Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items/ photos/ memorabilia are in major museums including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian.
Cries, Whispers, and Dreams
August 24...three generations of women react to a flash of light and camera's shutter. Holding her newborn girl, my daughter and I are visually recorded. Although I smiled, tears stung my eyes, for this new life carries my deceased mother's first name.
Propped and posed on the hospital's twin-sized bed, my eyes watched this offspring’s slender arms embrace her infant, but my awkward position made me think about beds. Funny what goes through the mind at times and seems totally unrelated.
My cradle, crib, camp bunk, girlhood twin, college cot were all 'temporary' even though they filled two decades. My twin bed was topped with a wedding-ring pattern chenille spread that covered Canadian wool blankets and starched white flat sheets tucked in using hospital corners.
The pillow was stuffed with feathers; tiny bone-like fragments poked through casing. Sometimes I'd pull a 'needle' until an entire feather emerged.
Delicate yellow roses patterned my private room's wallpaper, yet my furniture was massive. Cut from red maple, a sturdy head and footboard supported coil springs while a matching nightstand and dresser, with button knobs carved from the same wood, formed a set. My family felt that 'substantial' surrounded by feminine flowers 'went together'.
As a teen, I requested either frills or tailored as both in one rectangle bothered my growing sense of "I am."
So, oil based paint replaced wallpaper but my selected color was compromised by the painter. All my original furnishings remained except the bed. Goodbye head and footboards, exposed springs, mattress with buttons actually part of its ticking!
My new bed was on a boxspring. A smooth, one-piece foam mattress exactly fit, and the shiny-pattern covering on both pieces were identical. My mother hand-made a beige cotton spread with borders of green for contrast.
When I sat on my bed, my body leaned against the wall. The oil based paint showed a greasy-looking impression. Sometimes I'd prop, behind my back, the pillow that still belched feathers. Headboards were ugly but sensible...I never verbalized this finding.
My bed heard cries, whispers of my dreams, giggles. My bed felt high fevers, chills, sunburn, acne, dog hair, my body becoming a woman.
I moved back into my Long Island room to commute to Columbia University's graduate school after getting a bachelor's degree in Connecticut. My mother was a widow. "Goodnight, mom and dad. Leave my door open." Echoes of a past. I now closed it so the audio of the television downstairs would not carry and cause loss of concentration while studying. Propped on the bed, the body stain on the wall fit the same place; I stayed 5' 4" tall. A foam pillow made my head uncomfortable. I hated feathers but at least I could mold a feather shape; rubber filling bounced.
I stared at the overhead light on the eight foot high ceiling and, on the bed, felt anger, grief, confusion, promise. I mentally rehearsed my future wedding, wondered about truly leaving what was familiar; I felt guilt and joy that my life was still filled with anticipation of longevity and my mother's was not.
With a change of last names came the double bed. Considered a respectable size and 'you can't stay angry with someone you sleep so close to', I accepted the dimensions without question. Back to headboards, [a footboard was passe], only now it formed a bookcase. It was certainly functional, as I was a high school teacher and my husband a 4th year medical student, but more uncomfortable to lean against than my childhood walls.
I'd never shared a bed. For twenty-two years, I'd slipped in and out of taut covers, or poked a foot into the air to test the temperature. For over two decades, I was restless or calm, talked to myself, or curled up as an infant. My spouse didn't manage as badly, as the weight of his muscular body depressed the bed and I rolled downhill. He could just push me, during sleep; I'd have to try to make my frail form climb uphill and hope he'd move towards my side to balance the mattress.
I remembered seeing a Hollywood bed when I was about fourteen. A male friend, from summer camp, had a regional camp reunion at his parents' apartment. One had to pass the master bedroom to get to the bathroom. I stood in awe yet wondered why anyone could want such a monstrous size; it nearly filled that entire room. My friend said it was a playpen and we giggled.
Complaining you can't sleep in a double bed is considered a personal affront. Why didn't anyone understand that it had nothing to do with love or lust? Pregnancy placed additional burdens on me; I tried to take up less room than my growing fetus.
When the second child was two years old, we were financially ready to invest in our first permanent piece of furniture. I asked for that obscene-sized playpen I'd once noticed. Some family members imagined only stag films were photographed in such a thing; my husband was embarrassed when the salesperson wanted to know why two thin people wanted such a big bed. I'd learned a queen was only six inches wider than double; I also knew those six inches would not be shared.
I was again pregnant and wanted, this time, to stretch out my arms or kick away cramping in my calves.
Do my offspring, now adult, wonder if their father and I are too old to enjoy the playpen that has never been a battleground?
August 24: squeezed beside me atop coarse hospital sheets covered with a thin nubby spread, what raced through my daughter's mind after the camera shutter clicked? Was she focused only on her body's ability to nourish the newborn as she moved her nightgown's bodice-flap aside? Perhaps. But I was suddenly aware of my single teardrop... tangible proof I'd retreated in time.
published June 1997 Rochester Shorts ©
parts of speech
Pan. A piece of cookware, until 1954 when actress Mary Martin flew around a Broadway stage playing “Peter Pan”. Based on a 1904 novel by J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan and Tinkerbell soared and I was agreeing with lyrics that stated ‘I won’t grow up’. In a darkened theatre, I pretended my own Neverland, and knew I’d also enjoy wonder, walking in light rain minus correct clothing as protection from moisture, bubble wands, cotton candy, wearing macaroni strung like a beaded necklace.
Grammar was for the classroom, and Pan was not for meal preparation but Peter’s last name!
An Art and Architecture course taught me pantheon, the public building containing tombs. And Costume Design showed me a pantaloon, a 19th century trousers design. An acting class allowed pantomime to be explored. And once a week my college dorm offered pancakes, and no definition required for this food. Panorama was a new and special method for movie film and cameras and one of my earlier one-use cameras could capture such a wide angle snapshot! Panopoly, I learned, was a display that impresses. So, these samples of the prefix, were pleasant associations.
How I remember having lost my two front baby teeth and wanting to say ‘fantastic’. Minus those teeth, the ‘f’ sound just couldn’t be made so I said ‘pantastic’ as the ‘p’ sound used the lips while the ‘f’ one needed breath blowing. Later, in grad school, when I took Descriptive Linguistics, I smiled when reading about such. I then also realized why a baby utters ‘da da’ before it can form the lips to say ‘ma ma’. Not a preference for a particular parent, but it is a real difference in accomplishing that verbal word.
Pandemic. A world-wide disease! Impossible. Not in the 21st century with amazing technology and medical care. Epidemic is a temporary but quick spread of disease. But what we have now, spring 2020, isn’t the ‘epi’ but the ‘pan’. Oh, Peter, can’t you fly that away past Neverland! So the word’s root is the same, but the three letters that precede it are huge differences in connotation. And it is a part of speech called a noun. Sure it can be an adjective, but in the global disease situation, it’s definitely used as a noun. “Pan” is ‘all’. All is too much to comprehend.
Disease is timeless. My sisters and I took turns having measles, mumps, chicken pox, roseola, and as one got well, my mother had to climb the stairs constantly again to tend to the middle child, me, and then my younger sibling. If my mother might have liked us to have these illnesses at the same time, it definitely wasn’t up to her, and these childhood maladies were expected. We did give her sunburns simultaneously, on occasion, and the cocoa butter, and oatmeal bath soaks were familiar. We could do parallel colds and coughs, and had little brass bells to ring to summon her for comfort, beverages, company; I rang mine constantly. If she was tired, she didn’t show it, and if fatigue from up and down the flight of stairs drained her, she didn’t expose that either. So I rang, enjoying the control I had with that bell, and enjoying the sound and special position it put me in as ‘royalty’ while in bed. Mustard plaster was applied for chest congestion, and inhaling chamomile leaves steeping in a sink-basin of hot water aided stuffy nose. Both required my mother’s fixing and nurturing at the same time. I rather liked being the center of attention. She would change the bedsheets, then had to wash and iron them in the pre-permapress age, fluff up the feather pillow as synthetic fibers hadn’t been developed yet, and occasionally, tucking in the linens, scratched her fingers on the coil springs as a boxspring under a mattress hadn’t been available either.
Pandemic. Seclusion. Fear. Anxiety. No vaccine. Total world--- paying no attention to climate, or gender, or language, or financial assets of a country. An equal-opportunity-invasion of human body causing death numbers too incredible to process.
I hand-sewed little face masks, making a pocket from a scarf seldom worn, and affixing the pocket to the mask so I could put in a paper coffee-filter as extra protection. Protection. Invisible virus that mocks mankind with its superiority can linger on a piece of mail, a cardboard box, a countertop, a doorknob. I can’t mask these. So, thinking I’ve a bit of control, I don my little piece of cloth and venture outside. I’d like Peter Pan to whisk away my adult fear.
One Mother's Day, I wanted to tell my Ohio grandchildren about their great-grandma. Sure they’d cover themselves with an afghan she crocheted when my daughter was a girl, and been told the piano they played at my house my father bought for her. But what stories might these children ... I wondered.
I thought I could start with an alternate interpretation of a one-parent household since my meaning is different from the current one.
Single. My mother was, in a way, a single parent. At the age of 45, lying on the living room couch, my father died while telling my mother he loved her. Their 24th wedding anniversary had been celebrated two months before.
My mother quickly had to learn to balance a checkbook, pay the mortgage, budget funds to pay monthly bills as her 'job' had been running house and children. I was finishing my junior year at an out-of-state university and had just turned twenty; my younger sister was two months past her sixteenth birthday; older sister was married and lived nearby.
Single. A pretty woman, talented enough to have played the piano in Carnegie Hall, was now a threat to the couples scene. Hadn't her 'friends' ever noticed that she only loved her spouse? Single, to these couples, meant searching, snatching, available; they didn't really know my mother.
So, single seemed to join with separate and she lost social contacts. Alone, she learned to handle funds for education, and I felt guilty yet pleased when I began my expensive Master's Degree at Teacher's College, Columbia University, the same time my younger sister entered a private college. My mother got a job as a bookkeeper. Once she'd given piano lessons, also had been a dental hygienist; now she did accounting and quietly juggled multiple roles.
A single parent in those days didn't have day care, support groups, social approval. A widow was an ugly word and none wanted that fate to rub off through association.
My mother celebrated her daughters’ graduations without allowing us to see her pain, made formal weddings and gave us away without making us feel guilty for leaving home, moved from the house that was so treasured for her to a small apartment she could afford but never burdened her children in any way. My mother stayed single for the thirty-two years she survived my father, yet never permitted her emotional loss to cause people to be discomforted.
Although she was never really happy again, she was always cheerful. She allowed her daughters to understand that life is joyous and precious; even as she died from contaminated blood received during transfusions at open-heart surgery, she spoke to us about the beauty and wonder of living and not to waste it.
My three children told her their dreams, squirt her with water guns, listened to her sing lullabies, called her for comfort and advice when I didn't seem to tolerate them. My children slept with afghans she crocheted, wore hats/ mittens/ sweaters she knit, telephoned her collect (when each phone call was charged by the minute) so I wouldn't know about their needing totally private conversations, accepted her unconditional caring.
Single. All the synonyms sound somber. But one takes what life hands out and makes choices. My mother's parenting was gentle but firm, close yet with freedom for her daughters to grow independent, giving but not smothering, and she made us aware of what there is to learn. Being without her love/ best friend/ companion, my father, was something she had to bear all alone; but that single mother/grandmother was a fun, sensitive, outgoing, smiling lady who touched others' lives.
My daughter still speaks of that comforting afghan as Nanny's quilt. Handed down to another generation, unseen yet woven between the yarn is the description of the person who smiled and touched others, and that is unchanged.
published April 12, 1998 Sunday Western Star
reprinted Grit May 3, 1998
reprinted Rochester Shorts May 2001
Living Life Unretouched
I looked at a 1917 picture of my grandfather being sworn-in as an American citizen; from the camera's angle, he appeared tall. I remember my green-eyed grandfather was a short man whose nails were stained by photographic darkroom chemicals.
On Sundays, our family drove from Flushing to Brooklyn so I could watch him photograph brides.
Grandpa, in white socks, labored on his knees using straight pins to secure each fold of bridal satin to his carpet, then stood on an unpainted wooden stool to adjust veiling.
He'd roll down a backdrop scene of an archway or chapel, insert a glass plate into the cumbersome tripod-mounted camera, adjust the bride's head tilt, then squeeze a rubber ball to seize that moment.
His slender fingers removed each thin dressmaker's pin before he'd put his shoes on and roll up the backdrop.
In a small room illuminated only by reddish glowing light, I was fascinated with magic images that appeared from blank paper "Teach me, teach me." Grandpa placed my tiny hands around a hard circular metal gadget that clamped a photo above a mirror.
"What should I do if I smush one and the thing breaks, Grandpa?"
"Save your hand-framed picture, but just throw away broken mirror glass. That you've made something is important."
He smoothed my limp flaxen strands with fingers that smelled his familiar tobacco and chemicals, praised my efforts. He allowed me to open his bulky, brass cash register with its big round numbers, hear its bell signal open, remove a nickel for a treat.
In the cafeteria below his studio, I bought a nickel Charlotte Russe (sliver of white cake in circular cardboard topped with whipped cream and a crimson cherry) to share as we'd shared mirror-picture making.
Some Sundays I didn't see Grandpa. Later I learned that his 'away' was touring with the United States Presidents; he photographed every one from Taft through Truman.
"Grandpa," I asked one Sunday morning in October 1945, "can I pretend bride and hold your fake flowers? Can I?"
He kissed the top of my hair as I was still shorter than he was, "Just a few minutes 'til the first bride."
"But I want to hold the bouquet."
"Here. Don't grab or clutch. Place your left arm underneath, then drape, not drop, your right hand over the handle. Just the back curve of your hand should gracefully appear."
Fake calla lillies were not as light as they looked, and its cascade too big for my tiny frame. I felt pretty, embarrassed, awkward, wonderful all at the same time. I was the ending of every fairy tale I'd ever read.
Grandpa grinned. "Don't grow up too fast, monkey. Just enjoy being young." He adjusted the fake bouquet that, in black and white film, looked magnificent, but in real life looked helpless and dull. "Ready? Now turn." He put a piece of veiling over my face.
"When I'm grown, will you buy me my very own wedding gown?"
He smiled softly; the corner of one eye seemed to be collecting fluid. He pretended to take my picture and I giggled.
His first appointment came towards me, her lace train pulled along the rug. Her headpiece was tall and crisp; my pretend veil now looked like an unpressed hankie.
Grandpa labored with lighting forcing it to make faces glow or satin-gown folds shimmer. But this bride was wearing all lace which didn't reflect light, so he made every detail sharp as snowflakes against a window pane. Like weighty fake flowers that looked light and lovely, he strained with weight of details so pictures would seem natural.
After that sitting, which I never knew why it was called a sitting when brides were always standing, Grandpa gave me a penny to buy shelled Indian nuts we'd share. "Always feel you're important," he cracked shells, dropped crumbs into a metal wastebasket, and passed nuts to me. "Whatever you do, feel, or think is special."
My eyes used to smart when I left the red-lit darkroom place and re-entered incandescent lighting of his studio. He was working; I was enchanted.
He developed a technique (using my mother posing in one of her fluffy hats) for photographing a person in front of multiple mirrors without flashbulb reflection. He made a postage-size stamp of one image for pasting on World War II overseas mail that didn't have to pass through censors as V-Mail. I glued four tiny images of my mother on the blank area of a broken picture- mirror.
Grandpa seemed to do everything: taking cash, moving huge lights, photographing, developing, dusting a counter. I absorbed this message of self-esteem and dignity with labor; of making tasks seem as light as pictures of fake flowers when I knew that they, in real life, were heavy and clumsy; that one could love work.
Grandpa taught me, by observation, that nothing is menial. Whether one photographs a president on geletin silver, a bride, or a Sunday-best-dressed-up-child, each is equally important. On his knees sticking silver pins into fabric and then wool carpet, or onstage with Eleanor Roosevelt during a speech she delivered to an audience, he still had dignity.
He helped me develop pride of completing a task, allowing myself satisfaction, and I knew, from the word refugee, that he had pursued not compromised dreams. He had courage to accept "no" along with "yes", and this made him 'tall' no matter that the yardstick measured only 5'4".
Grandpa acknowledged when he lacked dexterity or ability. At a table filled with sable brushes of various sizes, a retoucher removed a face blemish. "Retouching fools the eye," said Grandpa, "but what we really are before sable wipes out imperfection is never fooled." My aqua eyes looked at this giant who knew everything there was to know about everything even when I didn't really understand what he meant.
I watched photos being oil colored with transparent paint. When I pushed cotton in quick circular strokes over my own children's black and white photographs decades later, I realized some simple creative things do last and remind us of our ability to produce with our fingers, eyes, imagination. And a 'workers' task of hand coloring, then cleaning up messy cotton ball clumps stained with pigment, wasn't menial. How that lesson runs through my life! Grandpa said that I should sometimes 'see' the way I'd like things to be not what really is there.
I eventually investigated more about some of his political photographs when the International Museum of Photography decided to start an archives on William Metz, photographer. But he was Grandpa, who tickled my back, taught me to enjoy creating with courage to accept rejection, and personally prove that all labor has significance.
I last saw him, in 1956, ill, frail. I was on my way into the adventure of marriage and he to the retirement of Miami. But, like his photos in original folders in The International Museum of Photography, he was still tall and strong and 'unretouched'.
©1994 The Christian Science Monitor
Reprinted 2007 The Jewish Press
Reprinted softcover book The Ultimate Teacher, HCI Books, ©2009 Health Communications
Skirting the Issue
World wars; males pretended to be proud to strap guns to their shoulders, and the public gave them appreciation and approval. Females, only as nurses, were on battlefields... until 1943 when the first women’s armed corp was recognized.
I was just a single digit in age as I carefully hung a silk star on my window; my bedroom faced the street and all who passed knew our household had a loved one who was a soldier. My mother’s three unmarried brothers, and one of her cousins, had been drafted. The silk square was a government issue.
Men in uniform. The few women in the neighborhood who put on slacks and went to work in a factory were part of bad conversation: tsk-tsk, they should be in skirts and aprons at home with their children, and happily no aunts or uncles knew a lady-worker in slacks making munitions. But my father’s oldest niece did something shameful: she enlisted in the newly established Women’s Army Corps (WAC).
I didn’t quite understand the distress to the entire family. A woman in the military was unheard of, and a lady to volunteer! My cousin had to be pretty old, probably around eighteen then. She must have felt patriotic or special. I overheard words about women being citizens and ought to have the same rights to help our country; I overheard that only men should fight wars.
People gathered and often spoke with great pride about their sons or husbands being in the armed service. Like some badges of extra-courage, they exclaimed that men were helping to win this war, didn’t they look good in uniform, and they were also seeing so many parts of the world. Some folks complained about ration books; I really didn’t know what those were and didn’t much care, either.
My cousin rang my parents’ doorbell knowing the family had gathered for one of my mother’s meals. She was wearing a uniform. And she had on a tie, like a man, and a hat that wasn’t the frilly stuff my mom wore on her head. She said she volunteered for the army, a women’s army had never been before, and some lady named Eleanor Roosevelt had pushed to make that possible. This cousin said she felt patriotic, important. The relatives looked at her as if she were wearing a Halloween costume they didn’t approve of. The uniform was perfectly ironed, and her skirt didn’t even have one wrinkle. Would her legs get scratched lying on a battlefield, I wondered? Is a gun heavy? Would food be available wherever she went in the whole world? I liked my pretty dresses and hair bows and my ankle socks with tiny flowers on the cuffs; I liked my Mary-Jane patent leather dress shoes, and looking like ‘me’ and no one else. A uniform was for the parochial school girls and I was glad I wasn’t in private school dressed like everyone else. Did this cousin actually like being in a uniform!
I collected tin foil, picking up bits of discarded cigarette wrappers and rolling them into balls; my mom poured grease into wide-mouth jars, and every tin can went ‘someplace’ with the foil and grease to ‘help the war effort’. In school I was told that the collected grease allowed army bullets to slide through the guns, and a whole pound of that grease really made enough dynamite to blow up a big enemy’s bridge! And all that tin foil was recycled in tanks and jeep cars. We even donated rags, also left-over scraps of material from our home-sewn items, and servicemen got bandages or blankets made of those. My parents planted a Victory Garden in our backyard, and we grew real vegetables that we actually ate! My allowance went to War Bonds and penny candy. I was patriotic, too.
My cousin didn’t stay long, not even for dessert. Just wanted to say goodbye. She seemed to smile, but a serious one not a giggling grin, and left.
She should be married. She should be working as a secretary. She should be.... went on and on as the family expressed upset that a woman, a relative no yet, joined the army. Why were these people so proud of the men and so angry with my cousin? She was in a skirt as part of her uniform. There wasn’t a silk star in any window for a woman in the military. Voices rose in pitch: she volunteered for the WACS! How disgraceful.
The war’s end meant I had to wear long skirts with yards of fabric, something called the ‘new look’, and listen to people speak of horror or something like that. Parties were held for returning soldiers, working women went back to skirts and stovetops rather than slacks and machine tools. Were WACS or the female volunteer naval WAVES given parties after peace treaties were signed? Was my cousin banished once again to domestic duties even though she was army trained like a man? Did she mind that family didn’t recognize her strength or honor? I never asked as getting a bicycle was much more important to me.
How different it is in 21st century. Many women prefer slacks to skirts, the once-privileged all male universities have co-eds, females fight fires and don police outfits, few would know that housewives contributed so much re-cycling to aid the military during World War II. Fewer might know that women weren’t officially recognized or compensated for armed service until the 1940's. Our current volunteer army has no gender issue nor social stigma. My cousin was among the ‘firsts’, with courage not just to enlist but to deal with disapproval. If she looked back, would she have considered herself a pioneer or a rebel?
My blue box holds newspapers, rinsed-out empty glass bottles/ plastic laundry jugs/ cans/ cartons. Weekly I bring all plastic wrappings to a recycle bin. I even return hangers. My upbringing. The American flag’s stars were rearranged when two more states were added. Flag-stars still remind me of the square of silk that covered a section of window glass during World War II.
Published July 2011 614 HBI (Brandeis University)
reprinted Nov. 2, 2012 The Jewish Press
Barbara Payton's Short Life and Long Death in Hollywood