A Memorial Day

american-flags.jpgThere was a time when Memorial Day was celebrated on May 31, regardless of when that day fell on the calendar. Thus it was in 1957. I had just completed the third grade after a rather adventurous year of moving from Houston to San Jose to Los Angeles to Corpus Christi and back to Houston. My father had begun working for Tenneco and we were living in a rented house in southeast Houston. My parents were thinking of closing a deal on a home in Braes Heights and we were all excited about meeting up with all of my aunts and uncles and cousins on Memorial Day at the beach.

My mom had spent most of May 30, preparing foods like potato salad and baked beans as well as her famous homemade barbecue sauce that my father would use on the burgers that he planned to grill the next day. We were beside ourselves with the anticipation of launching our summer vacation with our relatives. We knew that it would be a day of playing in the waves, fishing and crabbing on the pier, rollicking on the playground and listening to stories from our hilariously funny family members. It felt so good to be back in Houston after having been so far away for so many months.

My brothers and I went to bed before our father arrived home that evening. Mama explained that he had to complete a project that was due right after the holiday. He was a mechanical engineer and I was so proud of the work he did. I knew that if he failed to come home for dinner what he was doing had to be very important. I twisted and turned for a time but finally fell into a deep slumber with dreams of the fun that lay ahead. I did not awake until the sun peeked through the blinds in my bedroom window.

When I opened my eyes and acclimated myself to the new day I heard my mother talking on the phone in the hallway of our house. She sounded as though she was crying and her voice broke now and again. She seemed to be answering questions about my father and her answers were strange. She used past tense verbs which immediately alarmed me. Somehow without ever asking I had the idea that something dark and terrible had happened. I lay in my bed listening and grew ever more worried.

I finally crept into the kitchen searching for a glass of water because my anxiety had caused my throat to become dry. I was both surprised and alarmed to see my Aunt Valeria puttering about. Now I was convinced that this was not a good sign. I sat down at the kitchen table without saying a word while she nervously began attempting to explain to me that my father had died. It was difficult for her to get out the words and her eyes were filled with grief. I sat motionless and stunned as though I had not understood what she was saying, but truthfully I had figured things out before ever entering the room. I felt for my aunt because she literally did not have any idea what to do and I had no energy to help her. I suppose that we were both in a state of shock.

There have been few days in my life as terrible as that May 31, 1957. It has now been exactly sixty years ago since my life changed so dramatically. I was one person on May 30, and became someone completely different on May 31. I was only eight but I felt eighty, and in many ways forced myself to become an adult so that I might deal with the tragedy that so altered my world. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry. I wanted to lock myself in my room forever. I wanted to run away. I wanted to tell my father one last time how much I loved him. I wanted to scream at him for going away from us. My emotions were a jumble that left me bereft for months. I wanted to know exactly what had happened but never really would. I could only draw inferences and surmise what might have brought his brilliant life to such a crashing end.

Based on conversations with my mother and stories in the newspaper my best guess is that after working late my dad went out with some of his coworkers and had a few celebratory drinks. I suppose that my mother became angry when he finally came home and they had a fight. Perhaps he left in a huff to attempt to calm down. He decided to drive to Galveston. He was on his way back home on a freeway system that was still under construction. Instead of being on the main road he was on the feeder. There was a deep unmarked ditch directly ahead of his path. He was driving as though he was on a highway when he was in reality heading to a death trap. Too late his car slammed into the cavernous depression. The front of the auto was crushed and caused the steering wheel to slam into his chest stopping his beating heart. He died instantly and so did a little bit of everyone who loved him. It seemed such a meaningless end.

Of course I eventually adjusted to the reality of the situation but a profound grief lay under my thin veneer of courage. I was never quite the same after that. I worried more and often found myself avoiding adventures lest I be the source of more pain for my mother. I grew up almost instantly while somehow being in an eternal childhood. A piece of my heart would always be eight years old and every Memorial Day it would hurt again. I would experience a lifetime of questions and what ifs. I learned the importance of empathy because I had needed it so on that day and there were special people who provided it for me when I most wanted it.

I have friends and acquaintances who have also suffered unimaginable losses. I suspect that those who have not had such experiences don’t quite understand how we never really and truly get over the pain. Our wounds heal but now and again something triggers an ache. In my own case I have so much more that I want to know about my father. I would give anything to experience an adult relationship with him. I wonder if the images that I have of him are just a creation of my mind. I want to hear his voice for I can no longer remember it. It would be nice to share stories with him and see his reactions to my accomplishments. I would so like for my children and grandchildren to know him.

I have a friend whose husband died suddenly. She has young sons who are suffering. When I read of their hardships I literally feel their pain and cry for them. They are lucky to have a wonderful mom who allows them to express their feelings, so I believe that like me they will one day have the courage to move on with life. It is what we do even when we think that surely we too will die.

Sixty years is a very long time. I am almost twice the age my father was when he died. My memories of him are all pleasant for he was a very good man. They have sustained me again and again. It doesn’t really matter how or why he died, but only that he set the world afire while he was here. He loved fiercely and squeezed every ounce out of life. He left his mark and I have told stories of him all throughout the years. He still lives in me and my brothers and our children and grandchildren. Sometimes I see him in my brother Pat or my nephew Shawn. His life had great meaning and we continue to keep his spirit alive.

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This Day

_80896621_159150619We’ve all played the parlor games that go something like this,”What if you were able to go back in time? Where would you go? Whom would you want to see?” Aside from the fact that at least for now it’s impossible to travel back into history, it’s fun to imagine sitting across from a host of interesting characters. It’s often difficult to narrow down the possible choices and to decide what to say when you get there. Do you just take in the times as they were, or do you warn individuals of events that are yet to come? Would it be proper to tell Abraham Lincoln not to go the theater on the night of his assassination? Of course even the smallest hint about the future would have the potential of changing everything, so there would be a certain danger in revealing all that we know. Still, the possibilities are so tempting, making it even more difficult to choose where to go and whom to visit.

On a personal level there is a temptation to go find a favorite loved one or some long lost and mysterious relatives, but then the very idea of being present at the signing of the Declaration of Independence or hearing Jesus give the sermon on the mount is breathtaking. Being an eye witness to history has a dramatic appeal as does actually speaking with heroes from the past. It’s a challenge to choose just one time, place or individual.

I saw a program on PBS in which Stephen Hawking explained that theoretically it might be possible to go back in time, but the real problem lies in getting back home. He explained that the laws of physics appear to preclude advancing into the future, so anyone who went backward in time would find themselves stuck in a cosmic wrinkle. I can’t pretend that I understood a word that he said in describing this phenomenon, but it tells me that we probably won’t have too many takers even if we ever do find a way to travel into the past. Who would be willing to be stuck in a foreign environment until death?

I used to have a very strange theory that Jesus came from an advanced civilization far in the future that is so nearly perfect that it is akin to heaven. Knowing what we would do to ourselves as humans He agreed to go back in time to teach us how we should live. Of course He had no way of returning from whence He had come, so He had to stay here on earth being ultimately tortured and put to death. My theory falls apart upon His death because He rose from leaving an empty tomb. Maybe somebody had finally found a way to get back home by the time of His existence in a world far away in time and place. (My apologies to those who might find my curious thoughts to be a form of blasphemy. I just like to dabble in unusual thinking from time to time. I actually do believe in God but I have always felt that we have never completely figured Him out. Thus I propose strange ideas now and again.)

We humans are so fascinated by the past, but I truly wonder how many of us would be able to survive in days gone by. We tend to fantasize about what things were like, forgetting how difficult daily living was little more than a hundred years ago and all the way back to the beginning of time. Walking with Jesus would be hot and dusty and devoid of any of the conveniences that we take for granted. The dangers that our Founding Fathers faced from being tried and found guilty of treason might overwhelm us. Our romantic visions of ancient Greece would become dashed with the realities of lives quite different and far more brutal from those of our imaginations. I suspect that the truth is that there is no turning back once we have moved forward. I doubt that most of us would even want to retreat to a time as recently as the nineteen fifties.

Our longing for the good old days is most often misplaced. Our advances since bygone days are so spectacular that we would be misfits even in a culture that many of us actually experienced. In the fifties, for example, we’d be looking for our cell phones and wondering why our televisions only had three channels, all in black and white. We would be stunned by overt racism and segregation. We would witness people dying from illnesses for which there are now cures. All in all I suspect that we would be more than ready to return to the present.

I don’t suppose that time travel will ever become a reality and I’m rather certain that it wouldn’t be a good thing even if we somehow found the capability. As humans we slowly but surely evolve and progress. Nothing ever stays exactly the same and that is a good thing. We sometimes feel the rush of change happening too quickly for our taste and the sting of regret creates a desire for second changes, but all in all we are better off looking to the future than clinging to the past. It’s a beautiful thing to know that on the whole we have a tendency to get better and better as time goes by. 

We can learn from our history but there is little need to relive it. Instead our goal should be to make the most of our here and now. It is in how we handle today that our tomorrows may be brighter. Carpe diem is one of the best piece of wisdom by which we may lead our lives. The past may be fascinating but this day is where we become whatever we were meant to be.

Tea Time

564_HighTeaAtTheEmprassHotelFor most of my life I have rushed around with a schedule so busy that I rarely stopped blowing and going until I fell into bed at night. Now that I am retired I have developed a lovely habit of pausing for afternoon tea. I noticed that between two and three each day I would suddenly become sleepy. I’m not yet ready to take naps so I decided to perk myself up with a cup of brew in the English style which meant drinking tea rather than coffee. I sit in my favorite easy chair with a view of my gardens and sip on Earl Grey, Chai, English Breakfast or some exotic blend of teas from the east. It is a rather invigorating experience that I have grown to love.

My daughter who is a nurse says that there is actually a physiological reason that we grow weary in the afternoon. It has to do with food intake and elevated body temperature. I suppose that long ago certain cultures took note of the general dip in energy that we humans experience and decided to create traditions of ingesting caffeine products to induce a feeling of well being. The afternoon tea was part of that trend and has been followed now for centuries. I am one of its more recent converts.

There is something very civilized about taking care of oneself by pausing for refreshment that we tend to ignore in our go go go society. It’s truly a shame that we mistreat ourselves. Back when I was a child my mother always took a break at almost the same time every day. She gave me and my brothers fruit or cookies and a glass of milk. She prepared herself a cup of coffee and sometimes shared it with friends who would drop in for a brief respite from their chores. The tasks that she had to perform seemed far less odious after a little pause. We tend to do less and less of that sort of thing as we focus more and more on constant productivity.

One year Mike and I accompanied a friend from Austria on a trip to his homeland. We enjoyed a lovely concert in one of the local schools which prompted a discussion of the school day schedule in that country. Our friend told us that the required time in the classroom was much shorter than what our American students experience. He said that pupils are usually finished with their lessons rather early in afternoon and go home. In fact, throughout much of Austria shops, banks, restaurants and places of business close for a time each afternoon so that employees will be able to relax before completing the day’s work. I know that we had to wait for almost an hour one day before getting inside a bank because it was the time of day for a long break. The coffee and tea shops opened for the crowds of people who sat for a time enjoying warm drinks and conversations.

I had always read about the tradition of high tea. On a number of occasions I found myself walking through five star hotels where people were enjoying such a luxury, but I never actually got to try the experience. On a trip to Victoria, British Columbia in Canada I finally fulfilled an item that had long been on my bucket list when Mike and I and two of my grandsons went to the high tea at the Empress Hotel. It was not exactly an inexpensive diversion, but certainly one that I will always remember.

I felt like a dignitary as we sat at a table draped with a brilliant white starched tablecloth in a room dripping with chandeliers and warm mahogany. An elegant waiter explained the process to us and asked if we had any special requests. Soon he was bringing us heaping bowls of strawberries with real whipped cream along with trays of crumpets, delicate sandwiches, chocolates, scones and other delights. The tea itself was a special blend unique to the hotel which was served in delicate china cups. The waiter was at our service and his every move was refined and almost balletic. The funny thing is that we had brought two ten year old boys, one of whom was in thrall with the occasion and the other who seriously wanted to get away as quickly as possible because he did not like the smell of tea. The disgruntled one behaved beautifully in spite of his reservations and managed to find enough to eat to make it worthwhile. The happy one was so ecstatic that he swore that he wanted to move to Victoria one day and then take his mother and his future wife to tea time whenever he wished.

I purchased some of the special tea and brought it home to share with my other grandchildren who like to have a tea party when they come. They insist on using my china and having sugar cubes to sweeten the lovely brown liquid. When I finally ran out of the exquisite tea I tried to send for more only to learn that the hotel will not mail items to the United States. A friend of my daughter’s who lives in Calgary came to the rescue when she heard of my dilemma. I have it sent to her and then she forwards it to me. It is a rather expensive process but so worth it in the long run. My grandchildren grow excited when they hear of a new delivery arriving at my home.

I carry a metal teapot in my travel trailer for afternoon tea time. We used it over and over again last summer when we journeyed to California. It made us feel as though we were passengers on the Orient Express, seeking new lands and adventures. I was so happy that I had someone with whom to share my special passion.

My sister-in-law introduced me to a wonderful tea store in Estes Park, Colorado not long ago. She recommended that I try their Cream Earl Grey and it is phenomenal. I try to visit there at least once a year now to replenish my stock. When I am unable to travel I use their mail order service to keep myself always at the ready.

Tea is so delicate and has such an amazing history. One of my all time favorite mornings was spent with two of my former students who treated me to a tea tasting. We sipped on golden colored liquids from China and India while talking of the world’s problems and solving them at the same time. Later one of them gave me a book on the history of tea and a lovely teapot with matching cups along with cans of my favorite varieties from a Chinese market. I remember our special time whenever I use those items. There is something about sharing food and drink that creates a never forgotten bond.

When I was still working at South Houston Intermediate one of the teachers hosted a tea time for her students. She asked them to dress in their finery and she brought lovey dishes and china from her home for them to use. Few of them had ever experienced such a thing and they were so excited. I suspect that they recall that lovely treat just as much as I do and think of their thoughtful teacher warmly. Maybe they even began the tradition in their own homes.

I truly understand why tea has played such an important role in the history of the world and why rebellious colonists scoffed at the taxes levied on the imports of their favorite brews. Enjoying afternoon tea becomes a delightful habit that makes even a dreary day feel a bit brighter. If you’ve never tried it maybe now is a good time. Even a pot of plain old Lipton served in a pretty cup will energize you and send you back to work ready to tackle anything.

Whoop!

18195028_10212752944999176_1547173858954972621_nI was working at South Houston Intermediate when a messenger came to me with news that my eldest daughter had gone to the hospital to deliver her second child. Luckily I worked for an understanding principal whose instant reaction when I asked if I might leave was to tell me to go immediately. I contacted my husband who worked nearby, and the two of us met up at home where we hurriedly packed a few items and then rushed off toward Beaumont where my girl was living at the time. We raced as fast as the speed limit would allow and completed our ninety mile journey in record time, literally running into the hospital to find out where the birth was taking place. Unfortunately there were two hospitals in Beaumont and we had gone to the wrong place. We retraced our steps to the car and set off once again in search of the correct location. We found our way to the right spot and literally ran to the labor room only to encounter our son-in-law exiting our daughter’s room with a big smile and the announcement that Jack Michael Greene had been born minutes before. We were allowed to peek inside and see our elated daughter and her newborn son who appeared to be strong and husky. Thus began a journey of eighteen years with a most extraordinary young man.

Jack Michael Greene was named for my father, Jack, and my husband, Michael. It was a noble name representing the two men who have meant the most to me in my lifetime. It suited the youngster quite well for as he grew it became apparent that he possessed an exceedingly loving and gentle personality along with a multitude of talents much like his namesakes. He was so sweet that he rarely even cried and he brushed off injuries and slights with smiles. His easygoing ways helped his mother to cope with an ever expanding family. He was always that kind of child who just rolled with the punches and adapted to change without fanfare.

He was a wiggly and active little boy who always seemed ready to take on life with his trademark grin. He tumbled and danced his way into our hearts, embracing the world and all that it had to offer. There seemed to be nothing that he was not willing to try and so he ran on the soccer field and then became a tough defensive player in football. He dove into swimming and eventually taught his younger brothers how to do the various strokes. He took knocks and bruises and disappointments in stride, always viewing challenges as a necessary aspect of living.

There was a serious side to Jack that people didn’t always see. He was a deep thinker who quietly surveyed the world and asked questions about things that bothered him. He loved to hear the silly stories that I invented and when I slightly changed them in any way he reminded me of the correct way of telling them. He wanted to be brave and courageous so he forced himself again and again to do things that were difficult and frightening. He was bold in a quiet and unassuming way.

Jack has always been so much fun that people sometimes ignore his intellectual side. He was taking Algebra I in the seventh grade and he walked from his middle school to the neighboring high school in the eighth grade to take Geometry with high school students. He excels in subjects like Physics and finds coding software programs to be as much fun as playing a game.

When Jack was in about the fourth grade he asked his mother to sign him up for an acting classes. He was a natural and landed a role in the musical Annie Get Your Gun. It seemed to have been just one more thing that he wanted to do, but he had been bitten by the bug. When he reached high school he enrolled in theater as a freshman and continued with the troupe for all four years. He starred in musicals and dramas and found friendships along with his voice.

A few years back Jack accompanied me and Mike on a vacation trip to San Francisco and Yosemite National Park. We had an enchanting time and Jack threw himself into enjoying himself with the same level of enthusiasm that has always been his trademark. We had the opportunity to engage in some exceedingly thought provoking conversations and to experience moments that will be special to all of us forever. I realized at that time that Jack has layers and layers of intelligence and sensitivity. He is truly a man of substance.

Jack will graduate with honors from George Ranch High School tomorrow. He has packed a great deal of hard work and energy into the last four years. He was a varsity swimmer, an actor, and he enrolled in virtually every advanced placement class that his schedule would support. He also earned the rank of Eagle Scout and served as a leader of his patrol. He completed hundreds of hours of community service all while holding down a job delivering pizza and Italian food. Somehow in spite of having a mountain of responsibilities he maintained the same calmness and sunny outlook on life that has defined him since he was a tiny boy.

I have favorite Jack moments that remain forever in my memories. I see him dancing exuberantly and confidently when he was a toddler as though he is the happiest person on the planet. In another treasured recollection he is a smiling boy wearing a Sorcerer’s Apprentice hat at Disneyworld. I’ll never forget staying awake until an ungodly hour watching Forrest Gump with him. Then there was the time that we walked among the giant sequoias of Yosemite speaking of what is most important in life. Finally are those times when I watched him miraculously transform himself into other characters on stage, bringing a stunning sensitivity to his performances.

In the fall Jack will be a freshman at Texas A&M University which seems fitting since his namesake, my father, graduated from there. He was selected to be in the Honors Program and plans to major in Computer Science. I find comfort in knowing that Jack will be at Texas A&M. My father loved the school so. He often spoke of the grand times that he had as a student there. I suspect that like my dad Jack will immerse himself in all that the school has to offer just as he always has with everything that he has done. It is in his nature to experience life in its fullest.

I am bursting with pride and love for Jack Michael Greene. He is and always has been rather amazing. I suspect that there are many exciting adventures in his future, and it will be fun watching as his life unfolds. He has become as wonderful as I always knew he would be.

Shining the Light

The Big IdeaDuring Teacher Appreciation Week one of my educator friends posted a rant that had gone viral. The gist of the piece was that throwing crumbs of thanks at teachers once a year is insulting. The author went on to detail the abuse and lack of respect that teachers endure and to complain that nobody ever does anything to improve the situation. I suspect the op ed became as popular as it did because there was indeed a grain of truth in what the writer had to say.

Teaching is one of the most important and toughest jobs on the planet as anyone who has ever tried it knows. I would still be heavily involved with it were it not for its grueling nature. Quite frankly I no longer have the energy for the unrelentingly long days. When I was still working I was up at five thirty in the morning and often did not return until nine or ten in the dark of night. Even when I managed to arrive home at a relatively decent hour of five or six in the evening I spent most of my nights grading papers, tutoring students over the phone, conferring with parents and planning future lessons. I was lucky to finish by the time I needed to go to bed. Of course there were multiple school events on weekends and at night, not to mention the hundreds of hours needed to prepare for state and advanced placement testing.

Don’t get me wrong. I understood the nature of my profession and performed my duties with joy, but I was chronically tired. I especially enjoyed comments from those who didn’t know better that I was lucky to have a job that provided me with so much free time. I learned to just ignore such lack of understanding. I knew that nobody would believe me if I told them the truth about how hard my fellow teachers and I worked, but my family saw what I was doing. To this day I feel a bit guilty because I really did put my students before them time and again. They were troopers as the relatives of teachers generally are.

Teaching is truly a vocation. Few people would agree to spend a lifetime making far less than their peers in other occupations if they did not totally and completely love the experience. It punishes the body and the vast majority of teachers eventually require knee surgeries and suffer from bladder diseases all because of the daily abuse that comes from few opportunities to take care of their needs. The only time during a regular day that a teacher gets to relax is the thirty minute lunch that is really only about twenty minutes by the time getting there and rushing back to the classroom are factored in. Eating is a speed sport for educators.

Teachers are accustomed to hearing derogatory remarks about their profession. It’s especially disheartening because they put so much of their souls into every single day. Their students become their children, members of their extended family. They worry about them as much as they do their own. They let their kids burrow into their hearts and the sense of responsibility that they feel is as strong as that of a doctor with a patient. They have learned to ignore the barbs, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t hurt.

American society is somewhat unique in giving teachers so little prestige. In other cultures teachers are elevated in status. They bear noble titles and receive compensation equal to the amount of education, time and effort that teachers give to their work. I have had moments with my Vietnamese students in which their family members and friends actually bowed to honor me. Here we mostly get cracks about how bad our schools are and how only those who can’t do anything else become teachers. When announcing my profession to strangers I see the knowing looks that tell me that they consider my life’s work to have been very unimpressive.

I’ve been in my grandchildren’s schools quite a bit in the last few weeks. It is apparent that some of the teachers practically live there. When I am leaving at ten I know that they probably won’t get away until eleven. I see photos of some of my old colleagues who are still working at competitions that take entire weekends. Somehow few seem to notice how much teachers continually give of themselves.

When we retire it is not much better. Teachers in the state of Texas for example have not had a cost of living increase in their monthly pensions for over twelve years. Now the legislature is doing nothing to save the healthcare insurance for educators and they may face increases in premiums of fifty percent this fall. None of this had to happen but for the fact that teachers and their needs are mostly ignored. To add insult to the situation, those who like me paid enough into Social Security to receive monthly payments have an offset that takes most of what is due. Furthermore surviving spouses who receive pensions are not eligible to get spousal social security. It is a wonder that anyone wants to take on the job of educating our children.

So are teachers masochists? Why would they want to do this? Is it true that they are not able to do other things?

The answer is quite simple. The teachers who stay for the long haul are altruistic in every sense of the word. They care less about compensation and honors and more about making a difference. In their hearts they know that what they do day in and day out is important. While they appreciate acknowledgement, they do not require it. They do what they do because they value the idea of impacting the future by educating a generation. Even on the toughest day they feel good about what they are doing. There is a purpose to their work that not everyone has. The rewards come from those moments when they realize that their students have been elevated to new levels of understanding, or when they sense that they have somehow positively impacted lives.

I always said that when I retired I was going to work to bring more honor and respect to a career in teaching. I suppose that I haven’t really done very well but I plan to keep trying. I dream of a day when no teacher has to worry about making a living decent enough to provide for a good life both while working and in retirement. I would love for those one week teacher appreciation perks to become routine. There should be teacher discounts everywhere and they should be substantial. I will strive to encourage anyone who has ever been impacted by a teacher to make their gratitude known. Believe me, I am quite touched by those Vietnamese people who bow in my presence and I suspect that others would be as well.

I don’t think that those of us who are teachers need to complain because we all know that we love what we do and that is a gift that many people never enjoy. Still it would be well for our society to finally give educators their due in salaries, pensions and perks. It is a noble profession and its time that we all insist that it be elevated to the status it deserves.