Thursday, May 11, 2017

Why Marjorie?

The roundabout road that led me to start digging deep at the Woody Guthrie Archives began well over forty years before the site opened. Yet it wasn’t the iconic folk singer’s legacy (nor that of his well-known son Arlo) that I focused on. Instead, I sought insight into Marjorie–Woody’s second wife–the lesser-known yet arguably most influential Guthrie of them all.

Through my early teaching years in the mid-’70s, I had read about Marjorie’s grassroots effort to educate and support families affected by Huntington’s disease, which debilitated Woody for well over ten years before his death in 1967. Her call to action inspired the students in my high school folk club to arrange a bake sale to raise money for the cause.

After we made the contribution, the students and I were thrilled to receive her personal reply, in which she reminded us that her project was “important not just to the ‘family’ [sic] but to the public.” 

Lo and behold, about a week after receiving Marjorie’s thank you note, another letter arrived. She wrote, “with all the young people passing through your hands . . . hope you would let them know that their names are welcome to our mailing list. . . even if they can’t make a contribution! I feel certain . . . that when people know what we are doing . . . . they will want to help when they can!”

She explained, “a larger list might give me the opportunity to look for federal and foundation grant support!” (eventually, the organization became the pioneering Huntington Disease Society of America). She closed, saying “ . . . and if you should visit New York would love to say hello in person. You have made MY day!”

Intrigued by the woman and the cause, I vowed to keep up with her projects. Maybe take her up on her offer to visit the CCHD office in New York . . . sometime . . . after I married, I thought, busy in the midst of wedding plans and teaching. In 1983, I read about Marjorie’s death from cancer at age sixty-five. I had missed my chance to meet her, but her sense of service stuck with me; I was a thirty-something “flower-child” still grounded in the idealism of the sixties that had motivated me to canvas the streets of Hartford in support of peace candidate Eugene McCarthy in 1968, strike in protest after Kent State in 1970, and organize Hartford’s first twenty-five-mile March Against Hunger in 1971.

Shortly after Marjorie’s death, I read Joe Klein’s biography Woody Guthrie: A Life. With a mention of Marjorie here and there, it reacquainted me with her as Woody’s second wife and mother to four of his children (their first died in a tragic accident at age four). I learned that she had danced with the renowned Martha Graham in the forties and fifties. I was struck by how, even after their divorce, she managed his health care from hospital to hospital, for over fifteen years. Marjorie accomplished all this while raising their three children and working full time as a dance teacher at her own studio in Brooklyn, New York.

I spent the next dozen or so years raising my children, teaching part-time, and then I returned to full-time teaching in 1996. This left little time for reflection on myself, much less Marjorie. Until in 1998, the clock seemed to stop; my husband died suddenly. Overnight, I had become a single mom, and in the inexplicable way a mind works, thoughts about Marjorie raising her three children during Woody’s long convalescence and after his death regularly surfaced in my stream of consciousness.

Working full-time while raising two grieving children through adolescence consumed my every minute and, in a convoluted way, prevented grief from consuming me. I finally got to read Ramblin’ Man, Ed Cray’s 2004 biography of Woody. A single chapter focused on Marjorie. It was not enough to fully flesh out Klein’s sketch of her but enough to reignite my curiosity to find out more–if I only had the time.

While getting my MFA at Western Connecticut State University, I began working on an enrichment project on American folk music. More information about Marjorie’s dance career came to light. However, the work on my final thesis–a memoir of loss and recovery about my family’s tragic loss–took precedence. A year after my memoir was published
, I longed for another serious writing project. In a typical one-click-leads-to-another Internet search, I discovered that an official Woody Guthrie Archive was opening in the spring of 2013 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This piqued my interest, since I had already exhausted every secondary source about the Guthries I could get my hands on, in print and online. 

Around this time, a close friend asked, “What do you want to write?”

I blurted, “I really want to write a biography about Marjorie Guthrie,” realizing it to be true.

With an official archive now accessible, was this now possible? Yes and no.
Although a full listing of the archive’s collections is available online, the actual sources are not. This meant I would have to travel to Tulsa, 1,500 miles away–an expensive proposition.

The Woody Guthrie Center website also offered information about an annual fellowship to support research at the Tulsa site. I applied, and eight weeks later, received notice I had not been awarded the fellowship. Once I put aside my initial disappointment, the sentence that welcomed me to continue my research at the archives resonated. Why not? I thought and started a “Tulsa or Bust” fund. A year later, I spent a week in Tulsa sorting through correspondences, news articles, and tapes of interviews.

To say I was overwhelmed by this 2015 trip would be understatement. Even with the guidance of Kate Blalack, the helpful archivist at the center, I had no idea how time-consuming it would be to read deteriorating papers or how exacting this work would be.

Kate greeted me warmly as we sat down for my preliminary interview. As we talked, Kate agreed that Marjorie had been overlooked in the Guthrie legacy, especially since it was Marjorie who first began collecting what fills the archives today and it was Marjorie who did groundbreaking work for the Huntington’s Disease Foundation.

The next day, I began digging. Kate supplied me with automatic pencils (no ink was allowed near the documents), a yellow legal pad, a flat tool to turn pages (to keep the oils from my washed hands from compromising the papers), and a magnifying glass. I started with
 the first box of the Woody Guthrie Correspondence Collection, some of which contained letters Woody sent to Marjorie during his Merchant Marines days and Marjorie’s first pregnancy. He wrote to her daily, sometimes hourly, professing his love and discussing his politics. Although Woody’s letters alluded to her replies, Marjorie’s letters did not appear in this collection (or any other onsite). I wondered why as I tried to figure out as much as I could about their two-way interactions, using only his letters.

I expected to get through boxes and boxes of artifacts during my week at the Woody Guthrie Center. Instead, I tackled only one box. During the week, my pencil-written notes were secured in my locker overnight until my last visit, at which time my week’s worth of notes was photo-copied for the archive records. And even with my bounty of information, I would still have to apply for permission to use the material in published writing. Severe standards, one might say, until realizing archives offer full disclosures of families’ lives, lives whose histories are a privilege to share.

I left Tulsa physically and mentally exhausted yet oddly committed to do that again sometime. I can only liken it to the rigors runners put themselves through–voluntarily–when they take on a marathon and–
a day or two later–start to plan their next twenty-six-mile run. My archival research was a mental marathon, and I was already looking toward repeating the long-distance event.

I applied once again for the grant money in the spring of 2016, with a much more focused letter of application and a complete book proposal. This time, I was named a 2016 recipient of the eleventh Annual Broadcast Music Incorporated Woody Guthrie Fellowship. My second week in Tulsa this past summer proved much more productive. I found myself more focused, taking time to be moved by correspondences and even documents: the marriage certificate, the divorce certificate, the hospital admissions and doctors’ reports, Woody’s death certificate–a whole quarter of a century of a married couple’s life together assembled in a single box of brittle papers.

I had read about Woody’s physical deterioration from Huntington’s Disease in the Klein and Cray biographies. Even during their subsequent marriages, Marjorie would bring Woody home from a distant hospital for weekend visits. When he could no longer make the trip, she traveled with the children to his bedside. She drew cards for him stating “YES,” “NO,” and “?” to help him communicate when he could no longer speak. The official hospital reports I found revealed, in clinical detail, the steady progression of his disease with which Marjorie had to cope. She documented everything, from his “random uncontrollable jerks” in April of 1961 to his “severely deteriorated state,” which rendered him bedbound at the New York State Hospital, unable to a communicate with anything other than “high-pitched groans” in June of 1966. In addition, an official doctor’s report documented the heartbreaking perception that “He seems to perceive and suffer from his own helplessness.” Information like this caused me to leave my second trip to Tulsa not only physically and mentally exhausted but also emotionally exhausted.

Through both visits to the archives, I became a connection-maker as well as a note-taker; I became more and more conversant about all things Marjorie. Kate and I would find and discuss photographs of what appeared to be Marjorie’s fragile beauty onstage, though she bore her rigorous dance regimens with remarkable strength. I passed on information to Kate and introduced her to sources the archives did not contain, such as Aaron Lansky’s Outwitting History, in which he chronicles his seventies’ mission to rescue over one million Yiddish books from extinction with Marjorie’s help. Kate and I shared frustration over the absence of letters penned by Marjorie. However, I located her letters to folklorist Richard Reuss in a collection at the Indiana University. We are in the process of trying to attain copies. And a new conversation started when Kate arranged for me to interview folklorist Guy Logsdon and his wife Phyllis, friends of Marjorie, who assisted her when she traveled to Oklahoma to connect with families of Huntington’s victims. This interview is now available at the archives.

I can’t help thinking back to Marjorie’s 1975 letter reminding me that her activism was “important not just to the ‘family’ but to the public.” Forty years later I would begin to discover, through my research at the archive, the full purport of these words on other aspects of Marjorie’s life as well: her dance career, her political and creative influence on Woody, and her efforts to secure his legacy. There are more researching and conversing ahead: another trip to Tulsa with the remaining grant money, more digging at the New York Public Library of Performing Arts, and visits with students and colleagues who were fortunate enough to have Marjorie involved in their lives and their projects. As with the marathon runner, the road goes on and on and on. There is no turning back now, just a bit more sure-footedness on the journey ahead.

Special thanks to the BMI Woody Guthrie Fellowship Program, Woody Guthrie Publications, and the Woody Guthrie Center for supporting the research and development of this article.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Mom Didn't Need A Designated Day To Think About Saving The Earth

When I was a child I never counted trash cans. The neighbors, however, did.
''How do you manage to have so little garbage?'' my mother was asked more than once.
''We eat our garbage,'' she would reply wryly.
Today environmentalists call my mother's 1960s tactics recycling. She called it common sense. Nothing was wasted in her home
She cooked fresh foods, so she didn't need most of the packaging paper and paperboard that make up 41 percent of most households' trash. The vegetables in her soups were not dehydrated or stored in cans. Full meals were not frozen inside cardboard and plastic containers that weighed as much as the edible contents. The cardboard my mother accumulated was smashed by an efficient, low-energy compactor — her foot. It was separated from wet, metal and plastic wastes by hand.
Much of her household trash was reused. My children's favorite toys at her house were two Quaker Oats boxes  she made into drums. The strings attached to the drums came from packages she received. If the paper that made up Mom's accumulation of junk mail was blank on one side, she used it as drawing paper or cut it into scrap paper for memos and lists.
My mother laughed at advertisements for 17 plastic storage units priced under $20. Her glass and plastic containers came free from supermarket purchases such as peanut butter and deli salads. The amount of metal in her trash was also below average because she washed and reused aluminum foil and pie plates.
The bond of those who conserve and reuse runs deep. My mother and her closest friend once discovered, over coffee, that the two of them shared the same dark secret. Though I wouldn't recommend this energy-saving strategy, neither of these two women turned on cellar lights before going downstairs. Instead, they counted steps.
My mother didn't profess to be saving the planet for 40 years — just her space, her money and her self-respect. More than economic or ecological edicts, she follows a basic ethic: You don't need what you can't have; you don't waste what you may need.
Environmentalists continue to ponder ways to bury, burn, recycle and decrease garbage. If only my mother's neighbors followed her simple measures of careful consumption, creative reuse and economy, the trash collection on her street could easily have been cut in half. That would have meant 4,000 fewer garbage cans of waste sent to the local landfill a year — through the efforts of just 40 families. Think of what would happen if we all followed her example today.
Photo by Laura B. Hayden

Adam & Eve Would Have Been Way Better Off Noshing on Figs!

Previously published on Windsor Locks/ East Windsor Patch 5/10/2017

A fig tree that grew in Brooklyn, in the tiny back yard of the family four-plex, remains one of my sweetest childhood memories. Late summer, I could reach up and pluck the ripe reddish-brown fruits at will. When the temperature started to drop, my grandfather would prune it and wrap the trunk in burlap to protect it from the cold.
That memory rushed back to me when I walked into Vinnie's Little Acre on 265 Main Street in Windsor Locks this week. Among the usual spring stock of planters and flats of vegetables and flowers were eight fig trees, some of them with early figs already visible. I'd never seen a fig tree at a local nursery.
Katherine, the store clerk, told me this crop of Brown Turkey Fig Trees came from California and were supplied by Geremia Greenhouse in Wallingford. She admitted that, though this species is cold-hardy, it can be a challenge to get a fig tree to survive a New England winter which usually runs colder than New York City's. Then she surprised me by saying that the Turkey Fig is as comfortable in a container as it is in the garden. "You can bring it indoors in the winter and replant it into a larger container next spring."
According to the Foodie Gardener, planting a fig tree in a container encourages greater fruit production.
Who knew?
Photo credit: Laura B. Hayden

Monday, March 27, 2017

Make Way For Memories of a Kid Lit Classic

Previously published on Windsor Locks/ East Windsor Patch 3/27/2017

In celebration of the 75th anniversary of the beloved children’s book set in Boston, Make Way for Ducklings, a spring exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts tracks the career of the book’s author and illustrator Robert McCloskey (1914–2003), with art from Make Way for Ducklings at its center.
The book has been a favorite for generations in my family. I can still see my son (who just turned thirty) in his footed pjs, begging his father to read Make Way For Ducklings - night after night. Our dog-eared copy of the story actually belonged to his dad when he was a child.
As with Dad, the character of Officer Michael fascinated my son. He'd lean closer to the page whenever they got to the part about how the man-in-uniform would plant himself in the center of a city street, raise his white-gloved hand to stop busy Boston traffic, and then direct seven ducklings safely across the road: Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, and Pack, all in a row.

The exhibit portrays the creation of the children's classic, a narrative as entrancing as the duck tale itself. McCloskey chose brown ink instead of full color, which gave the illustrations a warm and natural feel. And the reader gets a true bird's-eye view in illustrations drawn from an aerial perspective.

But the story within the 1941 story that amuses me the most is how the illustrations evolved. At first McCloskey had difficulty drawing the ducks. That is until he bought a brood and kept them in his apartment bathtub. The ducks started their day quacking away as McCloskey followed them around with a tissue in one hand and a sketchpad in the other. When he couldn't get them to sit still long enough, he actually gave them wine to drink!
Like his books, the exhibit manages to fascinate children, their parents, and their grandparents alike. The Make Way For Ducklings: The Art of Robert McCloskey exhibit runs through June 18. Click here for ticket information.
Photos credit - Laura B. Hayden

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Feasts of Saint Patrick's Day

Previously published on Windsor Locks/East Windsor Patch, March 20, 2017

When it comes to food Saint Patrick’s Day tends to be the second Thanksgiving in my circles. The feasting is fierce. Traditionally, my in-laws host a huge corned beef and cabbage dinner on the weekend closest to the actual feast day of the patron saint. They have a knack for perfection. The brisket slices as cleanly as a turkey breast. The potatoes are just-right soft and the carrots are just-right crisp, all atop a bed of cabbage that has neither lost its color nor its taste. That’s always the March meal I savor the most.

I like to try my best at the same menu usually a few days before or after their party. This year I slow-cooked my Irish boiled dinner the day before Blizzard Stella when my daughter’s family came by. The actual Saint Patrick’s feast day fell four days later – one day before the relatives’ invite. I wanted to cook something Irish, but not another brisket. So I tried something new: a lamb shepherd’s pie. I’ve made shepherd’s pie before – but only with beef. The lamb tastes different. Some call it stronger, some sweeter, and some, simply “less beefy.” But that wasn’t the only difference. The last step in preparing the mashed potatoes that would form the “crust” of the pie was to blend in a raw egg yolk. Odd, I thought as I followed the final step before spreading the potatoes over the meat and vegetable bottom layer. The result after baking: a firmer more pie-like crust than a typical mashed potato topping.

There were no complaints at the dinner table or the next morning when my son and future daughter-in-law decided that reheated lamb shepherd’s pie would make a fine breakfast. There was, after all, one egg in it.

Photo credits: Laura B. Hayden

Blizzards Past and Present

Previously published on Windsor Locks/East Windsor Patch, March 17, 2017 

I just happened to be reading a biography of Ella Grasso this week. In 1974 the voters of Connecticut elected Ella the first woman governor to secure the position in her own right. I’m especially interested in Ella because, a few years ago, I moved to her hometown — Windsor Locks.
I’ve been trying to figure out exactly where she lived for a while now. I had it narrowed down to one street of modest homes about a mile from me. Finally, Jon E Purmont’s biography of Ella pinpointed the exact address: 13 Olive Street, across the street from her parents’ house at 12 Olive Street. Both are small capes on tiny plots of land, like my own house. If I stand in my side yard and stretch both my arms out, I can touch my house and my neighbor's

Reading Ella's biography this week turned out to be appropriate not only because it is National Women's History Month. Coincidentally, Ella’s first term as governor put her in charge of the State’s response to the Blizzard of 1978, an epic storm that cast “nearly two feet of snow,” over three days, February 5 to February 7. Governor Dannel Malloy followed her example when he closed the roads Monday to Tuesday of this week in deference to Blizzard Stella.
I headed off to bed Monday night planning to read a little more about Ella. I could still see an almost full moon through my bedroom window, though the Old Man's Face appeared hazier and hazier as storm clouds rolled in. When I woke up in the middle of the night, the snow- glow through the window, so typical of a nighttime winter storm, drew me to take a peek outside. Flakes weren't falling. Not down, anyway. Sheets of whiteness fiercely flew horizontally, before my eyes.
Took a while for me to get back to sleep with that image frozen in my mind, accompanied by the howling of the night’s idiot wind. The next morning the blizzard continued in full force. I could barely see across the street. I heard a constant whistle which went on through early afternoon until about four, when visibility dropped to zero and I heard a loud, reverberating hum. But it wasn't the storm. My neighbor was plowing my driveway!

I couldn't see the dear man's face, scarved as he was, but I knew it was him — the best neighbor in the world who can stand in his side yard, reach out his arms, and touch both our houses.
His start at cleaning up my driveway gave me the incentive to put my book down, bundle up, and take on my snow-filled porch, fronts steps, back steps, and patio.
The next afternoon, still snow-weary, I picked up the Grasso biography where I had left off: the start of her second-term election year. I was reminded how nine months before the second election Ella prevailed in a Mother Nature vs. Mama Grasso blizzard showdown. The Governor took “full charge of the emergency operations." Even spent one night “catching a few hours of sleep on an office sofa” in the emergency headquarters. At the time it was a bold move for her to closed the roads for three days. There's no telling what added havoc the Blizzards of 1978, 2013 (another one Governor Malloy closed the roads for) and 2017 might have wrecked without these closures.
I've finally finished the Ella Grasso bio. Ready to start Edith Wharton's novel Summer.

Photo credits: Laura B. Hayden; Top snow image via Shutterstock

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Step this Way to Ballroom Dancing!

  Previously published in the March 2017 Sturbridge Times Magazine. Text below photo.

           Why just settle for watching the start of the new season of Dancing with the Stars on March 20? With the number of area venues that offer beginner ballroom lessons and nights out, there's no better time for you to get up from your couch, face the music, and do some dancing.  
         “Without beginners, you don’t have dancing,” says Steele Shane, Director of Dance Programs at the Longfellow Tennis and Health Club in Wayland. “It couldn’t sustain itself.” Steele delights in guiding inexperienced dancers through a West Coast Swing lesson from 8 to 9 PM, the first hour of Longfellow’s monthly WCS dance held the second Saturday of every month. This month’s dance is March 11.
            Talking with Steele, I remembered my first ballroom lesson, some fourteen years ago. Silly me, I was approaching my mid-fifties and never had a dance lesson. Yet, there I was learning to waltz with a partner who understood rhythm much better than I. He emphasized the initial step of each cluster with ease, as he triple-stepped down the school cafeteria floor: ONE – two – three, ONE - two – three. I followed his lead, stepping to the rear, attempting to do what Ginger did with Fred, every move backward and in heels. This was no time for fancy. I needed to stay on my feet. And stay on them I did. Still do.
            Newcomers who have fun with this same kind of learning experience at Longfellow’s monthly WCS dances often sign up for private, semiprivate, and group lessons afterward. Steele and his staff teach Waltz, West Coast Swing, Salsa, Cha Cha, and Two-step among other dance styles. As with the monthly dance, you do not need to attend class with a partner.
            Deborah Schur, who has danced her way from beginner to intermediate levels over the last decade or so, enjoys meeting up with friends at Longfellow’s dance nights and taking lessons from a variety of instructors. Though she calls herself “a person who just likes to dance,” her initiation came at a time when her confidence waned, after a second bout with breast cancer. “The dance floor became my safe spot,” says Deborah. A spot where she has danced with a variety of partners, young and old, including a thirteen-year-old boy from Canada who is now a Worlds champion.
            Jared Vigneault, owner of Poise Style & Motion in Worcester says a private single or couple class can be less frustrating than a group class for the inexperienced ballroom dancer. PS&M offers one free private lesson with any one of its ten instructors. From the look of their bios on the studio’s website, TV’s DWTS team has nothing over their range of expertise in traditional ballroom dances (Waltz, Foxtrot, Tango, Quickstep, Rhumba, Cha-Cha, Swing) and nontraditional ones (Hustle, Salsa). All levels from beginners to advanced dancers can attend the studio’s weekly Dance Parties on the first three Friday’s of the month. On the fourth Friday, the Party moves to S.A.G. Park, a larger venue in Shrewsbury.
            Every Saturday night the ABL DanceSport Center in West Boylston transforms its 10,000 square-foot facility to Club Ballroom, attracting singles and couples ages 18 to 80. The weekly event starts with beginner lessons from 7 to 8 PM.
            When it comes to teaching inexperienced dancers, “it’s all about customer service,” says Steele. The dance instructor’s job is to figure out solutions to the problems beginner customers encounter as they learn to trip the light fantastic.  Trip – as in the poetic expression for “dancing with quick light steps” that is. For more information about adult classes and dances call these venues or visit their websites.
Longfellow Club, 524 Boston Post Rd., Wayland, MA 01778, (508) 358-7355,

Poise Style & Motion, 97 Webster St, Worcester, MA 01603, (508) 752-4910,

ABL DanceSport Center, 184 West Boylston St. West Boylston, MA 01583, (508)925-4537,