Lightening Up a Bit

Last night, my witty traveling companions and I set out to rename Santa’s Reindeer.  Why? Because in our daily lecture, we learned that male reindeer shed their antlers before winter sets in and that’s when female reindeer grow them.  So if the reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh had antlers, Rudolph was not among them!  And assuming that Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and company were also guys, they weren’t pulling that sleigh either!

Accordingly, we propose that a certain well-known Christmas song begin as follows:



You know Daphne and Francie                                                       and Nancy and Kristen                                                                                                            Charlotte and Scarlett                                                                                                                                     and Heidi and Tristen.                                               But do you recall . . .  the most famous reindeer of all?    (Ta da, da da)

Rhoda, the Red Nosed Reindeer . . .  

Rudolph and Rhoda

Reindeer in December.  Rudolph (l) and Rhoda (r)

I haven’t acted silly in a long time.  Silly felt good.

This morning, as our ship pulled up to the tiny town of Finnsnes, we were greeted by about  sixty schoolchildren jumping up and down, waving, smiling and cheering.  They sang and danced throughout our twenty minute stay fueled by the enthusiastic response of  an appreciative crowd packing both open decks of the ship.  As the ship pulled away from the pier, we returned their shouts and waves until they shrank to tiny points of light and then disappeared.


Shortly after this delightful serenade, we cruised about forty miles further north to the beautiful town of Tromso which is situated on an island separated from the mainland by an inlet of the Norwegian Sea.  Here is a stock  photo of our ship, Midnight Sun, entering the inlet.

Midnatsol in Tromso

We decided we could experience most of what was included in the ship’s $150 guided  excursion on our own for a fraction of the cost.  A quick cab ride to the mainland took us to the stunning Arctic Cathedral.  Then we took a delightful walk through a residential neighborhood to reach the Fjellheisen, an arial tramway up the face of a 1200 foot cliff.  Just for fun, I tallied up the makes of the various vehicles parked in the driveways along the way:

Subaru              5                                            BMW              11                            Audi                 1  Honda               3                                            Suzuki             2                            Mitubishi        4  Volkswagen    26                                           Hyundai          4                            Toyota             9  Nissan                4                                           Mercedes        4                            Peugot             8  Porsche              1                                           Mazda             2                             Volvo               9  Ford  (Fiesta)    7  (Who knew?)                 Tesla                2                            Skoda               2

Not a Suburban, F- series truck, Escalade, or Hummer in sight!

Our ride up the side of the hill took just four minutes but was oh so steep. As I stepped from the gondola, I gave thanks for the yellow cable wheel that kept us from becoming human puree at the bottom of the shaft. It seemed awfully small for such a big job!


The summit offers spectacular panoramic views.  Looking from the mainland back over over the inlet you see the town of Tromsø, surrounded by islands, fjords, mountains and the open sea. In the other direction lies the majestic mountain Tromsdalstinden, which rises almost 5,000  feet above sea level.


Such a lovely day!




66 Degrees 33 Minutes

This is the latitude of the invisible border of the Arctic Circle that crosses through mainland Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland, and a small island claimed by Iceland.  Traveling north just off the Norwegian coast, our ship made the eagerly awaited passage into the Arctic Circle at about eight o’clock this morning.

As we neared the 66° 33’ parallel, the expedition team called our attention to tiny Vikingen Island just off the port side.  Its only structures are a small lighthouse and a striking marker featuring an iron globe.

Almost There      Arcric Circle Monument

                             Almost there!                                                                        There!

A blast of the ship’s horn heralded our passage into the Arctic Circle. And it was actually quite a moment. My friend Nancy, who was moved to tears, described her feeling this way.

Nancy at the Arctic Circle


The Arctic represents mystery and adventure to me. All my life I have read and dreamed of the explorers and the inhabitants of the North . . . the Vikings, the Sami and other indigenous peoples, Admiral Peary, Thor Heyerdahl of the Kon-tiki.  As I reached the Land of the Midnight Sun, I felt their spirit, their courage, and their quest for knowledge.  I realized how blessed I am to have this experience and how  much more of the world I want to explore.  



The ship’s Powers That Be encouraged us to celebrate. They announced that champagne was available (for purchase) and that a postal official to would spend the morning on board to stamp outgoing mail (and our passports!) with a commemorative post mark. (That precipitated a mad dash to the gift shop to buy postcards and stamps to receive the postmark.  It was, of course, a very good day for the gift shop.)  King Neptune showed up on deck to perform on-deck baptisms into the Arctic via a ladle of ice cold water. Instead of salvation he offered shots of Schnapps. (Pass!)

king-neptune-e1561224657976.jpg                                          Baptism

During all the festivities, the ship was moving forward and at midday we docked at the town of BODØ.  The next two hours were profoundly moving in another way.  The BODØ City museum offered compelling and dismaying evidence of the terrible devastation visited upon Northern Norway by the German army during World War II.  I had always assumed that because Norway remained neutral, the German occupation was relatively benign. So wrong!

Clearly, neutrality meant little to the Germans.  They needed Norway’s safe harbors, and a northern approach to the Soviet Union. They also wanted to ensure that Norway did not fall under the control or the British or the French, and sought to build a notion of a  “German empire.”  Therefore, they reduced much of it to rubble.

BOBO bombing                               Bodo after bombing

The town of BODØ during and after the bombing by the German Army, May 25, 1940.

Today was a day of profound contrasts. We experienced excitement and new adventure, but also images of  death and despair.  We experienced the silly as well as the profound.  We were overwhelmed by exhilarating beauty and evidence of mind numbing destruction.  The best and the worst of humankind.


Ship Legs

We are getting into the groove aboard the Midnight Sun.

Our excursion today was to the town of Trondheim, founded in 997 by the Viking King Olav, and the home of the world’s northernmost Gothic Cathedral.  We decided to walk to walk to the Cathedral from the ship.  The so called 20 minute walk was more like 45 but it was a beautiful sunny day.  We enjoyed the walk and made a friend along the way.  🙂



Nidaros Cathedral is sometimes referred to as the Notre Dame of Norway.  There are some superficial similarities in architecture (see below) but Nidaros is actually the older of the two; its construction began nearly one hundred years before that of Notre Dame.

Nidaros Cathedra                                         Notre Dame

Nidaros Cathedral (1070-1300)                     Notre Dame de Paris (1163-1345)

The interior is beautiful and, not surprisingly, features stunning uses of wood. It is more elegant than opulent and inspires reverence and respect.  Its history is fascinating and the fact that it even survives is remarkable.  Catastrophic fires in 1327, 1531 and 1708 destroyed all but its exterior walls.  It sat on the verge of collapse until 1869 when sufficient funds were found to begin a 132 year restoration project that was finally completed in 2001.

As we headed back to the ship I was keenly aware of a few gaps in my traveling wardrobe.  The most serious omission was blue jeans which I had understood to be an absolute no-no anywhere in Europe. Well jeans are omnipresent on the decks of the Midnight Sun and the white capris I brought (what was I thinking?) would have looked absurd. So after carefully briefing my traveling companions on the route back to the ship in time for its scheduled departure, 45 minutes hence, I peeled off to find jeans.

The first store I visited wanted $300 USD for a pair that was about two feet too long. (“Petite? What’s that?”) I was about to give up when I spied a shop (up the street and around a corner) that looked like it might have what I needed.  Time was running short, but I searched until I found a great pair of jeans and was so encouraged that I also poked around for a much needed sweater.  As I was checking out, I noticed that I had 20 minutes to make it back to the ship.  Easy.  I knew the route.  Except I didn’t!  The directions I had so confidently given my companions were from a location up the street and around the corner.  Nothing looked familiar.  I took out my phone and asked Google for directions to the pier.  Bingo.  Relief.  Pier 1 was just 10 minutes away.  I walked briskly and reached the pier.  Pier 1.  No ship. NO SHIP.

Looking frantically up and down the waterfront, I spied our ship far in the distance.  Rechecking my phone I discovered that my ship was at Pier 2.  Pier TWO.  Eight minutes to go and .8 miles away.  The last time I ran a 10 minute mile was in 1985.  But I was driven by the knowledge that delaying departure by showing up late is the worst sin, other than jumping into the sea, you can commit on a cruise. And it shames your traveling companions.  So I ran like I haven’t run in 34 years.  And gasping for breath and sweating like a Florida tennis player in July, I  stormed up the gangplank and shoved my ID at the steward at 2:59 for 3:00 departure.

My reward was dinner.  And what a dinner!  Just when you thought you had all the lingo right, along comes a new term.  In this case it is “short-traveled”, which, at least for the Hurtigruten fleet, is the new “locally sourced.”  Whatever it is, tonight’s meal may have been one of the best I have ever enjoyed.

OK the barley soup with parsley oil was not among my top 100, but the “Short traveled Norwegian salmon from Aukra with lukewarm potato salad, whipped sour cream, dill and lemon” made me want to lick the plate.

Salom for dinner


And the Tjukkmjolkpudding (thick milk pudding with raspberry sauce and hazel nuts) rivals any dessert I have ever tasted. Ever.  I devoured it before I thought to take a picture!

God Natt!





The Mail Run

Greetings from the library of the MS Midnatsol, (“Midnight Sun”) part of the Hurtigtruten cruise ship fleet based in Bergen, Norway.  This is the first full day at sea on a twelve day round trip up and down the Norwegian coast.  Here is the current view from my library table.

Big Library View

Contemplation Mountain

Since my decision early this year to take this trip, I’ve been referring to it as The Mail Run. And with good reason.  Norway’s very rugged 780 mile western coastline makes overland travel difficult and much of the transportation of people and freight takes place by sea. Toward the end of the 19th century demand was high but service was random, slow and unreliable.

Enter Captain Richard With, who showed up in the port of Bergen in 1893 with a steamship hoping to establish a regular sea link from Bergen (the southernmost) to Kirkenes (the northermost) port on the cost.  He named his company “Hurtigruten,” which means “the fast route.”  His ship stopped at scores of towns and villages along the coastline delivering mail, medicine, groceries, and people.

The shipping company flourished, but the ambitious Captain With had even bigger plans.  In 1896 he transported a prefabricated hotel from the mainland to a choice island spot with stunning views that he named  “Hotellnest” (Hotel Nest).   Shortly thereafter he procured a second steamer in order to offer a “Sportsman’s Route.”  So began the recreational dimension of his business. Today the Hurtigruten fleet consists of fifteen vessels offering educational and adventure voyages throughout Europe, Antarctica, Greenland, Iceland, Svalbard, Alaska, the Northwest Passage and, most recently, South and Central America and the Caribbean.

So back to the Mail Run.  My friends Nancy, Claire and Martee and I are following the original Hurtigruten route up the coast.  It has been described as “the world’s most beautiful voyage”.  Even if that distinction was bestowed by Hurtigruten’s marketing team, it certainly seems defensible. Norway’s stunningly beautiful coastline is nearly always in view.  Snow-capped peaks, many with sparkling waterfalls cascading down their faces, give way to emerald green valleys dotted with quaint looking villages.  The sky is constantly changing.  We have already enjoyed bright sunshine, dense fog, pelting rain and six (I think) breath-taking rainbows.

Rainbow 3                         rainbow-2-e1560868285708.jpg

In addition to marinating in the beauty, we spend our time on board reading, enjoying lectures on the history and geography of our surroundings and discussing aspects of our lives and our world from the profound to the silly and everything in between.

Our journey will include 34 stops to drop off mail, medicine, consumer goods, and people — just like Captain With did in 1893.  A limited number of passengers use the ship like an auto train.  (No theme from Star Wars yet thank heaven!) Space permitting, they pay for passage between two ports and our vessel can carry 20 vehicles.

While most of our stops last no longer than 15 minutes, one stop each day is long enough to allow for excursions into the port town and surrounding areas.  We made our first such stop today in the town of Alesund.  It is one of Norway’s newer looking towns since it was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1904.  Today it is the home of Norway’s most important fishing harbor.

Our trip ashore was short lived.  We disembarked hoping to see the lone wooden structure that survived the great fire, but found a rain shower instead and returned to the ship soggy and cold.  But a scrumptious meal of clipfish carpaccio, leg of lamb with a vegetable-horseradish stew, and carmelized apples with ice cream made us feel much better.

Our last views before heading to sleep:


The Suitor

Seven Sisters

The Seven Sisters (l), who dance playfully down  the side of the  mountain, and The Suitor (r), who flirts from directly across the  the fjord.



Midnight Sun

19. Happy New Year

The four months since I last posted to this blog have been tumultuous, excruciatingly painful, and thankfully, punctuated by unexpected blessings.  On this first day of a new year, I am ready to start writing again.  There are still some stories to tell about Oxford, and various other adventures and misadventures.  But today, at the beginning of a new year, a metaphor.

Loosen the grip on the racket.

During the last few months, for the first time in my ten year tennis adventure, I have been plagued by injuries.  I had to take a seven week hiatus from playing, which was awful. Because I hate all other forms of exercise.

On my first day back on the courts, still nursing the remnants of a bruised rib, tennis elbow, and sore knee, I was hitting just about every shot out of the court . . . ground strokes, volleys, chips, lobs, ugh!  “What’s wrong?” I whined to my coach.  He replied with words I had heard before.  But for some reason this time I heard them more clearly.  “Loosen your grip on your racket,” he said. “The tension in your grip is transferring to the ball and launching it into orbit.” He went on to explain how a softer touch is far more capable of producing controlled power — a formidable weapon.

So I finally relaxed my hold on the racket.  I also dropped my shoulders . . . and jaw. My knuckles went from white to pink.  And with a softer and, hence, more precise touch, almost every shot off my racket was better.  Way better. Wow.

A metaphor for life?  Perhaps so.  I spent the worst hours of my 64 years one night last March.  Never mind the details.  Except to say that I was lying on the floor in a beautiful, but empty room, in my beautiful, but empty home. I screamed at the ceiling as I contemplated the impending loss of my marriage, my life as I knew it, and my family as we knew it.  I was consumed with rage. And grief. And fear.  And the pain of rejection. I was near despair. I’m not sure how long I marinated in my misery, but in an effort to ward off sheer panic, I picked up the daily devotional book that I had been neglecting and turned to the entry for that day: March 24. This is what it said:

This is a time in your life when you must learn to let go: of loved ones, of possessions, of control . . . As you relax more and more, your grasping hand gradually opens up, releasing your prized possessions into My care. You can feel secure, even in the midst of cataclysmic changes . . .  and as you release more and more things into My care, remember that I never let go of your hand.  Herein lies your security, which no one and no circumstance can take from you.  

Loosen the grip.  Let go.  Of the rage.  The fear.  And the grief.  This will not happen overnight.  I’m still reeling and deeply wounded.  But it will happen.  For me, and for countless others, known and unknown, who suffer in body, mind, and/or spirit. I pray that we can loosen our grips. Let go. And find the controlled power that will keep our shots in the court.  And peace in our hearts.

Happy New Year.








18. Winding Down

This last week is relatively easy.  With our papers turned in, the pressure is off, except for the stress of waiting for our grades.  As previously reported, our Oxford tutors said they are grading us according to Oxford standards and will use the Oxford grading system which is designed to keep students humble. Only Shakespeare gets 100% and it would be preposterous for a student to aspire to touch the hem of his doublet. And then of course there are lesser beings like Austen, Tolkien, Lewis, Carroll, Joyce, Wolff, etc etc. to occupy the 80’s and 90’s.  Sooooooo

70 and above is the equivalent of an A.

65-69 is an A-.

60-64 is a B+.

55-59 is a B.


The irony is that for most of us here this summer, the grades don’t matter. About a quarter of the students are seeking credit for their work here from their home institutions.   The rest of us are doing this for personal enrichment.  But we do care about the grades. A whole lot.  Stay tuned.

Fun fact: JK Rowling applied to Oxford and didn’t get in. But in 2014 they made her an honorary fellow.

So we still have lectures, in-class exercises, and discussions this week, but we also have plenty of time for shopping, last minute sight-seeing and sadly, preparations for departure.  In one of my first posts, I wrote about the rough time I had with baggage upon arrival.  The thought of dealing with two unwieldy bags again has been giving me heartburn. Sooooo . . .

Ticket to Oxford Botanical Gardens                                                                  8 pounds

Oxford University Sweatshirt                                                                           30 pounds

One less suitcase to carry home                                                                        Priceless!

Bye Bye Bag

Dragged this thing .6 miles to the Oxford Pack and Send. Bye Bye Bag!

17. Smells and Bells

2018.08.06  On my first two Sundays here, I attended Hillsong Church Oxford, and, on both occasions, was richly blessed. The relaxed and welcoming atmosphere, lively and enthusiastic worship, and a life application message were needed and appreciated.

But last Sunday, I felt the need for a quieter and more contemplative experience.  And  a strong desire to celebrate my Roman Catholic and Anglican liturgical roots.  Of course, there is no shortage of liturgical churches in Oxford and I killed two birds with one stone  by choosing the Anglo-Catholic Church of St. Mary Magdalene – just around the corner from Exeter College.

St. MM Sign

Oxford-St-Mary-Magdalene church







I was told that worship on the site began in 1000 AD but that construction on the current “new” building did not begin until the 13th century. LOL  So last fall, my cousin Steve Johnson and I, wth Annie’s help, found  the headstone of our 14th great-grandfather, John Johnson, who left Kent County, England and arrived in Ipswich, Massachusetts in 1632 and died in 1683. We thought his headstone looked pretty old . But it looked positively new compared  to what I saw in the 13th century churchyard.

John Johnsons headstone

Old Gravestone 1







Pretty Old                       


                                                                                                                    Really Really Old


So about the service . . . of course it wasn’t a service at all, it was a Mass. And although it was in English instead of Latin, the altar was placed in such a way that the priest’s back was to the congregation. Like in the old days. And not a single word was uttered that was not part of the liturgy.

Now let me be clear. I am ALL for making liturgical worship as easy as possible to follow. For everyone in the congregation. Especially newcomers. Having said that, it was quite lovely to be fully immersed in the ancient rituals, beautifully and formally worded prayers, and perfectly intoned chants, complete with holy water and incense. With no interruptions for mundane matters like page numbers or instructions for communion. This is certainly not the only way, and maybe not even a very good way, to create an atmosphere of reverence, but on this particular morning it moved me in a way I find difficult to describe.

I was probably the only visitor that morning and was approached by several “regulars” at the conclusion of Mass.  Including ninety-year-old Father Thomas. This delightful gentleman insisted that we have a coffee together and shared some of the church’s history.  He also apologized for the absence of the choir (“they are all Oxford music students and tutors, but they are all on Holiday”) and the sub-par performance of the congregation.  Well I’m sorry I missed the A-Team, but the organist that morning was one of the best I’ve heard in a long while. And the congregation sang on key, with noticeable enthusiasm and plenty of volume. If that was a mediocre day . . .

I spent the rest of my Sunday working on the third, fourth and fifth drafts of my two capstone papers.  Our little campus was the quietest it’s been since we all arrived.  Because everybody else was working on their papers as well. I can hear Maggie Smith telling the summer creative spell-writing school students. “we grade to HOGWARTS standards!”







16. Another Chapter from Mayola and Me ~ but not Chapter 2

2018.08.08  I’ve finished a draft of Chapter 1. And I know how the story ends.  But it’s going to take a loooooooong time to write the middle.  My rock star writing tutor, Susannah, says there are many ways to write a novel and one perfectly acceptable strategy is to jump around writing individual chapters as they occur without knowing exactly how they fit together, and connect the dots at the end.  This approach is ideal for an ADD poster child like me.  So here’s Chapter (approximately) 21.

Sunday Chicken Dinner

Mayola gently opened the kitchen door and was greeted by the mouth-watering aroma of browning salt pork. She bypassed the kitchen and tip-toed into the bedroom shared by her three nieces.  The older two were still asleep while the youngest, Sarah, her goddaughter, seemed to be lingering in what she liked to call “that place between sleep and awake.” “That be what Tinkerbell the fairy call it, Auntie” she had once explained to Mayola.

Mayola surveyed the room, bathed by sunlight spilling through the uncovered window. She had offered to make curtains, but Sarah had said the window was just fine the way it was. The light, now that it was September, had shifted slightly, softened slightly, and cast a muted glow across the room. Which was very crowded. Three single beds occupied nearly every inch of space and had been placed up on wooden blocks so that bins for clothing could be stored underneath. The mismatched linens were worn and the pillows long since flat, but the girls didn’t seem to mind. And they got along (mostly) very well.  Twelve-year-old Sarah idolized Addie Mae, who had just turned fourteen. Junie, who was sixteen, intimidated and occasionally teased her, but Sarah was deeply attached to her as well.

Mayola dearly loved all her nieces and nephews but had a special place in her heart for those three girls. She fussed at them, worried about them, occasionally spoiled them, and prayed for them every day. One of her great joys was spending time with them every Sunday. Which was the best day of the week for the Collins family.

All week long, and most Saturdays, Julius Collins washed dishes in a cafe and his wife, Alice, cleaned white folks’ houses. They worked hard and kept long hours. As did their seven children, who were expected to excel in school, participate in after-school and church activities, and do their share of chores around their tiny, but spotless, home. But Sundays were different; they belonged to the Lord. And the Bible was very clear about His expectations for His day. So the Collins family always worshipped together, rested, and sat down together for Sunday Chicken Dinner. And they always included Mayola.

The aroma from the kitchen had drifted into the bedroom and reminded Mayola that there was work to be done. Nobody loved Sunday Chicken Dinner more than Sarah and Mayola knew she would want to help with the preparations. So she patted Sarah’s head, which sported twelve tightly woven braids, each secured by a small white barrette. “C’mon, Tinkerbell,” she cooed. “Let’s us go help your mama.”

When they walked hand in hand into the kitchen, Alice greeted them with a look that said, “bout time y’all was here.” But her voice was warm. Alice was like that. “Mornin, y’all. There’s plenty to do. Mayola, you can start breadin’ the chicken. Put more pepper and salt in the flour this time. Sarah, you get to workin’ on the biscuits. Be sure that dough is all even, you hear?”

Sarah jumped onto a well-worn stool and washed her hands as she had been taught. She carefully rolled out the biscuit dough until it was nice and even and just as high as her thumb when it lay flat on the table. Mayola had taught her that trick.  Alice said Mayola was the second-best cook in the family.

Mayola, wearing a flowered apron she had found at the Goodwill Store, took a bowl of chicken pieces from the ice box. The chicken had been soaking all night in seasoned buttermilk and brine. She dipped the pieces, one by one, into the heavily peppered and salted flour, back into the marinade, then back into the flour, before spreading them out on a rack to rest. When they returned from church, she and Alice, each working over a cast iron skillet, would simmer the chicken pieces until tender and then flash-fry them in melted Crisco. The result was the crispy-on-the-outside-falling-off-the-bone-on-the-inside piece of Heaven that the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Ladies Auxiliary cookbook referred to simply as “Alice Collins’s Fried Chicken”.  It was legendary.

The prep work was nearly done. While Mayola prepared the chicken for frying, Alice added vinegar, water, salt and a pinch of sugar to the salt pork drippings to make a rich broth. Then she added mounds of fresh collard greens which would simmer for the next four hours. A bowl of white rice, a plate of sliced onions and tomatoes, and a pitcher of sweet tea would complete the meal. Alice pointed to the make-shift table consisting of several planks resting on a pair of saw horses. “Sarah, you go on and set the table now.”

“Yes’m,” Sarah replied. She covered the table with a bright yellow vinyl cloth and set out ten plates once used in the “big house,” mismatched cutlery and paper napkins. And empty jars for the tea. She ran outside and picked a few dandelions from the yard, placed them in another empty jar and set them on the table. “Cuz today is special.”

Alice dismissed Sarah and Mayola with orders to rouse the rest of the family. Sarah ran to wake her sisters. “Addie May! Junie! Get up. Let’s us get dressed. ‘Member it be Youth Sunday and we s’posed to wear white.”

Despite sharing a single bathroom, everyone in the family managed to be washed, dressed and ready to pile into their ‘56 Pontiac Safari station wagon for the trip to Sixteenth Street. Sunday School started at 9:00 AM sharp. That day, September 15, 1963, the Collins family arrived a few minutes early.

The Sixteenth Street Church building resembles a fortress. Built of red brick in a Romanesque style, it features twin towers on either side of a façade graced by three bold arches. Visible above the arches, and framed by the towers, is the cupola that crowns the sanctuary. The main entrance is seventeen feet above street level and is accessed by an imposing stairway that stretches fifty feet across the front of the church.

Sarah held Mayola’s hand as they started up the steps. “I love to come here, Auntie.  It feel safe.” Neither of them had any way of knowing about the strange telephone calls that had come into the church office that morning.

They reached the main entrance. Mayola would enter the sanctuary where the four adult Sunday school classes met. One in each corner. Sarah turned toward the stairs to the basement, where classes were held for the children and teens.  At 10:00 AM the classes would be dismissed and the young people would reunite with their parents for the 10:30 worship service. Today the youth would undertake the tasks usually performed by the adults. To her delight, Sarah had been chosen to help take up the collection. She looked up at Mayola and tried to frown. “You got plenty of money for my basket, Auntie?” Mayola nodded, and on impulse bent down and kissed Sarah’s head. As Sarah moved toward the stairs, she turned, waved and called out, “I love you, Auntie.”

After Sunday School, before heading back upstairs, Addie Mae and three of her friends decided to stop in the basement restroom to primp before the big worship service. Sarah, feeling shy, stayed back against a wall and watched in admiration as the older girls peered into the mirror, smoothed their hair, adjusted their glasses, and twirled around in their pretty dresses. The last time Sarah saw Addie, she was reaching out to tie a sash for her friend, Denise.

Then came a blinding light and a deafening roar. Screams. Darkness. Silence. And pain.

The church building had been rocked by an explosion that was heard for miles.  Created by fifteen sticks of dynamite placed by members of the Ku Klux Klan, the explosion had blown a hole more than two yards wide in the rear wall of the church basement and left a three foot crater in the restroom where the girls had gathered.

Sarah struggled to breathe as acrid smoke and dust clogged her lungs. Mounds of debris pinned her against the bathroom wall. She was unable to open her eyes because they had been penetrated by forty-seven shards of glass. She moaned softly, calling for her sister.

Her moans brought frantic church members, including Mayola, running to the basement. They stumbled over boulders and felt their way through the smoky darkness to find Sarah barely alive.  The bodies of Addie Mae and her three friends had been blown apart by the explosion and lay a heap nearby.

As the ambulance pulled away from the church, Sarah, with Mayola by her side, had slipped back into that place, between sleep and awake, where she had rested so peacefully and happily just hours before.  As she drifted in and out of consciousness, she asked again about Addie. And when she would be able to see.  And she asked Mayola to save her a plate of Sunday Chicken Dinner.








15. Finally A Concert! Etc.

2018.08.07 So my intention, since the day I arrived in Oxford, has been to attend one of the many nightly musical events.  But my good intentions have been thwarted by rain, by fatigue, and most recently by the pressure of looming assignments. (It feels so strange to write that!)  But tonight there were no obstacles so I enjoyed Early Music by Candlelight in the chapel right here on my little campus.  Chapel? Take a look. If that’s a chapel, I’m Tinkerbell.

Exeter College Chapel at Night


Exeter College Live

So the program consisted of six selections, four of which were from Vivaldi.  He’s not Bach but he’ll do. Actually he is one of my favorite Renaissance composers. The four musicians were part of a local musical ensemble called “Charivari Agreable” which means “pleasant tumult.”  I was blown away by the venue, but the program itself was pleasant, as the name suggests, but a little lean. I like “meaty” music. But not to worry.  The next morning when I was walking to breakfast, I heard organ music. I LOVE organ music. So I blew off breakfast and sat in the “chapel” to listen.  Not sure who was playing but the music was a T-Bone steak. I know this is getting old, but somebody pinch me please!

So a few tidbits.

Hot Water

Today I asked the porter (building manager) how repairs on the boiler are coming along.  Hey said (direct quote) “Come to think of it, I have no idea.  But cold showers are good for you.”

If he says so . . . All things considered, no worries.

Murphy’s Law About Surface Pro Keyboard Covers

“If you have one, it will get crosswise with Windows 10 and fail just when you have your two final papers due.”

I love my little Microsoft Surface Pro. It has more power, speed and storage than any other computer I have used and it fits in my purse! And the detachable keyboard means I can also treat it like a (large) Kindle.

But about that detachable keyboard.  About 2 weeks before I left the US it started acting cranky.  I googled “My Surface Pro Keyboard Isn’t Working” and discovered that I am not alone. Some stupid issue with Windows 10. But my My rock star IT consultant (shout out to Dana!) walked me through multiple “fixes” and it seemed good to go. And it was. Until the day before all my papers were due.

What to do?  No Microsoft Store in Oxford.  But Google told me that a mere one hundred yards from my dorm is “Curry’s PC World and CarPhone Warehouse.” And sure enough they carry ONE model of a Logitech keyboard. For 80 pounds. $120. At Office Depot, it would have been $29.99. But I was desperate.  I’m typing on it now.

FUN FACT: Speaking of Carphone Warehouse, ten years ago a really unfortunate looking guy appeared as a contestant on Britain’s Got Talent.  A mobile phone salesman from Carphone Warehouse.  Watch what happens.  BTW I am sure I have watched this, no lie, at LEAST 100 times. Enjoy.






14. Mayola and Me – Chapter One

2018.08.05 My program at Oxford requires two major submissions, both of which were due today. One of the assignments was to write the beginning of a novel. As many of you know I have dreamed of a novel called Mayola and Me for many years.  It’s about Jessie Alexander, a middle-class mid- westerner who has married into a prominent and wealthy southern family, and her maid, Mayola.  Thanks to this assignment, I have finished Chapter One.

Disclaimers.  I have no idea if this “works” or not. We won’t get grades or feedback until Friday.  Also the account of Jessie’s catch was included in a previous post.

Finally, some of the characters are composites which include traits of people I have met, and Jessie and I have a few things in common. But none of the composite characters are intended to fully resemble anyone I know.

Mayola and Me

Chapter 1

I was born with a stainless-steel spoon in my mouth. In the 1950’s. In the great state of Oklahoma, at the geographic and socio-economic center of what Abraham Lincoln called the “Last Great Hope of the Earth.” Or so I was taught. My parents were hardworking, our home was modest, and our annual family vacation consisted of traveling cross country to Colorado in a pink Rambler station wagon full of cigarette smoke, graham cracker crumbs and hot, cranky passengers. We would spend two weeks there, five of us plus a dog, crammed into my Nana’s tiny apartment, before piling back into the hot smoky car for the two-day trip back to Oklahoma.

Thirty years later, Henry and I, and our two children, vacation in Beaver Creek where we ski, in the Blue Ridge Mountains where we hike portions of the Appalachian Trail, and on Dauphin Island where we bathe in the sun and read good books.  And I am the mistress of White Oak Hall, considered by many to be the loveliest home in Birmingham, Alabama.  And most Sundays, after church, we sit down to brunch at the Birmingham Country Club. Where white-coated waiters with black faces serve fine food on fine china, and fine wine in lead crystal glasses, to fashionably-clad members seated at places set with fine linen napkins and sterling silver spoons. And not just any sterling. Francis I.

But all was not well.

On this crisp October morning in 2001 I had gone to the Club to hit tennis balls. The satisfying THUNK of the ball colliding with the sweet spot on my racquet had become my therapy of choice as I struggled to cope with the relentless stream of crises upending my friends, my family, and my country. The Club’s never-tired ball-pitching machine can deliver up to eighty balls per minute and smashing them back at the machine was balm for my bruised heart and helped quiet the pandemonium in my head. And gave me time to think. And dramatically improved my tennis game.  I had become a competent, if not excellent, player, which was surprising because I had always been considered somewhat clumsy and had little interest in sports.

Eleven-year-old Jessie heard a sharp crack as the bat struck the ball.  She occupied her usual spot in right field, the position where most captains tend to place their weakest player. Nevertheless, she wiped the sweat from her forehead, shoved a stray lock of unruly hair behind her ear, adjusted her goggle-like glasses, and focused on the ball as it soared upward against an azure sky. The game was tied at 4 in the bottom of ninth. One out with a runner at first.

The high fly ball completed its arc and to Jessie’s surprise and acute dismay it appeared to be heading straight toward her perpetually outstretched glove. Fly balls weren’t supposed to come anywhere near her. But the ball continued its path, lazily it seemed, and Jessie’s heart raced as she realized she might actually have a chance to catch it. Which she did.

The ball fell squarely into her grasp and she clutched it tightly against her chest for safekeeping. And for savoring. She closed her eyes and indulged in a solitary celebration.  Giving herself a virtual hug, she envisioned fireworks exploding into cascades of festive red, white, and blue sparks. She heard the pop of a virtual cork. And felt the spray of chilled champagne.

Jessie was snatched from her victory party by the jumbled shouts of her teammates.  She struggled to make out their words.

“Jessie,” they seemed to be saying, “congrats on your first!”

Or was it, “You’ve broken the curse!”

Or maybe “Bet you’re so proud you could burst!”

They kept yelling, “Double-play at first!”


“JESSIE!  THROW THE BALL TO FIRST!”                                                                

            The first base runner, who had taken off toward second just as the ball was hit, had now sprinted back to safety. Jessie’s spirits sank to her knees as she realized it was too late to tag the runner or make a successful throw, but in a panic, she hurled the ball anyway.  Her throw was wide by two yards. By the time the ball was recovered, the runner had advanced safely to third base. 

The next batter hit a game-winning single.

Fueling my battle with the ball machine that morning was news that my best friend, Dianne, had suffered a recurrence of her cancer. It had metastasized and was attacking her liver and her bones. The prognosis was a certain and agonizing death. Upon overhearing me talk about it in the school drop off line that morning, Erica had asked whether Dianne had children. I told her no, and that Dianne was single. “Well,” Erica observed. “At least she didn’t leave behind a family.” I so wanted to slap her.

And like many Americans, I continued to be haunted by the horrific images, which still popped up daily in newscasts and hastily assembled documentaries, of planes exploding into fireballs as they crashed into buildings in lower Manhattan. Fireballs that turned my country upside down. And killed my cousin, Jenny, whose crime against Radical Islam was boarding a plane to Los Angeles that morning to donate a kidney to our aunt.  The attacks also sent the US economy into a freefall. The modest inheritance I had received from my father had shrunk by fifty percent since the attacks. Perhaps the same was true of Henry’s not-so-modest inheritance from his father?

Henry Prescott Alexander. The Fourth. My husband. Lover. Rock. Best friend. Or so I had believed for fifteen years.  But over the previous few months, he had been acting strangely. He was distant. Critical. I couldn’t seem to do anything right. Nor could our children. And very distracted. Was he really worried about money? Probably not. His family fortune was vast, diverse and well managed. Was it alcohol?  Doubtful. Henry had always shown moderation, even when I had not. Drugs? Not at all his style.  What about a preoccupation with someone else? Oh, dear God, please no!

It hadn’t always been this way.

During my final semester at OU, I traveled to Birmingham to attend the debutante ball of Dianne’s younger sister. An social invitation service had matched me with the scion of a prominent Birmingham family, Henry Alexander. “Not Harry” he told me when we were introduced. “And certainly not Hank.”

I shook his outstretched hand. “Jessica. And you can call me Jessie. But never, ever Jess.”  

Henry had the most beautiful blue eyes I had ever seen. And a shock of delightfully unruly hair. He looked delicious in his white tie and tails. 

Mutual friends warned me to be on guard. “His family has more money than Solomon,” they said. “His house has a name. And his elementary school had a headmaster.” They claimed that Henry-not-Hank was the most eligible bachelor in Birmingham, or maybe in all of Alabama. He had been known to break hearts. And the juiciest tidbit of all,  that for this event he had been set up with a social nobody from Oklahoma to avoid the appearance of favor toward one of the local contenders.

I should have been intimidated but I wasn’t. Something about him set him apart from the other prep school boys I knew. He lacked their arrogance, their sense of entitlement, and their disregard for the feelings of lesser beings. Including unlikely sorority girls like me who had received bids because their chapter had been ordered to raise its cumulative grade point average.

Giant bowls of white roses graced every surface,nook and cranny in the Birmingham Country Club from the massive front foyer to the back terrace overlooking the golf course. The aroma was intoxicating. Tiny white lights twinkled from ceilings, stair railings, the balconies that overlooked the ballroom floor, and anywhere else the members of the Committee could find. Sensing that I was new to such high brow affairs, Henry kept up a steady stream of amusing anecdotes about the (not so) exalted company around us while offering subtle hints about etiquette and reassurance that I looked lovely. And while I was not a great dancer, he was, and with him leading me, I became Ginger Rogers to his Fred Astaire.

Put simply, I had a spectacular time at the party and this was not lost on him. “The cool thing to do at these parties, Jessie, is to act bored,” he observed. “You’re having way too much fun.” With uncharacteristic confidence, I shot back, “Guess I missed the memo.” 

One person in the household remained exempt from Henry’s increasingly hostility.   Mayola. She had been serving the Alexander family for forty years, as her mother did before her. Her indelible bond with Henry was formed in the terrible days after his mother’s mysterious disappearance and grew as Mayola gradually filled the void in left his heart.

Mayola was raised by a dirt-poor single mother whose husband had died heroically in World War II.  A member of the 320th Balloon Barrage Battalion, Private First Class Crawford Washington’s platoon had deployed scores of armed balloons to diffuse enemy fire during the Allied invasion of Normandy.  Their efforts helped ensure the invasion’s success and were believed to have saved thousands of lives.  Private Washington was killed, however, along with most of his comrades.  His widow, Ivy, received almost nothing from a so-called grateful nation.

Life got better for Ivy and Mayola several years after the war when an officer from Crawford’s battalion roomed with Henry Prescott Alexander. The Third. At Duke.  The officer had known that Crawford was from Birmingham, had been impressed with his hard work and courage, and knew he had left behind a wife and child. He suggested to Henry that his family look into Ivy’s whereabouts and circumstances.  A year later Ivy and Mayola were living in a small, but bright and comfortable cottage on the grounds of White Oak Hall.

Like her father, Mayola was smart, industrious, and as racial tensions in Birmingham and throughout the South intensified, she showed considerable courage.  There was also a dignity about her that emanated from somewhere deep inside.  Despite her humble circumstances, she spoke with assurance and carried herself like a princess.

Which, in fact she was.

The sound of distant drums struck uncharacteristic fear into the heart of Otumfuo Nana Kofi Karikari, King of the Ashanti tribal federation in what is now Ghana.  The tone and cadence of the drums suggested they belonged to the rival Fante people and that their warriors were preparing for battle. The Ashanti had long dominated the region because of their wealth, which was derived from their willingness help satisfy British traders’ insatiable appetite for black Africans. The Fante wanted their share of the lucrative enterprise and appeared to be ready to fight for it.

King Kofi ordered his warriors to prepare for a Fante attack.  As he surveyed his troops the king’s eye fell on Prince Osei.  He wore a red sash, signifying his royal status, across his muscular body.  His finely chiseled face was covered with ceremonial markings and framed by a headdress of orange and black feathers. He exuded strength and courage. The king uttered a silent prayer for Prince Osei. His beloved son.

Two weeks later, Osei, badly wounded by a Fante spear, with an iron collar around his neck and manacles on his ankles and wrists, lay near death in the scorching, filthy hold of a rickety wooden ship making its way across the Atlantic Ocean. Forty percent of the captives aboard would die before reaching their destination. Osei did not. He vowed to live. And demanded that those around him do the same. He was taken off the ship in Mobile, Alabama and sold to the owner of a cotton plantation near Birmingham.

Prince Osei Kofi Karikari was Mayola Washington’s sixth great grandfather.

The persistent ring of my cell phone caught my attention.  It was probably Jack, wanting fast food for lunch instead of the nutritious meal served by the school. I hoped it was Dianne with her chemo schedule so I could deploy all the friends who wanted to help her through it.  More likely it was Henry.  What had I done now?

I packed up my racquet, fished my car keys out of my tennis bag, and thanked the attendant who came to put away the ball machine.  It was time to face the day.