Jul. 7, 2012


by Debra Nystrom

Afternoons, Grandma sent us inside,
but we could never nap. Below the hot

bedroom, stairs sank to a dirt cellar,
crumbling walls that made us wonder

if the house would fall in. Twisted
onions under us, beet jars, mud-smell dark

of a grave, scratch of mice we'd been told
might crawl up inside our dresses. Hours

dreaming without any rest, sticky in our
thin cottons, till she'd call LindaDebbie

Lois—through the hazy curtain, wanting us
to come out again, pick beans or lettuce

from the garden, or carry pails down to
the chokecherry bushes by the stock dam.

We'd follow cattle paths below the bluff
and back up, then sneak right past her

at the clothesline, climb to the loft where we
could look out beyond the windbreak, across

the fields, watch for truck or tractor, cloud
of dust disturbing the air, sign of the men.

"Cousins" by Debra Nystrom, from Bad River Road. © Sarbande Books, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of composer Gustav Mahler, born in Kalischt, Bohemia, in what is now the Czech Republic (1860). He became famous throughout Europe as a conductor, but he was fanatical in his work habits, and expected his artists to be, as well. He once said, "All that is not perfect down to the smallest detail is doomed to perish," and that philosophy made him a difficult person to work for. There was always someone calling for his resignation.

The year 1907 was difficult for Mahler: He was forced to resign from the Vienna Opera; his three-year-old daughter, Maria, died; and he was diagnosed with fatal heart disease. Superstitious, he believed that he had had a premonition of these events when composing his Tragic Symphony, No. 6 (1906), which ends with three climactic hammer blows representing "the three blows of fate which fall on a hero, the last one felling him as a tree is felled." When he composed his ninth symphony, he refused to call it "Symphony No. 9" because he believed that, like Beethoven and Bruckner before him, his ninth symphony would be his last. He called it A Symphony for Tenor, Baritone, and Orchestra instead, and he appeared to have fooled fate, because he went on to compose another symphony. This one he called Symphony No. 9 (1910); he joked that he was safe, since it was really his 10th symphony, but No. 9 proved to be his last symphony after all, and he died in 1911.

It's the birthday of artist Marc Chagall, born in Vitebsk, Russia (1887). He was one of nine kids in a family of modest means; his father worked for a salt herring factory, and his mother ran a shop. He wanted to be an artist, and he moved to St. Petersburg, where he failed his first entrance exams but eventually was accepted to art school. It was in Paris, surrounded by other artists, that he really began to develop his style. Though he was homesick and could not speak French, he later said, "My art needed Paris like a tree needs water." Chagall is known for bright and complex colors, and his fantastical images from Russian-Jewish folklore and his childhood: ghosts, livestock, weddings, fiddlers, scenes of his village Vitebsk, a couple floating in the sky, and fish.

Today's the birthday of historian and author David McCullough (books by this author), born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1933). His first breakthrough book, and Pulitzer winner, was Truman (1992), a biography of Harry S. Truman. It became one of the best-selling biographies ever, and nine years later, he published another one: John Adams (2001), which became one of the fastest-selling nonfiction books in history. He went beyond researching the historical records when he wrote these biographies: He imitated the men's daily routines as much as possible, read the books that they had read, and even re-enacted certain events from their lives.

McCullough recently told a journalist from the San Jose Mercury News that he's a firm disbeliever in the concept of the self-made man: "There's no such thing, no such thing. We're all the products of the teachers, the parents, the friends, the rivals that have shaped us along the way."

It was on this date in 1928 that sliced bread went on sale for the first time. Up until then, consumers baked their own bread, or bought it in solid loaves. Otto Frederick Rohwedder, a jeweler from Davenport, Iowa, had been working for years perfecting the Rohwedder Bread Slicer. He tried to sell it to bakeries, but they told him that presliced bread would get stale and dry long before it could be eaten. He tried sticking the slices together with hatpins, but it didn't work. Finally, he hit on the idea of wrapping the bread in waxed paper after it was sliced. Still no sale, until he took a trip to Chillicothe, Missouri, and met a baker who was willing to take a chance. Frank Bench agreed to try the five-foot-long, three-foot-high slicing and wrapping machine in his bakery. The proclamation went out to kitchens all over Chillicothe, via ads in the daily newspaper: "Announcing: The Greatest Forward Step in the Baking Industry Since Bread was Wrapped — Sliced Kleen Maid Bread." Sales went through the roof, and now Chillicothe is claiming bragging rights as the Home of Sliced Bread, selling commemorative ornaments, tote bags, and "sliced bread" candles.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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