One of the Greats

The first time I met Gerri Washburn she was taking one of her daily walks while pushing her toddler Traci, in a stroller. I was sitting under one of the big shade trees in my front yard watching my own daughters play. I shyly waved at Gerri who had already flashed me an inviting smile. She stopped and welcomed me to the neighborhood so I walked over to introduce myself. My own little girl, Catherine, who was about the same age Traci stood behind me taking in the conversation with great interest. 

Gerri was a vibrant woman with honey colored hair and an inviting countenance punctuated with an ever present smile. There was a warmth and a twinkle in her eyes as she chatted away as though we had been friends forever. I liked her immediately but our two little ones were not so sure that they wanted to be playmates. They eyed each other with suspicion and I wondered if they would ever be comfortable enough to become friends. Gerri on the other hand was certain that if we set a date their natural curiosity would overcome their shyness. With great enthusiasm and reassurance she invited me to come to her home the following day to get the process started. I knew immediately that Gerri was someone who understood how to get things done.

At first neither Traci nor Catherine was willing to make a move toward one another. Not to be dismayed, Gerri sweetly suggested that they go play in Traci’s room. We escorted them to an enchanting haven of color and joy that disarmed both girls enough that they began to explore the toys and games and books that lined the shelves while Gerri and I quietly left them to become acquainted without our watchful stares. I marveled at Gerri’s confidence and wisdom as I soon heard Traci and Catherine laughing and giggling mischievously. 

Gerri was a bit older than I was but she had retained the energy and blissfulness of a younger woman. She had an incredible knack for doing everything exceedingly well. Her home was so beautifully decorated that it might have been featured in a magazine. Nonetheless it had the feel of comfort and warmth that told me that it was a place meant to be enjoyed. I would learn over the years that Gerri’s door was always open to anyone who needed a good laugh or a shoulder on which to cry. She had more devoted friends than anyone I had ever known and I marveled at how she always had time for all of us no matter what else was happening in her life. 

Gerri had grown up in Pasadena, Texas and she was a Texas gal through and through. She picked up lifelong friendships wherever she went starting with her days in elementary school and Sundays at church. She eventually became a teacher which suited her creative and compassionate personality well. Her students would remember her with great fondness even decades after she had retired from the classroom. When I met her she had left the world of education for a time to start a business of her own that became as successful as virtually everything that she attempted to do. She had an infectious way of making anything seem possible. Her motivational skills were so remarkable that I always left her ready to fearlessly take on the world. 

Over time Catherine and Traci became the best of friends and Gerri and I became their two moms. They went back and forth between our houses and we never thought twice if one of them showed up for dinner or stayed for the night. We just set an extra plate without question and smiled at the thought of having so much extra happiness in our homes. 

Before long Catherine and Traci were going to school together. I would watch both of them in the afternoons before Gerri came home from work and in the summers when they were on vacation. Gerri had a swimming pool in her backyard so she gave me a key to her house so that we would have access to it on hot summer days. Her only caveat was that I should never allow the girls to swim alone even though they were as confident as porpoises in the water. Sometimes Gerri’s older daughter, Robin, would join us and I got to know her almost as well as Traci.

At one point we considered moving to a larger home but Gerri talked us out of it and sent her cousin to our house to propose a renovation that would provide us with the extra space that we needed. It turned out to be a beautiful compromise that allowed us all to stay together on what I always thought was the friendliest street in America. Once again Gerri had spun her magic. Somehow she always seemed to know what to do and when to do it. 

Gerri was warm and loving but also sassy and fun. She liked to dance and cut up and laugh with total abandon. It was difficult to feel morose around her because she was an eternal optimist. She was also a warrior who fought for the underdog and the less fortunate. She would not take no for an answer or give up on anyone. Gerri’s house was always a safe place for those in need of a friend.

Gerri suffered from severe arthritis just has her mother had. There were times when she was in such great pain that it was difficult to even move but she rarely complained. Catherine and Traci would make a game of cleaning her house and doting on her the way she had always doted on them whenever she was having difficulty moving her limbs. She made even difficult times somehow seem like fun as she would joke and laugh even as we knew that she was hurting. 

We took Traci camping with us and Gerri took Catherine to Hawaii. She had an unbounded generosity that everyone who knew her experienced in one way or another. When Catherine was getting married she hosted a lovely bridal shower for her and went all out with decorations and food. She seemed to love celebrations and we felt so special when we attended them. In fact, even when she hosted a big party she somehow made each of us who came feel as though we had been the guest of honor. It was just one more of her many many talents. 

Gerri had many serious health issues in the last couple of years in addition to her arthritis but she pushed herself to keep entertaining and traveling. Her heart was as big and wonderful as ever even as she suffered a series of strokes. She clung to the joy of life like a warrior but eventually she had to go to a rehabilitation center. Making the most of her situation as usual she was as delightful as she had ever been. When Covid-19 isolated her we got updates on her health from her two daughters. She was a fighter to the very end, inspiring all of us with her wit and determination to eke every possible drop of happiness out of this life.

The world was a far better place with Gerri Washburn in it. There is a great void in her passing but her silent suffering is over. Heaven has gained another angel who no doubt will watch over us as vigilantly as she did when she was alive. All of us who knew her will miss her. She was unique, one of the true greats. Now her pain is gone and she is smiling with the angels.


The Vagaries of Life

Photo by Tim Mossholder on

We still have several weeks of hurricane season before those of us who live along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico will be able to relax. The annual parade of named storms always lurks in the back of our minds giving us reason to be vigilant from June through October. We have generators stashed in the back corners of our garages just in case and some even have all home generators that operate with natural gas as soon as there is even a blip in the power. We keep lanterns, flashlights and batteries on hand because we know that waiting until the last minute to procure these things might catch us off guard. We have weather apps on our phones and sometimes even store pre-cut sheets of plywood in the rafters to be ready to cover our windows if a storm appears to be barreling our way. 

When a hurricane enters the Gulf its path lies along a cone of uncertainty as it spends days either falling apart or strengthening over warm waters. Meteorologists use an educated method of determining the general line it may follow with caveats that the situation might change at any time. For anyone whose home lies even remotely in the projected pathway it becomes a time for getting ready and determining whether to batten the hatches and hunker down or to secure property and leave for a safe place in which to watch the storm from afar. It is never easy to decide what to do. Waiting too long often makes it too late to safely evacuate. Leaving too soon may end up being unnecessary. There is always a pull and a tug in deciding whether or not the newscasters are spreading unwarranted fear or if their warnings should be heeded. 

Many years ago the citizens of Houston fled from the possibility of hurricane Rita after watching what had happened in New Orleans only weeks before when hurricane Katrina devastated that city. What ensued was a traffic jam of epic proportions that resulted in needless deaths when Rita took a turn to the east and did not even come close to Houston. What few who were part of the mass exodus did not seem to notice is that the towns that were affected by Rita suffered great destruction. We learned from that event that it works best to target specific areas for evacuation based on potential damage rather than moving an entire city of millions of people.

Three years ago when hurricane Harvey was threatening the Houston area most people mocked the local news teams who were describing potentially dire consequences. We went to bed on a Saturday night as the rains began confident that we would get little more than street flooding. Five days later much of the city was under water because of the non stop rain. Homes were flooded from the north to the south, the east to the west because Harvey stalled over land drenching the area without end and creating countless tornadoes that turned the days and nights into a terrifying experience. 

Predictions of exactly where a hurricane will go and what it will do when it finally lands is an inexact science. We can get close but we always have to be prepared for the unexpected. Our best bet is always to take the impending storm seriously, to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. It is one of those times in life when assuming the worst scenario may ultimately save lives. Taking risks with hurricanes is never a good idea and when people do they sometimes die. 

This week we prepared for hurricane Laura in Houston and surrounding areas. Schools that had only begun the new school year on Monday were shut down by Wednesday. There was a flurry of activity as people rushed out to purchase food and supplies. There were warnings that we might go weeks without power and that places like nearby Galveston might have a dangerous life threatening storm surge. Some places issued mandatory evacuation orders and those in low lying areas were nudged to leave voluntarily. As it happened, nothing happened in our part of the world but it created havoc in Louisiana. It is a scenario that raises mixed emotions in my mind because I understand the vagaries of hurricanes and the tendency of humans to underestimate the seriousness of what might have been if there is no resulting disaster. It becomes less likely that people will pay attention the next time which will most certainly come if not this year then some year in the future. 

A hurricane is somewhat like Covid-19 it can be dangerous and deadly but we never quite know exactly how it is going to act. The uncertainty of each situation makes it difficult to get everyone on board with precautions. Those hit by the raging winds of a hurricane or Covid-19 warn of us the horrors while those who never have to experience such things tend to view it all as an inconvenience at best or a hoax at worst. Most of us just want all of such events to go away so we can get on with life. We have only passing patience with natural disasters or pandemics. 

Hurricanes are as much a way of life for those along coastal areas as tornadoes are in the midwest. We watch the weather and heed the warnings and pray that they will not materialize. We know how horrible it is when they do. After nature has randomly damaged our human endeavors we clean up and rebuild hoping that we won’t have to repeat the process again but knowing that we probably will. The only control that we ever really have in life is knowing how to keep ourselves safe and understanding that things are never as valuable as people. Let’s continue to bear that in mind as we face many many challenges and a virus that has yet to loosen its grip on us. Continue to be cautious and to do the things designed to keep us safe even if you never have to experience any of the dangers.

The Seasons Will Come

Photo by Pixabay on

Fall is coming our way. While it may not get cool again until November in my corner of the world I still think of autumn as my favorite time of year. It promises the beginning of the school year, Halloween, Thanksgiving and my birthday, all events that generally bring me great joy. I have a tradition of festooning my home with fall decorations beginning in September. It makes me happy to see the profusion of colors that somehow make my rooms feel so warm and inviting. 

Fall means birthday parties for my husband and five of my grandchildren and election time in this grand democracy of ours. Two of my grandsons are newly minted voters who are registered to cast their ballots of the very first time. They are as excited as I was when I entered a voting booth long ago with a level of idealism that is the mark of the young. I remember believing with all of my innocent heart that my country was on a trajectory to perfection even as it appeared to be falling apart on the day in 1968 when I made my first foray into real citizenship. I had so much faith in my generation of Baby Boomers that I felt that we would be the ones who would finally bring out all of the good in our country where former generations had been unable. I saw my peers and I as the ultimate reformers who would eliminate injustice, create peace on earth and finally achieve a kind of perfection in democracy unlike anything the world had ever seen. 

Of course on that day I had to choose between two elders neither of whom were of my generation. It would take many years before Boomers were even old enough to assume the reins of government. Now the Boomers are in their final years of influence and a younger group of idealists are describing their visions of a new world order just as we did. They have the same impatience and the same feeling that they have somehow found the secret to societal perfection that we once espoused. It is the way of the cycles of life. Just as the fall rolls around each year so too do the youngest adults among us dream of better worlds and developing plans for bringing their ideas to fruition. 

I have become more cautious over time. More realistic. I used to actually believe that humankind is slowly evolving to a closer and and closer approximation of the example that Jesus modeled with his life more than two thousand years ago. I thought that events like the rise of Nazism were anomalies, outliers in an arc of ultimate improvement. While I still hold onto the idea that we humans are indeed becoming better versions of our species I have to admit that we can’t seem to get away from the jealousies that fuel our darker natures and lead to injustice and sometimes even wars. A quick survey of the world demonstrates all too clearly that unkindness and greed still stalk us even as most of us do our best to be more loving and generous. I see that we still struggle with temptations and that our Boomer leaders have been far from achieving the ideals of democracy that once seemed so certain to occur. In other words, we make progress quite slowly just as it has always been. One generation does not appear to be any better or any less than the others that have come before. Our commonality is that we always begin with the untainted enthusiasm of youth.

From one era to another the young have assumed adult life with enthusiasm and revolutionary belief that they have discovered the keys to the betterment of all. Often the older folk laugh at their naiveté and balk at the extreme changes they espouse. They fret that the newly minted adults are still in reality children with ideas that will surely sink the society that has been carefully and meticulously built brick by brick. While we push our young to think for themselves and become responsible we also attempt to pull them back into the versions of adults that we think they should be. Those who meekly ascribe to our ways are lauded as being good and those who dare to question us are deemed unpatriotic radicals. 

It’s an age old repetition of the elders becoming outmoded and the young seizing the new day. Just as fall comes around each year, so too does the changing of the political guard. The “upstarts” voice the hopes of our grandchildren just as the twenty something Alexander Hamilton and James Madison put their mark on the revolution of long ago that no doubt frightened the fifty five percent of the colonists who were not so sure that forming a whole new government was such a good idea. 

Today we witness eager young people with radical ideas that sometimes disturb us but they are nothing out of the ordinary in the grand scheme of things. They see the world from a different point of view because they are considering the future. I won’t be here in fifty years but they will. The world that is evolving will be theirs and we would do well to realize that one way or another they will have a say in how things go. We will leave them a nation different from the one our parents left us. The fact that they are already considering how they want to improve it is a good thing, not something that should frighten us. 

My mother had very few earthly possessions when she died because she believed in giving away pieces of her legacy before she was gone. Her favorite print hangs in my sitting room. She took it from her wall during a visit one day and told me that it was mine if I wanted it. One of my brothers has most of her books that she presented to him volume by volume. I have her china and silver. She liked watching us enjoy and value those things before she was no longer on this earth. She often spoke the parable of the seasons and how it was important to know when to let go of control. She was an exceedingly wise woman.

I  do not and will not insult eager young adults who are willing to speak of their dreams. It is not for me to quash them with stories of reality. They are beginning their journeys and seeing the road ahead while I am thinking more of what my happy ending will be. They are still in the spring of life while I am approaching winter. I genuinely wish them well as they try their hand at making life better just as young people have always done. The seasons will continue to come.

Seeing the World With Other Eyes

Photo by cottonbro on

A long long time ago when  I was a student at the University of Houston one of my required classes was World Geography. I had never cared much about geography perhaps because my previous teachers had made it seem so dry. It appeared to be more about maps, climate and economics than people so it fascinated me about as much as learning about the composition of dust. So I went to my first World Geography class with a negative attitude. In addition to having little interest in the subject matter I had heard verifiable rumors  the professor who taught the course was hard nosed, all business and gave out low grades. The only bright spot I had was learning that one of my close high school friends would also be in the class and we had already decided to sit together and study together just to get the onerous task done. 

The professor was Dr. June Hyer, a retired military officer who walked with the bearing of someone who had spent years in the Army. Her assistant also had a military background and from the outset there was no nonsense allowed during the hour that Dr. Hyer delivered more information than my mind could categorize. I had to write notes so quickly that my hand cramped and then I would go home and review what I had heard just to make sense of it. I thought that surely this would be the one class that would destroy my GPA but I had to take it now or later so I ignored my desire to drop the class.

After the deadline for dropping a course there were decidedly fewer students in the room. It felt as though those of us who had remained had already passed some kind of unspoken test. Dr. Hyer still exhibited her unflinchingly rod straight bearing but her lectures changed from a machine gun recitation of facts to a consideration of the human element of geography. Suddenly I found my interest snapping to attention and as each week passed I knew that I was learning things about the world that were important to understand. Dr. Hyer was introducing me to information and ideas that were fascinating and I changed from fearing her class to looking forward to each session. My new found interest also translated into good grades on her tests and projects because I was soon seeking even more knowledge about the different countries and people out of a fascination that she had awakened in me. 

Dr. Hyer had traveled all over the world and I appreciated the depth of her experience but what influenced me most was her continual insistence that the very geography of an area often determined the thinking and actions of its people. She poked fun at individuals who insisted on overlaying the ways of western civilization on populations where our way of doing things was unlikely to work. She noted that our good intentions of helping people especially in third world countries often only made things worse. 

I recall one lecture in which she spoke of a religious group that travelled into the hinterland of a struggling South American country bringing baby bottles and formula. What initially appeared to be a lovely gesture turned into a disaster for the mothers who accepted the gift. They did not have a source of clean water for preparing the formula nor did they understand the need for sterilization of the nipples and bottles. Soon babies were critically ill with severe diarrhea when they would have been better off simply nursing from their mothers. Her point was to critique the kind of worldwide stereotyping of different cultures, countries and even areas of the United States that we too often are guilty of doing. 

On another occasion she proved the point that we were far too uneducated in the realities of the world by listing a number of places that grew large amounts of rice. She asked us to choose the place that we believed produced the largest crop of that grain. Among the candidates was Harris County, Texas which created a little titter of laughter around the classroom. Imagine our surprise when we learned that the greatest amount of the world’s rice was grown right in our own backyard in Houston, Texas. It was the kind of eye opening experience that she provided over and over again. 

I have never forgotten Dr. Hyer because perhaps more than anyone she taught me to be circumspect in my assessments of people and situations from around the world. I learned from her that things are not always as they seem and that our western ways of economics and politics are not a good fit in every situation. She helped me to appreciate the history and cultures of people who at first glance appear to be primitive and backward in their thinking. She often commented on the common sense of individuals and countries that those of us in industrialized countries often overlook.

Years later I would read the great novel Things Fall Apart that explored the beautiful culture and organization of an African tribe. With the coming of colonialism and missionaries who believed they were doing good the fabric that had held the community together began to fray and then collapse. I remembered Dr. Hyer as I read the poetically descriptive story and I wept to know that we so often misjudge communities because we have not taken the time to really know them. 

Our country and our world is large and diverse and yet we all too often consider the problems of a nation, a city or a neighborhood based on our individual experiences rather than taking the time to learn about and consider the actual history and cultures of the individuals who sometimes confound us. Perhaps if we spent more time getting to know and appreciate all of the people of the world instead of focusing only on what we see as problems we would learn to assist rather than dominate, compromise rather than judge. 

I suppose that if everyone had the privilege of meeting someone as extraordinary as Dr. June Hyer we might all live in greater harmony. More than anything she taught me the lesson of respect for differences and that with all of our economic success we are not all that different from anyone else in the world. In the end we are all using the resources and the talents that we have to get by from one day to the next. Somehow I have thought of all that I learned from her during this time of Covid-19 and worldwide economic and political upheaval. I realized that we are all in this collective horror together and our best hope of making it through is to share our concerns and ideas with compassion and a willingness to admit that boasting about being the best never really does much good for anyone.

For Some the Storm Has Already Come

Photo by Rodrigo Souza on

I’m taking a little break from preparations for a potential hurricane or storm that may or may not come to my area. I let my guard down with hurricane Harvey believing that all of the dire predictions were little more than fear mongering. Then I watched for days as the rain continued to fall and the homes of friends and family were filled with water. I reached a point of sleeping only a few hours each day lest I awaken to a flooded home. I ended up moving my medications, books and important papers to the upstairs rooms just in case I became the next victim of the inundation. I developed a crazed fear that my husband would have a stroke because he had endured the first one only weeks before and his doctors had told him that a second one often followed within the first three months. 

I learned from that experience that it is far better to be safe than sorry. Because I know that hurricane season is always serendipitous I actually began gathering together supplies all the way back in March when we first hunkered down in the hopes of flattening the Covid-19 curve. It seemed to me that handling natural disasters during a time of pandemic and economic collapse might not be as easy as in other years. I wanted to be as self sufficient as possible so I asked my husband to purchase a generator, which he obligingly did. I took stock of my lanterns, flashlights and candles and made sure that I had plenty of batteries. I have made it a habit of listening to the national and local news during my hour of daily exercise so that I will be aware of any changes in either the virus or the weather. 

Now I am putting the final touches on my readiness. My home is filled with potted plants and lawn furniture. The various forms of lighting that I may have to use are set out on my countertop, including flashlights, lanterns and candles. I have gasoline in the truck in case we have to leave and I have downloaded various news apps on my phone. In a few days if Laura appears to be continuing on a path to my neck of the woods I will fill both of my bathtubs with water because I know that sometimes the water supply gets tainted and I want to have as much as I may need for cooking and drinking. I’ve even procured  a pour over coffee pot ready for making an old fashioned cup of brew if I don’t have enough power to run my Keurig. 

I hope more than anything that I will be laughing by this time next week as I work to store everything back in it’s usual place. It’s always nice to dodge a bullet. Still, I know that if we don’t bear the brunt here somebody else will in another locale. I do not wish the destruction on anyone, especially given the hardships that so many have already endured. I worry that the outpouring of help that we saw in the aftermath of hurricane Harvey and hurricane Ike will not be available because of everything else that is happening. I truly worry that people fleeing to shelters will be infected with the virus in new appalling numbers. There seems to be no real upside to these storms unless they lose their strength by some glorious miracle. 

I’ve had a family of baby frogs show up inside my home which tells me that Mother Nature is preparing for the worst just as I am. Friends have noticed that their pets are behaving skittishly. I don’t know if these are signs that something bad is coming our way but I am not willing to discount anything and so I just keep preparing. As I do I cannot help but notice how truly fortunate I am. I have both wind and flood insurance. I have that generator and an ample supply of food and bottled water. I have a phone that will keep me up to date and a truck that is built to move easily through high water if I need to leave. 

Covid-19 has disproportionately affected Blacks, Native Americans, and Hispanics. Some seem to believe there is no real explanation for that but I fully understand that it is mostly because so many of these people are the most economically underserved in our country. They too often have little access to good medical care and sometimes to things we take for granted like running water. They rarely have time to take off from work when they are sick or need check ups. They are the ones who have been the essential workers while so many like me have had the luxury of staying safely at home. When I order groceries or necessary items they are more often than not delivered by people from those groups. They work in the fields, pack the meat, stock the groceries, mow the lawns, and sometimes work for hours each day long after others are relaxing. They often live in the most flood prone neighborhoods that are the most likely to be devastated by natural disasters. They are the people trying to pull themselves up into the middle class who often seem unable to catch a break.

When a hurricane comes we learn about the faults in our homes and neighborhoods. So too has the year of 2020 shown us where we have great problems. While many people celebrate that they have been mostly untouched by virus or economic despair there are also those who are losing all hope as they watch family members die and lose income as jobs erode. They have not enjoyed the comfort of working from home and feeling safe. It is perhaps outrageous for those of us not in their shoes to judge them or lack compassion for their plight. I can think of no greater insult to them than insinuating that things are not as bad as some say. Now we must hope that they will be safe during the storms.

In the end the weather may not affect me personally but the storms have already come among us. I think it is long past time for all of us to acknowledge those who have borne the brunt. We need each other and always will.