Hello from my office at school,
It has been a “manage-the-details” day. I am the chair of our department sabbatical committee, director of departmental internships, and an advisor to a couple of student groups. Each area needed attention today. I think I have about 95% of all the issues answered, but there is always something more to manage. In addition, I want to come up with a pretty locked-down schedule of how I will manage the time between now and February to get all the things accomplished I believe need to be done to walk into next semester as prepared as possible. While the pandemic has created a number of differences in my daily life, some of them are really pretty helpful. I remember saying that last spring in a department meeting and some of my colleagues were flabbergasted. What I have found is I am focused and more structured and intentional. In part, the focus is being able to isolate and just work on what needs to be accomplished. It has been a good thing because I feel fewer things have gotten lost in the cracks, which is something I often have to confess to. I think there are always ways to be more effective, but it seems I have been able to take this isolationism and make something positive, much more than expected. It is always amazing to me how we can, if we choose, find the positive in any situation. Some will argue with me in the midst of our unprecedented world being turned upside down, but I do believe there are still many positive things.
My adopted mother, Bernice (actually Alene Bernice) Martin was born 100 years ago today. I wonder what the world was like in Sioux City, Ia, when she was born the youngest of 10 children to a very poor family in an area of Sioux City called the South Bottoms. It was a section of town that was inhabited by mostly first generation immigrants (including Bohemian, Irish, Scandinavian, and Mexican families). [They] made their homes in the area along with Native Americans and African Americans. Most did not have transportation and lived close to the factories and packing plants where they worked. Both sides of my adopted family worked in the packing plants and the stockyards industry at some point. The stockyards, which was the third largest in the world in size, often was the largest in terms of yearly receipts. I was small, living in a different area of town in the latter 1950s and into 1960. My grandmother’s bakery was actually a block north of the South Bottoms area, but only a few blocks away from where my adopted mother would have grown up. By 1962 or 1963, that area of town, the area my mother would have called her neighborhood, was no longer there because of the creation of Interstate 29 as well as the rechanneling of the Floyd River. I wish I might have taken time to know some things earlier. What I do know is having an alcoholic, abusive father and ten children did not work well. What I do know is there were times the older brothers were as much more a father to my mother than perhaps her own father was. And I know that the way she witnessed the death of her father at the age of seven had to be life altering. There would be other devastating incidences in her life and it was a time before anyone would have considered counseling. Family problems stayed at home. Being the youngest of 10 could not have been easy either. Then there is the basic time in which all of this happened. While women’s suffrage occurred at the time of her birth, the role of women outside the home would not occur for some time yet to come. She married at the beginning of the Second World War, probably only a few months out of high school, and her husband would leave for the service shortly thereafter.
What I have figured out as I have aged is the experiences in my mother’s life were difficult and overwhelmed her. They left her insecure and frightened. And not surprisingly, they made her angry. They were unfair, and certainly nothing she deserved, but more importantly she felt she had no one to assist her or help her with them. Over the years, it would be her older brother, Elwood, who was a reclusive bachelor his entire life, and her eldest sister, Charlotte who was probably a mother to her as much as anyone. She was incredibly close to her next eldest sister, June, but she lived in Seattle, and that was not driving distance from Northwest Iowa. I think the things she went through physically and emotionally all by the age of 25 had profound consequences on every aspect of her health for the remainder of her life. In addition, I do not think she really ever desired to have children, but she lived and reached adulthood at the beginning of the baby-boomer years. As I look back, I can say with some degree of certainty, it was probably my father who wanted a family. Adoption became their only option and they adopted a son in early 1951 and I am not sure if that was pre- or post-Washington residency. I think the decision to move to Washington at some point must have had some significant push from her because it would put her close to her sister June. Perhaps the return to Iowa had to do with elderly parents. There are a lot of fuzzy pieces in terms of chronology, but certainly not having something stable for the decade of the 40s and what happened to her during that time was undoubtedly overwhelming.
Not probably wanting children and then having three, albeit adopted children, did not really every work well. When my sister, Kris and I would be added in May of 1960, I am pretty sure her general feeling of being required to do something perhaps she was not inclined to do willingly, especially when my father would work out of town as an electrician, was insult to injury. It is not the desire to have children, but I can imagine for appearances sake, particularly as the boomer life was in full swing, she had to “fulfill her motherly duties.” Attitudes about that would probably be a 180 from then, but that did not help her. It is amazing to me, at least in terms of degree, how our past can dictate our future, but I believe too often we believe it to be almost deterministic. That is not how it has to be, rather that is what we allow. This morning, I was blessed to speak with one of my cousins (technically second), but she was the sister with whom I had the most affinity growing up. She was kind, energetic, thoughtful, intelligent and the list could go one. Of course, it did not hurt that she was incredibly gorgeous, but we would stay up at times and listen to music until the early hours of the morning. It has been literally decades since I spoke with her, but it felt as comfortable as it did all those years ago. The reason to catch up after all this time was because I stumbled across information earlier this week that was tragic. However, it prompted me to do some searching and what has come out of it is this reconnection. There is so much that we can lament and fail to do, or we can decide to do something about it. Those of you would know me know I am not inclined to play victim to circumstances. Rather I would prefer to be honest with the circumstance and my responsibilities and then move forward.
As I continue to write, it is now Friday the 4th. It is another remembrance of yet another birthday. My older brother, Bob, would be 70 today. That age seemed so old once upon a time, but he did not even live until the age of 30. In fact, I am the oldest living of any of my siblings, half, siblings, and as noted recently, I have lived longer than my grandmother did. It really is quite astounding to me to consider mortality, but it is a central part of our lives. We live; we love and influence others; we grow, make mistakes and learn; and yes, eventually life continues without us. That is not to be morbid, but it is a simple timeline of our existence. What is much more incredible to me is the reality that the world changes profoundly regardless of our part in it. The world of our parents and grandparents is hard to even remember at times. I remember when I got my first computer (1987). I remember having my first cell phone (1999). I remember my first smartphone (2004, which was much earlier than many). I can imagine my father trying to manage that, and it does not appear to be a show with a happy ending. The same would go for my mother. It would be interesting to imagine what my brother might do. He was mathematical and scientific in his approach to things. He might have done alright.
The point is, our world has changed drastically, not merely in the century since my mother was born, but even within my life time, or more significantly even since I graduated with my undergraduate degree. That was 10 years after high school, but I see 1984 as the sort of opening of the floodgate of technology. That Macintosh Super Bowl commercial pretty well covers what has happened since. And the consequence of it was not what the average person expected, or did they? That would be an entirely different posting, but certainly the dystopian novelists, some of the conspiracy theorists, and most certainly some who have written about the sort of big brother or pandemic-ridden societies that might occur seem less like science fiction and more like doomsday prophets. My mother was not uneducated, and she was not foolish, but she did see things in a very dialectic manner. It was either this or that, and yet she was prone to some conspiracy-grabbing, it you will. My father, on the other hand, was a realist as well as pragmatic and a roll-with-the-flow person. That is not to say he had no opinions; he certainly did, but he was able to realize what he had power over and what he did not. I am sure they would have some interesting things to say about our current world. I would like to believe that I have some of both of them in me (and I know I do), but I think the way I work with others and how I view the world is probably more influenced by my father. I think my mother subscribed, more than she perhaps thought or even wanted to, that the man was the head of the household. I never had any discussions with them, but I could see her voting at some point more as a Republican than my father ever would have. And yet, until actually thinking about it now, I would have said they voted the same ticket always.
As the week has progressed, it is amazing that I have ended up where I have. Thinking about and reconnecting with even more of my family has been an expected and important gift to me. More importantly, one I need to embrace and nourish. There is so much about my life that has been disconnected, and there are reasons, some realized and some circumstantial, but it is not often such profound opportunities come to pass. That is how I feel at the end of this week. I note all these people who hold on to family and many times, I have struggled to do so. Now it seems important to me to see what I should do, how I might become part of something that was lost over time. It is even more important because it is from my mother’s side and there was been little to manage that or even attempt at any management. I am grateful to my cousin, Kim for responding to my call. She noted that she has spoken with some of the rest and hopefully more reconnecting is to come. I am blessed in this season of hope, this first week of Advent. The light can shine out of our darkness if we allow. As I think of my mother and a century since her birth, I am grateful to her and I am glad to be able to say that. As I think of a brother, who left this world all too soon, I am still in awe of your music and your brain. Thank you to both of you for what you have left me. This was my father’s favorite Christmas song, and in the Glee spirit of this past semester, I offer this version.
Thank you all for reading and joy and hope in this season.