Discovering a Remarkable Story

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I loved my maternal grandmother, Maria Bartacovik Ulrich, but never really knew her. She was a sweet presence in my life, but because she spoke little or no English and I had no knowledge of her Slovakian language we communicated mostly with facial expressions. She was a short, round woman filled with the wrinkles of old age. She kept her hair in a long braid that trailed down her back, at least until she became seriously ill and her daughters cut it to make the task of maintaining it easier. She seemed to be of another world, another century and I always longed to be able to ask her questions and learn more about the girl she had once been. Instead we exchanged smiles as she called me “pretty girl,” and while I loved the simplicity of her greeting I wondered if she actually knew my name or those of my many cousins.

Grandma Ulrich padded around her home in her bare feet which were tiny but often appeared swollen. At gatherings she prepared cups of coffee for all of her guests, bringing the watery brew proudly in enamel cups filled with more milk and sugar than java. I loved that gesture which she repeated hundreds of times when the members of her family filled her home with raucous conversation. I saw her as an exceptional hostess who wanted us to feel welcome in her domain, and we always did.

Grandma Ulrich had lovely blue eyes, and as I gazed into them I wondered what thoughts were behind them. It would not be until long after she was dead that I would do enough research and ask enough questions to learn a tiny bit about her. It amazed me to find that this shy and unassuming woman had traveled alone from her hometown in the Slovakian region of Austria Hungary to Bremen, Germany where she boarded a steamship bound for Galveston, Texas. She came to meet my grandfather who had arrived before her to pave the way of their new life together. Somehow it almost seems inconceivable that such an unassuming woman would have the courage to embark on a journey to a world of which she knew very little. She must have been very much in love, and perhaps she was guided by the exuberance of youth as well.

She arrived not too many years before the outbreak of World War II and for all intents forever lost track of her family back home. My eldest aunt says that Grandma worked as a cook for the laborers on a large farm in an area of Houston on the east side of town. Later she tried a variety of jobs including laboring as a cleaning woman in a large downtown building. When her English improved she even found work behind the counter of a small bakery. This was a daring Grandma Ulrich that I had never known, and even now I have a difficult time imagining the woman who was frightened to leave her home as such a courageous person.

My grandmother was a woman of her times without benefit of any form of birth control other than abstinence, and so she had one baby after another. There were nine pregnancies in a row including one in which she carried twins. By the time my mother, the youngest of her children, was born Grandma had buried two of her babies. Her body must have been in a state of hormonal hell as she yo-yoed from conception into post partum depression again and again. Her tiny home and her life was dominated by rowdy children whom she dearly loved, but I can’t fathom that she ever had a moment to herself.

At some point my grandmother showed signs of a mental breakdown and she was taken away by force to the state hospital in Austin. It was a traumatic time for her and for her children who rarely spoke of it, carefully guarding a secret that was too painful to mention. Once Grandma returned home she would never again have enough trust to leave the safety of her house without putting up a fight. She was content to simply create a daily routine and quietly live out the rest of her days.

I am fascinated by the woman who was my grandmother. I suppose that if truth be told we, her grandchildren, took her for granted. She was someone who was just there, an almost invisible presence in our lives. She seemed simple and yet she was so complex. We thought her witless and yet she must surely have had thoughts and dreams. Like so many women her contribution to the world was unseen and under appreciated. We did not think to connect the dots of her existence and the incredible impact it has had on the world. We assumed that she would not have been interested in knowing that from her humble beginnings in America have come engineers, doctors, teachers, accountants, business leaders, athletes, lawyers. Members of her now very extended family are brilliant and beautiful, and genetics tells us that her contribution to such success is present in all of us. Most importantly the lessons that she taught her children have been passed down through the generations. We may not have been able to communicate with her but her children knew and understood her messages of integrity and hard work. She modeled a steadfastness for them that they emulated often without even realizing how deeply her character had imprinted on them.

If by some magic I were able to see my grandmother again and actually speak with her without the restrictions on communication that once defined our relationship I would want to know everything about her. I have grown to understand how amazing she was and how worthy of my attention to her story should be. Like so many many women she was dutiful and in her role she built the foundation of a family and the future. Her contributions are incalculable but her legacy continues to blossom. Now I finally realize through discovery of her remarkable story that this tiny quiet woman was a tower of strength and I feel honored to be part of the world that she helped to build.

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You’ve Got This

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The beauty of being a grandparent is that we have gained wisdom regarding child rearing that we no longer really have to use. Our years of experience and our distance from the task of raising youngsters provide us with a more realistic lens than we might have had when we were in the trenches. As the saying goes, grandparents have been there done that, bought the t-shirt. We’ve had as many mistakes as successes, regrets as proud moments. Still, times change just enough from one generation to another that I would never suggest that older parents might be best. In fact, those of us over sixty may be far too removed from modern realities to adequately handle the ups and downs of parenting. Nonetheless, I see so much happening with our young people today that has me worried. For better or worse here are a few suggestions that I would like to offer to moms or dads who are staying up nights worrying about the kids.

First, and perhaps most importantly, I have found children to be oxymorons in that they are very fragile and very strong at one and the same time. How they react to difficult situations is more often than not correlated with how the adults in the world choose to react.

Let’s say a youngster is caught cheating on a test, and the infraction is reported to the parents by the teacher. It’s fine to gather the facts of the case, but it would be terribly wrong of the mom or dad to turn their anger and disappointment on the teacher. The key is to stay calm, but firm in letting the child know that cheating is wrong and that the proper thing to do is to accept the punishment and learn from the situation. It is also critical to find out why the youngster felt the need to cheat.

Often the reasons our children engage in bad behavior derives from pressures and fears that need to be addressed. It is fine to be forgiving, but the child must understand the displeasure with his/her lack of integrity. It really doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing, and the youngster must realize that it group think is never an excuse for doing wrong.

While your child may appear to fall apart if you provide a consequence for an infraction, always remember that he/she will indeed become a far better person if you stand firm on your insistence that he/she follows a set of guidelines that you insist upon. All children will be watching parents to see how they behave and react, so always be aware that you must be a positive role model.

Having frank conversations with your children, especially when they are teens, is critical. They need to know that you are willing to discuss any of their concerns without judgement. Your feedback must be open, honest and provide them with a sense of optimism. If they lose a big game or run for a class office and are defeated they need to understand that the fact that they tried to accomplish something is far more important than the eventual outcome. It has been shown time and again that grit is the greatest indicator of future success than any other trait. The child who works hard and risks losing is learning that life is often tough, but half of the battle is the willingness to show up and be present. There is as much merit in the effort as in the prize, and the best form of competition is with oneself.

Even the most well adjusted and confident child often feels misunderstood and unloved, particularly by his/her peers. A good parent teaches young ones how to focus on being kind and the importance of knowing how to deal with the slights that are an inevitable part of living. Learning how to eschew our very human ego centric tendencies builds self worth and makes jealousies far more unlikely. The child with a strong sense of well being is better able to deal with bullying and temptations to participate in dangerous behaviors. Parents  can build a sense of trust in their children by walking the walk that they want their little ones to travel. It demands a great deal of love and a firm adherence to high standards with a touch of understanding when mistakes and missteps occur.

I see so many temptations for today’s children. The use of dangerous drugs is at an all time high. Bullying is commonplace. We see far too many instances of drinking and speeding and casual sexual activity. Depression is epidemic. It seems increasingly difficult to watch over our young and guide them past the landmines that they might encounter. The parent who is vigilant, open, honest, and willing to discipline with love and consequences that teach valuable lessons will make it past all of the pitfalls that happen.

It is rare for any child to be entirely perfect. Cool heads must prevail when the disappointments occur. At the same time parents should be aware of their own needs and find ways of taking a break from the sometimes all consuming job of raising their children. A night out now and again is a good thing, and also teaches the kids how to be responsible when the parents are not around. As a very wise friend once told me, a healthy and happy parent is better able to deal with the big  stuff when it arises.

Being a parent a tough gig, but remember that people have somehow accomplished it successfully for generations. Take a deep breath and just be real. You’ve got this!

Legacy

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I recently saw an interview with politicians, celebrities and sports figures who were asked to describe what they would like their legacies to be. Most spoke of accomplishments related to their craft, which is certainly understandable given that society so often judges us by our occupations and what we do with them. Surely, I thought, there must be more to what we leave of ourselves than the body of our work life since there is so much more to each of us.

Of course I truly enjoyed being an educator and hope that I somehow will be remembered for my efforts in that profession. I honestly never saw myself as the most remarkable mathematics teacher ever, but I did put a great deal of effort into finding the best in each of my students, and helping them to realize the amazing potential that each of them had. I know that I loved each of them and toiled to make the learning process a bit more important to them.

I took particular pride in my work with teachers as well. We need exceptional educators and I’ve had the privilege of mentoring some of the most extraordinary ones. It has swelled me with pride to see both my students and my teachers go on to shine more than I ever might have. I like to think that my mark on the world is enhanced by the very small influence that I had on their successes, but in the end what they accomplish is theirs, not mine.

I tried to be a good mother, but I continually found myself in awe of moms who have it more together than I ever dreamed of being. I painfully recall every mistake that I made, and they were many. I was ultimately just happy that my daughters became such fine women in spite of my blunders. Being a mother is indeed one of the most difficult jobs on the planet. At the same time it is a joy and a great blessing to have the privilege of molding a life. The pride and the worries of parenting never really end so my grade as a parent is still listed as an Incomplete. Being a mom has been the central focus of my efforts and has created the most glorious purpose in my life, but also the one in which I often felt the most inept. I suppose that most mothers have those kind of feelings because it is such a daunting responsibility.

More than anything I would like my legacy to be that I was always a person of integrity. Fame and fortune have never meant as much to me as being honorable. My life is truly an open book. Aside from some missteps here and there I have never knowingly tried to hurt someone, nor have I lied or cheated to get ahead. My heroes are not necessarily the people who have been the most successful in life, but rather those who stood for a set of principles at all times. Nothing disappoints me more than learning of betrayal. I instead try to be steadfastly loyal, and I surround myself with people of a similar bent.

Our world is too much concerned with so called “winners” these days and if I were to leave any message to the people that I love it would be to be true to yourself and the people around you. I may not have a great deal of money in the bank or a list of grand titles when I die, but I have done my best to be worthy of trust. I know that there are liars and cheats in this world, but I choose not to be one of them, even if it means appearing to lose. I truly believe that at the end of the day each of us will earn our just rewards for doing our best to live good lives. Winning through deviousness is an earthly thing that doesn’t not last through eternity.

The people that we recall with the most respect are those who are kind and loving and sincere. We are dust and to dust we shall return just as our possessions will eventually rot and become useless. Our good names will live on in the minds of those who have known us if we tried to be truly good people. That is the kind of legacy I hope to achieve. It’s something that I work on every single day.

My mother died with few material possessions left behind, but her simple gestures of concern for people are remembered to this very day. My grandfather was penniless but my brothers and I recall his wisdom and optimism. My grandmothers were so gentle that everyone felt serenely safe with them. I hardly had time to know my father and yet his imprint on me is as deep as if he had been guiding me for all of my life. He gave me a love for learning and travel and the beauty of many art forms. My mother-in-law demonstrated how to be elegantly strong. None of them reached too far beyond the confines of their tiny network of friends and family, but each of them left a footprint on this earth that really mattered, for in their actions was character of the highest order. It was from their examples that my own desire to be a better person grew.

A legacy is strictly defined as an inheritance, a benefaction, an endowment, but it is really anything handed down from the past. It is a kind of gift to the present that need not be material. In fact the best legacies tend to be those that show us ways to be our personal best. I hope that I will be remembered for the good that I have done. It’s a challenge, but one that I take seriously.

And Still I Try

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I don’t just like to write. I also love to read. I am in awe of great writers, and they are many in number. Some of them are friends of mine while others are strangers who become like friends through their words. There are those who have a knack for choosing just the right words, the most stunning imagery, the clearest poetic phrasing. I am often moved by their ability to convey a universe of ideas in the space of a sentence or paragraph. These are the true masters among us whose canvases are blank sheets of paper and whose art is created from combinations of letters, words, and punctuation. It’s a simple enough exercise, and yet some of us still draw stick figures when we attempt to write, while others join the infinite with their masterpieces. I am transformed by their work, even while I am a bit jealous of it. I want to reach their level of of excellence knowing that my own efforts are mostly feeble, and still I try.

I was listening to a program on National Public Radio that spoke of the emotions elicited by great art both visual and audible. Music by far is the most likely to stir something in our souls that brings us to tears. Studies show that paintings are often the most vivid representations of life, but we humans rarely gaze at them long enough to become as emotionally involved as we do when we hear songs or symphonies. When we read we often skim so quickly over the words that we absorb only a minimal appreciation for what they are conveying, but when those same words are acted by great players we may find ourselves sobbing. Music and acting are so fluid, while canvases and manuscripts may appear static, leaving us with little more than a passing idea of what they actually represent. When we actually take the time to allow our minds to feel the content of a great work of visual or written art we are transformed.

My father had an appreciation for all forms of art. He played music while he read, a daily routine that included hours of perusing newspaper columns, books of poetry, novels, and nonfiction. He returned to stanzas and passages again and again. Repeating the rhythms and phrases that most appealed to him. He memorized the best of them, ready to quote them in appropriate moments. Bookstores were his galleries, places where he found hidden jewels that appealed to his senses. He held books and printed papers as though they were treasures to be treated with the highest regard. He transferred his love for the written word to me. He showed me how to be discerning in my search for the artistry of a great poet or author, My high school English teacher, Father Shane, transformed my sensibilities into an art form of itself by insuring me that being a studied appreciator of great writing is a kind of accomplishment in its own right.

The best writers among us invert the world as we see it, turn it upside down and inside out making even the hideous beautiful. They appear to have a gift, a natural genius that makes it easy and inevitable that they will leave us breathless with their creations. Still we know from stories and examples that they have to work hard to hone their craft. They don’t simply peck out five hundred words in an hour to reveal thoughts and ideas so memorable that they will last through the decades and centuries. We hear of F. Scott Fitzgerald driving himself almost insane in his attempts to reproduce the beauty of The Great Gatsby. Shakespeare’s works were both brilliant and ordinary depending on which of his plays is being considered. The demon of perfection haunts writers and sends them into fits of desperation. There is no feeling as dreaded as having a block that creates an almost impenetrable wall between ideas and final copy.

I wonder how a J.K. Rowling is able to fashion and sustain a story and characters so perfectly that her books become beloved treasures, keepsakes to visit again and again. How does a Tolkien create entire worlds with a make believe history that seems so real, while others are one trick ponies or abject failures in spite of Herculian efforts? Is it possible to push ourselves to find our own inner genius and then demonstrate it to the world, or is the mark of greatness limited to only a select few?

I read, and read and read, learning new ways of saying old things. I practice and practice, but find myself falling short of the goals that I set for myself. My time is growing short. I am not a Grandma Moses who will suddenly stun the world with my talent, and yet I would like to be. I would so enjoy finding that sweet spot that might touch a place in a reader’s heart that makes them cry for joy. I want to transcend the ordinary and find my personal best, which I sense is buried somewhere inside of me. I suspect that I will know when I have managed to get closer to my ultimate goal, but I worry that there is some calculus that will keep me forever making only closer and closer approximations of what I want to achieve.

Reading and writing have become my routines. I push myself to exercise my mind the way some work on their bodies. I find peace in my experiments with words, and inspiration in the genius of those who have already accomplished what I hope to one day achieve. Writing is my Holy Grail, my Mt. Everest, my nemesis and my consolation, and still I try.

Flying High and Rocking with the Angels

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I did not really know him. I mostly knew of him. He was my neighbor Betty’s son-in-law and his name was Mike Wade. Over the years he and his wife Vickie would come visit Betty at Christmastime and other occasions. I’d see them and then later Betty would tell me all about them just as loving mothers so often do. She was proud of her daughter and the man who was more like a son than an in-law.

After years of having Betty right next door to be a kind of mentor and confidante, Mike and I moved away. Not long after that Betty’s husband, Dave, died. We were worried about how she would do living all alone in the neighborhood that was rapidly changing, but we needn’t have been so concerned because her children all made generous offers to move her closer to one of them. Betty chose to go to Pittsburg, Texas where Mike and Vickie lived. They built a wonderful new house for her on land that lay right next door to their own place. I was so happy that Betty would  be loved and safe. I had heard all of the stories of her children and felt that all would be well for her.

Mike and I traveled to Pittsburg a couple of times to visit Betty, staying in our trailer in Bob Sandlin State Park. We learned that the little east Texas town was a lovely and inviting place where Betty was living a quiet and comfortable life. It warmed our hearts to know that she was doing so well and we vowed to continue our little journeys to the area so that we might see her now and again. We felt so renewed spending moments with her and reminiscing about the old days. She’d ply us with homemade cookies and stories of what she had been doing in the times since we had parted ways. 

On our last visit to Pittsburg we finally had the opportunity to spend some time with not just Betty, but also her daughter Vickie and son-in-law Mike. It would be an understatement to say that all of us hit it off immediately. The two Mikes, my husband and Mike Wade, were particularly taken with each other. They were essentially the same age and shared a love of music and history. It felt as though they had been friends forever as they chatted about this and that for literally hours.

Mike Wade was born and raised in Pittsburg, Texas. He had even played saxophone in his high school band and was known for being quite talented. After his graduation the war in Vietnam was in full swing and he was a patriotic soul who believed that he was being called to serve. Eventually he enlisted in the Air Force and proudly gave several year in service to the country.

It was at a swimming pool on an Air Force base that he first saw Vickie, a cute blond girl who was the daughter of an Air Force mechanic, our friend Dave. Vickie and Mike hit it off almost immediately and eventually fell in love and married. For a time they lived in Houston, but the piney woods of east Texas were calling Mike, and so they ultimately moved to Pittsburg where his heart seemed destined to always be.

Mike was an electrician, a truly bright man who loved his wife, his work and his hometown. He had a big smile and a sense of humor that led to lots of laughs. Like many children of the sixties he was taken by the music of the times, and he not only possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the songs and the lyrics, but he was able to discuss the complexities of the instrumentation. On the day that we visited with him, he and my Mike were soon in a conversation of their own, talking of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and talented guitarists from both the past and the present day.

We also learned of Mike Wade’s health issues and how on the very day that Betty was life flighted to a hospital in Tyler for emergency heart surgery, Mike too ended up undergoing his own surgery for issues with his heart. They recovered together under the watchful eye of Vickie who is a nurse. Betty and Mike joked about the scooters that they rode to get around and how neither of them were letting any grass grow under their feet in spite of their health problems. In fact, on the day that we visited Betty, Mike had just finished riding over his property on his lawn mower in order to keep both his lawn and Betty’s looking well groomed.

We talked and laughed and dined and enjoyed Mike and Vickie’s generosity for literally more than nine hours. We might have stayed even longer but for the worry that the state park where we were staying might close the gate and lock us out of access to our trailer. We left vowing to return soon. We had felt so welcome and the old feeling of being loved that always enveloped us whenever we had been in Betty’s presence now seemed to be expanded to include Vickie and Mike as well.

We’ve had a busy year, but we often spoke of going back to Pittsburg to see Betty, and hopefully Mike and Vickie as well. Thus it was with great sadness that we learned that Mike Wade had died in April. Of course we worried about Vickie and Betty, but we also found ourselves grieving for this man whom we had really only known for those few hours. It is a tribute to his openness and magnanimity to realize what an impact he had had on us so quickly. We have spoken often of just how much he impressed us, and now we know that we will never see him again. Somehow, nonetheless, we will always remember this man whose smile and love of life touched our hearts.

Mike Wade lived without bounds. He was a devoted husband, father, and son-in-law. He enjoyed his work as an electrician and found joy in the quiet and simple life of Pittsburg, Texas. He loved his country, his family and his hometown. He embraced the people around him, giving whatever he might have to those who needed help. I know he will be missed by those who knew him best, but he will also me missed by me and Mike.

I have learned that Vickie is planning to move into the house that she and Mike built for her mother Betty, and that Vickie’s son Aaron will live in the home next door that she and Mike shared for so many years. It will be a good arrangement for everyone, family members taking care of one another in an old fashioned but quite lovely kind of way. I suspect that it would please Mike to know that they will be alright because that is the sort of thing that seemed to matter most to him.

I feel privileged to have shared that special day with Mike. It was a visit with Betty made even more special for us because of his presence. It has always warmed my heart to witness the unconditional love that Betty and her husband Dave always offered to everyone. Now I know that their warmth and beneficence took root in their children and, in the case of Mike Wade, in their children-in law as well.

Rest in peace Mike Wade. You were a righteous man who strove to give your very best to everyone that you encountered. I hope that you are flying high and rocking to the songs of the angels. I believe that you truly earned your wings.