Tuesday, June 7, 2016

My friend Teddy: "I Still Have Words in Me"

My friend Teddy was laying in a hospital bed, looking frail and pale. I was worried. Her lovely sons, Andrew and Matthew, were taking turns coming into town from Chicago and Toronto. Teddy and I were reminiscing when I heard her whisper, rather firmly, "I still have words in me."

I looked at her in amazement. "How powerful that message is," I said to her.  

Yes, we elder women do, indeed, still have words in us. Our bodies may be getting weaker, but our voices are strong.  Our words can fill almost any space or any void existing. We have lots of stories to tell. 

The voices of women have, historically, been muted and hidden, in the shadows of American history. Teaching American women's history for some 20 years taught me this.  Women's voices, if they are sought out and heard, are replete with substance and meaning, about being, working, achieving, struggling againt the odds, seeking rights, autonomy, and equality. Women's voices constitute a major theme in the story of America becoming, of making progress toward our ideals.  I think of Lucy Stone, the Grimke sisters, Margaret Fuller, Sojourner Truth, Stanton and Anthony, Alice Paul and Carrie Catt, 20th-century reformers like Jane Addams and Eleanor Roosevelt, and the muted voices of ordinary women.   

With Teddy at Barnes and Noble, 
a favorite place, images of Faulkner and Fitzgerald
appropriately behind us. 
Teddy has a bit of all of them in her, a strong commitment to fairness and justice, freedom from abuse and fear, rights and opportunities for all, honoring the experiences and points of view of women across race, class and ethnicity.  

She brought her voice to the work she loved most--teaching.  Teddy was a great teacher, thoughtful in the subjects she chose and pioneering in her methods. She believed fervently, still does, in teaching reading, thinking  and writing. Lots of writing. She loved teaching students at Rogers how to express their thoughts in words. She had a way of eliciting the most honest voices on paper from all her students. "They can write, and starting very young," she says emphatically, remembering the work of several students in her classes, and of particular students, as if it were yesterday.  She remembers the literature she taught, too, from the poetry of Gerald Manley Hopkins to one of her favorite stories, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.  "There are universal themes to explore, and kids get it!" 

At Barnes and Noble, To Kill
a Mockingbird
poster, which
moved Teddy. 
As a K-12 supervisor for the Lucas County Office of Education, with her MA degree in hand, she supported the educational programs at Whitmer, Washington and Jefferson Junior Highs, and ten elementary schools. She designed and presented inservices on the teaching of writing for Washington Local elementary, junior high and high school teachers, as well as for the K-12 Language Arts Committee. She was proud of the county-wide inservice training she provided on the writing process, writing across the curricuulm, and grantwriting. 

She calls reading and writing "the warp and woof" of each other.  "There's no way to form the tapestry of literacy without combining reading with writing," she tells me in elegant prose.  In the classroom and as a curriculm specialist, Teddy's teaching helped countless students and teachers perform at their highest level.  Her voice made a difference.  

Teddy continued her commitment to the "warp and woof" of education after she retired. She tutored young children in literacy programs, sponsored by the Toledo Public Library, at the Toledo Day Nursery downtown.  She knew children's literature and gladly shared it with the children.  She served on the founding committee of Bethany House, the long-term shelter for abused women and their children run by the Sisters of St. Francis since 1984. She stood firm on the importance of having a long-term shelter to give women the time they needed to get on their feet.  She volunteered for Women Helping Woman, a program at St. Mary's Church for women working hard to pass the GED.  "They were exceptionally bright women," she recalls, with great fondness. 
At the Old West End Festival a few years ago.
Teddy talking to an old neighbor friend. 

We walked up and down Robinwood, 
the street where we lived.

Now we share the new chapters in our lives. Our children are grown and our grandchildren are thriving. We go to the Toledo Museum of Art, attend lectures at the Franciscan Center at Lourdes college, go to movies and art events, and attend the Toledo International Film Festival (TIFF). We lived on Robinwood Avenue when we were young mothers, and enjoy going to the Old West End Festival. We share a great admiration for Pope Francis, the freshness of his views, his openness to others, his love of our planet and its people everywhere. "Who are we to judge," he reminded us, and we talk about the transcendent application of this wisdom. 

Teddy is also a keen observer of our political life, a passionate democrat and Democrat, informed and thoughtful.  When we approach the subject of the 2016 presidential campaign and the descent into demagoguery, so fraught with emotion, she says these thoughts cross her mind: "Deliver us from evil" from the Lord's Prayer, and "treason."    

"Treason?" I ask. Okay,  we are talking about the Republican frontrunner whose name we can't even say.

"Yes, treason," Teddy answers.  "Because that ignominious egoist, cruel beyond belief, is betraying his country.  He is betraying the trust that we have in our leaders to defend America and to behave with dignity.  His name-calling, his impugning the character of people who are critics or that his fragile ego perceives as critics, is slanderous and treasonous."  

Wow, I think to myself. I think Teddy is on to something. There is something treasonous and blasphemous about the way he slanders the other candidates and people he doesn't like.  

"Maybe Trump should be arrested," I suggest.  Teddy lights up.  "Good idea, Fran!"  We're on the same page, even when we rant. Teddy keeps me on my toes. 

"I still have words in me," she says.  That's for sure! The wisdom of age, and of the ages.  A reminder that elder women have their own special ways of seeing the world, and lots of stories to tell.  
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