Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.

Street Seens

Street Seens: Finding Hope in a “Where’s Waldo?” World


It was a strange combination of events and emotions that set up a path that got me thinking of the funny little puzzle picture known as “Where’s Waldo?” That thought morphed into a sort of silent “Yippee” and a sense that Waldo might just be a face of hope in the jumble of less than hopeful news.

The challenge (and success) of finding Waldo, a funny looking little guy, in a drawing crowded with a sea of wildly varied and often indistinguishable people, shapes, and figures could beget a cry of discovery named “Here’s Waldo, and he’s a hero of hope!”

Here’s how it happened to me. 

In a period when a lot has been made of racing at breakneck speed to keep promises that never seemed to mean what I was told they should mean, I started looking for the HUGE and promised improvements to infrastructure.  A walk along the crowded sidewalks of any urban village or a ride on any of the trains that radiate from its hubs and bridges and tunnels that connect its arteries will set you thinking of those promises as it did me. The Pollyanna in me urged me to look further to find reasons for hope and to take “Where’s Waldo?” as my guide. 

Amazed, I discovered, there really is a Waldo of massive infrastructure achievements. But he’s in China where high speed rail, environmentally kind energy, and all those good things are happening, courtesy of China’s windfall of funds.  A shame that has to come from interest payments the U.S. is investing to deliver its “big, beautiful Christmas gift of tax cuts” to finance a new look in lofty deficits.  But at least Waldo is there to remind us of what’s possible. Promises can be kept. 

It’s harder to find Waldo in what we knew as the national parks and lands. If it is decided that what is decreed can be “undecreed” for profit, folks who get to buy those lands to drill and frack and generally ravage will have gotten them for peanuts.  Maybe Waldo is behind the plows that are clearing the land to find coal.  I’ll keep looking.

And speaking of peanuts, I’ll interrupt the search for Waldo to stop and visit with the peanut farmer I encountered in videos that made me want to find and console him. He was so like the honest men of the land I knew and admired as a child in the farm country of Illinois.  I wanted to read him the part from prophets and psalmist these days about how God embraces and promises to extend care to heal the brokenhearted. 

The farmer was at a rally to tell folks about his 23-year-old daughter who had committed suicide when “the Judge” declared her a pervert and abomination because she was gay.  The dear, brokenhearted man reminded the folks to whom he was speaking that he himself had said negative things about being gay, but that he was wrong to have done that and so sorry.  But the thing that tore at my heart strings was that he kept saying, “She wasn’t a ‘prevert.’” (Although his sign showed the correct spelling in a quote from “the Judge.”) For me, the poignancy of it was that that word was not even in the vocabulary of such an honest and big-hearted parent.  “Watch out, Waldo,” I thought. “Words are flying that can wound when used as weapons.”  So, take cover.

Guess where I did find Waldo.  At an oral surgeon’s office near Fifth Avenue.  It looked for all the world like a hopeful sign since it demonstrated that some healers are finding ways to work around the landmines being planted in the terrain of healthcare.  I’ve learned never to underestimate the glories of the gifted professionals who don’t let the restrictions of uncertainty close their ears to the words they uttered in taking an oath first to do no harm. 

Before my eyes I saw the Waldo of hope take shape in the form of three different kinds of dental professionals who worked together to help me find a path that showed a brother and sisterhood of Waldos conferring on the best way to treat a patient, optimize the health insurance she had to offer and never compromise their individually high standards.  A very handsome Waldo indeed. 

And the versatile figure was not emerging from a sea of concern and confusion for the first time.  In a deluge of closed or closing doors there are still those remarkable doctors and dentists who find ways to show the Waldo face of hope.  I know. I’ve seen their compassionate faces and recognized in them reasons to look to the future optimistically. One said that the one irreplaceable quality to seek in a staff member is kindness.  The rest can be learned, but that quality cannot be implanted when missing.  The others lived that mantra, with or without verbalizing it.

So, where I experienced only the confused images of the profit motive as the standard for governing, I got some renewed hope this week, that common sense and kindness may prevail and that a determined Waldo will emerge in the midst of a confusing sea of stick figures.

Street Seens: Invoking the “Magic Words”


At first, I tried to mask a giggle when my nieces and nephews accompanied any request with the always-paired words, “Please and Thank you.”  As in “Aunt Annette, may I have another piece of cake, please and thank you.” Then I learned about magic.

It wasn’t just that they were exercising a child’s version of “hedging their bets.”  Their mothers and fathers had endowed them with a two-word arsenal to arm them for life in a much wider world than the embrace of a loving family.

The “children” were introduced to a pair of “Magic Words” named Please and Thank you.  They were encouraged to see and hear them as having the power to open doors (and cookie jars).  I don’t suppose they were introduced as having the power to disarm. But that could not have been far from their caring parents’ motivation.

They knew their children would be living in a world of “others” and that a demonstration of mutual dependence was another name for courtesy.  Use of the “magic words” would signal to new acquaintances they would meet in locations from the city bus to the supermarket to the parking garage, or the gym. There and elsewhere, the people they would meet would recognize that they were respected both for the distance between them and the bond.  The magic words, applied thoughtfully and sincerely, would for a lifetime serve as signals that there was a platform of civility and shared humanity that could provide the storied “level playing field.” And, not incidentally, that it was equally available across a spectrum of all the similarities and all the differences that define life in the miraculous mosaic that is our constitutional democracy defined, early on as having been built on a belief that “all men are created equal.”

How grateful we can be that a Declaration and Constitution framed by brave but limited Founders gave us documents that can evolve with the growth of the citizens and their awakening awareness.  They can expand without snapping. The passionate defenders of freedom as a Divine endowment would come to a hard and painfully won realization that this is a right not to be limited or negotiated for reasons of profit and political power.

The original champions of freedom of the press left behind tools capable of adapting to the digital era.  And of course, the key conviction that the daughters of the brilliant and articulate Abigail Adams deserved the vote and the gradual shattering of glass ceilings.

Which brings us to “I apologize.”  Only “please and thank you” people are brave enough to apologize. Because they have been taught from the outset that we humans stand eye to eye, not overlord to underling.  It is a matter of recognizing what we are individually and that neither of us has a right to declare primacy over the other.  Whether the terrain is a shared workplace or a social setting or a playing field, all the parties to making that terrain work deserve to expect that their mutual claim to the rights to the “level playing field” are equally deserving of respect.

That is not to say the hours, days, generations of coming to a richer humanity will not be tested or even abused.  I keep hearing the echo of FDR who took ownership of some of his own limitations in declaring, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Fear is a murderous enemy of honesty and of repentance.  Not for nothing did my own Church shift its emphasis in describing a sacrament from “Confession” to “Reconciliation.”  It recognizes that confession is best seen as a beginning of the hard work of healing a damaging rift.  The great gift of being forgiven is that it opens a door to being reconciled with the individual recognized as having been wronged.  Until that happens and is recognized, a cap is put on the possibility of growth and progress.

The current nightmare of seismic change of awareness in the relationships of the sexes took a turn in the past week. A highly visible man, confronted with evidence of breaching the rules of engagement that form the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable, looked at the extremely unpleasant evidence and summoned up the courage to acknowledge reality, take responsibility for distorting it and apologize.

That does not remove the pain, the embarrassment, the total unacceptability of his decisions and their impact on a fellow human occupying the same level playing field.  But at least it could be one baby step towards something resembling reconciliation and commitment to seek the high ground where a level playing field becomes a springboard to a new day.

As we long for that hope to be realized, we would be well advised to remember to say: May we begin the pilgrimage to better times? And of course, to add, “Please and thank you!”

Street Seens: The Band Aid Clue


Halloween 2017 served up an unusual set of memories.  They included the story of sweet, little pigtailed pre-K girls emerging to their waiting parents wearing greater than usual collections of Band-Aids.  Next, it called back the compassionate insight of a college applicant.  And, finally, a chilling look at a hate-note.

The three moments stored in memory took on a strange connection, reappearing as somehow related.  Three seemingly unrelated moments appeared to be asking to be considered together; calling for me to see their common thread.  But what was the connection?

So, I stopped to recall and compare the details.  In the end, it came down to a single umbrella stretching from the inability to articulate and fueling feelings that ranged from embarrassment to frustration to aggression to helplessness to rage.

The earliest of the re-emerging memories has stayed with me for years, from when a young mother who was my client told me this story.  She noted when picking up her little boy from his play school that a number of pretty little classmates showed a puzzling uniformity. They all were very obviously wearing freshly applied Band-Aids.   But no sign of one on her cherished little boy.  The “Why” came out when my client greeted his teacher.  Their impromptu conference that day was a matter of the teacher reassuring the mother that her little boy might well be using a reflex reaction of biting when faced with the perplexing situation of “literally” being at a loss for words.  She quickly explained that the Band-Aids were used more for caution than to address injury.  Think of them, the Teacher explained, as a sort of reminder to both parties that there were better ways to address the issues.  The kindly teacher drew on her long experience of noting that with every new word learned, the child had less reason to bite or to hit or to cry as a substitute for having no words to express frustration.  Several new words later the seemingly angelic little boy’s persona had re-emerged, substituting a newly minted treasury of words as a best-case alternative to his inarticulate aggression.

The second part of my Halloween riddle thread was the story of a recent experience that paired a sensitive camp counsellor and his young charge. The wise-beyond-his-years counsellor started by being puzzled as to why his young camper asked his help in spelling the word he wanted to put on a box he was making in a craft project to make a gift for his Mother at the end of the season. How was it, the young college applicant wondered, that the boy would not know how to spell the simple four-letter word, “Love.” The next step was to put aside any lingering fear that the boy had not experienced love from his family. That was accomplished during the next “mail call.”  Most of the campers were enthusiastic in calling out, “Anything for me?”

When the counsellor saw that the letter addressed to the camper who asked how to spell “Love” remained unopened, the counsellor was inspired to ask if the younger boy would like him to read him the letter from his aunt.  It turned out that the letter was a full-fledged shout out to the recipient, naming him an amazing, much loved “dude” by his aunt and all his relatives.  The “light bulb” moment led the counsellor to realize that his young charge was very likely one of the shockingly large number functionally illiterate fellow citizens. A 2014 story in HuffPost, quoting the U.S Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, indicated that the record had not changed in 10 years since the number was reported to be 32 million adults or 21 percent of that population.  Many of them have passed through the educational system with their problem unidentified, much less corrected.  Happily, the counsellor understood that there are workable ways, once the problem is acknowledged, to begin to solve it.

The first two accounts open the door to happy endings.  I’m less optimistic about the third. Recently, editors had to white out many words included in a blood-chilling hate-note when showing it nailed to a family’s door somewhere in this tri-state area. The obscenity-laced posting threatened action by the KKK.  Whether and what parts of the note were in any way fact-based, was not what made me feel so sad and give me a clue as to the pent-up rage it suggested.

The visible parts of the note betrayed a dramatic unawareness of spelling or grammar or any of the structures that open the way to clear statements of otherwise pent-up emotions.  It demonstrated the triumph of inarticulateness over compelling communication. Like a lethal back up of toxins, the poisonous feelings had exploded. One can only hope that authorities will recognize that there are remedial steps that can be tapped to bring the writers of the note to the point from which the “victim” was already able to see a better way of beginning the hard work of identifying and addressing the “real” grievance.

Hearing echoes of friends who sometimes ask, “Is Pollyanna your Patron Saint?”, I am challenged to call in additional resources to replace reflex optimism with the far more muscular resource called hope. As fingers pointed in innuendo and accusation intertwine to look more like swastikas, it is time to dare to get back to a search for the “better angels” that hover over all parties and all people committed to honoring a hard-won Constitution. It has been a road map to call a people to the high road of personal responsibility versus finger pointing. It is time to be humble enough to own our own histories and do the hard work of trying to understand each other’s.

Think of a young man who was open to hearing an indecipherable set of letters read to him and then be courageous enough to hear that they had a meaning he could relate to. Think of persons frightened enough of anything called “other” to nail a hate note to a home, presumably without ever having bothered to meet its inhabitants.  Think of a little boy who banished the scary bogey man who might have been hiding under his bed by recognizing that it had a name and that he could render it “not scary” by calling it by name. They may point the way to a homeland called hope.

Street Seens: Helping Hand – Long Reach


Did you ever acquire a device to help you deal with one issue, and then discover that it gradually became an indispensable “helping hand” in a dozen or more others? I have! And today as I returned to a website first visited several years ago, it delivered a reminder of how and why I’m likely to find the “helping hand” permanently indispensable. And furthermore, that customer service of the sort most of us feared may be out of reach “a bridge too far” in this digital era dominated by robots.

A comment appearing at the website helpinghand.us.com said, “A good summary of the excellence of my invaluable Tru-Grip is to tell you that it allows me to pick up a crumb, a Sunday New York Times or a vintage bottle of Dom Perignon with equal confidence.  You can be proud of your products and the representatives you have chosen as your face in the US.” And it was signed Annette-New York.

Little did I know when writing that comment several years ago, that the cheery yellow trimmed “reacher” initiated to help me follow the orders of a physical therapy guru who issued a temporary caution against heavy lifting and bending would still be my ally today.  It turns out that it is just the “assistant” I need as I sort and distribute papers variously categorized as “keepers” “maybes” and definite “shredder fodder.”

As you can imagine, unless I had a table of the proportions of King Arthur’s Round Table it was inevitable that the sorting would move to include the floor.  Helping Hand to the rescue. Its recipe for universal usefulness has been built over the years in the rescue of the earring back that inevitably rolls under the chest set so close to the floor that no grown-up hand could reach to retrieve it.  Or the fork that heads straight for the space between sink and stove only wide enough to defy rescue.  Oh, and the newspaper you would like to bring in from the corridor if guaranteed that no one will see your “not for prime-time costume.”

The reacher I use at present was purchased as a gift for a tall neighbor (at 32 inches, longer than the one I sadly lost) and then received back from him when his fractured elbow healed. So as not to be rightly labeled an “Indian Giver” –whatever that is meant to mean – I set out to find the height appropriate one for me and return the reclaimed one to my neighbor.

That’s when I ran afoul of Walmart which showed the replacement I sought on their website.  But sadly, they seem to have had their site hijacked and I found myself in the hands of someone who informed me that because I had called to place an order I would be “eligible” for a $100 bonus.  When asked by this persistent fellow (who seemed not to understand the meaning of “No thank you”) why I would not want this “bonus” I said, just before he hung up, that it was because I am a discerning consumer aware of scams designed to put your personal information into the absolutely wrong hands. He hung up.  And then my phone registered another call.

Happily, that one brought “Cat Densham” of Helping Hand in the UK to the rescue.  Seeing her UK number on my phone, I was surprised and delighted to hear that she was responding to a concern I had expressed about dealing with distributors more attuned to taking mass orders.  She rang to offer an alternative.  The lesson I learned is that 24-karat Customer Support is alive and well across the pond.  She offered and implemented a personalized service that would provide me with a contact point that would make her my voice with their distributor and bypass, in style, the potential negatives of being a one-woman customer base.  “For us,” she said, the single consumer is every bit as entitled to our help as the corporation that buys by the thousands.  What an ambassador!

And so, I serve notice on all the lost, misplaced or inconveniently located objects in my life.  Be warned that my new, height-appropriate reacher will soon be coming for you.  With that, I turn my attention to editing the comment now appearing on my “champion’s” website.  Should you one day see that amended comment, you will know that it is not exaggerated and most gratefully meant.

Opening photo by Bigstock by Shutterstock; product photo courtesy of Helping Hands

Street Seens – Being Friends with a Saint*


What is it like to be a friend for life of a Saint?  That was really the unspoken question in my mind when I talked with my friend Josephina earlier this year when her friend was about to be canonized.  I wanted to recall together the time when she met Mother Teresa and how it changed her life. It was clear to me that the encounter, and what I observed to be an impact that would never end, was singular and that it had shaped and transformed the four lives in Josephina’s family.

Mother Teresa and Josephina

It was perfectly predictable that none of them would be in Rome to celebrate.  For they were/are, after all, the personification of the people the newly minted saint predicted she would hope to serve in her afterlife as she had done in life.  They are the very dear ones she would recognize as having a home in life’s dark moments every bit as much, or more, than in the times of light. And that was her own experience.

In Come Be My Light, the collected private writings of Mother Teresa, she said, “If I ever become a Saint – I will surely be one of darkness. I will continually be absent from Heaven–to light the light of those in darkness on earth.” As testified by the Missionary of Charity Sisters I met on the eve of her canonization for their saint, the poorest of the poor were not defined by economics but had everything to do with the greatest poverty in the world today. It was to be unloved, unwanted and uncared for. Whether or not Josephina knew it, she had been recruited by “Mother” to find and rescue those threatened with that sort of poverty. The “recruitment” began at their first meeting.

To be exact, it began in 1989. Their meeting occurred when the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital of Ophthalmology was welcomed at a civic reception at the start of a mission to Calcutta.  Josephina was, at that time, the up-through-the-ranks President of the organization that brings a volunteer corps of this country’s finest ophthalmologists to places where preventable blindness is endemic.  In that role, she was totally committed to moving beyond the “hit and run” school of doing of good.  She wanted Orbis to find ways to treat patients while on the ground and then leave behind when they flew on to the next mission, the “forever” benefits: professional exchanges between healers who might otherwise never have met; medicines and state of the art equipment that would open the path to new ways of seeing, of preventing and healing blindness. In short, new ways of seeing.

At that life-changing civic reception Josephina was seated on the dais next to Mother Teresa.  Working past the awe of the moment, she asked her if she would consent to come to the plane, converted as it was when on the ground, into a teaching hospital, “to see what we do.” Mother Teresa consented, but only after extracting a promise that Josephina and her team would come to see what Mother Teresa and her “team” were doing there in Calcutta. Josephina remembers that this was one of the times her words were accompanied by a twinkle in her eye that suggested she was used to asking big favors on behalf of the poor for whom she had “signed on” as small but mighty champion.

Mother tore a piece from a note or napkin and writing a phone number, told Josephina to call it to confirm their first joint voyage of discovery.  When Josephina rang, she expected to hear the voice of one of the Sisters and was surprised to hear the voice she now recognized, telling her where they would meet the next day.

The Orbis team arrived at the Motherhouse to find Mother Teresa pecking away at an ancient typewriter.  (The handwritten note shown above, appealing for her new friend to be an advocate for a young woman threatened by blindness was perhaps more typical of her style.)  She greeted Josephina and her colleagues with the statement, “I’m afraid I have nothing to offer you but our lepers.”  And then she said with penetrating gaze. “Never forget the poorest of the poor. And do that with utmost respect.”

For two days, they walked among those that clearly represented her treasures.  Josephina remembers that the days did not include any food or drink, an absence explained in Mother Teresa’s throw- away comment that to serve the poor it is vital to consume only what they eat or drink. She recalls the first of her life-altering days, as Mother lifted up the people who fell to the ground as they passed, to kiss her feet.

Analyzing what she had experienced, Josephina recalls being overwhelmed with the feeling that she had walked with the most powerful woman in the world. One who said with utmost simplicity, “I like to solve problems.” Her advice included a strong urging to meet beggars by not looking away; by offering to help; by listening; and by giving oneself, not just money.  What Josephina learned as she walked with Mother Teresa was that the impact of their meeting and these days would somehow change her life forever.

True to her promise, Mother joined her new friend’s team the next day.  The Orbis team arrived at the Motherhouse in their much less than state of the art bus and accompanied by a car to carry their tiny guest.  The car was dismissed as Mother mounted the bus with members of the Orbis staff, volunteers and gifted ophthalmologists and they set off from the home from which she and her Sisters welcomed the unwelcomed, and headed for the plane that offered hope to those who would join them in the belief that blindness is often preventable and with the right efforts, many times subject to healing.

On the Orbis plane, local doctors followed every procedure as they were televised to the former first-class section of the converted DC 10, by then transformed into the gallery of a surgery theater. There they observed state of the art surgeries, laser treatments and full spectrum of procedures happening in the various sections of the plane. Mother walked the entire plane taking in every detail.

Researchers agree that fear of blindness is human beings’ most profound fear.  Josephina often tried to summon up that experience when she spoke at Orbis events, by asking her guests to close their eyes for a time and imagine that the enveloping darkness would last forever.  The two petite women were allied soldiers fighting the battle against fear and despair.

Proof that Josephina and her husband Luke were, from the start, committed to that demanding agenda include their two adolescent children. Both were adopted with special needs. They met Lizzie in a Jamaican orphanage when visiting the island for a family funeral. They were instantly drawn to her.  The staff, government and private advisors warned the couple against even considering adopting the tiny 18-month-old who did not speak and whom they were cautioned would likely never walk, or talk or see, or move beyond the prison of her past.  But the two kept coming back to the little girl her birth Mother had named Alexine.  As the day of their departure neared, Luke asked his wife if she could bear to leave or hope to forget Lizzie.  He implied (and lived to prove) that whatever her answer, he would honor and support it.  When she searched her soul, and said she could never do either, the three went home to St. Louis.  They began in earnest to join in the sort of love that never gives up; the dedicated medical professionals’ commitment to research and the discernment of skills. Somehow, I did not even have to ask whether the decision to apply the Mother Teresa prescription for hope and total respect that she showed to the needy was a factor in Josephina and Luke’s decision.

The new parents searched for and found the therapist at UMSL, Saint Louis’ Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome Center renowned for identifying and treating post traumatic stress syndrome in very young children. They identified the Kaufman Speech and Language Center in Detroit. Lizzie’s rebirth began. Today after dozens of diagnostic procedures, numerous eye surgeries and continued monitoring, the conquest of all the potential roadblocks to healing have been faced down, and a remarkable daughter of remarkable parents has completed her first years in a regular school.

Next, her Brother came to the family. His birth Father was a brilliant young man who was tragically devoting his brilliance to enabling lives of dependence.  But the boy, named for a brave Archangel, is avidly seeking ways to ensure that his will truly be a new generation. He is being motivated and helped in every way that love can find, to activate and redirect the genetics of that brilliance. With that sort of commitment, Josephina and Luke continue to believe in living “the miracle” and trust that the boy who shares a name and spirit with a powerful messenger-angel, will discover true power that will make it possible for him to seek freedom and not settle for dependence. He has told them he wants to be an inventor and make “lots of money” so he can help “lots of people.” As he set out on new terms at a school committed to the growth and motivation of extremely gifted children, his parents are equally committed to reminding him that his only goal in that competitive environment is to be the best possible, singularly uniquely loved and lovable young man he is. So, a 1989 inspiration continues to help a US couple face down despair and refuse to take seriously the suspicion that they might consider abandoning a continuing campaign that has its roots on the streets of Calcutta.

Can I guess what was Josephina’s “gut reaction” was when she learned of the canonization that occurred last September 4, nearly three decades after the fateful meeting on a dais in Calcutta?  Surely not surprise.  It is equally likely that she accepted that the almost mischievous twinkle she saw in Mother Teresa’s eyes will not dim in Heaven.  And I feel she is quite sure that the woman her Church has formally declared to have demonstrated heroic virtue in her life and now shares the eternal rewards of Heaven, will do so with a style that will never cease to surprise.

When the jubilant ceremony of canonization of “Saint Teresa of Kolkata” occurred in Rome last September, her friend Josephina, surgeon husband Luke and their two children were not present.  But that is quite likely just as the newly-minted Saint would want it to be.

They were in Saint Louis, Missouri, at work in the mission of healing and being healed, that marks this family as four of the lesser known. but profoundly significant miracles that can be attributed to the new Saint. And so, the light she wanted so desperately to light for those in the sort of darkness that darkened her own, burns brightly beneath a Golden Arch, far from The Eternal City, built to symbolize the conquest of new frontiers.

*To honor the privacy of them and the children who are all cherished friends of their family’s “Saint and Friend,” names are used that signify who they are, though not necessarily the names by which their neighbors and patients know them.

Opening photo from Bigstock by Shutterstock; All other photos courtesy of Annette Cunningham

Street Seens: Father and Showman


Today I got a very strong reminder of the fact that my Father was one of the world’s great salesmen!

It was when deciding whether to write a Father’s Day themed Street Seens this June 18, that he began to exert a none-too-subtle bit of pressure.  Now mind you, the man in question departed this life many decades ago.  But that seems only to have put him in league with a whole galaxy of influencers beginning from the dawn of time.  (Consider, for example, Abraham bargaining with God to get Him to hold off on destroying Sodom for the sake of a number of just people. The Patriarch started at 50 and worked down to a mere 10 by the time God conceded. I can just hear my Father saying, “You know, deary-darling, that Abraham was quite a man.”) So, I stopped quibbling, and got a green light to celebrate Father’s Day with a few memories of William C. Cunningham, Sr., Father and Showman.

William C. Cunningham, Sr.

As a believer that there are no coincidences in life, it may well be that the reason for this intervention from afar is that it marks his wedding anniversary to his beloved Sara Doherty whom he lured back to the United States a few years after she had returned to County Tyrone, Northern Ireland upon the death of Father Patrick McGee. pastor of Saint Joseph’s Parish in Illinois where she had lived for some years.  Not, mind you, that my father was given to dramatic gestures.

Let me continue with stories of the man this Street Seens honors. They include some memories first written down for his grandchildren and conclude with words he used as the closing of many “stump speeches” he delivered as he traveled the dozens of places he visited to raise awareness and contributions to build a Cathedral for the newly minted Diocese of Joliet in Illinois.

In a Christmas letter of mine to his grandchildren and great grandchildren, I reminded the group of their heritage.  That group then included two members of Second City’s Main Stage; a choir soloist turned musical comedy performer (later to become TV anchorman); a ballerina with “hauteur” beyond her years; and two other members of the corps de ballet for a Cleveland troupe performing the Nutcracker.  “Your generation comes by its ‘performer genes’ honestly.  There was a great showman lost – or perhaps not – in Bill/Willie Cunningham of Wilton Center, Manhattan and Joliet, Illinois.  Your Nana was fond of telling about one of her first sightings of her future husband at an amateur variety show in Hoermann’s Hotel in Manhattan where Daddy regaled the crowd with his rendition of ‘Those Wild, Wild Women Are Making a Wild Man of Me.’  Naturally, the elegant Sara Doherty was not a stage door Janie.  She was, we presume, reserved in her applause, knowing that he was currently being pursued by the dreaded (name omitted to protect the departed).

Daddy’s “party pieces” were “School Days,” “My Wild Irish (which I seem to hear in memory’s ear as being pronounced ‘Arish’) Rose” and “There’s a Long, Long Trail-a-Winding. Daddy’s voice was rich and hearty.

He was nothing if not dramatic.  His sales targets were drawn in, inch by inch, with a consummate performer’s skills.  And when the moment came that he grasped the elbow of the potential buyer and said, “I want you to have this car, Charlie, but that’s as near as I can come to giving it to you,” the person might just as well have written the check and stopped trying to resist.

History Wall at Cathedral of St. Raymond of Nonnatus in Joliet, Illinois

Speaking of Charlie, one of the family’s great running gags had to do with Charlie Quinn and Daddy’s shameless sense of drama.  Having severed his connections with Lincoln/Mercury to focus entirely on Ford products, Daddy pursued a “scorched earth” policy in regard to the former brands.  He was merciless in identifying their defects, and lest we miss the point, he drew illustrations from life to paint the picture more clearly.  One evening at the dinner table he said, to emphasize just how bad that year’s Lincolns really were, “I met Charlie Quinn today and he had tears in his eyes telling me the troubles he’s having with that car.”

Now it’s important to note that when you are at table with people as bright as my siblings, Bill, Peggy and Mary, you take a big risk in saying something that broad.

“TEARS? HE HAD TEARS IN HIS EYES?” gasped Bill between belly laughs.

“Of course,” said Peggy, “I saw him just afterward.  He was leaning up against the stop light at Cass and Scott, sobbing quietly.”

“You mean that was Mr. Quinn?  By the time I saw him, near Saint Mary’s,” Mary interjected, warming to the escalating leg pulling, “I didn’t even recognize him.  The poor man was hysterical…not to be consoled!”

Now, only a master actor or a master poker player can come through all that and not break up.  Daddy did just that.  “You can laugh if you want,” he said with a sad look belied by the twinkle in his eye, “but it’s a pretty sorry sight when you see a grown man that upset.”

I did not then, nor do I now know who Charlie Quinn was, but I know that he is part of the oral history of the Cunningham family.  And I’m pretty sure his next car, bought very soon and from our father, was a Ford.

But the performer was just one side.  The caring and highly compassionate man was another.

“I’m so sorry for your trouble”

I only later understood that the words I heard Daddy say at wakes were as absolutely right as they were heartfelt.  He never said more than, “I’m so sorry for your trouble.”  And when I came to realize that words can cover meaning as well as convey it, I came to understand that there are no better words that one can say to someone in grief.

 The bag of medals

One of the curiosities of my young life was a bag of medals that my Father carried in his pocket.  It was a small, leather pouch with a zipper and in it he kept a collection of medals and a tiny statue of Saint Christopher standing on a base that formed the bottom of a metal capsule.  When you lifted off the cover, the miniature Saint Christopher was revealed.  I suspect he felt that Saint Christopher had been looking after him one weekend as he sped across the roads from Illinois to Benton Harbor, Michigan to join the “family in exile.”  (I was long past the age of reason by the time I discovered that summer was announced by the arrival of June 21.  I thought it was signaled by the arrival of the suitcases, down from the attic, to be packed for a summer trip to Michigan or Wisconsin…someplace where the heat was relieved, at least by night. Mother’s Irish genes had not prepared her for a summer on a limestone bluff which absorbed the heat by day and radiated it by night.)  His Lincoln Zephyr left the road, rolled over three times and landed upright with his hands still gripping the wheel.  He simply drove up out of the ditch and proceeded…probably at the same speed.  He was, you see, a firm believer in the power of Saint Christopher.

The bag of medals grew and periodically it even had to be weeded out lest the zipper be taxed beyond its limits.  Each of those medals had its own story and brought its own blessing.  I remember many times when we sat together and he told me the stories of each one.  And in the surprising simplicity of this complex man’s faith, each surely represented a pact between him and the champion in Heaven portrayed on the medal.  Our Lady was his special favorite.  Each morning after the 6 or 6:30 A.M. Mass he would light a candle, kneel at her altar, and pray the Memorare.  I think of that often lately and about how remarkable it was for an essentially motherless child (his Mother died when he was just a bit more than two) to have such a bond of trust with the Mother of God.  And I think of how she must have cherished and ultimately protected this man for whom she was the only Mother he ever really knew.

“Sport” Cunningham

Sometimes the “dramatic” monologues were amplified into duets.  The subject, and the facts, of driving were a continuing theme of “play to the audience” dialogues between our parents.  Mother had a habit (understandably unnerving to Daddy) of calling upon the Holy Family, jointly and severally, in all circumstances where she, as his passenger, perceived danger.  If the “threatening” vehicle or obstacle was a city block away, she had time to pump the invisible brake pedal on the passenger side floor and invoke, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, protect us.”  If the “peril” was as close as half a block, she only had time, for, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph.”  And if it was several car lengths near, she only had time for “Jeeeee….”  These prayers did not inspire piety in her mate.  So, while she prayed, he swore.  I found a letter the two had sent to my brother Bill on their return from a visit to him at the Jesuit Novitiate in Milford, Ohio.  Appended to the one and a half pages of Daddy’s comments was a scant half page in which his travelling companion wrote, “Thanks, no doubt to your prayers for us, we returned home safely; despite the fact that your father drives like an adolescent.”

Daddy’s attitude towards car trips was – get in the car, put your foot to the floor and get there as fast as possible.  Needless to say, this attitude was not shared by his spouse and fellow occupant of the front seat.  She took his speeding as an eschewal of his responsibilities to his family and tended to describe him, at the wheel, as “Sport Cunningham.”  When she lauded her own cautious driving by saying, “Look up the record!” (referring to the fact that she had never had an accident) Daddy would say, “But they don’t say how many accidents you caused.”

Driving with them was never dull.  And it was not only God who was pleased as, in his later years, Daddy used the frequent trips between Joliet and Chicago to say the rosary and his other favorite devotional prayers.  It might have been that with his innate sense of strategy he had found an unimpeachable way to silence Mother’s navigational “assistance.”

Sunday Rides

Sunday afternoon rides “in the country” were sometimes a family affair.  As the postscript to the family, I was the last one to be available to participate in the ritual when the others had gone off to boarding school and college and the other pursuits that come with the teen years.  So, many of the family-style Sunday rides I remember were simple threesomes.  They were an excellent way of dealing with the warmth of pre-air conditioning summer heat.  I remember the relief I felt holding my hand (or even sometimes my face) out the window to catch the breeze created by the car’s motion.

Sometimes we went to visit Mrs. McCullough (our surrogate grandmother….an Irish lady who looked—and behaved —- like the late Queen Mother Mary of England) in Chicago.  I remember entertaining myself while the grownups visited by walking around the rug in her dining room…. sometimes stepping only on the roses…. then only on the leaves…. you get the picture.

As a very small child I remember visiting what I knew to be “the farm,” actually a property which, I believe had come to Daddy as an inheritance from his father. Of this “farm” I have very little memory, but the memory I do have provides me the setting of stories in books or on tape that have a farm setting. The fact that “the farm” passed out of our lives brings me to the really significant aspect of Sunday rides. Because the true magic of the Sunday rides occurred when they involved only Momma and Daddy.  I often knew little of the problems that must have challenged them in those post-Depression days which became wartime, then postwar days.

Imagine a dealer in automobiles, trucks and the parts and services for them, making a living in times when the buying public was still reeling from memories of “Hoovervilles” and later, when the war effort precluded the manufacturing of consumer vehicles.  For them, these things coincided with the period when they were making decisions about education for their three eldest children, all of whom would be attending boarding school, college or graduate school during those post-Depression, early postwar years. In any case, I did notice that decisions seemed to be reached during their Sunday rides.  After one of them I remember hearing that “the farm” would be sold. So, however far apart were their feelings about the challenges of vehicular transportation, they were always as one in their commitment to their children and the sense of values that told them education would be an inheritance they would always find a way to afford, knowing it was a bequest to their children that nothing could diminish.


What better way to end this remembrance of a consummate Father and Showman than with his own words. His “sales pitch” for raising the funds to build a Cathedral he understood as a fitting centerpiece for their new Diocese, began with a strong reminder that this was, after all, a way to do honor to the one he honored as a Father. “Remember folks, God is never outdone in generosity. Amen. Alleluia! (And sign right here!)”

Opening photo by Bigstock; all others courtesy of Annette Cunningham

Street Seens: Healing’s Secret Ingredient


This Sunday let’s explore proof that there’s a silver lining in the cloud of the ongoing purge of papers from a Manhattan apartment higher on views of the sunset than on space.  What last week’s archaeological dig revealed was a recipe for healing.

The three-ingredient recipe includes:1) Cousins, 2) Nieces, and 3) Great Nephews, all laced with one Secret Ingredient.

The Cousins ingredient is the one-time publisher of Saturday Review’s astounding book The Anatomy of an Illness, chronicling the progression of Cousin’s diagnosis with a terminal illness; his medical team’s conclusion that medicine had reached the limits of its capability to help him; and the patient’s observation that he felt so much better each time he laughed.

After release from the hospital, Cousin checked himself into a hotel, armed with an 8mm projector and copies of all those movies that had made him laugh.  Watching them, he began to feel better and better and eventually enrolled in a medical facility where he made a study that revealed that the brain emitted a substance triggered by laughter, and that it had a remarkable power to heal.  And so, the recipe began.

When you prepare the recipe for healing, be sure to list the near and dear ones who are healers. And make sure that the category is as wide and as varied as the gifts of an established Nurse Educator working to expand her hospital’s program to bringing mental health services to a wider community, and the Pediatric Nursing Administrator bringing together concerned families and the medical professionals who treat them.

As the beat goes on, it doesn’t take much discernment to recognize the relative newcomers identified as the Great Nephews ingredient.  Prepare to add the newly minted Doctor who walked away from the recent commencement at St. Louis University’s Medical School with not only a degree and credentials to practice the science and art of physical therapy, but with highest honors. Clinical work with military veterans was, I suspect, far more rewarding for him than any academic laurels and adds a potent aroma to the finished recipe.

Next blend in the founder of a cross training business who recognizes the healing power of exercise as human empowerment and works long and hard to open that door to a mixture of clients ranging from the buff and predictable, to those who are at quite the other end of that spectrum.

Happily, the laborious and often frustrating work of sorting through, all the “paper” in my life recently revealed a reminder written to those last mentioned “healers.”

The early morning reflection sent to these two treasured great nephews had the subject line: “Morning Music, Muscles and Laughter, God’s and Mine.”  It designated them as “two healers and reasons for joy.” Here is the note I found amid the past week’s “purging”:

I woke up thinking of the two of you precious men (healers of two different but related kinds) this morning and it set me on the path to joy.  After 10 days of combat with a fraudulent medical supply company and the death and resurrection of my Smartphone. At the end, those ten days reminded me of the late, great John Chancellor’s advice, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” and the old joke “Other than that Mrs. Lincoln did you enjoy the play?” So, when I fell over the finish line of a long, sometimes tense day yesterday, I had a plan to sleep in this morning but cautioned my doorman not to let on that that was my plan, in case God would hear.

 And then at 5:30ish or so this morning my eccentric radio alarm decided to start my day with a CD of John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers’ collection of joyous music including St Patrick’s Breast Plate and many other things I think of as Songs of Joy.  That reminded me to hope that Edward Jr. Is continuing to pursue his music amid the demands of studies and now service on the hospital floors. That led me to the happy memory of Liam writing this week near the November 2 and 4 anniversaries of his Paternal Great Grandfather and namesake’s, birthday yesterday and Sunday, All Soul’s Day when more than a half century ago, he began his new and ultimate life of unconditional love. I was so happy to note that though he is super busy he is doing what he loves.  I can just see him rescuing the clients of his cross- training business from fear and lack of confidence.  It reminded me of the way Jesus surprised folks like the man with the withered arm, or the person who stood straight after years of being bent over and seeing mostly the ground.  I resolved to write down the thoughts with which I was gifted by my unplanned “wake up call” and give it the working title is “Morning Music, Muscles and Laughter, God’s and Mine.”  I have always been touched by the way Jesus helped people be involved in their own healing.  You can just imagine that the man with the withered arm might have been taken aback when “the Teacher” asked him what he wanted him to do to help. The man might have been forgiven for thinking, “Well isn’t it obvious?” But no, he wanted that man to put it into words, to make the healing a joint effort; to take some share of ownership in his own healing.

 Well, in short, I did start the day earlier than I predicted and found out, directly and in spades, why I had been awakened.  At the 8 o’clock Mass at St. Vincent Ferrer, the celebrant blew me out of the water with his reflection on St. Paul’s letter to his friends in Philippi.  It’s lovely, but what Father Darren Pierre said about it made it even lovelier.  He said that in this letter, St. Paul posed the biggest challenge to us Christians; bigger than any other of the predictable biggies like laying down your life or giving away all your possessions.  He said that it is a truly heroic act to put away “grumpiness” and commit yourself to joy.  Another of the daily examples of how our Savior, Who so “gets us,” makes sure we hear what we need to hear when we need to hear it. Take a read and may it be some of what you healers need to hear today.

But, even if I am poured out as a libation
upon the sacrificial service of your faith,
I rejoice and share my joy with all of you.

With that reminder, confidently be assured that lavish amounts of the secret ingredient will make all the difference and result in the surest recipe for healing.

Opening photo by Pixabay

Street Seens: Always Their Bridesmaid


Make certain you register the title.  It was designed to distinguish what follows from articles entitled, for example, “Always A Bridesmaid,” the all too familiar sagas about failed relationships, multiple requests to serve, and the dreadful dresses that pile up in the “heroines’” closets.

Our conversation today is about a first: indeed, a first-ever, never to be repeated adventure.  Those come rarely in most lives.  They did in mine.  And when the dates May 24 or October 13 appear on the calendar I take a moment to realize and relive the signature moment of starting to be a “grown up” that my sisters and their husbands bestowed on me.

I was a late arriving guest to the glorious celebration that was my family of four siblings and parents, one of whom labeled me with his usual sly humor by saying, “Sara, that girl has two speeds: Slow and Stop.” Sitting impatiently at the wheel of his Lincoln he would say to my Mother, “Tell her to shift into Slow, it’s an Emergency.”

Understand then that it was genetic destiny that my entry into the Bridesmaid game came before adolescent awkwardness had entirely passed. My glamorous sisters were married within six months of one another.  At that moment, I could, have illustrated that the green raw silk crown of Mary and John’s female attendants and the cornflower wreaths of Peggy and Jim’s were very ambitious replacements for my St. Francis Academy freshman “beanie.”

This May 24, I thought of my sister Peggy spending her first anniversary missing the physical presence of the man she called “James the Great” and whom I called “Beau Frere,” in the spirit of the French whom I understand refer to the Mother-in-Law as Belle Mere.  To me that style of naming captures the fact that the in-law designation that sounds so legalistic misses the nuance of one who is so much more than a legality in one’s life. Nor does it leave room to doubt that he will arrange to travel with her tomorrow to wing their way to the Berkshires to see their only daughter’s creative turn as director of Kunstler.

Drawn back in memory to that May 24 now long past, I revisited some of all the things it will always mean to me to be not just “A” Bridesmaid, but instead “Their” Bridesmaid.

From back there at that starting point, it becomes clear why those two designations are so different. I was about to “take the stage” playing a character that directors often characterize as “casting against type.” Not that it was my first time to play an unpredictable role. Admittedly I had some history of playing such parts in what you might call “way off Broadway” houses.  Consider, for example, my stage debut as The Male Clothespin Pinno in Sister Fernanda’s Children’s Theater’s production of Once Upon a Clothesline.  But Bridesmaid?  This might have defined “leap of faith.” Fortunately that never would have stopped either my supportive big sisters or their parents.

Initially I had been “cast” in the largely backstage role of archivist of wedding gifts whose job was to log in gifts sent to the bride and groom at our home.  My job, whether or not I chose to accept it, was to open, record and display said gifts in our den/library. The fact that I entered the description of a figurine of cavorting cherubs as “Naked Babies”, from Doctor and Mrs. X, was probably not the reason I was “promoted” – very likely to the level of my own incompetence.  Nor, I choose to believe, was the fact that I had created pleated paper tutus for the babies before displaying them.  But as the wedding day(s) approached, I was moved to an entirely different level, call it a theater of operations.  This looked to me like the big leagues of fashion and grooming and included fittings and hair stylings and tutelage of all kinds at the Elizabeth Arden Salon (or was it the Helena Rubinstein one) on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue.  When people there suggested exercise regimens to “tighten the muscles,” I stifled the impulse to ask why swimming and softball weren’t enough?….and considerably less expensive.

When the rehearsal period was coming to an end, or perhaps, more realistically “building to a crescendo,” a series of social events began to fill the family calendars.  History will probably never reveal how the young adult guests felt about being seated next to the first-time bridesmaid.  For me, it was intriguing to see that what I picked up in the “breakfast nook” when I rubbed the sleep from my eyes to listen in on Peggy, Mary and Bill’s replayings of the parties, plays and jazz sessions from which they had just returned.

Years later when I partnered with Paul Lynde and Bernadette Peters on a show then called “The Ten Thousand Dollar Pyramid” I should have been prepared for Lynde to question my veracity when I reminded him of his gallows humor comedy routine on his trip to the jungle and encounter with cannibals.  “Did someone bring you to the show in your pram?” he asked. Most high school freshmen did not have an opinion on the relative merits of Don Shirley, George Shearing and John Coltrane. Not everyone, it seemed, had a breakfast nook or such interesting and opinionated siblings.

When the wedding day/s arrived I had begun to believe that I had nothing to fear from the walk (even in unaccustomedly high dyed-to-match satin pumps) or from whatever the reception line would deliver to me and my fellow members of the wedding.

It was, of course, the custom to wear white kid gloves when processing, and to remove and discreetly stow them during the Nuptial Mass. Doomed with a Virgo’s memory for irrelevant bits of trivia, I had some recollection of the story that repentant murderers, even after being forgiven, were counseled to keep gloves on when receiving the Eucharist (don’t ask!). Happily, I can report that when the last pearl button on the last white kid glove refused to yield, I had become brave enough to trust that no one at John and Mary’s wedding noticed my suggestion of a homicidal past.

There was a protocol for warmly greeting and firmly moving on to the next attendant for each guest passing through the receiving line at the reception. Mostly it went well until I short circuited from the diction-demanding “I am Annette Cunningham, Peggy’s sister and I’d like you to meet Peggy Scanlan, Peggy’s roommate at Marymount.” I remember all too well the moment when I announced, “I am Annette, Peggy’s sister and this is Peggy Scunningham, my roommate.”  By then at the wind-down of Wedding II I did not at least have to think, “The worst is yet to come.”

They were so lovely as they departed the receptions in the “going away suits” (and hats!) ordained for the occasion.  They tossed their bouquets to the waiting friends (not in my direction.) I did not even cry knowing each one took with her a portion of my childhood that would never be duplicated. Or indeed surpassed in sweetness.

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