When I walked past the open door, she stood inside, her arms loaded with damp towels and unlaundered sheets. I felt a pang. I was headed out to explore San Francisco with my husband and grandsons. And she would spend her day in the hotel, cleaning up after us and other vacationers.
Just before I pushed the elevator button, I heard a voice behind me.
I turned, and she stood back the hallway, her arms now free of towels and sheets. Before she spoke again, she searched my face.
“Ma’am,” she said. “Come see my view.”
And in case I didn’t understand her accent, she beckoned me into the room and over to the window.
“Look,” she said, “what I see every day.
And from that window, she gave me a tour of the city.
We marveled together over the Golden Gate Bridge, shrouded in fog, and the hills that define the city and Alcatraz Island squatting in the bay and pelicans flying over the water. Her voice took a tone of reverence.
“See there,” she said, “the Palace of Fine Arts.”
Squinting I could see a domed rotunda with golden colonnades. And I decided to convince my grandsons to visit this taste of Rome. She pointed toward Coit Tower, stretching straight and tall into the clouds. And we looked together at the blue-tinged mountains beyond the bay.
“My view every day,” she said, as she turned back to the towels and sheets. “Thank you for looking with me.”
But my thanks was to her. All day this conversation followed me. I didn’t forget it the next day, or the next. This is a conversation I’ll carry with me, hoping to remember especially when I need to widen my view.
“Last year was a disaster,” a second-year teacher said last week. “What will happen this year?”
“I’ve never taught before,” another said. “How do I start?”
I remember that stomach-clenching end to summer—the dreams about teaching in a nightgown or with toilet paper trailing from my shoe. And worse, trying to get attention as spit wads fly and fistfights brew.
“Your most important work in these weeks before school starts,” I tell them, “is to orchestrate the first minutes of the first class of the first day.”
It’s in those first minutes, after all, that students decide if they like a teacher, respect a teacher, and want to learn from a teacher.
“How do I do this?” these young teachers ask.
To that first class, I tell them, bring four things:
Ambiance—If a classroom looks and feel like every other classroom, there’s less reason to enter. So offer a classroom with a distinctive sense of place. I played classical music, dimmed lights, and showed videos of crackling fire or gentle rain on the classroom screen.
Wonder—In those first minutes of class, forget the rules. Rather, get dramatic with the hellish tattooing of the heart in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story. Or dip a banana in liquid nitrogen and smash it to pieces, like glass, on the floor. Or recite pi to the hundredth decimal while students check your accuracy. Or tell the story of the last soldier who died in World War I, and why his death was futile.
Empathy—Show yourself as on their sides. “When I was a student,” you might say. “I hated history. I saw no use in memorizing dates and capitals. So, guess what! That’s not how I teach history.”
Order—Make it hard to be bad. Not by reciting rules with an evil eye, but by creating structures for a smooth start. I taped cards with student names to desks—hoping to separate students who might have drawn each other away from learning. And on those desks I placed the first, ten-minute assignment—a writing exercise, one easy to understand and one that would feed into the middle-school proclivity to find how they fit into the world, something like Write about a time you were mad, really mad. Or What do you think is unfair in this world? Write about it. This gave me time to check roll—not aloud since you never know what students might say in answer to their names—but with the seating chart I had already created.
In the first minute of class, students are already asking, Who will make things happen in this classroom?
The evening was beautiful, but the killing didn’t stop, not for hours. Under stars that hung low and a moon that rose white and silent over the park, people kept dying—by stabbings and poisonings and drownings and execution. By the end of the play, nine of eleven main characters in Hamlet had died, one perhaps at her own hands and the rest at the hands of brothers and lovers and in-laws and erstwhile friends.
Something, for sure, was rotten in the state of Denmark.
My husband shifted in his lawn chair.
“The more they kill, the easier it gets,” he whispered to me.
But I didn’t answer; the last act was beginning.
In a cemetery, Hamlet and Horatio happen upon a jovial gravedigger.
“Has this fellow no feeling of his business,” Hamlet asks about the gravedigger, “that he sings at grave-making?”
Horatio answers: “Custom hath made it in him a property of easiness.”
The gravedigger may be easy, but Hamlet isn’t. Especially when the gravedigger uncovers a skull and tells him it belonged to Yorick, the court jester.
“Alas, poor Yorick!” Hamlet says. “I knew him.”
Hamlet mourns that Yorick’s lips are rotted away. And with them have gone Yorick’s jokes and pranks and songs.
And Hamlet, who has been surrounded by death, suddenly feels sickened. He sees the loss death brings.
I confess that I missed a few scenes after that, thinking about students I have known, who are no longer with us, dying at their own or someone else’s hands. Students who once joked and pranked and are now silenced, by death or by despair.
Sitting there with the stage lights up and the moon and stars shining down, I wished I could redo times I taught with a “property of easiness,” accepting sad and defiant looks as the middle school way rather than as a plea for help.
She didn’t come to the reunion. Even though we had gathered from across the Midwest and New England and Nicaragua and Hawaii, my ninety-eight-year-old mother-in-law stayed in her hospital bed, breathing along with her oxygen machine and dozing off when her eyes felt heavy. It was the first time ever that she didn’t make it to a Swartz gathering.
Except that she kept showing up.
Saturday morning, we rotated through mini workshops, learning from each other how to decorate cookies, how to manage finances, how to add Latin flavors to everyday foods, and how to garden with native plants.
“Grandma would have loved this,” we said to each other.
While Uncle Tim led a workshop on how to cut your trash in half, I thought of how Grandma had recycled and repurposed long before today’s trend.
And when the family branch from Hawaii taught us how to make Polynesian flower crowns, someone said, “I’m making mine for Grandma.”
For a couple hours at a time, a few of us would go missing. Our names were on the time slot to visit Grandma. And when we showed back up at the reunion, it was often with tears in our eyes and smiles on our faces.
“She’s hanging on to her life, asking about mine,” someone said.
We ended the reunion talking about Grandma—how her definition of family extends beyond us. All of us having been born or adopted into her family might be in the inner circle. But we aren’t the only circle. She is a mother to us, but she has also been a mother to inmates in prison and a lonely neighbor down the street and folks in a homeless shelter.
And acknowledging this about Grandma’s life, makes us think about how we live.
This week a lecture on music helped me understand Charlie.
“Don’t talk to me,” he said, as he came in my classroom door. “I just want to be here.”
And he curled in a fetal position on an oversized ottoman in the far corner of the classroom. The next day in the quiet, after-school hour, I heard the door creak again. This time, Charlie didn’t say a word, just stopped my words with a gesture. He stayed on the ottoman twenty minutes before he walked out . . . without a word, like he was evaporating into thin air. Again and again Charlie did this, until the end of the year.
He was cared for, I knew, by his parents and a counselor. And he participated in gifted class, right along with the other students. But I knew from his writing that he was angsty, that what he knew about the world was too heavy for him to bear.
So keeping silent while his nearly man-sized body curled in a fetal position on the ottoman felt impossible to me. But with sheer grit, I managed to hold my words. I somehow sensed I should follow Charlie’s cues.
The music lecture I heard this week showed me what Charlie asked of me back then—to quit being like German composers, Brahms, for example, who march people right along with harmonic progression and resolve every dissonant chord.
Be less like Brahms and more like the French Debussy, Charlie was telling me. Debussy’s music doesn’t have a steady forward beat. Dubussy’s music stays put in an almost stationary environment, soaking up the color and hanging with the dissonance. With Debussy, the lecturer said, music simply evaporates. It doesn’t end. There’s no need to resolve.
When Debussy wrote his music, he was breaking with the move-right-along harmonics that had been working since the Renaissance. And when I kept silent with Charlie, I was breaking with all my teacherly instincts to propel Charlie into next steps.
“With Debussy,” the lecturer said, “you have to listen differently. If you try to listen to Debussy the same way you listen to Brahms, you won’t appreciate the music.”
I have a regret about those afternoons with Charlie. Though I was silent with my mouth, I wish I had managed an inner stillness. I hope my anxiety didn’t float across the room toward that ottoman.
We slipped out for a date night on our family vacation. We were in Michigan, after all, where we started dating fifty-plus years ago. And we knew exactly where we were going to eat. Although cowboy-style food is not our first choice, we remember the gift Ponderosa Steakhouse once gave us.
We were poor then—college students and parents of two toddlers with one part-time job between us. Each week we spent ten dollars at Meijer Thrifty Acres, buying milk and eggs and beans and cornmeal and very little else, except for 25-cents-a-pound chicken livers.
But one day, Steve came home from scrubbing floors at a car dealership with a spring in his step.
“I found a way for us to splurge,” he said.
And Saturday lunch found us at Ponderosa Steakhouse, where for 49 cents we ate chopped-sirloin steaks, dinner rolls, baked potatoes, and an endless salad bar. Every Saturday we did this—even when the price went to 99 cents. Cornbread and beans were fine on weekdays when we knew Saturday was coming.
Our date-night meal last week tasted just like those long-ago meals, but what cost us one dollar then, now put us out thirty. And when we stopped by Meijer to replenish the milk and eggs and cereal for our family of fourteen, we spent much more than ten dollars.
But at the end of the check-out counter, I found what hadn’t changed.
Our children had loved Meijer Thrifty Acres, not for the groceries, but for the “penny pony” named Sandy.
Riding this bucking pony was the reward for not grabbing candy or begging for sugar cereal.
And after all these years, the cost to ride Sandy was still one penny. I felt like going back to the beach house and grabbing grandkids.
“Come ride, Sandy,” I wanted to say.
But didn’t. Being a grandma of teens and tweens, I know about eye rolling!
I’m spending the next two weeks with these folks, first at our house for cousin week and then at the lake, where their parents will join us.
We’ve got three freezers filled with taco meat and sausage quiche and chili and chicken casseroles and Yum-e-setti and cookies and cakes, and I’m not sure what all is down near the bottom. We’ve got plans to swim and fish and camp and ride bikes and study the Bible and play games and hike and go on an architectural hunt.
My hands (and theirs) will be in the dishwater and in oven mitts and on fishing rods and scooter bars. So for these two weeks, my fingers will be off the keyboard. I’m going to forget about research and plot structure and chapter orders and blogging and finding just the right word to type.
But I’m sure I’ll be hearing and telling plenty of stories. And I’m sure I’ll be searching for just the right words for plenty of conversations—you never know what tweens and teens might say.
It’s good to be home. We make popcorn, huge bowlsful. We sleep as we like it—windows open and a fan moving air across our bay-window bed. I have ice in my drinks and drawers for my clothes and bubbles for my bath. And I hold in my mind the ringing of cow bells, the dampness of dungeons, and the faces of people who look like they’d show up at my family reunion.
Traveling, I found, isn’t always pretty or comfortable or even safe. Pilgrimage hurts. And it heals. It brings nightmare and wonder. It transforms, and it teaches.
I’ve learned a few things on this trip. And if I could do it again, here’s what I’d do:
I’d talk with more people. Reluctant to make mistakes, I avoided using my Duolingo German. Until Langendorf. As we walked through the sleepy village of my long-ago family, I saw two women sitting on a stone wall. They looked to be my age. Suddenly, I was willing to play the fool.
With the help of Google translate, we cobbled together some understanding, these German women and I.
“Daniel Bender?” they said. “The Amish?”
Yes, they knew where his house had stood. They knew he had migrated to America. One woman’s great-something grandparents had lived in the house right beside Daniel Bender. She served us sparkling water on her patio while we waited for her daughter to bike twenty minutes into the village to translate. Before we left town that day, we had toured the village church house, eaten chocolate on yet another patio, and been invited to a party.
And I almost hadn’t had the courage to begin a conversation.
I’d pack even lighter. We’ve long been carry-on travelers. And our airlines had more stringent size requirements than most. So I knew I couldn’t take much. I packed my suitcase and thinned out my clothes . . . twice. Even so, I had a hard time keeping up in long walks from train stations to our lodgings.
“Grandma,” I heard a hundred times, “I’ll trade you luggage.”
And I’d pull their light bags while they hauled my heavy one.
I didn’t need those white jeans, I’d think, or that acrostic book or that history timeline.
I’d travel with greater savvy. For one thing, I’ll never again trust my memory to activate a Eurail pass. That mistake was costly and gave us 12 anxious hours. Next time, I’ll find a way to jog my memory—snooze an email, ask my grandchildren to help me remember . . . something.
And then there was the return-to-the-US Covid test email we didn’t think to download. The testing center wouldn’t give us results on paper, but we made sure our phones were charged. We showed our negative results on email as we left the Amsterdam airport and as we entered the airport in Lisbon. But as we tried to board for our last leg home, the internet icon spun and spun and spun. Part of the email loaded, but not far enough.
“We can’t let you board,” they told us. “Until we see the word negative.”
Three techy airline people tried to help. No one could make it work. And they closed the gate.
That’s when the youngest of the three, still holding the phone, yelled, “I got it! I see negative.”
It seemed too late. But they called the pilot who told them to open the door.
In Shakespeare’s famous “All the World’s a Stage” soliloquy, he describes an old man.
The world is too wide, Shakespeare says, for his shrunk shank.
Nothing is wrong with my leg, but I know exactly what Shakespeare means—for someone old, the world is too big, too fast, too full of changing technology. At that moment, I had a shrinking brain, for sure.
So, yes, I’m looking forward to my own bed again tonight.
Our last day in Europe, Steve and I toured the Port of Rotterdam. At this port, my family boarded the Charming Nancy to begin the journey to America. Having fled persecution in Switzerland and Germany, they rafted with other Amish up the Rhine River through the Netherlands to reach the port. At each of the twenty-six custom houses along the way, they had to dock for inspection. So a passage that could have taken a week, took more than a month.
In Holland, they were delayed another month, spending more of their money to survive. And there was yet one more stop—Cowes port in England. There my family and other passengers received clearance to go to America, still a British colony.
But this is when the real misery began. Packed like herring in a barrel, passengers endured storms, filthy food, thirst, scurvy, lice, the constant stench of human waste, and death after death.
An account of this journey survives. It was written by Hans Jacob, a bishop traveling with the Amish group. He wrote it on an old Swiss calendar, and saved it in the back of a Bible:
The 28th of June while in Rotterdam getting ready to start, my Zernbli died and was buried in Rotterdam. The 29th we got under sail and enjoyed only 1-1/2 days of favorable wind. The 7th day of July, early in the morning, died Hans Zimmerman’s son-in-law. We landed in England the 8th of July, remaining nine days in port during which five children died.
Went under sail the 17th of July. The 21st of July my own Lisbetli died. Seven days before Michael’s Georgli had died. On the 29th of July three children died. On the 1st of August my Hansli died and Tuesday previous five children died. On the 3rd of August contrary winds beset the vessel from the first to the 7th of the month, three more children died. On the 8th of August Shambien’s Lizzie died and on the 9th died Hans Zimmerman’s Jacobi. On the 19th Christian Burgli’s child died. Passed a ship on the 21st. A favorable wind sprang up. On the 28th Hans Gasi’s wife died.
Passed a ship 13th of September. Landed in Philadelphia on the 18th, and my wife and I left the ship on the 19th. A child was born to us on the 20th – died – wife recovered. A voyage of 83 days.
My long-ago family would not have recognized the Port of Rotterdam I saw yesterday. Now the largest port in Europe, our tour captain navigated past massive ships with arms stretching into the sky and reaching down to pluck shipping containers from docks and set them on ships, stacking them, one atop the other, like so many building blocks. With its 22 ship-to-shore cranes and 25 floating cranes and 165 container cranes, the port processed 15.3 million containers last year.
Neither could my family have imagined my journey over the same Atlantic waters they crossed at such cost. As I write, I’m flying high above the waves that battered them. In this jet plane, a steward offers me iced drinks and chicken salad and chocolate mousse. I’m breathing purified air and offered a pillow and blanket. No one around me is retching or dying. What took my family 83 days is taking me eight hours.
The end of any journey brings fatigue and the chance to be cranky. But you can be sure that as I’ve been tempted to complain about a five-second Covid test and a five-row security line and a half-hour delay, I’ve been clamping my mouth shut.