Thursday, December 29, 2011

Edna Earle Boykin: One of a kind

The wind was brisk and unpredictable when a large crowd laid to rest Edna Earle Boykin Wednesday morning — an appropriate weather pattern for the feisty, determined, witty and wise 90-year-old who died Christmas Day. Gathered around the polished wood coffin in the old section of Maplewood Cemetery were scores of admirers, supporters and beneficiaries of her wise counsel and generous donations. The retired school teacher, school administrator, Wilson City Council member and arts and education advocate had preached education for children, care and concern for children, education for its innate value and arts for the health of the community. She gave generously to the Arts Council of Wilson, to Barton College and to other promoters of education and culture. She was quick to offer her opinion and adamant about the importance of art and education.

Jim Hemby, the retired Barton College president, had the crowd nodding and chuckling as he described Boykin's command to him about what he should say at her funeral.

The grave site where so many gathered in the chilly wind Wednesday stands within sight of Margaret Hearne School, where Boykin spent most of her career and where she ruled as queen of the roost and caretaker of thousands of impressionable children. She was my younger daughter's first school principal. When my wife was elected president of the Hearne PTO, she quickly found out that Miss Boykin really ran the organization; the president need not worry.

Soon after I came to Wilson in 1980, the Board of Education decided to demolish the 19th century Hearne School building and rebuild a "modern" one-story school on the same site. Miss Boykin went along with the decision, though it seemed obvious that she loved that old brick edifice that had once been the pride of Wilson's city school system. The public was warned that the building was so old that it was a hazard and might collapse anytime. When the bulldozers came, they found the 8-foot-thick walls much more of an obstacle than they'd thought. I'll bet Edna grinned wryly at the impotence of the bulldozers against her old school.

She used to tell audiences that "I am Miss Boykin, but I haven't missed a thing!" When she retired from the school system, she proudly boasted that she had just sold the car she had bought new in 1948 — a Lincoln — for more than she'd paid for it nearly 40 years before. She got enough from the sale to buy herself a brand new Lincoln. Her frugality and shrewd business sense served her well and allowed her to give large donations to her favorite charities. Her support of the Wilson Theatre renovations prompted the city and Arts Council to rename the historic building the Edna Boykin Cultural Center.

Her humor, experiences and well-honed sensibility helped her through her run for City Council. I clearly remember her defending the city's investments in downtown, citing other cities that had restored their downtowns and thrived while other cities had allowed downtowns to deteriorate, and that decay had metastasized to an ever-widening area of the city. She overcame my concerns that, as a large property owner, she might favor landlords over renters in city regulations, but she turned out to be a defender of the poor against those who would exploit their powerlessness.

For much of her career, Hearne School educated some of the city's poorest children, and that experience clearly influenced Boykin's judgments. She believed in education. She believed in the benefits of the arts. She believed in her hometown. And she didn't mind telling anyone how she felt. Just a couple of years ago, I ran into her at the theater that bears her name and had a spirited and delightful conversation with her as she sat (no longer able to stand for long periods) and gathered well-wishers and admirers.

She was one of a kind, a treasure and an inspiration.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

House Republicans just say no, no, no

What are they thinking?

Republicans in the House of Representatives have backed out on what was supposed to be a done deal to extend the payroll tax cut and jobless benefits for two months. Nothing doin', they say. They want a year-long deal or nothing at all.

Can they seriously be willing to settle for nothing and be portrayed in election campaign ads as the wackos who raised taxes on every working person in the country and cut off unemployment checks for millions of desperate, jobless Americans? Do they really think nothing is better than something? Do they really think compromise is a dirty word?

Regardless what you might think about the long-term wisdom of cutting payroll taxes (the 6.2 percent of your paycheck that goes to Social Security and Medicare), refusing to extend the tax cut at the beginning of an election year is political suicide. Yet, the Republican lemmings in the House are lining up to take a flying leap off that cliff. The tax cut to 4.2 percent for individuals was passed last year as part of a stimulus package. For a typical American worker, it amounts to about an extra $20 in each week's pay. Economists say that extra jolt has encouraged consumer spending and helped avoid a fall into another recession.

But the real jolt will come in early January, when the first paychecks of the year arrive and 160 million Americans see less money in their paychecks. House Republicans will bear the brunt of public anger over that short-changing. Inevitable GOP efforts to blame Democrats are unlikely to stick. The Senate overwhelmingly passed the tax cut extension, with broad Republican support. Only in the dysfunctional House were serious objections raised. There, the ideological principle was more important than pragmatic politics. Some among the true believers elected in 2010 seem to believe pragmatism is a dirty word, but it's what gets you elected, and it's what allows government to function.

Unless the House has a change of heart, the Tea Party partisans may have just sealed the 2012 election and opened wide a door for Democrats that just last year had seemed closed and locked.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Our pilgrimage to the "Holy City"

For 21 years, my extended family has spent a weekend before Christmas in Charleston, S.C., "the Holy City," as it's been called. It began a year after my brother moved there and months after he was able to return to his home after the damage from Hurricane Hugo was repaired. We went to see his house and the city and to have a meal together.

Twenty-one years later, we're still returning, eager to experience again Charleston's exotic charm and to see the family members we see only rarely now. Our pilgrimages have survived all the changes in our lives since 1990. When our parents missed the trip because they were in a nursing home, we continued to gather. We made four trips without them before they died. This year, we were without my sister-in-law, who succumbed to cancer just two days before our scheduled trip. But the reunion went on, despite those hollow places and mournful moments whenever we expected to see her turning a corner or to hear her laughter.

In 21 years, our children have grown from teens to parents, and our entourage has expanded to include new dates and spouses trying out this family tradition. A new generation of babies has learned to walk with the aid of cousins they didn't know they had. Our children's children have grasped the excitement of these weekends and look forward to Charleston almost as much as their grandparents do.

In the evening, and sometimes during the day, we sit and reminisce about how we lived growing up. We share stories about our parents and other relatives we can no longer ask for answers to our questions, and we talk about our own lives, sharing details lost in our daily routine.

In the end, it is not the beauty of the city, the cuisine for which Charleston is known or the tangible Christmas spirit there that keeps us coming back. It is this sharing of time and stories that makes the drive and the expense worthwhile.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The end of a relationship

A late-afternoon telephone call Wednesday ended a 49-year relationship. Karen was my first sister-in-law and the first new member of our family by marriage. Now she is the first of my generation to die of "natural causes," if you can consider cancer "natural."

Her terrible illness and the inevitability of its ending have stirred up memories long forgotten of the awkwardness of incorporating a new adult into the family and how she made the transition easy with her quiet tolerance and her quick laughter. I was 15 or so when she brought a newborn baby to our home and plopped my first niece into my lap one day with a laugh because I was the only family member who had not fought for a turn to hold the baby. I was 15 and too cool for that. When I married and had children of my own, she vividly enjoyed their presence and bonded with my wife, a decade younger than she. As her sister pointed out, Karen didn't like crowds of strangers but she reveled in gatherings of close family and friends, no matter how large. She never liked having her picture made, so we have few photos of her, just memories of her laughter and her softly worded advice.

The last weekend we had together, just five months ago, was before her diagnosis. It was obvious that she was not feeling well. Her laughter was not so quick and she was unusually reticent. I'll remember instead other weekends strung over 49 years of good times, good stories and good laughs. And the warmth of sibling love.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Two years and then a lifetime

A couple of months ago, I tripped past two years in my new job — an anniversary so insignificant that I had not noted it until my wife reminded me. Earlier in my life, two years would have seemed like forever. I spent three years in my first full-time post-college job (with the U.S. Coast Guard), then just over two years each in my next two jobs, laying the foundation for a career in journalism. Then I spent 29 years in my next job, ending in a layoff and a year of job hunting before landing my current gig.

Now, the past two years seem brief, but that may be only because those 29 years with one company skewed my average. Today's worker, labor statisticians tell us, changes jobs several times over his working life. A friend near my own age told me last night that he was embarking on a new career after eight years in one job. He was restless and wanted a new challenge. In contrast, I spent my early working years looking for a job with permanence, a comfortable situation that would give my then-young children stability and a sense of security and give myself the confidence of familiarity and detailed memory. A decade in which I moved six times was more than enough adventure for me. I had chosen to forgo the security and benefits of a Coast Guard career primarily because I knew it would entail frequent moves. So I left the Coast Guard and moved two times in the next five years.

The past two years were brief, a single tick, it seemed, in the antique clock we moved from one home to another. But in an earlier time, which also seems not long ago at all, my three-year military commitment had seemed to stretch forever ahead of me, just like my four years of college looked from the perspective of freshman orientation.

Now all those years have passed. My little children have children of their own, and time swoops past me like autumn leaves in the wind. So much has changed, yet I feel the same. I chase my grandchildren and tickle them into ecstatic squeals the same way I chased and tickled their parents. It is the same love and emotion and the same I. The years disappear like views in a mountain fog, briefly glimpsed, then gone.

Two years in a new job strobe past like a flash of lightning on a dark night. Whole decades slip away before a rumble of thunder startles me into present day.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Christmas stockings from long ago

Maybe it was the two stockings my wife hung over the fireplace yesterday, but something got me to thinking about the Christmas stockings I knew as a child. Christmas morning always seemed like such a miracle — a roaring fire in the fireplace that illuminated the living room, a room closed off and unheated for most of the rest of the year; the sweet scent of a red cedar Christmas tree glowing with the old-style, large, hot, colored bulbs; the wonder of gifts left by Santa Claus, possessions far too costly for our parents to ever provide. The excitement as I waited with my brothers and sisters to enter the living room left me shaking and shivering.

Those stockings that hang by my fireplace today are as different from the ones I knew as a child as our gas logs are from the wood fires of my youth. On Christmas Eve, we would search through a wardrobe's drawers for five old, woolen socks that our father never wore, but they were ordinary socks, not giant Christmas stockings. Each year, Christmas morning, those stockings would be stuffed the same treats: an apple, an orange, a tangerine, a handful of nuts (walnuts, pecans and Brazil nuts), three or four packs of chewing gum, two Hershey's candy bars (milk chocolate and almond), another couple of candy bars (Baby Ruth and Butterfinger?), a few loose chocolate drops candies, and a peppermint candy cane. What made those treats special was not their volume or variety but the simple rarity of such special treats. It was the only time of year we ate Brazil nuts or walnuts; candy bars were rationed the rest of the year at the rate of one per week if we were lucky, and never, ever the succulent Hershey bars; Dentyne chewing gum was tasted only at Christmas; oranges and tangerines, it seemed to me, must only grow at the North Pole. One year, I mentioned to my mother that my cousin had a banana in her stocking. I couldn't understand why Santa Claus would provide different fruits for children only a few miles apart. Would I like to have a banana in my stocking, she asked. I said I would. The next year, my stocking contained a banana. Until dementia stole her mind, my mother had an amazing memory.

By Christmas sundown, I would have sucked all the juice from my orange and perhaps peeled my tangerine, too. I would have eaten at least half of my candy bars, chewed nearly all of the chewing gum and cracked all the nuts in my stocking. I would have managed all of this while playing with new toys and eating at least two huge meals with extended family. And I would have listened to my parents and their siblings talk about how much kids get at Christmas these days. In their day (the 1920s and '30s), they would have felt fortunate to receive one little toy (a ball or a doll, usually) and one piece of candy for Christmas.

But for me, Christmas was one amazement. With such a bounty of food and playthings amid a year of frugal existence, it was no wonder I considered Christmas an inexplicable miracle.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Christmas parade from a different perspective

Walking down Nash Street in the Wilson Christmas Parade Saturday afternoon, I waved to crowds of faces I didn't know. Many of them returned my wave. "Merry Christmas," I said to many of them and heard their greetings in reply. One spectator yelled out to me, "I read your blog all the time! Wish you were still at the paper." Surprised at the greeting, I could only wave and reply, "Thanks!" Occasionally, I would detect a familiar face and try to catch her attention. All the while, I kept walking and waving. This mile-long walk was not a physical challenge. It was more of a pleasant stroll, made more enjoyable by the sight of so many happy faces.

For 23 years, I lived a block from the parade's route, and my wife and I would gather up our children and walk down to Nash Street to see the parade. Too often, we would grow tired of the parade and head home before its end.

The parade has a different look and a different feel when you're part of it instead of a patient watcher from the sidewalk. The variety the parade offers to the watcher is nothing compared to the variety of faces and expressions the participants in the parade see. And even when the parade's momentum stalls on occasion, the pace for someone walking the parade is so much more lively than the pace for someone watching it. When I watched the parade, I might catch a couple of hundred faces. Walking in the parade, I saw a few thousand faces, ranging from excited children to dutiful adults who felt obligated to attend an important civic event to curmudgeons who wouldn't smile or laugh no matter what passed by.

After 20-some parades as a spectator, this was my third parade as a participant. The latter role is much more satisfying.

666 posts are not a sign

This is the 666th post to this blog, but fear not ye fundamentalist biblical literalists and numerologists. This is the second Sunday of Advent, and looking around the nave of our small church, I felt a wave of love wash over me this morning. The blue paraments, the Advent wreath, the Scriptures, the Marty Hautgen liturgy, "Now the Feast and Celebration" (which we're using during Advent), and the familiar hymns "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" and "Prepare the Royal Highway" set me in the mood for Advent, for drawing closer to God, for awaiting with anticipation the royal birth. It gave me a sense of optimism and relief that I had not felt recently, a confidence that all things would work for good.

At the communion rail, I felt the mood stronger still. "The body of Christ ..." "The blood of Christ..." A sense of humility warmed my clinched hands. "Amen," I said.

Six hundred sixty-six posts, but not a sign of the beast.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Advent has arrived

Last Sunday, with the pastor away on vacation, I preached the sermon for the first Sunday of Advent. Playing off the lectionary's warnings in the Gospel of Mark and Paul's letter to the Corinthians to be prepared for a day and a time you do not know, I talked about the need to observe Advent as a time of preparation before Christmas, a time to prepare and reflect for the coming of Christ. I recalled that 33 Advents ago, our pastor in Danville, Va., had written a letter to my pregnant wife comparing her pregnancy to Advent. Like Advent, a pregnancy is a time of preparation and anticipation. All of Christendom should be pregnant with anticipation and preparation during Advent, I suggested.

I don't know how well the sermon went or whether any of my fellow church members might be motivated to light an Advent wreath, read an Advent devotional or use an Advent calendar instead of rushing mindlessly into the commercialized Christmas holiday.

Yesterday, my wife found this video that explains Advent better and more entertainingly than I could, so I offer it as the message I had sought to deliver from the pulpit.