Bakery Girl

I wrote this creative nonfiction piece a couple years ago and sent it around to some lit mags but couldn’t get it placed. So I’m sharing it here.

This is dedicated to Roger, Mrs. C., Maria, Vladimir, and Mariann.

The longest relationship of my adult life has been with a local bakery: a Polish mom and pop in a Chicago suburb where I’ve been employed on and off since the early ‘90s, a few weeks before I turned 21. At the time I’d been working minimum wage jobs since high school, with no college degree and not much sense of where I belonged in life. But for fun I liked to bake cookies or whip up some fancy French toast the odd weekend, so I got it in my head to go to cooking school and become a chef or baker. Something like that. The local bakery seemed like a good place to start.

There’s a “sick burn” quote from the third edition of David Thomson’s A Biographical Dictionary of Film (1994) about movie goddess Michelle Pfeiffer: “She still carries the rather stunned, obedient air of an ex-checkout girl at the El Toro Vons supermarket.” Personally, I never noted such an “air” about Pfeiffer nor any of her screen incarnations, not even when she played a deglamorized diner waitress in Frankie and Johnny. But back in the ‘90s, when I was knee deep in mandatory hairnets and the impossible promise of guaranteed customer satisfaction, Thomson’s comment seared into my brain.

A film buff and bookworm, I spotted his book at the library, checked it out, and bulldozed through Thomson’s hundreds of acerbically funny and perceptive entries on Hollywood’s luminaries. Like the movies, Thomson’s wit was a welcome escape. But his entry on Pfeiffer unnerved me. Not because I was a fan of hers, but because it confirmed my fears that as far as the cultured people of the world are concerned, you can take the girl out of the working class but you can’t take the working class out of the girl. Or, in the case of any woman who’s worked a service job, that “smile and say ‘Have a nice day’ or you’re fired” reek of subservience. I mean, if the stunning — not “stunned” — Michelle Pfeiffer couldn’t convince someone she was born for better things than bagging groceries, even with all the transformative power of Hollywood’s dream factory backing her, what chance had someone like me, a Midwestern bakery girl of no special talents, looks, or connections?

Bakery girl. When I started cooking school (really, an associate’s in culinary arts program at a community college), I may have aspired to the title of chef or baker, but my domain at the bakery was always the store, not the bake shop in the back. And my title was “store girl.” That’s what the owners called all of us who set up the store starting 5 a.m., sliced and bagged the bread, boxed the donuts, weighed the butter cookies, stocked the shelves, rang up the purchases, made the coffee, carried out the cakes, answered the phones, took orders, wiped down the counters and tables, and swept and scraped (the latter on our hands and knees) the store floors before closing every night.

Store girl. Never mind that our ages ranged from 15 to early 70s.

There were no store boys, not in the 1990s. All the males worked in the back, meaning they did all the baking (and dishwashing and wholesale delivering). It sort of made sense, given all the heavy lifting and industrial equipment involved. The huge mixers, the lead-like buckets filled with custard and buttercream icing, and a wide-mouthed, revolving, floor-to-ceiling oven that warned away kitchen newbies with its perpetual fiery glow. It was heavy-duty baking, and heavy-duty baking apparently was no job for a girl. The only back of the house jobs any women did were packaging for wholesale, strawberry hulling (an endless job, fresh strawberries being the most popular choice of cake filling), and cake and pastry decorating.

The crew in the back wore bakery whites and heavy black shoes. We store girls wore a pink and beige smock with a matching hair scarf, white pants, and white thick-soled sneakers. The touch of pink was vital, underlining the distinction between us girls and the macho bakeshop crew.

We barely ever sat down — even on break, when there was a long enough lull to take one. My first day I brought a novel with me to read, imagining there’d be an official breakroom, like at the library job I’d had when I was 18, or somewhere private, like the popcorn room at the movie theater job I’d had when I was 17. But at the bakery there was no breakroom. Just a side room where baking tins and racks of fresh butter cookies were kept, plus some empty buckets you could pull out for a few minutes’ rest and a quick cup of coffee or instant soup. Never a donut though. You got sick of them fast. “I could never work here. I’d eat everything and gain a hundred pounds,” customers were always telling us. They didn’t seem to consider the concept of too much of a good thing, that even the smell of so much sweetness day after day put you off it all by the end of your first week.

Image for post
Old school bakery with bakery girl wearing uniform. Photo by DESIGNECOLOGIST on Unsplash

Not long after I started I changed my goal from baker to cake decorator. Partly because it was the decorators who impressed me the most. They were like wizards — creative, inventive, fast. They made it look so easy. Carving geometric shapes, faces, and household objects out of soft blocks of cake, squirting elegant calligraphy out of parchment pastry bags, molding the tiniest, most detailed features out of marzipan and rolled fondant, blending colors and fruits and flavors like alchemists mixing elements to make gold. And they were almost all women.

In his book Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain expressed his admiration for “studly women” who could “hang tough” in the high-testosterone world of professional kitchens. When the book came out, I had friends in the industry recommend it. By then I was a couple years away from the bakery, finishing up a bachelor’s degree in English at a state university and working in a mall department store. I’d applied for both, the mall job and college, telling myself I was done with food service work — and hopefully, soon, service jobs of any kind. I thought I might want to teach. Or work in an office. Somewhere I could sit down, somewhere I wouldn’t have to wear a name tag, somewhere I could nurture the bookish side of me I’d been hiding for off-hours, somewhere my confidence could grow.

But out of curiosity I tried a couple chapters of Bourdain’s book. His macho tone turned me off, his implication that women don’t belong in the restaurant industry unless they act like men.

It would be years before I’d see in Bourdain what others idolized. Like the way he championed food service people whether they worked at a famous five-star restaurant or a Waffle House. And Bourdain, to his credit, eventually owned up to some of the problematic elements of his first book, writing an essay near the end of his life expressing regret for the machismo he’d once (perhaps unwittingly) celebrated, finally calling out food service sexism for what it is: “meathead culture.”

Bourdain didn’t lie. In the service industry jobs I’ve had over the years, this culture took the form of male co-workers who’d freely talk about “the price of hookers” and joke about the smell of female genitalia in earshot of women workers. There were guys who wouldn’t allow a female co-worker to do anything that required too much physical exertion — they meant well but their thinking was that all women were weak. And there were guys who’d ignore you if you did ask for help — their thinking being that you wanted to work in this job didn’t you, so do it yourself like a man supposedly would. Then there was the young, hot-shot and hot-headed chef I worked with who once threatened “She’s in danger of becoming a battered woman someday” about a teenage waitress he said asked too many questions, was too mouthy. (Later he said he was just joking. Hahaha.)

This was just the back of the house sexism. Out front there were male customers who’d hound you for your number or stalk you by waiting for your table or turn at the counter or calling the store or restaurant, convinced your friendly customer service was really flirting. Which was probably the worst part of the job, much more than being on your feet all day or scraping up crumbs. You had to smile through it all. Even while being leered at by a man “just reading” the name tag on your breast. Or being called “sweetie” by a well-manicured woman pretending you have no name at all.

Machismo is only one flavor of sexism, only one style of disrespect. Women, in their own way, can be just as guilty. From the young, self-described “foodie” bride-to-be who left a thousand-word bad review of the bakery on every online ratings site because her wedding cake samples came in plastic cups, to the middle-aged professional who threw a fudge-iced éclair at a store girl because she didn’t like the way it’d been handed to her. (The iced side hit my co-worker right below her collar, just above her name tag, leaving an oblong-shaped brown spot the rest of her shift. After getting the manager to fill the rest of her order, the customer walked over to the store girl on her way out the door and jeered, “Have a nice day, hon.”)

Or maybe rude customer behavior has nothing to do with sexism. Maybe there’s another ism to blame — classism, capitalism, narcissism. Or maybe some people have impossible expectations. Maybe some people are just jerks.

Maybe Bourdain, while wrong, was also right.

Deep down, Kitchen Confidential riled me because I’d come to believe I wasn’t cut out for professional kitchen work. I was too intimidated to a fault. I didn’t have the cockiness or confidence for chef’s work, baker’s work, industry work. I didn’t know how to hang tough. I was a store girl, extra, out of her element.

David Thomson and Anthony Bourdain exposed a truth, or at least a perception, about women like me that hurt to face up to, much less confront. When I went back to school, it was in a core lit class that I finally saw some representation of the life I’d known, the same life I was trying to get away from, but this time it was cloaked in comfort.

In an American lit course we were assigned a Raymond Carver story, “A Small, Good Thing.” The story is about a middle-class couple whose young son dies on his birthday after a hit-and-run incident. Bookending the story, however, are two visits to a bakery. In the first visit, the mother orders a cake for her son’s birthday. In the second visit, the couple go to finally pick up the cake, three days late. Actually, they go to confront the baker, who’s been prank calling them about the forgotten cake over the three agonizing days since the boy was hit by the car and left lingering in a coma. The story ends with the baker hearing about the child’s death, apologizing for his cruelty, offering stories about the supposed lonely life of a baker, and feeding the couple some of his freshly baked rolls. “You have to eat and keep going,” he tells them. “Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this.”

I liked a lot of the stories I was assigned in my lit classes, but this one I actually appreciated. I read it more than once — not for study purposes, but to decide what I really thought about it, how authentic it was based on my experience. I couldn’t wait to talk about it in class.

I remember wanting to talk about some of the more contrived aspects of the story. Like why didn’t the baker, someone who’d clearly been in the business awhile, make the mother pay for the cake upfront, at least put down a deposit? Like we did at the Polish bakery. And why didn’t he just mention the cake in any of his phone calls to the couple? Or just say, “This is the bakery calling.” Again, like we store girls did at the end of the day with any orders still waiting pick-up.

But we never got to the story in class discussion. I never got to talk about it with anyone. It just became one of those stories of the American canon that I was supposed to file away and make sense of — its perfection, its meaning, its influence — on my own, like an interrupted dream or a lost ambition.

I decided it was good. What I liked was how dynamic the baker character is, how much he becomes the emotional heart of the story, evolving from the unyielding front he shows the mother at the story’s beginning, to cruelty and self-pity in its middle, to remorse and compassion by the end. To giving.

I decided his prank calling of the couple, unlikely in real life, was his assertion of his own value, of his worth as a worker and human being. He took the time to take this woman’s order, to make the cake just like she wanted, to put in the time and labor for a family he didn’t know and a child not his own. Never mind his “I’m just a baker” apology to the couple. He’s the only character in the story with something to offer the mourning parents beyond condolences or platitudes, something they can hold in their hands, smell and eat, nourish and comfort themselves with. Even their son’s doctors couldn’t give as much.

So Carver’s baker isn’t, in my experience, a perfect, authentic representation of bakery life. Maybe nothing is other than the life itself. But in terms of working-class respect, Carver’s story certainly beats Thomson’s quip. Carver himself grew up working-class, his father a millworker, his mother a sometime waitress and retail clerk. She could’ve been a woman I worked with. She could’ve been me.

(This past year of pandemic, like people the world over I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights. Nights of worrying and fear. Nights that lead your mind to the past, because the future is so uncertain. My mind would sometimes stray to cooking school, to my first days at the bakery, to Carver’s baker… Could I have been Mrs. Carver’s son? Or Bourdain, with more ambition and talent, more confidence and dark sorrow? How about the dead boy’s mother in “A Small, Good Thing”? What contrivances or curveballs would have to be written into a story or a life to make Carver’s lonely baker turn out a worldly legend like Bourdain? Or to make Bourdain turn out like Carver’s baker — lonesome but surviving, overlooked but still alive?

Or to make me a baker, any baker, instead of the girl who rings up the baker’s orders?

How about Michelle Pfeiffer? In the ’90s she seemed straight on the Oscar path. Decades later she’s yet to get there, nevermind her knockout looks or knockout performances. Was it something on her resumé? That supposed miscasting as the diner waitress in Frankie and Johnny? Or maybe the time she played, for real, a supermarket checkout girl. As Thomson said, maybe she played that role too well, too obediently. Unlike lonely bakers, who can find their way back to human connection, working girls can’t expect to live their common beginnings down, not without an enduring confidence or a long fight.)

Two things life teaches you is that plans barely ever pan out and rescues almost never lead you to the promised land.

After college I got the office job I thought would rescue me from service work for life. It was a bargain cookbook publishing job, and surprisingly, I was told they were more interested in my community college culinary arts degree than my brand new university B.A.

I didn’t adjust well. There were no windows in the part of the building where my cubicle was marooned. There were days when I had maybe ten minutes of work to occupy an 8-hour day. And it turned out offices have their own brand of hell situations to survive, from gossip and cliques to the farce of performance reviews, to back-stabbing. None of the working-class camaraderie I’d known in every service job I’d had, the got-your-back bonding that transcended even the sexism and male chauvinism when it came to surviving especially brutal busy days of churning out high-volume orders and facing throngs of customers.

There were nice breakrooms though, that was a plus. But also self-described “foodies” who’d hunt me down in those breakrooms. Offices, I learned, are filled with foodies. People who’ve never worked in a restaurant or professional kitchen a day in their life, but who watch lots of cooking shows, or read lots of gourmet magazines or restaurant reviews, or spend lots of time in the aisles of specialty grocery stores. Not that there’s anything wrong with all that. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t enjoy the satisfaction of a good meal or the thrill of a cut-throat cook-off. But foodies are people who like to show off what they think they know. And the minute they hear you’ve worked in the industry or gone to cooking school, they want you to prove it. Which means, in the spirit of office passive-aggressiveness, they want to compete with you. Which means being hunted down anywhere in the office for recipe secrets or arcane ingredient advice or the low-down on local hot restaurants I couldn’t afford to eat in or chefs I didn’t know — then being challenged or negged on any experience or opinion you do share.

My first office job, I lasted less than a year before bolting for a full-time job in the deli and kitchen of a Whole Foods. It set a pattern for years to come. Ping-ponging between offices and kitchens, between jobs with health insurance and jobs with surprise health inspections, between higher-status “real jobs” and lower-status jobs that the world really can’t do without.

At some point, after a few years, I went back to visit the Polish bakery. It was during the Christmas season. I’d been working in publishing, but for not as much pay as I expected I’d be making back when I thought an office job was the answer. The bakery staff said they’d welcome any extra help to handle the holiday crowds. So I worked a few shifts, including Christmas Eve day.

It was just like old times, easy to get back in the groove of boxing donuts and slicing bread.

Yet things had changed. One of the brothers who owned the bakery had died. The other brother’s kids had grown up, were being groomed to take over. Prices had gone up. Almost no one wrote checks anymore — everything was put on debit cards. And all those cooking and baking shows that had flooded cable TV in recent years meant customers coming in with more elaborate orders, show-stopper cake designs, foodie-fed dreams of over-the-top sweet tables and multi-tiered cupcake trees and gourmet donut buffets. God knows what Carver’s baker would’ve made of such demands.

And there were store boys. Mostly high school kids. They wore paper caps and aprons. The store girls wore aprons now too. The pink long scrapped for maroon. The bakeshop foreman I’d known in the ‘90s was also long gone — he’d left to start his own business. There’d been a series of male, classically trained, high-end hotel pastry chefs who’d been chewed up and spit out by the bakery’s heavy-duty production rate. Now, in their place, was a Greek woman and a familiar face, one of the lady pastry wizards who had dazzled me back in the day. She wasn’t studly, she didn’t hang tough or make gross jokes about female anatomy. She was a mom and a new grandma.

Maybe seeing how a mom and pop bakery could change planted a seed in me that I could change too. That maybe class isn’t destiny — at the very least, not identity.

Working in cubicles, I did a lot of daydreaming. About being my own boss, maybe starting a business of my own. Back in the ’90s I used to work extra shifts to earn money to travel. In cooking school, I spent a few summers working abroad in Ireland in hotels and cafes. I hit on a travel business idea — specializing in group tours for women. I was thinking of women who didn’t feel like they fit in on family tours or couples tours. Or maybe women who just didn’t feel they fit in period and wanted to get away for a bit, to stretch their sense of adventure, to test their confidence. I intended to turn my back on office life and the rescue and dream that it never was forever.

As I researched the travel biz, became a certified tour manager, set up a business and website, started organizing tours, all along the bakery was there for me. Three years on, when the business failed, the bakery was still there. I felt like a failure, again, but my bakery colleagues waved that off. “You tried,” the store girls said, without a trace of snark, as we stood at the counter folding boxes. “That took courage, starting a business,” one of the older women said.

There were more changes anyway — the kind that kept you from dwelling too much on failure even as they broke the bakery family’s heart piece by piece. One of the wizard decorators, who started at 16 as a store girl, opened a competing bake shop. A fire burned down the restaurant next door and left us working out of a temporary facility for months. The matriarch of the family who owned the bakery died. A young man who worked in the back and a dear friend to all of us was murdered. And one November, two days before Thanksgiving, a longtime store manager said goodbye to us one night at closing: “OK, I’ll see you tomorrow, girls.” She never came back.

She’d been with the bakery since it opened doors in the 1970s. Truly, the original store girl. My first day, back when I was 20, she’d been the one to take me around the bakery and explain every single pastry to me, every flavor and filling, every shape of roll, every kind of bread.

That day before Thanksgiving, when she didn’t show up to work for the first time in decades, we still had to serve the crush of customers. We were stunned, obediently quiet to the news of death. But we store girls and store boys still had to smile, still had to say, “Have a happy Thanksgiving,” over and over and over again. We took turns going in the back to cry. So many of us had never known a Thanksgiving at the bakery without Mariann.

The crew in the back set up a buffet on one of the workbenches. Some had brought tacos. The owner roasted a turkey in the revolving oven. His daughter sliced a loaf of buttercrust white and one of seeded rye. Somebody added cans of cold pop, a bag of chips, salsa, a slab of butter, some butterflake rolls. Front of the house and back of the house took shifts eating from paper plates, standing up at the workbenches and back counters, sitting on empty buckets.

The bakery would be closed the next day for the holiday, but the store would be packed with customers ’til closing time, waiting for their pies and breads, waiting for us. They were counting on us. So we ate to keep going, to endure.

Selected Writings & Stuff

Some of my published work:

Nonfiction:

Bread Pudding for Dimitra Xidous (Poetry Potluck)

Island in the City (Substack) A (bi)monthly newsletter about outsider art, Chicago, creativity, oddballs, islands, and other interesting stuff

Bakery Girl (Medium)

Community cooks (U.S. Catholic)

Meet St. Gertrude, cat lady of the Catholic Church (U.S. Catholic)

How Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery Built a Prairie and Lost My Ancestors (Medium)

A pilgrim’s pace (U.S. Catholic)

Mixed Messages (Memoir Mixtapes)

Song recommendations (short memoir pieces) at Memoir Mixtapes:
White Mystery’s “Birthday”
Van Morrison’s “Purple Heather”
Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection”
Al Green’s “Belle”
The Gap Band’s “Party Train”

Maintaining Self-Esteem and Motivation in a Year of Rejection (Brevity blog)

The Unbeautiful Ones (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note; Tiny Donkey’s site has been taken down, so anything I published there I’ve republished on my site

Ancestral Hunger Pangs (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Modern-Day Mike Finks (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Writing Anxiety and the Wisdom of Improvisation (The Masters Review blog)

Lady Folk (Tiny Donkey: Brief Essays from Fairyland) 2nd-place winner in “Once Upon a Cartographer” contest

Dad’s Honor Flight: A Father’s Second Homecoming from the Korean War (Medium)

All Apocalypses, Bitter and Sweet (Literary Orphans) LO’s non-fiction Tavern Lantern site is no longer, so I’ve included the essay on my site here

New Mexico: Freedom on the Ground (We Said Go Travel)

Walking with the World on the Camino de Santiago (Encyclopaedia Britannica) Republished at Camino Ways

Women of Ireland (Encyclopaedia Britannica) More of my Britannica blog articles are available at this link

Walking to the Well (AranIsland.info)

Island Luck (AranIsland.info)

Writing and Wayfaring (personal travel blog)

Fiction:

The Widow’s Quilt (Medium)

Year of Conor McGregor (Hobart)

Bad Babysitter (Cease, Cows) Nominated for The Best Small Fictions 2018

The Guide to Good Apple Self-Care (Drunk Monkeys)

Chicago Rides For Michael Jackson (here, with author’s note)

Poetry:

Putting on Eyeliner with PTSD (Awakened Voices) Republished at Memoir Magazine

The Buffalo Return to Illinois (Rose Red Review) Another defunct journal, so I’ve republished poem on my site

Periphery (Thank You For Swallowing) Based on Edward Hopper’s 1939 painting New York Movie

The Subject and the Stranger (Ekphrastic: writing and art on art and writing)

Bioluminescent Bay, Aisling, and Coconut (The Writing Disorder)

Transference (Middle West) (Eunoia Review)

Golden Day (Literary Orphans)

The Fading of the Heart and Australia (Wilderness House Literary Review)

Interviews:

Interview with Jamie Kralovec, urban planner (U.S. Catholic)

Interview with Samantha Power, activist, author, and former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. (U.S. Catholic)

Interview with Louise Erdrich, novelist (U.S. Catholic)

Interview with Timothy Egan, journalist (U.S. Catholic)

Interview with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, poet (Tiny Donkey)

Interview with Kelly Vivanco, artist (Tiny Donkey)

Interview with Ram Devineni, filmmaker and comic book creator (Priya’s Shakti) (Tiny Donkey)

Reviews:

The Best Catholics in the World by Derek Scally (America magazine)

In the Event of Contact by Ethel Rohan (U.S. Catholic mag)

10 books young readers will love this Christmas (Christmas, Advent, and new children’s books roundup for winter 2020; U.S. Catholic mag)

Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz (U.S. Catholic mag)

Lost, Found, Remembered by Lyra McKee (U.S. Catholic mag)

In The Field Between Us by Molly McCully Brown and Susannah Nevison (U.S. Catholic mag)

Book of the Little Axe by Lauren Francis-Sharma (U.S. Catholic mag)

Places I’ve Taken My Body by Molly McCully Brown (U.S. Catholic mag)

Other:

The Dangerous Divide (Library Philosophy and Practice): This is an academic paper I published about how libraries are closing the gap in the digital divide for older adults, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic when lack of access to the internet has had deadly consequences for this population. This was a final project for an MLIS course taught by Bill Crowley at Dominican University.

Tales of Old: A digital resource and annotated bibliography of representations of older women in folk and fairy tales. This was created for an MLIS course taught by Janice Del Negro at Dominican University.

Played the role of Marcy, the art school prof, in TV pilot The Artists

Photo: Coumeenole Beach, Ireland (Rockwell’s Camera Phone)

Photo: Untitled (Rockwell’s Camera Phone)

Forgotten Cookies

I wrote a short article for a religious mag about my mother’s old church cookbook collection. It’s also about trying to keep a sense of community and celebrate Christmas this year while so many of us are separated from our families due to the pandemic. You can read the article here (note: I didn’t write that headline).

I enjoyed writing this piece. It brought back some sorely needed fun memories.

I used to be in the business of cooking and cookbooks. After graduating from high school, I enrolled in a culinary arts program at a community college. Our textbooks were about 4 inches thick with technical instructions for working with and repairing industrial kitchen equipment and recipes that yielded much higher quantities than in the average coffee table cookbook.

After cooking school, I found a job as an assistant cookbook editor at a publishing company just outside Chicago. The cookbooks were the kind sold in catalogs or found in the bargain books section of chain bookstores. They relied heavily on brand name products, and there were all sorts of rules about which brand’s recipes could run on the same page with another’s and how to order the list of ingredients and what made a particular ingredient “index worthy.”

I remember attending photo sessions where a professional photographer and food stylist set up shots of perfectly sized cookies with just the right number of stray crumbs and an impossibly frothy glass of milk in the background. (The froth was created by mixing liquid soap into the milk.)

I remember other cookbook editor tricks like the time we came up short for recipes for a slow cooker cookbook (we didn’t have the licensing to use the term “Crock Pot”) that was supposed to feature recipes submitted by “real” home cooks across America. We resolved the problem by pulling recipes from our database and making up names to go with them using the editors’ pets’ first names combined with the married editors’ maiden names followed by some random town.

Out of the whole mix, we had to pick a winner from the recipes by actual home cooks and run a special “spotlight” with a picture of the winner in their home kitchen and a mini-interview. As this was my first publishing job, I wholeheartedly believed someone on staff had tested the recipes to choose the best one. My boss had to break it to me that what we picked was the recipe by the closest cook, not necessarily the best one. “What, you think it’s just a coincidence the winner lives in Gurnee?” she said.

Apart from my professional cookbook experience, I’ve worked off and on in a local family-run bakery going back to before my culinary arts degree days. A real old school kind of place. A lot of the cake and pastry decoration ideas came from Pinterest and Cake Boss, but the recipes were the genuine passed down from generation to generation variety. They were kept in a battered black book that was locked in a safe.

The best thing about writing this article though is that I got to name drop some of the parishes I grew up in as well as one of my beloved family members, my great-aunt Florence Fagan. Florence was my maternal grandfather’s sister. She lived all her life on a farm in Iowa. She and her husband, Francis, had four children: Ruth, a Franciscan sister in Dubuque; Marie, who has her own farm in Iowa; Joe, a former priest who founded the activist organization Iowa Citizens for Community in Des Moines; and Jean, a teacher New Orleans. Florence, Francis, Jean, and Joe have all passed away.

My great-aunt and great-uncle, Florence and Francis Fagan, of Iowa.

The New Melleray Abbey cookbook mentioned in the article has at least a dozen recipes by Florence–nearly all desserts. For the curious, here’s her “Forgotten Cookies” recipe in its original “parish cookbook” form:

Ancestral Hunger Pangs

This is the last editor’s note/essay I wrote for Tiny Donkey. As I wrote in a previous post, Tiny Donkey was a digital journal devoted to short nonfiction about fairy tales and folkore and associated with Fairy Tale Review. It was shut down in 2017, and its site was recently taken down from the internet completely. I’ve been rescuing all the essays and interviews I contributed here. This one was my favorite of all.


My mother’s kitchen cupboards are stocked with ancestral memories; crammed with what may look like ordinary jars and cans, boxes and bottles—but I know better. These are her hunger ghosts, I think to myself every time I open the cupboards, doppelgangers of old wounds and inherited hurts.

The same goes for the freezer and fridge, the fruit bowl, even the jar for cat treats. My mother hoards food. She consistently buys too much, as if she’s still cooking for a household of eight or preparing for a food shortage or a spell of famine. She overcooks too, long used to making large casseroles that needed to stretch into a couple days’ worth of leftovers. My father and I have tried talking to her, telling her to scale back, that we cannot possibly eat everything before it spoils and it’s a sin to waste food.

But I think she really is preparing for a famine, or reckoning with the haunting of one. My mother descends from the Famine Irish, the generation that left Ireland in the mid-19th century for their lives, escaping starvation and fever, mass death, and the devastation of centuries of British colonialism. Hunger is the reason she’s here, in America, and half the reason I’m here too, along with my brothers, sisters, and all my maternal cousins.

In Irish folk belief there’s a type of grass called an féar gortach, the hungry grass. Some say it’s a different shade than the green that famously carpets Ireland, more silver in color, or patchy and withered. Others say it looks like any other grass, and you only know you’ve stepped on it too late, when a great hunger suddenly comes upon you and nothing can cure it save a bite of some bread tucked away in your pockets (if you had the forethought) or a bit of your own shoelace (if you’re really stuck). It’s said hungry grass grows wherever a corpse has been laid down or someone has died. The belief predates An Gorta Mór of the 1840s, the Great Hunger. But an féar gortach took on a new, ghastly meaning then, in an era when famine victims were found in fields and on roadsides, a ring of green around their open, lifeless mouths after a last, desperate meal of grass.

As Ireland’s potato crop failed and its people starved, its other crops were harvested and exported by the shipload to serve on British dinner tables and fill British bellies. At least a million Irish died during the Famine, their bodies buried in mass graves wherever their lives gave out. In a sense, all Ireland’s green countryside turned to hungry grass, a landscape of want and loss, of lasting trauma and emptied beauty. At least another million emigrated, became refugees, exiles, Irish-Americans, Irish-Canadians, Irish-Australians, hyphenated people, diasporic, hungry.

Growing up, Mom spoke often of her family’s history, sang and played us Irish folk songs, explained to us the Famine, dressed us in green on St. Patrick’s Day. Maybe it seems a stretch to suggest my mother’s food compulsions have anything to do with an event in another country her ancestors left fadó fadó. But some events are simply too large, too traumatic not to eat into the blood, the DNA, the collective cultural memory of a people.

Mother’s ancestral memories transferred to all her children, but might have absorbed most deeply into me, her last-born child and the only one to go live in Ireland years later. I am the child who’s never married, never had children. Who’s struggled with her weight, eats when she’s not hungry, and bakes when she’s sad or simply bored. Who collects cats, books, and passport stamps like they’ll fill up some loss, some second-hand but deep-rooted want and need. The famished one, always looking for some patch of grass where the hunger finally makes sense.

Mom in Ireland, 1969.

The Unbeautiful Ones

As mentioned in a previous post, a digital literary journal that I contributed to and served as volunteer editor for a few years ago went the way of the dinosaurs recently. Tiny Donkey was an offshoot of the Fairy Tale Review and was dedicated to short non-fiction pieces about folklore and fairy tales. The journal shut down in 2017, but was still available to read online up until recently. With its site being gone, I’ve been sharing a few of my own pieces here.

This one is the third and last editor’s note I wrote for Tiny Donkey, about Hans Christian Andersen’s folk tale The Ugly Duckling. I loved the tale as a child, and I admit I identified with the poor créatur. I didn’t fit in as a child. At all. And adulthood has felt like a full-on flail as well. I suppose most people feel that way, more of us than each of us realize. In any case, I worried about appearing too emo or po-faced in this piece. Still, I hope anyone who reads it likes it, and I hope it did Andersen’s touching tale justice. And yes, I stole the title from a Prince song. You can’t tell me the guy who played The Kid in Purple Rain wouldn’t have related to The Ugly Duckling as well.


Growing up, you were shy. Or maybe you were short, you were fat, you had bad teeth. You had frizzy hair, you wet the bed, you spoke with a stammer. You slept with a stuffed toy ‘til you were twelve, or ‘til you were twenty, or ‘til your monthly blood ran out and you began soaking the bed with night sweats and hot flashes and Mississippi-wide rivers of regrets. You’re almost an old woman now. Love and transcendence have passed you by. Those fairy tales you were fed by Hollywood and MTV and Hans Christian Andersen as a child, and the ones you fed yourself to get by, through the loneliness of the school playground, through the long tick-tocking overthinking of the night, through the daily treacheries of life – they all lied.

Which fairy tale was it you always went back to, the one you believed in most? The one with the song saying someday your prince would come? Or the one where the funny-looking little duckling (you don’t like to say “ugly” – it’s a word that’s been used against you so many times) turns into a stunner of a swan? Did you think that might be you one day? Did you really? All along, you should have paid more attention to the crone, the ogre, the unredeemed outcasts, the ones haunting the margins, or worse yet, the ordinary ones, the unmagical, the unnamed and underappreciated. Because these were your destiny – not the beautiful ones, not the princess and the swan.

Or maybe the fairy tales didn’t lie. You just saw in them what you wanted, took what you needed. Beauty, hope, promises of happily ever after, some danger to make things interesting, some fear to cut through the dull of the everyday. You simply ignored the despair. Even though all fairy tales, and all life, is rife with it. Like that moment in Andersen’s tale about the duckling, when the bullied little bird welcomes the beauty of spring and a bevy of swans with pure, piercing heartache:

“I will fly to those royal birds,” he exclaimed, “and they will kill me, because I am so ugly, and dare to approach them; but it does not matter…”

Then he flew to the water, and swam towards the beautiful swans. The moment they espied the stranger, they rushed to meet him with outstretched wings.

“Kill me,” said the poor bird; and he bent his head down to the surface of the water, and awaited death.

In the next moment the duckling sees his reflection in the water, sees a swan looking back – his transformed self, his true tribe, his happily ever after. I wonder though, if the duckling had seen no change, no beauty, no swan staring back at him in the water, could he still have survived? Would he still have come to know happiness, belonging, self-love?

I need to know, same as every once and for-all-time misfit. Is there magic after all in despair? Can there be beauty in forsaken hope, transcendence without transformation, belonging when you’re the only one around to hear your own questions, a happy ending when the fairy tale, or life, or maybe yourself, is found so wanting?

Think back on the ones you paid too little attention to, while you were paying as little attention to the beauty in your worst and best self. The crone, the ogre, the marginal, the ordinary. The untransformed duckling. The resilient, the persisting, the interesting and astute, the ultimately self-accepting and wise. Lucky you – these were your destiny. The unbeautiful ones, who know how to make magic out of the most disappointing circumstances, to potion up an unbreakable spell of endurance out of yesterday’s cold pot of despair. Let them teach you to love whatever reflection stares back at you, to see the beauty in even a fantastically imperfect you.

Illustration by Johannes Larsen

Lady Folk

As mentioned in a previous post, I’m sharing pieces I wrote for a digital journal called Tiny Donkey, which was shut down in 2017 and whose site has more recently been taken down from the internet.

This is the first piece I wrote for Tiny Donkey, before I served as a volunteer editor. The journal hosted a “Once Upon a Cartographer” short essay contest, and this is what I submitted. It’s about two Irish women: Lady Gregory, the Anglo-Irish playwright, folklore collector, and cofounder (with Yeats et al) of the Abbey Theatre; and Biddy Early, the Irish-speaking purported witch/wise woman. This one 2nd place in the contest.

—–

Biddy Early peered down a bottle’s neck to see the future. One wonders if she ever saw Lady Gregory coming decades down the road, gossiping with Biddy’s old neighbors, collecting astonishing tales about this wise healer woman of western Ireland. Biddy Early was already legendary before she died—accused of witchcraft once, eternally at odds with the local priests, married four times over. She didn’t need Lady Gregory to make her famous-slash-infamous, or whatever the liminal space is where wise women dwell.

But Gregory needed Biddy. Her name lent authenticity to the cast of banshees, blacksmiths, and other characters in Gregory’s folklore collection Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920). And her neighbors’ trusting chattiness about their own peasant practices and beliefs eased Gregory’s aristocratic guilt.

Both women were western Irish—Biddy born Bridget Connors in County Clare in 1798, Gregory born Isabella Augusta Persse in County Galway in 1852. Biddy was born the year of an uprising in Ireland against British rule—a fitting start for a figure of female rebellion. Gregory came into the world at the end of the Great Potato Famine, a time when 1 million Irish died by fever or starvation. She grew up only 25 miles from Biddy’s humble cottage, but she was a member of the gentry, an Anglo-Irish Protestant not only protected from the ravages of the Famine but a benefactor. The man she married, Sir William Gregory, was a member of Parliament with a Galway estate called Coole Park—a place of lakes, limestone, woods and wild swans. At the height of the Famine, Sir William drafted a clause in the Poor Relief Laws that led to the eviction of thousands of peasants in the west. These were among Ireland’s poorest population, the ones who suffered the Famine’s worst destitution, the most deaths. And the strongest bearers of the old Gaelic folkways and language. Biddy’s people. With their decimation, would Ireland’s folk culture follow?

Biddy survived the Famine, dying around 1872 with a priest’s blessing in exchange for breaking her magic bottle. Lady Gregory was widowed in 1892. Within a year she was immersing herself in the Irish language and folk culture and soon professing Irish nationalism. She sometimes paid her peasant storytellers small tokens for their memories—but never stopped collecting their rents.

Maybe Biddy’s chatty neighbors did trust Lady Gregory. Or maybe they were simply squaring another uneven exchange with a landholder—embellishing their barter by telling tall tales. Perhaps Biddy Early also managed to square an uneven barter. Maybe those glass shards beside the blessed deathbed belonged to a decoy bottle.


Ruins of Lady Gregory’s estate (Coole Park) in County Galway
Woods at Coole Park

Modern-Day Mike Finks

As mentioned in a previous post, a digital literary journal that I contributed to and served as volunteer editor for a few years ago has gone offline. It was called Tiny Donkey, and it was an offshoot of the Fairy Tale Review dedicated to very short non-fiction pieces about folklore and fairy tales. The journal shut down in 2017, but was still available to read online up until recently. With its disappearance went all the writing of its contributors, including some essays I wrote and commissioned and interviews with other writers and artists. I decided to share a few of my own pieces here over the next few weeks.

This one is the first editor’s note (but not essay) I wrote for Tiny Donkey, about the American pioneer folklore anti-hero Mike Fink. I wrote and published this literally days before the 2016 election that saw Trump rise to power.

As a personal note, I once got some feedback about this piece by someone who called it “weak.” Usually I welcome feedback or editing suggestions, but this was one time when I think the reader misunderstood the tone. It’s written in an intentionally understated, matter-of-fact tone, to match the speaking tone and verbal style of the people in the part of the country where Mike Fink lore comes from, for better or worse–Midwestern people, Mississippi River people, people like my family, like my many Iowa and Illinois relatives, and like me. So here it is: “Modern-Day Mike Finks.”

—-

Once I tried reading a 900-page book called A Treasury of American Folklore, by the folklorist B.A. Botkin. But I only got 60 pages in before dumping the “treasure” at a book swap.

It was the stories of Mike Fink that did it, a Mississippi River boatman of the post-American Revolution era celebrated for his outrageous boasts and pranks. His boasts were of the variety that he could “outrun, outjump, outshoot, outdrink, and lick any man in the country.” And his pranks? Well, he had a curious sense of fun, this Mike Fink, and a suspiciously specific kind of targets. Like the time he shot an African-American boy walking by in the heel just because he didn’t like its shape, and the time he shot the scalp-lock off a Cherokee man’s head for acting too proud, or the time he made his wife lie in a pile of leaves and set them on fire, letting her go just after her hair and clothes started burning, all for looking at another man.

Botkin labels Fink a “pseudo bad man” without explaining what that means. Along with many other folklorists who’ve written about Fink, he tries to assure us modern folks that Fink wasn’t real, or at least, his pranks weren’t. They couldn’t be, could they?

Though I’d never heard of Mike Fink before this, I don’t need any academic or historical investigation to know he was real. That he is real. I’ve known him. Maybe you have too. Maybe like me, you see him every day on the news, in life, in the memory of personal experience. Sometimes he wears a badge, sometimes a suit. Sometimes he’s followed me on the street or leered at me on the train. When I was young I sometimes encountered him on the playground or in the school hallway, trying to lift up my skirt or grab some part of me. More than once I’ve loved him and forgiven him. Sometimes he’s the picture of everything all good and charming. Oftentimes he’s put in charge of things, more than just riverboats, like committees, laws—and bodies, usually black, brown, and female.

I think now, this election year, he’s too close for comfort to being put in charge of the whole country.

I dumped that treasury of American folklore because I was too angry and ashamed to see what else was in the folk history of the United States, what further ugliness my country’s mythology had to reveal. The book confirmed what I’ve always known about my country, and my place as a woman in it, but don’t often like to face. I can’t afford to ignore the truth and cost of such “treasure” anymore. Mike Fink is deserving of dumping. America needs the coinage of a new, transformative folklore.

Selected Writings

A selection of my published pieces…

Nonfiction:

How St. Gertrude of Nivelles became the cat lady of the Catholic Church (U.S. Catholic)

How Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery Built a Prairie and Lost My Ancestors (Medium)

A pilgrim’s pace (or How I found healing on the Camino de Santiago) (U.S. Catholic)

Mixed Messages (Memoir Mixtapes)

Song recommendations (short memoir pieces) at Memoir Mixtapes:
White Mystery’s “Birthday”
Van Morrison’s “Purple Heather”
Kermit the Frog’s “Rainbow Connection”
Al Green’s “Belle”
The Gap Band’s “Party Train”

Maintaining Self-Esteem and Motivation in a Year of Rejection (Brevity blog)

The Unbeautiful Ones (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Ancestral Hunger Pangs (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Modern-Day Mike Finks (Tiny Donkey) Editor’s Note

Writing Anxiety and the Wisdom of Improvisation (The Masters Review blog)

Lady Folk (Tiny Donkey: Brief Essays from Fairyland) 2nd-place winner in “Once Upon a  Cartographer” contest

Dad’s Honor Flight: A Father’s Second Homecoming from the Korean War (Medium)

All Apocalypses, Bitter and Sweet (Literary Orphans) LO’s Tavern Lantern site has been hacked; until it’s fixed, check out my masthead for link to this piece

New Mexico: Freedom on the Ground (We Said Go Travel)

Walking with the World on the Camino de Santiago (Encyclopaedia Britannica) Republished at Camino Ways

Women of Ireland (Encyclopaedia Britannica) More of my Britannica blog articles are available at this link.

Walking to the Well (AranIsland.info)

Island Luck (AranIsland.info) Since their blog seems to be down these days, I’ve reposted this here.

Booma “Daily Spot” entries: These are short “bookmapping” pieces I contributed to Booma: The Bookmapping Project on the places mentioned in works by Carl Sandburg, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, J.M. Synge, Frank O’Hara, and Wendell Berry. A lot of good stuff by a number of different educators and writers at this site — check it out.

Writing and Wayfaring (personal blog)

Fiction:

The Widow’s Quilt (Medium)

Year of Conor McGregor (Hobart)

Bad Babysitter (Cease, Cows) Nominated for The Best Small Fictions 2018

The Guide to Good Apple Self-Care (Drunk Monkeys)

Chicago Rides For Michael Jackson (here, with author’s note)

Poetry:

Putting on Eyeliner with PTSD (Awakened Voices) Republished at Memoir Magazine

The Buffalo Return to Illinois (Rose Red Review)

Periphery (Thank You For Swallowing) Based on Edward Hopper’s 1939 painting New York Movie

The Subject and the Stranger (Ekphrastic: writing and art on art and writing)

Bioluminescent Bay, Aisling, and Coconut(The Writing Disorder)

Transference (Middle West) (Eunoia Review)

Golden Day (Literary Orphans)

The Fading of the Heart and Australia (Wilderness House Literary Review)

Interviews:

Interview with Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, poet (Tiny Donkey)

Interview with Kelly Vivanco, artist (Tiny Donkey)

Interview with Ram Devineni, filmmaker and comic book creator (Priya’s Shakti) (Tiny Donkey)

Other:

Editor at Tiny Donkey, October 2016-October 2017

Volunteer fiction/nonfiction submission reader for The Masters Review, January 2016-September 2016

Played the role of Marcy, the art school prof, in TV pilot “The Artists

Photo: Coumeenole Beach, Ireland (Rockwell’s Camera Phone)

Photo: Untitled (Rockwell’s Camera Phone)

All Apocalypses, Bitter and Sweet

This nonfiction piece was originally published at Literary Orphans on Easter 2014, as part of the journal’s Irish-themed “Jonathan Swift” issue. Earlier this year though, the Literary Orphans website was hacked and wiped, including its nonfiction Tavern Lantern channel, where this piece was posted. The journal editors are still working on restoring the Tavern Lantern site. Until then, I’m sharing my essay here, because of all the pieces I’ve published so far, this is the one I’m most proud of, and I want people to be able to read it.

022 (2)

I

A woman who keeps bees is a woman I’d like to know. I think she’d be able to tell me a lot about the secrets of surviving this world. For starters, how to disregard the stings and cultivate the sweetness of life. I wouldn’t mind also taking a few lessons from the bees themselves. But we speak different languages, the bees and I. You might say we travel in different circles. They dance through air, I tread on earth. Their lives are short, sweet, and purposeful. They enjoy a profound intimacy with the world’s great beauties, the flowers.

Me? I’m 40 years here on earth—living, stumbling, bumbling, mistaking, basically wasting time. Intimacy of any kind is hard to come by, much less turn into something fruitful. The same goes with resolve. And effort. Between you and me and the bees, there are times when I’d rather stick my hand into a hornet’s nest than risk a flight at trust or hope or gumption, and a flight away from bitterness and fear.

A beekeeper is someone I’d bet on to have good advice and answers. But I’ve never known one to ask. The closest I’ve come to even meeting one was in visiting the alleged church of an alleged beekeeping saint who allegedly lived on an island off the west coast of Ireland long ago. This rumor of a holy hive-keeping woman is all I have to guide me.

II

Her name was Gobnait. A uniquely Irish name. To American ears, like mine, its pronunciation sounds something like what you might shout upon being stung by an insect. So of course a woman with a name like that kept bees. And it was the kind of thing holy people did back then, in the 6th century, when Gobnait had her turn on earth. In those days in Ireland, holy people were all around, almost as common as bees themselves. A land of saints, as they say. Some of those holy folks lived like honey bees, clustered together in communities of hundreds or more. Some were more like the bumble variety, settling with only a dozen or so kindred spirits. And some, like the carpenter bee, were solitary—self-marooned on lonely little rock islands or hidden away in dark and dinky caves.

Gobnait was something of a hybrid of all holy varieties, depending on where she was at in her life and on earth. On Inis Oírr, the western Irish island where Gobnait’s story first gets going, the locals say she arrived there from County Clare, just a few miles across Galway Bay, to escape an enemy or a family squabble. Who her enemy might have been, what the problem was, what sort of punishment or consequences she was running from, and whether she was ever found or followed by her pursuers—nobody knows. Not a word more about Gobnait’s life pre-flight has survived. If there ever was more to the story of Gobnait’s escape to Inis Oírr, those details have vanished or fallen away, like the features on a face carved out of stone many centuries ago.

Maybe Gobnait was already religious before leaving home. Or maybe it was her desperate dash across the bay that made her so. Maybe religious devotion was a comfort she conjured after living out on Inis Oírr—a small and thoroughly stony place, almost totally treeless and therefore shadeless, and in times of harsh weather, rather merciless. If this was where she started keeping bees, you couldn’t blame her for wanting to bring some sweetness to the surrounding bleakness. But as with her life in Clare, no one really knows what Gobnait did with herself on Inis Oírr, or even how long she stayed there. All the islanders can say is that she stayed until an angel appeared to her in a dream and told her to move on. This island was not the place for her. She was to seek out a place where there were nine white deer grazing. There and then she would find the place of her resurrection.

You don’t argue with angels. Not when there’s a heavenly reward, on earth or otherwise, at stake. Gobnait went back to the mainland so, where she wandered the country for a while, keeping her eye out for the nine white deer and the place of her true belonging. The story goes that she stopped in Kerry and Waterford and Cork, giving her name to a church here, a village there, like a child dropping crumbs or clues just in case she lost her way. Or perhaps in case anyone was looking for her. Was anyone looking for her? Wouldn’t there have been? No one seems to ask in the Gobnait story. The point has always been what she was looking for. And where she found it.

Gobnait’s reward of resurrection actually came in increments, in teases, like a dancer dropping the veils covering her body and revealing herself one inch of skin at a time. She found three deer first, in Clondrohid in County Cork. Then a herd of six at Ballymakeera, a few miles roughly northwest. Then finally nine after crossing into a village called Ballyvourney over the River Sullane. There she stayed, built a convent, and made a reputation for herself as a healer who had a way with the bees and a holy woman capable of performing miracles. Among her miracles are the time she kept a plague away from Ballyvourney simply by drawing a line in the earth along the village’s eastern borders, and another occasion during which she caused some cattle thieves to flee by letting her bee friends loose from their hives. That latter miracle might seem obvious and ordinary enough—anyone can poke a stick into a few bees’ nests and rouse their fury after all—hence, no miracle at all. But Gobnait turned her army of bees into actual soldiers, you see, and for an extra dose of no-nonsense she hurled one of the hives at the fleeing thieves and made it change into a helmet as it flew through the air at the bolting crooks.

It can be hard to square such violence, such unapologetic vengeance, with the modern notion of what a saint should be. Saints are supposed to be nice. Mother Teresa smiling on the cover of a magazine nice. St. Francis of Assisi holding a kitten in someone’s backyard garden nice. Not necessarily without backbone, but not vindictive to the point of throwing potentially murderous heavy objects at people’s heads either. Even after taking into account old stereotypes about Irish tempers (and there are stories of other Irish saints, besides Gobnait, who also liked to throw things and start up a brawl every now and again), there’s something both extraordinary and extraordinarily admirable to me about Gobnait’s flashes of anger, something so correctly drawn about a woman once chased from her home now chasing away others, making lines in the earth, marking boundaries, protecting her turf, defending the place of her resurrection from thievery and greed and disease, from any chance of being spoiled or taken away from her, especially after it took such wandering for her to finally get here.

She had a right to be so territorial. For in the end Ballyvourney was indeed her place of resurrection. Her grave is there, near the traditional site of her convent, and near a holy well, a cemetery, and a statue of a rather downcast and dull-looking little woman wearing a long cape and rosary beads and standing on a stone hive. The statue was erected in 1950, a representation more of its time, of how Ireland once wanted its women to be—modest, devout, unchallenging—than of the territorial and spirited woman who guarded 6th-century Ballyvourney.

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III

I have never been to Ballyvourney. That’s a bold confession on my part, as Ballyvourney is of course the go-to spot for Gobnait groupies and devotees. On her feast day, February 11th, locals and visitors make pilgrimage to Gobnait’s grave there. The day is marked with a turas, in which pilgrims visit designated stations at the monastic site, moving around them in a clockwise direction and saying the usual prayers—the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be—as they go. There’s no re-creating of Gobnait’s more memorable life moments—no hive or helmet-throwing contests, no banishing of plagues, no running or wandering. Not as far as I know. Since I only know Gobnait-devotion through the place she ran from, not to—through Inis Oírr.

On Inis Oírr on Gobnait’s feast day, the islanders huddle inside the small, roofless, stone church dedicated to her for a special mass in her honor. It’s usually a small crowd, and mostly women. Very unlike the outdoor mass in June for Inis Oírr’s patron—and male—saint, Caomhán, held in a larger yet also roofless church in the island graveyard.

St. Caomhán’s church may just get more attention because of its obviousness. The graveyard in which it lies—and I do mean “in”—is on a high dune just off the beach and the island’s tiny airport. The church has long since sunk into the sand of the dune, and the islanders used to have to clear away the sand regularly until grass was planted around the church to keep the sand back a bit. Climbing up the dune to the cemetery and coming to the edge of the church ruins is like stumbling upon and looking down into the world’s largest and most worn-out treasure chest, its top ripped off and its contents emptied out with just sweepings of dust left in the remains of the frame. Despite the church’s deathly surroundings, it has an association with luck. There’s a belief that if you can fit through the very narrow open window above the church’s stone altar, you’re bound for heaven when you die. Near the church is a small house-like structure that protects Caomhán’s grave. The islanders say if you spend the night lying on it, especially on the eve of his feast day, you’ll be cured of all illness.

Gobnait’s church, on the other hand, is hard to find. It’s in a field among many fields that cover the island, all separated from each other by high, hand-built stone walls that give the island fields and roads a maze-like appearance from above. It’s easy to get lost looking for Gobnait’s church. Which may be what the runaway saint would have wanted. And even if you do find your way, there’s little luck to be won there. Beside the entrance to the field of Gobnait’s church are a well and a tree with a bad reputation. Now on an island as barren and rocky as Inis Oírr, you’d think a tree would be seen as a blessed thing, a miracle even. After all, you can count the number of trees on the island on one hand. But the tree by Gobnait’s church is an elder, one of several tree varieties in Ireland often associated with fairies and all the tricks and mischief fairies like to get up to. Worse, Gobnait’s tree is actually a twin elder, two trickster trees grown into one. Double the trouble.

As with Caomhán’s church site, there are graves at Gobnait’s church, or maybe they’re outdoor altars—no one can decide for sure. There are also the remains of a clochán, a very small stone hut that must have kept some sacred or solitary-loving soul on the island out of the rain long ago. It has no roof now, same as Gobnait’s and Caomhán’s churches. It’s almost as if there’s a moral to be found in all these roofless old structures on the island: Stick around this place long enough and you’ll lose your head. Just wait for it.

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IV

Gobnait’s church site was my favorite place on Inis Oírr in the days I lived there. That was many years ago, but hardly as many as when Gobnait did. I came to the island from the opposite direction than Gobnait, from America, from Chicago. I wasn’t running or escaping anything—not yet. I was just looking to spend some time in a foreign country I had visited once before and wanted to get to know better. When I went to Ireland to live and work, I expected to end up in Dublin or Cork—in a city at any rate. I never dreamed I’d end up on a tiny island off the country’s west coast.

How I landed on Inis Oírr is a story for another time. If nobody knows how or why no less a figure than St. Gobnait got there, nobody really needs to know how or why I did. There was a job there on the island, in a hotel over the summer, when I went looking for one and couldn’t seem to find one anywhere else in Ireland. That’s really all there is to it.

Though I would spend the next three months living and working on Inis Oírr (and several more summers to come), it took me awhile to come across Gobnait’s church site. I don’t even recall if I found it the first summer I was there. But once I finally did, it became my favorite spot to get away from it all. (Yes, I know, as if being on a small island on the opposite side of the Atlantic wasn’t getting far enough away from it all to begin with.) There’s a low hill in the corner of the field of Gobnait’s church, and I liked to sit there and read or look out at the pieces of the sea and mainland and horizon you could see from the hill between all the island walls. Once in a while I’d go to Gobnait’s field and find someone else, some tourists or such, already there—taking pictures, inspecting the old church and graves, maybe resting on the hill themselves—and I’d feel jealous and frustrated. How to get rid of them? How to make them buzz off?  I never really tried. Despite my big-city background, I’m not a confrontational person. I’m Midwestern, and Midwesterners don’t make waves. We never learned, what with no ocean around us.

When I found someone else intruding on my favorite spot, I tended to just walk on. Maybe I’d come back after a while to see if the intruders were gone, but usually I’d just accept it and find somewhere else to read or watch or brood. The back of the island was usually a good bet. It’s entirely uninhabited—by people, at least—and wild. At the back of the island, the stone walls are mostly tumbled down and crumbled away, leaving messy hurdles of rock for walkers to climb over only to land on more rock—great, long, fissured blocks of limestone jutting out into the sea. There may be a couple islandmen around collecting seaweed for fertilizer if the tide is out, and there may be a few tourists who’ve found their way out here—but the sound of the sea generally drowns out their chatter and the clicks of their cameras and tends to humble them into either high-tailing it back to civilization at the front of the island or finding a cranny in the rocks to cower against, as sea and stone duke it out in the fight for elemental supremacy. This part of the island can make a scaredy-cat out of a street tough and a hermit out of an attention whore.

Gobnait picked a good place to run away to, is what you think while exploring Inis Oírr. Even if it wasn’t the end place for her, it was a good hideout, a good place to recover from whatever personal apocalypse drove her here to wait for news of resurrection.

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V

There are women I know on the island who refuse to believe the negative superstitions around Gobnait’s bad-luck double fairy tree. There are women on the island who in fact will go to Gobnait’s field to “sit with Gobnait” whenever they need time and space to think or reflect—they’ll go to Gobnait’s church over the modern church on the island or even Caomhán’s church any day. I myself never heard anything bad about Gobnait’s tree or field from the islandwomen. It was a man who told me. An islandman and a one-time sweetheart of mine.

Once while holding hands with this sweetheart and walking on the road past Gobnait’s church at night, I mentioned to him that it was my favorite spot on the island. “You know there’s a lot of superstition about that tree,” he said to me. “Lots of people here say they get a bad feeling passing it after dark. They say they don’t trust it.”

I didn’t have much to say in response to that then. I was, after all, a girl in love, young, quite inexperienced, and giddy with the romance of walking at night under a starry sky with one of the island’s handsomest men. All I had on my mind was the fire in my heart, not the cool tone in his voice. It was only two days later when he would betray me badly and break my heart.

Did the tree jinx us? Was it the double tree who double-crossed me? Or was it him? Or me? Something I said, or didn’t say, when my islandman and I passed the tree by? Perhaps there are cautions on the island against women who stand in spoken solidarity with trees. Reaching as that may sound, consider that one of the only other trees on the island had a stone beneath it dedicated to the mná na hÉireann, women of Ireland, in honor of a visit by Ireland’s first female president, Mary Robinson—and the stone was broken in half, replaced, and broken again. They say the “women’s tree” was eventually blown away entirely, in a storm. Maybe it blew all the way to Resurrectionville, Ireland, itself: Ballyvourney. Maybe it found refuge there, replanted itself, and grew to cast loving shade over Gobnait’s grave. Maybe it even shelters a beehive in its branches.

I dream up these notions of renewed life for a lost tree because I’m too proud and too bitter to dream up notions of renewed life for a lost love. After getting my heart broken, I became a running and wandering woman, same as Gobnait had been. But where she ran to Inis Oírr, I ran from it, and I wouldn’t return for years to come. Nor would I find my place of resurrection, despite hops around America to Australia to Bolivia to Mexico to France and Spain. And I never lent my name to any of the places I passed through, didn’t drop clues for anyone who may have been looking for me…though all along I wondered if someone might be, hoped that someone would be. I’ve also yet to come across any white deer—though other miracles, in other forms, have certainly been abundant. The most unexpected, most bitter and sweet, was seeing the face of the man who betrayed me, back in Ireland, over a decade on. He didn’t bring me resurrection. He brought a handshake. Likewise I didn’t bring forgiveness. I brought a hug. These things come in increments, in teases: one step, two steps, three steps…three deer, six deer, nine deer…a few inches of skin, a few inches of self-exposure, trust, and courage at a time.

VI

Gobnait was by all accounts a nun and a virgin, so she may have been innocent of the disasters of love affairs. Yet her legend begins with a running, a fleeing, the kind women do when disaster is fresh and raw as a still swelling sting. Any woman who’s ever been burned can understand the desire to give it all over to God, to scorn men for solitude or society for a nunnery, to trust no one but the bees. Every woman has her own Ballyvourney ahead of her, and behind her, her own Inis Oírr. Considering that in Gobnait’s time Ireland was swarming with saints (Wikipedia’s list of medieval saints numbers well over 100), one has to wonder how much of it came down to holiness and how much to heartbreak.

VII

Whatever their motive in the old days, holy people are a rare breed today. In Ireland, in America, perhaps everywhere, people just don’t get up and maroon themselves on an island or in a desert for the sake of the sacred anymore. Our times produce few saints. They’re almost extinct. And word is that the bees who once kept their company aren’t far behind.

It’s called colony collapse disorder, this large-scale vanishing of the bees, and it’s a red-hot topic. I could have written a whole essay here about it, written as many paragraphs as above examining all the reasons for what’s killing the bees off and the consequences for us humans and what we can do about it. I’m sure there are readers who would tell me I should have written about these things, who would tell me a personal heartbreak and the life of a long-gone holy woman are much less worthy topics of discussion in the grand scheme of things and, for further convincing, might toss off a quote that’s been going around lately (attributed to Einstein, though it’s never been verified) that says humans won’t last even half a decade if a beeless planet comes to pass. I admit this prospect is a much more pressing issue. I also admit I’m not so interested in the pressing issues.

There’s already a multitude of people shouting a multitude of questions and answers and opinions on the disappearance of bee colonies. They shout things like: Pesticides! Viruses! GMOs! Also: Climate change! Monoculture! Cell phones! Bee malnutrition! Indeed, the list of culprits gets longer as more bees disappear and more people take notice. Still, the shouting may not be loud enough, the message not yet focused enough or crystal-clear to cut through to people’s serious concern. Perhaps there’s still time for the shouters to prove themselves heroes and life-savers, or they may suffer the fate of tragically unheeded sages, of failed missionaries, of hoarse-voiced street preachers ranting and raving about the loss of faith and the coming end times.

I for one don’t doubt the urgency. I like bees. I dig their buzz. I don’t want to see them go away. I like honey, and I like all the fruits and nuts and such that bees pollinate for the world. But all the same, I’ll leave it to the know-it-alls of science, biology, and the environment to fight over the various reasons and solutions for colony collapse disorder. They can work on saving the world’s source of sweetness. I’ll work on resolving my personal store of bitterness. So I’d rather turn to that back-page place where women’s stories and women’s glories so often get buried. I’d rather investigate the mystery of a little-known female saint in a little country than the tragedy of something so large as a worldwide apocalypse.

Besides, St. Gobnait’s story is something like an apocalypse. For every life that’s ever sparked and ended is an apocalypse of sorts. So is every creation that’s ever crumbled or vanished or come to lose meaning and appreciation in time. Really, we’re all apocalypses—men, women, bees, bad-luck trees, holy people, hives, half-hidden churches on islands, and deer herds straight from a hermit woman’s dream. All runnings and vanishings are apocalypses as well. All arrivals, resurrections, and fumbles at forgiveness. All wishes, answers, shoutings, and conversions. All love affairs too…especially love affairs.

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Dad’s Honor Flight: A Father’s Second Homecoming From The Korean War

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Dad’s first homecoming as a war veteran was in March 1953, two years to the month after he was drafted into the army for the Korean War. He arrived home to the U.S. at Seattle, to a port with a small crowd of civilians and a sign reading “Welcome Home Defenders of Freedom.” He’d been overseas since September 1951, entirely in Korea except for two weeks extra training at a naval academy at Etajima, Japan.

From Seattle, Dad traveled with other returning soldiers by Pullman train to Camp Carson in Colorado Springs. The Pullman was a step up from the slow-moving, no-sleeper troop train he’d rode when he was inducted in Chicago and sent to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, in 1951—a step up in comfort, at least, if not in service. Soldiers were entitled to a free dinner on Pullmans, which didn’t please the porters working for tips. “If you want your dessert, put some money on the table,” the porters told the soldiers. “If we don’t see any money, you don’t see any dessert.”

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Port of Seattle, March 1953.

After nine days at Camp Carson, Dad finally made it back to Chicago. He wanted to get home soon as he arrived, but my grandmother had other ideas. Proud of her only son and happy to have him back healthy and whole, she and my grandfather and my aunt June (my dad’s only sibling) headed to the lakefront to take pictures with my dad still in his uniform. My grandparents and aunt were in winter coats (March in Chicago demands them), but my dad had only the lightweight Eisenhower jacket he’d been given by the army. When my dad sees those pictures today, what he remembers most is the wind and cold coming off Lake Michigan that day.

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My father, Jack Ostberg, with his parents, Irene and Trygve, in Chicago, March 1953.

Perhaps the cold winter welcome home was only fitting—the war in Korea was one of the first major conflicts of the Cold War, after all, and a cold war was what soldiers in Korea found themselves literally engaged in, battling through an especially harsh and deadly winter in 1950-51. My dad’s service was in the second and third winters of the war, and he was farther south in the fighting zone, in lower mountainous areas than the first winter’s troops. Still, he spent his first winter sleeping in a Quonset hut, the second sleeping on a cot on the floor of an abandoned schoolhouse. Of the two, he preferred the Quonset hut. It was drafty, but it kept in the body heat better and made the freezing nights a little more tolerable.

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My father in Korea, Quonset huts in background.

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My father (center) just arrived in Korea, at a replacement depot.

Thankfully, Dad’s second homecoming as a war veteran was in warmer days—in August 2015. He had a bigger crowd too—including his wife, six children, and several grandchildren—and a full motorized escort in the form of a bikers club all the way back to Chicago from Milwaukee Airport. This time around, the homecoming was from Washington, D.C., where my dad went with 45 other veterans on an Honor Flight organized by the Veterans Network Committee of Northern Illinois. Dad was part of a group representing veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War and from all four branches of military service—Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, as well as the Women’s Army Corps. There were three women veterans, including a former “Rosie the Riveter” bomber aircraft worker, and one father-and-son duo, a man who’d served in WWII making the trip with his Vietnam veteran son. The veterans ranged in age from 65 to 96. Their Honor Flight trip lasted three days, and less than three weeks after their return, one of the group would pass away. This is the story of their Honor Flight and homecoming.

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Dad first heard about the Honor Flight program in 2011, when a friend and former co-worker of his signed up in Chicago. Harold, my father’s friend, was 92 and a WWII vet who spent the last months of the war as a P.O.W. in a German stalag. More than 60 years later, Harold still carried bullets from enemy machine-gun fire in his back, a “souvenir” of his service that had caused a lifetime of health problems. His Honor Flight was a one-day trip, the standard length of most Honor Flights. He was accompanied by his daughter, who served as his guardian (usually a family member or friend assigned to the traveling veteran to help him or her during the trip). After the trip, Harold didn’t live long enough to tell much about it—he died the day after his return. His story, though, was covered by a few local news outlets, and my dad was impressed by what the experience had meant to Harold’s family.

In 2013, Dad finally applied for his Honor Flight with the same hub Harold had gone through. But Dad did not serve in WWII, and despite his age (he was born in 1928) he was waitlisted. The hub he’d applied with has made WWII vets their first priority, and until all vets from that war have gotten their chance for an Honor Flight, Korea and Vietnam vets remain on a waitlist, with the exception of any who are terminally ill.

This is standard policy with many of the 130-plus Honor Flights throughout the U.S. Indeed, the network’s founding mission was to transport aging WWII vets to D.C. to see the National World War II Memorial, which opened to the public in 2004. The first Honor Flights were made in May the following year, when Earl Morse, an Ohio-based veterans’ physician and former Air Force captain, offered to personally escort a number of his patients to see their new memorial before failing health made it impossible. Then in 2006, Jeff Miller, a North Carolina dry-cleaning businessman whose father and uncle had served in WWII, began an organization called Honor Air that borrowed from Morse’s idea but figured out how to use commercial airlines to escort the veterans and fund their trips. By 2007 Morse and Miller had merged their programs to form the Honor Flight Network.

Since that first Honor Flight in 2005, the network has brought over 145,000 veterans to their national war memorials. James McLaughlin, current chairman of the network, says in 2014 alone over 21,000 vets and over 18,000 guardians visited D.C. With an estimated 514 WWII vets dying each day according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the focus remains on bringing veterans from that war to their memorial. But with Korean War vets reaching their 80s and even 90s, some hubs have begun opening up applications from veterans of Korea and Vietnam. A few hubs have even sprung up that are reaching out exclusively to Korean or Vietnam War vets (as well as hubs exclusively for women veterans). On my father’s Honor Flight, there were 23 Korean War vets—the largest group out of the three wars represented. Meanwhile, three of the eight Vietnam veterans on the trip were already in their 70s.

This wasn’t the first time the Veterans Network Committee of Northern Illinois, the hub my father finally went through, took Korean and Vietnam War veterans on its Honor Flight. An official Honor Flight hub since 2010, the Veterans Network Committee (VNC) opened up its trips to post-WWII vets in 2014. One of the vets on that trip was a terminally ill Vietnam vet, but the committee’s founder and president, Randy Granath, reckoned it was time to open up to Korean and Vietnam War vets anyway. After this year’s VNC Honor Flight, when I asked Granath about the limitations some hubs still impose, he brought up the fact of people getting cancer in their 50s or dying of a heart attack in their 40s. “Who are we to say who can’t go?” he says, adding that he hopes to keep doing this long enough to include Gulf War vets on the VNC Honor Flights.

Granath is a Vietnam vet who’d been active in veterans groups in the 1980s. He wasn’t planning on becoming involved with a veterans organization again in more recent years, until his son, Kyle, entered the military. Kyle had been in the ROTC at Ball State University in Indiana when 9/11 happened. He was called to active duty in 2002, ultimately serving nine years in the military and completing five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Kyle was in the service, Randy and his wife, Pattie, became frustrated with the lack of support and resources for current service members and their families and with what they felt was a gap between the civilian community and veterans. Eventually the Granaths decided to build a new local veterans group, and the Veterans Network Committee of Northern Illinois was born, with five initial members, in March 2010.

Headquartered in Cary, a town about 45 miles northwest of Chicago, today the VNC is a full veterans organization with 140 members and 13 programs offering assistance to veterans and their families, one of which just happens to be the Honor Flights. Its other programs include support groups for veterans, food deliveries and assistance to homeless or disabled vets, care packages for overseas military, and a Memorial Day “Field of Honor” display in which more than 325 U.S. flags are planted in public sites around Cary to commemorate the Illinois soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a vets’ organization, the VNC is unique in that non-veterans are welcomed as charter members. It’s a way to create awareness and promote community involvement by including people who may not have served in the military themselves but who still have “skin in the game,” as Randy calls it—such as the parents or spouses of soldiers on active duty or the children of war veterans. Granath describes the VNC’s structure as like an accordion, gesturing as if he’s holding one in his hands. “We have the Honor Flights for the older vets on the one end and the Field of Honor for the younger generation on the other end, and they function like bookends and bring in all the rest of the programs together.”

The Honor Flight, however, is definitely the VNC’s most time-consuming program, requiring at least six months’ preparation, from the fundraising that begins in March to the actual trip in August. The VNC’s Honor Flight is a 3-day trip, rather than the standard 1-day event of most other hubs. While this limits the VNC to only one Honor Flight a year, Granath points out there’s more time for the veterans to get to know each other on their trip and bond over shared experiences. Granath doesn’t come out and say it, but there’s a clear therapeutic element to the VNC’s version of an Honor Flight. Not just a way for old veterans to see their war memorials or for civilian Americans to say thank you to veterans, the VNC’s Honor Flight allows for whatever emotional needs the veterans may be seeking to be met—whether that’s bonding or respect, validation or closure. And it’s an element that becomes even more apparent during the homecoming portion of the VNC’s Honor Flight.

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What Dad wanted from his Honor Flight was a chance to see some of the memorials in D.C. He had donated to the fund for the Korean War Veterans Memorial back before it was built but had yet to see it since it opened in 1995. He was in his 60s when the memorial was being built—he’s in his 80s now and suffered a heart attack in the time between. Until he got accepted for the VNC’s 2015 Honor Flight, he was still being waitlisted at the original hub he applied with back in 2013, and he only heard about the VNC Northern Illinois hub through a chance conversation with the VNC Honor Flight co-chair at the local American Legion.

One of his first actions after getting accepted was picking a guardian. He chose his eldest son, Dan. There are six children in our family, and of course any one of us would’ve loved to have gone with him. But Dan happened to be there when Dad got word of his acceptance, so he got the job of guardian. Dan has no military experience, nor have the rest of us in the family. Dan grew up during the Vietnam War, but the draft ended shortly before he turned 16 and mandatory Selective Service registration ended nine days after he turned 18 in March 1975. (The war ended another month later, on April 30th.)

No one in our family since has come as close to military service, mandatory or voluntary. But for a few generations we had a run of warriors in our lineage, a family tradition of “skin in the game” that we know goes as far back as the Civil War, when a great-grandfather of my mother’s served on the Union side. A 40-something emigrant from Ireland, he likely signed up for the cash bounty that enlistees were offered during that war. In World War I my maternal grandmother’s cousin was killed in France only 11 days before the Armistice. My paternal grandfather, who’d emigrated to the U.S. from Norway as a child, also fought in World War I. He was drafted, yet as a foreign-born citizen he was also required to sign a loyalty pledge to the U.S. In World War II one of my uncles was drafted into the Navy and another uncle enlisted in the Army at age 17 at the end of the war. The latter uncle, Daryl, was still in the service and stationed in Germany when the U.S. entered the Korean War. He was sent immediately to the front lines in Korea where he served as a rifleman and endured that first brutal winter of the war, a winter so cold that dead soldiers were routinely stripped of their cold-weather gear by opposing forces.

This uncle never spoke of his war experiences—until 9/11 and the run-up to the war in Iraq, when all the talk of war and terror in the news must have finally brought up some long-buried memories and emotions. As the U.S. was gearing up for war, he had a rare conversation about Korea with my father one night, where he admitted, in the understated way of Midwesterners and men of the Greatest Generation, that he’d been terrified when he got to Korea (“At first I was afraid I’d turn chicken…but I guess I made it through alright.”). The conversation turned to Iraq and my usually conservative uncle surprised my liberal father by strongly objecting (as my father did) to President Bush’s call to war. It wasn’t right to be sending our young people there. It wasn’t going to do anything but put them in harm’s way.

After the conversation, my aunt and mother—both of whom had been listening quietly—were a bit mystified as to what made my uncle start speaking so much about Korea so suddenly. In 50 years of marriage this was the most my aunt (who’d met my uncle at a USO right after his return from Korea) had ever heard him talk about the war. Later that night he had a nightmare of some sort that awakened and physically distressed him to the point of breaking out in a heavy sweat and requiring a trip to the hospital and made him momentarily confused about what year it was and even who and where he was. This was also a first.

Despite the Honor Flight Network’s original mission of getting all WWII vets to their D.C. memorial, neither of my uncles, though still alive, is able to go on an Honor Flight. Lloyd, my Navy uncle, is literally bent over in half by Parkinson’s, and Daryl currently undergoes kidney dialysis three times a week. I don’t know if they’d want to go even if they could. Perhaps they would, perhaps not. As I’ve learned from my dad as he’s mentioned other veteran friends of his, some veterans simply aren’t interested. Maybe they don’t want to revisit the past, or maybe they don’t like to travel. Or maybe they don’t want to deal with another lengthy application. To go on an Honor Flight, both veterans and their chosen guardians are required to fill out extensive paperwork, covering everything from medical history and needs to travel identification clearance. The VNC’s application arranges for the veterans to get TSA clearance ahead of the trip to save time and help things run more smoothly at the airport, which Granath says often results in some comical misunderstandings. Instead of supplying an official photo ID for TSA purposes (as explicitly requested in the application), the vets will turn in sentimental shots of themselves from their last vacation or their grandkid’s wedding.

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As the date of the Honor Flight nears, there are orientations for the vets and their guardians, and family members are asked to write letters and cards for their veteran, which is unbeknownst to the veterans themselves. As the family, all we’re told is that at some point on the trip the veterans will be presented with our letters and cards, something like in their service days when the mail arrived with cherished letters from home. For some reason the idea of a veteran with no family not getting any mail worries my mother. (I chalk this up to her own childhood wartime memories. She had a sister who spent World War II writing to soldiers overseas and collecting their photos, something like the Marty Maraschino character in “Grease.”)

When the first day of the Honor Flight finally comes, Dad and Dan head out early to a local school where all the veterans, guardians, and VNC volunteers are gathered to make their way to Milwaukee Airport by coach bus. Milwaukee Airport is about an hour away, but it’s something of a calmer leaving point than the Chicago O’Hare and Midway airports. Considering there are 46 veterans, 46 guardians, plus volunteers and VNC members, as well as a wheelchair for each veteran (for health and insurance reasons, regardless of whether the veteran has mobility difficulties), the smoother the check-in and boarding process can be, the better. The group will be flying into Baltimore and checking into a hotel with a group dinner in the evening. It’s at these airport procedures, both in Milwaukee and Baltimore, where the veterans start to experience their first surprises, their first public gifts of appreciation and honor. At the airports are active military members and glee clubs who applaud and cheer on the veterans as they wait for their flights. (“It was kind of embarrassing,” Dad says later of all the unexpected attention. But my brother laughs and says, “Yeah, Dad was holding his hands out on both sides giving everyone high-fives, the whole time I was pushing him.”)

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My brother Dan and my father, beginning of Honor Flight, August 2015. Photo courtesy of the Veterans Network Committee of Northern Illinois

Their next day is a full one visiting up to 11 memorials in D.C. Along with the memorials dedicated to the veterans of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam are memorials to the Navy and Air Force, the battle at Iwo Jima, and women in the military. They also visit the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery to see the changing of the guard. Each memorial has been included on this trip because each has its own meaning to every veteran. There are three women veterans in this group—a member of the WWII Women’s Army Corps, a woman who worked on aircraft bombers during WWII à la Rosie the Riveter, and a Marine who served in Vietnam. At the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, there’s a chance for the women to register their experiences and draw up their service records on a computer. When one of the women, Rose of the Women’s Army Corps, draws up her record, complete with a photo of her younger self in uniform, a volunteer puts it on a giant screen for everyone in the room to see. In pictures from that day, Rose beams alongside her record of service, looks thoughtfully at the image of her 1940s self, and sits patiently under the giant screen as the other vets and guardians and volunteers take her photo. At the Korean War Veterans Memorial my dad gathers for a group photo with the other Korean War vets around the stainless steel soldiers in the center of the memorial. In the pictures, the pale green statues appear nearly bleached white by the midday sunlight, and it looks nothing like the kind of weather my father and the other vets of Korea remember.

It’s such a full day for the veterans and their guardians, back home we don’t get many updates other than the occasional text or photo from my brother. After their memorial visits, they have another group dinner ahead of them on their second night. Meanwhile, we’re preparing for the homecoming for the next day, making signs and planting little American flags around the house and yard. On the third day of the trip, the group is scheduled to get back to the Chicago area around noon, and the families are to head over late morning to the local school where everyone gathered the first day of the trip.

It’s on this last morning, on the flight back to Milwaukee, when the veterans get mail call. The VNC volunteers walk up and down the aisles of the plane delivering packages to the vets—for each, an envelope filled with letters and cards. My dad’s envelope is stuffed with letters from my mother and all his children and grandchildren, as well as cards from schoolchildren who’d been asked to write the veterans so that every vet has something, everyone gets mail. For my father there are drawings of rainbows and blue houses and even a detailed depiction of one child’s classroom, with messages like “I hope you are having a little fun!” addressed to “Dear Vetaren.” On the plane my brother sits next to my dad as he quietly reads his mail. Afterward Dan will tell us Dad became visibly emotional while going through all his letters, more than at any other time on the trip.

Back home the rest of our family arrives at the school for the homecoming ceremony. The school entrance is lined with flags—national, state, military, P.O.W./M.I.A. There are elderly color guard soldiers gathered near the curb and teenage naval cadets huddled beside the side door, and a few pre-teen scouts weaving through it all. Inside the school the auditorium is set up with a few hundred folding chairs, more flags and bunting, donated food and drinks, and a long table at the back with information about the VNC and the Honor Flight Network. At the front of the auditorium, a big band plays Glenn Miller and other swing-era oldies, with a few recent-ish selections from the Blues Brothers (no, we are not in Chicago city limits, but we’re close enough).

The mood is festive and Fourth of July-ish. My family and I sit on some lower bleachers as updates from Dan come in about their journey from Milwaukee Airport. I recognize a couple faces from the local American Legion and note a number of exceptionally calm, golden-coated dogs wearing camouflage vests and American flag bandannas around their necks. These are comfort dogs, raised and trained by veterans to serve and help other veterans at home or at VFWs, VA hospitals, or trauma care centers and such. Each dog has a veteran owner, and when one of them catches me trying to take a quick photo of his dog, he hands me a little trading card of sorts. I look at the card and see a puppy version of the dog in the arms of the same man talking to me. Underneath is a pet’s name (Blitz) and a human name (Bob). “He’s named after a military dog from Vietnam, one of the K9s. All the dogs are,” says Bob, who also served in Vietnam. One of the other men hands me his card, and before I know it I have four comfort dog trading cards.

We get word from my brother sooner than we expect that the VNC buses are only a few minutes away. He mentions they have an escort, but none of us realize what that means until they arrive. Everyone has gathered outside and lined up along the curb when a rumbling is heard and begins to grow louder. There are sirens too—police escort vehicles—but it’s the rumbling that takes over the neighborhood. Suddenly an army of motorcycles swings around the corner, growling past us for a good few minutes. Some of the bikers have a person on their backseat or riding shotgun, and I’m momentarily confused and worried in thinking these are the elderly Honor Flight veterans. But finally two coach buses come around the corner, to much cheering and applause, before parking in front of the school entrance.

The veterans are let off one by one. Each one gets a walk or wheelchair-escort of honor with his or her guardian up the pathway into the school, passing all the families and cadets and color guard soldiers and the line-up of flags and homemade welcome-home signs. This is the point when it becomes hard not to be affected by this event. For most of us there, this is the first time we get to see all the other veterans besides our own. Some of them are very frail, some cannot sit up straight anymore, a few salute with a visible hand tremor, most smile and wave, and a couple look unexpectedly overcome by the welcome home, their caps pulled low to cover the emotion in their eyes. My dad does not spot us in the crowd as he makes his entrance. He salutes the color guard and the cadets, and my brother smiles big behind him. Dad is wearing a Korean War vet cap and has sunglasses on, so it’s a little hard to see his face and reaction, but we, his family, can see he is fighting back tears. We’ve known his face all our lives, so we just know.

Video of VNC Honor Flight 2015 homecoming by The Arlington Cardinal

Back inside the auditorium, the vets sit up on the stage facing all the audience. It takes a while for everyone to calm down—so many families keep running up to their fathers and mothers and grandparents there on the stage, as if they haven’t seen them in years and can’t stand to be separated from them much longer. I have a memory of a picture I saw in a school textbook when I was a teenager, of a young woman running across a tarmac to greet her father upon his return from Vietnam. It seems a silly comparison to make now, since these war veterans have been gone only three days—but the picture flashes in my brain anyway, for the first time with an emotion I can feel along with it.

The crowd eventually situates itself and settles down, and soon there are songs and speeches by Randy Granath and the other VNC organizers and the mayor. The guardians have joined the rest of us among the folding chairs and bleachers, and as each veteran is introduced on stage, my brother supplies information here and there, pointing out which guys our dad bonded with the most and telling us about the father-and-son veterans on the trip. The oldest of the group is a WWII vet named Walter, his son Ben is a Vietnam veteran. One lives in northern Illinois, the other in Colorado. But the VNC arranged it so they could do the Honor Flight together, each with his own guardian.

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At the homecoming, my father (right) and his eldest grandchild, Shane.

In between the speeches and commentary, the veterans are presented with gifts. This year, for the first time for the VNC, a group of women quilters in Huntley, Illinois, have made a quilt for each veteran. The Quilts of Valor project began in Delaware in 2003 by a former Peace Corps worker and nurse-midwife whose son was deployed to Iraq. The project spread to Huntley in 2011, when the Gazebo Quilters Guild began making quilts for local amputees who’d served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each quilt is unique with an entirely hand-stitched front, taking over 100 hours of individual labor, and the names of the women who worked on the quilt sewed into its bottom corner with a message of gratitude. They’ve even made one for Randy, the founding organizer, a father of a veteran, and a veteran himself. And Randy returns their favor by taking his quilt and wrapping it around his body, modeling the women’s arduous and beautiful work for everyone in the auditorium.

Next the veterans get another gift from the motorcycle crew, and we finally learn who these bikers who brought the veterans all the way non-stop from Milwaukee to Chicago are. The Warriors Watch Riders are a group of motorcycle enthusiasts, many of them also war veterans, with local crews who provide escorts for military events such as homecomings, funerals, and Honor Flights. They look like you’d expect a group of bikers to look—leather-clad, tough and tattooed—so it’s all the more touching to see them approach each of these old veterans with respect and a sense of protectiveness. They present each veteran with a coin with military and motorcycle symbols on it and a striking message: “Never again will an American warrior be scorned or ignored.”

After the homecoming, rather than rumbling off right away, the bikers stick around to shake the hands of the veterans, giving each one personal thanks for their service. All the families mill around the auditorium and the school entrances, taking pictures or thanking the VNC volunteers and meeting the new buddies their veteran made on the trip. In the meantime, the big band has hit it up again and a few folks show off their swing moves at the front of the auditorium. With Dad, my family returns to my parents’ home, with its front yard decorated with flags and welcome-home signs, and we spend the rest of the afternoon hearing about the trip and eating homemade chocolate cupcakes topped with American flag picks.

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VNC 2015 Honor Flight vets onstage with quilts and roses. (My father is 2nd from right.) Photo by The Arlington Cardinal.

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VNC 2015 Honor Flight vets onstage with audience. Phot0 by The Arlington Cardinal.

In the days and weeks to come, there are a lot of memories of the trip to sort through for my dad. So many pictures and videos, cards and letters, and questions and congratulations from those of us who stayed home. I live with my parents and help my dad edit his pictures and order print-outs from the local drugstore. Eventually I meet with Randy Granath to hear more about the VNC and the Honor Flights. The homecoming celebration is what sticks in my mind the most—perhaps because that was the only part of the experience I and the rest of my family were a part of, but also because of all the work that went into it. I was struck most by what incongruous groups the homecoming brought together: therapy dogs, a ladies’ quilting club, a biker gang. Yet undeniably they all share an underlying purpose of not only respect for war veterans but also comfort and protection. Before the homecoming I’d been expecting more jingoism at the event, and though there were American flags all over the place (as well as all over our front yard) and there was a singing of the national anthem of course, there was more attention to the kind of healing this entire event could bring to veterans than I’d anticipated. And cutting through all the celebration and bunting and big band tunes was a clear demonstration of what the community can do to contribute to our veterans’ healing, of how the gap between the civilian community and the military and veteran communities might begin to close itself up.

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Honor Flights began as a response to the unsettling fact that every day our country loses hundreds of World War II veterans, members of the Greatest Generation who helped fight the Allies to victory and usher in an era of prosperity in the United States. But that’s just one of many unsettling facts about our veterans that need addressing.

Episodes like the one my uncle had 50 years after his war service may have been rare for him, but they aren’t rare for war veterans in general. Not now, not ever. Not even for the supposedly stoic Greatest Generation who we’re told simply “got on with it” after the war ended. In his book The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, war reporter and former Marine David Morris notes a 1951 study of 200 World War II vets that found 10 percent of them still suffered “combat neurosis.” Subsequent studies in the 1980s recorded continuing high PTSD rates among WWII veterans, especially among Pacific theater P.O.W.s, 85 percent of whom suffered from PTSD forty years after their service. But few Americans heard or took much notice of these findings. While many soldiers of WWII received a hero’s welcome on their return home, neither the government nor the public were interested in giving much attention to the veterans’ post-war psychological condition.

In Korea, American soldiers endured brutal weather conditions that left many of them with long-lasting health problems caused by extreme cold exposure. After the war they came home to much less fanfare than the World War II veterans had gotten, to national indifference by most accounts. (Dad came home to a port with some bunting and some family picture-taking by Lake Michigan.) The U.S. lost at least 36,000 soldiers in three years of warfare, but down the road the Korean War would become known as “the Forgotten War” by historians, and its warriors’ sacrifices and stories would get shuffled aside by the controversy over another brewing conflict in Asia.

The Vietnam War brought the first wide-scale awareness of PTSD and its prevalence among war veterans to the American public. But many veterans of that war still found themselves coming home from a military battlefield to an emotional one, as public opinions and disagreements about the war itself often took precedence over how to welcome home and honor its soldiers and foster their readjustment to their communities. There are arguments to this day over whether Vietnam veterans were treated with as much disrespect on their return home as national memory claims. (Were returning Vietnam veterans really spit on and called horrible names, or is that just a myth? What emotions and experiences prompted the Warriors Watch Riders, many of whom are of the Vietnam generation, to come up with the motto “Never again will an American warrior be scorned or ignored”?) But these arguments miss an important point, which is whether our nation was ever much effective in figuring out how to reintegrate veterans into American life after their war service, in acknowledging veterans’ ordeals and experiences and providing them with the resources and respect they need (and explicitly ask for) during their readjustment to civilian life.

Statistics from recent years show we’re still failing our veterans. According to the Dept. of Veterans Affairs, at least 22 veterans and at least 1 active duty soldier die by suicide per day. The VA also estimates the rate of PTSD among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ranges from 10% to 20%. Meanwhile, every few years scandals involving VA and military medical centers recycle themselves, exposing the life-threatening delays, neglect, shoddy conditions, and malfeasance at some of our official veterans facilities. Our warriors continue to return from battlefields abroad hurt yet determined to heal, but the society that keeps sending these men and women to war continues to fail at addressing their hurt and helping them to heal.

It’s the veterans themselves who have consistently responded to these failures by organizing, by creating public rituals and building monuments that will force communities to remember and pay proper respects. And many local communities are trying to meet their veterans more than half-way in whatever ways they can. Honor Flights are one such attempt to make up for our long-standing national disregard and ignorance. The Veterans Network Committee of Northern Illinois is another such attempt, a local grass-roots group of vets and citizens with “skin in the game” that painstakingly plants a flag for every Illinois soldier sacrificed in Iraq and Afghanistan every year, that provides care and assistance in the form of holiday turkey dinners and overseas care packages and support groups to struggling veterans and distant active-duty soldiers, that crafts a three-day adventure to our nation’s capital for our aging warriors, complete with time for bonding and reflection, a bikers’ escort, a big-band serenade, and handmade quilts with over 100 hours of respect and gratitude sewn into them. Not that an Honor Flight for every American veteran is the answer to our country’s bureaucratic problems—in some ways an Honor Flight is just a gesture really. But it’s a gesture that involves a great deal of planning, and of listening and paying attention to veterans, as well as tremendous local and volunteer efforts. The big official veterans organizations might learn from these local efforts, from the grass-roots groups like the Veterans Network Committee of Northern Illinois. So might a few of our politicians—from all points of the political spectrum. Because if local communities and volunteer-run non-profits can organize so well and give so much, what’s keeping the government from doing better?

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Only a few weeks after my dad’s Honor Flight, we got word that one of the other vets on the trip had passed away. Rose of the Women’s Army Corps, the one who’d had her military record put on a big screen at the Women’s Memorial. Randy Granath would tell me when I spoke to him a couple weeks later that this is fairly common with Honor Flights. They almost always lose one or two veterans right after the trip. Sometimes it’s expected, sometimes not. Maybe some of them would’ve died even sooner if they hadn’t had the last few months of preparing for their trip to keep them going a little longer. My dad’s friend Harold, the first friend of his to go on an Honor Flight, died only a day after his return. At the very least, he and Rose and all the other vets who pass on go out with one more item crossed off their bucket list, and their families can say they know their veteran got the local respect and honor they deserved.

Dad, meanwhile, took time writing thank you notes to everyone he could—thanking all the people who thanked him for his service. He sent one to my mother, to my brothers and sisters, to his grandchildren, to me, to Randy and the VNC, even to the quilting ladies. He wanted the quilting club to know how much he appreciated their beautiful handiwork, and how he wished he could have had a quilt just like it in his army days, to protect him against the cold in the warzones of Korea.

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My father with his mother at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, 1951, shortly before his deployment to Korea.