Among many great moments of my life—the rush of first love, the birth of two healthy babies, a breakthrough scientific discovery—one of the best was feeling as one with other animals on a beach in the Galapagos. I sailed there with a small group of active thrill-seekers who could hike and climb with gusto. But my bum ankle, recently busted while skiing downhill, held me back. I sat alone on the beach of one of those islands while all others in the group hiked a volcanic mountain. Relaxing, eyes closed midst the soothing sounds and smells of ocean waves, I felt something stirring, licking my toes. Looking down, I found a cuddly young sea lion seemingly greeting me as one of them while a host of iguana marched past paying me no mind. Then three feet to my left, in a low lying bush, a nest of lava gull chicks squawked a greeting to their parent bearing food.
I was one of them—just another species.
Ken Burns’ latest series, The Roosevelts sparks memories I have of the nineteen thirties and forties.
Eleanor was my first idol despite my mother’s disapproval. Mom, a Republican and proud member of the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) thought a wife should stay home and look after her husband and children. She had enrolled me in the CAR (Children of the American Revolution), and our chapter traveled to Washington in 1937 when I was but an adolescent. We went to the White House where Eleanor received us. The moment I looked up into her kind face and shook her hand, I became a fan. Her welcoming warmth traveled throughout my young body. Little did I realize then how much the life she lived would influence mine.
Eleanor became my heroine for the courage she showed in doing what she felt needed to be done despite public criticism. She became her husband’s partner in affairs of state, and carried on with that work long after his death—First Ladies just didn’t do that at that time in history!
At age eight, I had announced to my mom, “I want to grow up to be a scientist”, Mom replied, “That’s nice, dear, you can be a nurse”, which then, of course, was the only proper goal for a girl keen on science. Nonetheless, I became a scientist and Eleanor served as my model.
Ultimately, Mom changed with the times. She voted for Kennedy and grew proud of my scientific accomplishments. I think she also came to admire Eleanor after all.
Remembrance of one’s past is an anchor to the present. Putting it all down—in mind, in talk, in text—gives meaning to life. But what is the thrust overall? Looking back to one’s time in life—in my case from 1925 ‘til now—much changed, much happened, yet what of before and before?
I am now writing books about earlier times as told in the words of my family and my husband’s family. These recollections seem hardly significant compared to the written history of all human kind. Then what of time before human existence (200,000 years ago), the origin of life on earth (3.5 billion years ago), planet Earth before life began (4.5 billion years in the past), the Universe (13.7 billion years old), and before that, whatever it was? Having just watched Neil de Grasse Tyson hosting Cosmos, I am totally humbled by such thoughts. My existence is but a teensy tiny speck in the grand scheme of what we now know. It holds importance for me, some relatives and friends, but it is as nothing in the grand scheme of events. We live. We die. Famous people with more impactful stories than mine, live and die—all in a fraction, a micro-second of that grand scheme.
No wonder one want’s to believe in heavenly life hereafter. Yet I, for one, cannot presume such comfort, even should I try to lead a very pious life. I think, once ‘passed’, I shall become the stuff of stars from whence I came.
Recycle—that’s the ticket!
I had five older brothers and four sisters-in-law. They’re all gone, dead, passed on, recycled—save one: my younger brother’s wife, Grace. Grace is one hundred going on one-oh-one. She can’t see; can’t walk, can’t hear very well, but Grace is lucid, sweet, smart, and beloved. She’s grown old gracefully, just as my mother said we should all try to do. Grace has 10 years, 8 months, 18 days on me. I can see, smell, taste, walk, even play tennis, but—thinking of Grace—can’t help contemplate my future. Will I, can I, grow old gracefully?
But I shall not think anymore about that today. Instead, I will make myself a sinful breakfast of bacon and buttered waffles amply laced with Vermont maple syrup; I shall read the newspaper; the New Yorker—maybe finish Archer Mayor’s Paradise City—take a walk; watch a bit of the Australian Open and, after that, catch the NFL playoffs.
I will postpone working on my book, “Tobacco Farm Tales,” until tomorrow. Today, I shall not think any more about growing old gracefully.
After spending a couple days with a large group of lawyers as keynote speaker at their annual “Winter Melt” in Montreal last weekend, I recalled a childhood revelation about the difference between science and the law.
My dad was a lawyer, but I wanted to be a scientist and discover the balanced truth about some unknown phenomenon. Even in third grade, I knew that scientists start with an idea, do experiments to get information about it, make observations, and try to maintain an unbiased view of what the discovered facts say. Well, Dad came home from the office one day and went on and on about how he had to appear in court and advocate for his client. It seemed to me, he was cherry picking facts in order to make the best case scenario on behalf of that client. I said to him, “But Dad, you’re not looking at all sides; you’re not trying to find the truth!” He replied, “I know, but that’s the way of the law. It’s better than neighbors trying to settle their disputes by hitting each other over the head with an axe!”
Well, I’m glad I did grow up to be a scientist instead of a lawyer, but my respect for lawyers and what they do expanded significantly last weekend. Those lawyers attending the Vermont Bar Association’s “Winter Melt” seemed smart as whips and harbored much curiosity about all sorts of things—even my talk about the importance of fungi and all the different ways they accomplish sexual reproduction.
I am writing a saga of my husband’s family, tentatively titled: TOBACCO FARM TALES. Here is an excerpt from the preface:
Frank Raper didn’t feel too good. He’d survived a massive heart attack about a year ago in 1910 and hadn’t been much use since. His older boys helped out as much as they could, preparing beds for the Bright Leaf tobacco seeds to sprout their way to seedlings, plowing the fields in readiness for planting, tilling, topping, suckering as each plant put out unwanted shoots, then harvesting and stringing the good leaves on poles over in the curing barn where he and the boys took turns stoking the fires nights and days ‘til each blade reached that perfect yellow gold.
Now the crop had gone to market. Frank rocked on the porch, savoring the lingering sweet smell of well cured tobacco. He gathered strength as wife Julie lay in bed with early signs of labor bringing forth their eighth child. The older two, Cletus and Luther, had gone back to school in Churchland. Frank called the rest together. “Arthur, Ralph, Howard, Blanche, Kenneth, you’re all going to Uncle Dave’s for the night. Arthur, you see to it your brothers and sister get there with pajamas and clean clothes for the morning.” ‘Oh, I know what’s coming’, thought Arthur. ‘They’re going to call Doctor Bob with his little black bag, and when we get back home there’ll be another squalling baby in that worn out cradle.’
Sure enough, the very next day, October third, nineteen eleven, these five Raper children came home after breakfast to find a tiny baby boy sleeping peacefully beside their loving mother. This one had red hair like the last three, Kenneth, Blanche and Howard. They called him John. In a few more years, he’d be another welcomed farm hand in this rural community called Welcome.
I married John in 1949. He preferred the moniker Red, so, outside his immediate family, we called him Red. It fit his temperament.
Now a distinguished scientist, Red’s childhood haunted him still. The youngest of eight, he grew up tasting the red dust of that North Carolinian farm and its main cash crop, tobacco. Resentful memories of never ending chores: hauling water, slopping pigs, milking cows, plowing fields, setting crops, suckering tobacco—row upon row in the blistering sun of summer—all took hold and stayed. It wasn’t so bad when the brothers shared, but ultimately they left to seek more profitable livelihoods elsewhere. It was a time he could not forget. Yet Red’s ties to brothers and sister remained strong. Now, all urban professionals, they nonetheless gathered in family reunion every five years and exchanged Round Robin letters in between.
It was our turn to plan the reunion in 1965. By then I’d heard much of these Rapers from Red’s point of view. I want to know more. How do they view their childhoods; how did they get from there to here? Why did each and every one leave that hard working God fearing way of life where discontented peers sought mischievous diversions: stealing watermelons, bullying the vulnerable, and worse? Not one grew up to continue farming, like so many of their neighboring friends and relatives. From a one to three room schoolhouse, they all sought a higher education and professional accomplishments elsewhere, though their parents never went beyond seventh grade. How did that happen? Well now I have a chance to find out more.
We booked a recommended inn in Booth Bay Harbor, Maine, because of its ocean breezes, its lobsters, clams, and pleasant place to dine facing an expansive lawn that sloped to a shimmering pond with swimming dock and paddleboats.
Forty eight members of the Raper family, all related in some fashion to long since deceased William Franklin and Julia Crouse Raper, assembled there the first week of August. All but one of Red’s siblings attended—Cletus, the oldest, had died since the last reunion. I asked them to come prepared to talk about their time together as youngsters on the farm. Red and I had just purchased a state-of-the-art tape recorder. We brought it along with reels of tape to document their words.
After three days of romping about, chatting, swimming, boating, and feasting on fruits of the ocean, we settle down in one large room to hear the colorful tales these brethren have to tell.
You are invited to listen.