“Midwife” Delivers Nostalgia

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My sister and I share tastes in many things. We both love sweets, good books, and serious theater. So it was a bit odd that I didn’t immediately take her up on her suggestion that I watch the PBS series Call the Midwife. For the better part of two years, my sister would mention how much she loved this period piece about midwives set in London in the early Sixties. And for two years, the idea of the show lacked appeal to me.

Finally, I decided to give the show a try. I instantly fell in love with the nurses and nuns of Nonnatus House, a home for midwives in Poplar, a poor district in the East End of London. In each episode, these nurse midwives tend to the growing families’ needs for medical care, sustenance, and moral support in often rather grim conditions. Their life’s work is imbued with optimism and love, for both God and their neighbors.

The series, which completed its seventh season this past spring, also delves into the lives and loves of the Nonnatus House residents themselves. Based upon the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, the series begins with Jenny moving into the midwives’ domicile and struggling to be accepted in the small world of Poplar – and in the world of the religious sisters themselves. One of the nuns struggles with her growing affection for the local doctor. Another shows a gruff exterior that hides a kind and caring interior. The non-religious midwives also have their trials and tribulations, such as alcoholism and the hidden love for another woman.

I love the faithfulness to the culture of the early 1960s, where abortion and homosexuality were illegal, birth control was in its infancy, and most women in the area of Poplar gave birth at home. The clothing, hairstyles, music, and topical references all add to the realism that transports the viewer to another time and place that many remember well. In the season seven finale, for instance, the Nonnatus House residents learn that President John F. Kennedy has been killed.

I’ve learned some interesting things from watching the series. For example, I never knew that there were Anglican nuns. The sisters and their religious devotion are treated with great respect in the series. The beauty of their rituals, the habits they wear, and the love with which they minister to the needs of their community are all lovely depictions of what a life of faith can bring to the world.

Call the Midwife is a deeply heartfelt paean to a world and a time and place that seem distant but in many ways are not so far from our own modern trials and tribulations. There is plenty of childbirth on screen, so the show is definitely not for the squeamish. But the series has evoked so many tears from me – tears of sorrow, yes, but also tears of joy.

When season seven concludes, it is 1963. I look forward to next spring when the residents of Poplar take on 1964 with the same cheek, gusto, drama, and neighborly love that they’ve shown season after season on this wonderful series.

Newcomers to the series can catch all seven seasons of Call the Midwife on Netflix. Season 8 will debut with a Christmas special on PBS in December, followed by season 8 in the spring.

As for me, I will never doubt that sister of mine and her conviction that I’d like something. When it comes to most things, we are two peas in a pod.

Race Relations Could Use “Help”

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The other day I turned on my television and saw that the movie The Help was on. Abandoning my chores and plans for the morning, I sat down and sank into this compelling drama about race in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s.

The movie is based upon Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel of the same name, and it chronicles a young white female journalist’s attempt to tell the story of race relations from the perspective of the town’s black maids. Some reviewers criticized the conceit of yet another white character being the “savior” of blacks. Those critics missed the point of The Help.

During the course of interviewing the black character Aibileen, the journalist, nicknamed Skeeter, comes to see the plight of the people who serve her and the other whites in town through one black woman’s eyes. Herself a misfit in a world of strictly proscribed roles for women of any color, Skeeter is first horrified, then determined, not only to tell the story of  the black maids around her, but also to find out the truth about her beloved Constantine, the black nanny who had raised her.

As I watched the story unfold, the many indignities suffered by blacks in the film – separate bathroom facilities, seats on the back of the bus, condescension and threats from their white employers – I had the sense that in many ways we’ve come so far, but in other ways we have a long way to go. In particular, I was struck by how frightened the black characters are about reprisals from whites for standing up for themselves. The entire book Skeeter writes is done under cover of darkness and published anonymously against a backdrop of civil unrest and the murder of black activists. Today this fear plays out in African-American neighborhoods, where young black males are afraid to get on the bad side of a white police officer.

The message of The Help is that the only way to improve race relations is for blacks and whites to know each other, to see each other as fully human and filled with inalienable dignity. The friendship that develops between Skeeter and Aibileen, as well as Aibileen’s sassy friend Minny, is one born of hours sharing food, tea, and stories in Abilene’s kitchen.

Ignorance breeds fear; knowledge brings understanding. Let’s try harder to see things from the other side of the racial divide to bring hope and healing to race relations in America.

 

The 1960s House

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Events around my house this week have inspired an idea for a new reality show: The 1960s House.

First our air conditioning compressor went kaput. Life in our hermetically sealed environment was disturbed. We had to (gasp) open the windows and use electric fans in the bedrooms to sleep at night. Luckily the summer weather was mild because as it was, my kids sweated as if they had worked on a chain gang all day.

Then the unthinkable happened. Our power was shut off for an entire day. Having no a/c and now no TV were bad enough. But no WiFi? We walked around like zombies with no purpose and no live humans to eat. I even spied my son on the couch dejectedly reading a paperback book!

This gave me the idea for the show. You may remember a short-lived reality show called The 1900 House. In it a family attempts to live as if it were the turn of the century, a time of butter churning and driving a horse and buggy. The show was not a huge hit, maybe because harking all the way back to 1900 was too far.

Enter The 1960s House. I’m picturing a contest format in which participants are forced to complete such challenges as looking up a phone number in a phone book, dialing it on a rotary phone, and then having a private conversation in the family kitchen, where the phone is bolted to the wall with a skimpy cord and there’s nowhere to hide.

Then contestants could take turns in the “change the channel” relay, where they would be timed getting off the couch to switch the TV to one of the other two networks. They would then have to endure the grueling “watching the commercials” test, as well as attempt to make popcorn on the stove by shaking a pan full of kernels and oil over the heating element.

Of course, this segment would have to be preceded by a vocabulary lesson in which participants learned that pause means “temporarily stop what one is doing,” play means “go outside and swing on the swing set,” and fast forward refers to NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (or, as we knew him back in the old days, Lew Alcindor).

We could add quaint historical elements to the environment, such as the milkman delivering glass bottles of the creamy stuff to the door and the Good Humor man driving his truck through the neighborhood without anyone worrying that he was a creepy pedophile.

There could also be moments of high drama on The 1960s House. For instance, the adults would lose all contact with the kids for hours when they rode their bikes downtown or to the park without cell phones. In the house, the phone could ring, and no one would know who was on the other end.

Yes, I can imagine many interesting experiences for the members of The 1960s House: the percolator brewing the coffee, a solitaire game with real cards, a stack of 45s and a record player. In fact, it might be a good show for my family to watch – that is, if the power ever goes back on.