The night before my older sister’s wedding,
my mother and I sat up late
hand-stitching a little cloud of netting
to the brim of each bridesmaid’s hat
To be alone with her was so rare
I couldn’t think of what I had to say.
We worked in silence beneath the chandelier
until it was almost daybreak.
Soon I’d have a room of my own
and she would only be cooking for six.
We drifted among the wreaths we had sewn,
nursing quietly on our fingertips.
That she still had me was a comfort,
I think. And I still had her.
“Sewing” by Sue Ellen Thompson from The Golden Hour. © Autumn House Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Today is the birthday of French poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire (1880) (books by this author), born Wilhelm Albert Vladimir Alexander Apollinaire de Kostrowitzky in Rome, Italy, to a former Italian military officer and a Polish noblewoman. Apollinaire’s mother brought him up on the French Riviera, where he spent considerable time in gambling halls and once pretended to be a Russian Prince.
At 20, he moved to Paris, where he taught, worked in an office, and fell in with a group of upstart, bohemian artists and writers like Pablo Picasso, Henri Rousseau, and Georges Braque. He loved the poetry of Verlaine and Mallarmé and began writing his own. One of his earliest poems, “Song of the Poorly Beloved,” sprang from a failed romance with an Englishwoman. Apollinaire was quite famous for his “ideogram” poetry, in which the text was both a picture and a poem. He used typography to shape the poem like the object described: a heart, a bird, a clock, the Eiffel Tower.
Apollinaire was dedicated to challenging the bourgeoisie. He even declared that the Louvre should be burnt down. He started a literary magazine, Les Soirées de Paris (1914), and wrote a book, The Cubist Painters (1913), extolling the virtues of Picasso and Braque. He could be a petty thief, too, and was once accused of stealing the famous painting Mona Lisa. He was arrested and jailed and pleaded with Picasso to speak up for him, but Picasso was frightened, too, and kept mum. Apollinaire was released after six days and the charges dropped. The culprit was an Italian housepainter who tried to sell the painting two years later.
Apollinaire is credited with coining the term “Surrealism,” about which he said, “We may expect it to bring about profound changes in our arts and manners through universal joyfulness.”
His play The Breasts of Tiresias was performed in Paris in 1917. On opening night, the audience had to wait two hours for the play to begin, forced to stare at the blue stage curtain. The queen of Paris literary life, Madame Rachilde, called out, “Enough of that blue!” The curtain parted and a woman appeared. She undid her blouse, revealing two gigantic, gas-filled balloons, which she ripped off and threw into the audience.
Apollinaire was determined to become a French national. He did so by volunteering to fight in World War I, where he sustained a serious head injury that left him temporarily paralyzed. He died of the Spanish flu in 1918.
Today is the birthday of American inventor Lee de Forest, born in Council Bluffs, Iowa (1873). His father was a clergyman who moved the family from Iowa to Alabama to take charge of Talladega College, a missionary school that welcomed anyone regardless of their gender or race. The white community rebuffed the de Forests for educating people of color, but Lee made lots of good friends among the African-American children of his town. The senior Mr. de Forest intended for his son to enter the clergy, but the boy favored the science lab over the pulpit. He received his Ph.D. in physics in 1899.
De Forest has been called “the father of radio” and “the grandfather of television” because he invented the Audion vacuum tube. Prior to the invention of the transistor in the 1940s, the Audion was the chief component involved in transmitting, receiving, and amplifying radio signals. He demonstrated this in 1910, when he broadcast a live performance of Enrico Caruso at the Metropolitan Opera. It took a while for people to envision the utility of his invention, though; in 1912 he was indicted for mail fraud, because he used the postal service to promote a “useless device.” He was acquitted.
In 1921, de Forest came up with a method to record sound on motion picture film. He tried — and failed — to interest moviemakers in the new technology. The first “talkie” was released in 1927, but it used a different method. Eventually the film industry came back around to de Forest’s idea, but by that time his business had long since folded.
Though he was a clever inventor, de Forest was not a savvy businessman, nor was he a keen judge of human character. Two of his businesses folded because his partners defrauded him. Eventually, he admitted defeat and sold his patents to communication companies like American Telephone and Telegraph Company — AT&T.
On this date in 1873, the St. Louis, Missouri, school board authorized the first public kindergarten in the United States. The driving force behind the kindergarten was Susan Blow. She was a highly intelligent but mostly self-educated woman who had grown up in a wealthy St. Louis family. When she took a trip to Germany after the American Civil War, she was impressed by the work of Friedrich Froebel. Froebel had developed what he dubbed a “kindergarten” — a garden of children, with teachers as the “gardeners.” Blow saw that in Froebel’s kindergartens, young children were learning language, math, and science concepts through play. She began studying everything she could get her hands on, intending to bring the kindergarten concept to the United States. “If we can make children love intellectual effort,” she wrote, “we shall prolong habits of study beyond school years.”
Blow’s father approached Dr. William Torrey Harris, the St. Louis school superintendent, about opening an experimental kindergarten. He agreed, and sent Susan Blow to New York to study for a year. She offered to direct the kindergarten for free, if the school board would provide her with a classroom and a teacher. She set up a bright, colorful classroom with kid-sized tables and benches. The kindergarten was a rousing success. Blow directed the kindergarten for 11 years, at her own expense and at the cost of her health; when she retired, the St. Louis schools were serving 9,000 kindergarteners. And by the time she died in 1916, more than 400 cities offered public kindergarten in their schools.
It’s the birthday of Roman Catholic nun and missionary Mother Teresa (1910), born Anjeze Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in Skopje, (modern Macedonia), which was then a part of the Ottoman Empire. Gonxhe means “rosebud” or “little flower” in Albanian. Mother Teresa’s father died when she was eight, plunging her family into poverty. But her mother was strong and had faith. And little Anjeze, born with a club foot, knew by the age of 12 that she had a religious calling.
She left home at 18 (1928) and joined the Sisters of Loreto at Loreto Abbey in Rathfarnham, Ireland. It was here that she learned English and how to teach geography, catechism, and history. She chose her name after Thérèse de Lisieux, the patron saint of missionaries. Another nun at Loreto was also named Therese, so Anjeze opted for the Spanish spelling of Teresa. She took her first religious vows as a nun in 1931. She never saw her mother or her sister again.
It was while she was teaching at a schoolhouse outside Calcutta that she began to be disturbed by the horrific poverty around her. She was riding a train from the convent to Calcutta when she had her first calling from God. She said: “I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order. To fail would have been to break the faith.”
Mother Teresa hung up her traditional habit and began wearing a simple white cotton sari with a blue border that cost $1. She’d learned nursing from the other nuns at the convent and soon began ministering to the poor, the sick, and the hungry on the streets of Calcutta. The first year, she had no income, had to beg for food and supplies, and often felt despair and loneliness. She persevered, though, and in two years, the Vatican gave her permission to start a congregation that would become the Missionaries of Charity.
She began with 13 sisters, who took vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, and promised to give “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor.” By the time of her death in 1997, Missionaries of Charity had grown to be a worldwide institution, with more than 4,000 workers in 133 countries. Mother Teresa opened orphanages, homes for those with tuberculosis and leprosy, soup kitchens, mobile health clinics, and schools. She opened hospices and homes for people dying of HIV/Aids and even opened shelters in Harlem and Greenwich Village. Once, during the Siege of Beirut in 1982, she rescued 36 children in a hospital on the front line by brokering a temporary cease-fire between the Israeli army and the Palestinian guerillas. When asked how she found time to do all her charity work, she said, “I work all day. That is the only way.”
Mother Teresa became an international symbol of benevolence in the 1970s, just after the documentary Beautiful for God (1969) was released. Suddenly, people all over the world knew who she was. She was interviewed by David Frost and Barbara Walters and earned the nickname “the Saint of the Gutters.” But she had her critics, too, especially those who felt her pro-life stance hurt the very people she was trying to lift from poverty. Vanity Fair journalist Christopher Hitchens felt she exploited the poor and even devoted a lengthy essay, The Missionary Position (1995), to debunking her work. When a British documentary called Hell’s Angel (1994) was released, Mother Teresa was not surprised by its critical view of her work. She only said, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In the 1960s, Pope Paul VI gave her a luxury limousine and she raffled it off and gave the proceeds to charity. She washed her own sari every day, by hand.
Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. She accepted the award, but asked that they cancel the gala dinner and donate the money to charity. The committee asked her what people should do to promote peace and she answered, “Go home and love your family.”
Mother Teresa said: “By blood, I am an Albanian. By citizenship, I am Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus.”