A Springtime Ritual

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Winter has returned again after several days that made those of us in Houston feel as though spring had come early. I took advantage of the warmer days by working in my yard and beginning the clean up process that ushers in the best growing season of the year. It felt so good to work out every muscle in my body lifting and bending and filling bags with the refuse of pruned roses and weeded flower beds. I felt so alive and robust and in harmony with nature. As is usual, however, the cooler temperatures and rains came back to chase me indoors just as February always does. Mother Nature may still have some winter blasts up her sleeve before we get those lovely months when our gardens burst forth in all of their glory.

Until the next lovely day I suppose I’ll begin the process of reorganizing my space indoors. So many folks are giving Marie Kondo credit for showing us how to simplify our lives, but my mother taught me the same techniques back when I was still a child. She had a college degree and worked for a time as a teacher, but she always seemed most proud of her home economics skills. She often quoted the high school teachers who had taught her how to cook, sew, and clean. She had an uncanny knowledge of nutrition and often told us about the value of each of the foods that we ate. Whenever spring was on the horizon she organized me and my brothers for a cleansing assault on our house that she somehow managed to turn into a fun activity.

She’d assign tasks to each of us, turn on some rousing music, and then give us pointers on how to achieve the best results. No nook or cranny was left untouched as we washed down all of the walls from the floor to the ceiling, and cleaned the venetian blinds by hanging them from the clothesline and blasting them with the hose. We polished furniture, and waxed the floors. We scrubbed the grout in the tile with cleanser and a toothbrush. We emptied every cabinet and pantry, getting rid of items that were outdated or never used and cleaning the walls and the crevices. By the end of a week or two every single part of our home gleamed as though the place was brand new.

To this day I get a kick out of spring cleaning. Life is unpredictable in so many ways, but deep cleaning is something over which I have total control. It has a way of redirecting my worries and anxieties into something quite practical. Removing the grime and reducing the overstock of things, has the power of making me feel accomplished and more in tune with my universe. I know that there are other grander purposes in life, but sometimes the simple act of taking care of what I already have is a freeing experience.

There is so much waste in our world today. I see people who literally move because they feel that their homes have become too crowded or outdated. They begin anew rather than attempting to first redo and repair what they already have. I learned from my mother how to repurpose everything from food to clothing. She’d take old t-shirts and turn them into rags for cleaning or dusting. She used leftovers to create grand new dishes. There was little for which she did not find some use, and she knew how to organize and recycle with the best of the those who do such things.

As my mother grew older her energy waned. There came a time when she no longer engaged in her springtime tradition of making things gleam. Her home became dusty and broken. We’d try to help her get it back in order again, but she had let so many things go that the task was exceedingly difficult. Even then, however, we got that same feeling of accomplishment whenever we managed to restore her house to a semblance of order.

I’ll be starting on my own springtime ritual very soon. We put things in perfect order last year when we had to virtually start over after our hot water heater damaged so many areas. In the rush of vacations and holidays we’ve accumulated a few messy areas again that scream for our attention. Improving them one day at a time will be a fun way to pass the hours until the long warm days pull us outdoors again. We will no doubt fill bags with trash as well as offerings for Goodwill. We’ll set our home in order, and feel a bit more healthy mentally as well. It’s nice to know where everything is rather than having to hold scavenger hunts just to find particular items.

There are some things with which I still refuse to part. I love my books and have many that date all the way back to my childhood. I fondly read or use them again and again. I have my high school grammar books, and many a time I have referred to them when my grandchildren have questions about usage or punctuation. I reread classics like To Kill A Mockingbird and find new joy and meaning in the words.

I also have keepsakes from family and friends that have deep meaning for me. I have no desire to exchange them for trendier artifacts. The old things bring me joy. There’s a painting over my sofa that hung in my mother’s house. I can’t remember a time when she did not have it. She often spoke of how she and my father chose it together. I have built an entire room around it’s colors and essence. I gaze at it each day when I write my blogs and somehow derive inspiration from the very sight of it.

In the same room is a vase that once belonged to my great grandmother. My grandmother Minnie Bell gave it to me long before I truly appreciated it. Now it is one of my prize possessions. I would no doubt rush to grab it before leaving a burning house. I think of how it must have graced some table or dresser in my great grandmother’s humble home. I think of my own grandmother presenting it to me with so much grandeur regarding its importance. It is a link to my history.

So on these rainy days I’ll commence the spring cleaning and renew that age old feeling that I have enjoyed for seven decades. Whether its Marie Kondoing or just following my mother’s lead I know that it will bring me a sense of peace.

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A Loving Tradition

Andy and ThuyMy brother married a beautiful and brilliant young woman who was originally from Taiwan. She was one of five siblings, a brave girl who sought her dreams in the United States. She earned a degree, landed a job with a NASA contractor, and caught my brother’s eye at meeting. Back then it was quite a challenge to learn someone’s contact information, but my brother was determined to find her and get to know her better. After searching the telephone book like a detective, and following many false leads, he eventually found her and not long after that they had fallen in love.

Their wedding was a fitting beginning for a truly beautiful couple. It was during all of the festivities that I first met my sister-in-law’s family among whom was her lovely and thoughtful older sister, Diana, who was married to a sweet man who went out of his way to entertain us and to be certain that we felt included in the celebrations. He and his young wife had a small son, Andy, who was close in age to my two little girls, so we had parenthood in common. I remember feeling so comfortable with them and wishing that they lived in the USA rather than Taiwan so that I might be able to spend more time with them.

My brother and his bride settled into a wonderful life in the Clear Lake area of Houston so that they would be close to the work at NASA that would become an integral part of who they are. We soon learned that in the Chinese tradition we were honored as family members just as much as those related by blood, and in the same tradition my mother held an exalted place. I truly appreciated the all loving culture of my sister-in-law and her family.

While we were still in our twenties we learned the tragic news that Diana’s husband had died. It seemed to be far too early for someone as young and kind as he was to leave this earth. It was a sad time when we worried about the widow and her young son, but our fears were soon somewhat abated when Diana came to America to earn a degree of her own at Lamar University. While she studied there Andy lived with my brother and sister-in-law. He became a beloved member of our extended family who played with my daughters and practiced his English with them. We spent holidays together, celebrated birthdays, and traveled to Colorado in an overcrowded van filled with laughter and noise.

Eventually Diana earned her degree and she too found work with companies associated with NASA. She was always the person at every event who checked to be certain that everyone was having a good time. She raised Andy to appreciate the opportunities that he had and to make full use of them. He grew to be tall and lanky like his father, and just as sweet as both of his parents. Soon he was heading to the University of Texas in Austin to forge his future. While there he met Thuy, a lovely and determined young woman whose family had immigrated from Vietnam. The two of them dated and studied and soon realized that together they were a powerful team. Both of them wanted to become doctors and they supported each other in that quest. With much hard work they were soon on their way to medical school in Dallas, but first they married in a beautiful ceremony that celebrated their love.

Much time has passed. Both Andy and Thuy have highly successful careers as physicians. He is a gastroenterologist and she is an oncologist. They are well regarded as among the best in their respective fields. They work hard and have the trappings of success, but they have never forgotten the people who were part of their journey. They now have two children, a boy Ethan and a girl Allie, who share their intellect and generous personalities. The children are incredibly bright and unspoiled. Like their grandparents and their parents they are thoughtful and respectful. They take the time to honor the guests in their home following a tradition that seems to be part of their DNA.

Andy and Thuy love to have fun. They travel the world with Ethan and Allie and attend sporting events and concerts. They enjoy trying different kinds of food and being adventurous. They appear to have boundless energy that allows them to be constantly on the go. They are happy people who work hard and play hard. Still, there are quiet times for reading and learning, always learning. They love their children and focus on bringing them up with wonderful values of kindness, honesty and determination. They make weekly visits to the library and in between they voraciously devour the stories and information contained in the pages. Their lives are busy, but well balanced.

Andy and Thuy celebrate life with incredible parties that center around themes. Each child receives such an honor every other year. They are amazing affairs with decorations worthy of a Hollywood production and a well planned schedule that includes food and fun in abundance. Mike and I have been lucky to be included in many of them, and we look forward to those occasions with almost childish glee.

This year it was Ethan’s turn to bask in the limelight for his eleventh birthday. The theme was “Mission Mars” and we had our choice of coming as astronauts or aliens. My brother and his wife wore their work clothes and NASA badges and looked more official than anyone. Mike and I concocted alien costumes to join in the fun. Thuy made certain that everyone would be able to dress for a part in the festivities by using her imagination to design both astronaut and alien gear. I never cease to be amazed by her ingenuity.

The house was decorated with huge rockets and astronauts floating from the ceiling among the stars. There was a magician, a debate, a trivia contest, and a confetti egg battle between aliens and astronauts. Every child walked away with an incredible gift and many adults won prizes for their participation. Best of all was the camaraderie and the love that filled the rooms, all encouraged by Andy, Thuy and their children.

I suppose that I most enjoyed just talking with Ethan and Allie. They are utterly delightful in every regard. They are first and foremost very sweet, and they have been taught to honor adults, especially those who are seniors. They are infinitely polite, but also filled with unique personality traits that make them funny and delightful.

I’ve told Thuy that she if she ever finds the time she should speak to young people at high schools. Hers is an inspirational story that proves that goodness, hard work, grit, and compassion do indeed lead to a glorious life. She has dutifully sacrificed and followed an orderly progression toward a way of life that is fulfilling and purposeful. Now she and Andy are passing those traits on to their children, continuing a way of life that has roots all the way to Taiwan and Vietnam.

Andy and Thuy are family, and they make me proud. They are literally saving lives each day, but on a more personal level they teach all of us how to truly love.

A Tight Fit

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Getting a truck into a garage is not easy. It’s a tight fit on at least one side, and in my case that side is the wrong side. We have a two car garage and for years I zipped into the left side with my little Honda CRV. It was perfect for me in every conceivable way. I had tons of room to my right, and I was able to judge my distance from the wall to my left with ease. Besides the car was seemingly made to fit just right in the space. There was nary a problem getting in and out.

Then we decided to give that little car to my grandsons and learn to get by with one auto. After all we rarely go to different places at the same time, and it seemed to be a wise move for dealing with the over abundance of vehicles in our world. We kept our truck because it was newer and the means of pulling our trailer. The problem for me was that it didn’t fit on the side of the garage to which I had become accustomed. Husband Mike’s work bench on the left hand section of the garage made it impossible to get the truck all the way inside, so I had to learn how to navigate in a very narrow space with a wall on my far right. It has not been easy.

Mike hung a little red object from the ceiling to help me to orient myself. It not only gives me a way of determining if I am entering the confined space at approximately the best angle, but also tells be when it’s time to stop the truck lest I take out the back wall. It’s a challenge each time I drive inside, and on most occasions I just barely manage to get things right, even though my tendency is to lean a bit too far to the right.

I’ve just brushed the small shelf that juts out from the wall or almost knocked over the ladder that hangs from a hook. Once I took out a lightbulb on a Christmas decoration that lives along the perimeter for eleven months out of the year because it won’t fit through the opening to the attic. All in all, though, I’ve done fairly well even though entering the garage invariably stresses me out.

A few night ago I came home rather late after helping my grandsons review for a math test. I was tired and feeling a bit distracted, a fact that wasn’t helped by the fact that we just got new neighbors next door and I was craning my neck just a bit to see who they were. I didn’t take the usual precautions as I pulled forward into the opening and soon enough heard a crunch when the right side mirror hit the side of the garage. I no doubt would have been fine if I had simply kept moving forward but my brain was fried from the study session and I was thinking logically. I decided to try to back up and reorient the truck, a decision that resulted in the mirror getting jammed between the garage door frame and the body of the truck. At that point all reason seemed to leave me.

I got out and inspected the dilemma and truly had no idea what to do next. I imagined that if I just went forward I would take out every object hanging on the wall and do untold damage, so I slowly inched backward while I listened to the crunch of the mirror against the door frame and heard the crash of plastic as its backing fell to the floor. My only consolation was that the mirror was still attached to the body of the truck. Otherwise I had a mess that I knew would make Mike very unhappy and lead to questions as to how I got myself into such a pickle in the first place. I was not happy with myself as I adjusted my entry angle one more time and successfully eased the behemoth of a vehicle into the narrow space.

It was late so when Mike came out to welcome me back home my only comment was to mention that I may have buggered up the side mirror. Mike winced with one of those “what did you do now?” kind of expressions, but took my advice that we should just go to bed and think about the destruction tomorrow. Nothing was fatal, but I felt like an idiot and was a bit too tired to discuss my lack of advanced driving skills in the heat of the moment.

I found myself thinking back to my driving test of long ago. I failed the first go around because I knocked over the cones when attempting to parallel park. I was already a bit older than most folk who go for those exams and it brought me grave sadness and embarrassment to fail a test that sixteen year olds regularly managed to pass. I worked on my skills and tried again a few weeks later, but as I approached the dreaded parallel parking spot I went into a state of abject terror. I felt as though I was going to burst into tears as my heart pounded so fast that I was certain that it might tear a hole in my chest. I made one feeble attempt to align the car so that I might successfully ease into the parking spot between the cones but I could tell that I was going to hit those dastardly orange objects once again. I silently wondered if I would end up being fifty years old before I finally secured a license, as I admitted to the officer that I didn’t think I would ever succeed in parking that way. I expected him to fail me again, but instead he asked me if I ever had occasion to parallel park. When I insisted that I was a suburban gal whose only parking experiences would be on big flat lots he said that he would give me a passing grade in spite of my failure to complete the one feature of the test that so daunted me.  Since I never hit the cones he felt that I had at least shown that I was aware of the damage that I would have inflicted had I continued, but he also begged me not to try the skill in a real life situation.

To this very day I have never once had to parallel park. I suppose I’m lucky that I don’t live in a place like Chicago where that skill is a must. Instead I have long enjoyed the luxury of zipping in and out of my garage or parking on a nice wide driveway. It was only when faced with navigating a large vehicle from an angle that was unfamiliar to me that my skill at driving began to waver. Now I find myself feeling that same stressful uncertainty each time I attempt to maneuver the truck into the garage. I suppose I won’t be trying to finally parallel park anytime soon.

When Me Too Hits Close To Home

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I have been brave in my writing. I attempt to tell truths that may be uncomfortable to others, and there is much tragedy and grief in my story and those of each human that has the potential to make us squirm. As people we often prefer to avoid reality because it is so difficult to face. Whenever I write or speak about mental illness I feel the discomfort that ensues. I know that my readers want to be uplifted and so I balance such stories with lighthearted tales of puppies and travel. Still, I know that there are times when it is my duty to be honest about challenging topics.

We are presently in the throes of the Me Too Movement. So many women are stepping forward with stories of sexual abuse that it sometimes feels as though there is a kind of hysteria washing over the world. Surely, we think, there must be a certain level of exaggeration when it comes to the numbers of accusations that are suddenly condemning men of all stripes, including priests. We wonder and worry if there is just a kind of mass paranoia that is behind all of the revelations, at least until we hear of a case that is close to home.

Earlier this week a woman who was a year behind me in high school posted a shocking essay on Facebook in which she outlined the horrors of her own encounter with sexual abuse from one of her high school teachers, a priest. It was stunning in its detail and honesty, and I might have simply disregarded it as being too fantastical to be true had it not been for the fact that I knew this priest and had felt oddly uncomfortable around him when I was in high school.

Being a single parent my mom taught me how to be exceedingly careful around men. I thought that she was overly worried that someone might take advantage of me sexually. Her constant lectures on how to comport myself and how to avoid sticky situations seemed paranoid, and in keeping with her mental illness. Her instructions also made me unduly wary of every male that I knew. Nonetheless, there were times when I sensed trouble because of her admonitions and as a result I have sailed through life having had some highly suggestive encounters, but never any actual physical attempts to take advantage of me. I ran like a deer at the first sign of innuendo.

So it was with the very priest that one of my fellow students described as her abuser. He had shown an undue interest in me and often asked me if I was dating. I was still a wall flower of the highest order at that time and I didn’t like discussing my lack of a social life with anyone save for my closest female friends, so I never engaged in his inquisitions. One afternoon at the end of the school day I encountered him in the school hallway and he grabbed me from behind and locked me in a hug in which he held me with my back being held tightly against his chest. My instinct was to kick him and run away, but he  was a priest and one who lifted weights at that. I was a very small girl who was taught to be respectful, but in that moment I was also conflicted as I thought of my mother’s instructions to follow my instincts and run from any situation that felt wrong. I remember willing myself to become as rigid as stone as he held me for what felt like an eternity.

While we stood there he wanted to know if I had been invited to the prom. I had not, and it was a great disappointment to me. I was a senior and as far as I knew virtually every girl in my class was going. I mumbled a quick answer hoping that he would loose his grip, but he persisted in his conversation by telling me that if he were my age and not a priest he would have been proud to take me to the prom. He said that in his mind I was one of the more attractive girls in the school. In fact, he rambled on, he thought that I was a real catch. As my mind raced at what felt oddly inappropriate I did some quick thinking and told him that my mom was waiting for me outside and I had to go. He let me go immediately, and from that point forward I treated him as though he was a carrier of a deadly plague, In other words, heeding my mother’s advice I made certain that I would never again find myself alone with him. I moved on and so did he.

Years passed but I always recalled how uncomfortable he had made me. I vacillated between thinking that he had indeed been targeting me for something unnatural or that I had simply been a school girl with a big imagination. He eventually moved away, left the priesthood and married. I assumed that I had made a mountain out of a molehill in my teenage mind, and then I read the expose from the woman who had borne the full effect of his attentions. With each revelation of the pain that she had endured over a lifetime I felt a pit in my stomach because my own brush with danger felt more real than ever. Her accusations might have been unbelievable given how egregious they were had I not felt so uncomfortable with this same man. Somehow I knew that her sordid tale was true, and I was sickened. 

But for my mother’s admonitions I might have been the person telling a story of deep abuse. I shudder to think how it may have changed my life as it did the woman who so endured the pain and the fear that is almost always associated with such horrors. The priest who abused her is long dead, but what he did to her will live with her forever and those of us who Knew and trusted him. The greater sin in her tragedy is that she eventually came forward with her story and virtually nothing was done to rectify the terror that should never have been inflicted on her. Her abuse was filed away as though it never happened.

It’s time for the Catholic Church to change dramatically and quit protecting bad priests from the full impact of the law. They have to listen to victims and be transparent with parishioners. In the meantime we must instruct our sons and daughters to assert themselves when vile acts are being forced on them and to speak up regardless of who is the perpetrator.We must honor those courageous enough to tell us about these incidents and ferret out those who would take advantage of innocents. I suppose that I will be eternally grateful that my mom took the time to be open and honest about such issues and to make me aware of the evil that lurks in this world. Her wisdom has protected me throughout my life. Not everyone has been so fortunate. 

Midcentury Modern

Glenbrook ValleyJust before my father died our family was searching for a new home. Our weekends were spent inspecting houses in different parts of Houston. My dad was quite particular about building standards and such, so only certain neighborhoods appealed to him. I vividly recall him inspecting properties with the intensity of an appraiser. Walking through a home was far more than just deciding if the floor plan was pleasing and the colors were fitting for his taste. He insisted on knowing how well built the places were.

I liked those weekend house hunting adventures and I listened carefully to all of my father’s commentaries on various neighborhoods. His relatives wanted us to move into Oak Forest with its new post war homes, but Daddy insisted that the places were poorly built and after one visit to the subdivision he sniffed that he was not willing to invest his money in “junk.” He refused to even look at the houses being touted by a builder named Frank Sharp in southwest Houston, noting that they were built as cheaply as possible with little concern for how they would fare in the future.

The homes that my father found the most appealing were in Glenbrook Valley and Braeswood.  Both areas featured midcentury modern houses designed by the leading architects in the Houston area. Daddy was impressed with their features, but mostly with the hardiness of the way they were built. We returned to each area again and again as he and my mother tried to decide which home was the best. Since we had previously lived in southeast Houston I suppose that my father’s ultimate choice had more to do with wanting to try something different than thinking that one house was better than another. He and Mama had their eye on a home on a street named Bluebonnet Lane in Braeswood.

Of course fate changed all of those plans. When my father died we had to choose a far lesser house back in  Overbrook, a place where we had once lived in the splendor of one of that neighborhood’s midcentury modern homes near Sims Bayou. My mother made do with what we could afford, but she and I both understood that my dad would never have selected the house that became the home where I grew into an adult.

Over the years after my father’s death so much changed in Houston that he would hardly recognize the place. Glenbrook Valley endured a long period of blight during the eighties and nineties while Braeswood continued to be a sought after locale. In spite of their differing fortunes the midcentury modern homes in each area withstood both the tests of times, and in the case of Glenbrook Valley the sorrow of neglect. They were indeed as well built and classic as my father had predicted when most of them were brand new.

Glenbrook Valley has been designated an historical district because of the amazing homes located there, but the area has been slow in regaining its once glorious status. Braeswood has suffered in other ways. Some of the houses have flooded on more than one occasion, and hurricane Harvey seemed almost to signal the end of many of the magnificently designed and constructed places. Even a year and a half since the devastating storm many of the homes in Braeswood are still empty as owners grapple with just how to proceed. Many of the lots are now empty after the houses were razed. Newer elevated homes lacking the distinctive features of their predecessors dot the landscape. Some have even attempted to raise the original houses in an attempt to save the stunning architectural designs.

I drive by Bluebonnet Lane quite often. I can no longer remember which house on that street tantalized my parents. I often wonder if it survived hurricane Harvey without incident. I try to imagine how different my life would have been if we had moved there. It’s all a silly exercise because changing anything about where and how I grew up would have been akin the the story in It’s A Wonderful Life. Things worked out quite nicely for me and my brothers back in Overbrook. We were happy in our much smaller and less impressive home that is still standing although in need of many repairs. It has never flooded, not even when hurricane Harvey dumped over fifty inches of rain all around it. I suppose that it was a good choice on my mother’s part in those sad days when she was just learning how to be a single parent.

Glenbrook Valley is still a jewel that is almost hidden in the fabric of Houston. It’s stunning midcentury homes were once featured in national magazines. I remember visiting many of them as a teenager when my high school friends who lived in them invited me for visits. They were truly remarkable and helped me to understand why my father had been so taken with them. Today there are urban pioneers who are reclaiming them and restoring them to their former glory. I would so love to see the whole area enjoy a renaissance as people rediscover a once premier neighborhood. I dream of a time when the homes there will be as treasured as they once were. Perhaps if Glenbrook Valley is revitalized neighborhoods like Garden Villas and my old haunt of Overbrook will be noted as well. Each of those places have much to please a discerning home buyer with their rich histories and close proximity to the downtown area.

It will be interesting to see what happens in Houston in the coming years. I certainly pray that the glory of the great homes and a long ago era will be as well preserved as they have been in places like the Heights. In many ways a beautifully built structure deserves our love and care. Hopefully we can hold on to some pieces of our past.