Overcoming Adversity – Part Five

I remember reading something in a blog recently that sparked reflections that went underground while I reviewed and graded a seemingly never-ending stream of student papers. Sadly, I can’t remember which blog inspired me now that I have a moment to think before the next stream of papers arrives.

The simple statement in the blog post, “the word ‘mother’ is a verb,” came to mind this morning. “Yes, I can relate to that,” I thought. Perhaps that is one of the crucial dimensions of what it means to be a mother, “to mother,” but I think there’s something more that goes beyond a simple state of giving birth to new life, a deeper sense of connectedness to the responsibility one feels for the well-being of others. Not only one’s own children. “To mother” may also lead to the realization that the well-being of one’s own children is inextricably connected to the well-being of all other children and to the well-being of the world as a whole.

Years ago, I saw a greeting card that crystalized what it felt like to me to be a mother, auntie, or grandmother.

“To have a child is to decide to have your heart forever walk around outside your body”

For so many women, though, motherhood may not be a choice. It may also be an overwhelming responsibility for women without the support of others, perhaps especially so for those in cultures that are unable or unwilling to assure healthy environments for mothers and children – access to clean water, clean air to breathe, respectful treatment of women and children, safe and adequate shelter, good nutrition, help with child care, and education that supports the development of practical skills, compassion for others, creativity, and critical thinking.

My mother was faced with a most difficult choice. She had to decide whether to remain in an abusive relationship or give up the right to raise her two young children.

Following is the fifth part of the story of her life that describes her brief escape from abuse and the decision she felt forced to make because of circumstances beyond her control.

***

Norma Angeline Ackley Graveen Coombs

Part Five

In Search of Safety

Norma’s early married years were very difficult. She was far from family and home. During her time in Chicago, she had the support and friendship of colleagues she met during nursing school, and help from her sister/cousin, Hazel, who lived in Chicago. Hazel had taken Norma in during part of Norma’s high school years. Relatives from her reservation and other community members often traveled there to visit her as well.

New Jersey was a different story on many levels. There were no relatives, few Ojibwe community members who visited, and no Native American connections. Norma was alone. Wes’ relatives were geographically close, but were culturally worlds apart from Norma’s Ojibwe family.

I never heard her speak of them, although I can remember my own childhood impressions. Wes’ family was of English descent, and his father and grandfather had in fact descended from their position in England. As Wes told the story, although I’m not sure it’s accurate, his grandfather was the youngest son of an aristocratic family who, under the tradition of primogeniture, needed to make his own way in the world without land or money from his family. He came to America, and his son, Westervelt Valentine Coombs, Sr., learned to be a master plumber. Wes was the second born in a family of nine children. His own mother died after the birth of her seventh child when he was still a little boy. His father remarried and had two more children. Wes often spoke about how his stepmother kept the food pantry locked, securing the key on her apron ties.

Aunt Margaret & Grandpa


I remember my grandfather’s house. I found it amazing years later when I learned he was a plumber who worked in New York’s skyscrapers – there was a hand pump in the kitchen sink and the toilet would only flush by pouring in a bucket of water. Wes’ younger brother lived in the house, while Wes’ father lived on the second floor of a shed that we referred to as the “bird house.” Goats lived on the first floor, and hundreds of birds – finches, canaries, and parakeets, flew free in my grandfather’s living space. I can still remember the smell of the house and the shed! I can also remember the reserve and the dour demeanor of my father’s family, and the absence of laughter in their homes. I can only imagine how a young woman far from her home felt in their presence. I wonder how an Ojibwe woman who had been socialized to believe that white society was superior to her own made sense of the lifestyle and homes of Wes’ family – conditions that were similar to those of the Appalachian families I encountered in Kentucky (many named Coombs) decades later.

Wes suffered from serious depression and a quick, violent temper – in part from an abusive childhood compounded by untreated emotional trauma from his years in the marines and his war experiences in the South Pacific. In his pain and insecurity, he hurt the person he loved most with angry outbursts and degrading comments. Before they had children, Norma had her work as a nurse to give her life meaning and balance. This changed when her daughter and son were born. As a young mother who needed to work, she feared for her children’s well-being and grew weary of being degraded. She sought the advice of lawyers and priests, only to be told to be a good wife, to turn the other cheek. She stood the loneliness, fear, and abuse as long as she could.

 

Allendale House, 1949

I remember coming into the Allendale house one day as a very little child. My mother was at work and one of the neighbors must have been watching my brother, Bobby, and me. I decided to run home and discovered that the back door that led into the kitchen, the door that we always used, was locked. No one answered my knocking although I knew that my father was home. I decided to try the front door and it was unlocked. When I entered the house, I smelled something really odd. The door to the kitchen was locked from the inside, and a towel was rolled up to block the opening at the bottom. I was worried, although I do not remember what I did. I believe that I ran next door to ask my neighbors for help. I later learned that my father had turned on the gas in the oven after blowing out the pilot light in an attempt to commit suicide.

 

 

Perhaps this was the event that forced Norma to leave. After Bobby’s first birthday, she packed up one day while Wes was at work and boarded a train headed for the southwest with her two little children. I can remember the long train ride. It was a new, exciting experience. It seemed that we traveled for days, sleeping in our seats. Our first stop was somewhere in Texas. We lived on the first floor of a converted two-story house. Norma worked and tried to find child care.

Soon, we were traveling again. We lived in a trailer in a small town in New Mexico. Agnes came to help as a babysitter while Norma worked. I remember this as a very small town with a quiet, sand-covered road. The yard surrounding our trailer had a trellis with lovely morning glories. It was not long before we were on the move again, this time headed for Lac du Flambeau, Norma’s childhood home. As we traveled, I learned from my grandmother, Agnes, that Wes had tracked us down in Texas, and then in New Mexico. He tracked us down in Lac du Flambeau as well. By this time, at the age of 4 ½, I knew that my mother wanted to be free of fear and abuse. Wes threatened to take my brother and me if she did not return to New Jersey with him, and he promised to make sure that she never saw us again.

I remember the scene in the parking lot in front of my grandmother’s house and beauty shop. Wes’ cold anger and determination to have his own way. Norma’s tears and pleas as she tried to protect herself and her children. I wanted to save Norma from the hurt, and ran up to Wes and kicked him in the leg and told him how mean he was, how much I hated him for how he treated my mother. Who knows. Perhaps this small gesture helped provide some protection for Norma, some recognition for Wes that his behavior was unacceptable even in the eyes of a child, and the courage for Norma to sacrifice her own safety in order to watch over her son and daughter.

The trip back to Allendale is long forgotten for me. The depth of sadness I felt was more than I could bear, so I stopped eating. I became so weak that is was hard for me to walk. But for a kind neighbor who gave me a reason to live, I may well have died before the age of 5. I know Norma’s heart was heavy as she watched me fade away while she struggled with her own deep sadness.

Yet, we all survived. In time, we found a way to live in relative peace for awhile. Norma had her work as a nurse in a doctor’s office and then in a nursing home. Bobby and I had school and our friends. Wes had his job and family.






The Power of Humor

I just couldn’t resist sharing a bit of humor in the face of the present tragic times. Normally, I abhor ad hominem attacks. Sometimes, though, there doesn’t seem to be any other way to confront overwhelming destructive power…

“The Liar Tweets Tonight” by Roy Zimmerman and the ReZisters

April Reflections 2020

A comment from a dear friend, Migo, from Unnecessary News from Earth, inspired me to finish and share a post I have been working on in the few free moments I have had this month. 

***

April 10

No words flow through me
to ease a heavy heart
or bring comfort or joy to others

I’ve absorbed a plethora
of muddled thoughts
and far too many
powerful emotions
not my own

I remember to breathe
and muster discipline
knowing integrity
means fulfilling
responsibilities one carries
to ease the suffering
of others in troubling times
by being present, listening,
and caring



Fleeting moments of wonder
are a precious reminder
why it matters to care

***

April 13

My little dog has been sick for the past week,

sometimes struggling to breathe or pee

Some days, he seems to be better, but others, not

We still take brisk walks at least twice daily

on residential streets that are relatively empty

 

This morning, there were only two people out –

one woman on the sidewalk in front of her house,

The other in her idling car with her window down.

Neither acknowledged our presence

as my dog and I walked by giving them wide berth

They merely kept talking, their conversation troubling

and impossible to ignore as they shouted to each other

across the requisite social distancing

I don’t trust anyone now,” said the woman on the sidewalk.

I don’t either,” was the reply.

 

At least they could give voice to their fear

and find a little comfort through an increasingly

rare sense of human and community connection.

Their fear encouraged me to finish a task I had begun

not out of fear to protect myself, but as a signal to others

that I care enough about keeping them safe

to be willing to look and feel ridiculous

Note:

Not the best of pictures… 🙄

A student showed me one of the face masks she was making for elders on her reservation during our video conference. She inspired me to pull out my sewing machine, find an online pattern, and make some, at least for myself, with long-neglected skills and clumsy hands. Fortunately, I had fabric thanks to another student from long ago who bought way too much material to make tobacco ties to thank participants in a research project we were working on together with a multidisciplinary team.

For information about the effectiveness of home-made cloth face masks, you can checkout this NPR link.

***

April 18

Pandemic Reflections

 

While washing the cup

my son-in-law, Billie,

gave me more than a decade ago

when he visited me

in Missoula, Montana

I wondered …

Where do people go

when they die?

 

I miss him and

so many others

who have passed on

Is there a consciousness

that survives the transition

from one state to another?

Or do the molecules

of our being merely disperse

into the cosmos unaware

of all the lives we lived

as essential elements

of the many other forms

that contributed to our being

for eons untold before

we were born?

 

Perhaps those who fear death,

as I sometimes do,

sense that we may simply

cease to be

making all of our petty concerns

so pointless in the end

 

Maybe we only live on

in the memories of others

because of the kindness or cruelty

we shared during the short time

we were here…

My granddaughter’s first birthday with her mom and dad, March 5, 2008. Her father died just before Christmas in 2018 when she was 11.

***

Sending my best wishes and hoping you are all finding moments of peace and meaningful connections during these challenging times. 💜

 

Sunday Reflections – March 22, 2020

Carol A. Hand

Greeting the morning
Gazing at the falling snow
as it thickens the blanket of white
already covering the earth
The only sounds
a whisper of distant traffic
the shrill cries of returning seagulls
and the sharp yelps
of a little dog
out for a morning trot
pulling its owner along
Grateful for the chance
to witness fleeting moments
of ordinary life and beauty




The past week has been a rollercoaster ride. But today, I can breathe deeply. Perhaps what ails me these days has simply been asthma triggered by allergies to toxic air and an extraordinary amount of snow mold exposed by unseasonably warmer weather, and my raking, for the past month. 

The toxic exhaust from the factories to the east has ceased for a time. Maybe it’s because the wind isn’t blowing from the east at the moment. Maybe it’s because it’s Sunday. Or maybe it’s because the factories are temporarily shuttered. The downside of factory closures, though, is the fact that cleaner air comes with a cost in a country that imposes increasingly fewer environmental and health safeguards on industries. Many people have suddenly lost jobs they need to support families, and the supply of stuff we take for granted, like toilet paper, is interrupted. The present context does offer us a powerful opportunity to figure out how to adjust what we produce and how we produce it, mindful of the effects on health and the environment.

There are other outcomes to the changes we’ve been facing that can have positive outcomes as well. Technology, with the help of a colleague, enabled me to meet with my class. We didn’t all have to drive separately to a central meeting site. We were able to connect from our homes in a meaningful way and still have a very productive dialogue despite our collective inability to use technology well yet.

My goals for the class were simple. I began as we usually begin class, although this time it was via zoom.

What did you notice today?

I wanted to provide a safe space for them to talk about how their lives and ability to complete their studies have been affected by COVID – 19. I also wanted to provide an opportunity for them to help me adjust the course workload and assignments so they could realistically learn what they need to know despite the new challenges they are facing – fear, uncertainty, isolation, grief, lost jobs, new responsibilities at work to cover for other staff who were laid off, arranging childcare for children who were no longer in school, etc. Despite tears in the eyes of many, we had thoughtful, productive discussions. Class ended by the students suggesting that they connect online to help each other, not only with classes, but also with other things as well.

I remember wise advice from Clarissa Pinkola Estés.

“… we are definitely the leaders we have been waiting for, and … we have been raised, since childhood, for this time precisely.”

In her powerful essay, “Do Not Lose Heart, We Were Made for These Times,” Estés adds,

“One of the most important steps you can take to help calm the storm is to not allow
yourself to be taken in a flurry of overwrought emotion or despair – thereby accidentally
contributing to the swale and the swirl. Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all
at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.

“Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of
this poor suffering world, will help immensely.

“…One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy
world is to stand up and show your soul… Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.”

This week, I also noticed other hopeful signs. I have always believed that education should be accessible to all. I just learned about two new resources:

1. Open Access to all C-SPAN Classroom Resources
“With many classes moving to online formats, we have removed the log-in and password requirements for all of our lesson plans and bell ringers on the C-SPAN Classroom website. You and your students are now able to access any resource on the site, including those that were previously behind the login wall. With this new option, you can share direct links to those resources via email, social media or within your content management systems.”
Link: https://www.c-span.org/classroom/

2. “Revisioning Our World: Seeing What Works, Broadening Our View, Seeking Innovative Alternatives” is now free
“ Given the current state of affairs related to COVID-19, to ensure the safety of all, we have decided to change the modality of delivery of our annual conference. We are fortunate that our Keynote and Plenary speakers as well as many of our session presenters have agreed to record their presentations and make them public.
“Rates for the conference have changed and the only fee will be for those who want CEUs, which will cost $50. You can register through link listed under our Registration tab.”
Link: https://blogs.millersville.edu/learninginstitute/

Sending my best wishes to all…

Work Cited:

Clarissa Pinkola Estés (2001, 2016). Do Not Lose Heart, We Were Made for These Times. Available from depth psychology.net 

*

Checking In

Carol A. Hand

This morning, I commented on a blogging friend’s post. It seemed important to share an edited version of what I wrote on my own blog. I have come down with something that feels like a cold or the flu, so I am staying home although I walk my dog periodically in my mostly deserted neighborhood.

March 19, 2020

I have no idea when or where I caught this illness. Fortunately, my symptoms are mild at the moment and I have the luxury of a part-time job teaching college students that is now completely online.

Each morning I awake grateful that I can still breathe deeply and do what I can remotely to reach out to others with kindness. My heart is heavy, though, for all of my students and for others who have lost homes, jobs and are seriously ill. I worry about my daughter, the last person I was with this weekend, and about my grandchildren.

I will do all I can to keep from spreading whatever illness I have to others.

Please don’t worry if you don’t hear from me right away. I have student papers to grade and online content to prepare.

I hope you are all well and as safe as one can be in these times.

Sending my best wishes to all. 💜

 

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