Poetry

It Happened Last Night Outside My Window

Last night the ginkgo

Paved our street with golden fans.

We step carefully.

Usually it happens later in November. But it happened last night on the street where we live. The two ginkgo trees outside the window decided “that’s it! we’re out of here!” and dropped all their leaves.

Ginkgos do this. Unlike modern trees like the maples, oaks, and beeches, which put on a dazzling show of color and then turn brown and gradually drop their leaves, the gingko opts for a dramatic all-at-once exit. No one knows why they do it this way. They say it somehow has to do with its antiquity and the way it has evolved since before the days of the dinosaurs.

The gingko is a tough tree, able to withstand a lot of abuse, which is why you find so many of them on New York City streets. And when it’s time to go, they do it with authority and get the hell off stage. And you know then that winter is really around the corner. Time to get out the humidifiers and the Verilux sun lamp.

Late in November, on a single night

Not even near to freezing, the gingko trees

That stand along the walk drop all their leaves

In one consent, and neither to rain nor to wind

But as though to time alone: the golden and green

Leaves litter the lawn today, that yesterday

Had spread aloft their fluttering fans of light.

Howard Nemerov

haiku · Poetry

Outside My Window

Monday was one of those dismal, dark days with periodic rain and no sunshine. As I gazed out the window, here is what I saw—and thought:

A pink umbrella
And a yellow taxicab.
Things aren’t all gray.

Hey! That’s pretty poetic. Actuallly, It sounds like a haiku. That ancient Japanese verse form doesn’t employ rhyme and meter like English poetry but specifies three lines, a total of 17 syllables, distributed so: 5-7-5.

I counted the syllables. Only 16 syllables, so I fixed it. And there you have it! I’ll call it 

A Rainy Day

A pink umbrella
And a yellow taxicab.
Things are not all gray.

Books · Culture · Role of Women

What Do You Do for Firewood When There’s Not a Tree in Sight?

Pioneer woman hauling buffalo chips (dessicated buffalo poop).

Before beginning the perilous journey westward, the pioneers congregated on the edge of the prairie in what would eventually become my hometown of Kansas City. Here they outfitted their wagon trains in preparation for the arduous journey ahead. 

I’ve often wondered where these women got the courage to leave loved ones and friends and all their familiar routines and possessions for an incredibly dangerous journey and a life of extreme hardship and scarcity as they tried to build a new life in a strange and lonely place. 

The feminist historian, Julia Roy Jeffreys, wondered the same thing. In 1979 she consulted over 200 of those diaries, reminiscences, and collections of letters written by these women in preparation for writing Frontier Women: the Trans-Mississippi West 1840-1880.

In the introduction to this edition of the book Jeffrey writes, 

I hoped to find that pioneer women used the frontier as a means of liberating themselves from stereotypes and behavior which I found constricting and sexist.

The behaviors and stereotypes she refers to constituted what is called “the doctrine of separate spheres” which dictated that woman’s place was in the home; man’s place in the world. The Victorian woman was expected to be submissive to her husband, concerned only with her home and children, having no interest or ability to engage in public affairs. She was above all genteel, pious, and pure. She was “the angel in the house; the madonna in the nursery.”

But what Jeffreys discovered surprised her

She found that frontier women did their best to maintain the Victorian stereotype even as necessity forced them to face decidedly unfeminine challenges.

That really didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me about this book was the author’s perserverance in spite of the fact that her research proved her assumptions incorrect at every turn and that in the end, though her core belief in feminism remained unshaken, she was willing to be wrong about the subject of her study.

Though my own ideological commitment remains the same, I now have great sympathy for the choices these women made and admiration for their strength and courage. I have continually wondered if any of us would have done as well.

Today, 40 years later, the attribute of open mindedness is in short supply. You just don’t see it very often, certainly not among third wave feminist academics., 

Role of Women

My Aunt Florence—A Young Woman in Wartime

Earlier this week I posted a tribute to our veterans and told the story of our family’s soldier, Daniel Leffel, who fought for our freedom in World War II. Today I want to honor the women who helped to win that war. One of them was my aunt Florence, Danny’s wife. This is a repeat post, slightly edited.

Recently I was looking through my Aunt Florence’s photo album. My mother’s much younger sister, Florence, was like a big sister to me.

One of the first photos in her album is of her high school glee club taken in 1935 when they presented an operetta called “Maid in Japan.” The girls are dressed in kimonos, most of them carrying fans or parasols. The boys who played the part of Japanese appear to be somewhat confused about what a male counterpart of the girls might wear. But they seem to have settled on tent hats worn at a rakish angle, and a few Fu Manchu moustaches.

The greatest generation when they were just kids
Lansing (Kansas) High School Glee Club, “Maid in Japan,” December 19, 1935. These are members of the greatest generation when they were still kids.

When the picture was taken in 1935, Florence (center of photo in white kimono) was 16 years old, as I assume the others were—more or less.  Six years later, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they were  21-22 years old. They would give up a good chunk of their young lives—perhaps even life itself— in a war involving an enemy they had so recently found interesting and charming. If you tried to incorporate this bit of irony in a work of fiction, you’d probably be criticized for trying too hard. Because of their determination, bravery, and sacrifice in defense of the nation, history has come to call them “the greatest generation.”

Unless they were exempt for medical reasons, every one of the boys in the picture was probably drafted.  More than 11 million able bodied men between the ages of 18-45  were conscripted into military service in the World War II draft.

Government poster featuring Rosie the Riveter
Government poster featuring Rosie the Riveter

And the women did their part. There were, of course, female branches of the armed forces: the WACS, the WAVES, and the SPARS, and then there were the WASPS, over a thousand civilian women aviators who already had pilot licenses and were recruited to fly non-combat missions freeing male pilots for combat.

Women on the home front stepped forward to do the jobs that men would traditionally be hired to do. They worked in shifts around the clock, welding, “manning” assembly lines, manufacturing the weapons of war. Rosie the Riveter was the iconic image representing these women.

Typists and stenographers played a crucial part in wartime.
Typists and stenographers played a crucial part in wartime.

But there was another army of women whose skills were essential to the war effort and who are not often acknowledged because their jobs did not challenge gender expectations. They were the typists and stenographers who were recruited by the thousands to produce the incredible amount of paperwork necessary for the prosecution of the war. Florence was one of these. She worked at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where Army majors came to learn to be Colonels and Generals. She and her compatriots could take rapid dictation in shorthand, type a gazillion words a minute on clunky manual typewriters, while making multiple copies with carbon paper. That was the way Florence helped win the war.

Command and General Staff College
Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 1944

Florence Leffel at her desk in the Command and General Staff College, 1944
Florence Leffel at her desk in the Command and General Staff College, 1944

One day in April of 1945, Florence was at work when she received a telegram with the news that her husband, Lt. Danny Leffel, had died in a Hawaiian hospital from wounds received three days earlier on the Japanese island of Okinawa.

I remember the moment I learned of Danny’s death. My mother and I were visiting my grandmother’s house where Florence was living during the war. It is one of those isolated moments that memory illuminates with a torchlight.  An unfamiliar car pulled up in front of the house in the middle of the day. My grandmother started to the door as Florence accompanied by two women we did not know came in.

“What’s the matter, Sissie?  Are you sick?” And the awful stone-faced reply: “Danny’s dead.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Florence eventually remarried. She was the proud and loving mother of two little boys when she died of breast cancer at the age of 43.

Poetry

Loveliest of Trees

In the springtime, Housman thought it was the cherry.

In the fall, I think it is the ginkgo.

Gingko tree

That time of year when the lovely ginkgo
Paves our streets with fans of gold,
And we like royalty lightly tread upon them.

Gingko leavesAnd this from Herb:

It rained this afternoon,
and before I got home from work,
It was dark and cold.

Passing absent mindedly beneath a streetlamp
I found myself
on a pavement of gold.

Ginkgo leaves—
only a carpet of fallen ginkgo leaves,
but too much like the streets foretold.