Category Archives: Memorials

Time to Say Goodbye (To Kiko, August 15, 2007 – July 24, 2022)

Kiko, on his final day, July 24, 2022

Four weeks ago, we said goodbye to our beloved dog Kiko. It was twenty-two days before his fifteenth birthday. The time had come, and it would have been cruel to deny it.  He wasn’t suffering from a catastrophic illness, but he was clearly suffering, nonetheless. Over the course of this last year, our family witnessed his decline.  It was a gradual descent, with a smattering of upward blips, typically when least expected.  Out on a walk, he’d occasionally harness a sudden burst of energy and run all the way home.  We could hear the plague-stricken old man in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail declaring, “I’m not dead.”  The last of Kiko’s rallying efforts occurred in mid June.  After that, it was all slow motion. We had taken steps, of course, to improve his condition, to alleviate his pain and anxiety.  None had any substantial effect.  Toward the end, it seemed that our dog was more than simply uncomfortable. He appeared to be perpetually and profoundly uncomfortable, both physically and emotionally. He was as handsome as ever.  His body was as trim and lean, his thick, waxy coat as luxurious, his face, though faded from dark red to white, just as beautiful. Yet he apparently could find no peace, no place of solace, in his skin or in what had been the familiar surroundings of home.

We watched as Kiko’s former pastimes lost their appeal. As his agility decreased, it became difficult for him to access his prime window-level viewing spots. In early May, I wrote about how a ride in a car, once the ultimate thrill, had morphed into just another source of anxiety. His favorite hassock on the screened porch, the site of long pleasant snoozes in summers past–he avoided it. He had given up all interest in wandering our fenced back yard. Instead of alternately baking on the hot bluestone of the patio and cooling in a patch of shady mulch, he tended to stand uncertainly before heading back up the stairs, which he climbed with difficulty. He seemed to have completely forgotten that he ever lay in the pine straw by the bird feeder and kept watch on the wildlife. After getting stuck in the doggy door a couple of times, he no longer attempted to enter or exit the porch on his own. He used to revel in having the freedom to cross the courtyard to my mother’s house for a sausage biscuit or some other tasty snack. Sometimes he’d sleep for hours in his bed in the chill of her family room. More recently, when he reluctantly accompanied me there, he seemed to be particularly worried, pacing endlessly in a circle. He wanted to be home.

But home had become elusive. More and more, he was anxiously pacing in our house, as well. Over and over, he made a circuit from the playroom to the back door. Even when he ate, he’d take a bite of food and walk away. When inside, he wanted to be out, and when outside, he wanted to be in.

For a while, he could retreat to a safe haven upstairs, in his fluffiest, coziest nest of a bed, the one in my room in a secluded spot next to the armoire. After circling a few times, he’d settle and sleep for a while, something he found impossible in any of his assorted beds downstairs.

Kiko’s eyesight and hearing must have been significantly impaired. But his sense of smell apparently remained acute. Because of that, and his general restlessness, we were out five or six times a day on what should have been short walks. We covered small distances, but at a snail’s pace. He still seemed to derive satisfaction from savoring the party platter of neighborhood smells. With his nose deep in the grass, I could imagine that he was fully alive and well again. But before long, he’d look overwhelmed and disoriented. The oppressive heat during his final days didn’t help.

After returning from such a walk, though obviously exhausted, Kiko couldn’t stretch out on the kitchen floor to relax and cool down. Instead, his restlessness continued, to a heartbreaking degree. My once self-assured little dog, who, for so many years, preferred to go his own way, on his own terms, now followed me insistently from room to room, with a plodding gait, panting, questioning, distressed. Holding him, cuddling him–that did no good. He’d pull away, more uneasy than ever. It was as though he refused to be comforted.

Except in the very early hours of the morning. Maybe that was when his desperation or weariness peaked, or when he let his defenses down. During Kiko’s last months, he’d awaken me around two or three AM, standing beside my bed, nosing the covers. He was no longer able to make the leap, but he’d allow me to pick him up and put him in bed with me. He’d circle round and round a few times, but then he’d curl up near me. Sometimes he’d almost snuggle. And then he’d sleep, deeply, and well into the late morning. On his final night, he actually did cuddle close. He slept most of the night with his head resting on my leg. It’s a sensation I hope I never forget. My odd little dog gave me a precious parting gift. He finally let me comfort him.

Kiko has his wings now. He soars as he did in his puppy days. That thought is my present comfort.

Shall We Gather at the River?

Every year as summer deepens and July 4th comes and goes, my mind drifts back to some of my earliest memories. Over the Independence Day weekend in the early to mid-60s, my parents and I would join my mother’s side of the family in central Kentucky. July 4th would find us, not at my grandparents’ house in town, but, as we said, “up to the river.”

My maternal grandmother Nora spent her girlhood years, as well as much of her married life, on a rise overlooking the Rolling Fork River. Portions of the original log cabin on the site remained and had been incorporated into the white frame structure likely built in the mid-nineteenth century. Dates and details are lacking; my family tends to pass along the stories of the past haphazardly and in shattered, scattered fragments, so that the puzzle always remains incomplete. The photographic record is even more insubstantial. A couple of photos, above, from the 70s, show the farm, with its buildings, at a distance. I took some pictures of the house in 1986 (below) when it was in sad disrepair, after years of sitting vacant, shortly before demolition. I’ve been able to find no images that show it as the center of a thriving farm, and a happy, busy family home.

But I have memories of a time when it was exactly that. In those childhood days, my mother’s oldest brother Leland farmed the land by the river. By then, my grandparents had moved into the Queen Anne farmhouse on the Springfield Road in Lebanon that I remember with great fondness. Leland was the only one of my mother’s four siblings to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps as a farmer. He raised tobacco and Black Angus cattle. There were pigs, some sheep, and chickens, as well. When Leland and his wife Dessie moved into the old house in the 1940s, it lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. The structure was unassuming but relatively spacious. There was a wide staircase off the front entrance that led to several sizable bedrooms on the second floor. My grandmother and her two sisters, Alpha and Maude, had shared one room as little girls. Another was for her three brothers, Thomas, Clarence and George. My aunt and uncle, in the later years that I look back on, lived primarily on the first floor, using the upper rooms for storage. I vaguely remember, in one cozy downstairs space, an enormous brick or stone fireplace. It was suitable for a pioneer cabin, large enough to roast an entire side of beef. In a first floor bedroom, there was a narrow cupboard that could be locked with a heavy wooden bolt. It opened to reveal a slim staircase winding up to a single chamber, separate from the other bedrooms on the second floor. According to my mother, this was a feature common to rural homes of the time. An itinerant worker, or any stranger passing through, could be given a bed for the night, safely shut away from the rest of the family. A practical solution for extending hospitality to those we don’t know well enough to trust completely.

The house was never grand, but it was larger and more architecturally interesting than it appears here, in a dilapidated state, stripped of most of its exterior elements in preparation for being razed. I wonder if the log cabin portions were revealed during demolition.

In my memories, certainly the farm at the river was nothing if not hospitable. While I can no longer picture the house and its grounds clearly in my mind, those fuzzy images nevertheless conjure a powerful sense of belonging. I’m not sure if I ever spent a night in that old house, but I passed enough time inside and around it, in the company of loved ones, to recognize it as a place that breathed the breath of home. It was our place. Not in the sense of ownership, but of affinity, of kinship.

And in this sense, the river was our river, a well-loved member of the family. The highlight of July 4th, for that young me, was the time we spent splashing in the water and wandering the banks. From the house, it was a pleasant walk, down the hill, across the road, and through part of a field. Geodes and arrowheads were there among the smooth stones of the banks, for those with the patience to look. I loved the tiny gray-green frogs that hopped about among the rocks. For the most part, the river near the farm was fairly shallow, but there were deeper spots suitable for swimming, and for the thrill of plunging into the water from a rope swing. Rumors of blue holes of unfathomable depths abounded. I was probably in second or third grade before I saw the ocean. “Going to the beach” was a foreign concept to me until I was a teenager. Our family had no need for the ocean. We were river people.

Me, at the river, July 1986.

After an afternoon at the river in those old days, we’d head back up the hill for one of my aunt’s delicious meals. Now we’d refer to all the ingredients as locally sourced. Back then we just said home grown. There would be country ham or fried chicken, green beans, tomatoes, sweet onion slices, probably potato salad. Cornbread, always. My favorite dish was what we referred to as fried corn, which is fresh corn, straight from the field, cut from the cob and cooked on the stove in bacon grease or butter with a little milk and a bit of flour. It’s the luscious essence of summer on a plate.

Daddy skipping rocks at the river, July 1986.

Seems like we’d savor these festive summer meals outside, where we could gaze down on the river. We typically gathered in the front yard, seated in an assortment of metal garden chairs and webbed lawn chairs. The entire farm was a land of enchantment for me as a kid. In addition to the river, there was so much to explore and experience: my aunt’s extensive vegetable and flower gardens, an ancient grape arbor, a number of outbuildings, including the big barn, several ramshackle sheds, and a spring house cut into the side of a hill, still an effective outdoor source of refrigeration. There was the wildly overgrown remains of a one-room schoolhouse that my great-grandfather had built so his children could be taught year-round. Of course there was a privy, still in use after a bathroom was added to the house in the 50s. The ever-present threat of snakes added an element of the exotic.

Why, I wonder, are my mother and my Aunt Margaret wearing identical shirts? And what am I doing with my hands?

The significance of our annual “4th up to the River” celebration is suggested by the existence of the photo above. It’s the extremely rare, posed family picture, and it’s nearly complete. Taken at the farm on July 4th, 1964, it includes my mother, her parents, her sister and three brothers, as well as four of the five siblings’ spouses. Only my Uncle Edwin’s wife, Betsy, is missing; she must have been the photographer. I’m in front with my parents, and my cousin, the son of my mother’s sister Jessie, stands in the center back. He is twelve years my senior. I don’t remember ever paying much attention to the absence of cousins about my age. I do remember enjoying the company, and the unique personalities, of everyone in this photo. As I recall, they did their best to keep me amused. Maybe I was akin to the dog who appears to consider itself a human; maybe I didn’t notice that I was the odd one out. I only know that despite my small size, I was never made to feel lesser. I was not talked down to or treated like a precious princess, it seems, but more or less as an equal. I learned to take humorous, good-hearted teasing as a compliment.

The older I get, the more I treasure my memories of those golden days with dear family up at the river. As I look back on that part of my childhood, glimpsed through the haze of decades, I feel again the abiding solace of knowing that I’m loved, knowing I belong, knowing I’m not alone. May the sacred ties of family, of friendship, and of place, beautifully entwined together to create the idea of home–may they never break, but stretch and expand. My daughter is another only child who was often surrounded by adults during her formative years. I pray that she carries with her a cache of cherished recollections that provide her with a similar sense of contentment and assurance.

Fifty-eight years after that family photo was taken, only my mother, my cousin and I remain here on earth. I pray that our future holds for us a reunion on the banks of another river, one glorious beyond imagination, in our true home.

Shall we gather at the river, where bright angel feet have trod,

with its crystal tide forever flowing by the throne of God?

Yes, we’ll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river,

gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God.

–Shall We Gather at the River

words and music by Robert Lowry, 1864

On that same July day in 1964, Aunt Dessie holds me awkwardly in her arms. I can still feel her exuberant embrace. My grandmother looks slightly miffed that we’re invading the space of her lawn chair. I’ve seen that expression on her face a hundred times. Uncle Edwin, holding his drink, smiles easily. The rolling hills of home, of central Kentucky, stretch out behind us.

For the Fallen Accidental Soldiers of our Hometown Wars, Let’s Really Think and Pray

Another Memorial Day weekend has come and gone. Every year around this time, fresh new memorials to lost American lives appear across our country. They commemorate the growing number of civilians forced unwittingly to serve as soldiers in our ongoing hometown wars.

Among these most recently fallen conscripts are the nineteen fourth graders in Uvalde, Texas, who almost made it to the end of the school year. These nine and ten-year old kids might now be relishing the start of summer, had they not been shot to death in their classrooms after returning from an awards ceremony. They include two teachers, both mothers, brave women who did their utmost to protect their students. They include ten people of various ages, from twenty to eighty-six, who had the misfortune to stop by their neighborhood grocery store in Buffalo for snacks, or strawberries, or a cake, at the wrong time.

We should also grieve for the traumatized survivors of these urban battles, whose lives are forever altered. They include the Uvalde children who evaded death because they chose an effective hiding place, or because they smeared their clothing with the blood of their dead and dying classmates. They’ll never see many of their little friends again. There is the young woman in Buffalo who eluded the gunman when another woman lunged at him and was shot dead in the process.

To these survivors and to the families of the lost, we are quick to offer our “thoughts and prayers.” This phrase, if uttered automatically, has little meaning. But we should, indeed, be thinking about, and praying for real solutions. Solving a problem requires opening our minds in order to approach it from various viewpoints. Prayer, to be effective, needs a similar attitude, a willingness to consider answers that might push the boundaries of our comfort zone. Prayer should prompt us to release our tight hold on notions we cling to simply because we have always done so. I pray that we can find some common ground, and that it will move us to take strategic steps toward stopping our country’s epidemic of gun violence.

And as we think and pray to find this common ground, let’s remember that, at any time, we might find ourselves, or our parent, grandparent, child or spouse, forced suddenly into battle. We’re all in this dangerous lottery together; we don’t know when or where our number may be called. Medical exemptions or wealthy parents will no longer keep us from the fight.

A Pilot in the Family, on Veterans Day, 2021

Thank you, this Veterans’ Day to all those who put their lives on the line to defend our country and our freedom. My father is the first veteran in our family that I typically think of on this day set aside to honor those who’ve served. My Uncle Bill is the second. Daddy was stationed in Regensburg, Germany, with the U.S. Army Occupational Forces following World War II. My mother’s brother, Bill, enlisted at sixteen and served as a Frogman in the Pacific.

While looking for a photo of Daddy or Uncle Bill to post on Veterans’ Day, I came across a picture of another family member in a military uniform. I don’t recall my father ever mentioning his distant cousin, Hunter, above. According to the inscription on the back of the photo, in Daddy’s neat handwriting, Hunter was a Lieutenant in the Air Service during World War I. He was born August 30, 1895 in Jane Lew, West Virginia, which is also my grandmother’s home town. He survived the war, and died at age sixty-five on May 9, 1960 in Martinsburg, West Virginia. He’s buried in Arlington Cemetery. The photo bears no date, but it must have been taken in 1917 or ’18, when he was twenty-two or twenty-three. When he was my daughter’s age.

I learned from another cousin that Hunter was the son of my great-grandmother’s brother, which makes him my grandmother’s first cousin. He was married in 1922 to a woman named Marion, and together they had at least one child, a son. I wish we knew more about Hunter’s experiences during the war. I wish I could read some of his letters home, as we’ve read my Uncle Bill’s. I wish we knew more about Hunter’s later years, as well. I hope he has grandchildren now keeping his memory alive. I hope they have photos that document other notable stages in their grandfather’s life. But I’m grateful that at least I have this lone visual record, this window into Hunter’s young adulthood, when he was a dashing pilot in jodhpurs and goggles, striking a jaunty pose before climbing into his plane to do his patriotic duty. Thank you, cousin Hunter, for your youthful confidence and courage. I hope it stood you in good stead throughout your life.

Walking Provincetown, Continued

In one of my longer Provincetown walks this summer, I got as far as the hilltop apex of Bradford Street, where the tall, narrow Gothic revival cottages above are located. With their sharply peaked roof lines, the structures could well be the home of friendly witches in a children’s book. The neat, enclosing hedge and abundant plantings further enhance the compound’s charming storybook aspect. Built by a sea captain in 1850, and home to several artists over the years, the cottages are now owned by a local art and antiques dealer.

The view toward the bay from the upper windows of the buildings above must be spectacular. I took this photo from just across Bradford Street, at the edge of a precipitous drop.

Flamboyant orange tiger lilies stand out against the weathered shingles of another hilltop Bradford Street home.

Back on Commercial Street, near the heart of town, is the elegant wedding cake building above. At the time of its construction in 1860 as the Center Methodist Episcopal Church, it was purported to be the largest Methodist church in the United States. Its original, emphatically tall steeple was removed after it was damaged in the severe winter storm of 1898. Since then, the arched belfry alone has topped the building. Once the congregation left for a newer, more easily manageable building in 1958, the church became home, for about a decade, to the Chrysler Museum, and later, to the Provincetown Heritage Museum. Following an extensive renovation, completed in 2011, the building now serves as the town’s Public Library.

The building’s light-filled interior is well worth a look. It’s high-ceilinged upper floor still contains a sixty-six foot long, half-scale model of the Provincetown schooner, the Rose Dorothea, winner of the 1907 Lipton Cup Fishermen’s Race. The model, completed in 1988, by a group of volunteers led by Francis “Flyer” Santos, is a tribute to the long tradition of New England shipbuilding and to the intrepid fishermen of Provincetown.

The library, with its large windows, is a lovely place from which to survey the surrounding town. Above, we look across Center Street to the home built around 1870 as the parsonage of the Methodist Church. The current owner is the proprietor of Provincetown’s Shop Therapy, which bills itself as a “world famous alternative lifestyle emporium.” The wild spirit of the sculpture garden that surrounds the house is similar to that expressed in the brightly colored murals that adorn the facade of Shop Therapy. The Pilgrim Monument rises in the background.

This view above shows Commercial Street shops, the harbor, pier and breakwater.

I like to walk the town’s short lanes that connect Commercial and Bradford streets. They offer unique perspectives on enclosed gardens and quiet enclaves mere steps away from the tourist crowd.

Town Hall, as seen from Commercial Street.

Provincetown’s government center is Town Hall, built in 1886 and situated at the very midpoint of the town. Every registered, resident voter is a member of the town’s legislative body. Town Meetings, as well as concerts and special events, take place here in the capacious auditorium. The Victorian building underwent a massive renovation, completed in 2010, after portions of it were deemed structurally unsound. The current green and white color scheme mimics the original palette.

A side view of Town Hall, from Ryder Street.

Following the sale of the Center Methodist Church, the congregation built their new home on Shank Painter Road, a bit removed from the town center. The spare Modernist building opened in 1960. The sanctuary, with steeply sloping redwood walls, resembles the upturned hull of a boat. Provincetown United Methodist Church is a vital hub of community life. In addition to Sunday worship, the congregation runs a Thrift Shop and Soup Kitchen. The church hosts a number of twelve-step groups and serves as a rehearsal space for some theater groups. Our family has been attending worship there once every summer for many years. It has become our church home away from home. We looked forward to being back in the company of the small, welcoming congregation, to an uplifting sermon by the Reverend Jim Cox and to a moving anthem by the delightful “Joyful Noise Choir.” When we arrived on our annual Sunday morning in August 2019, we were surprised, and somewhat alarmed, to see that Reverend Jim was not there. A guest minister presided. Toward the end of the service, she seemed to be stalling for time. Before long, Rev. Jim was proceeding slowly up the center aisle. Gravely ill, he’d come to say goodbye. He died just over a month later. We’re grateful that we could be among the flock that day, to thank him for being such a source of kindness, wisdom and good cheer, for walking the walk of faith and love of neighbor in all circumstances. Appropriately, his Celebration of Life included a New Orleans-style brass band “Second-Line Procession” from Town Hall to the Church.

The Delta surge of Covid prevented us from attending church this year in Provincetown. As of June, the pastor is Edgar Miranda. God willing, we’ll meet him next year.

This large Bradford Street residence, built in the 1870s, stands out for its dramatically peaked gable roof and Stick Style ornamentation. It was home to a succession of artists and merchants before opening its doors to paying guests. Currently operated as Stowaway Guesthouse, its pleasant rooms are brightly painted, and the spacious grounds are lushly landscaped. It’s one of Provincetown’s many inviting, privately run inns.

On every return walk to Truro, I pause again to look back toward Provincetown. The familiar elements are there: the white house, the bay, the curve of the town. When the distinctive features of the Provincetown skyline, such as the Pilgrim Monument, the towers of the Library, Town Hall and the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House, are visible, it calls to mind a decorative miniature village in a model train display. On cloudy days, the buildings blur together into a vague impression, a palette knife rendering in tones of gray and white. Sometimes, as in the view from our cottage in Truro, dense fog obscures the town altogether, and the white house could be perched at the very edge of the world. At low tide, the home looks out to a vast, low basin of sand. At high tide, the waters of the bay seem to lap at the base of the porch. The view is never the same, yet always the same. I find this somehow comforting. I know it will be there waiting for me next year. And it reminds me that even in the most mundane of life’s daily routines, there lies the potential for endless variety, for boundless possibility.

I didn’t make it to Provincetown’s far West End this summer. I’ll save that part of the tour for next year.

Memorial Day 2021

Fairfield Cemetery, Spencerport, NY, May 29, 2021

O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,

Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life!

America! America!

May God thy gold refine, till all success be nobleness,

and every gain divine.

America! America!

God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self control,

thy liberty in law!

–America the Beautiful

words by Katharine Lee Bates, 1904

music by Samuel A. Ward, 1888

Wishing you and your family a peaceful, beautiful Memorial Day. May you have the freedom to gather with those you love. And may we honor and remember all those who gave their service and their lives for our ability to do so.

The Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the Pursuit of Justice, Justice

With the passing of the Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg last Friday, this world has lost a tenacious and tireless advocate in the cause of justice for all. The second woman elected to the Supreme Court, she served for twenty-seven years, rarely missing a day despite recurring cancer treatments in later life. Last week she lay in state at the U.S. Capitol, the first woman, and the first person of Jewish faith, to do so.

The woman who would become known as the Notorious RBG was born Joan Ruth Bader in working class Flatbush Brooklyn in 1933. Her father, a furrier, had come to the U.S. from Russia at thirteen. Her mother was born in America to parents who had recently emigrated from Austria. She was the second of the couple’s two children. Her older sister Marilyn died of meningitis at age six, when Ruth was just over a year old. Once she reached school age, there were several girls named Joan in her elementary school class, and it was decided that she would use her middle name.

Ruth’s mother, Celia, was a powerful influence on her only surviving daughter. Celia was highly intelligent, inquisitive, and hard working. She graduated from high school at age fifteen, but limited resources prevented her from enrolling in college. Instead, she went to work at a garment factory to help pay for her brother’s education at Cornell. Celia was determined that Ruth pursue the educational path that had been denied her. She secretly put aside money each week in a college fund. Happily, Ruth, like her mother, excelled academically. Celia was diagnosed with cervical cancer when Ruth started high school. Surgeries and radiation treatments prolonged her life for four years, but she died the day before her daughter’s graduation. Ruth was valedictorian of her class, but she missed Commencement to mourn at home with her father. Celia’s college fund had grown to $8,000 by that time, but Ruth gave most of it to her father. She didn’t need it for her education, because she’d earned a full scholarship to Cornell.

At the university, Ruth Bader met fellow student Martin Ginsburg, whom she described as “the only young man I dated who cared that I had a brain.” Outgoing, jovial, and the life of the party, Marty was a foil to Ruth’s more serious, quiet personality. They married in 1954, shortly after graduation. Marty was drafted into the Army, and their first child, Jane, was born before long. After two years in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, they moved back east, and both enrolled in Harvard Law School. Ruth was one of nine women out of a class of five hundred. Coping with adversity and maintaining an academic focus while dealing with the illness of a loved one were skills that Ruth had mastered as a girl. They came in handy during her early married life when Marty was diagnosed with cancer. Ruth managed, somehow, to maintain excellence in her demanding studies, help her husband stay afloat with his, all the while caring for him and their daughter.

Marty made a complete recovery, graduated, and took a job at a New York law firm. Another year of law school remained for Ruth, so she transferred to Columbia and continued her studies. She made Law Review at both Harvard and Columbia. In 1959, despite graduating first in her class (she tied with a male student), and the glowing recommendations she received from her professors, she found it difficult to find employment. She’d had a summer job at one of New York’s premier law firms, but no permanent offer was forthcoming after graduation, from that firm or the other twelve with which she interviewed. After several rejections for clerkships, also because of her gender, she attained a position as a law clerk at the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York. Facing the fact that the doors of major law firms remained closed to women through the 1960s and 70s, Ruth’s career path turned toward teaching. She taught first at Rutgers and then at Columbia, where she became the first woman to earn tenure.

Along with her academic responsibilities, Ginsburg began to litigate gender discrimination cases referred to her by the American Civil Liberties Union. She co-founded the ACLU Women’s Rights Project in 1972, which was created with the goal of removing impediments toward equal opportunity, such as those she had experienced herself. During the 1970s, she argued six pivotal gender equality cases before the Supreme Court. She won five. One of these involved a male plaintiff, a widower who had not been awarded the Social Security benefits to which a widow was entitled. One of Ginsburg’s most fiercely held convictions was that neither women, nor men, should be held to narrow, confining gender stereotypes. Her husband agreed, and their loving fifty-six year marriage was marked by the sharing of household duties and the raising of their two children. (Their son, James, was born in 1965.) When President Jimmy Carter appointed Ruth to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1980, Marty quit his prestigious and highly paid job as a tax lawyer in New York to become a professor at Georgetown University Law School. Marty, by all accounts, was Ruth’s most dedicated supporter and ardent cheerleader.

When President Bill Clinton nominated Ginsburg to the Supreme Court in 1993, she was easily confirmed by the Senate, in those less partisan days, by a vote of 96-3. During her nearly three-decades long tenure at the high court, she became known for her powerfully and beautifully worded dissents, which Justice Ginsburg regarded as “appealing to the intelligence of a future day.” With the passage of time, the minority opinion (as, for example, in the cases of slavery, civil and voting rights), is likely to become the prevailing one. In the words of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”*

Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt’s eulogy at Friday’s memorial service for Justice Ginsburg focused on a phrase from the Torah featured in a framed artwork in the judge’s chambers. One of the core tenets of Judaism, from Deuteronomy 16: 20, it reads: “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” The repetition of the word “justice” emphasizes its significance. The verse makes clear for Jews that one cannot be in right relationship with God while mistreating fellow humans, including the widow, the orphan, the servant, the immigrant, the least and the lost. For the Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her life’s goal and guiding light was the meticulous perseverance, step by step, case by case, in the pursuit of justice, justice, for all people. May her legacy live on. And may the “intelligence of that future day” be quick in coming.

*King’s words condense and paraphrase a passage written in an 1853 sermon by the Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker.

Many thanks to my friend, the Reverend Dawn-Marie, for providing the beautiful photos documenting the honoring of Justice Ginsburg in Washington, D.C on September 25.

To Honor John Lewis, Let’s preserve and build on his legacy

All photos in this post are views of Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, represented by John Lewis for over three decades. Here, downtown Atlanta, with the gold Capitol dome, seen from the MARTA train.

This week our nation honors Congressman John Lewis, who died on July 17 at the age of eighty.  I’m fortunate to have grown up hearing Lewis’s distinctive voice.  I remember him as an Atlanta City Councilman.  My childhood home is in Georgia’s 5th district, which he represented in Congress for over thirty years.   His eventful life, by accounts, was truly purpose-driven.  Born to former sharecroppers who saved enough to buy their own small farm in Troy, Alabama, he was the third of ten children.  A serious, thoughtful boy who thrived on learning, he began his public speaking career in early childhood, preaching to the chickens.  He loved books, when he could get them.  The county public library was off limits to people of color.  He attended local segregated schools.  Higher education seemed hopelessly out of reach until he learned about American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville.  The Seminary offered free tuition, in exchange for campus work, to black students planning to become ministers.  After graduating from the Seminary, Lewis enrolled in Fisk College to pursue a degree in religion and philosophy.  Although ordained as a Baptist minister, he had begun to feel a powerful call toward a path of activism in civil rights.  Throughout his life, he preached his strong faith with actions as well as words.  The chickens’ loss was a gain for Americans and people all over the globe.  

Lewis was among the young black men, neatly dressed in suits and ties, who dared to enter all-white Nashville diners and sit at lunch counters politely requesting to be served.  Freedom Rides on buses throughout the South followed.  As the Chairman of the Nonviolent Student Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he became a leader of the student civil rights movement.  Before long, Lewis was working closely with nationally known Black leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr.   At twenty-three, he was the youngest speaker at the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where King delivered his “I have a dream” speech. 

Lewis’ s unswerving commitment to nonviolent activism got him repeatedly arrested and often beaten, a few times nearly killed.  Ironic, isn’t it,  that peaceful protest, which requires vast stores of self-discipline, tends to ignite such frenzied brutality in those challenged by it?   On March 7, 1965, Lewis and Hosea Williams led a group of six hundred, in what was intended to be a fifty-mile march from Selma, Alabama to the capitol in Montgomery in a demand for voting reform.  The Civil  Rights Act, which President Johnson had signed into law in 1964, addressed some forms of discrimination but did not touch on unfair voting practices.  Throughout much of the Deep South, poll taxes and spurious “literacy tests” were used to suppress the black vote. The efforts of Lewis and the SNCC to register blacks to vote in Alabama was sparking increasing hostility from law enforcement and white segregationists.   At the crest of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, on what came to be known as Bloody Sunday, Lewis and Williams saw a fearsome human barricade of state troopers and police awaiting them.  It’s notable that the name of the bridge, so prominently displayed, honors a Confederate General and former Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.  The marchers continued to approach, quietly and orderly in a long narrow column, until they were about fifty feet away.  Law enforcement warned them to turn back and disperse.  The group, with Lewis and Williams still at the front, stood their ground.  Williams asked to “have a word,” but the police were finished talking.  After a few minutes, the officers put on their gas masks and advanced toward the protestors, pushing them back.  The group resisted the urge to defend themselves.  Many were knocked to the ground, beaten with clubs and sprayed with tear gas.  Lewis’s skull was cracked by a policeman’s billy club. 

Nonviolent protest served its purpose that day.  Most Americans  reacted with shock and anger when the images of police attacking unarmed marchers quickly appeared on televisions and in newspapers.  Public demand for serious voting reform gained ground.  The Voting Rights Act was signed into law just a few months later.

Today, at our nation’s capitol, the public is paying final respects to John Lewis.  On Saturday, July 25, his flag-draped coffin, born by a horse-drawn caisson, crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge for the last time.  For many years, there has been talk of renaming the bridge for Lewis, a son of Alabama whose determination to “get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and redeem the soul of America” yielded fruit on Bloody Sunday and throughout the span of his eight decades on earth.

It’s appropriate that Lewis’s final public appearance was a visit to the newly created Black Lives Matter Plaza near Lafayette Square in Washington DC.  He was weak from a chemo treatment the day before, but he wanted to see the site of peaceful protests that were sowing the seeds of change.  2020, for all its misery and misfortune, could well be a pivotal juncture in race relations in America.  If we take to heart the wise words and courageous actions of the man who came to be known as the “Conscious of the Congress,” perhaps it can indeed be so. 

Midtown Atlanta from Piedmont Park

I’ll end with some of Lewis’s own words. As a young man in his 1963 speech at the March on Washington, he urged our nation toward transformation:

Our minds, souls and hearts cannot rest until freedom and justice exist for all people. . .

We must say: Wake up America, wake up!

On the grounds of the High Museum of Art

Throughout his life, Lewis was persistent, and his message consistent. In a commencement speech at Emory University in Atlanta in 2014, the seventy-six year old offered this advice:

We all live in the same house.  It doesn’t matter whether we are black or white, Latino, Asian American, straight or gay.  We are one people, one family.  We all live in the same house.  So be bold, be courageous. Stand up! Speak up! Speak out! And find a way to create the beloved community.  The beloved world.  The world of peace.  The world that recognizes the dignity of all human kind.  Never become bitter.  Never become hostile.  Never hate.  Live in peace.  We are one. One people and one love.

View from the top of the Westin Peachtree Plaza in downtown Atlanta

May we honor John Lewis in the most honorable way possible, by following his example. By working toward the good of all Americans. This means avoiding violence. In Lewis’s words, again: When someone calls you everything but a child of God, you keep your cool. You stand with dignity, or you kneel with dignity. It means truly listening to one another. It may mean rethinking long-held convictions and taking actions that we never expected to take. As Lewis has said, When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something, to not be quiet.

Remember that we’re not starting from scratch. We’re building on Lewis’s legacy, a strong foundation of love, peace and hope.

A view in Morningside, the intown Atlanta neighborhood where I grew up.