Waiting in Line, by Staci Lynn Bell

Waiting in Line
By Staci Lynn Bell

I have always hated waiting in line, whether it be a line to pay for groceries, buy something I really want, or get good seats for a concert. For most of my life, I never really had to wait in line. My family had money, lots of it, and money makes it easy to avoid lines.

Growing up wealthy in Highland Park, a suburb of Chicago along the shore of Lake Michigan, I was far removed from anything as pedestrian as lines. My grandparents were both upper class. My Papa was a lawyer, an importer/exporter from Japan, and Nana had come from money as well. Being the early 1960’s, however, memories of the Great Depression still affected the way my grandparents thought. Time and time again, I would hear Papa’s lesson “You know Stacala, not everyone is as comfortable as our family.” “Education is the key” Nana would chime in “without a solid education, we would have suffered even more.”

Papa, the smell of expensive Scotch warm against my neck as he cradled me in his lap, would then explain in detail how hard working people had gone from having jobs and food on their tables to no food, no table and no house in which to eat what they didn’t have. Nana promised this would never happen to me, as a standing prime rib roast cooked in the oven. “You will never know a bread line or ever have to worry about paying bills. Papa and I have you set up for life.” This assurance from them that I would not become one of “those” people made me feel safe. I would never have to beg for need of anything.

Imagine my surprise some 40 years after Papa’s death and 10 years after Nana’s, when I found myself waiting in a very long line contemplating how I had gotten behind in my mortgage, 2 months behind on the electric and had absolutely zero food in the house. Southwest Florida was hitting rock bottom by 2007, and I had been without work for more than 6 months, a fate most of my friends were going through as well, but they all had family to help. My family was long gone, and I had no clue what to do next. I only knew two things for sure. I was hungry and had no money.

I had just heard from the electric company. “Ms. Bell, you are two months behind on your bill with us, so now you owe the back bill plus we are adding a $300 deposit to your account,” stated the stony female customer service rep.

My voice shaking, I responded, “If I can’t get enough to pay the current and past due, how am I possibly going to come up with an extra 300?” The phone clicked off on her end. Holding my puppy, I snuggled my face into Cinder’s soft fur and thought about waiting in line.

Rumors spread through the mutterings of neighbors that an organization in the small town I lived in, just east of Ft. Myers, once a month helped out folks with their utility bills. The catch was you could only come for help once a year, and that day was tomorrow. I called the town hall and was given the phone number for this organization. An older woman answered the phone curtly, “How may I direct your call.”
Stammering, I choked out, “What time do you open tomorrow? I need help with my electric bill and I heard that you help local residents.”

Without even taking a breath, she recited by heart, her words, monotone, “We open at 9am, but we only usually get to the first 50 people, so if I were you, I’d be here at 4, no later.”

“I need over 400 dollars to keep my electric on,” I began, but she stopped me mid cry. She informed me that I must really get there early because once the money they have is gone, no matter where you are in line or how long you have waited, it’s gone. She did assure me, however, that 3am should be sufficient. Get up at 3am and wait in line for a place that doesn’t open until 9. Having never done anything like this before, miserable and humiliated, I knew I had no other choice.

I couldn’t believe what was happening! Me! A nice, rich Jewish girl, highly educated, very bright and had it all: thriving career, husband, home, food, clothes, vacations, things I now recognized as luxuries. I did it all the right way; this was not supposed to be happening to me! I had prepared early in life. College, great grades, worked my ass off climbing the proverbial ladder, the whole deal. At 47 I should be at the height of my career, with my loving husband, a larger house, more clothes, more things. I had none of those anymore. Instead I sat alone, save for Cinder, shivering in a tight ball, waiting, to wait in line.

I was precisely on time, 3am. The line already had 9 people waiting. I know that because I counted, and as I was counting I realized they were sitting in chairs, lawn chairs, sport chairs, all different types of chairs. Most ripped up, with strands of material hanging down. I had no chair, and none was offered. I had expected to see what I had seen on TV: “bums,” “low life’s,” “welfare whores,” of course all ignorant and certainly uneducated. “They” had snack bars and juice or coffee; they were smart enough to bring things like chairs and something to at least drink while waiting in line for 6 hours.

Helplessly crying, I took my place as the tenth person in line, gave in and called my ex-husband. He, taking pity on me and living nearby, brought me a golf chair. No back and only 2 feet off the ground, but I was grateful. By now at least 100 or more people were in line behind me…waiting.

A bit later, about 6:30, a timid looking woman approached me, looking near my age. Her offer of a cup of her juice more than kind. “You look so lost,” she said as she put her hand on mine “you look like I used to look and I have a story to tell you. I am a teacher, 8th grade, lost my job 9 months ago,” she whispered in my ear. “That man next to you is a plumber with 3 kids. He had been with his company for 15 years; they are losing their home.” I glanced over at him, just in time to see his pain, then it was gone behind the cloak he put up, for his children’s sake.

As the sun finally rose on June 4, 2007, I began to really see those around me, finding a part of me in each of them and their stories. Different backgrounds, different stories, different circumstances, yet I now saw us all as one.

Although surely the people inside saw the angst of us waiting just outside their door, the click of the lock turned at exactly 9am, not a second earlier. The vouchers went quickly, so quickly in fact, that I was only given one for 50 dollars. My heart sank, and I begged for more, but to no avail. I was also told to consider myself lucky since they only had 5 vouchers left and hundreds were going home with nothing. 6 hours waiting in line for a 50 dollar voucher, that was not going to stop my electric from being turned off at noon.

It has been almost 6 years since I stood in that line. I have thought about it many times. Reflecting on that day, my thoughts are different now. I didn’t spend 6 agonizing hours just waiting in line; I spent 6 hours learning to empathize; learning that we are all going through something, all just trying our best to make it day by day; learning that no one is better than another.

Now when I pass a church or community giving out boxes of food and see the lines those who have lost their lives and homes form as they wait to eat, I don’t judge, for I know all too well who they are. I always hated waiting in lines, until I found me, waiting in one.


A Single Letter, by Ann Chandonnet

By Ann Chandonnet

Students sometimes find history or poetry too abstract to lodge in their minds. And the teacher can’t import Plymouth Rock or the Alamo to make a point. I’ve been known to dress up in a Pilgrim outfit as Thanksgiving approaches or to bake scones for the entire class when reading Robert Burns. Students are impressed by such things. Sometimes something as simple as a letter can have a similar impact.

Whenever I was teaching “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed” or “The Gettysburg Address,” I would bring to class a letter written by my grandmother’s foster father, who served in the Civil War. John Bodwell was a tailor who served in the infantry for the state of New Hampshire. His health was so affected by his service that though he stood six feet, he never again weighed more than a hundred pounds. Up in the attic, my grandmother stored his cap, jacket, and powder horn. The shoulders of the jacket were so narrow that I could not fit into it when I was thirteen.

Bodwell must have written other letters, but this was the only one that had survived to the mid-1960s when I began my teaching career. The letter is addressed to Bodwell’s sister, Esther, explaining why he decided to enlist. Teens are naturally so skeptical that there was always at least one member of the class who said this faded document was “a fake.” It couldn’t be real. But others believed–and learned as a result.

If your attic lacks such letters, they can often be found through a little googling or binging on line.

The Bodwell letter follows. Spelling, capitalization, and underlining kept as they are in the original.

Chichester, August 27, 1861
My Dear Esther:
I suppose you will be surprised to know that I am stopping at this place instead of C. [Concord, New Hampshire] and you may want to know what I am doing. Well you know there are 5 companies of heavy artillery to be raised and to raise them there must be some one to recruit the men. Last Wednesday I got papers from the Adgt. General of N.H. [Charles Dodd] appointing me a recruiting officer for the 5th company. And yesterday I came out here. I think there is a good prospect of my getting some men here.

O Esther you will not blame me for going into this company without letting you know any thing
about it. For you know you thought I was going the last time you saw me. I expect we shall go into camp at Concord. I shall go there the first of next week and I want to see you there. You said you would come home if I went into the Navy and you will come now, won’t you! I left home before the mail got in. But I expect to get your letter here to day [sic]. O I want to see you as soon as possible. You will be home as soon as you can [,] won’t you. It was hard for mother to give her concent [sic]. But she thought I had better go, than to stand the draft. I called on your mother Thursday eve. She was quite surprised to know I was really going.

For Esther I have been examined again [physically] and been accepted so Esther, I am sure to go. Though I have enlisted I hold my own papers and if the business is not done fair I can destroy them and then I cannot be holden [sic]. So you see I have an advantage over any one who enlists at the office. But any man who enlists under me will find every thing as I represent it, or I shall not give up their papers but destroy them. Renselear has enlisted again. and Mr. Fastis [?] of our S.S. [Sunday school] class is recruiting for the 8th company. Rens. enlisted in that company but as one of their officers were under some obligations to Mr. R. S. Davis the chief officer for this company he will get him transferred to this company so you see we shall go together.

You will be sure and come home early in the week wont you for we shall be organized sometime in the week. and I want to see you once more before I get on “my suit of blue.”

You will not think hard of me for enlisting, will you Esther without letting you know. For I know how you felt before. and think you will feel the same now. The Postmaster is making out the mail. So I think I cannot have time to write much more.

If you write to me again before you come, please direct to [Camp Jackson at] Concord. So Esther I may get some of those long letters after all.
In haste–yours very
Truly, John

The call of July 1861 was for 300,000 Union volunteers. The state of New Hampshire committed to organizing several regiments; the officers and men who enlisted in the Fifth totaled 1010.

John Bodwell ended up in the infantry, so perhaps his papers escaped his grasp at some point. After his service, he lived in Tyngsboro, New Hampshire. He ran a prosperous tailor’s shop and was the owner of one of the first dry cleaning establishments in the area.

After the war, many of the Civil War’s regiments formed veterans’ associations, held regular reunions and appointed a historian. The Fifth New Hampshire’s historian was William Child, MD, Major and surgeon. His history was published in 1893, and includes a complete roster of men, reminiscences, and a detailed report of marches, camps and battles (including South Mountain and Antietam).

Neither Renselear [by any spelling] nor Bodwell is listed in the roster, which is not surprising, as I have found many errors (and duplications) in rosters that are said to be “complete.” There is the possibility that his physical debility necessitated an early leaving of Union service, and his discharge was unknown to Child. A copy of Child’s history is stored at the library of the University of New Hampshire, and may be downloaded.

Note: Bodwell’s Testimonial of Service certificate, dated Feb. 22, 1867, has been donated to the Dracut Historical Society, as have his blue cap, wool jacket and powder horn. Some of the scenes from the large, engraved certificate have been reproduced on the cover of “Write Quick”: War and a Woman’s Life in Letters, 1835-1867 by Ann Chandonnet and her third cousin Roberta Gibson Pevear.

A Page From Jody’s Life, by MK Miller

MK Miller

Although twelve years ago I found it physically jarring to be near her when I had to be, I’ve been hyper-commenting on Jody’s Facebook page. But why?

It’s the wake of one key event in her life, I realize— since she’d adopted a child from China. In fact, when Jody had first sent me her friend request over a year ago, I hadn’t (at that time) heard a peep out of her in over a decade.

Jody and I have a mixed history. She worked as a fine arts professor at the liberal arts school I attended. While I never took any of Jody’s figure study or ceramics courses, I did end up volunteering on campus with the same charitable organization that Jody co-lead as campus advisor, doing outreach projects with disadvantaged youth in the town– hosting everything from school supply drives to Halloween and Christmas parties and Big Brother-Big Sister type mentoring. Jody often held pizza- party planning meetings in the living room of her on-campus apartment which also housed her two rescue pups, Wallace and Grommet, and a turtle another college volunteer nicknamed Ace. Jody had found Ace wedged behind her back tire one morning and almost squished it flat to the pavement before she hit the brakes, scooped it up, and deposited Ace in a terrarium she kept by the kitchen sink.

Clearly, there was nothing inherently rotten about Jody– she did in fact have a natural empathy for those who were suffering, displaced, or frustrated with their lot in life. I’d personally witnessed her cheering up several homesick students with batches of Tollhouse cookies and a good cry fest. Looking back, Jody and I have several commonalities in our backgrounds that should have bonded us– both of us were daughters of two-sister families, our siblings married while still college students and became parents shortly after graduation, we had fairly conservative, middle class parents (while we ourselves always veered left), and both of us had been raised on heaping helpings of casserole and the Golden Rule—strong-armed to “give back” via weekend service projects and summer camp counselor volunteerism.

So Jody could be helpful– when she wanted to be. But like all of us, she had a more contradictory, complicated side. Jody had not one but two Ivy league diplomas, and she loved nothing more than to bring them up whenever anybody talked about graduate school plans– hers were by far the superior programs and hers were the definitive reasons why. Jody also had a tendency to steamroll to get what she wanted. For instance, she maintained that “the only quintessentially Neopolitan” pizza was found in a neighboring town and she insisted that we drive twenty miles out of our way to patronize that particular shop. And, not to be mean or petty, but Jody had a way of laughing out loud boisterously (which, in itself, is not such a bad quirk, really) but whenever it’s combined with a remark such as, “you just think that because you’re 20 years old, wait a few years and tell me you still think that,” it does not endear a cash-strapped scholarship student sophomore who is homework-laden and experiencing an epic dating slump. Jody regularly showed exactly zero tact, not a stellar quality for someone who work with youth year-in, year-out.

I never externally sparred with her or even spread scathing rumors about the reason why her fiancé had dumped her, as some people on campus did, but I do think that a random comment I made to a fellow volunteer, “if she steps on my last nerve one more time I’m going to tell her where she can stick her opinions,” probably made its way back to her. For that immaturity on my own part, I feel remorse.

But that’s also why, so many years later, I was a bit surprised to see the friend request from Jody. And I admit: I was curious. What had she been doing in the past decade? Did she still teach fine arts? Did she still conduct the volunteer program? And whatever happened to Wallace and Grommet? They were the sweetest and most loopily enjoyable pound mutts a homesick college student could ever wish for as an afternoon diversion. After a few moments’ hesitation– did she just want to “friend” me to nose into the little I’d been doing in the past ten or eleven years?– I went for it and clicked the accept button.

And then I started to trail her page for signs of dirt. But there was surprisingly little of interest. No, she had not divorced or even married (although while perusing her page I suddenly remembered a conversation we’d had at a planning meeting one time where someone asked her what her ideal man was like and she’d replied without missing a beat, “a red-headed tenor with broad strong shoulders”). Yes, she still taught fine arts, but at another university. No mention was made of volunteer coordinating or her two dogs who, I imagined sadly, had probably gone the way of poor Ace the turtle after all of these years. Pretty mundane stuff, actually. So mundane that I promptly forgot I’d even friended Jody after a few weeks.

Until The Day. That was the day in shining September that Jody posted a personal blog and a photograph of a teeny-tiny Asian girl of about three, dressed in a pale pink dress with lace trim and knee socks and holding a chubby, wide-eyed teddy bear in one hand while, kneeling at her side, was Jody–with the most gleeful look I’d ever seen on her face. That was the first time I read about Sun-Ming and how Jody had met her while volunteering in an orphanage abroad a year-and-a-half before, how it was parental love at first sight, and “red tape and thousands of miles be damned,” this was Jody’s daughter and her heart had “opened wide, then wider after meeting my daughter.”

Sure I’d seen Jody’s care and naturally people-loving personality before, but this was a whole new level. I was transfixed– and not just on that day, but suddenly I started to read through almost every status update posting Jody left– and once Sun-Ming came home to suburban Chicago there were profusions of them. There was what Sun-Ming had said at the park that morning (“Sun-Ming pointed to the buffaloes and shouted, ‘barf-os”!), pictures of Sun-Ming in a private pre-school pinafore (“with coordinating blue ribbons, courtesy of NaNa Marie and PapPap! Thank you!”), and even video clips of her first chocolate-and-vanilla Barbie birthday cake complete with aunties and uncles and teen cousins gathered around singing the birthday song. Every day– indeed, every hour– was infused with Sun-Ming updates, and I for one hit the thumbs-up button on 95% of them.

But why? I have plenty of other friends who have children and I don’t always comment on their children‘s Facebook updates (although, I tend to comment on a fair share of ballet and Little League postings). By your thirties it’s not uncommon that, even if you’re unmarried, 90% or more of your friends, coworkers, relatives and acquaintances have children or grandchildren. It couldn’t be the novelty of these postings, because every parent on my Facebook page, particularly with those who had kids under ten, made regular comments about their children’s stage/rage/cuteness. It also wasn’t the fact that Sun-Ming was adopted or even from another country. I’d had several close friends in recent years who adopted beautiful children from both the US and abroad. All of those adoption stories had touched my heart, witnessing via photo, letter, or personal visit the immense love and sacrifices these friends had made to welcome children into their lives, children they’d planned for and yearned for, in some cases, for years.

So what was it about Jody and Sun-Ming? Why was I suddenly their #1 commenter? That’s when it hit me: it wasn’t Jody nor was it Sun-Ming, at least not either of them solely. It was them collectively. Because, while I have four or five friends who are salt-of-the-earth single mothers currently, every last one of them had started their lives as parents with a partner in crime. Whether that spouse or boyfriend stuck around or was invited to stay around was another matter entirely– but they’d all gone into being a parent believing that their relationships were stable and that their partner was committed to co-parenting. They had set up a life and jumped in with both feet, expecting and planning as such– not to say that it’s any more fair or any less hard to deal with parenting in the midst of widowhood or divorce and its often attendant financial downward spiral and stress, but all of them had had some moments of the Kodak picture nuclear family going into parenthood.

All of them, except Jody. Jody used to talk about her then-infant nephews and preface it with statements like, “when I find the love of my life and have children, they’ll already have two marvelous cousins who’ll come for play dates in the summer.” It wasn’t an if back then, it was a when– and the when was implied to mean any-day-now. And who could blame her? She was in her early-thirties at the time, had lived on her own for well over a decade, paid her own bills in a timely fashion, had had the requisite bad-idea musician/bartender boyfriend in her early twenties before two other transitioning relationships and had just (a few months earlier) broken up with a long-term boyfriend she’d once assumed would be her “Mr. Forever.”

She was still young enough that she laughed through the bitter disappointment when she’d mention him, never by first name, just “Mr. Forever.” She could do that then because she still had some time to make it all work out, biologically-speaking. She had a stable job, she was organized, she had an education, she had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, she was involved in her community and actively gave back to others– she had it all, all that the Feminist movement said she as a middle-class, upwardly mobile American woman deserved and was capable of enjoying for a lifetime. The only small piece of the puzzle missing was the spouse. Even then, she talked routinely about wanting to start a family. None of us doubted she’d find a spouse. Jody surely didn’t.

But then years happened. How often had she dated? Had she dated much at all? Had she kept herself socially active? Had she just been too intimidating to the men she met? Conventional wisdom and women’s self-help literature always preach not to be too “put together” because “men need to feel needed.” Or had she been too clingy or needy as the possibility to have biological children streamed like sands through the proverbial hourglass, faster and faster to a no? A strange thing starts to happen to women in their thirties and forties– as unmarried men in that demographic have more and younger options, women have fewer men in their own age and experience range who are interested in them or will even give them a chance. Suddenly, the men these women wouldn’t have dated ten years earlier become the men who now won’t date them– and by the time this happens and they find out, more time has passed. Had she given up in the face of such depressing and buzz-killing realities? Or maybe, to be fair, we should assume it might have had nothing to do with her conducting a search or her sitting at home on a Friday at all. Maybe she just never found that strong, red-headed tenor, for whatever reason. Maybe, through no fault of her own, it was just in the cards for her to remain single? It happens sometimes.

But something else had happened, too. Sun-Ming. So a man had not come into her life permanently– but a new vitality and life force had, in the presence of that little girl who needed a mother. As an educated, professional woman now in my thirties and having weathered my requisite disappointments in love and false Mr. Forevers and not exactly a stranger to Saturday nights alone, more and more Jody’s path to family makes sense to me. And seems a likely path I myself may trod one day. After years of volunteering with children and being an auntie, I’ve often admitted to close friends that if it doesn’t happen for me– the life partner and marriage and settling into life with a significant Him– then I could definitely see myself adopting. Especially if I’m still single in my forties.

Granted, I haven’t exactly given up entirely and there are a few years yet ’til that next milestone. And yet there are already plenty of miles behind me–miles whose knowledge I want to share, preferably with a spouse and potentially with someone of my own genetic makeup– along with experiences that stretch years ahead. But I could easily love a child not biologically my own.

Much like Jody– who never thought she’d be where she is at this point in her life. But she is. And she’s doing it as a single mother, raising this beautiful child and through all of the normal blood, sweat, tears of the parenthood experience, here she is– what she’d wanted all along, albeit in a form she never quite planned. Still, she’s somebody’s Mom. She’s Sun-Ming’s Mama reporting on Facebook how yesterday Sun-Ming poured orange juice onto her cereal thinking the carton said milk, how she has three boyfriends in pre-school already and how she explained, “Dylans’s for mowning, Jack’s for afterwoon, then Carson for the rest of the day, of course!”

Of course. Nothing’s guaranteed in this life except that you hit a certain point and you know enough to take love, to embrace family, in whatever form available and necessary– whether that’s Mr. Forever and his biological offspring or a Chinese girl in blue pinafore with coordinating ponytail ribbons.

Jody, whether my true friend or not, is a mom. And perhaps even a glimpse into my own not-so-distant future.