Life Was Good

I returned to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic school after Labor Day of 1957 just after my little brother, Pat, had turned three. I was in the fourth grade, a changed soul with a more serious outlook on life. I was grateful to be back with people that I knew and trusted, but I was still in a state of grief that would follow me throughout that year. My teacher was a strict nun who taught me well, but was far too demanding for a little girl whose world felt so unsettling. I would have to find solace in my fellow students, the wonderful neighbors on Belmark Street, my family and friends. I withdrew into myself under the unrelenting sternness of my teacher. Looking back I realize that when I later became an educator she became my model of how not to behave around the children that I taught. 

We settled nicely into a routine at home. Mama was devoted to her dual role as both mother and father to us. It seemed as though her every thought was focused on our well being. She became an icon of strength and wisdom in our neighborhood, with a continuous line of visitors arriving for coffee and conversation with her. One woman in particular became a regular seeker of solace from our mother. She was a quiet and nervous lady who whispered anxiously and quite often burst into tears. When I enquired about her, Mama simply smiled and said that the lady was having some difficult times and just needed to talk about them.

Other neighbors were more gregarious and helpful. They brought out Mama’s smiles and laughter. They encouraged her to get involved in the Mother’s Club at church and to join a bowling team to get out of the house. It always amazed me how quickly our mother made friends, how easily she talked with them, how generous she was with them. Before long she seemed to know everyone who lived around us and was encouraging us to follow her example in accepting our fate and moving forward even if we were scared. 

She created routines for us like cleaning our home on Saturday mornings with Daddy’s music playing on our Victrola while we worked. Once we finished Mama presented each of us with a quarter to save or spend on our Saturday afternoon shopping excursions.  Of course we went to see our Grandma Ulrich on Fridays and attended mass on Sundays at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church. Sometimes we visited our aunts and uncles on Sunday afternoons. Our lives bumped along smoothly most of the time but now again we would feel the lurch of unexpected events like the murder of the sad lady who had often visited our home.

Late one evening we stood on our driveway watching the tragedy unfold along with most of our neighbors. We had all heard the screams and the shots of the gun. It was terrifying as we waited for the police to arrive because the woman’s children were standing in the front room window crying for help while the man raged in the background. It was our brave neighbor, Kathleen Bush, who charged across the street, pounded on the door, and demanded that the children be allowed to leave. I watched in awe of her courage as she stood her ground with the murderer. She threatened to force her way inside if necessary. Soon the front door opened and the terrified children ran into her arms. I suppose that Mrs. Bush became my idea of a hero from that time forward. 

Halloween came and Mama made costumes for us and then took us all around the neighborhood where everyone seemed to know who she was. We spent Thanksgiving at home and watched the annual gridiron grudge game between Texas A&M and the University of Texas. Mama sang the Aggie War Hymn and told us about the tradition of the Twelfth Man. We were totally indoctrinated into being proud little Aggies. 

In November, just before my birthday a cold front came to town. There was a chill over the house but Mama had no idea how to light the pilot of the gas heater. She mentioned her dilemma to our next door neighbor, Ethyl Sessums, who immediately insisted that she would send her husband, who was a plumber, to light up our furnace as soon as he came home from work. Surely enough he made short work of the task and before long our house was feeling warm and toasty. Somehow at that moment I felt that we were really going to be okay. I slept better than I had on any night since my father had died.

When Christmas came and we attended the annual Christmas Eve party at Grandma Ulrich’s house I became even more convinced that we were not alone. Uncle Andy gave me and my brothers teddy bears that were almost as big as we were. We would invent all kinds of games and adventures with those stuffed animals that brought lots of mischief and laughter to our home. When Santa actually found us on Christmas Day and left an array of gifts it felt as though the miracle of healing had begun. 

The New Year would bring Michael’s sixth birthday and a bought of measles to our home as well as an untypical snowy day. That was how it was, some ups and some downs but always the continuity of happy routines with our family and friends. Our mother would prove to be a mighty woman who tucked us into our beds each night with a reminder of how much she loved us. I would always miss my father, but I took my mother’s cue and began to allow myself to live again. Life was good.