The Front Porch

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There was a time when almost every house had a front porch, a place where family and friends would gather just to sit and relax and watch the world go by. People didn’t need an official “night out” to shout a greeting or wave at neighbors. They’d simply gather in the morning with their cups of coffee to watch the children scurrying off to school or in the evenings with a cool drink just to enjoy the glory of day’s end. It’s rare to see homes being built with porches in the front anymore. Instead we design our living spaces for ultimate privacy by placing our outdoor retreats in back of our homes where we are hidden from the rest of the world. Perhaps it is just one more sign of the times when we often feel isolated and unsure of our places in the big picture.

Visits to my paternal grandparents always included time spent on their expansive front porches which my grandfather enhanced with screen to keep the bugs out and to insure that even when the mosquitoes were having a roaring good time, we’d be enjoying ourselves as well without worrying about getting bitten. My grandparents always had the area furnished like an additional living room with a sofa like glider, rocking chairs and lots of extra seating. Grandma made sure that we had an endless supply of cool drinks and Grandpa kept a big fan in perfect running order to provide us with comfort. We’d join in the greetings of neighbors who passed by while on their walks and sometimes climbed up the steps to the house to spend a few extra minutes to find out how everyone was doing. We watched the birds during the day and fireflies at night, and talked of people, events and ideas. Somehow the time spent on their front porch always made me feel safe, content, proud and loved.

My maternal grandmother had a front porch as well. Hers was not covered or enclosed which was actually preferable to all of us cousins who gathered there every Friday evening while our parents played poker inside a tiny room so filled with smoke that it made us gag. We enjoyed the freedom and adventure of the outside with that porch serving as home base for the crazy games that we invented for our entertainment. Sometimes my grandmother would quietly sit in our midst, but because she rarely spoke it never occurred to us that she may have been watching over us. We just thought that she was escaping the raucous conversations of her children and enjoying the cleaner air on her porch.

None of my homes either as a child or an adult have boasted a front porch. I suppose that trend lost its charm for builders sometime in the middle of the twentieth century. We hosted our gatherings in our backyard where we might enjoy more privacy without interruption. The front of the house was reserved for coming and going and quick waves of the hand at our neighbors. Only once in awhile would we bring our lawn chairs to the front yard to join adventurous folks who decided to resurrect the old ways of relaxing together after long days of labor. I so enjoyed those sojourns with the Halls and the Turners and the Mayfields on somebody’s lawn when we would watch the children playing and laugh as our cares drifted away.

I rarely see people gathering in front of their homes anymore. Such enjoyment has in many ways become a thing of the past. Perhaps we are too rushed or too private or too wary of being on display. Maybe we don’t want to fight the heat or mosquitoes. For whatever reason we mostly stay enclosed in our own private worlds and seem to think it necessary to wait for special invitations to meet up with our neighbors. We know that there is life inside the homes on our street but it is only the passing of cars from the garages that alerts us to that fact. The old ways of lounging together outside on a summer’s eve are mostly the domain of the past.

Now my husband and I sit around the table on our backyard patio listening to the cooing of the doves and sounds of the people around their swimming pools or on their trampolines. Their dogs bark at us as we survey our garden and once in a great while a voice from behind the fence will ask us to retrieve a wayward ball that has found its way onto our space. Most of the time our contact is minimal and we get the idea that everyone prefers it that way.

My father-in-law has a lovely wrap around front porch at his house that was originally built in the early days of the twentieth century when such a feature was all the rage. He rarely sits out front preferring the deck in the back of the house instead. When I visit I imagine festooning the front porch with sumptuous ferns and plants. I think of placing a small table with chairs out there where one might enjoy a meal or a cup of morning coffee while watching the passersby. I suppose that I would wear out the swing that my husband and his best friend once hung so that my mother-in-law would always have a place to sit. I’d wring out all of the enjoyment that the front porch was intended to provide. Sadly I’m not sure that I would see much because I rarely observe anyone passing by whenever I go to visit. It seems that even those with the wherewithal to enjoy the neighborhood from the front don’t bother to do so anymore.

Front porches seem to have become a thing history, a pleasant memory of bygone days when the windows were open and the doors were unlocked. A neighbor need only shout a greeting from the sidewalk to be invited to come sit awhile. Everyone knew everyone else and there was an unspoken duty to watch over the children as they played. We were open and unconcerned with things like political differences. The whole neighborhood was one great big happy family. Along the way our televisions and phones and air conditioners lured us inside and pushed us at the back of the house. Maybe it’s time that we come back out to the front.

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Right on Target

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We all tend to have opinions about just about everything, some of them very strong. Too often we are guilty of deciding what we think based on limited information other than that we garner from sources with little more knowledge than our own. So it was for me with some of the recent changes in The Boy Scouts of America, most notably the inclusion of girls in the organization. For the first time in its history the organization is now open to young women ages eleven to seventeen. Girls now have opportunities to earn badges as well as the coveted Eagle Scout designation.

When I first heard of this I had to admit that I wondered a bit about how well this might work. I have four grandsons who have been active in scouts and two of them have earned their Eagle Scout rank. My son-in-law has also served as a scout leader, so I was familiar with the wonderful programs that have helped to mold my grandsons into leaders and young men of high character. What I did not realize is the extent to which the boy scouts have always been a family affair. It was only after talking with a very good friend who has been involved in scouting for many years that my eyes were opened to the real spirit of the program.

The Boy Scouts of America has always encouraged families to participate in the activities. When the boys make their cars for the soap box derby their sisters get to build models as well. Often whole families go with the troop on camping trips. Sisters of the boys often learn the same skills as their brothers and enjoy the same level of camaraderie. What they have not been able to do in the past is earn badges and ranks like the boys. The new rules acknowledge the unofficial part that girls have played in scouting activities in the past. Henceforth it is possible for a young woman to become an Eagle Scout just as her male counterparts have done before.

When we consider that the military has been open to women for decades it indeed seems a bit old fashioned for scouting to be available only to the boys. Any young woman with an interest in the skills and the adventures of scouting should be allowed to fully participate right down to receiving the awards. It’s not as strange a move as I had first thought. In fact, it’s something that has been happening informally for years and probably should have been considered long before now.

I think of my twin grandchildren who are a boy and a girl. The young man began a journey through scouting but eventually lost interest because his family was torn between his sister’s activities and his. Perhaps if she had joined him in the scouts and the whole family had enjoyed time together, he may have chosen to continue. Instead they found a common interest in things like robotics and rocketry where they each had an opportunity to demonstrate their individual talents while the whole family came along.

The rules of chaperoning in the Boy Scouts are so strict that I have few reservations about having girls involved. There have to be a set number of adults watching over very small groupings of minors. I know that my son-in-law often overbooked adults on camping trips to be certain that in an emergency his group would not fall below the required number. On one occasion a scout broke his leg and one of the chaperones had to take the boy to receive medical care. There were still enough adults on the trip to more than meet the rules.

The Boy Scouts of America are one of the finest organization in the world in my estimate. I have watched my grandsons learn and gain confidence in ways that no other group would have done. They have made lifelong friendships with their peers as well as with the adults who work with them. It is not an exaggeration to say that once the youngsters stay the course from cub scout to Eagle Scout that they remain faithful to one another and to the values of the organization for the rest of their lives.

I have a good friend whose boys were both Boy Scouts. She was always busy with meetings and camping trips and even welcoming international scouts to her home. She hosted parties and provided housing for scouts from Mexico who in turn invited her to their country. Over the years she and her family have kept in touch with all of their scouting friends celebrating milestones like graduations, weddings and births. The family aspect of scouting applies to long term relationships in which the participants share wholesome fun and dedication to the worthy goal of learning. It seems only fitting that such a remarkable experience is now open to young women as well.

All of my closest friends had sons at about the same time that I had daughters. We did lots of things together, including taking our children to swim classes. I wonder if my girls would have also wanted to join scouts alongside their male friends all of whom were heavily involved in scouting. How exciting it would have been to go camping and traveling to far away places with families that they already knew. I suspect that they might have become proud bearers of the Eagle Scout designation. They were perfectly capable of doing everything that their male friends did.

I’m now convinced that opening the Boy Scouts of America to the girls is one of the best ideas ever. I wish the young ladies well, and can’t wait to see the pride in the faces of the recipients of the rank of Eagle Scout. Including the ladies is right on target with the kind of progress that we need.

Lost

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Some stories stay in a little corner of the mind and never go away. I suppose for me one of those is something that I read in Texas Monthly magazine years ago. No doubt my reaction was tempered by my experience of caring for my mother when she was struggling with mental illness, but even beyond that it was a cautionary tale that said so much about the state of mental health in our society.

A college professor was enjoying coffee and a lively conversation with her colleagues inside a little cafe on the Drag just across the street from the University of Texas Austin campus. She was having a relaxing time until a bedraggled woman entered the eatery and began yelling at the cashier in the front of the establishment. Virtually all of the customers including the professor stared at the commotion with a sense of dismay and embarrassment. It was obvious that the woman was inebriated, high on drugs, or out of her mind. She wore the strange rags of a homeless person, her hair filled with tangles and even bits of debris. Nobody knew quite what to make of the situation or what to do. It was left to the manager to escort the woman back onto the street outside before things returned to normal.

At that moment the professor looked furtively at her watch and explained that she had forgotten an appointment with a student, and had to leave immediately. She apologetically put two twenty dollar bills on the table indicating that they should take care of her share of the charges and rushed out in a noticeably agitated state.

When she reached the sidewalk she searched for the woman who had just been in the cafe. She was relieved to see the old lady limping slowly just a few feet away. The professor rushed to the woman’s side, smiled and implored, “Mama, it’s me, your daughter Elizabeth. Do you remember me?”

The woman paused and with a faraway look appeared to be attempting to remember something very important. She touched the professor’s face with her grimy hands and then grinned as though a warm memory had come into her mind. “Lizzie,” she whispered, “I’m so glad to see you. How have you been?”

The professor expressed her own joy in finding her mother and then suggested that they go to her home where they might have a more comfortable place to catch up on what had been happening in their lives. She guided the still somewhat confused woman across the street, into the campus, and toward the parking spot where the car awaited. While the professor drove she exchanged small talk with her mother and thought of all of the time that had passed since she had last seen her.

The professor’s mom had been a brilliant and beautiful woman, an accomplished artist and a stunning mother. Life back then had been so happy and devoid of any indication that tragedy was looming. Her mother’s illness demonstrated itself quite slowly. At first it simply seemed as though the woman was a bit depressed, but the depression led to mania and the mania exhibited itself in paranoia. Before long the professor’s mom was undergoing treatments for mental illness that worked until she refused to take her medications. Then one day she disappeared. All efforts to find her had been in vain. The professor became frantic and lost all sense of normalcy while she invested in private detectives and spent evenings and weekends driving up and down streets hoping to find her mother. Was she in jail or dead or in another town?

Eventually so much time went by that everyone told the professor to just give up. She was becoming ill in her own way from all of the stress. It was time to live again, which she did, but always with the hope that one day she would find out what had happened to her mother. Now here she was sitting next to this raggedy lady who was not anything like the once accomplished person that she had called Mom.

In the following days the professor took a sick leave from work. She cleaned up her mother, fed her healthy meals, gave her new clothes and a safe place to sleep. She made appointments with doctors and began to think that life was finally going to return to normal. The doctors agreed that her mother’s mental and physical health was so fragile that she needed to go to the hospital for a time. The professor visited her each morning and evening. The two women began to have conversations that made sense. They expressed their love and devotion for one another. They began to make plans for the future.

One afternoon the professor went to the hospital with a celebratory bouquet of flowers for her mom. She was over the moon with happiness as she went to her mother’s room until she opened the door and found the room empty. In a panic she rushed to the nurses’ station to find out what had happened. She was informed that her mother had been released earlier that day and nobody knew where she had gone.

The professor upbraided the staff demanding to know how they could have sent her away without any notification. She demanded to know what they had been thinking. Their response was that it was the woman’s right to leave without permission from anyone. The laws did not include making the professor a party to any decisions. They were sorry, but it was just the way things were.

The professor looked for her mom for weeks and then months all to no avail. Someone suggested that her mom might have taken a bus to another city like Houston or Dallas. The professor drove to those places on weekends in a fruitless attempt to find her mother. At the time that the article was published the professor still had no idea where her mom may have gone. She was lost to her once again.

A Mother’s Story

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Moms today seem to put so much more into their parenting than I ever did. They research child rearing ideas, learn about proper nutrition, create healthy schedules, and worry when their little ones behave badly. I have great admiration for them because I was truly a fly by the seat of my pants kind of mom. There is so much that I might have done better but I was far too ignorant to even know that I was doing some things wrong. My daughters seem to have turned out just fine, but I often wonder if I might have done a better job of parenting if only I had taken a bit more time to learn more about the best child rearing methods. I suppose that I will never know what might have been if I had not been so immature, and so I content myself with knowing that it doesn’t matter anymore because they are on their own and raising their children quite well.

I laugh whenever a young mom is feeling a bit guilty about some meltdown or troubling incident with a child because I have stories to tell that would curl their hair and cause them to look askance at my own mothering. I always think about a time that I took my eldest child to the old Gulfgate Mall with a friend who had a son who was only slightly older than my girl. Each of us would eventually have two children, but at the time only our first born were around and they were still  toddlers who went on shopping trips in their strollers.

We were not looking for anything in particular on that day. We just wanted to get out of the house for a time with our kids. Little did we know that we were about to give a whole new meaning to the term window shopping. We went into one of the clothing stores and parked our strollers just long enough to glance through a bin of sale items. We honestly had not turned our backs on the two children for long at all, but when we turned around the strollers were empty. We began searching for them in a state of panic when we heard a commotion and lots of giggling in the showroom window. We peeked around the corner and there they were having a good time pretending to be on display for all the world to see. We quickly whisked them up, placed them back into the strollers and hurried out of the store lest we be called to task for our lack of control over our babies.I nervously imagined someone calling CPS on us, or even worse, telling my mom who would never have allowed such a thing to occur.

Once we were safely away we breathed easier that our close call had not resulted in some kind of tragedy, and we attempted to explain to the little ones as best we could how important it was for them to stay put in their strollers. Then we continued walking up and down the mall, proud of the more regimented behavior that our children were exhibiting, and once again enjoying our little walk. We became so certain that the worst was behind us that we made it all the way to the end of the stores where Sakowitz lured us with signs advertising great sales in progress. We moved from aisle to aisle being very careful to watch over our charges and then entered an area filled with fine glassware reminding our babies not to touch anything.

All was going well until we found some items to purchase and were standing in line to pay. That’s when we heard a loud crash and looked to see a display case on its side with broken glass littering the floor. I have to admit that I heaved a sigh of relief when I saw that my little girl was still sitting serenely and innocently in her stroller while my friend’s son toddled away in fear of the consequences for what he had so obviously done.

The two of us corralled him quickly and his mother fussed at him with tears of abject embarrassment in her eyes. When a manager came over to assess the situation her tears turned into heaving sobs as she explained that she would gladly pay for all of the damage, all the while worrying that the cost of the mess might be more than she actually had. The kindly man insisted that he was more concerned with making certain that everyone was okay. He chided himself for putting such a fragile display in the middle of a busy walkway, and assured us that store insurance would take care of the damage. 

His kindness and understanding was such a sweet thing to encounter, and he put the whole incident into perspective. We paid for the things we had selected and almost ran to our car from there. We felt humiliated, frenzied, and guilty about the seeming lack of control that we had over our children. The school of hard knocks on that day taught us a great deal about shopping with youngsters. We never again had such a difficult time, but a sense that we had been grossly neglectful refused to leave us. It would be years later before we were able to put our mishap into the past, and even smile a bit when we thought of it.

My advice to mothers who are struggling with headstrong, inquisitive or hard to control children is to learn how to take those bumps along with all of the wonder of having children. There will indeed be moments when they seem to be heading down a direct route to the penitentiary. That’s when we have to stay calm and carry on. As long as these kinds of moments are the exception rather than the rule, we are probably, and should consider the occasion as a way to learn and in turn teach our children. Mothers have to be prepared for many disappointing moments and find ways to judge how severe a reaction is  needed. Sometimes all everybody requires is a good nap.

Parenting is a marathon and the sense of responsibility does not end even as our children come of age and begin their adult lives. Every parent lies awake at times thinking of their offspring and worrying about them. It is part of the whole package and as normal as can be. That children’s story about the woman loving her son forever is truer than we care to admit. A child becomes the focus of our life and as a mom that intense connection never really ends. It’s good if we learn how to laugh at the little stuff so we will have what we need when the really big stuff comes around.

Finding Hope

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Statistics can be a powerful way of understanding trends in our society, but they can also be misleading. Learning the truth about the numbers that we see requires analysis, critical thinking. Since we are continuously bombarded with information regarding the state of our world based on statistics we need to consider what that data is actually telling us. Something as simple as the intervals of a graph has the power of visually changing the way we interpret the facts. So it is with the ever recurring claim that the lifespan of the average American has continued in a downward direction since its apex in the nineteen sixties. It’s important that we begin to understand what that bit of information actually means, and what we may need to do to halt the decline.

We are often told of the need to improve medical care in this country by the use of this astounding statistic. For most of us it simply seems almost impossible to believe that we have such phenomenal medical facilities and still are losing the battle of saving lives, and yet it is real. A deeper analysis demonstrates that the downward trend is related mostly to alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicide. It is not so much that our country is lacking in quality medical care as that we have an epidemic of self harm that results in deaths from overdoses, cirrhosis of the liver, and increasing numbers of suicides, especially and shockingly among our middle age population. It is a quiet and grim trend about which we say little, but it is prevalent all across the country and most particularly in areas where businesses have failed and lifestyles have drastically changed.

HBO in conjunction with Dr. Sunjay Gupta filmed a documentary called One Nation Under Stress that attempted to get to the heart of why so many are turning to drugs, alcohol and even death as answers to problems. We know that addictions can be difficult to overcome, but what attracts people to chemical means of coping with anxiety in the first place? Why are ordinary middle class individuals in so much pain that they feel compelled to shut out their sadness with chemicals that alter their brains and damage their health?  What is really happening?

Dr. Gupta and the experts that he consulted note that our society is continuously and relentlessly changing, particularly in small towns that often rely on particular industries for the welfare of the populace. Many of the old avenues for work are being eliminated and in the process people find themselves suddenly left with no meaning or income in their lives. The losses that they incur both physically and emotionally drive them to seek solace in harmful ways or to despair entirely. Additionally our society has lost many of the support systems that were once so prevalent. The extended family units and neighborhood associations that were once so common have crumbled in many ways leaving individuals feeling alone and unable to cope. In fact, a certain irony is that recent immigrants are actually doing better than long time citizens because they cling to one another in communities that emphasize care and support.

Those in the middle of the economic spectrum are the most likely to feel the weight of stress. They are subjected to a kind of collective pressure and worry about losing their status and all of their comforts. They often feel quite alone in their struggles and so the abuses to their bodies and minds begin. They are reluctant to share their concerns, and often feel that they have nobody whom they trust enough to do so anyway. The anxiety bears down on them both mentally and physically.

I experienced a kind of microcosm of such feelings during the rains of hurricane Harvey which so inundated my city. My husband Mike and I were alone in our home hearing reports of devastation that was affecting both strangers and dear friends and family. Mike had suffered from a stroke only a few weeks earlier and we had been told that his chances of suffering from another attack were at their highest during this time. I was quietly frantic with worry, so much so that I was hardly sleeping and had to keep my mind occupied by preparing my home for the possibility that it might flood. When my daughter and her family had to leave their neighborhood for fear that the levee that protected their home high fail I felt incredibly alone with the realization that they were now so far away and Mike and I were so isolated from everyone. It was a series of reassuring texts from a former student who assured me that he was on alert if Mike and I needed a rescue that kept me from totally losing my composure. The lifeline that he gave me quelled my fears as did the random meetings with a neighbor across the street with whom I spoke as we both assessed the drainage system that was working to keep the water away from our homes. Facebook also gave me a way of knowing what was happening to friends and members of my family. It provided me with a way of expressing my anxiety rather than bottling it up inside. Ultimately I made it through those horrific days, but I found myself wondering if it would have been possible without those human connections that kept me grounded.

What happens when a person feels that there is no one to help? How does one cope when the pressure is not for just a few days but over a long period of time? What might each of us do to help those who have lost their way? Do we sometimes underestimate the power of a text, a message, a phone call in changing the tenor of a person’s thoughts? Have we emphasized independence so much that we have lost the emotional support of multi-generations living and working together?

Mike and I were recently discussing the Great Depression. Our parents were children during that time. It was our grandparents who bore the full brunt of that era. We noted that they survived by sharing responsibilities and resources. Whole families of sons and daughters and cousins and grandparents pooled their funds and their food to keep afloat. It was a cooperative effort that brought our ancestors through the tragedy. Hidden in their efforts was a great deal of love. Our people understood that the were going to make it because so many cared about the welfare of each individual.

We would do well to reinstate the power of family and neighbors to ease suffering. Old people should feel assured that they will find the care that they need if they become sick. Young folk should know that they will have the encouragement and support to launch themselves as adults even when they make mistakes. Those in the middle should never be reluctant to ask for help when things go awry. If we open our hearts and begin to embrace the people for whom we care perhaps we can stem the tide of self medication and self destruction that is literally killing people in our midst. The change that we need is to be found inside our relationships. If we focus on strengthening them many of our problems will be solved.