A Life Both Reasonable and Proper

U.S. 34 ~ South Central Iowa

Many decades ago, when relatives from Kansas City traveled north to our small Iowa town for family visits, at least half of their trip involved driving on Iowa highways. The experience invariably turned my usually sanguine uncle into a grump. “What’s with your roads?” he’d say. “You ever going to get something besides those concrete cow paths?” A Minnesota friend’s father asked similar questions when her family drove south into Iowa for business or shopping. “What’s with these Iowa farmers? Can’t they build a road?”

Everyone knew there was a problem. Ted Landphair, reminiscing about the highway that bisected my home town, wrote:

[I remember] winter driving on old U.S. Route 6, then a cross-country main highway rimmed by cement curbs. A highway with curbs? Not just in town, but even out in the county?
Having seen enough wrecks of cars that slid off the road in Iowa’s fierce snowstorms, some engineer must have thought raised edges would safely direct drifting autos back into line. In my case, they served only to dislodge my Beetle’s right hubcaps and ravage the tire alignment.

Few who drove on those roads failed to cuss at them occasionally. My father surprised us with a few choice words of his own after an encounter with a curb on US 34, a highway paved between 1928 and 1930, provided a memorable lesson in tire alignment and my father’s only known brush with the law.

We were heading home from a farm sale when something — a moment of inattention or simple bad luck — bounced us into and away from the highway curb. Under normal circumstances it wouldn’t have been noteworthy, but a strangely sibilant sound claimed our attention: clickety shhhhh clickety shhhhh clicketyclickty clunk.

After stopping to check the tires, Dad said, “We’ll stop at the next town and figure out what the problem is.” So on we went, easing along at 40 miles an hour or a little more: slow enough to notice if something decided to fall off the car.

Within minutes, we’d been pulled over by law enforcement. Whether it was a sheriff, the highway patrol, or local police, I can’t say, but I certainly remember Dad rolling down the window as the officer ambled up and said, “Going a little slow there, aren’t you?” 

“I am,” Dad said, “but I hit the curb back there, and the car sounds like I did some damage. I thought I’d stop at a garage in Chariton so they can check it out.” Putting his pen away, the officer grinned. “Makes sense to me,” he said. “Hope it doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg.” Then he was gone. We were back on the road, somehow the problem was solved, and eventually we made it home.

Whenever I think back on that experience — my dad’s explanation, and the officer’s easy acceptance of it — I remember the road signs that made the exchange possible. Given our circumstances, it was perfectly reasonable that we should be making way slowly, and the law was on our side.

Yes, this was a real speed limit sign

The fact that the state assigned to motorists both the right and the responsiblity to decide the best speed for travel seems more than improbable today. The journey from Reasonable-and-Proper to You’ll-Take-Our-Regulations-and-Like-Them is a long one, and the curbs being put in place are increasingly high.

In those early decades of my life, ‘reasonable-and-proper’ applied to far more than life on the highway. People generally assumed it was reasonable to trust others, and proper to help them as we could.

If I needed a dress for a special occasion, I’d often stop by my favorite  shop on the courthouse square and ask the owner if he had something new I might like. He’d show me a few things, then put whatever appealed to me into a bag for me to carry home ‘on approval.’  After trying them on at home, consulting with my parents, and deciding what I wanted to keep, I took the other dresses back to the shop and paid for what I’d kept. Only then was a receipt written up.

Taking things out ‘on approval’ wasn’t a special consideration for my family, or a quirk of life in a very small town.  It was the way business was done. When the owner of the shop became mayor of our town, the same qualities that made him a successful business owner marked his service to the community at large

Occasionally, I’d don one of those special dresses for a shopping trip to Des Moines. The highlight of those trips always was a stop at the downtown Younkers: central Iowa’s version of Macy’s or Saks. Established in 1899, the store became almost mythical before closing in 2005. After its closure, renovations were undertaken, but in March of 2014, the old building nearly was destroyed by fire.

As word of the fire spread, nostalgic Iowans the world over breathed a sigh of relief that the Tea Room had escaped the worst of it. The basement lunch counter, popular with bobby-soxers and people pressed for time, served many of the same foods as the Tea Room, but the fifth-floor Tea Room was an institution.

The Younkers Tea Room Lounge in the 1930s

Even ascending to the Tea Room was an experience. Stepping into the elevator, store customers were greeted by an attendant wearing a cap and white gloves. Resting on a fold-out seat, the attendant pushing the elevator buttons announced each floor in turn. “Second floor. Millinery and ladies wear.” “Fourth floor. Gentlemen’s attire.”

Then, just when patrons thought they couldn’t endure another minute of creeping and stopping, the longed-for announcement came. “Fifth floor. Tea Room. Enjoy your lunch.”

Over time, the baroque decorations of the Tea Room’s earlier decades gave way to fresh interpretations of elegance, but at the time of my first rite-of-passage luncheon there, all the important pieces remained in place: the crystal chandelier; the white linen tablecloths and napkins; the scent of fresh flowers; and the glow of polished wood.

The service was as elegant as the setting. Not long after the 2014 fire Gail Froyen, a long-time Iowa resident, recorded memories of her time as a Tea Room waitress.

My first employment in the restaurant world was at the elegant Tea Room. The ladies lunching there were decked out in beautiful dresses, hats and gloves; gentlemen wore suits, white shirts and ties. White cloths and linen napkins graced the tables. Goblets sparkled, reflecting light from the hanging crystal chandeliers. A pianist played soft music and diners were delighted when seated at tables near the large, gracefully festooned windows.
Clad in my grey starched uniform, little white apron and pin-on hat, I reported to work 30 minutes early on my first day to be trained by a more experienced waitress. Her job was to teach me to serve “The Younkers Way.” She was excellent at her job, and intended that I should reflect that excellence.
After explaining the menu so I could ably inform the patrons how each dish was prepared, she taught me how to properly space the china and silver. I followed her for the rest of the shift, learning how to take an order, to serve from the left and remove from the right, pour water, coffee and tea. Patiently, she insisted on the correct way to be a Tea Room waitress.
What she really taught me was how to be gracious with even the most persnickety patron.

To put it another way, Gail Froyen was being taught how to respond properly to even the most unreasonable patron.

Dina Bechman, who worked as a manager at Younkers in the late 1980s and who supported restoration of the site as a way to preserve at least a portion of a building filled with so many memories, said after the fire:

To see it gone was just devastating. Try as we might to preserve history, sometimes that choice is taken away from us.

And so it is. In time, piece after piece falls away. Younkers is gone, closed because of changing times and then destroyed by fire. My favorite small town dress shop is gone as well, its kind and trusting owner laid now to rest. Even old U.S. 34 nearly has disappeared into the brush: its slabs of concrete meaningless except to those who followed its curves up and around the hills of a much-beloved land.

U.S. Highway 34 ~ going, but not forgotten

Yet if much is gone, much remains of the people who inhabited these buildings and traveled these roads: their trust, their graciousness, and their deep sense of gratitude for the fullness of their lives.

Willing to curb their baser impulses for the sake of safer passage, they brought stability to their communities, and a sense of foundations well-laid. Perhaps it isn’t reasonable to expect such trust, such graciousness, such gratitude, and such stability to prevail, but hoping — and working — to ensure their continuance always is proper.

Comments always are welcome.

No Seven Year Glitch

A few months ago, I noticed the blog of Robert K.Rehmann, a photographer living in northern Italy. Intrigued by its title — The Quiet Photographer — and given my natural inclination toward quietude, I took time to explore. Eventually, I found Robert’s explanation for his title, with his own translation into English from his native Italian:

Why a quiet photographer? Because in a world where so many people are screaming, fighting with all instrument in order to impose their idea I just desire to speak about photography in a quiet way. Without imposing my idea.
For me to make photography goes behind the “click”. It means to communicate ideas, feelings. It means to look for something. For ideas, even through an open discussion with the ones who have different ideas. To make photography means also to have friends with the same interest. This is the reason for which this blog starts, in a quiet way.

In a recent entry, he posed an interesting question: “How about you? Have you ever experienced reliving a special moment through a photograph? Would you  like to share it with us?”

Coincidentally, I’d recently made a trip into Houston for my semi-annual visit to the eye doctor. Although seven years have passed since the surgery that restored my vision, little had changed; I continue to enjoy 20/20 vision. When I read Robert’s question, the special moment that came to mind was that surgery, and the photos I remembered were a pair that I posted soon after. It was such fun to revisit the post, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share it as a response to Robert’s question, as well as a way of introducing you to The Quiet Photographer.

Hallie’s Moon ~ Debbie Little-Wilson

Perhaps because I dream so rarely, or at least remember so few dreams, frequent dreamers fascinate me. 

When friends report extravagant, tangled threads of narrative woven through their nights, I press for details. One awakens suddenly, her heart pounding, barely a step ahead of the ax-murderer with a grudge. Another, constricted with horror by the sight of luggage-toting lizards at her door, thrashes awake, gasping for breath.

My mother once dreamed the Mayor had appointed her to be Keeper of the Kitties. Despite the honor of it all, the thought that she’d been charged with caring for hundreds of cats was for her a true nightmare: fully as distressing as the week she spent all night, every night, searching the aisles of supermarkets for a product she couldn’t find, couldn’t identify, and wasn’t sure she truly needed.

But the Queen of Dreamers — the one to whom her faithful readers turned for entertainment, bemusement, and enlightenment — was Bella Rum. Bella dreamed about house repairs, a variety of ex-Presidents, vampires, and the odd assassination attempt. Hollywood screen writers would kill for the opportunity to adapt her dreams for their plots.

Because we knew each other for so many years, and because Bella maintained such a dream-friendly blog, I didn’t think twice about leaving an off-handed comment on her blog about an odd dream of my own:

I had a Bella dream last night. Things have gotten very complicated (not bad, just complicated) with the process of moving toward my eye surgery, and last night, after fussing and fuming over several problems that have to be solved, I dreamed that I went blind. Just like that. Poof! Everything went black.
I woke up convinced I couldn’t see, until I realized that I could.

By morning, the dream had faded. Finding my way to the coffee maker, I added an extra cup to the pot and pondered the issues still waiting to be resolved. Loss of sight wasn’t on the list.

First on the list had been the need to move from contact lenses to glasses prior to surgery. I wasn’t pleased by the prospect, but I had no choice. As my ever-cheerful surgical assistant explained, my hard contact lenses had reshaped my eyes. To guarantee a perfect fit for implanted lenses, they had to be allowed to return to their natural state so that my new prescription would be accurate. Weekly appointments for measurements would be involved, in order to track my eyes’ progress.

When I asked how long the process would take, the assistant laughed her cheerful little laugh and said, “We don’t have a clue. When the technicians get the same results two or three weeks in a row, they’ll know your eyes have stopped changing, and you’ll be ready for surgery.”

After only a week, there was no question my eyes had begun changing. My new glasses became less useful by the day, and my world grew increasingly blurry. “Not to worry,” said the surgical staff. “It happens.”

Two months later, I was back to the ophthalmological equivalent of square one, with nice, naturally-shaped eyes. After the removal of the first cataract and the implantation of a near-vision lens in my left eye, I was relatively functional. I could work, use the computer, and read stop signs, but with one eye corrected for near vision and the other barely corrected at all, driving was difficult. “Not to worry,” said my surgeon. “Once you get your distance lens in your right eye, things will be better.”

And so it was. After a second blurry, post-surgery night, I awoke with no cataracts, new lenses, and perfect vision. I was ecstatic until mid-afternoon, when something like zero visibility fog rolled into my right eye. Astonished by the sudden loss of vision, I thought, “Is this what it’s like to go blind?” Then, I remembered the dream, and shuddered at the thought that it might have been a premonition.

Of course it wasn’t. Reasons for the sudden fogginess were simple enough: a little inflammation here, some post-surgical swelling there. A combination of antibiotic and steroid drops brought daily improvement until, for the first time in my life — including childhood — I had 20/20 vision. 

“See?” my surgeon said. “I told you not to worry.”

In Tales of the Hasidim, Martin Buber tells the story of Rabbi Mendel, who boasted to his teacher, Rabbi Elimelekh, that “evenings he saw the angel who rolls away the light before the darkness, and mornings the angel who rolls away the darkness before the light.” “Yes,” said Rabbi Elimelekh, “in my youth, I saw that too. Later on, you don’t see these things any more.”

Perhaps. But when the day came for a greatly anticipated, long-scheduled, and oft-postponed trip to Presidio La Bahia in Goliad, I might as well have been seeing angels.

Everything in sight had been transformed into an astonishment and a marvel: great sweeps of basket-flowers along the ditches; patterned bricks in buildings; a miles-long view down Lavaca Bay; crisp, clear horizons; the vibrant, shimmering colors of businesses and billboards.

Traveling a randomly chosen Farm-to-Market road, I even found what I feared I had missed during my spring confinement: an extravagance of wildflowers. After stopping to photograph a field where swallows dipped and Gaillardia spread their rich, colorful blanket over the hills, I laughed with delight to see my first pair of images.

Thanks to my bad habit of leaving my camera in front of air-conditioning vents, I’d captured a perfect memento of my journey toward sight: one of the best before-and-after pairings in the world.

What was then…
…and what is now

Looking over the hills, some words of the Persian poet Rumi presented themselves as a perfect hinge between past and future.

your way begins
on the other side
become the sky
take an axe to the prison wall
walk out like someone
suddenly born into color
do it now

As for what came next, the not-knowing was the best part. Varnishing became easier and my house a little less dusty, but I didn’t keep my eyes at home. There were stars and dragonflies, hummingbirds and highways to be seen and experienced; words to read and words to write; births to celebrate and deaths to mourn; all within an ever-shortening span of allotted time.

The possibilities still fill me with a certain exuberance, not unlike that found in a video our town’s volunteer fire department helped to create in 2012.  Though less elegant than Rumi’s poetry, it’s deeply human, and filled with happiness.

Both the video and my pair of before-and-after photos seem a perfect response to Robert’s question: they are, indeed, a way of reliving one of life’s special moments.


If all the days  that come to pass
Are behind these walls,
I’ll be left at the end of things
In a world kept small.
Travel far from what I know,
I’ll be swept away.
I need to know I can be lost
And not afraid.
We’re gonna trip the light,
We’re gonna break the night,
And we’ll see with new eyes
When we trip the light.
Remember we’re lost together,
Remember we’re the same.
We hold the burning rhythm in our hearts,
We hold the flame.
We’re gonna trip the light…
I’ll find my way home
On the western wind,
To a place that was once my world,
Back from where I’ve been.
And in the morning light I’ll remember
As the sun will rise,
We are all the glowing embers
Of a distant fire…
We’re gonna trip the light…

Comments always are welcome.

The Taste of Memory

From the tenor of their conversation, it seemed the woman placing her order had been a customer of the meat market for some time. At least the clerk had known her long enough to ask, “Do you want seven chicken breasts, or have the kids gone back to school?” After a moment’s thought, the woman said, “One’s still at home, but she doesn’t like chicken. Two will be enough.”

“What about a roast?” the clerk said. “Are you ready for a nice pork loin, or some chuck?” The woman sighed. “No. Not yet. I can’t bring myself to turn on the oven in this heat. Besides, roasts are for winter.”

That’s when I smiled, recognizing a woman who shared my preferences. I don’t crave pot roast in summer any more than I long for gazpacho when I’m trying to thaw out in January. Some dishes appeal throughout the year, but certain foods, whether from habit or preference, remain confined to one season.

As I pondered my own list of seasonal foods, it occurred to me that ice cream manufacturers are in a tricky spot. It would be easy to associate ice cream only with warm weather: a refreshing treat for days when temperatures soar. For decades, families spent summer afternoons churning homemade ice cream, just as the churches turned to ice cream socials as summer fund-raisers. The sound of the roving ice-cream seller’s bell was a summer sound, and summer trips to the ice house were as often for ice as for beer.

To break the connection between ice cream and summer — and to make a profit even in the depths of winter — companies had to find new ways to attract customers.

One of the most effective methods has been the establishment of seasonal flavors, and Texas’s beloved Bluebell Creamery has mastered the approach. Aficionados of the brand have learned their ice cream calendar by heart: peppermint in December and January, Mardi Gras in March, homemade vanilla with peaches or strawberries in early summer, and southern blackberry cobbler as August turns to September.

Fall deserves it’s own flavors, of course; spiced pumpkin and butter pecan are sheer perfection. When they appear on store shelves in the weeks between summer’s peaches and holiday peppermint, everyone knows that falling leaves, crisp air, and pot roast can’t be far away. While we wait for the end of summer’s interminable heat, we enjoy: waxing poetic over the virtues of a traditional and quite tasty treat.


  is needed.
A dish. A spoon.
  Even the carton
  will do in a pinch if
  no one is watching, no one
  complaining, no one advising
sweet moderation when offered the
chance to keep scooping and scooping away.


Comments always are welcome.
For more information on the Etheree, a syllabic poem that, in its basic form, contains ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, please click here .



Blackberry Rain

Occasional showers have fallen in parts of Texas, but desiccated pastures, thinning herds, drying playas, and empty stock ponds make clear the continuing need for rain.

Hidden behind such public signs of drought lie other consequences: equally troublesome, if more personal.  During a recent visit with a hill country friend, I heard a familiar sigh as I split a breakfast biscuit and reached for the dish of preserves. “That’s the last of the peach,” she said. “I’m down to apple butter now, until we see how things turn out this year. I sure hope things get better.”

For my friend, “better” means rain. Several times in the past decade drought has put an end to her vegetables and fruits. The fig trees barely produced, pears were the size of walnuts, and pecans shriveled in their shells. Even the dewberries bloomed sparsely, setting so little fruit she left it for hungry birds and animals.

The sweet, trellised blackberries that overflowed her baskets in the past withered and died, offering up only tart, unappealing berries. Without good berries the usual abundance of pies, cobblers, and sauces disappeared, not to mention the brandied berries traditionally set aside for holidays.

Dewberry blossom

“Could you have watered?” I asked. “I did,” she said, “but as the weeks went by, we decided to stop. Some people’s wells went dry, and I couldn’t risk that. I let the flower gardens go first, then the vegetables. I hated it, but there was nothing else to do, even though I didn’t get a single decent tomato.”

Life without blackberry cobbler is one thing. Life without tomatoes is something else. Like generations of women, including my own grandmother, my friend traditionally spent the summer canning uncounted quarts of  sauced, stewed, and diced tomatoes for the long winter ahead.

In my grandparents’ fruit cellar, jars shone in the dim light like jewels: tomatoes, peaches and plums; cherries suspended in burgundy syrup; jams, jellies, and marmelades; sweet corn relish, spiced apples and pears, and the translucent shimmer of pickles. My friend’s larder always had resembled that jewel-like abundance, until the scourge of drought took first her water and then the harvest that helps to sustain her family through the year.

Some of her more drought-tolerant fruits have survived the summers, although their yield was low.  Two varieties of persimmon, one a Texas native (Diospyros texana) and one the more familiar Asian (Diospyros kaki) were freely shared with a multitude of birds and squirrels, white-tailed deer, foxes, possums and raccoons.

The possum’s love of persimmons is legendary. In some regions, the creature spends so much time gorging on its fruit the tree is known as ‘possum wood.’ John James Audubon pictured the Virginia Opossum in a persimmon tree, and an old American folk-song celebrates the relationships among the Possum, the Persimmon, and the Raccoon.

Possum in a ’simmon tree, raccoon on the ground,
Raccoon said, “”You rascal, shake them ’simmons down!”

On the Gulf Coast, Atakapa Indians called persimmons piakimin. Early French settlers transformed it into plaquemine, familiar to many as the name of a Louisiana parish. Elias Wightman, a surveyor for Stephen F. Austin in the 1820s, documented persimmon groves in southeast Texas; the trees he found were the drought-resistant natives, their seedy black fruit much smaller and differently-shaped than the larger and more familiar red-orange Asian varieties. Both provide a wonderful base for an assortment of pastries and jams once the frosts reduce their astringent qualities. My first persimmon came from my friend’s hill country tree, and I was amazed by its smooth sweetness.

For pure eating pleasure from native Texas plants, you can’t do better than jams and jellies made from berries of the agarita, one of my friend’s favorites.  Because of its prickly nature, the best way to gather agarita berries is to lay a cloth on the ground and thrash the bushes, but when drought reduces the berry crop of even this hardy plant, time spent in bush-thrashing isn’t worth the return, and agarita jelly won’t be on the table.

Ripening Agarita berries

Recently, even the yield of berries from Scarlet Firethorn, or Pyracantha (Pyracantha coccinea), has declined somewhat.  Its beautiful red, red-orange, or yellow berries resemble tiny apples, and it’s branches often are used for decorating. My favorite bush, a large volunteer on a fenceline below my friend’s home, disappeared when the county showed up to widen and pave the road, but new shrubs always appear as seeds are spread by birds who love its tasty and nutritious fruit. In fall and winter, the berries occasionally ferment, leaving robins and waxwings staggering from the bushes, nearly unable to fly.

For years I assumed pyracantha was poisonous, but the apple-shaped berries are perfectly suitable for human consumption; boiling the fruit and straining the pulp to remove the seeds is all that’s necessary to make a fine jelly. It’s more work that I’m willing to take on, but thanks to my friend, I’ve had the opportunity to try pyracantha pancake syrup and agarita jelly: small reminders of nature’s abundance and human care.


As friends will do, we often spend long hours drinking coffee and talking around the table. One memorable night, a sudden rattle across the tin roof and a rush of wind signaled rain. In a country so long bereft of storms, nothing could be more comforting.  “We sure do need more of that,” someone said as the rain murmured outside the windows. Then, the chairs were pushed back and we all went off to bed, ready to enjoy the luxury of falling asleep to the sound of falling rain.

The next morning, the “more” we’d hoped for had come. Puddles dotted the caliche drive and damp yard cats huddled under the potting shed, water dripping around them. We said our farewells in drizzle and fog: a gauzy, gray coverlet tucked around the resting ridges and valleys.

An hour later, as I swung around San Antonio and headed east, more rain developed. Heavy enough to make driving a challenge and consistent enough to bring a smile, it coursed along the ditches and collected in fields. Overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude, I tried, without success, to remember the last time I’d witnessed such abundance.

Passing a farmhouse, I glimpsed a man standing on his porch, just watching. A few miles down the road, I stopped for gas and coffee and found the men gathered at the front of the small store looking very much the same: hands tucked into pockets, eyes focused on the rain.

Coffee in hand, I left the store only to discover the drizzle had once again turned into a near-torrent. Standing under the awning, waiting for it to slack off before I headed to the car, I listened to the desultory talk.

“Nice,” said one fellow. “Sure enough,” said another. “Smells good, too,” said a third. And it did. It smelled clean, and fresh. It smelled like a new start, and hope, and home. It smelled sweet, like the promise of abundance.

It smelled like next year’s blackberries.

Comments always are welcome.

History and Hope

Revolution in Hungary

Because it was a school night, my tenth birthday celebration remained a small affair, confined to our family’s dinner table.

As I blew out the candles on my cake that October evening in 1956, whatever sweet, midwestern wishes I made hardly resembled those of children a world away. Those children were marking a different sort of occasion with their own parents: an uprising that would come to be known as the Hungarian Revolution.

On October 24th, or perhaps the 25th, I passed through the dining room on my way to breakfast and noticed the Des Moines Register lying where my cake had been. A single photograph filled the space above the fold, together with a bold caption: “REVOLUTION IN HUNGARY.”

At the time, no 24-hour news cycle existed. We had no CNN; no internet; no Facebook or Twitter. We had only a newspaper, motionless and mute, waiting on the table while my father readied for work and my mother drank coffee in the kitchen.

I stood at the table, transfixed by the photograph. Eventually, my air of concentrated astonishment caught my dad’s attention. Stopping behind me, he asked, “What’s happening?” I pointed to the photograph. He picked up the front page, scanned it, then brought it to the kitchen. He showed it to my mother, then handed it to me. “Maybe you should take the newspaper to school,” he said. And so I did.

At the time, I thought nothing of my teacher’s willingness to set aside her lesson plans and talk with us about events in Europe. We made a special trip to the school library, where the librarian helped us to find the 1848 Hungarian National Poem. Back in our classroom, we made a poster of the words, tacked it to the bulletin board, and read it in unison.

Stand up, Hungarians, your country calls.
The time for now or never falls.
Are we to live as slaves or free?
Choose one. This is our destiny!
By the God of all the Magyars, we swear.
We swear never again the chains to bear.

Even as children we were moved by the straightforwardness of the poetry. Decades later, turning over events of the time in a somewhat different context, I found myself equally stirred by Karoly Nagy’s The Legacy of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution:

Liberty, democracy, human rights are like health. Servitude, oppression, discrimination are like sickness. Totalitarian tyranny is death. A revolution that overthrows tyranny and achieves liberty is a resurrection. During the last week of October and the first few days of November, 1956, most of us in Hungary felt as if we were risen from the dead…
It was euphoria. We sang our long-forbidden national anthem, embraced each other on the streets, laughed and cried with joy. We felt redeemed. We were intoxicated by hearing and saying words of truth.
We learned the truth and demonstrated it to the world, that what defines a country, what qualifies a society is not any ideology, but the presence or absence of freedom.

Thirty-three years after I stood, transfixed, before a photograph of Russian tanks moving into the streets of Budapest to quell the popular uprising there with determined brutality, true revolution and an overthrow of communist government came to Czechoslovakia.

British historian and political writer Timothy Garton Ash, noting the series of revolutions cascading through Eastern Europe in 1989, adds a reminder that, “in Poland, the transition [from communism to democracy] lasted ten years, in Hungary ten months, and in Czechoslovakia ten days.”

Those ten event-filled days between November 17th and November 27th, known to Czechs as the ‘Velvet Revolution’ and to Slovaks as the ‘Gentle Revolution,’ embodied a remarkable, non-violent resistance whose effects reverberated throughout the world.

Reflecting on those events in a New York Review of Books article, Ash said:

In the autumn of 1989, the term ‘Velvet Revolution’ was coined to describe a peaceful, theatrical, negotiated regime change in a small Central European state that no longer exists.
So far as I have been able to establish, the phrase was first used by Western journalists and subsequently taken up by Václav Havel and other Czech and Slovak opposition leaders. This seductive label was then applied retrospectively by writers, including myself, to the cumulatively epochal events that had unfolded in Poland, Hungary, and East Germany as ‘the Velvet Revolutions of 1989.’

Ash’s description of events as “theatrical” never was meant to suggest they were in any sense ‘staged,’ but they certainly were dramatic. Marketa Hancova, former Dean of Education at Platt College in San Diego, California, was present during those ten days of transformation; her accounts of the events are intensely personal and extraordinarily detailed.

…It is late at night and I cannot sleep. And who can? The telephone is ringing, the radio is on, people are stopping by, so my friend and I are going out at four in the morning to buy a newspaper. Prague is bubbling, steaming, the city is in a frenzy and people delirious with certainty of victory, by their strength and by the historical moment we all feel palpably burning under our skin. The air smells sweet, and you can drink and eat for free. Everyone is sharing, everyone is offering, everything is open twenty four hours a day.
Revolution does not know night or day. It is one big day that ends with achieving our goal. I am tasting the life in paradise. If nothing else, these incredible moments have already made up for the years under the Communists’ despotism. The sense of giving and sharing offers me a rare opportunity to experience the uniqueness of human closeness.
Day three… The crowd is bigger. We are in the main square again, and the Communist vice-president is trying to deliver a speech. All of a sudden I hear a key chiming. Everybody pulls out their keys and we are all chiming above our heads. The whole of Prague is chiming and the politician cannot finish his address. We sing instead the Czech national songs…

The chiming in Wenceslas Square as citizens rang their bell-like keys in a final, dismissive gesture to the communist regime was memorialized in The Key Sculpture (Klícová socha) by Czech artist Jiří David. Formally installed on March 9, 2010 in Prague’s Franz Kafka Square, its 85,741 metal keys pay tribute to the courage and intransigence of pro-democratic demonstrators, the vision of leaders like Václav Havel, and the unexpected power of a million jangling keys when Češi udělali revoluci – the Czechs made a revolution.

Today, those same Czechs once again are gathering in Wenceslas Square: this time to protest on behalf of another beleaguered people — the citizens of Ukraine.

Even as Czech citizens were singing and chiming in the streets of Prague, The Estonian Singing Revolution did its own part to help secure democracy in Eastern Europe. Incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940, Estonia was occupied by Germany until reannexation by the Soviet Union in 1944.

Despite the deportation of tens of thousands of Estonians to Siberia and Central Asia and the forced resettlement of Russians into the country, one aspect of Estonian culture held firm: their Festivals of Song. First held in 1869, the Festivals quickly became a revered tradition. The Tallinn Festival, held every five years, can draw as many as 25,000 singers.

In 1987, Estonian singing began to serve another purpose. Initially, smaller groups gathered at the Song Festival grounds to sing patriotic songs that had been banned by the Soviets. In the words of participant Artur Talvik,

“We sang all night and everybody went home early in the morning. It was emotionally so strong that the next day there were even more people. The day after, there were even more people. People took out their hidden flags. They had these flags hidden for 50 years and now they took these out and started to wave them.”

For reasons best known to themselves, the Soviets ignored the first song gatherings. In response, the people’s courage increased. In June of 1988, 300,000 Estonians gathered at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds to sing patriotic songs, including the banned Mu isamaa, mu onn ja room (“My Fatherland, My Happiness and Joy”).

Ten thousand people singing may be a song festival, but 300,000 people singing and waving flags is a revolution. By September, political leaders were participating in demonstrations and insisting on the restoration of independence.

In the midst of Estonian singing, alliances were forged and pressures on the Soviets increased. By August 23, 1989, the 50th anniversary of the secretive Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, more than a million Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians were willing to travel “The Baltic Way“, a human chain stretching 360 miles from the foot of Toompea in Tallinn to the foot of the Gediminas Tower in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Their mutual goal, re-established independence of the Baltic States, was nurtured by an assortment of national movements – the Popular Front of Estonia (Rahvarinne), the Popular Front of Latvia and the Lithuanian Reform Movement, Sąjūdis. Milda Mendeleviciute provides one reminiscence.

I was less than 8 then, so I can remember very little. As my Mom tells, we went to this small town close to Vilnius, hoping there would not be overcrowded, and we were right (only two cars there on that site when we came)… we had to struggle to reach each others hands. The pictures prove that many children participated in that peaceful demonstration.

The human chain of the Baltic Way

Despite some differences in the struggles which took place in Hungary, Estonia, Czechoslovakia, and Latvia, they share certain truths: particularly, that revolution never is purely about politics, and freedom never is abstract. Human dignity is rooted not in the lofty pronouncements of autocrats and dictators, but in the freedoms of daily life, the intimacy of personal relationships and the twin joys of creativity and responsibility.

In another entry from her journal, Ms. Hancova speaks movingly of dignity and freedom.

There are many events I happily experience and one of the episodes sticks clearly in my mind. We are walking with my friends in the Wenceslas Square and we notice a big crowd in front of a record shop. We come closer and see a small cassette player sitting on a stool and playing a Christmas carol.
We are so happy to hear – for the first time in our life – the Christmas carol being played publicly. We are staying for the longest time and together with others listening, singing and enjoying a sliver of already gained freedom.

Her experience is worth pondering. Inundated as we are by carols from the day after Thanksgiving, by Christmas we hardly hear them. Cynical, irritated, or bored by what we consider an intrusion into our personal space, we forget that, in our lifetime, in Prague’s Wenceslas Square, a woman bearing a name and a history experienced publicly-played Christmas carols for the first time in her life, and rejoiced with friends and strangers alike in the freedom to listen and sing.

Today, wherever voices are threatened or silenced, whenever hearts grow weary or fearful, the same power that enlivened Czechoslovakia, surged through Estonia and made straight the Baltic Way seeks to revivify the human spirit.

Wending through city streets, holding hands across the miles, filling the public squares with a sense of  commitment and joy, it offered to those nations what others sought to destroy: a swelling chorus of freedom and self-determination.

Comments always are welcome.
The next Estonian Song Festival will be held in 2024.