Am I opening Pandora’s box?

by Jeanne Arnold

I’m not shy but I’m not rowdy. I’m a feminist but I’m not strident. I’m a Racine native, but I’ve been around. I lived a straight life for half of it and I chose to live as a lesbian life with my partner for the other half. I’m a happy mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and we all love each other. I live in my own home and I drive my rusty van, have visitors and helpers, many books, watch PBS, MSNBC, the Packers and tennis. I love my Mac computer and have since we had a Lisa in 1984. 

I am 90 years old and I write stories that are basically true. I plan to share them with you from decades of Racine, blending my creative nonfiction memoirs of four generations primarily of Racine women, values, concerns and joys. Some will be sad but mostly I’ll tell you stuff with humor, when appropriate, and slip in some of my liberal values. 

Officially, I retired in 1994 but I’ve never been retiring. In partnership with Barbara Lindquist, we opened our Mother Courage Bookstore in 1978; I was its marketing person without a budget, and in 1982 I became an editor, proofreader and advertising agent for our two-person Mother Courage Press. Our first book focused on a therapy book for children victimized by abuse followed by books on abuse and prevention of abuse written by women authors. Barbara did the illustrations. Expanding on happier topics, the Press thrived until we retired it in 2002.

As a kid I tagged along to help my parents, Mildred and Charles B. (Barney) Arnold, Racine’s premier float builders for our 4th of July and Labor Day parades. When people say, “The parades don’t have floats like they used too,” we were the ones who made those floats that they don’t have. After World War II, our carpenter, John Verbugt, and I created the original Iwo Jima Marine Corp float with chicken wire and large-scale paper Mache. The final float made by my family in 1976 honored Mr. Goodwill, my father.

Twenty years ago, I looked at my cluttered photos and files and piles of material and wondered what would happen to these life adventures when I die. After organizing the photos and files and piles, I began organizing my time and began writing my memories into memoirs and called them biomythographies, a word coined by Audre Lorde who define it as an inventive or made-up life story. I interpret it as adding space for my imagination. Now the word is creative non-fiction. I’m writing my eighth memoir now with colorful adventures within serious relationship complications and successful resolution.

The books in the series, Whistling Girls and Crowing Hens, are yet to be published. (They would make a great TV series.) My published book, Amy Asks a Question . . .Grandma, What’s a Lesbian?, was nominated for a national children’s and teens Lambda Literary Award.

Traveling seems to be in my DNA. I’ve traveled most of my life starting with my parents driving to California when I was six and Washington D.C., New York and Boston when I was 12. My former husband and I, proud Horlick grads from the Class of ’49, camped throughout Europe during our three years of living in Germany; he was a lieutenant and I as a high school teacher of English and journalism at a U.S. school for Army and State Department kids. We even traveled with an Army  train to tour to East and West Berlin during those Cold War years before The Wall. I learned how to travel on a budget, a small one. Years later, he and I spent three weeks in Greece and a week in St. Petersburg and Moscow. As a family we camped through the U.S., and later, I was my daughter’s and grandson’s tour guide around and about New York, Boston and Paris.  

I love to write about trips with Barbara searching for ancient monuments, stone circles, sacred Goddess sites throughout the western US plus Malta, Egypt, England, Ireland, Scotland, France and Mexico. We’ve sailed and snorkeled in the American and British Virgin Islands, in the Atlantic with wild spotted dolphins and briefly in the Pacific on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the Coral Sea with two of our seafaring women authors. We met with them and other Mother Courage Press authors in New Zealand, and Canada. 

In the past, I considered my writing as more of reporter of facts than creator of fiction. My careers as a teacher, as a Racine Journal Times feature writer and a hospital public relations person demanded correct information that had enough pizzazz to motivate adults to read what I wrote. 

As a teacher I aspired to inspire my high school students to love literature and composition and submit their written assignments as independent but accurate creative thinkers. I was tough but I made them laugh. They called me “Nails.”

I loved the challenge as a newspaper reporter where I helped to increase awareness of diverse feminist, political, social and religious views, but I wrote carefully to avoid being called again to the editor’s desk for editorializing.

I learned a lot in my first hospital public relations atmosphere in Racine, writing to support it through varied successes and challenges including a six-weeks strike in 1976 when I wrote a newsletter every day–every single day. Those newsletters gave factual information and human-interest stories to hospital staff, patients and supporters. Strikers eagerly acquired copies too and read the accurate news that they could trust.

At my second hospital in Milwaukee, I supported and championed the staff and their work, motivated the physicians to refer and the public to choose our hospital for care and, with others, worked to make this county-owned public hospital more successful and sustainable. Almost all information, spoken and written, was scrutinized by hospital administration, by questioning and competitive media as well as Milwaukee County government officials until County supervisors sold my hospital to Froedtert Memorial Hospital in 1994.

Thankfully, I made a career, I think, out of being fair, calm and agreeable. As Racine’s Writer In Residence for six months I cherish this opportunity to share my writing with you. I hope that through reading my weekly blogs you may gain new interests, deeper understanding and pleasure.

Thank you.

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Next week–Barbara said, “We’re not very good, but we’re funny. Or maybe we’re funny because we’re not very good.”

And please think about nominating UNSung women: UNsung women, alive or dead, from the Racine and Kenosha area who achieved significant but unrecognized accomplishments in their lives. Watch for details.

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