Porch Talk

a Southern Momma speaks


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Memorial Day

When Memorial Day began, it was proclaimed Decoration Day: the intention was to honor both the Union and Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War.  The founders hoped that such a day would begin to rebuild the relations between North and South: indeed, May 30th was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any Civil War battle.  On the first Decoration Day, 5,000 participants decorated the 20,000 graves of soldiers from both armies buried in the Arlington National Cemetery.   Even so, the bitter aftermath of the war continued, and the South had its own Confederate Memorial Day.  After WWI, DecorationDay was changed to Memorial Day, and honored all who died in any of our country’s wars, as it does today.  Since Memorial Day is the harbinger of summer, long week-ends and parties with family and friends are more usual than the parades on the Fourth of July.

Still, it is a day to remember those who gave their lives,and still are, so that our country can be “the land of the brave and the free.”  It does seem to me that public demonstrations of patriotism are not as prevalent as they were when I was growing up.   One still sees American flags in front of homes, but not nearly the number in years past.  In my view, the Vietnam War had a lasting effect on patriotism here.   A vast amount of people didn’t approve of it, and the treatment the veterans got when they returned from a war fought in ways they had never encountered and weren’t prepared for was, in my view, disgraceful.  Now, the number of cases in which one group or another wants to prohibit school children from saying the Pledge of Allegiance,  and the growing trend of events like the Super Bowl to have popular singers of the day sing THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER as if it were popular music of the moment, instead of giving it the dignity it deserves, dishearten me.  And I think each such instance is a blot on the flag, which is a symbol of all the words and thoughts and actions of generation after generation of Americans who have tried to keep this country true to its beginnings.

To be patriotic, in my view, means being a committed citizen of a country.  And to be a committed citizen with your head as well as your heart requires some knowledge of how our nation began, how it progressed, how its governmental systems work.   I think one of the biggest mistakes this country has made is not requiring people migrating here to learn to speak, read and write English.  Nor do we require sufficient study of American history, our Constituion and governmental system, for them to truly understand that while we, like any country, have flaws, we also have virtues.  Further,  we don’t require that migrants without a trade or skill to support them have training that will lead to jobs.

The reason for coming to this county might be to be with family; to have a better life; or to flee despots and violence.   But whatever the reason, surely it would benefit both migrants and this country if they learned English, learned about this country, had a trade or learned one.

Would it cost a lot of money to provide English and American History classes as well as job training?  Of course.   Would the long-lasting benefits be worth it? Of course.  The immigration crisis we now have could, I think, have been averted if, when migrants from Central and South America began staying here, instead of going home after they’d followed the crops from Texas to Michigan, the suggestions cited above, or similar ones, had been put into place.

It’s been twenty years since Congress changed immigration laws to meet the times.  Nor does it look as though they will find effective ways of doing this any time soon.  Arguments over numbers of migrants to let in; arguments over what requirements are necessary; arguments over just about everything but requirements that would help turn migrants into English speakers with a basic knowledge of how and why this country works, preparing them for American citizenship.

It’s natural for migrants from the same country to want to live where their countrymen are: familiar foods and celebrations help ease the move from one culture to another.  At the same time, migrants who wish to become citizens should understand that trying to impose traditions, rituals and customs of their home country on others is divisive.  The reason this country was called “a melting pot” was that since it was founded, and people began coming here to find new lives, they joined all the others who were Americans.   They maintained their old traditions, held celebrations, lived personal lives that mirrored the lives they’d had in their home country.   But they did not impose any of this onto the public at large: this united the country.

The last decade has seen a change,  due, in my view, to political correctness being taken too far.   It’s one thing to respect people whose native culture is different from our own.  It’s another to bend over backwards in efforts not to offend people whose native culture is different from our own.   The confusion, I think, rests on the notion that if people new to our country aren’t comfortable with the culture they find, the culture should change.  Being a citizen is both a privilege and a responsibility.   And one of the responsibilities is to accept that if you migrate here, the implication is that you want to be an American.  Which means that you are free to bring your culture with you, but you’re not free to expect others to adopt its precepts and practices, since they have their own.


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Indulgent Pleasures

One of the many joys of having grandsons is that they have introduced me to many movies I never would have seen had I had not gone with them.   My two stepgrandsons, now all grown up, and I started with Disney movies, and from there progressed through action movies starring some familiar heroes–Superman; Captain America–and others with new heroes whose names and costumes were different, but whose determination to overcome evil remained the same.   These grandsons knew their grandmother doesn’t like violence: sometimes when I suggested a movie, I would be informed that it was too violent for me.  Still, an occasional “cleared” movie did have violence, which, given the producers’ desire to have as many special effects as possible in hero movies, wasn’t a surprise.

When the younger brother and I went to see THE PRESTIGE,  there several violent scenes which neither of us had anticipated.  When we left the movie, my grandson said if he had known there would be all that violence, we wouldn’t have gone.   I told him his grandmother had the fastest eyelids in the west, and that I hadn’t seen a thing.

On my last visit to family in the northeast, the fourteen year old invited me to watch CUPCAKE WARS with him, which is a show on which four bakers compete for a chance to present 1,000 cupcakes at a notable event in Los Angeles and $10,000 as well.   Intrigued that my well-rounded grandson who had just played Feste in his class’ production of TWELFTH KNIGHT was interested in a competitive cooking show, I agreed.   And saw what captivated him.  CUPCAKE WARS explores human hopes as thoroughly as many serious plays.  Ambition battles with good sportsmanship; competence tries to triumph over luck.

Since there are time limits on each segment of the show, pressure builds as the clock moves–and there is always at least one crisis that creates even more suspense.   Courage comes to the fore when, after each segment, one baker is asked to leave, and when the winner is announced, the remaining contestant’s face is a mixture of shock, sadness, and sometimes tears.  High drama, indeed!

When I visited the two other grandsons who live in the northeast, the youngest one invited me to watch ANDY GRIFFITH with him.   This was definitely a walk down memory lane, and with delight, I found that I enjoyed the show even more than I had when I watched it all those years ago.   Andy and Barney still had a perfect balance between rationality and buffonery.   Aunt Bee was still the wise, and sometimes foolish, anchor to the family.   Ope was still a normal boy–normal in the time the series was made–and the town, its people are still not caricatures, but very real people with very real manners and mores.

I found it impossible to watch ANDY GRIFFITH without remembering how much simpler life was back then. Communities like the one featured in the series still exist, but there are fewer and fewer of them, and with their disappearance comes the many ills that plague our society now.   Yes, I know there were no vaccines against diseases like polio, typhoid and diptheria.   I know communication beyond your own town depended on the U.S. mail and the radio.   Technology has created marvelous things, but it comes with a price.

Thanks to global communication networks, we can see events across continents as they’re happening.   We can see sports events, political convention, the arts in all their glory–and we can also see pornography and brutality.    Strangers meet in online chat rooms, or through dating services, and with the anonimity that such communication provides, can create a person who has few flaws and many assets.   I realize there are benefits in online communication between strangers.  But there are also dangers, particularly to the young and the vulnerable.

Of course there are small communities now–gated ones, not at all like the one in Andy’s hometown.  It saddens me to think that our society presents so much anxiety, so much fear, that people feel they have to live behind gates, which can be a metaphor for minds that increasingly want to ignore the horrific problems facing, not just our country, but the world.  Which is understandable.   But immigration, terrorism, poverty, hunger, poor schools, as well as all the other ills, must be addressed, and if enough people choose to ignore their presence, they never will be.

We can’t go back to Andy Griffith type communities.  But we can form communities of the heart, mind, and spirit which reach across physical boundaries and unite like-minded people from all over the world.   There are many such communities: Doctors Without Borders; CARE; Mercy Corps–a list of humanitarian organizations can be found online.   Even small donations add up–what’s more, they add one more person to the communities that work to make this weary world a better place.


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Out of the Mouths of Babes

An email from an old friend whose children were in my life until they grew up and moved away brought back memories of some of the charming things her daughter said.   A most memorable one occurred on a difficult and sad day-my youngest daughter and I were moving out of the home in which my children grew up to a small rent house.   I didn’t want friends my age to help me, and fortunately two young friends volunteered to do it.   One friend’s daughter was four, and came along to help.   A grim afternoon indeed, lightened at the end by that dear child.   She went out to her mother’s van and returned with a party hat.   She gave it to me, and said, “Ms. Beth, I like your new house and here’s a party hat to wear in it.”  In a few words, she offered support for my new state and a promise that as hard as it seemed to believe it, good times would still happen.

One of those good times was when I took this child and her older brother to the Christmas Concert at LSU.   Her brother, several years older, was reading the program when his sister turned to me and asked if I knew why she wasn’t readng the program.   I knew she hadn’t yet learned to read, but said no.   “I prefer to be surprised,” she said.   Another short statement with thought-provoking meaning.   We can make plans, and many of them turn out.   But keeping our expectations in rein can make the surprises that happen when they don’t can change the way we meet the situation.

My father died of cancer at age 59.   He was a well-loved man, and the number of people filling the funeral home and spilling out onto the lawn at the wake were proof of that: the same thing haoppened at the funeral the next day.   He and I had a close and loving relationship, and though his death was expected, it hit me very hard.   My husband and I stayed in Lake Charles with my mother for a week, an aunt and uncle in Baton Rouge had moved in to help our housekeeper, who also moved in, to take care of our children.

My daughters adored Pops, as they called him.   The second daughter has an especially sensitive heart, and she asked if we could talk about Pops alone.   We sat on a bench outside, and I explained that Pops had been in pain, and he couldn’t do much for himself, and that he was in Heaven, where he had no pain, and was happy.  She looked up at me, and said, “I understand about Pops.  But what about MaMa?”  (My mother.)  In a few words, she summed up the tragedy of death.

My youngest step-grandson was six when his great grandmother died.   She was a lady of the old school, vibrant and witty, great fun to be with.   A few days after the funeral, I picked my grandson up and we went to Hobby Lobby where he picked out wooden forms and spray paint.   But when we got set up on our patio, he couldn’t push the button on the paint long enough to make it spray.   I went inside, got plastic bowls and brushes, and when I got ready to spray paint into the bowls, told him to move away, as the fumes were dangerous and I didn’t want him to breathe them.   (His head was level with the top of the table.)   “What about you, Ms. Beth?   I already have one dead grandmother.   I don’t need another one.”   Another take on death, one that hits home truths.

On a lighter note, a grandson of a close friend, who is “smart as a whip”, but also mischievous, occasionally had a red card in his hand when his mother picked him up at kindergarten.   His mother asked why he had gotten a red card, a sign of mischief.   “My ears stopped listening.”   And anyone who, during a long and tedious meeting, has had the same thing happen, well understands how that occurs.

At the grocery one day, as I got in the check-out line, I saw that the young woman in front of me had a very young baby in the carrier strapped across her chest, and a gallon of milk in the section of the cart that folds out over the basket.   A girl who looked to be about five was on the other side of her mother,  helping put the groceries in bags.   I told the mother I would put the milk on the conveyor, since she was at the other end of the cart.   As I did so, the little girl looked at me and beamed.   “Well, you’re a very helpful person,” she said.   “That’s what we’re supposed to do,” I said.   “I KNOW,” she said.   Hope for the world yet!

My youngest grandson, who is now nine, was here with his family for Thanksgiving last year.   He and his older brother had gone to the WWII museum, and to the new State Capital that week, and so were well-educated on the war and Huey Long.   His Uncle Vic, a good friend, and my grandson and I were decorating the tree, and talking about WWII.   Then my grandson said he wondered if we’d have won WWII if Mr. Long had lived to challenge Mr. Roosevelt for the Democrat presidential nomination and won.   I asked why.

“I don’t think Mr. Churchill would have liked Mr. Long very much,” he said.   Leaving the adults speechless and with a lot to think about.

Children’s comments come from a perspective much less complex than that of adults.  And in my view, anything that cuts down on our opportunities to listen to them is depriving us of insights into those little minds, as well the pleasure of hearing them.   Hands-free cell phones allow conversation while driving.   Texting sends an endless stream of communication between our cell phones and those of family, friends and business associates.  All well and good, unless these activities prevent our having conversations with the young people in our lives.   When parents of teenagers complain that their children spend more time communicating with peers than with family, I wonder just how much communication happened in the children’s growing up years.  Children are pragmatic.   If parents don’t spend much time with them–especially “just us time”–children come to the same conclusion that adults do when friends spend little time with them:  they prefer not to.


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Visiting Old Friends

Looking at art with my daughters is one of my deepest pleasures.  We began looking at art when they were very young–I put up a clothesline across the room we called the Big Living Room, where so much of our family life took place, and hung prints from a Metropolitan Museum series I had purchased in college.  I still have most of those portfolios, each one addressing a specific movement in art, or a particular artist.

I also had a book titled THE WORLD’S HUNDRED MOST FAMOUS PAINTINGS, that my godfather had given me for Valentine’s Day when I was eight.  As I began visiting the great museums in this country and abroad, I would come upon one of the paintings from that book, and felt a special joy at seeing the original the prints were made from.

Between the clothesline display and this book, the girls learned to appreciate the visual arts: their art education continued when they went to St. Joseph Academy, where first Adelaide Brent and then Sister Adelaide–two wonderful artists and teachers with the same name–introduced them to the various mediums as well as teaching them art history.  The second daughter majored in print making in college: her work is powerful and complex, and I say this, not as a doting mother, but as an art critic who knows the real thing when she sees it.

Last Friday, my youngest daughter and I went into New York–she lives 30 minutes upriver–to see the Munch exhibit at the Neue Gallery.   We arrived to find a two block long line: since we had to be back in Irvington in time to pick up her youngest son, we changed our plans to the Degas exhibit at MOMA.   To do that, we would have to fight mid-day traffic, and so we went to see our old friends at the Met, including Monet, Van  Gogh,  Matisse, Cezanne, and all the other Impressionists whose work has brought us so much pleasure over the years, and continues to.

We then had lunch in a cafe overlooking Central Park, and I was taken back to all the visits to museums my girls and I have shared.  I took them first to the Frick, because it is not overwhelming in size, and the fact that it is a home with the original furnishings makes it less intimidating than the might Met.   And the works of art are superb.

My latest art trip occurred after a visit from my second daughter a month ago.   She had driven here from Albuquerque, and so I rode with her to San Antonio, where we had discovered a museum we’d never heard of: the McNay, which was the first museum of modern art in Texas, established in 1954.  The story of how it was founded is a fascinating one, though I won’t tell it now.   The core of the museum is the Spanish hacienda, accurate to the last detail, the founder built for herself and her second husband.  It sits on spacious grounds, and the day we were there, school groups who had visited the museum took advantage of them with picnic lunches and games

I know that technology has many benefits, but nothing can replace seeing art up close and personal.   We are fortunate to have a number of museums in this area: the New Orleans Museum of Art with it splendid sculpture garden; the Ogden Museum of Southern Art; the Historic New Orleans Collection, and others specific to a certain time or place.  Baton Rouge has the Louisiana Arts and Science Museum, which had brought many outstanding exhibits to Baton Rouge, as well as the Louisiana State University Museum of Fine arts.   U of L at Lafayette has the Paul Hilliard Museum, which also brings exhibits from other museums as well as presenting others it curates itself.

Even as I suggest that parents take children to museums, I know what many will be thinking: children aren’t interested in museums.  Well, when a child is born, it isn’t interested in anything but physical and emotional comfort, but very soon it can take an interest in things its parents introduce it to, and why shouldn’t art, literature, and music be part of their lives?  Each of these has a wide variety of styles, content, emotion, structure and audience appeal.  I would be very surprised if parents cannot find some they respond to, and wish to explore with their children. Thanks to technology, an internet search will offer as much or as little information about any subject, with examples to make it come alive: when that happens, a world of pleasure and learning opens to minds that grow more curious and involved with every work of art they see, every book they read, every musical experience they have.  That world also becomes a bulwark against boredom, solace for sadness, joy for the spirit–and an endless amount of memories for the mind.