Photo by White House staff photographer:
This is a picture of my mother schooling President Bush on international affairs, when she was volunteering for the Red Cross after the I-35W bridge collapsed in 2007. Below is an excerpt from the book I’m writing called, The Mother of a Clown.
My Mother the Peacemaker
My five-foot, hunchbacked mother looks every bit like a Lutheran Mother Theresa as she waits to be of service at the temporary Red Cross headquarters, hastily set-up yesterday when the I-35W Bridge collapsed during the peak of Minneapolis’ rush hour traffic. She’s wearing a Red Cross vest with a name-tag that simply reads, ”Elaine.”
An important looking government official comes into the room and asks for volunteers to greet President Bush. Air Force One was scheduled to land in under an hour.
My mother hears a man mutter, “I’m staying inside. Bush just thinks he can come here to this disaster of 13 dead to make-up for his botched response to Hurricane Katrina.”
Then a woman blurts, “I didn’t vote for him last election, and I’m not going out there today.”
My mother remembers a promise she had made and says, “Well, I didn’t vote for him either, but I’ll go out and meet The President.”
She knows that I’m directing a show at a Fringe Festival just a few blocks away, so she immediately picks up the phone and calls me hoping I can meet The President too.
I’m sitting in the front row of God’s Mischief, the show I’m directing. Sitting next to me is Dean J. Seal, the producer of the Fringe Festival. The house lights dim and the show is just beginning when my phone rings in my pants pocket. Josette Antomarchi, whose one-woman show I’m directing, gives me her best indignant French glare. This is really embarrassing because, Josette, is normally my director. Rosie and I have hired her for the past five years to direct us in our husband and wife clown show. It was a huge honor when she asked me to direct her.
Dean the producer glances at me sideways as I struggle to fish my phone out of my pocket and manage to hang it up by the third ring.
My mom is disgusted when she is dumped into my voice mail system after just three rings. She hangs up, and dials again.
Again my pants pocket rings. Josette, whose Antomarchi family blood is co-mingled with Napoleon’s blood, begins to boil. Dean can’t help but chuckle quietly as I fumble to switch my phone to vibrate. I sheepishly put my pulsating phone back in my pocket, and endure the quiet but clear buzzing emanating from my pants until it mercifully stops. I then settle in for the hour-long show.
After six rings Mom gets my voice mail again. She leaves a rambling message then hangs up her desktop phone. Shaking her head she laughs at how hard it is to explain anything on one of those newfangled answering machines. Within the hour the White House handlers come back to fetch her and the other volunteers because the presidential limo is about to arrive.
Not many Red Cross workers are joining Mom outside to greet President Bush. As she waits on the hard concrete in the hot sun, her painkillers are managing to take the edge off the acute discomfort of her strangulated intestines. She is scheduled for a major operation in two days, but until then the doctor restricted her to a liquid diet, and sent her home until the surgery.
My mother just returned from Africa, and is still recovering from jetlag. It was a year of joy and pain. The joy was her pride in establishing the first school for counseling in Tanzania at Iringa University. Her pain started when she crushed two vertebrae after slipping in the shower of her isolated mountaintop house. In the spring she caught malaria while still recovering from her broken back. She was rushed to the hospital in the bouncing backseat of a Toyota Corolla, speeding down a poorly maintained mountain road. My mother, the farmer’s daughter, complained, “I could churn butter on this road” while she laughed between the bumps and her excruciating back spasms.
Our family was worried sick when Mom caught malaria. I was running around with my hair on fire wanting to get on the next plane and bring her home.
I finally was able to reach my Uncle Arnold by phone. He was with her in Africa, and assured me that she was fine. Arnold’s argument was, “What your mother is doing here is the most important work of her life. She is leaving a legacy; let her complete it.”
Last night when my mother received a call for volunteers from the Red Cross she was recovering from jetlag, malaria, and a broken back, while anxiously awaiting her surgery. True to character she said to the aid worker, “Yes, I will be happy to help.”
Her job today is to serve as a psychologist caring for any Red Cross aid worker who is suffering from the stress of caring for the victims of the disaster. Back in the 1990s when she learned the Red Cross was looking for licensed psychologists to care for the mental health of their stressed out aid workers she thought, “That’s a perfect job for a woman like me in my mid-seventies.” and immediately signed-up. Now she is in her eighties and is not ready to let a little pain slow her down.
As she waits for President Bush’s limousine to arrive, she thinks back to serving in New York after 911 where the other aid workers called her, “The Funky Little Old Lady,” because of her eccentric lavender and lilac outfits, capped off with her purple bulbous toed shoes, that hinted at the clown hiding inside her.
In New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, a female aid worker refused to listen to my mother’s advise about taking short breaks to relieve her stress. The next day that same lady sought out my mother after a restless sleep filled with nightmares. My mother taught her to simply take a moment to breath after hanging up the phone, to release the stress of one victim’s personal crisis, before answering the call of the next victim.
The aid worker complained “But when the phone rings it could be someone in serious trouble,”
“It’s okay,” my mother counseled ”They’re not going to go away. You don’t have to answer the phone on the first ring.”
The presidential limousine arrives with a flurry of Secret Service agents getting into position. Bush gets out from the backseat dressed in a blue windbreaker with the presidential seal sewn on his left breast. His eye catches a little old lady wearing purple shoes and reads her nametag. In his thick Texan drawl he says, “Elaine, how ya doin?”
My mother seizes the cue and steps forward past the Secret Service and offers The President her small 83-year-old wrinkled hand. When Bush goes to shake her hand, my mother doesn’t let go. Holding his hand tight she looks up at him and asks, “Mr. President, can I say a sentence to you?”
Bush laughs at the spunk of this little old lady and replies, “Why Elaine, you can say a whole paragraph to me.”
My mother releases the President’s hand and locks him with her piercing blue eyes, “Mr. President, I read in the paper that you are starting peace negotiations for a two-state solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians?” She continues on for a full paragraph.
Startled by my mom’s spontaneous speech Bush replies, “Well, as a matter of fact, Elaine, I’m meeting with top officials on this issue in Washington tomorrow.”
Without releasing Bush from her gaze, my mother counsels him, “Mr. President, when the going gets tough, keep at it. Please don’t give up because this is important for you to accomplish.”
Later a government official notices my mother’s nametag, “So, you’re Elaine?”
My mother responds “Yes I am. Why do you ask?”
“You’re the little old lady that Bush couldn’t stop talking about.” He laughs, “When you brought up the peace negotiations in Israel you really blindsided him, Elaine.”
Josette’s show ends just as President Bush gets into his limo and drives away. Outside the theater I listen to my mother’s voice mail. I make my apologies to Dean and Josette and quickly drive over to the address my mother left on my phone. Mom is still standing outside the Red Cross headquarters when I drive up.
“You just missed the President,” she scolds. Then she fills me in on all the details of meeting President Bush, as I marvel at her limitless energy.
I say, “Mom, you just got home from Africa; you’re about to have surgery; and you’re still recovering from malaria.”
She answers with a sparkle in her eyes, “Yes?”
I blurt out, “Are you crazy?”
The next day I visit my mom at her house. I’m scared because her surgery is tomorrow, and nervous because I feel I need to fulfill some intangible role as her Spiritual Advocate. Awkwardly I suggest praying together.
My mother’s eyes brighten as she scoots closer to me on the couch, and reaches out her hands. When I place my hands in hers I feel a spiritual current flow from her frail fingers directly into my heart. I look up and I see a radiant glow transform her wise ancient face. She looks into my eyes and waits for me to start.
With the weight of the world on my heart I begin to mumble an improvised prayer. As I speak my mother slips into a deep meditation with such a practiced grace, it would put a gray haired yogi master to shame.
After our prayer she looks up at me and says, “If I die tomorrow I’ll be satisfied with the life I’ve lived.”
A little shocked by my mom talking so directly about her own death, I ask, “What are you saying Mom?”
She proudly straightens up her tiny 5-foot frame and says, “I may never do anything greater than what I accomplished this past year in Africa.” With a twinkle in her eyes she adds, “And I think I had my peak moment yesterday.”
I laugh and say, “You sure did tell Bush, Mom.”
She shrugs and says, “I kept a promise.”
Puzzled I ask, “What promise?”
She then tells me about a promise she made to a group of Palestinian Christians on her last trip to Israel. They informed her that to be both a Palestinian and a Christian is to be the minority of the minority in Israel. No one was on their side. They pleaded with my mother that when she returned to America to please tell her President about their plight. My mother laughed and promised, but not until today did she believe she would ever have the opportunity to keep her promise.
I laugh and say, “My mother the peacemaker.”