all of the selves we Have ever been
They were people of few words.
That was typical of their generation.
It was a “do as I say” era. Parents were not inclined
to debate matters with their children.
Parents provided general instructions. The specifics were implied.
“Have a nice day,” had not yet entered the vernacular. Instead, “Be good” was what our parents had to say whenever we ventured from our front door into the larger world outside. Those simple words were both a farewell and marching orders. As we set off into riskier situations, “Be good!” might be offered in a tone of warning, a reminder that our parents were not fools and knew that we were headed to places where trouble might be found. Most of the time, however, “Be good,” was a gentle reminder of their expectations. Unbeknownst to us, those two small words awakened the little voice within--the nagging Jiminy Cricket voice of conscience. Parents sure knew how to ruin a good time.
We did not have to open that small word package to understand what was inside. We knew, and we did not want to disappoint. The parcel contained all of the moral lessons important to the development of conscience and character: Tell the truth. Follow the rules. Be on time. Watch out for your siblings. Mind your manners. Be respectful of adults and people in authority. Get along with others. Take care of your things. Respect the property of others. Be cautious. Don’t bend to peer-pressure and go off the bridge with wayward friends. Don’t take anything that does not belong to you. Think of your neighbors. Share. Consider your reputation—your future.
Our parents did not study child development or psychological theories, and yet they knew instinctively that it was their job to create within each of us the desire to be good.
In our current world climate, I often feel discouraged. It seems like the bad guys are winning. And that winning is everything. I wonder if the desire to be good is melting along with the polar ice caps. A dose of the daily news, and I want to shout at my television, “Be good!”
And then I go about my day, and I engage with the real people I know. Good people. Kind people. Generous people. People who desire to be good. I am relieved.
In Lived Loved, a devotional by Max Lucado, he shares the story of the famous scholar, Matthew Henry. When Henry was “accosted by thieves and robbed of his purse, he wrote this in his diary: ‘Let me be thankful first, because I was never robbed before; second, because , although they took my purse, they did not take my life; third, although they took my all, it was not much; and, fourthly, because it was I who was robbed, and not I who robbed.’” Matthew Henry was grateful to be one of the good guys. And so am I.
Thank you, dear readers and friends. I count you among the good guys.
We each need a t-shirt that says, “Be Good.”
Barbie turned 61 in March.
She doesn’t look a day over 20. Borrowing a quote from The Lilac Girls, “Somewhere in the corner of our hearts we are always twenty.” Way to go, Barbie!
Barbie has an impressive resume. She started life on March 9, 1959 as a fashion doll, but she has been everything from a teacher to an astronaut to a
Supreme Court justice. Despite her figure and impressive credentials, I just can’t hate her. I know some feminists have taken Barbie to task for her impossible figure, but I never understood the hostility.
When I was a child, all of the important women in my life were smart, strong, assertive, brown-eyed, olive-skinned, and full-figured. Barbie bore no resemblance to any of my real life female role models. That’s what made her so wonderful. My imagination was not limited to the personalities or life stories playing out in my family. Anything was possible. I give Barbie a lot of the credit for moving my generation of girls to take the SATs, apply for college, and enter the worlds of business and science. And learn to drive (though few of us ever got the longed-for pink convertible).
I spent a significant portion of my childhood playing with Barbie, creating roles, stories, costumes, accessories, and scenery. I waited impatiently for the beautiful hand-sewn clothes my paternal grandmother made and mailed to me from New York City. When not in school, my sister and cousin would join me in building a Barbie world on my Sita’s sun porch or tucked away behind the living room couch. I have a lot of regrets in my life, but none of them involve a moment spent with Barbie.
Barbie is a gal for all seasons. She is continuously remaking herself. While Ken is her steady guy, Barbie is in the driver’s seat of her own life. That’s why I expect to see a new version of Barbie this holiday season—Pandemic Barbie. She will come with a face mask and full PPE which she will make look fashionable in her open-toed, high-heeled shoes. Ever the wise and helpful woman, Barbie will come with a tiny portable ventilator. (Barbie knows that little girls love accessories.)
Barbie will renovate her Dream House to include a home office. She will come with a tiny laptop computer and a brochure covering how to host a Zoom meeting. (More accessories!) For self-care, Barbie will meet her best friend, Midge, for an early morning bike ride each day. While Barbie is saving the world from the pandemic, and renovating her home, she will likely be the one to homeschool her little sister, Skipper. Woman that she is, Barbie will still make time for Ken whose only career has been as boyfriend to Barbie, save for a long stint as beach bum. He may be eligible for a stimulus check if the pandemic and social distancing have kept him away from the waves. No problem. Barbie will help him apply from her new home office. Too bad that Barbie was not appointed to serve on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, we’d be done with this pandemic by now.
It is hard to believe, but back in 1959, the male executives at Mattel tried to convince Ruth Handler, Barbie’s mother, that the doll would never sell. All little girls wanted baby dolls and to be mommies the men said. Oops! First lesson learned: never underestimate Barbie. Mattel has sold more than one billion versions of the doll. Andy Warhol even painted Barbie’s portrait.
Does anyone know the name of a single Mattel executive?
Well, except for Barbie that is. She has them all on speed dial.
It was the 1970s.
Everyone wanted to be Ali McGraw.
Everyone also wanted a love story and to never have to say you’re sorry. But mostly, we wanted long, straight, sleek hair parted in the middle.
What was a frizzy-curly-haired teenager to do?
I lost a lot of sleep over it.
Not from existential angst, but because of my curlers. I am surprised I don’t have chronic neck pain and insomnia from the tight rollers. Sure, the curler cap helped to hold the curlers in place and catch any loose bobby pins, but it did nothing to cushion the pain even if it was a fashion statement when paired with a matching nightgown.
Folks who wanted curls or waves had it much easier. But they tended to be over 40. Those looks could easily be achieved with pin curls and some small bobby pins or maybe pink sponge rollers. Curly styles allowed for beauty sleep. Black brush rollers were another option for the curly set, but those pink picks could lead to a puncture wound if the wearer rolled over in her sleep.
For the sleek straight look, a gal had to go BIG. I am talking the biggest, hardest curlers to be found. Those “magnetic” rollers were also secured with bobby pins but bobby pins of a size to match the scale of the curlers. Some people even washed out and re-used orange juice cans as rollers. Thankfully, in a house with four curly-headed females, we had quite a collection of curlers.
We slept stiff as corpses in our rollers because it was too painful to roll over and it was critical that the hair dry fully before removing the curlers. This was the age before hand held hair dryers. The only other option was to wash our hair during the day and then set it with rollers. At that point, we had to stay home for the remainder of the day, or wrap our heads in scarves to go out of the house.
Unfortunately, despite all of the time and trouble, for those of us with curls and frizz, the set didn’t last too long. Within an hour or two of removing the rollers and styling, our hair “fell” back into its old ways. The return time was shorter in the event of rain or humidity. It was best to check the weather forecast before giving too much time to hair washing and setting.
We had basic supplies, maybe the family-size tube of Prell or some VO5. Sometimes we had Breck Shampoo and imagined ourselves as one of the “Breck Girls.” Back then a teenage girl couldn’t just run out and buy whatever products she wanted. There was a long period of rumination during which we studied the ads in magazines. This was followed by an additional period of longing and saving. Sure we tried home straightening kits too. Generally, these proved to be as much of a disaster as the later home perms did. No amount of Dippity-Do could conceal the damage.
And if a kid fried her hair, there was no emergency visit to the salon. Back in that day, a young lady might visit a salon for prom, high school graduation, or her wedding day. Otherwise, haircuts were given at home. Bangs might get a trim if we complained of poor eyesight. The rest of the head might get shaped up if we dozed off and our chewing gum fell out of our mouths and got stuck in our hair.
Later in the 1970s, hair products and shampoos proliferated as manufacturers began promoting daily hair washing. Handheld hair dryers and electric hot rollers arrived on the scene to soften the blow of so much hair washing. It was hard to get the sleek smooth look with the early handheld dryers, and there were never enough large rollers in the hot roller set. It is not a wonder my hair started falling out by the time I was 40.
But styles changed. Ali McGraw left Hollywood for New Mexico. Ryan O’Neal took up with Farrah Fawcett. Ali McGraw got old and wears her hair gray and pulled back from her face.
My hair is still curly and my head sports a gray and brown COVID-stripe. Nowhere in my home can a curler be found.
Turns out, when it comes to hair styling, I just have to say, "I'm sorry."
There are some stains we treat and scrub.
We want them OUT.
But there are others that become part of the fabric of our lives. Unexpected souvenirs of people, times, and experiences we cherish. We want them to remain FOREVER.
I began the day searching for my light gray sweatpants, the ones with the white paint stains on the knees. My Saturday clothes. I had things to do.
The paint stains are a happy reminder of living in Missouri and helping a friend to prepare his new home for move-in day. It was a different Saturday as we stirred paint, filled trays, and loaded the rollers. We worked across the room from each other sharing stories and anticipating the new life my friend would have in the freshly painted rooms. A year later, I would bring a little of my friend with me when I returned to my home in Ohio. The stains on my sweats remind me of that pleasant paint-filled Saturday and a kind and faithful friend.
As I prepare my breakfast, I see the blue and white enameled butter dish with the worn finish. A hint of rust hides under the lid. The loop of a handle has a dark spot where I place my thumb. I imagine my grandmother holding this butter dish in her hands and lifting the lid. It is her thumb that wore the spot on the handle. For a moment, my Sita is present with me in my kitchen.
I sit in my rocking chair to sip some morning tea. My bottom slides over the well-worn seat helping to erase the wood’s finish. The arms are worn as well. Rocking the chair back and forth, I remember the purchase of this chair from an Amish furniture store. It is the chair in which I rocked both of my babies to sleep each night. Worn as it is, I don’t care to have it refinished. I don’t want to disturb my memories of that tired mother or of those sleeping babies.
On the wall adjacent to my rocking chair is a plate rack that contains four angel plates. Each white plate is decorated with the colorful image of an angel in a distinctive pose. One angel is ringing a bell, another holding a star. A third is playing a harp. The last angel is releasing a dove. The last plate was broken into several pieces during a move. I glued it together. On close inspection, the repair can be seen, but I don’t care. The plate stays. It is part of a set--a set of plates, and a set of friends. Some of my dearest friends, godparents to my children, gave me those plates on a Christmas day long ago. The plate rack was a find during an adventure with a new friend who has entered the ranks of dearest friends.
I go to the storage cupboard for a box and spot a battered suitcase. It is very large. I never use it, but my baby girl, Emily, took it on a trip to Europe. She was in college and the first of our family to travel abroad. The suitcase still has the tags from her trip. Emily turned thirty this year, but I retain a piece of her youth in a suitcase in my closet.
There are other scuffs, stains, cracks, and chips that fill my home—a child’s greasy hand prints, scuff marks from little feet. Blood stains from boo-boos. Chipped dishes from dropped spoons.
I cherish all of these reminders of a life lived and of people loved. Scuffed, stained, cracked, or chipped, I want them IN. FOREVER.
We’ve been robbed, and I am in a mood.
I can’t shake my sorrow, and election season is making it worse.
Maybe you feel it too?
While we were pre-occupied with tweets, posts, trolls, and conspiracy theories, the vault was being emptied. It was not the work of gangsters. No Al Capone. The heist was made through billions of keystrokes. The jewels are gone. There are no more national heroes.
And who can we blame? The clever thieves made accomplices of us all.
The larceny has been in progress for many years, coming to light only recently when cancer took the last of our champions.
The day John Lewis died I was stabbed by a profound sense of loss. I sat glued to the TV screen the way my parents did the morning John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, or on the evening Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down in Memphis, the way my colleagues and I did the day the Challenger exploded over Cape Canaveral.
My grief was most certainly about the loss of a single great man. But it continues for the cultural loss of greatness. I see no galloping horse on the horizon. Even during a pandemic and economic collapse, no voice emerges. Among the unrelenting throngs of protesters, no leader stands out.
I also grieve for children who grow up without any heroes, without people who embody our collective conscience and our dreams. Where do children look for examples of principle? Where do they find
daring people who inspire others to noble action through great vision, thoughtful words, and profound ideals? What does it mean to grow up with no one to believe in?
Over the years, biographies have given way to pathographies. We seek the salacious details of the lives we inspect and then crucify the subjects when we find the evidence. Traditional and social media are both quick to spread the word. There is no longer a clear distinction between legitimate news and gossip. Each outlet strives for the sensationalism that will increase shares, followers, and advertising dollars.
But where can we find a perfect specimen? Human beings are flawed. That is the moral tale of creation. Heroes, by definition, rise to greatness in spite of their imperfections. They live within the constraints of their moment in history. Even our mythic heroes have their weaknesses. Superman has kryptonite; Batman won’t maim or kill; Spiderman struggles with his grief and intense emotions. It is the manner in which they surmount their imperfections that makes them admirable.
Moses was more than his speech impediment. Abraham Lincoln was greater than his bouts of depression. Martin Luther King, Jr. was reported to have had extramarital affairs, but he was on a brave, non-violent quest for justice and the Beloved Community. John F. Kennedy had wealth, privilege and women, too, but the possibilities of life were expanded by his calls for civil rights, public service, and space exploration. None of them were perfect, but each of them made all of us want to be better.
We seem more concerned with fame, but famous is not the same as heroic. Never have we been more confused. Some who become famous are dangerous. They have no saving grace save for the lessons they teach us about evil or greed. They need to be exposed, but, typically, they expose themselves through their words and deeds. We have become obsessed with these individuals, driving up their popularity and wealth by spreading their words and images. A following may be the new measure of success, but having a following is no guarantee of worthiness.
And success in business along with its accompanying wealth, fame, and power is no guarantee of greatness either. Just look at the giants of the tech industry who recently came under scrutiny: Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, and others. We all sacrificed mightily for their successes, our privacy and security are not the least of our contributions. No single political party invented mob rule; social media, the industry of shame, did that. Despite the wealth, fame, and power of these men, do you believe their interests are your interests? You may be willing to follow them to the bank, but would you follow them into battle? Or across the Edmond Pettus Bridge?
Heroes don’t set out to be famous or rich. They set out to be of service, to do what is needed, to stand up for what is right. Heroes leave an inheritance, but not one we fight over. They leave us with something to fight for.
We’ve been robbed. Unfortunately, the police are very busy right now. We are on our own to find the jewels. It is up to each of us now. Thankfully, John Lewis left us some clues. A spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love will be our guide.
We will recognize the jewels by their philosophy and discipline, their moral courage to stand up, and speak up. They might look ordinary, but their vision will be extraordinary. They do not toy with the truth, a truth revealed by history. They answer the highest calling of their hearts and stand up for what they believe. They have laid down the heavy burdens of hate.
Perhaps, the jewels have been hidden in my home or yours. Maybe our children have them. The gems may be at the office, the grocery store, or at church. Fan out and talk to your neighbors. We need our jewels. We want them back.
I have many real names.
None of them are captured accurately on my birth certificate.
Each name belongs to a different voice, to a unique relationship, and was given to me at a special time in my life. Each name contains a precious story. Together the voices and the stories form the person that is me.
Save for my younger brother, it is mostly my family that calls me Lilli-ann, the name formed from the letters of my genotype. That name claims me as a member of a large, extended tribe and its history. My brother called me Lilli Bagilli and sometimes, just Bagill. Like a secret handshake, it was a special language between us that reflected our sibling bond.
My best friend from high school calls me Lilli with a rise in pitch and emphasis on the last l-i. The sound of my name coming through her voice brings back a shared adolescence and the experience of two girls growing up Catholic in unique family circumstances. Her parents became my other parents. When she calls my name, her parents speak to me too.
Two of my oldest and dearest friends are women I met during my early working years in the city. Both of these women are named Kathy. They each call me Lil. We share the long history of becoming grown-ups together. Each of these Kathys came to my aid after the births of my children. They are more sisters than friends.
Jetz calls me Buff. Jetz and I started our professional, post-graduate-school-lives together working in the same mental health clinic. We each got married and started families at about the same time. I knew her and her husband throughout their courtship, a connection deepened by that shared memory after her husband died too young. Jetz and I also share roots in Pittsburgh and a passionate love of books.
Many years after working in the mental health clinic, another co-worker would take to calling me Lilli B. We were two working girls from out of town with no local family or friends. Sitting side-by-side each day for years, we became faithful friends. There is no one kinder than Kristi the social worker. I sat with her mother as her mother’s life was coming to an end. I know that Kristi will sit with me when my time comes. Kristi is a sister-daughter-friend.
The true identity of others has been revealed to me in similar fashion.
When my friend Kathy speaks of her parents, Mary and Bill, I feel the deep love and respect she holds for them, how much she misses them, and I hear the example of how children and their parents can grow into adult best friends.
I have heard similar examples from spouses. A few years ago, I sat in a small auditorium filled with new Air Force recruits. The squadron Commander arrived to address the group. Full of youthful energy, the Commander’s love of both military service and his squadron was reflected in his words. The Commander’s sincerity was apparent as he shared his values and expectations with the nervous audience. But it was when he mentioned his wife that his character was fully revealed. The Commander spoke of “Jen” with reverence. This was a woman of consequence in his life. Jen was not just a partner, but a part of him. A woman loved. His Jen.
Hearing the young Commander speak of his wife reminded me of my Uncle Toni, the oldest son of my hardworking immigrant grandparents. T survived the Great Depression and polio. Faithful head of a large extended family, Uncle T married at a later age than his peers. For the rest of his life, T continued to refer to his wife, Nancy, as his bride, his Nan. And even after a lifetime, it seemed Tony could still not believe his good fortune. He swooned like a teenage boy who just met the girl of his dreams. Through a role reversal, T was the humble country boy awakened by the kiss of a beautiful princess. Nan made T into a prince and transformed his life into a fairy tale. Nan. Another word for magic.
There are many other people whose names have been spoken in my presence. I never met most of them, but I know them from the voices that speak their names. Perhaps, the greatest testimonies to our lives are not trophies, degrees, and newspaper-worthy achievements, not our name in lights or in print. Our true identities are not revealed in the words on official documents, but through the feelings shared when others give voice to our names.
I am adventuring over to Medium.com with some additional essays. I posted my first one to Medium.com today. It is titled Goose Sense (in a Time of Non-Sense). I invite you to join me on Medium.com as well as here at alloftheselves.com
Thank you for your faithful readership, delightful comments, and helpful feedback.