Armistice Day

I’m not a historian of wars in general, but I have always had a personal feeling for the tragedy that was World War I: a pointless, desperate conflict that produced a few great poems but snuffed out millions of lives. The anniversary of the Armistice is coming up so I stopped in at my local public-radio station, NEPR, to record a commentary about the war, its end, and the lessons it offers. You may listen to it here—or you may read a slightly expanded version below.

This week we remember a solemn time in world history. On November 11, 1918, at 11 a.m.—the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month—an Armistice went into effect between German and Allied forces.

This agreement brought an end to what was called the Great War or the War to End All Wars. Obviously, the latter name didn’t stick, and the war was eventually renamed World War I in order to distinguish it from World War II and all the other conflicts that ensued.

If war is hell in general, soldiers in the Great War found themselves in one of Dante’s lowest levels of the inferno.

More than 16 million people died in the four years between 1914 and 1918. For much of the war’s duration, the front lines barely budged. Soldiers on the Western Front fought in muddy trenches, subject to disease, vermin, chemical weapons, shell shock, and of course the enemy’s bullets and bayonets. Millions of civilians were displaced from their homes; refugees streamed out of Belgium, Serbia, Russia, Armenia, and France.

When I was a little girl, soldiers from World War I still marched in Veterans’ Day parades. Many of them wore a poppy. The flower gained its significance from John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields.” This poem was written from the point of view of dead soldiers during the battle of Ypres in Belgium in 1915. McCrae himself would die later in the war.

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row, that mark our place,” it begins.

The poppies in the poem remind us that nature endures despite the horrible things men do to each other. To me these bright red flowers also represent the spilled blood and lost hopes of the war dead.

What were the lessons of World War I?

That we should never rush into war. That we should never conflate patriotism and militarism. That we should consider civilian victims as well as soldiers. And above all that the victors in a conflict should avoid punishing the vanquished. That happened at the close of World War I—and it ended up contributing to the start of World War II.

I would like to think that we have learned at least some of these lessons. I know we have to try to master them, to train our individual and collective psyches to see war only as a last resort—and to pursue it, if we must, mindful of our own humanity, the humanity of civilians caught in the path of battle, and the humanity of those we fight.

We owe this to ourselves, to our children, and to the memory of those who gave their lives in the Great War and the wars that followed.

As McCrae concluded, “If you break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields.”

from the Canadian Centre for the Great War

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Ashes to Ashes

Michael at Work

We buried my mother’s ashes on Saturday. They are now in the same plot as my father’s casket.

My family doesn’t always do things promptly. Jan/Taffy died in December 2011. We arranged for her name, dates, and epitaph (“Short and Full of Life”) to be added to my father’s stone the following year. The ashes have languished in the house ever since.

We were waiting until all four members of the immediate family could be in Massachusetts together long enough to accomplish the burial. When I learned that my brother David, my sister-in-law Leigh, and my nephew Michael planned to visit me this past weekend, I emailed our neighbor Paul, who coordinates burials for the Pudding Hollow Cemetery Association.

Paul asked me what time we would like the “ceremony” to take place. I laughed a little. We weren’t really envisioning a ceremony; we planned merely to pop the ashes into the ground and say a quick goodbye. We had held plenty of ceremonies in the year following her death.

In the end, the experience of burying the ashes did have a feeling of ceremony. Paul arranged for a hole of appropriate size to be dug at the grave site. He generously left us a shovel and the dirt that had been removed from the grave. The day was appropriately gray and drippy at the cemetery, a lovely serene place where I myself will be buried one day.

It was moving to be responsible for putting our mother into the ground ourselves and then covering her remains with dirt. I go to a lot of funerals and a lot of burials. This was the first I’ve attended at which no official was present at the actual interment. Having just the family there rendered the occasion intimate and sweet.

Placing the ashes in the grave and covering them ourselves felt like a final act of caring for Taffy, six and a half years after her death, an act that brought our family closer together. In tribute to our father’s Jewish roots, we ended our time at the grave by placing a few pebbles on the stone.

David Places a Stone

I wouldn’t recommend keeping ashes in the house for years as a general rule. Yet waiting did seem to help us. It made the death a little more remote and therefore less sad. We were touched, but we didn’t cry.

Waiting offered us a dividend: labor. Michael was 11 when his grandmother died. Today he is a strong 18 year old, and he did most of the shoveling and lifting.

I’ll be continuing to remember my mother in the next few weeks as we approach what would have been her 100th birthday on September 26. Next week, on Saturday, August 25, I’ll be singing a few of her favorite songs in a concert that salutes songs and people born in 1918.

I also evoked her memory this week on television when I prepared her favorite coffee cake, Blueberry Sally Lunn, and then showed off the recipe and video in a blog post.

I never feel that my mother is far away—but as I practice singing songs she loved, continue to nourish people with her recipes, and contemplate the headstone she shares with my father in the cemetery, I find new ways in which to celebrate her spirit and the gifts she left me.

A Cup of Kindness

Happy New Year!

We’re in the midst of a frigid early January in most of the eastern United States. The year is still new, however. I like to make resolutions in early winter. I don’t see these as punishments for the person I was in the past. They are simply guidelines for the person I hope to be in the future.

I have never wanted to join the throngs in Times Square and other metropolitan areas to see in the new year. My New Year’s Eves tend to be quiet and reflective. I don’t always manage to stay up until midnight. (As my father often pointed out, it’s always close to midnight somewhere in the world.)

I DO always sing “Auld Lang Syne.” Like people the world over, I find the song’s nostalgic words and tune appropriate for a time in which we look simultaneously to the past and the future.

I am struck by the words “a cup o’ kindness.” I know the cup in the song is definitely alcoholic. I like to think of it in different forms, however—a sweet cup of sugar or a rich cup of cream. Whatever the cup holds, it’s a delightful concept.

As I lift my own cup, I have many resolutions. I hope to launch my new rhubarb book with fun and flair this coming spring and to perform in a 1918 centennial concert in the summer. This year is replete with musical 100th birthdays, among them those of Leonard Bernstein, Alan J. Lerner, Robert Preston, and my mother.

Jan/Taffy wasn’t a musician, but she was a great lover of song. She sang every day of her life and taught me that practice as well.

Above all, I hope we can live in a world where we pass around cups of kindness daily: for Auld Lang Syne, to make the present sweeter and more peaceful, and to teach younger generations to share love and kindness on a daily basis.

Moving Beyond the Fairy Tale

All the recent press and TV coverage remembering the death of Princess Diana 20 years ago led me to dig up a column I wrote a few days after her fatal accident. It appeared in the West County News, a small but sturdy weekly newspaper based in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, on September 5, 1997. I have edited it slightly.

Like media watchers all over the world, I spent much of this past weekend glued to my television set, trying to figure out what I and others thought about the fatally photogenic woman who used to be married to the Prince of Wales. Although I never had much interest in her when she was alive—except perhaps to envy her for getting her face on a biscuit tin (see above)—I find that Princess Diana’s death has fascinated me.

At first glance, the famous, regal Diana doesn’t seem like a natural topic for an essay in the West County News. Royalty doesn’t visit our quiet country towns very often. Nevertheless, most little girls—even little girls from rural western Massachusetts—have at one time or another wanted to marry a prince. Diana’s life choices, therefore, offer a lesson to us all, even to me.

Actually, I personally never really wanted to marry a prince. When I was small I did, however, cherish a burning ambition to become our nation’s first lady. This aspiration stemmed in part from my family’s reverence for Eleanor Roosevelt, who was rightly viewed in our home as one of the major figures of 20th-century politics and society.

More importantly, looking back, I realize that my desire to act at the White House in a supporting role also came from the sex-role training of my childhood. First ladies didn’t directly seek power; they merely enjoyed influence. They operated in the traditional feminine realms of charity, entertainment, and social issues. And of course they spent a lot of time wearing nice dresses, getting their hair done, and posing for glamorous photos.

I gave up my desire to be first lady a few years ago when I realized that in order to achieve that dream I would have to marry a politician: most of these creatures are supremely unappealing to a girl of taste. Nevertheless, I never completely lost the notion somewhere in the back of my mind that first-ladyhood would be a fun and noble thing to practice.

A bit belatedly for me, since I’m supposed to be a feminist, a look back at Diana’s life has thrown into question the idea of being famous as someone’s adjunct—as a glamorous, supporting figure. To begin with, at any rate, her wifehood was her sole claim to fame, a claim staked through her beauty, youth, and aristocratic connections rather than through any qualities of character. She was definitely not a figure to emulate.

Eventually, the princess turned many of the negatives of her situation around and became more admirable. Elevated to high privilege, she managed to embrace people who were not privileged through her charitable work, using her arbitrary celebrity in a directed, life-affirming way.

Her exposure of her own eating disorder led her to challenge the superficial ideals of beauty and thinness that had in part brought her her crown and her prince—and the attention of the public.

Finally, her divorce from Prince Charles led her to demystify the notion of royalty far more effectively than any speeches by members of Parliament or by pseudo-radicals like me. (At my one and only exposure to royalty, a public appearance by Prince Charles around 1989, I yelled, “Free the Irish!” Nobody paid any attention.)

All of these breakthroughs proved two edged, however. Diana’s charity work was always overshadowed by the personal renown of the woman accomplishing it; she couldn’t expose the unfairness of her exalted station without taking advantage of that station.

Despite her frank discussion of her eating disorder, the princess was still prized above all for her beauty—and clearly reveled in her looks, as a spread in Vanity Fair shortly before her death showed. I have trouble believing that she had conquered her obsession with slenderness when I study recent photographs of an almost painfully thin Diana. At best, then, her message about beauty was mixed.

Finally, even after her divorce from Prince Charles and despite her protests against the stultifying living situation of the British royal family, her royalty remained her base of power. Hailed in obituaries as “the most famous woman in the world,” she was famous mostly for being famous. That skewed fame was, apparently, what killed her.

If Diana’s life and death teach us anything, it is that it is time for all girls and women—from 19-year-old English aristocrats to 30-something New England journalists—to find more healthy ambitions for ourselves than marrying princes and presidents. We must all move beyond the scenarios of fairy tales in planning our lives.

Of course, I’d still love to have my face on a biscuit tin—but I’ll see whether I can do it by being me rather than by marrying someone.

Not regal but happy.

Mother’s Day Revisited

With Jan/Taffy during her last Christmas season.

A friend recently noted on Facebook that many of us who no longer have our mothers feel as though we are unmoored.

I occasionally have that feeling—but then I remember that my mother is still with me in many ways.

On Friday, I visited my friends at Mass Appeal, the lifestyle program on which I cook from time to time. The young hosts were celebrating Mother’s Day; their mothers were also guests that day and were deservedly feted. (They have raised pretty terrific children.)

For a moment or two I felt a little sorry for myself. I had no mother, I thought, and I was no one’s mother.

Co-host Seth Stutman snapped me right out of that little bout of self-pity. As a tribute to my mother I prepared a salad that featured one of her favorite foods, rhubarb. While Seth and Lauren Zenzie tossed the salad for me I shared the words on my mother’s gravestone.

Her epitaph was inspired by an incident that took place shortly after I graduated from Mount Holyoke. I returned to campus and as an adult (finally!) was invited to the college’s weekly faculty cocktail hour. There I met a retired philosophy professor named Roger Holmes.

“I believe my mother took a course from you many years ago,” I told him. “I don’t know whether you’d remember her: Jan Hallett, Class of 1939.”

My Mother in 1939

The elderly but spry man immediately replied, “Short and full of life!”

Obviously, my mother made an impression. When she died my brother and I decided to inscribe Professor Holmes’s description of our petite, lively mother on her grave.

When Seth heard the epitaph during our cooking segment, he stated, “Well, Tinky, I’d say the same thing about you,” and gave me a big Mother’s Day hug.

He went on to note that he thought of me as one of his “show moms.”

Since I’m officially only 39 and Seth is 31, I replied that I and his other show moms (studio manager Denise and director Deb) thought of ourselves as older sisters rather than mothers.

Nevertheless, I was touched and reassured.

My mother may no longer be walking around the house, but she is present to me—not only in my own small stature, but also in every dish I cook and every song I sing. She will always be with me.

And I may not be a mother, but I am an older woman friend to lots of children (and even a few grownups like Seth!) whom I can nurture and love.

I seldom quote the Bible, but in this case I have to agree with the “Song of Solomon”: “For love is strong as death.” I also concur with lyricist Leo Robin: “Hooray for love!”

Happy Mother’s Day to all.

If you’d like to see the segment (the salad was DELICIOUS!), here it is:

One Step at at Time

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Leigh with her friend Tara at the March

My sister-in-law Leigh took off early yesterday morning for the Women’s March on Washington. I stayed home.

One reason for my not marching was the state of my knees. I get tired after a few hours of standing at my holiday retail job. I have a feeling walking around Washington for a day would do me in for a week or more.

I also have a fear of crowds!

More importantly, however, group protest is not my mode of self expression, particularly in this case. I got my first invitation to the march the morning after Donald Trump’s election. It seemed—and seems—to me too soon to be protesting. I would have preferred to wait and protest some specific presidential action or policy rather than the president himself.

Nevertheless, I support the right to free speech of my friends and relatives who chose to march. In fact, I happily lent my BEAUTIFUL new pink hat to Leigh to wear on her march. (See photo above.)

We all speak and protest in our own ways. I deal with things that upset me—and I have to admit that I’m not a fan of our new president—by writing and singing and talking. And staying positive.

Here’s what I want to do in the months ahead: I want to emulate the folks from Broadway’s Concert for America. They will inspire me to do creative things and to support organizations and people who can keep our country strong and wonderful and charitable and generous and (yes!) great.

I want to write passionately about things that matter. In my case, this is usually food and books—but food and books sustain life and give it meaning.

I want to sing whenever I can. In my opinion, there is very little in this world that a show tune or a spiritual can’t make just a little bit better. Music connects us as human beings. It helps us mourn, comfort each other, and then move forward and celebrate.

Above all, I want to be a good neighbor on my road, in my community, and in my world. I want to stay in contact and sympathy with all the people I know, whether they voted for Trump or Clinton or Mickey Mouse. And I want to continue to meet and converse with new people. The one thing I think Donald Trump got right in his inaugural address is the idea that our nation is about all of its citizens.

So I’ll be marching with my fingers and my voice and my smile. Not all at once but one step at a time. I hope to encounter lots of you along the way.

Lessons from Uncle Walter

NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA/Bill Ingalls

I don’t usually pay a lot of attention to Google’s “Doodle” of the day. Today, however, I was touched to notice that the internet search engine was honoring longtime CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite. Cronkite (1916 to 2009) would have turned 100 today.

I haven’t covered a lot of “straight” journalism in my years as a writer. I write reviews, craft recipes to honor specific foods and occasions, and from time to time venture into opinion. Nevertheless, I think of myself as a journalist. And my hero has always been the reporter known to millions as Uncle Walter.

Cronkite came to prominence as the leader in a generation of broadcast news reporters and anchors who hewed to old-fashioned standards of impartiality. They occasionally ventured into opinion—as his mentor Edward R. Murrow did when addressing issues like poverty and Senator Joseph McCarthy, and as Cronkite did himself when he called for an end to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam in 1968.

By and large, however, they strove for objective truth in reporting, even though I’m sure most of them knew then, as most of us know now, that objectivity is a Platonic ideal rather than anything any of us will ever achieve.

I last saw Cronkite in the early 2000s when he was interviewed onstage at the Museum of Television & Radio (now the Paley Center for Media) in New York, where I worked for a few years. Hearing his voice then warmed my heart; it was like hearing the voice of my dead father. Both were warm, smart men who performed work they loved with integrity and lightened life with humor. And both possessed voices that charmed and informed.

If the national election in which we are currently enmired has taught us anything, it is that the ways in which we receive and deal with the news have changed. As a nation and a world we no longer share a few, elite sources of news—and, as the Pew research center has recently pointed out, Americans no longer share many of the “facts” of our political and social life. We have come a long way from aiming for that Platonic ideal of objectivity.

I know that we can’t go back to having one trusted source for news—or even a few. In many ways, that’s a good thing. I don’t necessarily buy the impression of many in this country that Cronkite had a liberal bias—perhaps because I have one myself (and what does liberal mean, really, other than “generous,” an attribute to which we should all aspire?). I do believe that as a human being he was inherently biased in some directions.

We don’t necessarily need an elite to tell us what to do and how to interpret the news. Without that elite, however, we do need to cultivate standards Uncle Walter embodied, as journalists and as human beings. These include committing ourselves to coming as close to objective truth as we can, to growing and learning, and above all to taking our time.

One of Walter Cronkite’s most famous, and most replayed, moments on the air is the one in which he announced the death of John F. Kennedy. He stops several times during his short report, to compose himself but also (it seems to me) to get his reporting right, to give himself and the people watching and listening time to process the information he is reporting.

I’m not good at pausing. In casual conversation I tend to rush in and fill the dead air space between my own sentences and everyone else’s. Remembering Walter Cronkite today and in the days to come, I’m going to try to give myself and everyone else a little more time—time to process, time to deliberate, time to be kind and truthful.

As this crazy election season at last draws to a close I hope other journalists and citizens will do the same.

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