Tag Archives: Harry Jakes

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Air

On hearing a marvelous pianist, my friend, Helge Antoni play Edvard Grieg’s “Holberg Suite Opus no. 40” this week, I found myself stopping and thinking. I thought generally of music’s transformational qualities, its capacity to transport you from one state of mind to another, almost from one place to another. But when he played the fourth movement of that suite, “Air,” that is when I thought of something else: time.

Edvard Grieg

I say time not because I found myself thinking of the work’s title in Norwegian (Frå Holbergs tid) or even a language that I actually can speak like German (Aus Holbergs Zeit)—Little did I know until later that “time” (tid) was even in the original title. Nor was it the fact that the piece was written in 1884 to celebrate something that had occurred a bicentenary before, the commemoration of Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg’s birth; that detail I found out at the concert, though I think I had read it somewhere previously. But I had forgotten that when I was thinking about time, even as I listened intently to Mr. Antoni playing the piece so movingly, so timelessly.

If you recall the movements of Grieg’s Holberg Suite, you perhaps already know that they are based on eighteenth-century dance forms that were themselves connected with Baroque music, the music and the style of dance that came from when Holberg himself was living. [1] The Holberg Suite, then, was written to do precisely what it did for me, to transport someone through time to a previous epoch.

But the epoch in which I found myself was not two hundred years before. It was just a few years ago when Elaine Jakes died. For it was not the style of a Norwegian dance form from the seventeenth century that created an image in my mind, but it was the transcendent quality of the suite’s fourth movement, “Air,” that seeped into my soul and took me back, specifically to my mother’s death. Not in sadness or despair, but in an idea, an image. And that image originally occurred to me when I first encountered Death. For when I first encountered Death I had, as all of us perhaps at some point in our lives, never known him. He had been a distant reality to me, something that happened to other people, like a terrible disease or a horrendous accident or natural disaster.

Hercules Fighting Death to Save Alcestis by Frederic Lord Leighton, 1869–71

I was twenty when my grandfather, Harry Jakes, died. And hitherto I hadn’t entered into the holy land by way of reading. The notion of someone who could defeat death, like Heracles come to bring Admetus’ dear Alcestis back from the grave, was not an image, even in Dionysian theatrical terms, that had jelled in my mind or occurred to my spirit. Rather, Death entered Harry’s hospital room with a strong upper hand as I and my cousin Eric had, moments before, looked upon him, wired with tubes and grasping at his last few moments of life. We stepped out, hungry and in need of something to eat, when we were called back from the hospital’s canteen to the room, too late. He was gone. His soul had flitted away, on air, not even the Air of the Holberg Suite, but just air. Death had won, for now. But Air is written to be played in andante.

Andante religioso, to be precise. And thus it was that Death’s victory was but short-lived, for in just a few months I found myself, for the first time, entering into that holy land of which I spoke, encountering a literary force much stronger than the Euripidean Heracles. But that force was something greater than even a literary force, or even one made popular at the time (and incredibly still so) by a movie and, later, series of films. Indeed I was not on Miltonian ground, I knew before I heard Air what andante religious really meant. And that is why when I attended my grandmother’s funeral and when I came down the stairs the morning of my mother’s death to find her cold body lying in her bed, I knew that her spirit had risen on the air, the air of Greig’s fourth movement of the Holberg Suite. That Air leads to the joyous opening of the fifth, Rigaudon, a piece that is written to be “alive with energy,” allegro con brio. How fitting, for Grieg’s Air doesn’t just dissolve. It wafts, it wafts somewhere.

And so had Harry, though I knew it not. And Blanche. And, thirty years or so after them, Elaine. Their spirits had not just passed away, but had climbed, not simply “up” to a sky deity but to the Master’s home, a home beyond the sky. They had all gone, by faith, allegro con brio. And before they left they had given me a gift—not a cheese plate or a serving tray or even a teapot with a most interesting brown, undulating pattern. No, they had given me the faith to envision, or perhaps the vision to believe that the air on which our souls shall one day climb, leads somewhere, until we shall, about the supreme throne, of Him t’ whose happy-making sight alone, forever sit, attired with stars, in triumph over Death, and Chance, and even Time. But not Air. For when that day comes, that is precisely what we shall breathe, con molto brio.

Helge Antoni
Helge Antoni

[1] Further, cf. http://www.favorite-classical-composers.com/holberg-suite.html.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: On the Passing of 2016

jan-1No, it is not normal to talk about the passing of a year as if you were speaking about the death of a terminally ill friend who had been suffering for a very long time. Yet for some folks the end of 2016 could not come soon enough. Love ones were lost. The weather was weird. The EU began to fray with the UK’s exodus. The Austrian election was on a razor’s edge. The Italians seem to have changed course. And the American election—well, that was flat out brutal. The desire to see 2016 come to an end was even the case for a friend of mine, a pastor, who is himself publically quite doggedly apolitical. Too much sadness generally in the world this year for him and for many of us. (Though he votes dutifully, he views political solutions as largely temporary, whereas he is in the business, as it were, of eternal solutions. Point taken.)

Other friends of mine, on the left, of course, felt that 2016 was the year to end all years politically, if not apocalyptic at least revelatory of serious fissures in the democratic bedrock of the past eight years. What looked like a sure thing for them turned out to evaporate quickly in a 48-hour period just before the election. Maybe even fewer hours than that. Other of my friends, those on the right, not only want 2016 to end but the first twenty days of 2017 to go as quickly as possible. They are alarmed by the Obama administration’s calculated abstention on the recent U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s settlement of the West Bank. They are also alarmed at President Obama antagonizing the Russian government in retaliation to hacking. It all seems to me a rather tough nut to crack, whether you grip the nutcracker with your left or right hand.

Harry Jakes
Harry Jakes

But I want to return to the idea of the year passing away. While it can be useful and occasionally inspiring to mark time by big occasions, like the change of the year on 1 January, or by your birthday, or even by a secular holiday like Presidents’ Day or Labor Day or, most noble of them all, Memorial Day, it can also be tough and painful to mark the year by the day on which someone died. I know that it is virtually impossible not to do so. My grandfather, Harry Jakes, died on Father’s Day in 1979. His daughter, Elaine, to whom this entire website is dedicated, died on May 23, 2011. Yet I have chosen not to mark the day of their passing with gloom or anxiety or regret. Rather, I prefer to reflect fondly, as I had when they were alive, on their birthdays.

And maybe that is the way we should reflect on the entirety of the year 2016. It was a very tough year politically—both parties in America seem to have found ways to stoop to new lows—and the campaign rhetoric wasn’t just hot, it was foul. But it is over now, and the future lies before each one of us, a future we can either worry our way walking backwards into or we can boldly turn forward to embrace and find a way to bring good to whatever situation we might find ourselves in. And though we saw the passing of some beloved celebrities, particularly Princess Leah (Carrie Fisher), tragically and suddenly followed by her mother, the equally iconic Debbie Reynolds, at least Betty White is doing well, and there was no need for the Go Fund Me Keep Betty White alive page, the proceeds of which now can be given to charity. A little weird, but hey, at least Betty White is still going strong.[1]

And my pastor friend—well, maybe he has a point. Maybe we should be more concerned about eternal things than those that are merely ephemeral. If we were to do so, we might be a bit more optimistic, for everlasting things have the backing not just of eternity but the Maker of eternity, the Granter of the gift of time to us all, and the Giver of humanness and humaneness to beings who often comport themselves in ways less than human.

On that note, I wish you and all my readers a very happy new year, the best of success and some joy with the turning of the calendar year, whether your joy derives from wistful thinking about past leadership or hopeful thinking about new, or from Betty White’s good health, or from the aforementioned gift of time, that is to say simply from there being a new year at all, and the relegation of 2016 to the past, for that is where it will soon be. Happy New Year! Wishing you (and Betty White, too) all the best!

Betty White
Betty White

[1] http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/nation-now/2016/12/28/man-launches-gofundme-protect-betty-white-2016/95904556/


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Something about September

autumn-leavesThere is something about September. Let me explain. September is not only a special month because it is the month in which Harry Jakes, the father of Elaine Jakes and a major character in the Curious Autobiography, was born.9781480814738_COVER.indd He was among the great ones of the family. His first and middle names, Harry Reed, were transmitted intact to a great grandson who went on to become a pastor, something no doubt that would have delighted Harry, as it did Elaine. And incidentally, the elder Harry, her father, welcomed her into this life, while the younger Harry was the last person to tell her that she was loved as she went to sleep for the last time.

But the fact that the elder Harry was born in September or even that the youngest of his great-granddaughters happens to have also been born in this month is certainly not the only reason the month is special. It is special because it is not simply a name on the calendar: it represents a tonal shift. It is the pivot from summer to fall, the introduction of the season that represents, in the human life cycle, maturity and wisdom. One has finally passed from the heat of the summer to a more sober, more beautiful time, one full of color in most parts of the northern hemisphere, the gentle hues of leaves fallen from tree limbs. About this very season I can remember singing a song as a child in school, in the age when children sang in schools—I imagine they don’t now as many lyrics could be deemed to contain trigger warnings or simply be too offensive to some children or at least coercing a child to do what he doesn’t want to; sometimes there might even be a controversial parking fee involved. There might, on a special occasion, even be “exploitation of a captive audience.” So, it is anodyne, I imagine, simply not to have the children sing lest controversy erupt.

Yet in the case of the song in question—“Try to Remember the Kind of September”—I think the reason it has been banned is it is age discriminatory and gender exclusive, as it assumes the singer is a “young and callow fellow.” It was written by Tom Jones, a Welshman, and thus, however one might feel about its potential to offend, belongs in this blog. And that song, though it may set off a trigger for the most sensitive among us, particularly the callow, I think actually captures the mood of September very well. It has a wistful feel to it, and September is, in many ways, a wistful month. It is also ghost season.

ghostly-treeAnd it must be ghost season, for the ghosts must get busy in September if there is to be a respectable Halloween. Now if you don’t believe in ghosts, well, that’s fine. But apparently you’re wrong. I can say this because I was at a dinner party last Saturday at the home of a famous artist—a ceramist, is the technical term, the less technical term, a potter—and he spoke of a time when, before he was famous and had spun out a fantastic career as an artist, he had, as nearly all real artists do, worked as a security guard in a library in Chicago. Now I myself, though I am no artist (unless being a writer qualifies), had enjoyed a season as a security guard guarding condominiums, which, I suppose, is near the height of irony, if not quite atop it: the artist guards books that the aspiring writer later will write, while the writer guards condos, for whose dining room table the aspiring artist might (and this is why it is only near not atop irony’s apex) possibly create a bowl or platter. It’s the “possibly” that kills the ascent of Mt. Irony. Alas. (By the way, not to brag, but in my entire two years as a security guard of those condominiums, I never lost a single one.)

But to return to ghosts. That selfsame artist was, qua security guard in the 1980s, stationed in the Chicago Public library every evening, where he took up his post on the first floor, assuming, rightly I think, that no self-respecting book thief would be willing to bring a ladder to downtown Chicago to ascend to the second or third floor of that old building to steal a copy of Ray Bradbury’s The October Country or Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. So he stayed, as I was saying, on the first floor. That is, until he heard the thumping from the floor above and promptly called the police. He did this thrice, and the police thought he was crazy.

That thumping may have been caused by the books landing on the floor. But who threw them there? And were they actually thrown, or had they been on the floor the day before? Of course, the police could not explain, and neither could the artist—let’s call him Paul. But this happened night after night until Paul decided to speak to the spirit. Gingerly would he ascend the steps, not quite coming all the way onto the second floor or third floor but staying just at the top of the stairwell, in case he had to make a hasty retreat. But he made his peace with that ghost—and he swears to this day it was a ghost—to the point where the spirit stopped tossing books on the floor. Now the sceptics will say there was no thumping coming through the floor. But how else can a spirit make such noise without tossing books? (Ghosts have no personal weight as they are spirits.) I can aver that Paul told the truth. Ghosts can toss books and that ghost is no doubt doing so to this very day.

But the other story that evening, one told by yet another dinner guest—we will call him George to protect his identity—had even stronger evidence. The story begins when George moved to central Texas. He did not then believe, and had never hitherto believed, in ghosts. But, as a merely passing avocation in the early 2000s George, just to get out of the house and have some fun, paradoxically joined in with some para-professional paranormal investigators. Each night they went on the prowl, each night found nothing until finally they visited a house that was reportedly haunted. Ever the sceptic, George carefully set up the video camera. That not-quite-September evening (it was April) was tepid and still—especially so, George averred, sans vent. After a spell, he and his partners went to the local convenience store to buy some coffee, as they knew it might well be a long evening. While they were gone there was an unbelievable event—mirabile dictu—one that gives me chills to think of even as I write this.  It was none other than the astonishing closing of a door in that haunted house, caught on film no less. With George’s permission, his personal film of that event is attached. I can tell you that I have absolutely no reason not to believe that George was telling the truth or that this video is not authentic. If you watch the video, you can decide for yourself; I can tell you that I have already decided to take George at his word.

Thus, September is amazing not simply for being a great birthday month, a turn of seasons, the fact that it represents a tonal shift on our life cycles, or even that the colors of fall finally arrive. Rather, it is special because it is when the ghosts come out, that Halloween might truly be scary. Beware of ghosts? No, but do be aware of them, especially in September!

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: History, Breakfast and Bill Glass

we-the-peopleMy grandfather taught me to love history. Though he never went to college, Harry Jakes was an educated man. His education was garnered through the books he read, books about history, chiefly American history. He knew most of the presidents by heart. More importantly, he knew what they did and how ideally the country should function, its bicameral representative democracy, its three balanced branches of government, the fair and equitable distribution of power—a nonpareil essentially lost nowadays as we have a largely dysfunctional congress, increasing executive overreach, and politicized Supreme Court appointments. Yet Harry knew how the country had struggled to preserve its constitutional integrity, and when, and why.

And thus, beyond mere civics, that self-same grandfather taught me to love history. Yet for all his knowledge of history, Harry either did not have the capacity or desire to explain it fully—he rarely talked about “history” per se and indeed was generally reticent about what he was reading, though occasionally he would mention an important historical person, offering a slapdash and condensed biography. And that is precisely what I plan to do now. Yet I will not speak about American history or even my favorite, Roman history, but I will offer one of those random biographies as Harry used to do, in this case about Bill Glass. And there is a reason I will do so.


William Sheppeard Glass, who goes by Bill, a former football player and not a “historical figure” per se, is someone whose story informed my grandfather’s outlook on life. Born in 1935, Bill Glass grew up in Texas, went to Baylor University, and then played defensive lineman for the Detroit Lions and the Cleveland Browns, retiring from the pros in 1968.[1] In college Mr. Glass was a consensus all-American. As a pro, he proved worthy of the pro-bowl, and later authored or coauthored two books, an inspirational memoir entitled Get in the Game and another didactic work entitled Stand Tall and Straight, the latter of which is meant to foster character formation in young men. After his career ended, he attended Southwestern Seminary and would go on to learn about ministry from no less a preacher than Billy Graham. In 1969 Mr. Glass founded Bill Glass Ministries, whose primary thrust is to help emotionally and spiritually those who are in prison, though the ministry also touches those outside prison walls.[2]

Now what does this have to do with Harry’s penchant for history? For what reason do I quixotically offer this biography of a defensive lineman? No president, no congressman, he. It is because incumbent upon Harry’s general reticence about history was an equal reticence about interfering in the way Elaine Jakes was bringing me up. Elaine, you may know from reading the Curious Autobiography, was more or less a lightly practicing Jew throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. 9781480814738_COVER.inddAnd thus, I suspect, Harry felt it might be a breach of etiquette to encourage too strenuously his grandson to go to church, even though Elaine took me to synagogue but rarely, for she herself did not go regularly. Yet, Harry reasoned, if he gave me a record made by a football player speaking about his life—that football player was Bill Glass—then maybe I would listen. Maybe I would connect some dots that he thought, not without reason, I was not already connecting in my life. He was, and rightly so, deeply worried about my moral formation outside of church or, in my case, synagogue. And thus, Harry also thought, I suspect, that perhaps Bill Glass could make a lasting impression on me. Maybe I would even read Stand Tall and Straight, which I suspect he would have bought me for Christmas/Hanukkah if I had liked the recording of Glass speaking on the album that he had insisted I listen to.

Yet, though I was enamored of sports and especially loved football, by 1970 or so, when this was all happening, I had no interest in retired players—they were “old,” they were no longer playing, so I didn’t pay close attention to Mr. Glass’ impassioned appeal to turn to God, to give one’s life to Christ—though I don’t recall the specifics, I do recall the gist of the record. Had I listened, no doubt Harry would have been right to infer that I would have turned my life around—or rather God would have—and been on a better path, emotionally, morally, and spiritually. But that did not happen, not then.bill-glass-on-stadium

Now I forgot about all this for a long time. I forgot about it until a year or two ago when I was biking near the now demolished Floyd Casey Stadium in Beverly Hills, Texas, where the Baylor Bears used to play. On the side of that stadium was a larger than life-size portrait of none other than Bill Glass. I stopped my bike and looked at the poster and I said to myself, “I recall that guy. But how do I know him?” And then, as I resumed my bike journey it came back to me—history, my own history, and that of Harry Jakes as well. The awkward moment when he asked me to listen to the recording of Bill Glass.

And I would have forgotten about that, too, perhaps, but history doesn’t go away and often has a way of coming full circle. Later this week there is a fundraising breakfast for a ministry to the poor in Texas known as Mission Waco/Mission World. That breakfast was to feature Bill Glass himself as the chief speaker—until a week ago, when it was reported that Mr. Glass, now aged 81, has fallen ill and won’t be able to keep his speaking engagement. Needless to say, as a ticketholder to that breakfast, I am disappointed; more importantly, I sincerely wish him a swift recovery. I had hoped to tell him in person what a difference, albeit not at the time but over the course of time in my own personal history, that record album had made.

And thus I write this, on the one hand, for him: to let him know how his own history, many years ago, touched me, for though the message did not take root then, it would later. Within a few years of that moment, his words would come back to me. This time they came afresh in written form in St. Peter’s first epistle, spoken through the mouth of another person with Glass-like compassion—she would later become my wife—in Rome, Italy, a long way from Harry’s home in Kingston, Pennsylvania, a long way from Floyd Casey Stadium in Texas or the stadiums of Detroit or Cleveland. And I write this, on the other hand, for all of us, to remind us that history, whether our own, our country’s or simply that of a single individual, can have bearing on the present—redemptive bearing—and that, though we may not see figures of the past with our eyes, if we can recognize them in our minds and our spirits, their words and their lives truly will not lose meaning. Though I may never get to meet him, Bill Glass’ words resound and will continue to resound in my mind. I heard them but once, warbling on a wind-up Victrola nearly a half century ago.


[1] http://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/G/GlasBi00.htm.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Glass.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Richest Man Alive

drillWhen my grandfather, Harry, died, he left some old implements here and there in his house, some of which my mother collected and then passed on to me. I had no idea how valuable they were. One was an old electric drill that still works. Another, a razor, also electric, was new to Harry at the time; it is also still fully functional. I use it but rarely since I shave with a blade. hrjakes.elecrazorHe left hammers, a few vice-grips, a tool box or two with various small apparatuses in them, plus a couple of wrenches and a now useless zigzag-shaped manual wood drill with a nob on the end. I say useless because, unlike the other drill he left me, it rarely finds its way into my highly unskilled hands. I can’t recall what else might be out in the shed and it’s raining right now and I’m too lazy to wade through the storm to look for anything else.manual drill

Those tools made me the richest man alive. They did so by not having any real value. Now I’m sure if I went on the Antiques Roadshow some pecuniary sum could be assessed (thirty-five dollars perhaps) for the least useful of them, i.e., the incidentally muscle-building manual drill. But about the other stuff—even the functioning drill or razor—I’m pretty sure they would say, “Well, friend, these aren’t really worth anything.” And that’s precisely why I am rich.

Now at this point, someone might say, “Your incessant use of paradoxes is obfuscating”—at least my wife would, who says this or something like it fairly frequently—objecting to my hitherto nonsensical story. How can valueless objects make you rich? They can’t in and of themselves but the lessons behind them can. My grandfather and his tools obliquely remind me that one really important aspect of the legacy he left me was hard work. He believed that not earning everything you own is less than honorable. He never expected his parents to leave him a legacy—indeed, they had nothing of substance to leave him—and, if they had left him anything at all, he would certainly have shared it with his brothers or sisters or even others outside his immediate family whom he knew were in some way less fortunate. Why? Is it because he did not earn it himself? Well, yes, I suppose, you could say that. In any case, that’s the short answer.screwdriver

A longer answer has to do with the legacy his parents (particularly his mother, Ann) did in fact leave him. That legacy was faith in the face of life’s afflictions, faith in the face of the hardest challenges, even death. Her favorite hymn was “That Old Rugged Cross.” She died in the faith, the faith of that cross. She left him that legacy. That was a gift far more valuable than her knitting needles or her blankets or even the one or two beautiful vases she owned—they went to Emily, one of Harry’s sisters, as his other, Ruth, had preceded her mother in death. But faith, the faith that sustained his mother through that tragedy and throughout her life–that was the legacy that Harry received, and he certainly understood, as much as any of us can, how very valuable that legacy was. And for a while Harry Jakes was the richest man in the world.

tool1I inherited from him a few tools that are not worth very much, if anything at all. But I also inherited from him and my grandmother, Blanche, a fortune. That fortune is an admittedly imperfect love for God and my fellow human being. That is the only unambiguous command of the New Testament, peppered everywhere within it, the central teaching of the faith of the old rugged cross (Luke 23:34; 23:43), that we ought love one another (John 13:34) ; that we ought love our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 6:27) ; that we ought love and forgive our enemies (1 Peter 1:9) ; and, finally, that we ought pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:43-58).

hammersI have a friend who these days is squabbling over the inheritance that he and his brother received at their parents’ passing. At one point he said to me that he believes his brother cheated him out of a huge sum, six figures or more. He wants no further interaction with his brother; he may even sue him. He said that I myself couldn’t understand because I had never had access to that kind of money and thus I could not possibly know what it means to lose it, how it feels. And he’s right; I have never had commerce with such funds nor can I imagine losing so vast an amount of money. But I can tell him about the legacy that my grandfather left me. Harry said to be content with whatever work God gives you to do, to work hard at it and earn everything you own. And, once you do possess something, treat it as if it did not belong to you but to God; don’t think of anything as yours. Love God; love your fellow human being. And don’t worry about money, your inheritance, or anything at all but be ready at any time to give whatever you own to the poor, realizing the fraternal gulf between you and them is very slight but that between you and God is very great. “If you think like that,” he said, “you will be very close to God because such thinking is very close to God’s heart.” He told me this when I was a child as he packed his toolkit for a mission trip he was taking to Haiti with his church. He was going there to build houses for the poor, very likely with the very tools, valueless but so very valuable, that I now own.

toolboxIt took me a while to understand all this, to process it. And I am still processing it. In the meantime, even from the little bit I have understood, from the  tools  I inherited, from the twinkle in his eye as he packed for that voyage into the face of poverty, I am certain that it is not Bill Gates, Warren Buffett or Donald Trump but it is I, yes I, who am most certainly now the richest man alive.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Treasure Box

This week I was doing in late August what many of us do in the springtime; I was going through a closet, cleaning out a box or two that need to be cleaned out I admit that I did not get very far. The reason for that is I did the other thing that most of us, or at least many of us do: I slowed down to think about what I was doing. I paid attention to each object I extracted from the box. Some were pens that no longer write—one in particular stood out. There was a stickpin flag, a toy soldier, a napkin with a bible verse and a date written on it in my grandmother’s handwriting. These objects retarded my progress in cleaning out the box, indeed they prevented me from doing it at all, for I treasured all that I found.

“But of course you did not finish your task,” you might think, if you’re familiar with the Curious Autobiography, “You’re Welsh, wallgof (‘kooky’) man, and I know from that book (and perhaps from knowing Welsh folk) that the Welsh are known, among other things, for sentimentalism.” I don’t mean to coopt your speech or thought, but rather I merely state this much as a point of full disclosure before perusing with you the objects of the box and distilling together their importance, their value.

pencil caseAs I peered into this box—itself quite old, well tattered on the edges, and (from its appearance at least) no treasure box—it donned on me fairly early on that Welsh nostalgia might just kick in. It did, of course. It began with the aforementioned pen. That instrument was preserved in an old zipper case that had printed upon it the words, “Pocmont Lodge, Bushkill Pa,” no doubt a souvenir that my mother, Elaine had picked up on a childhood family vacation in the Poconos. Though the pen no longer wrote—nowadays a refill for this particular kind of pen would be nigh impossible to find—the pen and its case nevertheless presented themselves to me as objects of beauty. Like Elaine once did, her pen had written what it had to say, having poured out all of its ink in the pursuit of storytelling. In the case of Elaine’s pen, such storytelling was a frequent occurrence. The pen’s value lies, therefore, in its enabling her story, its facilitation of a story’s significance, which, in a nutshell, in the Curious Autobiography is a journey home not to a physical place but a spiritual one—a home that is more real than the house she grew up in on Rutter Avenue and lasts forever.

Poconos MountainsThe flag pin belonged to Harry, her father. It had in days gone by been displayed on his lapel, once ogled by little children who felt deep in their souls the patriotism of that period of time immediately after the Second World War. As I beheld it, I could hear the big bass drum of a marching band passing by that played the national anthem in a grand celebratory parade. So I imagined. Those years long ago were not merely a season of patriotism; they were a time when Americans knew that an evil force had been eradicated and hoped vainly that an evil and racist ideology had died with it. Sadly, evil ideology is alive and well, and about racism, unfortunately I hardly need comment. Like the pen, the flag pin continued and still continues to tell its story, symbolizing in a single object a narrative much more important than itself, the constant struggle for America to be a better nation than it is.

lead toy soldierThe toy soldier told the same story but from a strikingly different point of view. Wrought of lead, so not up to modern child-safety standards, it had been my own toy soldier, though it was manufactured, I surmise, many years before the day it was given to me as a gift when I was a lad. My guess is that it dates to the 1940s. This tiny figurine was the model of a World War II American fighter who stands fast, gun in hand. “He seems to be facing battle,” I thought as I turned his tiny, paint-chipped clad figure about between in my right hand. “Would he approve of our wars today?” I mused, recalling having reenacted in playtime as a child many a fictional World War II battle with this fellow. How much have things changed. What does this little man who defies time, stuck as he is for years at a stretch in a closet, think of the modern world each time he is yanked out of his foxhole-like box to see the light of day again? Would he stand and fight for the current iteration of America? I hope so, as I had always fancied him a hero.

clothFinally there was a napkin, or rather a slip of cloth, possibly cut with rounded pinking shears, a term that itself has a rather archaic ring, upon which my grandmother had written—for to this day do I know her handwriting—a bible verse: “One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.” Now my thinking slowed down to a crawl. I ruminated, “Does this verse mean anything to anyone anymore? Who gets it anymore?” I wondered, “Who cares these days about living a ‘godly’ life, dwelling in the house of the Lord? Isn’t everyone in it for themselves, for what they can get? Yet perhaps,” my thoughts wandered on, “just perhaps, the final thought about beholding the beauty of the Lord might still wake us up from our collective slumber. Might we care to seek after the beauty of God?”

These were some of the valuables in this box. The pen was from a time when each person’s life was a story that touched upon other people’s stories, when you might still find your way home. The flag pin suggested to me a country united, where one could rely upon one’s sweet neighbor for a cup of sugar, and where one did not “friend” an electronic face but might befriend a stranger in need. The toy soldier represents what I hope it still does, a hero, perhaps not so easy to find anymore, though in recent days, three such heroes or so showed up on a French train and thwarted a radicalized terrorist; such heroism is rare. And finally the slip of material. It is cut from a very different cloth than one usually finds, and it bears a very different message than the political correctness of today’s world. Like the first object, it points homeward, to a place where virtue is alive and well, abiding in heroes’ hearts.

In that box I found four objects far more valuable than merely “valuable,” for they are bearers, each in their own way, of a world, if bygone, still worthy of emulation. They were once perhaps normal patches of this country’s tapestry. “Was each person’s story happy in those days, was it then a perfect world? Were there not sad, profoundly tragic moments then?” someone might ask. Most assuredly there were. Yet every individual, or at least many more than do today, saw their life, their story as a part of a grander narrative, a narrative that made up a community, a country, a world, in a universe in which God gives meaning to each person’s life.

These objects have significance because they represent values. Their value is not the kind one might find on Antiques Roadshow. Their values are transcendent: a story, an anthem, a hero, and God on a napkin. I did not put aside the objects in the box to mourn the loss of those values and virtues in this dark world. Rather, I put them up to write this, for those values are not gone; they abide in the hearts of those who take time to look within the treasure box.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The View from Here

“Well, yes, thank you, I think I will,” Reverend Griffith responded to the invitation of Elaine Jakes’ mother, Blanche, to come in for some cool, almost iced, Black Current tea, served with homemade water biscuits, and Hen Sir cheese. So it was that after church, the devoted rector was making a few pastoral visitations on that warm, far too humid summer afternoon of the first of August in 1937, nigh upon eighty years ago now. Even though it was a bit outside of his regular rounds further down the Susquehanna River in Plymouth and Larksville, Reverend Griffith came to Kingston, mainly because Blanche and Harry lived there, quite a stretch from Plymouth’s Gaylord Avenue Welsh Calvinistic Presbyterian (and therefore tautological) Church, a house of God with far too long a name.

Harry and Blanche Jakes
Harry and Blanche Jakes

Nevertheless, the good cleric traversed that far distance, specifically to the house of Jemima Jones, where also dwelt Jemima’s niece, Blanche, and her husband, Harry. Jemima had taken in the recently wed couple a decade before, and they were in the process of raising a young family in that fine, but far from fancy duplex there near the intersection of Rutter Avenue and Pierce Street.

“There’s a lot of love in this house,” said the reverend. “You have a fine family, Blanche.”

“Pshaw,” followed by a pause; then she added, “But thank you. Harry is in the backyard. Why don’t you go out and chat with him and I’ll bring the tea and cheese out to you. It’s Black Current tea, Reverend.”

“How rare, hard to find these days. It sounds wonderful, Blanche,” he said making his way onto the narrow back porch.

There sat Harry in a ribbed tank-top tee shirt and shorts in the middle of the yard on a folding chair with his feet in a washbasin-sized bucket of cool water, which he was splashing up on his chest and head just as the reverend descended the back steps. After he welcomed Hugh Griffith with the proper august holy-ringing title he said, “It’s a tiny yard, but I love it. It’s cool here in the shade of the house and the trees, and I come out here to clear my head, to pray.”

As Harry tended to write down his prayers, it is likely that he actually went into the back yard to compose with pencil and paper. I won’t talk about that today, though, as I’m writing about something else, his yard. Harry loved that backyard, and though I suspect, in terms of its comeliness, Reverend Griffith might have failed to see why anyone might love it, no doubt he grasped its importance to Harry as a refuge from the troubles of life, a place where he could go and think—or rather be still—and, as he said, pray. No doubt Reverend Griffith admired the latter—he was, after all, a Presbyterian minister—and he likely knew that for Harry praying started with writing; he knew, too, that writing, reflecting and praying took place in Harry’s backyard on a regular basis. That much anyone who ever knew Harry would have known, for he was gentle and kind. And, as if on his behalf, the tiny yard seemed to divulge as much.


Texas Hill Country
Texas Hill Country
San Antonio
San Antonio

My Italian friends would call even such a postage-stamp-sized backyard as my grandfather had, a giardino. Now this is important not simply because Italians have the unique capacity to make all things sound more beautiful than they really are but because they also have the capacity of pointing out the beauty in something that you might otherwise have overlooked. For example, while most of my American friends from the eastern coast of the country are essentially allergic to Texas, my Italian friends are not. One and all, they love the state, and find great beauty in its prairies, shoreline, Hill Country and, among its cities, San Antonio in particular. Thus, I’m sure that Harry’s Italian friends referred to his tiny yard as his giardino. I’m sure they said, “Your giardino, it is beautiful!”—saying as much in a comely and robust Italian accent, of course.

And they likely said the same of the mimosa in the front yard, a small tree that Blanche adored. And then there were two or three rose bushes that Harry tended dutifully. These entwined a lattice that ran along the side of the house by the carport, next to the door that opened, after five ascending steps, into the kitchen. Next to that rose bush was a heavy, thick, oblong stone about a foot in length, into which Harry had faintly carved “Harry + Blanche,” a lover’s whisper, hand-engraved, time-defying. That rock marked the holy temenos that made their yard, small as it was, a place of beauty and wonder whose paltry amount of flora and fauna was more than enough. It was a giardino.

That’s where Reverend Griffith sat with my future grandparents—for Blanche had joined the men, as Jemima had taken the girls out for a stroll with her sister Elizabeth Ann—drinking iced tea and eating Hen Sir cheese, the Welsh cheese that oddly came to symbolize spiritual renewal in our family. But all of this is, of course, wryly chronicled in The Curious Autobiography. And so they chatted, speaking about topics that the cleric liked, such as God’s sovereignty, mercy and charity, and topics that Harry liked, such as his hope to get a job away from the coal mines, the threat of war in Europe, and how good Hen Sir was with a smidgen of strawberry jam (for Blanche had included that with the homemade biscuits). And how much he appreciated that the reverend now preached sermons in Welsh and English both, as Harry confessed that his Welsh was lacking.

Ocean Grove
Ocean Grove

They also spoke of Ocean Grove, New Jersey, where there was another view altogether, not of a giardino, but of the majestic Atlantic, which will be the topic of another blog.

Bay of Naples
Bay of Naples

So the conversation went. Now I myself have seen some pretty superb views, such as the Bay of Naples, as I peered out from behind a well-placed sphinx, to the view of Baltic Sea from Vogelfluglinie ferry that brings you to incomparable Copenhagen. I’ve walked upon Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, thrown a Frisbee in the Villa Doria Pamphilij, where far and wide one can see Respighi’s inspiration on display.

Pines of Rome in Villa Doria Pamphilij
Pines of Rome in Villa Doria Pamphilij

I’ve visited the amazing Abbey district of St. Gallen and gawked at the heaven-like interior of the abbey library—mirable visu—not to mention the Alps themselves, in which the town of St. Gallen is nestled. But I say Harry and Blanche’s giardino was a finer view than any of these.

St. Gallen library
St. Gallen library


Portrait Bust of Sappho

In one of her most amazing poems, the Greek poet Sappho puts it this way, “some say an army of cavalry, or infantry, or sailors is the most beautiful thing across this coal-black earth, but I say it is whatever you love” (fgt. 16). A giardino is no army, but it springs from the coal-black earth and it is a place that one can love. It was a place of love for Harry and Blanche, whether that love be merely recorded upon a great round rock that I now have in my own giardino or it be seen in the occasional rose that Harry would harvest for Blanche from the rose bush, or it be simply the love they shared with the visiting Reverend Griffith over a cooling glass of tea, some homemade biscuits, and a bite of Hen Sir. That giardino framed their home the way a picture frames a painting. That home and its yard was the place where they created a family with their two daughters and with their aunt Jemima.

So the view was, for Blanche and Harry, Lee Ann and Elaine, pretty fine from that house on Rutter Avenue. As I see it, it surpassed the Baltic, the Bay of Naples and the Jersey Shore. Their view was more encompassing than just a giardino. It was what so many of us crave beyond anything else in this life, a family and a home, a place where Jemima, just before she died saw an angel. But I have spoken of angels in a previous blog; and I imagine I will again. For now, I shall simply look at my small backyard, which is perhaps two postage stamps in size—but the cost of mailing a letter has gone up over the years—and I shall think of Harry and Blanche’s view. Maybe my own is not that different after all. Yes, I like the view from here.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Workshops and Sanctuaries

“Buona sera, good evening,” he said what seemed to me a trace of a Swedish accent, “My name is Helge. It’s a manly name, a Viking name.” In fact, it is a holy name, related as it is to the German heilige, as in Heilige Geist (“Holy Ghost”). Thus, while the Vikings no doubt used this word as a perfectly “manly” name, it has connotatiVilla of San Micheleons, as does many a name, well beyond even the immediate context of a Viking village, let alone the cocktail reception for a musical recital at the Villa San Michele on Capri, where I first met Helge Antoni.
There he was with his lovely wife, Marisa, and the three of us along with a number of other interlocutors who dropped in and out of our conversation chatted in multiple languages—German, English, French, mostly Italian—about music, art, literature and the intoxication that Anacapri provided through its breathtaking vistas and villas, soul-charming alleys and ambulatories witape-on-the-roadh various twists and turns. Indeed, virtually no one drives in Anacapri, unless one has a very small vehicle such as a scooter or a “bee” (in Italian, ape, entirely unrelated, of course, to its false English cognate “ape”).

As I walked home from that evening’s lovely concert it dawned on me that I had met a world-class and quite famous musician, and in Marisa, his athletic wife, quite a fine Pilates expert. Little did I know, however, that I would enjoy much more than a mere conversation, that our friendship would blossom, that Helge would become like a brother to me. That such a circumstance could possibly arise was soon enough apparent to me from his and Marisa’s warm invitation to join them for drinks the following evening at the nearby mountain villa where they were staying.

And so it came to pass, in our evolving friendship, Helge, en route to a concert a year later, would come to visit me in the States, on which occasion I was reminded afresh of something I already knew but had, I suppose, forgotten or had at least not brought to the front of my mind for quite some time. Yet I had known it well, as I had so many other important things, already when I was a child.

That thing that I had known was the idea of a sanctuary. I am thinking in this case of the small workshop of my grandfather, Harry Jakes. It was anything but fancy, more or less just a workbench in the basement of my grandparents’ home on Rutter Avenue in Kingston, Pennsylvania. My mother, Elaine Jakes, lived with her parents for three years or so after her divorce and during those years my grandparents in many ways played the role of Wilkes Uparents for me while my mother finished her college education at Wilkes College (now Wilkes University). There Elaine, having enrolled for a second time after a scandalous dismissal which you may already know from The Curious Autobiography, studied English literature and history and was a makeup artist for the Cue ‘n’ Curtain theater troupe. Had she not had a young child, she might have been an actor in that troupe, but that, I think, is the stuff of another blog.

Photo by Brian Smithson.
Photo by Brian Smithson.

To return to my grandfather’s workshop: it was a magical place, truly glorious, where the sound of his old electric drill provided Scipionic music of the spheres. There it was a privilege to enter and to spend time simply listening to and watching the master craftsman at work. Of course, he was not a real “master.” He was merely a man then nigh unto his retirement years who was handy around the house. If it were broken, chances are Harry could have fixed it. If something needed a slight adjustment, he would use his creative powers to adjust it. If a unique dohicky had to be designed for a specific purpose, Harry would invent it. He was one of those rare people who could look at something broken and envision it in a fully repaired state—a mystical healer of humdrum objects. Owing to that particular trait, I, my cousins, and anyone who might enter that house on Rutter Avenue, which had once been the house of the family’s childless matriarch Aunt Jemima, all marveled at him.

Harry found in his workshop, it seemed to me, a kind of sanctuary, for it provided him with a respite from, almost a kind of therapy for, the worries of this world for him to work with his hands repairing things. Perhaps it was the metaphor of healing, after all, that offered him a powerful solace. But I also think that there was something about the attitude that was required to enter the place, that workshop that provided sanctuary a word that implies both that the place is a safe place and holy. The word itself, though it means “holy” comes to mean a place of refuge, a place of asylum, just as Helge means holy but becomes, to use Helge’s words, “a manly name, a Viking name.”

As I grew up and especially after my grandfather’s death I had to find other workshops, other sanctuaries. One of these I had stumbled upon before his passing, for as a teenager in New Hope I would often frequent the office of a local writer, John Pfeiffer, who wrote anthropological treatises for the popular market. He did a good deal of research for each of his books, and allowed me to visit him to pick his brain about writing and about the possibility of having a career as a writer.

Photo by Wally Gobetz.
Logan Inn. Photo by Wally Gobetz.

Carl Lutz’ workshop was the kitchen of the Logan Inn, the original inn of New Hope (the borough once called Wells Ferry) which, in the early eighteenth century, the town’s founder John Wells owned and operated even before New Hope was called Coryell’s Ferry, which it was after it was called Wells Ferry; all this is the stuff of another, in fact a previous blog. For Carl, who would later become the mayor of New Hope, the busy kitchen of the Logan Inn provided him with a kind of refuge from the business of running the Inn and, eventually, the whole town.

I should mention two other places that served as (and three other mentors who ensured) workshops and sanctuaries for me. One of these was Professor Phil Lockhart of Dickinson College, another Tom Corey, pastor of one of Philadelphia’s truly urban churches; the third, Mrs. Zinaida Sprowles, self-described peripatetic pedagogue, who bore workshop and sanctuary within, demonstrating that such a place need neither longitude nor latitude. Each of these provided refuge away from the stresses of life, and with them one did not merely learn what it meant to be an apprentice in an art, such as writing or cooking, but in life. With them I found myself often puzzling about bigger questions regarding meaning and significance, about what words meant, not merely how to craft them. Each of them showed how to read and, based on what was read, offered insights about what to write. In their sanctuaries where I pondered how to function as a human being, how to walk, indeed to see, in this dark world and wide, and how not to allow that one talent, which is death hide, to stay lodged, useless. But I wax poetic. Suffice it to say that in those sanctuaries I pondered the questions that would give me pause, that would compel me to understand that to be a proper human being requires participating in humanity’s pain and, eventually, would place a pen in my hand for that very purpose.

Helge Antoni, pianist
Helge Antoni, pianist

“Have them sit down,” Helge said, as he bestrode the piano in the college chapel, spacious enough for the master class that he offered to the assortment of musically trained college students assembled there. I watched and listened as they played in this makeshift workshop, a sanctuary in more than one sense, for Helge had lived up to his name, creating a sanctuary, whose walls were forged from notes and whose roof was made of wafting chords, supported by occasional applause and masterful instructions to a true master’s students in a master class. There I experienced sanctuary again, in a workshop that was no workshop, for it normally was a place of faith—not works, lest anyone should boast. And I realized again, as I sat there watching the love he had for those students and their warm responses to his gentle admonitions and corrections, that here learning could happen afresh, in a sanctuary. I remembered the teachers of my sanctuaries, from Harry to John to Carl to Zinaida to Phil to Tom, and back again to Capri, where I had met Helge.

“Heavenly,” the appropriately named master thundered after one of the students had played her piece, “just heavenly …” adding, after a decorous pause, “Wasn’t that glorious?”

“Indeed,” I thought, “it was.” But I was thinking of something much larger than the fine piece that the student had played. I was thinking of sanctuary and the sound of an old electric drill when I replied, “Truly, Helge, it was.”

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Angels and Headstones

As the title of this blog implies, angels turn up in surprising places. One might not expect to come upon an angel in a store that sells grave markers; that frankly is the last thing one might expect. Truth be told, one rather infrequently enters a grave marker store, normally known as “So-and-so’s Memorials.” Usually such a store’s modestly sized parking lot is far from teaming with customers and, if one does venture within, rarely, if ever, does one learn that that store is out of a certain type of headstone, or that they have a particular marker on “backorder.” And, of course, it would be gauche to suggest putting anything on layaway, as that would be driving the nail a bit too close to the thumb, so to say.

Indeed, the very word memorial is itself already driving that nail rather close, for the term is either a benign euphemism or an apt appellation. I prefer the latter, as I believe in memory, not that it may merely serve to be an ephemeral record of a life well (or otherwise) lived but also as a mental imprint that serves to preserve a record of meaning. It is a mirror image of the hope that can inform one’s future.

Kingston welcome signBut to return to angels and gravestones. I entered that gravestone store, located on Wyoming Avenue in Kingston, Pennsylvania in the spring of 2012 with my uncle Ed Johnson, a retired professor of the school once called Wilkes College, to buy Elaine Jakes’ memorial marker. That place of business is one that I have fortunately had few opportunities to visit; but that cold March day, with its crisp, biting wind, Ed and I were on just such a gloomy errand. Though Elaine had passed away a few months earlier, it was now time to put her ashes in the ground at Fern Knoll Burial Park. We needed, and indeed wanted, a simple memorial, something to put over the place where Elaine’s ashes would rest. I had no idea that I would that day encounter an angel.

Gingerbreak manNow I had only once before encountered someone I thought could be an angel. I was 21 years old and was involved in a very strange fisticuffs. My close friend Tim Hoy and I, then a college senior, were walking home from a fine dining establishment and even better bar known as the Gingerbread Man in Carlisle, Pennsylvania . We had spent a few hours in that bar chatting, Tim drinking beer, I Perrier because at the time I had mononucleosis, a disease during which one is told to refrain entirely from alcoholic beverages. Besides, Perrier was cheaper and quite refreshing, particularly with a twist of lime. I felt, frankly, somewhat sophisticated. We spent a few hours chatting about C. S. Lewis, the Baltimore Orioles (baltimore oriole capTim’s favorite team and, coincidentally, my favorite bird) and, by metonymic association, Cookie, the myna bird that taught me how to talk in a manner comparable to the way that a bear taught Elaine Jakes how to drive.

When it was time to walk home we took a less than circuitous course back to our admittedly shabby apartment, en route to which we encountered some ruffians—eight that I could count—who proceeded to engage us in a fisticuffs. Needless to say, they outmanned us. Tim’s jaw was broken on nearly the first punch. I fortunately did not rupture my then delicate spleen, to protect which I kept my arms over my belly, allowing my face to be knocked about at will, no doubt to the delight of the assailants.

Nonetheless, I don’t think either one of us were frightened—perhaps we hadn’t had time to be frightened, as it all happened so fast—until I heard and then saw one of the hooligans open his switchbladeswitchblade.  For a moment, I thought all was lost. It was not. Just as he was approaching me, pinned as I was against the side of a car, a large man came from nowhere. He seemed, at the time, of superhuman size. Indeed, I doubt I have in the flesh ever seen anyone so large unless seeing an (American) football player, a lineman, at a distance during a football game were to count. But even such girth I am not certain would surpass that man’s—if he was a man. I had a feeling at the time that both the size and the rapidity of his appearance and then sudden disappearance could qualify him for angelic status. Admittedly, he did not sing; nor did he have a harp or a halo or wings. Yet even if he was not a capital ‘A’ angel, he was at the very least a lowercase ‘a’ angel. He came to announce to that entire group of ruffians that it was over and they should go home. And that they did, immediately, without asking questions or even tagging Tim or me with one last upper cut or left hook. They scattered. We were safe, and we stumbled home. And maybe that night, just maybe, we encountered a real live angel.

Harry and Blanche Jakes
Harry and Blanche Jakes

But that apparition was vastly different from the angel that Ed and I encountered in the memorial store on Wyoming Avenue in Kingston, for there we came upon a small, elderly woman who asked about Elaine Jakes. Was this Harry and Blanche’s daughter, she asked? Blythe Evans’ cousin? “Yes,” we said. Oh, she said, I knew Elaine—a bit of a free spirit, that Lainey. What a wonderful lady and what a fine family she came from. Blythe—well, everyone was proud of him, the district attorney. And, her sister—“My wife, Lee Ann,” Ed piped in—well, she was a marvelous person, raised two fine boys, didn’t she? “Yes,” Ed, added, “my sons, Mark and Eric.” Fine lads, the woman said; one became a doctor, the other, was it a professor? “Yes,” Ed and I concurred, adding a few details to round out the family portrait.

But Harry was special, she said. He was a wonderful human being. He bought his mother and his father’s memorials here, you know, and Jemima Jones’ and Lizzie Ann Evans’. Then afterwards he used to come by from time to time just to say hello, just to be friendly and keep us here in the store up with what was going on at his church, with the family and in his neighborhood. A good man, that Harry Jakes, she said. In parting, she gave Ed and me each a small gift; a small metallic medallion of an angel.

Angel medallion
Angel Medallion

Take these, she said, and be blessed. It’s an angel, she said, a small gift to remind you that there are real angels. Ed smiled and took it, as did I, expressing our thanks.

To write this blog, I used Google Earth to try to find that memorial store. I thought it must still be there—after all, it was just three years ago that I was visiting and I bought the headstone. But though I thrice virtually traversed of Wyoming Avenue and looked up and down for it, I could not find it. I could not find even the place where I recall that it was located. It would seem to have come and gone nearly as quickly as that angel, if he was an angel, who delivered Tim and me from the valley of the shadow of death in Carlisle all those years ago. No, I’m sure that that store is there and that I just missed it. And perhaps that woman was not a real angel. But I don’t doubt that she gave us an angelic blessing, and that that blessing is one that points to the angels we encounter in this life, whether they be humans or something or someone, somewhat otherworldly, in human form.