A Mother’s Story

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Moms today seem to put so much more into their parenting than I ever did. They research child rearing ideas, learn about proper nutrition, create healthy schedules, and worry when their little ones behave badly. I have great admiration for them because I was truly a fly by the seat of my pants kind of mom. There is so much that I might have done better but I was far too ignorant to even know that I was doing some things wrong. My daughters seem to have turned out just fine, but I often wonder if I might have done a better job of parenting if only I had taken a bit more time to learn more about the best child rearing methods. I suppose that I will never know what might have been if I had not been so immature, and so I content myself with knowing that it doesn’t matter anymore because they are on their own and raising their children quite well.

I laugh whenever a young mom is feeling a bit guilty about some meltdown or troubling incident with a child because I have stories to tell that would curl their hair and cause them to look askance at my own mothering. I always think about a time that I took my eldest child to the old Gulfgate Mall with a friend who had a son who was only slightly older than my girl. Each of us would eventually have two children, but at the time only our first born were around and they were still  toddlers who went on shopping trips in their strollers.

We were not looking for anything in particular on that day. We just wanted to get out of the house for a time with our kids. Little did we know that we were about to give a whole new meaning to the term window shopping. We went into one of the clothing stores and parked our strollers just long enough to glance through a bin of sale items. We honestly had not turned our backs on the two children for long at all, but when we turned around the strollers were empty. We began searching for them in a state of panic when we heard a commotion and lots of giggling in the showroom window. We peeked around the corner and there they were having a good time pretending to be on display for all the world to see. We quickly whisked them up, placed them back into the strollers and hurried out of the store lest we be called to task for our lack of control over our babies.I nervously imagined someone calling CPS on us, or even worse, telling my mom who would never have allowed such a thing to occur.

Once we were safely away we breathed easier that our close call had not resulted in some kind of tragedy, and we attempted to explain to the little ones as best we could how important it was for them to stay put in their strollers. Then we continued walking up and down the mall, proud of the more regimented behavior that our children were exhibiting, and once again enjoying our little walk. We became so certain that the worst was behind us that we made it all the way to the end of the stores where Sakowitz lured us with signs advertising great sales in progress. We moved from aisle to aisle being very careful to watch over our charges and then entered an area filled with fine glassware reminding our babies not to touch anything.

All was going well until we found some items to purchase and were standing in line to pay. That’s when we heard a loud crash and looked to see a display case on its side with broken glass littering the floor. I have to admit that I heaved a sigh of relief when I saw that my little girl was still sitting serenely and innocently in her stroller while my friend’s son toddled away in fear of the consequences for what he had so obviously done.

The two of us corralled him quickly and his mother fussed at him with tears of abject embarrassment in her eyes. When a manager came over to assess the situation her tears turned into heaving sobs as she explained that she would gladly pay for all of the damage, all the while worrying that the cost of the mess might be more than she actually had. The kindly man insisted that he was more concerned with making certain that everyone was okay. He chided himself for putting such a fragile display in the middle of a busy walkway, and assured us that store insurance would take care of the damage. 

His kindness and understanding was such a sweet thing to encounter, and he put the whole incident into perspective. We paid for the things we had selected and almost ran to our car from there. We felt humiliated, frenzied, and guilty about the seeming lack of control that we had over our children. The school of hard knocks on that day taught us a great deal about shopping with youngsters. We never again had such a difficult time, but a sense that we had been grossly neglectful refused to leave us. It would be years later before we were able to put our mishap into the past, and even smile a bit when we thought of it.

My advice to mothers who are struggling with headstrong, inquisitive or hard to control children is to learn how to take those bumps along with all of the wonder of having children. There will indeed be moments when they seem to be heading down a direct route to the penitentiary. That’s when we have to stay calm and carry on. As long as these kinds of moments are the exception rather than the rule, we are probably, and should consider the occasion as a way to learn and in turn teach our children. Mothers have to be prepared for many disappointing moments and find ways to judge how severe a reaction is  needed. Sometimes all everybody requires is a good nap.

Parenting is a marathon and the sense of responsibility does not end even as our children come of age and begin their adult lives. Every parent lies awake at times thinking of their offspring and worrying about them. It is part of the whole package and as normal as can be. That children’s story about the woman loving her son forever is truer than we care to admit. A child becomes the focus of our life and as a mom that intense connection never really ends. It’s good if we learn how to laugh at the little stuff so we will have what we need when the really big stuff comes around.

Finding Hope

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Statistics can be a powerful way of understanding trends in our society, but they can also be misleading. Learning the truth about the numbers that we see requires analysis, critical thinking. Since we are continuously bombarded with information regarding the state of our world based on statistics we need to consider what that data is actually telling us. Something as simple as the intervals of a graph has the power of visually changing the way we interpret the facts. So it is with the ever recurring claim that the lifespan of the average American has continued in a downward direction since its apex in the nineteen sixties. It’s important that we begin to understand what that bit of information actually means, and what we may need to do to halt the decline.

We are often told of the need to improve medical care in this country by the use of this astounding statistic. For most of us it simply seems almost impossible to believe that we have such phenomenal medical facilities and still are losing the battle of saving lives, and yet it is real. A deeper analysis demonstrates that the downward trend is related mostly to alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide. It is not so much that our country is lacking in quality medical care as that we have an epidemic of self harm that results in deaths from overdoses, cirrhosis of the liver, and increasing numbers of suicides, especially and shockingly among our middle age population. It is a quiet and grim trend about which we say little, but it is prevalent all across the country and most particularly in areas where businesses have failed and lifestyles have drastically changed.

HBO in conjunction with Dr. Sunjay Gupta filmed a documentary called One Nation Under Stress that attempted to get to the heart of why so many are turning to drugs, alcohol and even death as answers to problems. We know that addictions can be difficult to overcome, but what attracts people to chemical means of coping with anxiety in the first place? Why are ordinary middle class individuals in so much pain that they feel compelled to shut out their sadness with chemicals that alter their brains and damage their health?  What is really happening?

Dr. Gupta and the experts that he consulted note that our society is continuously and relentlessly changing, particularly in small towns that often rely on particular industries for the welfare of the populace. Many of the old avenues for work are being eliminated and in the process people find themselves suddenly left with no meaning or income in their lives. The losses that they incur both physically and emotionally drive them to seek solace in harmful ways or to despair entirely. Additionally our society has lost many of the support systems that were once so prevalent. The extended family units and neighborhood associations that were once so common have crumbled in many ways leaving individuals feeling alone and unable to cope. In fact, a certain irony is that recent immigrants are actually doing better than long time citizens because they cling to one another in communities that emphasize care and support.

Those in the middle of the economic spectrum are the most likely to feel the weight of stress. They are subjected to a kind of collective pressure and worry about losing their status and all of their comforts. They often feel quite alone in their struggles and so the abuses to their bodies and minds begin. They are reluctant to share their concerns, and often feel that they have nobody whom they trust enough to do so anyway. The anxiety bears down on them both mentally and physically.

I experienced a kind of microcosm of such feelings during the rains of hurricane Harvey which so inundated my city. My husband Mike and I were alone in our home hearing reports of devastation that was affecting both strangers and dear friends and family. Mike had suffered from a stroke only a few weeks earlier and we had been told that his chances of suffering from another attack were at their highest during this time. I was quietly frantic with worry, so much so that I was hardly sleeping and had to keep my mind occupied by preparing my home for the possibility that it might flood. When my daughter and her family had to leave their neighborhood for fear that the levee that protected their home high fail I felt incredibly alone with the realization that they were now so far away and Mike and I were so isolated from everyone. It was a series of reassuring texts from a former student who assured me that he was on alert if Mike and I needed a rescue that kept me from totally losing my composure. The lifeline that he gave me quelled my fears as did the random meetings with a neighbor across the street with whom I spoke as we both assessed the drainage system that was working to keep the water away from our homes. Facebook also gave me a way of knowing what was happening to friends and members of my family. It provided me with a way of expressing my anxiety rather than bottling it up inside. Ultimately I made it through those horrific days, but I found myself wondering if it would have been possible without those human connections that kept me grounded.

What happens when a person feels that there is no one to help? How does one cope when the pressure is not for just a few days but over a long period of time? What might each of us do to help those who have lost their way? Do we sometimes underestimate the power of a text, a message, a phone call in changing the tenor of a person’s thoughts? Have we emphasized independence so much that we have lost the emotional support of multi-generations living and working together?

Mike and I were recently discussing the Great Depression. Our parents were children during that time. It was our grandparents who bore the full brunt of that era. We noted that they survived by sharing responsibilities and resources. Whole families of sons and daughters and cousins and grandparents pooled their funds and their food to keep afloat. It was a cooperative effort that brought our ancestors through the tragedy. Hidden in their efforts was a great deal of love. Our people understood that the were going to make it because so many cared about the welfare of each individual.

We would do well to reinstate the power of family and neighbors to ease suffering. Old people should feel assured that they will find the care that they need if they become sick. Young folk should know that they will have the encouragement and support to launch themselves as adults even when they make mistakes. Those in the middle should never be reluctant to ask for help when things go awry. If we open our hearts and begin to embrace the people for whom we care perhaps we can stem the tide of self medication and self destruction that is literally killing people in our midst. The change that we need is to be found inside our relationships. If we focus on strengthening them many of our problems will be solved.

Keepers of the Human Mind

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I sometimes wonder if libraries are becoming as old fashioned as buggy whips and binders. It saddens me a bit to think that they may one day become more like museums than working centers of education. Many schools no longer bother to have rows and rows of books in a special room like they once did. Libraries are not being built as often as they were and physical copies of the great works are becoming less common. Today it is more likely that students will find the information that they seek online. Few of them have had experiences with the Dewey Decimal System or the card catalog, and while I often grumbled about such things in my youth, I still have the fondest of memories of visiting libraries.

There was a bookmobile that came to Garden Villas Park when I was young. I often rode my bicycle to there and checked out the maximum number of titles allowable. I’d devour the volumes then return in a week to get more. My mother often drove me to a bigger library with more selection. My favorite was located on Park Place Boulevard, but sometimes we would go to one near what used to be Palm Center, one of the first shipping malls in the city of Houston. I was addicted to biographies, mysteries, and stories of pioneer life.

When I got to high school my tastes changed to the classics. Our school library was fairly extensive so I’d tackle one great work a week. I became a fan of the Bronte sisters and Hermann Hess. I swooned over Pride and Prejudice and laughed at the characters created by Mark Twain. I read volumes of poetry and Greek tragedies and every biography that I was able to find.

In my junior year I joined the debate team which required a bigger resource than either my school or the local libraries afforded. My partner, Claudia, and I snuck into the library at the University of Houston armed with index cards that we filled with pertinent facts. We were unable to check out any of the volumes that we found because we were not students there, but we found periodicals and references that were invaluable to our arguments.

Once in a great while we hopped on a bus near Claudia’s home and traveled to the main library in downtown Houston. It was a grand old place with a history as stunning as its architecture and collection of volumes. The librarians there were incredibly knowledgeable and often helped us in our searches for information. We’d spend hours combing through books and microfiche. losing all track of time. It was an adventure that awakened my interest in learning even more than it ever had been.

A graduate class sent me to the law library at the University of Houston. I searched through tomes describing legislation and court cases. I enjoyed the hunt so much that I had to agree with my mom and my professor that I would have indeed liked the idea of being an attorney. Some evenings I was one of the last persons in the building and being the staff members had to remind me that it was time to vacate so that they might go home. I suppose that libraries have a tendency to make me lose all track of time.

When my children were young I took them to story times at the library and introduced them to the glories of row upon row of reading material. I wanted them to love reading as much as I did, and as far as I can tell my efforts took hold, but I suspect that they are now more inclined to visit a bookstore or purchase titles from Amazon or Apple than to suffer through traffic to get to a library. There aren’t too many located inside neighborhoods like there once were. It takes a bit more effort to get to them than riding a bicycle.

I would have loved to have seen the great library at Alexandria. How amazing it would have been to see primary texts outlining the histories of ancient societies! The library at the University of Texas is amazing in the scope of its collection. I’d so enjoy getting lost in it’s rooms and seeing its most prized pieces. Imagine actually being able to view one of the original Gutenberg bibles!

I suspect that there will always be people like me who still yearn for the atmosphere of a library. It has a place even amongst the technological revolution. Some of us still demand the sensuous feel of a real book. The texture of its paper, and the smell of its binding is as much a of the part of the enjoyment of reading as the words themselves. A library is a sacred place, a kind of heaven on earth. Visiting one is both a solemn and pleasurable experience.

I for one hope that we never become so modern that we no longer find a need for libraries. I’ve heard that there are fewer and fewer librarians these days which I think is a shame. A computer is a fine repository of information, but there will always be a place for the aesthetic and refinement of a great library. We must protect such gathering places for information and learning. They are keepers of history and progress, reminders of the best of the human mind.

Learning by Doing

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The warm weather has been a bit long in coming this year which is just fine with me. I don’t want to live in northern climes where winter lingers until May. Nor do I wish to deal with snow and blizzards, but I do prefer cooler weather that allows me to dress in layers and wear cute boots. My figure is long past the showy stage. The less skin I expose, the better for multiple reasons not the least of which is my tendency to get skin cancers. Too much sun leaves freckles and brown splotches on my face, and my waistline is hardly bikini worthy. Fall and winter fashion serves me best. I can fool the world into thinking that I’m still slender. It’s amazing how many sins a nice long sweater can hide.

Nonetheless  I remember my childhood when I longed for the warmth of the sun, even though my family did not own an air conditioner. How we managed to survive the hot Houston summers with only  open windows and an attic fan is beyond me, but I don’t recall feeling unduly uncomfortable. I suppose that we humans adapt to whatever is customary, and back then summers meant wearing very little clothing and eschewing footwear in favor of bare feet. We’d found comfort under the shade of trees or through strategically created ventilation from open windows. Of course an invitation here and there from a friend whose home was mechanically cooled never went unanswered. Now I don’t think that I would make it through a summer without my thermostatically controlled coolness, and I certainly am no longer willing to reveal the true nature of my physical shape by wearing skimpy outfits.

I wonder what we would do if we were somehow forced to return to those days of ninety degree temperatures inside our homes. To hear some scientists’ claims it could very well happen again. We might once more have to learn how to deal with whatever Mother Nature sends our way. It will take a great deal of cleverness like we used back in the day. For now I’ll just be glad that the continuous state of sweat is but a distant memory, made pleasant by the selective nature of my mind.

I laugh when I think of how my generation grew up. In today’s world our mothers would be reported to CPS for doing things that were just natural back then. We rode in cars without any kind of seatbelts, sometimes even standing on the seats, riding in the front, and hitching rides in the back of pickup trucks like cargo. We had no kneepads or helmets for skating or riding bicycles which we often mounted in our bare feet. We stepped on nails and glass and as long as our tetanus shots were up to date our moms cleaned our wounds, splashed some mercurochrome on them and finished with a bandaid that fell off within minutes of our returning to the streets without benefit of shoes.

We played games in the middle of the road, and Red Rover was one of our favorite neighborhood competitions. We almost always sported scabs on our knees and cuts on our fingers. We’d cool down with water from the hose which also served as our drinking fountain. We roamed the area in little hoards finding adventure down by the bayou or in walks along the railroad tracks. We all knew the sting of hot asphalt on the soles of our feet or sticker burrs between our toes. We’d have make believe battles with the little berries on tallow trees, tossing those makeshift weapons like grenades. I don’t remember anyone losing an eye, but I  suspect that somewhere some poor kid may have been injured in that way.

We were as free as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and just as inclined to mischief. We’d scale mountains of sand meant to be spread on some neighbor’s yard. We’d climb roofs and stand on the peaks like intrepid adventurers who had successfully scaled some high peak. Nothing was out of the bounds of our imaginations and in the process we got tough and learned how to work as teams. We thought out of the box, inventing ways to have fun without many store bought tools.

Summers were great times when we were free as the birds in the sky, little noticing the stifling heat that hung over our childhood games. Now I get weak in the knees and short of wind if I attempt to be too energetic in the hottest times of the year. I’ve grown far too accustomed to the luxury of central air conditioning to submit myself to the tortures of the sun. In some ways it makes me sad to admit that I have lost my toughness. I was once like a young warrior ready for any challenge regardless of the weather. Now I am more like a hot house flower, as I suspect most of us, including many children, have become. So yes, the cooler times of year are now my favorite. That’s when I don’t mind taking a many miles long walk or working all day in my garden. To my utter delight of late there have been more days suited to my taste than usual.

I’m still admittedly proud of the way I grew up. I sometimes think that the “greatest generation” that raised me understood how to treat children far better than we do today. My friends and I have glorious memories of fun that don’t appear to be duplicated by many young folk today. Children have their play dates and formal classes which I suppose are fun, but I worry that they don’t have enough experience in which they make all of the decisions without adult supervision. There’s something quite wonderful about working things out by trial and error. It is a glorious way to gain all sorts of knowledge. The warm weather always reminds me of my outdoor classroom and all of the things that I learned by doing.

The Lady in the Window

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It was a lovely spring day at the end of March when the bluebonnets begin to emerge in the fields of Texas. Mike and I decided to take a drive to Brenham to see this year’s crop of wildflowers. Since we would be within minutes of Texas A&M University where our grandsons attend college we added a visit with them to the day’s schedule. It just knew that we were going to have a glorious time, and as predicted we were not disappointed. Carpets of red yellow and blue covered hillsides and strips of land along the roads that we traveled. We had not quite come at the most prolific time for the wildflowers, but what we saw sufficiently satisfied us. A stop for lunch at a quaint cafe, a visit to several shops, and a walk through the gardens of the Antique Rose Emporium filled out our adventure. Then it was time to head over to College Station to meet up with our grandsons Andrew and Jack, as well as Andrew’s girlfriend, Araceli.

As we drove along country roads we saw so many sights that made me wonder what the stories of the people who lived there might be. There were majestic farm houses and abandoned shacks, fertile fields and patches of land littered with junked cars. We saw neat mobile homes and those that appeared ready for an installment of “Hoarders.” My curiosity was in overdrive as I viewed poverty and neglect existing side by side with plenty. I wondered what makes the biggest difference in the tenor of a person’s life. I suspect that if we only knew exactly what causes such differences we might be able to one day eliminate them, but for now we struggle to know what to do to make life more secure and equitable.

We had some time to kill once we reached College Station which was alive with the kind of energy that Friday nights seem to engender in young people who have theoretically been studying all week. We decided to pass the time at a Starbuck’s near the apartment where one of our grandson’s lives. As we approached the establishment I noticed a shopping cart filled with sheets and blankets standing on the pavement as though it had been suddenly abandoned. Nobody made a move to investigate or move it. Passersby simply walked around it.

Inside the Starbuck’s a woman swathed in white sheets from head to toe sat alone at a table near the entrance. She was almost motionless as though she were deep in thought. The other customers of the coffeehouse seemed unaware of her presence. They read their books, typed on their laptops and conversed with one another as though there was nothing strange or out of place with the woman. I decided to follow their lead and attempted not to look in her direction too often or to stare in amazement, a bad habit that my curiosity causes me to to do more frequently than I should.

Mike and I ordered our drinks and sat down just across from the interesting soul who was holding court with herself. Her clothing was made entirely out of white sheets, including an elaborate headdress that seemed perfect for an exotic ceremony of some sort. She actually looked quite lovely and I was impressed with her creativity thinking that if I were to try to fashion such an outfit it would surely fall from my body. Her robes were secure and gave her an exotic air. Still I wondered how she was able to sit so placidly without a beverage or any sort of food and appear to be so content with herself, so relaxed. Surely she realized that to others she was an unusual sight, and her cart appeared to be an indication of a homeless situation.

The workers in the Starbuck’s did nothing to disturb her repose. I suspect that after the fiasco that ensured a while back at another Starbuck’s where a manager asked someone who was waiting for a friend to leave the employees were leery to make waves. Thus the interesting figure by the window simply sat trancelike and seemingly without much notice, save from me.

Eventually Jack met us at the Starbuck’s and we left for the restaurant to meet the rest of our party. As soon as we were in the car he noted that we had seen a kind of celebrity in the college community. For lack of a true name he called her “sheet lady.” He told us that she is often seen walking or resting all over the area. He wasn’t sure what her true situation was, but like me he marveled at her ingenuity and survival skills. Nonetheless we engaged in a discussion of the homeless and the problems that they face. He told us of a man who had recently harassed students as they walked to and from class who seemed to be in a kind of psychotic state. He pointed out that the lady on the other hand always appeared to be quite harmless, and so nobody felt uncomfortable around her other than to worry about her safety.

At dinner Andrew remarked that he had seen the lady walking with her cart miles away from the university. He told of a rumor that she was part of some religious group and there her behaviors were part of the rituals associated with the sect. Of course we all conjectured that she was most likely suffering from some form of mental illness. Sadly it appeared that she preferred her vagabond lifestyle to accepting charitable offers for housing with behavioral strings attached.

I still think of the lady in the window even as I sit in my home. I truly wonder what brought her to such a lifestyle and if there is some loved one searching for her. I’m glad that she has a safe place to sit and rest. I hope that when it rains or is cold someone offers her refuge for the night. She appeared to be quite content, but perhaps that was simply a facade. I’d like to know what musings pass through her mind, but then that is a private thing for me to know only if she wishes it to be so. Still I wonder, “Who is she really?”