We’re Still Standing

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Three years ago I was hunting for a really good gift to give my husband for Christmas. He wants very little aside from an electric car and a trip back to London, so each holiday season I have a difficult time finding a present that will bring a big smile to his face. Three years ago we were planning a trip to Scotland in the spring, so travel was already in the bag and I was not inclined to purchase an automobile without his inspection and approval. Out of the blue I saw an announcement that Elton John would be coming to Houston the following July for his Yellow Brick Road farewell concert. I instantly knew that I had found the key to a great surprise for my sweet and always generous man. 

I rushed to Ticketmaster and found two great seats, reserved them with my credit card, and printed the confirmation. I placed the exciting paper inside a lovely box and wrapped the treasure for Christmas Day. I was a ball of excitement, feeling certain that my husband was going to be incredibly happy with the prospect of seeing Elton John perform. When the day for opening gifts finally arrived I could hardly wait to see his reaction. I was not disappointed and neither was he. The gift was a hit and he immediately put the date and time of the performance on his calendar. It seemed like fun times lay ahead in the coming year.

Of course, the rest of the story is wrought with twists and turns. The whole world became undone with Covid in late February. By early March cancellations began all over the globe. Not long after that we got notice that Elton John would be staying home until further notice. All of his concerts were temporarily cancelled, but our tickets would still be good whenever it appeared to be a better time for assembling large crowds. We were assured that we would receive notice far in advance of the new date when new arrangements were settled. 

We waited and waited, wondering if Elton might eventually decide to scrap the whole project. Month after month went by with no word alerting us to a new date. So much time elapsed that we almost forgot about the concert that had once filled us with so much anticipation. I’d check my texts and email, but nothing ever came. 

One evening I was flipping through posts on Facebook when I saw photos of my daughter and son-in-law wearing glittery glasses and crowing about how much fun they were having at Elton John’s concert in Houston. I was stunned and immediately checked and rechecked my email hoping to find that there had been some kind of mistake. In fact there was no communication at all. The concert was happening and we were not there. I was devastated and had little or no recourse for compensation. I simply took my daughter’s word that it was a fabulous night of world class entertainment and fun and chalked it up to one of those crazy things that happen from time to time. 

A few days after the Houston concert Elton John came down with Covid and cancelled dates in some cities once again. I comforted myself with the thought that my husband and I might have become sick if we had gone to the musical extravaganza. I decided that it was probably too early for us to risk our health no matter who was performing. I put my disappointment behind me and moved on to other more important things. 

Lo and behold, almost one year after we should have seen Elton John in concert in our city and three years after I purchased our tickets, we learned that Disney +, which we have, was going to live stream his concert in Los Angeles. We would get to see what we had missed after all. Even better was the fact that we would be able to enjoy the music in the comfort of our home. 

We were unable to use our large television with a movie theater sound system because the concert would not start until ten in the evening and my father-in-law’s bedroom is adjacent to our great room. He has come to live with us since the time that we had so many grandiose plans for 2020. We set him up in the master bedroom so that he would not have to climb the stairs. He retires for the evening at around eight thirty because he is ninety three years old. We have become accustomed to using our upstairs television which is small, but useful for the video games that our grandchildren play when they come to visit. It would have to do for our viewing pleasure of Elton John and it did the trick. We donned our pajamas and reclined on our couch rocking along with Elton into the early morning hours.

Elton John at age 76 performed with only minimal breaks for all of the almost three hours. He demonstrated why he is revered all over the world in a tour de force of his many great hits. He is a bit stiff in the knees these days, but his fingers still glide across the keyboard with precision and joy. His impish ways are still there and were emulated by the huge crowd donned in sequins and feathers. He was in perfect form as he performed songs that made us smile and dance with joy back in the sixties and seventies and even unto this very time. For three hours we were young again and everyone was happy and loved and understood. Elton has uniting people with his wit and his talent and his compassion. It was a moving performance that left us smiling and sometimes shedding a few tears.

My husband finally received his gift, albeit in a very different fashion than he had imagine and it was okay. We were okay. Somehow it felt good that in spite of all that has happened to change our lives and the world we are all still standing and walking with one of the greats of our time beyond the yellow brick road. 

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This Little Light of Mine

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I’ve been amazed at how quickly Christmas decorations began to appear this year. I have a mid November birthday that has always been the start of the holiday season for me, but up until recently fall decor was still very dominant from that time until the day after Thanksgiving. Now the lights seemed to go up as soon as Halloween was over. There is a  Christmas wreath on the door of the house across the street and pumpkins and colorful leaves on another next door. It is as though we can’t quite decide when is the best time for transitioning from one celebratory season to another. 

I’m a rather linear person who has a routine that I have faithfully followed for years. On the first day of September I deck my home with fall colors. When October arrives I bring out the ghosts and goblins and jack o lanterns, but promptly store them away the day after Halloween. I leave generic pumpkins in the decor and add a pilgrim or two to the mantle. All of it stays in place until the day after Thanksgiving when I begin to transform the house into a winter wonderland. 

It takes me days upon days to do all of the Christmas decorating. I have to make may trips up and down the ladder to my attic to pull out dusty boxes of the treasures I have collected over the years. I used to have the energy to just get it all down in one very long day, but my knees and hips and bones complain when I try such things now. I have learned to be more patient and do a bit here and a bit there until everything is in place. 

I have to admit that I like seeing the Christmas decorations that arrive in November. I’m quite open minded about letting each family do its own thing. I’d be okay with starting in October if that’s what somebody wanted to do. I actually find if fun to watch the transformation of my neighborhood each year. The decorations and their timing tell me so much about how happy my neighbors seem to be. I laugh at the perfection of some and the haphazard look of others. 

What impresses me the most about all of it is that we humans just keep ploughing on in both good times and bad. Somehow when Christmas comes all of the troubles we have had melt away in the awesome realization that we are all mostly good and loving people just trying to do our best with whatever we have. We stop from the frenzy of the year to be with family and friends. We decorate to demonstrate our joy. Those lights in the windows or in the yard bring smiles.

I remember as a child riding with my family to see the lights of Christmas. We’d choose a neighborhood and go up and down the streets oohing and aching at the displays. There was a place near Wayside and Lawndale streets that had one of my favorite scenes. It was a life sized manger from which the sound of Silent Night echoed into the air. My mother would always stop the car and just sit in front of the house until we had heard the full song and then we would move on. It was an almost sacred yearly ritual for me. I always felt that Christmas had finally come when we saw that display. Sadly it one day went away and I was devastated wondering what had happened to the people who had so faithfully provided it for us for so many years.

When I was a young mom the displays in Glenbrook Valley were always awesome. At one home Santa sat in a huge chair near the curb handing candy canes to the children who came to see him. My little girls were always so delighted when they saw the jolly old man. It was a destination that we never failed to visit each December until it too was no more.

Of late we have enjoyed the spectacular views in River Oaks where people come from all over the city to see the incredible sights. There are even horse drawn carriages that ferry folks from street to street. Some park their cars and walk around taking photos of themselves in front of the extravaganzas. When we go we always follow up the drive with milkshakes or hot cocoa just as we did when we were young.

Our own yard is a hodgepodge of things that we have collected over the years. It’s a bit on the tacky side, but the parents of young children tell us that it is a favorite among the little ones. We have a wooden Christmas tree lit up with colored lights. For fun we have a Grinch appearing to be stealing the presents and strings of lights from the tree. At the corner of the house we post a snowman that is so old I can’t believe that he still lights up each year. We put lights around the flowerbeds and along the sidewalk and line the fence on the side with icicle lights. We’ve never won an award for the best display, but I feel good about what we’ve done. Everything in that yard means something to us.

Every year we wonder if we will have the energy to do our usual thing, but when the time comes we pull the boxes out of the attic and make quick work of the process even as our knees complain a bit about our efforts. When it’s all done it really does feel like Christmas and leaves us with time and determination to remember that Christmas is really about love. 

That baby born in a manger would grow up to teach us all how we should live. We don’t always remember his message, but the annual celebration of his birth sets us back on track. It’s not the gifts or even all of the lights that make the holiday season special. It’s all about our brotherhood and sisterhood in the world. 

As we enter the Christmas season I think of the people whose nations are at war. I hope that my lights shine for them for anyone who is suffering anywhere on this earth. I’ll be putting them on display soon and thinking of how I might do my part to create more peace on earth by letting my little lights shine. It’s good to resolve once again to be our best.

The Finances of a Marriage

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Back in nineteen sixty eight I was a not quite yet twenty year old bride barely two years out of high school. The reality is that I had no idea what I was doing. In fact, I was winging it from day to day, playing a role for which I was not fully prepared. I approached each my life as a wife with a wing and prayer, thinking that I had my future all figured out as long as I had my handsome husband by me side. 

Both of us were still attending college at the University of Houston so plan A was to find an apartment close to campus. Things cost a great deal less back then so leased a nice one bedroom space for one hundred ten dollars a month. Utilities were included in the price. In spite of such a fabulously affordable rate, we were cutting it close with my two hundred dollar a month salary as a teachers’ aide. If not for my mother’s tutoring in living on the edge financially I suspect that we would have been broke and on the curb in a couple of months. Instead I knew how to cook frugally and account for every penny like a miser. 

That first year was an acid test of our commitment to one another because there were literally times when we had nothing to eat in the house but a can of pineapple chunks and a head of cabbage. I’d literally manage to get two meals from our meager fare and make safely to the moment when I held a paycheck in my hands. By carefully spreading out the timing of our visits to our former homes, we managed to actually get some hearty home cooked meals from our mothers, along with leftovers that tied us over for another day. 

Somehow we did indeed manage to survive and when our first summer as a married couple came my husband worked as an electrician’s helper with his uncle. His days were very long because they were stationed at NASA where preparations were under way for the first moon launch. Sometimes he would work sixteen or more hours a day, seven days a week. We felt rich and squirreled away lots of cash in a savings account knowing that the fall, winter and spring months would be lean by comparison. When the new school year came my husband landed a position as a teaching assistant at the university while pursuing his Masters degree. We believed that the worst of our economic woes were over but we would learn soon enough that surprises came along that stretched the budget to a breaking point.

When our second summer together came he landed a job at a downtown bank. We were overjoyed that he earned a whopping four hundred dollars a month. We actually felt wealthy and able to splurge now and again. When he decided to continue working full time at the bank our coffers swelled, at least in our minds. Those horrific moments of wondering if we were going to make it to the next payday were finally gone, but not our need to be careful with how we spent what we had. 

I suppose that it is human nature to have a bit of dissatisfaction with one’s fate because it was about that time that I began to dream of being rich, which in nineteen seventy meant to me having a one thousand dollar a month income. I wondered if we would ever get that close to living a luxurious lifestyle. Even though it seemed so untenable, I kept up hope and did my best to make what we did have work for us. 

My husband moved up in the ranks at the bank and I took care of the home front which eventually included two little girls. I also did odd jobs here and there while earning my own degree. Before I accomplished my goal I had worked in a daycare center, watched children in my home, worked as a pre-school teacher and served as the Director of Religious Education at my church among many other little gigs here and there. Along the way we had reached the one thousand dollar a month milestone, but by then it was no longer the kind of salary a wealthy person might enjoy. My goals reached ever higher as the cost of living increased for everyone. the days of twenty dollar grocery bills and twenty five cent gasoline were long gone. Fortunately we had purchased a lovely home for twenty thousand dollars before housing prices had gone up as well so we just hunkered down and let life proceed. Eventually I became a teacher and together with my husbands salary we felt comfortable, but never rich. We learned that money was a necessary component of feeling secure, but we were content with the jobs and the budget that we had.

I suppose that when two people fall in love and decide to get married they don’t always consider the financial aspects of the partnership. Sadly it’s something that can make or break the relationship if times get too tough. I applaud the young people today for being more conscious of that kind of thing than we were fifty four years ago. Without sacrifice and determination we might have ended up going our separate ways after only months because we had not realistically determined our course. Living on the economic edge is a major strain on a relationship and it was much more difficult that we had ever envisioned.

The younger generation is getting married at an older age than we did back then. it’s no doubt a wise move. My husband and I were still just kids, quite immature if truth be told. We managed to grow up together but might just as well have grown apart because of the stresses that were so much a part of our early years. In many ways we simply got lucky as we stumbled our way through very adult situations. Today’s youth seems to be much more aware that joining together can be lethal without a plan.

I suppose that my mother and my husband’s mom quietly had a great deal to do with our success. They never once indicated that they were worried about our well being, but I know they must have been quite anxious. They found surreptitious ways to keep us afloat without criticizing our efforts. They were as responsible for our ultimate success as a couple as we were. Their surprise visits always came with gifts that kept our pantry filled or provided us with extra breathing room. They did these things with such grace and love.

I suspect that success in marriage requires effort from everyone, including the extended family. If we truly love and support each other it’s possible to overcome great challenges. We did that but knowing that we were never totally alone made the difference we needed to keep striving. Now we sit in comfort reminded of how fortunate we have been. In retrospect I’d recommend waiting until there is a firm plan for paying for the joint venture, but I’d never change what we ultimately decided to do.

My Ancestral Home

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A high school friend posted a series of photographs taken on a recent trip to Arkansas with her sister. They spent their time in Hot Springs, Eureka Springs and the surrounding area. Fall was lovely and colorful there. Best of all were her magnificent pictures of the birds that she discovered in the places she visited. I found myself thinking of my Grandma Minnie Bell and my grandfather, John William Seth Smith, who both once lived there as I gazed at the lovely scenes.

Grandma especially loved the birds that shared the fields and the trees near her home. She knew them by their colors and their songs. She understood the ways that they communicated with one another and often joined in the conversations by making warbling and singing noises. They came to her as though they understood that they had nothing to fear from her. She talked to them and stood silently observing them, noting their habits. Watching her engage with them was magical. 

Grandma loved the northwestern part of Arkansas. It’s where her mother, father and grandmother spent their last years on this earth. All of them are buried either in churchyard cemeteries or out in what is now a national forest. I imagine that my grandfather particularly found solace in the slow and easy tempo of the place after fighting in some terrible battles during the Civil War. 

My grandmother told me how terribly affected her father was by the war between states. He suffered from many ailments associated with the privations and horrific environments of war. They left him wanting to live a quiet life away from the conflicts that humans seem to create. He earned a special pension from the government given to veterans of the war who were left with chronic injuries and diseases. I have the documentation that my great grandmother saved among the family papers and then passed down to my Grandma Minnie Bell.

Grandma was unable to read the official declarations but she knew that they were as important as her father’s mustering certificates. She presented them to me when I was still a young girl. She asked my mother to care for them until I was old enough to appreciate their importance. I’m not certain why she chose me for such an honor given that she had dozens of grandchildren, but I have tried to be worthy of her trust. My mother impressed their significance on me and urged me to treat them with great care, and so I have for all of my life. 

Grandma also gave me a tall water pitcher that had belonged to her mother, my great grandmother, Christina.  It is made of crockery and festooned with paintings of roses. I imagine that it was once a prized possession. It is very old now and I constantly worry that it will crack or break. I have cared for it for over fifty years, cherishing it a bit more with the passing of time. My mother kept it in fine shape before me until she believed that I was old enough to appreciate its significance. 

I like traveling to the area of Arkansas where my ancestors once lived. I feel their spirit in those places, especially once I have left the main highways and wander along pathways that lead me away from the noise of civilization. I enjoy walks under the canopy of trees where the only sound is the wind rustling the leaves. I listen for the birds calling to one another and tiny creatures scurrying through the underbrush. That is when I sense that my long ago family is nearby. I feel their caress in the breezes across my face. 

I have yet to find the actual place where my great grandfather and great great grandmother are buried, but I am certain that I have been close. I felt in the woods where their tombstones are suppose to be. I was alone with only nature as my companion because I had left my husband behind as I scurried into the forest the way I had so eagerly done when I accompanied my grandmother on long hikes in the hills behind her farm. I have seen few places so lovely in all of my travels, mostly because Grandma showed me how to find beauty in the commonplace. 

My friend who shared the photos of her trip seems to have the same kind of abilities that my grandmother possessed. She captures the essence of northwestern Arkansas, the colors, the magnificence, the beauty. Her pictures tell a story just like Grandma’s words once did for me. 

I was planning a trip to Mt. Nebo last spring that I had to cancel when my father-in-law and his wife became so ill. He is doing so much better now that I feel confident that I may be able to travel there in the coming year. I plan to return to places where my ancestors walked. I like feeling so close to them and understanding how much they are part of who I am. Arkansas is somehow in my DNA. My friends photo’s reminded me that it’s time to go back again. 

The Best and the Worst Idea

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It was the best of ideas. It was the worst of ideas. Social media is one of the modern day conundrums. It’s difficult to decide is it has revolutionized the way we communicate in a positive way or if it has weakened relationships and institutions. The good, the bad and the ugly of platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tik Tok will be fodder for discussions in Congress, universities and around kitchen tables for decades. In the present we are only beginning to understand its power and how best to use it. 

Years ago I heard about students posting photos and communicating on MySpace. Parents would complain about their youngsters staying up half the night almost hypnotized by the new way of being part of a vast group. We teachers would suggest taking the phone away by a certain time of the evening and keeping it until morning so that the students might do their homework and get a good night’s sleep. The lure of social media seemed to be an attraction that only teens enjoyed. Most adults knew very little about it.

Then along came Facebook and a worldwide phenomenon of posting photos and comments and finding friends who had seemingly been absent for years. I was somewhat late in joining, but eventually decided to use it as a way of advertising my blog with friends and members of my family. I enjoyed seeing photos and hearing about trips, new jobs, sporting events, celebrations. It was amiable enough that I saw little reason to be wary. I joined in the act of collecting friends and sharing my own joyful times. 

Before long I heard whispers of a dark side of Facebook. Some people used it to taunt others. Some used it in nefarious schemes to bilk innocents out of their money. Political discussions that had once been amiable even when people differed in beliefs became more intense. We saw fewer of our friends on our walls and more and more advertisements and propaganda. Still, the bad  seemed to be balanced by reuniting with friends, keeping track of how everyone was doing. It all seemed harmless enough. 

Then came the Covid pandemic and it felt as though everyone I knew, including myself, picked a side. Some of us cautiously stayed home while watching many of our friends and family members tempting fate by continuing to gather in large groups. It was often difficult to know who had chosen more wisely. We should have just been content with our own decisions, but politics entered the scene making it feel uncomfortable to have any particular belief. “Unfriending” became a kind of blood sport and it always felt horrific whenever it happened. 

I lost people that I loved because of comments that I made on Facebook. Even when I contacted them later to apologize for any way in which my words had hurt them, it seemed to be too late. They were gone from me and that was that. The ugly side of Facebook is that a single sentence can be misunderstood and destroy what had seemed to be a lifetime relationship. 

I’m still on Facebook, but not nearly as often as I once was. I post my Wordle results each morning and wish a Happy Birthday to those who have gone another year around the sun. I enjoy the photos of babies, children and teens. I love hearing about successes. I pray for those who are sick and mourn for those who have died. I like to save the recipes that my friends post and vicariously enjoy their vacations. I give them notice of my blog. I avoid political comments like the plague, often hiding those of others lest I join the discussion. I’ve learned my lesson. I no longer ask questions because they seem to be the very thing that moves people to shun me. 

I was raised by my mother to be the child who questions everything. She encouraged me and my brothers to ponder ideas and seek explanations. Our family has quite lively discussions about everything whenever we meet. Nobody gets their feelings hurt. It’s just part of our quest to hear different points of view. Philosophically we run the gamut of ideas and it’s okay. We have never tried to push anyone into a box. Sadly, I learned on social media that many others are unlike me and my brothers. They become offended when I disagree with them. I have come to realize that we don’t all enjoy a lively discussion and that’s alright. I respect their wishes.

I still have great friends. They let me be me and I let them be them. They may think I’m out of my mind, but they still love me. These days if I want to discuss my ideas I go to Twitter. It’s great there because I can literally follow those who are interesting to me and block anyone who insists on spewing phenom. None of my friends and relatives are part of the group with whom I regularly communicate. They are simply well versed people who are experts in their fields. It’s like belonging to a salon of thinkers where I constantly learn new things. Only once in a great while does a troll creep in to argue with us, but they are easily discouraged. 

Social media is good for me these days. I’m still incredibly sad that I actually lost some dear friends. I am not giving up on winning them back. They are too precious for me to simply walk away. I want more than anything to renew our friendships while I am more careful about how I say things. People and their feelings have always been my top priority and always will be. It really is okay if our ideas don’t mesh. Variety is the spice of life. If we were all alike it will be very dull indeed. Hopefully one day, if I am patient, they will feel comfortable enough to come back.