It Wasn’t Always Like This

Some of my silly classmates in Michigan in the 1950s.  (Photo: Ilse Jurgis)

Growing up in the United States was never easy. Certainly not during the decades following World War II. Not for displaced kids like me, at least, who were born amid foreign invasions and occupations. Whose families were forced to flee their homeland, leaving nearly everything behind. Including loved ones deported and imprisoned in godforsaken gulags. Nor for native-born American kids whose family members had served overseas and returned to a nation that knew almost nothing about armed conflict. Adults seemed all too ready to dismiss our difficulties. Parents responded by telling us how easy we had it compared to them, and healthcare providers responded by offering us platitudes and placebos. While young people these days have it better in these respects, they have also lost one important advantage that most of my generation took for granted: access to safe public places, particularly schools, where they could do dumb-assed kid things and still survive.

I remember the exact day that this started: 1 August 1966. I was an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan and heard that someone had gone on a shooting spree at the University of Texas at AustinCharles Whitman, a former Marine turned engineering student, had murdered his wife and mother and then brought several guns—including semi-automatics—to campus, killing 14 people and wounding 32 others, mainly from the 28th-floor observation deck of The Tower. An intelligent 25-year-old with a history of being abused by his father, Whitman claimed in writings left behind that he did not understand his own behavior and requested an autopsy. The Connally Commission was convened and concluded that a brain tumor “conceivably could have contributed to his inability to control his emotions and actions.” A aberration, we were conveniently led to believe.

Almost 52 years have passed since that day. And 19 since carnage occurred at Columbine High School in suburban Denver, where 13 people were shot and killed and 21 others were injured. And about five since 20 children between the ages of six and seven as well as six staff members and the shooter’s mother were slaughtered in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. And only six weeks into the start of this year since seven multiple-casualty school shootings have occurred. Including the one last week at a high school in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were shot dead and 15 more taken to hospitals. Over those 50 some years, the  frequency and scale of such shootings has increased to such a degree that no one can, in good conscience, call them “aberrations” anymore. They have become so common  in the States—as opposed to anywhere else in the world—that a recent  Los Angeles Times headline read, “Here’s a morbid exercise: Can you keep track of which school shooting was the last before Parkland?”

So common that I needed a reality check. Had our schools ever been as safe as I remember them being back when I was growing up? And, if so, what changed in 1966? Not surprisingly, I had trouble finding definitive data. The federal government does not study gun violence in the States because The National Rifle Association has opposed any measure to fund research on or accounting of America’s gun epidemic. But I did find a list that I could pare down for my purposes. Here it is, with a brief description and number of casualties for each instance:

1 July 22, 1950; New York City, New York. A 16-year-old boy was shot in the wrist and abdomen at the Public School 141 dance during an argument with a former classmate.
1 November 27, 1951; New York City, New York. A 15-year-old student was fatally shot as fellow pupils looked on in a grade school.
1 April 9, 1952; New York City, New York. A 15-year-old boarding-school student shot a dean rather than relinquish pin-up pictures of girls in bathing suits.
1 July 14, 1952; New York City, New York. Bayard Peakes walked into the offices of the American Physical Society at Columbia University and shot and killed secretary Eileen Fahey with a .22 caliber pistol. He was reportedly upset that the APS had rejected a pamphlet he had written.
1 September 3, 1952; Lawrenceville, Illinois. After 25-year-old Georgine Lyon ended her engagement with Charles Petrach, Petrach shot and killed Lyon in a classroom at Lawrenceville High School where she worked as a librarian.
1 October 2, 1953; Chicago, Illinois. Fourteen-year-old Patrick Colletta was shot to death by 14-year-old Bernice Turner in a classroom of Kelly High School in Chicago. It was reported that after Turner refused to date Colletta he handed her the gun and dared her to pull the trigger, telling her that the gun was “only a toy.” A coroner’s jury later ruled that the shooting was an accident.
1 October 8, 1953; New York City, New York. Larry Licitra, 17-year-old student at the Machine and Metal Trades High School, was shot and slightly wounded in the right shoulder in the lobby of the school while inspecting a handmade pistol owned by one of several students.
3 May 15, 1954; Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Putnam Davis Jr. was shot and killed during a fraternity house carnival at the Phi Delta Theta house at the University of North Carolina. William Joyner and Allen Long were shot and wounded during the exchange of gunfire in their fraternity bedroom. The incident took place after an all-night beer party. Long reported to the police that, while the three were drinking beer at 7 AM, Davis started shooting with a gun obtained from the car of a former roommate.
1 January 11, 1955; Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. After some of his dormmates urinated on his mattress, Bob Bechtel, a 20-year-old student at Swarthmore College, returned to his dorm with a shotgun and used it to shoot and kill fellow student Holmes Strozier.
3 May 4, 1956; Prince George’s County, Maryland. Fiftheen-year-old student Billy Prevatte fatally shot one teacher and injured two others at Maryland Park Junior High after he had been reprimanded by the school.
1 October 2, 1957; New York City, New York. A 16-year old student was shot in the leg by a 15-year old classmate at a city high school.
1 March 4, 1958; New York City, New York. A 17-year-old student shot a boy in the Manual Training High School.
1 May 1, 1958; Massapequa, New York. A 15-year-old high school freshman was shot and killed by a classmate in a washroom of the Massapequa High School.
1 September 24, 1959; New York City, New York. Twenty-seven men and boys and an arsenal were seized in the Bronx as police headed off a gang war resulting from the fatal shooting of a teenager at Morris High School.
2 February 2, 1960; Hartford City, Indiana. Principal Leonard Redden shot and killed two teachers with a shotgun at William Reed Elementary School before fleeing into a remote forest, where he committed suicide.
1 June 7, 1960; Blaine, Minnesota. Lester Betts, a 40-year-old mail-carrier, walked into the office of 33-year-old principal Carson Hammond and shot him to death with a 12-gauge shotgun.
2 October 17, 1961; Denver, Colorado. Tennyson Beard, 14, got into an argument with William Hachmeister, 15, at Morey Junior High School, during which Beard pulled out a .38 caliber revolver and shot at Hachmeister, wounding him. A stray bullet struck Deborah Faith Humphrey, 14, who died from her gunshot wound.
23 School gun casualties between the start of 1950 and 1 August 1966 (13 fatalities, 10 non-fatal injuries with suicides excluded)

Best I could tell, more people were killed and injured in the Parkland high school incident alone than in the first 15-some years that I was in school. Many instances occurred in urban areas, with New York City and Chicago being overrepresented. Most resulted in single casualties, frequently non-fatal ones. And none involved the use of assault weapons resembling the ones used by Whitman in 1966. Which is why I believe 1966 can be considered a turning point, not only for me but also for countless students that followed. And for other victims of gun violence, including the troubled young people whose ill-considered acts could have concluded so differently had they not had such easy access to weapons designed for use by our well-trained soldiers.

On a positive note, I came to conclude that Parkland could be a turning point of another sort. Amid the all-too-familiar images of frightened kids collapsing in the arms of relieved parents and tearful teens carrying flickering candles in the dark, some images emerged that I had not seen in any meaningful way since I came of age in the Sixties. Students as angry activists, and for similar reasons. Many of my generation felt betrayed by adults in positions of power and decided it was time to take matters into their own hands. Particularly when it came to life-and-death issues. Back then, young men were forced by law to fight and die in a war that many felt was immoral by a government that many considered corrupt. Through mass protests and other means, they helped bring about (1) the end of the draft and the establishment of an all-volunteer armed forces, (2) the resignation of President Richard Nixon and (3) disengagement from the Vietnam War.

If my generation could effect such far-reaching change, imagine what a generation endowed with a wealth of technological resources could do. Particularly if mine uses these resources to keep reminding everyone that there was a time when classrooms were not killing fields and that, with leadership from today’s students, it could be like that again.

 

Note: To see what being a teen in the Sixties was like for me, read my short story “Winter Wonderland.” To see why Sandy Hook affected me on a personal level, read my essay “So You Know About Guns?” To learn about upcoming student-led gun control events that you can support, click here. And, if you happen to be a young person, feel free to take what you need from the past. I recommend that you start with “The Port Huron Statement,” written in 1962 by Tom Hayden, a University of Michigan student,

 

Reading DH Lawrence in Grand Rapids, MI

Betsy DeVos, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for the Secretary of Education slot, speaks at the Grand Rapids, Michigan stop of his USA Thank You Tour last December. (Photo: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

For years after my release, I couldn’t find the right words to describe what it was like to be a five-year-old war refugee from Latvia forced to spend her formative years in the most stifling city in the United States. I thought it would get easier after Gerald Ford, who grew up there, shared the Republican ticket with Richard Nixon and became President once Nixon resigned. I said, “Everyone’s exactly like him there.” But that didn’t work since people kept confusing him with Chevy Chase. Decades later, I insisted it was not by chance that GOP Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin chose to kick off her book tour there. But that didn’t work either since people couldn’t believe such a person could exist and saw her as a Tina Fey impersonator.

Now I’m giving it another go, emboldened by the fact that a hometown gal—which I’m sure is what they still call women back there—is in a position of power as the Secretary of Education, no less. And because it’s the beginning of Banned Books Week. So help me here and imagine emerging me surrounded by a bevy of Betsys. And a bunch of books. And a family where no one even remotely resembles a Jerry or Betsy. And, while you’re doing that, allow me to backtrack a bit.

Viktors Jurģis, Middle Age
My father, Viktors Jurģis, at the time he revisited Lady Chatterley in Grand Rapids.

In 1928, when DH Lawrence had Lady Chatterley’s Lover privately printed in Italy and Alfred A. Knopf published a censored abridgement in the States, my father was an undergrad studying the likes of philosophy and theology at the University of Latvia.

In 1930, when Lawrence died and US Senator Bronson M Cutting proposed amending the Smoot–Hawley Tariff Act to end US Customs censorship of imported books and Senator Reed Smoot opposed that, threatening to read obscene passages from Lady Chatterley and such on the Senate floor, my father was starting what he believed was the best job in the world, or at least Latvia: reading books by day–at the beach, if he chose–and screening films by night. If he had to ban one now and then, well, that was simply how it went in most civilized countries.

The first banned book my father placed in our basement bookcase and I found

In 1959, when my father was 52 and I was 15 and we lived in Grand Rapids, Grove Press published an unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley and the post office promptly confiscated copies. Owner Barney Rosset sued the New York City postmaster and won. And won again on federal appeal. My father then legally bought the book, probably for 50 cents, curious to see if he would still ban it as a more circumspect middle-aged man. I don’t recall his conclusion or whether he even cared to share it with me.

What I do remember is him stashing the controversial novel in a small bookcase, one of several unused pieces of furniture brought over from our previous house and stored in the basement. Soon, Lady Chatterley was joined by John Cleland’s Fanny Hill and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, the remainder of the trio whose ban Rosset’s attorney Charles Rembar had managed to get overturned. Other tantalizing titles subsequently appeared, most notably Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue, written by the notorious Marquis de Sade.

Our conservative, Christian-Reformed neighbors, I’m sure, would have been appalled had they known that a seemingly decent man was leaving smut out where a teenaged girl could find it, but—even at the time—his actions seemed reasonable to me. My father had always drawn a clear distinction between what one chooses to read and how one chooses to behave. And left no doubt about the latter.

Still, I approached the basement books hesitantly, not sure whether reading would be right or wrong. On the one hand, their location suggested that they weren’t fit for the coffee table; on the other, the fact that they weren’t under lock and key suggested that this merely meant caveat lector. In the end, the inherent demand characteristics of all books—Open! Read!—prevailed. And I had access to more than a dictionary to explain the titillating terms that I had overheard.

Naturally, I focused on the raunchiest parts first. But—ever the critic—it wasn’t long before I became distracted by elements of context and style. What modern girl wouldn’t roll her eyes while reading something similar to, say, the following from Lady Chatterley’s Lover?

Whilst all her womb was open and soft, and softly clamoring, like a sea-anemone under the tide, clamoring for him to come in again and make a fulfillment for her.

And whilst the tone of Tropic of Cancer was far more modern, what girl who occasionally read Seventeen and Glamour, as well, would want her sex scenes served up with some seriously repulsive stuff?

“You’re cancer and delirium,” she said over the phone the other day. She’s got it now, the cancer and delirium, and soon you’ll have to pick the scabs.

In 1964, I left conservative, Christian-Reformed Gand Rapids for The University of Michigan, which put me smack in the middle of a full-blown socio-political and sexual revolution. There, I read Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus and other erotica, but that was immaterial. With the invasion of Vietnam underway and the Roe v. Wade ruling nine years in the future, the obscenities concerning me were those related to war and a woman’s right to control her own body. I wonder whether that wasn’t so with my father, as well. Salacious literature mattered less in light of the wholesale slaughter of civilians and annihilation of nations Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin had undertaken,

Given that reasoning, I could expect that those who would like to restrict what today’s youth reads would also be focused on more pressing matters. After all, we are only one careless tweet away from nuclear war with North Korea. But, as Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has said, the current administration can “walk and chew gum” at the same time. And one never knows what will attract our president’s attention. So it’s not that hard to imagine a man who hardly ever reads suddenly coming out in support of the reinstatement of censorship. With Betsy DeVos standing at his side. After all, one previous education secretary of a similar mindset—Terrel Bell during Ronald Reagan’s administration—tried to ban “controversial” books that had come to be considered classics. Books like The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies and Slaughterhouse-Five.

So, even though—or perhaps precisely because—I am deeply concerned about the current geopolitical crisis, I must speak out during Banned Books Week. Because I believe that we would be far better off if we had people in positions of power who were well-read men capable of rationally reconsidering previous positions and literate women who had been allowed to grow up thinking for themselves.

Grove Books owner Barney Rosset in 1967. (Source: The New Yorker)

Note: Parts of this piece first appeared in “Lady Chatterley, My Father and Me,” posted in 2012 while I was Online Editor at Little Patuxent Review. It also suggests various ways to celebrate Banned Books Week.

Monuments and Museums

One portion of a polarizing Soviet-Era war memorial in Riga, Latvia.

Like many people in the United States, I was appalled by the violence that erupted this weekend at the white supremacist rally ostensibly organized to protest the removal of a Confederate monument from Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia. And, like some of them, I could not believe that it was happening again. You see, my native land, Latvia, was invaded by Nazi Germany during World War II. And support for this and other atrocious acts was spread by similar torch-lit, flag-waving, slogan-chanting rallies—first small, then massive—that Adolf Hitler used to fan the flames of racism and nationalism.  Only then, it was the United States and its Allies that fought to restore sanity at considerable cost. Which few, I fear, tend to recall.

Which is why we do need concrete reminders such as monuments in public places. For me, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the best example. While the war and, initially, the memorial itself were divisive, the main section was designed in a way that provided a place for people of all persuasions to contemplate the past while considering the future. Composed of two walls etched with service member names, it was configured to represent a “wound that is closed and healing.” It was also given smooth surfaces that reflect people standing nearby, symbolically bringing the past and the present together.

In contrast, the Charlottesville monument was never meant to have a unifying effect. Situated on a tall pedestal astride a spirited steed, a larger-than-life Robert E. Lee, the military leader of the Confederate states that seceded from the Union after Abraham Lincoln was elected president on a platform opposing the expansion of slavery, stares straight ahead with unseeing eyes. Rather, it serves as a constant reminder to African Americans, among others, that defenders of slavery are still revered, over 150 years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. Ironically, such a statue might have dismayed even Lee, who had presciently argued against erecting such monuments, writing:

I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered,

Worse yet, data dug up by the Southern Poverty Law Center show that most of Confederate monuments did not exist until decades after the end of the Civil War. Installation peaked in the 1910s and 20s, when Jim Crow laws were being enacted, and the 1950s and 60s, when the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum. The Charlottesville statue, finished in 1924, might have been more a tribute to nationalism and racism than to a Southern soldier. The statue’s defenders underscored this by chanting “Blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” while on their way to Emancipation Park.

The question now is what to do next. For what it is worth, I offer my peculiar perspective. While I spent the first 35 years of my life in the United States north of the Mason-Dixon Line, I have also lived three years in Alabama, a former Confederate state, and the past 20 some in Maryland, a slave-holding state that stayed with the Union but played a complicated role. Moreover, I was born in Latvia, which has its own divisive history and, not surprisingly, a similar monuments problem. Putting all this together, I would like to make three points.

No monument tells the entire story

Consider the Victory Memorial to the Soviet Army. Situated in Riga, Latvia’s capital city, it celebrates a win by Communist Russia over Nazi Germany. While Latvians were expected to love it, it did not have the desired effect. You see, this victory was accompanied by the Russians re-occupying the Latvian homeland, which, alas, lasted from 1944 to 1991. (The original name was “Monument to the Liberators of Soviet Latvia and Riga from the German Fascist.”) Moreover, the monument was completed in 1985—some 40 years after the fact—during Perestroika, a reform movement that loosened the Soviet stranglehold on Latvia and strengthened the push for independence. So certain parallels with Confederate monuments can be drawn.

Which is why I can dismiss a suggestion that the  Friends of C’Ville Monuments made, stating Confederate statues could be improved simply “by adding more informative, better detailed explanations of the history of the statues and what they can teach us.” Apart from the fact it is unlikely that the real reasons monuments were erected would ever be included, attempts to summarize the complete story of the people and events being commemorated is way too much to ask of, say, a poor plaque. Historical context is best left to museums. Fortunately, there are two large ones that fill this need: the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, which opened its doors just last year, and the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, which has been around in Riga since 1993.

Removing monuments is about making, not destroying, history

For all the earnest talk about preserving the past, toppling statues that commemorate oppression is a time-honored tradition. In the United States, civilians and soldiers pulled down a statue of King George III in Manhattan a mere five days after the ratification of the Declaration of independence, an act depicted in a Johannes Adam Simon Oertel painting. Which is more or less what happened to a statue of Vladimir Lenin in Riga in 1991 once Latvian independence was restored. Except that engineers were involved and a video is  available. In fact, historians such as Sergei Kruk document both the rise and fall of monuments in scholarly works such as “Wars of Statues in Latvia: The History Told and Made by Public Sculpture.”

Knowing that the past is replete with missing monuments, those wishing to preserve particular ones put restrictions in place. This is often an imperfect deterrent. Officials in Riga reference a 1994 treaty with Russia as reason the Victory monument must remain, leaving it to radical nationalists to try—unsuccessfully—to burn it down, then blow it up. Much like officials in Durham, North Carolina, who cite a 2015 state law, then leave it to protestors to successfully— albeit with some arrests—pull down a Confederate statue and stomp on it. Officials also bring up cost and logistics considerations. According to one report, there are still over 700 Confederate monuments in public places. And monuments can be massive. The Victory memorial includes two statues and a 260-foot obelisk that some say resembles the Citadel complex from the video game Half-Life 2.

Of course, there is nothing quite like a crisis to grease the wheels of government. Unless, in the United States. it is being put to shame by a black woman. Citing public safety concerns in the wake of the domestic terrorism act that capped the Charlottesville rallyBaltimore mayor Catherine E. Pugh—with no public notice, no fund-raising, no re-loction plan—”quickly and quietly” had construction crews remove all four Confederate statues. Which led University of North Carolina history professor David Goldfield to say that this could be part of a “rolling cascade” of cities and states ridding themselves of or relocating such statues. Which seems to be what is happening.

Unless countered, missing monuments continue to exert influence

Just because a monument is gone does not mean it is forgotten. According to Kruk, communists still flock to the spot in front of the government building where the Lenin statue once stood, celebrating his birthday and the anniversary of his death as well as Revolution Day by laying flowers on an empty walkway and foiling plans for a new monument to fill the space. So even if the Lee statue is removed from Emancipation Park, I would not be at all surprised to see some strange combination of white supremacists and Lee devotees congregating there. And installing, say, a more acceptable version of the current Emancipation Memorial or something showing the release of Latvians from the Soviet yoke might only make matters worse.

You see, both the United States and Latvia are deeply divided nations for reasons that date at least as far back as the Civil War and World War II, respectively. According to some, the 2016 election revealed “two large coalitions, roughly equal in size but radically different in demographics and desires,” with “race and identity as the main political dividing line.” Similarly, there is a serious split in my native land between ethnic Latvians and ethnic Russians, with the former constituting about 62 percent of the population and latter representing the largest minority at about 27 percent. Moreover, there was a drop in ethnic Latvians from 77 percent in 1835 to 52 percent in 1989, and this is attributed to the Russian occupation. As a result, Russian residents have been subjected to a range of discriminatory practices, including those regarding the granting of citizenship.

It seems to me that new types of monuments must be built that allow both sides to acknowledge past losses and heal old wounds that prevent them from moving forward. That would require honest national conversations from which a shared vision of the future could emerge. But even if that cannot occur anytime soon, there could  be some agreement to construct a few monuments, large and small, along the lines—but not in imitation of—the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, providing both nations with places of temporary respite.

Note: Optimist that I am, I can see a day when people with different perspectives can, at least, smile at some of the inherent ironies. The Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, for example, was created by the combined efforts of Henry Shrady, a New York sculptor better known for his memorial of Ulysses S. Grant, and Leo Lentelli, an Italian immigrant. And the Victory monument in Riga commemorating Nazi defeat was designed by Lev Bukovsky, who had once served in the Latvian Waffen SS Legion.

Bread, Salt and Water

All I had on my dining room table this New Year’s Eve (Photo: Ilse Munro)

One thing I learned early on was that you see in the new year properly or suffer the consequences. Even though we arrived in the United States as Latvian refugees who had lost everything in World War II, soon there was caviar and vodka on the table on New Year’s Eve. And on New Year’s Day, there was a remarkable dish garnished with dill, lavished with Hollandaise sauce and washed down with white wine: a poached fish with head, tail and skin intact but bones and flesh removed, the later turned into forcemeat that—together with hardboiled eggs and other artistically arranged items that looked lovely when sliced—was reintroduced into the unscathed skin.

Alas, more was involved than mere food and drink. The scales from the fish were rinsed clean, dried in the oven and, apportioned by the number of people present, wrapped in parchment and given to each to put in a pocket. Then silver coins were handed out to each to put in a shoe. This belt-and-suspenders approach increased the certainty that there would be abundant wealth in the coming year. At least according to my maternal grandmother, who had once been a businesswoman and was the most financially savvy among us. Even  with this, she would warn, good luck could elude us if the first to cross our threshold was anyone other than a tall, handsome, dark-haired man. Even my father, who fit the bill but was disqualified, had his own two cents to add: as soon as the clock struck twelve, we had to head outside to toast the entire world. And, no matter how wasted we were or how deep the snow might be, take a long walk after breakfast.

I suppose I could have scrapped all that when I left home and distanced myself from the Latvian-American community. Instead, I not only dutifully performed every ritual and internalized every superstition but also added a few of my own. The latter started simply enough with a decision to dispense with the American custom of making, then breaking New Year’s resolutions. Would it not make more sense, I wondered, to get my life in order before the old year ends so that I could start the new one with a clean slate? My response to something so seemingly sensible soon turned into a compulsion as compelling as any that came from my ancestors. Every bill had to be paid, every room—closets and cupboards included—had to be cleaned, every obligation had to be met. Not to mention shopping for liquor and fish and washing and drying those damn fish scales.

By the time, decades later, that my father had died and my mother and her demanding English Springer Spaniel had moved from Michigan to Maryland to live with me—while I was making the 60-mile DC commute, working 16-hour days and flying cross-country on business trips—I sought simplification. Not at first, of course. She loved the holidays as much I did, which only motivated me to do more. But as the year that she turned 90 drew to a close, I was dragging so badly that the best that I could do was haul home a tree and prop it up in a corner, where it stood for days before I could bring myself to set it up and decorate it. Come Christmas Eve—when Latvians hold their main celebration—everything looked festive, but it then took another supreme effort to start New Year’s preparations.

Perhaps I sensed that this would be our last New Year’s Eve together. Perhaps she sensed it, too. At any rate, she felt the need to lighten my load. All those things that we do, she confessed, are nice but not that necessary. All that really matters is that there is bread, salt and water on the table by midnight. With those three essentials, any resourceful person can survive—and even thrive—in the coming year. Of course, I managed to do all the unnecessary things that I had done before. But, from then on, every year but one, an arrangement of bread, salt and water occupied a prominent place on the table. Particularly the last few years, when it became impossible to ignore the role that hunger plays in the United States and also in the global refugee crisis, which is the worst since World War II, when my family and I were among the more than 50 million displaced persons.

The exception was the one time in my life when, for want of better words, I thought: fuck it. Without doing a damn thing, I went to bed early instead of seeing in 2015. Within weeks, I was hospitalized and nearly died. The reason, I knew, had nothing to do with my singular lapse. In retrospect, my health had been deteriorating throughout 2014 and causing considerable lethargy. But, when it came time to ring in 2016, I did not dare take chances. I made absolutely sure that I would be awake and that, at the least, there would be bread, salt and water on the table. And since 2016 was generally acknowledged to rank among the worst years ever and 2017, what with the political situation as it was and all, was unlikely to be much better, I decided not to tempt fate and do substantially more than the minimal.

So, I re-stocked my liquor cabinet and wine bin. Then headed for the fish store where I was once instantly recognized as the fish-scale lady. Only this time, no one remembered me. And I opted for red snapper instead of rockfish, which my late mother liked to call “rocket fish” in honor of my NASA consulting work. But did manage to pick up some caviar, which she would have wanted, as well as a dessert that, in deference to her cravings, had to included some form of chocolate. By the final countdown, all my bills were paid—easy now that everything is automated—and there was bread, salt and water on the table. And other items reserved for after midnight and the following day. And there was one of the Kennedy half dollars that my maternal grandmother collected in my shoe and a packet of fish scales in my pocket and more scales in a pretty silver box on the table. The house, apart from the dining room, was mainly a mess as were other aspects of my life, but somehow now it did not matter.

I lit candles, including one that I placed in the window for all my distant and departed family members and friends. Then, at the proper time, walked out onto my front porch and raised a glass to 2017. It was unseasonably warm but cloudy, so I could not see either fireworks or stars as I crossed the street to stand on my riverbank. And I was all alone—my neighbors were celebrating elsewhere—so there was no one to grab for a kiss. In fact, if any tall, dark, handsome man were to cross my threshold in the new year, it would likely be an installer from Best Buy, since several major appliances had recently died. But when I returned inside for caviar and cake, everything suddenly looked so lovely. I was strangely satisfied with my imperfect effort and even allowed myself a moment of irrational optimism.

img_0418

In addition to the basics of bread, salt and water, necessities for welcoming the new year were expanded to include dried fish scales in a silver box and a Kennedy half dollar as well as dry white wine, black caviar on ice and chocolate cupcakes with buttercream frosting. (Photo: Ilse Munro)

Note: If you have European, British or Middle Eastern roots, you might want to learn about variants of welcome rituals based on bread and salt. And if you then want to do something that is more than merely symbolic, might want to send New Year’s greetings to family and friends through the International Rescue Committee, which lets you make gifts that help refugees in their name, which is what I also did this on New Year’s Eve.

ILSE MUNRO

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