Tuesday, August 22, 2017

J is for Jails (and other forms of incarceration)

This post is ©Kristin O. Lord 2015—17

J is for Jails (and other forms of incarceration)

After a hiatus of more than two years, I am feeling my way forward again with blogging. What follows is a truncated version of a post composed as a draft in the summer of 2015. Although I have removed the most obvious anachronisms, it is to some extent a period piece from the vanished world of the Obama administration.

For those who may wonder, I have eschewed venturing into the basement while alone in the house except when I have had no other alternative.

I. The basement

“Just a twenty-minute run through the living room with the central vacuum cleaner,” I thought, “and then I will be on my way to Vermont to my aunt’s ninetieth birthday party and my passport renewal on Monday morning. I should also get to Meeting in Middlebury. Since no one else is in the house, I will be out of here in no time.” It was an unseasonably warm day in the middle of May back in 2015. This meant that I needed to disconnect the cord to the dehumidifier and reconnect the one to the central vac. I opened the basement door, as I had done hundreds of times in the two decades that we have owned our current house, and turned on the light switch.

I then closed the door to keep the cats from following me. As I did so, however, the sliding bolt that some previous owner had installed on the basement door —perhaps to keep their animals or children upstairs— worked its way loose from the open position and slid across the outside of the door, locking me in.

I was in a bit of trouble for several reasons other than the obvious ones. Let me start with the basic geography. Our house dates from the Victorian era.  About two-thirds of the first floor of the main part of the house has a Victorian-style basement underneath; the rest of the main portion of the house and the almost equally venerable addition in the back has a crawl space. There is only one set of basement stairs and no windows. However, looking at my surroundings, I could see the hot water heater, electrical switch plate, furnace, and a nearly full tank of No. 2 heating oil. Aside from those necessities, one might find wrapping paper, sealed plastic storage bins of Christmas decorations, and detritus of various kinds. It is too damp to store much of value. Clearly, we don’t spend time down in the basement, so we have had no reason to spend the money to install a land phone line. Because women’s clothes often have no pockets, I don’t usually carry my cell phone with me (and I wasn’t that close to leaving the house on the day I was locked in).

I looked at my watch. It was shortly after 2:00 p.m. My husband and teenage daughter had been gone for at least an hour. It was thirty minutes’ drive to the mall where they were planning to run an errand. The errand should take no more than an hour, and then they should be on their way back. Thus they should be back no later than three.

In the interim, I tried in vain to wiggle to lock back or finagle the door just so. I pressed on the smoke detector and started shouting in the hope of alerting the next-door neighbors. Now, as it happens, the walls of the main part of our house are of masonry, about a foot thick. That means that I didn’t feel the minor earthquake we had a few years back, but that also means that the neighbors probably wouldn’t have heard the smoke detector go off even if they had been at the front door soliciting for the cancer drive.

At about 2:45 a phone rang upstairs. Great: the family at the mall think I have already left for Vermont, and they probably won’t be back until late this evening. Maybe they were going to see a movie. They usually go see thrillers and crime movies when I am out of town. That’s it.

“I’m going to have to escape from the basement,” I thought. I cast a gimlet eye on that tank of No. 2 heating oil. The master switch to the furnace was overhead —I did imply above, I think, that the heat of the day meant that the circulating fan was running, not the furnace per se— but, frankly, having control of the master switch was not good enough, given the mere existence of that fuel oil, nor was spending however many hours cleaning up the basement. Besides, there was no toilet, and the only item resembling a receptacle  that was readily apparent was a plant pot with holes in the bottom. So, how was I going to break out? Because of the dampness, we had removed any carpentry equipment of value years ago. Rifling through that one drawer that might have something, I could find the screwdriver we last used to repair the sewing machine. Elsewhere, my search turned up an ice pick, two ski poles, and a garden shovel with a pointed end. 

Where the ski poles should have been used:
Mt. Mansfield, Vermont
Photo © Jared C. Benedict 2004
Wikimedia Commons

I efficiently got the door handle off the door, but the hole was too small to work anything down to touch the bolt. I went after the side door jamb nearest the bolt with the ice pick, which broke off almost immediately. It was now 3:00. No sign of any humans, and by this time the cats, far from trying to get into the basement, would long since have hidden under a bed upstairs.

At this point I remembered that falls on the basement stairs were notoriously dangerous. Indeed, I could think of an example. At the very least, I needed to brace myself with the railing against the inevitable ricochet of force if the ski pole managed to dislodge the door jamb.

Success!! But even with about a quarter to three-eighths of an inch of the bolt now visible, I couldn’t pry it off with the ski pole or whack it away with the shovel.

Let’s get real: The door was solid pine about an inch and a half thick. I had a weak right wrist and knee not completely healed from falling off the ladder the previous summer. I could try to use the shovel to break a hole in the door, but was that in my best interest? In any case, it was an insult to humanity to think that I was escaping from the Lubyanka. The thought of the Dannemora penitentiary in upstate New York might have come to come to mind had I bothered to consider the comparisons; I have driven by there many times, and two Friends from Middlebury had an once had an extensive research and volunteer project at that “facility.” However, the only successful escape from Dannemora in more than a century had not yet taken place. The two prisoners who tunneled their way out some days later were probably burrowing under the prison wall as I was contemplating whacking the shovel against the basement door.

I whacked the door. Splinters came off at the edge. I would be blasted if I would stay entombed without any means of egress. It would be just my luck to have an emergency with the furnace. There was no toilet. How long would it take for people to come back? It was 3:15. No one was clambering up the front steps. I kept going. 3:30. I was a third of the way through the thickness of the door, and the phone rang again upstairs. I found a bag and a wallpaper brush to start removing splintered wood from the stairs as I beat the door with the shovel.

By 4:15 I had chiseled a rough opening over an inch in diameter and used the shovel and ski pole to dislodge the bolt just enough to open it. I then locked the door from upstairs with the same bolt (which, amazingly, was still more or less intact). I retrieved my purse and found the two unanswered calls on my cell phone, to which I was finally able to respond.

The other humans in the family turned up an hour later, incredulous that someone with a weak wrist had even wanted to break down the door. Why didn’t I trust them? Trust?? By that time I had booked our handyman to repair or replace the basement door and install a modern door knob and lock. I was on my way to the shower and in no mood to take questions.

I was also in no condition to drive to Vermont until the next day.  That evening my husband and daughter alternated between fearing that I must have been out my mind just a bit (something they might have suspected already), expressing concern that the more nervous of our two cats might be in hiding for several days (in the end, she came out from under the bed at dinner time), and sympathizing with me to the extent that being imprisoned, to all intents and purposes, and for no good reason, would have been nerve-wracking. Any reasonable person would have been frightened.

Looking at a Psychology 101 textbook would show that what I experienced was a classic example of the fight-or-flight instinct. There is a rush of adrenalin, which explains why my wrist held up through the entire “adventure.”  People react better or worse in such situations, depending on a variety of factors specific to the circumstances, the society in question, and the individual. I belong in the “worse” category, for a variety of reasons which I do not wish to divulge at the moment, but which —believe me— would explain my response. Those reasons were no doubt the basis of my husband’s decision to not give me me a hard time for breaking down the door. Other people might not have been so generous.

As I drove to Vermont the next morning, I kept looking in the rear view mirrors. I was relieved when I saw no unusual situations on the road and no unexpected sightings of police officers. I kept thinking of how I might react if I were caught in the wrong place and the wrong time by a police officer  —or any other person wielding a weapon— who might have a negative presupposition of my ethnicity, gender, or some other feature over which I had no control.

I missed Meeting for Worship, my aunt’s ninetieth birthday party, and those relatives who got to the party but who had to leave afterward. As those who read my “I” post of 2015 will realize, I did manage to make the 10:00 a.m. appointment on the following Monday in St. Albans to renew my passport, and I spent some time with my aunt that afternoon on what was her actual birthday. Talk about privilege.

II. Jails as a paradigm of social organization: a personal meditation

The French philosopher Michel Foucault viewed much of a given society through the lens of how it metes out discipline and punishment. In this regard, Quakers in English-speaking countries in what is now the OECD have had an unusual trajectory, moving from the persecuted to the privileged leaders of reform, while using the experience of previous generations of Friends as the rationale.

It is difficult to believe today that when the penitentiary was first developed, it was considered an improvement on the status quo. Certainly the goal of rehabilitation is one of the great social innovations, even if the means of solitary confinement was disastrous. Solitary confinement entails taking the silence in Meeting for Worship to the extreme, denuding it of the Friendly community upon which it depends for both its spiritual division and sense of humanity. The Friends who were instrumental in the development the penitentiary system thus anticipated Foucault’s conclusion by using their religious organization as a social paradigm to exact punishment.

Reconstruction of the chapel of the penitentiary of Port Arthur, Tasmania
The chaplain and the head guard could see the prisoners, but the prisoners could not see each other.
Photo ©Kristin O. Lord 2008
What is my own experience with this paradigm? Mercifully, it is not direct, as my reflections in part I above will imply, although I suggest that privilege has been a much of a factor as anything.

I took the first level of AVP (Alternatives to Violence Training) in the now-defunct Guelph prison in 1995, but it became clear that I might have more to offer in another capacity, at least at that time. This is one of several areas that I may wish to revisit when I retire, although my rather strong visceral reaction to confinement suggests that I need to think very carefully about any role inside a prison.

I have known Friends who have volunteered at Dannemora, the prison in Guelph, and the Canadian federal women’s prison in Kitchener. They have all given a great deal, in both time and convenience. For instance, at  the very end of December, 2012, one Friend, a regular visitor at the local women’s prison, gave moving vocal ministry at Meeting for Worship about how she had spent a day of her Christmas vacation participating in the choir at the prison chapel.

Where had we spent the vacation? I started to fidget and look at my feet. I hadn’t done anything remotely comparable.

Admittedly, Christmas of 2012 was not a happy one for us for a host of reasons. To complicate matters, one of our cats died of an undiagnosed heart condition a week before the holiday, and then inclement weather precluded our annual trip to Vermont. There was nothing to do but to move up our trip to the local humane society, in this case the fine organization in Guelph, Ontario to look for another cat. For purely selfish motives, we wanted something to smile about, and we had no trouble finding that something —or, rather, that someone.

When listening to our Friend talk about the protocols for going into the prison, I realized that the penitentiary was the model for the local humane society as well. At least in this regard, Foucault is right about the prison as a paradigm for the broader society. For instance, since many shelters have not been able to save the lives of all animals who come into their care, the death penalty is a common part of the system. Animals at the shelter we visited are kept in barred cages, usually individually. Their feet cannot even touch the floor of the building due to risk of infection. While the people who run their shelter give everything they have and more to improve living conditions, animals can hardly be said to thrive. Some react worse than others; given several animals who are identical except for behavior, the one who has the fewest problems in the shelter will probably find a home first. Although the Guelph Humane Society is filled with caring staffers who give the animals more than most of us could muster, their charges had understandable received relatively little attention over the December holidays.

While the kittens at the shelter acted as kittens and received the typical amount of attention from visitors, some of the adult cats did not bother to wake up when people entered the room. The one we had thought might especially interest us based on the web profile —a sweet-looking two-year-old— gazed at us quietly and then lay calmly in our arms. She seemed to be a good fit for a household whose surviving cat was nearly a decade her senior. The fact that the staffer writing up her profile described her as “playful” seemed incongruous — until she was at our vet having her check-up after we had officially signed her paperwork. She immediately attacked the computer cables in the examination room. When she came home, she did not calm down for three weeks. She is still an extroverted, high-octane soul. The six weeks she spent in the shelter in that puny cage must have been pure torture.

the cat in question, about to break into a set of exams, despite a pillow as barrier
Image ©Kristin O. Lord 2017

If anyone wants to do an animal experiment to assess how human prisoners react when let out of jail, they need look no further than the typical humane society. (I have not yet checked the scholarly literature to determine whether such a comparison has yet been made.) Is there a better way to organize a shelter? Yes, there are healthier arrangements for most animals (some need to be segregated for various reasons), and the use of fostering is increasing. These alternatives require more space, attention, and money, however, and only the best-funded organizations can put them into place. That’s a real pity: in the longer run, fewer animals may be returned to the shelter due to behavioral problems and mismatches with owners.

The crux of the problem is the mindset that animals —whether human or non-human, quadrupeds, bipeds, furred, feathered, or scaled— are disposable.

Friday, July 17, 2015

I is for Inequality

The official Vermont historical site marker describing the 1864 St. Albans Raid
This photograph, and the others accompanying this post, are copyrighted to Kristin O. Lord, 2015.

I. A Somewhat Idiosyncratic Overview of Quaker Structural Inequality

Inevitably, Friends are drawn back to equality as one of our core testimonies. In many ways we walk the walk. Unprogrammed Meetings lack ordained and paid clergy; programmed Meetings have a more egalitarian relationship between the pastor and the other members of the group. Decisions are made by the sense of the Meeting; one of the many features of Quaker business practice is that the absence of voting is intended to ensure that a larger or more powerful faction of Friends does not by itself carry the day. On the whole, Friends have a powerful tradition and an excellent contemporary reputation for gender equality and for speaking out on a broad range of social inequities.

Friends have never claimed, however, that the decision-making process of Meeting for Worship for Business treats all participants equally, or even all members equally. We have the concept of “weightiness.” Despite the hackneyed aside that we will all become “weightier” after the Meeting potluck, the concept corresponds loosely to the ancient Roman idea of gravitas, with spiritual depth substituting for political experience. “Weightiness” is a certain je ne sais quois of spiritual understanding, practical knowledge, and an ability to apply that knowledge to the subject at hand. Inevitably, Friends are “weighty” in some areas and not in others. Especially in areas of policy and theology, people can and do become aggrieved if their views are not taken seriously, for whatever reason. Like other entities, Quaker Meetings and organizations can become ossified and resistant to new ideas. A newcomer may have a great deal of insight into a dynamic which has bedeviled old-timers for years, by virtue of having no prior vested interest. Will Friends listen to the newcomer? Maybe. Why or why not?

Despite our reputation, we Quakers have not always dealt with inequality effectively, whether in the broader society or our own midst. John Woolman’s patient intercession with slaveholders in the mid-Atlantic states was the single biggest factor behind the decision of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to make slave ownership grounds for disownment (rescinding of membership) in 1776. (For those unfamiliar with Woolman, his “weight” in the matter arose from a moral concern, which he first wrestled with as a lawyer being asked to draft wills.) Friends were also active in the Underground Railroad later on, but not all Quakers were on board with the abolitionist movement. See, inter alia, the sobering article by Elizabeth Moger (Quaker History 92.2 [2003]) about the case in nineteenth-century Vermont of the Robinsons of Rokeby and Charles Marriott. In terms of the composition of our Religious Society, until around the time of the US Civil War Quakers in both Britain and North America routinely “read out” (removed from membership) those with the temerity to marry non-members who did not join Friends. The British political economist David Ricardo ended up estranged from his own family of origin by choosing the religion of his Quaker wife, but most Friends in that period who married outsiders were let in again later, if at all, after a humiliating confession. Barry Levy, in his study Quakers and the American Family (Oxford, 1988), concluded that those who were so punished were disproportionately the less well off. In other words, the “weighty” Friends of this period prioritized the prosperity and theological and social uniformity of the Quaker family at the expense of the ability of a number of their young people to remain Friends as adults. (Why did the less well off Quakers not marry Friends in the same position? Some did, but impecunious Quakers were perceived as more attractive marriage partners in the broader community and thus had a far better selection of mates there.) The piano which my Quaker husband and I play in the living room was also verboten in that period, but it pales in significance as a human rights issue, as important as it is to our well-being.

II. Inequality redux: An American Quaker Classicist takes another look at the Confederacy and its afterlife

A month ago, June 17, 2015, nine of my fellow Americans were targeted for murder at a prayer service at an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in Charleston, South Carolina, simply because they were African Americans. The church itself is one of America’s most famous, in part because Denmark Vesey, one of its founders, was executed after being implicated in a slave revolt in 1822. The alleged gunman in the 2015 massacre was a supporter of white supremacist organizations and their iconography. This iconography included, but was not limited to, the Confederate battle flag.

I had been already been thinking of the Confederacy this May when I went to St. Albans, Vermont to renew my passport. St. Albans is an old railroad terminus, a quiet county seat about twelve miles south of the Canadian border. Technically a city, it is the size of many Vermont communities classified as towns. “St. Albans” is also the answer to the trivia question, “What is the northernmost point of land engagement in the American Civil War?”  The episode forms part of the middle-school history curriculum in Vermont, and many of us who grew up there remember learning about it. On October 19, 1864, 22 Confederate soldiers crossed over to Vermont from what is now Quebec, shot up the town, robbed three banks, and slipped back over the border. There they were captured by the British authorities who governed Canada at that time. The Americans requested extradition but were turned down because the men were soldiers obeying orders. The soldiers were then released. The British did, however, return to the banks the money they had retrieved.

The TD Bank in St. Albans, Vermont, May, 2015 (photograph ©Kristin O. Lord).
The only one of the three banks robbed at the time of the raid which is still used as such today, it is now ironically a US subsidiary of the Canadian company TD-Canada Trust ("TD" stands for "Toronto Dominion").

From a British and Canadian perspective, the St. Albans raid is a reminder of the uncomfortable truth that both the British and the French unofficially favored the Confederates, in large part because cheap Southern cotton fueled their industrial sectors. It is a credit to the local Canadians that the St. Albans episode left a sour taste in their mouths and that many did not wish to become involved further.

Perhaps because we had and still have family living all over the United States, when I was growing up I heard relatively little at home about the Civil War per se. My father, who has seen far too many battlefields in his own life (even one is too many), has had no desire to visit Gettysburg. Even my maternal grandmother, who bristled at the sight of a Confederate battle flag in one of my school textbooks, took pains to remind her friends that those of her relatives who had moved to a state in the South as a result of a corporate transfer, lived in a jurisdiction that was as American as her native Pennsylvania and her beloved Vermont. This is not as easy a conclusion as it sounds. She was born a mere 25 years after the war ended, and I was to learn much later (last year, in fact),  her paternal grandfather had fought as a Union soldier from Pennsylvania and lived to tell about it for many years thereafter. (As far as I know, this particular great-great grandfather  is the only one of my ancestors to have been involved in that conflict; the readers of this post who are wondering if their own antecedents fought on the Union side can check the schedule of Union civil war veterans and widows in the 1890 census if those relatives were alive at that time.)

St. Albans, Vermont, Civil War Memorial, May 2015 (©Kristin O. Lord)
Erected in 1940, this monument is one of an unusually large number of war memorials in the municipal square.

I was born nearly a century after the Civil War began. The belief of my parents and extended family that the Civil War was long since over was reinforced by the pacifism of some of my mother’s “side” and eventually by my own convictions. Although we had no wish to revisit the Civil War, none of us, including or perhaps especially those transplanted to the South, had any love for the values of the Confederacy. The reasons were slavery and its Jim Crow successor. (One of my earliest childhood memories is my confusion at being dragged away from a public water fountain and then a public toilet in the South when I was about three; knowing my family, the labels on the fountain and toilet could have been either “black” or “white.”) In this sense the conclusions of historians have caught up with the “bred in the bone” beliefs of many Vermonters handed down through oral tradition about the primacy of slavery. When I was in high school, our American history books typically claimed that broader economic factors, of which slavery was the perhaps the biggest single constituent part, were the main cause of the Civil War. More recently, Edward E. Baptist and Edward Ball, along with many other scholars, have shown that convincingly that maintaining slavery, and even expanding it is possible, was not only the driver of the Southern economy but the primary reason the Southern states took up arms. There is also convincing evidence that slavery is the reason that attitudes toward African Americans on the part of many white Southerners did not eventually converge with those of their Northern counterparts (Harvard Working Paper of Acharya, Blackwell, and Sen 2013).

With the exception of my daughter, who was adopted from China, my family and I are all primarily of Northern European descent. It is a fair assumption that my immediate and most of my extended family have always thought “slavery” upon viewing the Confederate battle flag. Being a member of an unprogrammed Quaker Meeting in the North has only reinforced those convictions. When I have traveled in the South, it has taken every ounce of civility I have had not to make impolite comments about that banner or about other Confederate flags and memorials.  My only regret about seeing the battle flag taken down from the South Carolina capitol grounds and elsewhere is that the blood of so many innocent people was shed before people finally did it. (The fact that those people had to be of European or south Asian extraction, despite the splendid eulogy for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney by our President, Barack Obama, and despite the fact that Pinckney was also a fellow South Carolina state senator, says precisely what it seems to say about the balance of power in the USA.)

When the issue of the Confederate battle flag came up again this year, I decided to contact the local flag merchants where I now live in Ontario. This was not my first attempt. A couple of times in the past I had spoken with people selling flags; at least one of those occasions involved people setting up a stall at work. Those previous sellers were Canadians who were stocking the item primarily because it was popular at NASCAR races, or because they knew people (undoubtedly white people) who wanted it “for cultural reasons.” My objections were met with puzzlement. This time, however, it was different. The business I visited in June —also in Canada— said that they had never carried flags that were not officially used by existing political entities. (They had no US state flags.) They immediately understood and agreed with my objections to the Confederate flag. A second nearby business initially stocked virtually every North American flag imaginable, including the Confederate one, via its website but removed all traces of the Confederacy immediately once events in Charleston made them aware of the problem. This occurred before I was able to arrange to speak with the owners about it.

Strangely enough, speaking with the owners of the one flag business a few weeks ago did not bring me the sense of righteous pleasure that I had anticipated. I usually approach these types of situations with calm assurance, but as soon as I heard my Vermont accent coming out of my mouth, I might have been speaking through dried (Quaker?) oatmeal. I peered out the door at my car, which is one of those kinds of vehicles that shrieks “tree-hugger” and not NASCAR. It hit me that I was hardly in the position of those making a wrenching decision to give up flying a cherished family heirloom; rather, I was every bit the descendant of a victorious soldier lording it over those people who look a lot like me but whose economy, once at least as prosperous as that of my own part of the country, had never fully recovered from the time of their great-great grandparents to their own. While the economies of both Britain and North America —including Northern and Southern states alike— had become rich before the Civil War as the bloody profits of slavery had circled through, the North was the beneficiary after the Civil War from the foundation laid previously. To this day, most of us white Americans outside the Old South (and well-heeled Brits and Canadians) reap the benefits, with interest. (See Edward E. Baptist, cited above, on this point.)

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer has a phrase for the spiritual analogue of what I had done when I spoke with the flag merchant. It is called “cheap grace.” The hard part of discipleship is giving up what one loves —at its extreme, even life itself— to act morally. If I were to give a profane analogy instead, I could quote the Roman poet Ovid at Amores 1.8.43: casta est, quam nemo rogavit, “chaste is she whom no one has asked.”

III. A preliminary and very partial reading of Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee, with an attempt to avoid the most egregious spoiler alerts

By coincidence, Harper Lee’s recently rediscovered novel, Go Set a Watchman, has just been published against the backdrop of the discussion of how white Southerners —and ultimately Northerners as well— feel and act toward their fellow Americans of African descent. Once I felt confident that Lee had not been bamboozled into publishing it —or perhaps even before —let’s admit it— as curiosity was getting the better of me— I was determined to purchase a copy on the day it was made available.

As a Classicist, I have as much of an advantage in approaching the differences between Watchman and Mockingbird as I do in my personal life when proclaiming that Confederate flags should be relegated to museums. In both cases my preconceived notions work in my favor. Ancient Greek writers were not bound by the type of unified book series that has won such adherence in modern literature, although the modern idea of a sequel or prequel was familiar to the ancient Greeks (Aeschylus’ Oresteia sequence is the only extant example of a trilogy in tragedy, but others are known to have existed). I not been able to determine at this point, and may never know, whether Harper Lee herself ever studied Greek, but Americans of her generation with her academic background usually had at least a smattering of Latin and were familiar with the way Classical mythology worked. That Lee took Latin in school is also highly likely given the name Atticus for her male protagonist in To Kill a Mockingbird. The Atticus in Roman antiquity was the self-given agnomen (nickname) of the Roman politician Cicero’s dearest friend, T. Pomponius Atticus. The word means “Athenian” (i.e., “Attic” or “of Attica”), and Cicero’s friend chose it because he spent most of his adult life in Greece.

Greek myths, a rough approximation of a story line that is as well known and iconic as the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird, are quite flexible in how they are told. To be sure, Ajax must fall on his sword and Agamemnon cannot survive his return home from the Trojan War, but within such parameters myths themselves have many local variations, and writers draw on those variations —either different authors seeing the same myth in different ways, or the same writer using elements of the same story at a different time. Thus the all-too-clever but ultimately sympathetic Odysseus of the oral tradition that developed into the Odyssey becomes the unlikeable con artist of Sophocles’ play Philoctetes. Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles all have their own extant “takes” on the characterization of Electra and Orestes, and their own approaches to the evidence (or the lack thereof) that they are siblings. Heracles receives even more divergent treatment, whether in tragedy, satyr play, or lyric poetry — different in personality, behavior, and wives.

For this reason I was not disturbed by the news that leaked out about the discontinuity in Lee’s portrayal of Atticus Finch in the two novels. After all, the Atticus in Watchman could not be any more disreputable than Odysseus in Sophocles’ Philoctetes (he turned out to be much less so). In terms of the perceived quality of the works, Classical scholarship provides some help here as well. Sophocles’ Oedipus the King (ca. 429 BCE) may be compared with To Kill a Mockingbird in its place in the literary canon. If we wanted to remove Oedipus the King from its perch, the philosopher and literary critic Aristotle is always there yanking it back. However, canons by nature present problems. In this instance, if Oedipus the King epitomizes the successful Greek tragedy, what do we make of the other plays in Sophocles’ Theban cycle? They tell different parts of the Oedipus story and contain some inconsistencies. Antigone, perhaps written ca. 442 BCE, presents less of an issue because of a smaller overlap in content and because of its own centrality in the canon, but Sophocles’ last play, Oedipus at Colonus, written shortly before his death in 406/5 at the age of ninety, is a different matter. It has far less action than Oedipus the King, more philosophy, and is the longest extant Greek tragedy. To the extent that Oedipus at Colonus has a dramatic reversal (peripeteia), essential to the Aristotelian concept of the best form of tragedy, it is in the anticipated result of Oedipus’s curse of his sons Eteocles and Polyneices for disloyalty. Not everyone likes the particular features of Oedipus at Colonus, great though it is. In the end, though, regardless of whether a reader or theatergoer likes Oedipus at Colonus, the three tragedies are viewed as independent works.

There is perhaps more of a gap in the finished product between To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman than between Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus (some, including the author of this post, would argue that there is little discrepancy in quality between the two tragedies); a better comparison for Go Set a Watchman might be Sophocles’ earliest productions or the more episodic Euripidean plays like Andromache, although unfortunately Sophocles’ first pieces are not extant. Nonetheless, the degree of discrepancy in subject matter is similar to the approach Harper Lee and Sophocles take to their subject matter over time, and Go Set a Watchman is an ambitious and thoughtful work of significant literary merit. (cf. the initial review in the Guardian, which seems to me to have the best understanding of the newly published novel of the ones I have seen so far.) And what a tale Watchman tells! It is unnerving, to be sure, but it is valuable precisely for the reason that it wrenches people out of their comfort zones and compels them to examine their own biases. For those who miss the other Atticus Finch, writing about Atticus from a different angle in Watchman does not make that Lee’s portrayal of him in Mockingbird any less endearing; they are different books with their own meanings.

Watchman’s audacious approach to form and content is better suited to 2015 than the late 1950’s. It is a book for our time and one which we need, quite frankly, in the light of the Charleston church massacre, the continuing attacks of arson on churches with primarily African American congregations, and the inability of many American police forces to refrain from assaulting and killing people of color who are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Recent critical methodologies such as post-structuralism and narratology are useful in unpacking Lee’s approach to form, and scholars can now bring contemporary theories of cultural analysis, including gender studies and postcolonialism, to bear on the content. Looked at via the lens of recent critical advances, a first reading of Watchman suggests that the awkward literary analogies and the occasional flatfooted transition and description illuminate correspondingly awkward liminal states in the character of Jean Louise Finch as the book proceeds.  An immediate example is the second paragraph on the first page. Likewise, Lee’s complex and occasionally disjointed use of form and narrative techniques in different parts of Watchman underline Jean Louise’s sense of disconnection from the various parts of life in Maycomb, as well as the inability of different groups in the community to connect with each other, or —at least in some cases— their public personas and their behavior behind closed doors. If the analytical perspectives I have outlined here have any merit, critics and scholars can debate the degree to which Lee’s approach is successful.

The voice of Jean Louise Finch in Go Set A Watchman is that of a young white Southern woman with inherited money and impeccably cut clothes. It does not tell the story of the African Americans of Maycomb to any significant degree, but it is specific on the reason for the breakdown in the relationship between Jean Louise and Calpurnia, the Black woman who had been the housekeeper and mother figure in the home headed by the widowed Atticus in Mockingbird. The rupture is just what Lee says it is: Jean Louise’s intrinsic category weakness as a white woman in her place and time. Although Jean Louise tries to make it otherwise, there is nothing she can do about it. Given that the book is focused on the character of Jean Louise Finch, the novel cannot see far beyond the same barrier, and for the same reasons.

Although the characters in Go Set a Watchman are primarily white Southerners from the 1950’s, I regret to say that some of the characters in the book reminded me of Quaker weaknesses when it comes to equality, including my own. Oh, we are not Klansmen —don’t worry about that. Most of us unprogrammed Friends resemble, in socioeconomic status or aspiration, Jean Louise in Watchman, or Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. Reluctantly, we admit to our weaknesses —often in the past tense— as a way of overcoming them. Few would confess to being like Henry (“Hank”) Clinton, the gifted striver who chooses to go along with racist views and actions out of financial expediency and who lashes out at people that have the luxury of a financial cushion to take unpopular stands. (There is that “cheap grace” issue again, although Lee does not call it that.) Alas, in our Friendly circles more of us make the unpleasant compromises than we would like to admit. Perhaps we are those people. (No, of course we aren’t — how could we be? We have all read Faith and Practice.)

Most crucially, as in To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, there are few Calpurnias amongst unprogrammed Friends in North America. Most of us “white” Friends know that this is wrong, but most of us do not spend several hours a week trying to rectify it. Are we afraid that our concepts of “weightiness” (a.k.a., entrenched power structures) would have to change? As we might say if we were honest, “We don’t have time to get into this.” At out best, we may try to stop clutching our purses and briefcases when a  Black male walks down the street (or, alternatively, we clutch our bags equally in the presence of every stranger), but we mutter, to no person in particular, that it is time to move on. We are always moving on, to a destination that is not always clear, at least not to me.

The American dialogue about the legacy of slavery is only beginning to become honest and open, even among people of the same ethnic and regional background. After the Charleston church shootings, I phoned one of my relatives down South and mentioned the Union soldier who was our mutual ancestor. This relative, the only one of my generation to have actually been born “down there,” is a culturally sophisticated professional a couple of years my senior. It was this person who was able to confirm a few years ago that I was not simply retelling my mother’s account of the water fountain episode in my childhood (my mother, who is no longer living, did not remember the event in any case). I was able to describe the rather imposing exterior of the building, which I have not seen since I was thirteen, and my relative explained in some detail why we would have been there that day. In our most recent conversation, after I remarked that our great-grandfather had fought on the Union side, I heard the reply, “I didn’t know that. Thanks for telling me,” followed by words in a familiar half-Vermont, half-Southern inflection, “I could not say that at work around here (with my white colleagues).” It has been 150 years since the end of the Civil War. I have spoken more frankly with Germans about World War II.  

St. Albans, Vermont, Federal Building and Custom House, photograph May 2015 (©Kristin O. Lord).
Built during the Great Depression with Federal funds,
the interior vestibule (not shown) is lined with slabs of Vermont marble.
For the lilacs in front, cf. Walt Whitman’s elegy
on the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

H is for Elijah Harper

H is for Elijah Harper
The Manitoba Legislature,
where Elijah Harper made his stand against the Meech Lake Accords
(photo in public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Having an unusually busy time at work this past six months has meant that I have had to temporarily lay down my blog posts, so I can think of no better way to begin my 2015 Quaker Alphabet Blog contributions than to serve up a reheated PowerPoint from my Roman history class this past winter. This PowerPoint made a brief reference to the Canadian political leader Elijah Harper (not a Quaker), who left this world much too soon in 2013.

Truth be told, when I drew up my outline for the second iteration of the alphabet, I had already planned to focus on Elijah Harper and, to a lesser extent, Stephen Harper, the current Prime Minister of Canada, who shares the same last name as Elijah Harper but is not, as far as I know, related to him. I had also planned to speak about the myths of the foundation of ancient Rome and how they relate to historical sources. However, the way I have connected Elijah Harper, foundation myths (the technical term for stories of the foundation of a society or group), and the role of a leader in society has evolved during this six-month hiatus from blogging. The connections I see with Quakerism have also evolved. I shall also lay most of my discussion of the policies of Stephen Harper and his government over to a later post; in the interim, I kindly request that any readers interested in Canadian Quakers and the government of Stephen Harper refrain from trying to ascertain what I might say.

All groups of people —nation-states, ethnic and cultural groups, religious organizations, even family groups— have what are called foundation myths. By “myths” scholars do not necessarily mean that the stories lack historical accuracy (they may or may not have a historical basis) but are taken as part of the commonly understood foundation for the way a society operates. A typical example for schoolchildren in the US is the story, probably apocryphal, of George Washington cutting down a cherry tree as a boy and immediately confessing the deed to his parents because he could not bear to tell a lie. Ancient Rome has several foundation myths, of which one is the story of the abandoned twins Romulus and Remus being suckled by the wolf, before the boys grew up and Romulus killed Remus. This story has a number of features shared by other myths, most notably an impregnation of out of wedlock and the miraculous survival of the offspring. In this case the story involves the impregnation of the boys’ mother, the Vestal Virgin Rhea Silvia, by Mars, the god of war. For scholars of Roman history, this myth tells us a great deal of how Romans —whether the early Romans in a small town or the later Romans in control of a great empire— viewed themselves. From the start to the finish, they were the offspring of the god of war, able to achieve domination by both miracles (the survival of the babies and the miraculous nature of twinship) and brute force (stifling cultural taboos to kill one’s own flesh and blood). From the very beginning, Roman religion, here represented by the Vestal Virgin, was part of the fabric of society, even if not always pure and not always given her due. In addition, as recognized by the Roman historiographer Livy, it makes the beginning “more dignified.”

I had lots of visual representations of Romulus and Remus and the wolf, as well as written versions of that story and of the other main Roman foundation myths as told by the Roman historiographer Livy (who was no fool as a historian) and other Roman writers, but I still wanted to consider more broadly why foundation myths were important. How could I relate the story of Romulus and Remus to foundation myths that my students might have encountered elsewhere? I could not count on my Canadian students knowing about George Washington and the cherry tree. Those who were history majors might well have known how the Magna Carta was bandied about in English legend and life, but to unpack that would have occupied too much class time, and I would rather leave that to specialists in British history. Instead, giving the verbal caveat that as an American I really should not be going into Canadian foundation myths, I went directly to a Canadian foundation myth that my students might understand very differently from the way their parents did at their age. If they understood the basic concept of what Canada is and represents differently from their parents, they probably have one man to thank: Elijah Harper.

The legal and administrative life of the federal government Canada is based on the equality of English and French (both the language and the culture). To some extent, this has always been the case since the establishment of the Canadian government in 1867;  visitors to Ottawa, the capital of Canada, note that the Houses of Parliament are of the same general architectural style as their British counterpart, but that the Supreme Court resembles a French chateau. (insert photos of both) However, the parity of the British and French as founding cultures was developed in its modern incarnation under the aegis of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, himself half French and half English, in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. This was partly a question of justice and partly a result of  the “quiet revolution” that modernized Quebec society and led to demands by Francophones in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada for equal services and recognition.

The equality of the French and English in Canada is a narrative that is meant to be both inspiring and practical (my husband and I are two of the many English-speaking parents in Canada to put a child into a bilingual French-English school program). Unfortunately, the foundation narrative as it was presented in this form is —to be blunt but polite— constructed on sand. Canada’s First Peoples, its indigenous Canadians, i.e., the real founding peoples of Canada, were either omitted from this account (in the late 1980’s it was not uncommon to hear talking heads on the radio speak of Canada’s “two founding cultures, French and English”) or mentioned in a footnote.

This issue is not only Canadian, of course. Foundation myths in North America and Australia tend to be problematical in their own rights (the “doctrine of discovery” in North America and the concept of terra nullius —no person’s land— in Australia are especially shameful views of history), but almost any society comprised of a variety of ethnic groups or arising from conquest of another people will have complex accounts of how they came to be as they are.

In terms of Canada, the 1982 Constitution Act is one of the many aspects of Canadian public life based on the parity of the French and English contributions. Because the Parti Quebeçois held the reins of power when the Canadian constitution was patriated, the Quebec government has never signed the constitution, although Quebec and Quebeckers have always been bound by its provisions.

In 1987, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the ten provincial premiers negotiated the Meech Lake Accord, a package of constitutional amendments designed to encourage the Quebec government to sign the constitution.  A companion accord was negotiated in June of 1990. The two packages required ratification by the legislatures of all ten provinces by June 23, 1990.

The accords were introduced in the Manitoba legislature with twelve days to spare. In order for all of the work to be completed in time, the initial procedural vote needed unanimity. Elijah Harper, an NDP MLA representing Rupertsland and a member of the Red Sucker Lake First Nation, refused to provide that unanimity on the grounds that the Native Peoples of Canada had not been part of the negotiations on the Accords. Every day Elijah Harper took his seat in the legislature, silently raising an eagle feather to show his filibuster. Ultimately, the idea of Canada as French and English, and not native as well, was as dead as the Meech Lake Accords.

In sum, foundation myths, such as were understood by both Romans ca. 500 BCE and Canadians in 1990 CE, give us vital information about the contemporary power structure or ideology in a given community. These stories are transmitted in a way at least partially independent of historical and archaeological evidence. The fact that my students of 2015, most of whom were not born in 1990 and who are the beneficiaries of a vastly improved high school curriculum, undoubtedly have a different foundation account of Canada, is evidence not only of changes in Canadian society but one small indication that Elijah Harper’s lone and courageous stand was not made in vain.

But let’s get back to Elijah Harper and the circumstances around his position. Perhaps the most common objection to his stand in 1990 was that, if the Quebec government did not sign the constitution, for which the Meech Lake Accords were considered a necessary precondition, Quebec voters would be more likely to approve a separatist referendum. Was not Elijah Harper concerned about this risk, given the large number of Indigenous peoples in Quebec and their vested interest in keeping Quebec and Canada together? (See here for an excerpt from the book The Morning After, by Chantal Hébert with Jean-Charles Lapierre, which discusses the lack of foresight on the part of federalists and separatists alike about this very problem in the Quebec referendum of 1995.)

My understanding is that for Elijah Harper, his filibuster over the Meech Lake Accords was a question of means and ends. The just goal of a better Canada could not be achieved through the means of the Meech Lake Accords as they were written. Quakers have had similar concerns about means and ends since the foundation of our Religious Society. We see this early on, in William Penn’s Some Fruits of Solitude and Maxims (1682): “A good end cannot purify evil means; nor must we ever do evil, so that good may come of it (#537).” These same ethical considerations are at the base of our peace testimony.

Looking at both the goal of a more just society (whether in Canada or elsewhere) and the means of achieving it also entails looking at the political process. The political process is necessarily somewhat messy and imperfect; it also, by necessity, depends upon the separation of church and state. In what ways can societies with a significant indigenous population be better societies for their indigenous inhabitants?

Here there are both problems and opportunities for Canada. The opportunity is the chance for a renewed Canada, ultimately stemming from proposals to both government and civil society organizations by indigenous leaders. Canadian Yearly Meeting and the Canadian Friends Service Committee, as I will outline more fully in a later post, are among of a number of Quaker organizations worldwide with long-standing concerns about Native affairs; its shortcoming is a dearth of indigenous members, but it is nevertheless poised to be part of the solution. (See here for a link to the CFSC website outlining Native initiatives.) There are, indeed, significant numbers of individuals and organizations outside of Native communities who feel likewise.

The most significant problem is that the federal government has, at least of this writing (mid-May of 2015), failed to promulgate and promote suitable policy initiatives and to make sufficient funds available. Please forgive me if I am wrong, but that is how the issue appears to me, a taxpayer who would pay more taxes if that is what the circumstances entail. The needs are extensive. One of the most obvious and immediate  is a commission of inquiry into the disproportionate number of murders of Indigenous Canadians, especially women. The current government has stated that such a commission is not needed. This position would be more reasonable if there had been an official inquiry in recent years, or even if all the necessary information was readily available, if all parties to the discussion had had the opportunity to make what they had to offer known, and if best practices were being followed. It is true that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) has recently made its database available, for which I thank them, and the average non-native taxpayer has access to an increasing body of research. However, a commission of inquiry has the resources and the legal mandate to call witnesses (especially the families of the deceased), gather all of the evidence in one place, and make specific recommendations.

I am one of many asking the current prime minister, Stephen Harper, to reconsider his refusal to allow such a commission to be convened. In doing so, I would like to reflect for a minute on that twist of fate by which Stephen Harper and Elijah Harper coincidentally share a last name. I would ask Stephen Harper how he would respond if the connection was more than coincidence: if Elijah Harper, and by extension the other members of Canada’s First Peoples, were his immediate family. The idea, I should add, is not mine, but rather that of the Shawnee leader Tecumseh: “Brothers, we all belong to one family; we are all children of the Great Spirit; we walk in the same path; slake our thirst at the same spring...” (“Tecumseh's Speech to the Osages in the winter of 1811-12,” recorded by John Dunn Hunter, Memoirs of a Captivity among the Indians of North America [1823]).

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

G is for Grandmothers

Some of my maternal grandmother's prize-winning embroidery
photograph ©Kristin Lord 2011

Glorious weather for November 11, on this, the day World War I ended in the centenary year of the start of the conflict. I wish my grandmother were alive to be here —my maternal one, as I barely knew my paternal one, who died when I was three. (In fact, my maternal grandmother’s reminiscence of her opposite number as “a kind lady and so cruelly and unfairly poor, whom I always pitied as she carried cans of kerosene down the road” forms the only information from my adolescence that I have of her other than what my father and his siblings said.) I have been thinking about my mother’s mother for several weeks, ever since I started looking into the family’s rather tenuous Scottish connection in the run-up to the referendum in Scotland a few weeks ago. She was the only one of my recent ancestors to be born with a Scottish surname, and although the thought of locating anything with a tartan on it probably never crossed her mind —at least in her married life— she made sure her children knew about it.

The area where I now live in Ontario, while partially settled by Mennonites and others from Pennsylvania, was the recipient of waves of Scottish emigration, from the early nineteenth century well into living memory.  The town down the road from us, Fergus, was named for its Scottish founder and hosts an annual  Scottish festival and holds a yearly “wear your tartan” day. A shop in town does a thriving business in British foods and Scottish clothes and memorabilia and will order anything in any tartan directly from Edinburgh. I went in there in mid-September and ordered the dress tartan version of the scarf with the assurance that I would have it by Remembrance Day, which is what Armistice Day, the American Veterans’ Day, is called in Canada and the UK.

Why would I want the tartan of my grandmother’s branch of the family in time for Remembrance Day? I am one of those Friends who views the red poppy, ubiquitous in these parts, as the equivalent to William Penn’s sword, but I wanted to wear something that might be relevant, however remotely, to a family member alive at the time of World War I. Every year I read Wilfred Owen’s poems “Schoolmistress” and “Dulce et Decorum Est” to my unsuspecting Latin students, explaining how jingoistic interpretations of poems by the Roman writer Horace (himself a hired mouthpiece of Caesar Augustus, who chafed at the bit only sotto voce) were part of a large-scale use of the Roman Empire as part of the propaganda for the empires on both sides in World War I. I would then say something to the effect of, regardless of what people thought about the war —and Owen, loyal to his men after being invalided out to the Craiglockhart War Hospital for Officers and writing such scathing poetry, returned to the front and died there a week before the armistice— they needed to consider the colossal loss of life and the consequences of World War I on the twentieth century and down to the twenty-first. Because of the enduring significance of ancient Greece and Rome for politicians in the last century, those who have studied any aspect of those cultures had a special responsibility to the debate.

My grandmother would have had a smattering of high school Latin; her husband, trained in theology at a reputable university, would have studied Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. But those facts were only tangential to my idea of acquiring some scrap of the tartan to wear to class around Remembrance Day. When I consider in what way World War I was relevant to my family, I think of my maternal grandmother, for whom that period set the tone for the rest of her long and complex life.  It was of seminal importance to my maternal grandfather, too; for reasons of his own (no one in the family belonged to a historic peace church) he was publicly and bitterly opposed to it and all other wars and managed to get out of going before a draft board primarily because the war was over shortly after a man well into his thirties was made eligible for the draft. (As far as I can determine, it was not a major factor in the line of my father’s family from which I am directly descended; my paternal grandfather was just a tad too young to serve.) Nevertheless, my grandmother became front and center of my thoughts because she in many ways was caught in the cross-hairs (so to speak) of the family events as affected by the larger situation. The fact the she and my grandfather married in 1913, at a time that looked reasonably auspicious for both herself and the world at large, despite some storm clouds on the horizon that eventually enveloped all, only added to its significance.

By mid-October, the tartan had not turned up. The story might have ended there except for one evening after work, when, caught in heavy traffic, I missed the turn-off to the expressway and ended up driving through the village of St. Jacobs, a community which, ironically, I tend to avoid because of traffic. There, on the south side of the road, was the St. Jacobs Scottish shop. I had been there several times, usually with my mother, but had never found anything relevant to us to buy. Since I was having to replace part of my wardrobe after the episode on the ladder (see my recent posts under “D” and “F”), it might be worth checking again to see what they had. I held out little hope of success, as my grandmother’s maiden name is not one of the more common Scottish surnames and the only time I had ever seen more than a swatch of the tartan occurred when I purchased a couple yards of its white dress version in Edinburgh in 1978.

About a week after my detour through St. Jacobs, I walked into the shop. In the middle of the store, immediately in the line of sight of any potential customer walking through the door,  hung the hunting version of the scarf in question. Although the surname is not in the middle of the alphabet (the scarves were alphabetized), for some reason it was in the front in the center of the display, as if someone had deliberately placed it there for me.

So I had the tartan. Two days ago, mindful of the fact that I would need to read Owen’s poems on Monday if at all (Remembrance Day is Tuesday this year, and I am teaching MWF this semester), I sat in Meeting for Worship, thinking of my grandmother and what I knew of her life during that period. Because she died when I was an undergraduate, there is much that I might have asked her in more recent years; still, I knew a great deal.

My knowledge fell into three categories: the consequences that my grandfather’s beliefs about the war and many other matters held for his career and family relationships, and the deaths of two family members: my grandparents’ first-born child (the only uncle I never met) the day after Christmas in 1917 and my grandmother’s next-oldest sister from the influenza pandemic that followed in the wake of World War I and which was even more lethal than the war itself.

Just before Christmas in 1917, my grandmother went by train with her three young children to the home of her parents. Unlike the rest of my immediate ancestors, who hailed from Vermont and New Hampshire, that grandmother was a native of a small town in another northeastern state. (She and my grandfather met when he was serving a nearby parish as a Universalist minister.) Trips home were an expensive and rare luxury, and the young family intended to make the most of it. Disaster struck on Christmas Day: her three-year-old son collapsed from spinal meningitis and died on December 26, before my grandfather was able to reach his bedside. My grandparents had lost their first child and at that time their only son; my great-grandparents had lost their first grandchild and their only grandson. Although the two daughters who were alive on that occasion both lived into their eighties, and despite having other children, including two more sons, all of whom became productive adults, my grandparents never completely got over the loss of their first-born. When my grandmother was asked in later years how many children she had, she invariably gave two numbers. Sometimes she added, “And he (the oldest) was the brightest of the lot,” looking around at whatever other family members who might be present, because these, the living descendants, were invariably dissecting the problems of the world as armchair Presidents while she spoke. Then, looking still more deeply at those around her, she would continue quietly, “I really should remember that my others all survived, when so many children in those days did not.”
Spirited, but generally respectful political discussions and a love of teacups:
a happier family legacy from my grandmother
photograph ©Kristin Lord 2015

At the end of 1917, however, my grandmother’s triumphs as a parent —in particular, her push to get her surviving children and even one of her sons-in-law into higher education, against the wishes of a husband who was not interested in his progeny benefitting from the advantages he himself had had— could not be foreseen. That was perhaps just as well, because the financial disasters that befell the family in the 1920’s and 1930’s were also just beginning at that time, and they might have appeared unendurable.

Ultimately, my grandparents and my two little aunts stayed with my great-grandparents for about a month, during which time all hell (to use the term advisedly) broke loose. “He and Grandpa (the children’s grandpa) argued for days about the Bolshevik Revolution,” my grandmother later said of her husband, referring to the Russian Revolution that had occurred a few weeks before their visit. “He was in favor of it, of course, being a socialist as well as a pacifist, while my father definitely was not. I kept expecting them to tell us to leave. I still find it hard to believe that they didn’t, particularly Grandpa.”

More difficulties were to come. My grandfather, who left his job as a minister after World War I broke out in Europe but before the United States became involved, was increasingly dissatisfied with his second and equally suitable career choice, teaching. Like the revolutionaries in Europe, he turned against the whole “capitalist system,” but with a much less secure financial basis. Later, he was to set up a small publishing and itinerant bookselling business and even sent himself and his family south as migrant farm laborers on several occasions. None of these enterprises did more than keep the ever-increasing brood of children from starving to death. My great-grandfather, foreseeing at least some of the impending debacle, lambasted him during the 1917-18 visit because of his financial irresponsibility. (We have independent confirmation of this in a letter from the older man to his son-in-law that down to my mother’s immediately older sister, which she self-published a decade or so ago in a book about my grandfather.)

After a month of incessant disputes, my grandparents and aunts returned to Vermont. Among the sorrows that my grandmother could not have foreseen was the fact that she was never to see the next oldest of her four younger sisters again.

There is one extant photograph of my grandmother and her four sisters, all younger than she. (There was only one boy, who died in infancy.) My mother’s younger sister has provided framed copies of it for the entire family, and it is on my shelves in front of scholarly commentaries on Euripides’ domestic dramas, a fitting location, I suppose, but one chosen —at least consciously— for convenience. It is a studio portrait; all of the young ladies are dressed in white. Taken around the time my grandmother got married and left home, she appears confident and mature. She is on the left in the rear. The next sister, strikingly tall, is to her right. In front of them are the three younger ones: on the left, the one who ended up with an adoring and adored husband and no children, and on the right, the one who later fell —hard— for two difficult men in succession. In the center is the cosseted youngest, a little girl with her hair swept up in an Edwardian bow. Imagine the four daughters of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, with my youngest great-aunt taking the place of the Tsarevich Alexei, and anyone can have a pretty good idea of this portrait. (Because my family has requested that I not provide photographs on the Internet, the picture of the children of Tsar Nicholas II —minus the parents and making the appropriate substitution of the fifth daughter for the young son— will have to do.)

Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his wife and children in 1914
photo via Wikimedia Commons

The second daughter, the one in the upper right, is the one who was to lose her life in the influenza pandemic. Like most the victims of this disaster, she was in the prime of life: in her case, in her mid-twenties, with a husband and toddler daughter. Although her husband remarried and had a number of other children, they all kept in touch with my grandmother. I met the daughter in question, at the time a middle-aged woman, when she came up to Vermont to visit her aunt, my grandmother. She also stopped to see her cousins, especially the one of my aunts who was within days of her in age.

When I think of the connections between my family and World War I, it is the great-aunt who died of the “Spanish” flu who comes most closely to mind. Although World War I did not “cause” this outbreak, if it had not been for the war and its disruption, the consequences would have been much less serious. It is entirely possible that my great-aunt might otherwise have lived to the same age as the rest of her sisters, i.e., from their late seventies to their nineties. Rightly or not, I consider her a casualty of the war. Because the pandemic raged for three years (in the US, late 1917 to 1920), I was interested in exactly when in the outbreak she contracted the virus.

For this reason, after Meeting for Worship two days ago I decided to go on line to try to retrieve the year of my great-aunt’s death. I figured, correctly, that it would not be difficult, especially as my quick search for my grandmother’s Scottish link took me directly to the digitized inventory of the cemetery where my great-grandparents are buried. I googled her first name, maiden name, and married name. The first hit was, indeed, the cemetery, where there were several people with my grandmother’s surname but not her. Although some of these tombstones looked interesting and one in particular was worth a greater look, I first scrolled down to find the data on my great-aunt. She was listed under her married name along with the death date of 1919. 

The digital tombstone contained a bit of a surprise: the first name under which we all knew my great-aunt was in fact her middle name. A quick electronic detour confirmed that the first initial was from the same first name as her mother, which in turn explained why she was called by her middle name. This was news to me. Even more to the point, I wondered if it would be news to my own immediately older first cousin on that side, who was named for our great-grandmother. Her older brother, who is now deceased, had uploaded the descendants of the line leading through my grandmother’s mother (our great-grandmother) onto a genealogical forum about twenty years ago, but the file is not user-friendly. Even if that initial is available, it is hard to get to. In any event, thanks to my computer-geek cousin’s diligence and the abundance of freely available digitized data from that period, before the evening was over I was to find that my immediately older cousin was the fourth woman with that name.

The night, however, was still young. About an hour into my search, I decided to go back to that other tombstone that intrigued me, and maybe some others with the same surname if I had time. Although I had learned a great deal from my grandmother about her life, I was never able to get her to divulge a lot of information about her family in her home town other than her sisters, parents, and to some extent her grandparents (my own great-greats via her own mother). There was one occasion when I was about twelve when I asked her about her extended family in that very small town, but I conspicuously got nowhere. The discussion slammed shut at World War I —not surprisingly, given what I already knew about the toxicity of the dates in question.  I also got nowhere with one of her younger sisters, although she had already developed some dementia by that time.

What I found on that unfamiliar tombstone record with the all-too-familiar surname was the first and middle name of a young man, the complete listing of a US infantry affiliation, and a death date in the summer of 1918. The record of the tombstone immediately above it in the online cemetery listing contained the first and last names  and dates of another man and a woman with the same surname, along with the words “father” and “mother.” Surely the young man was related to my grandmother. There are only a few hundred people living in that village, even now.

An hour later I had more information than I had bargained for. By tracing on-line military records from World War I, I was able to ascertain, despite “incomplete” data on that file, that the fellow in question was originally part of his state’s national guard and that he was “grievously wounded” with the US forces in Europe after initially having been listed as missing in action.

He was also two years younger than my grandmother and her first cousin. That became incontrovertibly clear almost immediately from the census records of a generation prior, which showed my great-grandfather and the man listed as “father” on the other tombstone described as little boys a year apart in age. (As it happens, this information was not on the on-line records of my computer-literate cousin. While my computer-literate cousin might have had access to that information —in due course I will probably find out, his own on-line submission contained information through our great-grandmother’s line all the way down to him, his sister, and me, but not —crucially— to this cousin of my grandmother, who was related to us through our great-grandfather.)

The death of my grandmother’s cousin as a result of injuries sustained in World War I might have explained why I hit a brick wall when I asked her about her extended family more than forty years ago, but I will never know. I would like to be able to say that whatever details existed of that conversation came flooding back to me once I learned the facts. When confronted with the data on the screen, I seem to recall the conversation turning back at a point around the time of the war at which someone had died — and that the person involved was probably not one of the two relatives I already knew about. But that was more than four decades ago, and my grandmother immediately slammed the door shut on the discussion, never to resume it, despite promises to the contrary to someday tell me more about her home town.

Numerous relatives on various sides of my family have returned, sometimes miraculously so, from battlefields around the world since the time of the American Revolution. We have also had several who opposed all wars, including an uncle who was a conscientious objector in World War II. I had heard of no one, however, who had died as a result of combat, even in the US Civil War. In this respect, until two days ago I had assumed that our family was unusual; given the cumulative number of combatants, one would have expected casualties.

Why did my grandmother remain silent? Surely I was the one kept in the dark —perhaps because of my own anti-war convictions— and my mother’s generation knew. Surely my computer-literate cousin must have shared the relevant information with his younger sister. Surely my aunt who wrote a biography of my maternal grandmother must have come across it.

I made a quick Facebook text message to that younger sister, that namesake cousin who is the same number of years older than I as my grandmother was to her own cousin. No, she had no idea about any of it —least of all about the fact that she was the fourth woman on that side of the family with the same name.

Yesterday morning I phoned my aunt, making a point of reaching her before I strode into class to read the Wilfred Owen poems. Inexplicably, she knew nothing about her mother having a cousin who perished from his wounds in World War I. She had spent years going through a veritable roomful of family documents (admittedly before the widespread digitization that made the facts almost literally drop into my lap), but still she had no information. Since she had unearthed the correspondence confirming what we knew about the arguments between my great-grandfather and grandfather, perhaps she could at least speculate about whether the opposite opinions that my grandfather and his father-in-law had had about the war was the reason for my grandmother’s rather conspicuous reticence.

At least as a first impression, my aunt believed that the dispute was not a big factor, if at all, in the absence of information. By the time even the oldest surviving children were old enough to understand family discussions, the event was more than a decade in the past. Visits were rare. Conversations would have centered on the people who were alive at the time, particularly the children in the generation after World War I. (My grandparents, with their large family, had children spread out over two full decades.) Would my great-grandfather have thundered to my grandfather when he next saw or corresponded with him with a speech like, “I have a nephew who fought on the battlefields of Europe and now has died as a result, and you, you pusillanimous jackass, you won’t even get an ordinarily civilian job?” Probably not even that, my aunt averred. Even at the time, the untimely demise of the other two people we knew about —not to mention my grandparents’ impending financial ruin— were more pressing concerns. In other words, my grandmother’s silence might not have been some sort of unwarranted damnatio memoriae but rather an oversight. If so, the conversational brick wall I encountered with my grandmother would have been the result of my age when we spoke.

My aunt and I agreed, though, that the loss of my grandmother’s cousin must have been extremely painful when she heard about it.

I have not given up on the possibility, however remote, that I can shake the family tree for more information. That particular aunt was by far my best hope, but not the only one. In the interim, though, that might not be the most important consideration. What remains is the reality that two men —my great-grandfather and his brother a year younger— each lost a child in the third decade of life and buried them in the same cemetery a year apart, decades before they were to end up there themselves. The younger brother lost a son whom many might have considered a hero, and whom a few might have viewed as a tragic victim of the vile cud (to borrow two of Wilfred Owen’s words) of circumstances that never should have arisen. The older brother lost a daughter as a result of illness spread globally by that conflict. And finally, there was my grandmother, related to all of them and married to a man of lofty ideals but with an inability to carry them out to the benefit of herself and their children. She was left to live her life in another small town in Vermont, far away from the cemetery with the fateful tales to tell.

And I was left to secure the tartan around my neck, to read to my Latin students Wilfred Owen’s account of the gas attack and “the Old Lie: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (“It is fine and fitting to die for one’s country”).  After that, all that remained was to e-mail my other cousin one more time. Not only is she named for our great-grandmother, she herself is a grandmother. Her grandchildren are my first cousins twice removed on the younger side, the mirror image of relationship to me as the young soldier, who was my first cousin twice removed on the older side. As if to bring the family story full circle, her first-born grandson is named for the preschooler who died in December of 1917. No one we know, regardless of religious belief or political affiliation, wants him or his siblings —or anyone else, for that matter— to suffer the fate of his antecedent nearly a century ago.  “Lest we forget” must mean “never again, not to anyone.”

Author’s note: because of my older (and late) cousin’s uploading of some family information on a genealogical forum, and because my aunt self-published her own research, a reader with plenty of time on his or her hands could corroborate the information in this account, complete with names and dates. However, I felt it best for me not to. Instead, I would like to thank those relatives —my aunt, my immediately older cousin, and her late brother— who made parts of this report possible, and those others whom I have no doubt driven batty in the last day talking about it.
Aluminum luncheon pail inscribed on the top with the initials and surname name of my great-grandfather
photograph ©Kristin Lord 2014