Category Archives: public education

Kathy O’Keefe Linger.

The name Kathy used to be the cool girl’s name.

This meant that, if you were named Kathy, you’d be born among your contemporaries into a sort of automatic class, like Jen or Ashley, who were just a few years ahead of the Carries, Caras, Carlies. You get it.

Only those of us named strangely felt this. The Frannies. The Ruth Anns.

Kathy.

Each of the Sweet girls, four sisters, daughters of Mae and Henry produced their brood post-WWII; and, the third born, Frances, absconding from the Plymouth Brethren to put down roots in radical Parma, Ohio, would be blessed late in life with Kathleen, the last of the grands, circa 1962.

And, our Kathy embodied cool like nobody.

Oh, not because she was a social follower. Kathy O’Keefe was anything but.

The Sweet genes, formidable enough, bestowed their lion’s share upon the daughters of their daughters. And, Kathy, the only “carrot top” in the bunch, was not to be overlorded or overshadowed by any of them.

From her earliest days, sending her signal through the whole extended family like a current, we would learn that Kathy had been born with a life threatening abnormality. Before anyone could comprehend “transplant”, some cutting edge surgeon from the trending Cleveland Clinic installed a replacement porcine aortic valve into her heart muscle.

Kathy wouldn’t just live. She would thrive, with a pig valve, for many years. Naturally energetic, loving the outdoors and as much physical activity as her teeming mind would allow she threw herself, headlong and whole heartedly, into everything – camping; hiking; and, especially, water skiing on Lake Chautauqua. She could water ski before the rest of us had learned to swim.

Heading toward college, equally determined to use her frontal lobe to its fullest, Kathy became a math teacher. And, not just a math teacher, she was a mathematics and economics whiz, rising to the top of those respected among her ilk. Inheriting the shrewd, critical thinking intellect of her mother, a strong work ethic its corollary, she made highly organized productivity into a lifestyle.

We among the family would get to see her at Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings, when the O’Keefe clan would make the extra effort to tool east to meet the rest of us at Mammy and Pappy’s on East 29th. Her intensity was always palpable ( and, audible – talking is what the Sweets did ) – from the moment she burst into the room until the final, equally driven departure. Kathy was purposeful; there was always a motive to act, because there was a reason for everything. When it was time to go, it was time to leave. On to the next thing, the next reason to keep on living.

Her second heart valve surgery came around age 21*. The pork valve may have had its own shelf life, but she did not. However, this replacement was man made, mechanical, and bore with it a lifelong ticking clock which could be both heard and, mostly, felt. Kathy would now live by that clock, the ever present reminder that, to her, each moment was the gift.

Childbirth is toil for any woman but, for Kathy, the reality would prove confrontational; right as she approached the date of her own daughter Kristen’s arrival (yes; she was married) that valve would signal its own, looming demise. The CC team of surgeons gathered, obstetrics and cardiology; Kathy would give birth, naturally, even as her second aortic valve was about to die, and receive the third and final prosthetic in the months following.

For me, when the cousins married they slowly retreated from my view; I was the last to tie that knot, and the first to let it slip loose. But, when Kathy’d met Rob, they were bound forever. Theirs was the deep, abiding friendship built on common outlook, interests, and activities that makes marriage true. Part of a family whose society was determined by close proximity and faith-centered commitment to each other, they lived out their own place therein in the finest of form.

But, the baby of any family has a special spot to occupy. Kathy’s relationship with her Dad, a Baptist minister, was both admirable and endearing. She regarded him with absolute, Godly respect, and he toward her with complete encouragement and acceptance. As he aged, enduring heart health challenges of his own only to survive them against unheard of odds (massive coronary, age 80? subsequent infection, triple bypass surgery, and still living to age 98?), Kathy would come to expect that indomitability was both inherited and learned.

Maybe this indomitability both informed and drove the decisions she would be forced to make when, just a couple years ago, her symptoms finally led to the sobering diagnosis of a cancer which carried with it erratic statistics; multiple myeloma was “manageable”, treatable, potentially less than life curtailing. Kathy of all people could most definitely fight and win against this level of foe. All she had to do was, well, be Kathy O’Keefe.

Enter the silent enemy, the ever-wielding unknown. Powers, those that both were and those that aspired to be, dictating the courses of treatment. Everything distilling down to the perceived sources of trust and trustworthiness, and those who embodied each. Like her mother before her Kathy would make clear to everyone and all; decision making was her domain. Her devoted husband, perhaps he only, fully understood this. At every point, juncture, even apparent impasse, Kathy would ready herself to choose.

The latest news had rendered a sort of last gasp euphoria, in recent weeks. Inexplicably, after struggling to sustain the stem cell replacement therapy which had been effective for so many, she’d survived the only remaining chemo protocol, including an infected gall bladder; now, the latest, most “promising” treatment regimen, just FDA approved, was finally in her hands. The Cleveland Clinic had the whole thing ready, and her body seemed equally prepared.

We’d all watched, through the lens of social media, as she took her first, second, third dose, only to marvel at the ever present grin and thumbs up outcome of each tentative step. Suddenly, it was Christmastime and, discharged from the Seidman Center, Kathy and Rob and Kristen were allowed to go home. This news, alone, was an extra special reason to celebrate the joy of the season.

Silence was less familiar, to the Sweets. To us, when you didn’t talk, something wasn’t right. And, this time, something wasn’t. Kathy had been full of life, playing (and, winning) board games, running at her familiar nearly frantic pace; but, just beyond the fully decorated Christmas tree, a quiet cloaked the scene.

The promise of a final protocol which was heralded as life sustaining had failed. Kathy’s body curled up, giving its spirit over to the God who had governed the O’Keefe clan from go and its soul into the arms of her father, Pastor George, who welcomed her with transcending relief. The woman who had run so hot, her body cooled by death, was ever the embodiment of a life lived on terms that would challenge even the most arrogant women and men. Kathy had withstood; she had persisted; she had run a course most would merely observe, and that with awe.

Kathy O’Keefe Linger. Not just another Kathy. Loved by so many. Admired by more. In a class, by herself.

*precise chronology on these surgeries still in edit/awaiting clarification.

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Copyright 1/4/23. Ruth Ann Scanzillo All rights those of the author, whose story is hers, and whose name appears above this line. Please respect the family. Thank you.

littlebarefeetblog.com

The Junior League.

Mum was a seamstress, a dressmaker, a tailor of the finest order. She could take any off the rack dress, jacket, pant, gown and make it fit any body assigned. She could make three piece fully lined suits from Vogue patterns, ball and wedding gowns, even curtains and upholstery covers. And, she did all this, from her sewing room at home.

While I was growing up, Mum would often ask me to go to the piano and perform for her customers. I would comply, choosing the flashiest solo piece I’d most recently prepared. All the ladies would rave, and compliment Mum on her daughter’s talent .

Marlene was among the most vociferous.

Her family lived a couple blocks down the steep hill, on East 28th Street, in a brick house with a porch. Marlene and her mother, Emma, were very close, coming to the house biweekly for their fittings. Most of Mum’s customers were from the same extended family of second generation Italian-American ladies, working clerically or teaching but, during my high school years, Marlene grew to become a business administrator, community leaders increasingly recognizing her efforts and accomplishments. All the while Mum dressed her, impeccably, Emma duly proud.

Perhaps a gesture intended to give back to Mum, after the decades she’d spent keeping Marlene looking sharp, whatever the motive the day came when, out of nowhere, Marlene declared her intention to sponsor Betty’s daughter to the Junior League of Erie.

Founded in New York in 1901, the Junior League was formed to instill social responsibility and a spirit of volunteerism among community women. Over the years, however, the charitable organization had become a vehicle for debutantes, a class marker for the up and coming young. Being sponsored to join the League was an honor with huge implications for future social and professional connections, not the least of these eligible men of the same rank and level of social recognition.

The act generated by Marlene was directed as a gesture toward her treasured seamstress. In the spirit of the relationship between Marlene and her own mother I was to accept the gift by joining the order, in turn bringing my mother pride by association.

But, I screwed up.

I said no.

******

A few months ago, in the middle of the summer, both of my brothers were able to come through town for a single evening. The younger, now a traveling quality control representative in the health care field, hadn’t been home since Dad died ten years before, and the elder, former divisional medical director turned director/consultant for a major diagnostic laboratory, almost as long away. Both were in town to do inspections. Both lived in southern states, raising their families and working thousands of miles away.

I remember feeling ecstatic that they could both be here, at once. I only had two siblings, no sisters, and no offspring of my own, so any feeling of family I’d ever known had to come from my vicarious association with their sons and daughters’ lives. But, having them both actually here together would reunite us as brothers and sister, like when we were growing up.

We’d planned to eat at a nearby Italian restaurant. Both of them loved Italian restaurant food, both having been to Italy – the elder, several times – each of them working on the road; but, my upstairs wall HVAC unit on the fritz, they also booked hotels. They booked hotels because they also liked staying in hotels, don’t get me wrong; but, had the upstairs loft been temperature controlled, I’d have loved having them both here together for the weekend, in my home.

They arrived, entering via the shed door, and greeted each other in my music room. The elder was shorter and greyer than I’d remembered; the younger, wider. I took their picture. Moving to the kitchen, we addressed my need for construction advice on a household addition; then, we piled into the vehicle assigned to the elder, and headed to the restaurant.

For well over fifteen minutes, both of them charmed the hostess. She was most gracious. I have no idea if she needed to do other things, but she remained in conversation with them without even a hint of distraction. I, with my five year history as a hostess and waitress, was proud of her professionalism.

We’d chosen to dine outdoors on the restaurant patio. I sat in the seat closest to the dividing wall, and they sat opposite each other. Once we finally placed our orders, they continued the conversation they’d begun in the front seat of the vehicle en route the few blocks to the restaurant. I watched them, thinking about how the pandemic and age had overtaken us. I spent a lot of time sitting there thinking, before we got our food, when our food arrived, and after we were finished eating. I was able to do this, because they asked me no questions of any kind. I asked them no questions, either, principally because there was no break in the conversation the two of them were enjoying.

After probably two and a half hours, I invited them to present me with any questions they might have. My elder brother said nothing. My younger brother asked me if I had any friends here, and my answer included a reference to my students and their families as my friends – much like Mum’s customers were, to her. Then, I mentioned the elder’s former wife, with whom I’d had a reuniting phone conversation only days before after fifty years of no contact. The response to this offering was a ten minute dissertation directed at both myself and my younger brother on the woman’s character, as expressed in her past behavior.

Thus ended the dinner.

Returning me to my home was swift. We stood chatting on the sidewalk for a few minutes and, dusk settling and mosquitoes emerging, I said my goodbyes. Entering my house, I watched as the two of them stood at the curb for another half hour, talking with each other in the dark.

******

It’s true.

I’d said no to the opportunity provided me by Marlene, now CEO of a major, burgeoning health care and educational facility in the region and already-former bank president. She didn’t marry until later in life, but had a daughter who would become my piano student. Emily was 10, then, and probably hated those lessons. Maybe she never really wanted to play piano. Or, maybe she just didn’t want to slum it over to my house, on West 22nd St, hauled there every week by Aunt Lena.

No; I never accepted Marlene’s sponsorship into the Junior League of Erie. I was afraid to become an elite member of our community. I didn’t think the other girls in the League would accept me, a daughter of blue collar skilled artisans. And, I wasn’t sure I wanted to become a member of an exclusive strata of society, either.

Had I said yes, I’d have probably met and married a doctor or lawyer, raising my children on Southshore or near the Kahkwa Club. My brothers’ families and I would likely have shared holidays, each of us making sure our children spent time together. We’d have compared notes, throughout our lives, bragging on our childrens’ IQs, their grade point averages, their excellence, their ranking, their accomplishments, their spouses, our grandchildren, and how much the Lord had loved and bestowed His blessings upon us.

But, I didn’t. I married a transplanted, white collar New Englander, a man who would leave me nearly three years hence and continue his rise in the technical world of computerized software. Divorced, I would continue to work, pay off my house and car, establish a music studio, accept performance opportunities with the Union orchestras, and teach public school. My private piano students morphed into cellists, many of both the students and their parents becoming integral to my list of those still endeared to me.

Marlene’s daughter would become a litigating lawyer, and marry a local political figure; Emma would live to be nearly 101; Marlene would continue to oversee the health care facility, long beyond retirement age. And, the Junior League would breed its own, filling the coffers of the needy and establishing multiple community facilities for the arts, for education, for enrichment across the four corners of the region.

I would remain in the periphery of all these, a solitary creative, an observer of the life unfolding among those just beyond my reach. My brothers would recede into the margins of my world, feeling neither obligation nor need with respect to me.

Mum’s mark on the world she served remains. Marlene, at the time of her Betty’s blindsiding death, would stand at the casket exclaiming: “This is not. happening.” So many women would need to find somebody else to take in the seams of their garments, to let the rest out, to form the bodice, measure the hem, and fit them for the stages of the most grandly acknowledged.

From whatever league, as with my two brothers I affect their lives in absentia. Unless otherwise required, I’ll be in my music room, at home.

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Copyright 11/9/22 Ruth Ann Scanzillo. All rights those of the author, whose story it is and whose name appears above this line. No copying, in whole or part including translation, permitted. Sharing by blog link, exclusively, and that not via RSS. Thank you for respecting integrity.

littlebarefeetblog.com

Amber Heard.

When Katrina died, I hit my first writer’s block.

Having read about this affliction, I would smirk at the thought; how could a true writer find no words?

In my case, there was little warning; I’d typed her name, in the title of what was to be another of many tribute pieces, only to find myself staring at the white screen. I could not begin.

But, after spending several hours this weekend viewing reruns of the Depp/Heard defamation hearings, I woke up this morning thinking of Katrina.

We’d first met when she was a piano student of Sam Rotman at Mercyhurst College, myself on staff playing for the students of vocal and instrumental performance. Forty years old, I was teeming with climaxing hormonal energy, overjoyed to be in such close proximity to fresh, anticipating youth. Katrina was a bubbling post-adolescent with residual acne and raw authenticity. Bearing a gift for theater show tunes, she brought cheerful joy into the room and loved everyone she met.

The tenor, to whom I’d been assigned, was her boyfriend. I played his senior recital, and we became well acquainted. At the time, he called Katrina his good friend and it wouldn’t be until I happened to catch them in the library after the recital exchanging a quick kiss on the lips that her actual status would emerge. I would learn, years later, that many men often categorized the women in their lives differently than the women who regarded such men.

Katrina was generous with praise. She was specific, for example, in acknowledging the thumb technique required in the piano accompaniment for the Britten after that recital. Vivid, to me, was the smile on her face and the light in her eyes. Knowing the part, she showed genuine collegiality and deference toward me, an act of humility.

Years passed. I would next see Katrina at a music faculty meeting, within the district. Myself having been at the high schools, I’d bid down to primary level and she appeared as a newest hire among them.

Katrina had changed. Now, she sat silently, her deference manifesting minus the characteristic extroversion, watchful and attentive. Her skin was smoothe and clear, her countenance thoughtful.

But, her reputation as a music teacher and theater pit pianist had spread quickly. The kids loved her. The staff loved her. The casts adored her. Everywhere she went, she still brought the light of her spirit and a selfless enthusiasm devoted to the successes of her charges. Silent at faculty meetings, Katrina conserved her energy for use where it mattered most.

Amber Heard sits in court, silence enforced. Her presentation is physically flawless. Perfectly tailored clothing, expertly fit; hair professionally set; complexion that of painted porcelain. Structurally, her face is enviably beautiful, its profile completely balanced, its angles bearing not a single weakness. One can marvel looking at her as if viewing one of the Creator’s most outstanding moments.

But, like the many masterworks of Rodin or Michelangelo, she appears as any stone sculpture. One searches to find the soul in her eyes. One notes the fleeting curl at the left corner of a petulant lip. One, as a member of her audience, contemplates what if any nourishing life might be found there.

Among contrasts this, the most stark, I think of Katrina. Cancer ravaged her neck and throat, seizing her ability to swallow. Still, she smiled, directing whatever ounce of remaining energy she had toward her daughter, Amelia, and her husband, Mark. To the end, she was ever focused on the needs of those to whom she was devoted, almost as sacrifice. Their world without her is a gaping and grasping testament to being loved entirely.

What the price of a selfish life?

To what end?

About that, I have no more words to say.

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© 5/1/22 Ruth Ann Scanzillo. All rights those of the author, whose story it is and whose name appears above this line. No copying, in part or whole (including translation) permitted without direct, written, signed permission of the author. Thank you for being the better person.

littlebarefeetblog.com