Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Sunday, February 18, 2018

M. Regina Cram

When I was growing up, my parents hosted some unusual parties, typically themed on a historic event that had occurred on the date of the party. I especially remember the President William Henry Harrison Day Party. President Harrison died of pneumonia a month after his bitterly cold inauguration, earning himself the dubious distinction of having the briefest presidential tenure. His entire 31-day presidency was spent in bed.

My dad wrote a lame, but hilarious, poem about President Harrison, then recorded the poem on a 45-rpm disc. (For those readers under age 50, 45s are small, old-fashioned records.) Then he mailed out the 45s, which served as party invitations. Everyone came except a woman who thought the record was junk mail.

Thus began my appreciation of unusual parties.

A generation later, when Peter and I were relative newcomers to town, we got hit with a Nor’easter that dumped 19 inches of snow in a matter of hours. Even if neighbors could clear their driveways, no one was going anywhere because the streets had not been plowed.

After being cooped up all day, it occurred to me that everyone else had been cooped up, too. On a whim, we decided to host a Blizzard Party that evening. We invited every neighbor who could safely walk to our house through the howling winds and snowdrifts.

People brought whatever they had on hand — salad, dessert, paper goods, drinks. I made a huge pot of chili, we shoveled a walkway to the door, built a blazing fire and waited for the party to start.

We had a fabulous time. Neighbors were delighted for an excuse to get out of the house and catch up with friends they hadn’t seen all winter. We ate and drank whatever victuals were provided, which turned out to be a feast. The party was a huge success, repeated many times over the years.

cram 06 0001It was a great idea, if I do say so myself.

In that same era, I again found myself cooped up, but this time it was late at night wrapping Christmas gifts away from the prying eyes of children. This led to another crazy idea. Most of my friends had young children, so they, too, had to sequester themselves for gift-wrapping. Why not do it together?

I reached out to a dozen women, inviting them to the first annual Wrapping Party. I held it two weeks before Christmas, but avoided the first night of Hanukkah. I told them to bring their unwrapped gifts and one roll of wrapping paper to swap (“Santa Claus paper”). I provided all the wrapping essentials and plenty of refreshments.

I cranked up Bing Crosby Christmas tunes, made a pitcher of margaritas and waited.

What if nobody came?

I needn’t have worried. The women loved getting out with friends, while simultaneously completing an important task. They didn’t want to go home.

I recently hosted our 25th annual Wrapping Party. Several times over the years, I’ve broached the fact that we don’t actually need to do this anymore. I mean, it’s not as if we still have small children with prying eyes.

Oh. My. Goodness. You’d think I’d stolen their secret stash of chocolate. While the wrapping element is no longer essential, the social aspect is as important as ever.

So each year, we gather with gifts in tow. We drink less than we used to, and we retire earlier, but we are just as delighted to be together.

William Henry Harrison. Blizzard parties. Christmas wrapping. It’s all about community and friendship.

Regina Cram is a writer, speaker and author. She and her husband live in Glastonbury and have four children and seven grandchildren.

 

cram mirror 300x275pxYears ago, my husband Peter asked me to exercise extreme caution when offering help to strangers. I understood his concern for my safety so I agreed, with a few caveats. If I pass someone in need who is elderly, pregnant, handicapped or has a small child, or if the weather is blisteringly hot or bitterly cold, I cannot, in good conscience, drive by without offering help.

I’m not sure which category applied to Angela.

I was pulling out of the Stop & Shop parking lot when I spied her. She was thin and disheveled, in baggy clothes, and she was trying to flag down passing motorists.

I ignored her. I had one minute to get to a nearby cafe where I was meeting friends. I couldn’t be late, right?

Unfortunately, the light turned red before I could escape, leaving me stopped right next to the gesturing woman.

She began calling out for me to help her. Maybe if I didn’t look at her, she would go away.

My conscience gnawed at me. Finally acceding, I rolled down my window.

“I’m 65 years old and a cancer patient and I live in Manchester and I need a ride home,” she said in one long breath. She was ghastly thin with just a hint of peach fuzz on her scalp. She couldn’t have weighed more than 80 pounds.

“Umm, well, umm ...” I stammered unintelligibly. “OK, I’ll give you a ride.” My friends wouldn’t mind if I was 10 minutes late.

She climbed into my car and strapped up. Introducing herself as Angela, she explained that she lives on a small fixed income and the social worker is trying to get her additional funds, but has not succeeded, so Angela had no food at home.

Angela was funny and needy and self-deprecating and blunt. She told of being spat upon when she asked people for help. She told of being ignored. It made her feel invisible.

I wondered what she was doing miles from home without a ride. Did she really have no food? How much of her story was true and how much was a con?

It gradually occurred to me that it didn’t matter. For those few minutes in my car, Angela was treated with dignity. We talked and laughed. Mostly, I listened as we drove to her apartment.

I gave her a bit of cash and tousled her peach fuzz hair. She hugged me and we said goodbye.

As I drove away, I wondered if, to Angela, my life looks perfect. I was wearing clean clothes, driving a working car and had cash in my pocket. Perhaps she pictured me returning to a clean, tastefully decorated home with homemade chocolate chip cookies on the counter. Maybe she thought my biggest problem is deciding which mall to shop at this week.

She would be wrong. While I am incredibly blessed, I have known great hardship. I’ve suffered catastrophic illness, severe financial pain, miscarriage and hunger. My family endured 20 years of my sister’s drug addiction as she dealt with homelessness, incarceration and shame. I know what it is to have life fall apart around me.

As I mused about these things, it occurred to me that it was the anniversary of my sister’s death that day. I recalled her gorgeous, chestnut brown hair and that crooked grin that always made me smile. Perhaps helping Angela was an appropriate way to honor my sister.

I was more than 30 minutes late when I caught up with my friends. What I missed was so little in comparison to what I’d gained.

Regina Cram is a writer, speaker and author. She and her husband live in Glastonbury and have four children and seven grandchildren.

My mother is a woman of contradictions. The big joke in our family is that when she dies, mom’s wake and funeral will go on for days because everyone who knows her has a colorful story to tell.

Many tales revolve around Mom’s driving. My mother believes that speed limits are suggestions. Oddly, she has only one speed: 45 mph. In a 70-mph zone, she drives 45. In a 15-mph zone, she drives 45. Don’t ask me to explain because I have no idea.

It gets worse. Mom makes left turns from the right lane, and, as far as I know, she has never used a directional signal. Not ever.

When I was growing up, Mom once jammed 13 kids into her Beetle convertible for a ride to the beach. Safety was never one of her top concerns, but she did instruct us how to dive to the floor of the car if we spotted a police officer.

cram mom nov17 2My mother parks in front of fire hydrants (“I’m just running a quick errand”) and drives the wrong way up one-way Boston streets when it serves her purpose. Take a deep breath here because, for years, Mom cut the seat belts out of her cars because they shackled her freedom. That’s how we were able to dive to the floor so quickly when we saw the police.
The annoying thing is that my mother has a stunning ability to talk herself out of trouble, using a combination of salesmanship and a “helpless old lady” act.
Fundamentally, Mom believes that laws do not apply to her. And yes, at age 87, she still drives. How do you think Boston drivers got their reputation?

At the same time, my mother is a courageous crusader and a tenacious woman of prayer.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Mom battled clinical depression. She endured appalling shock treatments without anesthesia, and she fought hard to regain her health because she was determined to raise her three little girls. Throughout those years, she spoke openly about her illness. People didn’t do that back then because mental illness was considered a family disgrace. By speaking out, Mom encouraged others to bring their struggles into the light. She refused to be ashamed.

During the 1970s and ’80s, Mom spoke candidly about my sister’s fierce battle with drugs. Mom’s openness was shocking in tony Wellesley Hills, Mass., where such matters were shrouded in secrecy. Again, her honesty gave hope to others.

When my sister eventually contracted HIV, my mother pitched in to help. She volunteered at the AIDS residence where my sister lived, and she loved my sister to the end.
All during those decades of pain, Mom fasted and prayed for my sister every Friday. For 20 years.

Before she died, my sister returned to her faith, abandoning herself to the mercy of God. I’m quite certain that Mom’s prayers for her healing were answered, even though it wasn’t the way she wanted.

So yeah, she’s a woman of contradictions.

Years ago, someone asked if I wanted to be like my mother when I grew up. At the time, I rolled my eyes and gave some snarky reply. But in truth, I’d be proud to live a life inspired by her courage, compassion and persistence. Mom has helped countless immigrants and refugees, often welcoming them into her home. Her garden produce filled shelves at the local food bank. She reaches out to the aged and the outcast and the lonely. Hers is a faith that is lived in everyday life.

Driving practices aside, I would be honored to lead such a life of faith.

M. Regina Cram is a writer, speaker and author. She and her husband live in Glastonbury and have four children and seven grandchildren.

In December 1938, 29-year-old British stockbroker Nicholas Winton visited Prague to assist in Jewish refugee camps. Winton was shocked at the atrocious conditions, especially for children, who were facing almost certain death by the Nazis.

In order to get these children to safety, Winton established a small operation in Prague. He contacted European and American governments, asking them to take in children. Only Sweden and Great Britain agreed.

The British Parliament required that each child entering the country have a foster home, an entry visa and 50 pounds for return transport. Winton pleaded with the British Home Office to expedite the visas because Hitler was preparing for massive invasions and children’s lives were at stake. But the bureaucrats plodded slowly, unconcerned about Nazi incursions abroad. Exasperated, Winton had his organization forge the visas.

Transporting children to safety was an intricate operation involving multiple trains, dangerous contacts with Gestapo agents, an English Channel crossing and a great deal of money for bribes.

Winton advertised in newspapers,ynagogues and churches to find foster homes and raise money. When he did not receive sufficient donations, he made up the difference himself.

As conditions for Czechoslo-vakian Jews worsened, frantic parents began visiting Winton. The devastating reality was that their children were slated for Nazi death camps; entrusting them to Winton was their only hope.

On March 14, 1939, the first transport of children left Prague. Bribes to Nazi officials made possible the dangerous passage through Germany. They crossed the North Sea by boat, then British trains carried them to the Liverpool Street Station in London, where foster parents waited. Winton met the transport in order to match the exhausted children with their guardians.

Seven more transports carried children to safety between March and August 1939.

On Sept. 1, 1939, 250 children boarded what was to be the largest transport from Prague. But that day, Hitler invaded Poland and closed all borders. “Within hours of the announcement, the train disappeared,” Winton later recalled. “None of the 250 children aboard was ever seen again.” All are believed to have died in extermination camps.

Nicholas Winton’s rescue operation had come to an end. He had saved 669 children.

After the war, a few children reunited with family members, but nearly all parents had died in the Holocaust without seeing their children again.

Winton said later that he was haunted by the image of hundreds of children at the Prague station awaiting the failed mission. He believed that 2,000 additional children could have been saved if more countries had helped.

After Nicolas Winton’s rescue operation became public in 1988, he began receiving letters, phone calls and visits from those he saved. They called themselves “Winton’s children.”

Among those saved were Dagmar Símová, cousin of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; Alfred, Lord Dubs, member of the British Parliament; Joe Schlesinger, a Canadian broadcast journalist; and Renata Laxová, a geneticist who discovered the congenital abnormality Neu-Laxová Syndrome.

In later years, Winton wore a ring given to him by some of the children he saved. It was inscribed with a line from the Jewish Talmud: “Save one life, save the world.”

Knighted for his humanitarianism, by the time Sir Nicholas Winton died in 2015 at the age of 106, “Winton’s Children” had had children, and those children had had children. More than 6,000 people are alive today because of his operation.

Winton never understood why he was famous.

I picked up my younger children after school, then proceeded to the middle school to retrieve my oldest. Together, we drove to a nondescript building in a neighboring town. Once inside, we were directed to a room where the din of voices overflowed into the hallway. When we entered the room, however, the voices abruptly silenced. Every head turned to gawk at us.

What had I done to shock these people?

I had brought children to a wake.

Fortunately, the deceased’s family was delighted that their loved one was being visited by children. My friends, however, were appalled. They were convinced that the sight of an open casket would give my children nightmares. It might scar them for life.

I reminded these friends that wakes were once routinely held in homes. Our parents and grandparents grew up understanding that death is part of life, that dying is part of living. Surely this is a healthier approach than sequestering death in the shadows, as if we can keep it at bay.

I attended my first wake when I was 7 or 8 years old. The deceased was an elderly friend of my mother’s. Since I had never met the woman, I was able to process the sights and sounds and smells of the funeral home without being assaulted by grief.

When a high school classmate of mine died a few years later, I was glad his was not my first wake. Unfortunately, the same was not true for my friends. One by one, teens arrived at the funeral home, and one by one they gasped when they saw our friend’s body laid out in an open casket. No one had told them what a wake entails. My mother quickly realized how unprepared these kids were, so she stationed herself at the entrance of the funeral home in order to intercept arriving teens. Walking alongside each one toward the parlor, my mother explained what they would be seeing inside. She was a godsend.

My husband Peter did not grow up attending wakes or funerals. He went to his first memorial service as an adult when the death of a business colleague made it impossible to avoid. This gradually eased him into funerals and even burials. But he could not bring himself to attend a wake. He thought they were ghoulish.

We’d been married about 10 years when Peter’s grandmother died, and, in keeping with his family’s wishes, we were asked to not bring our young children to the services. We respected the family’s request, but it meant Peter was alone in his grief. It also isolated the extended family from the sweet consolation of small children.

A few years later when my grandmother died, my entire extended family attended Nanny’s wake, funeral and burial. This included 10 great-grandchildren ranging in age from 9 months to 9 years. There were plenty of adults in attendance to help if a child became noisy, and the children’s presence helped soften our grief. I’ll never forget seeing my mother holding our chubby 9-month-old baby throughout my grandmother’s funeral. That baby gave such solace to my mother during a time of loss.

Needless to say, the children asked a lot of questions, which we answered as best we could. They listened to our words, but more so, they absorbed our attitude: death is a natural part of life and should not be feared. In fact, it should be celebrated.

Death is, after all, a personal invitation to spend eternity in paradise with God.

Regina Cram is a writer, speaker and author. She and her husband live in Glastonbury and have four children and seven grandchildren.