Thursday, August 30, 2007

Whatever Happened to . . .?

One of my great pleasures is life is reconnecting with my children’s childhood friends. Some have come up to me in the street with a, “Hi, Mrs. Ament, remember me?” More often I hear news of them from their parents. My strangest experience? I once met a woman at a party whose boys were in Little League with Andrew and Al. I asked what her younger son was doing and she replied proudly, “He’s the road manager for Marilyn Manson.” It is hard to re-arrange your face into a suitable expression when confronted by that answer.

Here’s a photo taken at Lucy’s High School graduation in 1994. That’s her friend Brian with her and all those cords around their necks signify that they were both in the top ten of their graduating class. Brian’s the “four year-old” I mentioned in an earlier post. He and Lucy were great buddies from kindergarten through to the end of high school and he spent a lot of time at our house. Then it was on to the U of M and Vet school at Penn. His last assignment was a residency in New York. He will take his Boards in October and go off to California to join a practice in Glendale. So he’s home for a couple to months to study for his Boards and I had the joyful experience of having him back at my dining room table, this time with the letters DVM attached to his name and a specialty in emergency veterinary medicine under his belt. It has been such a long time since I have seen him—but it seems like yesterday.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Let Me Help You with That

The new Northwest Airlines building at Detroit Metro-politan Airport is impressive. Visitors to Detroit arrive in a clean, shiny and vibrant terminal. Also a long one. It is a real hike from one end to the other and pretty daunting from the middle, where you enter and exit, to either end. There is a train thingy, but I have only used it once. You need to go up a level to the station, hauling whatever carry-on baggage you have, and even then—unless your gate happens to be right where the train stops—you still have a walk. I find it quicker and easier to jump on the moving walkway and hoof the rest.

Back in June when I picked up Ernie’s sister at the airport, I wondered how she would cope after her recent knee surgery. I kept an anxious eye on the escalator from arrivals to the baggage area. At one point I glanced toward the baggage carousel, and there she was. . . in a wheelchair, pushed by a friendly employee.

So although I have been mulling over the problems I may shortly face as an aging traveler, I wasn’t fully prepared for the grim picture painted in Ronni Bennett’s recent post.

This entry is a study of callousness. There is institutional callousness on the part of the TSA and the airlines (not to mention the airport architects). Just read some of the comments made by other fellow sufferers. I was about to endorse the suggestion made by one of the commenters,”I ask that you send your post to the highest levels of airport authorities, airlines, appropriate elected officials, consumer groups, and others. This might bring at a minimum some relief to the predictably hardest hit victims.”, but that plan of attack won’t have immediate results. It does, however, seem to me that we can all do our bit to prevent the other type of callousness exemplified here, individual disregard and apathy.

My blog entry, when I returned from England last year, contained these words: What surprised me the most? The courtesy of the people we came across and the fact that I never once got on a crowded tube without someone offering me a seat.

So here’s the challenge for today. We can all of us examine our attitude to the elderly person in the grocery store who can’t reach the beans on the top shelf, or the pedestrian who holds up traffic. It may involve actively helping, or merely showing patience and human decency. And those of you with small children—use these situations as teaching moments. Those people who gave up their seats to me on the tube were for the most part young: it would be wonderful to have a whole generation for whom the phrase “Let me help you with that” comes more readily to the lips than, “Have a great day.”

Monday, August 27, 2007


My dad never owned a car. Nor did he, to my knowledge, ever drive one. It wasn’t a big deal: not many people did back then and we had lots of buses running at the end of the street. There was the 649, the 659 and the 679, which went to places like Manor House and even Liverpool Street: there was the 310 to Enfield Town, the 275 to Cockfosters and the wonderful Greenline which went to central London, setting down passengers at a few well chosen stops. But there wasn’t a direct route to Enfield Rolling Mills, where daddy worked as an electrician.
That’s him at work, second from the right. I already explained how the importance of electricity to the Rolling Mills got us our phone. Too bad it didn’t get us a car, because every morning daddy would fasten his bicycle clips round his baggy grey pants, get on his bike and ride the three or so miles to the Rolling Mills. At noon he would bike home for dinner and bike back to work, returning home sometime between five and six p.m. Day in and day out, in rain, snow and what passes for blazing sunshine in England. I don’t recall him having much in the way of protective clothing either. His pants were frequently soaked. He repeated this routine until he was sixty or so.

That is what you do when you have children and a house. But when he was a young man, in the brief years before the war made everyone sober, he had a much more dashing mode of transportation. My mother wrote on the back of these photos, but she did not date them. I suspect they were taken between their marriage in October, 1937 and my birth in December, 1939.My mother identified the site of her photo as the “ferry from Fowey to Bodinnick, Cornwall.” The sidecar, in which my mother rode in solitary splendor, looks enormous.

But it wouldn’t have worked with a pram. As for my dad, after the freedom of the motor-bike, there must have been days when the daily ride seemed like miles of quiet desperation.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

On Death and Dying

This is not the post I planned for today. I came up after dinner to complete my intended entry, and checked on a few blogs. One of them I found a few weeks ago when listening to This American Life on NPR. The subject of the piece was people who become spokesmen, whether by profession or through chance. The blog is Rachel from North London. Rachel North is one of the people who was wounded in the bombing of the London underground in July, 2005. She confronted her trauma by blogging about it and by gathering together survivors in unofficial therapy sessions in pubs. There was an amazing outcome, including a group who denounced her, claiming a conspiracy: there was an electrical problem that caused the destruction on the tube and the bus incident was staged by actors to help cover up the negligence by the transportation authorities

This was potential fodder for my blog. Bizarre? Yes. I realized that there was no way I could mention Rachel without carrying out a lot more research than I was prepared to do. So I dropped the subject.

But when I looked at her blog today, Rachel was confronting a pain worse than she suffered on 7/7. One that requires no research to understand.

Dip into her writing and to the comments attached to her posts. This is what makes the world of blogging so human and raw.

Saturday, August 25, 2007


The word economy is derived from the Greek word for a household manager, a far cry from this “global” economy stuff. Those of us who were brought up in post-war England learned economy from the masters of household management—our mothers. They learned how to stretch everything. And if you couldn’t stretch it, you did without it.

My mother was a fantastic knitter. When she wasn’t actively engaged in housework, she always had a pair of knitting needles in her hand. I am proud that Kate has taken up this hobby with so much skill. My mother knitted sweaters galore and the most exquisite matinee coasts and booties for babies. I still have one delicate, snow-white coat she sent for Al. It is knitted on the smallest gauge needles imaginable, with blue smocking. There was no way I was going to put it on a baby! Though I must admit that some of the other garments she sent came through the wash pretty well.

As we grew, the sweaters and cardigans grew too small. Was that the end of them? Not for my mother, the household manager. The garment was taken apart, the wool was carefully undone, made into skeins, washed and re-knitted.

Were all her garments successful? I do somewhat question the swimsuits. We all had them, I think. I have photos of me and my brother wearing one, and one showing her in a suit identical to the one my brother is wearing in this photo, taken at Clacton-on-Sea. I can't tell from the photos if my dad escaped the Madame Defarge of beachwear. Surely they got waterlogged, saggy and uncomfortable pretty soon? I don’t remember, but I do think Brian looks pretty adorable in this photo.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Another 40th

Today is Jeff's fortieth birthday. It is hard to get a good photo of Jeff—he's always running around monitoring children, pouring drinks, rounding up dirty dishes. One of these days I will get him to sit still and I'll take a photo that does him justice.

I took this one earlier today at his house. We celebrated in grand style: his parents and brother were there, as were Ernie and I and Lucy and Kate and Ron and their family. We remembered the surprise birthday Liz gave Jeff for his 30th when they lived in Livonia. Scary though that in another 10 years, he'll be fifty!

Back then neither Liz nor Kate had children: now there are eight of them and I couldn't resist taking this photo. There was a time we wondered if they would ever talk to each other. Now they are playing board games.

Happy 40th Jeff.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Ave atque Vale

I was saddened by Olivia’s last post. She has decided to leave the world of blogging—at least for a while. So I have removed her lyrical Toast and Honey from my list of English blogs. I will miss her lovely writing.

I was, however, delighted to add a second blogger to my “People I know” links. Please welcome Kim at Mad Mommy Meanderings. I have known Kim for close to thirty years and I knew her grandparents and her parents before that.

Makes me seem kind of old.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Food for Thought

I am intrigued by the logistics of professional food preparation. I am a Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen junkie (How many minutes to the pass? Two, chef), but I have no idea what that means. These programs never show us how the food is prepared ready for that last minute onslaught. I do realize, however, that there is a military precision involved in plating food in a restaurant. So it was no surprise to learn that the army supported the production of food for White House picnics (henceforth known as “Outdoor Events”) by lending a mobile kitchen trailer (or MKT).

This was just one of the many things I learned in a book I thoroughly enjoyed. Eleven Years, two Presidents, One Kitchen is a delightful book written by Walter Scheib, who was the chef at the White House for the last seven years of the Clinton administration and the beginning of George Bush’s term in office. The author describes the innermost workings of a part of the White House which has rarely been written about, probably because many people would not be interested. The book is a charming mélange of history, glimpses into the lives of the presidents and their families and recipes. The latter I am not terribly eager to try—they tend to have alarmingly long lists of ingredients—but the vignettes of the inhabitants of the White House are compelling. The author notes in his preface, “There’s no so-called “dirt” to be found about the First Families here”, but in the interests of full disclosure I must admit I went to the index, only to find that the entry after “Lemongrass and Red Curry Dressing” was Limerick, Chris, Director of Housekeeping.

The author is clearly partial to the Clintons, and it is surprising to see a Hillary Clinton with a clear vision of the kind of food she wanted for the White House (encompassing American regional cuisine, with an eye to increasing nutrition and lowering fat content). The First Lady who was anathema to cookie-baking moms throughout America had a clear understanding of what she wanted from an Executive Chef and made sure that her daughter Chelsea learned the basics of food preparation and cooking before she went off to Stanford.

We watch the preparations for State dinners and meet Tony Blair, Chirac and Nelson Mandela, not to mention a President of the Russian Federation who enjoyed the Vodka Marinated Salmon and proceeded to marinate everything, including himself, in the liquid.

Scheib’s tenure in the White House was at a historic time and we see his dawning realization on September 11 that although there were procedures in place for the evacuation of the government, the staff were on their own. We also see him, as the only chef left in the building that day, providing food for 900 Secret Service and other personnel.

There was a different atmosphere in the Bush White House. The president didn’t like green food or “wet” fish, and indicated that all sandwiches were to be served with Lay’s potato chips. Things went downhill from there and although Scheib is respectful of the President, he paints a grim picture of the conditions which caused him ultimately to be fired. The anecdote about the Social Secretary and the Interior Decorator arguing about how many tulips to strew artfully on a platter of food is hilarious.

If you want to learn how to slice salmon, cook hot dogs for George Bush or cater receptions for thousands, you will enjoy this book. I did.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Kilkelly, Ireland

Thanks to Mairin O’Byrne who was kind enough to supply me with the name of the song I wrote about in my last post. She graciously supplied me with the words and you can see them if you look at her comment on the August 12 entry. I wish I could point you to the song as sung by her brother, Fergus. However, the version in this video is noteworthy for the photos and pictures of conditions in 19th century Ireland.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Can You Hear Me Now?

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Fergus O’Byrne and Jim Payne in concert several times and one song that never fails to move me—I don’t know the title—is a compilation of fragments from letters sent by family in Ireland to the immigrant who left to seek his fortune in Newfoundland. His sister is married, children are born. The letters are infrequent and clearly from folks to whom writing is a challenge, and eventually comes the news that father and mother have gone to their graves without having seen their long-lost son again.

How strange this all seems in an era of cell phones, when even a trip to the grocery store gives rise to calls regarding the choice of cereals. That’s why the latest book in my “extreme exploration” reading seems vaguely unsettling. Mike Horn is an explorer par excellence and in Conquering the Impossible he describes his 12,000 mile journey around the Arctic Circle via Norway, Greenland, Canada, Alaska and Siberia. He travels on foot, dragging a sled, by boat, kite, kayak and even for a short while on a bike. His journey takes 27 months and he encounters temperatures from 75 degrees below zero to 85 degrees of mosquito-ridden heat in Siberia. His constant companion? A satellite phone. I do not want to detract from his courage. The phone would have been no help to him 95% of the time. The dangers were too imminent and he could not have summoned help when confronting a hungry bear or finding himself on swiftly melting ice or facing boat-crushing seas. Although the phone came in useful on a training run when he needed medical advice for the gangrene resulting from frostbite, he used it almost exclusively to co-ordinate the re-supplying of equipment as he changed modes of transportation, and to deal with his worst nightmare, Russian bureaucracy. But I couldn’t help wondering: what difference would it have made to Robert Falcon Scott or to Shackleton if they had had such a convenient way of contacting civilization?

I was reminded of this communication void the other day when I was cleaning out some papers and came across something Al had sent us many years ago. When he was living in Madagascar, he visited Île Ste. Marie, an island off the coast. There he found, wrote down and translated an inscription on a tomb. It was the burial place of François Fortune Joachim Albrand (1795-1826), who had spent six years colonizing the island for France. How sad that he had no way to contact his family in his last days. The inscription ends:

TRAVELER, whoever you may be,
At the sight of this solitary tomb,
Dreaming of your aged father, your brothers, your friends,
Who wait for your return,
You will not be able to hold back from a few tears.
This one here also had a father, brothers, friends,
Who loved him with idolatry.
They hoped to see him again soon,
But he returned no more.

Traveler, pray to the God of mercy
For the repose of his soul.
Some of those who died on September 11, 2001 had the opportunity to make a last call. Would you want to do so? Who would you call? What would you say?

Guess What? As I was trying to locate a photo for this post, I came across this. Watch him climb Gasherbrum II. Real time. Be patient and let it load.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Dear Palmer Heenan

You’re my mayor, and all, and you have my best interests at heart. In the recent Park Communicator you described the new housing lifestyle you are initiating for Grosse Pointe Park: “Brownstone houses of the style that characterize neighborhoods of old Boston.” I like that Boston reference. Classy. Sort of Harvard Square meets Ted Kennedy.

Like many other long-time residents of the Park, I am saddened by the lack of suitable housing for the older generation. Much as I would like one of those splendid new condos on the lake by the War Memorial, there's nothing under a million, so we all know that's not going to happen. No, I would prefer to stay in the Park, so I was excited by your announcement. But wait—there’s more. You are obviously aware of the parking problems in the streets where you intend to build, so your plans call for homes “in the townhouse style with two-car garages on the first floor.” But that gives us three, count ‘em, three floors. You therefore describe this housing as "suitable for young people, single buyers and retirees who don’t mind steps.”

Retirees who don’t mind steps is an oxymoron waiting to happen. Once again, I am saddened. Why can no one ask us what we want?

On the positive side, there may be an answer to the problem—I can outsource myself. I’ll take having flowers braided in my hair over climbing all those stairs any day.

Requiem for a Desk

I told you the other day about the apartment where Ernie was living when we first met. It was basically one room with a Murphy bed stowed away in the wall and there was a small kitchen and bathroom. The room was dominated by this desk. A large, almost square, no nonsense desk. A professorial desk, on which you could find various works of Plato, collections of essays and translations waiting to be graded—and the occasional slice of pizza.

When the time came to leave, Ernie packed the desk and the works of Plato and his big salad bowl into a U-Haul, hitched it to his Buick and started off for Iowa and thence to Michigan. In this photo he has reached Taos, New Mexico.

The desk was hauled up to the upper duplex where we lived for three years and after that to our current house. It spent a year or two in the basement, where Ernie had his first office, but he soon relocated to a room on the ground floor and the desk was carried up into the daylight, where it lived happily for a long time, still home to books and essays and the occasional slice of pizza.

After Ernie retired, he didn’t feel the need of a handy professorial desk and it was hauled up another flight of stairs to the “computer room”, where it supported the Xerox machine and a pile of papers for another few years.

This year Ernie craved a daybed. The desk had to go. I’m not quite sure how it was decided which of the kids should inherit it, but no blood was spilt. Jeff came with his father’s van and the desk made the hour-long trip to Canton. I am sure it will be its final resting place.

Well done, good and faithful desk.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Third Birthday in a Row

Today is Ernie's birthday (guess which one!) It is the kind of day he grew up with in Iowa: hot and steamy and you can hear the corn grow. So he says. I am glad we did our real celebrating yesterday when it was much cooler and glad too I had made a double batch of gazpacho which was chilling nicely in the fridge.

So I leave you with a lovely photo of Grandpa teaching Eleanor to play the mouth organ. Happy Birthday, Ernie.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Lynne is 87

Happy Birthday to a good friend and former neighbor. We had a party today to celebrate her birthday, and the sale of her house (Ernie's birthday, too, but more on that tomorrow.) We miss having Lynne on the next block, but her new home in the Henry Ford Retirement Center in Dearborn suits her fine.

A little break in the heat and humidity made things much more pleasant. We are looking forward to 88, Lynne.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Happy Birthday, Alexander Martin

I'm so happy Al and Gody gave Alex my mother's maiden name as his middle name. He's five years old today and gearing up for Kindergarden in the Fall. He has the sunniest disposition. This photo was taken a few weeks back when he and Frederick came to visit with their dad while Gody was in Italy with the other two. He's wearing his "Captain Jack" t-shirt. For Alex, Jack Sparrow is the bomb.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Oh, Dear, What Can the Matter Be?

When I was a little girl and wanted to be rude, crude, disgusting and vulgar—pretty much like every eight year-old—I would run around singing,

”O dear, what can the matter be?
Two old ladies locked in a lavatory
They’ve been there from Monday to Saturday . . . “
As I was writing this I thought I would check on the last line and found all kinds of variations as to how long they were there and how many old ladies there were. I even came across a video with clay characters and seven old ladies, each with her own name and bio.

So why am I fixated on that song again? It has been running around in my head ever since I saw the photos from my nephew Steven in England. He and his brother-in-law were trapped in a lift (that’s elevator in the USA) for three and a half hours while they were at a wedding reception. Thanks to the miracle of a cell phone camera, they could capture their own escape.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Comfort Matlala Golf Open Benefit

In 1997 a group of Peace Corps Volunteers arrived in South Africa: the first contingent to be sent there in response to the end of Apartheid. Among them was our nephew and godson Patrick McCluskey. Pat was assigned to the town of Vlakfontein and the townspeople were asked to volunteer to host him. No one came forward, so the honor fell to the town chief, Comfort Matlala. Pat moved in with him and his wife Augustine and the grandchildren they took care of while their daughter Mavis worked away from home to earn money for their support. It was not long before the inhabitants of Vlakfontein regretted their reluctance to be Pat’s host family. Pat is a delightful person, and he took great pride in immersing himself in Northern Sutu, the language of the area. This impressed the townspeople—and, if truth be told, a fair number of Pat’s family and friends. Patrick became part of the family.

In 1998 Comfort died. Patrick tended him in his illness and was a great help and consolation to the family which had taken him in. Not only did he take over the role of overseeing his little African brothers— his story of taking them to the dentist is a gem—but also his stipend was helpful in covering some of their expenses. His parents visited him in Vlakfontein, as did his siblings and many other relatives and friends. They would always combine the trip with a visit to Kruger National Park.

After Patrick returned home and took up a career as a high school math teacher in Chicago and Lombard, he continued to support the family financially, and made several visits back, taking along family and friends and his future wife, Theresa. As Patrick’s family responsibilities grew—he and Theresa now have three children, Jack Matlala, Andrew and Mary—he found it harder to send money back to Augustine and the family. Hence the “Comfort Matlala Golf Open Benefit “ which will be held for the fourth time on Sunday, August 5 at the Ziegfield-Troy Golf Range in Woodridge, IL. The entry fee provides a round of golf, all the chili you can eat (thanks to Mary Ann, Theresa and their crew of cooks), beer, soft drinks and a Texas Hold’em Tournament. All the proceeds go towards the support of Comfort’s family.

So if you are in Chicago on Sunday, that’s where the fun will be. And if you want to contribute to a charity where 100% of the proceeds go to the recipients, call Pat and Theresa at (630) 942-1606 for details.