Going places

Years ago, my mother took my brother, his wife, and me on a European vacation–three countries/three cities. It wasn’t my first trip to Europe, or my last, but it was the most memorable.

We went to London first. Arriving the day after Christmas, we hustled down to Harrods, only to discover it was closed. Boxing Day, December 26, is a national holiday in Britain. Tradition has it as a day where tradespeople collect “Christmas boxes” of money or presents from employers as thanks for their good service throughout the year. No worries. We went sightseeing.

We stayed for a couple of days, taking in the sights: Buckingham Palace, Tower of London, Westminster Abby,  to name a few. We even took a short trip by subway to Eton to see where Prince William attended school.

We took the high-speed Eurostar train from London to Paris through the “Chunnel,” or The Channel Tunnel, which is a 31-mile rail tunnel built beneath the English Channel at the Strait of Dover.  What a ride!

My nephew was studying abroad in Paris and met us at our hotel to take us on a stroll through the winter wonderland strip of lights and decorated storefronts along the Champs-Élysées. We visited the Eiffel Tower and people-watched.  I declined the ride to the top of the tower. The view from Sacre-Coeur was far more exhilarating as dusk gave way to evening and city lights lit the sky.

The Mussey d’Orsay, built in a former railway station, was an architectural delight. I loved this museum, which was filled with works of my favorite impressionist artists–Monet, Cezane, Renoir, and Dega. Unfortunately I missed the Louvre. I know, I know. But I was ill. (My sweetie lived in Paris for a year while working for Schlumberger. Maybe he will take me back.)

Our final stop was in Rome. History came alive for me in Rome. I was absolutely stunned by the antiquity. I remember standing outside the Colosseum. We could see where heavy chariot wheels had long ago carved track grooves in the stone. I was mesmerized. “Can you believe it?” I asked my brother. “We are standing where Julius Caesar rode his chariot?” We grabbed hands like children and ran along the ancient road till we were breathless.

I felt  almost inconsequential in the midst of the grandeur in the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. The Forum brought back memories of studying Shakespeare as a sophomore in high school. Et Tu, Brute?

We took a short trip to Florence where we viewed Michelangelo’s David and shopped for Italian leather coats and drank espresso in the Piazza della Signoria.

When I returned to work at the end of that memorable holiday, I told my girlfriends that I now knew the recipe for a Perfect Date: Dining at a French restaurant in London with an Italian man. While the comment always elicits hoots of laughter, I will tell you this in all seriousness: Nothing compares to travel for understanding culture, history, and our place in this incredible world. New cars will break down, bigger homes will cost more in upkeep, but travels to lands faraway will live forever in your memory.

The experience is priceless.

Writing the story of a pioneer

People are natural storytellers, but not all of them grow up to be writers. What makes the difference: genes or environment? In my case, it was both.

My daddy used to tell stories about me, his infant daughter, sleeping in his lap while he typed magazine articles on a Royal typewriter. It was the end of World War II and my mother had a salaried job, so Daddy became a house-husband for a while. The cadence of keystrokes created lullabies and gently nurtured the writer within my heart.

When I was still a little girl, Daddy would make up stories where his three children were the heroes. I can still remember one of them, almost word for word, 65 years later. The story is about a girl, (named Joyce, of course) whom the other children teased and bullied for having different colored eyes—one green and the other red—until the traffic light on Main Street broke, and Joyce saved the day by winking one eye, and then the other, to untangle the traffic jam of cars, buses, bikes and trucks, and save the day. No one ever teased her again.

Is it any wonder that I’m a storyteller and writer?

Since my retirement, I’ve been driving to Huntsville to go through the archives of the Texas Prison Museum. I am researching my mother’s role as the founding superintendent of the Windham School District, the nation’s first school system within a correctional institution. My intention is to write her biography and tell her story. She, too, was bullied and teased as she hired faculty and staff who shaped the non-graded, self-paced, individualized curriculum. But Lane Murray used her beauty and brains to get the naysayers out of the way, and she became a pioneer in correctional education.

I am struck by how times have changed since the early days of her tenure. Men could be so petty in the early 1970s… like the correctional officer who wrote her up for breaking state law when she picked a rose on state property, in front of The Walls, the Huntsville prison unit. The incident found its way into the employee newsletter and The Huntsville Item. Legend has it that she never stopped picking a rose every week to place on her office desk, and employees referred to the bush as Dr. Murray’s rose bush even after she retired.

Lane Murray always dressed well, aware that both men and women inmates delighted to get a first-hand look at how women on “the outside” dressed. She wore pearls with an emerald clasp, diamond stud earrings, classically tailored dresses, and Ferragamo shoes. She also carried a loaded Magnum .357 inside her Louie Vuitton handbag. She carried it for protection while traveling from one prison unit to another around the State. Occasionally, she forgot to leave it in her car, but this was before female employees’ handbags were searched, so neither correctional officers nor inmates knew.

She was so focused on making the school system a success that she wasn’t interested in being a poster figure for the feminist movement. However, truth be told, she influenced the movement through her actions—both by taking the lead and by moving other woman into positions that influenced public opinion. She had no plan or philosophy to emulate—she created the template that others would appreciate, respect and try to replicate.

Writing her story is something that is going to take time and concentrated effort to complete. She died in 2009, but there are other people to interview, secrets to uncover and accomplishments to be tracked. I’m both excited and humbled by the challenges I face.

But, honestly, I’m up to the task. My daddy taught me how to shape a story, spiced with anecdotes and intriguing facts so you don’t doze off before the end.

Perspective and memory

When I was two years old, my mother would put me to bed in my grandparents’ room when we went to visit their farm. One evening, I could hear them talking in the next room and I wanted to be where the action was. So… I kept climbing out of my crib and sashaying into the parlor. Each time I was returned to my crib–sometimes by my mother, other times by her mom. This memory stands out like a recurring nightmare (except it’s no bad dream; it really happened):

Here I am. My grandmother has put me back in my crib, and I’m struggling to get up and out again. It’s begun to be a game–this up and down and up and down and up and down. I’m determined to win, but my grandmother is stronger. She puts her hands on my shoulders and holds me down. I scream like a banshee. I cannot move and I am furious.

She shushes me, taking her right hand and covering my mouth, but her hand covers my mouth and nostrils and I can’ breathe. My grandmother is smothering me. I’m going to die. Without oxygen, my chest burns like fire. I am dying.

Snot blows out between her fingers, and my grandmother jerks back her hand. I gulp in a lungful of air. Then another.

I understand today that my grandmother was not trying to kill me. From her perspective, she was making sure I obeyed the bedtime adults had set for me. I’m not sure I ever learned that, but I certainly learned to be very careful around people who had my life in their hands.

As I’ve aged, sleep has become more attractive than joining the company of the night owls in the next room. But, truth be told, I resent anyone covering my mouth to stifle my voice. I will not be silenced.

Writing prompt: Recall a memory of your youth that you wish you could forget. There are those who say the things we remember are for a reason; these memories give us chances to learn life lessons. Why do you think that “bad” memory sticks in your mind? Now that you are older, is there a new and deeper perspective you can bring to this memory that you did not have when you were younger? What have you learned with the passing of time?