Tag Archives: Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Mahler Maul

One of the more delightful notes that my mother, Elaine, the subject and in many ways principal author of The Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes, wrote on the small chalkboard in the kitchen of her lovely house that she dubbed the “Lizzie Ann” in honor of her grandmother, was the short and simple “gone to maul.”  Of course, she meant “gone to mall,” specifically the Oxford Valley Mall. I was in high school then, and I chuckled thinking about the fact that she was a teacher and a part of her daily repertoire was to teach fourth graders spelling.

And I thought of that incident when this week I read a piece by Isaac Stanley Becker in the Washington Post on a surprising fracas that occurred in Malmo, Sweden during a performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. A woman, so it seems, was eagerly unwrapping some gum during the performance and this enraged the person next to her who then yanked the bag from the woman’s hand.

Gustav Mahler Œuvre d’Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) Vers 1909 Bronze.

At the end of the Adagietto, which, Becker divulges in his article, was one and the same as that conducted by Leonard Bernstein at RFK’s funeral in 1968, the woman struck back, slapping the man on the face. Her male friend then slugged the bag grabber, too, and a skirmish ensued, fortunately to be swiftly broken up by those nearby.

And this incident befits, it seems to me, the work of Gustav Mahler, for he was a deeply passionate human being. In his article for the Guardian entitled, “Big Bang Theory: Discovering Mahler” (10 Jan. 2010), Tom Service writes of his experience as a 12 year old lad discovering and, at first hating, Mahler. Later, however, a more mature Service falls in love with the composer and writes, “A Mahler symphony is an experience that should be as disturbing as it is life-affirming. That’s what we need to remember … as we all immerse ourselves in thrilling, terrifying, dangerous and occasionally consoling Mahler-mania.” The last hyphenated word here, I think, really says it all, for music, particularly that of Mahler, really can stir one’s emotions.  

But so can candy wrappers. Witness the Malmo mauling. But I know this personally, too, because, getting back to Elaine, she, it seemed to me, was often that person who was digging through her purse desperately seeking a mint. And had some man knocked her purse from her hand in a similar situation, I imagine that I might just have taken a poke at him. And in that case, I would have been no less aggressive than the mauler of Malmo, with or without the emotive inspiration of Mahler.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Rod Dreher, in Norcia

The chances of being in Norcia, Italy are relatively low. The chances of running into fellow blogger Rod Dreher in Norcia are lower yet. Norcia is a small town that probably you wouldn’t even recognize the name of unless you were to recall its name being associated with Amatrice, which last year suffered two devastating earthquakes. I did not make it to Amatrice on this trip—indeed, I’ve never been, though as an adult I have eaten pasta Amatricana with great delight a number of times. And when I eat it now, I think of how hard things have been for the people of Amatrice, and I think of one person in particular, not from Amatrice but from nearby Norcia, who suffered through those quakes. His name is Carlo.


What am I doing here so close to Amatrice in Norcia, you might well wonder? Well, as it happened, I ran into my friend, that one who is a philologist, who travels in Europe quite often to study very old books written by people who lived a long time ago, most of them Greeks or Italians, most of them males, all of them now dead. Despite the specificity (and concomitant ennui) of his studies, as I often do, I decided to tag along with him for a few days. And, as I alluded to just above, we chose to meet in Norcia because he was already in Italy in his Renaissance-like pursuit of manuscripts.

Norcia is the home of a monastery where one might expect to find manuscripts. But paradoxically there are none there. Rather, one finds there a beautiful chapel, one that the monastic community has just built—it is still under construction, actually—out of fine local timbers, wood that hopefully will flex and bend when the next earthquake might come. It should do better, in any case, than the brick and mortar church did when the earthquake rocked and destroyed too much of the hitherto quaint, hitherto removed, and even untouched, Norcia. When you walk down that town’s streets, though you will see great beauty you will also feel pain, pain that you feel for Alessandro the local merchant, whose shop survived but whose town largely did not, or for Orieta, who skillfully mans the desk, along with Marco, at the Hotel Seneca, where my friend was staying with his friend, Tom Hibbs and his son, Daniel, of Baylor University. But I am speaking about pain, real pain. Yet in the midst of that very pain there are some signs of resurgence, even of joy. Life coming back like grass springing between cracks of a sidewalk.

Life and resurgence, like that of Carlo, whose thankfulness and cheerfulness was palpable as he drove us up to the monastery. He and his wife and two children miraculously survived their entire house falling in on them, as they managed to huddle beneath their kitchen table when the stronger of the two quakes struck Norcia. It was frightening, he told me, like bombs going off in wartime. He was grateful to God, he said, to have survived. He hurt his shoulder, he said, trying to protect his babies. And the rescue team had to dig them out, which they had just in time, just before, he thought, they were about to suffocate. “Un miracolo,” he said, “veramente un miracolo!”

But back to Rod Dreher, whose son, Lucas, it was a pleasure to meet, as well. This was the first time for me to meet Luca, but it was actually the second time I had met Rod Dreher, for Rod had given a keynote speech a few weeks ago at a fundraiser for the Benedictine monastic community of Norcia, to help them replace their former, now destroyed, monastery with a new facility, one in which they might slightly expand or at least update some of their brewing equipment.

Birra Nursia is perhaps the finest craft beer I’ve ever had. Not too hoppy, yeasty, not too grainy, it finds the perfect balance between all the shoals of poor coloring and Syrtes of harsh taste, for craft beers often are, as you may know, either too sweet or too biting. But the monks of Norcia, especially Brother Augustinus, know how to brew. Yet Birra Nursia is not the reason I wanted to participate in the expensive fundraising dinner when it was held last month in Texas. Nor was my desire to hear what was in fact a wonderfully thoughtful, even provocative speech by Rod Dreher. Rather, it was to help the brothers there recreate their Christian community, in and through which they seek to honor God and do good in their community. The beer is just a bonus.

And Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option, is based on the way that that community functions. Of course, it owes its harmony, its rhythms to the fine medieval work entitled The Rule of St. Benedict. But Dreher’s argument goes deeper than just following a recipe for living, just as Brother Augustinus’ brewing goes deeper than following a recipe for beer. Dreher’s main point is that we all have choices about how to live in this dark world and wide, and the option he advocates for Christians is that of the Benedictine community, tangibly mapped on to the lives of those of us who do not happen to be monks, who do not happen to be single or celibate. But mapped on, in spirit (or rather in Spirit), nonetheless. The choice to separate ourselves from the ways of the world, to raise our families apart from rampant secularism, he argues, belongs to every Christian.

And thus happening to meet up with Rod Dreher in Norcia, something not unlike running into Paul McCartney strolling down the streets of Liverpool, was more than just a bonus. It was special to be there with him at the epicenter of his thoughts about the Benedictine order, about St. Benedict himself. And, there, even there, I gave him a copy of The Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes, which I happened to have in my shoulder bag. What a crazy confluence of Welsh heritage, a Benedictine monastery, a world-famous blogger, earth-rambling (for globetrotting won’t do here) philologist, and an academic dean with his son in tow—all of these in one remote place at one unlikely moment. Which begs the question: coincidence or providence? But I leave that aside, as that could be the subject of another blog.

For the time being, I urge you to keep the community of Norcia monastic or otherwise, in your prayers, as the recovery will be a long time. The grass springs between cracks of the sidewalk, but it will be a long time until we see a plant grow. Yet the One whom those monks and the entire Christian community in Norcia honors is mighty to save and will make everything blossom in season. As a (prayer?) bench in the Hotel had inscribed above its wooden canopy, Ora et labora, “Pray and work.” Not bad advice, for that’s how miracles happen. Certainly Carlo and his whole family know that.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Stuff You Don’t Want to Do …


Last Sunday was Mother’s Day, and while it might have been fitting to have this blog appear before Mother’s Day, I am writing it a few days after that special event because, of course, I was thinking of my mother, Elaine Jakes, on Mother’s Day quite a bit and I thought about the many wacky and wonderful times we had together, events and situations that could never have come to pass without her personality, her numerous eccentricities converging to produce various situations frankly unbelievable, but events that indeed did happen. Many of these are presented in some detail in the Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes, available on Amazon with the click of a button Θ. book buy iconThe book has enjoyed some excellent reviews, such as that of the Midwest Book Review which calls it “a riveting and entertaining read from beginning to end.”  I thus recommend it to you, especially around this time of year when we find ourselves thinking of our mothers, whether they are alive or not. Elaine passed away on May 23, 2011, nearly five years ago now.

And thus I have entitled this blog “Stuff You Don’t Want to Do …,” and I don’t add the rest of the title because, if you had a good mother, you likely know the rest, “… But You Do Anyway.” You do it because your mother told you to. Now she may have insisted; or she may have cajoled; or she may have used a healthy dose of guilt. She may have used a combination of any two or all three of these. But you wound up doing it, even though you flat out did not want to. And later, as she so confidently predicted at the time she was doling out her instructions, you were glad you did.

I offer two brief personal examples. First, Elaine taught me not to quit. I had a job I did not particularly like; I was working for Gerenser’s Exotic Ice Cream Shop, and though I liked some aspects of the job—I could dip with the best of them, and dip away I did—there was one overseer (whose name escapes me) who particularly irritated me. He seemed not to care about the customers, and in any case he was smug. Even when I was a child, smugness never worked well with me. I did not like other children who were smug; I did not like teachers or coaches who were smug—though I am fortunate to say that I had very few of these—and I particularly did not like supervisors in the workplace who were smug. And I still don’t. That aside, this particular person’s snobbery and conceit rubbed me so much the wrong way that I wanted to quit. But Elaine talked me out of it; she told me that these things, too, will pass, and that I should by this job learn patience that I might store up for future use when I have bigger problems someday. And she added, of course, that someday I would know that she was right. And, naturally enough, I do.

That someday has come many times over the course of my life. One particular time came some years later in graduate school when I was thinking about walking away from a fellowship and tuition remission package merely because I felt that I had been incorrectly marked on one of my qualifying exams. But there was my mother, again, saying, “Don’t be an IDIOT!” idiot posterI knew she would say as much before I told her, so I was not surprised to hear the actual words when I heard her actual voice. And I did, an earful, and I took it to heart. She was, after all, my mother. I had to listen to her. And, she would be proved, after all, to be right, time and time again.

I don’t want to belabor this point. Rather, I just want to give mothers their due, even if it comes the week after Mother’s Day. I hope any of you mothers who read this did indeed had a Happy Mother’s Day. More importantly, I hope you know that you are always right and feel validated, to some small degree by this blog, which attests as much. Yet I know that, if you are anything like Elaine Jakes, you did not need to read this to know it, for you knew it already. For the rest of us, let this blog serve as a small reminder that our mothers are usually entirely right; that we should listen to them; and that we should not quit doing so, nor, barring unusual circumstances, should we likely ever quit at all. Yes, we should very often do what we don’t want to do; and we should know before we talk to her what she will say. Thanks, Mom, for that lesson and so much more.

Mothers sign
“The Guilt.” Photo taken by Alex Stewart

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman


Over one hundred years ago, the great British writer G.K. Chesterton suggested that the human experience is, like that of Robinson Crusoe, one of collecting soggy broken pieces of life, and trying to survive on a deserted island after a shipwreck; as he puts it, “all things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck” (Orthodoxy [New York, 1908] p. 64). LucyHJonesTrunkFortunately, my family made it to America in 1869, and with them they brought, miraculously “a teapot, tea leaves … and a cheese plate, … a frightful one at that, … transported from Wales to Pennsylvania … in a trunk that served as the family’s covenantal ark … the objects of this story, but not the object of this story” (Curious Autobiography, p. 9f.). We were the family of “Great Might-Not-Have-Beens,” to use another expression from the same page of Chesterton’s enlightening book. We might not have been if the boat did not make it; we might not have been if Lucy Hughes Jones had died when delivering her child, Elizabeth Ann (for both of them nearly died at the moment of Lizzie’s birth in 1871). And we might not have been who we became without the journey itself, which, as Elaine notes in her autobiography, is the object of the story.

And who are we to say that we, this small band of Welsh men and women, mostly the latter and yes–we were primarily a matriarchy—became anything at all? This question is ultimately the central focus of The Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes and will be the central focus of this blog. Put another way, does an ordinary life, the lives of Welsh immigrants, have any meaning? Is there such a thing as destiny or fate? Put perhaps a bit more positively, is there a purpose for our lives? For life?

Good heavens, we’re waxing philosophical and lest we get bogged down in a blog that is meant to be fun to read, let’s tell a story, as story that may or may not illustrate what we mean. (Before I go further, I should say that I will shift back and forth from the first person singular to the first person plural, as Elaine’s voice still echoes in my head, and she now writes, in a sense, through me—nothing too mystical, just a fact.)

That story is an aspect of one that we tell in the Curious Autobiography, but there remains an important part of that story that we did not include in the book. It has to do with the packing of Lucy Hughes Jones’ trunk for the voyage to America, for which trip she was, for the first and only time, leaving Llanelli (not at all pronounced like it is spelled). Now I should add that, though the Welsh take packing very seriously, in my experience, they mostly hate to travel. That is possibly because the Welsh are said to be descended from hobs, or elfin hobs, to be precise about it. Now we might call these elfin hobs merely elves, but we would be mistaken.

The facts are these. Hobs are quite close cousins of elves, closer even than elves are to leprechauns, to whom they are related on their father’s side—never through the maternal line. A not very precise analogy might be the way the Welsh are related to the Scots, and the Scots to the Irish. Yet, while leprechauns are strictly Irish, hobs are not exclusively (though they are mostly) Welsh, and elves, of course, are not exclusive to Scotland, though everyone knows that they are found there quite often.   Of the three, leprachauns, elves and hobs, the last group most dislikes travel.

But let us return to the admittedly ironic idea that even hobian descendants hate to travel, albeit the Welsh are good packers. It is no small piece of information for our family’s history that into that trunk, that ugly black trunk with the name Lucy Jones clearly painted in what was theAngleCheesePlaten much more distinctly visible paint, went the things that would serve to remind our family in America of our Welsh heritage and, more than that, of our significance. Among these objects were the family cheese platLucyJonesTeapote (whose face always frightened the small children), several Welsh warming sweaters, two quilts, a Welsh serving platter, a Welsh flag, and a tea service, if a quite limited one, the centerpiece of which was Lucy Hughes Jones’ favorite teapot that features brown undulating swirls not so much like the tide of Mumbles by the Sea as that of the inlet that touches upon Llanelli itself.

Those fragile objects might well have tumbled one on the other in the trunk and broken had not an especially curious hob (and thus less afraid of travel than most) named Gwilym[04] Gwilym the elf, at the last moment, just before the trunk was closed, jumped inside. It is said that he used the teapot for his pillow, the platter for his bed, and the cheese plate for his footrest during the journey, thus keeping the most important objects from breaking. Gwilym, by the way, would eventually come to live in the family’s piano, where he stored nuts stolen from dishes put out when company came.  He seems to have enjoyed gathering and hiding his nuts as much as eating them. These objects, not icons or totems or idols, but mere objects, would prove to be symbols that we were not “Might-Not-Have-Beens” but demonstrably “Have-Beens,” which if it has a less than glorious ring to it, nevertheless begs the question of significance, even if, perhaps especially if, you happen to be descended from an elfin hob.

What is the significance, then, of these objects and the lives that they represented, or any family’s significance, any human being’s significance? The answer to that question is one that, even if it is intended for all, seems to present itself only to some, and it does so in most cases only over a good deal of time, often a lifetime.  And so it is our belief that it is tightly bound to the journey, not simply a journey, such as ours was, from Wales to America but bound to the journey that is each person’s life.