Sep. 16, 2014


by Olivia Stiffler

They disappear with friends
near age 11. We lose them
to baseball and tennis, garage
bands, slumber parties, stages
where they rehearse for the future,
ripen in a tangle of love knots.
With our artificial knees and hips
we move into the back seats
of their lives, obscure as dust
behind our wrinkles, and sigh
as we add the loss of them
to our growing list of the missing.

Sometimes they come back,
carting memories of sugar cookies
and sandy beaches, memories of how
we sided with them in their wars
with parents, sided with them
even as they slid out of our laps
into the arms of others.

Sometimes they come back
and hold onto our hands
as if they were the thin strings
of helium balloons
about to drift off.

"Grandchildren" by Olivia Stiffler, from Otherwise, We Are Safe. © Dos Madres Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1853 that Henry Steinway, who had come here from Hamburg in 1849, sold his first American-made piano. He introduced the first cast-iron frame, which allowed a piano to be strung with greater tension on the strings and with the bass strings crossing above the treble strings so they could be longer and make a grander sound.

It's the birthday of James J. Hill, one of America's most successful railroad tycoons, born in southern Ontario (1838). By 1870, Hill had established his own railroad company and laid track to the Red River Valley in western Minnesota and the Dakotas. He eventually began construction of a line from the Twin Cities to Seattle. The land he purchased was full of valuable resources, and thousands of settlers followed his railroad across the Great Plains. By 1893, the track was finished, and his Great Northern Company ran the only private transcontinental railroad.

Today is the birthday of the creator of Curious George, H.A. Rey (books by this author), born Hans Augusto Reyersbach in Hamburg, Germany (1898). As a kid, he spent a lot of time at the zoo, drawing the animals. In 1939, he and his wife, Margret, both German Jews, were living in Paris when World War II began. They were at work on a new book featuring one of Hans' animal drawings: a mischievous monkey named Fifi. "It seems ridiculous to be thinking about children's books," Rey wrote to a friend. "[But] life goes on, the editors edit, the artists draw, even during wartime." By June 1940, the Nazi invasion was imminent, so Hans built two bicycles out of spare parts, and the Reys gathered whatever they could carry, including the collection of monkey sketches for the book manuscript. They fled Paris two days before the Nazis invaded, and rode 75 miles in three days, which turned into a four-month journey that took them to Lisbon, then Rio de Janeiro, and finally New York.

The first book, Curious George, as the monkey was now called, was published in the United States in 1941. George went on to become an international sensation. Margret Rey explained the little monkey's success this way: "George can do what kids can't do. He can paint a room from the inside. He can hang from a kite in the sky. He can let the animals out of their pens on the farm. He can do all these naughty things that kids would like to do." H.A. Rey's explanation was even simpler: "I know what I liked as a child, and I don't do any book that I, as a child, wouldn't have liked."

Rey was also an astronomy buff, and besides the Curious George books, he wrote The Stars: A New Way to See Them in 1952. The book includes constellation diagrams with cartoon outlines to make them easier to remember and recognize. His new diagrams were widely adopted by other astronomical texts, and the book is reissued from time to time as we learn more accurate information about our galaxy.

It's the birthday of department store founder James Cash "J.C." Penney Jr., born in Hamilton, Missouri (1875). He originally wanted to be a lawyer, but he couldn't afford to go to college, so he took a series of jobs at dry goods stores in Missouri and Colorado. After a few years, he was offered the position of assistant manager at a Wyoming store called "The Golden Rule." Penney, who was the son of a Baptist minister, had grown up using the Golden Rule as a model for his own life, and he interpreted this as a sign from God. He took the job and did so well that in 1902 he was offered a one-third share in a new store in a nearby town. Penney managed the store and lived in the attic, and five years later, he bought out the other two partners.

Living by his Golden Rule philosophy, Penney was committed to setting the same price for everyone. In 1913, he incorporated the company as J.C. Penney Stores. In 1927, he found out that the Hamilton storeowner who had given him his first job was retiring. Penney bought the store, and it became the 500th J.C. Penney store. But he lost most of his fortune in the stock market crash of 1929. He borrowed against his life insurance policy to make payroll, and he checked into Kellogg's Battle Creek Sanitarium, suffering from depression. Eventually, the business and its owner recovered. He established profit sharing among his managers, and later the rest of his employees — whom he called "associates." By the time he died in 1971, all of the 50,000 Penney employees were participating in the profit-sharing program.

Anne Bradstreet (books by this author), America's first published poet, died on this date in 1672. She was born Anne Dudley in Northampton, England. We don't know exactly when she was born, but it was probably sometime in 1612. She married Simon Bradstreet when she was about 16 and left England with him two years later, in 1630, as part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They eventually settled in Andover, Massachusetts, and raised eight children. Simon Bradstreet later became one of the early governors of the colony.

Somehow, despite the rigors of life in the new colony, Anne found time to write poetry for her family and close friends. Her brother-in-law took the poems to England without her knowledge, and they were published there as The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, By a Gentlewoman of Those Parts (1650). He assures readers on the title page that Anne didn't shirk her wifely duties in the writing of the verses: "These poems are the fruit but of some few hours, curtailed from sleep and other refreshments." It was the first published work by a woman in America, and it was the only volume of her work published during her lifetime.

Bradstreet's subjects were most often her devotion to her husband, her children, and God. Her later poems were shorter, and more focused on her daily life rather than conveying a set of virtues. She wrote about her fear of childbirth, the loss of her home to fire, and the death of her granddaughter. She also sometimes hinted at discontentment with her role as a Puritan woman. She died, probably of tuberculosis, in 1672.

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