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Back to the prompts.  Thank goodness – I’ve had enough of Depth for one week, anyway.

“What was the first candy you ever tried?”

Now that takes some mental exercise.  After all, we’re talking over sixty years of candy-sampling.  But I think I’ve got it.

As I know I have mentioned more than once, my mother was widowed very young – I was two – but as it turned out, she met her life partner at a cousin’s wedding, a month before my father was killed in a car crash.  He must have started coming around almost as soon as my father died, and because, to be frank, my mother had already begun to regret her first choice for a husband, and because she had a young child to support, she didn’t discourage the attentions of this second suitor.  In fact, they were married less than a year after my own father’s death, and that marriage lasted just over fifty years, ending with my mother’s death.

Dad – my stepfather – was nothing if not conservative and traditional, as most working-class folks are.  Flowers and candy were a de rigeur component of this courtship, and the candy came in boxes, with each piece wrapped in its own individual little piece of paper.  Each piece was chocolate, but each piece came with a different-flavor filling – I know there were caramels, and I suspect that a few of them were filled with brandy or another liqueur, because I was forbidden to touch the box on my own – my mother shared her candy willingly, but she got to choose which pieces I got to eat.  On rare occasion, she would give me my favorite:  chocolate-covered cherries, filled with a cherry liqueur.

In those days, before the Nanny State, it was perfectly permissible for children and alcohol to interact, to a limited extent.  At the numerous gatherings of my stepfather’s large Polish family, kids were always cadging “sips” of beer from the adults.  However, it was incumbent on the adults present to keep a close watch on who was giving in to the cadging, so I never actually got drunk, nor did my cousins.  Nor, for that matter, did the adults; although they might have gotten pleasantly snockered, I never once in my childhood saw an adult who was, as we used to say, “falling-down drunk.”  (That’s not to say there weren’t any, as I learned in adulthood, just to say that most of the family was careful not to let the children see them in that state.)  The purpose of a beer, on a hot summer afternoon, was to cool off, not to get drunk.  And although there was hard liquor, it wasn’t in plentiful supply; it was kept for special occasions, like toasting the announcement of an impending new baby.  (“Let’s drink to the baby.  Let’s drink to the crib.  Let’s drink to the carriage.  Let’s drink to the high chair.”  Etc.  Sometimes I think about that research relating adult drinking to fetal-alcohol syndrome, and I wonder if any of those researchers was remotely Slavic.  I’m betting not.)

Back to the candy.  I really loved those cherry-flavored candies, but usually got stuck – in more ways than one – with the caramels.  Hey, candy is candy.  My next-favorite part of the candy box, though, was bizarre, to say the least:  When all the candy had been eaten, I got the empty box of little papers.  I have no idea why the papers were returned to the box as the candy was eaten, but at the end of a week or so, I had a box full of empty papers, and I would shake it to listen to the rustle.  I called it my “pigeons.”  For some reason, a lot of men in post-war Brooklyn and Queens kept pigeons, Dad and his friend Steve among them, so from the time my mother began dating my stepfather, I was familiar with the rustle of caged pigeons in the back yard.  I should add that my mother hated the pigeons – in the early years, she and my stepfather had more arguments about those pigeons than about anything else – but Dad kept his pigeons until I was a teenager.  And when I was a very little girl, it was understood that those empty boxes of candy were my turf, a little girl’s “pigeons.”  It’s amazing how creative you can get when you’re poor.

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Some few years back, I took advantage of my new “involuntarily retired” status to follow a lifelong dream to learn Russian.  I still don’t speak it fluently – it’s a tough language – but at least I can express myself grammatically.

The language courses were augmented by cultural courses that were mandatory for Russian majors, and strongly encouraged for everyone else.  Part of the culture component was watching Russian-language movies, all of them Soviet-era, despite the fact that the Soviet Union has been history for over twenty years at this point.  (I did suggest my favorite post-Soviet film, Ostrov – The Island – but was turned down.)  Most of the films were comedies.  A couple were from World War II, very Workers-Overcoming-the-Imperialists in content.  And then there was The Chekist.

For those who don’t know, the Cheka was the great-grandfather of the KGB, the original post-Revolution Secret Police.  They set the tone for every agency that followed, in terms of terror:  the knock on the door at 3:00 a.m., the mass roundups, mock trials, and executions for “counter-Revolutionary activity,” which could be as simple as being out of work (being out of work was considered “parasitism,” being a parasite on the productive Working Class).

The film opened with a wedding scene, a young couple, very obviously very much in love, being married in a Russian Orthodox ceremony.  Then the camera slowly panned through the crowd to the back, where a man could be seen garroting a woman.  As the wedding concluded, doors were thrown open – and only then did you realize that the wedding had taken place in a prison cell, that everyone there was slated for execution, and that the incongruous garroting had been a mercy killing.  The prisoners were directed to strip off completely naked, then herded to a wall with troughs in front of it, positioned so that they were facing the wall, and then gunned down, in the back.  In the seconds before the opening salvo, the young couple – now separated by the priest who had married them, who stood between – reached behind him to hold hands.

The next scene cut to a group of men around a kitchen table, drawing up lists of people to be executed.   Subsequent scenes made it clear that these lists were actually quite arbitrary.  You would expect to find priests being executed, and they were plentiful, but often someone ended up on the list because a co-worker wanted a promotion, and someone stood in his way; that person’s name would be placed on the list.  Over a ten-year period, more or less, the lists continued to be drawn up by the same people at the same location – until the final scenes, when the protagonist, the Chekist, was missing.  You saw him again in the very last scene, standing stark naked with his face to the wall, alone at the troughs, and laughing at the cruel irony of his fate.  Then  the shots rang out, and the screen went black.

As you can imagine, it wasn’t easy watching.  There was a stunned silence in the classroom for a couple of minutes, before one of the students asked, in a shaking voice, “How could they let this happen?!”  I wanted to laugh.  What a question!  It was clear, from this young fellow’s attire, that he was a believer in Marxism-Leninism (the slogans on the shirt were a dead giveaway, for one thing), and that he couldn’t imagine such a thing taking place in the enlightened Workers’ Paradise.  And I wanted to laugh because the Hate Speech bill had just been passed, making it a federal crime to speak one’s mind on a whole variety of topics.  Homosexuality was covered, and of course racism.  Over time, hate speech against Islam has made it to the list.  Judaism was implicitly covered.  Not, evidently, Christianity.

I’ve been thinking about this fellow a lot lately, primarily because of stuff like this:  http://michellemalkin.com/2012/03/07/the-war-on-conservative-women/  And this:

indicative of the war on the Catholic Church.  That, of course, has been going on for a very long time.  But the objection of the Catholic Church to those provisions of the Obama health-care bill that deal with contraception, has renewed the attacks, and they have become more and more vitriolic; note the comments to a local story out of the New Hampshire Statehouse.

So, bottom line:  the Left has absolute freedom of speech, but when the rest of us try to exercise the same freedom of speech, it’s hate speech?

That’s how they let it happen.

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A couple of Sundays ago, my husband and I were chatting with the wife of a now-retired priest, and reminiscing about our early married life in Germany.  My husband was talking about the cold-water flat we lived in, describing how we used to move the space heater from one room to another in order to warm up the next room we would be occupying, and she said, “But then, why did you like it so much?”

Her question brought me up short, because actually, why did we like it so much?  Why do we still talk about those three years in Germany as the best time of our lives?  Because actually, our living conditions were primitive, by modern standards.  We did have running water; at least we didn’t have to use an outhouse.  But cold water was literally all we had, when I wanted to wash dishes, or when my husband wanted to shave.  For bathing, we did have a five-gallon tank that hovered over the bathtub.  At night, before we went to bed, I would set the timer on the tank heater, and in the morning it would be just the right temperature for *one* of us to have a bath (no shower).  While my husband washed, I would fill up a teakettle and boil water; it was done by the time he was done, and he had hot water for shaving, while I made coffee.

When we rented the apartment, it had an electric “stove” that was supposed to heat the whole place.  Unfortunately, it died on us within the first two weeks of winter, so we went out and bought a space heater, a little thing that we could (and did) carry from roon to room.  The worst was in the morning, when the whole apartment was cold; I’d move the thing into the kitchen and get it going to warm up, then turn it off while I went out on my daily errands.  In the afternoon, it kept me warm in the living room; around  4:00 p.m., I’d move it into the kitchen to warm up that space again, so it would be toasty when my husband got back from the base, and while we ate supper, the space heater warmed up the living room.  While we decompressed from the day, the space heater warmed up the bedroom; and so it went, all winter long.

The whole time we lived in Germany, I didn’t drive, at my husband’s request; German drivers really are wild, and he feared for my life.  But that was, and is, a country where bicycles and trains never went out of style, so getting around wasn’t a problem.  The supermarket was around the corner, the base only a couple of miles through a bike path in the woods; my husband and many of our neighbors cycled to and from work every day, and if I needed to get on base for any reason, so did I.  The forest was so beautiful!  Germans love their forests, and the Town Forester kept the path clear of branches, and soft with a good bed of pine needles.  Throughout Germany, hiking trails were not only maintained and clearly market, but labeled with the amount of time you could expect to spend on them; they had fifteen-minute trails, half-hour trails, trails that could take as long as three hours to hike the whole thing, and all the trails were marked along the way, too, via different-colored markers, so that you would end up back where you started.  You couldn’t get lost.

And yes, we could have bought provisions on base.  We could have washed our laundry on base (when the laundromat worked; it was frequently closed for repairs).  We did that, for the first year we lived there.  Then I learned to speak German, which my husband could already speak.  We were already going to weekly Mass at the church in town, so we were a known quantity in the community; after that first year of learning German, we began to live German.  And what a difference it made, to see my neighbors at the supermarket or the hairdresser’s, to buy our breakfast rolls and coffee at the local bakery, to cycle to the laundromat on laundry day, as all my other neighbors did.

For entertainment…oh, for entertainment!  We belonged to two music clubs, one a semi-professional concert choir and one a folk-music choir that was an extension of our church choir, to which we also belonged.  Did you know that despite the devil’s many arts, he can’t sing?  Did you know that every morning, “white veils of mist appear to herald the morning sunrise before it breaks through the clouds”?  Or that the “golden sun is full of joy and wonder”?  Those are just three of the folk songs I learned; there were so many more, full of the joys and miracles of everyday living.

Then there was the concert series at City Hall.  We paid the equivalent of a dollar to hear student musicians play music that stays with me to this day:  Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Schubert, Handel, to name just a few.  These were serious musicians, who took their art seriously, and whose education was completely funded by the State of Hesse, where we lived; presumably, the other states of the Federal Republic of  Germany had similar programs for their young musicians.  We had no television; we didn’t need one.  We had books from the library and light classical music from Hessischer Rundfunk, “our” radio station (there were three.  One was talk, one was rock, and then there was Hessischer Runkfunk).  We had no telephone; who were we going to call?  We wrote letters home once a week, and received letters from home.

It was, all in all, a good and quiet and very low-key way to begin married life.  We had time to adjust to each other, unhampered by the storms of anti-war movements and feminist rebellion that rocked the rest of the country.  I think I was back in America for three years before I learned that the Beatles had broken up.  Because everything was so new – nothing in life was anything like what we had known – I think we absorbed the shocks of married life better than other newlyweds.  Our expectations were minimal, our horizons limitless.  We had the greatest gift of all, time to meld into a single united entity, which stood us in good stead when we did return to the USA and had to weather our families’ expectations of who we were – so different from who we had become.

(By the way, anybody familiar with military life will surely be asking by now, “Why weren’t you in base housing?”  Simply put, enlisted personnel who weren’t career military didn’t qualify for base housing.  And my husband’s college degree, not being in a “critical field” like engineering or flight, wasn’t considered sufficient reason to grant him officer status.  It should have been, but it wasn’t.  You want to talk about government waste?  It’s nothing new.)

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NaBloPoMo prompt:  “Tell us about your first teacher who was important to you.”

The most important teacher in my life, Peter Bochow, used to say:  “He who can, does.  He who can’t, teaches.  He who can’t teach, teaches teachers.”  As he was, at the time, engaged in teaching teachers, this was a shot at himself, and very funny he found it.  I have blogged elsewhere about him, and he will forever be enshrined in my mind as the most gifted teacher I ever had.

But the first one who was important to me, aside from the obvious “first teachers” of parents, grandparents, and the whole broad scope of relatives, was my eighth-grade teacher, Sister Agnes Therese.  Isn’t that sad, that no teacher really touched my life until eighth grade?  But I blogged recently about the Catholic-school experience and its attendant horrors; although Sister Agnes Therese wasn’t the only one, or even the first one, not to engage in wholesale abuse, the others just didn’t have the same impact on my life.  For Sister Agnes Therese had three things going for her:  She was built like a tank; she was absolutely unflappable; and she had a phenomenal sense of humor.

When I say she was built like a tank, I mean just that:  tall, square, shoulders like a linebacker, she looked like she belonged on a farm, hefting bales of hay or rassling with cattle.  I remember telling my mother, on the first day of school that year, that she looked like an admiral.  In other words, she was perfect for the sixty eighth-graders she taught; you’d think twice about messing with her.  Yet…there was just something about her mouth, as if she could barely contain an inner bubble of laughter that was fed by her rambunctious crew.  When we got to be too much for her, she would just shake her head.  “You people,” she would say, in a resigned tone that settled us right down.  Or, “Boy, oh man.”  (I’ve heard of “Boy, oh boy,” and “Man, oh man,” but that particular combination was hers alone.)

She also contributed to my vocabulary a phrase that I use to this day:  “Use your head for more than a hatrack.”  It was classic Brooklyn English, and much more effective than screaming, “Do you people ever think?!” as our seventh-grade teacher used to do.  “Use your head for more than a hatrack” is something I passed on to my own two children, and they understood it as I did:  Someone whose brain was functioning on auto-pilot, or who wasn’t exercising “the little grey cells” up to capacity (hat tip to Agatha Christie and her fictional character, Hercule Poirot).

Eighth grade is a horrible time of life anyway.  Female hormones have half the class in a grip, while male hormones are still blissfully unaware of the opposite sex, and boys think that an acceptable way of telling a girl she’s “all right” is to put slimy things in her desk, or pelt her with ice balls on the way home from school.  I can’t imagine trying to cram any kind of knowledge into the brains of eighth-graders, and truth to tell, I can’t recall a single thing I learned in eighth grade; it was mostly a refinement of things we had already learned, polishing our grammar, adding details to whatever we knew of history and geography (which at the time had yet to be morphed into “Social Studies”), preparing us to go into the wider world as good (Catholic) “soldiers of Christ.”  Science was never a strong point of Catholic schools, so that wasn’t even on the radar screen, though I do recall a bare-bones introduction to physics.  Forget math.  It was definitely taught, and probably there were new things taught, but the whole notion of numbers was so intimidating to me that it wasn’t till I was forty years old that it began to occur to me that I might actually be able to handle accounting – since all it is, is addition, subtraction, multiplication, and the odd bit of division here and there.

So why was Sister Agnes Therese so memorable?  Probably because, in an atmosphere that can still strike terror into an entire generation of Catholics, she never once resorted to terror.  Her weapons were Calm and Humor, an unbeatable combination.  I never got the chance to tell her so; she was out of my life as soon as I left that hellhole, and by the time it began to dawn on me just how much of an impact she had had on my life, she had passed on to her eternal reward.  I hope it is free of horrible little eighth-graders.  I hope she is enjoying many fruits of her life as a Bride of Christ.  May her memory be eternal!

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School Daze

I just discovered that NaBloPoMo has prompts.  Last year, when attempting to participate in WordPress’s Post-a-Day, the daily prompts were delivered to my inbox, so I got spoiled.  I didn’t know NaBloPoMo had prompts!

I do now.  One of the recent ones was, “Tell us about your earliest school memories.”  Oh, dear.  It should be sufficient to state that I attended a Catholic school during the 1950s, because everything you’ve ever heard about Catholic school in the 1950s – the horror stories, the mean-spirited jokes, the occasional welling-up of tears at the memory of an especially cruel nun – it’s all true.  Kids were beaten regularly.  I recall my aunt telling my mother that she had gone to school to pick up her son and heard a consistent thunk-thunk-thunk while standing outside his classroom, only to learn from her son that the sound was his teacher (as sweet-faced a nun as anyone ever met) pounding a girl’s head against the blackboard because she was unable to solve an arithmetic problem.  A co-worker of my husband’s told him that a usual punishment at her school was to have to place your hands on the windowsill, and the nun would slam the window down on top of them.

I should add that none of this ever happened to me.  I was terrified of school.  I was so good, I got yelled at once for being too quiet.  You really couldn’t win.

There is, however, a side to these tales of horror that no one ever mentions, and I’m not sure it has occurred to anyone else:  class size.  I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard teachers at my kids’ schools complaining about a class of thirty pupils:  Our classrooms had forty each, up until fifth grade.  No, this is not an exaggeration; each classroom had seven rows of seven desks, and the seventh row was the “bad row,” where you were sent to sit if you misbehaved.  Since my maiden name was near the end of the alphabet, and we sat in alphabetical order, I was always in the fifth seat of the sixth row.  The Bad Row is indelibly carved into my memory.

When I was in fifth grade, the New York State Board of Education apparently enacted Reforms, because life changed radically (though not radically enough).  Suddenly all our teachers went flying out the door at 3:00 p.m. with armloads of their own textbooks; apparently, up to that point teachers weren’t required to have college degrees, and all these young women were attending night school in addition to holding down their day job.  (Older nuns were grandfathered, or, I guess, grandmothered.)  We also went from six-month enrollments to one-year enrollments, meaning that every child began school in September; up to that point, children had been enrolled in school twice a year, in September and February.  There were two first grades, a 1-A and a 1-B, and regardless of when you were enrolled, you began in 1-A, so that September’s class consisted of a 1-A (for the September enrollees) and a 1-B (for the February enrollees).

In 1957, that all changed, and the Diocese of Brooklyn, in its Infinite Wisdom (heavy on the sarcasm), decided that the hitherto “B” classes would be accelerated; that is, they would cram 18 months’ worth of learning into one year.  My husband and one of my closest cousins both got caught in this Accelerated program, and my poor aunt tore her hair out every night trying to help her son with his homework.  The immediate effect for all of us September enrollees was that (a) our class got split up, so that both classes had accelerated and regular-schedule kids, and (b) each class consisted of sixty pupils.  In one room.  I can recall boys standing in the back of the room during seventh and eighth grade because there was simply no place to cram another desk; by this time, we had desks pushed together to form four double rows of seven desks, so there were 56 desks in a room, but where were you going to put those four extra pupils?  So they stood at the back of the room.  It was unthinkable to turn kids away from a Catholic Education, mostly because the priests were telling the parents that if they had the opportunity to send their kids to a Catholic school and they didn’t, they would go to hell.

By the time I got out of that school, intact if not unscarred, there were 60 pupils in my class and 61 in the other eighth grade.  There were seventy in my brother’s first-grade class.  All boys.  (That was the only year that particular experiment was tried; otherwise, all the classes were mixed-gender.)

Now, I ask you:  How is anyone supposed to teach70 antsy first-graders anything?!  Terror, that’s how.  It was the only means of control those women had.  I am not defending the very real abuse that went on in Catholic schools, but no one is going to let those nuns take all the blame while I’m around; I think there should be a special place in hell for the priests who insisted on cramming those rooms far past fire-code capacity for the sake of a Catholic Education (which, outside of a truly sterling introduction to the mechanics of the English language, wasn’t all that great.  The first time I heard of the true place of the Iroquois Nation in New York State history, I was so embarrassed; I’d had no idea.  New York State history, as taught in Catholic school, went like this:  “The Iroquois were the bad guys because they sided with the English, who were Protestant.  The Huron were the good guys because they sided with the French, who were Catholic.”  Any questions?).

And I think those nuns should, at the Final Judgement, be treated with leniency.  Speaking in purely Catholic terms, they served their purgatory.  So did their pupils.

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