Tag Archives: Richmond VA

Dental Office Wisdom

Dental Office Wisdom   —by Jinny Batterson

The realization that I’m aging gets brought home to me each time a medical professional who formerly helped take care of me retires (or, worse, dies). By now I’ve been through at least four primary care doctors and an equal number of specialists and dentists. As a cranky older patient, I balk some at new technology, increasing intrusions on my privacy, seemingly endless medical history and insurance forms, frequent changes in practices and practitioners. 

The office where I’m most vulnerable is the dentist’s—registering a complaint is nearly impossible when one’s mouth is filled with dental instruments. As a child, I dreaded going to get my teeth checked—I nearly always had one or more cavities that needed filling. The sound of a dentist’s drill remains one of my least favorite sounds. My dread diminished as I grew up. By the time I left home for college, all of my teeth were healthy and/or filled.

In young adulthood, I encountered my favorite dentist while living in Richmond, Virginia starting in the early 1970’s. I used to get twice-yearly checkups at his home office. I found his practice by walking past it. Because for our first few years in Richmond, my husband and I shared a single vehicle and my automotive access was skimpy and sporadic, I did my best to find ways to limit my needs for private transportation. We lived on a bus line that serviced the downtown office where I worked. That helped. There was a small grocery store near enough to walk to, a couple of restaurants and a custom butcher shop within a three block radius.

One day as I was lugging bags back home from the grocery, I noticed a small metal sign at the edge of the sidewalk: “Alec Epstein, DDS.” The sign hung above a short set of steps leading to a two-story brick house that looked much like the other houses in our older mixed neighborhood of individual homes, small shops, and two or three story apartment buildings and offices.

It had been a while since my previous dental check-up. Such a convenient location beckoned. Later I checked it out. Walking in, I met Dr. Epstein directly—no receptionist, a rather bare waiting room. Just visible through an archway was an examination room with a single dentist’s chair. I set up a tentative appointment for the following week on a day when I knew my supervisor would be on vacation and my workload would be lighter than usual.

Over the years that I went to Dr. Epstein, he never had a hygienist or an assistant. He kept records by hand in manila folders. After my first appointment, he always had my up-to-date chart at the ready when I came in. He’d greet me by name and usher me into the examination room, giving me time to settle into the worn leather dental chair while he reviewed my recent dental history.

“Any problems?” he’d ask before he began looking into my mouth.

Once in a while I’d need a replacement filling or a new one. If anything really complicated was required, he’d refer me to the dental school at the nearby Medical College of Virginia. His fees were amazingly reasonable. On one wall beside the dental chair he’d hung a framed certificate of his dental school diploma from 1940.

In front of the dentist’s chair, high up on the wall to be visible to a patient tipped back during an exam, he’d put photocopies of two cartoons. One showed a pate nearly as shiny as his own, with the caption “God only made a few perfect heads. The rest he put hair on.”

The other, well before the days of the internet or “The Simpsons” TV show, pictured a rough-looking kid of ten or so, spiky hair sticking up in all directions. “I know I’m somebody,” this proto-Bart snarled, “‘cause God don’t make no junk.”

It’s been over thirty years since I last saw Dr. Epstein. According to the obituary I was able to find via internet, he continued seeing some patients until he was past 90, and was only “fully retired” for about six months before heart disease claimed him. He was widely respected in the community for his skill and his service.

Now that we have an internet and instagram and all sorts of ways of spreading words and images at light speed, the “no junk” cartoon has become hackneyed, but I think its message remains important. From time to time, all of us, from spiky-haired kids to amazingly accomplished former First Lady Michelle Obama, have doubts about whether or not we’re good enough. All of us need the reminder from Dr. Epstein’s office wall: “I know I’m somebody, ‘cause God don’t make no junk.”   

Lessons from Edgewood Avenue

Lessons from Edgewood Avenue   —by Jinny Batterson

(This entry was read as part of a service on diversity at the UU Fellowship of Raleigh, NC on Sunday, August 7, 2016.)

This is partly a story about two black families that I got to know well during twenty years of living down the block from them. It’s also a story about my evolving understanding of diversity. In the mid-1970’s, my husband and I moved to Richmond, Virginia. Both of us had grown up mostly further north, but our most recent adventure there—an attempt to go back to the land in Vermont—had ended badly. We were nearly broke. We wanted to start a family. We began looking around for a house our meager savings could purchase while we got back on our feet financially. We found one: an older, well-maintained, 4-bedroom two-story stucco house on Edgewood Avenue. At first, our next-door neighbor was elderly Mrs. Burnet. She called herself “the holdout,” an original owner who’d resisted the push to leave when the area got “flipped” by blockbusting real estate agents. After Mrs. Burnet died, we were the only remaining “white” family.

As our family grew, we got to know our other neighbors better. Most had moved in a decade before us, when their previous homes had been demolished to put through Interstate  Highway 95. The parents mostly held blue-collar or civil service jobs, sometimes working more than one to make ends meet. By the time we arrived, their older children were in high school or just leaving home. We became close with two other ’B’-named families: I’ll call them the Brooks family and the Brandons.  After our two boys were born, Sharon Brooks and Stacy Brandon became sometime evening babysitters. Jon, the youngest Brandon, was only a few years older than our guys.  He became a substitute big brother. Mrs. Brandon had given up her prior career as an English teacher to raise her five children. She later became our regular after school sitter—our boys could walk to Brandons’  house from their elementary school. Mrs. Brandon would sometimes give them a snack, or help them with their homework. She’d make sure they stayed safe until Jim or I finished work and could come get them.

Starting in the late 1980’s, the crack epidemic exploded in American cities. We heard gunfire and sirens at night. Our children were entering their teens. We went through the soul-searching that all parents of adolescent boys face: How could we provide good examples while shielding our sons from the worst temptations and dangers of their increasing independence? Should we move to the suburbs for safer neighborhoods, better schools? When both sons got accepted at an area magnet high school, the school issue became moot. Other dangers still lurked, though. Through the Brookses and the Brandons, we got a searing introduction to how these dangers sometimes played out in the lives of young black men.

In December, 1992, I learned through the neighborhood grapevine that Brandons’ older son, ”Teejay,” had died. He was 29. He had been missing for two days when his body was found by a stranger walking his dog. Teejay had been killed gangland style. Grieving with the Brandon family and attending Teejay’s funeral were some of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. The funeral was held at Mrs. Brandon’s home church, a historic Baptist congregation in their previous downtown neighborhood. The place was packed. Some of the younger women sobbed loudly. Teejay’s two young children could not understand why their dad was in a box that would soon be closed. The minister did his best to provide comfort, but the unsolved murder left a wound that took a long time to heal.

I don’t remember exactly when Randy Brooks moved back home. At some point I started seeing him again. Randy, a star athlete in high school, had gotten a tennis scholarship to a historically black college. For a while afterwards, he worked as a computer operator. Then we lost track of him. When Randy reappeared, he was suffering from HIV.  Anti-retroviral drugs were still in their infancy. Randy hated their severe side effects. Eventually he decided to stop treatments. Attending his funeral in 1997, at a different Baptist church, was also hard. His mother, an assistant pastor, gave the eulogy, based on the 23rd Psalm. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” 

The tragedies on Edgewood are not its only stories. There are successes, too—Jon became an award-winning high school teacher and choral director in Connecticut;  Stacy is a school administrator in Maryland; Sharon is a geologist in Texas.

Both during and after our Edgewood stay, I traveled widely, seeing parts of Africa, Europe, Asia, Latin America. Mostly, though, I’ve continued to live in the U.S. South.  As I get to know more of my neighbors in our increasingly diverse communities, I continue the transition begun on Edgewood years ago. I may never totally outgrow my origins. Too often, I get abstract knowledge about a problem, but lack the wisdom, compassion, humility, and engagement to make a positive difference. Still, I work, one day at a time, at the necessary transformation of a recovering stereotypical white liberal.   

The Free South Africa Bridge

The Free South Africa Bridge  —by Jinny Batterson,  December, 2013

(As the world mourns the loss of Nelson Mandela and celebrates his long and productive life, there is still much work to do.)

Nelson Mandela has left us, at least physically.
This master builder of bridges has gone home
To somewhere where bridges are no longer needed.

During long years of imprisonment,
He learned to build bridges with his fellow inmates
And with his jailers.  He studied the languages
And customs of his supposed enemies—
Post-colonialist British expatriates, Afrikaners.

Somehow, on his release, he got many,
These same Brits and Afrikaners, as well as
Zulus, Swazis, Tswanas, expatriate Indians and Chinese,
To consider themselves South Africans first,
Among their many allegiances and tribes.

Richmond, VA, has many physical bridges. The one I remember best
Was built over an expressway that had divided neighborhoods
For the benefit of faster travel to/from the suburbs
And points further away.

This bridge joined a blighted area
Of public housing with a struggling commercial
Section just west of a similarly struggling downtown
That was filled mostly with government and institutional
Buildings which emptied quickly at 5 each evening.

Builders had added high angled chain link fences at the
Sides of the bridge—to prevent anyone from throwing
Bottles or debris off the bridge onto the cars speeding
By below, away from the city’s problems.

During the 1980’s, a frustrated bridge-user scrawled
Onto the chain link, in big spray-painted letters,
“Free South Africa.”
For many years the slogan stayed there,
Unseen by I-64/95 traffic, unwashed by graffiti removers.

The bridge has since been replaced by a more modern
Span, but deep fissures remain in metro Richmond’s social fabric.
Perhaps Madiba from his perch wherever can appreciate
The irony of a free South Africa and a Richmond still
Badly in need of more bridge builders.