Our Mothers, Our Angels

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I recently participated in a podcast dealing with the question of how to form meaningful relationships. As I told my own stories I realized how much I had learned about compassion, gratitude, courage, loyalty, trust and other important morals from my own mother and those of my friends and cousins. I suppose that in many ways I lived a kind of unblemished childhood with the exception of my father’s untimely and unexpected death. From the many women that I encountered, the mothers of my peers, I learned the lessons of being someone on whom others might depend. These were wonderful women who opened their homes and their hearts to me little realizing what an impact they would have on my own development and worldview.

I have sadly been reminded again and again of what these ladies meant to me as they one by one die from the diseases of advanced age. Just last week I learned of the death of the remarkable mother of one of my high school friends. I had only met this woman once, but in that brief encounter I was taken by the way in which she welcomed me and made me somehow feel quite special. I would tell people about her and that brief encounter from time to time as the years passed. It was only in reading her obituary that I realized what a truly stunning life she had lived, and I felt proud to have known her no matter how fleetingly. 

The women who were my role models were children of the Great Depression. They were young and on the verge of beginning their lives as adults during World War II. Their early years were often punctuated with sacrifices that few of us born in the second half of the twentieth century will ever completely understand. In spite of varying hardships they all maintained a strong sense of optimism and can do spirit that followed them into their roles as mothers. They passed down their love of family to all of us, both male and female. They were devoted to their children without hovering like helicopters. They worked hard to maintain a sense of peace and contentment inside their homes. They rarely complained, instead celebrating the blessings that they had, regardless of how small they were. They were an exceptional group, and it pains me to see their generation slowly leaving our earth, because they were living breathing angels who gave their all to be certain that we would have good lives.

These were not women who were always barefoot, pregnant and under their husband’s thumbs, even though many of them never worked outside of the home. They were strong and able to overcome incredible challenges. They worked for the betterment of their little corners of the earth through jobs, volunteer work, keeping their families safe and happy. Often their responsibilities included elderly parents for whom they lovingly took into their homes. I used to enjoy visiting with the old ones who became part of the big extended families of my friends. It was not until my own mother came to live in my home in her final year of life that I realized the difficulties of caring for an adult day in and day out. The women I had witnessed had always made it seem so easy.

The women who continue to inspire me thought it natural to pitch in whenever someone was in need. They’d bring food, condolences, and a helping hand to any tragedy. They were not the least bit afraid of long hours of back breaking work. They did whatever needed to be done with little fanfare or need of accolades. 

If I were to make a list of the women who taught me how to live a purpose driven life it would begin with my own mother but then continue almost endlessly, for I always found something remarkable about the generation that came before me. Mrs. Barry showed me what love and loyalty really meant when she stepped forward to help me during my mother’s first mental breakdown. Mrs. Daigle taught me how to be the consummate hostess regardless of who came to my door. Mrs. Bush demonstrated courage over and over again, even in situations that might have overwhelmed a lesser soul. My aunts showed me how to keep family close. Mrs. Janot helped me to understand how to balance the daily toil of living with fun. Mrs. Frey demonstrated how to fully utilize my own talents and creativity. Mrs. Wright helped me to discover my own worth. Mrs. Loisey was my teacher who showed me the impact of a great educator. Mrs. Pryor helped me to understand the possibilities found in giving myself to the community. Mrs. McKenna brought beauty and music into my life. Mrs. Martin showed me the new worlds to be found in books. Mrs. Brochtrup seemed to be a living saint whose faith inspired me. Mrs. Caldwell, Mrs. Gallerano, and Mrs. Cash made my life more fun and interesting by spending hours  guiding me in Girl Scouts and on our school’s drill team. Mrs. Mandola was elegant and made me feel that way as well. All of them had a way of making it clear that they genuinely cared for me. They listened to me and valued what I had to say. They understood the importance of every relationship, but probably never realized what an enormous impact they had on me.

Our mothers were our angels on earth, and now so many of them are our angels in heaven. I do miss them and the calmness that they always brought to me. When we speak of women’s rights and the roles of women we would do well to look to these wonderful ladies for examples and guidance. They were far more amazing than our society gives them credit for being. From them I learned what it really means to be a woman.

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A Mission From God

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Not long ago Attorney General Jeff Sessions came to Houston, Texas. Somehow he ended up at one of the El Tiempo Cantina restaurants owned by the Laurenzo family. It was a surprise to the management that someone from the presidential cabinet was there, and one of the employees had a photo taken of himself and the AG. The social media staff then posted the image on Facebook. It was seemingly innocent enough, but a firestorm soon ensued. Protestors gathered outside of the eatery, calls for boycotts of the businesses were made, insults were hurled against the owners, and sadly there were even threats of violence made toward the members of their family. The unfortunate situation led to a regular brouhaha with insinuations that the owners of the establishment were white racists who had somehow gravely insulted their loyal customers.

Unfortunately all of the accusations were based almost solely on highly charged emotions rather than the facts of the situation. Roland and Dominic Laurenzo are the co-owners of several El Tiempo restaurants in the Houston area. They are not at all like the image that is being painted of them. I know this because my husband attended high school with Roland, and my mother-in-law was friends with Roland’s mother, Ninfa.

The Laurenzo story is a great one of success built on imagination and hard work. Ninfa Laurenzo was born in Harlingen, Texas to a Mexican farming family. She met her husband Dominic when she was visiting a cousin. The two fell in love, married and decided to cast their lots with Houston which they had heard was a rapidly growing city. They moved to a tiny wooden house just east of downtown Houston and opened the Rio Grand Tortilla company, selling pizza dough and tortillas. They had four children including Roland. Life took a downturn when Dominic died and the tortilla company began to fail. Ninfa supplemented the family income by opening a tiny restaurant with only ten tables located  in front of the tortilla factory. She also began to prepare a dish for her customers that was still relatively unknown in the United States, fajitas.

Roland was a hard working and talented young man, and after he had graduated from college he helped his mother to expand the little restaurant in the shadow of downtown. Ninfa’s featured Mama’s beef and chicken fajitas, and thrived with Roland’s business acumen added to the mix. Soon people were coming from all around town to taste the food and meet Mama Ninfa, a woman with a broad grin and a big heart. She was known to sing for her customers and listen intently to anyone who needed to tell her of their troubles. Before long there were Ninfa’s restaurants all over town and Mama Ninfa was a local celebrity. Along the way she and her sons never forgot to pay forward their good fortune. Some of their charitable causes were well known, and others were done quietly and without fanfare.  It was in their natures to always volunteer to help the community whenever there was a need.

Eventually the family sold all of the restaurants bearing the Ninfa name and began other ventures, among them the El Teimpo Cantinas. They created a classic Tex Mex environment at their new eateries complete with lots of traditional recipes and some new takes on cooking. Old family photographs in black and white silently and proudly tell the family’s story. The wait staff is mature and appears to have been part of the Laurenzo journey for many years. Everyone is friendly and helpful and desirous of making the dining experience exceptional and unforgettable.

I have been saddened by the turn of events since the Attorney General’s visit to one of the El Tiempo establishments because this is a family that represents all that is good about the story of diversity in America. If ever there were people who should be celebrated rather than abhorred, they are the ones. Mama Ninfa was a founding board member of the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans. The family has supported Houston Community College, the Houston Food Bank, and the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center among many other causes. It is little wonder that they hosted Jeff Sessions so well because it would not have been in their natures to deny him the same level of hospitality that they provide to every single person who walks through their doors. The fact that someone associated with their business got a bit excited about having a famous person eating in one of their establishments says nothing about their ideologies or who they are as individuals. It is a very silly thing to become so angry about this incident that it would lead one to insult and threaten them without ever really taking the time to know their essence.

Luckily this is Houston, Texas and the people here realize how wonderful the Laurenzo family has been to our city. They also mostly have a very strong sense of fairness, and so there has been an outpouring of support for the business. My husband and I joined in that effort by having lunch at El Tiempo after all of the hubbub. Like the Blues Brothers my Mike saw it as a kind of mission from God to support his classmate, Roland, whom he knew to be a kind a generous man.

The thing that struck us were the number of older Hispanic people employed by the restaurant, and we wondered if the protesters had taken into account what would happen to these individuals if the businesses failed. Where would they go to work? How would they get by? Why would they get caught up in such a ridiculous disagreement? It would not just be Roland and Dominic who would suffer, but hundreds of people who depend on them to provide jobs. We always need to remember that no action operates in a vacuum. It’s effect almost always impacts many more people than we might imagine.

The Laurenzos are big boosters of a program that raises funds for the Houston Food Bank. They are always ready to provide food at little or no cost for dozens of causes. One photograph can’t possibly negate all of the good that they have done for decades. Besides, why should that one moment in time even matter? By today’s definitions Roland is a person of color himself, one who has never used his identity to harm anyone.

I was relieved to see the packed house when I visited El Tiempo, and I believe that all the restaurants will thrive. Still, I shudder at the idea that such a small thing as a photo with a disliked politician has lead to the besmirching of people with such good reputations. That is wrong on every level, and like my husband, I see it as a kind of mission from God to do my part to set the record straight.