Welcome to the first of the update for authors in the Cafe and Bookstore this week and we have a full house… you might need a cup of coffee and a few minutes to enjoy. Our first author with news is Luanne Castle who is celebrating the release of her second book Kin Types. About […]
Tag Archives: History
If you read Merril’s blog you know that she’s a historian and a poet. Here’s Merril’s first reaction to KIN TYPES. (Thanks, Merril!)
So–this arrived last night. I left it on the kitchen table, and I just started reading it–you know, leafing through it the way one does–and I got sucked in. I had to force myself to put it down because I have work to do. It is a powerful, lyrical mixture of poetry and prose, tragic accounts of everyday life–stories from her family history. Well, at least that’s what I’ve read so far. I’ll return for more in a bit.
OK, back to work now!
Luanne Castle is an award-winning poet. You can read more about her here.
When I was born in Kalamazoo, my paternal grandmother was the head fitter of the 28 Shop at Marshall Field and Company department store in Chicago. This was the big building at the corner of State and Washington; it filled the entire city block. The first floor, where jewelry and cosmetics were housed, looked as elegant as a palace and at Christmastime, the decor helped create the dream of the holiday for children and adults alike.
Grandma was a wiz with a needle and fitted the designer apparel and better fashion lines to wealthy women and to celebrities. Her favorite was Imogene Coca who she felt was a very gracious lady. One of her stories I regret remembering imperfectly was that a very famous movie star had deeply pocked skin and her makeup hid her skin condition from the public. If only I could recall who that was.
When Grandma retired, one of the gifts she received was perhaps incidental to her, but to me meant so much. It was the history of Marshall Field and the department store, called Give the Lady What She Wants. I grew up among retailers. My dad the luggage store, my grandpa the gas station, and my great-grandfather a fish market and, later, a soda shop. One branch of relatives, the Mulders in Goes, Netherlands, owned a shop selling “paint and colonial goods” for years. A few years ago (not sure if it’s still the case) you could still make out the name Mulder on the building.
When the gardener and I were 23 we opened a small retail store in a mall and stayed in the business until I graduated with my MFA in writing and we moved away for further schooling for both of us.
Although neither of us has worked in retail for years, we have fond memories. In fact, I feel as if retail is in my blood. Maybe it’s the Mulders (and others) in my DNA, maybe it’s from when I “played store” as a kid.
So watching the decline of retail over the years has been devastating to me. It’s a phenomenon rarely talked about by people. But it’s like watching a slow suffering death of a beloved family member. And yet, of course, it’s not. They are no longer beloved because these stores have (for the most part) been long ago taken over by companies called equity firms that are all about the bottom line and not the ART and CREATIVITY and PASSION that goes into building good businesses.
Because these businesses no longer care about their customers, their customers (ex, current, or no-longer-potential) don’t care about them. But I care about them as ghosts of what once existed.
Every city had its landmark department store. Even Kalamazoo had Gilmore Brothers. Think of the department store or stores where you grew up. If you’re old enough, you probably have some fond memories. They could be wonderlands to visit, even if all you did was window shop. Or whisper your wants into Santa Claus’s ear or watch the parade around the time of Thanksgiving. They were a sort of Dreamland for many of us.
When I was in grad school, I loved reading literature about young women who worked at these stores. Carrie in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and the real life Maimie Pinzer of The Maimie Papers were two of these books.
Is it a coincidence that Amazon and other internet vendors have increased and taken over much of the business from department stores at the same time that these stores have been taken over by equity firms? Or are the two events symbiotic, as in they have both helped each other to their end goals, which (to my mind) is the death of the department store?
The other day I read an article that declared that Macy’s was closing all its department stores and reopening as a discount company. Macy’s has been a cannibal, gobbling up one department store and department store chain after another–even including my beautiful Marshall Field store on State Street. You can read the article here and weep.
I am getting weary mourning the loss of something so vital to our sense of community and a place of beauty. Weary because this suffering has been going on for a long time now and every time I hear a sputter or gasp it breaks my heart a little more.
When I heard that Muhammad Ali had died and I listened to his chronology, I realized that his Parkinson’s was diagnosed before my kids were even born. They don’t remember Ali as I do. When I was a little kid, there were two big celebrities whose names swirled around me on a weekly, if not daily, basis: Marilyn Monroe and Cassius Clay. It wasn’t until 1964 that the Beatles eclipsed these names. For me, the name Cassius Clay itself was memorable, as was his personality and his reputation. He was a bit of a P.T. Barnum, bellowing and insisting upon attention and admiration. He was talented, and he knew it. He was handsome, and he knew it. He had the “IT” factor, and he knew it. He was also willing to stand up for himself and didn’t hold himself back, furthering civil rights by engendering in my generation the notion that OF COURSE all people should be equal. He did that with his expectations.
Then he converted, changed his name, and avoided the draft–and stirred up even more attention for himself. At that point, he tested the sympathies of middle-aged middle America. But for my generation, he showed that you don’t have to accept things just because the government says it is so. You can fight against what you feel is wrong. He showed that some things are worth fighting for. Whether you agreed or not with his political stance, it was impossible not to recognize that he was a FORCE and a TEACHER. We were young. We were blank slates. We learned so much from him.
Until very recently, my kids didn’t know any of this. The only thing they knew was that Muhammad Ali was a big name, an ex-champion, and had a vague illness.
If we don’t teach the history, how will they know that Ali’s importance didn’t lie in his boxing skills? How will future generations understand that teachers can come in unusual packages?
As a student of history, I am sensitive to history as an entity–its identity, its reputation, and its existence. Think of history as a person that you care about. I worry about the welfare of history–maybe that’s what I am saying.
The most important role of history, of course, is to remind us of the effects of our action and inaction–and to understand the process. As George Santayana so famously said: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. We don’t want to keep making the same mistakes over and over again.
Even through grad school (where I was working on a master’s in history before I switched to English and creative writing) and my teaching career, I saw that history was sometimes maligned or misunderstood, but had its place in the world.
I’m not so sure anymore.
I could look up a lot of statistics, but I’m writing this on Sunday afternoon and it’s inching up toward 115 degrees. It was 115 yesterday. My air conditioning can only cool my house just so much. I am fogged up with migraine aura from the heat and the thick particles of crud in the air. All I can say is I suspect that we are leaving history in the dust as we move on toward our brave new technologically driven world.
Tangent over. Back to Ali. When my kids were little, a baby in my family was born, and she was related to Ali. We were almost kin. This was exciting news. Just so you know, I am also almost kin to George Burns (“God” and Gracie’s husband) and Anton van Leeuwenhoek (microscope inventor). Anyway, Ali was gracious and generous to the new baby.
I never thought Ali would cross my path again, but I was wrong.
A couple of years ago, my son visited the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at Barrows Neurological Institute here in Phoenix where he received a diagnosis that had eluded us for years. There he was diagnosed with a rare movement disorder called Myoclonus Dystonia. The gardener and I had been taking him to doctors since he was nine months old, trying to figure out the source of his tic. Thanks to Ali’s donations and guidance, the center at Barrows (St. Joseph’s) is world class. When my son and I walked the hall, looking at all the photos of Ali, he said, “That’s our relative!” Hah, yeah, sort of. Pretty cool.
On a related note about the importance of making a place for history, did you watch the new Roots mini-series? Did you see the original version? If you were old enough when the first series aired and if you lived in the United States, I’m pretty sure you watched it. Although its story is fictional, it’s based on a historical novel by Alex Haley that is grounded in historical research and based on his own ancestor. So the TV series is a wonderful teaching tool. But if you weren’t around for that show, have you done your reading or is the history of African Americans one that you watch only in current events on your computer screen?
Did you watch the new Roots? I still haven’t found anybody else who has watched the new one. I hope you did. Even if you saw the first one, the new one has some new perspectives. For instance, Kunta Kinte, the first main character of the story, is a Mandinka warrior, not a simple villager. I like this because it gives the story and its characters a powerful guiding force throughout, and instills a sense of pride, as well. There are events, though, where I wondered if they pushed too far. If you watched it, I’d love to know what you thought about that last gunshot near the end. If you respond, please write a warning about a plot reveal!
The most recent little trip was to Payson, Arizona–with hubby and daughter. We drove northeast on the Beeline. The landscape was dotted with saguaros for the first half of the drive.
Many or most of the saguaros had flowering tips.
We followed behind this truck for awhile :/. At a certain point, the saguaros disappeared as we were at an altitude where they can’t live.
None of us had ever visited Payson before. I had expected a quaint village, fun little shops, that sort of thing. The economy didn’t look very strong, and there wasn’t too much that was quaint.
We tried to find the candle factory, only to discover it was just a gift shop. We had a pretty good laugh about that.
But next door there was a fudge shop where we each picked out a flavor. Caramel pecan, creme brulee, and rocky road. The ceiling was tentlike and they sold little sculptures made out of spoons.
I enjoyed these sculptures. The young man who helped us with our fudge said his father made them.
We drove past these odd old buildings. Notice the new construction behind.
We had each selected something we wanted to see. Daughter = candle factory. Scratch that. Hubby = antique stores. They were out of biz, closed, or not very good. Scratch that. Me = The Zane Grey cabin and museum. Woot–that turned out to be a winner.
Zane Grey, if you don’t know, was a writer of frontier novels and short stories. He was responsible for creating (or helping to create) a very romantic image of the American cowboy. He was also a very enthusiastic and talented hunter. When he was older, he began to have second thoughts about all that hunting and joined the Izaak Walton League to promote conservation.
The cabin is a reconstruction because Grey’s original cabin burned down in a big 1990 fire, but it was fascinating to see it and hear about the writer’s life in Arizona. Did you know that Hemingway ripped him off? I think it was The Old Man and the Sea that took its story from one of Grey’s–an unpublished one that Grey had let Hemingway read before Hemingway wrote his “masterpiece.”
They didn’t let me take pix of the cabin’s interior.
But next door was an old cabin that used to house eight people. We all had a hard time getting our minds around that as the interior is very small. You can’t really tell that from the photo. Apparently the Haught family built (1904) and lived here while they built their “real” house. It took about two years.
After viewing these two buildings, we toured the museum. Our tour guide was an old-fashioned schoolteacher type (you can draw your own conclusions). She did a great job teaching us about the Tonto Apache and the history of the vicinity. This is where I plugged Adrienne Morris’ wonderful novel about just this subject: The House on Tenafly Road. You can read my review here if you missed it: book review.