Corona Chronicles: August 15, 2020
Until life returns to some semblance of normal, from time to time we will send out the Corona Chronicles. This publication will provide commentary, brief stories, poetry, book and movie suggestions, and ways to make our time at home meaningful and fulfilling. If you have ideas to submit, please contact Nancy Perkins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yankee Child in Virginia
I hold a particular prejudice and this past March I visited North Carolina and examined this feeling. You see, when I hear a white man’s voice with a southern accent, the hackles on the back of my neck prick and my body stiffens as I wait to learn what sort of person he will be. I don’t like this feeling but I do know it lies in these snippets of my past.
My ancestors on both parents’ sides arrived in Maine in the 1630s and all of my family were born and raised in New England. Maybe my mother had always wanted change, but after my father died when I was two, she moved us to Richmond, Virginia. Aunt A, an old friend with four daughters had moved there and Mom had me and my six year old sister so, except for underwear, I never needed new clothes until I was 11.
Every summer my maternal grandmother drove to Virginia to carry my sister and me north. She stopped in New York City to take us to shows and one time Radio City Music Hall had a rerun of Showboat. I adored the dancers but immediately asked her who sang about the river. She said, “That’s Paul Robeson. I have an album of his at the farm.” Years later, after an eye operation, my husband rented movies for me including Showboat. I complained that the video was in black and white and he said it came that way. I said, “That’s not possible. When Paul Robeson sang, that movie was in color.”
Gram owned a small farm in New Hampshire for summers where I helped with the gardens and lambs. We heard family stories like Gram learning to play piano from a woman who traded lessons for medical services from my great grandfather. Opening their door in the morning, my grandmother said they never knew what they’d find—chickens, vegetables or a hod of clams—poor white people paying for the doctor.
Little kids never know that their parents are struggling as long as they’re fed and having fun. Despite my mother’s college education, her first job in 1947 was as file clerk in the basement of Royal Globe Insurance in Richmond. Babysitting was an added expense and home was a two-room converted chicken coop on Biggy White’s farm. A pump for cold water and no bathroom. Yet what I remember was catching so many fireflies that the jarfuls became small lamps.
Biggie loved to hitch his horse, Bill, to his surrey and give us all rides. One morning Mom told me that Bill had died and I crept to the barn to see a dead horse. I paused seeing Biggie White cradling Bill’s head and shaking slightly with sobs.
I remember the day they killed the pigs. Very early some black men, called Negroes then, drove to Biggie’s in an old pickup, built a block base for a fire beneath a 55-gallon drum, which they filled with water and erected a tall hoist above it. They built a few tables and when the water was hot enough, Biggie shot two pigs and the black men dipped them into the drum and lay them on the tables. After they left. Biggie and his white friends and relatives carved up the meat and carried it away.
The only other black person I had ever seen was the woman who cleaned Aunt A’s house while babysitting us six girls and her own baby.
Mom’s parents lent her money so she was able to buy a house south of Richmond in Henrico County. She progressed out of the basement at Royal Globe to better jobs on the second floor. Although we were too young, she had to leave us for work or specific courses at the University of Richmond and I remember she brought home huge piles of work. If I needed homework help, she sometimes said, “Ask your sister; I’m busy.”
Once I heard Mom tell Gram, “I asked for a raise and you know what he said?” She mimicked a southern accent. “Now, Ruth, we don’t pay you as much as the men ’cause they’ve got families to support.”
In 1954 Mom finally bought a television and it threw wide the doors on the rest of the world. We all watched the news and by December, the Montgomery Bus Boycott began and civil rights was on TV every night as black Americans walked to work for over a year. Emmett Till’s murder was in 1955, then beatings, firehose and dog attacks on marchers and the brave black kids entering school. I was always the yankee kid, but I was white. By 1957 Mom was engaged and she asked how we’d like to move to Hartford, Connecticut. Why? She said the company’s headquarters was there. Then she mimicked the southern accent and quoted her boss, “Now, Ruth, your next promotion would put you over men and we just can’t have that down he-ah.”
One year Mom drove my sister and me to Washington DC, a major event. The Lincoln Memorial felt solemn, like standing in a church. I knew of the Civil War because my ancestors or my uncle had fought in every war so far. In Virginia the reason for the war was states’ rights, but in New Hampshire, it was to keep slavery. Robert E. Lee, who had sworn an oath to the Union at West Point, and the other confederate officers were shameful traitors, who had to be forgiven to maintain unity.
After walking for ages, we wanted a drink of water and approached a building with fountains. As we drew close, I stopped because there were two, the one on the left smaller and lower and the other big and new. For the first time I saw the signs I’d heard about – the left fountain marked “Colored Only” and the other “Whites Only.” I stood frozen sensing the injustice. “What does that mean, Mom? What does that mean?” For the first time she was forced to explain the Jim Crow code that made a lie of the 600,000 Civil War dead.
My paternal grandmother lived just up from the beach in Lynn, Massachusetts and insisted on teaching us proper table manners, setting a table properly and even to use the tiny silver dustpan and brush to sweep crumbs off the table. I remembered nothing of my father, or grandfather who was a music professor and concert singer, so I absorbed her stories. Travel by bus opened my eyes to people of every description sitting anywhere. I learned the specific things that I had to ask before I took a seat next to someone.
Once, I joined girls going to a youth group dance. We all met in Richmond to take the bus across town. No one had ridden a bus before so I said, “I have. I’ll show you what to do.” I was thrilled that there was one seat open and used my grandmother’s bus speech.
“Excuse me, ma’am, but is this seat taken?” She looked out the window, but shook her head.
“May I sit here?” She nodded and I said, “Thank you” and sat.
I rode for some time feeling smug knowing the other girls were standing. Finally I looked up into faces of shock and horror. What had I done? I glanced around to find I was in the Negro section, which I knew from the news. Finally I rose and loudly asked the girls how far we had to go, my feeble excuse for fitting into the group.
My only other memorable bus ride was two days from college in New Hampshire to visit Gram, who had moved to Florida. In South Carolina I approached a concession run by a white woman who asked me what I wanted. I pointed out that the two black teenage girls were ahead of me. She nearly yelled, “You want something or not?” I ordered while the other girls talked together not looking at us in the way people do to preserve some dignity and likely leading to the southern attitude, “they don’t mind.”
In Georgia a black college girl who had sat a little behind me struggled to remove her suitcase and I stood to help. We chatted about school and travel. As she left, I was sorry we hadn’t sat together. The white man who had the window seat by me said, “Be careful. They don’t like that sort of thing down here.”
The final bus trip in this vein was when my husband was in the army and we lived in Germany. I was the youth club director and I sat with the kids near our black driver, a career army sergeant. One of the post chaplains approached the bus and asked in a loud southern accent, “Boy, where you takin’ these kids?”
After the Supreme Court said to end segregation in 1954, we talked in school about integration. Virginia didn’t finish until the 1970s because the Court had written an escape clause “with all deliberate speed.” Like most white kids, integration meant nothing because the only black kids we ever saw were those our school bus passed on the road. Jim Crow was wildly successful and black people didn’t exist in our world.
The only black-owned business we knew was the trash man whose sons jumped off the back of his truck every Saturday. I was helping Mom with the barrels one day when the owner climbed down and softly told Mom that she had to pay the back amount she owed or this pick up was the last. After some calls Mom had me ride with her to Richmond. I had only visited Mom’s office once and a few holiday nights she drove us to see Christmas lights. This part of Richmond was apparently where the black people lived. I didn’t know what Mom took but I learned later what a pawn shop was. The next afternoon we began our Sunday drive, which was usually along the James River.
Instead we appeared to be going to my school, Varina, which was a grassy campus with separate brick buildings for primary, elementary, junior and senior high. The playground had rows of swings next to ball fields for different sports. The community was proud of the new athletic field sided with bleachers and a ticket/concession booth.
Following directions Mom turned down a road well before Varina. After a bit we said “Whew! What’s that?” The stench became so bad that we rolled up our windows and finally passed a large gate marked by a sign indicating Henrico County dump. The heat finally forced us to lower our windows as we drove along the dump enclosed by a chain link fence.
Only once did the straight fence vary where it made 90 degree turns. Three stories tall with a mansard roof, but without a flake of paint, the black kids’ school stood surrounded by a clean-swept dirt yard set in the county dump. Not a blade of grass. Three swings with one broken. If googled today, the building is gone and the dump is hidden under a hayfield.
We never moved to Connecticut because after my fourteenth birthday, Mom died. Gram moved to her New Hampshire farm to raise me and Virginia dissolved to memories. The loss of my mother and my home bonded in my mind with her struggles to support her family. Mixed with the violence of the civil rights movement, I turned against any connection to the south. At twelve I read Gone With the Wind and adored Rhett Butler but, although she cheated and lied, I was proud that Scarlett kept her farm and ran businesses.
In New Hampshire I read To Kill a Mockingbird, partially transforming the old south. In college I attended a workshop aimed at enrolling students to register black voters in Richmond. We learned to march, to fall, to protect vital organs from police clubbings and kicks and to remain limp while cops carried us to their vans. But the trip to Virginia was $125 or over a thousand dollars today and cost too much.
Then the 1960s came with marches and protests and I hitch-hiked to California with a girlfriend. I met John, who attended the defense language institute with other ivy league draftees such as the private with a Harvard doctorate. John’s graduation invitation read “…to officers and their ladies, enlisted men and their wives.” We knew that from top to bottom our pretentious systems needed changing.
John died this past February and I kept our Airbnb in North Carolina to grieve alone. My conclusion after traveling, chatting and interviewing folk there is that Jim Crow won. The 22% of black citizens is invisible in white areas and based on internet and published advertising, no black people visit the Outer Banks, restaurants, aquariums or festivals. Half the white men I met were friendly and helpful. The other half were arrogant clones of men from the 1950s and one transplant from the midwest was shockingly racist. But younger women run restaurants and work on crab boats.
The period mostly 1895 through 1950 in US history, aided by a racist federal government and Supreme Court, is an enduring shame. In the 1930s, Nazi Germany used Jim Crow laws as models. In preparation for Civil War tours as a docent at the Colby College Museum of Art, I studied how 20 million uneducated, rural immigrants who didn’t speak English arrived in northern US cities from 1880-1920. Six and a half million black southerners rode trains to northern cities in the Great Migration from 1910-1950. They were also uneducated, rural and spoke irregular English due to Jim Crow restrictions, but they arrived too late. Northern discrimination, aided by union inequity, had already begun.
Our future is not just about rights for Blacks or Women or LGBTQ or other individual groups. We must reexamine our thinking. As a docent leading tours of Wabanaki art at Colby, I recalled teachings of my ancestors’ struggles and success on a new continent. My father’s ancestors received a land grant, a paper gift between two men who had neither ever seen America. What was wrong with that? Well, people they knew nothing about already lived there.
Protests for black people are not enough when states are again restricting or eliminating their voting rights. Claiming we are not racist while not examining our behavior makes us liars. Not one American has a right to smugness with regard to discrimination. After all, the reason I studied North Carolina was my examination of my prejudice against the white men who had hurt my mother. A particular time in history must be understood and then let go. Protecting and justifying a shameful past will not move us forward. Only a willingness to change can do that.
Leslie Woods is an artist who lives in Montville
Travel During the Pandemic
Rita Swidrowski moved from Maryland to Orono, Maine in 1968 to attend the University. She has made Maine her home since, except for a year in Cambridge, Massachusetts where she earned a Master’s Degree and teaching certificate in a program called Creative Arts in Learning. She taught art in schools and in various venues, and was a public library children’s services assistant until she retired.
Seven years ago Rita moved to Belfast from the Portland area. She has had three art shows in Belfast, showing pages from her sketchbook journals. Until the virus, she led an art group of mostly sketchers at the Belfast Free Library. Someday, she may offer a course on Sketchbooks & Journals at Senior College.
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.
― Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939
Kayaking During a Pandemic
During a time of pandemic, kayaking is one thing you can do without putting yourself and others at risk. Paddling six feet apart is easy, and so is adding a bandana around your neck, along with your life jacket, and carrying a real mask for when you come ashore. Of course, the virus is one thing, being safe on the water is another. Proper equipment, safety gear, knowing the tide and weather conditions for the day, and knowing your skills as a kayaker are essential.
Being on the water has sure helped me deal with the pandemic and my concerns about family, friends, and the country. Last week, Glenn, one of my long-term paddling buddies, and I went on a three day, two night kayak camping trip to Sheep Island off Stonnington, Maine.
Sheep Island was the first privately-owned island to become part of the Maine Island Trail Association’s island network along our coast. It is big, at 42 acres, and has two camping areas, one large and one small, plus trails and its share of granite boulders, spruce trees, and rocky and sandy beaches. It is one of many islands available to visit or camp on in the archipelago off Stonnington, and one I have visited more than once over the years. One of my clearest memories of the Island is bringing one of my twin daughters to the island for her first kayak camping experience. She was in high school at the time. She fell in love with a little pocket beach not far from our campsite, and she spent hours relaxing, swimming and sunning herself there, enjoying the quiet, the beauty and being all by herself. She still loves kayaking when she can, so does her sister.
It is truly amazing how much gear can fit in a cruising sea kayak. A kayaker can take all that a backpacker can carry and more; small tent, ground cloth, mattress, backpacker pillow, one burner stove, food in small containers, bottled coffee, several pounds of water, a waterproof bag of clothes, first aid supplies, and so on. A kayak gets heavy with all that in it, but still floats and moves well. Paddling a loaded kayak for a time is a good workout for hands, arms, shoulders, abdominals, and thighs. It is wonderful how the Inuit created a boat design so human scale, so efficient, and so beautiful some 4,000 years ago. It is like walking on water, and about as fast.
This was my second camping trip this summer. And I was feeling grateful the whole time. Arthritis in my hips made trips like this impossible, until I got them both replaced during the past couple of years. Thanks to surgery, PT and yoga, biking and paddling, I am once again able to get in and out of a kayak, empty a kayak on a shore, share carrying a kayak out of the water and up a bank out of reach of the high tide and move about inside a backpacking tent. Moving about inside a backpacking tent is definitely amusing and qualifies as a special variety of yoga!
Every kayak camping trip has special moments. On Thursday, the fog off Deer Isle and south of Sheep was like a living thing, moving in and out. Like a magician, the fog dramatically displayed islands and then made them disappear. At times Isle au Haut looked like those blue mountains you see in a child’s crayon drawing. On Friday, the fog was gone and the sea was calm. Glenn and I left Sheep to explore the neighborhood. I have never seen the water look so green and clear as it did as we paddled between the Lazy Gut Islands.
Time slows down on an island. I had never noticed the long-clawed hermit crabs that inhabit the muddy shallows near our islands. None of them bigger than an inch, crowds of them race about in their borrowed shells chasing each other for no clear purpose. They are fascinating, I had to look them up after I got home.
Saturday, our last day began with a glorious dawn with red and pink clouds reflected in the sea around us. Breaking camp and gathering together our trash and gear, we made sure we followed the Maine Island Trail mantra: “Leave no Trace.” For example, twist ties are a great “tool,” but easy to lose. I was delighted by another first, we stopped for a rest about half-way to our launching site. The small island had a beautiful beach exposed by the tide. As I walked and stretched out, there on the sand below my feet were deer tracks among the rock weed and leading down to the beach. Some of the tracks were erased by the incoming tide, so where the deer went next wasn’t clear. Of course, like the deer’s hoof prints, our footsteps would be gone soon, too.
Jim Owen is inspired by the poetry of Billy Collins, Maya Angelou, Richard Blanco, E.B. White, Japanese Haiku and many others. A member of The Wheelbarrow School of Poetry in Belfast, Jim’s poems have been published in the Foreign Service Journal, several online journals, the Maine Island Trail Association’s Tales of the Trail blog, and a booklet published by The Wheelbarrow School of Poetry. One of his pandemic poems is on the front door of the Belfast Free Library. A member of the Board of Directors of Senior College Belfast, Jim was regional manager and counselor for an Employee Assistance Program based in Maine.
From my treehouse bedroom
Enveloped in verdant green,
I spy a single yellow leaf floating through the locust trees,
An acapella lament,
A melancholy shiver mars my mood.
Yet, still the Black-eyed Susans
Dance in the roadside ditch,
And Queen Ann’s Lace trims the field in elegant bridal gowns.
Tomato plants drag their crimson bellies
Some burst and spill their seeds, musky. Over ripe and rotten.
Green wears a dusty dress of gray,
And light starts to slant in purple streaks,
A somber clue to fall and winter sleep.
Kristin Frangoulis writes and paints in Belfast. She lives with her husband, George and several cats. She also hosts WBFY radio show, “Poetry By The Bay,” and co-hosts the TV show, “Good Morning Belfast” with her husband.