Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Tribute to Donna Gail Pippin

Rivers belong where they can ramble
Eagles belong where they can fly
I've got to be where my spirit can run free
Got to find my corner of the sky
Stephen Schwartz Corner of the Sky from Pippin

Each morning, I write the date on a white board for my mother Jean.  This past Sunday, as I wrote Sunday, November 18, 2018, I paused.  Somewhere in the files on my memory banks, I seemed to remember that the 18th of November was a special day. 

I went through the files in my memory banks, so many obscured by cobwebs & missing pieces, trying to trace the nagging voice telling me it was an important day.  

The search followed me as I went about the day’s activities – hooking up my computer to Jean’s TV so she could remotely attend church services.  Watching the Texans win another football game.  Organizing my Thanksgiving culinary contributions schedule.

Last night, my friend Susie Aronson Eshel sent me a message that our mutual El Paso peep, Mike Motley, had posted that our friend Donna Pippin had passed.

On Sunday, November 18th.

Donna Gail Pippin was a major part of my childhood in El Paso.  I no longer remember exactly when we met – if I met her at church first or in the sixth grade at Putnam Elementary. 

But we were friends from what seemed like forever in our youth.
I found a yearbook entry that Donna wrote in the 1970 Coronado Legend :

We were always in the same Sunday School class & we were both in G.A.s – Girls’ Auxiliary.  (It was a Baptist thing – Girls’ Auxiliary for girls & Royal Ambassadors for boys.  Separate but ostensibly equal.)

Our friendship moved beyond church & ostensibly separate but equal church activities. 
Donna was incredibly talented.  It was her gorgeous voice that carried our church youth choir.  She was bright & funny & kind & spirited.

I cannot remember a moment when she was anything less.

We spent countless hours with other cohorts exploring the desert behind my house.  Our exploration evolved into adventures, creating story lines, acting out characters, inventing perils & challenges beyond avoiding sharp cacti & rattlesnakes.

Donna was always open to my favorite narrative – reenacting roles from the original Star Trek series. 

As we moved from elementary to middle to high school, Donna quietly transformed from the young girl running through the desert with me into a maturing young woman.

I remember the exact moment when I first became aware of her maturation.

In high school, Donna began attending First Baptist Church rather the much smaller Coronado Baptist.  She told me that there were more activities, more opportunities for friendship. 

And that the boys were nice & well-behaved.  That none of them would make fun of me or ostracize me or say fuck you to me in front of my mother.

The first time I joined her there, it was instantly obvious that she was a leader.  A much-admired leader.   As I watched her stand in front of the group, I saw a confident, poised & graceful young woman. 

When I heard her sing a solo, my soul rejoiced.

And I wanted to be just like her.

Part of the maturing Donna was still that young girl running through the desert with me.  Still the kind, bright & funny girl whose smile was infectious.

But I had glimpsed the woman she was destined to be.

Like most participants on social media, Donna & reconnected with one another on Facebook.  After many years & lifetimes.

Over the years, we exchanged phone calls, emails & text messages.  I loved the phone calls & the sound of her voice.  In those calls, we exchanged the text of our life stories.

Donna never flinched when I shared segments of my story that I still find shocking. 

I once remarked to her that here we were, two good little Southern Baptist girls discussing very grown up & decadent lady matters.  She laughed.

She was still bright & kind & witty & full of grace.  Still the young girl who danced across the desert. 

My spirited & soulful friend lived a remarkable life.  Although she shared much of her story with me – it was, & remains, her text to share.

But I will write that Donna touched every life crossing her path.  She was a breast cancer survivor & cancer’s aftermath left her with many challenges.

Recently she contacted me to tell me about an upcoming trip to Houston over the holidays & that she wanted to get together during her visit with family.  I thought about where we should meet, about the prospect of seeing her family, about basking in her wonder.

I understand now that the voice following me on November 18th turned out not to be a fragmented memory from my past.  

But a preparation for Donna’s leaving.

So, my dear Pip, you have crossed that rambling river & are now where you were meant to be.  Not just in a corner of the sky, but across an everlasting horizon.  Where your spirit can run free & your voice soar with joy.

Until we meet again I, & so many others will miss you.

Love, Jack

Donna Gail Pippin
January 6, 1955 - November 18, 2018

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Jaki Jean on my First Amendment Infringement Against (an)Other

In the last month or so, I have been thinking a great deal about the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

Not because of the NFL protests or whether to take a knee. Not about how the twisting of the free exercise of religion to exclude Others.   Not about the current administration’s attack on the free press as the enemy of the people. 

Clearly the First Amendment did not consider the free press an enemy, but an essential check & balance of the how a democracy must operate in order to survive.

No, I have been thinking about the First Amendment because I have been accused of violating Others of their right to free speech.

Many of my family & friends & readers know that I a reluctant admin of a closed Facebook group here in the not quite one square mile city in which I live.

If there is one certain thing I know about myself, it is that I am not suited to be an admin of any Facebook group.  I doubt that there are many people less suited.

While I always attempt to be a kinder & gentler Jaki Jean - I do not suffer a fool gladly, I am intense, dramatic, emotional & too often volatile.  I have been advised to avoid the appearance of intelligence.

I fight to filter & censor myself every day, to take time to write out a response in Word before posting, walk away & return to rethink & rewrite.

Pausing to decide if I should post or not.

Pausing is not natural to me.  But I have learned as I have participated in this still new social media forum to pause. 

When I was recruited to be an admin, I told those recruiting me that I was unsuited for the task.  Unequal to the task.

For me, that was the end of the discussion.   But somehow, I was added as an admin.

A succession of previous admins had withdrawn due to some not quite neighborly or civil push back.  No one wanted the job.

I agreed to help because the remaining admin has a decades old connection to our family & was facing some stressful challenges at the time.

The group has clear, basic parameters, membership requirements, & a call for civil discourse. 

Must be a resident of MP. To become a member please message me a copy of your utility bill showing MP address. Any member that belittles or insults other members in post will be deleted. NO POLITICAL POSTS ON THIS PAGE. TAKE IT TO YOUR PERSONAL PAGE.

It is a group designed to share & disseminate information to residents.  To report, find & rescue lost animals, ask for a recommendation for a service, post reminders about community events.

It is not a political forum.

In the years I have played this reluctant role, I can count on less than one hand the number of posts I have independently taken down. 

Until this midterm election cycle.

In all other cases, I have consulted with my fellow admin, whom I consider to be the lead.
As we approach the midterms, neighbors have declared their positions with yard signs, gathering together with like minds in person, at rallies & establishing Facebook groups.

And, to my dismay, tested the NO POLITICAL POSTS rule in our group.

In the beginning, all of the posts in violation of our neighborhood group rules were taken down before I had to act.  Until a friend of both myself & the lead admin entered the equation.

It was a difficult choice, a difficult position for our friend to place us in.

I contacted the lead, who was dealing with a family medical issue.  She told me to handle it.

Then I deleted the violating post & published a post of my own, reminding members that the group has a No Political Posts policy.

The reaction online did not take long.  That it was a shame that the bad behavior of a few members meant that others could not exercise their First Amendment rights to free speech.  

In other words, my removal of the post infringed upon the right of free speech.

My first thought was are you fucking kidding me?  (Sorry, Jean.)  ME?  

The person who deliberately reads banned & censored books?  Me?  The person who still has the once controversial Leonard Cohen’s “Energy of Slaves” on a bookshelf?  Me?  The liberal?

Me?  Seriously?

Not to the group, but to a woman I know & called friend.  A woman who passionately believes in the agenda of the Republican party & its interpretation of the role of government.

A woman who understood she was pushing the envelope, a woman who knew I would advocate for removing the post.

The more I wrote, the more incensed I became.  I read & reread & read & reread the First Amendment.

A closed Facebook group is not publicly traded.  It is not a news media outlet.  It is not the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the National Review, the Atlantic, the Weekly Standard or Time Magazine.

In the musings of my pause, my cell phone rang & it was my friend.

I took a gulp of wine & answered the phone – not with Hello but with Did you really just fucking invoke the First Amendment against me?

A long conversation followed, the details of which no longer matter.  I listened, I interrupted, I listened, I attempted to participate in civil discourse.  And I ignored every effort to save me from the liberal abyss.

At last the phone call, that seemed to go on for hours, ended.

Again, I paused.

And thought about the First Amendment & its contents.

During these divisive times, there is a great deal of banter & debate about the First Amendment, the Second Amendment & about the Constitution. 

The First Amendment addresses two issues – the fact that these are the first issues addressed is paramount to our understanding of the Constitution.

First, Congress shall make no law establishing religion or the free exercise thereof.

Understandable.  The thirteen British colonies were under the rule of a state established religion – the Church of England.  The history of the Church of England is complicated & spans monarchs from Henry VIII to George III.

The bottom line is that the founding fathers did not want a republic that required allegiance to a state religion. 

Instead, they chose to protect the citizens of new Republic and establish the separation of church & state.

And then the First Amendment turns to the right of free speech, abolishing the abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peacefully assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The second part of the First Amendment is about protecting the citizens of the Republic from the government an citizen’s freedom of speech & of censoring the press.  It is about the right of citizens to peacefully assemble in dissent or support & the right to petition the government for a redress or objection of policy.

The second part of the First Amendment of the Constitution, demands civil discourse, peaceful protest & the right to petition the government.

The right guaranteeing free speech & a free press does not allow for me, as a woman, to enter the men's side of a mosque during prayers without removing my shoes, ignoring that I was entering a house of worship & a holy place & insert myself with a reading from the New Testament.

I could not claim that by removing me from the mosque, its members violated my First Amendment rights.

In such a scenario, it could be argued that I ignored & disrespected more than a Muslim directive.  It could be argued that I forgot God’s directive to Moses:  Take off your sandals, you are on Holy ground.  

I did not, even with my hubris & drama & intensity, violate anyone’s First Amendment rights.   I enforced a rule, a condition of participation in a closed Facebook group.

In many ways, I still cannot wrap my body & text around the accusation against me.

When I told my sister about this encounter, she said:

This person does not know you.

If have learned anything from this convoluted experience, it is this:  never, never accept the role of admin in a Facebook group against your gut instincts.

And I have learned what I have long suspected - that, unfortunately, friendship does not always transcend politics.

Friendship that envelops open, civil discourse, that does not demand a winner or loser of a debate or discussion, that listens & respects the views of the Other – that is a friendship which transcends politics.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Jaki Jean on the Blue Wave in Meadows Place

Earlier this week, my mother Jean & received the above post card, addressed to Jaki & Lavera Jean Ettinger.

For the past thirty odd years I have voted in Meadows Place, knowing that Texas District 22 was bright red.  I had to smile at the idea of a blue wave in this particular not quite one square mile city.

I first cast my vote in 1972, the first year 18-year-old citizens were given the right to determine which elected officials would call upon 18-year-old males to fight a war they did not create.

It was a powerful experience.  I went to the polling place with my Republican father Jack & my mother Jean.  (I did not know until I was a grown woman that Jean never discussed her votes with Jack.  She currently refuses to vote for any Republican.)

Our neighborhood Meadows Elementary School was a polling site for District 22.  When we entered the school, my parents were directed to the cafeteria, where the Republican primaries were going on.

I joined those voting in the Democratic primary in a kindergarten classroom.  (Years later, my eldest son was assigned to that same classroom.)  The five people in the room welcomed & hugged me.

Tempting as it is, I will not even go into the symbolism attached to the two sites.

My first vote was written on a paper ballot.

While 1972 was my first year voting, I had spent years of my childhood at my father Jack’s feet, watching both the Republican & Democratic conventions.  My job was always to keep track, state by state of the votes.

Sitting on the floor next to Jack, I listened to the speakers with the same solemn & serious attention that I gave to our minister every Sunday morning sermon, every Sunday night sermon, & every Wednesday prayer meeting.

And in the background of that rapt attention, there was the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War & the beginnings of the first wave of the Women’s movement. 

Although my father Jack never understood, all those conventions & conversations groomed me to reject the party he believed to stand for the direction our country should take.

Jack groomed a Democrat.

I often wonder if Jack’s father John Simpson Alexander Ettinger, an avid Democrat, somehow groomed a Republican.

Receiving the Blue Wave in Meadows Place card surprised me. 

I joined the Meadows Blue Wave Facebook group immediately. 

The population in Meadows Place is somewhere around 5,000 residents.  Among those residents are a substantial number of children under 18.  Meadows Place has one of the highest turn outs in Fort Bend County – a very red county that also just happens to be one of, if not the most diverse, counties in the country.

In the 2016 election, over a thousand registered voters in our little city did not vote.
I think about statistics a lot these days.
Approximately 25% of Americans eligible to vote do not register.  Among the 75% registered voters, approximately 40% choose not to vote.

I try & wrap my mind about these numbers. All those voices never heard, all those votes never cast.  What changes those voices & votes might have initiated.

Here in Meadows Place, our Blue Wave group is a pocket of resistance.  The odds are stacked against us  in this very red Texas District #22.  A district once dominated by Ron (not Rand) Paul & Tom Delay.

Meadows Place Blue Wave targets voter participation & voter registration.  And those one thousand plus registered voters who did not vote in 2016. 

Every day, with each outreach, our numbers grow.   And those numbers will continue to grow & prepare for 2020.

Our group is described as: 

Meadows Place TX Residents who are working to turn Texas Blue in 2018, 2020 and beyond! Our mission is to increase civic engagement, build community awareness, participate in community outreach, and meet our Blue Wave neighbors! Please join us!

We are just a small pocket of resistance.  But, if within every less than one square mile area, pockets of resistance develop, change will emerge.

In my role as a perennial English major, I have found pockets of resistance in the most unlikely texts.  Resistance against linear progression, resistance against accepted norms, resistance against the cultural construction of identity & gender, resistance against a narrative of women constructed by male writers.

Recognizing those pockets changed my reading, my perception & certainly my interpretation of texts within the literary canon, & texts that emerged outside the canon.

And taught me to seek out pockets of resistance in life, & in politics.

Meadows Place Blue Wave is an emerging force outside the canon of politics in our city, county & state.
I choose to read & interpret Meadows Blue Wave as a pocket with purpose & promise.

Waves invade the shore, recede & eventually move back to sea only to return . . . 

Monday, September 10, 2018

Jaki Jean on Remembering Willa & my Life as a Daughter-in-Law

When I got married on an April 6th all those decades ago, among the wedding gifts I received was Better Homes & Gardens Cooking for Two.  A few years ago, I downsized my obsessive collection of cookbooks.  But Cooking for Two was one of the few dozens I kept.  Some keepers were chosen for sentimental reasons, others for the frequency of us, some were cherished gifts. 

Cooking for Two is only 96 pages, the last ten of which are devoted to The ABCs of Cooking for Two – equipment, shopping lists, food storage, little tips for big successes, substitutions for ingredients, guidelines, herbs, hints on wine, ways with cheese.

My copy has browned pages, torn pages, pages assaulted by spills & splatters, stars indicating favorite recipes, notes in the margins, measurements that have been completely obliterated by use & neglect.

Much like the text of my life.

The other night I made one of my tried & truly delicious recipes from the Easy on the Budget Main Dishes section – Oven Beef Stew.

For decades, I have attempted to duplicate my mother Jean’s beef stew.  At times I came close – but almost only counts in horseshoes & hand grenades. 

Each attempt was both a failure & a challenge.

Oven Beef Stew answered the challenge.  Not because it tasted like my memory of Jean’s stew – but because it became a frequent visitor in my culinary life.  It involves red wine & a massive amount of basil.

After tucking the Oven Beef Stew in the oven for its two-hour journey, I picked up Cooking for Two & looked through the pages, trying to remember where, why & with whom I shared the results of the starred & stained recipes over the decades.

And then, in the Remembered Recipes Tailored for Two chapter I spotted a starred recipe in the Meal Plans Just for Two section:  Oven Swiss Steak.

And I thought about Willa, my now deceased ex-mother in law. 

Willa was a different kind of cook than my mother Jean.  She melted processed American cheese slices over plates of spaghetti.  She made tuna fish sandwiches with mustard & pecans.  She served chipped beef over toast for breakfast.  She put giblets in the gravy at Thanksgiving & Christmas.

The giblets totally grossed me out. 

But Willa also made some amazing dishes – fried shrimp (I still use her recipe), a fierce roast beef, yellow squash with onions & cheese, a moist turkey with cornbread dressing & three kinds of pies on holidays.  And always, two cakes from her favorite bakery – Italian Cream & German Chocolate.

And of course.  Swiss Steak – previously unknown to my palate.  The other night, I made Oven Swiss Steak from Better Homes & Gardens' Cooking for Two.

And reminisced about Willa.

About all the egregious, unforgivable, toxic moments she brought into my life. 
Moments that fueled my need to escape my marriage to her son.

Willa called me Cindy, her son’s previous girlfriend, for months.  She made corned beef brisket every Sunday we visited – which was just about every Sunday until we joined South Main Baptist Church.

At the time, I was certain I did not care for corned beef.  Once, my father-in-law, in my presence, asked her why she always cooked corned beef when she knew I did not like it.

Her reply was:  My son likes it.

(Note:  I learned to love corned beef via my friend Susan Foster.  I also learned to appreciate dove breasts held together by a toothpick with a slice of jalapeno, fried & served with gravy from Susan.)

Willa & my father-in-law were at least twenty something years older than my parents.  My spouse was their youngest son.  They married a bit later than others at the time, waited seven years to have their first son & then another seven before they had my spouse.

The family joke was that they only had sex twice.

I remember being astonished at the possibility that a married couple would only have sex every seven years.  My parents had four children in thirteen years. 

Looking back, the lack of a prolific sex life must have been an inherited trait.

Memory is elusive, written upon by time & perception & growth.

All of Willa’s drama, so egregious at the time, no longer angers or befuddles me. 

Calling me by a former girlfriend’s name, repeating a conversation about my appearance (she thought I was beautiful – my father-in-law disagreed & pronounced me pretty but not beautiful), confronting my mother Jean at the wedding because Jean wore a long dress & Willa wore a short dress & Jean should have told Willa to wear a long dress, laughing with my sister-in-law about how I ironed on the wrong side of the ironing board, the dramatic feigned heart attack, admonishing me because I did not prepare her son’s plate or let him win at backgammon,  & the accusation that I had searched for & examined the contents of her checkbook.

That one still pisses me off from time to time.  In our all too many weekend visits, we took our laundry & I took my school books.

I did the laundry & I studied.  (And ironed on the wrong side of the ironing board.)  My spouse watched sports with his father or worked in the massive garden he had installed on his parents’ land.

One afternoon, during what proved to be the last weekend visit for months, I set up my books & notebooks on the dining room table.  The dining area was a fine, sunny, impressive room outside the kitchen & only used for holiday meals & my weekend studies.  An entire wall contained a built-in china cabinet, complete with drawers & storage cabinets.

I no longer remember if I needed a pen or a pencil or a pencil sharpener, but I asked Willa if she had what I needed & she directed me to the far-right drawer on the cabinet wall.

I found what I needed & went back to folding laundry & studying.

It was still afternoon when my spouse came in & asked me if I had rummaged through the far-right drawer & looked into Willa’s check book.

Because, he explained, his mother had witnessed me snooping into her check book.

It was a true What the fuck? moment.  But in those days, I had not yet learned to think what the fuck, much less scream it out loud.

He seemed convinced that my snooping into someone’s check book was something less than unthinkable.  He kept insisting that his mother insisted that she saw me take out the check book & snoop.

Somewhere in the midst of all his questions – are you sure you didn’t take it out while you were looking for a pen (or pencil or pencil sharpener)? – I drew the first line.

I gathered my things, my clothes, my purse & keys & got into my VW Bug & drove to the house that Jean & Jack built.

Jean listened.  She touched my arm & listened as I spoke & ranted & asked what the fuck in different words.

Eventually my spouse found me at the house that Jack & Jean built.

Jean had the look – the one with a raised eyebrow.  She listened as he apologized, begged me to come home with him.  She listened as he tried to defend Willa’s accusations
And when he was finally done rationalizing, Jean spoke:

In all my daughter’s life, I have never seen her this unhappy.  I have never seen this look on her face.  If you are unable or unwilling to stand up to your mother, to support your wife, then you need to return my daughter to her father & to me.  I don't want to see this look again.

That day, Jean reinforced her unconditional love for & support of me.

Knowingly or unknowingly, Willa gave me the first line.  And made it possible for me to leave when the final line was crossed.

My mother-in-law’s story was complicated.  It is easier, now that time & experience have written across the text of my memory, to remember that.

Willa grew up in Montalba, Texas & was one of two siblings.  Her brother was the favored child wonder.  Her father died when she was young – the story goes that he developed pneumonia one winter because he refused to use the chamber pot & insisted on defying the inclement weather to use the outhouse.

Willa’s mother was a talented seamstress & that talent supported the family after her husband died.  Single mothers were not the norm in Montalba, Texas.  My spouse told me that his grandmother developed a loose reputation – real or imagined or invented by gossips.

Willa never graduated from high school.  But she was incredibly articulate.  I was blown away by her vocabulary.  An avid & ardent reader, she did not follow in her seamstress mother’s craft.

Instead, she developed amazing secretarial skills & was a legend at the typewriter.  Willa met my father-in-law at a dance.

My spouse’s father Barney came from a well to do railroad family in Palestine, Texas.  He was the youngest of four siblings.  It was after he used a fire at home to withdraw from Texas A&M that he met Willa.

Willa always felt she married up - & she married into a family of siblings who welcomed her.  Her mother’s heart was firmly focused on Willa’s brother.  Long before & long after his death.  

Barney’s family absorbed her & gave her equal sibling footing & focus.

Even though Willa’s brother was the favored child, Willa’s mother moved in & was waiting when Willa & Barney returned from their honeymoon.

My spouse’s grandmother left Willa & Barney’s house only twice.  Once, when Willa begged her brother to invite their mother for a visit.  (Brother sent Mama home after three days.) The next time Willa’s mother left was when she died.

I often think about Willa’s history & how it formed her.  Just as her own mother chose a favorite, Willa chose her youngest son.

In spite of all those manipulations, all the guilting, all the drama, Willa was, in her rather strange way, good to me.

She encouraged me in pursuit of my education.  More than once, she insisted on paying for my tuition & my books, even when I told her my father was set to do it.  Twice a year, she bought me a working wardrobe. (apparently, my Big Smith overalls did not meet her standards.)  She spent time with me, sharing her stories, sharing the text of her life.

She loved musicals & she loved that I watched them with her.  We talked about books we were reading, about books we both had read.

A long time, almost a year, passed between the incident of the check book allegation & my reappearance into the family fold.

My spouse had continued to visit his parents without me.  I continued to stay at home & read, waiting for someone, anyone, to apologize & absolve me of the allegation.

The one thing I missed while staying at home was my niece, with whom I shared a massive mutual admiration.

Willa, always aware of the potential for manipulation, set the scene for my return to the family fold, with her granddaughter as bait.

Telling her favored son that our niece missed me & was asking for me every time she made the trip from Dallas to Houston.

In the end, I succumbed & accompanied my spouse to his parents’ house.

To see that seven-year-old wonder child.

No one apologized, no one absolved me, no one withdrew the accusation.  Part of me no longer cared – my niece truly was a wonder child.

But Willa had given me the gift of drawing the line.

And when that line was crossed, I left everything, even her chosen son & that precious wonder child, on the opposite side of the line.

I did not eat any of Cooking for Two’s Oven Swiss Steak tonight.  My brother declared it awesome.

It was not, of course, Willa’s recipe.  It was my attempt to recall a memory, a taste of what was fine about her.

Perhaps another day, another attempt.

But not today.  Some memories are still left on the opposite side of the line Willa made possible. 

Willa, Barney, Jaki Jean & Willa’s Favored Son