Max’s 70th Birthday

The little house rocked!! Nine adults and four “greats” came to celebrate Max’s 70th birthday. Son Steve and Michelle, plus grandson Nathan, daughter Dee and husband Rick all joined Max and me for church at the Salem Presbyterian Church, where he has been a devoted member since 1961. We filled the back row and Max had to sit on the next row with his friends Roger and Carolyn. Other than Steve hitting up his father for money for the collection plate as it was passed around, causing the rest of the family to shake with silent laughter, the service went well. Pastor Sara congratulated Max, welcomed his family, and asked the choir to lead in singing “Happy Birthday.”

Following church, we visited with friends in the church parlor for a while and then had coffee at home before setting out for Backroads, a local steak restaurant. Grandson Rod, Michelle, and baby Emily [8 months] were waiting when we arrived and grandson Ethan, with Erica, and their family, Rhett [5], Riley [3], and Bailey [19 months] soon arrived. The children were seated across from Grandpa Great, where their antics and conversation entertained him and the rest of us. When Rhett was distracted for a moment, younger brother Riley grabbed Rhett’s cheeseburger and ate a few bites. The Greats were really quite well behaved in the cheerful, messy way of small children.

Soon, we piled back into our cars and drove home for ice cream and cake. The cake was decorated with balloons naming each great-grandchild, six in all. Rhett and Riley were excited to point to the balloons with their names. After Grandpa-Great managed to blow out a symbolic seven candles, Dee, Michelle, and Erica cut the cake and dipped up the ice cream. We settled the children at the living room coffee table to eat, though as soon as they could, the boys ran upstairs to play with blocks and matchbox cars. Bailey toddled around while Emily lolled on the floor. Grandpa Great held court from his SHS chair and the room shook with talk and laughter.

I felt someone tugging at my sleeve. I turned and saw that Rhett had brought down the plastic background, about the size of a placemat, that came with the plastic play animals.

“Grandmother, I found a map! We’re going on a treasure hunt.”

At first, I was dumb and said he had the sheet that went with the play animals, but he said, “No, it’s a treasure map!” So, I caught on and got into the game. Right there in the crowd in the living room, we went on the treasure hunt. He pointed to places on the map and we zigged here and zagged there.

“Oh…there’s the treasure,” he pointed. And there it was, Hershey’s candies in the dish.

“Take the red one,” I said.

He sneaked forward and grabbed the treasure—and scampered off. Imaginative children are so delightful. 

All too soon it was time to take the family group picture, gather children, find shoes, pick up the scattered blocks, put on coats and hats, and go home. One minute the house is full of talk and laughter—-and then, it is still and quiet. Rather taken aback at the transformation, we sat down to rest, Max basking in a glow of happiness. So far, he’s only said dozens of times, “What a wonderful day!”


Sewing is an honored skill in my mother’s family. My great-grandmother Belle Lewis was famed for her dressmaking, crocheting, and embroidery. One of her crocheted tablecloths remains, grayed, but still lovely. My mother embroidered beautifully, though she had no talent for dressmaking. I have a small bird on fabric, a wall hanging, which she embroidered as a child, as well as a sampler. Her most beautiful work was a wedding gift to my father, silk threads on silk, in muted shades of brown, orange, and green. It pictures a shepherd leading a flock of sheep down a path in the woods. The significance of this piece can be understood by knowing that when they were married, my father was an ordained Presbyterian minister.

My grandmother, Hazel Lewis Parsons, was a talented seamstress. She made her clothing as a young woman, always looking elegant and well-turned out. It is not easy to look elegant on the Kansas prairie, but her old photographs show a stylish young woman. She made all of the clothing for her two daughters when they were growing up—lovely things with lace, tucks, and embroidery, beautifully made, as the old photographs testify. Other than a delightful and creative set of doll’s clothing made for me as a child and Christmas stockings, only one thing remains of my grandmother’s efforts. Saam Soon, my sister-in-law, and I found my mother’s wedding suit in her closet on our final day of cleaning out my parents’ home in 2002. We almost threw out the large plastic bag of clothing, but decided to carry it downstairs and look inside. We found several formal gowns, which I had never seen—wonder where she wore those?? In a plastic bag inside the larger container was a aqua suit with a hand written note “My wedding dress—never to be thrown away.” Dutifully, I brought it home and hung it carefully in the upstairs closet, where it remains to this day.

Hazel also made beautiful hooked rugs and large and small crotched items. I do not have any; I do not recall that she ever gave me a rug, though I have a few small crocheted egg shell holders [for small seeds]. It is sad to think that her beautiful things were discarded in all the family moves. 

When I was a girl, my grandmother, Hazel, called “Dee Dee” by the family, made most of my clothing. Or, I wore hand-me-downs given to my mother from church members. Sometimes, my grandmother altered the used clothing for me, some of which was of very nice quality. I do not remember having a “store bought” dress until I was 18, when my white graduation dress, which became my wedding dress, was purchased at The Fashion in Salem, as well as another green dress.

One time when I was about 12, Dee Dee and I walked to “town,” meaning we walked to Fourth Street in Louisville from her home on Bardstown Road, a distance of three miles. Such trips to town were frequent events, but this one stands out in my memory. We purchased silky white fabric with an embossed white-on-white flower design. Down in her basement sewing room, she made a dress for me which was fitted at the waist and had a full skirt, with short sleeves. We made three small black velvet bows for the front. It was tacky-grand and way too dressy for church, which is where I wore it. However, it made me feel like a princess.

Her sewing room was the “maid’s” room in their large old house. The main floor of the house was almost a story above the street, so this room was only slightly below ground level. The ceiling was low and barred windows lined one wall, looking out onto the driveway. The room contained an old 1920’s style cookstove on which she cooked messy things, such as bean soup. Two huge old wooden office desks became cutting boards, dwarfing her small, treadle sewing machine. Fabric was stacked around the room, on the desks and low shelves. An ironing board was at the ready and a mirror hung on the wall to check results. It was a delightful room, cozy and cluttered.

My grandmother taught me to sew and for many years I attempted to make clothing for myself. Mostly my design aims were far beyond my skill and the things I made were ill fitting and odd looking. I liked the Vogue look, without having the skill or the quality of fabric to make my ideas look elegant. At age 16, the Vogue look is a bit inappropriate, though that did not deter my dreamy view of clothing. When I was 18, I made a lilac-colored dress. I remember wearing it for my “interview” with my first husband’ parents, so it was clearly my best outfit-of-the-moment. It had a cross-over bodice and a skirt with large, soft pleats. I also remember a soft yellow tank dress, Jackie Kennedy style, with a gray-yellow flowered jacket, worn to church and dressy affairs. It, too, was a search for elegance, gone somewhat astray, the fabric not quite up to the design.

Then I went to Purdue and took a clothing class during my one year excursion to Home Economics, which was pretty much a disaster, except for this one class. I made an elegant green dress, short sleeved, fitted at the waist, with a slim skirt. The soft green fabric was textured or slubbled like silk instead of being smooth. Luckily, the dress fit me well and I received an A. That is certainly the best work I ever did in clothes making. Like a lot of things in my life, once I had managed my “best effort,” I was mostly content to move on to other projects. 

In future years, I started some projects and completed a few. Simple things like pants and skirts turned out better than my futile attempts at tailoring. I was an average seamstress, at best. I never improved much and my goal was to get myself to the point where I never had to make my clothing again. 

I did make a few things for my home as a young mother, such as an embroidered/sequined Christmas tree and other Christmas ornaments. My final effort was an embroidered wall hanging of butterflies, which I gave to my grandmother for her birthday; perhaps her 80th, but somewhere between 70 and 80. It hung in her living room or bedroom until she died, after which my mother claimed it and it hung in her hallway. I retrieved it and it now hangs in my bedroom. The silk work my mother made for my father hangs on the same wall and the difference in skill is, well….disheartening. My mother’s talented hands played the piano and organ–and sewed so beautifully.

Little House on the Prairie

When I was a girl, my mother gave me The Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the first of the “Little House” books, which were favorites of hers when she was a girl. I loved that book, and the rest of the series, dearly and read each book several times. It is my family’s story: all four of my grandparents were children of pioneers who arrived on the prairies of Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa in covered ox wagons after long treks across Indiana, Illinois, or Wisconsin or in wooded southern Indiana after long treks through Tennessee and Kentucky. I use the term “pioneer” here to mean “people settling and farming on land which had not previously been settled by Europeans.” The parents of my grandparents came from families who were in the Appalachian Mountains at the time of Daniel Boone and Lewis and Clark, frontiersmen who fought in the boarder wars before, during, and after the Revolution, early settlers of Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, and North Carolina. The family of my grandmother, Hazel Lewis Parsons, carried the story of their descent from the same Lewis family as Meriwether Lewis down through the generations and across the plains. I have not yet “proved” that fact, but old family stories often have elements of truth.

A couple of years ago, I purchased the entire set of Little House books and re-read them. I was astonished at what I understood from an adult perspective: a layer of sadness and failure grips the stories. When I was reading the books as a child, I was enthralled with the adventures and the sense of exploration as the family moved to new homes. As an adult, I saw the little family struggling to survive, to find success, to find a place to thrive. Pa moves the family from here to there, looking for land and work. A good carpenter, he is not a successful farmer. Ma grows more careworn as the years pass, losing a child [not in the books, but in real life] and coping with their daughter Mary’s blindness.The hardships they endure in South Dakota, Minnesota, and Kansas are so typical of pioneer families, including my own. Some thrive in the new settlements on the prairie, but others wither, crushed by hardships and deaths.

Like Laura’s family, all of my pioneer lines were farmers, farming land they received from the government in land patents for military service or bought after working/renting first. Very few had the cash to plunk down to buy a farm. They lived close to the land; it was their livelihood, their insurance, their inheritance. From the old pictures, the family farms are modest and neat, not hard-scrabble. However, the families who settled in Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and North Carolina at first lived in Abe Lincoln type log cabins, building more prosperous frame homes later.

In the Colonial days, some Old Virginia families practiced primogeniture, the land going to the oldest son; at first, German families followed similar practices. Quakers generally divided their inheritances equally. The old farm families followed the traditions of their native lands, but as the young democracy took hold and grew, dividing the land equally among the children became the common practice, or at least finding a way to make the inheritance equal became the practice, such as affluent fathers buying more land to help their children get started. With such large families, often 10-15 pregnancies in a woman’s lifetime, the older children had to strike out on their own, with one of the younger children staying on the “home” farm or perhaps a grandchild remaining to care for the family land and aging parents. Often, though, in my family, aging or widowed parents were taken along as the family migrated. The 1850 U.S. Census is the first to record everyone’s name, age, and birthplace, making it possible to see the migration patterns. It is interesting to see these practices in my family lines across many generations. Several of my mother’s family lines meet in Ohio–Patton, Marsh, Lewis–including one marriage in Hamilton, Ohio [now Butler County] in 1792–and other lines settled in Southern Ohio around 1800-1820. By 1810, the Indiana Territory is opened for settlement, and my mother’s Lewis, Starry, Patton, and Riner lines are settlers in the mid-to-late 1820’s. By 1850, the younger generation is moving on to Illinois and by 1870, many are moving on to Kansas. In 1848, my father’s grandfather, Davis Rogers Doud, D.R.’s mother Martha Rogers Doud, and several brothers, sisters, cousins, and spouses, migrate from Trumbell County in eastern Ohio to Illinois and settle in Grundy County. D. R. Doud and his two younger brothers were farmers and Methodist circuit rider ministers. After the Civil War, the younger generation in most of these families moved on to Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska. Interestingly, a Doud line lived right down the road from the Lewis-Riner families in Jewell County, Kansas, although no one knew the connection until I began researching. That Kansas Doud was a first cousin of my grandmother Harriet Doud Shafer, son of her father’s older brother Israel Doud, who settled in Iowa.

In re-reading the “Little House” books, I was also struck by her family’s isolation from their extended family. Reading the later biographies of Laura and her daughter Rose, I learned that was not completely true; the connections were just not included in the stories. Both of Laura’s parents came from large families and occasionally they visit with relatives or relatives stop to visit with them. Still, they did not travel in family groups the way earlier generations of my family traveled. When I studied the 1880 plat map of Burr Oak Township in Jewell County, Kansas, I was startled. Down two roads are farm after farm of Lewis and Riner cousins or siblings—Pangborns, Drakes, Skeels, Millers, Grubbs, Lewis. They came in small groups over a period of 10-12 years from Onarga, Illinois, settled, raised their families, and died; their bones rest in the beautiful old Burr Oak Cemetery. Earlier generations of these same families had traveled together in groups from Ohio and Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Illinois. Some in the next generation, like my grandparents, my mother and her sister, moved back east, while others of their cousins moved on to Colorado and California. Inferring the isolation of the Ingalls family made me sad, just as I have been heartened to trace the intertwined relationships of my Riner-Lewis families and their cross-country, multi-generation, migration with family and friends. Quite a few of us are still out here in the heartland.

The Gift of Giving

President Daisaku Ikeda, the leader of Soka Gakaii International: SGI, is a man I greatly admire. From the ashes of WWII, he took an organization called Soka Gakaii (Value Creating Society) and became the third leader, rebuilding after the wartime imprisonment of the first two leaders had devestated the group. Through Ikeda’s leadership, this Buddhist society, which works for world peace, has spread around the globe.

My introduction to SGI and President Ikeda came through my beloved daughter-in-law, Shinobu, a native of Japan, who has given me many books by President Ikeda and who has also taken me to the Florida Nature and Culture Center, the SGI conference center in Weston, Florida. It was at FNCC that I first heard the story below from Shinobu, a “fortune baby,” or birth-right SGI member. 

Shinobu’s parents, Tadashi and Yoneko Arai, who lived in Nagoya, Japan, grew up during the suffering of WWII. Following their marriage in 1957, they raised a family of three daughters and together built a prosperous business. Mrs. Arai, a loving mother and a dedicated member of SGI, loved the sound of the koto harp.

After Mrs. Arai’s untimely death in 1991, Shinobu and her two sisters presented a koto to President and Mrs. Ikeda during a visit they made to Nagoya, as a tribute to them and to the memory of Mrs. Arai. The koto was given to honor Mrs. Ikada, who, though not a public performer, often plays the koto for her husband in their home. Some time later, President and Mrs. Ikeda presented the koto to a visiting scholar of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism from India named Prof. Lokesh Chandra, Director of the International Academy of Indian Culture

In 1992, Shinobu came to United States as a “study abroad” student. Jim and Shinobu met in a Sanskrit class, which was part of the Buddhist Studies program at the University of Wisconsin, and married a few years later. After Jim received his Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies in 2001, he took a teaching position with Antioch College’s Study Abroad program, escorting a group of students to Bodh Gaya, India for a semester of study. Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment, is in Bihar, a remote part of India, a ten hour train ride from the capital of New Delhi. Jim and another young professor taught the classes and accompanied the students on tours to various holy sites and cities. [Jim is on the left in the mauve shirt].

On their return journey, the group stopped in New Delhi. Before they left the U.S., Shinobu had written to Professor Chandra, telling him the story about the koto that she had given to President Ikeda, which eventually went to Professor Chandra’s institute, and mentioning that she and her husband would be visiting in India. Remembering meeting with President Ikeda and receiving the koto from him ten years before in Japan, Professor Chandra invited Shinobu and Jim to his institute. They spent several hours discussing Indian Buddhist history and iconography. Jim was able to take many photographs of Buddhist and Hindu artwork, including statues and paintings, greatly adding to his knowledge of 10th and 11th Century iconography. 

The part I love best about this story is the way the gift itself, the koto, travels and creates energy that brings people together over time and great distances. The memorial gift and President Ikeda’s giving of the gift set in motion a series of events in which eventually three scholars met in a far away land to share knowledge and fellowship, a meeting that Jim and Shinobu will always remember. Shinobu’s mother would have been overjoyed to know of her daughter’s journeys and of the happiness brought by the gift given in her name. This story is also a metaphor of how President Ikeda has sent in motion the energy and activities that have developed SGI into an international organization, empowering people to work for world peace.

After accompanying her husband to India, which interrupted her studies somewhat, Shinobu returned to the University of Wisconsin, completing her Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies in 2003. Her dissertation, Value of Simple Practice: A Study of Tiantai Zhiyi’s “Liumiao Famen,” was highly praised by her major professor, Professor Charles Hallisey, of Harvard and UW. In my family, there is a refrain repeated when a child or grandchild accomplishes a major educational or other goal, “Mamma Jeanne would be so proud!”, referring to my dear mother and her deep love of education and of her family. With the completion of her daughter’s educational journey, I think the same refrain would fit Yoneko Arai—she would be so proud!

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King is a man I hold in highest respect. Once I wrote a letter of protest about an issue to the local newspaper and wavered for days before sending it. As I wavered, I thought about MLK, coming to understand in a small way how difficult it is to make a public protest about an issue. To lead demonstrations, marches, public protests, to encounter withering rebuke and scorn, to endanger oneself and one’s family, to sacrifice anonymity for “notoriety”—-it is so much easier to fly under the radar and let someone else be out in front. And my small protest was a tiny candle to the massive sun of King’s work for equality and justice.

As a child and teen in the 1950’s, I read about MLK and watched some of his marches on TV and at the movies. I saw marchers being hosed and attacked with dogs and billy clubs. Since I lived in suburban and then small town America, in lily white areas, the nightmare images seemed to come from some other world. Surely, this was not the America I heard about at school and church, where all humans are equal and jesus loves all the little children–red, yellow, black, white. I came to have the profoundest respect for MLK and his movement. Some of my relatives did not care for him at all, so I always heard the dark stories and comments. I cannot say I had the courage of my convictions. Since I do not like to attend large sports events or concerts where there are masses of people, public demonstrations are not my thing. Once though, back in the mid-60’s, we learned though a co-worker of my first husband, the wife of the head of the local NAACP, that MLK would be leading a protest march in Louisville. Kids just out of college, we decided to go watch the march, which took place on 4th Street in Louisville. It was rather a lark for us, though my profound respect for MLK was the impetus. We stood on the sidewalk, cheering as the protesters came down the street in the characteristic hands-linked-across-the-front manner. Not having enough nerve to step into the street to march with them, we began walking down the sidewalk alongside the march, in support. There were angry hecklers around us, some shouting venomous abuse. Suddenly I noticed that several large young black men had surrounded us, protecting us as we walked along. Realizing that we were supporters, they surrounded and stayed with us. I had not considered that we might be in danger, but I was very grateful for their protection. It was a thoughtful and love-filled gesture. To this day, I regret that I did not have the courage to march in the street.

I remember watching that glorious “I have a Dream” speech, given from the Lincoln Monument. MLK was a marvelous orator with a powerful, silky voice that soared with the poetic cadences of his dreams for America’s children. Many years later, a coach from USC called me a number of times, recruiting Jim. Coaches who are recruiting don’t call the players—they call the mothers, so I spent several years chatting with basketball coaches, one of the more bizarre episodes in my life, considering my total lack of enthusiasm for athletics. This coach, George Raveling, called a number times in 1984. He told me the story of standing with MLK at the Lincoln Monument during that famous demonstration, as a volunteer security guard. When MLK finished speaking, he turned and handed the speech to Raveling. I am sure he told that story to lots of mothers; it certainly impressed me.

A copy of MLK’s speech and long article about that famous demonstration hung in my classroom for a number of years. Some of my students read it, but mostly it just hung there, another “liberal” comment from the flakey old 1960’s era teacher. One day, one of my “graduated” students came back to visit, bringing along a friend from college, a young black man. He was noticeably cool to me, barely acknowledging the introduction. While his friend chatted with me, he wandered around the room. I watched, wondering what would happen when he saw the yellowed MLK article. He stopped, read the entire page, turned, came over to my desk, sat down, and began talking as if we were old friends. I am not so naive that I think America’s rampant racial hostility can be overcome by such incidents, but I did think how warming it was to know that once more MLK had bridged a gap, allowing two people to see each other, not as a black man and a white woman from seemingly hostile camps, but as two humans with mutual interests and admirations.

Of note, too, is the fact that my mother, my role model for all that is good, loving, and gracious, one of the most devout Christians I have ever met, was a devoted admirer of MLK.