A State of Mind

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A couple of little girls were trying to guess my age and gingerly asked if I was over fifty. My response was a vague, “Sure,” which seemed to satisfy them and made me wonder how I actually appear to the world, not that it really matters. Getting older puts an all new meaning into the concept of making plans. There is always a somewhat higher probability that a sudden illness or some other change may alter a schedule. More and more often setting a calendar is a tentative affair barring undue circumstance. It makes for a bit of anxiety and uncertainty.

Last year hubby and I had tickets to go see Joe Bonamassa play his masterful guitar licks, but we had relied on memory rather than putting the date on a calendar, and memory failed us. We actually showed up a week too late. I understand that the performance was incredible, but we were not there to see it because we now know that our own minds are no longer as reliable as they once were. I should have realized that fact every time that I walked to another room to do something and then just stood there wondering what it was that I had set out to do.

This year we excitedly purchased tickets to see the Rolling Stones in what was supposed to be their final tour. Taking no chances, we recorded the date on a number of calendars and on all of our devices. We were confident that Google, Alexa, and our phones would provide us with enough reminders to get us there without a hitch this time. We were taking no chances on reliance of our “feeble” minds. Who knew that Mick Jagger would suddenly need heart surgery and have to cancel the tour? This is the man who at seventy five seemed ageless with his healthy lifestyle. If he is being called a septuagenarian in the press what hope is there for the rest of us? The irony is that Keith Richards who has ignored all of the conventional platitudes about clean living appears to be in relatively good health even as he chain smokes and ingests enough alcohol (among other things) to pickle his brain.

The fact is that we can do our best to take good care of ourselves but none of us are immortal or will miss the unavoidable signs of aging. I know people young enough to be my children who are scheduled for procedures like hip replacement, heart surgery, and chemotherapy. We may be able to stall the inevitable if we work hard to maintain our health, but nobody yet has found away to live forever. Such a realization can be depressing, or it can be an incentive to squeeze as much out of whatever time we each have as possible. It should prompt us to do that thing that we have always wanted to do, or to be that person that we have dreamed of being. The clock is ticking, but it isn’t holding us back.

I am in awe of friends my age who are still accomplishing wondrous things. They are learning how to paint, recording songs, writing novels. They go birding in the early morning hours and photograph the beautiful creatures that they see. They never miss a game or activity that involves their grandchildren. They are active in politics. Sometimes they work their adventures around doctors’ appointments and exercise regimens, but they are actively pushing themselves to enjoy each day and to continue to be part of the vibrancy of the world. They optimistically make plans, and when life throws them a curve they tackle the challenge and then get right back into the saddle.

I remember a time when a friend was caring for his mother who was not a great deal older than I am now. He often remarked that she had given up on herself and rarely left the confines of her home. She spent countless hours watching the news and becoming more and more depressed about the future. He felt that by isolating herself and giving up on the possibility of still finding meaning in each day she had condemned herself to a very dreary existence. In spite of his continual efforts to pull her from her self inflicted doom, she insisted that she just was just deferring to her age and the way life was supposed to be. She actually lived well into her late eighties with a kind of anger that drove her to complain about how long she had felt useless to the world.

I always felt sorry for both my friend and his mother because I had seen the example of my grandfather who never gave up squeezing the most out of life even as one challenge after another came along to defy his optimism. He lived to the ripe old age of one hundred eight and with the exception of the last few months he was clear headed and happy. The key to his joy filled longevity was certainly a bit of good DNA, but also his determination to greet each day with joy and gratitude. He loved the world and the people in it. He was fascinated by those who remained strong regardless of what they had to endure. He focused on actively treating his body and his brain with respect, and he believed that our best days are continually unfolding.

We’ve been told to hang on to our Rolling Stones tickets. Mick is vowing to recover quickly and reschedule the tour beginning in July. His surgery went well and he is determined to rock us once again.  He appears to be a believer that his story isn’t over until it is over, and so do I. I’ll keep making plans, taking new risks, learning new things, and getting out of my head and my house. I don’t feel thirty anymore, but that fifty that the little girls suggested as my age is about right. There is still way too much fun to be had to lock myself away with worry. Age really is a state of mind.

A Lost Tradition

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At my stage in life change is inevitable. Very little that we experience stays exactly the same, and in most cases that is a good thing. Sometimes, however, we become accustomed to certain aspects of doing things that they become a kind of tradition, something that we take for granted. In my case going to Canino’s Farmers’ Market on Airline Drive was one of those things. For sixty years the Canino Family offered fresh local produce at incredibly good prices in an open air market that literally hummed with life. It’s mounds of tomatoes, greens of every variety, oranges and apples were alluring enough to me that I traveled there from the other side of town, braving the traffic on Interstate 45 in the knowledge that my long drive would be rewarded with a glorious shopping experience.

I depended on Canino’s for items that I might otherwise have never found in my local stores. One area of the market featured bulk bags of beans of every possible variety, including the yellow split peas that I cook into a golden soup each New Year’s Day according to the family recipe that my mother-in-law shared with me. Most stores sell the green variety, but not the yellow ones. I never worried because I was always able to find a fresh bag of yellow split peas at Canino’s.

I have associated tangerines with fall and my birthday for all of my life. My grandmother Ulrich used to bring out big enamel bowls of them and they always seemed to be available at the local grocery stores. Suddenly a few years back they became almost a gourmet item that had been replaced by those little mandarin oranges known as Cuties. I insisted on having my traditional tangerines and luckily I never failed to find them at Canino’s.

There was a time when Canino’s even sold fresh eggs. They had every size and color imaginable along with great prices. At Easter time I would purchase dozens and dozens for the Easter Bunny egg coloring and to use in preparing the feast for my extended family on Easter Sunday. The jumbo eggs at Canino’s were larger than any that I found elsewhere and looked so beautiful after I applied brilliant colors to their shells.

For a time we owned a piece of property that had a grove of native pecan trees. In the fall we traveled there with bags and boxes which we filled with the precious nuts. Shelling them was a tedious job because they tended to be very small. My fingers would become raw from the process and sometimes even bleed. I did not worry, however, because Canino’s had a row of nut crackers that broke off just enough of the shell to make the process incredibly easy. For just a few cents per pound the machines would whir away and do a job that would have otherwise taken hours of hand numbing labor. Even after we sold the land and no longer had need of the nut cracking machines the sound of them at work always enchanted us when we went to visit the market on cool fall days. They were a constant like the rising of the sun and the changing of the seasons.

What I loved most about Canino’s is that it did not resemble the typical produce department of a grocery store. Everything was offered in bins mounded with a particular kind of fruit or vegetable. The items were as fresh as if they had been picked on minutes before. Most of the fun was in selecting just the right pieces that I wanted. I would leave with actual brown paper bags filled with wondrous and healthy produce. Going there was a joyful event, a happy adventure.

Sadly the Canino family vendors closed their business at the end of December when the brothers decided to retire. Thirty long time employees lost their jobs and the market itself changed names. An effort to enhance and modernize the concept has left it resembling an ordinary grocery store produce department save for the stalls in the back. The nut crackers are gone. The huge bins mounded with a particular kind of fruit or vegetable are no more. There are bulk bags of beans but the yellow split peas are not to be found. The new employees seem not to understand how much regular customers like me liked the old ways. At least for now most of the magic is gone.

There are plans by developers to turn the area into a destination for Houstonians and travelers to the city much like the markets in New Orleans and Seattle. Sadly their first efforts are leaving me wanting. The charm of Canino’s is gone and with a nearby Sprouts and a huge HEB market within less than five minutes of my house I now have little incentive to drive thirty to forty minutes to the newly styled market. If I’m going to travel that far I would prefer Central Market with its admittedly higher prices, but much better variety.

The new market on Airline is in transition. Perhaps they will yet find their way to my heart. I want to give them a chance to make me as happy and excited as Canino’s always did. I’d like to think that one day in the future I’ll again feel that warm sense of being at a very special place that the old market always gave me. I suggest that the new vendors consider setting up some nut cracking machines, adding yellow split peas to their bulk bean section, and making sure that when fall comes around there will be plenty of tangerines. Some things should never change.

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.

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.