I recently saw Wild Swan Theatre’s production of Jeff Duncan and Brian E. Buckner’s musical, Rosie the Riveter. If you don’t already know, let me tell you, Wild Swan Theatre is an Ann Arbor treasure, and one of our town’s greatest gifts to theatre lovers both young and old—in Michigan and beyond. If you’re familiar with Wild Swan, you probably already agree with me. If you’re not, do yourself a favor and become acquainted.
Rosie the Riveter is, of course, about the women who, during World War II, worked in defense plants, factories and in other formerly exclusively male work situations. The musical is specifically about the women who worked in the Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti, MI, making the iconic B-24 Liberator bombers.
This isn’t a review of the musical, or of Wild Swan’s production, though I could easily use up most of my store of superlatives in writing those reviews. Rather it’s about the effect the musical had on me, and why I feel it’s critical that young people—hell, all people—and most especially now—see and hear plays, songs, stories, and all forms of art that share Rosie the Riveter’s message.
Wild Swan’s Rosie began with a series of pictures projected on a screen above the stage. The pictures were of women who worked in the Willow Run plant during the war. As soon as the first picture was projected I began crying—hard.
OK, I’m no John Wayne. I’ve been known to react with visible emotion to art that evokes strong feelings in me, but for a few seconds, as I looked at that picture of a stranger, a woman I did not recognize, standing by an unfinished airplane, holding a rivet gun, I had no idea why I was crying.
And then, I knew.
In 1944, my mother, along with countless other Jews, was forced at gunpoint from her apartment in her native Budapest, crammed into a filthy, overcrowded, railroad cattle car and taken to the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany. She spent her 26th birthday, December 4, 1944, in that cattle car. I’ll spare you the details of that horrific trip, and the hell that followed. Ravensbrück, by the time she got there, was no longer a killing camp, although the gruesome and inhuman “scientific experiments” to which Nazi “doctors” subjected some of their defenseless captives, were possibly still in progress there. Blessedly, my mother didn’t experience that. But she was, along with hundreds of other women, marched every day, in bitter winter weather, in woefully inadequate clothing, to a nearby airplane factory, where she was forced to build planes for the Nazi war effort. My mother told me many times, with great pride, “Nothing I touched ever flew!” All the women did what they could to sabotage the planes.
The Nazis starved them. Whenever the women could get away with it, they stole potatoes and onions from the camp kitchens, occasionally even scrounging them from farm fields along their march route, then sneaked them into the factory in the mornings, hid them in light fixtures and cooked them as best they could during the day with the heat of the light bulbs, then ate them at night.
At the end of March, 1945, with the Red Army rapidly advancing, the Nazi guards took most of the women, using them as human shields, on a death march. The night of April 15th, my mother, her older sister, and seven other women escaped and took refuge in nearby Dresden. When the war ended my mother gradually made her way back to Budapest where, two years later, she met my father.
When the pictures of the Willow Run Rosies flashed on the screen at the start of the Wild Swan play, I didn’t only see strangers I didn’t recognize. I saw my mother.
Rosie the Riveter is expertly packed with fascinating facts and figures and many moving stories based on the true-life experiences of the original Rosies, but the overriding theme of the musical is about freedom. Freedom for the women to explore their potential outside of the existing societal confines of the period, freedom for women and families living in poverty to improve their lives and freedom for the African American women and their families to escape the demeaning and dehumanizing brutality they experienced in the Jim Crow South—and an opportunity for white men and women to get past their prejudices about African Americans by interacting with them in the plants.
Today, perhaps more than ever, we need musicals like Rosie the Riveter. We need plays, musicals, songs and all other art forms that value, depict and promote the precious treasure of freedom—freedom to escape dangerous, intolerable conditions; freedom to live in peace in the home of your own choosing; freedom from misogyny, both subtle and blatant, freedom from religious persecution; from prejudice, discrimination and hatred; and freedom to protect and improve our world for our children.
Kids Are Kids the Whole World Round was the first elementary school musical that my brother and I wrote. Published in 1997 by the Hal Leonard Corporation, the half-hour musical featured eight of our songs connected by short monologues we wrote to introduce each song. Over the years we’ve heard from many music teachers around the country who have used it to present programs with their third or fourth graders, but we never saw an actual performance. Until now. On February 16th, coincidentally—but very appropriately—on the national “A Day Without Immigrants,” we heard the fourth graders at Rogers School in Berkley, Michigan, perform the musical in the afternoon for their teachers and schoolmates. That night they presented it again for their parents and families.
First things first—the kids at Rogers were great! Their music teacher, Maryann Maiuri, had prepared them very well and they sang in tune, in rhythm, and, most importantly, with feeling. They delivered the monologues from memory, with enthusiasm and dramatic flair. Laz and I were delighted and moved—a couple of times to tears—by their beautiful presentation.
We wrote those songs and monologues more than twenty years ago, a couple of the songs nearly thirty years ago. Several of them are still in our sets at many of our concerts. But we hadn’t seen or heard the monologues since the musical came out. As we listened to the kids perform Kids Are Kids, Laz and I were both struck by how much of it, songs and monologues both, seemed eerily timely and relevant—and much more so today than when we wrote them, or at any time since then.
The first song of Kids Are Kids is “Hello,” which features greetings in eight languages, and which has been our opening number at almost all of our children’s and family concerts since 1988. The monologue that follows goes like this:
“We just greeted you, and each other, in all those languages because, although we live here in the United States, we are connected to people the whole world ‘round. After all, every one of us, including Native Americans, has ancestors who came here from other parts of the world. Maybe it was our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, or great-great-great grandparents… Maybe they came from Europe, Africa, South America, India or China… They spoke different languages…they looked and dressed differently from one another…they cooked different foods. Yet they all worked together to create one great country! We can continue to do the same today, because, just like them, deep inside, we are all much more alike than we are different. Inside, we are really all the same.”
You get the idea. Here are some lyrics from “All the World”: “All the world is a rainbow/What color are you? Are you red black or white, are you yellow or brown, are you some other shade or hue?” “Everybody Once Was a Kid” pays homage to some of my heroes: Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, Amelia Earhart, Aretha, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, the Beatles, Michael Fox, Baryshnikov, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Elvis. “If We Care” was the only song that featured soloists, and they were magnificent. I’m hoping there was an adequate supply of Kleenex around for their families when they sang, “If we care, and we share, then we’ll all have enough. If we don’t, or we won’t, it’ll be tough, it’ll be rough. But if we love one another, deep in the heart, that’s the start.” Laz and I sure used some. The musical ends with “The Sun’s Gonna Shine” featuring lyrics that proclaim an optimism that I have been struggling to feel since November 8. “The sun’s gonna shine, shine on me, I can feel it in my bones.”
I have never sat down and said to myself, “Today I will write a song about immigration, or about the value of diversity, or about the necessity of tolerance.” Like most writers, I work from my life experiences, sometimes without even recognizing till much later what the impetus or inspiration was for what I’ve written. But listening to the kids perform Kids Are Kids, I realized what was one main impulse that sparked those songs and monologues, and, for that matter much of the rest of our music—our original songs and the traditional ones we’ve included in our sets over the years.
Although we were not born in this country, having come here as children with our parents, I’ve not thought of myself as an immigrant in many, many years. I have long felt thoroughly American, and never think of myself as being Hungarian, though I was for my early childhood; or Israeli, though I was that for a few years before we came to America. But for months now, I have been frequently, forcefully, and very unpleasantly reminded that I am an immigrant and, but for the accident of the timing and location of my birth, might have faced the same rejection that many of today’s refugees and immigrants face in moving, or trying to come to America.
My family and I came here legally but, like most immigrants and refugees the world over—for eons before us, and up to the present day—we left our homeland to escape violence and persecution, and to seek a chance at a better life.
Our family did that twice. First, my parents uprooted themselves and my brother and me from the only country all of us had ever known; my father was 47 years old, my mother 39. We left behind most of our relatives, most of our possessions, our language, my parents’ work, our whole way of life—and moved to Israel and started over. And then, less than three years later, we did it all again to move to the US.
My brother and I were just kids—eight years old the first time, almost eleven the second. It wasn’t that hard for us. The new languages came pretty easily and, with the flexibility and resiliency of the very young, we readily made new friends, and learned new customs. It was much more difficult for my parents, but they did it knowing that because we were Jewish we’d face—at best—prejudice and limited educational and work opportunities and—at worst—lethal persecution in Hungary. We left Israel because in the late fifties the only work and way of life available to my parents simply presented too many difficult changes for them to make at their age.
I’m not arrogant enough to think that I’ve given more to this country than I’ve received. Just the opposite, in fact. But, like most of us, immigrants and others, I’ve tried to live a good life here, tried to live a life that has felt honorable and worthwhile to me, my family, my community, my country, and ultimately the planet. And, like many of us—and unlike the current administration—I don’t now feel that there’s no more room in this country for others facing the hardships—and far worse—that my parents faced when they decided to leave their homeland. I’m also not so arrogant as to think that our one little musical, sung by a couple dozen kids at Rogers School (and by a few hundred other children at elementary schools that are doing this musical around the country) will have any effect against Trump’s illegal executive order. But I can say with some certainty and even a little pride that—unlike Trump’s order, which has and will—this little musical can’t hurt.
Almost exactly 74 years ago, in 1943, a group of non-Jewish German women in Berlin staged a series of peaceful protests to demand that the Nazis release their Jewish husbands. The men had been arrested and were being held in a building on Rosenstrasse (Rose Street) waiting to be deported to Auschwitz. The women, only a handful at first, but eventually about a thousand, stood in the street in front of the building, in winter weather, and chanted over and over, “Give us back our men!” They refused orders to leave, even after SS troops set up machine gun nests. After their forceful stand had gone on for six days, in late February and early March, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, ordered the release of the men.
I first read about this inspiring, and nearly forgotten bit of Holocaust era history in 1993 when, on its fiftieth anniversary, this amazing act of bravery was finally recognized and celebrated. (A large, multi-part stone sculpture by the German sculptor, Ingeborg Hunzinger, now stands near the site of the Rose Street protests.)
The story moved me deeply at the time, and it recently resurfaced in my memory when my wife and daughter decided to go to Washington for the Women’s March.
No—despite what Trump tweeted recently—we’re not living in Nazi Germany. (Although he has threatened to deport millions.) Nevertheless, there are now some clear threats to our democracy, and to the world, posed by this president and his administration. So I was, and am, proud beyond words of Brenda and Emily, who joined women, men, and children all over the US and the world to protest the words and actions of Trump and his cohort.
I fell in love with Brenda for a lot of reasons, but one of the main ones was her character – her honesty, loyalty, and sense of fair play. She would certainly have been one of the Rose Street Women. And Emily has also already clearly exhibited that she has inherited the same courageous genes.
I also remember my mother, who had an opportunity to hide out from the Nazis in a friend’s Budapest apartment during the war. However, she chose to stay by her sister's side and wound up in a cattle car to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she would help save her sister’s life several times. She too would have been on Rose Street.
It will take many, many of us, standing up, marching, and acting to counter Trump’s revolting and contemptible statements, his regressive executive orders, and the similarly regressive laws that some of his supporters will try to enact. But I am grateful and – based on my experiences with the women in my life – not surprised that women are leading and showing us the way.
I’ve played nearly thirty concerts since November 8th, for audiences that have ranged in age from babes in arms to nonagenarians. The results of the election, and the avalanche that has followed, of what I consider to be highly discouraging news—to put it very mildly—has occupied much of my thinking throughout that time. At each concert I’ve asked myself what, if anything, I should say from the stage about the statements and actions of the president elect and his cohort. At concerts for young children, the answer has been obvious—nothing. But with very few exceptions I’ve also chosen to say nothing at the rest of my concerts. Occasionally I slip. The other day, someone called out from the audience at a senior center, “Can I ask you a question?” My reply, “Of course. It’s a free country—so far, anyway.”
I’ve kept silent for a variety of reasons, but I’ve come to recognize that one of the most powerful ones is rooted in my childhood in Hungary. I have faint and incomplete, but nevertheless very real memories of the atmosphere of fear that permeated our lives in my native Budapest in the early 1950s. Our apartment building was just blocks from the headquarters of the AVO, the Hungarian Secret Police. (The acronym stands for Államvédelmi Hatóság, literally Nation Protection Authority, a very high-minded title for a band of brutal butchers and torturers who were universally feared and hated in Hungary. During the 1956 Revolution, that building was one of the first to become the target of the insurgents, and some AVO officers were lynched. Before it became the AVO’s headquarters, that building was the head office of the World War II era fascist Hungarian Arrow Cross (Nyilas) Party, and is now a museum appropriately named The House of Terror.) Even as a very young child I could not help but notice how my parents and relatives would always lower their voices to a whisper when they spoke about the authorities or the government. When my aunts wanted to scare my brother and me into good behavior, they would invoke the most terrifying bogeyman they could think of, and threaten to tell the AVO of our actions. They loved us dearly and we knew we didn’t need to take them seriously, but their threats were rooted in reality. Everyone knew that informants, occasionally even including family and friends, were everywhere, and that people could be jailed, or worse, for even the most minor forms of free speech or perceived dissent. Many years after we left Hungary my father told me that he narrowly escaped possible criminal prosecution in the early 1950s after he sang a Hebrew prayer to the melody of the Israeli national anthem on a radio program.
In short, I learned from a very early age that, when it comes to the government, the best policy is to keep your head down and your mouth shut. But of course we are now in America 2016, not 1950s Hungary. We do have freedoms here that were unimaginable in that place at that time. So, here’s what I have done since the election. I am a musician, not a political activist, so in every concert I include songs that have a history, an honorable pedigree if you will, of speaking up. We, Laz, Emily and I, have been singing The Hammer Song (with its resonances to the McCarthy era), Edelweiss (which in the Sound of Music was intended to remind Austrians of the beauty of their country, and to warn them of the horrors that awaited), Dona Dona (which reminds us that, “only those with wings like swallows will not ever be enslaved”), Violeta Parra’s Gracias a la Vida (with its resonances to Chile’s brutal dictatorship in her time) and This Land Is Your Land. (If you want some fascinating reading, check out the Wikipedia article about Irving Berlin’s God Bless America, which inspired Woody Guthrie’s retort.) I know that We Shall Overcome will make it into our sets too.
I hope that people on both sides of the political divide get the message of these songs, but I am under no illusion that our singing these songs will change any minds. Our country has become so polarized that I fear it has become very difficult to have respectful conversations with those with whom we disagree. And I feel that for me to state my views and positions from the stage would not be helpful. If I’m the only one with a microphone, it would not be a conversation but a speech, not a dialog, but a self-indulgent monologue. We have too many of those as it is. Nevertheless, despite the outcome and aftermath of the election, this is America 2016, (going on 17), not 1950s Hungary. I am grateful beyond words for the freedom and the right to sing out.
We have a small holiday gift for you. In 1981 we were invited to sing a few holiday songs with the sadly now defunct, but fondly remembered, Ars Musica, the local classical chamber orchestra that focused on Baroque music, played on period instruments. We had a wonderful time recording a short holiday season demo with them that got a fair amount of radio play on classical stations around the country that year. Here are a couple of songs—one for Hannukah, one for Christmas—from that recording. We hope you enjoy.
When my brother and I first began attending school in Budapest, in our native Hungary, our father applied for, and received, special permission from the government for two things; as religious Jews, my brother and I would be allowed to wear our yarmulkes, (skullcaps) in school; also, we’d be allowed to not attend school on Saturdays, (in Hungary then, schools were in session six days a week) so we could observe the Sabbath with our family. Our parents arranged that on Sunday afternoons we’d visit one or another of our classmates and catch up on what we’d missed in school the previous day. In the first year-and-a-half that we attended school in Budapest, I recall no problems with any of our teachers or classmates about either issue.
In the fall of 1956, we were in second grade. The Hungarian Revolution flared that November. Schools were closed for a time, and when they reopened, things were different. New people were in charge of the government and they were going to make some changes. One day a minor official visited our classroom and, making no attempt to lower his voice, or to hide his disgust, asked our teacher, “Who are the two little monkeys with the beanies back there?” One of our classmates, the girl who was our most frequent Sunday afternoon tutor, with courage well beyond her eight years, piped up, “They’re not monkeys. They’re our friends.” Emboldened, a small chorus of second graders began to echo her. The rest of the conversation between the man and our teacher was conducted in the hallway, outside the classroom. No one ordered us to remove our yarmulkes.
Our family emigrated from Hungary a few weeks later.
Since the election, there has been an ugly uptick of harassment, and even violence directed at people whose appearance or clothing—for example, Muslim women wearing hijabs—marks them as belonging to one or another of the groups that were disparaged by the president-elect and/or by vocal members of his followers.
From here on out we may all have opportunities to speak up and defend each other.
she was too old to be standing in a line that long
she knew she should have just voted early
when you’re my age she said sometimes you forget things
but there’s no way I was gonna forget to vote in this one
after 45 minutes her legs were starting to give out
and she was still a long way from the voting booths
or actually rather close from the way the line doubled back
on itself but still in the middle of the snake not at its head
and it was then that a young woman across from her
about to enter a booth looked over and said let’s switch
she didn’t ask do you want to switch she just understood
what was needed and walked over to the old woman
who was telling me this story the next day and you know
something said the old woman she was wearing a hijab
Throughout my adult life I have voted regularly, and have paid more than cursory, if less than exhaustive attention to candidates and issues. I have occasionally been elated, more often disappointed. But for the most part I have not attached too much importance to the outcome of elections. I’ve never felt—correctly or not—that the results significantly impacted my day-to-day concerns. My life has been mostly about my work and my family, and politics has seemed not to affect either one very directly.
This year has been different. I have found myself truly fearful at the prospect of a Trump presidency.
Both my parents lived through the Holocaust. Like many survivors, they rarely talked of what they had experienced. I did know from an early age that my mother spent months in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, and that her only brother and her fiancé both died in work lagers; that my father survived work lagers in Poland, but lost both his parents, three sisters and his only brother in Auschwitz. But it wasn’t till I was sixteen that my mother let slip one day that she was my father’s second wife, and that his first wife and three children were murdered in Auschwitz. And it wasn’t till I was fifty that I managed to finally get my father to speak of that first family.
Many years before that though, soon after I started to learn of my family’s history, I vowed never to allow what happened to my parents and their loved ones happen to me and mine. I swore to myself that I would keep a sharp eye out for the fires of vicious intolerance that engulfed my parents’ families; that if I saw the embers of those hatreds begin to glow again—for I knew they’d not been totally extinguished in Europe, our country, or anywhere else—I would not wait for them to burst into flames again before I acted. Early on in his candidacy, Trump tripped alarms to which I long ago vowed to listen.
The night after the third presidential debate, I went to see a production of Macbeth. No, I didn’t go because I wanted to see another power-crazed, deeply deluded, would-be tyrant strut about on a stage. Actually, I went because my daughter was in that production. But once there, I found it remarkable how often lines from the play spoke to my fears about the current campaign. How could I hear, “What’s the newest grief?” without thinking of the latest Trumpian outrage? And when I heard, “I think our country sinks beneath the yoke,/It weeps, it bleeds, and each new day a gash/Is added to her wounds,” I thought not of Macbeth’s ancient Scotland, but of our own nation, today. And when Malcolm says this of Macbeth? (The words in parentheses define the words they follow, what they meant in Shakespeare’s time.) “I grant him bloody,/Luxurious, (lecherous)/avaricious, false, deceitful,/Sudden, (violent) malicious, smacking of every sin /That has a name.” I didn’t hear Macbeth described, I heard slight hyperbole for Trump. OK, I grant him not bloody.
In the play, Macbeth and his henchmen murder Macduff’s wife and three children. In this production my daughter played the role of one of those children. Given that, and given my family’s history, it’s not surprising that the scene in Macbeth that affected me the most was Macduff grieving after he learns what happened. I thought of my father, after enduring four years in a work lager, returning home to find his wife and three children gone forever.
Early in the play, soon after he murders Duncan, Macbeth, pretending to speak only of the recent stormy weather, says, “’Twas a rough night.” I couldn’t help but hear that as a reference to the previous night, the night of the third debate—which was rough. But, it’s been months of rough nights, and days. And “Present fears/Are less than horrible imaginings.”
There were many other resonances in Macbeth to current events, but perhaps the one most apt was this, “If such a one be fit to govern, speak.” No, I don’t think our country—despite Trump and some of his followers—is now anywhere near where Germany was in 1933. And no, I can’t bring myself to believe, even should the unthinkable happen—Trump elected—that it would inevitably lead to an American Holocaust. But I do know that Trump, whose speeches are laced with distortions, wild exaggerations and outright lies, with racist, xenophobic, misogynist, and anti-Semitic innuendos, dog whistles, code words, and winks and nods, and who, despite all that—or sadly, in some cases because of all that—manages to inspire loyalty among millions, is a very dangerous man and one who needs to be soundly rejected. “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.” Because it’s worth noting that it took Hitler less than eight years—the length of two American presidential terms—to transform significant parts of the German population into perhaps the most brutally efficient mass murder machine the world has yet known. And that he somehow simultaneously managed to mute and muzzle much of the rest of Germany, and even the world, and prevent them from acting from their better, more human instincts. “Bleed, bleed poor country!/Great tyranny, lay thou thy basis sure,/For goodness dare not check thee.” It’s also worth noting that our country’s track record is not encouraging when it comes to the history of our treatment of Native Americans, Blacks, and many groups of new immigrants.
It-can’t-happen-here style complacency is not an option in this election. If you’re thinking of not voting, or planning to vote for a hopeless third party candidate, please think again. It’s the monstrous Lady Macbeth who says, “Things without all remedy/Should be without regard. What’s done is done.” There is a remedy, and no, it is not done.
Whether Trump is elected or not, there has been enormous damage done. “You have displaced the mirth, broke the good meeting/With most admired disorder.” Yes, I know, it was not by any means all “mirth” and “good meeting” before Trump. In fact, one can argue that too little “good meeting” is part of what led to Trump. After the election there will need to be a significant period of reflection and healing for our country. “Alas, poor country,/Almost afraid to know itself.” We will need to find ways of listening to and talking with each other to learn why and how it was that so many felt so unheard that they were willing to support such a candidate.
“Things at the worst will cease, or else climb upward/To what they were before.” I echo that. At the very least we need to “climb upward” to where we were before Trump and, I fervently hope, well past that.
At a concert earlier this year Laz and I sang “La Bamba.” Not unusual for us. We’ve been singing it for years, recorded it I don’t remember how long ago, and even put it on our compilation CD, The Best of Gemini, Volume II. Our audiences have always seemed to enjoy it. They respond to the iconic, instantly recognizable instrumental intro, and many adults of a certain age remember it from 1958 when it was a big hit for Richie Valens; younger adults remember Los Lobos’ 1987 version. We often see both generations singing along even on the verses, while their kids and grandkids get into the song’s lively rhythm and the repetition of the word Bamba in the chorus. No one has ever complained about our Spanish pronunciation—our audiences are uniformly kind—but, on the other hand, based on hearing us sing it, no one has ever assumed that we speak Spanish.
But at a concert a couple of months ago, someone did come up and made it a point to especially thank me for singing “La Bamba.” She did so in heavily Spanish-inflected English, and with so much warmth and intensity that I noticed it. She didn’t elaborate, just said, “Thank you very much for singing ‘La Bamba.’” And then said it several more times with a big smile as she kept shaking my hand.
I don’t know, and never will know, because I didn’t ask her, exactly why she thanked me so profusely. Did her mom or dad sing it to her when she was a little girl? Did she dance to it with a lover? Did it bring back memories of the Mexico she left behind? Or did she thank me because by singing that song we were letting her—and everyone else there—know that we didn’t agree with the views about Mexicans (or about anything else for that matter) held by he-who-shall-not-be-named, and some of his supporters.
I’ve always felt that family concerts are not the time or place to talk politics. But I’ve always also liked singing May There Always Be Sunshine and Zum Gali and saying that they’re Russian and Israeli respectively. Maybe a subliminal message gets through about not demonizing those two peoples—or any others.
Hemingway wrote somewhat cynically, “It’s pretty to think so.”
Today is the fourth anniversary of Helen’s death. Each year, leading up to this day, I have more-frequent-than-usual, significant experiences of her presence. And while the grief, of course, is less intense with the passing of each year, the sweetness of the memories, and my gratitude for all she gave me, continues to grow.
Recently I was singing at a Senior Center and someone asked for the Scottish song “Loch Lomond.” I launched into it without thinking about the upcoming words, but when I got to the last lines of the chorus, I got choked up. “But me and my true love will never meet again…” Of course, that line is very sadly true — and yet…
Last week I was travelling in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and stopped by one of the little roadside beaches along Route 134 on the north shore of Lake Huron. After wading in the lake for a little while, I headed back towards the car, when the shadow of something flying crossed in front of me. I looked up and there was a huge butterfly overhead. I don’t know my butterflies well enough to be sure if it was a Monarch, but it was roughly that coloring and size. I looked all around and saw no other butterfly along the entire beach.
Butterflies, of course, are a classic symbol of radical metamorphosis, and are often used as an image for how the soul goes on living in a completely different state after the body dies. I’m enough of a “modern” man, (having heard “don’t be superstitious!” many times) and therefore conditioned not to think that Helen is visiting me whenever I see a butterfly. Still, what I felt in that moment— within me, as well as outwardly — was undeniably her presence. Helen loved being by rivers, lakes and oceans, and we had been along beaches like this in the UP a number of times. In that moment when the butterfly flew over, I felt her coming to me in such a comforting, reassuring way — “All is well.”
Just a few days ago I was walking in West Park near my home, and I started thinking how I’d like to make a CD of some of Helen’s songs that she hadn’t gotten to record. As soon as that thought came up, a Monarch butterfly flew in a circle around my head. (I’m pretty sure this was a Monarch, and there were some milkweed stalks — its main food — nearby.) Again, it was the only butterfly I saw. And again you could say it was just a coincidence, but to me Helen was saying, “Yeah! Great idea!”
These are two of the more recent and more dramatic of these meetings / visitations, but there have been many others. And much more numerous than these, have been instances of Helen’s continuing influence in both my life and that of Daniel. Two small stories.
This Spring, I was taking care of my brother’s cats while he and his wife were away. It was easy — they live two doors down. One late afternoon, as I was walking back from their house humming a tune, I saw a baby robin on the ground. Its mouth opened wide, as if hearing me humming meant someone might be coming to bring it food. Clearly it had fallen out of its nest, but when I looked up into the evergreen overhead I couldn’t see any sign of it. I asked a friend to help and she called the bird rescue center. They said we could bring it in, but that it’d be best to find the nest and put it back — that it was ok to handle the bird, its Mom would not reject it. By now it was getting dark and though we looked some more, and a neighbor also helped, we could not find the nest. My friend put the baby bird in a shoebox with tissue paper around it to keep it warm, and took it to the bird rescue center. They labeled it “Robin #54” and told her if we found the nest to come back for it.
The next morning, as I was walking over to my brother’s house to feed the cats, a robin with a worm in its beak, flew out of the bushes and into the evergreen under which I’d found the baby bird. From within the thick needles of the tree an open beak rose up, and the Mom pecked the worm into it. There was the nest! My friend went back to the bird rescue center and got Robin #54, I pulled my brother’s car under the evergreen, climbed up onto its roof, and put the bird back in its nest. Within moments the Mom came flying back, and there were two open beaks waiting for her.
If this had happened while Helen was still here, I would not have dared touch the bird. I would have called her and she would have taken care of it all, as she had a number of other times. But now, I felt like she was saying, “I’ve shown you how to do it. Now it’s your turn.”
One more bird story. Daniel and I have a Project Grow plot, rented from the city, where we, along with about 30 other people have a garden. The last few years, the deer have been coming out of the nearby woods and helping themselves to the produce. So, a couple years ago Daniel devised a deer fence which was so successful that nearby gardeners asked if it could be expanded to include their plots. The fence now encloses six plots, (and most of the other gardeners at the site have used it as a template to make their own) is nine and a half feet tall, with deer net most of the way up. A few weeks ago, Daniel found a small bird that had flown into the enclosure, and somehow gotten confused, thinking it couldn’t fly up and out, and was getting tangled in the deer net just a few feet off the ground. When Daniel came near to try to help it out, the bird got even more frightened and trapped itself at ground level in a corner of the enclosure. My contribution to the rescue effort was to sing a soft, soothing song to the bird, while Daniel dug away some dirt underneath it — and suddenly the bird realized it could fly away, and it did, heading straight for the gate we had left open in the fence, and out, and free!
Again, if Helen had been there, she would not have needed me to sing the song, she would have done that, as well as whatever else was needed to free the bird. But in a very real sense, she was there — and she is here, still helping, guiding and loving us. Thank you again, dear Helen.