Gettysburg


A part of Cemetery Ridge on a moonlit night.

I’ve never been here before. Never seen the battlefields or the gravestones. Never stood in the place where Lincoln made his eloquent speech.

But I’ve always wanted to come to Gettysburg, to see this historic place and to feel my feet stepping on the earth that has absorbed so much death.

Lately I’ve wanted to come to try to make sense of what happened. As I watch the anger and bitterness rising between Americans these days, I’m afraid that it may be too late for us to learn history’s lessons.

So here I am, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I came with my husband and two friends. We read the books and watched the movies and documentaries. And now we have toured the battlefields.

The zig-zag fences that stand today look just like the ones that ran across these fields in 1863.

I have been left with so many questions, and so many emotions.

I know that this happened.

But I can’t understand it.

I mean, I know the economic reasons for the war. I understand the political forces.

But I don’t know how actual human beings could have ever believed that it was the right thing to do to murder each other for a political cause.

I stood there on the beautiful hillsides of Cemetery Ridge and Seminary Ridge, where thousands of young Americans faced each other across the green fields, each side waiting for the other to attack.

Gettysburg’s green fields.

I stood on Little Round Top and Big Round Top, and put my hands on the stones and the trees that must have stood there on that terrible day in July of 1863. I thought about the blood that had soaked into that ground. I thought about the trees that had been torn up by mortar fire, and the animals that must have run desperately for safety.

But mostly I thought about all of those young men. All of those boys.

I thought about them dying in the very spot where I stood.

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Gettysburg is a wonderful place to visit. It is so well preserved. It is beautiful. There are great restaurants and little shops and lots of fun ways to tour the site.

You can go to the Visitors Center and tour the museum. You can watch a movie and view a gorgeous 360 degree painting. You will learn a lot and you will have fun.

But you know what?

I wish, so much, that you could see fewer images of the glory of the battle. I wish that you could hear less about the “great deeds of great men” who “alter the course of history.”

I wish that when you go to see Big and Little Roundtop, you would hear less about the courage of the men who ran barefoot and desperate up the slopes, and less about the bravery of those who withstood them.

Here is what I wish you would learn at Gettysburg.

I wish that you, and all of us, would see the faces of the boys who were exhausted, and sick and hungry. I wish that you could hear their thoughts as they huddled in the trees, waiting for death. I wish that you could learn the stories of their wives, grieving and anxious and waiting at home with babies in their arms.

I wish that we could all be encouraged to look at the face of every slaughtered young American, and to think about the mothers and fathers they left behind. To think about the children unborn, and lives never lived, the dreams never known.

I wish that we could all be taught that in the National Cemetery, where a monument to Lincoln and his famous address now stands, there are rows and rows and rows of grave markers. Each of them marked with the tragic word “unknown”.

We should think about how it felt to the wives, the sweethearts, the parents and grandparents, the children of all of those fallen men who were never even identified.

What was the meaning of all of that death? All of that fear and horror and pain and loss?

Couldn’t our national course have been shaped without that violence, without war?

As I watch the news today, in our newly divided and bitter and anger country, I think about Gettysburg.

I wish that the lessons taught there were less about the glory of war and more about the pointless destruction of an entire generation of Americans.

A Time To March


I’m horrified, shocked, furious about the terrorist attack in Charlottesville this weekend. White Nationalists, whatever the hell that means, marched supposedly to protect the statue of a man who committed treason 150 years ago and then lost a war.

How to pick a winner, right?

They wore Nazi insignia. They gave the Nazi salute. They chanted about the Jews “replacing” them.

Their true goal, obviously, was not to stand up for old dead Robert E. Lee. It was to provoke a fight with all those awful people who they believe are trying to take away their white male role as masters of the continent.

They succeeded. There was fighting. There was death.

They got their headlines.

Now these radical deplorables are planning to march on Boston. The capital of the state where I live. They want to chant their pathetic racist drivel on the streets where Sam Adams rallied patriots to action in the 1770’s.

So what should I do?

I don’t want to drive my 61 year old self into the city. I don’t want to march on a nice late summer day. I don’t want to risk being hit, or shot, or run over. I don’t want to give these pitiful bullies so much of my attention.

But.

My first job as an adult was interpreting from Russian to English and back again for Jewish immigrants who were arriving here from the Soviet Union. I helped them find housing, took them to the doctor, took them shopping.

I heard their stories.

I saw the numbers tattooed on their arms. I touched those tattoos.

How can I NOT march to stand up for the old Russian woman who told me how she had run away from the invading Nazi’s? She was 7 months pregnant, and had a two year old in her arms. The Nazi’s came to her village and she ran into the woods. The soldiers shot, and she was hit in the face. Still she ran. She got as deep into the forest as she could go before she collapsed.

When I knew this woman, her face was creased with an ugly red scar. Her speech was slurred by the path the bullet had taken across the roof of her mouth.

How do I not march for her?

And what kind of person would I be if I didn’t march against the rise of fascism, knowing the stories from the siege of Leningrad, when the Nazis blockaded the city? I remember a Russian Jewish woman with wide blue eyes. She could no longer see when I took her to the doctor in Boston, but those eyes were filled with sorrow when she told me the story of her father walking the streets in search of food and coming home with part of a dead dog to feed his children.

She talked about her mother cooking their shoes to get some protein out of the leather.

My father fought the Nazis. He was only 18 when he enlisted in the army. He was at the Nuremburg Trials.

I lived through the civil rights era right here in the US, too. I remember seeing the marches, the violence, the struggles. I remember the day that Martin Luther King was murdered.

Are we really going to let the clock go back, Americans? Are we going to embrace the slave owning and race baiting past of the country?

Are we going to sit back and let the Nazis come in here and take our country? Are we going to allow our President to get away with condoning their violence?

Personally, I think I’ll have to go and walk the streets of Boston and stay as safe as I can while making my voice heard.

20130419221617-boston200413

Anne Frank, and history’s lessons


When we were in Germany, we were both struck by how present the past remains. There are images, buildings, museums, memorial to all that happened here in World War II.

Berlin still shows where the wall once stood. There is an entire museum dedicated to recording what happened when the city was cut into pieces by those bricks and that mortar.

The city has a huge, somber, stark memorial to the victims of the holocaust, too. It’s both beautiful and haunting.

They bear the guilt of what was done in their country decades ago. They do not want to forget it. They talk about it often.

Why?

I think because so many people in Germany are afraid to let it happen again.

One thing that we noticed on our trip was how often people asked us about Donald Trump. What was going on in the US, they asked us. Didn’t Americans learn anything from the story of Hitler?

I didn’t have an answer. I never knew what to say.

Now we hear that Anne Frank, the young girl who wrote about the beauty of life while she was hiding in an Amsterdam attic waiting to be murdered, was denied asylum in the United States. Her father, Otto, applied for a refugee visa. He went through his brother in law, who was living in Boston.

The family was highly educated, well connected, ready to come to the US.

Their application was denied.

When I read why, every hair on my arms stood up in horror. It was as if Donald Trump had been in charge of the application.

I wrote this article, published in LiberalAmerica. I hope you’ll read it. I hope you’ll think about Anne Frank and about her family. I hope you’ll think about all of those modern Germans, asking why Americans have failed to learn from the terrible lessons of Nazi Germany.

I hope you’ll talk about this, pass it around on Facebook, bring it up at your book group.

I hope, most of all, that you will vote. And that you will vote carefully.

Anne Frank’s Tragic Story, and What We Can Learn From History

 

A History Lesson


lustgarten_photo

Many years ago, when I was a young High School student, I learned about the terrible events in Nazi Germany.  I remember reading about the creation of the Jewish ghettos, and I remember reading about the way that the Jews were singled out and made to feel separate and inferior in Germany in the early 1930’s.

I read about Adolf Hitler, and his rise to power.

I was about 15 or 16 years old.  I learned that the average German didn’t seem to push back as Hitler rose to power.

I couldn’t understand it.  I thought to myself, “If I had been living in Germany in those days, I would have stood up for the Jews.”

When I got older, I read more about the events of WWII.  I read “The Diary of Anna Frank”.  I read the memoirs of Elie Wiezel.  I saw photos from Auschwitz and Dachau and Bergen-Belsen.

I was sure that if I had lived in those horrific times, I would have spoken out loudly and clearly against the actions of my government. I would have denounced Hitler with all my might, I told myself.

And still more years went by.  I went to college and majored in Russian language and Political Science.  I got a job as an interpreter for Jewish Family Services, where I helped to resettle Soviet Jews in the Boston area. I mostly worked as a medical interpreter, taking elderly Russian Jews to doctors’ visits at Beth Israel Hospital.

There I heard first hand accounts of life in the camps.  I saw the numbers tattooed on those old arms.  I listened in breathless horror as one woman told me her story of running through the forest, pregnant and carrying a toddler on her hip.  She was shot in the face, but the bullet did not kill her. She kept running, dragging her sobbing little son through the woods until they both collapsed.  She pointed to the ragged scar on her face.  She introduced me to her now adult son.

“If I had been there,” I told myself, “I would have fought against those damned Nazi’s with every ounce of my strength.”

I remember asking one Russian Jewess about those terrible times. “But how did the Nazi’s get so much power?”, I asked her. “How did they rise without anyone opposing them?”

She smiled, and nodded her head.  I can still see her solemn smile.  “Медленно”, she told me in Russian. “Slowly. Little by little.”   I didn’t understand.

I assumed that I would have known how to fight back against my leaders at a time of extreme xenophobia.  I thought, for some reason, that I would have been able to articulate a reasonable response to government officials who tried to rally the country against a helpless minority.

I was so sure, so very sure, that I would have stood up against the Nazi’s if I had lived in German at the time of their rise to power.

And now here I am, living in the age of anti-Muslim fervor.  On a day when my own Governor wants to stop Muslim refugees from finding safety in my state.

Here I am, living in a time when those who seek the highest office in our country use the same kind of anti-minority, xenophobic, “us vs them” rhetoric that once shaped events in Germany.  When one of the leading candidates for President makes up lies about Arabs and Muslims, blaming an entire community for the fear that so many Americans feel every day.

And I find that I am nearly powerless to speak out.

What can I do?

I have written to my Governor, to my local paper, to the White House.  I post my opinions on Facebook.

I write here, in this tiny, inconsequential blog, in a desperate attempt to make my voice heard.

I abhor the fear mongering that is part of this Presidential Campaign. I hate the lies that are being told by the likes of Donald Trump and Ben Carson.  I am afraid of the direction that my country is taking as we face the unrest and violence that is coming from the Middle East.

I want to believe that I can stand up against this horrific racist rhetoric.

But what can I do?

I am screaming, but I don’t think that anyone care hear me.

Time Travel


Wormhole_travel_as_envisioned_by_Les_Bossinas_for_NASAFor as long as I can remember, I have wished that I could travel through time.   I fell in love with “A Wrinkle in Time” when I was in the fifth grade, and the whole time travel idea has consumed me ever since.

Of course, I don’t have any real desire to travel into the future.  I mean, I’ll be dead by then. Why would I go there?

But I love history.  I would so love to go back in time! I’d love to see what my little town looked like 100 years ago.  I would love to visit my little New England town in the days of horse drawn carriages and small farms.

Sometimes, on lovely spring days, I drive to Concord and walk along the Battle Road, wishing that I could see it on the morning of April 19th, 1775.   Wouldn’t that be something?

So I guess I should be happy that so many of our political leaders are trying to do their best to bring us back into those days of yore.

If we go back in time, to where these politicians want to take us, we can once again enjoy the days where religion trumped science.

We can once again enjoy those happy, simple times, where children are born whether or not there is someone there to take care of them and whether or not they are wanted. We can enjoy the lovely days when children came down with measles and mothers were able to nurse them back to health, if they didn’t die.  If we are lucky, and the current trend continues, we may be able to once again delight in the pleasures of diphtheria.  Maybe we’ll even meet “dropsy” once again.

And I guess I’m going to be able to enjoy the days of the Old West, too, since it looks like pretty soon every American will own a gun. And will be able to carry that gun under his jacket and walk with it into the local school and library and office and state house.

What a thrill.

I don’t know how my children and grandchildren will feel about all this, but at least this history buff is going to get her time travel thrill!

Dear Theo


My pal, Theo.

My pal, Theo.

Dear Mr. Epstein,

Is it OK if I call you Theo?  I kind of feel like we’re friends.  You and I go way back, even though you don’t know it.

See, I became a Red Sox fan way, way back in 1967, when my fifth grade teacher took our class to Fenway to see a baseball game. (This was a LONG time before the Common Core; field trips were just for fun back then. My teacher was a huge Sox fan.  She was very….stoic.)   I went with my classmates to Fenway on that warm June night back in 1967, and I saw Tony Conigliaro hit a home run in the tenth to win the game.  My heart literally turned over in my chest, and I fell hopelessly and permanently in love with Boston Baseball.

And so I suffered.

For a very, very long time. I welcomed every spring with the words “This is our year!” and I ushered out every October with the murmured sigh, “Wait till next year.”

It was a long, sad stretch of years, Theo, without a Championship Team.

And then………

You came along.  You were young, and handsome and confident and brash.  Everyone in New England fell in love with you. We bought those fabulous “In Theo we trust” Tshirts.  We put on hats that said, “Why not us?”  We started to believe in each other, in our Team, in our boys. We started to believe in you.

And you brought us the incredible life-changing miracle of 2004.

T110804TheJoyofSox

I’ll never forget that blood red moon, or the feeling of disbelief and euphoria that came over us that night.

Theo, in you we trusted, and you delivered the goods.

Now I have a favor to ask you.

Now you are a Cub.  You’re in charge of breaking another curse.  You are being trusted by a whole new crew of stoic, die-hard fans.  They are praying for you to pull off another miracle.

You’re pretty young, Theo. You probably think you have all the time in the world. But the thing is, there is one guy, one awesome, feisty, proud old Cubbie who needs you to pull off the miracle THIS YEAR.

That guy is my Uncle, Lennie Merullo. The last remaining Cub to have played in a World Series.  He was the starting shortstop for the Cubs in 1945.  He’s been dining out on those stories ever since.

lennie_merullo_autograph

Uncle Lennie was my hero, especially after 1967.  He taught me how to throw a curve ball.  He talked to me about Spring Training, and PeeWee Reese and signing with Mr. Wrigley.  He is a living, breathing artifact of American History. I grew up on my Dad’s stories of the exploits of his famous older brother.

Theo, Uncle Lennie is 97 years old now.  The Cubs flew him out to Wrigley last spring to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the ball park where you are now the man in charge.

You should watch this video from that day. You’ll see just how much your Cubs mean to Uncle Lennie. 

0606_cubs-merullo-e1402066276932-624x499Dear Theo, old friend, old pal.

Can you please work your magic this year? It would be so incredibly wonderful if Uncle Lennie could celebrate the end of the Cubs Curse.  It would mean the world to him, and to all of his kids and grandkids and nieces and nephews and cousins and friends and neighbors.

Theo, in you we trust.   We BELIEVE.   You can do it. I mean, you have Jon Lester on your side, for goodness sake. We sort of gave him to you.

Dear Theo,  You can do it.  I will personally promise you all the homemade ravioli you can eat if you just manage this one additional miracle.

Please let the Cubbies win it all in 2015.

Just think of how cool it would be to have Uncle Lennie there to hold up the trophy.

George? Seriously?


Dreaming of my unforgettable new name!

Dreaming of my unforgettable new name!

Like all good Americans, I have done my part to maintain the absolute hysteria surrounding the birth of the royal baby.

Of course, I get kind of hysterical about the birth of every baby.  I am a sucker for the whole “bringing a brand new life into the world” thing. I love their tiny baby feet, their tiny baby fingers and sweet noses and soft cheeks.  I think that Heaven will smell exactly like the tender neck of a newborn child.

But I was extra excited by this baby. This royal little bundle of historical joy.  This sweet, tiny creature will most likely one day be the King of England.

Huzzah!!  This is, to quote Joe Biden, “a big fuckin’ deal”.  So I was riveted by the pageantry as I awaited the royal birth.

Then, once his royal little self was born, and we all got a glimpse of his adorable little royal face, I became one of millions of people the world over who breathlessly awaited news of the baby’s royal name.

I’m a teacher, so I get to hear tons of interesting children’s names.  Some are really exotic, some are cutsie, some are liltingly beautiful.  Which of the hundreds or thousands of names out there would the charming, young, nonconformist royal couple choose for their firstborn child?  Would it be Erik, or Tucker or Cooper or Dante?  Maybe Taylor or Jake or Stetson?  I couldn’t wait to hear what it would be!!!

So……

You can imagine my disappointment when I heard that the world’s most down-to-earth Princess decided to name her baby George.

I mean……George?

As in, the King who lost the New World to those pesky revolutionaries?  George? As in, the curious monkey?  As in “of the jungle”?  As in Bush?   Seriously?

Choosing a name is a serious business.  Names have power.

I firmly believe that in many cases, our name can shape our destiny.

Do you remember a guy named Rollie Fingers?

He was a pitcher in the major leagues.

There was another pitcher, a bit earlier, named Bill Hand.

I am not making this up.

My husband once knew a guy named Peter Payne.  He was a dentist.

Choosing a name is very serious business!  If you have a baby girl, you should really steer away from names like “Amber LaBoom”, you know?

And if you are naming a future King of England, I just think you should steer away from the name of the King who has gone down in history as both a nut job and a loser.

I believe that a name can shape a person’s destiny.

If you don’t believe me, just ask Anthony Weiner.

 

History as life


As I sit here this evening, writing this post, I feel the breath of history on my neck.

Tonight I realize, maybe for the very first time, how easy it is, and how arbitrary, to become a part of “history”.

My day began in the cold clear air along the Concord River, overlooking the famous North Bridge. We had decided not to try to brave the throngs at the annual reenactment of the Battle of Lexington Green, deciding that perhaps it wasn’t the best decision to get up at 3Am and drive for an hour while half asleep.

Instead, we met some friends and went to the North Bridge, site of the first true battle of the American Revolution. And we watched the actors and listened to the description of what happened on that historic day. As we watched, we talked with our friends about how these huge historic events, events that changed the world, hinged on a second, a moment, the decision of one scared young man. We talked about how strange and surreal it must have been for the families who lived on the hillside above the bridge as they watched the British soldiers marching toward them. As they watched the shots that started the war.

Just as no one knows for sure who fired the first shot on Lexington Green, no one knows for sure who fired first on North Bridge.  Was it one terrified young farm boy, clutching his musket in shaking hands?  Or was it started by a hungry, tired, frustrated soldier, so far away from his home and family? We will never know.

The entire world was changed by those events, but they were carried out by average people, just living their average lives.

This morning I thought about the farmers and their wives and their children, taking part in history, but not thinking about that in the moment. They were thinking, I’m sure, “This can’t be happening to me!”

They woke up on April 19th, 1775, made breakfast and milked their cows.  They must have gone through their usual routines before they found themselves confronted by those British troops. They must have looked at each other, and they must have thought, “This just cannot be real.”

We watched the commemoration of those events. We remembered the people who lived through them. Then we went out to breakfast, we smiled at the beautiful children, and we watched the parade.

And we came home to find the news of the horrific bombings at the Boston Marathon.  The Marathon that we have watched so many times over all these years. The one that was run by some of our friends, and attended by a lot more of them.

We jumped onto Facebook, and Twitter and onto our phones. Through texting and social media, we learned that one of our friends crossed the finish line 20 minutes before the blast.  Another friend was watching right at the finish line.   If he hadn’t gone to Fenway Park yesterday, he would have been seated in the grandstand at the finish line, right in the line of the explosions.

“Way too close for me,” he texted.  As we heard from our friends, and their families, the thought that kept coming up was, “This can’t be happening to me.”

I don’t understand human adults.  I just don’t. I can’t understand the impulse to hurt total strangers, to blow apart the lives of mothers and children and old people.  I don’t understand it.

I know that I don’t ever want to be a part of history.  I don’t want to be in just that spot when the soldiers march up and fire in fear and anger and fatigue. I don’t want to be exactly where the bomb goes off.

Life is short, and precious and very, very fragile.  We can never waste a minute of it, or take any of it for granted.

"By the rude bridge that arched the flood, their flag to April's breeze unfurled. There the embattled farmers stood And fired the shot heard round the world."

“By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
their flag to April’s breeze unfurled.
There the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.”

Wild and Crazy


Huzzah! What a wild life!

Huzzah!
What a wild life!

There was a time in our lives when Paul and I were pretty wild and crazy.

I remember when we were in our early 20’s, newly married, and living just outside of Boston.  Weekend nights started at 10 pm, included visits to a couple of clubs to hear local punk bands and ended at dawn.  Sometimes we were on the “guest list” and got to drink and dance for free at Boston’s finest grunge bars.

Ah, those were the days.

I remember when we were in grad school, in the early 80’s, and we’d drive to the beach at the drop of a hat, or pack 5 people into a Chevette and drive from New Jersey to Florida for spring break.  We drove all night, under the light of a full moon, and sang out loud to every song on the radio.

Then life changed. Kids came on the scene, and our idea of “wild and crazy” was going out for ice cream on a week night.  The peepers came out, we hopped in the car, and everyone got a cone.  Woohooo!!!

Now that the kids have all grown up and moved away, it is suddenly clear to me that we never, ever, ever do anything that could even remotely be considered “wild” or “crazy”.  We have our routines, we stay close to home, we are in bed early.

We are, in a word, that awful, boring old couple that you always swore to yourself you would never become.

We are Ward and June Cleaver.

Oh my God.

Next week is April school vacation.  We don’t have plans to fly to Barbados.  We are not taking a cruise.  We didn’t make ourselves a reservation at a B&B on the Vineyard.

Nope. Not us.

I have a physical scheduled, and the dog needs to go to the vet. One day will be taken up with installing our new pellet stove, and I plan to clean some closets.

Seriously.

So the other day, I came to a drastic conclusion.  I find myself standing on the brink of the abyss.  If I take one more step, I will fall into the pit of inescapable boring monotony.  The time to act is now!

I MUST reclaim my risk taking, living-on-the-edge, grab-life-by-the-balls old self!  I MUST find a way to reignite my inner wild woman.

I will get out there and live big and bold!  I will!

So next Monday, no matter what, I am going to set my alarm for 3:30 AM, shake my hubby awake, grab a coffee to go, and drive to Lexington Mass, where we will watch a reenactment of the Battle of Lexington Green.

It doesn’t get much wilder than that!

Not at our age.

From the mouths of babes


Sometimes teaching is drudgery.  The worksheets, the assessments, the checklists, the mountains of papers to correct and sort and file.  Sometimes it seems as if the whole exercise is designed to bore everyone into submission.

But sometimes there are moments, sometimes there are days, when teaching reminds me of why I still have hope for the future.

Yesterday was one of those days.

We were doing a lesson on the “Triangle of Trade” in the mid-eighteenth century.  I walked around the classroom, which had been labelled with various geographic locations, showing how goods travelled from England to the Colonies, from the Colonies to the West Indies, and from those islands to West Africa and on to England.

The Triangle of Trade

The Triangle of Trade

I showed them how the whole process worked at the same time in reverse: Africa to the West Indies, to the Colonies to England.  Guns and rum to Africa, slaves to the West Indies to make the molasses to ship to New England to make the rum to send to Africa for more slaves.  Its a complex economic situation for ten year old children to grasp, but as often happens, they jumped straight to the main issue.

“Why would anyone want to be a slave?”, one boy asked.  I explained the issue of kidnapping and tribal conflict, describing in ten year old terms how brutal the whole thing had been.

“But why would anyone do something like that to other people?”  We looked at the map, I let them talk; eventually they realized that those human beings were part of a thriving economy.  They understood that in that setting, human life was worth less than some barrels of molasses or bales of tobacco.

As the discussion went on, more and more probing questions were asked. “If there were so many slaves, why didn’t they rise up and take over?”   That brought a long talk about power.  The conclusion that these children came to?

The white owners had the power.  Power came from weapons and from education and knowledge.

“If the people in Africa had been white, do you think they would have been taken as slaves?”  That talk went on for almost ten minutes, in small groups of kids.  The conclusion?

White people would not have kidnapped and enslaved other white people. First because slaves had to stand out in the crowd, otherwise they could just run away and pretend to be regular citizens.  And, “I think you have to make people seem really different from you if you are going to do something awful to them.”

I’m not sure how they came to be so wise and so astute at such a tender age, but they fill me with hope and with some sense that my grandchildren may grow up in a world with more gentleness and sensitivity than we see now.

Maybe I’m a crazy optimist, but some days are just like that.  From the mouths of babes come moments of transcendent faith.