Love For All Time

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Prince Harry has been quite open about the intense trauma that he endured from the death of his mother. He has admitted to undergoing therapy after struggling with debilitating feelings in the aftermath of his loss. He was twelve when Diana died, so he vividly remembers the shock of that moment, but also treasures his recollections of the wonderful mother that she was. Her influence on him is quite apparent and his feelings for her are as strong as ever. Her spirit permeates his life and the choices that he has made.

The death of a parent is difficult regardless of whether it happens when we are adults or children. A sense of being without the very essence of who we are lingers long after the beloved is gone. For a child the suffering often goes unnoticed and untreated because young ones have difficulty expressing the hurt they are feeling. The emotions become internalized in so many varying ways that they are not always apparent. Harry acted out by being a goof ball and sometimes bad boy. He appeared to simply be a silly and rebellious young man, but he was actually reacting to the fears and hurt that he was enduring. Luckily he eventually found the help that he needed and channeled his angst into purposeful pursuits by emulating his mother’s example.

I find myself feeling a kind of spiritual connection with Harry because of our shared experience of losing a parent at a young age. There are many parallels between our stories. His mother died, and for me it was my father. Both of our parents were in car accidents. Both events occurred around the time of a holiday. Harry was twelve and I was eight. We both endured emotions that we didn’t quite understand after the tragedies. Harry became rowdy, and I became shy and withdrawn. Eventually we managed to come to grips with the what had happened and to better understand ourselves and the frightening feelings that had plagued us. Ours were successful journeys that ultimately lead to happiness and dedication to causes that help people, but for so many things do not turn out so well.

I think of my father quite often, and particularly on the anniversary of his death, May 31. I find myself wanting to know him and talk with him as an adult. Instead I have to rely on tidbits of childish conversations that I had with him. I borrow stories from adults who knew him as well. I have painted a picture of him that is admittedly idealized. I know that he had many flaws and I have wondered about them and how they might have impacted me without my ever realizing. I also recall the wonder of him, and know without a doubt that I am very much his daughter. He lives in me, and I see him in my brothers, and children, and grandchildren as well. Through him my ancestry reaches far back into the history of Great Britain just as Harry’s does, although mine is not quite as illustrious. I am an amalgam of many genes and influences, but his reign over me as much as if he had lived to walk me down the aisle and celebrate all of my milestones. I was old enough when he died to know with certainty how he might have reacted to the continuation of my history.

It is the knowledge of my father’s goodness and his love for me that has sustained me whenever I have felt a bit shaky. I suspect that Harry would say the same about his mother. We made it in spite of the horror of losing our parents because they had already undeniably imprinted their undying devotion on us. Once the love of a parent is imparted it becomes a fountain of strength whose healing waters stay with us. It is our shield from all of the terrors of the world. Like Simba in The Lion King we grow to understand that our parent never truly leaves us. Through some cosmic force they become our spiritual guides. We feel their presence, not in a supernatural way, but in our hearts.

The remaining parent and family members also play a critical role in raising a healthy and happy child. My mother filled our home with a strong sense of safety and  comfortable routine. She went out of her way to surround us with caring family and friends. She religiously kept us in touch with our paternal grandparents. She often told us tales of our father and remarked whenever we did something that reminded her of him. She kept him very much alive in our minds, so that it sometimes felt as though he had merely gone on a very long journey from which he would soon return. Of course we understood that he was gone forever, but it helped to be able to speak openly of him and sometimes even to cry about him.

A child instinctively responds in a vigorous and healthy way when surrounded by the unselfish love of good parents. While losing one of them leaves a ghastly scar that hurts from time to time, with good memories and the care of those who remain things will ultimately turn out fine. Harry and I are both happy people because we were lucky enough to have a beautiful start in life that did not end with our horrific losses. His mom and my dad had already given us tools and examples that were ours to keep for all time. Theirs was love for all time.

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Being Leonard

10246301_10205604543090004_3263112611847433681_nIt’s graduation time, and when it rolls around each year I can’t help thinking of my own commencements from junior high, high school and college. So much hard work, angst and happy memories lay behind those glorious moments, and so much hard work, angst and happy memories lay ahead. Graduation day itself was somewhat like a wedding, a blur of people and speeches and congratulations that went by so fast. It somehow didn’t seem right for the culmination of so much effort to come and go so quickly, but that’s the way good times always seem to be. What strikes me most as I think back to those glorious moments of achievement is that each time I was surrounded by a core of my friends and family who took the time out of their busy lives to celebrate with me. While so many variables have challenged me in my life, such people have been a constant source of stability and love.

Graduations always make me think of my cousin Leonard. He’s the elder statesmen of our raucous bunch of cousins who is almost as close in age to our parents as he is to those of us who played Hide and Find each Friday night at our grandmother’s house. He was married and raising children while I was still happily engaged in the loveliness that was my childhood. When we saw him, he was far more interested in conversing with my mother and father than getting on the floor to entertain me. I always looked up to him not just because he was the first of our long line of cousins, but because he always appeared to be so happy and wise and confident.

Anyway, Leonard became known as the one person who never missed a single graduation. No matter what the timing was, or how bad the weather had become, Leonard would represent the whole family with his presence at one commencement after another. It almost became a game for us to scan the crowd at such events to find our own “Waldo” in the crowd. We always knew that we could count on seeing him just so long as we had sent him an invitation. While we joked about his perennial presence, I suppose that we never really took the time to think of how remarkable his devotion to family actually has been over the years. Little wonder that his own brood that has grown to gargantuan proportions is such a loving and tight knit group. With a kind of superhuman energy Leonard has managed to quietly take the helm and demonstrate to us the importance of finding time to honor members of the family as they pass through the milestones of life.

We Americans are a chronically busy and productive bunch. It doesn’t seem to be in our DNA to slow down even after we retire. There is nothing quite as shocking to us as someone who chooses to chill for a bit too long. We join organizations and volunteer and fill the nooks and crannies of our calendars so tightly that when we receive heartfelt invitations we quite often have to beg off, send our regrets. We’d love to be with family, but there is just so much to do that forces us to decline. Such has never been so with Leonard, a man who worked hard at his career, raised four delightful children, helped at his church and within his community, and still found ways to pause just enough to demonstrate his love for his us time and again. He has been as dependable as they come.

I suppose that if I were to give one single bit of advice to graduates it would be to follow Leonard’s example. As I look back on my life a sea of faces and experiences fill my head. Jobs and honors have come and gone. People entered my life and exited never to be heard from again. Many of the things that I labored to purchase have broken or gone out of style. The one aspect of my life that has continued to sustain and support me has been family and a circle of special friends who have stayed by my side. I have learned that when someone is as continually faithful as Leonard has been, it is due to great sacrifice and genuine concern. It is not easy to be as responsible and dependable as he is, but somehow he has made it his mission to be so. He is a rare gift in a day and age when behavior such as his is becoming less and less common. He has not allowed the rat race to become the focus of his pursuits. He has found balance and purpose in a life well lived.

There are so many stories of people on their deathbeds voicing regrets, being alone, realizing that they in their quests for riches, power, glory they forgot to remember the people who might have loved and remembered them most. When we hear such tales we marvel that someone who seemed to have it all actually had so little, and yet we also have tendencies to expend all of our energies chasing people and things that may ultimately leave us lonely and forgotten. Leonard on the other hand is a man who is beloved because little that he does is only about himself.

I attempt to emulate Leonard. He has demonstrated to me the importance of showing up again and again. He may not be able stay long but he always manages to demonstrate that he cares enough to be part of our most important milestones. That is all that we need to see. He has been our immutable constant in a world that seems ever less dependable, but he is growing older and time is taking its toll on his health. He won’t be able to carry the family banner forever, so its up to the younger generation to accept and honor his lead. He has shown us how its done. It would be a terrible shame to forget the importance of his efforts. It’s time for all of us to be more like Leonard.

When We Open Our Minds

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If you have not yet read Fahrenheit 451 you should put it on your summer reading list. It is a dystopian tale written by Ray Bradbury in the early nineteen fifties. As with most classics it is still worthy of discussion today, and maybe even more so than back then. Bradbury managed to predict a number of pursuits that have almost become an addiction in today’s world long before such things had even been invented. The main idea of his masterful work is that books have been banned in the future world and firemen do not extinguish blazes, but instead burn any remaining volumes that they find. It is all supposedly done to make people feel better along with providing them with mind altering drugs and a daily diet of numbing entertainment.

The main character is a man named Montag who is quite a rockstar when it comes to carrying out his book destruction duties, at least until he begins to question the the process of turning the masses into unquestioning sheep. Ultimately his desire to find the truth becomes his compass.

The book itself is extraordinary and it translates well to film. The first effort was a movie from the nineteen sixties, and most recently HBO took a turn bringing the story to life. The latest offering changes many aspects of the original story, but not the main idea. It shows us an America that has endured a second Civil War in which millions of people died. Books are now contraband and Montag is one of the best at eliminating them. The HBO version is visually stunning particularly in its portrayal of the masses being instantly gratified by watching the firemen in action and tweeting comments as their work unfolds. It is a frightening look into what might happen when the members of a society are no longer able to accept differing ideas. To the victor belong the spoils, and that can result in a total refusal to allow critical thinking of any kind.

I found myself drawing so many parallels with our present day environment that seems to only grow worse. There is a kind of group think within the dominant political parties that actually worries me greatly. Even at universities that used to be centers for open discussion, certain people and ideas are denied a platform. It is so different from when I was at the University of Houston, and part of the excitement was being able to hear every possible kind of belief. Nothing was considered too out of bounds and we were taught to weigh philosophies heavily and ask relevant questions before accepting theories. Now people are judged by public opinion, often without any facts to back up the arguments. It truly worries me that we shut down public debate even before it has happened. How are we to know what different platforms actually are if we never find out about them?

There is a wave of concern that is being voiced by those courageous enough to point out that our political discourse has gone very wrong. We are asked to choose sides and give one hundred per cent agreement or bear the consequences. The militancy that both ultra progressives and ultra conservatives demonstrate is more and more becoming the norm, crowding out those of us in the middle. Few of us have been willing to hold out for individualism and truth rather than blindly accepting the noise of the crowd. It doesn’t take a grand leap to imagine a schism in our country growing so bad that violence ensues.

I suspect that some of my historical heroes would be deemed losers in today’s atmosphere. Imagine Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. insisting on peaceful demonstrations or Republicans providing the needed votes for Lyndon Johnson to get the Civil Rights Act passed in Congress. We are no longer willing to give credit when it is due if the person is not in tune with our way of thinking on every issue. Today’s feminists refuse to consider a conservative woman who is pro life as a success even if she holds a powerful position. They certainly scoff at a woman who chooses to stay home to raise her children. When a conservative like John McCain valiantly votes in the name of honor, he is spurned as being wishy washy if his stance is not in tandem with the president and some mysterious base. We see so much hatefulness coming from all quarters, and we wonder why our teens are turning to violence to solve their problems.

Fahrenheit 451 asks us to imagine taking our anger just a few steps forward until we answer all of our problems by preventing freedom of thought. It is a world in which sadness and disagreements are not allowed in the ridiculous hope that if we simply avoid confrontations and free speech we will all be happier. Instead I maintain that such a world imprisons us. We should all push back at any attempts to treat us like mindless children. We need to be wary of electronic hypnotizers that are stealing away our individualism.

I used to tell my students that the most priceless thing in their lives was education and the freedom to learn about anything that interested them. It is true that the first thing that autocrats do is kill the educators and destroy the books of which they do not approve. That is the exact opposite of how a free nation should be. Over time I have read painfully horrific books so that I might better understand even the minds of evil. I plowed through Mein Kampf because I wanted to see for myself just how twisted Adolf Hitler’s mind actually was. I find the exercise of reading and seriously studying all forms of thought to be an important exercise. I find that I rarely am able to align myself totally with anyone because I am a free spirit, and I love that being that way is still allowed. Nonetheless, I see signs that being so are often misunderstood, and I have had my share of ugly criticism, Still, I will fight for my right to my own thoughts and I will continue to do so for others as well, even those with whom I vehemently disagree.

I sometimes wonder if we have become too prone to victimization. It seems that almost everyone has something to complain about rather than focusing on progress and all that is good. If we are continuously seeing half full glasses we change, and not for the better. It’s time for real dialogue, and lots of research and reading. We should beware of soundbites and slogans and ideas that bully us. There is no greater right than the ability to read and discuss even difficult tracts. We should be eager to hear from everyone, even when the words disturb us, perhaps even more so in such cases. We cannot allow ourselves to be drugged by the opium of mass media and entertainment. Like Montag we will find ourselves when we open our minds.

The Lessons of Summer

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It’s been a tough school year for both students and teachers around here. There was a great deal of trauma to overcome in my neck of the woods. The fall semester began with hurricane Harvey and the spring neared a close with a shooting at Santa Fe High School. I suspect that everyone associated with education in these parts is more than ready to say hello to summer and engage in a bit of unwinding and relaxation. The trouble is that these days there is not always a great deal of rest for the weary.

After a very brief break summer school will begin and many teachers supplement their incomes with that extra bit of cash that working an extra month allows. Sadly some of the students who struggled during the year will have to make up for their lack of attention and effort. Then there are all of those required training classes that educators must take to keep their various certifications up to speed. I’ve also seen signs advertising all kinds of activities for kids that range from football, basketball, baseball and cheerleading camps to art and theater lessons. It seems as though few individuals enjoy summer the way I did back in days that were much slower paced.

Summer was a time for staying up well past bedtime and sleeping in each morning. Shoes stood unused in the closet, collecting dust with the exception of Sundays when they were donned for church. Every day brought new adventures, all unplanned and easy. There were three months of doing whatever sounded good at any given moment, and boredom was an unknown in our world.

My summer uniform was a pair of pull on shorts with a crop top that allowed the circulation of the warm air to keep me as comfortable as is possible in the humid Houston heat. My mother usually cut my hair short for the occasion and my brothers sported almost shaved heads. Our looks were all about simplicity and comfort. There was no need to worry about appearance because we were on vacation from routine.

We always managed to find something wonderful to do, and none of it involved watching television. Of course video games were in a future far far away. Instead we mostly played outside with the hordes of neighbor children who lived up and down our street. We invented all sorts of competitive games and used the middle of the street or someone’s big front yard as our playground. We were continually running and laughing and tumbling so that our knees and elbows were skinned more often than not. When the sun hit its zenith we often retired to someone’s home to play car and board games while our moms quenched our thirst with ice cold water or lemonade. If we were especially lucky our midday snack might include a cookie or some homemade peach ice cream.

Sometimes it was so hot that our moms would send us to our beds to rest a bit after lunch. I enjoyed lying in front of the open windows feeling the breeze that was produced by the big attic fan that worked day and night all summer long. Sometimes the heat would lull me to sleep, but mostly I used that time to read. I kept a collection of books from the library and went through them with such speed that I had to make many trips to the bookmobile in Garden Villas Park.

Of course there was always swimming and it never took much to convince our mother to drive us to the city pool where we had exactly one hour to luxuriate in the cool water playing Marco Polo and seeing who could stand on their hands the longest. If it wasn’t an especially crowded day, which was almost never, the lifeguards would ignore the clock and let us stay longer than expected. We so enjoyed those times, especially when we were joined by one or more of our cousins.

Sometimes I delighted in a world of make believe with my girl friends as we built houses for our dolls and pretended that they were stewardesses or glamorous actresses. I had created all sorts of furniture for my dream home out of milk cartons, tin cans, and cigar boxes. I knew enough about sewing to make pillows, bedspreads and tablecloths. I kept all of my gear in a cardboard box that once held green beans at the grocery store. My friends and I would spend hours with our little rooms spread out on the drive way and our imaginations taking flight.

Like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in film we often decided to produce a neighborhood talent show. Everyone had to audition of course but our standards were fairly accessible. It was rare for an act to be turned away. We’d dance and sing and tell jokes and perform magic tricks all for the entertainment of our moms. Admission was a quarter, a rather exorbitant amount for the times, but we were saving to earn enough money to build a fort. Somehow we never quite earned enough to actually erect the structure that we had envisioned but we did have some rather nice make shift efforts, especially the ones made out of sheets and quilts that we designed on the clotheslines.

Our bicycles were our ticket to exotic places like the bayou or the woods where we felt as adventurous as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. When I grew older I even learned a route to Gulfgate Mall that I followed on my bike with one of my friends. We’d window shop and get cool inside the stores and sometimes even have enough money to actually purchase an ice cream sandwich or a candy stick.

At night we’d lie on our backs in the grass gazing at the stars and telling scary stories. We could hear the whispers inside the households up and down the street because most people had their windows and doors wide open. By that time of day our necks would be ringed with little necklaces of dirt and sweat that we called Grandma’s beads. Our feet would be black from all of the running and playing we had enjoyed. Our contentment was sublime and we seemed not to have a care in the world.

We had little idea back then how much the world would change. It would become rarer and rarer to see children outside all summer long. The kind of unscheduled lifestyle that we so enjoyed would be replaced with carefully choreographed activities designed to keep kids busy and free from boredom. Everyone would be rushing around almost as much as they did during the school year. There would be required summer reading and math packets to complete. The freedoms that we so loved would be replaced with more purposeful pursuits or hours spent in front of a computer or video game.

The sounds of summer that were once so comforting to me are rarely audible these days. Neighbors move in and out. Children are either inside or off doing more structured things. Dream houses for dolls are manufactured out of plastic and little girls only play with them for a short time and then they become too mature to engage in such things even though their ages indicate that they are still children. It’s unsafe for little ones to be unsupervised for even a moment. The freedoms that I enjoyed are unthinkable today and that actually makes me sad. I wonder if the magic of summer vacation is somehow diminished by our efforts to orchestrate it so. Our children have lost a wonderful opportunity to learn how to find simple pleasures in very small things. Perhaps many of the problems we face today might be resolved if we were to once again allow them to get outside and explore the world on their own. The lessons of an unstructured summer may well be the most important of their lives.

The Visit

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We lived next door to Dave and Betty Turner for over thirty years. During that time we got to know their children, and then their grandchildren and even their great grandchildren. They were friendly and generous people whose door was always open, sometimes without even a need to knock. We loved knowing that they were so close at hand and that they would always treat us like family. When we decided to move it was difficult to leave them because they had always meant so much to us. Eventually Dave died and Betty moved to a town in east Texas called Pittsburg. She built a house right next door to her daughter Vickie and settled into a comfortable routine that has made her feel very safe and happy.

We missed Dave and Betty from the beginning of our life in our new neighborhood. We made friends here but they kept moving away and new folks would move in only to leave after a short time. We are now the senior residents on our street, having lived here longer than anyone else. We can’t quite become accustomed to the more vagabond ways of the modern world, and so we long for neighbors like the ones that we once so enjoyed. When a For Sale sign went up next door a few weeks ago we shook our heads in dismay and both felt an urge to go visit Betty. We made a reservation at a state park in her town and gleefully headed her way.

The journey took us through the heart of east Texas which is dotted with small towns built around various industries and shaded by huge trees. It’s a lovely drive through forests that surround beautiful lakes. Main streets feature quaint old buildings and antique stores where sweet people smile sincere greetings and welcome strangers. I’m reminded as we drive along of my father once insisting that east Texas was the prettiest part of our state. In many ways his observation is true.

Pittsburg, Texas is home to Pilgrim’s Pride Chicken. The Pilgrim family homestead sits on a hill behind a gate adorned with the pilgrim head that is so familiar on the packages of chicken. There is a big office complex and a factory of some sort along the railroad tracks, but the chickens are raised by local farmers. People in the area speak highly of Mr. Pilgrim who is now deceased. They tell stories of him walking the aisles of the local Walmart handing out little books in which he had placed cash, or presenting money to every single high school graduate. His imprint on the town is everywhere including in a little park with a bell tower that he presented to the citizens as a place where they might go for solace among gardens and a tiny chapel.

Betty’s house is about eight minutes from the center of Pittsburg in an area of wide fields with horses and cows grazing under big oak trees. She has a magnificent view whether she’s sitting on her front porch or enjoying a cup of coffee on the back deck. It’s a nice place and it makes us smile to see her looking so happy there.

We spent an entire afternoon and much of the evening with Betty. Her daughter and son-in-law joined us to exchange stories and get us up to date on the happenings. Betty had major heart surgery about three years ago. A helicopter flew her to the hospital in Tyler where she was well cared for while her son-in-law was having his own medical emergency at the same time. Both of them are hale and hearty now, but Betty does not have as much energy as she once had. She owns a scooter that she uses to get around the neighborhood. There is a ramp on her deck that allows her to easily move from the house to the road. She loves the freedom and security that her new living arrangement allows. She and her daughter and son-in-law take care of one another and have a great deal of fun.

While we were visiting one of Betty’s granddaughters came by with her little girl. She was quite young when I saw her last so it was shocking to realize how much time had gone by from the time that we moved from our old house. We had fun playing with the child who was enchanted by Betty’s assortment of dogs and cats. We munched on homemade cookies that Betty’s daughter called “death” cookies because somebody that she knew always seemed to die shortly after she made them. We were relieved to learn that the consumers of the cookies always do just fine. We ate a few more than we should have because they were filled with chocolate chips and coconut that made them taste as though someone had melted a Mounds candy bar inside them.

Later we all gathered around Vickie’s table to indulge is a delicious roast beef dinner that she had prepared. Vickie is a great cook but I suspect that her hospitality is what made everything so special. She even whipped up a batch of homemade banana nut ice cream for the occasion. It was sinful and quite delightful, but not nearly as much as the wonderful people who were going out their way to entertain us. They even suggested that we bring our trailer to their land the next time that we come and we will have everything that we need for comfort.

The time passed so quickly that I was shocked to notice that we had been there for well over eight hours. It’s amazing how good friendships are so easy to rekindle. I suspect that we might have visited for eight hours more, but we needed to return to our campground before they locked the gates for the night. With full bellies and hugs and promises to return soon we reluctantly left our dear sweet Betty. I felt as revitalized as I always did when I would go next door for a quick hello. Betty has a way of looking at life realistically but with great optimism. She is a wonderfully uncomplicated soul who takes in strays and loves them back to life. I can’t wait to sit across from her sipping on some tea when next we return.