No Box Required

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My grandfather used to laugh at his seemingly bad luck when it came to making money. He once proclaimed that if he had bought and sold all of his real estate investments at just the right time he would have been a millionaire. Instead he tended to purchase high and sell low. At the time of this death his savings were depleted and he lived in a rented room. Nonetheless, he was an exceptionally happy man who had lived a long and very interesting life. 

My husband has a friend who might be counted as a modern day version of my grandfather. This man has had so many inventive ideas that seemed outrageous at the time, that it would be difficult to name and count them all. Sadly he was never able to convince people of the potential of his creative mind and so it was left to others to ultimately bring the innovations he imagined into the world. 

I recall sitting with my husband’s friend attempting to be polite and not roll my eyes in disbelief as he described business ventures that he was certain would be his golden ticket to prosperity. Long before streaming or DVRs he envisioned a machine that would allow households to record their favorite television programs even when they were not home. With great excitement he spoke of how such a machine would revolutionize television viewing. No longer would individuals have to be at home at a certain time to catch their favorite programs. The days of deciding which of two conflicting series to watch would be over. Best of all people would be able to keep and watch their favorite shows over and over again. 

I suppose that I was never meant to be an inventor because I thought that his idea was absurd. I could not imagine the necessity of such a machine under any circumstances. I politely told him that most people like me are not concerned about seeing every single episode of a show and we certainly would never want to watch a program more than one time. I was not able to share his enthusiasm for such an idea and neither was anyone else in his circle of friends, so his concept died on the vine, at least for him. I would regret my lack of foresight as time went on and I realized that he had been at the forefront of innovation in a time long before anyone was talking about such things. 

The same man once asked if we would like to join him in purchasing a machine that would transform plain t-shirts into message boards of sort. He spoke of making the front of a shirt a kind of canvas for images or sayings much like athletic jerseys. Once again I found his idea to be at best a one time rage after which it would undoubtedly go away along with hula hoops and disco. When I now see all of the printed t-shirts on humans from nearly every part of the world, I lower my head in a kind of shame that was I unable to see our friend’s grasp of the future.

T-shirts have become the billboards of the world. They immediately identify nameless people as witty, political, supporters of certain causes or teams. They tell us where someone has traveled or would like to travel. They provide us with a glimpse of how a person thinks and believes. They are the grist of political campaigns and the stage of a quick joke. They celebrate holidays and victories and sometimes even mark personal milestones of life. Who could have possibly predicted the popularity of personalized t-shirts other than our very inventive friend and others like him?

I personally now own a large collection of shirts with messages. Most of them are from universities that I have visited or evidence of my support for sports teams. A few represent my travels and some just have witticisms or quotes that appeal to me. They are made so well that it takes years to wear them out, but I always feel a tinge of sadness when I must let them go. I suppose that if I were so inclined I might turn my favorites into a quilted throw like many have done with their dearest old t-shirts. Some of those creations are not just lovely and useful but serve as sweet memories as well. 

One of my teachers once commented that there are people who create wondrous things and those who simply appreciate their efforts. I suppose that I somehow do not have the capacity to drum up ideas for products that will change the course of the world. I did not invest in Apple stock like my brothers did when it was selling for practically nothing. I saw the company as a flash in the pan that would soon be gone. Still, I can greatly appreciate my bothers’ foresight and I celebrate the success of their small investment.

I create in different ways that bring me joy, but not much fame or monetary gain. I convey information to my many students that will hopefully bring them opportunities to live happy and successful lives. I write my little blogs as a kind of vanity project and delight when I reach someone’s heart or mind. I am a great appreciator of those who take an idea and improve the world with it. I have learned not to be so quick to criticize someone who is thinking out of the box. In fact I now boast a favorite t-shirt that proclaims, “Think Outside (No box required)”

Baking

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One of the service clubs at a high school where I worked held a bake sale once a week. The students convinced me to volunteer to make something special for the cause each Wednesday. I wasn’t particularly creative and I had very little time, so I usually just purchased a box of brownie mix or a refrigerated roll of chocolate chip cookies and called it day. While none of the cookies were ever left behind, the brownies were definitely the hit and way easier to make than anything else. My contribution was well meaning but never particularly outstanding.

My mother was well known for bringing her chocolate cakes to church bake sales. Hers were always moist and tasty, but what really made them wonderful was the butter cream icing that she made from scratch. I could have eaten a bowl of it without the cake. She usually added whole pecans to the top of the cake and altogether it was a tasty delight. I remember times when someone would grab her cake and purchase it before she even had a chance to set it down. On one occasion the cake she had made got bumped and started falling apart. From the perspective of beauty it was a mess, but a regular customer of her specialty purchased it anyway, insisting that it was going to taste fabulous no matter how it looked. 

My grandmother made strawberry shortcake from scratch. It consisted of very thin layers of yellow cake divided by homemade whipped cream and fresh strawberries from her garden. In all of my life I have never tasted a more delightful dessert. I’m not alone in this regard either. People would come from all around hoping that she would make one of those fabulous cakes for them. She always baked one whenever we came to visit which we still remember with Pavlovian delight. Once in awhile she substituted one of her berry pies. Those were a very close second to the cake. As with the cake everything in the pie was made from scratch including the berries that she grew in her garden. My mouth waters just thinking of how good both of the her signature desserts always were. 

Grandma believed in using everything. She never threw out food. When she made too much dough she would grab some apples or peaches or berries or whatever was available at the moment and create fried pies. Those ruined me for the fried pies at the grocery store or fast food restaurants. Grandma’s were literally gourmet quality with a light and flaky crust encircling a filling that was like nectar from heaven. 

My mother used to make fudge every single Christmas. It was unlike any I have ever encountered. It did not use marshmallow cream. Instead it was more like Mexican candy but very chocolatey. It never lasted long because people always ate more than one piece. We never thought to ask her for the recipe and now we have found than none of the instructions that we find for fudge come even remotely close to hers. Our family has been on a quest for years to discover how she must have made it. We will know when we find it because he taste is so unique. Thus far we have struck out.

Mama also made the best pecans pies ever. Again I never thought to ask her for her recipe, but my brother did and his are as good as hers ever were. I laugh because I found out that she used the directions on the bottle of light Karo syrup but made alterations here and there that were her own ideas. She used twice as many pecans as the recipe called for and made double the number of pies from a single set of instructions. The result was less of the gooey filling and more of the crispy pecan flavor. Trust me when I say that they were spectacular. 

I suppose that I should have taken after my grandmother and mother when it came to baking, but I never had the time to create things from scratch. My cakes come from mixes and my pies come from the freezer section of the grocery store. Once a year I make pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving but I use frozen crust and the recipe on the side of the pumpkin can. I only go all out for Christmas when all of my cookies are created with love from my favorite recipes. I have to admit that they are wonderful, but I try not to make too many because they have added a pound here and pound there to my girth with each passing year.

My Aunt Valeria made the best carrot cake that I have ever experienced. She grated the carrots by hand and when the cake was done she crowned it with an amazing cream cheese based frosting. Those cakes were so time consuming to make that she only prepared them for very special occasions. She made at least three of them just for me and after much cajoling on my part even revealed her secret recipe. It was a treasure that I kept safe like I would have done with a bar of gold. Sadly, it somehow got lost and since she is now gone from the earth I will never again be able to recreate it. I can’t even begin to explain how sad that makes me.

The art of baking is a skill that I have never quite perfected. Perhaps I’m too impatient. I move around like a crazed rabbit and always seem to fill my hours with other things that I must do. I can’t keep still long enough to do proper baking, but I do so appreciate those who have the knack and the willingness to create those stunning desserts. For now I’ll just be happy with my Oreo cookies and a box of quick banana bread. it’s probably the best that I am ever going to be willing or able to do. 

The Power of Red

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Red is a daring color. It reminds me of royalty, roses, Christmas, valentines, cardinals that come to play in my yard, happy faces after a walk along the beach in summer or a hike through the mountains in winter. It is one of my favorite colors to wear because it enhances my lips, my fingers, my toes and the sallow tones of my pale skin. Red is one of nature’s most wonderful hues that brightens even the dreariest of days. It is striking and cheerful and bold, but should never be overdone. All it takes is a hint of red here and there to catch the eye and stand out in the midst of the more commonplace neutral shades. When used properly it is magnificent. When overdone or in the wrong shade it can ruin an otherwise perfect canvas.

I remember being invited to a going away party for a friend who was sadly moving away from our group. The host of the gathering had just remodeled an older home with stunning success. All of the walls in every room were gray with white trim. They served as a canvas for his furnishings and artwork. There was a coherent theme of using a sparse but stunning shock of red throughout the house. In one room there might be bright red pillows along with a huge modern painting with a slash of the same hue. In another room the red might show up in dinnerware or a rug. There was just enough and not too much to be incredibly cohesive and striking. He had used red the way it should always be presented. 

A woman can be stunning in a red dress, but the effect fades if she also paints her nails and her lips a bright red then adds red shoes and a scarlet purse. On the other hand if she does a mani/pedi in red then that should blend with her clothing rather than match it exactly. Too much red looks cheap, but red used in just the right way is breathtaking. 

I am a lover of all of the old Alfred Hitchcock movies. In fact, I own a collection of CDs that I often take in our trailer when we go on trips in the winter when the evenings become too cold to stay outside. While I love them all, I have always been fascinated with Vertigo, a classic thriller in which the lead character attempts to transform a woman from ordinary to elegant. The first thing he does is soften the color of her hair and remove the excess of red from her wardrobe and makeup. The result is miraculous and even as a girl I marveled at how red can be either beautiful or ugly depending on how it is used.

Red also comes in many different hues. There are some that seem to have hints of yellow and others with a dash of blue. My own skin will die if there is even a smidgen of yellow but shine beautifully with the bluish reds. We older women have to be very careful with colors because our skin is not as vibrant as it was in our youth. Choosing what goes best with our skin tones is more important than picking something that delights us. 

Long ago my mother advised me to choose classic fashions rather than trendy pieces. She insisted that it was best to choose items that compliment the hair, skin and body type of the wearer rather than attempting to fit in with the most current ways of doing things. For me that means wearing neutral tones accented with what I call the jewel tones of red, royal blue, deep turquoise and burgundy. I adore a lovely green but it is very difficult to find a shade that does not make me appear to be ill. The right red, on the other hand, is easy to obtain and it does wonders for the way I look as well as my disposition. 

I often wonder what it is about us humans that we quite naturally have tendencies to decorate ourselves and the world around us. We might just as well have kept everything in our lives utilitarian but even in ancient civilizations humans attempted to go beyond the basic need for clothing and shelter with colors and creations of the imagination. It is as though it is instinctive to want to express ourselves and our surroundings with more than just the neutral shades of nature. We look at the birds and the butterflies and transform ourselves with the colors of their feathers and wings. 

There is a red cardinal figurine in my sitting room that once belonged to my husband’s Aunt Elsie, a most delightful woman who took me under her wing when I was still a very young bride almost overcome by all of my new relatives. She knew to invite me to work with her in her kitchen where we were able to talk without all of the noise of the twittering crowd waiting in the living room for one of her feasts. She welcomed me by confiding that she was so very happy that her nephew had found someone like me with whom to spend his life. I loved her deeply from that moment and the bright red of that bird that once sat in her living room catches my eye every single day and reminds me of my good fortune in spending time with her. 

Red is the color of our life blood. It is one of our most treasured hues. I for one love it and plan to display it in my home and on myself, but I’ve decided never to get a red car no matter how cute one is. Studies show that people in red cars get stopped for speeding more often than any other color. I don’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg, but with my sometimes heavy foot I won’t take any chances on standing out. I’ll just admire those zippy red sports cars from afar and get my fix of red in small of brilliant doses.

Do No Harm

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Chewing gum has caused a lot of trouble in my lifetime. It has encased my shoe like a spiderweb, almost always when the footwear was fairly new. I’ve had to remove a knot of gum from my little girl’s long curly hair. I’ve found so much of gum under the desks in my classrooms that I have often wondered how many years it has been hanging there turning into stony fossils each with a story of its own. I’ve unwittingly sat on a stray piece of gum and ruined a perfectly good pair of slacks. I’ve probably spent as much time instructing students to spit gum into the trashcan as I have teaching the quadratic formula. I’ve gone bonkers listening to someone smack and pop their gum and I’ve been guilty of putting a my own well chewed hunk of gum on the bedpost overnight. What I’ve always tried to figure out is who invented this gooey stuff and why did they do it?

An infamous foe of the Texas revolution, Santa Anna, is often credited with being the first to bring gum to the United States. In fact, after his fall at the Battle of San Jacinto followed by other failures he was exiled from Mexico and ended up in New York City where he often chewed a gooey substance called chicle that came from a native tree in Mexico. His secretary, Thomas Adams, was fascinated by his boss’s habit and came up with the idea of mixing licorice with the rubbery substance to create Black Jack gum which became a sensation at the end of the nineteenth century. Oddly enough Adams first tried to make rubber out of chicle but when that failed he thought of Santa Anna’s habit of chomping continually on the naturally rubbery substance and realized that there might be money to be made mass producing a product that eventually came to be known as gum. 

I remember having a teacher who chided students who tried to sneak their gum chewing into the classroom by insisting that it was well past time for them to be over the kind of oral fixation that babies and toddlers often have. I always thought that his comments were a bit hypocritical given that he smoked while teaching back in the days when such things were still acceptable. I suspect that we humans indeed have a kind of primitive instinct to chew or gnaw or suck on things.

I thought one of my daughters would never give up sucking her thumb. I worried that she would be bullied in school if she did not find a way to quit her habit. The clock was ticking and I was using all kinds of alternatives and psychology to keep her from continuing the habit that I feared would make her the brunt of insults and bullying. Miraculously she simply quit one day just before she was scheduled to begin kindergarten. She never even looked back nor did she have an unusual attachment to putting things in her mouth. She just went cold turkey and that was the end of that. 

I’ve seen people chew on their fingers or suck on their hair. I was one of those kids who put teeth marks in my pencils. Whenever I felt anxious about my schoolwork I found myself unconsciously putting the end of my writing instrument inside my mouth while I contemplated strategies for solving the problems. I suppose that there is something instinctual about using our mouths as a kind of anxiety blocker, so gum was no doubt a more preferable way of satisfying that inclination than chewing on a stick or biting lips or smoking a cigarette or a pipe. Santa Anna and Thomas Adams somehow tapped into our need to soothe ourselves, but I can’t imagine why licorice was his flavor of choice. 

Of course now every grocery store check out lane is filled with a huge variety of gum of every conceivable flavor and type. Those products have unwittingly destroyed property and items of clothing in businesses, schools and homes across the land. Who has not experience the joy of becoming encased in a weblike goo simply by walking on the pavement on a hot summer day?Virtually every mom keeps peanut butter on hand not just for the favorite sandwiches of kids, but to use as a remediation when a chunk of gum ends up wrapped around every strand of long hair. We could probably glue together a stone wall with all of the chewed up gum that has been tossed without thought of the damage it might do. Never mind the general irritation that it sometimes creates.

Have you ever been in the presence of someone furiously chewing and snapping gum? The cringe worthiness of such an encounter can be as horrible as the sound of fingernails scratching across a blackboard. For those of you too young to know what that is, I can assure you that it causes an uncomfortable sensation that wracks the nerves. In such instances I have to look away or leave because otherwise I might suddenly switch to teacher mode and order the individual to spit out the gum or face the consequences.

I admit that gum has its soothing features and I enjoy a smack or two now and again. I’m not totally against its use but I sure wish that someone had thought about rules for disposing of it that everyone would agree to follow. We don’t spit food on the ground or attempt to hide bits of it on furniture, so how to did we come to think it was a good idea to dispose of gum by tossing it wherever we happen to be? Enjoy that chiclet wherever you are, just stop the damage to our world that gum has caused for over a hundred years. Remember there is some poor soul working with a putty knife and a garbage can every moment of every day attempting to clean up the mess. Have a heart. Think before you roll that gum into a little ball and toss it thoughtlessly where it will wait to attack someone’s shoe or clothing or hair. Think of it as being as dangerous as a match and walk it over to a proper container where it will do no harm. It’s the right thing to do.

An Irish Blessing

I was a ridiculously young and naive bride. I had barely ventured beyond the borders of my neighborhood when I decided to marry my husband, Mike. My life had been quite narrowly defined and the role models that I had were limited mostly to members of my family, teachers, and the ladies who lived on the street where I lived. When I was introduced to Mike’s female relatives I felt mostly overwhelmed because they appeared to me to be almost uniformly sophisticated, beautiful, and worldly in a way with which I was unfamiliar. They even wore stylish hats to Christmas dinner! 

While I was certain that Mike was my one true love I felt awkward and quite different from the rest of his family. I suppose that I was all too much like Tom Branson, the Irish chauffeur who married into the wealth and prestige of the Grantham family in Downton Abbey. Mike’s kin were very kind to me, but I was self-conscious and sensed that I didn’t quite fit in. It would be years before I matured enough to build up my confidence and feel quite equal even to those who appeared to be my betters. Along the way I found the one person who would inspire me and demonstrate to me exactly how to be a woman of distinction and great strength. Her name was Rosemary and she was married to Mike’s father’s first cousin. We called her Aunt Rosemary.

Rosemary stood out even among the lovely ladies who populated Mike’s family. Her Irish features pegged her as a descendant of the Emerald Isle even before I knew her story. She had grown up in Chicago, the daughter of a plumber as she often liked to note. She possessed a strong Catholic faith and the firm resolve to help the underdogs of this world when she set out from home to work as a nurse. Along the way she met a very handsome Puerto Rican doctor and the two of them fell in love and began a partnership that would define both romance and enduring commitment. They settled in Houston where he became a noted cardiologist and she devoted her time and talents to supporting his career and raising five lovely daughters. From the time that I first met Rosemary she instantly impressed me as one of the most genuinely loving people that I had ever known. In spite of the awe that I felt for her, she made me feel comfortable and safe. I would silently observe her over the years and vow to pattern myself after her as best I might.

It’s difficult to explain the essence of Rosemary. She was down to earth and refined at one and the same time. She never forgot her own humble beginnings but she was also able to entertain kings and potentates with ease. Perhaps it was because, even with the trappings of success, she never attempted to be anything more than herself, an incredibly giving and sympathetic individual. Rosemary was the kind of person who lived completely outside of herself. She was as kind to the downtrodden as to an influential kingmaker. She read and contemplated the gospels and then lived them as fully as anyone that I have ever known. She was the consummate mother, a devoted wife, an ever faithful friend, and a lifelong learner. She read with a voracious appetite and enjoyed contemplating and discussing new ideas. She was a natural beauty whose inner goodness radiated from her angelic face. She loved and is still loved by all who have had the good fortune to know her. 

Rosemary was my mother-in-law Mary’s best friend. The two of them seemed destined to be together. They shared the same birthday, February 4. They married cousins who are more like brothers. They were highly intelligent women in their own right who were capable of holding their own in even the most esoteric discussions. They both understood how to love deeply and unconditionally and their bond with one another was strong. When my mother-in-law died it was a great loss to everyone. Undoubtedly it was devastating to Rosemary who no longer had her beloved confidante. In characteristic fashion Rosemary quietly assumed the role of guardian over her friend’s family. She watched over my mother just as Mary had. She helped my father-in-law to deal with his grief and celebrated his joy when he found a new bride. She kept in contact with Mike so that he would be certain of her love. She was the guardian angel that I had always known her to be.

Rosemary had a more difficult time spreading her joy in her final days on earth. She had an accident that left her with broken bones and limited mobility. Her healing process was long and tedious due to her age but she was determined to continue to lead her life with as much gusto as she was able to muster. Eventually her health deteriorated even more and she spent her final years bedridden and under the care of nurses.

Rosemary faced down challenges and tragedies for most of her lifetime and she did so done so with wisdom and grace. She was continually surrounded by many people who loved and respected her. In many ways she epitomized the well lived life and was the ultimate feminist. She followed her heart and chose the path that best suited her. Hers was a lifetime of service, a lofty goal which she achieved with humility and little fanfare. She raised five warm hearted and accomplished daughters who like their mother have been a gift to all who know them. Even after all of these years I can’t think of anyone that I would rather emulate than Rosemary. 

As a young girl I used to read stories of saints and biographies of women as I searched for a life that I felt I might attempt to follow. Most of the saints appeared to be too perfect to me except perhaps St. Theresa. Few of the famous women about whom I read captured my fancy other than Eleanor Roosevelt. There was no way that I might have known that I would one day meet the woman who most closely resembled the kind of person that I wanted to be. I knew that Rosemary was my icon almost from the first time that I saw her tending her brood of excited little girls. Nothing about her ever disappointed me. She had the imperfections and fears that are normal for all humans, but she transcended them with her unselfish and giving heart. She taught me that the key to a good life lies in the simple everyday things that we do for those who need our love. 

I continued to learn how to be an amazing woman from Rosemary. Of late I have marveled at her courage and her ability to set her own pain aside. I still hope that I might slowly but surely become more and more like her. It is a lofty goal, but one that has been my holy grail for decades. Rosemary was a true warrior among women and I am most grateful that I have been a recipient of her love. 

Rosemary K. Garcia died on Easter Sunday, a fitting day for someone like her. I have no doubt that she went immediately to heaven. I still thank her for being the woman who inspired me most. She was a living Irish blessing among us and now she is a saint. “May the roads rise to meet you, may the winds be always at your back, may the sunshine warm your face, the rains fall soft on your fields, and until we meet again may God hold you in the hollow of His hand.” I love you, Rosemary!