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Among Other Things

Among Other Things

This story appeared in the 2019 Bacopa Literary Review.

Portia tiptoed to the bedside of the elderly woman. Was she was approaching a corpse? No, the ancient chest swelled ever so slightly, then fell. “Mrs. Lindsey? I’m Portia McNeer.” A leg moved beneath the cover, an arm stretched, and one eye half-opened, revealing a dark iris.

“Portia.” The aged voice somehow made the name sound like a birdsong. “What a lovely name. I knew a Portia once. Long, long ago.”

Portia felt a phantom cross the room and creep up her spine. She shrugged her shoulders and thought no more of it. Mrs. Lindsey drifted again to sleep. She smelled of baby oil. Portia’s gaze wandered. The rose pattern on the curtains and throw rug made the nursing home room look cozy. Family snapshots on the dresser and crayon sketches tacked to the walls suggested someone cared.

Portia’s retirement and the death of her second husband had left her adrift, and her seventy-fifth birthday brought issues of age and death uncomfortably close. Her daughter urged her to take a class or do some volunteer work. Portia had led a selfish life. Was it too late to learn to be giving? She sat in the bedside chair, waiting. She’d come here to learn patience, among other things, so patient she was determined to be.

She didn’t have long to wait. Mrs. Lindsey stirred again and opened her eyes, wider this time, more focused. “You are…?”

“I’m a new volunteer. I’ll come every Wednesday afternoon. If you like, I’ll read to you, or take you for a walk.”

Mrs. Lindsey gave no response. Portia had been warned she showed signs of dementia. Portia sighed. After lacking the time and patience for her own mother when she’d languished in a nursing home, Portia had come here to do penance, among other things.

Suddenly, the old lady’s eyes brightened and gazed deeply into Portia’s. She sat up in bed and spread her arms. “You are Portia! After all these years.”

Portia hesitated. She’d never met Mrs. Lindsey before. But why not humor an old woman? When Portia leaned over to embrace her, Mrs. Lindsey’s voice rose an octave. “After all these years, you’ve finally come back to me!”

Arms like crepe paper draped over balsa wood enveloped Portia with unexpected strength. Portia suppressed a shudder. She lacked the heart to tell Mrs. Lindsey she was mistaken. Gently, she extricated herself and held the old woman’s hands. Her initial revulsion softened to a feeling approaching compassion.

Mrs. Lindsey squeezed her hands. “You are still beautiful. The last time I saw you, you were three years old. You were wearing the blue dress your mother made for your birthday. Your golden curls were tied back with blue ribbons. Your eyes are still as blue as they were then.”

Portia said nothing. Could this woman have guessed her hair had once been blonde? But her mother never made dresses for her. Hand-me-downs from cousins were the best she’d ever had.

“And how is your mother?”

“My mother is dead.”

Mrs. Lindsey’s face fell. “I’m so sorry. She was such a dear woman. And your father?”

Portia shook her head. “Do you feel up to a walk?” The lesson in patience would not be easy.

The brightness faded from the old woman. Almost mechanically, she shifted her legs over the side of the bed and slid her feet into the waiting slippers, then held her arms out for the sleeves of the robe Portia slipped around her. When Mrs. Lindsay fumbled with the buttons, Portia took a deep breath, then said, “Here, let me help you.”

Mrs. Lindsey said little the rest of the afternoon. She struggled with her walker and Portia struggled with impatience. She escorted Mrs. Lindsay outdoors, read her some articles from a magazine, and sat with her through her favorite soap opera. On the way home she prayed for patience. Only determination, of which Portia had plenty, got her back to the nursing home the following Wednesday.

Mrs. Lindsey was dressed, sitting up, and waiting. “I knew you’d come back,” she said. They walked out into the afternoon. The sun warmed the jasmine, releasing its perfume. “It was on a day like today that I last saw you.”

All week Portia had fretted about this. Should she remain silent and let an old woman enjoy a fantasy in her last days? But being deceptive was not Portia’s style. They sat together on a patio bench. “Mrs. Lindsey, I am not the Portia you think I am. I never saw you before last week. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I can’t lie to you.”

The old woman appeared undaunted. “You’d have been too young to remember. I’m surprised your mother never talked about me.”

“My mother only talked about where our next meal was coming from and why my father couldn’t keep a job.” She looked down at her hands. “You see, he got injured when I was small. He was pretty much laid up for the rest of his days. When he could work, he’d buy liquor to ease the pain.” Portia set her mouth into a tight line. “My mother was a hard and bitter woman, but she managed to raise five children in tough times.”

“Only five? She never had another daughter? After four sons, she was so delighted to have a little girl. She was expecting when I last saw her. She thought that one would be another girl.”

“You see? I’m not your Portia. My mother never had another child.” Coincidentally, she did have four older brothers, but she didn’t want to feed Mrs. Lindsey’s delusion. “Tell me about the Portia you once knew.”

The old woman settled back in her chair and stretched her limbs to the warm sun. As she went back in time, her voice regained a youthful timbre.

“I was seventeen years old. I’d just graduated from high school. Your mother was expecting a baby. She already had four little boys and the oldest wasn’t yet ten, so she needed some help around the house. Your father hired me and I stayed on until you were five months old.” Mrs. Lindsey smiled. “It was a big white house, full of noise and laughter. I stayed in an upstairs bedroom. After you were born, I helped your mother paint it and make curtains so it would be your room. Such a lovely room. The window looked out onto the rose garden. Your mother grew such lovely roses.”

Mrs. Lindsey drifted into sleep. Portia sat beside her in silence. Her oldest brother was ten years older, but her mother didn’t care about flowers. Such a lovely childhood the scene portended. If only she’d been Mrs. Lindsey’s Portia.

Portia’s childhood had been spent in a two bedroom flat in a dingy apartment house in a coal town. Her parents shared one bedroom and her brothers the other. Her bed was a cot in the living room. Once, as a hard-headed teenager, she threw a fit because she couldn’t have her own room. She didn’t get a room, only a slap in the face. The next day, while her mother was at work, her father dragged himself out of bed and hung two old sheets, curtaining off her corner of the living room. She had never thanked him.

The sun settled behind the trees and Portia shivered. She woke Mrs. Lindsey, who remained in a daze on the way back to her room.

The following week, a staff member waylaid Portia on her way to Mrs. Lindsey’s room. “Whatever have you done to our Mrs. Lindsey? She’s looking so chipper. She even knows what day it is and that you’re coming.”

This time Mrs. Lindsey was not only up and dressed but already leaning on her walker. “I knew you’d come,” she said.

On their way out to the patio, they passed a visiting family party which included a young woman with a very new baby. Mrs. Lindsey stopped to admire the infant, who was dressed in blue.

“Is that a little girl?” she asked.

“No, it’s a boy.”

“She’s so beautiful. She reminds me of this one…,” pointing at Portia, “when she was a baby. She may be bald now, but her hair will come in blonde and curly, just like Portia’s did.”

Portia’s face burned. She steered the old woman away.

As they walked down the hall, Mrs. Lindsey prattled on, “You were so beautiful, from the moment you were born. I was there, you know. I was staying with your mother to help out. The doctor came to the house in the middle of the night. I’d never seen a birthing before, but he asked me to help him.” Her voice rose as she worked herself into an ecstasy. “When you came out, he put you into my hands, all warm and wet and wailing. What a miracle! And your mother said, ‘Is it another boy?’ And I said, ‘No, it’s a little girl’. And she began to cry. She was so happy.” Tears streaked down Mrs. Lindsey’s face.

Portia found her some tissues and dabbed moisture from her own eyes. She wished her mother had felt such joy at her birth, but she’d never spoken of it, except to complain of the pain and the burden of yet another child.

“Your mother always wanted a little girl. She told me every time she had a baby, she picked out a girl’s name, and every time it was a boy. She was so sure you’d be another boy, she didn’t even have a name for you. We called you ‘Little Princess’ until she could think of a good name.

“You see, nothing ordinary would do. We thought of all the names of queens and princesses, like Elizabeth and Mary and Anne, but they were too common. You were so special, you needed a special name. Portia was the name of a noble woman in a story I read in school.”

“Yes, Julius Caesar. Portia was the wife of Brutus.”

“So we named you Portia. Such a lovely name.”

Portia didn’t mention the grief she’d suffered because of her name. Cruel children found so many ways to tease her, “Portly” being the least unkind corruption. She once asked her mother why she had been so named.

“I don’t know,” her mother snapped. “I should have called you Jane.”

Jane. Plain Jane. Threadbare dresses and stringy yellow hair that an overburdened, unhappy woman never had time to brush or braid.

Portia returned to the present to find the older woman gazing at her.

“You look like a queen even now. After all those years, you’re still beautiful.”

Portia nodded. The ugly duckling had grown into an attractive woman who took care of her health, went to the hairdresser, wore only enough makeup to enhance her natural beauty, and dressed with care.

Mrs. Lindsey went on. “You were such a pretty child. Your mother and I talked about what your future would be. We knew you’d grow up to catch a fine husband.”

A cynical laugh escaped. “Well, I caught a dandy, all right.”

“Did he give you children?”

“Yes. A son and a daughter.”

“How wonderful.”

Portia didn’t add that, before she turned twenty, he also gave her an infection which rendered her incapable of having more children. “Mrs. Lindsey, I am not the Portia you knew. I got married at sixteen to get away from my mother.” But Mrs. Lindsey had nodded off to sleep.

What would it have been like to grow up in the family the old woman described? Staying at her mother’s bedside would have been easier if their shared memories had been other than bitterness and disappointment. Perhaps her motivation for coming here was to change all that in some way.

When she looked at Mrs. Lindsey, Portia saw herself in twenty years. After lacking patience and compassion for her own mother’s infirmity, perhaps, among other things, she was here to pay a debt.

When Portia returned the following Wednesday, Mrs. Lindsey sat in her room with an old black photo album on her lap. “I have something to show you.” She opened it to a picture of a small girl in an old fashioned dress with puffy sleeves and a lace collar. Bright ringlets were tied up with large ribbons.

Portia studied the features of the face. The girl looked almost like her own daughter at that age. But small children all look alike. “Where did you get this?”

“My husband was a photographer. He took it before we got married and moved away. This was your third birthday. Your mother made the dress for you. It was blue and matched your eyes.”

“Mrs. Lindsey, what was my mother’s name?”

“Martha.”

Portia caught her breath. “Martha what?”

The old lady sighed. “My mind isn’t as clear as it used to be.”

“Do you remember my father’s name?”

Mrs. Lindsey hesitated. “I think it was David?”

“No. John. What about my brothers’?”

Mrs. Lindsey lowered her eyes. “That was a long, long time ago. You, I could never forget.”

“Where did we live then?”

“Montrose, Pennsylvania.”

Close, but not enough. Portia almost felt disappointed. “I lived in Scranton. Why don’t you show me your other pictures.”

With the passing weeks, Mrs. Lindsey seemed to grow stronger and more alert without losing the conviction she knew Portia in infancy. Portia grew tired of telling her otherwise. Their conversations began to run as though they were indeed old friends bringing each other up to date.

Mrs. Lindsey related her travels with her husband, talked about her sole surviving son, and told of grief for children who died. “Years later, a doctor told me what was wrong. It was something in my blood. Minus something.”

“You must be RH negative.”

“Yes, that’s it. I never had a daughter who lived. I wanted one so much. That’s why I’d think about you. I’m so glad I found you again.”

Portia related the sorrows and disappointments of her own childhood. Mrs. Lindsey, maintaining the fiction that she knew Portia’s mother, made excuses for her. “It must have been so hard, a husband who was an invalid and five children to provide for, after losing her house and her baby.”

“My mother seemed to resent me. She never told me she loved me.”

“Poor thing. She wasn’t able to give you the nice things you deserved. She didn’t resent you. She was disappointed in herself.”

Portia’s memory of her mother began to soften. She saw her as a work-worn woman struggling to keep body and soul together for a family of seven, never able to rise above poverty. Portia also began to see her adult life differently. She realized what attracted her to her first husband. He was older. He made good money and bought her nice things. He liked pretty women. When she was almost thirty, with two half grown children and a tired body, he left her for a girl of nineteen.

This was the low point, and the turning point, of her life. Somehow, she survived her thirtieth year without succumbing to suicide or starvation. She managed to get a job in a clothing store. She learned to feed herself and the children on her humble income. She lost weight. She learned to dress well and groom herself to advantage. Occasionally, she modeled for the store. Native intelligence, as well as good looks, served to advance her career. She earned the respect of her employers. Eventually she became a purchaser. On one buying trip, she met her second husband, Lee.

By then her children were grown. For the first time in her life, Portia was not obligated to sacrifice for others. While her first husband had been indulgent and manipulative, Lee was gentle and giving. He gave her the encouragement and financial backing to start her own clothing boutique. She became a hard-nosed business woman.

Looking back on those years, she knew she hadn’t been the wife Lee deserved. After a lifetime of having to be tough, she struggled to yield to his kindness. But Lee had remained patient and uncomplaining. His death had devastated her.

Shortly afterward, her mother became ill and required constant care. Her sisters-in-law did what they could, but the men of their generation were not caregivers, so the heaviest burden fell on Portia. The loss of the one person who made her feel truly loved left her incapable of nurturing. Wrestling with responsibility and guilt, she put her mother in a nursing home. Although she visited often, those meetings were devoid of the warmth she now found with Mrs. Lindsey. Portia regretted that most of all.

Her mother’s passing was both a relief and a further burden of guilt. Her brothers, aware of the lifelong antagonism between their mother and sister, expressed surprise at the depth of her grief. In her visits with Mrs. Lindsey, Portia’s heart began to heal.

***

One weekend, Portia’s eldest brother, John, came to visit. “I’ve been sorting through some of Mother’s things,” he said. “I found a box of old photographs, but I don’t remember who all the people are.” They went through them together, trying to identify who, what occasion, and when, and wrote this information on the backs.

To her surprise, Portia found a snapshot of her parents when they were very young, standing before a white house with a rose trellis. “Where was this taken?”

“That must be our house in Montrose. Where you were born.”

The bottom dropped out of Portia’s world.

“I—I thought I was born in Scranton.”

“No, we moved to Scranton when you were little. After Dad got hurt. Mother had relatives there and they helped her find work.”

Growing up, Montrose had been only a nebulous location where their father’s relatives resided. Their family never talked about having lived there and never visited. Portia’s birth certificate showed the state, but not the city of her birth. “John, did Mother lose a baby about then?”

“Why, yes. You didn’t know? It was a girl. Born premature, I guess. Mother was never the same after that.”

Portia struggled not to cry. She told him about Mrs. Lindsey.

“Yes, I seem to remember we had a hired girl for a while in Montrose.”

Portia studied the picture. These were not the faces Portia remembered, drawn tight in bitterness and pain. This couple looked happy. From the depths of time, her mother smiled at Portia. Behind her, above the roses, was an upstairs window. “Was this my room?”

“I think so.”

She kept the photograph.

On Wednesday, Portia couldn’t wait to get back to the nursing home, but at arrival a staff member halted her.

“I guess we should have called you.”

Portia froze.

“They took Mrs. Lindsey to the hospital yesterday. We think she had a stroke. She isn’t expected to make it.”

Portia could have hit the woman. “What hospital?” Once she had the answer, she spun on her heel and left.

At the hospital, when Portia inquired as to Mrs. Lindsey’s room, the receptionist asked if she were a relative.

Portia straightened her back and replied, “Mrs. Lindsey is my godmother.”

In the waiting room she met Mrs. Lindsey’s granddaughter, Amy.

“So you’re Portia! Grandmother has told me so much about you.”

“How is she?”

Amy fished in her purse for a hanky. “It’s only a matter of time. I feel so bad. I didn’t want to put her in the nursing home. She lived with us so long, you know. But I have to work and it got so I didn’t dare leave her alone. I went to see her every weekend, and took the kids, but I know she was lonely.” She smiled despite her tears. “She was so much happier after you started visiting her. You can’t imagine how grateful I am to you.”

As Portia comforted the younger woman, she wished in her heart her own mother had had someone like herself in those final days.

Finally, she was allowed to go in. Mrs. Lindsey could barely speak. Mindful of the tubes and wires, Portia put her arms around her old friend and said, “I talked with my brother yesterday and he told me. I am your Portia. I was born in a big white house with a rose garden. Thank you for telling me about myself.”

Mrs. Lindsey tried to say something but all Portia could understand was, “Your mother.”

Portia couldn’t hold back tears. “When you see my mother, please tell her…that I love her.”

Portia stayed with the family until late that night. The following day, she assisted with funeral arrangements. A week later, she received a thank you card from Amy. Enclosed was a picture of a small girl in an old fashioned dress and bright ringlets tied back with ribbons.

Portia decided not to volunteer at the nursing home anymore. She thought she’d try working with children. She never had much patience with kids, including, unfortunately, her own. Perhaps it was time to learn.

First, though, it would be nice to take a trip, to a little town in the mountains of Pennsylvania, to see if a certain house still stood, and, among other things, whether anyone still tended the roses.

“During the Spanish Flu, those who ate pine needles didn’t get sick.” I came across this in one of my notebooks recently. I had jotted it down several months ago when I watched a webinar on herbal remedies. Unfortunately, I’d failed to record my source, but the webinar had touted the benefits of various parts of the pine tree. As I recall, the 1918 patients were being treated with pine needles for scurvy.

I already knew pine trees are edible, if rather hard to chew. Years earlier, I had read one of Euell Gibbons’ books in which he queried, “Did you ever eat a pine tree?” Then he proceeded to tell how to prepare and dine on the various parts.

More recently, I bought a book at a Garden Club event, I Eat Weeds by Priscilla G. Bowers. She devotes 68 pages to wild edible plants and the rest of the book to recipes. I’ve tied many of them and one of my favorites is Pine Needle Tea. I have pine trees on my property and occasionally a storm will blow down a few branches. I’ll salvage a generous handful and make tea. You can drink it hot or iced. It’s delicious, but I didn’t know it could protect you from the Spanish flu. I needed more information.

Iced Pine Tea with Mint

I Googled “pine needles/Spanish flu” hoping to find my source. I couldn’t, nor could I find any evidence of pine being used as a treatment during the 1918 pandemic. However, I did find information on pine in regards to modern influenzas.

Pine is rich in vitamins C and A, but it is also rich in shikimic acid, which is an ingredient in Tamiflu (Oseltamivir)! This ingredient is imported from China where it’s extracted from the star anise tree, but we grow our own source of shikimic acid right here in the US. You may have it growing in your backyard.

I found two newspaper articles on the subject, from the Bangor Daily News in Maine and the Pocono Record in Pennsylvania. Both discussed how timber companies could gather pine needles from harvested trees and extract shikimic acid to supply pharmaceutical companies.

In 2006, CNN.com published an article about a Canadian company, Biolyse, that collects discarded Christmas trees to extract shikimic acid. Chemist Brigitte Kiecken, CEO of Biolyse, expressed concern about the inevitability of a viral pandemic. “It’s an urgent matter, and we should be starting production—not once the pandemic hits, but before that. On a personal level, I’m scared, and on a professional level, I’m terribly frustrated,” she said. “Government and industry have to work together now. We’ve been warned for ample time, and it [a pandemic] is bound to happen.”

This was 14 years ago! Yikes!

I wondered, if pine can protect you from the flu, what about Covid 19? I kept digging and was surprised by the research that’s been done on the medical uses of pine.

There are 80 to 90 species of pine around the world, and most are edible. In fact, other conifers are also edible. That includes trees such as fir, spruce, larch, cedar, and hemlock. This is not the hemlock that killed Socrates. Poison hemlock is a member of the carrot family. Beware of wild carrots. Also beware of these poisonous trees: ponderosa pine, yew, and Norfolk or Australian pine. And remember, not all evergreens are conifers.

Another caution: pregnant women and those who could become pregnant should not drink pine needle tea as it could cause abortion.

Besides Vitamins A and C and shikimic acid, pine contains protein, fat, phosphorus, iron, and a long list of other compounds. The composition of nutrients varies with the species and season, which is why you won’t see a Nutrition Facts chart attached to your pine tree. Oils from pine needles could potentially treat heart disease, diabetes, senile dementia, and hypertension. And the list goes on: obesity, depression, and anxiety. Pine is anti-microbial and boosts your immune system, so it’s good for colds, sore throat, sinus and chest congestion. To relieve upper respiratory illness, you can inhale the vapor.

But what about our current scourge? Doctors are scrambling to find treatments for Covid. Maybe all they need to do is look out the window. If pine indeed worked during the pandemic 100 years ago and contains an ingredient used today to treat influenza, would it be effective for coronavirus?

To my knowledge, no studies have been done yet on pine and Covid 19, but there have been studies involving other coronaviruses, including SARS, which reared its ugly head in 2003, so it makes sense it would be good for Covid 19, too.

Priscilla Bowers’ recipe for Pine Needle Tea is simple:

Green pine needles, cut into 3” or 4” lengths

Water to cover

Sugar to taste

Bring to a boil in a sauce pan and hold 5 minutes, then let steep for 10. Strain and sweeten. Including some of the stems gives it more flavor.

I like to make it by the half-gallon and serve it iced. I take a generous handful of pine needles and twigs, cover them with water, bring it to a boil, simmer five minutes, then let it cool before I sweeten and dilute it.  You may not need to sweeten the tea, depending on your taste. Honey will make it more healthful. Warning: pine rosin will stick to the pan. Use an old pan or one that’s easy to clean.

A windstorm last week blew down several pine branches. I gathered twigs, cut them into useable lengths, and put portion amounts into freezer bags. Now I have a supply to last me until the next windstorm.

Of course, I’m no doctor and can’t guarantee that Pine Tea will protect you from or cure Covid 19, but when you have something that won’t hurt you, is pleasant to drink, and might help, why not try it?

Here’s a handy article with additional information: https://www.arborpronw.com/pine-needle-tea/

If you haven’t already, check out my YA novel, Trials by Fire, which is a semi-finalist for the 2020 Royal Palm Literary Award. Available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

 

In November, my sister Sue and I went on a genealogical expedition to New London, Connecticut, where our great-great-great-great grandparents, David and Mary Rogers, had lived. We’d tried for years to trace the Rogers line beyond David and Mary but were unsuccessful. We hoped an on-site search of local records would be productive.

For three days, David continued to elude us, but we found many colorful stories about a religious sect called the Rogerenes. (See Part I.) At one point, Sue said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we found out we’re descended from them?”

Reverend John Rogers started his church in 1674. Among the Rogerenes’ unconventional beliefs was faith healing. They believed it was a sin to use medicine or doctors because the New Testament taught, “The Almighty had the willingness and power to cure diseases in a less bungling and dangerous way than physicians.” Prayer and the laying on of hands were the only righteous remedies for illness. Considering the level of medical knowledge in those days, they were probably right. At least prayer and laying of hands usually did no harm.

Usually. The Rogerenes had a crisis of faith when a skin malady called the Itch plagued the congregation. Laying on of hands not only failed to cure the condition, but actually spread it. After months of suffering, they held a meeting to decide what to do. The conclusion was that the Itch was not a sickness, but a species of vermin which they might destroy as they would rats or other noxious animals. Thus, they were able to use the customary remedies, “brimstone and lard,” with a clear conscience, and everyone was cured.

John Rogers wrote several books, but most of them were burned. This survives

John Rogers wrote several books, but most of them were burned. This survives in the Connecticut College Library. Photo by Jennifer Geoghan

In another case, their methods didn’t do so well. Ebenezer Bolles was cutting brush and vines (poison ivy?) and developed a painful condition that, since he refused medical treatment, led to his death.

Inside the book

Despite their objection to conventional medicine, the Rogerenes willingly took care of the sick and were said to be skillful nurses. In fact, when John Rogers wasn’t being a thorn in the side of the Congregationalists, he spent his life ministering to the sick. He believed his faith would save him from any contagion. It did, for over forty years, until the smallpox epidemic of 1721.

You don’t see these on younger people, but if you look at the upper arm of a person of a certain generation, you might see a circular scar less than ½ inch in diameter. These are from smallpox inoculations. When I was a child, everyone was vaccinated against smallpox. Although I was inoculated three or four times, I don’t have one of these scars because it never “took.” It turned out I inherited a natural immunity to smallpox from my father, who also had no scar.

 

Smallpox is caused by a virus and had been a dreaded disease for thousands of years. It had a 30% mortality rate and those who survived were seriously scarred for life. A worldwide campaign of immunization eradicated the disease in the late 20th century, the last cases occurring in the 1970’s. When my children were vaccinated, smallpox was no longer part of the protocol. These days, no one is likely to contract the disease, unless some evil mad scientist has squirreled away a sample of the virus with intentions to unleash it on an unsuspecting world. If that happens, I hope my children inherited my natural immunity.

But smallpox was a big problem in 18th century New England. There was no cure, only prevention and palliative treatment. Physicians could do little, but nurses could keep patients comfortable, prevent their sores from becoming infected, and keep them hydrated. There were experiments with vaccinations, which involved taking pus from an infected person and applying it to a scratch on the skin of a healthy one, but this was controversial. In fact, someone threatened the life of the famous Reverend Cotton Mather because he promoted smallpox inoculation.

In 1721, smallpox came to Boston and afflicted the city for over a year. Out of a population of 11,000, over 6000 cases were reported and 850 people died.

Smallpox ward, Boston, 1721

John Rogers, believing himself to be under God’s protection, went to Boston to care for the sick. His critics claimed he went out of arrogance. His apologists argued he had tended to smallpox victims before and seemed to be naturally immune. It turns out he wasn’t. After he returned home, he succumbed to the disease. Two of his family members caught it from him and also died. Thus ended a chapter in the history of the Rogerenes.

Resting place of John Rogers

Even without their leader, the sect continued to practice their unusual style of Christianity for another 300 years. Their good deeds were often overlooked and they failed to earn the respect of established religion. In fact, stubborn adherence to their beliefs brought them ridicule from the larger community. After World War I, they faded into history. It was inevitable. The Rogerenes were ahead of their time. The Hippie movement of the 1960’s shared many of their concepts: pacifism, social and political reform, and free thinking.

On our last day in Connecticut, Sue and I visited the Otis Library in Norwich. The genealogy librarian was very helpful and provided enough material to keep us busy for a week, but we had only a few hours. Sue and I divided the stack of documents. I sifted through A Genealogy of the Descendants of Joseph Bolles, which listed several Rogers in the index.

There I found him: David Rogers, born August 31, 1776. He married Mary Stone circa 1800. Could this be my ancestor? His parents were Elizabeth Bolles and John Rogers, great-grandson of the infamous founder of the Rogerenes. Could we actually be descended from that notorious group?

Sue and I had planes to catch. We couldn’t dig any further. After I got home, I tried to find more information on the internet, but David continued to elude me.

Then my little brother, a recent convert to genealogy, somehow traced a possible great-great-great-great grandmother, Polly Story Wheeler, who was listed in the History of Montville, Connecticut. This good woman was married to a David Rogers, born circa 1774, son of John and Elizabeth Bolles Rogers!

When you look at old records, you find all sorts of inaccuracies. In the days before computers, indeed before typewriters, everything was written by hand, and not everyone’s handwriting was legible. A David born in 1776 can be the same David as one whose birthdate is recorded elsewhere as 1774. Polly is a nickname for Mary. Middle names were often family names. Stone and Story could be different interpretations of someone’s penmanship, especially if the writer used flourishes, which they often did in those days.

We have finally tracked down our ancestor David, and Reverend John Rogers was his ancestor. Considering the personalities of my modern Rogers relatives, it makes sense—we inherited our quirky genes from the founder of the Rogerenes. However, my immunity to smallpox must have come from someone else.

An interesting side note: among John’s thousands of descendants are Mormons who had him baptized and his marriages sealed. Considering his beliefs about baptism and marriage, I’d love to be a butterfly on the wall when St. Peter gives him the news!

Another thing, if that insane evil scientist unleashes smallpox on our already suffering world, I will not refuse a vaccination, just in case.

 

 

A Perspective

A few years ago, before I replaced my 1996 Ford Ranger with a newer model, I stopped by my bank one evening to get some cash from the ATM. The bank was closed and the only ATM is a walk-up. Before I got out of my truck, I looked around. There was only one other vehicle in the parking lot, a compact car that could have been a Nissan or a Mazda. It was the sort of car that people of modest means drive, and it was much shinier than my old truck.

A young black man stood at the ATM. Regardless of race, I would have taken a minute to assess whether he seemed to be a safe person. He looked clean and respectable, dressed in slacks and a button up shirt, no tie. He might have been a teacher.

When he glanced my way, I read alarm in his face. Through my tinted windows, he probably couldn’t see who was driving, and his first thought might have been “red neck.” So I stepped out of my truck. He visibly relaxed when he saw I was just a little ole lady.

I kept a respectful distance to let him finish his banking before I approached the ATM. We nodded at each other and said, “Good evening,” and he was on his way.

Sometimes when I go to the grocery store at night, there are knots of young people crossing the parking lot. All kinds of young people: students, athletes, country boys, goths, and groups of kids, both white and black, loudly flaunting their individuality in the face of conformity. I’ve learned to see them for who they are. Most are quite harmless, and many are courteous.

How miserable would I be if I reacted in fear based on their appearance? Instead, I smile, remembering my youth and how the older generation was affronted by how we dressed and wore our hair.

If the young man at the bank had worn a tee shirt and dreadlocks, I might have taken two minutes, instead of one, to assess him for safety. But what if I’d been a white man with a beer belly, how safe would he have felt when I got out of my truck, even with a friendly smile on my face?

That he would have been afraid of me, based on prior experience, without getting to know me, is a sad thought.

 

 

The Rogerenes

Last November, when my sister Sue and I were doing genealogical research in New London, Connecticut, we stumbled across a curious religious group known as the Rogerenes. John Rogers, son of Connecticut founder James Rogers, organized the Seventh Day Baptist Church of New London in 1674. The sect survived into the early twentieth century.

The Rogerenes were sometimes referred to as Singing Quakers, Rogerene Baptists, and Quaker Baptists, although they were neither Quakers nor Baptists. Like Quakers, they believed in peaceful non-resistance. Like Seventh Day Adventists, they observed the Sabbath on the seventh, not the first, day of the week. Much like Christian Scientists, they believed in healing by prayer.

Sue and I were trying to track down our great-great-great-great grandfather, David Rogers who was born around the time of the Revolutionary War. All we knew about him was that his wife was named Mary and they had four children die in March of 1823. We don’t know why they died. In those days, diseases such as Yellow Fever would periodically ravage communities and take out families, but we haven’t found any evidence of an epidemic that year. The children ranged in age from eight to fifteen. Son David G., from whom we’re descended, was six at the time and, of course, survived.

Rogers Cemetery #5

The children were buried in Rogers Cemetery #5 near Montville, Connecticut. We knew that because their graves were recorded on Find a Grave. Finding the cemetery would have been nearly impossible without the help of the local historian, Jon Chase, because there are a good half-dozen Rogers Cemeteries in the county.

Children’s Graves

Other than approximate birth and death dates, we knew little else about David and nothing about Mary. Family lore held that David had been an English captain on a whaling ship and had sailed around the world three times, but family lore can be more fictional than factual. My great-great Uncle Will had our family history traced to the Mayflower, but that document has been lost. Neither Sue nor I have found a connection between the Mayflower Rogers and ours. We spent four days combing through records in Connecticut libraries and city halls. At one time, Connecticut must have had more Rogers than roaches, and many were named David. We kept finding references to the Rogerenes.

Many colorful stories surround the Rogerenes. John Rogers married Elizabeth Griswold four years before he started his church. She not only failed to join his congregation, she felt humiliated by his conduct and sought to divorce him. She described him as a “queer creature who behaved not as other men.” He “entertained strange religious beliefs.” He worked on the Sabbath, refused to pray aloud, and “would not take the noxious medicines prescribed for the ills of Puritan flesh.” The divorce was granted.

The Rogerenes were devoutly Christian but rabidly anti-clerical. The Congregational Church was tax supported. John believed that ministers should not be paid—and certainly not supported by taxes. When they refused to pay taxes, the Rogerenes were heavily fined, and thus had to pay twice.

John Rogers’ House

John Rogers believed one should worship God in a scriptural manner, not by ecclesiastical dictum. “All unscriptural parts of worship are idols and all good Christians should exert themselves against idols.” The Rogerenes didn’t believe in the sanctity of the Puritan Sabbath, holding that since the death of Christ, all days were holy. After church services, they would go about their day like any other. On Sundays, they’d intentionally work where church-goers would see them. If that didn’t get enough attention, they’d march through New London, noisily proclaiming that they were working on the Sabbath.

They’d enter churches of other denominations with their hats on. Sometimes they’d burst in, shouting and disrupting the proceedings, and argue theology with the minister. The women would bring their sewing and knitting to church. Their peculiarities of belief and conduct provoked persecution which “left them neither liberty or property or a whole skin,” according to one chronicler. They were frequently fined, imprisoned, tarred, whipped, and thrown into the icy river for their impudence, but that didn’t change their ways.

The Rogerenes never violated civil laws, only ecclesiastical laws that they believed infringed on their rights of conscience. They fought for religious liberty, against the tyranny and bigotry of the Congregational Church.

John Rogers clashed for years with Reverend (later Governor) Gurdon Saltonstall, who was intolerant of divergent Christian sects. One time, John placed his hand on his heart and stated, “This is the humane body of Christ.” Blasphemy! His sentence was to stand on a gallows with a noose around his neck for 15 minutes and pay a 5 pound fine. Further, he had to post bond of 50 pounds to guarantee his future good behavior. It did no good. John spent nearly four years in prison.

Governor Saltonstall

After Saltonstall was elevated to governor, he had John declared insane. As a result, the windows of his jail cell were blacked out (common treatment for insanity at the time). But John’s friends rioted and had the boards removed. In another incident, John was punished for helping a young man escape from prison. When another Rogerene was imprisoned for failing to keep the Sabbath, her supporters removed the doors from the New London jail.

There are several versions of a story about a Rogerene couple who paid a visit to Rev. (or Governor) Saltonstall. He was either dining or relaxing with his cigar when they arrived. They boasted that they were married in the Rogerene tradition, outside the church and the control of civil authorities. They demanded to know what he was going to do about it.

The good Reverend (or Governor) said to the man, “You mean you are cohabiting with this woman?”

“That’s right,” the man said.

“Madam, you are living with this man as his wife?”

“Yes,” she said, just as proudly.

“Then, by the powers vested in me by the Colony of Connecticut, I pronounce you man and wife.” Then he went back to eating (or smoking his cigar).

Rogerenes wouldn’t say grace at meals. They believed all prayers should be said mentally unless the “spirit of prayer” compelled the use of voice. They believed infant baptism was wrong and practiced adult baptism by immersion. Many of their beliefs sprang from a literal interpretation of Bible passages. The Rogerenes believed that Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, should be celebrated only in the evening.

A few years after Governor Saltonstall departed Connecticut to join his Maker, Reverend Mather Byles, being only in his twenties and no match for the Rogerenes, became their target. It got to the point that if he saw them, he wouldn’t leave home to walk to church. If they came to his services with their hats on or asked him questions, he’d discontinue the service. As soon as he could, he left for a church in Boston where he enjoyed an illustrious career.

Rev. Mather Byles

Our ancestor David continued to elude us, but hardly a source we looked at failed to mention the Rogerenes and their antics.

At one point, Sue said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we found out we’re descended from them?”

Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, check out my book Trials by Fire, available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

 

At first, they called it a novel coronavirus, but it mutated into a real-time dystopian novel.

At the turn of the year, Covid lurked in the sidelines, waiting to take center stage. Initially only a vague specter, it materialized from the shadows to become a source of ghoulish entertainment, dominating the airwaves. Can this be a replay of 1918? Surely not in this age of medical miracles! But the pundits could not hide their dread. Their knitted brows were enough to freeze my spine. Older ladies of my acquaintance, thinking they were prime victims, quarantined themselves. It was rumored this would become everyone’s fate, but surely that couldn’t happen, could it?

1918 Flu Epidemic

On Friday the 13th, the world changed. Schools closed. People stopped going to work. Panicked hordes stripped grocery shelves clean. Of toilet paper, no less. Meetings, travel plans, even weddings and funerals were cancelled. Life, once plotted out in calendar entries, became a fogged-up windshield in a vehicle out of control, hurtling at unknown speed to a nebulous future. That’s when I realized I was living inside a dystopian novel.

Stories and movies came to mind, of catastrophic events that spelled the end of the world: wars, alien invasions, plagues decimating the world’s population. In some stories, heroes emerged to save remnants of mankind, while in others the heroes were lucky to save themselves. Dystopian stories are great entertainment, but they’re no fun for their besieged characters. And now I was a character in one!

As a writer, it’s not such a bad place to be as long as my retirement checks keep coming, the electric grid holds up, and I can get groceries every week or so. If the electricity fails and I can’t get to the store, I’d still survive, as long as my cache of last year’s hurricane supplies held out. But, darn, I’d have to write on paper instead of my computer if the power went off.

Then I found out how much I depend on technology. One day, my phone stopped working. Good, no spam calls for a few days until a technician can fix it. I still had internet. A week later, the internet went out! I nearly panicked. I was a character in a movie, surrounded by unknown perils, cut off from the outside world. How could I survive without email, Google, and Wikipedia? Fortunately, the phone company had it fixed within hours.

The first week of quarantine was unsettling. The second, I settled into the unreality of it and watched the movie play out around me. But the surreal turned bizarre when the world began to morph into my dystopian novel.

My yet-to-be-published dystopian novel takes place in the future when solar power has replaced fossil fuels, but it didn’t happen soon enough. South Florida has gone the way of Atlantis and autocrats build houses that can withstand Category 7 hurricanes. Books aren’t banned, but they’re obsolete. My heroine collects books on history and studies them to uncover lost truths. When information is stored digitally, it’s easy to rewrite history.

The federal government is weak and ineffectual and the US has been partitioned into autonomous regions, each with its own set of laws. When a killer hurricane strikes, Georgia closes its border to keep Florida refugees out. Hospitals are out of supplies and the sick and injured crowd the hallways and cover the floors. The poor are hit hardest and rich see opportunities to enrich themselves. Until the pitchforks come out…

 

My novel is a fantasy, a series of events that (I sincerely hope) won’t come true. Or will they?

Coastal communities are already dealing with sea level rise. Hurricanes are becoming more powerful. (My fellow Floridians really dread the advent of this year’s hurricane season.)

As Covid went viral in New York and New Jersey, and hordes of Yankees headed south to escape, there were rumors that Florida was setting up roadblocks to keep them, and their contagion, out. Hospitals are over capacity and undersupplied. An economic bailout has the rich corporations making out like bandits while the rest of us are being thrown crumbs.

I wrote my book long before all this became reality, and I never expected to see it happen. Each development has made me pause and reflect. Just coincidence. I’m certainly no prophet.

Then a government official gave out erroneous information and the website he alluded to was later altered to agree with what he said! Rewriting history is not a new idea. Remember 1984?

Now several states, frustrated by the failed leadership of the federal government, are forming regional coalitions to make pacts on how to keep their citizens safe while restoring normalcy.

But not all is gloom and doom. In my book, the heroes encounter good people, many of them have-nots, who share what little they can. Even some of the well-to-do show their charitable sides.

In the current pandemic, people are stepping up to contribute what they can to those in need. Mom and Pop restaurants are feeding the hungry. Ladies with sewing machines are stitching up face masks. It’s refreshing to see that compassion and service survive in in our present dystopia, as well as the fictional ones.

I’ll tell you, though, if any more elements of my book come to pass, (if the pitchforks come out!) I may just have to rewrite it. Maybe as a cozy romance? What could be the harm in that?

Forest bathing, a form of Nature Therapy, has been around as long as people have lived in the woods. The Japanese call it Shinrin-yoku, or “taking in the forest atmosphere.” It’s a great way to cope with stress. I’m sure that’s what made Thoreau’s life at Walden Pond so therapeutic.

A nice place to bathe.

Today, everyone blogs about how they’re coping with Covid 19. I follow several blogs. Some folks, who used to post weekly or monthly, have taken to posting every day. I suppose that’s how they cope, but I don’t have time to read them all. You might say I cope with my bulging inbox by ignoring some of them. Sorry, fellow bloggers.

I follow all the health guidelines, but I don’t obsess about the virus. It’s been years since I had a cold or flu. Not because I haven’t been exposed. The past two flu seasons, I’ve gone to the elementary school to work with the children’s school gardens and found half the staff and student body out with the flu. Most of the teachers wore masks. They offered me one, but I declined. Although children hugged and touched me all day, I didn’t get sick. (I just hope my luck holds out!)

Several things keep me healthy. One is my well water. Sometimes people who come to the house mention the taste or smell of sulfur, but I’m so used to it I don’t notice. Sulfur water is good for you.

Another is gardening. Besides the enjoyment, there are scientific reasons why gardening makes us feel better. Healthy soil has bacteria that interact with our bodies, boosting our moods and immune systems. How these bacteria get into the body, scientists aren’t sure. They may interact with the skin or we may inhale or ingest them.

One organism they’ve studied is Mycobacterium vaccae. Scientists have fed M. vaccae to mice and found they have less anxiety and perform better in mazes. They’ve isolated a fatty acid in M. vaccae that binds with receptors in immune cells, locking out chemicals that cause inflammation. They think they can use this to make an anti-stress vaccine. But don’t wait for a vaccine—you can buy M. vaccae supplements!

When we garden together, the children get their hands in the dirt. This contributes to their health. Presently, schools are closed and parents are trying to homeschool their offspring. I hope when they get tired of them underfoot, the parents send the kids outdoors into the sunshine and fresh air to get dirty.

Another thing that keeps me healthy is living in the middle of five acres of woodland. Although confined at home, I have freedom. Forest bathing is an everyday thing for me.

My house in the woods.

Up until a few weeks ago, I was busy with many volunteer activities. So busy, at times I threatened to go back to work so I could get some rest! Or I wished the world would stop long enough to let me catch my breath. Be careful what you wish for.

At the beginning of the month, my calendar for March and April was so full I barely had a day each week to just stay home. Church, Garden Club, Master Gardeners, Writers Alliance—all had demands. This doesn’t include personal and family things, and writing.

I made to-do lists. Lots of lists. On one piece of paper I had five lists. On another, six.

Stop the world! I want to get off!

I was kidding! Really. I just wanted a little relief, some time to myself. Could I be personally responsible for this worldwide shutdown?

Leaves of three–don’t bathe with me!
Poison Ivy

Overnight, everything was cancelled, through April, maybe May, or beyond. No meetings. No plant sale. No school gardens. No granddaughter’s softball games. No church services. (These are being broadcast over Facebook, but I don’t have to go anywhere, just stay home and watch.) Days and days without obligations, nowhere to go, no one to see. I’m an introvert, happy to be by myself with my thoughts.

Virginia Creeper is a good neighbor.

Many people have problems with social isolation. Not me. But I’m not totally isolated. There is telephone and internet. I’m in contact with people every day and there’s still work to be done: approve the Garden Club budget, field questions and information, tend to Writers Alliance business that must go on, etc. I stay busy, but it’s so nice not to have to go somewhere every day. I can wear old clothes and forget makeup and deodorant. I take naps. I’m a hermit. I love it.

I can’t sit still long enough to binge on Netflix. I may watch an hour or two a night, or I may just read. I also listen to self-improvement podcasts. That’s where forest bathing entered the equation. Towards the end of one podcast, the guru said. “Now go out and do some Forest Bathing.” Isn’t that what I’ve been doing?

I write outdoors as much as possible. I’m writing this on my laptop on the porch. I’m moving my houseplants outside. I’m making attempts at vegetable gardening, even though last year the wildlife harvested more than I did. I walk the quarter mile down my driveway to the mailbox. Even though I’m mostly in the shade, my skin is showing signs of tan.

My driveway

But when I googled Forest Bathing, I realized I was leaving out an important factor: mindful meditation. I shouldn’t just scurry around getting my hands dirty. I need to make mindful contact with the soil, breathe deeply, close my eyes, feel the sun on my skin, listen to the birds and beasts that share my little paradise. Smell the wild azaleas.

Native wild azalea.

 

But many of you are still in the throes of winter, or you live in cities where you can’t get out in nature. What can you do? Get a houseplant. Start a tomato plant on your windowsill. Open a window for a few minutes and drink in fresh air. Use your mind to forest bathe. Imagination can be powerful. Close your eyes and picture yourself in the woods. Take a hot bath and pretend you’re basking in a hot spring in the mountains. Make plans to get out into the wild once this is over. Hold to that possibility. This, too, shall pass.

You can also read a good book that takes place in nature. I have a suggestion: Trials by Fire. The story will take you out of yourself and into a wilderness far, far away.

Available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

 

Happy New Year!

You may have noticed I haven’t posted in a while. It’s not that I’ve been idle. This year I’ve done a lot of traveling, besides to Djibouti in January. During the summer, I traveled as far as upstate New York for a family reunion and spent time with my children and grandchildren in the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia. Then in October, I realized one of my life-long dreams and went to Greece—Athens, the Parthenon, and beautiful islands in the Aegean Sea.

As if that wasn’t enough, in November I joined my sister Sue in Connecticut for a genealogy expedition. This was the first time since childhood that I ventured to a northern clime during winter. I survived. When my granddaughter was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains in December, I braved snow and ice for this happy occasion.

So I have many adventures to write about, including the rest of my journey to Djibouti. I promise to deliver.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing, because I have. I’m polishing a novel I wrote during NaNoWriMo a few years ago, while another simmers on the back burner. One of my short stories was published in Bacopa Literary Review this fall. But what I’m excited about today is the novel I just released, Trials by Fire, which is the first volume of a trilogy, The Long Road to Namai.

This story has been down a long road itself. When I was a kid, my sisters and brothers and I would camp out in the backyard on summer nights and tell ghost stories. This was science fiction, not a ghost story, and it was so long ago I don’t remember much about the original version. During college, I developed the story a little more. Through the intervening years, I wrote at least one short story which bears little resemblance to the present incarnation. None of these previous efforts bore fruit.

Then I retired and spent a month writing the first novel length version. I went so far as to self-publish it, but gave away more copies than I sold. A few years later I reread the book and thought, “What a great story, but what lousy writing!” I took it off the market and totally recrafted the whole thing. The story was still good and the writing much better, but it was too long and I couldn’t get the word count down without sacrificing important elements.

I decided to follow the suggestions of friends to divide the story into at least two parts and market it to Young Adult readers. I won’t bore you with all the details involved in getting a book market-ready, but as one person warned me, it takes longer than you think. Finally, here it is.

I’m sure you’ll enjoy this novel even if you’re not into science fiction. It’s also a human interest story and unlike anything else you’ve read. During the coming year, I will finish parts two and three and release them for your reading pleasure. Stay tuned.

Trump Tower, Djibouti

Did you know there is a Trump Tower in Djibouti? It’s a well-kept secret, but pictures don’t lie. (Well, sometimes they do, but I don’t know how to photo-shop.) Not only do few people know about this feat of architecture, even fewer have been inside. I’m one of the lucky ones.

West side of the Lighthouse.

It is better known as the Balbala Lighthouse or the Ayabley Lighthouse, named for the colonial fort that once guarded the city. It stands catty-corner across the street from the Project House. The exterior is an invitation to graffiti, and someone spray painted in large letters:

After we finished our first session at the Project House we walked across the street to the lighthouse.

Town of Balbala from the lighthouse.

Three of the bead girls, including “Rose,” went with us.

Sisters and Bead Girls

When I visited Djibouti in 2004, we were not allowed to go inside, but that has changed.

Djibouti City

A family lives in the lighthouse. We asked for permission to go in and they granted it. The tower is in the corner of a gated wall around a dusty courtyard. We had to climb several stone “steps” to get to the gate, not an easy feat for little old ladies wearing long dresses. The man who said we could come in noticed us struggling to scramble up a two-foot high step and brought out a small stool to make it easier. This was one of the many examples of courtesy we were to experience in this Muslim country.

North view

Inside the building is a steep metal staircase/ladder with rickety railings that may have been there since the lighthouse was built 100 years ago. The staircase shook and swayed as though welds and bolts were ready to come apart. It seemed to be held together primarily by a fresh coat of paint. A reasonable person would have declined to set foot on such a structure, but we had already stepped outside our comfort zone many times on this trip. Faced with an adventure of a lifetime, we refused to let caution stop us. Fortunately, the ladder held together and we met with no mishaps.

This looks more solid than it felt.

The bottom story of the tower serves as the family’s kitchen. The floor is hard-packed dirt that seems to slope towards the door. There may have been a reason for that—drainage?—in this land of little rain? The floor may not have been leveled since Djibouti gained its independence from France over forty years ago. What clued me that this was a kitchen was the presence of two refrigerators. There was no stove, only a cooking area on the floor similar to a small fire circle at a campsite. The family did not want us to take pictures of their home, and we respected that, but I was allowed to photograph the staircase.

Northwest view

The windows were covered with boards, perhaps to protect from heat and dust, but there were gaps to let in a little light. Openings in the walls look like slits from which to fire guns. That suggests the lighthouse once served as a fortress.

East view

 

The second floor was bare except for a few pallets and a hammock with mosquito net, obviously the sleeping area. I never encountered any mosquitoes in Djibouti, but I’m told that they can be a problem at times.

Southeast view

In my experience, lighthouses are built near the ocean and I wondered why this one is so far inland. When I stepped out onto the roof, I found out why. The tower is built on the tallest hill in the area and you can see all around the city and countryside for many miles. Its light projects far out to sea.

The Port in the distance.

The lighthouse is, and has been, operational for over 100 years.

The light

The Project House can be seen from the roof, as can volcanoes in the distance.

Project House and gas station, volcano in distance

 

In the corner of the compound opposite from the tower is a covered area. This could have been housing for another family or additional living or work space for the family in the lighthouse. It would have been shady, if not rainproof, but the walls would have blocked any breeze. I didn’t think to ask what it was.

Courtyard

Local author Djibouti Jones wrote an article about her visit to the lighthouse at http://www.ethnotraveler.com/2013/12/light-upon-light/. Please read it. After their visit, she and her friend Sayiid disputed whether there were three floors or four. Sayiid was right. Trust me, there are three: the kitchen floor, the bedroom floor, and the roof. Climbing up in the lighthouse is such a unique experience, it’s easy to see how the imagination could be overwhelmed.

This building next door looks official but doesn’t appear to be in use. The khat stand on the left was probably put out of business by the khat store across the street.

Saturday morning, Lorraine picked me and Jen up at the guest house and we all went to the Project House. The lobby was full of young girls, the Running Girls, who were there for their graduation.

The Running Girls

The Project house is a center for several programs sponsored by Local Initiatives for Education, or LIFE, the NGO the Nordmeyers work for. It’s housed in a four bedroom, two bath apartment above two storefronts in the nearby community of Balbala. When I visited in 2004, Balbala was outside the city, but by now the city has grown around it. Its name refers to the flashing light of the lighthouse which is located there.

LIFE sponsors a girls’ track team. Until recent years, girls in Djibouti did not participate in athletics. At first there was resistance to it, but it has become acceptable. More than acceptable—one of the graduates of the program participated in the Summer Olympics in Brazil in 2016.

The running girls range in age from 11 to 16. They train at the local stadium and come to the Project House only for special events. To participate in the Running Club they are required to stay in school. On this occasion, each girl received a backpack full of personal items and writing materials. The backpacks were made at the Project House by the Sewing Girls.

Three of the graduates

I’m always impressed by the colorful clothing of the women of Djibouti. Many of the Running Girls are very poor but they wore their best outfits that day. In the pictures, you’ll see that everyone is barefoot. It’s customary to take your shoes off at the door to avoid tracking in any disease-causing organisms you might pick up on the streets. Most people wear flip flops, which are cool and easy to slip on and off. The Running Girls are given athletic shoes for training, but some of them run on the track barefoot because, they say, the shoes are too heavy.

Girls with backpacks and coach

Lorraine called the girls into the work room two or three at a time, spoke with them, and gave them their backpacks. Most of the girls were quite shy. They also kept their heads covered even though they were inside, at a safe place with only women. Later during our stay we attended a track meet and saw some of the girls run.

The Project House has a sewing room, a bead room, a store, and a workroom.

Shopping opportunity

Lorraine and her friend Herut teach sewing to young women to prepare them to make an independent living. They make purses, aprons, pin cushions, rag rugs, and other things, including back packs. The girls receive two years of instruction, and when they graduate, each is given a pedal sewing machine. This is important because their homes have no electricity. They leave the program with marketable skills.

 

Sewing Room

Donations of these pedal sewing machines come in from all over the world. A few of the girls have a mechanical bent and have learned to repair the machines for the Project House.

Old pedal machine in good condition.i

The Bead Girls were trained to make beads from strips of paper rolled up and covered with resin. They now run their own business and rent their room from LIFE. I put in an order for a blue necklace and earrings. One girl looks so much like Jen’s daughter Rose that she and Jen “adopted” each other when Jen visited before.

Jen and “Rose”

On Sunday, we returned to the Project House. The Bead Girls were cutting strips of blue magazine pictures for my beads. The Sewing Girls were making pin cushions. These are very nice, but they stuff them with scraps of cloth. Lorraine has suggested they stuff them with hair, which would keep the pins from rusting, but they say no, the hair is dirty. She told them they could wash it, but they hadn’t followed this advice yet. If they’d had pin cushions stuffed with hair, I’d have bought some.

The Bead Girls at work

Jen knows how to reupholster furniture and was happy to teach the girls. A couple of chairs at the Project House needed to be recovered. Jen showed them how to take the seats apart, measure the fabric, cut it, and reassemble the chairs. They worked on a simple chair with a seat cushion and a desk chair. The girls caught on quickly. This was to be a two day job.

Working on a chair cushion

Monday morning, we returned to the Project House where Jen helped the girls finish upholstering the chairs. Now they have an additional skill which will help them earn a living. Sue showed the girls how to make a fabric flower to embellish a project.

Finished chairs

The storefronts downstairs house an auto parts store and a khat store. On the first day, I took a picture. We heard that the men at the khat store didn’t like it, so when we went back, we asked permission. Immediately, they became friendly. So friendly, that when Lorraine told them we were her sisters, they proposed marriage! She said we were already married, so that was that.

Khat and auto parts stores

We returned to the Project House the following Sunday. By now, my necklace and earrings were ready. Herut had made a fabric purse to which she affixed a cloth flower, the center of which was a button. That purse would bring a pretty penny at a fashionable boutique.

This time, Sue taught the girls how to sew a zipper into a throw pillow and we showed them how to make a lapped pillow cover. Covered pillows are yet another product the girls can make to sell.

This was our last visit to the Project House. Djiboutians are generous people who enjoy feeding visitors and giving gifts. The girls probably would have showered us with gifts, but we settled on one apiece. Deka gave me a bag she had sewn. I am proud to use it as a book bag, a crochet bag, and an all-round tote bag.

Deka’s bag and my beads

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