Risk: British Barricades and the IRA

Risk: British Barricades and the IRA

I was done teaching at the country school.

Ken was busy working and I was beginning to feel antsy. I needed something to do. I decided to take a course in Irish history at the university. It was an enrichment class, not a regular university course.
We met after the regular classes were over. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that the course was heavily weighted by the professor in favor of the status quo, British rule. “We’ll win,” he’d say. “ Just stay strong. We have the army on our side.” I stayed quiet, taking ideas in, trying to figure out what mattered so much. Why did the professor and most of the students (I was by far the youngest person in the class) want?…

…and was it worth all the killing and bombing?

The older women (there were a lot of them) were ready to mother me and take me to their side. They warned me against walking at night. They brought cookies to class.
They were really nice until I asked a question that suggested that maybe the minority Catholics in Ulster had a problem that was real, a problem the army couldn’t solve. (Not the smartest move on my part…
…But I was a talker by nature and I opened my mouth.)

Silence reigned.

I sat there, pretty sure that I was not going to be welcome anymore. I was right. I got up my courage to go to the next class. No one made eye contact with me. Of course, I should have stayed quiet. I was, at best, a blundering American, at worst, probably rude given the makeup of the class. I didn’t go back anymore. It would not have worked. I could have apologized, but I didn’t. Maybe I should have?
Instead I concentrated on the everyday which took plenty of time: making forays to get potatoes, cabbage and carrots. (Pretty much what we lived on) First you had to figure out where you were comfortable walking and shopping. That always caused me grief. I never could take a blithe, “what will be, will be” attitude.

And then there was the actual shopping itself.

It was nothing at all like shopping in the States, just picking what you wanted and putting cash on the counter. Oh, no! There was, I learned, an art to getting potatoes that were not sprouting, carrots that didn’t have soft spots and cabbage that wasn’t overdue for a compost heap.
First you had to approach the greengrocer as a friend, but you needed degree of certain meekness.
What did he suggest? Asking was always the best approach. It showed respect for his trade. He’d sit on a sack of potatoes and think. When he spoke I strained to understand his heavy Ulster accent. He’d get irritated by this and motion for me to follow him. The cabbages were in a heap in the back room. He rooted around and produced one for me. I smiled and asked for the potatoes and carrots. Somedays, he seemed so irritated by my lack of understanding his speech (in the beginning) that I wondered whether or not he’d even sell me the things I needed. It wasn’t as if I had many places to choose from. But, over time, I understood him and when I came in one day and offered him a slice of homemade apple pie, we became fast friends. My greengrocer. He always sat on the sack of potatoes and the women (never men) waited in line to get his attention. He smoked a pipe and never, in the year that I was there, did I ever see him hurry. His time was his own.

I was still frustrated at the lack of social interaction we had.

The Irish, by and large, did not invite us into their homes. It wasn’t all that unusual. If you wanted to socialize, you went to a pub. Well, okay, but pubs were getting blown up. I wasn’t eager to go to a pub.

I became brave.

We had had Ken’s friend Peter and his wife Briad over for tea, a tea that included sandwiches and cakes and scones. They were clearly surprised by this, but they seemed to like it and invited us over for the next Saturday night.

I was excited. I’d be in a real Irish home!

Peter liked games so he suggested beforehand that we plan to play the game called RISK. You know it, I am sure. The game of global domination, armies, strategy.

A perfect game to be playing in Belfast at that time.

Their house was about a mile’s walk away and it was a fair night, no rain. So, we walked. They lived in a row house that I found fascinating because the house stretched back, not out. All the room were off a central hallway that led to the kitchen in the back of the house. Understand, these were not New York upscale row houses. These were okay, but not at all fancy. They were basic, one next to the other with little room for light to come in. The baby played on the floor.
Briad and I played with Ken and Peter for awhile. But, we grew tired of the game long before they did. I helped Briad put the baby to bed and we made another pot of tea. She talked about life with “the troubles,” how she worried about Peter because he spoke so openly in favor of the IRA. How he went to meetings that made her nervous. “He’s a dad now,” she said,

“He needs to think about what it would mean if he went to jail. Or worse.”

I gulped and nodded. I hadn’t really thought about Peter being involved in a way that could land him in jail, or worse. And how much was he involved? The paper had just printed the ruling that anyone who even knew someone was involved and didn’t report it could be held. Whew!
Well, we liked the two of them, no matter what. (Did Peter own a gun? Did he participate in the worst of things, the bombings?) I looked over at the two of them, Ken and Peter, both of them intent on global domination. I didn’t like the game at all. I caught Ken’s eye and cocked my head. It was late. Eleven. Long past the time when it was smart to be out on the streets.

But, Ken didn’t or wouldn’t get the message.

The two of them played on and on. Briad nodded off in the chair. Eleven turned to twelve then twelve thirty. When it dragged on to one, I finally said, with a degree of ill grace, “Ken. I am falling asleep here. I need to go home.”
“Okay,” he said. Not a bit flustered.
And here’s where Risk entered, not global domination. Just survival.
We left the house which was in a Catholic district and walked toward home. Our house was located near the university in a Protestant district. So, we had to cross territories.

We had to walk past real armies.

We talked. Well, actually, I ranted. I want to go home! I had wanted to leave hours ago. My worry was that a bomb would go off somewhere. We’d be blown to bits.
That did not happen.

What happened was that we had to pass a barricade.

They were all over on street corners and in alleys. British soldiers hunkered down behind sandbags.

Young kids. Scared kids.

When we passed, they were standing there, with their guns pointed at us. I could see the barrels from the corner of my eye. This was not good. I forced myself to talk to Ken so that maybe they’d hear my accent and let us live.

I heard the guns click open ready to fire.

Click. Then silence. It seemed a long way past that barricade.

“If we get killed because you played RISK so damn long I will be really mad.”

‘Keep walking” he said. “Just keep walking.”
We walked. We made it past the barricade, past the closed pubs and home. I shivered under the sheets, too angry with Ken to burrow next to him. I shivered for a long time until Ken moved over next to me. He was still reluctant to acknowledge the possible danger we had been in. “We didn’t get shot” he said. “They were just taking precautions. They didn’t shoot us. They were ready just in case we’d try to toss a bomb.”
Sure. Sure he was right. We didn’t get shot. The soldiers were taking precautions. But it made no difference to me. I didn’t know how to live in that world and I didn’t want to learn.

I know what the click of a gun sounds like when the person’s ready to fire.

I know what the breathing of a scared soldier sounds like.
And, I made it clear lying there in the dark with Ken that the risk wasn’t worth it. I started thinking of how to go back home.

I didn’t want to play Risk ever again.

Photo Credit: Flashbak.com

The Country School in Belfast

The Country School in Belfast

I was busy enough shopping, stoking fires, writing letters home, but I didn’t feel I was experiencing anything of the country (aside from the scary stuff of course.) Well as it happened, Ken’s friend’s father was principal of a small country school, just outside Belfast, and I had a teaching degree. No matter that it was not for lower elementary, not matter that I had zero experience, he was willing to take me on while one of his teachers was gone to have a baby. If I wanted the job, he could pick me up in the morning and drop me off in the afternoon.

An Irish country school!

It sounded exciting. Some of my romantic ideas might materialize. I pictured myself teaching. The picture was sort of hazy as a matter of fact, because I would be teaching a mixed class, grades one through three.
But, I didn’t let something like that interfere with my fantasy. I would be gentle and inspiring both. The children would listen and learn. (What world did I live in?)

Of course not much of that happened.

Not only was the class multi graded (grades one through three,) students brought their younger siblings to class if they needed taking care of. That was normal. All the regular teachers just managed it. Well I sort of managed, but some days were pure chaos. The youngest kids demanded attention while the regular kids only half-listened to the lesson.

But I loved all of them.

They were so easy to love. “Oh, teacher, I could listen all day to the way you talk,” the girls would say. Kids from other classrooms would come in to borrow chalk or paper. They wanted to hear and see the American. I was an instant celebrity! (Ha!)
There was a major problem though. What I needed to learn and had no way of learning in the time I had was how to knit. I was supposed to teach knitting the next day. Knitting? I had no idea knitting could be part of a school curriculum. But there it was, knitting on Tuesday and Thursday.

What was I going to do?

I explained to the principal that I could not knit. He was astonished, but amiable. Nothing much confounded him. He suggested I hand the lesson over to one of the older girls. I felt sheepish and pretty lame, but what else could I do? She taught them (and me) how to knit scarves.
The school was great. The children were wonderful.

There were two tea breaks

(Mid morning and mid afternoon) and one lunch break. Time was easy. No American school would follow that routine. There were no bells, no only one hallway to the upper grades and the sheep next door often wandered over to look in the window.
Of course there were some downsides. There was no running water, so the children would go next door to fill the kettle. Also, no running water meant the obvious. Teachers took it in turn to make tea and supervise the use of the outhouses, one for the boys and one for the girls.
The teachers went next door to use the “inside loo.” Of course, this was in the seventies. The school has long since changed. It has water and inside loos and they only teach knitting once a week.
We went through the routine things, math, language, and social studies. I wasn’t at all sure if I was doing a good job. Were they learning? They came to school eagerly enough, but was that perhaps because I was strange? The kids seemed to think I was out of the norm for sure. It doesn’t take much with kids, clothes that are slightly different, a backpack instead of a purse. They eyed all of it and made note.
One day a student’s mother showed up to see me. “ I want to see this item Briad talks about, the back pack.” I showed her. “ Well, that’s a lot of fuss about nothing, “ she said. I agreed with her. “You do sound different though. Myself, I would have a hard time listening to you all day. It would make my head hurt.” So much for the American!
On Monday and Wednesday we were supposed to teach singing, Irish folk songs. I didn’t know any Irish folk songs aside from Danny Boy and did that even count?
Then I had a stroke of luck. I was American. The kids in my room were getting some small bit of cross-cultural education. I could learn Irish folk songs and they could learn some American folk songs. If I started with American folk songs, I’d have time to learn the Irish tunes.
“Okay, I said to them one Monday. “ You are going to learn something from America.
I’ll teach you a folk song. I did not play the fiddle, but I could strum a bit on a battered guitar we had toted along with us. I started strumming and singing Clementine. They loved it. They got up and danced around the room. The principal heard the ruckus and came in. Was I in trouble? Not a bit. He joined in. Triumph.

I always felt as if the other teachers were a bit wary of me.

Why shouldn’t they be? I wasn’t doing everything they did, certainly not in the usual way. But when I left for home at night, I turned back to look at the whitewashed building, the teachers leaving school to walk down the road to home. The school itself, a small thing among the sheep and cows out there in the country. The children who would likely grow up to manage those sheep and cows.
The girls would manage children. Maybe if the school survived, they would send their youngest along with the older child one day while they went to market. That wouldn’t be so terrible.

I taught for three months.

When I left, the children gave great hugs and said they would come and visit me. I bought an electric kettle so the fire would not need to be stoked to make the tea. Whether that was a success or not, I don’t know.
But there was this, as I left, the children came out and stood in the lane and they sang Clementine. “Ach,” the principal said, “you put some life into the place.”
I smiled. I wondered what the returning teacher would say when she saw that not one student had finished their required scarf.

Belfast, Ireland: In the Time Before the Kids Came

Belfast, Ireland: In the Time Before the Kids Came

Tell me what you used to do.
Our kids and grandkids want to know what we used to be like before we were mom and dad, GranMary and GranKen.
I think about that and realize that after the kids came so much of our life was consumed by getting from one day to the next with lunches packed and notes to the teacher in their backpacks that I barely remember what we did before the kids came. Then, when the grandkids came it was all about them. What were we like?

I want to remember and share the early story of our lives.

So the next few blogs will tell the story of one of our more “iffy” adventures. This adventure was way bigger than trying to walk from Cleveland to St. Marys. You might remember that story from the book. In those early years, I was ready to do almost anything. Almost is the key word.

Ken had been in grad school majoring in nuclear physics. It was a field he loved and it seemed like a good investment too. But things don’t always go the way you imagine. By the time he got his PhD., government funding for research was cut and jobs in his field were almost nil. What were we going to do? How far away would we move for a job? We talked about the Peace Corps and even applied. I was hot to go someplace different. “Let’s make a different life,” I said.
I got Ken to apply with me and we were offered an assignment in Malaysia. I was geeked! Tropical, geckos… different! But Ken dragged his feet. One night when we were going over the few options again he admitted that he wanted to work in his field, not teach English or dig wells. Taking a deep breath, I asked him what he was thinking of.

I knew Malaysia was disappearing.

“Ireland,” he said. “There’s a two year Post Doc position in Ireland. and they want me.” Now when you think of Ireland, it’s almost a given that you think of southern Ireland. You know, all that green and sheep and happy Irish people singing in pubs. I certainly did. That sounded okay, more than okay. I pictured living in a thatched cottage outside of Dublin. He must have applied to Trinity, I thought.
Nope. He had NOT applied to Trinity.
He had heard about a position at Queens University in Northern Ireland. In Belfast to be exact. Who would apply to Belfast?
“Are you crazy?” I said. At that time, in the seventies, Belfast was NOT a tourist destination. It was a dangerous place. People were getting killed, not every day, but often enough. Who would apply to go there?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Mary, we’ll be fine. We’ll be at the university and we aren’t likely to be a target since we aren’t even Irish.” I was not convinced. But, Ireland it was.
The family was, as you might guess, not enthusiastic. But they held a farewell party and said they’d come to visit (if the situation improved). I teared up. Then I sobbed.
The pictures I had seen of Belfast (sitting on the floor of the library, frantically searching travel guides and newspapers) showed shipyards and gray buildings. There were people tossing rocks at each other. Not happy Irish people raising glasses in a pub. These people were angry.

They were exploding bombs. In Pubs!

Nobody would come to see us! They would be crazy to risk it. Still implacable Ken remained calm. He assured me that we would be fine. He pointed out that his position in Belfast was at Queen’s University. It did not place him in danger. The whole thing was overplayed for the news. I was unconvinced and he knew that, but I would go almost anywhere with him even though Belfast was pushing the limits.
We flew over the Atlantic. Ken drank a Guinness. He didn’t like it, said it took getting used to, but he downed it.”Gotta get in the mode,” he said. I drank ginger ale to calm my stomach. We landed at Shannon Airport. “Oh, I thought, I wish we could get out here.” But noooo. We changed to a smaller shuttle to go north, the troubled place.
For the first few days, the weather was great, sunny and warm. It was May, so I just assumed it would stay like that, a nice balmy seventy-two. But when the local paper used the weather as a headline and warned people to refrigerate their milk and butter, I suspected the weather was not the norm. Soon enough it went back to sixty, sometimes below sixty. It stayed there and the skies clouded over. I pictured people back home walking the streets in shorts, while I wore my coat when I went out.

We found a brick cottage at 10 Cloreen Park.

Image: Google Maps

It looks charming in the photo. It WAS charming, But, there was no need to refrigerate the butter. (We didn’t have a refrigerator anyway. Lots of people in Belfast didn’t back then.) There was no central heating and the house was frigid. It was also damp. The cupboards harbored mildew, no matter how often I wiped them down. I knew I had to make the best of things, so I put on two sweaters and got busy.
We bought some chairs and a table from a sweet young guy at a consignment shop. (He will be in the story later) We made fires of coal in the fireplaces huddled in front of the fire. The fires left a film of soot over almost everything and I understood better why maids were always dusting in 19th century novels. We worked to make a place for ourselves.
Three days after we arrived and settled in, Ken went off to work and I walked the neighborhoods scouting places to buy food. It was all so different! A shop might have potatoes and cabbage and apples. That was all. Lettuce was a rare treat. Often enough I couldn’t find it. Bread, delicious bread was sold only in bakeries.
So, I’d walk to Stranmillis road (pictured below) and buy our bread for the day. I learned to buy only enough for the day so food did not spoil. If I wanted meat, I went to a butcher shop where whole pigs and lambs and cow carcasses were hanging and the smell took getting used to. The butcher was nice and sympathetic to the strange American. He took his time in talking recognizing that I struggled with the Belfast accent. One day, he gave me a butcher apron blue and white striped, which I still have. The Grandkids put it on to make cookies. Things were going along okay from day to day.

Image: Google Maps
The first sign that the trouble was real, not imagined, happened when I went to a flea market with the wife of one of Ken’s colleagues, Bridget (pictured in blue dress in second picture from the left in the header). She was young and lovely and pushed her one-year-old little boy in a stroller. I was thrilled to make a friend.
The flea market was outside market filled with chairs, and lamps and china. It was another chilly day, so I wore my coat and a red and white scarf. We needed plates, so I stopped by a table that featured china while Bridget moved on to look at something else. I held up a plate rimmed with dog roses and considered it. The price was right. We could use about six of the plates. I reached for more plates when I felt myself jerked back by someone. Hard. I struggled to breathe and hold onto my plates.

A man’s voice, angry, threatening sounded behind me.

Your not welcome here. Get out before I throttle you.” He kept tugging at my scarf while I clutched my plates. Bridget saw the ruckus and rushed over. “Go on, you, she said. She has nothing to do with this. She’s American.” The man let go of me and skulked off.
“He thinks your Protestant because of the scarf. One of the schools has red and white for their colors.” She looked remorseful.
“Oh,” I said for want of anything else to say. She seemed to think the whole thing was no big deal. I took the scarf off and crammed it in my purse.
I went home with the plates. We had potatoes and cabbage for supper. Very Irish. Very cheap. (Which was true of most of our meals that year.) Potatoes, cabbage, carrots, turnips were what we had to eat. Sometimes we had beef stew, but not often.

We didn’t have much money.

Post doc positions don’t pay much. In truth, we were poor. We made the rent on the house and had enough for food and occasional Sunday night suppers at the only place in Belfast that was open on a Sunday, the local Chinese restaurant on Ormeau road.
The night of the flea market incident, I told Ken the scarf story while we ate cabbage and potatoes. “Good thing Bridget was nearby,” he said. He gave me a hug, but he didn’t seem overly worried. I sort of wanted him to be worried. I wanted him to be aware that I was worried. If I could be accosted while I was shopping with a friend, what else might happen?

We would soon find out.

We slept in a bed we had bought from the sweet guy at the consignment shop. It was a monstrous oak structure with a carved lion’s head in the middle of the headboard. We had flannel sheets in a blue and white stripe, feather pillows and a blue blanket. I wore flannel pajamas. It was June by now and the house felt like December.
I was reading a travel guide to Northern Ireland that kept touting the Giant’s Causeway and figuring out when we could go to see it. Ken was reading the local paper. We were both scrunched down under the covers plenty warm if we did not get out from under the covers.

Boom! Boom!

The bedroom window rattled. I held my breath. Again another Boom! There was a pub on the corner of our street. It was not yet closing hours. Sirens sounded. I knew what had happened. Exactly what I was afraid would happen.
If I got out of bed and went down to the front gate, I would be able to see the pub, or more likely, what was left of it. Ken did. I didn’t. He came back upstairs to say it looked like the bomb had done a pretty good job of it.
‘The people?” I asked. He was quiet. He didn’t know. Other people on our street had come out, but almost everyone went back into their homes quickly. Nobody wanted to stand out or be mistaken for an IRA person. I huddled under the blankets and listened as the last of the sirens faded.

“This is not a tourist destination, “I said to Ken.

“What a thing to say,” he said. What I wanted to say was that I thought we should leave, but I couldn’t quite say that, not then.
Ken, always logical, thought I was overly distressed. We were going to be fine.
Next day in the paper, there were photos of two men who had been in the pub and were killed when the bombs went off.
“See,” I said to Ken in my I-Knew-It-All-the –Time voice. “See?”
Our neighbors took Ken’s view. “ It’s the Troubles,” they said. “It’s just a bit of trouble. We’ll win out.”
I averted my eyes when I walked down Stranmillis, past the shambles of a pub, to the university where Ken’s department was holding a tea. I went up to Ken’s department. Inside Queen’s University, there was a fireplace with a fire lit. There were sandwiches and scones and, my very favorite, Ormeau Bakery coffee boats, a kind of shortbread with a creamy mocha frosting. I tried not to make a pig of myself. The conversation never touched on the bombing, which wasn’t all that far from Queen’s. The safe topics were bandied about, the latest soccer scores, and a new group of singers come up north to perform, the Chieftains.
Ken got us tickets to go hear the Chieftains who performed at Queen’s University. Their spirit, their music, lit a fire inside me that night. And, for a time, at least for that night, I believed it could be alright. We’d be fine. The troubles would calm down.
Okay. That’s a stopping place. We heard the Chieftains two more times, once with our children. This last time at Hill auditorium in Ann Arbor. They have changed. It’s been thirty years. We have changed. But their music still gives me hope. It makes people get up from their seats and clap until their hands hurt. It makes all kinds of trouble seem far away.

The Koral Kids in Uncle John’s Pond

The Koral Kids in Uncle John’s Pond

I’m going to tell you the story of the Koral Kids and John’s pond. But you need a little background to take the story in. The first thing that helps to know is that the pond is in the back of the Cleveland house. (the same house I refer to in my book)

 It was designed and crafted by John, my husband’s brother. It is not big. It’s just a very small pond where the local frogs and deer take a drink. It’s rimmed by rocks. There is an owl sculpture off to the side. The setting is perfect. If you watch long enough, you will see the local wildlife: deer or chipmunks, birds taking a drink. At night, the raccoons appear and drink. John and his family have lived in the house with the pond for over twenty-five years. The beloved center of our Cleveland famil

y life, is on Falling Leaves road. You can see the backyard view to the right.

It’s a tranquil setting, the kind of setting you read about in Better Homes and Gardens while you wait your turn in the dentist’s office. I don’t quite know how to describe the feeling of the place. Maybe ordered? I think the place is both welcoming and ordered. You do not expect the unexpected to happen in the house with the pond.

Okay, that is one part of the setting. Now there’s another part.

My oldest, his wife and three kids, Lex, Drew and Bella often come to Ann Arbor to visit us. Our house can best be described as eclectic.
The unexpected does happen here: Somebody locks their keys in the car. The milk from the grocery store is going to spoil! Somebody else puts too much popcorn in the corn popper and popcorn explodes all over the kitchen. In the end, the keys are retrieved with help from a locksmith and the popcorn is swept up.
But, we surely do not have a Better Homes and Garden kind of place. Although, we do have deer who stop by to eat all our tulips in the spring. It’s a different kind of place from John’s, not better or worse, but different.

One other thing before we get to the pond story.

Jean, my son’s wife, is meticulous. Their kids are her joy and she raises them with care. They are wonderful kids, very easy to have around.
John loves to have them come visit him. He creates forts out of boxes, draws faces on oranges, and buys Malley’s chocolates for them.

So, two years ago my oldest and his family went to visit John.

The kids were told they could run out into the woods to play. This was a huge treat because they are city children, unused to running free. It was a warm summer day. And, although I was not there, I can almost hear them, hooting and hollering, running free in the woods.

They were living a kid’s dream.

They raced down the hill through the tall trees and back uphill to the house. Up and down, up and down. Sweat streamed down their faces. They ran out of breath. But just then, they spied the pond and began the tricky maneuver of leaning over the edge to see what was in the pond. All three of them stood on the edge, peering, balancing on the rocks.

One of them lost his balance.

The oldest, Lex, appeared at the back door, dripping. Jean and Minh cleaned Lex up and I suppose sort of reprimanded him for not being more careful. That’s an important value for Jean. Be careful!

That value was going to be tested.

They were not even done with putting Lex’s clothes in the dryer, when Drew appeared in the same wet condition. John was kept busy coming up with towels. They dried Drew off and put his clothes in the dryer along with Lex’s
I bet you know what happened next. Yes, of course you do. Bella appeared dripping wet.
Since she was smaller, she was wet up to her chest and crying indignant tears. Her parents toweled her off and added her clothes to the pile. I have no idea what was said at this point. What could anybody say? You could laugh or cry, and I know that John was laughing because when he called me later, he was still lauging.
Eventually everybody’s clothes come out warm, dry and ready to wear.

Are we done with the story? Not yet.

Bella, determined soul, went outside, walked around the pond again, slipped on the mossy stones and went in.
By now John was stunned. Things like that did not happen at his house. “Twenty-five years,” he said when he called me. “Nobody even got a foot wet in twenty-five years, and in one day, three kids fall into the pond, one of them twice.”

We are going to move ahead two years. There’s still more of the pond story.

The kids and their parents go back to visit John for the Lunar New Year. It’s February, and there’s snow in the woods. The snow covers everything. Drew, Lex and Bella and run up and down the hill. They are oblivious to the cold and snow. Drew follows the tracks of a chipmunk which lead toward the house.
He is only thinking about the tracks. I am pretty sure he is not thinking about the pond at all. He certainly can’t see it because the pond is covered with a screen so that leaves will be caught as they fall. The screen is covered by the snow. Drew trudges closer and closer to the house his eyes are chipmunk tracks. His older brother is behind him.

Oh, it’s coming! He is about to…

Step on the thin snow-covered screen, fall through the thin ice and into the pond. Lex lets out a shout. He knows he was minutes away from doing the same thing.
Drew knocks on the glass door. His shoes are soaked. His jeans are wet. John and his parents are caught between the past and present, between laughter and amazement.

How is it possible?

My son stops to see us on their way home. Drew is carried in. I can see he has no shoes. They tell the story. “Is it this a tradition now?” I ask.
Drew looked at me and shrugged his shoulders, sheepish. I hugged him, said it could happen to anyone. ( Maybe). There’s something about the story I love. It is the unexpectedness. How many more times will this happen?
Plus there’s the drawing that Lex made when he sent off a thank you note to John for the visit. This is the best part, I think.
“Caution”, he wrote. “Falling Persons on Falling Leaves”. Then he drew a picture of a person flat on his back in the pond. Who could not love that?

Calcutta Sandals

Calcutta Sandals

Anita came in early spring.
Snow still splotched on the ground. It was April.
She had had a long flight from Calcutta to Frankfurt to Detroit. She’d been travel sick and the aid that was with her changed her from a ruffled dress (a dress to impress) to the yellow and brown outfit you see in the photo. She is being handed over to us in the one picture. The worker isn’t visible, the picture not sharp or cropped well, but there she is, almost catatonic with bewilderment.
She must have been thinking: Who ARE these people? Where am I? Wow! Her courage takes me aback even now. Well, the courage of all the kids still jolts me at times. Most of us can’t imagine being picked up and put on a plane and set down half a world away. This is your family now. Bye Bye.

See the sandals on her feet?

She LOVED those sandals. She wore the yellow and brown outfit as often as I could get it out of the washer and into the dryer. But the sandals she wore every minute: In bed. Outside in the snow that still held. I wondered what people must have thought, this mite of a thing standing in the middle of the front yard while I tried luring her into the stroller for a walk. She was often tear streaked, refusing the stroller and wearing her sandals, It was the usual Michigan April. Cold. Snow flurries some of the time. She did allow socks. The same white socks that came with her from India. Thin white socks. So there was this tiny girl, afraid of almost everything, waving the first robins away if they came to near her, wearing her brown and yellow outfit most days and her brown sandals with white socks.
I don’t know how we managed to do it, but we lost Anita’s sandals. We had carried her out to the car, barefoot. It was a Sunday and we wanted to get out, try for a little fun. It was hard to get anywhere with two kids. (When we got to three kids it proved to be even harder, of course.)
We got her into her car seat. No small feat since she resisted every step of the way and could, because she was so small, actually worm herself out of her seat.
Ken got her in the car seat. I strapped Minh in his and we were ready to go for some family relief time, which is what we called it then, to Gallup Park. We’d look at the ducks and walk around and maybe try a paddle boat. The weather was finally turning milder and Anita had moved from silence to an echo. Water, Anita. Water. She was so quick, so smart. We got to the par and looked for Anita’s sandals in the back seat. Nothing. In the trunk of the car? Nothing. In my purse? No. Where?
Oh, no! I knew where! I had put them on the roof of the car while I strapped Minh in his seat. I had meant to get them and put them on her.

I’d lost her sandals.

We could retrace our route and look, but what were the chances? Horrible! It sounds ridiculous to be so distressed by a pair of sandals that probably cost next to nothing. But they were a small piece of home comfort for her. We turned around to search. The chances were exactly what we thought they would be, zero.
We looked at Anita. She looked at us. Silent tears. We’d been careless with her precious Indian sandals.
Now what? Would she go barefoot? Refuse to wear any shoes? Who knew? Not me. Anything could have happened.

Well, we went back to Gallup Park and Ken carried her around.

She liked that. We rented a paddle boat; she tried to get her feet into the water. She laughed when she sat on Ken’s lap and her toes barely touched the water. Whew.
On the way back home, we rerouted to a Meijer’s where they already had sandals on display and she picked out a pair, brown, like her Indian sandals. These new sandals became her Sunday-when-we-drove-off- with her Indian sandals on top of the car sandals.
Her “new Indian sandals.” Such a small thing in the big picture. But not really.

Every parent knows the feeling of losing something precious that their child loves.

A blanket that gets shrunk in the drier. A stuffed animal eaten by a dog, or left in a restaurant. It’s the part of parenting that moment when you feel, “Oh, no! I could not have done that! What am I going to do? ” Well you haven’t left the child behind, so there’s that.
Turns out Anita fell in love with her new brown sandals and wore them every day from spring to late fall when we finally persuaded her to try some new red sneakers. But she kept the sandals. Some mornings, I’d find them under her pillow, along with the crackers she took to bed with her.

The sandals are in her box of treasures.

Now she wears six inch heels with rhinestones down the back of the heels. She has shoes stacked up everywhere in her house. The rhinestone heels, leopard print heels, multicolored sneakers, and yes, a pair of brown sandals, with gold studs on them.
She is a shoe freak and her daughter follows along. Her daughter begs to try Anita’s shoes on. Her mother protests. “You’ll fall. And besides, your foot is already longer than mine.” True. Anita is a size six. Her daughter is six and a half, already taller than her mother. But her daughter is still a young kid, who sneaks the shoes anyway and walks around imagining the day she will wear, not brown sandals, but rhinestone heels. She is wearing black leggings, a top with a cute fuzzy cat imprinted on it, and the rhinestone heels. She walks from the living room to the kitchen, carefully balancing.
The dog barks at her, young girl teetering in her shoes and Anita laughs.

The Korean Tiger and the Green Mask

The Korean Tiger and the Green Mask

Sung was eagerly anticipated by his siblings, Minh and Anita. They asked many times a day when he would come, what they could do with him, would he play with them?

Well, he came and he was not what they anticipated, of course. He roared around the clock until he exhausted himself into sleep. Minh and especially Anita were dumbfounded. I think they felt if I had promised them double dips at the Washtenaw Dairy and then pawned yogurt off on them. But. Sung came to life. He caught hold and held on, laughing and playing. He’d do almost anything if it meant that Anita and Minh would play with him. And they mostly did. He was so much fun, much of the time.
But underneath all that playing was an element of “Gotcha.” Sung drove them nuts when he went into one of his flooded-with-fear-and-anger tantrums. So they had some submerged or not so submerged resentment and they knew what he was afraid of. They were capable of collusion. In this way, they managed a big “Gotcha.” Sung hated one particular green Halloween mask that Minh owned, an ugly thing that Minh was proud to own since it proved that he could be scary if he wanted to be. (The least scary kid around.)
It was hideous, rubber, green, bulging eyes, and fanged teeth. Minh had used it for Halloween and kept it in the bedroom, despite Sung’s pleas for him not to. But Minh did keep it in a drawer, out of sight.

On the night of the big “Gotcha” Minh and Ken and Anita were in the living room while I read to Sung in the kids’ bedroom. Sung had two favorite stuffed animals at that point, a raccoon given to him by Ken’s brother, John, and a bear, Winnie the Pooh. The raccoon had a big belly, so Sung called him Potsee. Pooh was Pooh, not as important as Potsee, but there.

You can see the two of them in the picture above.

I heard muffled voices in the living room, laughter. We continued reading, Bedtime for Francis, the perfect book for Sung who resisted bedtime fiercely. We finished the story and went out to the living room. He passed around kisses and begged for a snack. Well, why not?
More laughter from the living room. We were in the kitchen now, Sung and I. Something seemed a little weird, but I dismissed it, spread peanut butter on a graham cracker and poured some milk. Sung ate the snack, went off to brush his teeth and get into bed. “I’ll tuck you in, “ I called, “as soon as I put the milk in the fridge.”
Screams. Yells. Pounding feet. More laughter, louder this time, from the living room. Out of control laughter. We-got-you-this-time laughter.

“Potsee, “ screamed Sung. “Potsee!”

What could have happened to Potsee? Did those two older ones, take him? I went into the bedroom. Potsee was in bed under the covers, just his face showing. But it wasn’t his face. He had a green mask on his face, the very one Sung feared.
I reared in anger. “Not funny,” I called. “You two are in trouble.”
“Oh, Mary,” said Ken. “ It’s not that bad.”
I gave him the evil eye and took the mask out to the garage. Far enough away that Sung would calm down.
I frowned at the two older ones, who were still laughing, although, by now, they looked a little contrite seeing their younger brother so upset. Still I was sure they thought it was worth it. They had claimed the upper hand. If Sung bugged them too much, they’d come up with something to retaliate.
I huffed at Ken. How could he have allowed the kids to do that? I told him he was going to be the one to comfort Sung if he woke with nightmares.

Sung didn’t wake with nightmares. Oh no. He had his own plan.

It was the middle of the night, the usual time when one of the kids would often awake and cry out. One of us would stumble into the room to offer comfort. But this time, there was no crying. There was a fierce sound.
What WAS it? RRRRRRRRRRRR. LOUD! RRRRRRRR!
Yelps and astonishment from Minh and Anita. “Sung, you’re crazy!’
Laughter from Sung who stood in the middle of the room, holding Potsee and roaring for all he was worth. He was pretty good at it.
“Wow, Sung,” said Ken who had come into the room with me. “ You’re not a raccoon. You’re a Korean Tiger! You sure roar like one.” Minh and Anita were wide eyed. Their little brother had managed his own, “Gotcha.”
Everybody went back to sleep, the Korean Tiger held both Pooh and Potsee, wholly content. The three of them bonded together by crazy things, a bear, a mask and a fat raccoon.
They still talk about Potsee and the mask and the revenge of the Korean Tiger. They laugh and think it’s one of their best stories.
Ken did get Sung a stuffed tiger and now, Sung has a toddler son. He and his son and Ken play the roaring game over and over until his son, falls to the floor laughing helplessly.
Then one more time… RRRRRRRRR.

The Bear and the Dog

The Bear and the Dog

My oldest son asked me to blog about the time he lost his bear

And, like most kids, he thinks he lost the bear he now has. Maybe he thinks I retrieved it for him. I didn’t though. Here’s how it was. He was young, maybe two or three. We were out walking in the neighborhood. I was pushing him in the stroller, nothing cool like they have now. As I remember it was plaid and did have an undercarriage where things could be stored. We were walking up Barton Drive past Northside School. It a reasonable hill and I was moving along, kind of gloating that I could move up the hill at a fair clip pushing a child in a stroller. Never gloat.

The Dog Snatches The Bear

Out of nowhere that I could see, a big German Sheppard comes bolting toward us and snatches the bear (a brown one) that my son was holding. I was stunned. He cried. Should I leave him in the stroller and run after the dog? How could I? I’d never catch the dog and if I somehow did, how was I going to get it out of his mouth? The dog bounded across the schoolyard, bear in his mouth.

My son stopped crying to turn and look at me. I was still standing there trying to process what had happened? Tears were on my son’s face. Oh God! I failed him. I allowed a dog, a dog! to take his bear away. His beloved bear that we got for him when he came, the one that played Braham’s Lullaby. Misery.
We pushed on to home, the green house near the river. I held my son and assured him that somehow we would make this okay. I had no idea how. So, Ken came home from work and the first thing I said was, “We have to replace the bear. He can’t sleep without it. We need to go out now and find the same bear.” Why do we parents think we can do that? We couldn’t replace the bear. There was one toy store in Ann Arbor at that time and they did not have a brown bear that played Braham’s Lullaby.

Our son looked at the bears we offered him and shook his head, no. More misery.

But wait. There WAS a bear that played Braham’s Lullaby. The thing was, it was orange. Whoever heard of an orange bear? But that was the bear he wanted. That’s the bear he took for his. He kept it for years.

And, the weird thing is another dog came on the scene

Sugar, a dog from the humane society that was part German Sheppard, a real love of a dog. But. Sigh. She got hold of the bear and chewed its face. She somehow damaged the music box. What is it about dogs and bears, anyway? Our son was long past carrying bears around but he wasn’t one bit happy about the mess.
I kept the bear. Years and years later, he is a father now, I found a woman who made repairs and sent the bear off to her (Doll Hospital & Toy Soldier Shop, Berkley, MI). She worked hard. She even found Braham’s Lullaby for the music box. We gave it to our son for Christmas. The orange bear sits in his house and I imagine that sometimes he plays the tune for his kids. They do not have a dog.
(A note from Minh: Mom, the bear sits in my home office, on a shelf with so many other stuffed animals that I’ve collected over the years, and like The Velveteen Rabbit, or how Pooh was to Christopher Robbins, “Red Bear” along with the others have all had rich lives and still do come out from time to time when my children need a friend. When I read this, I immediately grabbed Red Bear and took the picture you see in the photo above. He’s still in one piece, but showing obvious scars from his near death experience. Thanks for holding on to him for all those years and restoring him so he could be “real” for my children as well.)

Mary Koral on Stateside with Cynthia Canty | Jan. 13, 2016

Mary Koral on Stateside with Cynthia Canty | Jan. 13, 2016

EDIT (after airing): StateSide. NPR. My youngest son, in particular, always has stories about listening to it and how much he likes it. When the book first came out, my husband and oldest son had the idea of seeing whether or not we could manage an interview. I didn’t think so. But my husband sent the book off to be reviewed anyway. And one night around ten, I checked my email and there it was: an invitation to be interviewed on Stateside with Cynthia Canty‬. I was elated! And nervous! What if I flubbed? I am here to tell you that Cynthia Canty and her assistant Mercedes make it very easy. Mercedes walked me back to the studio room and introduced me to Cynthia who was very friendly and wore a cool green scarf. We sat down and she said, “Just pretend we are talking to each other.” I can talk, for sure. That would be no problem. Then she asked me what I had for breakfast. I was a bit puzzled but quickly realized she and her assistant were working with the sound system. From there it did feel as if we were talking, just talking. When she asked if I would read a small section, I was elated. Reading a section of my book on the radio was surely more than I expected. A terrific experience all the way!

Reading Winter Away

Reading Winter Away

There is a tower of books beside my bed.

I just finished rereading Krakauer’s: Into Thin Air, the story of the disastrous 1996 Mount Everest climb. I had read it when it first came out. I was, so judgmental! I was certain that I would have gone looking for the missing people, certain that I would not have passed by a dying person. Well, life has this tendency to surprise us and I have learned that I can’t be that assured. I have learned, I hope, not to be so absurdly confident about what I would or would not do. In rereading the book, I felt, not the suspense of the first time, of course, but compassion. It must have been so terrible for everyone involved!
Okay. So why did I pick that book up again? I wanted to read it because I have my own Everest to climb and I do face (we all do) life choices. ( See blog titled Stage Four)
Of course, it wasn’t the choice of the climbers of Mt. Everest to die, but they chose to take a chance. That was their choice. Maybe, that’s not so bad in the end. Taking chances can be terrifying. It can lead us to places we don’t want to be. What if you are stuck in a bad place and then you blame yourself for a bad choice? Oh the agony! But whatever else you do, live your life.

And in that vein, read! It gives such a great access to so many things

So what do I plan to read now?

The children’s book More Caps For Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina. The original book is Caps for Sale. We found it at a used book sale when the kids were young and loved, loved, loved reading it to them complete with caps thrown about the room. It’s a great read for kids!
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Heriquez, an NPR great read.
Lan Cao’sThe Monkey Bridge, (I actually think I already have a copy of this somewhere) and the following:
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. (Winner of Pulitzer) Oh, also
Gabriel Garcia MarquezThe Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor.
So, I should be busy until the end of January, which bring February and the emerging light of the new year. Then I will need more books.
Let me know what YOU are reading. Let me know how you like what you read and what you won’t read. (Everyone has books they never touch.) Let me know how you are and what you think about. That matters.

Stage Four Cancer

Stage Four Cancer

I have this community.

It’s not a group anyone would join willingly. But, it is a group I see every week. There’s age range and a mix of male and female. There’s a group leader. We talk and talk and sometimes we leave uplifted and sometimes we leave feeling worse than when we came. If it sounds like an AA meeting, it isn’t.
What it is, is a cancer support group. As it happens, most people in my group, myself included are striving hard to live, to be around to write another book, sing another song, act in a play or knit a scarf. The people generally have a pretty grim prognosis. We share Stage Four cancerlung, breast, brain, prostate, you name it. Many weeks I wonder what we have in common that took us to this place. Did we all drink from too many plastic bottles of water? Did we fail to exercise enough? What, oh what, did we do to end up in this group? Many weeks I don’t want to make the turn into the driveway to be in a cancer support group again, to sign in as the Patient. I am anything but patient. I want to do what I planned to do at this stage of my life! But, as in the blog I wrote about reading and choices. I know that what I have, is now, at this moment, in this group, right now with these people that I truly care about. I have this and if I throw it away because I keep looking over my shoulder at the life I had or imagined, then I have nothing at all.

I wasn’t sure that I’d talk at all about this part of my life. But I am talking about it because I feel that people do not know much about Stage Four Cancer. It’s not their fault that they don’t know very much. There isn’t much education or research dollars that goes into Stage Four Cancer. How could anyone know? I admire researchers. I am grateful for good treatment and health insurance and support. I am grateful to be able to be writing this. Still, do you know that even is a woman is treated early with breast cancer, there is at least a thirty percent chance the cancer will recur and/or become metastatic? Do you know that often the funds that are raised for big events—I will name no names—do NOT go for research and “the cure?”
The plea of people with Stage Four Cancer is: Stage Four Needs More! (meaning funding, of course) So true. Please don’t think that it’s someone’s fault that they’re Stage Four. Don’t assume that if someone has lung cancer because she or he smoked. I used to think that was the case. It is not. Most lung cancer diagnosis are for NON SMOKERS. (And even if they smoked a carton a day, would they deserve cancer?) Reject the idea that if that woman had only gone for a mammogram on time, she would not be diagnosed with Stage Four. It isn’t true.
It’s true that a Stage Four diagnosis does not seem as appealing to treat or research as a Stage One diagnosis that will, hopefully, have a great outcome. It’s not horrible to want to cheer the winning team, not the struggling team. (unless we like underdogs.)
I like underdogs! I want the people in this group I am in to survive. I want them to be able to grow old, to have grandkids. At least, I want them to be around and having a good quality of life two or three years from now. Then maybe five? Is that even possible? Time would be great.
I want the people in my group to be vocal in asserting themselves and advocating for more funds. I want the mentality of silo thinking (researchers keep their findings to themselves) to be gone. Oh I want so much! Then I need to remind myself yet again to be where I am and do the good it is possible to do. (Some days it seems like not very much)
Anyone can receive a diagnosis and find themselves wondering how they got to Cancerland. They were never planning to go there! Their plane must have been plane hijacked. The place they wanted to go was Italy. This place, Cancerland is like a very bad Motel Six in a cheesy shopping mall. No. They don’t want to be in this place at all. Heck, even the corner party store would be better… if they could only say once again with surety in their voice, “Yeah, I plan to do that in a few years.” Yeah for the underdogs!