Friday, July 29, 2016

Letters in Troubled Times - Part Three: A Letter from WWI Paris

I spent last week with my daughter and we continued to discuss the quandary young mothers feel living in the current global unrest.

"On one hand," my daughter, April said, " we moms want to gather our children, hunker down, and quietly live our lives.  We want to shield, nurture and shelter them, existing under the radar.  But, when we do that we ignore the plight of mothers in Syria, Libya and other middle east countries who don't have the luxury of deciding which sport to enroll their child in this fall, or which extracurricular activity they will elect or which dance class they'll attend.  Their greatest concern is protecting their children from abduction, starvation and genocide. Stable and secure shelter is something they only dream about.  And we are bound by this world-wide sisterhood of mothers to do something."

Mother Protecting Her Child - Jean-Baptiste Camille Coron

She continued, "I'm considering going to Brussels to help with the refugee situation, but my three children could lose a mother. It's a disturbing dilemma with which we constantly wrestle."

I agreed. For certain, passivity is akin to complicity.

I also reminded her that soon after she was born, her father and I stopped serving at an orphanage near Tijuana, Mexico. We took her once as a baby and couldn't handle having our vulnerable infant so close to the filth ever present at the orphanage. For us, the monthly mission to Mexico ended.

So, how do we conduct ourselves compassionately, yet safely in an age of terrorism and injustice? How do we maintain our own mental health when fear torments daily? How do we balance compassion for the world, and caring for our own families?

Here is a letter written in 1916 during WWI from a woman in Paris to a great, great aunt of mine.  It  gives a first hand account of how one (single) woman handled the stress of imminent warfare.

Mme Sigot
Go Rue de Fillol
Puteaux, Seine, France

December 16, 1916

Dear Mrs Crompton, {Miriam Sears Crompton}

         I write this letter long before the end of the year so that you may receive it in time to get all the good wishes I am sending you for the coming Christmas and New Year.

 I hope you and Mr Crompton {Randolph Crompton, my great, great uncle} and Rosamond {my third cousin} will continue in good health and happiness all through the new year.

I shall be glad to hear from you soon.  I wonder where you are spending the winter, and how did that annoying chauffeur's business end? {Well, that's a problem I'll never have}!

As for me, I am still in Paris and have a few pupils to which I give lessons, just enough to live on, on condition of being very careful.  I am not exactly having a good time of it, but then, there are so many other people suffering much more than I do, that one must not complain.

My mother is pretty well, she will be 75 in two days!  I have had good news from my sister lately.  She is for the present in Madras, working in a large hospital, practising mid-wifery work, in order to be able to render more services on the mission field afterwards.  She is more and more devoted, heart and soul and body to the service of God and her dear Indians as she calls them.  I do believe my dear sister is more than half in heaven already!  She certainly is very happy, surely more than I who have not her faith.  I find that the circumstances of life are not exactly conducive to increase faith, rather the contrary.  And as for the terrible, awful things happening all round just now, well, one simply feels at a loss to understand.  Don't you?

I see my former little pupil, Germaine Thirsuin form time to time, either at her boarding school, or at her aunt's on Saturday night, where I am sometimes invited to dinner.  Her parents are coming from Vesqueville mext week, to spend three weeks in Paris, so I shall have the pleasure of seeing them.  Unfortunately, Germaine's father is ill, he has on an attack of acute neurasthma, which is on the verge of being madness, poor gentleman.  His wife wrote to me a week ago, she is very sad about it.

War news are not very bright lately, and one can't help being very anxious and uneasy, and sad.

In the evening Paris is so dark that it is difficult to go about unless you know exactly where you are.  But if you have to go to unfamiliar quarters, it is no good attempting to read the names of the streets of the number of the houses.  You can hardly distinguish the forms of the passers by and scarcely escape bumping into them!  It is unpleasant to be out after four o-clock in the afternoon.  Yet, I have to be sometimes, as distances are long and some of my lessons are far from here.  I am still at the same hotel I was in October, near the Madeleine, close to the reu de l'Arcade, you remember?  I go and spend Sundays at Puteaux with my mother.

I hope you received my last letter of Oct 24th and I should just love a long letter from you, Dear Mrs Crompton.  Now I must stop, with my best wishes to all, my love to Rosamond and yourself.

Yours very sincerely,

Marguerite Sigot

Paris, June, 1916 -

I have no other record of Marguerite Sigot and how this friend of my great grandaunt's fared during the remainder of the war.

But it is comforting to know that exactly 100 years ago another woman thought similar thoughts, struggled with similar questions, and somehow adapted to life even when the world was falling apart around her.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

I Met the Real Cat Woman

It all started 20 years ago when Judy Berens decided she wanted an ocelot for a pet. 

She was a horse woman and with her large ranch, it didn’t seem like a difficult thing to accomplish. Little did she know that it would require a state license, several forms and over 1000 volunteer hours at zoos and other animal facilities.  

Perhaps it was their keen searing eyes, their satin smooth coat or beautiful symmetrical markings that made her want one so. All the red tape was worth it and she became the owner of her first ocelot named Sabrina. Of course, one ocelot is never enough, so Cody and Macho followed. 

Thus began Ms. Berens’s menagerie of felines whose population has grown to over 16 in number. These exotics include cheetahs, jaguars, clouded leopards, pumas, caracas, leopards and servals, all residing on her ranch. What started as a hankering for one ocelot has turned into a mission of preservation and education of the plight of these wildcats. The ocelot population, for example, has dwindled to a mere 35 in the US. At one time their pelts were coveted as coats and it took 200 ocelots to make one coat.

I met Judy in the kitchen of her cat compound where she was preparing snacks for a tour.  A smart safari hat, crisp khaki shirt and pearl stud earrings gave her the air of not just tour guide, but Chief Magistrate of her pantherinae colony; queen supreme of her kitty kingdom.  Though she acted as their royal ruler, she was also humble servant. For here she was prepping meals in their spacious kitchen serving her loyal whiskered subjects. 

In short, she was their super-hero.

While chopping stew meat, she explained a wildcat’s diet. Stacks of silver bowls dotted the table and one caught my eye.  Fuzzy yellow chicks and furry mice spilled over the rim. They weren't moving.

“Are these their appetizers and small plates?” I asked. 

“Tapas,” she quipped. “The main course is beef, salmon and other fish.”

Trying not to feel sorry for the bowl of chicks and mice, unruffled, I asked, “Who is your food supplier?”

“Cheney Brothers and Costco.”  She then held up a zip-lock with a fresh portion of salmon. “I got this at Costco. No Kibble for these guys!”

“Oh," I said, ”I’m actually headed to Costco after this to pick up a slab of salmon for company tomorrow.” (For us humans, it's salmon for special occasions. For these cats, it's daily fare).

On top of this grade-A meal, she sprinkled fish oil, bone meal, pro-biotics and digestive enzymes to promote health and ward off pancreatic problems, which can be an issue. If the cats get sick, they see Stephanie Johnson at an Animal Clinic in Lake Worth. “She’s a wiz!” Judy added.

A mom and son duo joined us as the tour started. Other than that, the complex was practically void of homo sapiens. Yet, the grounds were impeccably maintained. Mulch covered the animal spaces and walkways. The dark wood fencing was freshly painted; the black chain-link enclosures in perfect condition. Garden chairs and Adirondack seating areas were strategically placed, enhancing the park-like setting.  

 I asked about her staffing.  She has a few interns helping and was looking to hire one who was a veterinarian graduate. “Besides that, it’s just me--slave labor.”

Ms. ‘slave-labor’ is hardly on that level, and she chose her post of loving service intentionally, eyes wide open. Born in Minnesota, she was educated at Vassar, then achieved her MBA at the University of Miami. A resident of Wellington since 1994, she has been active in the equestrian community showing horses.

Now, she shows cats.

Our first visit was to Charlie, the Cheetah. Ms. Berens tells us he’s a third generation captivity-born cat from South Africa.  He made his 39 hour journey to the US in a small crate.  Charlie is ten years old. Most cheetahs have a lifespan of eight.  Cheetah are the second largest of purring cats.  She enters his cage through a safety entrance and crouches down to feed and caress the huge feline. 

“Charlie loves to be primped and pampered,” she says brushing his head with a hairbrush. “Most cheetahs can sprint zero to 60 miles per hour in three seconds. They have an elliptical tail which serves as a rudder and adds torque to their hairpin turns, speeding up to 70 miles per hour.  But Charlie?  Charlie is slow.  He prefers to lounge; be groomed and get room service.  And why not?  If those services were offered to you, wouldn’t you accept?” Judy asks with a wink.

Charlie nibbled his tapas, enjoying the massage. Cheetahs are hypercarnivors, meaning they require high levels of protein to survive. Charlie gets three meat-heavy meals a day.

Lucky for him, he has a 2 1/2 acre enclosure, one of the largest for a single cat.  After Charlie's meals, he will rest, then run zig-zags up and down the spacious enclosure marking his territory.

The next cage we visited housed the Puma, the 2nd fastest cat next to the Cheetah. They reach up to 45 miles per hour and are the world's best soccer players. That's right. Give them a ball and they show their amazing athletic abilities.  His favorite 'ball' is a watermelon, which after a Kobe Bryant - like dribble around the cage usually ends up cracked open and consumed.

The puma's name differs depending on its region.  In California it goes by Mountain Lion. Florida calls the cat a panther.  Other areas the feline goes by cougar. We met Brandy Lion and Dandy Lion and watched them relish their rodent delicacies.

Across the walkway we met the beautiful Isabella. She was as gorgeous a specimen of a jaguar could be with her dramatic spots and irregular dotted markings. Jaguars are considered the 'pit bull' of the cat family due to their chunky body and strength of bite. You don't want to mess with them, for sure. That's not likely to happen because of their endangered status. Most serious is in New Mexico where only 75 to 100 are said to roam.

Jaguars are also wonderful swimmers, navigating water and land with equal skill.

Next door lived Amos, a black leopard, velvety and mysterious. These cats are so agile and strong they can carry prey up a tree or balance themselves while sleeping on a branch.

But, like the story of so many, they are a disappearing breed.  In 1950 there were half a million worldwide.  Now, there are less than 20,000.

Well in to our tour, I was once again struck by the cohesive lay-out of the grounds, I wondered where Ms. Berens got her design know-how for the compound.

"I have a lot of friends in zoos," she quipped.

Egyptian Serval - Photo credit:

We then saw the African Servals and Caracals.  The Egyptian Serval was especially curious looking with its satellite dish-like ears.  They are so sensitive the cat has been known to swat and catch birds mid-flight.  The Egyptians would use them to prey on rats and other rodents in their granaries.

As if it wasn't enough to house, feed and care for these many cats, Judy Berens also donates to other organizations and programs that help cats in the wild. It is her goal to educate people about the incredible depletion of the species that she is witnessing.

"Unless we all get involved, these iconic animals will be gone in the next 20 years."

Judy Berens is living out her passion for exotic feline preservation and promoting awareness to save the wildcat world. 

Cat Woman to the rescue!!

Join Judy's mission. For more information and ways to get involved visit her beautiful compound at 14755 Palm Beach Point Blvd, Wellington, FL 33414.  Tours can be scheduled at the  Panther Ridge website.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Letters in Troubled Times - Part Two: A Mother's Reply

Art Credit - Isabelle Arsenault

Dear World,

You are breaking my heart and you just won't quit.  

I'm signing off for the weekend, even though I dread the developments in Turkey,
even as I watch our stateside politics unfold, even though I grieve for France and still for Baghdad and Eric Garner and Alton Sterling.  

You'll move on without me, these next two days while I fast from you,
and you won't miss a beat.  

I'm going to snuggle my babies, connect with friends face to face, unpack a house,
and read my Bible.  

 I'll worship an unchanging and good God on Sunday with a bunch of precious and imperfect people, who, like me are doing their best to figure out how to live merciful and just lives against your insane backdrop. 

 I won't find those answers here, nor will I find peace or comfort on my phone. 

So, World, I'll have to just see you on Monday.

Please behave, and no more headlines for a while. 

Art Credit - Daniel Hotchhalter

Part Two in a series, a young mother who happens to be my daughter, posted this on instagram just about the same time I wrote  Part One of "Letters in Troubled Times," unaware of our similar posts.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Letters in Troubled Times - Part One: Dear Mother of Young Children

Storm at a Coast with Mother and Children Fearing for Their Father's Life at Sea - Ringdahl

Dear Mother of Young Children,

I know what you're thinking:

How can I bring children into this hostile and dangerous world? 

To you it doesn't seem like a loving thing to do to offspring.  Calamity lurks at every corner and crossroad; at every age and stage of life.  At the very least, there are staircases and balconies, and economic woes; then there's harmful media and cellphone influences, drugs, crazy drivers, sexual promiscuity; and at the worst, terrorists, abductors, pedophiles and unmanned pools.

You are petrified some days, wondering what you and your husband were thinking when you decided to have a baby.  Why would any parent put their child through this thing called "life," especially when weekly, even daily there is some horrifying violent event that rocks you to the core.

When my first son was born, the big scare was AIDS. I remember being absolutely phobic - my emotions definitely altered by postpartum syndrome - that my two-month old son was facing a life with the possibility of contracting AIDS and dying young.

A mother's mind goes that way,


And now, with increasing domestic violence and foreign random acts of terrorism her anxiety is compounded, looming like a greenish, black tornado in the horizon.

I watched a young mother crying in church following a prayer for the Black and Blue conflicts last week.  Her husband sat beside her feebly stroking her shoulders as the church emptied out. She has two curly haired toddlers. Every tear, hand held at mouth, showed faith buckling and strength crumbling at the thought of their dim future.

But, I wonder, now that my kids are grown, if every generation has had their unstoppable giant?  Their jolting nightmare, their darkening day?

Dorothea Lange's Destitute Pea Pickers in California. Mother of Seven Children. Age 32.

In my family excavation of a myriad of century-old photos and letters, I found two such examples of past heart-fainting circumstances that mirror our fear-accelerated times.  The first is from a woman in Paris to a great-aunt here in the states, during World War I.  The second was at the time of the second world war. Both these letters emoted questions as to God's whereabouts and spoke to their dwindling faith in the face of tragedies and insecurity.

Somehow those mothers and daughters and sisters resisted the harrowing circumstances and won.  They battled their panic-tormented minds.  They bolstered their cowering spirits and arose victorious and hope-filled. They conquered wars and fires and deaths and a thousand other sufferings.

This is you, Young Mother of Small Children.

Calm your alarm.
Rest your disquietude.
Quell your panic.
Strengthen the faltering ways.

For children are their mother's saviors.

Through your fierce love and firm rearing, your children will survive, thrive and become the strain of human beings that will fire a surge of life-giving adrenaline into their world.


An Older Mother of Five

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Ain't Nothin' Like Good Old Gospel Music on a Sunday Mornin'!

The changes can be a simple as I - vi - IV-V or as complex as a David Benoit jazz piece, fraught with chromatic substitutions and flatted 9th's. What's held in common in gospel songs is the behind-the-beat feel and raw, gut-level soul.

I rediscovered the unadulterated joy of playing gospel music again this morning at a Full Gospel church in West Palm Beach on North A Street, called Victory Worship Center. The pastor the very talented Sherry Colby who both sings and preaches.

Guest speaker, Jeff Ferguson, a Clint Brown songwriter, led the song service. His voice was rich and textured as a Black Forest cake. And boy, was he free in his leading! One never knew which song, key or modulation was coming up next. It was a glorious roller coaster ride straight up to heaven and back again, stomping feet, smacking hands and singing harmonies stacked to the ceiling. This white girl turned black for about 1/2 hour and loved every minute of it!

Pentatonic runs flew out of nowhere. My Donna Summer - "I Anticipate A Miracle" - days came rushing back, octave scales and glissandi aplenty!

We sang a little bit of everything starting with Jeff Ferguson's originals:  I Love Your Word, It's Gonna Be Alright; then, God Bless America (After all, it is July Fourth tomorrow and America could certainly use some blessing and mercy);  Chris Tomlin's How Great is Our God, and oldies, like God Will Make A Way.

 It was a little Andre Crouch, Reba MacEntire, Kirk Franklin and Mary Mary all mixed together in a delicious helping of sound food for the soul and spirit.

Between songs Jeff brought a message on Romans 8:28 with a twist that "work together for good" doesn't necessarily mean to be healthy and prosperous.  He pointed out the Greek "good" means to be useful and have a good attitude. This may have been a disappointment to many of us who have read and memorized,  "All things work together for good to those that love God and and called according to His purposes" as to mean if we loved God our problems would go away. We thought the "good" was answered prayers, a fat bank account, deep friendships and happy family life. Not so. Truth is, that life on this broken earth doesn't deliver that, even to the Faithful and Believing (which most of us do poorly, anyway.)  But, we are promised a Deliverer through hard times; peace and joy in the middle of troubled waters. That's what "all things work together for good" means.

After the message, a final set of faith-building gospel tunes ushered us out with a hearty, old time "Hallelujah!"

Ain't nothin' like that gospel music!!

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