#1 Cousin

My oldest cousin, Kevin Ryan, passed away early this morning. We always called Kevin our #1 Cousin–let’s just say he knew how to light up a room!

On my dad’s side of the family, I have ten first cousins. They’ve been by my side through it all: celebrations, losses, and reunions. Lots of reunions. Kevin’s been a big part of those moments.

You’ll be missed, #1 Cousin. You lived a full life and brought much joy to many. God bless.

Interrogating Jane?

The past is much messier than many of us wish to believe. Duh.

Jane Austen’s family–and the museum housed in the Austen’s former cottage in Hampshire that depicts fragments of their lives–is now being examined in the context of British colonialism. Turns out, Jane’s father was a trustee of a sugar plantation in the Caribbean, and the family regularly consumed products associated with the slave trade, including sugar, tea, and cotton.

Of course Austen’s family has ties to slavery. They were subject to the same social wrongs as others of their class in the early 1800s.

Rather than tarnishing Jane’s reputation and the legacy of novels she left behind, this added cultural context can only enrich our understanding of Jane Austen the woman, the daughter, the novelist.

I take issue with the sentiment expressed by Myretta Robens, founder of one of the many Jane Austen fan clubs, in Gross’s article. Robens suggests that while “she did not have a problem with the museum adding context about colonialism,” she is against “discussion of race and current events spill[ing] into . . . conversations about Austen’s novels.”

The spillage is already there, Ms. Robens. Right on the page.

A (sur)real day, sort of

It’s taken me a few days to wrap my brain around the events of last Wednesday.

That morning, I headed to the nursing home for a face-to-face visit with Mom. The facility has loosened its COVID policies following widespread vaccination of residents and visitors, allowing up to ten guests a day to spend an hour with loved ones inside their rooms.

Mom and I spent the time talking, while I helped to clear out some old items from her shelves and closet and organize the items that remained.

From the moment I walked into her room, Mom began excitedly telling me about the many things that had happened since we’d spoken the previous day.

“Your dad and her [pointing to the lady residing in the conjoining room] husband went for a drive and accidentally hit a dog,” Mom reported, shaking her head at how awful it was. “I think the dog might not have made it, but your dad hasn’t said anything about it.”

As I’ve learned to do, I pretended that Dad was involved in the incident Mom recounted, is alive and well and engages in conversations with Mom. I lamented with Mom over the dog and assured her that Dad was probably just trying to spare her by not sharing the dog’s fate.

Next, Mom shared a visit from my grandmother, who brought some children by and asked Mom to watch them for the day. According to Mom, she did as her mother requested but was “sure tired by the time they left.”

These stories are grounded in memories of people and events that occurred in some fashion sometime in the past. On a farm, it’s not unusual to harm animals in the process of going about the work that has to be done. And Mom has always had a soft spot for kids, often watching a neighbor’s children for a few hours or teaching a classroom of third graders.

But the final memory Mom recounted was far more disturbing.

“Have you been watching all the news about your brother?” she asked.

“Um, not really,” I replied, searching for the words to respond to anything that might be coming pertaining to Joe.

“He’s all over the news,” Mom continued. “He went in a store and shot up all those people, and he killed his wife . . . they’ve got to keep him locked up after all that!”

This final “memory” revealed a few things about Mom’s state of mind:

  • She remembers that her only son is unstable and that the safest place for him to be is inside a prison cell or a psychiatric institution.
  • She feels remorse for “how Joe turned out,” for the manifestations of severe psychosis that continue to cause pain and suffering to many.
  • She is struggling to differentiate between what she sees and hears on television and what is happening in her immediate surroundings. Following a diagnosis of sepsis a few weeks before Thanksgiving in 2020, Mom began to confuse the images and stories on the screen with reality. I realized as Mom continued to recount Joe’s latest actions that she had seen news about recent violent attacks across the US and placed Joe at those scenes.

Before I left the nursing home, I gave Mom a hug and kiss and told her that I’d be picking her up in a few days to spend the day at the house. Bruce was planning to make pot roast, and we’d be sure to have Mom’s favorite ice cream in the freezer.

“Oh, good!” she said, smiling at me in a way that reminded me of Mom from an earlier time. Before Alzheimer’s.

I drove home, thinking about the visit, and set about getting some work done before dinner. My email inbox revealed a new voice message from Idaho, this time from the clinician at the state hospital in Blackfoot assigned to Joe’s case asking me to return her call.

I called and shared a familiar exchange with this latest institutional representative who had the ill fortune of being assigned to interact with my sibling.

“He’s threatening the staff and other residents,” she told me. “We’ve had to place him in the maximum security wing of the hospital and have taken away some of his privileges.”

“Like what?” I asked. I had to ask.

“We’ve put certain numbers on a no-call list,” she said, explaining that patients are allowed to make three calls per shift, each dialed by a staff member prior to handing over the phone to the patient.

“The list includes several local hospitals and emergency numbers,” she continued. Apparently, Joe had been calling these places to request a ride “out of the nut house, since there’s nothing wrong with [him].”

She shared that she’d also been required to make a case to the “override board” at the facility, since Joe was refusing to take his medication, screaming at her that he isn’t mentally ill. The override was granted, and Joe is now being forced to take his medication. I’m neither surprised by his refusal nor hopeful that taking meds now will make any difference in the long run. Like always, I’m certain that Joe will stabilize somewhat inside the facility, be released, and within two days, be off his meds and back to his violent self.

As I hung up following the call with Joe’s assigned clinician, it struck me that Mom’s cognitive decline has done little to erase the emotions she feels, and has long felt, for certain people and events.

She looks forward to time spent with family, interacting with children, chatting with my dad.

She fears Joe’s actions and the mind that makes the horrors on television not so surreal after all.

No laughing matter in the President’s box

Rachel Manteuffel writes in The Washington Post about the laugh from a theatre audience that coincided with John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.


Booth plotted to fire a pistol at the exact moment an anticipated laugh would erupt during the play Our American Cousin, despite Manteuffel’s claim that by modern standards, the line wasn’t all that funny.

The account reminds me of my one of my favorite Hitchcock films, The Man Who Knew Too Much. Fortunately, Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day prevented an assassination that was intended to coincide with the crashing of cymbals.

Educating doctors

A terrific op-ed by Molly Worthen appears in today’s NYT. I couldn’t have said it better myself!

Worthen suggests that one lesson of the pandemic has been the crucial role the humanities should/must/come on, folks(!) play in medical education. While students are learning anatomy and nosology and case history and so on, they also need to be delving into history, philosophy, and literature. Without an understanding of and appreciation for humanity, what it means to be human and how constructed states of “health” and “illness” shape individual and collective identities, doctors-in-training are lacking knowledge. You know, the foundational kind.

In two of the courses I teach, Science Writing and Writing and Medicine, we address not only how scientists and medical experts go about studying the body, disease, environment, and all things health-related, but also how society makes meaning of these endeavors. We talk about established paradigms driving the work of researchers and practitioners, and the values that are entrenched in these paradigms–“ways of seeing” that both enable and constrain thinking about health and illness from alternative perspectives.

Simply put, medical education is incomplete without such considerations. As Worthen argues, the pandemic has made this truth alarmingly evident.

Whose story gets told?

Here’s a gem from today’s Washington Post, a story about a woman named Barbara Pope who stood up to Jim Crow laws (including challenging the racist policies governing public transportation) many years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama:


While Rosa Parks is known far and wide, most of us have never heard of Barbara Pope.

The article reminds of a song from the Broadway hit Hamilton, “Whose Story Gets Told?” While I’ve seen the musical only on television, I savor the richness of the music. The lyrics to this particular song question how history is written–who is remembered, and how?

I’ve been asking myself a version of that question a lot lately, as I contemplate how I want to be remembered. Not from a public historical perspective, but among those I know and love.

Sharing a rich Irish past . . . in color

In anticipation of a soon-to-be-released book by John Breslin and Sarah-Anne Buckley called Old Ireland in Colour, CNN posted an article today revealing the ways in which new digital technologies can bring the past to life:


While I’ve gazed on many photos depicting “Old Ireland,” there’s something about them being presented in color that is more captivating. It could be that I’m simply spoiled by the clear, crisp imagery that surrounds me in 2021, but I tend to think that we’re better equipped to engage with snapshots of history when the faces of individuals and the environments in which they are shown are conveyed in hues that reflect the period. As noted in the article, significant research went into determining which colors would be appropriate to incorporate for everything from clothing to thatched roofs.

Enjoy these stunning images, reflecting both the hardship and the joy of the Irish from days past. Some of the images bring to life important historical moments, while others depict the mundane. I find the everyday snapshots to be the most powerful, as I imagine what life might have been like for my ancestors in Cork and Tipperary.

Local rootedness and stewardship

Sometimes, we can learn much from the past, from people who from a nostalgic perspective, lived in simpler times. That’s the subject of an essay in today’s NYT:

Olmstead’s take on the way her “Grandfather Dad” Howard and “Grandmother Mom” Iva did things on their Idaho farm in the early 1900s reminds me of the stories Dad shared with me about how his parents navigated good times and bad, including during the Great Depression. Viewing themselves as stewards of the land and the communities built around the land, they invested in the local economy and cared for their neighbors while tending to their own survival. It’s an approach to life that the author believes could teach us something at a time when both rural and urban areas are suffering.

Dad used to say that at one time, he had a neighbor on every corner. If a tractor broke down or a farmer ran into trouble in the fields, all he had to do was wave down someone in the neighboring field. As investors with little to no ties to the land move in, too often “neighbors” have given way to “outsiders” more interested in scooping up a family’s land than jumping in to help.

Of course, not all that happened in the past was positive. Olmstead reveals the destructive behaviors displayed by her–and our–ancestors, habits that negatively impacted the soil and the air. These are the problems that the current generation is working to clean up.

Coming home

A poignant photoessay appears in today’s NYT, a fitting choice for St. Paddy’s Day.

The author, Dan Barry, winds his way around a cemetery in Shanaglish, County Galway, as he ponders the lives that remain untold in sparse inscriptions on headstones and Celtic crosses. In smoothed stone, we record the bare minimum of a life–date of birth, date of death, sometimes a nod to relations or a brief prayer.

Left unsaid are the experiences that define a life, the moments that transpire between birth and death. It’s ironic that a “hyphen” is all that stands for untold joys and sorrows, friends and family.

I am back home in Illinois this week, here to tend to farm business. En route to my hotel yesterday afternoon, I stopped by St. Patrick’s Cemetery to visit Dad’s gravestone. I stood there for several minutes thinking about the life Dad lived between 1936 and 2018 and said a prayer that he is at peace.

In 2005, my husband and I visited Ireland and made the journey to Donegal. On the rugged rocks that line the ocean sat a beautiful, old cemetery, one resembling the spectacular images captured by Karen Cox that accompany Barry’s words. I can honestly say that it was the first time I’d ever looked upon a cemetery as a site of beauty. The stones were works of art, many worn by centuries of wind and rain. While the names that marked the stones, at least those still legible, were familiar in their “Irish-ness,” I didn’t know the individuals laid to rest and could imagine the lives they had lived from a safe emotional distance. At home in Illinois, I’ve always associated cemeteries with personal loss, muffled sobs, funeral masses said around closed coffins blessed with incense–a place where I’d rather not be, either as a visitor or a permanent resident.

But I have to admit that my visits to Dad’s resting place have begun to take on another layer of meaning. At the close of a rich life, Dad is home, reunited with his parents and siblings, aunts and uncles, neighbors and fellow parishioners.