Saturday, October 22, 2016

What I learned on the APSCUF picket lines

The APSCUF strike against the Pennsylvania state system of higher education ended on Friday evening after just three short days. Both sides had compelling reasons for ending the strike as quickly as possible. Millions of dollars were at stake to be sure, but so was the very existence of our union. No one really knew what the end result of a strike would be.

The faculty were unemployed and without health benefits. Every time I got into my car to run a routine errand, I was acutely aware my overall health (not to mention my financial assets) was at risk if I got into an accident. The state system was facing the possibility of giving back close to $40 million in tuition to more than 110,000 students. Students would get the money back, but the course credits they were hoping to earn and all the time they’d spent on the first seven weeks of the semester would be irretrievably lost. Settling the strike quickly was a winning combination for everyone.

To the union, the collective sigh of relief was palpable.  Most of us love our jobs and we worried a prolonged strike would be both emotionally and financially difficult to sustain. We worried, too, about our students and how they would feel about us if the semester was cancelled. Most of us believed the strike would provide plenty of  “teaching moments” about the power of collective bargaining and the bonding of union brotherhood. Students would be witnessing democracy in action and a slice of PASSHE history. It was the first time the union had gone on strike and no one knew what might occur.

I don’t think many of my faculty colleagues would have predicted beforehand or believed afterwards just how well West Chester students embraced the lessons of the strike and how many lessons about democracy, generosity and brotherhood we learned from them.

For most West Chester professors, the highlight of our three days on the picket lines occurred in the early afternoon of Wednesday. Fifty of so of my colleagues were walking in a tight circle around a small tree on the corner of High Street and University Avenue, just outside what students call “the castle,” Philips Hall, where the university administration offices are located.

Picket lines were manned at seven or eight other places on the outskirts of campus (we were not allowed to physically walk onto the campus, that was considered crossing the picket line) but our central protest location was at Philips Hall.  We could vaguely sense something happening out in the academic Quad as the students approached. They were shouting something but we couldn’t hear it clearly.

Quite suddenly two lines of more than 100 students stormed through the arches of Philips shouting in unison: “Stu-dents for Fac-ul-ty! Stu-dents for Fac-ul-ty!” over and over, striding with purpose and far more energy than we possessed after hours of picketing. They joined our circle and it tripled in size immediately.  Chills ran up my spine at the moment and smiles broke out on every faculty face. We were wowed. When I mentioned to a colleague standing near me that it “felt like Aragorn riding to the rescue at the climax of Tolkien’s ‘The Return of the King’ ", he agreed. I heard that same analogy three other times over the next few days.

I caught the eyes of at least half a dozen of my own students and shouted my thanks to them for taking up our cause. Some nodded. Some smiled. Some ignored me. Just like they do in class.  All of us felt exhilarated to be living a moment filled with such emotion and a strong sense of justice; of making the world right again.

I met colleagues from the English department on the picket line and actually had real-life, real-world conversations with them about what they were currently reading; what their kids were doing; what kind of research they were conducting; their perceptions of the final presidential debate. When I meet them in the hallways of Main Hall, I know them as colleagues whose commitment to education is always evident; who take pride in their work for the commonwealth and the university and who bring a sense of mission to the classroom.

We are "educating the 99 percent" is how more than one picket line poster put it. We serve the ideals of democracy by helping to educate lower and middle class students. We believe every person with the ambition to go to college can be served by an education, not just the wealthy. We see higher education not just as a path to financial security but as a means to give students the tools to become citizens with a common purpose: the strength of the nation.

Walking the picket line with my colleagues helped turn them into brothers and sisters, into lifelong friends. Additionally, I hobnobbed with many professors from other departments, some whom I had never met before and others whose faces I recognized over many years of teaching but whom I had never held a conversation with. It made me realize what a special community we are and how lucky I have been to hold this job and to use my life to such high purpose.

On Thursday two of my children joined me briefly on the picket line. Luke, a WCU alum and my oldest child, took time from his work day to join me in a circle of singers to robustly sing a union song and then spent his lunch hour walking the line with me, holding a placard. It was the first time in my life I had ever walked a picket line and I was sharing the moment with my son. We will both always remember and treasure that hour together.

Fifteen minutes after he left to return to work, my daughter Lili joined me. She’s a 20-year-old junior at West Chester and, to be honest, she had very little real interest in spending her new found free “strike” time hanging with faculty hippies and singing union songs. But when she caught sight of the carnival atmosphere in front of Philips and saw how many students were on the corner with us, she smiled at the scene and got into the slow rhythm of our sidewalk waltz.

I think…I hope…. she learned as much from the experience of democracy in action as the other students who showed their support. People who heard about our strike may assume we did it to save our faculty health benefits and to secure raises. I cannot deny those reasons were part of our motivation. But a more important reason for our strike was to maintain the quality of higher education within the state system. It is not lip-service to say this: we did it for our students.

Many of them joined us on the picket lines to thank and support us in our three day-long demonstrations. When students show that much love and appreciation, it’s hard not to feel a sense of wonder and pride.

All of the faculty hope they realize how much appreciation we have for them, too. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Today I went on strike for the first time in my life

Within the next hour or so, I will be joining my colleagues at West Chester University on the picket lines in front of Philips Hall, the administration building at West Chester University.

I have been a member of APSCUF (the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculty) since the fall of 1988 when I started at West Chester, one of 14 universities in the state system of higher education. Never, in my 29 years of service, have we gone out on strike. Today I am joined by more than 5,500 professors who serve in the state system of higher education. We stand in solidarity with our union.

I beseech current students, their parents, former students and concerned citizens who care about public education to join the fight to preserve quality public education in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Please come stand in solidarity with us if you possibly can..... we are striking because we feel it is necessary to preserve the integrity and quality of public higher education in Pennsylvania.

This is our attempt to ensure the state provides universities where lower and middle class students can earn a college education at comparatively inexpensive rates. Despite deep cuts to public education by former Gov. Tom Corbett, tuition at West Chester is still less than $10,000 a year. Based on the "Best Colleges" 2016 issue of U.S. News, West Chester's annual tuition of $9,700 is a bargain compared to other local universities. For example: at the University of Pennsylvania tuition is $43,000; at Villanova  University it is $46K; at St. Joseph's University it is $43K; at Haverford College it is $51K and at Swarthmore College it is $51K.

Public education has become a political football in the last decade. Cuts to public education are not only a way for conservative politicians to shift taxpayer money from public education into private education (charter schools and religious-based private schools) it is also a way to damage teachers' unions, which remain some of the strongest labor unions in the work force. APSCUF's strike can be seen as one battle in the continuing political war on public education.

The union is pitted against a chancellor who has long-standing ties to the Jeb Bush administration in Florida and who's political allegiance is to conservative politicians. After serving as the chancellor of the Florida state system of higher education under Bush for four years, he was appointed by Pennsylvania Republican Governor Corbett three years ago to head PASSHE. Corbett became infamous for slashing the the state system's operating budget by nearly 20 percent in 2012, a total of $82.5 million. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, tried to restore some of these deep funding cuts to higher education since his election in November, 2014.

This is not a local stand-off. This is a fight for what is right for our commonwealth. Professors represented by APSCUF are taking a stand for lower and middle class students and their families. We believe in maintaining high standards of public higher education and we hope our strike sets an example for educators everywhere and for citizens in the commonwealth who believe public education is worth preserving.

We believe education is the best way to promote democratic values and raise the economic well-being of all Pennsylvanians, no matter what their social status is at birth. Everyone should have a chance to receive an education to achieve their life's goals. Our union members believe this is the ultimate goal of education.

APSCUF's goal is to make the educational dreams of lower and middle class students become reality. We believe higher education should not be limited to wealthy families. The class size and course load teaching schedule we carry tends to be heavier than what professors at other area universities are required to perform. This is a sacrifice we make and we believe in because it helps make tuition at PASSHE universities more affordable than more prestigious colleges.

Stand in solidarity with us. Please.

Friday, September 16, 2016

An Open Letter to Mike Pence

September 16, 2016

Dear Governor Pence:

You criticized Hillary Clinton recently for her comment dismissing some Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables.”  You said in a stump speech at the Value Voters Summit in Washington D.C. “I campaign all across this country for Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton’s low opinion of the people who support this campaign should be denounced in the strongest possible terms. The people who support Donald Trump’s campaign are hard-working Americans....let me just say from the bottom of my heart: Hillary, they are not a basket of anything, they are Americans and they deserve your respect.”

On the face of it, your comment seems to make sense. But it ignores the fact that not all Americans who support your running mate are “hard working Americans.” Quite a few of them, in fact, are in hate groups that actively meet, actively spread hatred against African Americans and Hispanics, actively believe whites are a superior race and actively plot the overthrow of the U.S. government.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified nearly 900 of these hate groups who are active in the United States of America. The SPLC defines hate groups as having “beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”  Their activities that include “criminal acts, marches, rallies, speeches, meetings leafleting or publishing.”

They are bigots who have thrown their political support 100 percent behind your running mate. In interviews with the press, you and Mr. Trump have delicately avoided saying anything at all that might discourage hate groups and the bigots who think like they do from voting for your ticket. To ignore the obvious racism and hatred these groups spread about other “hard working Americans” whose skin is brown or black is tantamount to endorsing their racist behavior and their racist orthodoxy. This, frankly, is a deplorable cop-out.

Since we live in a nation that is protected by a Constitution and by laws that proclaim people of all creeds, nationalities, sexual identities and colors are free to form a more perfect union and since you have taken an oath to uphold the Constitution and the nation’s laws, it is safe to assume you believe hate groups who wish to take these freedoms away from others are not true Americans. Maybe you agree with me that the behavior of such hate groups, that are actively trying to deny the civil rights of minorities and gay Americans, can collectively be called “deplorable”.

I humbly ask you to please consider distancing yourself from the people who support your campaign who are voices of hatred. Whether you call them "deplorable" or not is up to you. But I hope you won’t mind if many other Americans find Secretary Clinton’s description of these kind of citizens to be appropriate. People who spread violence and racism are, in fact, deplorable. Democrats and Republicans should be working together to eradicate groups that discriminate against other Americans on the basis of their religion, their color and their sexual identity. Not to work for this kind of tolerance strikes many of us as irresponsible, cowardly, inherently a un-American and, yes, deplorable.


Chuck Bauerlein

Downingtown, Pa.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

West Chester Story Slam: Risk (Sept. 13, 2016)

I had a great time last night at the West Chester Story slam..... told an old story about sneaking into Game Six of the 1980 World Series with my brother, Paul. Unfortunately, I went WAY over the five minute time limit.  The story seemed to go over well with the audience.

You can see it here on YouTube:

Thursday, July 7, 2016

My walking tour of Casco Viejo, Panama City

When I read several online travel stories comparing the old section of Panama City -- Casco Viejo -- to Havana and New Orleans, I knew my experiences there would be memorable.  I spent eight of the best years of my life in New Orleans as a college student and then a reporter at the New Orleans States-Item. And Havana is my number one bucket list destination.

Casco Viejo was even more magical than I had expected. The picture above is the balcony view from my hotel, the Magnolia Inn. Some streets in Casco are even more narrow than the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans. But anyone who has been to that charming part of the city will instantly recognize the wrought iron balconies that are a hallmark of both places.

I landed in Panama on the night of June 29th and my first foray into Casco was on the morning of June 30th. You could cut the humidity with a butcher's knife. Not even eight years of tropical humidity in New Orleans prepared me for Panama's damp atmosphere. Within an hour of walking around the area of the Magnolia Inn, I was drenched in sweat. But I had a new Nikon Coolpix camera with me and I was eager to discover what scenes I might see through its lens.

Visitors to Casco Viejo immediately sense the ambiguity of both architectural optimism and pessimism in the same neighborhood. UNESCO is pouring millions of dollars into renovation projects all over Casco, but snuggled right next to renewed, refurbished buildings are others in utter disrepair. Casco Viejo is in a state of transition that will take years or even decades to complete but that offer hope and inspiration for the future.


It's a neighborhood of vivid, intense colors. Lush green parks and public squares filled with palm trees and flowering bushes and shrubs are interspersed throughout Casco Viejo and vie for the eye's attention with homes, store fronts and public buildings painted in a spectrum of tastefully subdued colors. 

I was searching for a place to have breakfast and came upon an open air cafe with the aroma of home cooked food wafting into the street. The counter could only accommodate eight people and, as this tiny eatery was directly across the street from the local police station, all eight spots were occupied by men in blue uniforms. I figured the food was both cheap and delicious and I was right. I waited my turn and asked for a menu (in English). There was none. And I am uncertain the woman behind the counter understood what I was asking for. Instinctively, she pointed to prepared food under glass a the end of the counter. Most of the policemen were eating round, doughy things called hojadres that looked a little like a doughnut and a little like a pancake. A pan full of fried chicken breasts were right next to them. I ordered a chicken breast with a side of what I thought was potatoes called yuca. It cost me $3.50 in American dollars and it was the best (and least expensive) food I ate in six days in Panama. 

When I got back to my hotel for a much needed morning shower (the first of three I would take that day, just to stay refreshed), I asked a friendly desk clerk named Emanuele where I might find a cigar for purchase. He directed me to a local corner store, where I purchased a Cohiba Robusto for $8, a very reasonable price for a fine Cuban cigar (they generally go for between $15 and $20 each here in the U.S.) but a lot more pricey than the cigars I generally smoke. When I mentioned this to Emanuele later in the afternoon, he recommended I try to find a street vendor who was locally renowned for rolling his own cigars with Nicaraguan tobacco, which was "just as good as Cuban tobacco" according to several Panamanians who overheard our conversation in the hotel lobby. Emanuele's hand drawn directions on a map of the neighborhood were perfect, although I walked past the rustic, tiny tobacco stand twice before finding it.  Because of our language limitations, the friendly fellow behind the counter had trouble figuring out what I wanted and handed me a pack of cigarettes. I said no and used my hands to show I wanted something bigger. He shot me an understanding smile and reached for a cigar box on the counter behind him. Inside were dozens of the ugliest, largest cigars I had ever seen. But they looked freshly rolled. He sold them for 55 cents each. I was suspicious a cigar so large and unsightly could possibly be very good, so I only purchased one. When I fired it up several hours later, I was surprised at the mildness of the smoke and how long the cigar lasted.  It took me 90 minutes and two slowly sipped shots of rum to finish it. The next day I went back and purchased ten more, to be slowly savored at home over the course of the month. 

It was the start of a perfect adventure in Panama City. Viva Casco Viejo! Should you be fortunate enough to find yourself on a trip to Panama, don't dare miss its oldest, most delectable neighborhood. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

My favorite recordings of 2015

 Apologies to all of you Adele fans. I didn't include her on my end of the year list because it doesn't make a lot of sense to me to hype a CD that most of you have already heard and that will sell millions of units without any help from me. For the record, I quite like most of "25" and I like Adele. But I am pretty sure I will be sick of her album within a few weeks. These are my favorite recordings of the year. I honestly believe most of these are worth owning and some of them will stand the test of time. 

1.)    Courtney Barnett. “Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit.” (Mom & Pop). Barnett’s second studio effort is a masterpiece that feels at once both casually tossed-off and meticulously planned. Lyrically always inventive, Barnett delivers ear-grabbing catch phrases with the panache of an Academy Award winning actress and a Joyce-ian eye for detail and humor . The internal rhyme of this lyric from one of the CD’s stand-out cuts, “Pedestrian at Best”  gives a sense of its irresistible word play: “I must confess I’ve made a mess / of what should be a small success / but I digress at least I’ve tried my very best, I guess”.  And check out this observational moment from “Elevator Operator”:  “He waits for an elevator (one to nine) / a lady walks in and waits by his side / Her heels are high and her bag is snakeskin / hair pulled so tight you can see her skeleton / Vickers perfume on her breath, a tortoise-shell necklace between her breasts / She looks at him up and down with her botox frown / he’s well-used to that by now.”  Meanwhile, three cracker-jack band mates whip up a wall of noise as tightly poised as battleship cannon while Barnett herself conjures left-handed sonic hand grenades that would make both Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix jealous from their graves.  What’s not to like? This was my favorite record of the year.

2.)    Songhoy Blues. “Music in Exile” (World Circuit).  The title of the album is not meant to be whimsical. It’s as much of a political statement as anything popular culture has come up with in this year of cartoon campaigning and the demagoguery of Donald Trump. When jihadist terrorists took over their Mali city, Bambako, three years ago, this 4-piece collective decided to leave the country. They’ve lived on the road ever since, bouncing from gig to gig and one borrowed couch to another to crash on. That they managed to produce a searing set of blistering African blues as inspirational as this is miraculous. Combining the subtle guitar licks of their homeland’s greatest musician, Ali Farka Toure, with the ethereal easiness of Moroccan bedouin music, “Music In Exile” feels timeless.  “Soubour”, the opening track, is a blues classic.   

3.)    Ryley Walker. “Primrose Green” (Dead Oceans Records). If the organic, natural feel of acoustic guitars floats your boat, this is the one record you need to own from this year’s great crop of albums. “Primrose Green” announced Ryley Walker as an artist to watch in years to come. It’s obvious from the first note that Bert Jansch’s blue print for Pentangle provided Walker’s artistic template. His songs showcase  virtuoso performances on his instrument and Walker’s gorgeous vocals evoke Tim Buckley and John Martyn in their prime. “The High Road” and “On the Banks of the Old Kishwaukee” are tracks to seek out.

4.      Sufjan Stevens. “Carrie & Lowell.”  (Asthmatic Kitty).  Stevens has one of the most wide-ranging curricula vitas in modern popular music. A chameleon of the highest order, he’s dabbled in musical state histories (Illinois and Michigan); Christmas albums; orchestral works; folk music, ballet works and, now, a confessional  tribute to his parents and an intimate case study in bi-polar disorder.  He hasn’t made an album that feels this constrained since “Seven Swans.” He delivers these family tales in an introspective whisper that make the heartache and tragedy feel earned, almost sacred.

     Kendrick Lamar. “To Pimp a Butterfly.”  Eight out of every ten critics have it at the top of their best of the year lists. 11 Grammy nominations herald its historic relevance to the times and draw comparisons to Stevie Wonder’s heyday. In a year when Black Lives Matter protests were callously marginalized by Bill O’Reilly as “a radical group… not all that different from the Black Panther movement", Lamar’s angry album was as politically and culturally relevant as Bob Dylan’s finger-pointing songs of the 1960s and To Pimp a Butterfly became a timely soundtrack to the media’s sound bites of white cops shooting black teenagers.  I didn’t enjoy it as much as some other things I listened to this year, but it’s relevance to what’s happening in America is impossible to ignore.

6.      BC Camplight “How to Die In the North” (Bella Union). After two forgotten piano-based CDs that were ignored by fans and critics alike, New Jersey native Brian Christinzio moved to Manchester in the north of England and quietly went to work on this quirky, gorgeous record. “Bold, campy, heartbreaking and flush with moxie, Christinzo’s third outing is a left-field gem, an indie rock distillation of ‘60s and ‘70s chamber pop tropes that prefers Nilsson over Newman, Todd Rundgren over Lennon and McCartney,” is how James Monger’s review for the All-Music Guide review put it. “You Should have Gone to School" and “Love Isn’t Anybody’s Fault” best showcase the songwriter’s considerable humor and charms.

7.      Mbongwana Star. “From Kinshaha” (World Circuit) If you liked “Kongotronics” by Konono No. 1 back in 2004, you’ll appreciate this Republic of Congo collective called Mbongwana Star. Employing the same “thumb pianos” as Konono, and singing retro tribal chants that sound as if they were recorded in Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios back in the 1950s, the recording has a live quality to it that makes it bristle with visceral power. Imagine you’re standing on a crowded street corner in Kinshasa, hearing the next big thing to come out of Africa and you’ll have a clue. “Malukayi”, one of the strongest cuts, features Konono.

8.      Father John Misty. “I Love You, Honey Bear.”  (Sub Pop). Josh Tillman’s second solo effort reeks of Left Coast hipster irony and white boy L.A. cynicism. Don’t let that scare you away. Think of Glenn Frey and Don Henley ooh-wooing their way through a Jackson Browne cover for an early Eagles’ album and you’ll know the well-produced studio charms of Father John’s sound. The sexually-frank bedroom details of his personal life might provide a tad too much information for the weak of heart, but so did the disintegration of Browne’s marriage back in the mid-1970s when “Late for the Sly” and “The Pretender” became classics. Like Jackson, Josh is a troubadour of the map of the heart.

9.      Waxahatchee. “Ivy Tripp.” (Merge)  Sleater-Kinney got better press and their “No Cities to Love” CD has landed on a lot of “best of the year” lists, but for my money “Waxahatchee” was the cleaner and more listenable feminist manifesto. A native of Alabama but a resident of Philadelphia, Katie Crutchfield put together a collection of songs that plumbs her past and uses the raw material of failed relationships for fodder in ways that even Carrie Brownstein would admire. “Breathless” and “La Loose” showcase Crutchfield’s fuzzy guitar rumblings, a hallmark of the album.

10.  Joanna Newsom. “Divers” (….) After keeping fans waiting five long years for her 2015 release,  Newsom finally delivered another terrific album. Newsom’s strength is an ability to create a world that seems entirely her own vision but that gives her fans access to a place of mysticism and renewal as frequently as they go to church (but that probably offers them a more uplifting experience). If Loreena McKennitt is your cup of mull, you should take a dive into “Divers.”

1    In alphabetical order, these ten records were in heavy rotation in my car stereo during the year and came close to making this 2015 list of favorite recordings. Brandi Carlisle, “The Firewatcher’s Daughter”; The Decemberists, “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World”;  Patti Griffin, “Servant of Love”;  Ray Wylie Hubbard “The Ruffian’s Misfortune”; Jason Isbell, “Something More than Fire,” Kacey Musgraves, “Pageant Material”; James McMurtry, “Complicated Life”;  Sleater-Kinney, “No Cities To Love”; Satellite Hearts, “Desire  Forces the Flow”;  and Tame Impala, “Currents”. 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Agnes G. Bauerlein, February 12, 1928 to November 26, 2015: an appreciation

On Oct. 2, 2010, my parents celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary at a large family reunion in Lancaster county. That day, I read this testimonial to my mother.  Agnes passed away peacefully in her sleep yesterday at 1:15 p.m. in her 24 hour care facility in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. My sister Heidi and my brother Mark were with her at the time. The family is holding a small (family only) ceremony for her in Wisconsin tomorrow, Saturday, Nov. 28. We will hold a much larger celebration of her life in a month or so here in the Philadelphia area, once arrangement are made. Thanks to all of you who kept her in your thoughts and prayers these last few weeks as word went our that my mother was nearing the end of her life.  And thank you again for reading this.

"Cheers to you, Mom!"

It goes without saying that most young men love their mothers and that their mothers become the template against which all other women are measured. Maybe that’s why I have so much trouble finding the right one, Mom! You were just impossible to replace!

It finally dawned on me – just how special you are, and how difficult it would be to find someone like you to spend a life with – when an old friend who’s never met you read my Mother’s Day story from the Inquirer Magazine and said how touched he was to read that story. He told me it must be hard to live with a mother who is a saint. He was right about that. It was hard then and it still is hard today. It is hard because you set the bar so high. You and Dad really demanded greatness of us. None of us achieved that, of course. Not yet. I keep waiting for Mark to outshine us all when his graphic novel hits the best seller’s list. Here’s the working title: “My Abusive Childhood: Collective Memories Growing Up Catholic at Kidzaplenty Place”

We know how hard you worked. Just the daily routine of taking care of such a large home and feeding 11 children was exhausting to witness. And coming into the second floor bathroom every morning and seeing three or four piles of laundry that awaited you, was a constant reminder of all the work to be done while we were off in school. That work alone, in a house as large as ours, should be enough to get the beatification process started in Rome. Mother Teresa started out in life as an Agnes, too. Did you know that?

We remember the sacrifices you made for us. We all made them, too! We sacrificed our appetites when we were fed macaroni and cheese once a week, or liver and onions twice a month; or broccoli stalks and brussel sprouts and blood-red beets and other inedible vegetables we hated but that you knew we needed. We remember how you fed a family of 11 for years on a $60 grocery allowance. We always hoped for spaghetti and meatballs and Italian sausages, and, despite how much work that took, we were fed that meal more than any other because you knew how much we all we all loved your sauce.

We remember seeing you stooped over the family sewing machine, sewing missing buttons on our shirts or hemming hand-me down pants from the Hopkinson boys or mending torn kneecaps and holey socks or making the girls dresses or even sewing clothes for their baby dolls, doing all you could to ensure we were not dressed like street urchins out of a Dicken’s novel. You might think all that work was God’s penance for having such a large family, but we tend to think you were doing God’s will. There’s grace in performing those mundane motherly tasks that all mothers do and you earned a ton of it, Mom.

We remember the stories you told us growing up in Holland. We experienced first hand a treasure trove of those Dutch customs every Christmas. The time you spent in the kitchen making saucijsbrooges and stollen, and separating each and every piece of a dozen grapefruits with the curved edge of a grapefruit knife and then sprinkling sugar on top. We remember the tales of Black Peter putting coal in stockings and of the Dutch songs you would sing to us in words we couldn’t understand but that delighted us anyway because they always made you laugh when you finished them. We all remember the way you and dad turned Christmas day into a never-ending event of good vibrations by making us sit as a pajama collective in a wide circle and unwrap our gifts individually, one at a time. It stretched that glorious holiday out for hours.

Only rarely did any of us get the present we most wanted, but none of us has forgotten the experience of those Christmases past or forgot how much they brought us close as a family. We learned then to appreciate the things that really matter in life. Some of us went to our friends’ homes on Christmas afternoon to play with their shiny new Erector sets or slot car tracks or their Lionel trains or to play with their soft, new Care Bears or My Little Ponies or their shiny and leggy Barbie Dolls. We likely wished we had those presents too.

But I know none of us would ever trade the lessons we learned about the real meaning of Christmas for the neighbor’s presents. All of us wish we could bottle those Christmas mornings and sell them to the rest of America. Not because it would have made us fortunes, but because it would have made us all rich in love and people everywhere would thank us for sharing those wonderful vibes of sheer joy. You earned some heavenly points there, too, Mom.

You made all of the holidays special in some way. We all remember your incredible pies at Thanksgiving we somehow forgot to save room for but devoured anyway; the painted Easter eggs at Easter we hunted in the vast uncut openness of the spring front lawn; the costumes you made at Halloween. Points, points, more heavenly points.

You were a Queen among moms. And I suspect my friend from Loyola knew all of this when he made his comment to me about what a saint you were. But that’s not really what he was talking about. When he mentioned how difficult it must be to live with a mother destined for sainthood, he was talking about your courage, your willingness to show the world of powerful men that mothers count too; that the opinion of mothers was what got politicians elected and that they should be held accountable for their decisions, especially when their governments ask America’s mothers to send their sons and daughters off to foreign lands to protect the nation’s economic interests.

You wanted them to take their oaths of office as seriously as you took your own responsibilities as a mother. You knew that the lives of American youth was too high a price to pay to fight unnecessary wars. You knew that the very idea of war was something people had to start to question. You knew that “Question Authority” was not some trite political slogan but a social responsibility all citizens have. I never personally knew anyone who was willing to go to jail for this just cause, Mom. Until you did. You showed us all that one person could make a statement of goodness and purpose with her life; that in fact, there is no higher purpose in life than that: to try to speak the truth and to embrace life itself and all its goodness.

I don’t think too many of us ever really understood or appreciated the toll those actions took on you, Mom; on your marriage and on your relationship with your siblings. But God knows. And he loves you very much for those sacrifices and maybe we are all a little bit jealous of you for that. That’s probably what my friend was thinking of when he told me how hard it must be to have a saint for a mother. It’s hard because none of us possess the same amount of fortitude to follow our hearts as you do. We look up to you for a wide variety of reasons, most of all for showing us how to love our own children, and we emulate you and honor you and we sing your praises in birthday cards and in anniversary parties like this. But we find it impossible to follow in your footsteps and place our personal freedom at risk to live a life of conviction.

All of this is just prelude to a moment we shared together. You and I. You probably won’t remember it, but I can’t ever forget it. It held for me the secret of who you are and why you did what you had to do when you took on the government and the war machine and the arms dealers. I knew in my heart I would write about this moment some day. All of us have some very private and special moment with you we hold sacred, Mom. This is mine.

I had gone with you and some of the siblings to the Schretlen family reunion in Holland in 1988. It was July and I was leaving my job soon at the newspaper in Virginia and I was coming home soon to start my teaching job at West Chester. Isabel turned one during the week I was away in Holland, so the trip cost me the experience of sharing her first birthday.

One day the Schretlen clan planned an afternoon trip to your parish church. It was centuries old, made of old brown stones from some local quarry. As we walked into the interior of the church, it smelled musty and the sanctuary seemed smaller and darker than churches I was used to in America. The pews were made of an old hard, dark wood and the kneelers were worn. After 10 or so minutes, I followed you and one of my aunts up a small path towards a grove of tall trees, mostly pine. It looked like we were approaching a park. When we got to the summit of the hill, I was surprised to see a series of small plots of ground encircled by stone walls about three or four feet high. Initially, I thought they were small gardens. They were meticulously cared for and, because it was the middle of summer, all of them had a variety of blooming flowers in them, a blaze of color. Primroses, daffodils, irises, nasturtium, scarlet sage, sunflowers, violas, catmints, polyanthas, and foxgloves. It was as if I had stepped into a well-tended English arboretum.

It was stunning and peaceful, quiet except for a slight rustle of the tree branches and birdsong that filtered gently through the pines and leaves. I thought to myself I had found a small slice of heaven. But I couldn’t quite figure out why the garden was separated by these small stone walls and divided into plots. It was almost as if this sacred place were a 4-H competition…. each plot more meticulously planned and carefully tended than the next, as if someone were coming soon to judge them and one of them would win the gold medal.

Then we walked to a small plot that was less well tended. Flowers bloomed there too, but it hadn’t been weeded in quite some time. Soggy leaves left over from the last year’s fall were stuffed into corners of the stone walls and the lush, emerald grass was uncut, growing wild, several inches higher than the trimmed plots that surrounded it. I was puzzled and couldn’t understand why this one was different than the others. The overall effect of the place was one of serene, lush beauty, a place as alive as any I had ever been in. Even this untended plot had been lovingly cared for, but just not as recently as the others.

You and Aunt Celine stopped and looked around the plot and you both became quiet and respectful. When you looked down at the ground, it suddenly dawned on me that we were in a cemetery. And then you started crying. Very softly, as if you didn’t want to worry us or to interrupt our own thoughts. Then I finally realized where we were: at the grave site of your sister Mary and your brother, Bluffy. The aunt and uncle I had never met. And I knew that it had been a very long time since you had been back to visit them.

Maybe you were crying because of things you remembered about them. The shade of Mary’s ash blonde hair in her teenage youth or the way she sang to you to sleep at night. Or maybe you were thinking of Bluffy’s small and tender hands and they how they felt in your own fingers when you took him for a walk over the shady streets of your neighborhood. Maybe you were remembering back to that tragic day when the Americans were trying to drive the Nazi’s out of Nijmegen and they were killed by American bombs in an air raid. Maybe you were crying because there was no one from the immediate family left to take as good a care of their final resting place as the other cemetery plots were so lovingly cared for. Or maybe you were crying because you were afraid you might never come back to this serenely quite place, where your sister and brother would spend eternity, thousands of miles away from you and your other siblings.

I knew then Mom, why you did what you felt you had to do when you were breaking laws and going to jail and becoming the disgraced sister of your siblings, the family’s embarrassment to many of us. I tried to imagine how I would feel if I was coming to the burial plot of Lisa and Matt and their graves were so far away that I would not be able to leave flowers there or trim the grass and tend to their garden so others would feel welcomed there. I tried to understand the complex emotions you were feeling but I failed utterly to do so. I couldn’t imagine having to endure that much pain in my life and I hoped I never would.

The searing memory of those five or six minutes with you at that small plot of land surrounded by small stone walls has never left me. It made me understand so much about your desire to try to change the world, try to make it a better place; to do what little you could, as a single person, a mother and a grandmother, to eliminate the violence and the horror and the implicit, everlasting sorrow that reside in weapons of mass destruction. I am so very proud of you for that. And I feel more than a little shame that I have not yet been able to bear your torch and carry on the fight you so nobly waged against what President Eisenhower once called the “military industrial complex”.

You have set an example for all of us with your service to peace and justice,
Mom. And those minutes in the cemetery in Nijmegen at the graves of Mary and Bluffy told me all the reasons I ever needed to know about why you had to speak out about war.

And dad, I know you initially were reluctant to embrace mom’s acts of civil disobedience. It was more than an inconvenience to you…and I know how hard it must have been to field questions about mom’s behavior from her siblings. She didn’t ask you for your blessing when she went and got herself arrested. But I have to tell you, I never felt prouder to be your son when you fielded those questions gracefully and told the relatives how much you admired her and that she had a mind and will of her own and she was following her conscience. 

At that point, it finally seemed to me your marriage to Mom was one based on trust and respect. It seemed to me you had learned the hardest lesson of marriage one has to learn: how to adapt to your partner and support your partner when your partner’s life suddenly takes a course you never expected and that you don’t necessarily trust or approve of. Surely you turned to your faith in God in those moments and surely you heard God’s answer: that Mom’s work here on Earth was pretty darned important too and that you would have to make some personal sacrifices to adapt to Mom’s newfound purpose.

In those moments, it seems to me, you and mom really forged a marriage for the ages, one we honor here today. You have given us all more than a lifetime of love and blessings. You have shown us the meaning of personal sacrifice and commitment to an ideal. We are all so blessed to have you as our parents.

So in closing, Yes, I must agree with my old friend. It IS hard to live with a mother who is a saint. But I thank God mothers like you, mom, walk among us.

You inspire us to greatness and to accountability. That’s the best kind of work that parents can do. You both did your jobs very well. We all love both of you very much.