My Sister From Another Mother

My older sister Dorothy was never really a part of the family. Sixteen years older than I, her mother had been dead for thirteen years before I was born, and my mother could not really mother her; she and Dorothy were only eight years apart in age. Dorothy’s brother, born when she was almost three, who would have shared her history, died before he was a week old, following their mother to her grave. In one fell swoop, Dorothy was rendered a half-orphan, consigned to various relatives who loved her and died, to my father’s second wife, who abused her, and finally to my mother, who was more like a much older sister, albeit a sister from another country, another life. Dorothy was, like so many children in our society, a member of a first family that failed, and she was robbed of a birthright I took for granted.   Dad and Dorothy, age 2.5                                                                                               Dorothy and the Father She Adored

My parents cared. They tried at first to make a home for her. But Dorothy was a tween, nearly a teen, restless and unhappy. It felt unnatural to share the father she adored with the strangely accented, exuberant young woman my father chose to be his third and final wife. My mother, still adjusting to life in the country she had only entered five years before, had no experience with parenting. My mother was Jewish, a refugee from the horrors not yet fully disclosed in Europe, and Dorothy had no way of understanding where Mom came from; our father and his family were American bluebloods, deeply entrenched WASPS. Together Mom and Dad and Dorothy decided that boarding school was a good solution, and thereafter, Dorothy only visited for whichever holidays and summers she did not spend with our father’s only remaining sister in New Mexico. My parents never provided a presence she would be able to call home.

dorothy and carla 1948Dorothy and Her Baby Sister 1948

My birth brought her closer to them. Dorothy doted on this new being, this little sister, young enough to be her own daughter, and she was a great help to her earnest stepmother. But I belonged to my mother, not to Dorothy, and though she visited more often than she had before, she would always feel estranged; my mother would always be something of an interloper, albeit a welcome, loving one.

In New Mexico, my father’s sister introduced Dorothy to a handsome young engineer named Oliver, from Michigan. He had been stationed in Los Alamos during WWII, had participated in the Manhattan Project, and after using his GI Bill to obtain his degree from the University of Pennsylvania, he had signed his life away to the American government he revered and moved permanently to the city in the clouds. Our aunt was not amused that her still teenage niece was falling in love with a man nearly twelve years her senior, and she forbad their seeing one another.

Dorothy, who was perhaps the gentlest, least defiant person I ever knew, stood her ground. She loved this man, and if Aunt Elizabeth would not allow her to date him, she would find another way.

She called my father. At first he agreed with his sister. “You’re too young,” he said definitively.

“I’m 20, Daddy,” she replied. “Older than you were when you married my mother.”

That hit a nerve. My father had fallen in love with his (gasp) Irish Catholic beauty when he was 16. His parents would not allow him to see her – they were WASP,  a “good family,” after all, and their kind did not date people from the other side of the tracks – so he told them the girl was pregnant and demanded to be allowed to marry her. Then he got to work making sure he wasn’t lying, and the two were married.

“That didn’t turn out so well,” he demurred.

“I know, Daddy. But I love him. And I’m old enough to know.”

My mother intervened. “Let them come here,” Mom said. “If they want to be married, we’ll make them a wedding.”

So Dorothy came to Springfield, MA, where we lived at the time, and she had her wedding in Trinity Methodist Church. I was her flower girl, and even the chicken pox, which Dorothy discovered on me the night before the event, did not ruin the festivities. Our aunt did not attend, and though Dorothy told me many times how very hurt she was that the old woman rejected her, she was never sorry she chose her Oliver.

The night before the wedding, she pulled me into her bed, as she often did, from my cot in the room we shared. I remember crying. “I don’t want you to go, Dodo.” I pleaded, “Please don’t move away. Please don’t get married. Please.”

“I love you, little sister, I really, really love you. But I have to do this,” she replied.

“Why?” I moaned.

“Because I want my own family. I don’t want to be a visitor. I want children of my own to love. Children who will love me first.”

Over the years, we hardly saw Dorothy and Oliver. She wrote me letters. Long, detailed missives, the litanies of her burgeoning family. “Derrick had a cold, and I had to call the doctor,” she wrote in 1958, when Darrick, her firstborn was five. “He’s probably not going to school for the rest of the week, but I thing it’s okay for him to miss Kindergarten. Kenneth fell off the swing and hurt his shoulder, but I don’t think anything is broken. Margie won’t stop crying because her ear aches, and Laurel has a terrible diaper rash. Did I tell you I’m pregnant again?” But Los Alamos was a long way away from where we were, and she had her hands full.

Meanwhile, my parents also continued to procreate, to build my father’s second family. From 1953 till 1961, Dorothy and my mother each had six children within months of one another. I kept track of Dorothy’s children’s ages by remembering which of my siblings was born in the same year. Dorothy and Oliver and their kids traveled to Michigan to visit his large, Finnish family, but they only came east to see us twice. My parents traveled often to Queens to visit my mother’s sisters and parents, but we only went to Los Alamos once.

We were the second family, and Dorothy was not one of us; Dad didn’t do anything to encourage her to be. I grew up in my father’s house, and as stern and demanding as he could be, his was a constant presence. My mother was always there to welcome me home at the end of a day, always attendant to all our needs. Dorothy had to become her own mother, and she transferred all her longing for maternal love to her offspring, which made her a consummate Mom.

Dorothy 'n' me 'n' DerrickDorothy as a mother with her Entitled, Alpha Female Sister, Age 6

My existence provided a modicum of connective tissue between Dad’s first and second set of offspring, and I lived for those letters she wrote me at least once a week. I spent the summer with her when I was nine, and I went to college in Albuquerque for three semesters, a choice I made in order to be close to my big sister. But I was never really a satisfying little sister; I was too much imbued with the sense of entitlement that comes of being the oldest, the alpha female in a large brood. We made the best of our relationship, but it remained at a distance, and our visits, even when I lived in the Southwest, even after I had children of my own, were never more than intermittent.

My brother once said that my father was a terrible father to Dorothy, and perhaps he was. But he was no different from the myriad men I know, including my own former husband, who focus, perhaps by necessity, on the new family, the second family, the family that demands the most of their time and attention. Men are not, as a rule, very good at multi-tasking, and juggling families requires great skill in that area. Men compartmentalize far better than most women, and to the man who does that well, a first family must reside in a separate cabinet, less emotionally accessible than the one that takes up the space in his living quarters.

Dorothy’s life was not very long, and yet she had more than her share of sadness, which she endured without us. She had learned to fend for herself, to refrain from reaching out, so she never called and asked me to come when things were bad; I heard about all her trials after they were over. Consequently, I wasn’t there when she buried children, suffered through poor health and horrible medical treatments, ferreted through marital problems. She got through them.

Remarkably, Dorothy never lost her gratitude or her joy. Darrick stopped her once in the middle of reading about Cinderella and her evil step mother and asked if Dorothy’s stepmother were like Cinderella’s.

“No, silly,” she laughed.  “She was always kind and generous, just like she is now.  She is a wonderful woman.”

“But she sent you far away, didn’t she?”

“Only because she loved me,” Dorothy answered without thinking.  “She loves me still.”

Dorothy may have been robbed of a family, but she never resented the fates that separated her from the “normal” life her half-siblings always enjoyed. She was never bitter, never remorseful. Now, when I visit her children and grandchildren who idolize her memory, I realize that in many ways she regained everything she needed. She built her own family and dedicated her life to them, and she left them with a deep, unwavering faith in the power of love.

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Why I Stand With Planned Parenthood

While I refuse to qualify the bizarre allegations levied by misogynistic fear mongerers against Planned Parenthood, I feel a need to make a small statement of support for an institution that I believe in, an institution our society cannot afford to lose.

First of all, I would like to go on record by saying that there is no reason for apologia where abortion services are concerned.  Abortion is legal in this country, and women have the legal right to choose whether their bodies may be receptacles of new life.  I don’t know anyone who is pro-abortion; I am not.  But I am pro-choice, including the difficult choice to terminate a pregnancy.  Choice deserves and requires protection.

What the critics chronically forget to mention is that Planned Parenthood does so much more than counsel women regarding their unwanted pregnancies.  They saves the lives of mothers and children.    Planned Parenthood is a safe haven the community cannot do without.

I don’t know anyone who loves going to the doctor for gynecological examinations, but all women need to do so in order to protect themselves against illnesses that attack the female organs. And having access to affordable care and to prevention and cure of feminine illnesses also deserves and requires protection.

Planned Parenthood provides choices, care and prevention that no other institution offers, preserving women’s lives in a variety of ways, and we must stand up for the good that they do lest it be lost in a hale of ignorance and misconception.  All pun intended.

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  1. Judy’s Story – Perilous Days Before Roe v. Wade

I was 18 when I met Judy. We were both employed by a large firm in New York whose specialty was writing employment manuals for employers. I was a proofreader; Judy was a typist, and she was 19, mere months away from reaching twenty.

Judy was ever so much more mature than I was in ways I never imagined myself becoming, and she intrigued me. I still lived in my aunt and uncle’s house, where no matter what, I was sheltered, fed, protected from the world. Judy lived on her own in a one-bedroom apartment in Bay Ridge, where she had to cover the rent, heat, food and clothing for herself and her 4-year-old daughter. On my meager salary, I had a hard time keeping up with the minimal contribution I made to household expenses and found it challenging to buy enough clothing often enough to get to work looking respectable. Judy made less than I did, and in addition to all her other expenses, she had to pay for whatever day care her friends were unable to provide.

Hoping always to find a man who would step up where her deadbeat ex-husband had failed her, Judy dated fairly frequently, and I was her go-to evening babysitter. I loved the solitude of being in her house after her daughter went to sleep; I marveled at her house, so clean, so bright and cheerful. She had curtains on the windows, rugs on the floor, pictures on the wall; her daughter’s bed was a frilly pink wonderland. How did she do it?

I loved Judy’s child, who was smart, funny, talented and spirited. We watched Sesame Street together in its first year, and I took her to meet my friend Northern, who played one of her favorite “real people” characters on the show. I was part of the family, intimately tied to them by an interdependence that suited us all.

Judy could not possibly hope to sustain any more of a burden than she was already managing. She often said to me, “Carla, I gotta be real careful, ya know? I mean I got knocked up the first time because I wasn’t payin’ close enough attention. I cannot afford to have another kid.”

But no matter how careful you were in the 60s, pregnancy was never altogether preventable. After seeing a prospective stepfather for several months, she stayed overnight with him, and despite her protestations that she took EVERY precaution, she became pregnant. In those days, many of my friends and relatives were victims of missed pills, defective condoms, miscalculated dates; Judy’s mishap was no surprise.

“I’m a good mother,” she moaned to me the day she got her test results. “I am. But dammit, Carla, what ’m I supposed to do? I got dreams for my kid. I want her to have a good education, do more with her life than I did. I can’t afford another one.”

I had no words of wisdom. There were no alternatives. The would-be stepfather dropped out of sight as soon as he became a prospective dad. Should the fetus in Judy’s belly grow to childhood, it faced a life of poverty that would also drag its older sister into an abyss, an underfed, underserved existence. Judy was despondent.

Then, for a time, we only saw each other at work . I don’t know how many nights she stewed without confiding her thoughts. But one night after midnight, my phone rang, and it was Judy; she was crying and sounded wrung out. “Carla. I need you to get here right away. Please.”

I lived in Bayside, Queens, a long way from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. I took a bus to Flushing, where I got a subway to a transfer point in Manhattan and then, following Judy’s instructions, emerged somewhere in Brooklyn, where I hailed a cab. She was waiting for me with Norma, a co-worker with whom we often socialized, a slightly older woman who had brought with her her own 8-year-old daughter. I had been summoned to babysit. They left the minute I got there without explanation, but I knew something was terribly wrong.

Judy had no color in her face and could barely move. Norma had to carry Judy down the stairs, and I watched out the window as she lifted my nearly lifeless friend into the cab. I took both little girls with me to Judy’s bed, and we slept through the night. It was after noon before Norma returned. The girls and I were having breakfast.

“She’s going to be okay,” was all Norma told me. When the children moved closer to the television and engrossed themselves in Days of Our Lives, she explained.

“We decided not to tell you last night. If we got arrested, we wanted you to be clean so you could take care of the girls.”

Judy had had her pregnancy terminated by a local “Gypsy” woman. She nearly bled to death, willing to die rather than bring another child into the world. She was prepared to sacrifice her life rather than throw her daughter’s future away.

I was grateful she got away with it. Still am, as I am certain both she and her daughter are as well. That daughter is a prominent physician today.

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  1. Sally’s Tale  – In Need of A Safety Net

Sally works overseas, only gets to come back to the States once a year. In the country where she lives, she gets inexpensive insurance coverage that ensures that she has unlimited access to comprehensive health care. Whenever she visits home, she cites the high cost of health care as one reason she feels compelled to remain abroad.

Sally is nearing forty, and though her latest love affair, which lasted two years, ended in a break-up, she was delighted to learn that she was pregnant. Professionally secure and ensconced in a comfortable community in her adopted land, she was sure she could manage the challenge of single motherhood. After a visit to her local physician, who did an ultra sound, Sally left for her annual visit stateside confident that she was carrying a healthy fetus. She could not wait to share the news with her family.

By the time she left for her trip, Sally was feeling uneasy. There had been movement in her womb, but all movement had stopped. Since there were no other signs of trouble, however, she carried on with her plans and made her yearly pilgrimmage. But the discomfiture persisted, so she decided it would be a good idea to check in with an American doctor at an American hospital to make sure all was well.

A family friend, a physician himself, recommended a colleague who worked in a highly respected medical group, where fees would be less than exorbitant.

The news was devastating: the pregnancy had self-terminated. But before the gynocologist had confirmed that fact, he took blood tests and performed the sonogram, which cost Sally upwards of $1200. The doctor told Sally to come back for a D & C, but the costs were so astronomical that Sally was determined to let the miscarriage expel itself naturally over time, a choice, which, as anyone who has been there will tell you, was less than wise.

Over the next several days, Sally’s pain grew, and a deep despondency settled in. She had wanted to bear a child, and carrying this failed fetus exacerbated her physical pain. Finally, seeking advice online and a possible support group to join, she found Planned Parenthood.

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Sally conferred with a lifelong friend, who had been without health insurance for many years. The friend confirmed that Planned Parenthood, the only place she could get low-cost or no-cost cancer screenings and overall checkups, was a good choice. Sally made an appointment, and a day later, a kind nurse gently ushered Sally into a comfortable place where a coterie of empathetic women tended to her, prepared her, comforted her as she endured the actual procedure.

The entire experience cost her  less than $300.

No other institution in this country offered Sally so much life-affirming concern or treated her with such respect. And no one offered the service at a cost that was nearly as affordable.

 

Pictures on Exhibition at a Class Reunion – Fictionalized Nonfiction in Three Parts: Part III

Geriatric Tryst

 

I had a bad feeling about it all along, and yet I let it happen.

The minute the man flirted with me online, I should have shot it down. He was, after all, in New Mexico, and I in New York.  But I didn’t.

We had corresponded and talked on the telephone for two months before we met for the first time in Washington, DC. That first encounter was lovely though even then there were warning signs, but it was fun to be a tourist by day, holding hands, eating out, escaping the heat. Our downtown suite had adjoining rooms so we were able to give one another a good night kiss and retire to familiar aloneness. Thus the warning signs that were faintly appearing on the walls were easy to ignore.

One salient sign was that the man did not listen. He had been struck deaf by a childhood illness, and he had a well-tuned habit of allowing the batteries in his hearing aid to die, at which point he would just talk on without acknowledging the malfunction, appearing to listen when he was tuned out. It was impossible for me to know what he actually heard and what he chose to ignore. He would often nod in agreement as though we were on the same page, but I would realize later he had no idea what the conversation had been about.

Nevertheless, the Washington sojourn was successful enough that when he requested a second meeting, I suggested that he join me for the fiftieth year reunion of my small town high school in upstate New York. He was thrilled. After all, he had graduated the same year; he could not wait to share whatever he had in common with my classmates. I disregarded the blaring red flags. As the co-emcee at the main event banquet, I thought I needed an escort. Besides, I still believed in happily ever after. Even at 68.

However, knowing I would have a lot of prep work and would be meeting people I had not seen in fifty years, people who saw me every day of my life for the better part of my childhood, I strongly urged him to fly into Albany or Burlington on Saturday so he could arrive just in time to be with me at the banquet. “I’m not very nice when I’m stressed,” I said honestly. “I’m likely to be unaffectionate, downright prickly.”

“Don’t worry,” he laughed.   “I totally understand.

But he didn’t. Not really.

He confided that he felt intimidated by the east and asked me to guide him into the mountains. “I’ll just be a fly on the wall while you take care of business. You won’t even know I am there.” Furthermore, flights were cheapest into Newark, and besides, Newark was closer to Pennsylvania.

He had his own agenda. Based on our time in DC, he had booked a car rental and appointments to look at houses in the Wilkes-Barre, PA, area, halfway, he said, between his daughter and grandchildren in Ohio and me in NYC.

I met him Thursday morning at his motel in Newark, and as we drove north, he told me he was ready to make a purchase. I said, “I really hate PA.” Did he hear me? I couldn’t tell, as he went on telling me what a great house it was with a room that would be a perfect writer’s office.

Finally, I shook my head vigorously. “Listen,” I said. “I have family all over the desert states and California. Grandchildren in Westchester, a daughter in Hong Kong and cousins in Europe I will want to visit. Any meager travel time and money I have is theirs. I won’t be getting to Pennsylvania.”  He nodded, saying he understood.

But he didn’t. Not really.

We arrived in my home town and checked into the only motel that had had a room for us. We should have had separate rooms, but our reunion, a huge canoe race and the sixtieth reunion of the class that graduated a decade ahead of us had caused a shortage of available space. We had to share a bed, and it was not a great bed to begin with.

Though larger than king size, the mattress was lumpy, with springs that poked my sides, and from sitting in the car for over six hours, my arthritis areas were raw, and I hurt. There was no position in which to lie where something didn’t ache. I did not want to be touched.

Which, to be fair, had been part of our agreement. I had said categorically that while we were in this motel, an old one with flimsy sheetrock walls, I would likely be physically distant. Every sound we made – and he is a noisy man, as is the wont of most who are hard of hearing – would be audible to our neighbors on both sides of our room, men with whom I had gone to school from fourth grade through high school graduation, men with whom I would not be inclined to share my private moments. He said he was fine with that, that he understood.

But he didn’t. Not at all.

In truth, he was incapable of real arousal, so what he craved was touch. Holding hands seemed reasonable except that he insisted on kneading mine long after I asked him to stop. I suggested we cuddle, something I usually love to do, but his cpap, whining and wheezing to maintain continuous positive air pressure, blew percussively on the back of my neck and nipped any tendency toward relaxation in the bud. To complicate matters, he insisted on talking at me all night, but I could not reply without screaming because his hearing aids were on a table by the window.

By morning, as my exhaustion exacerbated my foul mood, things worsened.  At every turn, I did something to infuriate him, and he retaliated by promising me a night of more lecturing, less sleep than I had had the night before.

He, too, was tired, and that augmented the pervasive tension about him, the jealousy. Every time I hugged another classmate, every time I got on my computer or telephone to make another arrangement, he sulked or, worse, he paced. My fly on the wall had become the oversized, nasty aggressive kind, biting and buzzing, growing ever needier and more persistent.

On Friday night, instead of going with me to the Moose Club for the opening night dance, where we could at least have had some couples fun, he threw a temper tantrum, and we missed the party. I reminded him that the following night was the banquet, that I would be a far nicer person, that if I could just get some sleep, we could start over. He nodded and said he understood.

But. . . .

“What do you mean, ‘start over?’” He asked as I was crawling into bed. “I don’t get it.”

“Let’s talk about it in the morning.” He sat on the chair next to the bed shaking his head.

“I don’t get it,” he said.

I began a reply, an angry one, asking him to respect my request to get some sleep, but before I could finish my sentence, he stood up, took out his hearing aids and threw them on the floor.

“Yayayayaya,” he sang in a toddler voice. “I’m not listening to you.”

He was quiet, then, till 4 a.m., when he insisted we had to talk, or rather, that I listen to a litany of my transgressions. I was neglecting him, would rather be with these people than with him. I was ruining this vacation.  But for my neighbors, people who had been out drinking the night before, it was still the middle of the night, and we had their peace to consider.

“Let’s go for a drive,” I said. “ Get out of the motel.” I figured he could yell as much as he wanted to in the car on the highway. We found an open Dunkin Donuts with a safe parking lot and settled in for a real talk.

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I listened long and attentively to his plaintive song of Poor Me, and I said when he was finished, “Let’s put this away, okay? Let’s get through the day. I cannot go back and fix any of the things you say I broke, so let’s just get past the banquet tonight, and then we can begin again.”

“What does that mean?”

“What does what mean?”

“Begin again. What are you saying?”

“We can start over.”

“What is that? What are you talking about?”

It seemed obvious to me, but I really wanted peace. Moreover, I really wanted to believe. . . .

“It was how I dealt with transgressions from my own kids or from my students. Whatever they did, would be dealt with and forgotten; to subvert all guilt and embarrassment, I would promise that we would begin the next day right back where we were before the drama. That way we could extinct all transgressions.”

“Oh,” he nodded. “That makes sense.”

“It really does,” I agreed, hoping this meant we were moving forward. “No one gets to say ‘I told you so,’ no one needs to stay angry. We just re-start.” He smiled. I was so sure he understood.

And we had a lovely day, which culminated in a glorious banquet, where he was ebullient, interacting with everyone there, helping with setup, and enjoying the meal I had ordered for him, a “delectable” salmon. The evening was a success, and everyone laughed, sang, frolicked and enjoyed being together. I was euphoric.

After striking our equipment and collecting our belongings, we headed to the Moose Club, where my classmates gathered around me and my co-emcee, congratulating us, telling us what a wonderful night it had been. I wanted to sit for a while, to bask, to smile effortlessly. To rest.

But he wanted to dance. The more I sat my ground, the more I could see anger gathering in his eyes. About a half-hour in, he came to me, looking like a cartoon bull with fury steaming from his ears, and said, “We are leaving. Now. I am tired. It’s time to go back to the room.”

What is it about me that succumbs to guilt even when guilt has less than zero legitimacy? I should have said “Good night; go back to the room by yourself.” But instead I left with him and drove in sullen silence back to the motel. By now it was well after 2 am, and coping skills were dead.

I threw myself into the bed, curled into a tight ball on the far side of our double king and told him to stay all the way over on his side. I ordered him to put the CPAP under the bed where some of the noise could be absorbed. I turned downright cruel when he propped himself up on his elbow and begun a new round of the familiar monologue that began with, “You could have. . . .” I put a pillow over his head and told him to shut up.

Before the sun came up again, he jumped out of bed and began to pack.

“I’m not putting up with this anymore,” he commanded. “Get ready to leave. Now.”

I tried to control the sound of relief in my voice. “Okay,” I said, getting up and beginning to put my own things into my suitcase. “But I’m not missing the farewell breakfast.”

We said our good byes and slinked off into the amber morning. I felt like a criminal, a usurper though I could not figure out why.

Then, on the muted drive back to Newark, I realized how much I had lost by taking this leap into old age romance. Maybe if I were a silly, sex-obsessed Betty White character, this would have worked out splendidly, where we both fulfilled one another’s fantasies; instead it robbed me of the only real vacation I would have had this year. I relinquished to him my one opportunity to visit places that make me feel peaceful, to stomp through my favorite season in my favorite landscape, to be home. I turned the fiftieth year reunion of my high school class into a drama about him.

Is this what late-in-life love affairs are really made of? Will I be willing to try again?

I don’t know the answers, but I do know one thing. Next time there’s a reunion, I’m going alone.

 

Pictures on Exhibition at a Reunion – Fictionalized Non Fiction in Three Parts: Part II

II. Dueling Hopes

It’s the first week of leaf season, and the color seems to pop before my eyes, every hour a new clump of reds, golds, purples – yes, honestly, in the Adirondacks, purples happen – and browns. The weather is phenomenal, hitting the 80s by day, dipping into the 40s by night; this place should be teeming with tourists, but our town is out of the way for casual weekend travelers from the cities. The Canadians, who keep the place humming in the summer time are gone now; more people might show up over Columbus Day Weekend, but for now, the town is bustling with once familiar faces now older and strange. Two classes from the small local high school are celebrating their fiftieth and sixtieth year reunions, and there aren’t a lot of rooms in town. Besides the returning graduates, there are hearty canoeists in town for a big race on the Saranac River.

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It’s a lucky break for the few local hoteliers and a bonus for some in Lake Placid as well. No rooms left at the few standing inns. A few of us got reservations in early and are staying at the little mom/pop place on the Lake in the middle of town. Well, not a lake, strictly speaking, but a dammed portion of the river, the gateway to 43 miles of open water, a system of rivers, lakes, locks and ponds protected by the State of New York, treasured by the locals. Except for July 4th weekend and possibly Labor Day weekend, there is never a crowd here.

Surprising as it seems to those of us who have explored the primeval forests, hiked the ancient switchbacks, swum in the sylvan pools, this is still an undeveloped sanctuary. Only climate change and abject poverty gnaw at the edges of perfection; acid rain used to dissolve the leaves off trees, poison the fish in the streams, melt the needles off the pines, but that’s under control now. The economy is less stable; there aren’t a lot of jobs here, and so it is that fracking proponents and amusements peddlers gain ever more momentum in their quest to invade the preserve.

A few of us have reserved early and have rooms in a long-standing mom/pop establishment. lakeflower It’s an old motel that should have been sold years ago. But since there are no plans to develop the town and entice investors, no buyers offer deliverance to the owners; they keep struggling along, falling behind on mortgage payments in the off-months and barely making it up in the tourist seasons.

Our motel has no staff. Marcy, the owner does her own cleaning, her own housekeeping, her own everything. Lacking an ice machine, she makes daily runs to a local store, where she buys bags of it that she doles out from her office. The beds are old style spring mattresses, worn and uncomfortable, stacked with pillows that are hard, unyielding. A musty odor lingers even when the windows are wide open; this building has weathered enough Adirondack winters and warded off enough Adirondack springtimes to have earned retirement. But still it goes on.

Marcy and her husband bought this place in the 1990’s, when they were young and full of plans to spruce the place up, make it profit. They would sculpt the beach area and bring in white sand, enlarge the pool and install a spa, build larger units, where visitors could stay for longer periods of time. But like any property subjected to the harshest of winters, this one needed constant repair; new construction, even cosmetic additions were given low priority. Survival was all they could sink their finances into. After her husband died, Marcy put the place on the market, but she said it would cost her money to sell it. So she held on.

And, like the town, like the preserve, like the sanctuary we all cherish, she continues to hold on, teetering on the edge of painful termination.

A Simple Thank You, Home Town

Impossible as it seems, it’s now been fifty and a half years since I graduated from Saranac Lake High School,

6f51c8fdd1c0f0966b8bbbab55dd572fin Saranac Lake, NY. . . fifty and a half years dominated by faraway places, varied experiences, multi-hued cultures. Returning for the reunion next weekend, with the prospect of revisiting people I saw nearly every day of my life from the time I turned 9 until shortly after my 17th birthday, I am flooded with nostalgia, and that nostalgia reminds me of something I have never shared with my hometown: My deep, warm gratitude.

My family – the Swetts – arrived in Saranac Lake, at the end of the third day of the new year in 1957, in a small caravan, in the dead of night, at the height of a blizzard.

My father drove a truck loaded with furniture and appliances, with my brother David and my sister Helen sitting next to him in the cab, while my mother, who was 8 ½ months pregnant, drove the family car, loaded with clothes and household items, leaving barely enough room for me on the passenger side of the front seat, where I was stationed with orders to hold onto my over-excited 15-month-old brother Alfred.

Actually, I hardly held him. I spent most of our eight-hour journey from Longmeadow, Massachusetts, grasping at him as he maintained perpetual motion, climbing me, attempting to sit on mom’s non-existent lap, rolling the windows down and wailing to be allowed out of the car. We drove slowly over the snowy country roads – the interstates were rude forerunners of what they are today – and he did not settle down until after we had stopped to eat at a diner in Rutledge, Vermont, when he fell asleep in my arms. For the last two hours of the trip, I was in increasing pain, terrified to move or to do anything more strenuous than lightly breathe, lest my nightmare be reawakened.

The falling snow became blinding just as we reached the village, and when we got to at the foot of the mile-long hill that would take us to our rented home atop Rockledge Road, we stopped to reconnoiter and emerged from the cars, stiff and sore and, immediately, most horribly cold.   Colder than any of us had ever been before.

Years later, my mother would regularly quip, “Yes, living in Saranac Lake, we have two seasons: winter and the 4th of July.” Which may have been hyperbole, but it rings true as I remember that moment.

Standing there where East Pine and Pine Streets meet, getting our first feel of our new home, all I could think was that we couldn’t live there. It was just too, too cold.

Truth is – and you can look this up – the temperatures officially reached 36o below zero that night, and WNBZ Radio reported the next morning that in our corner of the town, high on our hill overlooking Moody Pond in the shadow of venerable Mount Baker, it was actually as much as ten degrees colder than the official report.90387775

The relief of being outdoors after what seemed like endless hours’ sitting in a cramped, smelly vehicle, wore off in an instant. What lay ahead felt daunting. The hill was icy, and the snow was relentless; in order to assess the best way to navigate his way up the hill, Dad had to walk up the hill a ways to find a route in, and still he wasn’t sure what surrounded him. Both vehicles’ motors cranked noisily, struggling to stay alive, and I could feel my toes and fingers, lips and nose separating themselves from my body.

My father, holding my barefoot 3-year-old sister Helen in his arms, decided to look in the glove compartment for a flashlight and absent-mindedly put the little girl down in the snow. She shrieked, and I picked her up and put her back in the car, all the time fighting back tears of absolute terror.

Drained from the trip and weary of crying children, my mother looked at me and shook her head disparagingly. Reading my expression, she said, “It’ll be all right. You’ll learn to ski. You’ll wear winter clothing. We will be fine.” And with that she got back into the driver’s seat and waited for my father to lead the way to the end of our journey at the top of the driveway.

Sure enough, on the second day in our new house, because we were still out of school for winter vacation, we all took a break from the unpacking and returned to that long, steep road, this time with a pair of skis Mom had found in the basement. They were old style wooden skis with leather bindings, which required no special boots. “Today,” she had announced at breakfast. “You will have your first ski lesson.” The other kids were delighted to engage in a new sport, but I was more interested to know where she had learned such a thing. And I couldn’t help noticing that at the moment she made the announcement, she glowed with a youthful exuberance I hardly recognized.

“How do you know how to ski, Mommy?” I asked her.

“I skied a lot in my childhood. A lot.”

“In Vienna?” I asked incredulously.

“Not exactly,” she replied. “But not far away. In the Alps, a place very much like where we are now.

We took turns skiing down the hill, hiking back up, laughing yelling to one another across the white silence. At some point, a woman emerged from a house in the middle of the hill. She walked up to my mother, and they began to talk, and in a few minutes, they embraced and lapsed into German. “Children,” my mother called excitedly. “Come met our neighbor Mrs. Koop.”14-3143.1L

The Koops, who owned Temmings Jewelry, were from Switzerland; they spoke a German dialect I had a very hard time understanding, but my mother was clearly in her element. She had found a home. Which made the town feel homey to us as well. By the end of the day we had met most of the people on Rockledge Road; Bibbe Shapiro and I established a bond: we both loved theater.

The following month, in the building that now houses the administrative offices of North Country Community College, my mother gave birth to Sarah, the first of my three siblings born in Saranac Lake General Hospital. We watched the Winter Carnival fireworks from the hospital parking lot along with fellow townspeople, who were there either to visit hospitalized relatives and friends or to watch the spectacle from a distance. No one treated us as outsiders. We felt like locals.

School was a difficult adjustment, but in spring, I had a fight on the railroad tracks with Irene Walker, and that established me as an appropriate friend. The Whitson brothers let me cut through their path when I walked down to meet her to throw stones into Moody Pond, and through girl scouts, I met Suzy Hanks and Gail Gallagher. As members at the Methodist Church, we became part of the community. When John Pedroni soaked my blonde braids in black India ink, I wasn’t even angry because it was clear that what had transpired was more an act of initiation and welcome than anything else.

Clearly, as cold as the winter might be, the people of this little town were some of the warmest on earth.

We became well known in certain sectors of the community. Indeed, there was no missing us. Every Sunday, for example, with the consistency of a Swiss train, we arrived at the First United Methodist Church; but unlike that Swiss train, we were never on time. It was our habit to arrive ten to fifteen minutes after the minister made his welcoming address, just as the choir was putting away hymnals, the congregation rifling through prayer books looking for the Apostles Creed, and our entrance was grand. Eventually, there were nine of us, and we were never inconspicuous, marching down the aisle behind my parents like Biblical offspring – Carla, David, Helen, Alfred, Elizabeth and John.

Then, one snowy day in 1963, I was waiting for my mother to retrieve me from a singing lesson in Lake Clear when Marion Greibsch drove up instead. “Your mother’s been in a bit of an accident,” she told me kindly, and then she drove me home. That bit of an accident imprisoned my mother in a series of operations and casts for the next year and a half, and it was during that time that we truly understood how entirely we had been adopted as Saranac Lakers.

Marion must have made the first phone calls. Because even before the radio reported the news of the accident, food began to arrive at the door. One by one the people of Saranac Lake came by and left us casseroles, salads, breads, desserts; for the next four months we had more food than we knew what to do with. Every day someone called, every day someone stopped by. “We just want to know how your mom is today,” that someone would say cheerily. “And do you need anything?”

Of course, being 16, I simultaneously recognized the enormity of the charity being proffered and resented the fishbowl it placed me in. But looking back, I can now fully appreciate the care, the affection, even the love that prompted those gifts.

And there were so many gifts over the years. Gifts I have never acknowledged, gifts from so many people that to name any of them would be to insult the few I did not name.   Suffice it to say that I’ve been around a few blocks by now, and I find it absolutely mind boggling how very much I took away from Saranac Lake fifty plus years ago.

I received a high school education that was nonpareil; I learned the art of self reliance while being nurtured in a vibrant example of communal interdependence that taught me the importance of collaboration. I may not have been popular, but I always knew I was respected, and today, all these years later, several of my classmates still number among my most trusted friends. Though it was far from perfect – black clouds hover over even the most idyllic of retreats – mine was a charmed life, and I am only embarrassed that it has taken me this long to proclaim my appreciation.

So please let me take this moment and these columns of space to acknowledge the giving, gracious people of Saranac Lake. The doctors, teachers, classmates, neighbors, librarians, shopkeepers, parents, custodians, police people, administrators, clergy, service providers . . . the caring folk who peopled this village that raised me.

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And allow me to simply say thank you.

Sincerely,

Carla Swett Stockton

SLHS ‘65

 

 

 

 

Northern Exposure

What I remember most about being young is how much older I was then than I am now. There was a supercilious seriousness about me then, a clarity I could never recapture.

My best friend in the 1960’s was Northern Calloway, who resided with his family in Harlem as I did with mine in Queens, but we spent most of our time with theater friends in the Village, where we felt the safest. Mixed race friendships were less unusual in the Village then than in Harlem or in Queens.young northern

You might recognize Northern. He was in the original Sesame Street cast, as Mr. Hooper’s assistant David, and he understudied Ben Vereen as the Leading Player in Pippin before he took the role to London. Three months younger than I, Northern had absolute certainty that he was right. Always. About everything.

SesameStreetDavid  “You and I might love each other now,” he’d tell me. “But you know some day, we may have to take sides.” We had heard Malcolm X speak just months before the assassination, and he insisted that I regard X with the same reverence he had for the man.

“He’s a beautiful speaker,” I told Northern. “And I admire his courage. But it’s not that black and white. Dr. King –“

Northern was exasperated when I spoke of MLK. “Dr. King’s a delusion,” he’d proclaim with all his youthful self-righteousness. “And you’ve chosen exactly the right words. It’s ALL about black and white. King makes it seem like you and I could wind up on the same side in a race war, but Malcolm tells it like it is. There’s y’all and there’s us, and someday I might have to side against you. I might even have to kill you.”

The notion terrified me. The year before a kid named James Powell had been shot by an off-duty policeman, and all-out riots erupted first in Harlem and then in Bed-Stuy. Before long, the terror spread as far from the city as Rochester, and Governor Rockefeller called out the National Guard. I had seen the ugliness of the mobs, had felt the hatred on both sides, and I did not want to have to choose one or the other. In my estimation, there was right and wrong on both sides, and I envisioned a world in which each side could find ways to appease the other, agree on compromises.

“You be fool,” Northern told me then, lapsing into his very cultured version of street lingo. “But it ain’t your fault. You not Black. I ain’t white. We ain’t never gon’ see things the same. You cannot know what my life is like.”

Of course I disagreed, and I was certain he was wrong. I was an actor, a writer; I had a reputation for being overly empathic. Besides, even though he lived in Harlem, he wasn’t really from that culture either. Raised by his Cambridge-educated Jamaican grandfather and his school teacher mother, Northern’s background seemed closer to my own jumble of immigrant cultures than to those of the people I saw when I visited him. It never occurred to me at age 15 that he meant he was Black, and I was White, and that was that. I had a penchant for overlooking the obvious.

But I couldn’t ignore it forever. In 1966, I needed to move from Queens to Manhattan, and one day I found a listing in the Village Voice for a place I knew I just had to see. “Dig it,” I told Northern. “It’s, like, a studio. On the ground floor. It’s got a garden. A hundred a month.” “Where?” Northern inquired. “Houston Street, just east of Elizabeth.” Northern was audibly indignant. “You kidding me? That’s Little Italy. You wanna live there where all the racists live?” I refused to believe him and convinced him to go with me to look.LittleItaly

The apartment was everything the ad suggested it could be. Sunny, clean, newly renovated. The landlord told me that he paid his dues so no one messed with him. I had no idea what that meant, but I wanted to live there. Again Northern scoffed. “You wanna live with the Mob? You think so? You gon’ be sorry, girl!”

I was devastated when the landlord called me to say that while I seemed like a nice kid to him, he couldn’t be so sure about my friends if they were all like the thug who was with me when I looked.

A thug? Northern? Whose clipped, almost British accent made this landlord sound like a caricature of the dumb wop? I wanted to argue, but I was too flabbergasted to say anything. Instead I hung up the phone and dialed Northern. “I told you you was trippin’,” he laughed. “Niggers are not welcome in Little Italy. You should ’a’ listened to me in the first place.”

I hated when he was right.Pippin

Northern hated cops. I didn’t. I had had two experiences with New York cops that made me love them. The first was when my friend Norma, a single mom, eking out her existence working with me as a proofreader in a management counseling firm, returned home with her 10-yr-old daughter one night to find their apartment had been ransacked. Norma didn’t own anything worth stealing, but her daughter owned a jar of coins –quarters, dimes and nickels she’d been saving for eight of her ten years– which was the only item taken from the apartment. The investigating officer felt terrible for the little girl and asked her how much she had saved. “I dunno,” she replied. “The last time I counted, I had 47 dollars and 27 cents. That was a few weeks ago.” The man reached into his pocket and handed the little girl a wad of bills. “Put these away,” he said, patting her head. “And don’t be spendin’ it till Christmas.”

Northern spat on the ground as I relayed the story while we crossed through Rockefeller Center. “And you think that proves they’re nice guys?” I said all it proved was that all cops were not pigs. “Well,” he scoffed. “If she weren’t white, I bet the outcome would‘ve been very different.” I ignored him.

The second time a cop actually saved me from myself.

In those days there was a popular product called Cupid’s Quiver, a scented, flavored douche that was sold in sets of twelve small plastic vials packed neatly into a rectangular acrylic box, the perfect place to keep a stash. Perfectly rolled doobies nestled comfortably into the spaces intended for the vials.

One fine Saturday night, making a delivery for my dealer cousin to the Village, I fell in the subway station. My purse opened to spew forth its contents, including a Quiver. Twelve charming marijuana joints tumbled onto the concrete floor. In a panic, I scrambled to scoop them back into their little pink box, when suddenly, crouching next to me was a NYC Transit cop. Visions of rock piles and leg chains danced in my head, and I could hear strains of NobodyknowsthetroubleIseen playing behind my eyes, when the cop handed me four joints he’d already collected. “Lemme help you with these, little lady,” he crooned. Ordinarily, I allowed no one to talk to me like that, but under the circumstances I held my tongue.

“Yeah,” snapped Northern when I told him about the incident. “May I remind you that you ain’t no black man?” This time I knew he was right, and I thanked my lucky stars.

In the end, Northern and I parted company over a difference in perception that had nothing to do with race but had everything to do with how driven we were by the politics of our generation.

In 1969, Northern was headlining in an off- Broadway play called Salvation, an anti-war musical, about a Baptist kid who becomes a guru for the under-30’s crowd, delivering a messianic message à la Timothy Leary. That was the same year I went back to school at Columbia, and a very close friend of mine from high school, deployed to Vietnam, stopped in to see me on his way to Saigon.

My friend and I both wanted to see Salvation, and when I asked Northern if he could get comps, he arranged for producers’ seats, the best in the house. There was one hitch: my friend had brought nothing to wear but his uniforms. We were conspicuous in that audience, to say the least.Salvationcover

During the show, whenever the politics got hot on stage, some cast member would point to my friend sitting next to me and make ever-worsening references to the “buzz-head blondie” in the third row. I was ashamed – not of my friend but of the cast.   How dare they judge him and stick him out for his choice when he was there to celebrate their choices?

After the show, Northern sent word that he couldn’t have dinner with us as planned. I got the message loud and clear, and I didn’t see him for a month. He didn’t call me, and I didn’t call him. Then one day I was walking near the fountain in Washington Square Park when I heard my name. The voice was unmistakable.

“Hi, Northern.”salvationcast

“Hi yourself, white girl.” We hugged, kissed, held each other for far longer than a simple hello would warrant. Then we just stood there, looking at each other, holding hands, not having anything to say.

“I’m thinking it’s time to forgive you,” he said finally.

“You? Forgive me?”

“Yeah. For bringing that fascist Clyde to the show.” Fascist Clyde meant stupid storm trooper.

“You don’t know anything about him, and you –“

“ He was wearing a war machine uniform. Where’s your Lysistrata passion?”

“He knows how I feel, I don’t sleep with him, and he has the right to maintain his own point of view. It’s not up to me to legislate beliefs for any of my friends.”

Northern squeezed his eyebrows together, and he nodded ponderously. Then he shrugged and pulled his jacket lapels up around his neck. “Well, I guess that’s where we are different,” he said. “I do.”

He turned and walked away, and that was the last time I ever saw Northern Jesse James Calloway. Years later, as suburban teacher, I was on a bus crossing through Harlem en route from Connecticut to the Asia Society, when a scrap of newspaper hit the bus windshield. The driver got out and brought the offending piece of paper, a page from the Daily News, inside. For some reason, I turned the page over, and there, in black and white, the headline read, “Actor Northern Calloway Dead at 41.”

It was a bizarre moment, like the result of divine intervention, too surreal to have happened. But it did.

I think about Northern a lot lately. I’m the one living in Harlem now. But like the old adage says, “The more things change –“

The other day I was on a bus, headed downtown, and I happened to eavesdrop on a conversation between a young Asian man and a tall, African-American woman. They were arguing about the Eric Garner decision.

“It’s complicated,” he said. “There’s so much we don’t know.”

“Yeah,” she agreed. “And there’s too much we do know. The cops just –“

“I dunno,” the young man argued. “I don’t think it’s so clearly black and white.”

“That’s exactly what it is,” said the girl, laughing a little. “Simply put, there’s y’all and there’s us, and someday I’m gonna have to take a side.”

I could swear I heard her say then, “I may even have to kill you.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Border Wars on the Mind

I perceive Gaza these days through a Texas-tempered lens.  Watching the hateful  citizenry of the wealthiest country in the world scream obscenities at indigent waifs displaced by violence and poverty, instructing them to go back to where they come from, I am reminded of stories my mother told about her arrival in Kingston just before WWII.  My mother was no waif, and poverty was not the impetus for her flight to the Land of Opportunity, but her stories inevitably lead me all the way to Gaza.

Mom’s family arrived without their patriarch in April, 1939, toward the end of what proved to be her junior year in high school.   She surprised herself by passing the English regents exam in May and so began the process of applying to college.  Her senior year felt friendless to her; classmates jeered her, mocked her accent.  Girls in the lunch room turned chairs over so she could not sit with them, and in gym class, they threw dirty socks and wet towels at her.  Teachers derided her, telling her they were unable to understand her when she spoke, deliberately refusing to call on her in class. The entire community – especially the entrenched first-and-second generation descendants of immigrants– treated her and her siblings as interlopers, avoiding them all at synagogue and football games alike, attempting to rebuff her brother’s attempts to join the Boy Scouts, even suggesting on numerous occasions that the lot of them return to their “own country.”

Fresh off the boat, Charlotte Robinson, my mother,  was 16 in 1939.

Fresh off the boat, Charlotte Robinson, my mother, turned 16 in 1939.

Of course, they owned no country any more than those homeless children seeking asylum at our Southwest borders do today.  Born in Austria during a time when Jews were highly respected, my mother reached her teens at precisely the time when Jews were successfully relegated to the status of lice.  Her passport, any European’s primary form of identification, was stamped Israelische, marking her as an outsider, a member of the tribe of Israel.  She was not Austrian.

Which was initially why she joined the Jabotinsky youth, planned to leave the vitriolic land of her birth to claim her rightful home in Eretz Isroel.

My grandfather put a stop to that.  “You think I’ll let you leave the Nazis only to throw yourself into the hands of the Arabs who want you dead?  Besides,” he told her, “the Jews cannot own the ‘promised land because the Europeans will never let it go.  You will come with us to America.’”

She was only 15; she acquiesced.  Ironically, she emigrated without her father.  In a move that may have helped to seal the fate of the Middle East, the United States closed its borders to Jews like my grandfather, who were born in countries that seemed somehow un-Caucasian, such as Poland, and were frantically seeking refuge under Lady Liberty’s lamp.  While my mother endured the slurs of her classmates, her father lived in Havana, working to become a Cuban citizen who might then be allowed to enter the United States.

America has never really welcomed the huddled masses.  At the end of WWII, American money –much of it from second and third generation Americans protecting their American territory from newcomers to these shores – veritably gushed in support of the partition of Israel, over the protestations of the local Palestinians.  It was more expedient to force the displacement of the Palestinians, to fuel the hatred of neighboring Arab countries, who wanted nothing to do with either Palestinians or Jews, than to profer better solutions to a problem to which they had been catalysts in the first place.

Over the arc of time, the European imperialists and Americans had imposed arbitrary boundaries across the Middle East, comporting themselves like puppet masters overseeing a bloody marionette show for their own entertainment.  In much the same way the British and the French turned Iroquois against Algonquin in the so-called French and Indian War by arming the natives and rewarding their aggression, the Western world played the locals off against one another, all over the Middle East.  Today the forces seem to have raised the stakes,  and they produce animatronic battles between Palestinian and Israelis (and between Suni And Shiite Muslims elsewhere), doling out money to each side so that the show runners can sit back and watch both sides exchange bombardments.   In the present Gaza conflagration, the U.S. has steadfastly encouraged the warring factions to go at one another, financing a bloodier extension of the age-old Jacob vs Esau, Isaac vs Ishmael rivalries.  They have sent millions of dollars to Hamas for the building of missile tunnels; and they have sent more millions of dollars to Israel for the building of The Dome.  The combatants in Gaza are egged on, like contestants in an obscene reality television show, while the odds are alternately stacked for one side or the other.

Unfortunately, each side is fueled by the deeply religious conviction that that side has a God-given right to the land, was placed there by divine ordinance.  Religion is an immovable feast.

But even were the religious obstinacy absent, neither side has anywhere else to go. The two peoples are caught in a battle for survival, and until one side finally trusts the other enough to make concessions, they’ll be unable to settle things.  So long as Hamas promises to eradicate the Land of Israel by any means possible, Israel cannot trust them to honor boundaries; so long as Israel won’t concede the West Bank, which Israel considers essential to guarding against eradication, Hamas won’t accept compromise.

Which leaves them both unable to stop fighting.  If there were another place to create a homeland; if, for example, the US offered a chunk of Arizona or Utah – where vast open areas of desert beg to be developed – as an alternate place to establish Israel or Palestine, would one group exit and start over?  We’ll never know.  Because both groups are as unwelcome in their diaspora as the children being sent back to South and Central America are in theirs.  So neither side is able to let go of their claim to the land of Abraham, their common ancestor.  They’re orphans, hated universally, shunned by all.

Somewhere I imagine closed circuit television cameras recording the action, playing back the videos in some perverse gambling casino, where bets are flying, emirs and pashas and captains of industry and Wall Street moguls and all kinds of professional gamblers are getting rich placing bets on how many Palestinian children will die in how much time and how many weeks Israeli children can hold out in their giant dome before it’s their turn to be destroyed.

It’s a vicious storm, from which nobody is safe.