary from a fairly unskilled job with training right out of high school. There were other, better jobs as well that required more effort and paid better, I had my choice. In my little spot in the world, nearly everyone was a union member, and a choice such as this had begun many a life-long career that raised many families, bought many houses, paid for millions of college educations and built the strongest economy in the world.

My choice

What I decided to do with that money was invest in my college education. At the same time that I’d applied for the job at Isaly’s I’d also applied, very late, to a state college, urged on by my high school guidance counselor, and been accepted; I’m not sure, but I think I took my SATs when I applied and got my results just in time. While there were, and still are, a dozen viable colleges and universities in Pittsburgh as well as dozens more trade schools and even other union apprenticeships where I could have attended while living at home, my guidance counselor gently pointed me to Edinboro State College, close enough to be easy to get to and full of students from Pittsburgh but far enough that I would have to live there, because they had a good art program and I could also have the option of a teaching degree with their long history as one of the state’s oldest teachers’ colleges. I didn’t have terribly good grades or SAT scores and no distinguishing activities at all aside from the fact I’d always been praised by teachers for my art and writing, but the school wanted students, and also had the lowest tuition of all the colleges in the Pennsylvania state college system at the time. It was perfect for me, beginner that I was.

My parents wavered between ignoring the idea and disdain at the idea I wanted to go to college. My father, we learned a few years later, had Parkinson’s disease, never said much and reactions were barely detectable, but my mother laughed and said I could try this but I’d probably come right back home; I was a minor so they signed my application at least. I don’t remember the reaction when I received my acceptance letter, probably because I’d rather not remember, but my mother was further angered when, while I’d dutifully signed over all other income from part-time jobs and even grass-cutting from the age of 14, I went to one of the banks on Main Street in Carnegie and opened a bank account, depositing my paychecks and learning from the teller how to manage the register and write checks. I actually didn’t think about the impact on my mother, it just made sense.

I paid my fees to the college, bought myself a set of luggage, some clothes, a winter coat and boots for life in what I heard was the “snow belt”, and a backpack, which seemed to be de rigueur for all college students and kept all the rest of the money in the bank. My parents filled out my financial aid forms, though after my first semester I declared myself independent of them and completed them myself. My boyfriend drove me up for Initiation Day just before he left for Air Force boot camp, and I told my employer about my change of plans.

Through the rest of the summer I worked and trained my replacement. On the day I left for college my mother stayed in bed while I piled all my stuff into the back seat of my father’s olive-green Impala and he drove me up, dropped me off, gave me the only hug I remember in all my life, and went back home. After attending four years, including summers, working five or six part-time jobs on and off campus the entire time, taking the bus home only for occasional holidays, making a fair number of misguided mistakes as well as good decisions, I graduated with 178 credits out of a necessary 120 to graduate, only $700 in student loan debt and a BA in English, but I learned much more than grammar and a love of Shakespeare.

Coming back

The world had changed dramatically during those four years as the steel industry and most of the economy in Pittsburgh had totally collapsed. Within years jobs like the one I’d had at Isaly’s no longer existed, and unskilled beginning jobs were non-union, often taken up by unemployed adults, and wages stagnated. For nearly a decade all jobs were uncertain, layoffs were common—I was laid off four times in my first three years out of college—and population dropped as people left for jobs elsewhere until Pittsburgh found its feet again, in education, health care, and hi-tech development and manufacturing.

I didn’t have the chance to go on with the education I’d planned, to teach English and comparative arts at the college level and become an artist and writer in my own right; soon after I’d graduated my father injured himself at his lifetime occupation as a baker in small family bakeries, was diagnosed with lung cancer and Parkinson’s disease and both parents needed assistance of all sorts. I worked any job I could find and began freelancing even then, and by the time my parents’ situation had stabilized with my father in a nursing home and my mother settled in the house but with a car and a drivers’ license, I had some debt to remove and, after a lot of deliberation, decided not to return to school but to try to make a career out of what I could do already. After many twists and turns both in and out of my field, I ended up being a typesetter for nearly 20 years as well as installing ceiling fans for cash and decorating malls and painting signs and all else I could make out of what I’d learned in college and afterward, here I am, self-employed as an artist and writer, and now and then I get to teach something.

My personal labor history

As a young person I was able to begin the course of my adult life by choosing between a skilled job at a living wage or a college education and what that could bring me later. The minimum wage (or even the 1979 server wage of $1.81 per hour plus tips) and slightly higher wage for skilled labor were each living wages and I could either start my career right then or work my way through college because my wages could sustain those choices.

I won’t bemoan the opportunities that are no longer available. The world changes as time passes, and hopefully the changes bring not only different but better opportunities, the things to which we are accustomed are replaced with things that make our lives better and easier, education matches the needs of society and its work force. But the days of working your way through college with a bunch of part-time jobs, or being able to live independently right out of high school, are so far out of reach it must seem to most people that there really are no choices, and no place to go. I was glad for the choice of an unskilled career job that enabled me to learn true independence, save money, and help me set sail, and I’m also glad for the college degree I could afford and without which I would have ended up living in my parents’ basement for the following decades. Today, I would not have the choices I had 34 years ago, and would certainly not have had the courage to make the decision I did to go to a four-year college and see what happened. How can you look forward to your life when your future seems out of reach and unaffordable? What do determined dreamers like me do? I’m not sure, but we need to find a place in the labors of our society for everyone.


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A Conversation with My Father

My father and me, spring 1964.
My father and me, spring 1964.
My father and me, spring 1964.

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 just 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 can be induced by certain drugs or environmental toxins, and sometimes from 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. 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.

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 this was the day my father was going to the hospital for probably the last time before he entered a nursing home, 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. Happy Father’s Day, dad, either way.

~~~

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


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Memorial Day

Memorial Day
Memorial Day
Memorial Day

Even though Memorial Day was founded to memorialize the losses of the Civil War, it came to be an important day of remembrance for our losses in successive wars as conflicts came nearly every other decade in the century following. My parents’ generation called Memorial Day “Decoration Day”. It was the weekend to clear away the weeds, trim the grass, and spend time in the cemetery, and the graves of family members were decorated with wreaths and flags and freshly planted flowers, veterans or not. I’m not sure how it had lost the origin for them of remembering those who had died in service to their country but perhaps it had been the European tradition carried on in this country. Nearly everyone in my parents’ generation was touched by WWII, either in service or the hardships of living through the war years and the friends who had not come home.

I always focus on WWII, since that was my parents’ experience, all the male relatives in my parents’ generation served in that conflict, and the experience marked my own life as the generation following. My father suffered no emotional trauma in combat or in service, but another trauma to his body that we didn’t learn about until near his death that marked his life after service as well as that of my immediate family.

The collage above includes a photo of the veteran’s flag from my father’s funeral, a treasured artifact of mine, as well as the WWII section of the military wall in the Historical Society of Carnegie which bears hundreds of familiar names—names of businesses and owners of businesses, the fathers and uncles of kids I grew up with, and even husbands and brothers of others I’ve come to know as an adult. My father’s name, Alfons, and his brother’s names, Richard and Henry (his parents dispensed with the European names after the first three children), his cousin’s names, and the names of those who would intermarry with sisters and cousins are there as well.

The other image is a rare and interesting artifact from my godparents’ house, which had been the house where my father grew up, a hand-tinted photo of my father in uniform, and it’s so fragile I didn’t want to take it apart to scan it. His younger brother, who signed up at the same time, is to the right, but they weren’t photographed together and aren’t in proportion to each other. Their images were combined and hand-tinted like an early Photoshop collage, probably done quickly and by an amateur by the looks of it, and unfortunately my uncle Richard’s image was damaged by water and some odd abrasion. The frame is a wonderful round-cornered wood frame with a piece of convex glass obviously custom made for it. At some point I want to work on a little restoration for this, but for now I want to leave it as is since it’s pretty stable, and I’ve just included my father in this photo.

My father was an Army cook and baker, stationed in India during WWII. I have no stories of valiant combat service, but the troops needed to eat, and nothing was a more comforting reminder of home than familiar food in unfamiliar places. Bakers also made specialty items for officers and for troops, and as a baker, my father baked and decorated plenty of birthday cakes for the troops in his area. He’d been working in his parents’ bakery since his pre-teen years, and he was a little older than some other troops, entering service at age 23 and had plenty of baking experience for special projects.

All who serve bring back with them the traumas of their service, whether it’s their own experience or the injury or loss of a friend. My father, as an Army cook, wasn’t on the front lines risking his life but he had his share of losses of friends, and a loss of his own that we didn’t realize until later. My father had Parkinson Syndrome or Parkinsonism, and though it wasn’t diagnosed until 1984, once we learned the symptoms we realized he’d had the disease for years, likely from the time of his service in WWII. By the time I have any memory of him in the early 1960s he already had the characteristic shuffling step and stone face, silent except for one-word answers, but he never had a tremor and everyone thought he was “just like that”. He worked at night as a baker, often seven days a week, he was in his 40s, and he was always tired. That was understandable, but it wasn’t accurate.

Parkinson’s Disease was first identified in 1817 by Dr. James Parkinson, studied in the 1870s by Dr. Jean Martin Charcot and by this century the developing tremors were easily identified in many older people as a “palsy”. But because my father never had those tremors no one ever identified the other symptoms in him. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the chemical basis for Parkinson’s Disease was found, measuring the levels of dopamine in the brain which, as it decreased, caused degeneration of specific brain cells leading to the classic symptoms. Further studies in succeeding decades led to ever more information on other forms of Parkinsonism that did not evidence all the symptoms and could be caused by physical trauma or other damages to the brain, including viral illnesses and high fevers, and these were classed as Parkinson Syndrome conditions.

During my father’s service in India he was recorded to have had some type of malarial fever—not malaria itself, but there were many other tropical and sub-tropical illnesses that caused extended fevers and even death for troops who’d never encountered them, and in the days before vaccines were common. One of my father’s friends who came to visit now and then told my mother after my father recovered that he remembered the change after the fever, no more jokes or pranks, my father was just very quiet and very tired. That apparently continued all the rest of his life and as he aged and suffered other injuries and surgeries and the stress of working all night all the time, the decrease of dopamine killed off more brain cells.

What? Jokes and pranks? My father? No way! In hindsight it’s good to know what was the reason for the silence and lack of emotion, which in turn infuriated my mother and confused us kids. It would have been nice to grow up with that person who married my mother, and who created me. It is at least good to know the answer to something I’d always wondered, and on Memorial Day know that I am not alone in what we remember of those we loved, or tried to love.

~~~

You can also find this essay under Essays on this site.

I’ve written a few other things about my family’s experience of WWII and my father’s service in “The Thanks of a Grateful Nation”, and also others about Memorial Day, “Soldier” and “Memorial Day Parade”


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Mother’s Day

Petunias
Petunias
Petunias

I always had a difficult time finding an adequate Mother’s Day Gift for my mother, but at one point settled on purchasing a couple flats of flowers and planting them in her yard. I did this for nearly 20 years, also starting seeds for flowers she liked that I couldn’t find, like hollyhocks. Though my style goes for the wildlife habitat and naturally shaped areas of wildflowers and trees, my mother’s yard was carefully sculpted with edged flower beds and shaped shrubs—I know because I was the one who did all the trimming—and she never failed to sneer and ask if I wasn’t going to clean up around here when she visited, we could agree on the riot of color of impatiens, petunias, geraniums and marigolds along with the occasional verbena, alyssum and other annual bedding plants.

The flower solution was more than an answer to a predicament; it reached much deeper than that. To say my mother and I didn’t get along well is a simplification, in fact an affront, to a much deeper issue. My mother lived behind a wall of serious clinical depression, and when I was born she developed most likely a deep post-natal depression that went on for more than a year and had a negative physical effect on her too, changing her body as well as her mind for that period of time. Though she recovered from this, lost the weight and regained her self esteem she had lasting medical and physical issues for the rest of her life. A part of her always seemed to hold me to blame for that awful time in her life and the changes in her body, I could see it in her eyes every time she looked at me. She kept her distance from me, treated me differently, denied things to me and even into her days of dementia she still berated me for imagined things I’d done, never thanking me for the things I actually had done, except for one brief time in all her illnesses she really was weak enough to let the wall down.

I learned some of the explanations for this through paperwork I’d found in her house when I sold it and which I still have, finding at least partial answers to many questions regarding both my mother and my father and their actions. At some point years ago I realized depression was the issue and instead of arguing and rebelling I just decided I’d get the heck out of there when I could. I sent myself to college, and it was the break I needed.

As the youngest I was always on hand until college, and in feeling I was responsible for my mother’s happiness I became her caretaker and in one capacity or another I maintained that role for all the rest of my mother’s life, through my father’s lung cancer and Parkinson’s disease, her many surgeries and medical treatments and nursing her to health afterward, actually teaching her to drive and buying her a car when I was totally unwilling to be a taxi service, pursuing the diagnosis of her lung cancer, and shepherding her through surgery, near death, recovery, home care, personal care and skilled nursing.

But I always knew, trapped behind that wall, was a person just like me. Years ago I had begun slipping behind that wall myself and understood the perspective from that place, but I was lucky to have escaped and managed it through my adult life. Though patience and understanding wore thin and there were times I avoided my mother altogether, I would do anything to see she had what she needed.

And she needed flowers. I could do that.

~~~

The night she died I wrote a poem about her. Read, About My Mother.

I’ve written other essays about my mother, read them here.


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Essay: We Are Still Here

We Are Still Here

I watched the late afternoon light moving across the back yard at that hour when it begins to turn golden and shadows develop a violet hue. The neighbors’ houses funneled it through the tall standing pine trees into long, bright beams moving more quickly as the sun began its descent below the houses, the hill, the horizon.

Like a spotlight a few of those beams quietly searched across my back yard and touched first this, then that, a dried stalk of asters in the garden, a sprig of yellow forsythia, as if each thing it touched was equal and deserved its literal place in the sun.

The daffodils had finally had the chance to bloom in full. They are early, ambitious old daffodils dug from a long-abandoned farm years ago growing in clumps along the road to the upper pasture, likely planted decades before that. Untended they had bloomed at will, and thrived. The alternating summer-like days and single digit freezes with ice and wind in my back yard this spring were nothing compared to the many springs they had risen once again from the soil, pushed aside the leaves and raised their doubled blossoms high above their slender green fronds exposed to wind and storms on the edge of a hill.

I photograph them each year, looking for a new interpretation each year, but this year open blossoms and good light hadn’t come together in a moment that inspired a good photo.

The blossoms were a bit tattered around the edges from beginning their bloom and then stopping when the temperatures dropped below freezing for a few days, but the warm gold of their petals now that they had fully opened was undiminished. I could see the one of the sunbeams moving across them and decided the moment to catch them was now.

By the time I got to the main clumps with my camera the sunbeam had passed, but I could see by the pattern of light and shadows on the periwinkle just pushing up above last year’s fallen leaves that another one or two sunbeams were headed toward these daffodils, a set of four blossoms. I would capture their proud gold tatters touched by golden evening sun rimming each petal and its curves and tears and browned edges in bright light.

A spotlight of sun passed near them, but did not touch the flowers. I could see that another one was near, and if I could wait five to ten minutes I would likely get my photos.

Should I wait? I had planned just a minute or two outside. It was a busy day and I had work to do. I had, after all, photographed these daffodils annually for at least the past 20 years. What if I was wrong about the sunbeam, if the sun dropped behind my neighbor’s house before the sun moved into position through the pine tree? Would I waste my time?

I would see to it that even if I didn’t get the photo I had in mind, my time would not be wasted. I could sit there and think, I could plan my garden, I could write a poem, I could plan my eventual photos and get ready because the sun would be moving quickly. Five or ten minutes would be gone like the sunbeams moving across the yard.

What did I want for the daffodils in this year’s photos? I thought of the daffodils and their history, and how each year they’d bloomed so early they were sure to freeze, and they did, and then they thawed and went on their way. Not knowing how long it would be until the freeze lifted, they simply paused, and waited as long as it took. I really had no idea now long I would wait for the sun to move over them or even if it would line up with them as I envisioned. A break from my work to turn my thoughts to something unrelated, with a creative spark, was just what I needed to actually finish the job at hand. I decided I could wait too.

While milling these thoughts I watched another long spotlight, not as bright as the others but full and warm, move toward the daffodils and stretch itself out, and knew this was the one. I planned three angles, turned on my camera and waited.

I took one early photo as a portion of the sunbeam touched the daffodils, one of the ideas I’d had. It was nice, and if it was all I got it would do, but it didn’t really capture the battered daffodils warm with sunlight. I would try again.

I photographed as the beam of light reached down to touch the edges of three daffodils, I shifted a little, then all four, then it filled them all with light. It was nice from those two angles, but too literal, still not really expressing the warmth and life I felt from these daffodils.

I moved on the other side of them so that I could capture the light falling through them, instead of on them, and then it was magic. The contrast of the flowers glowing golden, even orange like a flame in the deepest areas, darkened the background of the leaf litter, twigs and branches, and even the daffodils’ fronds. I felt I’d captured the ageless warmth of these vintage daffodils. Time well spent.

Until next year.

~~~

NOTE: The six photos in this post are in the order of the six photos I captured while waiting for the sun to move into the best position. The photo at the top was the one I felt was most successful. And when I came inside I took notes on my thoughts to share.

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Essay: The Cats in My Garden

Daffodils
Daffodils
Daffodils

The re-emergence of life in my garden this spring is tinged with sadness as I picture two of my best friends, in spirit, wandering among the green and daffodils and last year’s leaves.

I have a whole household of cats and I never permit them outside to roam, although I take them outside with me while I work in the yard, retrieving them when they wander. Many years of finding and rescuing cats and kittens who have been abused, abandoned or injured makes me keep them inside except for these brief forays, but one of the things I love most about cats is just watching them be cats.

Last autumn, I lost two of them to cancer. The first was the love of my life, Kublai, a handsome, social and affectionate black cat who I met and fell in love with while was in college. More intelligent and sensitive than many people I know, he had enough love to give away and filled a void in my life while big-brothering every stray kitten and adult cat I had since brought into the house. The other was a big, quiet and gentle orange and white cat named Allegro who loved people and whose life was made complete by the presence and guidance of Kublai and me.

Kublai, tough as nails, held out against his cancer for a year with every treatment and remedy I could find for him. One of the best treatments was a trip into the yard more than once each day in my hope that the life in the garden and flower beds would help support him, but as my garden flourished I watched him decline. At the end of September, Allegro was diagnosed with a quick-moving internal cancer, Kublai died two days later, and Allegro followed him two weeks after that.

Now every spot in the yard has a memory of each of them. I have reinstated the bird bath top on the ground that Kublai used to drink out of every day right after I cleaned and filled it, and in the new columbine foliage I can almost see him lying in the shade under the trees. The new green garlic fronds remind me that I only had four more days with him and only suspicions of Allegro’s illness when I planted them. All the bulbs are up and ready in the little garden outside my dining room window that I arranged with Allegro, suddenly frail, at my side in the warm autumn sunshine just the day before he died. And as I rake up the leftover dry leaves I remember Allegro, just before I noticed any symptoms, chasing and trying to catch the first ones as they fell.

I cleaned up last year’s garden through a blur of tears and neglected many of the things I usually do and forgot things I had done, and I am almost surprised that anything is growing this year. After they died I had them cremated and sprinkled their ashes on the spots they loved best. I think it’s an expression that their love still exists that the iris, like Kublai nearly black with mahogany highlights, sprouted early and is thriving, and the carefree field poppy which is very orange, like Allegro, has already begun to spread and no doubt will bloom freely.

And in time I will forget the illnesses and in my garden I will picture Kublai lurking between the cornstalks and Allegro catching leaves with careless abandon.

~~~

I first published this essay on my cat-centric website The Creative Cat  in 2013, though it was written for publication in 1988. Some of the references might be more clear in that context, but the sentiment is probably clear even without that knowledge. I included more photos of the subjects in the post on The Creative Cat if you want to see what everything looked like.

Years ago, while I was still working in my day job, I also did a fair amount of freelancing in design, art and writing. One place I’d had a few short pieces published was Organic Gardening Magazine in the late 80s and early 90s, mostly concerning gardening but also an essay. While sorting through old files I found this essay I’d written and submitted along with another they’d agreed to publish. It seemed as if the magazine’s readers and staff were all animal lovers and even gardening stories were full of cats and dogs and rabbits and chickens who were pets, and I’d read a few essays about the losses of pets as well. Though they accepted it this was not published; commentaries such as this were usually held to be used whenever there was a space for them. Magazine staff and format changed soon after this.

But it surprised me to find this story of my household from 1996 and my thoughts in March of 1997 which I’d forgotten I’d written; behind all the correspondence about an article that had been published I saw the title, “The Cats in My Garden”, and it all came back to me. Now, as I review photos from previous years and see all those of Cookie out there with me, and Cookie and Namir in my garden and how grand those years were, and how Kelly enjoyed her visits to the yard in her last few months, I think how my household has changed through the years. Now, beginning another gardening year, I read about another spring emerging after losing two of my cats, and I watch the daffodils, crocuses and squills I planted in 1996 under Allegro’s supervision sprouting and blooming now. Kublai and Allegro were my first two losses of the cats I adopted as an adult.

There have been so many since these two, and yet the flowers we planted and the yard we loved continue to flourish, and just as the flowers inspire me to photograph and paint each spring revisiting how I’d represented them in the past and still finding something new about them, so Kublai and Allegro and all the others continue to still inspire me to create with their image, and still finding things to learn about them.

Essay: What Stays With Us

Tiny Foxtail

As the seasons change I look to nature for familiar scenes and welcome details held dear from year to year especially in my garden, my little patch of toil for the 26 years I’ve lived here. Even though I’ve worked and planted and composted and  created raised beds and paths and the site holds probably all the memories I have from living here from all the time I’ve spent working and thinking there, I still find wonders, mostly in the spring when it all feels new again after a month or two of break, and sometimes intangible wonders as well.

This year I remembered a series of photos I’d taken in March one year which I called at the time “Winter Leftovers”, thinking of the ephemeral beauty of dried plants that seemed lifeless from afar but had so much character and detail when studied up close through the lens of my camera, natural sepia tones, tiny highlights, clouds of soft fluff and tiny spiky flowers, an entire universe in miniature.

The bright spring sun had shone at an angle from a faded blue sky in mid afternoon on a day just around the vernal equinox and I was late in planting for late snows and freezes. I leave the native plants standing in and around the vegetable garden for the residents of my backyard wildlife habitat to eat from, perch on, snuggle into, build tiny homes upon to weather the dark and cold season, but I was thinking of asparagus and potatoes and salad greens and ready to work it all down and get planting.

But I didn’t. As I leaned into my spading fork the angled sun caught a sparkle on a delicate spiderweb smaller than the palm of my hand. I walked over to investigate and found a spider no larger than a grain of sand shriveled in the center. She had died long before but continued to cling there all winter long. Her web held up against any number of storms. Her eggs would have been laid on the stem adjacent to her web, and when they hatched the little spiders could have their first meal of the insects caught in their mother’s last web and use her web as a launching pad to their new life. I found the whole idea that the children the spider would never know were provided for by what she had done before she died so moving that on that bright March afternoon I put down the spading fork and picked up my camera and went through my garden looking for other such images.

All the other native plants had left behind skeletons that told stories as well, the asters and chicory and goldenrod and dock, and the effect of these was haunting, like finding a ghost town or a lost world. I photographed each desolate construction with attention to extreme details to capture the intrinsic, transient beauty of these empty shells, capturing the sepia tones, letting them say their last goodbye before the flush of new growth pushed them out of the way.

What was most surprising to me when I went to review the photos this year was when I looked at the other photos in the folder for that day, and what else I’d done in the morning. I had photos from the 54th floor of an office building in downtown Pittsburgh, quite the different perspective from the afternoon’s warm spring sun and attention to the details of desiccated native plants in my backyard garden. I’d been there for a hearing to contest matters with my mortgage company, Countrywide Mortgage, which had acquired my tiny mortgage in 2005 and had forced me into bankruptcy protection to avoid one of their illegal foreclosures in 2006. Despite the fact they and the company that took over their mortgages, Bank of America, were charged with so much wrongdoing, they still insisted I owed them the legal fees related to my foreclosure and fines on those fees and my attorney and I never did figure out what else was included in the $16,000 they said I owed them. Just the foreclosure and bankruptcy, though I owed no other debts, had hit self-employed me hard and taken time and finances away from growing my business, and keeping house and the idea of paying another $16,000 wasn’t even something I ever fully grasped because I knew I’d never come up with it.

I did, though, just not all at once, and even more than that too. Through the years after that BOA continued working out devious ways to get more money out of me. Because of Countrywide’s illegal foreclosure, for which I received a check for $300 in a class-action lawsuit, BOA was not permitted to threaten me with foreclosure, but they threatened me with everything else they could until I was finally free of them in 2013 by moving to another mortgage company, and the mortgage itself in 2016.

It’s hard to say that a decade of financial struggle where phantom fees and charges were continually and unexpectedly added to my mortgage and my mortgage payment was a horrible thing because no one could really see it but me. Despite the financial issues I would not give up my home or my business and I paid everything they asked of me. Even if I had left this place I still would have owed the mortgage and would have had to settle it and also pay for a place to live, so I decided to stay here and just keep making a mortgage payment and somehow work it out. In the end I was offered a settlement by the new mortgage company that I could afford, and I own this house, though I paid far more than was ever planned.

But the more surprising thing was that, even though that situation lasted for a decade and really just ended last year, when I remembered the “winter leftovers” and that afternoon in the garden down to the details and the sun on my back and two cats who are still very dear to me, one who I would lose later that year who were out in the garden with me, I didn’t remember anything of the hearing with my mortgage company, nothing of the struggle and hardship and paperwork and hearings that lasted a decade. I must have ridden home on the bus and looked at the perfect sunny day and decided, instead of getting right back to work, I’d steal a little time for physical effort and something I loved to do, change my clothes, get my two cats and head outside and enjoy their exploration of the spring garden and work off the morning. I only remembered the poignant beauty of what was left in my garden and the beautiful story it had told me.

Aside from those who have “superior autobiographical memory”, we can’t possibly remember everything that happens in our lives. We do make choices, even if we don’t realize. Bad memories stay with us and letting them go is almost like grieving a loss, a loss of a part of our selves that was betrayed, traumatized, or somehow hurt and must heal. But somehow the beauty and inspiration of that day washed away the bad. I’ll carry that beauty forward, and build on it, and leave the bad behind.

Here is a link to a slideshow of the photos I took that day: Winter Leftovers.

And here is a poem this day also inspired: To Come Again in Spring.


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E Pluribus Unum

Raise Your Hand, Raise Your Sign, Raise Your Voice
Raise Your Hand, Raise Your Sign, Raise Your Voice
Raise Your Hand, Raise Your Sign, Raise Your Voice

I joined in the Pittsburgh Women’s Sister March on January 21, 2017.  Though the organizer had said her initial permit was for 400 people and by January 20 only 3,000 had confirmed they were going, the estimate of participation was actually 25,000 people, whole families, of all ages, genders and gender identities, skin colors and concerns. The march was very organized and completely peaceful.

The march was part of the main Women’s March scheduled for that day in Washington D.C. and was initially focused on preserving women’s rights to employment and pay equity, reproduction and personal safety we felt we’d finally achieved. Many people feel threatened by the remarks both current and historical the newly-elected president has made about and to women as well as the acceptance and normalization of those remarks by other citizens in this country, and fear both a backlash and a change in laws regarding protections for women.

And Justice For All
And Justice For All

But no one handed out signs or banners to carry, or gave a specific reason to march. Most of the signs were handmade signaling that most people had found their own reason to join in and shared that reason with their own creation. Issues ranged from Black Lives Matter and civil rights for all minorities and people of color, LGBTQ issues including marriage equality and transgender rights to declare themselves for their own gender identity, a living wage for all workers, immigrant rights and protections, disabled rights, affordable health care and more as well as comments challenging and refuting the president’s own remarks.

You’ve come a long way, baby

In the 1970s Virginia Slims cigarettes were marketed with a clever slogan you could sing: “You’ve come a long way, baby, to get where you got to today.” A commercial illustrated that at one point in history women were not permitted to smoke and were punished for it, but now they had their very own cigarette brand. Not commenting on the clever marketing of cigarettes, smoking wasn’t the only thing women were not legally able to do for most of the time this nation has been a nation. Women were legally unable to vote until 1920, fewer than 100 years ago, so they couldn’t even use the democratic process to assure their own rights. Between the time we were finally legally permitted to vote and the early 70s we did come a long way in education , employment, housing and more, but even to today, pay equity and equal opportunities in employment are still an issue, and the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, passed by Congress in 1972, is still not ratified by all the states and has never become a part of the law of the land.

I was not old enough to be employed in the 1960s, but I remember when employment ads could specify that the job was not available to women, even if women were capable of doing the job. It was also legal when women were hired or fired based on their appearance.

I also remember when Title IX was passed in 1972 stipulating that schools receiving federal funds had to give equal opportunities to female students in academics and sports to give women an equal opportunity to distinguish themselves and qualify for scholarships or better employment opportunities after graduation.

I also remember starting to work as a typesetter in the early 80s and being told that setting type was a man’s job, even though exactly why was never explained to me, though I believe it had something to do with setting “hot type”, or making the metal plates that had traditionally been used in printing. We were computerized by the time I started as a typesetter, but apparently even composition was a man’s job.

When I began freelancing and painting signs a man complained about my $25.00 fee, adding with an ugly leer, “Sometimes you gotta give it away for free, honey.” I never again met with a comment as rude and suggestive as that one, but kept my guard up after that, continuing to freelance from then to today, and actually built my commercial art business based on those beginning freelance experiences.

When I began shopping around for my house in 1989 I specifically looked for a “carpenter’s special” that was inexpensive and that I could repair myself. I was more than competent at this after caring for my parents’ house and several rental places. I was told by more realtors than not that I should wait to buy a house until I was married, and often asked what my husband thought. When confirmed I was single I was told that I should buy a condominium where someone was around to take care of everything because women didn’t know how to do those things. After I found the realtor who looked past all that and found the house I now live in, plenty of hardware and home repair stores told me to send my husband down to pick something up when I walked in with clear and specific questions. Sometimes these comments from realtors and others were made patronizingly and sometimes very rude and insulting, but even though it was easy to prove I understood how to remove and replace a bathroom faucet it often wasn’t accepted. I patronized the hardware store that accepted my questions and always gave me the best products and other information I could use because caring for an elderly house is a learning project.

Those are the “highlights” as it were. By the 90s remarks like those still happened, but were more on more of a personal level than the institutionalized style I’d encountered before that. None of it ever stopped me.

With those instances in my experience and in my lifetime I have always been aware that discrimination against women was still alive and well, tucked into the corners, and still don’t take for granted that I can do what I please as I please to do it. Some communities still have laws regarding a man legally beating his wife, or that women are barred from certain types of employment. But even with laws in place, it’s our social culture that still permits these discriminations. I’m shocked by many of the current comments that people find normal about how women should be treated, and have been treated, to the amusement of others.

Not just women, but anyone who is “different”

Diveristy
Diveristy

And if those little bits of rudeness toward me were irritating, I can’t imagine the systemic and institutionalized discrimination shown toward people with a skin color that didn’t appear to be white, or people who loved someone of the same gender, or people who by no fault of their own couldn’t live normally in this society because of a missing limb, or sense, or a mental or emotional issue that kept them from being part of everyday life, or someone of a religion that is not Christian. In other words, people who did not fit the very narrow definition of “normal”, defined by whoever was in power at the time. If I feel that my rights as a woman, so long established, could be easily swept away, I can’t imagine the rights of those so newly won, in the past eight years.

Most of those in power have been white and men. When it’s taken these many years for women and others to finally feel we have protections that allow us to live as full members of our society, those who made the laws did not include everyone in the laws explicitly or by inference and we feel we need representation that resembles us and in the approximate number that exists in our population. Without it, legally or socially, the progress that has made in accepting all the diversity in this country could simply be lost.

So what were we marching for? To not be forgotten. To hold onto what we have. To be recognized. To not forget disrespectful and discriminatory remarks the new president has made. To join with each other to make something greater than we could do alone. E Pluribus Unum.

Below is a gallery of images from the march. I will caption them someday so they have a little more narrative.

And here is me after the march was over. Thanks to my friend Bonnie for taking my picture! When you’re the photographer, people never get to see you.

Me at the march.
Me at the march.

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For Martin Luther King Jr. Day: I Don’t Want To Be Colorblind

January 20, 2014
January 20, 2014
January 20, 2014

I Don’t Want To Be Colorblind

I don’t want to be
colorblind,
I want to paint
what I see,
the colors of our faces
like flowers,
not different
but tones of each others’
faces
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. 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”.

~~~

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