Miss Smith, the Queen, and the Coronation Scrapbook

Image by Terence Cuneo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“Once in a lifetime,” Miss Smith told us. “Or maybe twice.” She was our fifth-grade teacher, and she wanted to make sure we paid attention to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II of England, which would be happening in about a month. We knew that Princess Elizabeth was now the queen of England, but the coronation would make it official, just as an inauguration made the position of the president of the United States official. In January most of us had watched on television as President Eisenhower took the oath of office. (It was a school day, and I don’t remember whether we watched the live broadcast or saw replays on the news. We would have gotten home from school early enough to catch the parade, with the marching bands and floats.) What I remember most about Eisenhower’s inauguration was that he chose to wear a homberg instead of the traditional top hat. Inaugurations happen every four years in the United States, but in England a coronation requires a much longer commitment. The queen would be expected to do her job forever, or until the day she died, whichever came first. Queen Elizabeth was still a young woman. We decided that Miss Smith was probably right about this being a once-in-a-lifetime event. 

Miss Smith presented us with a project and a challenge. We were, each of us, to prepare a coronation scrapbook, which would contain information about the coronation, clippings from magazines or newspapers, anything we could find of relevance. She told us to keep our eyes and ears open, to check the evening newspaper every day, and of course to ask our mothers’ permission before cutting up their magazines. She would provide the blank scrapbooks (which she bought with her own money) and our job was to fill them, making them as complete and attractive as possible. There would be prizes for the three best scrapbooks. 

The Couto family didn’t have a lot of magazines at home. My mother subscribed to McCall’s, and of course we got Parade every Sunday in The Standard-Times. Neighbors who knew about the project sometimes would give me magazines after they finished with them. I got busy with my scissors. I don’t remember whether I used LePage’s Mucilage or plain white paste to attach my clipped articles, but I do remember trying to arrange everything in something like chronological order. 

My mother called my attention to an article that I probably would have missed because I didn’t recognize the man and the woman in the photo. If I remember correctly, the caption read “Duke, Wally to Watch Coronation on TV,” although I am probably remembering incorrectly; I doubt that Wallis Simpson was ever called “Wally,” but what do I know? “Duke” and “Wally” were both boys’ names, as far as I was concerned, and I didn’t know who was which. (Actually “Duke” sounded more like a dog’s name; one of my aunts had a neighbor with a dog named “Duke.”) “Is this about the coronation?” I asked my mother. She said it was, and I got out my scissors. 

The coronation took place in Westminster Abbey, and I remember watching it. I think Miss Smith arranged for us to be able to take part of the day, or maybe even the whole day, off from school so that we could watch this first televised English coronation. The event was so important that TV Guide put Queen Elizabeth’s picture on the cover of that week’s issue, even though she wasn’t a TV star. The major networks carried the ceremony live (and very early, due to the time difference) using the new trans-oceanic technology, and they also arranged to have BBC kinescopes flown in RAF jets to North America for a less-fuzzy evening recap. 

The Room Where It Happened

I remember the fuzziness of the live transmission. Queen Elizabeth looked tiny on our black-and-white TV screen, and she looked even tinier when the heavy crown was placed on her head. Shakespeare was being metaphorical when he wrote “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” but that crown, with all those crown jewels, had to have been uncomfortable. Later the royal family appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace: Queen Elizabeth, the Duke of Edinburgh (who would later become Prince Philip), Prince Charles, Princess Anne, and the Queen Mum, along with other royals that I didn’t recognize. I remember thinking it was a good thing the queen already had two children because now she would be too busy to have any more. I was wrong about that. What really impressed me about that balcony scene was the way the royal family waved—not flapping their hands, as in waving bye-bye, but raising their arms like scepters and moving their hands in a circular motion. 

Miss Smith was one of my favorite teachers of all time. She brought books to school (that she bought with her own money) and set them up in the back of the classroom; if we finished our work early we could pick a book to read and even borrow it to take home if the story was really interesting. Thanks to Miss Smith I read all the Little House on the Prairie books, The Secret Garden, and much more. I was never bored that year. As for the coronation scrapbooks, I won second prize. My prize was a silver mechanical pencil, which I still have somewhere in my brother’s attic in a box with my coronation scrapbook and other memorabilia. I haven’t seen the scrapbook in decades, but I have never forgotten my coronation experience. 

Wanting to read the final chapter, I woke up very early yesterday morning to watch the queen’s funeral on a much larger TV than the one I saw the coronation on. Westminster Abbey is a grey and gold splendor with a black-and-white checkerboard floor that somehow imposes a sense of order. The overhead shots were almost like looking through a kaleidoscope. I thought, if I shake this all the colors will swirl and be beautiful. But I do not plan to make a funeral scrapbook. The LePage company no longer makes Mucilage, and, though I would miss the squeaky sound of the rubber tip, the glue would be useless in an age when all the articles are online. But if I did make another scrapbook, it would be a good one. I can always use another pencil. 

The Coronation Scrapbook Kids. Miss Smith is on the right, 3rd row, the adult in the room. I am in the 2nd row, the one with the turned-up pigtails.

My (Not Typical Tourist) Visit to the Capitol 

United States Capitol, East Front—public domain image courtesy of Library of Congress

            It was a kinder, gentler time, or at least I thought it was. I was unemployed and unhappy, and I wanted—no, needed—to go somewhere. My friend Joyce, who was about to move to Washington to seek her fortune, offered me a ride. Although Washington was not on my list of places to go for a fresh start, it was definitely somewhere. I started packing. 

            Joyce had already made arrangements to move in with a college roommate, so I got a room in McLean Gardens, a conglomeration of red-brick apartment houses and rooming houses with a Marriott Hot Shoppe on the grounds for those of us without cooking facilities. McLean Gardens was conveniently located on Wisconsin Avenue, just a bus ride away from downtown Washington, the White House, the National Gallery of Art, and the Capitol. 

            Before either of us started job hunting, Joyce and I spent a couple of days seeing the sights. We visited the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and JFK’s grave at Arlington Cemetery. And then we went to the Capitol; we walked up the front steps and through the front door, looked around briefly, and used the ladies’ room. On the third day, I decided to try my luck at the temporary typing agencies. 

            Joyce was looking for her dream job. I wasn’t so ambitious, but I could type 65 words a minute on a manual typewriter. At the first temporary agency I went to, they let me take the test on a manual and then offered me a two-week job at an insurance company. I would, however, have to use an electric typewriter, which I had never even seen up close and personal. “Bluff it, honey,” said the woman at the agency. 

            Imagine my surprise when Joyce showed up at my room a few days later to tell me she was giving up on Washington. Jobs were scarce, or at least the good ones were, and she was driving back to Massachusetts to reassemble her career plans. Once again she offered me a ride, but this time I said no, thank you. The people at the insurance company were friendly, a nice co-worker had already pointed out the switch that started the electric typewriter, and I wanted to see how this latest phase of my life was going to play out. Joyce left, and I was on my own.

            When the insurance job ended, I got lucky. I was one of several recent college graduates hired by the National Academy of Sciences to administer fellowship applications for the National Science Foundation. We were not scientists. Mostly we just opened envelopes and filed the contents in dossiers. But it was a congenial office, and I liked working there. This temporary job lasted all fall and winter, culminating with the arrival of the panels of senior scientists who would select the fellowship recipients. 

            Each weekend, after laundry and shopping, I took advantage of that Wisconsin Avenue bus—I think it might have been the 30-something—to visit one of Washington’s magnificent museums. A whole year of Sundays wouldn’t have been long enough to fully appreciate the treasures in the National Gallery of Art, and my last stop each visit was the room with Monet’s Rouen Cathedral paintings. I went to other museums as well, including the Folger Shakespeare Library, which shared a bus stop with the Capitol. That’s when I got into trouble. 

United States Capitol, West Front—public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

            You see, it had been a long bus ride, possibly longer than usual because of traffic or crowds, and I had to go to the ladies’ room. For some crazy reason, I thought the Folger Library, being a smaller museum, might not have a ladies’ room. Since I knew the restrooms at the Capitol were right near the front entrance, I thought: Why not pop into the Capitol, do what I have to do, and then head over to the Folger Library? 

            Here’s what I didn’t know: The Capitol has two fronts, the East Front and the West Front. I don’t know which front Joyce and I had entered through on that first week in Washington, but this time I was certainly at the other one. There was no ladies’ room at the entrance or even around the corner. I kept thinking I was remembering wrong and if I just took another turn, went a few steps farther, then there it would be in all its porcelain glory. No luck. After a few wrong turns, I was lost. I couldn’t even find my way back to the door. When I saw a line of people who seemed to know where they were heading, I joined them. Soon we were entering a large chamber, possibly the House of Representatives, and someone was taking tickets. I didn’t have one, so I quickly said excuse me and backed out into the hall. I wished I had brought a compass or at least a map. 

            After a few more anxious minutes, I found myself in a corridor that seemed to contain offices. There were names on the doors, but I didn’t recognize any of them. And then a distinguished-looking older man came out of one of the doors and asked me where I was going and whether he could help me. I didn’t want to tell him I was looking for the ladies’ room, so I said I was lost and couldn’t find my way out. He summoned a young man, probably a page and asked him to show me the way. The young man must have had nothing better to do that afternoon, because he gave me a leisurely tour of the parts of the Capitol that we walked through. I wish I could remember every detail, but what stands out most prominently in my memory is Statuary Hall with its gleaming marble and its sculptures. It was beautiful! 

            My temporary job ended, and I left Washington in March of 1968. Earlier I suggested that my Washington adventures happened in a kinder, gentler time, but I was wrong. On April 4 of that year, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. Washington responded with four days of rioting. In retrospect I think no one should have been surprised. Tensions had been building for a long time.

            Many years later, in another world—maybe kinder and gentler, but maybe not—I spent a few days in Washington with my husband. He was attending a conference, and I was mostly on my own during the daytime. I decided to visit the Capitol. This time it was not possible to walk through the front door, either East Front or West Front, and just start exploring. I had to let someone search my tote bag, and there probably was a metal detector as well. I took one of the tours and remember seeing the Crypt and the Old Senate Gallery. The best part of the tour was Statuary Hall, because this time everything was familiar and my long-ago tour guide’s words were still resonating in my memory. 

            Happy Fourth of July! And in case anyone is wondering, the Folger Shakespeare Library does have restrooms. 

Albert Pinkham Ryder’s Chemical Sins, and Me

Albert Pinkham Ryder and Me, Rural Cemetery, New Bedford

            Because I am a poet, I respond to words before images, sentences before styles, paragraphs before pigments. I love to look at paintings, but for me words come first. It is not surprising, then, that my obsession with Albert Pinkham Ryder, a painter who was born, as I was, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, began not with a museum exhibit but with a review of one. When I read John Updike’s “Better Than Nature” in the November 8, 1990, issue of The New York Review, I was particularly impressed with Updike’s descriptions of Ryder’s technique and of the resulting fragility of his art. The exhibition being reviewed was at the Brooklyn Museum and ran from September 21, 1990, to January 7, 1991. It was an event. Updike wrote, “This show will not come round again, if only because Ryder’s paintings are so fragile and festering that they are disintegrating before, as it were, our collective eyes.”

            I wanted to see that exhibit but never made it to the Brooklyn Museum. Upstate New York, where I live, is not close to Brooklyn, and life and my job got in the way. Since 1991 I’ve seen Ryder paintings in various museums, but only one or two at a time, never a whole room full of them. This year, despite Updike’s warning, I will get a second chance. I am determined to see “A Wild Note of Longing” at the New Bedford Whaling Museum before the exhibition closes in October.

            Even before experiencing any of his art, I wanted to know more about Albert Pinkham Ryder’s life and work. I went to a library, looked through some books, and was very surprised to learn that Ryder is buried in Rural Cemetery, where my parents are buried. We have a family plot, which means that Ryder is a future neighbor. On my next visit to New Bedford and maybe the one after that, I tried and failed to find his grave. Finally I went to the cemetery office and asked where it was, expecting to be given a lot number or other form of cemetery address. Rural Cemetery is very old, and the oldest sections are full of turns, easy to get lost in. The people in the office didn’t give any indication that they recognized Ryder’s name. They may have thought I was looking for my great-grandfather. But they went beyond the call of duty and sent a man in a pickup truck to escort me and my husband to the grave, which is in a very peaceful section of a very peaceful place. We will be neighbors, but not close neighbors. I sent a photo of the gravestone to Find a Grave, where I am known as “Zenobia.”

            One sentence in John Updike’s review jumped out at me as soon as I read it. “Ryder,” Updike wrote, “in his reckless, betranced quest for poetically lustrous surfaces committed every chemical sin in the book, mixing his oils with alcohol, bitumen, and candlewax, painting ‘wet-on-wet,’ applying rapid-drying paints (flake white, umbers, and Prussian blue) on top of ‘slow driers’ like lamp black and Van Dyke brown, pouring on varnish straight from the bottle and painting on top of the still-tacky surface.” Because I am a poet and not a painter, I wrote a poem using part of the above sentence as an epigraph. The poem isn’t about Ryder, but then it sort of is because he inspired it. The poem was first published in Black Warrior Review and is included in my chapbook, Carlisle & The Common Accident. Here it is:


. . .Ryder in his reckless, betranced quest for poetically lustrous surfaces committed every chemical sin in the book. . .
                    —John Updike on Albert Pinkham Ryder

So, Carlisle reflects, art shadows life
in both tenacity and dissolution,
and mixes another drink and thinks about

art and luminosity and Faustian
negotiations.  Life, she reflects,
sucking a pimiento from an olive,

is luminous enough, all those tiny
pricks of light scattered along a space-
time continuum.  Rattling the cubes,

she thinks about life, how it accrues
dimension as it jerks along, caught
in ratchets, and she measures out another

shot of gin and tears into a bag
of Ruffles and nibbles and reflects
on chemistry, what little she remembers

from high school, a clutch of rotten-egg
experiments, some graduated beakers
of hydrochloric or sulfuric acid,

lots of dirty Pyrex to wash
afterwards.  She thinks about the stack
of dishes in her sink when all those lights

crackle, then suddenly start to wink at
random, eccentrically spaced
markers in some postimpressionist

universe, all absurdly almost
within reach.  A couple more drinks,
she’ll touch them, fingertips a trail

of auras that ionize and glow
in the dark.  But the chips are down
to a few greasy crumbs and she knows

a French roast and a Tylenol will work
their chemistry on the tenacious headache
she’ll wake with in the morning. 

The Bizarro Yankee Doodle Dandy

The Vieira Family: My grandfather Joseph Vieira surrounded by my grandmother Margarida Frias Vieira, Mamie Vieira (older girl), Angelina Vieira (younger girl), and Walter Vieira.

Yesterday was the Fourth of July. Independence Day is not my favorite holiday. In fact, it’s my least favorite holiday, not because I lack patriotic fervor and not because I hate fireworks (although I do hate fireworks if they’re directly over my head)—no, not for either of those reasons. I certainly don’t hate the music, most of which was written by John Philip Sousa, and I even like the Bizarro version of “Stars and Stripes Forever” with its lyrics about ducks and mothers. In fact I love the music, and I used to love the annual telecast of the Boston Pops concert from the Hatch Shell. The evening always ended with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and televised fireworks over the Charles River. This year’s concert was performed at Tanglewood, although the fireworks still happened in Boston. Unfortunately our PBS station didn’t carry any of it, opting instead for A Capitol Fourth, which I didn’t watch and don’t have anything bad to say about except that it’s not the same thing. I like things to be the same. I like tradition. My problem with this particular holiday is that traditionally (for my family, at least) it has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. 

            First there was my maternal grandfather, Joseph Cabral Vieira, who arrived in New Bedford on June 2, 1903, on the S.S. Peninsular.  He was 20 years old and traveling with his sister Virginia to join his mother, Amalia, and his brother and other sisters. He loved his new home. He soon met my grandmother at a dance, married her, and made a life for himself and his family in bustling New Bedford. His dream was to become an American citizen. First he had to learn to write his name, and he practiced, over and over, writing “Joseph Vieira” on pieces of paper. Years later, after I was born and learned to read, I found those scraps of paper inside a desk he had salvaged for my cousin Violet. His handwriting was shaky, and sometimes he put the “e” before the “s” so that it came out “Joesph Vieira.” But with time he improved, and he looked forward to the day when he would take the oath of citizenship. 

            Unfortunately, my grandfather was not destined to become a Yankee Doodle Dandy. On the day of the Oath of Allegiance ceremony, he arrived early, excited and nervous, feeling almost like a real, live, adopted nephew of his Uncle Sam. And then the unthinkable happened. Before he could take the oath he suffered a stroke, a small stroke but serious enough to prevent him from becoming what he wanted to be—a citizen of the United States of America. 

            Much later, on the morning of July 4, 1941, after a few months of walking with a cane, after his lifelong dream had been squeezed out of him, my grandfather went into the bathroom to shave and get ready for the day’s celebrations. As he stood at the sink in the bathroom of his first-floor tenement on Matthew Street, the unthinkable reoccurred, this time with force and cruelty. The second stroke killed him instantly. 

            Because he died before I was born, I knew my grandfather only through stories that were told and artifacts that provided tangible proof of his existence. There was the radio in my grandmother’s dining room, a piece of furniture taller than I was with mysterious dials that I wasn’t allowed to touch. At Christmas there was a celluloid Santa Claus in a sleigh pulled by celluloid reindeer; if my grandmother or one of my aunts wound it up, it would move across the floor on tiny, hidden wheels. I wasn’t allowed to wind it up. There were stories about THAT DAY like, for example, how my grandmother sent my cousin Violet to Ti’ Frank’s house to fetch him; how Violet, not wanting to waste time getting dressed, raced down the sidewalks of New Bedford in her slip. 

            Years later, after my parents bought their first TV set, a Capehart that was way smaller than my grandfather’s radio, my mother and I watched the movie Yankee Doodle Dandy. It probably was shown as a Fourth of July special. After watching it I started mentally connecting my grandfather to George M. Cohan, who looked like James Cagney and said he was born on the Fourth of July. Because he died on the Fourth of July, my grandfather could have been the Bizarro version of the song-and-dance man on a stage where everything was red, white, and blue. Actually, as I recently learned, the only proof of George M. Cohan’s birth date is a baptismal certificate saying he was born on July 3, 1878, but the July 4 date certainly makes the better story. 

            One U.S. president was born on Independence Day: Calvin Coolidge came into the world on July 4, 1872, in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. Would that make my grandfather the Bizarro version of President Coolidge? Or should he remain in the company of the three presidents who died on the Fourth of July? John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. And James Monroe followed on July 4, 1831. Let’s wave the grand old flag for all of them.

Vovô and Vovó

There were other incidents, not so terrible but not so nice, either. One Fourth of July my grandmother was sitting on her front porch minding her own business when a passing stranger tossed a firecracker into the air and it veered in her direction. She wasn’t seriously hurt, but the firecracker’s collision left her with a small black spot in the middle of the back of her hand. And in another fireworks-related accident, although this time not on the Fourth, my friend Evelyn, who was a majorette with the Dartmouth High School marching band, happened to be in the wrong place when a doofus in the stands threw a cherry bomb into the football field. Evelyn was OK, but the incident was serious enough to be reported in The Standard-Times.

The Dartmouth High School Majorettes. Evelyn is on the right, standing.

Not all Fourths of July were bad, though, and the very best of them involved Evelyn and happened a long time ago. A few years ago I wrote about the Pickle Pin Club and the grand parades we organized every year. Those were the best Fourths of July ever, and you can read about them here: https://nancyvieiracouto.com/2016/07/03/encore-another-marvelous-fourth-of-july-parade-with-the-pickle-pin-club/

And, if you have survived the holiday, congratulations! Now let’s get ready for Bastille Day.

Green Hair & Jam

A couple of weeks ago, as I was scrolling through the news items on Poetry Daily’s website, I came upon Ruth Weiss’s obituary. Although I didn’t know who Ruth Weiss was, the thumbnail in the news feed immediately caught my attention. Ruth Weiss, who was, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, a “trailblazing poet in the ‘boys’ club’ Beat scene,” had died on July 31 at the age of 92. She was less well known than her male counterparts and even less well known than Diane di Prima, who came later to the North Beach poetry circuit. Ruth Weiss is credited as being the first poet to read to the accompaniment of a jazz combo. And she had green hair.

The jazz poetry thing happened by accident. She was sitting in her basement apartment working on a poem when a friend rushed in, saw the poem, pulled it out of the typewriter, and ran out of the room. Ruth ran after her poem, as anyone would, and ended up in an apartment where a party was going on. There was music. Ruth was urged to read her work. She started to read, and the bassist and piano player soon joined in. She had started something.

Ruth Weiss was born to a Jewish family in Germany during a time when Nazism was gaining strength. The Weiss family got out of Berlin, seeking safety in Vienna and later in the Netherlands. They came to the United States in 1939, and Ruth’s parents became American citizens.

In the 1960s, Ruth began spelling her name in lowercase letters: ruth weiss. She was protesting against Germany, against the Nazis, against the German practice of capitalizing nouns. And, in another act of protest, this time inspired by the film The Boy With Green Hair, she dyed her hair green.

The Boy With Green Hair (1948) was directed by Joseph Losey and starred Dean Stockwell as the boy, Peter Frye. The film has been variously described as a fantasy/drama, a drama/comedy, and a parable. Because a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is required, I’ll go along with parable and fantasy. But this is not a funny movie. It’s serious stuff. Back when it was shown regularly on a classic movie network, I watched it several times. Those of us who love The Boy With Green Hair will never forget it.

Here’s the plot: The boy, Peter, has been sent to live with Gramps, a retired or failed actor now working as a singing waiter. Gramps is not his real grandfather, but the two of them hit it off. Peter believes his parents are in England working for a war relief agency but later learns that they have both been killed. Shortly after receiving this news, he looks in the mirror after his morning bath and sees that his hair has turned green. The color won’t wash out. Gramps tells him that it’s “a grand color,” but Peter wants to be like everybody else.

In what has been described as a dream scene—but I believe it really happened—Peter is wandering through the woods and meets a group of children he recognizes from the posters of war orphans that are taped to a wall in his school. “Your green hair is very beautiful,” the children tell him. “Green is the color of spring. It means hope.” They tell Peter that his hair is a symbol to remind others that “war is very bad for children.” That’s one of the messages—yes, this is a message movie—but the stronger message is about tolerance. “How many of you have black hair?” the teacher asks. She goes on to ask about brown hair, blonde hair, green hair, and red hair. “Are there any questions?” she asks.

In 2019 the director and cinematographer Melody C. Miller released a documentary film about ruth weiss. Titled ruth weiss; the beat goddess, the film has been shown at festivals worldwide and is winning awards. I don’t know when or if it will be coming to a theatre near me—or to a TV set near me—but I know I want to see it. Here’s the trailer:

ruth weiss’s hair color is sometimes described as teal, and in fact Peter Frye’s green hair was leaning toward the teal side of green. Perhaps that had something to do with the hair dyes that were available in 1948. Now, of course, it is possible to buy green hair in a drugstore. Googling, I found a range of vibrant green hues, some of which glow under black light.

The green-haired star of the moment, of course, is Billie Eilish. I first became aware of her when she sang the Beatles’ song “Yesterday” during the “In Memoriam” segment of the 2020 Academy Awards. Only 18 years old, she suddenly is everywhere. She even made an appearance at the Democratic National Convention, urging everyone to  “vote like our lives, and the world, depend on it.” After her brief talk she introduced a new single, “My Future,” which she co-wrote with her brother, Finneas O’Connell. Billie Eilish’s green hair is much lighter and brighter than ruth weiss’s. It is green at the crown only, and her two-tone hairstyle is similar except in color to that of the late Agnes Varda.

OK, time for the jam session. Peter Frye is an old man now, but his hair is still green. Let’s imagine that he has learned to play the double bass. He starts a bass riff as Finneas sits at the piano. (Finneas does not have green hair, but you can’t have everything.) Billie and ruth take turns at the microphone, Billie singing with her sweet, whispery voice, and ruth reciting playful, incisive poems. This jam is my fantasy, and, if I want them to, they will keep the beat going all night long.

Marathon Girl

Was it 1975, the year my brother and I caught the bus to Boston to see a Red Sox game and the finish of the Boston Marathon? I know it was Patriot’s Day, because we both had the day off and also because that’s when the Boston Marathon happens. Although we didn’t stay for the final inning, we knew how the game would end. Strangely, in my memory the Red Sox were the winners by a big margin. But a Google search tells me that my memory was flawed, that no, the Red Sox lost by a big margin. At any rate, there was no question about which team would win when Edward and I and a lot of other people got up and left. Marathon day meant a mass exit from Fenway and a short walk toward the finish line on Boylston Street. I remember walking past some sort of public garden area. Bostonians in gardening clothes and straw hats were raking, hoeing, planting, or weeding in their individual plots, and my memory of that part of the walk is almost dreamlike; I mean, there were the Red Sox on one side, and there was the Boston Marathon on the other, and there was that bucolic utopia in the middle of all the zaniness that was Boston then and I hope still is Boston now.

We weren’t at the finish line, but we were close enough. The winner of the men’s race that year was Bill Rodgers, an American, and we cheered as he passed us. He was finishing a 26.2-mile race, and, as everyone knows, the last 26 miles are the hardest. The last 26 miles demand dedication and training, days of protein-pushing and carbo-loading, electrolytes, water, and willpower. We continued to cheer as each runner pounded by until it was time to catch our bus back to New Bedford. I knew that day that the marathon was my sport! I’m a walker, not a runner, so I’m talking spectator sport here. But what I admire in any endeavor is the ability to “keep calm and carry on,” as the English Ministry of Information famously declared during the dark days of World War II. Stamina is way more important than energy, as I less famously suggested in my poem “Magalhães’ Last Testament,” which begins:

Having always been a person of more stamina

than energy, I’m not surprised to find myself

in the Philippines, although these wide-eyed natives

are surprised.

Those are Magellan’s words, or, to be more accurate, the words I put in his mouth, and when things go bad, when he realizes that “I guess stamina won’t pull me through this time,” he still isn’t sorry. He has kept calm and carried on. He has done his job.

Several years later I witnessed a history-making marathon, although I wasn’t lucky enough to be there in person. I remember watching on television as a young woman in a white cap emerged from the tunnel into the coliseum and, with the crowd cheering wildly, continued to the finish line. She was Joan Benoit, and she won the gold medal in the first-ever Olympic women’s marathon at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The crowd was definitely not calm, but Joan carried on and did her job.

The medium of television is great for showing the whole marathon from start to finish, but of course the cameras can’t capture all of the runners all of the time. Only the most important races are televised, and whether or not you can see the one you want to see depends on your TV provider and the package of channels you have chosen. And of course nothing beats seeing the race in person, that slice of the race visible from your hard-won piece of sidewalk. But you have to be in the right place at the right time. When my husband and I were in Paris in April of 2015, we just happened upon the Paris Marathon, which begins at the Arc de Triomphe, loops around various Parisian attractions, and for part of the route follows the Seine. That’s the part we saw. I can’t imagine a more beautiful place to run, or to watch other people run.

That’s one kind of marathon, one person going the distance, making it to the finish line, navigating the mind-blowing beauty of the fjords lining the Strait of Magellan despite the fierceness of the williwaws. One person keeping on trucking, keeping on keeping on. But there’s another sort of marathon, the crowd-sourced kind, the passing-the-baton kind, the carrying-the-Olympic-torch kind, the Vestal-Virgins-keeping-the-fires-going kind, the lights-going-on-all-over-the-world kind. When I was in elementary school I read about the Vestal Virgins in my history textbook and was fascinated, not by the virginity aspect, which I was too young to understand, but by the eternal flames, because keeping the home fires burning was another way of keeping on keeping on.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Moby-Dick Marathon falls into the second category, the crowd-sourced category. Moby-Dick contains 135 chapters and an epilogue; reading it takes about twenty-four hours, no breaks, no naps. With volunteer readers passing the baton, it is a true marathon event, and last fall Joe and I decided to apply to be among this year’s 215. We arrived in New Bedford the day after a nor’easter brought wind, snow, and temperatures hovering around zero degrees to the whaling city. Despite the cold and the icy streets and sidewalks, the museum was packed, and everyone appeared to be having a good time. The initial readers read the opening chapters in the Bourne Building right in front of the Lagoda, a half-scale model of a whaleship; it’s large enough to climb aboard and explore. Father Mapple’s sermon was delivered in the Seamen’s Bethel, right across the street. And then, for the First and Second Dog Watches, readers and listeners settled into the museum’s Harbor View Gallery, where two podiums in front of a backdrop of a harbor scene meant that there would be no breaks between each reader’s allotted pages. Joe and I were scheduled for the Evening Watch, also in the Harbor View Gallery. Reading from, and listening to Moby-Dick made me realize all over again what an incredible novel Herman Melville has given us. It just keeps on keeping on. Do I feel as if I’ve run a 26.2-mile race, or at least a small bit of it? You bet I do!

Encore: Another Marvelous Fourth of July Parade with the Pickle Pin Club

In honor of Fourth of July Weekend, I am reposting what I wrote last year at this time. It’s still appropriate, although my brother’s cat, Trixie, died a few months ago. This is the post that made me cry. 

Evelyn and I started the club because we wanted a club.  We were the oldest on the street, or at least the oldest of the young kids, and we felt it was our duty to organize activities for the others.  Evelyn was nine at the time, and I had just turned ten.  We would ask our mothers for money for refreshments and prizes, and they would give us whatever change they had handy.  We would walk to Vee’s Variety and buy Tootsie Rolls, the ones that cost only a penny, and packets of Kool-Aid.  Then we would ask our mothers for sugar to put in the Kool-Aid.  We held our meetings in our clubhouse.  Actually it wasn’t ours.  It was a tar-paper shack that Evelyn’s brother had built in their back yard, but he didn’t seem to be using it anymore. Because it had four walls and a roof, we thought it was grand.  We had a bag of pickle pins that one of my father’s customers had given him, green plastic pins shaped like pickles with the number 57 in the middle.  Everyone who joined got a pin, and we had a lot of pins left over.  That was how our club got its name.

I don’t remember which of us first thought of a parade, but we were running out of ideas for field-day-type races and games, and we were giving away a lot of Tootsie Rolls.  A parade was easy.  Everybody came dressed as something or brought something to bang on.  We had no music, but we had noise.  Evelyn and her sister Joan had a supply of dancing costumes that could be customized, made to look patriotic.  I had had only one year of dancing lessons, and my choices were limited to a tutu that I had grown out of or a ghost outfit that glowed in the dark.  Neither was especially appropriate, so I settled for shorts and a t-shirt and an Uncle Sam hat that my mother paid 25 cents for at the 5&10.  It was made of cardboard and had stars and stripes all over it, and it matched the flag I carried.  Evelyn wore one of her dancing outfits and twirled her baton.  I didn’t have a clue how to twirl a baton, but I had an Uncle Sam hat.  Joan showed up in a costume that she said represented Miss Liberty, whoever that was.  Kirsten and Donna and Betsy and Marcia wore red, white, and blue and brought flags and noisemakers.  My brother refused to march with us, but he let us borrow his toy drum.  We gathered at the end of our dead-end street early in the morning of the Fourth of July, and we started to march.  The parade route took us up our street and back down again.  People came out of their houses to watch us go by.  Some had cameras.  It was exciting!

We did this every year for what seemed like a long time but couldn’t have been.  By the second year people were lining the streets with movie cameras.  (Well maybe there was only one movie camera.)  But by the third year Tootsie Rolls and Kool-Aid had lost their magic, my brother’s drum had a hole in it, and somehow my beloved Uncle Sam hat had gotten dinged.  Besides, Evelyn and I were growing up.

So that’s how it ended.  We grew up, we grew apart, we moved away.  The bag of pickle pins seems to have disappeared, although it may be in my brother’s attic.  Evelyn and Joan are gone.  Kirsten lives in California.  I don’t know where in the world Donna, Betsy, and Marcia ended up, but I hope they are happy.  My brother is the only one who still lives on our old street, but his cat, Trixie, spends more time there than he does.

Those were the best parades of my life, and no abundance of flags, floats, marching bands, or Clydesdales could have made them more spectacular.  I’m not big on fireworks or picnics or flag-waving, at least not without my Uncle Sam hat, but oh what I wouldn’t give for one more Fourth of July parade with the Pickle Pin Club!

Mr. Micawber, Mr. Marner, and the Slow Quickening of my Monthly Budget

 It’s not what you earn, I said to myself. It’s what you don’t spend. That was in the late 60s, early 70s, when I lived in San Francisco and made a point of spending less than my paycheck allowed. I lived on what I liked to call the slum side of Nob Hill, in a neighborhood populated mostly by young singles. My furnished studio apartment cost about $95 a month. It had a bay window on one side and a wall bed on the other, with a kitchen and bathroom small enough to be hardly noticed. I didn’t make much money, but I lived cheap.

My budget tool at the time was a packet of manila coin envelopes. I would stash money in the envelopes, seal them, write the date on which each was to be opened, and hide them in various pockets of off-season garments. I never forgot where the money was hidden, and I never opened an envelope before the appointed date. I was good at budgeting. I had read David Copperfield at a young age and taken to heart Mr. Micawber’s advice to David “that if a man had twenty pounds a-year for his income, and spent nineteen pounds nineteen shillings and sixpence, he would be happy, but that if he spent twenty pounds one he would be miserable.” Made sense to me.

After some pay raises, some rent increases, a job change, and a move back to the East Coast, I decided I needed to do some long-range planning. Also, I guessed that paying for a never-ending supply of manila coin envelopes was not cost effective, although I liked the simplicity of the system and the feel of the envelopes in my hand. (I still have nine of them in my desk drawer, left over from my last packet.) But the world was no longer simple. Suddenly I had credit cards and used them more frequently than cash; I wasn’t about to hide my MasterCard in the pocket of an old raincoat. And the check register might be a good enough place to record the checks I had written, but in essence it was a spending tool. Even if I hadn’t hated the sight of my own handwriting, I was at a point in my life when I needed to think seriously about saving.

I don’t think I would have become acquisitive if I hadn’t read Silas Marner in high school. I loved best those passages in the book that described Silas’s relationship with his gold and silver coins. What George Eliot had written was money porn, and it stayed in my head:

He loved the guineas best, but he would not change the silver—the crowns and half-crowns that were his own earnings, begotten by his labour; he loved them all. He spread them out in heaps and bathed his hands in them; then he counted them and set them up in regular piles, and felt their rounded outline between his thumb and fingers, and thought fondly of the guineas that were only half-earned by the work in his loom, as if they had been unborn children—thought of the guineas that were coming slowly through the coming years, through all his life, which spread far away before him, the end quite hidden by countless days of weaving.

Luckily, technology came to my rescue. First there were spreadsheets and integrated programs; for the Macintosh, Lotus Jazz and Wingz come to mind. At work, where we had a Kaypro in the basement, I used Perfect Writer to churn out contracts. We also had Perfect Calc for spreadsheets, but my job didn’t involve spreadsheets. Whatever there was, there was always something better the next year, but nothing was ever good enough. At some point I bought myself an IBM PC, which was compatible with the computer I was using at work. (The university press I worked for had ditched the Kaypro by then, and nobody was weeping over it.) I was using spreadsheets and databases all the time now. I enjoyed them, but not as much as Silas Marner enjoyed his piles of guineas.

What I knew I needed, although I didn’t know it existed, was money-management software. Luckily, my first laptop computer, an IBM that ran on DOS like its predecessor, came preloaded with Andrew Tobias’s Managing Your Money, a program that did everything I wanted it to do, including computing my debt-to-equity ratio whenever I asked it to, which was daily. I loved Managing Your Money. According to his website, Andrew Tobias, who is currently Treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, still uses the last DOS version, even though the rest of the world has closed that door and opened its Windows.

When I switched to a series of Windows computers, none of which I especially liked, I said good-bye to MYM and hello to Quicken. I liked Quicken. If I told it when I wanted to retire, it would tell me whether I could afford to do so. And although it refused to calculate my debt-to-equity ratio, it gave me enough information so that I could do the arithmetic myself. With each new version, Quicken for Windows became more sophisticated. What I liked best were the budgeting features. I could have as many income and expense categories as I wanted, and I could budget a different amount in each category for each month of the year. I could be as obsessively precise as I wanted to be, and Quicken would cheer me on.

The story could have ended happily right there, except that I really wasn’t happy with my string of Windows computers–not in the way I had loved my DOS computers and my manila envelopes. I finally made the decision to switch platforms, and for me it was the right decision. In most cases, transitioning to software designed for the Mac was easy. The Mac version of my genealogy program, the one I worried most about, worked just fine. The same is true for my word-processing and spreadsheet programs. I was almost happy.

However, I soon learned that Quicken software for the Macintosh was greatly inferior to the Windows product. Quicken Essentials, the version that was available when I made the switch, was so bad that I have blocked it out of my mind completely. I bought Quicken 2015 for Mac as soon as it became available, and it was an improvement, but nowhere near what I had gotten used to. What was missing–well, many things were missing, but what I missed the most–was 12-month budgeting. Quicken 2015 for Mac worked on the assumption that one’s income and expenses were exactly the same from one month to the next. It would have been a good program for a young single living in a $95-a-month studio with a wall bed in San Francisco, someone who spent exactly $120 a month each month at Cala Foods, someone whose monthly PG&E bill came in consistently at under $4. It was not a good program for a retired homeowner with property taxes, school taxes, and estimated taxes to worry about. My Quicken budget was a caricature of my financial life, and I was almost ready to go back to those envelopes.

 Now for the happy ending: Earlier this month Quicken 2016, which I hadn’t bothered to buy since it seemed to offer nothing new that I wanted, finally got around to adding 12-month budgeting to its other features. No, I told myself, they’re just trying to suck me in. It won’t work. Don’t believe them. I held my breath and downloaded the new version. I held by breath and transferred all of my data. I held my breath and looked at my budget. Yes, it was true. I could fine-tune my budget as much as I liked. I could assign guineas to a leather bag under the floorboards if I wanted to. (I do, in fact, have a Quicken account called “Stash,” but I don’t keep it under the floorboards.) I spent several hours editing my budget, and during those several hours I was ecstatically, hilariously happy.

There’s an element of uncertainty to all this happiness, however. Intuit has sold the Quicken line to a private equity firm, and, while the new owners have promised to double the number of engineers working on the Mac version, probably nothing will happen during the transition period. So I’m happy for now and can recommend the product, but I will keep my eyes and ears open. And I’ll hold on to those nine manila coin envelopes just in case. Hey, you never know.

Lily, Mr. Bluebird, and the Beginning and End of My Singing Career

“Nancy, I want to ask you something,” my cousin Lily said. By the look on her face, I could tell it was important. “How would you like to be a flower girl at my wedding?” she continued. I didn’t know what a flower girl was. I had heard people talking about sweater girls, and I sort of knew what they looked like, but I didn’t think I could look like that. I was only four years old. “You would wear a pretty gown,” Lily said, as if she were reading my mind,” and you would carry a bouquet of flowers.” I was still worried about the sweater, but I liked Lily. So I said OK. 

I still remember that day and how confused I was by this very grown-up request, how I wanted to please Lily but didn’t really know what I was getting into. Most of my cousins were older than I was, and a few of them were already grown up. Lily was grown up, and she and her boyfriend, Charlie, were getting married in June, a few days before my fifth birthday. Charlie was different from the people in my family. He had lighter hair, blue eyes, and a mother from Cuttyhunk. Even though I was very young, I could tell that he and Lily were in love.

Later I learned more about the responsibilities of a flower girl. I learned I would have to walk into the church next to the ring bearer, who was a boy I didn’t know. I think he may have been related to Charlie, but his name kept changing. One day it was Norman, and the next day it was Ronald. I think Norman was the first choice, because he was my age and we would have looked cute walking down the aisle together. But, because Norman refused to be in the wedding party, his older brother, Ronald, agreed to perform the ring-carrying duties. (I may have gotten their names mixed up.) 

At the rehearsal I did almost everything right. The Communion part confused me, though. I was too young for Communion, but I didn’t know when to stay in the pew and when to follow the others.  The bridesmaid, whose name may have been Rita, came up with a solution; she would scratch my gown with her fingernail when it was time for Communion, and I would know to stay seated. “Like this,” she said, and she scratched my skirt. I noticed her red nail polish and hoped her long fingernail wouldn’t snag my gown. I loved my gown. It was yellow and, as Lily had promised, pretty.

One afternoon before all of this, before the rehearsal and before the wedding, my mother took me to see a movie called Song of the South. I don’t remember too much about the plot, only that it involved cartoon animals as well as real people. I caught on right away that of the three main cartoon characters one was dumb, one was smart, and one was smarter. In the cartoon segments, which were mostly scary, the bear and the fox (dumb and smart) were always doing terrible things to the rabbit (smarter). Unlike Norman and Ronald, the three characters all had the same first name, Brer. Because Brer Rabbit used his head and not his feet, he was able to escape from his enemies over and over again. I didn’t understand everything that was happening, but I liked the briar patch segment after my mother explained it to me. The part I liked best, though, was when Uncle Remus walked along singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” while cartoon birds and bees and butterflies flew around him and landed on his shoulders. I especially liked Mister Bluebird. Although I had never seen a bluebird in person, I always had bluebirds on my birthday cakes along with pink roses. (My father worked for a bakery, so I always had bakery cakes with my name written on the white frosting. I don’t think I had ever seen a homemade cake.) Later my mother bought me a record with all the songs from the movie on it, and I learned the lyrics to “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” by heart.

On the day of the wedding I walked down the aisle with Ronald-or-Norman, and maybe-Rita scratched my gown very gently, without doing any damage. After the ceremony we all went to a photographer’s studio and had lots of pictures taken. And then, because there was still time before the reception, we went to Buttonwood Park for more pictures. My mother had bought Kodacolor film specially for the occasion. She wanted to take outdoor photos in the gardens across the road from the pond. Lily, the maid-of-honor, and maybe-Rita walked along the garden paths in gowns as long and willowy as the columns in front of the savings bank. The men looked on as if they were expecting something to happen, but nothing happened except that my mother snapped some photos with her box camera. I remember that the flowers–I think they were hydrangeas–quietly nodded their heads when they saw us.

Many years later, when I read Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” I thought of those pictures, not the photographer’s formal wedding portraits but the Kodacolor photos that my mother had taken. Except for the blurry hydrangeas, everything was new and intensely still on that sunny June day under the “happy, happy boughs.” Between the wedding and the reception, all of that love was “still to be enjoy’d.” 

The reception was held in a rented hall. a large room with a stage at one end and folding chairs set up along the walls. Some of the women were arranging paper plates and napkins on the food table and setting out platters of chicken-salad sandwiches, bowls of chips, and bottles of soda. Although many of the guests hadn’t arrived yet, the band was playing, the singer was singing, and people were dancing. My mother wasn’t there. She had gone home to get a dress for me to change into; obviously she was also worried about the possibility that I might snag my gown or spill something on it. Left in the care of my aunts and cousins, who were still too excited to pay much attention to me, I joined a small group of children, including Norman-or-Ronald or possibly both of them, and, not knowing one another, we talked and played warily.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The music stopped and the band left the stage. The singer left, too. The set was over, and they were taking a break, but I didn’t know about sets and breaks. Naturally we children climbed onto the stage, and the boys began to examine the drums, and I’m not sure what the other girls examined because I was fascinated by the microphone. I had been watching the singer, the way she held it as if she loved it, and the way she swayed from side to side while she sang. I wanted to try, so I grabbed the microphone, which was way too tall for me, and I started to sing the only song I knew by heart, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” I swayed from side to side, and I sang, but not too loud because for me it was a private pretend moment. The hall was suddenly very quiet. I was sure nobody could hear me because I wasn’t a real singer and the microphone was only something to hold on to. I sang all the verses, all both of them, and when I got to “Wonderful feeling, wonderful day!” I stopped singing. And then something surprising happened. Everyone in the hall–including my aunt Mamie, my cousin Lily, and maybe-Rita–started clapping. I should have been happy, I suppose, but I remember feeling that my privacy had been violated, although I wouldn’t have used those words. So that was what a microphone was for! I felt betrayed. 

My mother was surprised when she arrived a few minutes later and asked if she had missed anything. But I wasn’t about to perform an encore, and the musicians and the real singer were already reclaiming their space. That was the end of my singing career but not the end of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” It won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1948, and James Baskett, the actor who played Uncle Remus and spoke the voices of Brer Fox and, I think, one of the butterflies, won an Academy Honorary Award. Song of the Southwas a success at the box office, both at the time of its original release and when it was re-released in 1972. Since that time, though, the film has been widely criticized for its portrayal of African-American former slaves in the Reconstruction-era South, and for that reason it has never been released on DVD in the United States. I’m sure the criticisms are valid, but at the age of four I was not ready for a realistic depiction of life in one of the ugliest periods of American history. On the other hand, if Keats was right when he wrote that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” Song of the South can be faulted for not being true and thus, despite the charm of the animated singing creatures, not being beautiful. I’ll go along with that. Everything was not satisfactual, not really. But when I think of Uncle Remus singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” and when I think of Mister Bluebird perched on his shoulder, it’s not truth or beauty that I’m seeing but a celebration of the human spirit. And to that I say “zip-a-dee-ay.”