Wednesday, March 29, 2000

Alan and The Witch of the West

Back in those days, once a school teacher became a "Mrs", she was asked to resign and make way for someone who "really needed the salary."  Not so with Mrs. Brown, my second-grade teacher.  She was permitted to return to her position, because of the tragedy that had befallen her.  Her brand new husband, even before their vows were consummated, slipped upon getting off the honeymoon train in Atlantic City and, smacking his head hard on one of the iron wheels, lost consciousness, never to regain it.  He died three days later in a strange New Jersey hospital, far from his Pennsylvania home, his unfortunate new bride at his bedside. 

Now, twelve years later, the sad saga of the nuptial accident was common knowledge among us students.  No one really broadcast it to incoming classes, but we somehow all knew, perhaps by osmosis.  Yet, we couldn't stand her.  The legacy handed down from each second-grade class to the next was that she was a mean old crab who hated us.  What she really hated, 

of course, poor thing -- was the sad blow she had been dealt.  Being too young to be philosophical, though, we took it personally and hated her back.  One of our number, Johnny Gorey, once even voiced the thought that Mr. Brown probably slipped on purpose once he realized what he had gotten into.  Had we been exposed to "The Wizard of Oz" movie (which we hadn't been yet,) we might have dubbed her "Wicked Witch of the West."   As it was, we just called her "Old Lady Brown" (meanest witch in town,) but not within her earshot, of course.  We weren't masochists, after all!

I sat in the middle row, the worst row of all, for Old Lady Brown usually stood right smack dab in the center of the room facing us.  Sometimes though, she would clomp in her thick-heeled shoes, to the back of the room, to the far left, to help Lydia, who we all knew was dumb.  We called her "Lydiot, the Idiot."  Mass cruelty, like mass hysteria, is a frightening thing, and I still have guilt feelings about that to this day.  Sometimes I take great comfort in fantasizing that Lydia grew up to be a super brain who went on to Harvard and was the first woman to graduate from its Medical School, but she really was pretty dense, so I doubt it.  However, that is neither here nor there to this particular tale, except that whenever Old Lady Brown walked back to help Lydia, I felt free of her beady little eyes on me.

It was at one such time that I seized the opportunity to talk with Alan.  I don't remember his last name, but I do remember that he liked me, I liked him, and we sat side by-side.  In order that Old Lady Brown not see me talking, should she glance to the front of the room for a second, I scrunched down and bent over backward so that the back of my head just barely brushed the floor of the aisle between Alan's seat and mine.  

"Psst!  Alan!" I whispered.

He stopped writing, and glanced over to where my face should have been, and then down to where it was, and giggled.  "What?" he said, out of the corner of his mouth.

"I have to stop at Pelligrini's for a dozen eggs at noon," I said.  "Want to walk over there with me before we go on home for lunch?"

"Sure," he said and then, with a jerk so sudden  that I thought I heard his neck snap, he wheeled his head to face forward and compressed his lips tightly together.  I turned slightly to my left, at something I had almost, but not quite, seen out of the corner of my eye.  When I turned my head more, I saw Mrs. Brown's two oxford-clad feet planted in the aisle at my eye level.  I scrolled my eyes upward and saw her in all her fiery anger, towering and glowering above me.  Slowly and carefully, but too late, much too late, I righted myself to sitting position.

"You will follow me to the front of the room," she said.

The faint groaning of my classmates, more like the sound of wind through poplars, was barely audible.  She strode to her desk and took a ruler from its middle drawer.  The dreaded wooden ruler!   I knew what was expected of me, and I stood before her, my back to the class, my knees wobbling, my left palm held up to her.   We used to say she had us hold out the left hand, because she didn't want to cripple the right one and give us an excuse for not doing our work.  

With each blow of the ruler, she recited the familiar litany:  "This is to teach you (wham!) that you are not to talk (wham!) in my class (wham!) unless you are called upon (wham!) to 

recite (wham!)."   I never flinched.  I wanted to, but I didn't, nor did I shed a single tear. 

"Now you may return to your seat.  Furthermore, you will remain there when morning recess is called, and you will also stay in your seat fifteen minutes into the lunch hour."

"But, Mrs. Brown," I said, and in spite of myself, my voice broke, "my mother asked me to stop for eggs on the way home from lunch.  I'll just have time...."

She smiled, pleased at last.  "Too bad!" she said.  "You should have thought of that before disobeying my rules, young lady!  You'll just have to hustle, I suppose."

She turned her back on me, and I knew there was no use begging --  not with Old Lady Brown.  

Maybe, I thought, if I stay in at recess and then sort-of get lost in the crowd when we are dismissed at noon, she may not notice.  Then I won't have to explain to Momma about why I'm late at lunch.  Yes, that's what I'll do.  Then if when I come back at one o'clock Mrs. Brown punishes me again for sneaking out, so what?  That's better than catching it all over again this evening when Daddy comes home. 

Once I had defined my plan of action, I felt less doomed.  Wrong!  She wasn't quite finished with me.

"Oh, and young lady," she said, " you will NOT return to your former seat again, but from now on will take the one here in front of my desk."   That about sealed it for all time -- my doom, that is.

At lunch time, I got as far as the classroom door by huddling down and hurrying along beside taller classmates.  Just as I prepared to sprint for the hallway and freedom, her witch's cackle froze me in my tracks.

"Just a minute, missy!  Get back in here!  You know very well that I said 'fifteen minutes into the lunch hour'!  Just for that, we'll make it thirty minutes!"

Well, I was late getting the eggs, late getting home for lunch, and, being unable to think of a believable excuse, caught what-for from my mother.  I sobbed as I shoveled spoonfuls of Campbell's Tomato Soup with saltine crackers crunched in it, into my mouth.  All that gulping, and later my running like the wind to make it back to school before the one o'clock bell, made me hiccup through the entire first half of arithmetic class.  To add to life's misery, that evening when my dad came home and was told of my transgression, I had the further joy of a second chewing-out. 

It seems to me that in those days, when it came to children, grown-ups made such a big deal about such little crimes.   Later, in raising my own kids, I remembered and tried to be more tolerant of small infractions.  My grown children, however, probably have an entirely different memory of my tolerance, or rather, in their eyes, the lack of it thereof.  

Long about the middle of that school year, Mrs. Brown stayed home sick one day, which was something nigh unheard of in the annals of the school.  She was absent again the next day, and the next, and the next.  Miss Liepart, the substitute, was an enormous improvement, and we thought we had died and gone to heaven.  As it turned out, though, it was Mrs. Brown who died and went to heaven...or at least died.  I guess it must have been cancer, which in those days seemed to carry a stigma, and was admitted to in the strictest privacy of the family circle, and then only in whispers.

"I feel really bad," I confided to Alan, guilt being a large part of my make-up since my own personal Day One.

"I don't!" he said.  "Just because she died doesn't make her any nicer.  We're lucky to be rid of her!"

Somehow, from that day forward, my fondness for Alan dwindled.  That may be why, to this day,  I can't recall his last name.

Thursday, March 23, 2000


Words, snatches of sentences, scrolled down.   She tried to open her eyes to stop seeing them, but could not.  From far away, she heard a faint voice and recognized it as her daughter Cary's.    

Hanna, The Times' Sunday Magazine language expert, had been at the computer, writing her weekly column.  The deadline was pressing, and her head hurt.  It hurt a lot lately.  Today she felt light-headed, her temples locked in a vise.

"I'll finish this," she said, "and then take a few Excedrin."  She was in the habit of talking to herself.  Words were her love and her livelihood, and never failed her.  Just using them, even if only speaking to herself, made tasks lighter.

Her fingers clicked on the keyboard.  "I thank my lucky stars," she wrote, "that English is my native tongue -- a  truly marvelous language with a wealth of vocabulary to most precisely communicate my thoughts..."    She read over what she had composed so far, and then in a fury of disgust, deleted it all.  "Pompous!" she said.  "Words, words!  Why can't I fashion them into a decent column today?"   She saw an arc of light... then another, before a shadow clouded her mind.

"Has there been lasting brain damage?" Cary said.  "Will she come back?"  

A voice Hanna did not know answered.   "I'm sorry," it said,  "I'm afraid there's not 

much hope.  She's not breathing on her own."    

"Oh, what shall I do, Doctor?"  Hanna anguished at the sob in Cary's voice.  "She has a Living Will, but I just can't do that to her.  Can we wait another twenty-four hours and see if there is some change by then?"

"We can," he said softly, "but there won't be."

Behind Hanna's closed eyes, the word PLEASE scrolled down, but refused to form on her lips.   She heard her daughter crying, and not a word of comfort was she able to offer.

Wednesday, March 15, 2000


Petty worries had nagged me during the night, and when the grandfather clock in the front hall struck five times, I arose in a humour that mirrored the cold pre-dawn darkness.  Twenty minutes later I started off on the daily walk that takes me through two communities, where I like to say "there's at least one vignette per morning."  

This morning I was in no mood for vignettes. I had just rounded 21st Street and was starting up into the heart of Sharpsburg, when a police car pulled alongside me.  It was young Officer Novak.  

"'Morning, Mrs. K," he said, "There's been some trouble up on South Canal Street.  I have to ask you to alter your route this morning."


"Well, there's been a shooting, and the street is blocked off.  The paramedics are still there."  Before I could ask more, he nodded and was off.

  Nell Barker had been homecoming queen the year my oldest daughter was a freshman.  She had been the first one from Sharpsburg to be so chosen since that community had joined the school merger, so although I did not know her personally, I knew who she was.  Now, some twenty years later, she was dead.  It was months before I learned the full story.

She had married Bill, her high school sweetheart and they had settled in Sharpsburg.  Bill enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh on a scholarship and planned to go on to medical school. Nell tried to get work as a fashion model, but was unsuccessful and became instead, a check-out clerk at the Giant Eagle.  When their daughter was born a year or so later, Nell refused to return to work.   Bill took odd jobs after classes, but the money was not enough, so he left school and was hired by American Roller Bearing up in RIDC Park.  Shortly thereafter, Nell became bedridden with an ailment that defied diagnosis.  They moved in with his mother, so that someone could take care of Carry, the baby.  In time, Nell graduated from lying in bed to spending her waking hours in her wheelchair in front of the TV set.  Bill and his mother wanted Nell to try physio- and psychological therapy, but every time she was pressured, her condition worsened, and she took to her bed for weeks.  Throughout it all, Bill remained totally devoted to Carry, even after taking up with a much younger woman.  How Nell got hold of the gun, no one knew, nor could anyone say how she arose from her wheelchair to commit murder-suicide, but she did. 

In retrospect, petty worries that nag in the night are petty indeed.   

On Elephants

On a morning walk, I came across a newspaper carelessly tossed on someone's lawn, and through the blue plastic bag that kept it dry from rain and dew, I read in passing quickly by, headlines that capped a small column on the far right-hand corner of the page: "Woman Fined for Keeping 100 Cats," which caused me to remember a conversation with a friend of mine a week or so before.  I smiled, walking along, as I replayed it in my head, and in fact, am smiling now as I write this.

My friend Sally and I had been discussing a weekend I had just spent at the home of  my older son and his wife and three children and two cats, one of which is quite nasty -- cat, that is -- my son, daughter-in-law, and the children, of course are delightful.

"If you had a choice," Sally asked, "which would you choose for house pet, cat or dog?"

"Well," I said, "I'm really not an animal lover.  Except for elephants.  I love elephants, but they would hardly do as house pets."

I told her that although I had several times encountered elephants in zoos in this country, it wasn't until I was in Sri Lanka and visiting a place where baby elephants who were orphaned by poachers in the jungle were cared for, that I fell wholeheartedly in love with that great, lumbering, somehow gentle species. 

"I was privileged to feed one of the 'babies',"  I said to Sally.  "I held an enormous nippled bottle of milk to its mouth, and the dear little thing  --well, actually, the dear BIG thing (it stood taller than I) practically sucked my arm in up to my elbow."

"Yuck! Elephants!" my friend Sally said.  "I saw two of them mating once.  My ex and I were in Africa.  He told me not to look, but I did anyway.  My God!  At first I thought one of them had five legs."

It took me a minute to get the picture, and then at least three minutes to stop giggling.