Feast at the Table of Provence: La Côte d’Azur

Seaside village along La Côte d’Azur

The Mediterranean village of Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer splashes a brilliant spectrum of colors that once inspired the palettes of the French Impressionists.  Salmon and m­­­­ustard-colored stucco buildings glow in the late afternoon Provençal sun, trimmed with periwinkle wooden shutters.  In the village square, a toddler in fuchsia sandals waddles past us, barely able to grasp her arms around the neon orange beach ball that’s as big as she is.  Emerald and azure–colored table umbrellas of the outdoor cafes along the square’s perimeter advertise Perrier and Kronenbourg 1664 beer.  Women in wildly colored sun dresses and men in Panama hats, khaki shorts, and sandals stroll by. Wine glasses on the table blush with pale pink rosé.  A scaled down replica sculpture of the Statue of Liberty, donated to the village by a wealthy businessman in 1913, glistens in gold in the middle of a fountain.

Have we stepped inside of one of Henri Matisse’s vibrant paintings of the Côte d’Azur?

A few hours later, twilight descends.  Tiny white lights suddenly sparkle all around the square.  On a raised platform off to the side, musicians unpack their instruments.  While Rich and I savor a dessert of lavender ice cream and coffee, the band plays “In the Mood.” Music washes over the square. Dining couples rise from their tables and move to the center.  The Friday Night Dance has officially been called to order.

After a few songs give us the chance to size up the dancers and their relative expertise, I convince Rich that we too are “in the mood.”  I may not be Leslie Caron in An American in Paris, and Rich is surely no Gene Kelly, but we give it our best whirl.  Soon the center of the square is completely filled with dancers of all ages, moving around in a giant circle, laughing and bumping into each other.  A kaleidoscope of colors and shifting shapes swirl past us.  No one seems to mind.  “La Vie en Rose” never sounded so enchanting.

This is our inaugural visit to Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer, which is near to a beach house that we are fortunate to enjoy on our weekend forays around the French countryside outside of Marseille. After a spectacular drive along high cliffs of the coastline, we arrive to a 100-year old farmhouse less than a kilometer from the beach.  Wearing a flowered apron, silver-haired Jacqueline, followed by a coterie of white and brown chickens, rushes out to the gravel drive of the gated family compound to greet us as we pull in. Her elderly hound lazily opens one eye to inspect the commotion, and then nonchalantly dismisses us with a canine version of a Gallic shrug.

“Bonjour, Jacqueline.  Je m’appelle Anne.  C’est Richard.”

We shake hands to murmurs of “Enchanté” and exchange warm smiles. Soon we discover that Jacqueline’s English is even more limited than our French, so we will make do by pantomime and a little broken French for the next four days.  She points to a small cottage– actually more like a double-wide mobile home − nestled amidst some trees and flowers in the back of her property, which we take to mean our beach house for the long weekend.

“Ah, la maison est belle.”  I nod approvingly.

Inside, she orients us to the linen closet and the washing machine.  Rich and I sneak a smile at each other, silently remembering the washing machine at our rented apartment in Paris two years before, the one we christened “Diabolique” for her evil and inscrutable ways.  Once Diabolique even held Rich’s socks hostage, washing and rinsing them again and again for more than nine hours, refusing to shut off.  Hopefully her beach house cousin will not flummox us so frustratingly.

Then Jacqueline eagerly opens the door to the small refrigerator, revealing a bounty of wine, cheese, pate, grapes, and figs that she stocked to get us started for the weekend.  A crusty baguette sits in a basket on the little dining table for two.  A coral-colored ceramic bowl holds fresh eggs from the chickens.  Our eyes widen at the unexpected hospitality.

“Oh, Jacqueline!” we exclaim. “Merci beaucoup!”

She grins and pats her tummy, signifying that it’s lunch time.  Once settled into our weekend cottage, Rich and I graze on a plate of Jacqueline’s treats on the patio, in the shade of the grape vine-covered pergola.  We clink our little juice glasses of red wine, toasting the start of our weekend seaside adventure.  Our eyelids droop from the warmth of the midday sun and the wine. Nap time before we hit the beach.

On the patio of the beach house in Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer, Rich raises his glass and says “Salut!”

Two hours later, with Jacqueline’s hand-drawn map as our guide, Rich and I drive to the wooded park that is the entrance to La Calanque de Port d’Alon.  Beach towels in hand, we walk down a gravel foot path under a canopy of tall trees to where an exquisite pebble beach awaits us.  Along this part of the Mediterranean, calanques – or natural rocky beach coves – dot the coastline.  A few sailboats in the cove bounce gently on the waves.  On this late afternoon, mothers are packing up tired children who cry for just one more splash in the water.  A few bikini’ed young women are topless and languid.

La Calanque de Port d’Alon

This is the spectacular La Côte d’Azur – the Azure Coast. The water shimmers in shades of deep teal and translucent turquoise, calling us.  Rich and I cautiously wade in over the pebbles, bracing ourselves for the frigid water temperature we find, even here in the warmth of southern France.  We splash and swim around each other.  Rich cradles me, buoyed and weightless by the sea, in his arms.  My right arm is draped around his neck and shoulder.  I nuzzle his ear.  We kiss.

The luscious moment completely envelops us.

We are not the only ones enchanted by the lush beauty and sensuality of Provence.  Centuries of seekers – from the Romans to Picasso and Julia Child – have traveled here to experience its “Je ne sai quoi,” the mysterious magic that Provence exudes.  Golden sunlight, carpets of lavender and sunflowers in the countryside, the sparkling indigo Mediterranean. Rolling hills covered with vineyards. Flavor explosions of traditional Provençal dishes such as ratatouille, brimming with ripe tomatoes, eggplants, onions, and black olives.

Just a short drive from the beach house, we discover Les Moules, a little outdoor café  that is strung with colored Christmas lights.  Rich and I fall in love with their nightly blue plate special, a simple bucket of plump mussels cooked in white wine and herbs, with crispy pommes frites wrapped in butcher paper on the side.  That, along with a bottle of Provençal rosé, are perfection on a plate.

The Sunday open air market off the square in Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer bursts with fragrance and color.  Embossed table linens of cornflower blue, buttery yellow, and the deep red hue of a Côte du Rhone wine flap in the breeze from clothes lines and welcome us in to enjoy this weekly market ritual.  A giant batch of saffron paella, abundant with mussels, clams, squid, and prawns, steams in an enormous pan the size of a Jacuzzi, enticing us to take some home.

Paella in the outdoor market

One farm stand contains wooden bowls and baskets brimming with olives, at least a dozen varieties in all. Glistening spreads made of green or black olives, garlic, capers, and anchovies will be a delicious accompaniment to the fresh baguette we picked up this morning.

Le paradis des olives.

One of the curly-haired young sisters behind the olive table catches Rich’s eye and smiles. “Voulez-vous de la tapenade?”

“Oui,” Rich replies.  “Deux kilos, s’il vous plait.”

“Deux kilos?!”  She looks both shocked and amused.  “Deux? Kilos?”  She questions now with raised eyebrows and emphasis.

We all laugh together, realizing the enormous mistake in calculation.  No, the Americans do not really intend to order four and a half pounds of tapenade for the weekend.  We scale back to a small container of the shimmering tangy treat.  On the way back to the beach house, an improvised farm stand on the back of a pick-up truck off the gravel road advertises wine from a nearby vineyard for just 3 Euros a bottle.  Of course we stop to buy a few.

Provence cracks opens all of our senses, challenging us to inhale, simply mindful of the present succulent moment.  It is intoxicating.  While we are dancing, swimming, nuzzling, toasting, shopping, laughing, and relishing mussels, there are no thoughts of 14-hour work days, email, deadlines, budgets, briefs, or corporate meetings.  There is no past, no future.  Only now.  Seulement maintenant.

So how do we bottle Provence and bring her home with us?

Anne & Rich enjoying the moment in La Côte d’Azur.


The Caretakers of Route 66

A golden arrow on the red, green, and turquoise neon sign along the darkened road directs us in to the Munger Moss Motel in Lebanon, Missouri with promises of “Free TV,” “Refrigerated,” and “Telephones.” Three cars belonging to fellow guests are parked outside their individual rooms.  We pull our convertible into the carport outside the Motel Office & Gift Shop.

A desk plaque spells out MUNGER MOSS, in individual letters cut from old metal license plates in colors that mirror the neon sign outside.  Behind the desk are photos of grandchildren, postcards, a large wall map marked with highlights along Route 66, a red and black bumper sticker that reads “NRA – Stand and Fight.” A sign on the wall proclaims “Insanity is Hereditary.”  A woman with straw-colored hair, thick bangs, and a bright coral blouse sits at a computer screen, squinting.

“Ramona?” I ask, my hands behind my back, holding a bouquet of flowers we’d picked up at a nearby supermarket.  On the phone a few hours ago, Ramona told me that today is her 43rd anniversary of working at Munger Moss.

“Yup, hon. That’s me,” she turns and says. She looks tired, but flashes a smile.

“Happy Anniversary!” Rich and I present her the surprise bouquet.

Ramona’s voice cracks and her hands fly up to her face. “Oh, my gosh, that’s about the nicest thing anybody’s ever done for me. Can you take a picture of me with the flowers?  Wait’ll I post it on Facebook!”

Ramona, Innkeeper of Munger Moss Motel 

Ramona tells us that she and her husband Bob bought the Munger Moss on June 1, 1971 and have been the innkeepers ever since. Bob suffered a stroke about a year ago. Now it’s up to her and a few helpers to keep it going.

We ask about the name, thinking it might be some kind of exotic flora native to central Missouri. But no. The name comes from the original owners of the 1936 restaurant that once sat adjacent to the motel: Nelle Munger and Emmett Moss. The restaurant and filling station are now long gone. In the late 40s tourist cabins were added, replaced by a brick motel in the 50s. The neon sign was restored a few years with help from a National Park Service grant intended to preserve treasures on this historic route.

Ramona asks us about our Route 66 experiences so far.  We tell her that we are road tripping to celebrate our 9th wedding anniversary. During the past two weeks, we’ve visited a farm in rural Oklahoma, its front yard adorned with colorful bowling ball sculptures, designed by the owner as a tribute to his late wife. We checked out Bonnie and Clyde’s 1933 hideout apartment in Joplin, where a roll of film left behind by the fleeing Barrow Gang contained the infamous photograph of Bonnie Parker toting both a cigar and a shotgun.  Later on the route, we delighted in the Art Deco buildings of Tulsa oil barons and a mid-century Frank Lloyd Wright-designed hotel in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.  We stood “on the corner in Winslow, Arizona” and savored a sunset over the valleys of the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest.  Now we’re heading home to Chicago.

“We get people from all over the world.  Why, just the other day, an email come in from some guy in Holland who’s planning a motorcycle trip this summer.  They all know about Route 66.”

Ramona insists on giving us an upgrade to her nicest room, the Bridal Suite, complete with a king-sized bed. “Sounds like you’re kinda on a second honeymoon. Plus it’s your last night on the road and all.”

We are touched by this unexpected gesture and look forward to an added bit of luxury on our final night.

Rich and I open the door to our room, decorated with shag carpeting, a mauve and teal flowered border along the ceiling, and a patterned burgundy and gold-colored bedspread. A faux-antique table lamp of milk glass illuminates the wall above the headboard, which is completely covered with color-matted vintage images of Route 66 secured with thumbtacks − postcards, magazine spreads, photographs.

Even our room is a shrine to this American icon, a cherished tradition of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, back when a road trip vacation was exotic − in fact, was all that many families could afford.

At the supermarket where we’d picked up Ramona’s anniversary bouquet, we also bought some dark chocolate, Swedish fish, and a bottle of chilled Spanish cava for our late night anniversary celebration. We unwrap and raise our sanitized plastic glasses of sparkling wine, toasting the final leg of our Route 66 discovery.

Built in 1926, Route 66 was one of the first true American highways, connecting Chicago’s Michigan Avenue to the Santa Monica Pier outside Los Angeles. Its honorific as “Mother Road” was born in the 1939 novel Grapes of Wrath, about which John Steinbeck wrote, “Sixty-six is the mother road, the road of flight.”

Route 66 became a mythic symbol of desperate escape for those fleeing the Dust Bowl.  Later, in 1946, Nat King Cole immortalized its images of freedom and adventure in “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66.”  A 60s television drama depicted the escapades of Tod and Buz, two young men exploring the historic route in a Corvette convertible. Like them, Rich and I are now the adventurers in an open car.

The advent of broad interstate super-highways made the two-lane Route 66 obsolete. In 1985, it was officially decommissioned from the United States Highway System. Portions of the road, however, have been designated as a National Scenic Byway under the name Historic Route 66.  Worldwide, even those who have never gotten their kicks on it know the legend of the iconic road.

During our more than two weeks on the road, Rich and I discover others who, like Ramona, are caretakers of treasured slices of American culture.  Without them, these slices might otherwise be threatened with extinction.

In historic St. James, Missouri, we are – as its web site explains – “sucked up” into visiting the world’s first vacuum cleaner museum.  Its curator and founder, Tom Gasko, welcomes us at the door and orients us with enthusiasm to his vast collection of  hundreds of vacuum cleaners – from vintage pre-electric ones of the early 20th century to today’s digitized models.  There are uprights, carpet sweepers, handhelds, and curvilinear ones with an Art Deco vibe. Tom tells us that his passion for vacuum cleaners began as a young man when he sold them door-to-door. He eventually amassed a huge collection and commandeered a corner of a vacuum cleaner factory to house and share it.

Rich at the Vacuum Cleaner Museum in St. James, Missouri

For each decade, the museum includes furniture, posters, advertising, and of course, carpet, of the era. We meander through room after room of a virtual time machine of the 20th century. A 30s magazine ad for “The Hoover” depicts an image of a bride and groom with the caption “Wife yes….but now housewife too!  We want you to save your back. A Young Wife starting out should have The Hoover.”  Advertising from the 50s shows a woman carrying her mint green Eureka like an electric handbag, vacuuming in a bright purple dress and high heels. There are pink Hoovers advertised as the perfect Mother’s Day gift.  A Bissell Little Queen toy set of the 60s appeals to little girls. A turquoise canister rolls around like a giant caterpillar gobbling up dirt. By the time the gleaming chrome Star Wars models of the late 70s were in vogue, the vacuuming women in pearls were fading memories.

Driving further down Route 66 to Eastern New Mexico, we detour eighty miles from the main highway to the small cowtown of Clovis, where the late music producer Norman Petty is credited with discovering and recording such rockabilly giants as Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Waylon Jennings, and Roy Orbison. The NorVaJak Music Studio, named for the three musicians of the Norman Petty Trio of the early 50s − Norman, wife Virginia, and a guitarist named Jack – developed what became known as the “Clovis Sound” of early rock ‘n’ roll. In 1957, Petty recorded “That’ll Be the Day” with 21-year old Buddy Holly and his Crickets, who hailed from Lubbock, Texas, two hours away.

Today in dusty Clovis, NorVaJak stands as a proud time capsule of those heady days. We’ve arranged a private visit. The morning of our scheduled tour, Rich and I park in front of the locked storefront. A lone tumbleweed bounces down deserted W. 7th Street.

We walk around the building and find no tour guide. We wait. Fifteen minutes later, a trim grey-haired man in his late 70s appears, wearing a crisp blue and white striped dress shirt, blue jeans, and a hand-tooled leather and silver belt. We introduce ourselves to Rev. Kenneth Broad, a Chicago native who transplanted to New Mexico and eventually became pastor, business manager, and best friend to Norman Petty. On his deathbed in 1984, Norman asked Ken to become the caretaker of NorVaJak, to maintain it as a loving tribute to a consequential era in American music and culture. Today Ken’s active ministry is the recording studio, his congregation the pilgrims who travel to pay homage. The guestbook is filled with addresses from around the world.

Rich and I wait in the small foyer while Ken readies the studio. Off in the corner stands a classic red Coke machine filled with 8 oz. bottles, seemingly at attention since the Eisenhower years. The wall is a shrine to the music created here: an album cover of the Norman Petty Trio, framed sheet music of “Maybe Baby,” gold discs celebrating hits of American popular music. A wall clock constructed from an old 33-1/3 rpm record album is frozen at 11:59.

Rev. Ken Broad in the control room at NorVaJak Music Studio

Ken ushers us into the control room of the studio, a sacristy of the Clovis Sound. Rich sits in front of the control board with a bank of knobs and dials that resemble a mid-century airplane cockpit.

“You’re about to hear something very special,” Ken says.

The room vibrates to the original 1957 master tape of “That’ll Be the Day.” Buddy’s voice is so clear, so strong, that it feels as though he might be in the room − right here and now. I shiver, both from vibration and from emotion. I close moist eyes and sway to the sound:

“Well, that’ll be the day, when you say goodbye
Yes, that’ll be the day, when you make me cry
You say you’re gonna leave, you know it’s a lie
‘Cause that’ll be the day when I die….”

In the adjacent performance studio, guitars now stand at the ready where once the Crickets stood.  The original sheet music is stacked patiently on the upright piano, waiting to again be played.  A framed photo of four young men on the street in London in 1958 depicts Buddy with his trademark horn-rimmed glasses. On the wall is the front page of the February 3, 1959 edition of the Mason City Globe-Gazette with the shocking headline: “Four Killed in Clear Lake Plane Crash.”  That day was immortalized in Don McLean’s “American Pie” as “the day the music died.”

Ken leads us around to the back of the studio, to the small apartment where Buddy and the Crickets stayed when they were in Clovis to record. It’s been left virtually unchanged since then.  The blond wood stereo console and 45 rpm recording of “True Love Ways” are now sixty years old. The tea set on the round formica-topped table could be waiting for Buddy to sit down to breakfast.

Buddy does not appear, but Dave Bingham, one of his later back-up singers from a group called The Roses, does.  Dave, who looks to be about eighty now, wears a baseball cap emblazoned with the name of a local casino and a polo shirt with an embroidered decal of the American flag.  He tells us that The Roses traveled with Buddy on his UK tour in March 1958, the tour that included the legendary concert at the London Palladium. Two Liverpool teenagers named Paul and John were unable to attend the live concert on March 2, but had sprawled in front of the telly, transfixed. The concert inspired what a few years later would become the most famous rock band in history.

Rich with Dave Bingham at NorVaJak Studio

Dave, along with Ken, Tom, and Ramona, are the Caretakers.  Each of them glows with a passion to preserve these living, breathing testaments to a time when a naïve West Texas singer-songwriter and his producer launched a distinctive sound that, decades later, reverberates still.

The Caretakers remind us that not all priceless artifacts are found in big cities or in glass museum cases.  Nor must they carry eye-popping price tags on Sotheby auction blocks. The true value of these historic treasures of Americana may lie in the ideas of freedom, escape, creativity, and innovation that they symbolize.

In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck captures it well: “How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?”


On the Mother Road 



Welcoming the Stranger

“How was your flight?” asks the twenty-something taxi driver.

“It’s nice to be home, thanks.” I answer from the back seat.

I note his Arabic accent, and as I often do with taxi drivers, ask him about his home country.

“Born and raised in Dubai, but my parents are from Palestine,” he says. “You know Dubai?”

“My former company has an office there, so I visited it often.  I love the spice market.  By the way, my name is Anne.”


My spice market reference apparently confers an instant Dubai credibility. Soon our conversation is off and running.

Ahmed loves the Chicago Symphony, which is why I am hearing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on the radio. Cruising up and down Lake Shore Drive is a past-time he enjoys in his off-hours. His English language classes challenge and motivate him. His dream is to become an accountant.

I tell him that I’ve been to his familial homeland, the Palestinian Territory in the West Bank.

“You’ve been to Palestine?”

“Yes, in Nablus, for a meeting at the Ministry of Health.  In the evening, a young doctor invited my boss and me to dinner at his house.”

“So how you like Arabic food?”

“I love it, especially Oum Ali pudding. The doctor’s wife cooked us an amazing feast, sort of like our Thanksgiving dinner here.”

“My mother cook Oum Ali. My favorite.”

We discuss whether a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine will ever be realized. Ahmed tells me that he often listens to NPR to keep up on the news about the region. His parents left Israel’s West Bank for Dubai in order to seek a safer environment in which to raise a family. We share thoughts on the Syrian refugee crisis and whether America is doing enough to help.

Once we arrive at my house, Ahmed carries my suitcase through the snow to the top of my front porch. He extends his hand to shake mine.

“Tonight I am homesick for my mom and dad. Talking to you really help me.  Plus I practice my English.  Thank you too much.”

Our forty-minute conversation reaffirms my belief in the many points of connection possible between people from wildly different backgrounds as far as countries of origin, religion, and culture. Throughout my twenty-five year career in international health, I’ve been honored to meet many Muslim professional colleagues and gain some as friends. I’ve traveled to the Middle East at least a dozen times.  Without exception I’m treated with genuine hospitality and warmth.  I come as a stranger, but I am welcomed.

My first trip to Saudi Arabia twenty years ago was my introduction.  My cheeks burned, when I automatically extended my hand to a male hospital director who refused to shake it.  But relief spread over me when he put his right hand over his heart and bowed his head to me.

Out at a small hospital in the Arabian Desert, I was hosted as the guest of honor, something I learned was rare for women, even those who are invited foreign guests.  During the luncheon at the hospital, I was presented with a sheep’s head on a platter. My culinary curiosity stopped short of munching on the eyeballs generally reserved for the honored guest, but I tasted and enjoyed fermented goat milk, cardamom coffee, and an array of dates. I began to gain an appreciation for the history and culture that was almost completely passed over in my American education, an appreciation that deepened with every visit.

On my first trip to Dubai, my assigned guide and host was Ghada, a quality specialist at the regional health authority. Over tea in my hotel lobby on the afternoon of my arrival, she mentioned that she had attended college in the U.S.

“Which college?” I asked.

“The University of Iowa. You know it?”

“I graduated from there!” I exclaimed.

“We’re college sisters then,” Ghada replied, a huge smile on her face.

One afternoon after our meetings at the Dubai hospitals, Ghada insisted on taking me on a guided tour of her favorite gold souk or jewelry marketplace, followed by a formal tea on a hotel terrace along Jumeirah Beach, overlooking the Persian Gulf.  We shared more about our Iowa college experiences and our family history and life.  We had both recently lost our mothers, to whom we had been very close.  We talked about grief.  She told me that she had stopped wearing the veil during the time she was in college and graduate school in America, but resumed the practice after making the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca. I realized that the veil is not so unlike the mantillas and chapel veils that I used to wear to Catholic Mass as a child.  We shared much in common.

Two years ago, in response to an essay I had published on my blog about my childhood memories of a lake cabin in Eastern Iowa, Ghada wrote me:

Dear Anne:
Thank you for sharing.  What a wonderful nostalgic story!  Despite being from the other side of the world, I enjoyed your memories so much and for a while lived them with you. They also brought back ones of my own.  Very similar loving memories of family: Mom, Dad, my Grandma, my aunt, and brothers.  Unforgettable sounds of laughter and songs…. views and smells of citrus fruits in our weekend house in Jericho.  1967 came along, the six day war…… the occupation….it put a stop to all that childhood fun. We could no more go there again.  Our house is now someone else’s memory lane.  The memories though, like yours, still sweet and wonderfully engraved in my heart and mind. 
Thank you again for sharing,


In 2005, a volunteer in the process of cataloging tens of thousands of Jewish refugee requests before World War II discovered a previously unknown and heartbreaking file that contained numerous requests for asylum beginning in 1941, all sent by a Dutch man named Otto Frank.  An endless maze of regulations and anti-refugee sentiment in the U.S. in the late 30s and early 40s prevented the Frank family and many others from ever reaching America.

In his powerful 2016 essay “Anne Frank Today is a Syrian Girl,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote:

“The obstacle was an American wariness toward refugees that outweighed sympathy. After the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom against Jews, a poll found that 94 percent of Americans disapproved of Nazi treatment of Jews, but 72 percent still objected to admitting large numbers of Jews.

The reasons for the opposition then were the same as they are for rejecting Syrians or Hondurans today: We can’t afford it. We should look after Americans first. We can’t accept everybody.  They’ll take American jobs. They’re dangerous and different.”

Last week I read that an entire gated senior community in Florida was terrified that a migrant caravan of Hondurans fleeing gang threats and violence in their own country was about to invade them.  Many in the caravan are barefoot women and children who can no longer subsist on $5/day.  In reality, the caravan and the gated community are thousands of miles apart.  The true risk is nil.  However, the exaggerated threat of the caravan became one of the top issues in the midterm elections – that is, until the day after the elections, when the major news outlet obsessing about this story moved on to another manufactured crisis.

But damage has been done. Anti-immigrant sentiment is by far the strongest it has been in my lifetime. We’ve seen embarrassing anti-immigration sentiment embraced as government policy, from travel bans to a drastic reduction in the numbers of refugees allowed to enter the United States. The Administration announced new rules that will further restrict longstanding asylum laws that provide opportunity for those fleeing persecution in their home countries. Taken together, these policies and executive orders seek to reduce all forms of immigration to our country – both legal as well as illegal – to a historic low level. The devastating impact on hundreds of thousands of refugees, immigrants, and their families is enormous.

Do we Americans remember with remorse the deadly consequences of our anti-immigration policies from decades ago – the ones that restricted entry by the Frank family and many others?  Will we look back on today’s political decisions with the same shame that we now feel about policies toward Jews before World War II? Will our societal fears cause us to once again demonize the Stranger? Will our nation built by immigrants build a wall and slam the gate shut, with those already here safely on the inside? Today we still have a chance to avoid the tragic anti-immigration mistakes of the past.

Nick Kristof was right.  Anne Frank today is a Syrian girl. A Honduran toddler. A Congolese teenager. A Palestinian taxi driver.

In the America to which I aspire, we embrace all the Anne Franks of the world. We welcome the Stranger.


A Railroad Man

Milwaukee Road rail yard, Dubuque, Iowa, early November 1918.

It’s lookin’ like rain in them dark clouds off in the west.  Before you know it, Thanksgiving’ll be here.  When you’re out on the tracks all day, a November drizzle can seep inside your bones and make ’em shake like some baby’s rattle.  Luckily, after almost twenty years on the railroad, I’m ready for just about any weather.  You’d have to be or you’d never survive.

Busy day in the yards.  Seventy-car freight train in from Prairie du Chien, headed south to Rock Island.  Cattle from Wisconsin, hogs and chickens from Iowa. I’m a switchman, the guy who operates the signals and switches.  I also move the cars around and make sure that they’re headed in the right direction.  It’s hard work.  Dangerous.  Last week one of the guys in my crew slipped on a tie and broke his leg in two places. I’ve been lucky.  At least so far.  Winter is the worst. We’re out here in snow and ice storms. Last January, it got down to 20 below zero and I damn near froze my nose off.

Overall though, I can’t complain much.  I’m proud to be a third generation train man. Like lots of Irish escaping the potato famine, in the 1850s my Grandpa Charlie came direct to Eastern Iowa and found a job on the railroad.  When he was old enough, my pop Henry followed him to the rail yard.  They were lucky, ‘cause back in them days, many businesses had signs up that said “No Irish Need Apply.”  But I guess the railroads knew a good worker when they saw one. The Irish who got to America after the famine were like oxen.  Tough and resilient.

Dubuque is a railroad town.  Four railroads – the Illinois Central, the Chicago, Milwaukee, & St. Paul,  the Chicago & Great Western, and the Burlington – all come through here.  I sorta grew up in the rail yard down along the Mississippi, watching Pop in his job as yardmaster for the Illinois Central.  The summer I turned eighteen, he helped me snare a job, laying down ties in good weather.  That was 1900. It helps when you’re 6 foot 2 and play baseball.  Man, I got me some good biceps that summer. I’ve worked for the railroad ever since, moving over to the C, M, and St. P back in 1909.

I grew up in Ward 1 in the south end of town, on Bluff Street near St. Raphael’s Cathedral, where all the Irish immigrants lived then.  They called the neighborhood Little Dublin.  We had our own Irish Savings Bank, our own taverns, and of course, our own Catholic churches with schools.  The Germans were on the north end of town, with their own churches, taverns, and the German Savings Bank.  We didn’t much care for each other. In fact, twenty years ago, we even had some gang wars across town.

That’s why when I met Minnie at a dance in 1907, I wasn’t sure if I should even ask her out.  She was soft and pretty and fun, but a north-sider, German, and Lutheran.  My folks might have been okay with it, but I knew her pa was strict and proper. He probably thought all Irish loved their whiskey too much and propped up street lamps at midnight.  That no Irishman could be trusted to hold down a job.  So I never officially asked her out.  But Minnie and I kept on meeting up at dances and at The Back Page, the saloon at the Page Hotel at 4th and White Streets, where young folks came to play euchre and drink a beer or two. We liked each other.

At a New Year’s Eve party at The Back Page, a group of us regular euchre players decided to take the train down to New Orleans for the Mardi Gras. Railroad men got free tickets on a train.  We itched for some adventure, and were lured south by the stories of the riverboat gamblers.  Maybe the bubbles of our New Year’s Eve celebration went to our heads.  It took some doin’, but I finally convinced Minnie and her friend Lizzie to come along.

The Mardi Gras was a whole different ballgame than Dubuque.  Nobody cared who was Irish and who was German.  Catholic or Lutheran.  South Side or North Side.  We got caught up in the festivities and who knows, probably had a bit too much to drink.  On March 11, 1908, Minnie and I snuck away from the group and found a Justice of the Peace for the City of New Orleans and got ourselves hitched.  She was twenty, I was twenty five.  It was our secret.  Even our friends didn’t know.  On the train back to Dubuque, Minnie thought the better of it.  How could she face her stern father and tell him that she had eloped at the Mardi Gras?  She couldn’t.

We each went back to live with our parents, not saying a word.  We still played Friday night euchre at The Back Page and picnicked with friends on the sandbar at Ice Harbor. I snatched some kisses whenever I could, but that’s about it.  But Minnie eventually spilled the beans to her friend Lizzie and that was the end of our secret.  After six months, we finally got to live together as man and wife.

That’s when I moved out of Little Dublin.  Minnie’s folks built us a new house at 2540 Broadway Street, just four doors down from them, in Holy Ghost Parish. In 1910, our twin girls were stillborn. My Grandma Margaret Murphy Rooney said that was God’s punishment for us not being married in the Catholic Church. That technically, we were living in sin.  She finally put her foot down and marched us over to Archbishop Keane at St. Raphael’s, who married us in the chapel with just two witnesses. One of them was Lizzie.

Arthur & Minnie Rooney with witness Lizzie; Catholic wedding day

I guess it “took” this time, because Art came along in 1913 and Billy in 1916. To be married in the Church, Minnie had to agree to raise our kids Catholic. By that time, it was too late to back out of the deal, so she agreed.  But she still walks with her folks and younger sisters down to St. Paul’s Lutheran Church every Sunday morning while I stay home with the boys.  We have what you might call a mixed marriage, at least by Dubuque standards.

Thank God, there’s the clang of the big iron lunch bell. I finally get to warm up a little on the bench in the station house.  Let’s see what’s in that lunch pail today.  Oh good, a ham sandwich, some carrots, and a jar of tea. Minnie’s a baker and always packs me some of my favorite frosted ginger cream cookies.  Nobody makes ginger creams like she does. They’re soft with molasses and heavy on the spice. Now I think of Minnie whenever I smell cinnamon. She takes good care of me.

The yardmaster is outside the station house, talking to a man carrying around a bunch of camera stuff.  What’s that you say, one of those roving photographers is here to take our picture?  What for?  Maybe one of the bosses wants it. Well now, that’s really something, preserving our ugly mugs for history. That’s a first.

Time to round up the crew to get our picture taken.  C’mon guys, let’s stand here over in front of Big Bertha – ol’ switch car No. 1190 − and look like we know what we’re doing.  The photographer mounts his camera on a big wooden folding stand.  He sits me down on a turned over metal bucket and tells us all to hold still.  Oh well, for posterity, I guess I can sit here in the cold for awhile.  After all, knows where this picture might end up?


River Lights Bookstore, Dubuque, Iowa, early September 2018.

“Mim, check this out.”

“What are you looking at?”

“This picture from 1918.”

“Who are you looking at?”

“Just look at the guy in the back on the right.”

“Oh my God.  It’s Grandpa Rooney.  He looks just like Dad.”

Exactly one hundred years after that chilly November day in the rail yard, two granddaughters finally see this photo of their grandfather, in a book called Railroads of Dubuque. He died before one granddaughter was even born, but in that photo she senses the kind of man he was.  She sees his piercing eyes and strong jaw. His sturdy jacket. His pride in being a railroad man, in being Irish. She feels as though he is looking right at her, silently saying, “This is what you’re made of.”


Goodbye to St. Anne

“Sancte Michael, Ora pro nobis. Sancte Gabriel, Ora pro nobis. Sancte Raphael, Ora pro nobis…”

The stories of the saints were as much a part of my childhood as the tales of Nancy Drew. I felt that I knew Bernadette.  Francis of Assisi. Dominic Savio. My patron saint, St. Anne, was the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so I considered my personal saint lineage extra holy.  I was related by name to Catholic royalty.

For All Saints Day in the second grade, my teacher, Sister Cecily, encouraged us to come dressed as our patron saint.  This was almost as exciting as dressing for Halloween the night before.  My seamstress wizard of a mother was pressed into service.  Mom dyed some old sheets and whipped up a suitable St. Anne costume.  On November 1st, I paraded my way down Central Avenue to school in a saintly toga and veil.

To be Catholic in those days was something special, although at least 85 percent of my hometown claimed that affiliation. In my town, you were known by your Catholic geography − less by your address or neighborhood than by your parish. My parish was Holy Ghost. My father was baptized there in 1913, attended the same grade school that I did forty years later, and remained a congregant for 86 years, through to his funeral Mass.

Catholic traditions permeated every aspect of our family life. We went to 9:30 Mass every Sunday and knelt together as a family in the living room to pray the rosary every night in October, a month dedicated to the Holy Rosary.  The opening strains of Dies irae, the Gregorian chant that the 7th and 8th graders sang at parish funerals, are indelible in my memory. During Lent, I kept a shoe box of candies and bubble gum that I had “given up” for the season, only to be relished come Easter Sunday. Friday nights brought a revolving menu of 101 meatless recipes.  To this day, I still love tomato bisque soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.

In Dubuque, one was either Catholic or “non-Catholic.”  My German Lutheran grandmother Minnie fell into the latter category, a source of much dismay to me as a child.  Every night when I said my prayers before I climbed into bed, I’d throw in a hopeful “Please make Grandma ‘come a Catholic.”  I wanted her to be waiting for me in Heaven when I arrived some day.

But she was as staunch in her own belief as the rest of my family was in ours, in fact, so unwilling to change that she refused to be buried next to my grandfather at Mt. Calvary cemetery, something we joke about to this day. Grandma wouldn’t be caught dead in the Catholic cemetery. She refused to vote for Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election because she feared the Pope would direct him from the Vatican, a heated topic of discussion around our dinner table. How dare she cancel out my dad’s Kennedy vote by voting for Nixon!  Not only was Kennedy a Catholic, but we’d get a twofer − he was Irish too.  She obviously did not understand that ours was the one true Church, the one dating back to its founding by St. Peter himself.  Not by some Johnny-come-lately like Martin Luther.

Catholicism was my tribe. I felt safe, protected, and nurtured by the nuns who taught us. They were early mentors who affirmed my intelligence and stressed that I could grow up to be whatever I set my mind to – perhaps the first woman President.  But of course not a priest.  That was never even questioned.  Priests were respected and admired at a distance. Throughout my eight years of Catholic grade school, my classmates and I dutifully attended morning Mass before the start of our school day five days a week. Sunday mornings I attended Mass with my family. I made my confession to one of our parish priests at least once a month, even those months when my sins were so lame as to forget to immediately mail a birthday card – and then lying to my mother that I had.

Beyond the rituals and the traditions of my Catholic faith, I absorbed an ethical code from my teachers and my parents. That code remains with me still. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Tell the truth.  Do the right thing whether or not someone else is looking. Don’t cheat. Leave the world better than you found it. Be kind.

I emerged from my Catholic chrysalis in my early twenties and discovered that there were many ways of being in the world.  Partly that was coming of age in the time of much societal, particularly student, turbulence, driven by events that questioned all authority. I entered college just a year after the massacre of innocent students at Kent State. Institutions and authorities that I had once accepted as truth were now fallible to me. The real world did not so neatly divide into the Catholics and the “non-Catholics.”  The ethics that I always associated with my Catholic faith were not all that different from those of the Protestant and Jewish friends whom I met at college. Or those of the Unitarian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, or atheist friends I later met as an adult. Catholicism itself no longer granted a cloak of moral authority that I had always taken for granted.

Through my adult eye, I began to question many of the structures and rules that I had always accepted, from the fact that women cannot be priests to the Church’s teachings on contraception, abortion, and homosexuality. Divorced Catholics were forbidden from participating in the Sacraments, which struck me as unnecessarily cruel and exclusive. These views did not agree with my own.  The Mass in which I had once found comfort now seemed only formulaic. I chafed under rules for rules’ sake. Catholicism eventually lost its grip on me.

For two decades, I had no formal spiritual home.  Mostly this did not bother me, yet through my hospice work, I often found myself ministering in some way to people at the end of life. I was still interested in the big questions of life and meaning.  A part of me still searched.

A minister friend who is Quaker asked me about this apparent vacuum of a spiritual home during a soul-searching lunch conversation. I told him that as a child I had always believed in the concept of grace, but that grace had apparently left me. I no longer had a faith community to which I belonged. He challenged me – that I still clung to a child’s view of God, suggesting that it was perfectly acceptable to explore other faith traditions and practices that might prove to be a better fit with my adult self.  He recommended that I check out a Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation in my community, one that is especially well-known for its home in a landmark Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building.

From my very first experience there, I knew that I had found kindred spirits. Unitarian Universalism strongly focuses on living one’s values in the world through a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Social justice activities and personal spiritual journeys are emphasized − rather than dogma, sins, and commandments.  It pleased me that esteemed figures such as Thoreau, Emerson, Clara Barton, and Pete Seeger had all been either Unitarian or Universalist. Soon I had claimed a new tribe.

But Catholicism will always be a helix in my spiritual DNA.  Even though I identify myself as Unitarian, when asked, my first inclination is to say that I grew up Catholic – not in a mocking way, but with a respect for my tradition as well as the realization that my own spiritual path diverged. However, when I’ve read about the recently publicized horrors inflicted on vulnerable and trusting children by predator priests, it has shocked me to my core. Not only did these abuses continue over decades, sometimes by priests who were shuffled from parish to parish, unleashed on unsuspecting parishioners – but the Church as an institution knew about it, actively sought to conceal it, and silenced its victims.

Recently I read with outrage the Grand Jury report of child sexual abuse that occurred over seventy years in Pennsylvania. Over one thousand victims were identified. Many more were suspected. Over three hundred predator priests.  Suicides were noted in the report as tragic outcomes – of both victims and their perpetrators. Church officials followed a “playbook for concealing the truth,” the Grand Jury said, minimizing the abuse by using words such as “inappropriate contact” instead of rape. Priests untrained in sexual abuse cases were assigned to investigate their colleagues. Communities were not informed of the real reasons behind removing an accused priest.

One case cited in the Grand Jury report involved a priest who raped a seven-year old girl while visiting her in the hospital after she had her tonsils removed. Another priest forced a nine-year-old boy to give him oral sex, then rinsed out the boy’s mouth with holy water to purify him. One victim was tied up and whipped with leather straps by a priest. Another priest was allowed to remain in the ministry after impregnating a young girl and arranging for her to have an abortion. I was so horrified that I could not continue on, even though there were hundreds of pages in the report left to read.

The Pennsylvania cases stretched back to the 1940s, with some victims still alive and able to finally speak openly about the abuse they endured.  Many of the cases occurred in the 1950s and ’60s, during the same time that I was proudly walking to school as St. Anne. To my knowledge, I’ve never personally come into contact with an abusive priest. However, a national database of clergy accused of sexual abuse includes a priest who served at Holy Ghost parish during the time my older brothers attended school there. Even Dubuque was not immune.

These were not the actions of just a few bad apples who managed to slip through. It has been a systemic culture of patriarchy, abuse of power, secrecy, and cover-up. The price has been enormous, both individually and collectively. Thousands of suffering victims, reported and unreported.  Lawsuits by abuse victims have so far forced dioceses and religious orders in the United States to pay settlements totaling more than $3 billion. Nineteen dioceses and religious orders have filed for bankruptcy protection due to the financial burden of settlements.  About 27 percent of former Catholics who no longer identify with a religion cite clergy sexual abuse scandals as a reason for leaving the Church, according to Pew Research in 2015.

The affection and warmth with which I’ve looked back on my Catholic childhood now seems increasingly distant. I remain torn between a desire to still claim those parts that I’ve always appreciated – my ethics, my education, my teachers – and my rage at the horrendous dark side that was permitted to fester like a hidden abscess for generations. But perhaps some part of me still wants to cling to a kernel of good that exists in the Church –  like some children search for elusive love from an abusive parent, a parent who violated others but not them.

I have dear friends and extended family that still practice the Catholic faith with devotion. I do not question their sincerity. I say only that for myself, I no longer make excuses for the Church’s legacy of complicity, destroying the trust of thousands of innocent children. I want a divorce.

St. Anne has finally handed back her toga and veil.

Please, God Bless America

“It’s a long way to Tipperary, it’s a long way to go….”

Summer, 2002. The world was still reeling from the terrorist attacks on 9/11.  The organization where I worked as an executive hosted an intensive five-day training program on improving hospital quality and safety.  Fifty guests from around the world traveled to Chicago to attend this program.

On the evening before our last day of training, our team hosted a private dinner. More than twenty-five countries were represented, as diverse as Trinidad, Ireland, Saudi Arabia, and China.  During the course of the week, new friendships had formed.  Spirits were high at our farewell dinner.

Over dessert and coffee, a gregarious fellow from Galway suggested that individuals or national groups stand and sing a folk or otherwise special song from their country. He and his Irish colleagues started us off with great vigor: “It’s a long way to Tipperary, it’s a long way to go.….”

Seated next to the Irish group, a Trinidadian man with dreadlocks simulated steel drums on the table and beat out an island rhythm with two knives. The Chinese delegation sang a song of two lovers parting when the man leaves to fight a war.  The singers waved white dinner napkins, symbolizing the woman tearfully saying goodbye to her soldier.

Each attendee was eager to share something unique and precious from their home country. After every song, the entire group clapped and cheered. Most attendees were on their feet and moving around the room to surround the table whose turn it was to sing. No country was missed.

Finally we were down to the host country, the United States. My team huddled in the center of the room, conferring on what song could serve as our “national folk song.”

No consensus. “Well, we really don’t have a national folk song per se…” we told the group.

“What about God Bless America?” yelled out a gentleman from Jordan.

He began to sing. “God bless America, land that I love/ Stand beside her and guide her/ Through the night with the light from above….”

Soon the entire group encircled my team and sang it with us. They all seemed to know it.  My own throat was thick. I had difficulty releasing the words.  By the time we reached the ending line of “God bless America, my home sweet home,” I was only mouthing them. My cheeks were streaked with tears.

In 2002, my tears reflected the pride I held for my country.  Pride and gratitude that all these attendees – some from totalitarian regimes – would be so eager to travel to America to learn how to improve the quality of health care in their countries.  Our guests so clearly admired America – our freedom of speech, our freedom of the press, our freedom of religion. They admired our government, with its openness and a Constitution respected the world over.  They admired our free and fair elections.  Our respect for the rule of law.  I’ve been often amazed that my international friends and colleagues knew as much, and sometimes even more, about American politics as most Americans did.

Especially admired was our long legacy of warmly welcoming immigrants and refugees, a sentiment enshrined on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty as “Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free….”  These guests were horrified by the 9/11 attacks, as every American had been. They wanted to show their solidarity and support by singing a song that reflected deep admiration and respect.

A great deal has changed in sixteen years.

July 4, 2018.  I join in singing God Bless America during the Capital Fourth celebration on public television.

Again I weep.

Now my tears are for what I fear we are losing every day – a respect for each other, for the truth, for a free press, for an independent judiciary. I no longer feel so blessed. Instead, I feel angry and ashamed.

I had just read parts of a New York Times article to my husband about the centennial of the writing of God Bless America by Russian refugee Irving Berlin. I shared the memory of the poignant 2002 experience of international visitors singing it to me.

“I wonder. Would every one of those attendees from 2002 stand and sing this anthem in 2018?  Some of them could not even get into the country.”

Rich replies, “But why would they even want to attend now?”

No longer is this the country those foreign guests admired − even loved − in 2002.  A recent Resolute Reads email message sent by the White House notes, “The Trump administration beat the president’s goal of trimming new refugee admissions from the 100,000 brought in by former President Obama, slashing the population by 66 percent. In fact, for the first time, the U.S. resettled fewer refugees than the rest of the world.”

A shameful boast.

The country whose greatness was built by generations of immigrants now slams the door in their faces, even in those faces of desperate refugees fleeing persecution and death. We separate families.  We cage toddlers and expect them to represent themselves in court hearings.

America was never perfect.  Our flawed legacy includes many shameful periods of discrimination: slavery, Jim Crow, the genocide of Native Americans, the rejection of Jewish refugees before and after World II, Japanese internment camps, the disgraceful exploitation of migrant farm workers, and more.

Still, I am aghast that the country that once stood as a global exemplar on human rights now withdraws from the United Nations’ Human Rights Council.  We launch inexplicable trade wars and turn our back on our closest allies of the last seventy years, threatening to abandon NATO.  Much of the free world contemplates in horror the possibility that the United States may be sliding into fascism.

There is a new urgency to the beloved anthem that Berlin wrote a century ago. God, please bless America. Please save us from ourselves.

Nothing Prepares You for This

There are never enough beds.

Seventy women lie side by side on the floor of a hospital ward intended for thirty patients.  Some sleep on torn brown blankets on the cement floor. Those lucky enough to have a bed have neither sheets nor a pillow, only a wafer thin blue striped mattress on which to spend their final days.  The stench of bodily fluids, along with groans, chokes the air.  Sunken glazed eyes follow our team as we move through.

Two exhausted nurses care for this entire ward. Medications are scarce. Staff report limited availability of soap and clean water. I am astonished to learn that the monthly health care budget for an entire district of 100,000 people is the equivalent of just a hundred dollars. Little more than a penny per person per year for health care.

This hospital is in the Copper Belt region of Zambia, near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo and close to the Equator.  I’m here on a project to improve the quality of hospital standards throughout the country. Today we are pilot-testing the most basic standards – hand-washing, medication safety, waste disposal − in order to see if Zambian hospitals can possibly meet them.

The petite head doctor, an Irish nun, seems to have seen it all in her twenty-five years as a missionary here. She notes with a rueful shake of her head, “You never get used to it.”  She explains that most of these patients likely have AIDS as well as other diseases such as tuberculosis or malaria.  But because the hospital cannot afford the lab tests, no one really knows.  

Perhaps that is for the best.  AIDS carries a huge stigma, especially out here in the rural areas.  Another doctor tells me “A lady with AIDS was murdered in a nearby village.  They came at night with a machete. No one wants the curse.”

The hospital has essentially become one giant hospice.

I’ve worked for fifteen years in the hospice field in the U.S., but nothing has prepared me for this. This is not health care.

I recall the standards development workshop that our team held a few months before with the staff of the Ministry of Health.  What were we thinking – that we could suggest what seemed like even simple ways to improve the quality and safety of hospital care?  Under these circumstances?  What could possibly make a difference?

That evening, back at my hotel, I spray the flea-infested blanket on my bed with the insecticide I carry in my suitcase.  Despite the heat, I climb into bed wearing sweat pants, gloves, and a hooded sweatshirt with the string tied tightly under my chin to ward off the insects, leaving just enough of an opening to see and breathe.

I remember my first experience of Africa a few years before.  I was on a consulting assignment assessing the quality of medical care and health facilities protecting Peace Corps volunteers in both Chad and Gabon.  Before the trip, I thought I’d seen poverty up close. As a nurse, I’d visited homes with dirt floors in rural Mississippi, dilapidated farmhouses in Appalachia, and housing projects in the Bronx. I was ready.

My physician colleague had chuckled and shook his head.

“Anne, Anne. You think you know.  But nothing will prepare you for what you will see in Africa. Nothing.”

He was right. Even after a decade of working in Africa, I never completely got over my initial shock − or my sense of injustice.  Injustice about the homegrown dictators who plunder their countries, leaving hundreds of millions of citizens shackled to extreme poverty. The pillage from European colonialists who profited from the vast reserves of diamonds and copper, while justifying their foreign occupation as “civilizing the savages.”  Injustice – outrage – about the slave trade, which for centuries destroyed the fabric of many African families.

During my time in Zambia in the late ‘90s, I learned that there were one million AIDS orphans in a population of just nine million people. Twenty years later, little has changed. Children as young as five lived on the streets and on their own, begging for food. Simple wooden caskets were available everywhere along the roads, because the demand was so great. One village’s crops were completely ruined by drought. Villagers ate rats for protein.

Back home in Chicago, I thought about this for a long while, every time I shopped at our local supermarket and saw dozens of different varieties of cereal lining the shelves. Freezer cases filled with fifty varieties of ice cream.  Every cut of meat imaginable, glistening in shiny plastic wrap. I was as overwhelmed by this as I was with my first glimpses of the rural farm stands in Zambia − a few potatoes and vegetables on a wooden table, two scrawny chickens in a cage nearby.

The poverty and despair I witnessed throughout my journeys in Africa often overwhelmed me. I found it difficult to absorb at times, yet did not want to ever numb myself to the experience of the people who live it every day.  At the very least, I wanted to be a caring observer who told others back home what she had seen. This was life as I had never known it before.

I often wondered how people kept going, day after day, somehow not paralyzed by unrelenting misery. Yet in spite of all the challenges, I also witnessed surprising pockets of generosity, courage, and humanity.

In Chad, a village woman brought our team a large pot of stewed okra for lunch and then beamed at our expressions of gratitude.  In South Africa, I met David, a young hospital administrator from Rwanda who had taught himself English in just six months.  Then with passion and urgency, he set about improving the quality and cleanliness of the Zulu district hospital he directed. The staff of a Zambian mission hospital, near where the famous Scottish missionary Dr. Livingstone had once lived, served me a morning break of tea and biscuits. Before returning to the routine of their day, they prayed together that wisdom from my visit would inspire them to provide better care for their patients.

For millions of African women, life is defined not just by poverty, but by centuries of gender inequality.  When I first visited Chad more than twenty years ago, a girl growing up there received on average just two months of formal education in her lifetime.  While some progress has been made in the years since, more recent data shows that the attendance levels of girls in lower secondary (middle) school hovers at just 12%. On the list of the worst rates of maternal mortality in the world, the top twenty five countries are all in Africa.  I saw women in labor who traveled for hours on the back of an ox cart in order to deliver a baby at a small district hospital or clinic. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 200 million women across the world, many of them in Africa, have been brutalized by the practice of Female Genital Mutilation, causing lifelong psychological and physical trauma. Many girls cannot attend school because of persistent bleeding, infection, and incontinence.

In the fifteen years since I have last been there, Africa has never left me. Yes, I remember the splendor of Victoria Falls and the magnificence of lions and hippos in the wild. The thrill of my first flight over the Sahara Desert on a cloudless summer day.  Meeting the elderly Zulu village chief, the day I delivered “A Message from America” on the Zulu radio station.  A faded photo shows me oceanside in Gabon, standing next to a sign that reads “Equator.”  All of these memories are indelible.

But what mostly remains from my experiences in Africa is a sense of profound injustice. As a child, I never had to wonder if there would be a next meal, or whether I would go to school, ride a bicycle, wear shoes. Here, children wonder if they will survive to the next week. What orphaned five year-old child should have to live and beg on the street? Walk past kiosks selling caskets every day? Or instead of snacking on cheese sticks and granola bars, eat rats to survive?

Nothing in my life prepared me for Africa. She changed me. Yet, from the safety and distance of my life in Chicago, what help can I offer now that will make even a dent?  Organizations such as Oxfam, Women for Women International, Doctors Without Borders and here at home in Chicago,  RefugeeOne, make a difference in the lives of real people – those who remain, as well as those who escape these desperate conditions to seek a better life elsewhere. I can support those refugees to establish new lives, hopefully of freedom and prosperity, in America. I can add my voice to protest travel bans against people who simply aspire to the kind of lives and opportunities that most Americans, including myself, take for granted.

Critical funding support to African countries also comes from international development agencies such as the United Nations, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the World Bank.  Even more so during an administration that threatens deep cuts to foreign aid, we must demand that our government continues to fund essential humanitarian initiatives supported by these agencies, in critical areas such as eradication of AIDS and malaria, child survival, family planning, and access to primary care. Among industrialized countries, the U.S. lags greatly, ranking twentieth in the world in per capita assistance (as percentage of Gross National Income) to developing countries. Sweden outpaces us by a factor of ten; even tiny Ireland’s per capita assistance is double that given by the United States. That is shameful.

I realize that any resources I can offer will always be infinitesimal in the whole scheme of things. It will never be enough. But “never enough” is not an excuse to do nothing.