The Lusty Month of May

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The peonies are blooming in my neighborhood, and that can mean only one thing. It’s May, the queen of springtime.

In May, the new greens of spring have started to mellow just slightly, the air is mild, the sun plentiful. In school, the children squirm at their desks and watch the clock, dreaming of the outdoor fun they will have when the final bell rings. The local pool opens, the bikes get filled with air, and the barbecues get fired up.

Those peonies I spied on my morning walk reminded me so much of my childhood home in Oak Park, Illinois, and the garden my father so lovingly tended. Even though I was afraid of all the big black ants that seemed to love crawling through their blossoms, I adored their intoxicating scent, which mingled with the aroma of lilacs and honeysuckle in the warm spring air.

May was also the month when we Catholic school children would   crown the Blessed Virgin Mary statue with a wreath of flowers and sing my favorite hymns, “Immaculate Mary,” “Salve Regina,” and “Sing of Mary.” I have a lovely photograph of my older sisters laden with flowers for their own, homegrown May crowning in our backyard.

May is so nearly perfect because the insects and the humidity of summer have not yet descended on the Chicago area. Kids are eagerly anticipating the long summer months ahead instead of lolling around and moaning about their boredom. It’s an ideal time for outdoor dining, gardening, pedicures, and window shopping – or more active pursuits like walking, jogging, and bike riding.

There’s a sense of impending freedom about May, of romance and people coming alive. That is why Queen Guinevere sings about “The Lusty Month of May” in the Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cg4YrOlAkds

Before we know it, our kids will be home on summer vacation, and yards will be filled with noisy play, summer cocktail parties and barbecues, fireflies (or as we call them here in the Midwest, “lightning bugs”), and noisy cicadas. Many of us will take off to lake houses and other vacation spots.

For now, we can enjoy the lengthening days and sunny good cheer of May.

Duggaring Their Own Grave

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Do you care about the Duggars? Neither do I. However, I do care about the response from evangelical Christians to revelations that Josh Duggar molested young girls, including his sisters, many years ago.

To the outrage and animosity expressed by the public, these Christians’ responses are: It was so long ago. It’s been dealt with. You should forgive him. The girls are being victimized all over again by the media.

Let’s be clear about something here. These 19 children were victimized the moment their parents agreed to open up their lives to public scrutiny by appearing on a reality TV show. As a result, everything they say and do is held up to potential public praise and ridicule.

And there is so much hypocrisy in this family, who held themselves up as paragons of Christian virtue. They felt free to excoriate the LGBT community while harboring a child molester within their own family. They also took their private decision to produce as many offspring as nature allowed and made it a public freak show. Yet they failed to protect their own progeny. How is this godly behavior?

Reality programming is the scourge of television. It is just unseemly to pry into the private lives of people, even with their consent. Why this penchant to be voyeuristically interested in other people’s lives? And why do ordinary people allow themselves, and more importantly their children, to be publicly exposed? Did the Duggars learn nothing from the disastrous show Jon and Kate Plus 8?

Like the Duck Dynasty clan, the Duggars want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to pontificate on gay marriage and other social issues and be interviewed as if they are experts on Christian teaching. But dare to criticize them, and they cry persecution.

It is time to stop giving an audience to these self-aggrandizing narcissists. Here’s an idea: How about turning off the TV and paying attention to your own family drama?

Remembering Lt. Wally

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First Lt. Wallace W. Chalifoux was a pilot in the US Army Air Corps during World War II. He was lost in action when his B25 Mitchell Bomber went down on a mission to Luzon, Philippines, on January 9, 1945. Wally was one of six men on that aircraft who never made it home. He was also my mother’s brother.

Wally was 9 years my mother’s senior and was both very responsible and very protective of her. Once when he was babysitting her, he realized that he needed to run down to the corner store. He woke Marlene up to tell her what he was doing but that he’d be right back. My mother also remembers how he would make his buddies wait for him to go out at night until Wally had finished the dishes. “My mother would tell him, ‘Wally, go ahead. Don’t worry about the dishes.'” But Wally insisted on doing his part.

Wally was studying to be a CPA at night school when World War II broke out. He begged his parents to allow him to enlist in the Army Air Corps so that he could fly a plane. They relented after he convinced them that he would eventually be drafted anyway. After only 11 months of flying lessons, Lt. Wallace Chalifoux was off on missions in the South Pacific.

There were more than 78,000 military personnel missing in action after World War II ended. (miafacts.org) Most of these fallen or captured soldiers were never found. But on October 28, 1992, a Philippine national happened upon the remains of an aircraft on Sibuyan Island, and the artifacts and remains were later identified to be those of Wally and his crew.

My grandparents, Emil and Olive Chalifoux, never lived to give closure to the life of their son, who presumably died at the young age of 22. But my mother and two other sisters, along with some of their children, were able to travel to Virginia to attend the burial service for their brother Wally at Arlington National Cemetery.

Memorial Day is a good day to remember the sacrifices not only of our men and women in uniform, but also the families left to grieve their loss. So while we enjoy our barbecues with family and friends, let’s take a moment to pray for these families and to thank them for the loved ones who gave their lives in service to America.

With special thanks to Annette Chalifoux Nozicka, whose tribute to her brother gave me the facts of Wally’s death, and to my mother, Marlene Chalifoux Infanger, who gave me the stories of his life.

Scary Sixties Music

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When I think of popular music from the 1960s, bouncy, happy tunes come to mind: “Help Me, Rhonda,” “Twist and Shout,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Most of us think of the Sixties as a simpler, more innocent time in the world of music.

The other day, though, I heard the old Monkees TV series theme song and was a little creeped out with the following lyrics:

“Any time
Anywhere
Just look over your shoulder
We’ll be standing there”

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Can you imagine Mickey Dolenz peering in your window at you? I shudder at the thought.

Hearing those lyrics reminded me of a Beatles song from the Sixties called “Run for Your Life.” It’s a bouncy little ditty, so I never really reflected on the lyrics. Here are some of them:

“I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man.
You’d better keep your head, little girl, cause you don’t know where I am.
You better run for your life if you can, little girl,
Hide your head in the sand, little girl
Catch you with another man
That’s the end (uh), little girl.”

And I thought Eminem’s spouse abuse raps were bad!

For some reason, there were lots of songs about death back in the Sixties (apart from Vietnam War protest tunes, that is). The song “Leader of the Pack” is about a boy from the wrong side of the tracks who dies tragically in a car crash. And “Ode to Billie Joe” features both suicide and infanticide.

But the ultimate creepy song that haunted the Sixties for me was the ghostly “Laurie” by Dickey Lee. If you haven’t heard it, give it a listen.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M0N4nyYS5aA&list=RDM0N4nyYS5aA#t=113

So next time you go romanticizing the feel good songs of the 60s, remember: “Strange things happen in this world.”

Cry Baby

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I am a cryer. I cry at movies and sappy television commercials. I cry reading books and news stories. I cry listening to music. I cry at weddings and funerals, even if I barely know the people. I cry nostalgically when I watch home videos of my kids or remember touching moments from their lives, such as the time my adopted daughter gave me her first smile.

I have always been a cry baby. As a little girl, I would cry when my father read us the story “The Little Match Girl” and when I listened to a recording of Peter Rabbit getting caught in Mr. MacGregor’s garden and being threatened with becoming a rabbit stew. I even cried listening to the organ music at Sunday Mass.

I have often wished that I didn’t cry so easily (or alternatively, that I had become an actress who needed to bring tears to my eyes readily). It can be embarrassing to be the only one crying, a situation in which I find myself quite frequently.

The summer before my oldest daughter left for college, I cried on an almost daily basis. I would hear a song such as Steven Curtis Chapman’s “Cinderella,” which is about a father cherishing the fleeting moments as his daughter grows up, and just start bawling. Nothing was worse, though, than the moment of reckoning during the invocation at the university, as I fully realized we would be leaving her there. As all the other parents sat there stoically or even casually, I just cried and cried. The tears streamed down. It was humiliating to overhear one mom mutter, “Aw, she’s crying,” as if I were a little girl who had broken her favorite doll.

At least dropping a child off at college seems like a justifiable reason to cry one’s eyes out. Much harder to explain why I could not stop crying while seeing the animated movie Kung Fu Panda 2  with my adopted Chinese daughter. In the film, the panda Po learns why he was adopted by his goose father. I know. It sounds ridiculous. But the moment when the panda mother has to leave her child for his own safety just came too close to home for me. I had to wear my sunglasses in the movie theater after the showing so as not to expose my red, swollen eyes.

I’d like to think that my tendency to cry means that I’m a sensitive, compassionate soul with great depth of feeling. And I guess if I had to choose, I’d prefer being a bit overly sensitive and sentimental to being more detached or cold. Whatever the case, I doubt I will ever change this deeply ingrained trait of mine.

So if you happen to catch me at my child’s graduation or even just watching the latest tear-jerker at the movie theater, watch out. As my son once remarked, “Here come the waterworks!”

Move Over, Gone Girl

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There’s a new girl in town. The Girl on the Train is a riveting new thriller by first time novelist Paula Hawkins.

With alternating points of view, plenty of twists and turns, and the sense that things are not quite what they seem, this Girl bears some resemblance to the blockbuster best seller Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

The story centers on a lonely woman who peers into the life of a young couple she sees from the train she takes each day to and from her home on the outskirts of London.

Is her interest in these strangers just a way to pass the time, or is it an obsession that will lead to harm?

Reminiscent of a Hitchcock thriller, The Girl on the Train takes the reader into the lives of seemingly ordinary people and asks:

How well do you really know someone?

Be forewarned. Once you pick up this novel, you won’t be able to put it down.

Gone Too Soon

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In recent weeks, two young men from my home town have died. They join the many thousands of young people across the country who have succumbed to accident, illness, depression, drugs, or violence. Their loved ones join the many thousands of grieving souls whose lives now contain an unfillable hole.

While we may all fear death to some degree, there is nothing more unnatural than a young person, full of life and promise, being gone – gone much too soon. One day they were teasing sisters or listening to their music too loud, and the next the silence deafens.

What can we bring to the loved ones of a life gone too soon? What possible solace can our words or actions hold? Some donate to a cure for the illness that caused death. Some establish organizations to prevent the deaths of others. Some take to the streets in anger and hurt. Some pray.

I utter their names: Ryan, Matthew, Grant, Emily. I pray that they are in a better place. I pray for their families, who somehow have to  go on without a son or daughter, sister or brother, grandchild, niece, nephew. I pray for their friends and classmates, whose youthful feelings of invincibility have diminished a bit or who wonder how life can be so cruel.

What can we bring to a grieving soul? Ourselves. I saved an excellent blog post that can help friends and neighbors figure out  how to be there for those who have lost a loved one. You can read it at the following link:

https://medium.com/@venetia/tips-on-how-to-support-a-friend-during-the-loss-of-a-loved-one-6b1c8de4ccf4

In the words of the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth:

“That though the radiance which was once so bright be now forever taken from my sight. Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, glory in the flower. We will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind.”

Mothers’ Day

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(Photos: top – Millicent; bottom – Marlene)

One day, we children at St. Catherine of Siena school were instructed to create a spiritual bouquet for Mother’s Day. A spiritual bouquet is a card with a promise to say certain prayers for the recipient – say, 5 Hail Marys, 2 Our Fathers etc. We were told that this spiritual bouquet should be for our mother, whether living or dead. This conforms to the Catholic belief in praying for the souls of the deceased.

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The assignment posed a dilemma for me. My mother had died when I was 13 months old, but I had a new mother, the woman my father married when I was 3. What to do? I made two cards.

Losing my mother Millicent at such a young age must have been traumatic, but I don’t remember her or the time she was taken away from me. After her death, my Aunt Patty, who was married to my father’s brother, took me in and mothered me and my sisters along with her own children.  I am eternally grateful to my beloved Aunt Patty for saving my emotional life.

When my dad remarried, I gained a stepmother. Stepmothers don’t have a very good image in folklore or popular culture. My new mom, Marlene, always said how much she disliked the term. But I sometimes clung to the image, especially when I felt Marlene’s discipline was too harsh. I even recall once wishing my “real” mother were still alive.

When I became a mother myself, I started to realize what a “real” mother truly is, and it’s not just a matter of biology. I looked back and saw what a struggle it must have been for my mother Marlene to take on five new daughters in addition to her own five children. I saw the many sacrifices she made for us on a daily basis – all the cooking, cleaning, sewing, doctor visits, baths, hair washing, discipline, faith development.

My mom Marlene was and is a beautiful woman. I loved the way she wore her hair in a French twist, loved her chic outfits and even her fancy aprons, the ones she’d wear when cooking for company. I loved to go to the grocery store with her and hang around in the kitchen while she worked. In a family of 13, those were some of the only times I got to be alone with her.

I still have vague recollections of the day we kids were all adopted. We got to get out of school, dress up, and go to the courthouse in downtown Chicago. There we witnessed our parents declare they would always take care of not only their biological children, but their spouse’s children as well. So my mother is not really a stepmom, but an adoptive mom. I myself am an adoptive mom, and I couldn’t love my biological children more than I love my youngest child from China.

I’m not discounting the special bond of a biological mother, though. I remember the intimate feelings of connectedness with my children from the very first flutterings I felt in the womb. Pictures of my biological mother Millicent confirm that I look a lot like her, and I know that losing her left a hole in my heart that has been difficult to fill. Surely some of my insecurity and fear of abandonment stem from losing her.

On Mother’s Day, I celebrate the great good fortune to have had not one, but two beloved mothers (three if you count dear Aunt Patty), and I treasure all I have meant to them and they to me in our lives. No matter whether you are a mother by biology, marriage, or circumstance, know that your presence in your children’s lives is the greatest gift they will ever receive.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Talking Turkey About Inner City Police

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It is not a happy time to be a police officer in America. Recent highly publicized incidents of police brutality have tarnished the reputation of our nation’s men and women in uniform. And while I firmly believe that there needs to be a concerted effort to stop police abuses where they are an endemic problem, I also recognize that the majority of police officers are brave and responsible men and women trying to do a difficult and dangerous job.

So how do we change things? How do we change the feeling on the part of inner city residents that they are under siege? How do we change the reality of high crime statistics in inner city neighborhoods that lead police to assume the worst about the residents there?

An interesting idea on this subject was posed by author Malcolm Gladwell in his 2013 book David and Goliath. In the book, Gladwell cites the success of Joanne Jaffe, a New York City police chief, in dramatically reducing crime in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn.

What Jaffe discovered was that the police force in the Brownsville public housing projects may have been feared, but it was not seen as legitimate – that is, the residents did not see the authorities as fair or consistent, nor did they feel their concerns were being heard.

How Jaffe set about changing that was to keep close tabs on juvenile offenders, offering to help them and their families obtain educational, medical, and employment opportunities as long as they stayed on the right side of the law.

But she went further than that, most memorably by delivering a Thanksgiving turkey to every household in the Brownsville projects. Not only did the police force personally deliver the turkeys, they delivered the message that they cared about the residents and their concerns.

In addition to the Thanksgiving gesture, officers started setting up recreational activities with the youth in the neighborhood. They helped residents get to doctors’ appointments and took them out for dinner. Jaffe organized toy giveaways and Christmas dinners for the community.

The result? The robbery rate plunged from about 125 in 2006 to about 25 in 2011.

The Brownsville experiment most certainly took planning, effort, and money. But think of all the tax dollars and time saved on arrests, court appearances, and incarceration of offenders. Most importantly, imagine the sea change in public opinion about the police if more local departments were to operate in this way.

The mission of law enforcement has always been “to protect and serve.” Maybe by thinking outside the box, we can restore the image of our men and women in uniform.

My Bleeding Heart

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The term “bleeding heart liberal” is meant to be an insult. It conjures images of a soft, gullible sap who is willing to give away  your last dollar to some undeserving lout. A bleeding heart liberal is seen as soft on crime and hopelessly idealistic. But I have decided to wear the label proudly and without apology.

First of all, the political right has somehow managed to make the term “liberal” a dirty word. Yet “liberal” comes from the Latin “liber,” meaning “free.” A dictionary definition includes such laudatory descriptions as “favorable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms” and “favoring maximum individual liberty in political and social reform.”

For me, being a liberal means a belief in affording citizens the maximum amount of personal freedom that does not infringe on the rights or safety of others. It means government policy that fairly taxes all, not allowing for loopholes and tax shelters that favor the wealthy and giant corporations. It means giving disadvantaged people a fair shot at the American dream.

But lately my heart has been bleeding. It has been bleeding at the sight of unarmed black men being gunned down or killed in a chokehold. It has been bleeding at senseless “accidental” shootings of and by children who gain access to loaded handguns. My heart bleeds for young military men and women coming home from foreign lands maimed and psychologically distressed – or in caskets to a grieving family.

Victims of earthquakes, floods, tornadoes. Impoverished families increasingly being told what they can and cannot purchase with food stamps. Kids with persistent health problems due to inadequate medical care. Veterans on waiting lists to receive the medical attention they so desperately need and so richly deserve. Teenagers so angry and without hope that they are willing to loot and burn and throw bricks at police officers. The list is virtually endless.

One of the great features of my oft-maligned Catholic faith is its insistence on social justice. Dorothy Day, a candidate for sainthood, was the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. Pope Francis has renewed the call for helping the poor and disenfranchised. He even spoke out recently in favor of equal pay for women.

If my bleeding heart makes me soft, so be it. I will always be a champion of those who find it hard to fight for themselves. I will always seek to vote for government leaders who are committed to social justice. I was proud to vote for President Obama and would do so gladly if I had it to do over again.

The dictionary also defines “liberal” as “concerned mainly with broadening a person’s general knowledge and experience.” Though my education thus far has hardly been perfect or complete, I will never stop trying to learn and understand our world and the people in it.