28 March 2011

God bless the child

She is slender and suddenly taller, as in: you look at her and are jolted. Whoa! when did she get that tall?! By which you are secretly saying, when did she get that grown-up. For, now, the childish rounded cheeks are attractively shaping, the nonchalant dirty blonde hair is styled and distinctive, the womanly figure is pre-ripening. And her brown-eyed gaze, always sharp and aware, is gaining an amused wiseness.

Also, I write with pride, these days her words are sorting themselves into more careful statements. Lydia has ever struggled with verbal expression. Not that she was incapable, but she just seems to shape her thoughts and ideas differently. I could write a book about how she writes and speaks in her own way. You could say she marches to her own beat. That's precisely it. And her parents are responsible for keeping her in the parade, regardless of that difference.

I have been amazed by Lydia since the moment she emerged, bellowing heartily. In my arms, protesting and red-faced, she looked offended that her term safely in utero had been brought to abrupt closure by dreadful muscular contractions not of her choosing. How do you not admire a newborn with that kind of chutzpah? We ceded our household to her at that moment. Tell us what to do, Miss Lydia. Because, really, no one else in our home has that kind of willpower and spark. She did not steer us wrong, our unfailingly polite diva. At age 1, a favorite activity was to sit in her highchair after dinner, the white tray set before her grandly, wiped of its meal leavings...and she would begin to tap on the tray, or wave her hands, or pat her head, and we would all do the same thing once she set the pace: two sibs, two parents, precisely imitating her actions. She would watch us with indulged good humor, while we all laughed--because her stamina for this activity was boundless. So was ours.

Really, it's this: I trust her. For nearly a decade, we've weathered storms of academe: extra help offered at school that we deemed useful, versus overly solicitous concerns that Peter and I were not willing to share and act upon. Never easy, those school meetings, but Pete and I are united. Throughout, I have placed my trust in that steady gaze of Lydia's, that determination. I remember a night as I was tucking her in, and we discussed some reading issue she was having. First grade. I explained to her what the teacher was concerned about, and then I explained to her that I didn't think the teacher understood that Lydia was well capable of whatever activity was being discussed. I said to Lydia, passionately, "I know you can do this, honey. Show them that you can do this." The brown eyes filled with tears, and she hugged me tightly. My trust, again, not disappointed.

Second grade is when our elementary school opens the world of music to children who wish to participate in an orchestra. I never attended a school that offered music as part of its curriculum, and as each Reifsnyder child grips a violin and starts learning, I appreciate so much what that means. Well, it turned out, Lydia did not really like the violin. Instead, she confided one night, she wanted to learn to play guitar.

Play guitar!?! You can only imagine how rock 'n roll Mumma Nessa rejoiced. And so Weslea Sidon began coming to our home every Monday night, an experienced teacher, writer, artist, and fellow NYer in exile. She "got" Lydia immediately--and while Lyd was by no means a natural at the instrument, she eagerly greeted that hour of intensive learning. Two years later, when Lydia transitioned at school from violin to (finally free!) trumpet, Weslea and we realized that Lydia's enthusiasm for the horn was outstripping her efforts on the timeworn acoustic guitar. But what a foundation had been laid, both at school and at home.

Lydia is a jazz musician now. You hear me, Mom?! She loves, craves, embraces jazz. She clutches that trumpet like a boss, and she plays it with that determined look I adore. Mount Desert Elementary School loves jazz, too, and what an opportunity our children receive in the jazz band: two phenomenal teacher/directors whose expectations are high, but gently imparted. They know these children are capable of extraordinary musicianship, and they give them the environment and the early-morning, pre-class time to master challenging arrangements. Lydia rarely oversleeps the 6:30 a.m. alarm that's required of her for jazz band practice. Dresses herself, feeds herself, gets the lunch ready, out the door.

Every spring, those early mornings bear beautiful fruit. Say what you will about Maine's bad press re: education costs and struggles; this state welcomes and nurtures music from a young age through high school. (Shout-out to the Maine Music Educators Association!) In the 1940s my mother was a direct beneficiary of that; today, my children draw strength and skill from it. On Saturday, Peter and I traced the endless gray ribbon of I-95 up to Mom's hometown for the Middle School Instrumental Jazz Finals. Last year, I was not able to attend, and Mount Desert won first place. This year, I closed my shop for the day. Lydia's personal investment in this activity has become even stronger, so we made the trek gladly. Saturday morning, I walked through the portals of a building that used to host my Brownie Girl Scout troop, the year I'd lived in Millinocket: I got my wings in that school auditorium. Even more so, my mom got her wings in that small town, becoming a musician with purpose.

If you watched the video I posted, you know the outcome. Ned Ferm and Heather Graves did it again, guiding the MDES Jazz Band to another first-place year. The band's music selections fairly pulsed with emotion and nuance. I could not believe these children were middle schoolers. And there was my girl, wielding that brass horn, perfect posture, composed, playing her heart out. My sense of family in that room was overwhelming...how I wished Mom and Nana and Grampy could have seen and heard this. Well, truly, my belief system tells me that they did, but to have had them physically present would have been even better.

After the awards were given out, Peter and I made our way through the crowd to congratulate our girl. I was still wiping away tears inspired by the performance and the circumstances. Down the bleachers she scrambled, and she pulled me into a typically fervent Lydia hug. Her hugs are different these days...our heads tuck next to each other. Equal heights. It's even more comforting. As we separated, her brown eyes were large with emotion. Crying. In her own words, she told me that she just felt so...much...and so happy.

Exactly what I was going to say. Two hugs, this time.

03 March 2011


Fred Arnold did not make it past eighth grade. He was a scrapper, honed by pick-up hockey on the ice of the Nashwaak River and the competitive pushing of six older brothers whose exploits were always larger than his. (Fred did not envy them their military service, however...he felt eternally fortunate to have been too young for the First World War and too old for the Second.) As he grew up, Fred's mother told him many times that as the seventh son, she believed he had a gift, and he should become a physician. She cited his mathematics ability, his competence, and his good heart. He glowed with her confidence, but somehow, school was not a venue where Fred could fulfill her hopes. His teachers compared him unfavorably to his brothers, and his schoolmates often had better clothing and a calmer home life, all of which Fred resented deeply. Day to day, Fred rebelled enough to have his nose broken against a blackboard at one brutal teacher's hand. Later in life, the tendons of his palms crinkled inwards where teachers had smacked them repeatedly with 12-inch rulers. These childhood flashpoints did not dim his seething determination.

When Fred's mother died--in the midst of his grade 7 school year, and with little forewarning to her youngest son--the die was cast. His already pugnacious persona became hardened and exasperated. He battled his way into grade 8, hated every minute, and jumped off the academic track for good. During that same dreadful year, his father remarried, and Fred left home to live with his beloved uncle, who lived in the same town. It is a grace note in Fred's life that no one intervened in his departure. Even today, to imagine his 12-year-old turmoil is almost unbearable.

The early 20th century was Dickensian in its cruelties. In modern times, "survival of the fittest" conjures abstract evolutionary happenings among lower animals. For our forebears, it was the name of the game. Fred survived, oh you betcha. He left Atlantic Canada for Maine, where a new railroad was enabling unprecedented travel and commerce in the northern counties. In this, he followed in his beloved brother Mel's footsteps. Most recently, Mel had served with bravery as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in two theaters of WW1, signing up before his 18th birthday and lying shamelessly about his age. This, too, was in the horrible aftermath of their mother's death...I can almost feel the hot tears behind Mel's eyes, not emerging, as he gritted his teeth and signed on the dotted line for service and sacrifice. What the hell did he have to lose? His mother had been taken just three months prior. His father already showed signs of moving on. What remained but death or glory?

Mel was a signaller in the war. A mustard-gassing in Russia (and multiple medals for bravery) finally convinced him to give up the fight and come home. Thence, he parlayed his war experiences into a career as a railroad telegrapher. As Fred joined him in Maine, Mel taught his eager young brother everything he knew about this most crucial means of communication. The Bangor and Aroostook Railroad hired Fred in the mid-1920s, and he was officially an adult. Courtship, marriage and a newborn followed.

Fred's professional life led him to the Great Northern Paper Company, the largest employer in his newly adopted hometown of Millinocket. He hated leaving the railroad, but a supervisor questioned his integrity over some transaction he'd processed, and Fred bristled. With his newfound sense of adult stability, he cut and ran. That the GNP hired him so readily is a testimony to his evident intellect and assertive personality; in fact, despite his lack of a high school diploma, he never worked on the factory floor, instead taking part in the end-stage aspects of the paper production process.

Fred retired in 1962 as the supervisor of the Finishing Room. He was 58 years old. From that moment until the day he died, he received a monthly pension check and guaranteed health insurance from the GNP and its successor owners. He and his wife lived frugally, but they never wanted for a thing. Both nearly made it to age 90, so their financial comfort is especially noteworthy. Think of it: no stock investments, a house worth $20,000, SSI checks, health plan, pension. That's all. Yet they were provided for by a system that our country shaped carefully as a reaction to the privations of the Great Depression, and the shortages and strifes of two major wars.

Was Fred fulfilled by his work? Well, as his close confidante in later years, I can tell you that tapping out myriad messages on a telegraph set under deadline stress was his greatest professional joy. Sitting at that station desk and waiting for the shadow of a locomotive to cross the window, bearing the fruits of his labors--that was his idea of a happy routine. But Fred also took subsequent pride in the papers he helped make, the men whose careers took place under his supervision, and the tiny town that bustled with work and camaraderie, where literally everybody knew your name.

I think about Fred constantly in these messed-up, terrifying, bewildering economic times. I can see him at his home desk, carefully and competently tending his modest household finances. During my youth, my own mother confronted numerous financial hurdles, and Fred--her father--never failed to provide when asked. Because that's what you do. The fact that he could do it was what he expected after a long, productive work life, faithful to one company. Even moreso: it was the WHY behind his full-time efforts. When local people in a similar situation recently lost their pensions and insurance a few years before retirement, I felt bereft and infuriated on their behalves. Forty years of toil, and now: nothing awaits. The world has changed, you see. Your company does not value you as an individual American anymore. And God forbid your rights as a worker should be valued, protected, and propagated.

Fred, I long to hear your words, in your voice, from your living-room armchair of observation. You would be moved to copious outbursts of fury, and bless you, I know you would be picking up the phone and blasting every representative, every official whose turncoat ways led us to this hour. "This is Fred H. Arnold," you would begin--as you did every time you called anyone to complain about anything. You weren't shy, and you persisted until your way was clear. And you felt that stating your identity at the outset was worthy, that they owed you their attention.

I'm tempted to quote Wordsworth and his "Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour." But that's not quite it. I am horrified at the thought of bringing my grandfather back to see this world that is the upside-down-wrong version of what he strove for and achieved.

Still, Wordsworth stated his generation's ire beautifully, so here 'tis. Grampy would have loved to hear me read it to him, the fulfillment of that college education he paid for--the betterment of his descendants always his highest goal.

LONDON, 1802.

Milton! thou should'st be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea;
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life's common way,
In chearful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on itself did lay.