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One Author's Life 

My Mother's Voice

The voicemail message box on my phone gets full very quickly these days. It's not that I've suddenly become more popular. It's that there's very little space left for new messages. I allowed a backlog of old messages from my mother pile up, and I don't want to erase them.

 

Mom died last March.

 

She still had all of her social graces and was the same wise, considerate person she'd always been. The messages reveal that. They also show that she still had the capacity to love life at 94 years of age.

 

The best messages were when she would call to say it was snowing. She loved snow and so do I. Once I was in the middle of a long day in Manhattan with my agent and my book editors, and I checked my messages. "Hi, it's Mom," she said. "It's snowing! It's really coming down! Talk to you later." 

 

She'd also call me about the latest visitors to her bird feeder. She knew them all and worried about specific individuals who hadn't been to the feeder in a while. "I saw the female cardinal, but not the male," she'd say. "I hope everything is all right."

 

Sometimes she'd leave what she called "FYI messages." This usually involved something I'd bought and had shipped to her and she just wanted me to know that it had arrived.

 

An FYI message went like this: "Hi, it's Mom. This is an FYI message. No need to call me back. Especially if you're writing."

 

She lived a hundred miles away. I visited frequently, but in between my trips we used email (yes, she had a laptop) and especially the telephone to stay in close contact.

 

Now she's gone and there's an enormous hole in my life. I have thousands of wonderful memories. I have some of her belongings, such as her wedding dress.

 

But I also have her phone messages.

 

Someday, when I have to upgrade to a new phone, I'll have to figure out a way to save her messages. But for now, I have no intention of doing anything except leaving them where they are. It's nice to know that anytime I want to, I can play her messages and hear her voice.

A Time for Resilience

        Imagine walking down a sidewalk in New York City and seeing thousands of pieces of paper caught in the wind. When you pick up one document out of curiosity, you see that these are, in fact, your papers. It's the Great Depression, you were unable to pay your rent at your dental practice, and your landlord has tossed all of your belongings, including your patient records, bills, and books, into the street. You run up and down the street for hours grabbing what you can. You are heartbroken. All of your dreams have been crushed.

         

      Imagine being a four-year-old girl in Chicago in 1929 who becomes sick with one of the most feared diseases in the world, diphtheria. The city's health department quarantines you, along with your father, into your railroad flat. Officials nail the door shut and paint a giant "D" for diphtheria on your front door. You survive, as does your father, only to have the same thing happen when your family relocates to New York City two years later and the disease you catch this time is scarlet fever. You and your father survive this, too.

     

       Imagine being an Eagle Scout who enlists in the U.S. Army three days after graduating high school in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, in 1942. By the age of 20 you find yourself on the other side of the world, trying not to get killed by Japanese snipers. Before that, however, there is basic training where, during a live-ammunition exercise, you see your first death. A soldier next to you lifts his head slightly too high while you're all scrambling on your stomachs across a field. Your fellow soldier is killed right before your eyes, and you haven't even left the USA yet.

  

        The first example was Dr. Bessie Delany of the famed centenarian Delany Sisters with whom I collaborated on the 1993 oral history, HAVING OUR SAY. Through her own ingenuity and grit, she re-built her dental practice. She continued to practice dentistry until her retirement.

 

        The second example was my mother. My mother played with her dolls, said prayers, and sang songs to keep up her own spirits while extremely ill and quarantined.

        

        The third example was my father. He adapted and survived WW II in the Army by focusing on a combination of hope, humor, and can-do optimism.  

         

         I provide these three examples to illustrate 1.) losing a business 2.) facing dire illness and quarantine, and 3.) being a war-time soldier.

         

         What these three individuals had in common was resilience. While one could argue that resilience is a trait with which one is born, I contend that it is a learned skill.

         

         Resilience is a reaction to a bad situation. It's a way of framing a problem. It's being knocked down and getting up again.

         

         We're all getting some practice in the art of resilience this year. A pandemic, a severely-damaged economy and a stunning level of anger and uncertainty have created a tragic year, and it's only October.  

         

         I've had my share of hardship and losses in my life, but my response to this year (which, for me, also included the death of my mother in March) has been one of resilience. I am not patting myself on the back. I owe this, 100 percent, to those who modeled that behavior for me, including the Delany Sisters and my own parents.

         

         Resilience is not just an attitude. It's having the ability to stay calm and find solutions, even if they're only smalls steps. Problem-solving, thinking ahead, and accepting reality are part of it, too. Being resilient does not mean your response is perfect. Resilient people have days when they don't get out of bed, or days when they get angry, but the difference is that the next day they are ready to start over. Being resilient, ultimately, can become part of a broader pattern. It is a way of life.  

         

         Now I come full circle to something my readers, followers, and fans have heard me say for years: Listen to your elders, especially those who seem to bounce back from life's challenges. Seek out people you admire and follow in their footsteps.

         

         Remember, at the same time, that some people deemed strong in our society are actually quite weak. Don't mistake loudness for leadership, or over-sharing and attention-seeking for being honest. Beware of people who need to actively prove something all the time. Our culture offers many more negative than positive examples. If you don't have anyone to emulate in your life, then follow the insight offered by the Delany Sisters. "The world is full of good people. Your job is to find them."

 

July 2020 Statement: My Civic Duty

My mother never knew either of her grandmothers. They had both died in the 1918 flu pandemic, several years before my mother was born.

 

A century later, we are grappling with Covid-19.

 

As a babyboomer, and therefore at higher risk, I'm staying home and taking every precaution that is known, to date. 

 

The much greater impact on me personally from Covid-19 has been the death of my mother, possibly from the virus. When she died on March 25, we were told the cause was pneumonia unrelated to Covid-19, but I now have my doubts.

  

Not much is known yet about Covid-19 although new insights and discoveries seem to be happening by the day. Evidently, social distancing and wearing masks do prevent (or at least greatly reduce) the spread of the virus. For this reason, I wear a mask each time I go out of my home. I would rather be safe than sorry when it comes to a deadly disease.

 

I don't consider wearing a mask to be a burden or an intrusion on my rights as an American. On the contrary, I see it as my civic duty. 

 

In areas of our country where people have not been greatly impacted, I hope and pray that it remains that way. Please stay safe and stay well.

June 2020 Statement on the Death of George Floyd

The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has enraged the world, and rightly so. Abuse of Black persons by law enforcement is not new, however. It is entrenched. As a reporter early in my career, I saw it firsthand.

 

That is not to say that all American police officers are guilty of mistreating Black persons. I suspect, and hope, that only a small percentage of law enforcement officers are capable of carrying out racist violence. They must be held accountable. Even better, we need to prevent them from becoming officers of the law.

 

More common than outright violence, probably, is the subconscious bias that seems quite common among white Americans, some of whom happen to be police officers. In general, there is a lack of understanding among white persons - or perhaps it's denial - of the extent of institutionalized racism and the damage it has done.

 

When my white ancestors came to America, they were able to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps," but make no mistake, this would have been all but impossible had they been Black. The Black experience is entirely different, and unfortunately, a significant number of white people can't see that. I believe there should be more study in public schools of Jim Crow laws and how they blocked any attempts at progress by Black citizens, and for a very long time. The fact is, no one can pull themselves up by their bootstraps when the path has been blocked every step of the way. 

 

Again, referring to my own ancestors, upon their arrival in America, they were in a position, as white people, to make rapid progress, which they did. That is not to say it was easy. They worked extremely hard, saved, and sacrificed. But they were free to try.

  

Grief in the Time of Covid-19

Like most everyone else, my life has been upended by the Covid-19 virus. My mother died March 25 from pneumonia, possibly (I think now). She was 94 years old.

 

Because of precautions, we were not able to be with her during the last days of her life or when she passed away. We did not have a service for her – yet – because it wasn't safe for us to travel to the cemetery, located in Queens, N.Y. In the meantime, her ashes are in an urn at my sister's house.


I have found some solace in the knowledge that my mother was not alone when she passed away. A devoted nurse, who knew and loved her, was with her. It's not the same as having family with her, but I'll take it.


I'm grateful, also, that I had a wonderful visit with my mom not long before she died.


Numerous "Zoom" get-togethers with my three older siblings and their spouses have provided great comfort. On Mother's Day, we shared photos of her and told stories, again, all by Zoom. 

 

Most importantly, I'm grateful that my mother lived a very happy, productive and satisfying life. She was an unusual person, ahead of her time, a female mathematician in an era when that was rare. She was an interesting and fiercely-loving mother. And, although her body was frail, her mind was 100 percent until the end.


I know that everyone is struggling with the pandemic and now, the economic fall-out. Please stay safe.

What I Learned on My Break from Facebook

I missed a pug named Audrey. Boston Terriers named Wonder, Lexi, Luna, Jax, and more. Beloved cats named Quentin and Benny.

 

I missed travel photos from my friends on vacation.

 

I missed photos of babies and old folks, newly-engaged couples, and family reunions.

 

I did not miss political posts. I did not miss angry or "negative" people. I did not miss toxic people who use Facebook as a place to vent all the time.

 

I did succeed in writing a lot more, which was my goal. It's hard enough to be a writer with all of the turbulence and distractions of this world. Add Facebook to the mix and it can be hard to stay focused.

 

But I miss it enough to come back for a while. 

 

 

 

 

The Lazy Days of Summer: Where Did They Go?

You asked, so here it is, one of the most popular blogs posts I've ever written. Re-posted from July 3, 2015:  

 

One of the saddest moments when you've become an adult is when you realize that summer is not what it used to be.

 

Gone are the days of playing hopscotch, climbing trees, and getting on your mother's nerves.

 

Gone are the days when the only deadline is getting home in time for supper.

 

The lazy hours reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books, or playing King of the Mountain with the kids next door, has become a thing of the past. Long afternoons sprawled out in the grass, with nothing to do except study the shapes of clouds, are a luxury.

 

Strange that you have failed to notice that Mom has been working very hard to make your summer carefree. Picnic food miraculously appears in the refrigerator. It is prepared to perfection and placed in front of you, its nutritional value calculated in Mom's ever-vigilant mind. Dad comes home from work, where he has earned the money to pay for the summer road-trip, which he will plan with care.

 

(We will, as always, stay one night at a roadside motel because the owners have a goat, and all year long you – the youngest child – have been hollering, "Can we stay at the place with the goat?" Not only do you stay at the place with the goat, but Mom, who thinks of everything, has thoughtfully brought carrots.)

 

Somehow, the station wagon has got itself tuned up and filled with gas. Somehow, everything falls into place.

 

The hardest thing you have to do is decide which toys and books will fit into your little suitcase.

 

Next thing you know, you're in junior high. You are now moody and hormonal. Skinned knees have been replaced with zits. You have braces on your teeth. You quarrel constantly with your older siblings. Mom suddenly decides that what you need in the summer is a "schedule." You become a babysitter with regular gigs and a five-day-a-week volunteer at United Way.

 

You now own an alarm clock, and you own a watch.

 

In a flash, you have grown up. You have graduated college. You find your first real job, and are shocked to realize that you will work 60-plus hours a week, including most weekends and holidays, and – gasp – all summer long. There is nothing special about summer. Alas, it is just another part of the year.

 

You grieve.

 

But somewhere along the line, you fight to get summer back. Your older siblings begin to have children, which provides you with a great excuse. You take time off from work to be a doting auntie, and get to act like a child again.

 

You now look for ways to re-live the summers of your childhood. You arrange for the old family boat to be removed from storage, and rehabilitate it. You learn to pilot the old boat yourself.

 

You read outside. You lay in the grass.

 

You watch the clouds float by.

 

And you thank dear old Mom and Dad for teaching you the joys of simple summer pleasures which last a lifetime.

Were We Better Off Before Social Media?

Before I start my little rant, please note that I do recognize the irony in the fact that you're reading it on a blog and that a lot of other people will see it when it's re-posted and shared later on Facebook et al. 

 

This is what I want to say: I have a love-hate relationship with social media!


There are moments when I think it's the best darned thing that ever happened. There is so much sharing and caring, if you pick your friends carefully and you don't engage with negativity. 

 

As a person who was raised to be polite, however, I am dismayed that social media tends to reward the noisiest and snarkiest among us. Evidently, it brings out the inner bully in a large number of people.

 

At its absolute worst, social media could lead to a world-ending war. It's an incubator and a megaphone for rage, conspiracy theorists, and terrorists.

 

On a day to day basis for most users, the dangers are two-fold: We are surrendering our privacy (to varying degrees, depending on how cautious you are). And, we are accepting a lifestyle that moves too fast.

 

Much too fast.

 

I have noticed that when I've been overly-connected to social media I'm not nearly as likely to watch a bird building its nest, to spontaneously call an old friend, or simply sit and watch the clouds go by. And yet those are among the things that nurture my soul.

 

There are certainly days when I wish we could turn back the clock.

 

But I can't give up on it – at least not yet. Right now it's a new invention. It's the wild west of our lifetime. Let's hope someone figures out a way to emphasize the good and get rid of the bad.

Librarians Choose "Streetcar to Justice" as Notable Book

Good news! Streetcar to Justice: How Elizabeth Jennings Won the Right to Ride in New York, made the ALSC Notable Books list! (ALSC is the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association.)

 

This means a lot to me. I worked so hard on this book, perhaps harder than on any other book I've done. The research was extraordinarily challenging. The events took place in 1854-55, which may as well be a thousand years ago, and I was determined to use original resources. 

 

This meant countless hours at historical societies, universities, and, of course, libraries. Without the New York Public Library's main branch, and the Schomburg branch in Harlem, this book could not have been written. The archives there are priceless. 

 

Being selected for the Notable Children's Book 2019 list is special to me for an additional reason. When I was growing up I wanted to become a librarian. I remember the first time I said it and how my mother smiled with pride. Well, I never became a librarian but I'm one of those persons who writes the books that fill the shelves of libraries, so that's close enough.

 

Mo Rocca/CBS Podcast Interview to Air Jan. 31

Mo Rocca and CBS have announced a new podcast series and I will be included in the one that airs Jan. 31. The topic is a certain person who lived a long time ago.....and whose name I'm not supposed to mention yet. If you listen to the trailer you'll hear my voice. Please share and subscribe. The link to the trailer is on the upper left side of this page.