Tuesday, November 08, 2005


I have been tagged by PhilippaAlan to name the top ten people who have influenced me, but they can't include God and family members. Since I once told an investigator that "Polaks don't have friends, they have relatives" (my stepfather is Polish, and I actually grew up thinking that the word "Polak" was a compliment), this promises to be a tough one. But we'll have to try.

1. Fr. Dean Panagos. In addition to being the kind of person who actually can do six impossible things before breakfast (one reason he doesn't drink coffee is that even without it, he's a bundle of nervous energy), he's the man who actually made me a choir director, and gave me my first real taste of spiritual direction. Sort of a modern-day St. John Chrysostom, not that he had a "golden tongue," but he's one of those people who just can't stand to see anyone hurting - and it galls him when someone can help, but doesn't. A real example of Christian living.

2. An anonymous cantor at the Lutheran Church in Kingston, NY. We were on vacation in upstate NY eons ago, when I was still Lutheran, and visited this church one Sunday. Because it was summer, there was no choir, but a female cantor sang all the responses with a voice as pure as a mountain stream. I listened to her, captivated, and thought, "Oh, if only I could sing like that!" - then went home and worked at it until I had something that sounded, to my ears, like what I had heard that Sunday. People always tell me I have a beautiful voice, and I can come up with half a dozen excuses as to why it sounds better than it is; but this lady is the real reason it sounds better than it is.

3. Aunt Clara. No, she doesn't count as a relative, because she was an "aunt" in the same sense that Uncle Tony was an "uncle" -- a close friend of the family. She was middle-aged, with two grown sons, and very lonely, when she started a club for the neighborhood girls, where she taught us to embroider and crochet. These days I still embroider and crochet, as well as knitting, and every time I pick up a needle I think of her.

4. Aunt Catherine. Same kind of "aunt." She was Aunt Clara's tenant, and if Aunt Clara taught me skills that stayed with me a lifetime, Aunt Catherine, with her bovine placidity, provided me with the kind of mothering I so desperately needed: milk and cookies, and someone to talk to about nothing much. I don't know it for a fact, but I suspect that my childhood would have been far worse than it was, if these two ladies hadn't ridden herd on my mother from time to time.

5. Helga Schultz, my best friend in Germany. I wouldn't be able to speak German if she hadn't made friends with me. I drank more coffee at her house, and learned all the figures of speech you don't learn in class, including a little ditty about all the "apes in Aschaffenburg" (it rhymes better in German).

6. Peter Bochow, the man who taught German at the University of Maryland Rhein/Main campus. One day I went to the German consulate in Boston to inquire about German legal procedures, and got talking with an attache who said, after about an hour, "So, you too are living here. Where are you from?" You should have seen his eyes when I said, "New York" -- he thought I was a native German! That's due to the man I knew as Herr Bochow. I still speak it fluently, more than 30 years later.

7. Elizabeth Zimmermann, the knitting guru, author of Knitting Without Tears and a number of other books on the craft of knitting. Up until reading her books I was, like so many other women, enslaved to printed patterns. "EZ" freed us from all that, from knitting in back-and-forth rows, from having to sew up seams, and best of all, from knitting with acrylics, whose charm fades the first time you wash a hand-knitted garment in the machine and see what a felted mess it comes out. I owe my identity as a sheep (long story), and my predilection for wool, to EZ.

8. Fr. Andrei Papkov and his wife, Natasha. Fr. Andrei is the director of the Summer School for Liturgical Music in Jordanville, NY, and his wife is the cook/secretary/surrogate Mom of the place. That I kept coming back for four summers of gruelling study says more about the dedication, patience, and sense of humor of these two people, than about anything musical I might have going for me.

9. John Livio, accordion teacher. It's only as I've grown older that I've come to appreciate what a wretched way to earn a living it is to travel to people's homes and teach their little monsters a musical instrument. In our neighborhood, accordions were a popular instrument, and in my family, about as close as I would ever get to a piano, until I was grown. That I can read music at all is due entirely to Mr. Livio.

OK, OK, scraping the bottom of the barrel here.... I know I can find just one more.... Wait, wait....

10. Sr. Rose Gabriel, who taught floundering high-school graduates the basics of business practice. All of us who attended her school, the Kaupert Secretarial Institute, were graduates of various high schools with an exclusively academic track, but for one reason or another we hadn't gone on to college, and were completely unemployable without it. Sr. Rose Gabriel taught us typing, shorthand, and business English; how to write a business letter; how to file, and generally how to run an office like a well-oiled machine. And to my astonishment, I discovered something I was good at. I think it was the first time in my life I ever felt good at anything, which, considering I had a Regents' diploma in languages from the New York State Board of Regents, should tell you something about my self-image -- they don't hand out Regents' diplomas on the strength of how well you bat your eyelashes (if they did, I still wouldn't have gotten one).

A good exercise in contemplating gratitude, in this month of Thanksgiving. Now, whom can I tag?.... Well, considering I don't know who else reads this blog, that leaves Mimi and Catherine! Sorry, girls, you're It!