Representative Ilhan Omar

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum in Manhattan tells the story of waves of immigrants who came to our shores from Europe in the early part of the 20th century. They have much in common with the people fighting to come here now, many from war torn countries or those ravaged by criminal violence, drugs and extreme poverty. Unlike Trump’s demonization of immigrants as dirty and ignorant and of little worth, the people who succeed in making the arduous journey here are the often the strongest, the most ambitious, the ones willing to work hard and risk the most to give their families a better life, a safer life. That was true in the early 20th century, and it’s true now.

Representative Ilhan Omar, whose Minnesota Fifth Congressional district has a large Muslim constituency and a large Jewish constituency, is that kind of immigrant. She’s a Somali-American refugee, a Muslim, a mother of three, a woman of color who wears hijab. She brings to her newly elected office life experience that few others can claim. She’s bright, articulate, and sees the world through a lens that has been heretofore almost entirely absent in Congress.

She’s become caught up in the current political reality that it’s impossible to raise any criticism of Israel without evoking the shrill accusation of being anti-Semitic. She’s also caught in the treacherous cross-current of Republican politics, the effort to pull Jewish voters away from the Democratic Party. None of that is going to get any easier as her time in Congress unfolds.

But I’m optimistic. Representative Omar is a bright woman. She’s speaking from her experience, that of a Muslim woman of color in the United States. Right now her critics are attempting to define her as anti-Israel, and therefore as one whose voice should be silenced. Instead, she’s speaking from her own experience, on behalf of the people and places that U.S. policy ignores or actively hurts. I’m hoping the deflection doesn’t work, and that Rep. Omar is strong enough, resilient enough, for her unique voice to break through.

To Omar, the controversies surrounding her are an episode not in the Jewish experience but in the Muslim one. “People will talk about the veterans and the people who are in the armed services, but we never talk about the children,” she said. “We’re talking about the number of bombs going off, and there’s, like, two thousand people who have died.” In the special vortex of the Trump era, Omar made the extraordinary leap from being a refugee to being a symbol of a new progressive majority, not in a few generations but in a few years. It isn’t only the left’s changing views of Israel that the Democratic Party is struggling to assimilate; it is also the patriotism and disenchantment, obstinacy and poise, of Omar herself.”

Wedding Plans

Sara and Ben’s wedding plans are proceeding apace. There are a million decisions to be made around a wedding — cue the concept of a project management spread sheet. Destination weddings have their own challenges: you have to get everyone there and back and create enough events surrounding the actual ceremony to keep friends and family engaged and entertained.

From the standpoint of M.O.B., I have to say that the whole thing is so much happier when the families get along and are fully on board with the impending nuptials. Jerry’s and my Catholic/Jewish union formalized by a judge was not a happy thing for my mother or Jerry’s father. Everyone came and everyone behaved, which is saying something. But the easy camaraderie and joy that accompanies Ben and Sara on the lead-up to their big day is refreshing. Matt and Amy’s wedding followed a similarly harmonious path. I’ve met several members of Ben’s family, and I’m glad to say that we’re all united in wanting to give the couple 100% all-in support for the start to their marriage.

The substance of a marriage is how the couple themselves create a life together, one day at a time. Jerry and I were able to be joyful in creating a marriage, despite the shifting family sands at our beginning. I expect that and more for Ben and Sara, and I’m smiling in anticipation.

Remembering Emmett Till

I was ten when fourteen year old Emmett Till was killed in Money, Mississippi. Somehow I recall seeing the ghastly photos of his battered body in Life magazine. He was a kid not much older than I, and his death made it seem like a dangerous world.

Black people and white people choose to remember history differently. Some of us choose not to remember history at all.

I found this interactive piece oddly moving. Fewer than 100 people live in Money now. The store where Emmett went to buy candy and wound up dead is collapsing in decay. Two white rednecks who lived in Money in 1955, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, thought Till had crossed racial lines with the white woman behind the counter, Carolyn Bryant Donham. She later recanted parts of her story. The two men were acquitted in a show trial. There is not any doubt that they brutally killed the fourteen year old black boy. The men are both now dead. Emmett Till never got to grow up.

At the time, black families made sure their children knew about Emmett’s fate. White families apparently did not.

“Willie Williams and Donna Spell grew up about eight miles from each other in the Delta. They are 10 years apart in age. He learned about Emmett Till as a child. She learned about him as an adult. Mr. Williams is black. Ms. Spell is white.

Mr. Williams said his parents told him about Emmett’s story “as a way of being careful.” Ms. Spell said Emmett’s horrific death was not a story “my parents would have told their children.”

We surely tell different stories even today.

Just curious: if you are “of a certain age” were you aware of Emmett Till’s murder? Did you see the Life magazine piece? Did it make a difference, later, in the way you viewed civil rights? And if  you don’t mind saying, did you view the murder of Emmett Till through white or non-white eyes?

Conscious Aging: Mother of the Bride

I’m not in any sense of the word “planning” my daughter’s wedding — Sara and Ben have that well in hand. I get to do all the fun stuff, like go with Sara to find her dress, and work with her to order my MOB dress online. I’m not an easy fit. I have what I call my “Irish peasant” body — broad shoulders and back, hardly any waist, and slender hips and legs. Finding a dress that works is a trial — I do better with separates. Fortunately, Sara is pretty relaxed about the whole thing, as long as I look smart and classy and fit the occasion.

The actress Tyne Daly has the same body shape, and the same Irish heritage. She once thought she couldn’t play the role of Maria Callas onstage because no one would mistake Daly for having a wasp waist, as did Callas. Daly got the role and shone in it, and somehow conveyed the aura, if not a physical match, with the real Maria Callas.

The wedding is about seven weeks away, and things are moving quickly. They’re going to have food stations, not a plated dinner — great idea. They’re putting together a playlist; we attendees get to suggest songs on their wedding website. Since it’s a destination wedding, we’ll all be there together for at least the long weekend, and so more events than the wedding itself need to be planned. Attire needs to be spelled out. This is a beach wedding, with the reception outdoors on grass. What does that suggest for footwear? They have to sort out who is going to sit at what tables — always hard, especially in this era when people seem not to RSVP on time.

This will also be a chance for a great family gathering and catch-up, as people are coming from Germany, New Jersey, Boston, Maine, and other locations. Remember when you used to drive to a wedding at the nearby house of worship, and have the wedding dinner at a local place? Not any more. People have become used to traveling for such occasions, and it becomes an adventure as well as a huge celebration.

Will keep you posted as things continue to unfold. 🙂

Panama 2019: Writing Around

I’ve done a lot of writing around how I feel about Minga’s death — characteristic of me to lead with my brain and my capacity for observation. Several of you have said you like the posts, which have given you a good sense of Minga, her family, and the images surrounding her death. I’m there in the posts, albeit indirectly as the gatherer and shaper of the information. I’m happy for the affirmation — thank you all who have commented.

Here’s what I haven’t said yet, at least not directly.

I really miss Minga very much, and her not being there on my recent visit was hard for me from beginning to end. Visiting her grave was hard. Not having her walk through her front door into the sunlight, arms open and with a broad smile, was hard. No one has the right to expect another person to be there all the time. We teach our toddlers early on that “Mommy is busy right now. You need to play by yourself for a bit.” But Minga seemed to sense how important it was for me that she was there each time I arrived in the village. On every visit up through winter 2017, she would look me in the eye at my departure and say firmly, “Pamela, I will be here when you come next year.”

She suffered kidney failure in November of 2017, and almost died, then went on dialysis. Her family asked me not to come then, as they were in utter tumult and didn’t have the capacity to take care of Minga and be responsible for me as well. I went in January 2018, when she was stabilized. For the first time, our parting did not include the assurance that she would be there. Nor did she say those words in November 2018, after our wonderful week in the city. I left on November 20th, and she died on November 27th. I knew she hadn’t said the all important words and it unsettled me, although I didn’t draw her attention to it.

I don’t much believe in premonitions. I think Minga just didn’t say things she wasn’t sure would likely be true.

Our friendship was uncomplicated in the sense that we never had to be anything in particular for each other, except “there”. When I returned to the village ten years ago, after a 40 year hiatus, she didn’t ask where I’d been, why I hadn’t come back sooner as I once promised I would, why I was there now, how long I was staying, or what I was going to do during my visit. I had been there, and then not for a long time, and now I was there again. To her, that’s all that mattered.

It was a precious, pristine, simple friendship, in the best sense of that word.

I miss her very much.

January 2018

Panama 2019: The Pictures I Take

Friend and regular reader Randi made an interesting observation about my Panama pics: they are almost all of people, not things or scenes or historical or cultural sites. She’s right, and that’s true not only of my Panama pics but of most of my photography. My abiding interest and passion is discovering how people make sense of their lives and create a sense of meaning. For me, that is revealed in human interactions, not so much in the physical context in which we live.

My first editor, Marie Cantlon, pointed out to me that I need more physical detail in my writing, that people are not disembodied souls but move in a physical world. She was right, all those years ago, although I don’t think I’ve made much headway in evoking the vibrance of physical space either in print or in photographs.

Hey Picture Lady, this post calls out for your comment. 🙂 [Picture Lady is my Rochester friend and reader who actually is a photographer, and a fine one.]

I do better capturing emotion with human interaction. Minga has my hand in both of hers.

Nature scenes a little stronger than other attempts to capture physical detail.

Looking into lobby of The Buenaventura, hotel in complex where we stay. So-so.

Panama 2019 Reflections: On Minga’s Family

The most important take-away from this first Panama trip following Minga’s death is that her family is really doing very well. I was a bit concerned that the normal tensions that had built up during the long and difficult year of her dialysis would explode after her death. But that hasn’t happened at all. They are pulling together. They are doing what she wanted: keeping her home open and cared for so that any of the family visiting the village will have a place to stay. The two eldest daughters, Ana and Rufina, and the eldest son Angel are moving into the center that was left empty by Minga’s death. All three are wise and capable and have good hearts.

Daira told me that now I am their mother, which is deeply touching. They do have at least one living aunt in the village, Roberto Delgado’s sister, but she is very elderly and they are taking care of her — Roberto was much older than Minga. I will continue to be their Tia Pamela, their aunt of the heart. But the ones who are there every day, and who have the wisdom of experience, are the real matriarchs and patriarch: Ana, Rufa, and Angel.

Two of Minga’s adult offspring are not doing as well as the others, but they weren’t doing well before Minga died — having to do with issues in their own lives. I’ll be interested to see over time how siblings deal with the difficulties, instead of their mother. That’s a more complicated dynamic, I suspect.

All of the villagers, Minga’s family included, are closer to the ebb and flow of real life, and with fewer buffers and distractions, than we are. The family knows that Minga lived a full and rich life — rich in family, rich in her place in the village, rich in the sense that she knew exactly who she was and was calm and confident in her place in the world. That doesn’t mean she had no regrets. She constantly talked about having to leave school at third grade, and never having the opportunity to study. That was why she constantly exhorted her large extended family to study, to take the opportunities available to them that she never had. But on the whole, she was at peace with the world and her place in it.

Minga valued loyalty, faithfulness, helping those in need even when she had little to share. She was a very feminine woman who took time with her appearance. She hated quitters, always saying you needed to sigue luchando, continue fighting. She was pretty bad at picking men. She knew every grandchild and great-grandchild, and never held back from insisting on the family standards they were expected to meet. She believed in luck — she bought lottery tickets even when she had no money to spare — and in the Virgen del Carmen.

She was, like all of us, a complicated and interesting person. Dialysis was hard, but she fought to live until the very end. Her family then carried her the last miles to her eternal rest.

Panama 2019: On Gloria’s Faith

If you’re a person of faith, you have to account for the fact that some people really get the short end of the stick in life. What does that say about God, presented by most religions as loving?

On one of our last breakfasts, Gloria launched into her belief that I am a living angel sent to her by God as her reward for keeping the faith through many years of trials. That really hits on all my old Catholic stuff, but I recognize and respect that Gloria has the right to make sense of the world within whatever framework she can. So I smile and nod and stay silent. I’ve heard this story of my alleged angelic qualities several times.

When I first met Gloria ten years ago, she was employed by a wealthy Cuban-American couple who owned the villa I first rented. They were imperious employers, to say the least. Gloria had many family problems: her youngest son’s leg kept breaking, unable to support the weight of his growing adolescent body. The treatment for his club foot had been limited, and did not involve physical therapy. Her mother was aging and not so able to ride herd on three rambunctious adolescent boys while Gloria was away for weeks at at a time, as she was required to do when the Cuban couple or renters were in residence. Gloria’s marido, Luis, worked near the city and was only home Saturday mid-day through Sunday night. They often went for weeks without seeing each other. Gloria herself had many health problems, some related to the extreme malnutrition she suffered as a child. She was miserable, overworked, often in severe pain, and near despair.

That, she tells me now, was God testing her. And she met God’s challenge, because her life has gotten steadily better over the ten years. Now she is a new woman.

Well, she is a new woman — funny, confident, assertive. I wish she would take more credit for the hard work of personal transformation, attributing more to her natural intelligence and resilience and less to angelic intervention. But as I say, people have to make sense of the world in their own terms.

I think Gloria has changed as a result of the role modeling and encouragement of all the strong women I’ve brought to Panama, and whom she’s gotten to know — often without any shared language. Gloria thinks her life has changed because God tested her enough and finally decided to cut her a few breaks.

Here’s my evidence of women drawing strength from other women — Tia Sally and Gloria. Gloria doesn’t need evidence for her world view, because her story is all about faith.

Panama 2019: Best and Worst

On a purely solitary note, the best this year was the ocean, which was absolutely delightful and enticing. We got in every day, despite the occasional appearance of Medusas and other dangerous sea creatures.

On a more interpersonal note, the best was seeing Minga’s family close ranks and come together after her death. My sister of the heart would be proud.

Runner-up bests, in no particular order: Gloria’s cooking. Getting word that the frightening news about Gabrielito’s heart was in error, and that he is likely fine. Seeing Luisito in university and Miley headed there, likely to surmount the poverty into which they were born. Exploring more of Panama City than we usually do. Continuing our streak of ten years with no injuries or significant illness, even as Tia Sally goes out alone in the pitch dark around 5am to run while avoiding the heat. The family gathering on the first Sunday we were there, which was Minga’s deepest wish — that her family continue to gather and celebrate. Sun and 90 degrees every day. Sunrise and sunset, every day. Gin and tonic at the hotel bar. Three weeks of uninterrupted camaraderie with my dear friend Sally.

The worst: only one really. The Bone Collector thing, which freaks me right out. Actually they’ve always done that — scooped up whatever remains after three years or so and put it all in a small box somewhere else in the cemetery, to save space and make room for the next dearly deceased. I remember that from the Peace Corps days, when people were merely wrapped and didn’t even have caskets. A deceased got a three year ride in an official grave, and then had to make way. Freaked out though I was, I left money for Gloria to pay the Bone Collector for dealing with Arturo’s remains, and specified that someone should at least paint his name on the little bone box. Right now, in the big white interment thing holding his casket, there is no name.

Glad to hear what posts you found most interesting, or least. 🙂

Panama 2019 Departure Surprise: On the Shuttle

As I said yesterday, I usually discourage the Panama family from coming to the airport. The lines at Tocumen — for anything — are long. Efficiency and customer service are not a high priority. Passengers have to go through two identical full security screens, and there’s no TSA pre which allows eligible flyers to keep shoes on, computers in bags, etc. Everything has to come off or out — twice. You go through the metal detectors at Panamanian security to get into the screened passenger area just like at all airports, then an identical process run by each airline at the gate — at least on flights headed to the U.S. Really, it takes forever. Woe to the person who’s gone through that second screening and is inside a secure marked off area at the gate who has to use the rest room.

This time I brought a beautifully painted parrot for Archie, and although the creature is made of wood, inexplicably there is an inside metal core. I found this out when my belongings kept triggering a metal object and everything had to come out of my bag until we found it. Since I’d stuffed half again the amount of belongings I came with into the bag — I always forget to account for the gifts the Panamanian family bring upon departure — the unpacking and running through the metal detector and packing again was not fun.

Given the arduous process, when Sally and I hit the door to enter the airport we rush for the security line. No time for good-byes there.

My breakfast crew had different ideas. When Sally and I went upstairs at the airport hotel to finalize our packing and get our bags and check out, the lot of them hopped on the hotel airport shuttle. They were lucky. That shuttle run was empty. When Sally and I caught the little bus a half hour later, it was full and only passengers would have been allowed.

Here they are — minus Manuel who had to go to work — in a pic they showed me later. And here’s the parrot, who arrived safely in my bag and is now in Archie’s room. 🙂