Sunday, September 28, 2014

Jean, Jaki Jean & Memories

The play set abandoned by a love of soccer & lacrosse.  Photo stolen by permission.
This evening, I told my mother Jean a story, sharing with her something from my Facebook friends Andres & Amy.  About Andres chauffeuring their daughter Sophia to her first homecoming dance & about their son Cayo telling his parents that he no longer needed the play set in their back yard but more room for soccer & lacrosse.

Jean wanted to know how old my friends’ daughter was, how old was young man whom her parents think of as “Sophia’s friend who is a boy.”  The age of their son Cayo, who no longer needed a play set but more room to explore his passions.

And then we talked about the wooden fort & play set in Jack & Jean’s yard that was such a huge part of raising my sons Nick & Sam.  I told Jean that Andres & Amy were selling the set & another family would enjoy it.  We kept ours, I said, far too long

For the Ettinger related children who came after my two sons.

For Felicia Marie, Emily Kate, Johnny Alexander & Sara Jane.

Like my sons, the grandchildren of Jack & Jean grew up & I stopped using the swings to relax & think & remember.

Eventually, neglected & falling apart, the fort & swing set had to be dismantled.

Jean said:

You know, someone said we should not have got rid of it.  That there would always be another child.

I reminded her that the set was over 25 years old, that the company, who gave a lifetime guarantee, was out of business.  And then I realized, she is not remembering the fort & swing set I bought when Nicholas was two years old.  She is not remembering the swing set Sam climbed to the top & across when he was still a toddler.

So I ask her if she is remembering the swing set my father’s parents Papa John & Mother Helen bought when I was a little girl.  The one that traveled with us from College Station to Dallas to El Paso &  to Meadows Place, Texas.  Although the fabulous slide, taller than the top of the swing set, did not make it from El Paso to Meadows Place.

Jean grew quiet & I grew frustrated.  I look into her face & say: 

Please don’t start a story & not finish it.

I say it & I know that there will be more unfinished stories, remnants of stories, beginnings without endings & endings without beginnings.  Seemingly unconnected bits & pieces.   Because the memories & stories of Alzheimer’s & dementia are fractal, not linear.

For too many minutes, Jean is quiet.  She is thinking, giving herself time to form the words Parkinson’s has made difficult for her to express.  Then she says:

I don’t want to waste your time.

Because I don’t want to weep, I laugh & tell her that listening to her memories is never a waste of time.  Eventually she responds.

For a long time, there was just you.  I did not have Janet until after your father graduated from A&M.   But first, we went to Schenectady.  You told the neighbors I was a bad mother because I never kept Kool-Aid or suckers.  You used to play with a little boy named David.

Jean grew quiet for a long time & I said: That was a lot of remembering for one night. Perhaps it is time for us to go to bed.

As a writer who appreciates fractal thought & discourse, I want to hold onto every fragment, however disjointed, of my mother’s memories.  Because in those pieces, in those fragments, is her story.

Or someone’s story.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Jaki Jean, Jean & Another Challenge as a Caregiver

So, last week I contacted an agency, referred by my sister Janet’s friend Maria, to send out an eye doctor to check out Jean’s eyes.  Not only has it been too long, but one morning while repositioning Jean, I rolled her over on her glasses.  They are now held together by the same tape used with bandages.

All my life, Jean has loved to read.  As did my father Jack.  So glasses are essential to Jean’s day.  Reading is a pleasure that does require her to leave her bed.

I explained the situation to the agency & mentioned that Jean had not seen a doctor in several years, that her eye doctor retired & then we all got distracted by other issues.

So, this week, a doctor & nurse arrived.  As we walked back to Jean’s room, I started to explain that she has Parkinson’s & is hard of hearing.  He cut me off & said we would sit down & talk about it. 

I started to say Did no one share her case information with you?  I could not imagine what we needed to discuss in order to give Jean an eye exam.

But, trying to be a kinder & gentler Jaki Jean, I just lead the doctor & nurse to the room & then told Jean that the eye doctor was here.

The doctor announced:  I am not an eye doctor.

I asked him who he was & he said he was a family physician.  Stunned, I commented that Jean had no need of a family physician or a primary care doctor. 

The same doctor has been caring for my mother for almost two decades.  I asked for an eye doctor.

I escorted the doctor & nurse out of the house.  Their faces showed that each thought I was insane, I am sure I returned the same look.

When I called the Outreach Eye Clinic to ask why they sent a family physician instead of an eye doctor, I reached the same associate, Felicia (I remembered because my beloved eldest niece is named Felicia). 

Expressing my dismay & confusion, Felicia told me that she sent a primary physician because I told her Jean had not seen a doctor in several years.

Luckily, I took a deep breath & did not reply what I was screaming in my mind:  Seriously?  Context, woman, context.  An eye doctor.  Jean has not seen an eye doctor.  Her eye doctor retired.

Instead, again trying to be a kinder & gentler Jaki Jean, I replied:

I believe that I failed to communicate effectively.   When my I told you that my mother had not seen a doctor in several years, I failed to say an eye doctor.

Now,  make no mistake, I do not believe the failure to communicate was mine alone.  Communication is a two way street.  It is as important to listen effectively as it is to speak effectively. 

But I have learned a few things in six decades on this planet.  Sometimes, to get what you want or need, taking ownership of a misunderstanding that is not entirely your fault gets you the desired result.

An eye doctor will be here tomorrow.

On a brighter note, it is candy corn season !

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

On Recipes for an Edible Text

This morning, my Alpha Son Nick asked me if I would find a slow cooking recipe for rack of lamb, with a lot of garlic.  It needs a lot of garlic.

Although it should not surprise me that Nick cooks things like rack of lamb – he is his French father’s son – it does give me pause.

I have only cooked rack of lamb once – long before Nick was born – for another Frenchman.  From a Julia Child recipe.  I sent Nick three recipes, including Julia Child's.

When Nick & I lived in Washington, D.C., I would cook lamb chops in red wine with a side of rosemary potatoes.  My boss in D.C. loved to roast lamb, encrusted with herbs, on the grill. 

But I don’t think that is why Nick prepares lamb for his wife & for his friends.  I think it comes from his father Jacques, as did his affection for the caviar in a lobster & breakfasts of sausage & a baguette.  Or a baguette & cheese.  Or a baguette with anything.

In earlier decades, I would have been jealous of that influence.  I will not sugar coat or deny that.

But now, I remember all the meals I shared with Nick’s father.  The best country pate ever.  The best venison stew ever.  Lobster to die for, with homemade mayonnaise (although I always preferred melted butter).  And Jacques’ grandmother’s recipe for a fried egg with vinegar & herbs.

Nick’s father was probably the only man who could convince me to try wild boar or pheasant.  Although his introduction to tripe in Paris did not go well for Jaki Jean.

Although the desserts in Paris were sublime.  But Jaki Jean does not do tripe – not in Menudo, not even in Paris.  

For his rack of lamb, Nick has chosen a marinade of Dijon, red wine vinegar, olive oil, brown sugar, garlic & Italian herbs.  With side dishes of scalloped potatoes & asparagus.

I think about this – that both of my sons cook.  Although neither of them was  ever interested in spending time with me in the kitchen.  They were, however, appreciative of the results. 

And now each of them has found their own way to the kitchen & preparing food.

Perhaps I did something good.  I cannot take all the credit - Nick's father is an amazing cook.  My youngest learned all his culinary talents on his own.  

Because preparing food for people is a bit like writing.  It is offering sustenance, an opportunity for conversation & companionship.  And a way to share an edible text.  

I hope Nick & Sam continue to share that edible text.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Jaki Jean on My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun, Emily Dickinson & Willie Nelson

When I gaze at this photo, taken in Cuernavaca< Mexico in 2011 by my friend & fellow writer, Cate Poe, I am reminded of an Emily Dickinson poem.

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
In Corners - till a Day
The Owner passed - identified -
And carried Me away -

And now We roam in Sovreign Woods -
And now We hunt the Doe -
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply -

And do I smile, such cordial light
Opon the Valley glow -
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let it’s pleasure through -

And when at Night - Our good Day done -
I guard My Master’s Head -
’Tis better than the Eider Duck’s
Deep Pillow - to have shared -

To foe of His - I’m deadly foe -
None stir the second time -
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye -
Or an emphatic Thumb -

Though I than He - may longer live
He longer must - than I -
For I have but the power to kill,
Without - the power to die -
The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Edited by R. W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)
Source: The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition ed by Ralph W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)

Dickinson’s poem has stayed with me over the years, long after I left my role as an English major & women’s studies minor. 

I was introduced to the poem by Dr. Patricia Lee Yongue, who was my mentor at the University of Houston.  Amazing woman. 

One morning, as we were talking in her office, Dr. Yongue told me about an assignment she given her graduate seminar for their final:  write an essay about Emily Dickinson’s My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun with Willie Nelson’s rendition of Seven Spanish Angels.

I remember being incredibly jealous of the assignment.

Over the years, I have spent many moments, listening to the Willie & Ray Charles rendition of Seven Spanish Angels - my favorite version, staring at one of two copies of Emily Dickinson’s complete poems. 

(One copy I always kept on a bookshelf at whatever office I occupied.  Because a woman never knows when she might need a bit of poetry.  Or a feather boa. Always keep a boa & a book of poetry in your office.)

I am not sure I will ever progress beyond My life had stood - a Loaded Gun.

I always want to move beyond what passes across the lines between the opening & the last phrases:

For I have but the power to kill,
Without - the power to die -

One, just one gift among so many others, given to me by Dr. Yongue, was the power of Emily Dickinson.  I think that is why I turn to Dickinson when my heart & soul are weary & need to be revitalized.'

Which explains Dickinson’s presence in my offices.  The boa is another story.

As I gaze at this photo of a young woman dressed in jeans & pink tennis shoes, standing next to the statue of a powerful woman, forever captured with a loaded gun, Dickinson rings in my ears.

And do I smile, such cordial light.

And that female warrior smiles, the loaded gun, not hanging not on her side like a man, but over her vagina.  Open & defiant.

Like a loaded gun, this is me.  This is my power.  This is what you cannot take from me or replicate.  Threaten me, threaten those I love.  Aim at me & I will pull this gun & end the argument.

For I have but the power to kill,
Without - the power to die -

During these difficult times, when so many men and, unfortunately, women, want to restrict & strip women of their power, their right to choose, their right to stand firm, their right to excel,  perhaps it is a time to revisit Dickinson. 

And one day, I will write that paper never assigned to me.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Barbecued Chicken in the Crock Pot, Friendship & my Friend Muriel

My dear friend Muriel calls me on a regular basis to visit, to ask about my mother & ask about the state of my mind & my spirit.  If it is a holiday, she asks me what I am cooking.  Sometimes just on an ordinary day.  We exchange menus the same way we exchange stories of our days & the people involved in our lives.

Our friendship began with conversation – over lunch when we worked together. 

Since the death of her daughter Cheryl, Muriel has been raising her grandchildren Maddie & Jules.  She does something that never occurred to me when I was raising Nick & Sam.  On a regular basis, she asks them what they would like for dinner.  While I always asked Nick & Sam what they wanted for their birthday dinners, it never occurred to include them in the daily process.

I must confess I am a tyrant in the kitchen.  Not one member of my family will say otherwise. 

How I became a tyrant remains a mystery.  I learned to cook from women & men who invited me into their kitchens & included me in the process.  But that is another story.

The inclusion of her grandchildren in the choices that make up the daily process of family life is just one of the things I love about my friend Muriel.  Not only do the children participate in choosing the menu, Maddie & Jules compile the weekly grocery list for their grandmother & go shopping as a family.  

I am quite in awe of this team building for families. 

Although Maddie & Jules miss their mother every day, the family Muriel has made for them results in two happy, well-adjusted, loving children who are wise beyond their years.  Make no mistake,  Muriel is the parent in charge.  But she has created a team & the team thrives because they all feel empowered, they all have a voice.

A lesson for all of us.

For Labor Day, my menu was Jaki Jean’s Infamous Orgasmic Turkey Burgers, roasted corn on the cob & Blue Bell White Chocolate Almond ice cream with hot fudge for dessert.  The menu at Muriel’s house was barbecue chicken in a crock pot, pinto beans because Julian wanted them, & potato salad.

The idea of barbecue chicken in a crock pot hit me today when I returned from the store to discover that our AC was not functioning.  And because I no longer keep bottled barbecue sauce in my pantry since my friend Jayne Pride told me, “Barbecue sauce is not our friend.”  (Jayne is a grandmother, a healthy & fit beauty who looks as young as her daughter – so I always listen to her on these things).

So, for the first time in my six decades, I made barbecue sauce from scratch.  And I began to realize the truth of Jayne Pride’s words.  I used honey & maple syrup instead of molasses, but there was no leaving out the brown sugar.  Except for adding a chipotle pepper in adobe sauce crushed into a pulp with a mortar & pestle, I followed the recipe for the spices – cinnamon, cayenne pepper, paprika, ginger, salt, black pepper, red pepper flakes, mustard. 

All who know me understand that I like spicy.

 As I put the sauce together, loving the crushing of the chipotle pepper in the mortar & pestle, I think to myself:

Muriel gave you this moment, doing something you love, creating something to share.

Friends do that for you, give you a moment to create something to share, doing something you love. 

This evening, my menu is barbecued chicken in a crock pot, potato salad made with sweet rather than white potatoes & more Blue Bell White Chocolate Almond ice cream with hot fudge sauce.  

And smiling, I wonder what Maddie & Jules have planned for their menu tonight.

 Jules, Muriel & Maddie

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

About my grandfather, ALS & the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

My memories of my grandfather, John Simpson Alexander Ettinger, are filtered by time &  conversation & photos.  

Memory is like that.  It is not always clear or concise.  It is created by the influence of who we talk to & interact with & who we become.

But some memories are clear.  I remember when my grandfather took me to Love Field in Dallas to watch the planes.  He worked for Braniff Airlines.  He was still able to walk then. 

I remember climbing into his lap when he was in the wheelchair.  He always kept a roll of Lifesavers – Pep-o-Mint - in the shirt of his pajama pockets.  Perhaps he did this before he was in the wheelchair.  I don’t have that memory.

And there is the memory of letting me plant watermelon in the flower beds.  But I am sure I have that particular memory because I was told the story over the years by my mother.

I do not remember when he built a sandbox for me the backyard of the house on Wylie Drive he & my grandmother Helen shared.  I hold the memory of his greenhouse & the flats to start seedlings from old slides & photos & stories.

He was the only son of a farmer, an only son who left the farm in Pennsylvania & discovered my grandmother in Texas.  He always had a garden, he always planted.

My memories of grandfather outside a wheelchair have faded from when he & my grandmother were living across the street on Wylie Drive.  I don’t remember visiting him when he was no longer mobile, in a bed, stricken by ALS.

Perhaps because I was very young, my parents Jack & Jean decided to shield it from me.  Perhaps I went.  Perhaps I saw.  Perhaps I have filed that memory in a long forgotten filing cabinet.  I ask Jean & she tells me that she doesn’t remember.  She tells me other stories that she does remember & I listen. 

After my grandfather had to leave the house on Wylie Drive for a hospital, I do have another memory.  The look on my father’s face when he lost his own father.  I was too young to attend a funeral, but I remember that look in the aftermath.

ALS is an insidious disease.  It attacks the body & leaves the mind intact. 

As I watch the ALS Ice Bucket challenge, I am always reminded of my grandfather.  And I am reminded of the purpose of the challenge – to raise awareness for ALS, to contribute to  research for a disease that has no cure or treatment.

All the videos, all the internet sensation supporting this cause has raised an unprecedented amount of money for ALS research.  To date:  $80 million.  Amazing.

But, at the same time, there are posts of challenges to very young children, who cannot possibly fathom the stories behind the challenge & who have to be coached by their parents recording the video.

And too often, no one mentions ALS or the ALS website where viewers can donate.

The ice bucket challenge did not go viral as a game.  It went viral as a cause.

If other worthy causes use the ice bucket challenge to raise funds - wonderful & I support it.  It worked for ALS & I hope it works for other diseases that need a jolt in awareness & funds.

For me, all that ice is about my grandfather.  John Simpson Alexander Ettinger.


Friday, August 1, 2014

Why Houston & Jaki Jean love Michael Strahan

On September 14, 1927, the Houston Public School Board funded two junior colleges, one for whites & one for Negroes & the Colored Junior College was born.

In 1934, the Houston School Board changed the junior college to a four-year college & renamed it Houston College for Negroes.  Classes were held in Yates High School.

In the summer of 1945, the Houston College for Negroes added a graduate program & was quickly outgrowing its space at Yates High.

And then philanthropists like Hugh Roy Cullen stepped in & aided the purchase of 53 acres in Houston’s Third Ward & philanthropists like Mrs. T.M. Fairchild & Mr.& Mrs. C.A. Dupree & a host of men & women of color in the community came together to fund the first structure on the new campus, a structure which is still operating today.

In March of 1947, in response to a law suit brought against the University of Texas law school by an applicant of color, the Texas legislature, believing that the concept of separate but equal would apply, created a law school & the Houston College for Negroes was renamed the Texas State University for Negroes.

In 1951, after students petitioned the Texas legislature, the Texas State University for Negroes became Texas Southern University.*  Although I have heard bits & pieces of this history over the years – I owe this recitation to the Texas University website.  I pray I have been accurate.

Michael Strahan played football in Houston.  First at Westbury High School, then at Texas Southern University.   The only school to offer him a scholarship.  He caught the eye of the NFL & got drafted by the Giants & now has a Super Bowl ring.

None of that, not the fact that Michael Strahan holds the record for number of sacks in a season or his Super Bowl ring, is the reason why I admire this man.

It is because of a speech he delivered in May of 2013 at Texas Southern University when he received an honorary doctorate.

At the end of the speech, he told the graduates: 

I am Michael Strahan.  And I am Texas Southern University.

Because he is both.  And he stood before a group of graduates & acknowledged his family, his faith & the University. 

Tomorrow, Michael Strahan will be formally inducted into the Football Hall of Fame. 
His family, Texas Southern University, & Houston could not be more proud.

The Texas Southern University band, The Ocean of Soul, will be performing in the celebration. 

This is why I love Michael Strahan.  Because he reminds me of why something that happened on September 14, 1927, still matters.

Houston is a city with a history of great universities:  Rice University, University of Houston, St. Thomas University,  Houston Baptist University & Texas Southern University.

Texas Southern University, that descendent of the Colored Junior college, continues to offer the opportunity for an education to a diverse group of students in an amazing number of fields.  And do it with well deserved pride.

What happens in the past, whether in the fall of 1927 in Houston, or yesterday, matters.

Congratulations, Michael. 

Although, as a Texans fan, I have high hopes for J.J. Watt to sack a few more.