Monsters In the Dark

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My father not only enjoyed reading, but he also loved to go to the movies. I still remember viewing Shane with him. Alan Ladd was one of his favorite actors and Daddy loved the story which he talked about long after we had seen the flick. One of the last movies I watched with him was The Mountain with Spencer Tracy, perhaps my father’s all time favorite actor. We had also seen The Old Man and the Sea together and while that should have been a painfully slow film for a child my father’s enthusiasm for the artistry somehow translated to me and I have always cherished the profundity of that moment that I shared with him. 

Daddy was a man of many interests which was reflected in his reading habits. One of his volumes was filled with the horrors that came from the mind of Edgar Allen Poe. My father not only enjoyed reading such stories but also liked movies that were scary. Being a bit more protective of my psyche, my mother insisted that he not expose me to such things lest my little mind would not be capable of dealing with fright. Eventually my dad convinced Mama that a monster movie would be okay. He reasoned that I was bright enough to understand that imaginary creatures were not real and that such creations of the mind were simply good fun. So my parents took me to see Godzilla. 

Daddy had explained that people had somehow imagined dragons and non-existent creatures for all time. He told me about Loch Ness and insisted that any so called sightings of the strange animal had been faked. We laughed as he showed me stories about Big Foot and then recalled the story of King Kong. He did his best to rationally prepare me for yet another silly story about a nonexistent creature that we would soon enjoy at the movies. I thought I was totally ready for the event and my father was more than sure that I would be able to handle the story without fear.

Things began well but soon I felt my little heart pounding and creeping into my throat as Godzilla terrorized the places and the characters in the movies. It seemed more real than make believe and I had never in my life felt so scared. I was determined not to visibly show my real feelings because I did not want my mother to become angry with Daddy for subjecting me to such a thing. I knew that she would remind him that she had thought that I was too young and impressionable for the intensity of the movie even thought he had tried so hard to prepare me with logic and truth about so-called monsters. I laughed nervously when I wanted to scream. I closed my eyes when the images were too difficult to absorb. I somehow found courage to be steadfast even though I really wanted to cry and beg my mother to take me from the theater. When it was finally over I managed to smile weakly and proclaim that the movie had been great fun. 

My mother watched me closely and seemed certain that I was covering up my fears but she kept quiet as we drove home. I never told her how I really felt but as I lay in my bed in the quiet and darkness of our house that evening I did not want to close my eyes lest I see the horrific creature from the movie once again. Somehow sleep eventually overtook my attempts to stay awake and to my surprise did not lead to nightmares or visits from Godzilla to my bedroom. 

Once I had made it past that first night I seemed to be a changed person. I spoke of the movie with my father and even admitted to him how scared I had actually been at times. We laughed about how real the monster had seemed to be and Daddy spoke of camera tricks and makeup that made it all feel so possible. He asked if I was really okay and I assured him that not only was I good but I found myself looking forward to many more forays with stories of horror much like riding on a terrifying roller coaster again and again. 

I have to admit that some of my favorite movies are those that scare to the point of being almost breathless. My brain tells me that they are fiction but some part of my mind gets so involved that I almost feel as though I am one of the characters fighting for my life. I feel the danger in the tightening of my chest as my heart beats ever more quickly. I jump in my seat and find myself almost gasping for breath. Somehow the thrill of it all is mesmerizing, addictive and so strange. It would make more sense for me to avoid purposely scaring myself but maybe my father was right when he told me that we humans have been telling frightening tales from the beginning of time and somehow still finding such moments entertaining. Perhaps it is our need to allow the demons inside our imaginations to run free lest keeping them inside might drive us to madness. 

Even my husband is sometimes baffled by my attraction to horror. It seems out of place with my general character and tendency to be cautious. I suspect that somehow I see it as yet another link with my father and a kind of proof that I can be brave when I need to be. Watching horror films is a kind of practice for facing fears and a way of enjoying the amazing variety of our human minds. I’m always ready to grab some popcorn and a Diet Coke and sit shivering in the dark when the monsters appear on the screen. I almost hear my father marveling at the really great stories and fabulous camera work and telling me how they managed to put it all together. We share a wink and pretend that we were never scared at all.

A Lovely Story All Around

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I gained a few more pounds than I needed during the long year of the pandemic. I all too often soothed my soul with banana bread or ice cream. As we all began to get out again my clothing told me that I needed to get back some control or invest in a whole new wardrobe. The sweatpants and pajamas that had become my daily uniform during the long months of mostly staying home had fooled me into thinking that I was just as slim and trim as ever. When I stepped on my long neglected digital scale it was no longer working properly so I had to re-calibrate it before it showed me that I had some work to do if I wanted to get back in shape. 

Life is like that. We work hard and then get a bit too relaxed and have to consider how to get ourselves back on track. Sometimes we even consider how we might have done a few things differently in the story of our lives. I have to admit that overall I have little about which to complain in how things have turned out for me. There have been many events over which I only had the ability to control my reactions to them. For others I had many choices and did my best to be wise in considering what to do. I admittedly made some mistakes but luckily none of them were profoundly life changing. As I sit here today I feel satisfied with my own history but understand that much of who I am has been a matter of luck, good fortune in being in a place and time that allowed me to mostly fulfill the possibilities of my talents and dreams. 

It would only be small stuff that I might adjust here and there. I’d choose the same spouse, the same career, the same place to live. Most of my joy has come from my family, friends and work so I would be loathe to tamper with any aspect of those relationships lest one tiny tweak might change the entire dynamic. Losing my father was profoundly difficult for me but if I that had never happened I wonder if all of the rest of my life would have been very different. I accept that his death was somehow meant to be. I suppose that if he had lived I would never have known what I missed due to the changes that were inevitable. I had to become a stronger, better person after he died. I remembered all that he had taught me and urged me to be. I have carried him in my heart for decades so in some ways he never really left. 

If I were to actually change one aspect of my personality perhaps I might have taken a few more risks. I approach life with great caution in everything that I do. It’s not a bad way to be but maybe it has resulted in some part of me not blooming the way it should. I watch my granddaughter taking on the world with gusto, winning and faltering along the way but never being afraid. I know that I sometimes overthink things and then back away from uncertainty. I’ve been a reliable and steady force for my family and friends but just maybe I have undersold myself and my abilities. 

I suppose it’s never too late to begin to try things. I won’t be learning how to ski or jumping out of a plane. My bones are too fragile for such extremes but I need to get my book out there for the public to decide whether of not it is of any worth. I must set aside my internal arguments that perhaps writing a memoir was little more than a silly and somewhat self centered process. I have to top worrying about how my story will be received and just get the process done. 

I have friends and family members and former students who have written books and enjoyed a modicum of success with selling them. At this point it should not matter as much how well my efforts will be critiqued or enriching but that I was willing to just try to share a story that I believe will help others to deal with the tragedies that beset their lives. I just have to get this done one way or another and quit languishing in self doubt. I think I will contact the young man who agreed to design a cover and find someone who can help me plough through the process of preparing it to upload. The time is now, not tomorrow!

At my age there is always a bit of uncertainty as to how much more time I may have. I sense that I need to use each moment to the fullest. That means never missing an opportunity to embrace and love and encourage the people in my life. The dust in the corners of my rooms can wait now. It is far better to make that phone call or drive across town to spend some time with the people who have so enriched my life. I don’t want to be that person who is always saying that once I get some things done we can get together. It’d be better to hire a cleaning service and have time for what really matters like I did with my yard. Many years ago I found myself spending entire Saturdays mowing and trimming and weeding my lawn. When my mower broke I saw it as a sign that it was time for me to let go of that task and hand it over to someone else. Perhaps there are many other things that I should consider allowing professionals to do instead of frittering away my time attempting to do them myself. 

I’ve worked hard over the years. Now I just want to spend time with family and friends, see the world, and feel gratitude for the wonderful life that I have had. It may not have been as I had once dreamed but it has definitely been filled with joy. In truth it’s been a lovely story all around.

To Love, Honor and Cherish

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It is wedding season, or at least it seems to be so. All of a sudden I am receiving invitations to a host of weddings but I am admittedly a bit uncertain that it is now safe to attend such events. Back in October when Covid-19 was still raging in the United States my nephew got married and my doctor advised me not to attend. I’m still saddened that I had to miss his very special day but I also know that I did the right thing. One of my daughters went with her husband and sons to represent the family. She said that it was outdoors and most of the people wore masks so she felt relatively safe but insisted that it still would not have been a good idea for me and her father to go. From what I hear he did everything right and it was a fun and memorable affair. I wish I had been there.

It’s been difficult turning down invitations given that I am usually one of the people most likely to show up for weddings. I check with doctor each time a new card arrives in the mail and thus far he continues to advise me to stay away at least for a bit longer. I sometimes wonder when he will finally decide that I am good to go once again. I truly miss being able to celebrate with special people even though I suspect that nobody would really notice that I am not there. I say this because I’ve actually attended such events in the past and then been shocked to realize that the bride and groom never knew that I had been there. 

I think it tends to be that way for most couples getting married. The wedding and reception ends up in a kind of haze. After all of the planning for a perfect day all the two can focus on is one another, which is exactly as it should be. In my own case I remember simply going through the motions of all of the wedding day traditions and wanting desperately for it all to just end so that I might get on with the rest of my life. I sometimes wonder why we spend so much time, energy and money on creating the perfect wedding because in truth they all feel somewhat alike and it’s difficult to actually remember anything about one wedding versus another. 

When I got married things were far more simple than today’s huge celebrations. Our reception took place in the Parish Hall and lasted less than a couple of hours. We greeted our guests and offered them cake, coffee, punch and some little sandwiches to munch on while everyone mingled for a time or sat on folding chairs waiting for my husband and I to depart. I may as well have been in a coma for all that I remember about that evening from the moment that I began my walk down the aisle to the time when we rushed to our car under a hail of rice. 

Since then I’ve been to wedding after wedding and they all seem to get just a bit bigger and more complex over time. Even the cakes are incredibly elaborate affairs but in truth their appearance is not nearly as important as the taste. That is what I really recall when I think of the most memorable slices of cake that I have tried. The best cakes are moist and almost melt in the mouth. Those with that rubbery frosting designed to resemble some object are not even worth the extra calories that they add to my daily diet. So it is with weddings and receptions that are over the top.

Weddings don’t have to be elaborate or expensive to be fun. My brother got married on the beach and his reception was at an outdoor pavilion where we munched on barbecue and toasted the bride and groom with margaritas. We danced in our sandals and flip flops and laughed reveled in the joy that filled the air. Instead of cake we ate apple pie and marvel to this day on how wonderful the whole affair had been. 

Destination weddings can be fabulous as well. A few years back an educator friend married in Cancun. The festivities began days before the actual ceremony with everyone who attended getting know each other better in a very relaxed atmosphere. The actual vows took place with the spectacular backdrop of the Caribbean and most of us waded through the sand to our seats in our bare feet. The reception was a happy affair focused on hearing the stories of how the two had found their way to each other and fallen in love. Then we danced the night away under the stars. It was heavenly.

My mother and father got married by a Justice of the Peace. Other than the needed witnesses I don’t think anyone else was there. Later they had a church ceremony at St. Mary’s  Catholic Church in College Station, just the two of them. Someone took a photo of them near the entrance of the church wearing simple clothing and earnest looks of delight on their faces. They were young and focused on their future together rather than a one day bash. There were no guests, no gifts, no dinners or cake. Somehow they did not appear to have missed having all of those frills. Eleven years later they were still giddily in love and no doubt would have made it for a much longer time had my father not suddenly died.

I’m not against big weddings and I know that they are quite important as a way of marking the start of a shared lifetime but perhaps much as we always do we have made them far more extravagant than they need to be. The bills for such affairs are often enough to pay for a car or a year of college or even the trip of a lifetime. I wonder how many actually recall the details of such excesses when all is said and done. Bigger is not always better and sometimes it is not even as wonderful as a more intimate and meaningful ceremony. Perhaps we have gone too far when we see people deferring their actual marriages for years just to save enough for an eye popping wedding. Somehow that seems to be rather backward when all that anyone needs is the pledge of those vows to love, honor and cherish. Everything else is just frosting and decoration on the cake.

In The Beginning

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2020-2021 was a long school year for teachers and their students. I only worked with ten young people three days a week teaching various levels of mathematics and I was exhausted by the end of May. Teaching remotely was a whole new experience for all of us and while it seemed to work well for some, it just did not jibe for others. I found myself worrying about my kids and wondering if they were actually learning as well as I hoped they were. It’s a teacher’s lot in life to get emotionally involved with students and feel a deep sense of responsibility for their well being. The work of teaching never really ends, even with retirement. I can attest to that. 

It seems like yesterday when I met my first group of students at St. Christopher’s Catholic School. The job was nothing like I had expected to do since my major had focused on English linguistics and literature. The principal of the school, Lesley McAvoy Baptiste, needed a mathematics teacher and when she reviewed my transcript she noted that I had taken almost as many math courses as those in the English department. She urged me to accept a position as the one and only middle school mathematics teacher in the small Catholic school. 

Since there just happened to be a glut of teachers in the Houston area that year due to economic disruptions I was willing to try anything just to have the assurance of finally launching my career. I felt confident enough with my mathematical abilities to take a chance so I accepted the offer and set about planning for the six different courses that I would teach. I was determined to set my students on fire and provide them with a foundation in mathematics that would serve them wherever their lives eventually took them. I was also admittedly a bit afraid that I might not be as good at my work as I wanted to be but I plowed ahead with abandon.

My students for that year were all quite sweet and well behaved. In that regard I was quite lucky because I did not have to worry too much about classroom management. I was a bit older than most rookie teachers since I had parceled out my college attendance in small spurts owing to having two children and feeling responsible for the care of my mother whose bipolar disorder often demanded my attention. By the time I stood in the front of a classroom for the first time I was already thirty years old so I was able to pretend that I was a veteran teacher with years of experience. 

I worked hard to perfect my lessons and to find the best ways to convey mathematical knowledge. I quickly learned that most of my students had passions for history or science or even English but very few were excited about mathematics. In fact a larger number of them had developed phobias about numbers over the years and I often heard comments from students about their innate lack of mathematical abilities. I realized that I had to build their confidence before I would be successful teaching them algorithms and theorems. I tried to make mathematics relevant and concrete for them, something that I would get better and better at doing over time. 

That first year was not without challenges. We had hardly begun the fall semester when a hurricane blew through Houston and damage from the storm kept the school shuttered for over a week. Later in the year the eighth grade history teacher would suddenly leave and all of the schedules had to be rearranged to accommodate the situation. I ended up with two groups of students in my classroom at the same time. One sat in the back of the room working on assignments while I taught the other. In a lovely twist of fate my regular eighth grade math students were soon participating in the Algebra I class and asking to get copies of the books so that they too might do the homework and take the tests. 

I really loved my students and would think of them forevermore even though I had not thought of how to keep in touch with them. I have little idea where they are or what happened to them but I suspect that they are doing rather well because they were quite wonderful. Happily I’m still friends with my principal on Facebook so I get to see glimpses of her life now and again. We also seem to share the same philosophies of life which does not surprise me at all. 

My students from that first year got an eager version of my teaching but not the one that kept improving with each passing year. I learned more about people and the threads that bind us together as I became more confident and relaxed in my work. I also realized that being humane and understanding toward my students was the most powerful tool for conveying knowledge. I learned how to meet them where they were and then uplift them to a place where they might feel courageous enough to try things that had once frightened them. I hope I also made them feel loved. 

As I read the many stories of teachers and their students I think of my first year of doing the work that has brought me so much joy. In the memory of my mind I see my first classroom filled with eager faces and I feel the dreams that beat in every heart. I hope that somehow they all know how much I cared and maybe even sense that I have never forgotten them or any of the thousands of others who followed them. My kids will always be my kids and my love for them is unconditional and forever.  

I Have No Idea What I Did

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I suppose that turning twenty one is supposed to be some kind of right of passage, a milestone worthy of a bit more celebration than usual. In truth I can’t even remember my twenty first birthday. I may have done something special but if I did, I have no memory of it. I had been hurdled into adulthood the previous summer when it fell on my shoulders to get help for my mom when she first presented symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as bipolar disorder. Without warning I was tasked with finding a doctor for her and making sure that my younger brothers were okay while she was in the hospital. I said goodbye to my youthful naïveté and shouldered responsibilities that threatened to overwhelm me. Somehow I found the courage and strength to rise to the occasion so well that when my twenty first birthday came several months later it was an underwhelming moment. 

I have no idea what I might have wanted to do had I been able to enjoy a normal celebration of being officially a legal adult with all of the privileges of purchasing and enjoying a glass of wine. I’ve never been drawn to social drinking because it takes very little to get me so lightheaded that I almost fall asleep. The one and only time that I did drink too much I hated how I felt the next morning and resolved to never dishonor my body in that way again. While I enjoy an occasional glass of wine or a really good margarita I have never felt really compelled to imbibe. I’m one of those people who can honestly say that I would be willing to live without alcohol for the rest of my life if someone offered me ten million dollars to do so. 

I must have had some kind of party because until the day she died my mother never let my day of birth go by without showering me with gifts, a cake and some ice cream. No doubt she had some kind of surprise for me on that special occasion because she was feeling quite being treated for her illness. I know that she was busy looking for a job and would soon land the one that she would keep until retirement at the University of Texas Health Science Center. She had been so discouraged in her hunt for work but I think the good Lord was just waiting to help her find employment with people who would be incredibly understanding of her mental illness. 

I had just learned that I was pregnant only a few weeks before and I suspect that knowing that my first child was on the way was much more important than turning twenty one. Back then nobody seemed to know not to drink while pregnant so it’s a good think thing that I had no inclination to do so. I just know that I felt emotionally much older than the age indicated by my year of birth. My baby face not withstanding, I had become very mature rather quickly as had many of my friends from that era. Those were the Vietnam War years and the nightly news programs reminded us daily how many of our peers were dying in that strange war in a faraway land. Somehow the silliness of a twenty first birthday party did not seem that important. 

I suppose that if I had been in a position to do anything I wished I might have traveled to some exciting place like New York City, or even London or Paris. The only time I’d been on a plane was for my honeymoon and then we had gone to New Orleans. When I think of how I married before reaching the age of twenty one I am stunned that I did so well because as a bride I was still such a child. It took the events of my mother’s illness the following summer to shock me into becoming an adult. 

I may not have had the experience of living on my own at college but I became strong and independent just from living in the school of hard knocks. I learned that I was a much more capable person than I ever thought I was and I set aside my shyness so that I might become an advocate for my mom. Later I would be a protector of my daughter and students as well. I was unafraid to do whatever I needed to do to make the world a little bit better place. I am still amazed at myself because not even I knew I had it in me.

In all honesty I never thought about my twenty first birthday until a group was reliving their youthfulness with stories of that auspicious occasion. They were stunned to learn that I have no memory of that day whatsoever. I think they may even have felt sorry for me but I was being totally honest when I told them that it did not matter at all to me that such a day was so lacking that I cannot remember it. 

People often laugh at the way I seem to have vivid recollections of virtually every aspect of my life. As my cousin often says everything with me is a story. Turning twenty one was not one of those times. I was far too busy adulting to think about celebrating a moment that had already come for me. I suppose that in many ways I became an old soul early on but I’ve never allowed myself to act or feel old. Becoming an adult for me was always about accepting challenges and responsibilities and in truth I don’t think I missed a thing by jumping ahead in my development. All I really remember is how good I felt about helping my mom and my brothers. No adult beverage has ever been capable of bringing so much joy.