Thursday, March 02, 2006


My mother adored Franklin Roosevelt. I can remember her grief when he died, and the fear I felt as a young girl who did not understand that another president would take over and our country would survive, Roosevelt being the only president I had known since my birth.

On the other hand, my father adored Westbrook Pegler and was not a fan of Roosevelt's, because he believed every word Pegler wrote. At first, Westbrook Pegler liked FDR, but as the years progressed, he became more and more critical. I guess you could call him the very first radical rightwinger. At one point, he even discussed lynching political enemies. He hated unions, hated Eleanor Roosevelt, hated all of the things the conservatives have railed about for years.

Somehow, Pegler fell into disgrace, embroiled in a slander suit with Quentin Reynolds. At the end, he faded into near obscurity and died of cancer. In my mind's eye, I can see my father, whom we called Pop, sitting in that old upholstered chair with the broken arm, clad in his familiar green sweater, sweat-stained felt hat placed carefully on the hatrack in the kitchen, pipes lined neatly on his smoking stand, pouring over the words of Westbrook Pegler. The column appeared in the Detroit Times, a now defunct newspaper that was a part of the Hearst chain.

We may not have had food in the cupboard or adequate clothes on our back, but that newspaper was delivered to our mailbox regularly. Otherwise, Pop might have missed a Pegler column, which was more important than bare necessities in his eyes.

Pop had his own priorities. My music lessons were also of primary importance to him. With Mom struggling to put food on the table, I had to trudge two miles into town every week for my singing lesson. Never mind that my quavering voice was not operatic quality, to Pop I was related to a nightingale and thus must be encouraged. So was my sister, Helen, who was given lessons on the violin, even though her talent was questionable.

Pop loved music and played his fiddle at Square Dances. Before Mom "got religion", the whole family would pile into a wagon and travel to the dances. After she was "saved", Mom considered Square Dancing as sinful and refused to attend, so I missed out on the fun part of things. But I did walk dutifully to my music lessons.

I was taught by Miss Axford, a maiden lady from a prestigious family in our area. She adored Douglas MacArthur and kept a picture of him on her piano. So, every week, I sang arias to a photo of MacArthur, as Miss Axford pounded out the rythmns. Sometimes, she gave me a ride home in her old car, which was a priceless relic of some kind or other, with tasseled windowshades and luxurious upholstered seats.

When she grew old, Miss Axford developed an intense devotion to her cats, who were very prolific. As each kitten was born or each stray appeared in her yard, she gathered them in and cared for them, until her number of pets reached numbers impossible to ignore. The stench caused the neighbors to complain and this poor, gentle, confused lady had to give up her beloved animals, the family she protected and adored.

Helen's violin teacher was Italian, with a black beard and a booming voice. Helma and I were terrified of him and, when that foghorn of a voice appeared at our door, we hightailed it to our Safe Harbor, the darkness under the bed. This was the spot where we hid during any frightening occurence, whether it was the dogcatcher arriving at the door in his truck, looking for unlicensed pets, or whether it was a thunderstorm crashing in the sky. We felt that no one could touch us as long as we stayed under that bed, clinging to one another and trembling, listening for sounds.

Helen's screeching progress on the violin was only appreciated by Pop, who was certain his children were loaded with talent. Today, Helen confided to me that she has not touched a violin for years, nor have I made it to the Metropolitan Opera. Thus, the dreams of many parents die a slow and agonizing death!

I have thought a lot lately of that safe spot under the bed, where Helma and I used to cower. I remember that Hubert sent us into hiding on the day that he had to climb into the attic and club to death the moaning rat that stayed there. We had listened to those moans day and night for several weeks, and I still cannot imagine what was wrong with that sick rat, but Hubert finally decided he had to kill it. It upset him, too, and he was visibly shaken by the task. And Helma and I crawled under that bed for refuge, listening for Hubert's voice as he climbed that rickety ladder into the attic.

He was my hero and my rescuer, this tall, handsome brother, who spent his life in various ways, using his charm, his wits, and his looks to get by. He never failed us, and was devoted to his family. Today, that flashing grin, that mischievous sense of humor, that understanding of children is lost to the progress of Alzheimer's, but his worth to his family is evident in the loyalty of his children, who care for him throughout the day and the night without complaint.

Thinking back on the days of my youth, I often wonder if time doesn't play tricks with the mind. One doesn't remember the discomfort, the cold, the doing without basic necessities. Instead, memory is clouded by the nostalgia of love and closeness, of people dead or near dead, of the warmth of relationships. Perhaps it is a good thing that the cold, wet rain and the ominous dark clouds give way to warmth and sunshine in the shadows of the mind, lest we spend our time searching for meaning, searching for answers, and all of us realize, in the end, there really aren't any answers.

But I do know that Pop was right. Some things are just more important than basics. One has to hang on to music, to literature, to the small pleasures in life. Struggling to keep bread on the table is something we all must do, but a few slices of pie now and then make life worth living.

My mother, whose soprano voice became more trembled with vibretto as she aged, used to sing a song called "We'll understand it all bye and bye!" I hope so. I'm not completely sure, but I hope so.