Home is the soldier

Gird your sword upon your thigh, O hero,

In your splendor and glory,

In your glory, win success.

Ride on in the cause of truth and righteous humility,

And may your right hand lead you to awesome deeds.

Psalm 45:4-5

Finally home is the soldier, safe at last.

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The Irish In Me

My mother’s grandparents came from Ireland; from Dublin and County Cavan and County Cork, it is said. I have Irish in me. My father’s family was English and French Canadian and, even though Dad was a red-head, my mother insisted that my childhood red hair and freckles were from my Irish ancestors. As far as my mother was concerned, it was our Irish heritage that defined us.
No one in my family had ever set foot in Ireland, not since my mother’s paternal grandmother, Mary Berry, left County Cork to travel with her sea captain husband and land on the shores of Connecticut about 100 years ago. So in the summer of 1974, when I was all of 21, I set off for England to work for three months in the offices of the Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party. The first of my immediate family to take flight over the Atlantic Ocean, I boarded British Airways in Montreal late on a May evening with two classmates from college. One was a hearty Irish lass of the clan of Halloran from Rhode Island, the other was a stick-up-her-ass daughter of WASP patricians, but we were the sum total of the college’s political science majors, so off we went to study parliamentarian politics.
A red-eye transatlantic flight in those days brought you up toward the North Pole and down again just off the coast of Ireland. Ireland seen through a small round airplane window just as dawn is breaking on the western cliffs is like looking through the peephole of a kaleidoscope of green. “This isle, this emerald isle, this Ireland,” I murmured, the phrase playing though my mind as we crossed over Ireland, the Irish Sea and Wales, to arrive in the misty fog of a spring morning in England.
After settling into our lodging and our jobs, we began our weekend jaunts around Great Britain. Out to Stratford-On-Avon, round to Salisbury and the great Stonehenge, down to Dover’s white cliffs. A train ride to Edinburgh and two damp days traversing the Royal Mile and climbing Arthur’s Seat, to gaze down on wet grey stone and green so green that it should have been a color all its own.
Then, on to Ireland. Too poor to fly to Dublin from London, almost penniless students working for the privilege and not the coin, we opted for a train to Wales in the late afternoon and an overnight cruise over the Irish Sea on a merchant ship. With only our backpacks to cushion us, we huddled on the deck, only the midnight blue sky to cover us, only a million stars to light our way. Gathered out in the open with us, a group of sons of the Olde Sod pulled up boxes and barrels and broke out their instruments: accordions, harmonicas, mouth harps and guitars. And spoons. Through the night, their Irish voices serenaded us with the songs of Ireland we had never heard at home on St. Patrick’s Day, except perhaps for Molly Malone and By the Rising of the Moon.
I sat enthralled, transfixed by the music as I had never been before. I could play no instrument and dared not raise my voice in song; so paltry a voice as mine had no place among these musicians. So, I sat, I listened, I hummed, I tapped my foot, I laughed and I wept. To this day, some 36 years later, I can still feel the salt spray on my face, taste on my lips the dark Irish whiskey that they passed around, hear the music ringing in my ears, playing in my soul. I never thought to feel the like again. Until a Sunday in June 2010.
We drove up from Lynchburg into the Blue Ridge Mountains in a light mist. Low clouds hung midway up the sides of the mountains, their pale grey a stark contrast to the vivid green of early summer in Virginia. My high school sweetheart, Tom, and I were on our way to a house concert at the home of Jim and his wife, Wendy. Jim is, in Tom’s estimation, one of the finest musicians in America. Tom is no slouch himself in this department, playing guitar, banjo, mandolin and, my personal favorite, Irish whistles. We were off to hear Paddy Keenan and John Walsh play for a group of 30 or so Irish music aficionados and musicians. A house concert:  we brought food and drink and instruments and a few dollars for the musicians.
Jim and Wendy’s house sits on the side of a hill, with an unimpeded vista of the Blue Ridge Mountains spread out like a feast from their back deck. The walls of the simple concrete block house are covered with photographs of Jim in various bands, Irish and Southern ancestors and musical instruments. The living room had been largely stripped of furniture and was filled with folding chairs, in rows before the fireplace, an amplifier and a bass. The voices were softly Southern and the hospitality warm. Excitement was a low buzz in the air as we awaited the arrival of the two Irish lads making their way through the hills from Roanoke after a whirlwind weekend that brought Paddy from Boston to a concert with John in NYC on Friday and another concert in Roanoke on Saturday.

Thirty minutes late, they arrived in the light rain. John was introduced as one of the finest guitarists in the world, one whom a guitar company is naming a set of guitar strings after. He resembles any collegiate American guy from any mid-size town in America, until he opens his mouth and County Kenny spills out. Paddy has the look of the performer, slouched under a black leather hat, a black leather cord tied round his neck from which hangs a huge sculpted piece of silver, loose grey shirt and soft jeans. With dark eyes and a graying mustache, he wears the years of touring, drinking and singing sad songs on his face. Paddy may be the premier uilleann piper in the world.
The uilleann pipes, originally known as the Union pipes, are the characteristic national bagpipe of Ireland. The uilleann pipes bag is inflated by means of a small set of bellows strapped around the waist and the right arm. Some pipers can converse or sing while playing as well. Paddy doesn’t sing but he does tell tales.
Laughing at Jim’s introduction, Paddy kicked off his shoes, asked for a beer and thanked us all for coming along, from places near and far. It was pointed out, then, that I had come all the way from New York. A look of surprised amusement in his eyes, Paddy stared at me and asked in his Dublin drawl “Now, really, darlin’? And why would you be traveling so far when we’ve just come from New York?”
“It was no great feat, as I was headed here for other purposes as well.” I blushed at the attention. “But, I believe I win the prize.”
“Ah, well, that’s it then. We’ll have a bit of music for you and make sure the trip was worth it.”
They began with a trio of jigs, then some reels. Uilleann pipes sound to me like Irish whistles but with more range and depth, a hint of the roughness of bagpipes echoing in the background. Difficult to describe but delicious to hear. I did not know any of the songs, though Paddy and John talked about each set, in their gentle lyrical voices, touched with humor and real affection for each other and the music. They seemed as much in awe of their attentive audience as we were of them. Paddy played a song he had written for his daughter, Sabrina, to teach her to play by ear; John played a waltz he had written as a Christmas gift for his daughter and together they gave us the ballad of Lord Franklin, lost at sea, exploring the Northwest Passage.
After two hours, they called for the other musicians to join in. Almost everyone began unpacking fiddles, banjos, guitars and whistles. They gathered around Jim and Paddy and John and began to play. The music filled the small house. It floated in the air, enveloping me in a camaraderie that should have excluded me, but instead, drew me in. I was back on the freighter to Dublin, once again on a journey to Ireland. Jigs and reels brought out spoons and a bodhr`an, the Irish frame drum. Jerry started to play the dobro, a resonator guitar played across the lap, which prompted everyone to urge Warren to sing Maggie as he strummed a gorgeous acoustic guitar. Tears came to my eyes. John was heard to say, “That was fucking beautiful.” Paddy agreed. “Lovely, just lovely.”
We were among the last to straggle out. I played the groupie and sought autographs from Paddy and John on their CD’s. They promised to come north to play again at Café Lena’s in Saratoga. Standing in the driveway, twilight coming in, Tom and Paddy had one last discussion about Irish whistles. Paddy asked to see one of Tom’s instruments. When it was drawn from the bag, Paddy’s eyes lighted and he brought the whistle to his lips. Recognizing the song, Tom pulled out a smaller whistle. The two played The Tar Road to Sligo. Conversation died. The notes drifted around us as we stood still, caught once again in the spell of the music, drawing us together, touching the Irish in us all.

Bananas

Kiddie bananas they call them. Bunches of smaller bananas “just the right size for a lunch box or treat”, hanging on a stand in the cereal aisle, not in the produce department. I grabbed them because my knee was throbbing and I was in a hurry. Home, they rested perfectly in the fruit bowl in the center of the kitchen island.

I do not have elementary school-age children any longer but I must have bananas in the house. Bananas for Marley’s breakfast, a favorite and nutritious treat for my seven year old Chocolate Labrador Retriever. Marley’s food allergies became evident in his second or third year when the scratching became constant and the bare spot on his belly grew wider and wider. After much consultation and experimentation, I fell back on a natural diet. Wolves don’t eat grain in the wild, dogs come from wolves, so maybe it was the grains found in almost all commercially available dog food that was causing the itching, hair loss and flaking skin. I began with boiled boneless skinless chicken breasts and sweet potatoes on the recommendation of a dog trainer friend. I added some flax seed oil that my daughter found at the doggie bakery and food store in Indianapolis. The positive results were immediate: less scratching, less shedding, smaller bald spot, and a weight loss of almost 20 pounds. Marley was now a lean and shiny dark chocolate foodie. He devoured his natural diet and the new foods I carefully added: apples, blueberries, cucumbers, plain yogurt. And bananas. He loves bananas almost more than he loves chicken.

Marley is a dancer. He prances and leaps when happy or excited. And when truly delirious, he launches himself upright from the floor, all four feet leaving the ground at the same instant, bringing him almost to my eye-level. It is an amazing feat for a 76 pound dog, especially in the narrow space between the kitchen counter and the center island where he usually waits for me while I fix his meals. In the morning, half-blind without my glasses, barefoot and yawning, I pull the cooked chicken and sweet potatoes and the plain, non-fat, yogurt from the fridge and he wiggles next to me. I fill his water bowl first and then cut up a chicken breast and half a sweet potato into the doggie bowl that matches my dinnerware – yes, I’m that anal. He is emitting little yelps of anticipation by now, nudging my thigh with a cold wet nose as if to say “Get a move on, I haven’t eaten in 12 hours!” When I open the carton of yogurt, he starts to dance; he knows breakfast is minutes away. But when I turn from the counter to take a banana from the fruit bowl on the island, he becomes almost apoplectic with anticipation, He quivers, he paces, he yelps and he moans as I peel the banana. As soon as I start to slice the banana – unnecessary for him because he could swallow it whole in one gulp – it is as if he has become Michael Jordan. He leaps straight up, looks me in the eye and lets loose a whimper/growl/moan that is part demand and part plea. If I am fumbling with the banana, he may jump a second or even a third time before my task is complete and the bowl is relinquished to him with my useless admonition to “take it easy, try to taste at least some of it.” Then his meal disappears into his massive mouth in less time than it takes me to push the banana skin down the garbage disposal.

Yesterday morning, his performance brought the usual smile to my face and laughter to my lips. But also tears to my eyes.

My father has been dead since 1995. He never met Marley who arrived in our lives almost 10 years after my father left us. My dad, for as many years as I can remember, began each day with the same breakfast: hot Salada tea, a piece of toast, one egg and Bran cereal, with milk and half a banana. Woe be to any of us who ate the last banana and left my father to contemplate his breakfast without that fruit.

My last years with my father were strained due to actions he took shortly after my marriage in 1978. I forgave him for my mother’s sake but I never really forgot and I carried a grudge in my heart and distance in my demeanor around him. He became bitter in the last years of his life, his health fading, his business gone. He had always had a marvelous sense of humor but he laughed rarely in those years. The only time he was genuinely amused and really laughed in my presence was when my huge yellow Labrador Retriever, Alex, climbed up onto my lap while I was sitting in a recliner in my parent’s living room. Our shared laughter was one of the few bright moments I recall with him in those years. It is one of the memories I cherish now that I have finally been able to make peace with him in my heart.

I could almost see him the other morning, sitting at my kitchen island, eating that traditional breakfast of his, but putting down his spoon and laughing, really laughing, at the antics of my crazy dog who loves bananas with his breakfast as much as he did. I bent down to hug Marley for giving me one more sweet connection with my dad.

Ancient holiday meets modern needs

What could be better? A holiday where everyone dresses up in costumes, goes to parties, eats delicious holiday goodies, gives out treats to friends and family, and drinks themselves senseless. Halloween? No, Purim.

Purim is a Jewish holiday, commemorating the defeat of Haman, the wicked Prime Minister of Persia, who sought to annihilate the Jews living in Persia and confiscate all their money and property for his own. Was Haman beaten by the force of G-d? By legions of Jewish warriors or daring rebels like the Maccabees? No, Haman was defeated by wiles of an old Jewish man, Mordecai, and his lovely cousin, Esther, the Queen of Persia.

Esther was an orphan, raised by Mordecai, in ancient Persia, where the Jews, displaced from Israel by the Babylonians, had fled. The king of Persia, Ahasuerus, had divorced his wife, Vashti, for refusing to appear before him wearing only her crown when summoned while he partied with his friends and soldiers. As is always the case, a search was conducted amongst the kingdom’s virgins to find a replacement for the Queen. Esther, young and beautiful, won with Mordecai’s coaching but she did not reveal she was a Jew.

Later, Haman, annoyed by Mordecai’s refusal to bow before him, plotted to kill not only Mordecai but all the Jews. Learning of the plot, Mordecai enlisted Esther, telling her she must plead her people’s case before the King. To appear before the King without a summons meant death, but after fasting for three days, Esther gathered up her courage and appeared. The King was not displeased and sought to reward her. Esther invited the King and Haman to a feast in her private quarters. Two more times she invited them back, as Ahasuerus was very taken with her. On the third night when he asked her what he could give her to show his pleasure, up to half his kingdom, Esther, informed him of Haman’s plot and asked him not to kill her people. The King ordered that Haman be hanged on the very gallows that Haman had erected to hang Mordecai.

But having signed the order crafted and concealed by Haman, the King could not undo the evil that was about to befall the Jews. Instead, he allowed Mordecai and Esther to issue a new order in his name authorizing the Jews to slaughter anyone who was about to do them harm. The Jews found 75,000 likely assailants in the Persian Empire, which stretched from India to Ethiopia at the time, to kill, including all of Haman’s ten sons. Mordecai became the Prime Minister, Esther remained the Queen, and the Jews prospered in Persia. It was ordered that feasting and drinking, reading the Megillah (the Book of Esther) while making enough noise to drown out Haman’s name, and giving to the poor be done every year thereafter to commemorate Esther’s bravery.

A holiday dedicated to the bravery of a woman, brought about by a woman’s refusal to obey her husband’s orders! My kind of holiday. This year Purim resonated especially with me as I watched politicians and leaders demean and denigrate women in the name of politics. I thought of Vashti who refused to appear nude to entertain her husband’s drunken allies and Esther who braved the King’s wrath to save her people. I thought of my own daughter, who is named for Esther, fighting to obtain her long-sought after doctoral degree and to retain her internship, which had been cut to save money and leave dozens of children and their parents without testing and guidance in dealing with autism. And I thought of my son, working for a woman seeking public office to change some of the attitudes and actions that still exist against women.

I thought of my son and daughter who so loved as toddlers to dress up for Purim, banging on my pots and pans every time Haman’s name was mentioned, while their father read from the Megillah on the nights they were too young to be taken to shul to celebrate the holiday. They celebrated with such abandon the victory of good over evil, of freedom over enslavement.

My daughter was Esther every year, my son was almost always the King who loved her and learned to be tolerant and conscientious.

And I thought especially during the past week celebrating women that what we really needed was another Esther to be brave and save us all from the modern day Persians – the Iranians – who once again seek to annihilate the Jews and all of us who love freedom.

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