Thursday, April 25, 2019

My Dad, Robert Sinclair Swanson, Jr.

     Today would be my father’s birthday.  I think about him all the time but today I’ll share him with you.

He and I go back a long way together.

Dad made friends easily--wherever he went he soon became a regular. It only took two visits to a new coffee shop before the waitresses greeted him by name and had coffee waiting at his table.

     The managers of the Quick Mart where he bought his morning paper invited him to a baby shower for their daughter. Many people would make excuses and most men would hand the gift buying over to the wife, but not Dad. On his own he went to a baby shop and bought two little blue outfits--he knew she was having a boy--and had them nicely wrapped with a blue ribbon. Then he went to a Christian bookstore for a card.

     “I want a card that’s Christian but not too Christian,” he told the clerk.

     “I don’t know what you mean,” she said.

     Dad said, “I’m a Christian. The person I’m sending this to is not. I want to let her know who I am without making her think I’m telling her who she should be.”

     And the clerk said, “I think I can help you with that.”

     He served in World War II as an infantry scout. He came home, met and married Ginny Brown, Mom, that is, and went to Babson College on the GI Bill. Then he joined the family business.  He started by sweeping the floors and eventually worked every job in the entire bakery, getting to know all the foremen and workers. They all called him Bobby.  He would work a shift then go home, shower, put on a suit and go back to sit in his father’s office and learn the business side.  I’m not sure when he slept.

Here he is hard at work; in both shots he’s on the far right. What are they making?  Thomas’ English Muffins.

     He worked hard and enjoyed the fruits of his labor.  He loved buying things and firmly believed that if you saved up for something you wanted your satisfaction would be doubled.

     He loved money; not just having and spending but saving it. He collected owl figures because he like to say he was a wise old owl but I think of him as a squirrel, storing away acorns, rather, money, for a rainy day.

 He kept his change in a jar on his dresser, and when that was full he’d sort it—pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters, then  roll them up in those little paper things and trade them in for five dollar bills.

     I once said, “Here, Dad, I’ve got three fives for your collection,” thinking I would make it a gift, but he handed me a twenty in exchange. 
     “I’m not sure this is a sound banking practice,”  I said. But that was his way. He wasn’t a miser; he’d put those bills into envelopes with our names written on them and pass them out at Christmas time.  He loved giving presents and he always shared.  He told me when he got his first paycheck in the army he divided it by five and sent a share to each of his brothers and his sister.

     He loved baseball.  He was a star pitcher for his high school and the Little League team he coached won five League Championships in seven years.

     After he died Mom got a phone call from an army buddy who’d read the obit in the Tenth Mountain Division Newsletter.  He said, “Boy, when I see him Heaven I’m gonna give that son of-a-gun what for.  I always thought I’d see him again.  You know, Ginny, for all his fooling around, we all trusted him, and we were happy to follow him.  He was a leader.”

     He was a great Dad.  He wasn’t perfect; as he said, there was only one perfect man, but he took the many gifts he was given in life, put them to good use, and shared everything abundantly.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Happy Earth Day, Happy birthday, Taurus!

Earth Day and the First Day of Taurus fall together.  I draw lots of cows but I've never done a bull, so I turned to Ferdinand, the bull who only wanted to sit and smell the flowers.  Here's what  Wikipedia says about this masterpiece written by Munro Leaf (I've always loved that name) and illustrated by Robert Larson.

"In 1938, Lifemagazine called Ferdinand"the greatest juvenile classic since Winnie the Pooh" and suggested that "three out of four grownups buy the book largely for their own pleasure and amusement".[1]The article also noted that Ferdinand was accused of being a political symbol, noting that "too-subtle readers see in Ferdinand everything from a fascist to a pacifist to a burlesque sit-down striker".[1]Others labelled the work "as promoting fascism, anarchism, and communism".[4]The Cleveland Plain Dealer"  accused the book of corrupting the youth of America" while The New York Times downplayed the possible political allegories, insisting the book was about being true to oneself.[6]

The book was released less than two months after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and was seen by many supporters of Francisco Franco as a pacifist book.[7] It was banned in many countries, including in Spain (where it remained banned until after Franco's death).[6]In Nazi GermanyAdolf Hitler ordered the book burned (as "degenerate democratic propaganda"), while it was the only American children's book available for sale in Stalinist-era Poland.[6]It received particular praise from Thomas MannH. G. WellsGandhi, and Franklinand Eleanor Roosevelt.[3]Following the 1945 defeat of Germany during the Second World War, 30,000 copies were quickly published and given out for free to the country's children in order to encourage peace.[6]"

Yikes!  What a lot to put on a children's book.  I suggest you read it for yourself, and, while you're at it, take some time to smell the flowers.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Why Tonight Is Unlike Any Night

Today is good Friday and the first day of Passover.

When these two holy days come together I think back to my daughter, Jessie’s, first year.  I hadn’t given much thought to her religious education; I was just trying to sleep through the night.

But it was a big question. Jessie had a Jewish father, Arthur, and a Christian mother, me.  Arthur had very little religious upbringing and I had taken some time off from church after wrestling with some of the issues in my evangelical background. Up ’til that point our biggest conflict had been what to say at our wedding; so—no Father, Son and Holy Ghost, but we did say the Lord’s Prayer.  Arthur said later he loved hearing all his -our-friends speaking aloud for us.

So it wasn’t exactly a conflict, but I wanted to know more. I needed to learn something about Judaism. Where to start?

My friend, Linda, invited me to visit her parents in Florida to celebrate Passover, a holiday I didn’t know much about.

Her mother taught me to make gefilte fish and motzoh balls and how to set the table with the seder plate, and glasses of wine and a place set for Elijah.

When it began the old Sunday School stories came back to me.

You see, Pharaoh, a wicked king, had a dream that a great leader was about to be born of the Israelites, his slaves, and lead the people out of captivity.  So Pharaoh commanded that all first born sons of Jewish families should be killed. 

One mother, named, Yocheved, saved her baby by putting him in a basket and floating him down the river to where Pharaoh’s daughter found him.  Then his big sister told the Pharaoh’s daughter that she knew someone who could take good care of the baby—so he was saved and raised by his own mother under the protection of Pharaoh’s daughter, who took him as her son and named him Moses.

Let’s hear it for the big sister.

When Moses grew up he noticed how cruel the Egyptians were so he went to live with his own people, the Israelites.

One day when he was out walking he saw a bush that was on fire but it didn’t burn up, and the Angel of the Lord appeared out of the flames and then God told Moses that he must save his people and lead them out of Egypt into Canaan, a land of milk and honey.

There’s a great song about this;“Go down Moses, way down in Egypt Land, Tell old Pharaoh, Let my people go.”

Moses said, “Who, me?  I can’t do that,”  and God said, “Sure you can, I’ll help you.”

It took some convincing, because Moses was not confident about his speaking skills so his brother Aaron went with him.

Moses said. “Okay.” So he went to Pharaoh and said, “Let my people go.”

Pharaoh said no.  God had showed Moses how to turn a staff into a snake and back again and  Pharaoh was impressed but his heart was hardened and he still said no so God sent the plagues. Locusts, blood, boils, drought, frogs, hail. The worst was that every first born son would die.
God told the Israelites to make a sacrifice of a lamb and put the blood on their door frame, and the Angel of Death would pass over their house.  And that’s Passover.

Then Pharaoh said, “Okay, go,” and Moses and his people got up and left, taking only unleavened bread.

Pharaoh changed his mind and sent an army after them but God parted the Red Sea, the Israelites crossed in safety and then the water came back and drowned Pharaoh’s army.

Then the people spent forty years in the desert, and Moses went up on a mountaintop and God gave him the Ten Commandments and eventually they got to the Jordan River.

It’s an awesome story and it belongs to all of us.  For me it resonates with the American Revolution, the Civil War, the civil rights movement. It’s all about the quest for freedom and the rights of all people to be free.

And then I realized that Jesus was celebrating Passover at the Last Supper, when he told his friends, this is my body…do this in remembrance of me,” the beginning our own ritual of communion.
I was overwhelmed.

Linda’s Mom said, “So, you gonna convert?”

Before I had an answer for her Linda’s father said, "You don’t need to convert, or even join Jews for Jesus. You just want a wider view of the world and where you fit in it."

Well, Exactly.

So I’m not choosing between the two faiths of my family.  I’m clinging to the things that bring us together.

Let us rejoice together in the miracles of Rebirth and Renewal.

What are my grandchildren learning?  They have a menorah and a Christmas tree.

Molly said to Jessie, “I have a father who’s Jewish, right?”


“And my mother is…Manhattan-ish?”

Well, it's a start.

Friday, April 12, 2019

All Nature Sings

April 6th is the birthday of Charles Burchfeld, (1893-1967) watercolorist and personal favorite of mine.  Just as in the hymn my title comes from, he makes nature sing.  One thing I miss living in the city is the music of the crickets in late summer.

When I look at this painting, "Insect Chorus,"  it almost tickles my ears.

Here's another favorite. I find everything about dandelions charming-- their sunny yellow mop heads, their delicious greens, their name--Teeth of the Lion.  I love them despite--or maybe because of--their reputation as a weed.

Many flowers lose their appeal when they go to seed but that's when the dandelion comes into his glory.

I've tried but I can't capture those delicate little seed parasols in pen and ink. Mr. Burchfeld certainly did.

Last week I wrote about green and my ambivalence toward lawns. I mean, I like a lawn but I have no interest in having one and I'm not sad that I live in the city where they're cared for by someone else.
     Our home in Vermont was surrounded by a lovely rolling lawn.  It was pretty but my father insisted that it be perfect.  How can you enjoy something if all you see is what's wrong with it?
     Dad abhorred the dandelion. That most enjoyable pleasure of summer, blowing the dainty wisps into the wind, was strictly forbidden. I think a few dots of yellow enhance the green but he said one little yellow head led to a multitude and soon all was lost. He declared war and we were all enlisted. Pulling up dandelions was everyone's mission. 

There's an art  to the task; you don't just pull up the flower, yo have to take this wicked looking tool, especially designed to kill the dandelion, dig down beside the strong, deep root and pull it up whole.
 Years after that house was sold I went to church with Mom and Dad.  The preacher told this story;
     There was a man who hated dandelions so much that he funded a study at Texas A&M to eradicate them.   After years of exhaustive research the scientists had to report that dandelions are indestructible and will always be with us. 

“We suggest you learn to love them.”

Mom and I fell out of the pew laughing.

     There’s another hymn I love—and I put its latin translation, “Credit curas venti” in some of my etchings; It’s “Give to the Wind thy Fears.”

     Whenever I sing it I picture taking a perfect globe of a dandelion  and blowing away the seeds.  That’s one of the forbidden pleasures of my youth.

     But wait—that metaphor doesn't work.  Those tiny little seeds will land and take root and grow and spread—not what we want our fears to do.  Instead, blow the dandelion and see the seeds as good
will; hopes, dreams, kind words—give them to the winds and watch them grow.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Somebody Else Loves Dandelions

  Last week my friend, Bobby, reminded me that dandelions provide food for our friends, the bees, especially early in the spring.

The bee; that tiny creature who works so hard and does so much that she’s the symbol of industry and productivity all over the world.

I’ve looked at a lot of bees this week, both photographs and drawings, and I can’t blame the artists who give them smily faces.  Close up, they're pretty terrifying, like alien monsters. But form follows function and those big blank eyes, the six legs, the weird mouth and the fuzzy body are a perfect machine for making sweetness.

Thank you, bees, and not just for the honey.

 Think of something you love to eat and ask if a bee had anything to do with it.  Apples, peaches, coffee, almonds, strawberries….CHOCOLATE. They  all come from plants that need pollinators and that would be the bees.

Wouldn't you think we’d take good care of someone so important to our well-being?  We haven't. The bees are in trouble. Climate change, loss of habitat, pesticides and a nasty virus are wiping them out.
Sometimes I just want to say, "What next?"  How can we not fall into despair?

Remember what Mr. Rogers said?

”When a disaster happens, look for the helpers.”

There are helpers. Beekeepers.  It used to be illegal to keep bees in the city because they were thought of as dangerous but in 2010, under Mayor Bloomberg, that ban was lifted.

Thanks, Mr. Mayor, for the Gates and the bees.

Now there are 200 registered beekeepers (and probably many unregistered) including The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine and the United Nations, and there’s a New York City Beekeepers Association.

I'm inspired but raising bees on my small terrace is more that I can take on.Still there's plenty to do.
Here's a list from the New York Bee Sanctuary of things everybody can do.
  1. Join BEE-SAFE and pledge to protect the bees on a piece of land you manage, your garden, the backyard of your company or your rooftop! We have partner towns, schools, corporations, and individuals. Everyone can join!
  2. Do not use any pesticides, fungicides or herbicides on plants or in your garden. Plants get contaminated and the product will likely reach the bees and kill them. Make sure the plants you buy are not pre-treated with neonics pesticides!
  3. Buy local & raw honey from your local beekeepers. Avoid honey sold in bulk or in the supermarket unless you are sure of its provenance and quality. Always best to buy on farmers market so you can meet your beekeeper and check with him his sustainable beekeeping practices.
  4. Plant your garden with native and bee friendly plants. They provide great sources of nectar and pollen (both food for the bees and butterflies). It’s important for bees, as it is for us, to have a diverse and regular food supply.
  5. Avoid planting lawns. Lawns are literally desert for insects and for wild plants because lawns usually never have plants beneficial to bees and are cut too often so plants never get to bloom. Instead, plant prairies!
  6. Do not weed your garden. Many plants like dandelion, for example, are an excellent source of food for bees. In early spring, those “weeds” are often the only source of food for beneficial insects. Lots of those weeds are often excellent food and medicine for us too!
  7. Even if you just have a small balcony you can install a little water basin for the bees to drink during the warm day of summer. Put a few stones and floating cork on the water so bees won’t drown!
  8. Stay connected to the Facebook page of New York Bee Sanctuary and our Instagram account so you can stay informed and sign regular petition to pressure our state and country to pass regulations to help the bees (like the ban of neonicotinoids)
  9. Educate yourself and your children about bees. Bees are not dangerous; they forage on a flower and don’t attack humans. By better understanding them we will learn to better respect them. There are 5 must-see documentaries about bees.
  10. If the buzz gets to you, learn how to become a beekeeper and install a hive in your garden or on your rooftop. It’s a powerful way to give honey bees a home and probably the best local honey you will ever get!
So, the next time you see a dandelion  all puffy and full of seeds, take a big breath and blow like it's your birthday. Spread those beautiful seeds on the wind so they can go forth and feed the bees.

Monday, April 1, 2019

A Few Thoughts On Green

Saint Patrick’s Day and the wearing of the green has gone by but green is still on my mind.
Little glimpses of jade and chartreuse are popping up in my neighborhood. And I’m reminded of everything that green promises and provides. “Green is the prime color of the world, and that from which its loveliness arises,” says Pedro de la Barca, but not everyone agrees.
The first time I saw Vermont in the summer I was stunned by the green of those hills. It was beautiful, but overwhelming.

When Georgia O’Keeffe was first married to Alfred Steiglitz they spent summers at his family home in Lake George.  She did some great work there, but she wasn’t inspired. “It’s so green,” she said and it wasn’t a compliment.  It was the open expanses of the Texas plains and the earth tones of New Mexico that really excited her.  And I think it was something beyond color; it was seeing the earth’s bones.  Greenery covers everything. Remember what I said in my blog post, A Letter to my Hips. In drawing class you’re trying to see the bones under the skin and muscle.  I think O’Keeffe wanted to see the earth’s bones,  just as she painted the beautiful bones she found in the desert. She was looking to strip away everything that prevented her from seeing the very basic forms that inspired her. She found the place that nurtured her in New Mexico and I found mine in New York City.

An image that tugs at my heart every time I see it is the green of the late afternoon sun shining through leaves of grass.  This is poignant to me; it heralds the end of the day, the end of summer and missed opportunities.   It also awakens an uneasy feeling that I’m not living my life as I was meant to. 

My brother once asked me, “If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?”
And I said, “Right here.”

“No, really.”

“Yes, really.  This is where I want to live.”

“If you could live anywhere in the world?”


Since moving to New York City I have never wanted to live anywhere else but I was raised in a leafy suburb and then we moved to Vermont.  Living surrounded by grass and greenery felt like the right way. Was I depriving my children?

For a while Arthur and I dutifully looked at houses in the suburbs but we soon realized that all we asked about each town was, “How fast can we get into the city?”  We gave up the search and settled in the Village.  But I still had the nagging feeling that glowing blade of grass gave me.

O’Keeffe live in New York City for a while, and did some wonderful paintings of the tall buildings and bright lights but she didn’t love it like I do.  We each have to find our own place.

The main source of my unease was my mother. She never gave up trying to get me into a house with a lawn.  She had a lot of creative energy and, like Aunt Connie, she poured it into her home.“You love to draw houses,”she said, “don’t  you want one of you own?” 

I love houses, I dream about houses but I don’t want to own one with all the plumbing, roofing and lawn care involved.  The little house in my calendars changes her shutters every month-imagine doing that for real. I love gardens too, but it’s enough for me just to draw them.

Mom didn’t get it, but I didn’t get how she would play golf everyday if she could.

Now she’s gone but I still talk with her.  I imagine really listening to her, and speaking so she hears me.  Then I look around my apartment and see all the things she left me-not only her collection of cast-iron Boston Terriers and her good china.  She taught me to make a homey home, to throw a party and invite my friends in, to cook, to clean up as I go along, a sense of order and tidiness.

This is a lot to put on a blade of grass.  A color.  But that’s what comes up, when I see that  place of grass, illuminated by the afternoon sun..

Christmas in July

I've been feeling a little uninspired and overwhelmed by papers and stuff, torn by needing to clear the decks and get rid of everything ...