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Commentary: Two mighty women with torches

David Adlerstein
The Apalach Times
The Apalach Times

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

-From “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus

Franklin County last week said goodbye to two of the most well-respected women of its times.

One, a versatile educator whose passionate dedication to her mission shaped two generations of students in her 21 years with the district, moved south to take on a last phase of her three-decade-long career, teaching art to students in Pinellas County.

The other, a vibrant Apalachicola entrepreneur whose move north 25 years ago from her native Venezuela led to the shaping of the city’s now thriving hospitality industry, left us for good, her passing celebrated Sunday with a joyous march to the Apalachicola riverfront to spread her ashes in the river.

They were so very different in their personalities, Lydia Countryman, quiet and unassuming, a calming influence on the many students she touched with her gentle guidance, and Tamara Suarez, flashy and outspoken, with a gleam and a spark, who danced through life.

But it was in Countryman’s last contribution to her educational mission here, and in Suarez’s first contribution, when she immigrated here in 1995, and first began the work that would lead to the creation of two of the city’s leading restaurants, where their lives crossed.

Countryman’s creation of public art projects was well-established here, from as far back as 2002 when she worked with a group of students to create the glass-enhanced walkway to what was then the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve at the Mill Pond, soon to be the county extension office.

Her final Youth Art Exhibit last month at the Apalachicola Center for History, Culture and the Arts, was dedicated to a celebration of “Liberty and Justice for All,” with a particular emphasis on America’s tradition of welcoming people from foreign lands who come here to find freedom and make a new life.

The sort of people like Tamara Suarez, who emigrated here, became a citizen, raised a family, worked in restaurants until she started her own, passed it on to her daughter and son-in-law, then started another, where she continued to work, ever the provocative and welcoming hostess, until more recent years, when a serious illness made that no longer doable.

“Freedom of speech means the freedom to disagree” reads a sticker on the bottom of the front door of her Café Con Leche, which along with its many fresh-baked goodies, has long included an array of locally created art that speaks of its owner’s enduring love.

Countryman’s exhibit, which took long, painstaking hours working with elementary schoolchildren during the day and on her own after hours – a commitment that so many of her fellow teachers know all too well in their own lives – showed how so many lessons can be combined in a single effort.

She had her kindergartners, first and second graders read The Big Umbrella, about how a friendly, red umbrella helps everyone, even the four-legged, stay dry with its shelter. The youngsters worked in partners to trace their legs on chart paper, and to create shoes of colorful construction paper, and then to paint them. Countryman clothes-pinned them to hangars, and strung them across the HCA in a giant, striking sculpture.

The third and fourth grade students read Her Right Foot, and then traced their right shoe and foot, and used different techniques to detect the original copper color, or green patina of Lady Liberty’s foot. Ribbons were laced through holes to create the look of a sandal, much like the sandal the statue wears as she steps out of broken chains, onto the land of the free.

That shoe had been on the other foot in Suarez’s life, as she demonstrated the sort of dedication to her newfound country so often found in immigrants, who know all too well that what they find here is, at its very foundation, like nowhere else. Not like Venezuela, now in the hands of a dictatorial government, and not unlike spots throughout South America, Europe and Asia, which know no such deeply-rooted commitment to the freedoms that give our lives meaning here in America.

After reading The New Colossus sonnet by Emma Lazarus, which graces the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, Countryman’s sixth graders each chose a word from the poem and created a typeface for it, which was then traced on to 12-inch by 6-inch panels of softwood. Students then used the artistic technique of pyrography (woodburning) to emblazon each of the panels, which Countryman then placed in order on one of the wall-sized panels at the HCA.

Suarez did not herself fit precisely into the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free/ The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” but she knew all too well their struggles, as so many Spanish-speaking peoples come here with little more than the shirts on their backs, and scrape out a living through hard work. Suarez’s support in helping smooth the transition of their lives to America came through in vivid detail, as so many of these South American immigrants joined in the enormous outpouring that gathered Sunday afternoon at the river to honor her.

The front of Countryman’s exhibit featured an enormous golden torch made of sheets of aluminum metal, that had been patterned with lines and shapes by her fifth graders. They used simple tools, then rubbed in the designs in metallic acrylic paint, with the torch embellished in strands of beaded artwork created by fourth and fifth graders.

The torch in the hand of Lady Liberty, the statue officially named by sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi as “La Liberte Eclairant le Monde,” or “Liberty Enlightening the World,” is not one that sets things afire but a candle flame that enlightens.

Suarez’s contributions to the artistic life and commercial vibrancy of the city and county were just such an example of the enlightenment wrought by such a flame. Just as has been Countryman’s commitment to shaping the artistic and cultural expression of the county’s youth. We are grateful to them both, and lift our lamps beside their golden doors.