It Goes On

dark swamp2

I suppose that my Facebook wall is mostly like the idealized version of what Mark Zuckerberg once intended it to be, due to my incredibly insightful and interesting friends and family. Each morning I scan the posts to find lovely photos of children, grandchildren, pets, travels, and good times. In the mix there are invariably yummy recipes, guides to local events, and inspirational thoughts or articles. Now and again there are pleas for prayers from someone who is experiencing difficult times, a health problem or even the death of a loved one. My wall has never really been a respository for attempts to influence my thinking on politics or any other topic save for a random comment now again from one of my more politically minded acquaintances. Instead it is a source of joy and support and a way of keeping in touch with people about whom I truly care.

I check my wall each morning while I sip on my tea and munch on my breakfast. I usually rise earlier than my husband so the house is quiet save for the chatter and laughter of the children waiting to catch the school bus on the corner. I sit in my front room and enjoy a moment of peace and serenity while learning about whatever has happened while I was sleeping. Now and again someone posts something that burrows deeply into my heart. I think about it throughout the day and sometimes long past the moment when I first read about it. Such it was a few days ago when two of my sweet cousins both shared the story of a young poet.

It seems that there was once a young man with a creative and poetic mind who was struggling mightily with the seemingly unrelenting tragedy of his life. His father was an alcoholic who eventually died from complications related to his drinking. He left the family all but penniless and struggling. Both the young man and his mother suffered from bouts of depression which was perfectly understandable given their circumstances. Adding to the young man’s woes was the fact that his attempts to publish the poems that he had worked so hard to produce had been totally unsuccessful. To make matters even worse he had a devastating row with the young girl who had stolen his heart and they had a soul crushing breakup. In a moment of sheer desperation he gave her a copy of his poems and tore up the only remaining one that he had. Then he walked away determined to end his life.

He appeared to wander aimlessly even though he had a plan for ending it all. He went into up in a dark swampy area that seemed to match the sorrow of his mood. Even though he had originally determined to end it all he just kept walking and at some point he changed his mind, found his way out of both the swamp and his sadness, and decided to carry on with the rest of his life.

The man whose journey almost ended before it had truly begun was Robert Frost. He went on to become one of the most beloved American poets in the world, winning multiple Pulitzer Prizes and earning the title of Poet Laureate. On the occasion of the inauguration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy as the President of the United States Robert Frost was honored by being selected to read one of his poems. (Oh, and he even made up with the girl that he so loved and she became his wife.) His life was celebrated by people from around the world as he lived to a prosperous and honored old age. When later asked about his advice for life he remarked, “It goes on.”

This was a message that I needed to hear and one that I know to be so very true. Few of us have an easy time here on this earth. Life is hard work and often filled with disappointments and suffering. There are moments when our burdens become so heavy that we wonder how we might possibly keep fighting the good fight. Sometimes it feels as though nothing is going our way. We walk in the miasma of a dark and dank swamp seeing hopelessness at every turn. It is only in “going on” that we eventually see the light of day once again. We invariably find that while our lives may not have taken the turn that we had hoped, they sometimes become even better than we had hoped.

I think of this often. I recently recalled a time when I was working in a school with people that I dearly loved. I literally believed that I would be like a female Mr. Chips and work there for the duration of my career. Sadly a new principal came and upended everything that I had enjoyed about being there. I realized that I could not bear the authoritarian and contrary nature of her leadership and so I reluctantly left without really knowing where I would ultimately land. I was anxious and melancholy and even angry. It took me weeks to get over the despair that I was experiencing. Then I found a new job that would change the course of my life. It was there that I learned how much strength I really had and it was there that I found some of the very best years of my educational career. It was also there that I truly experienced the realization of how life indeed “goes on.”

I cannot imagine how different I would have be if not for some of the moments when I was challenged to keep going into the darkness or choose a different unknown path that lead to the light. Sometimes it is truly in our most hopeless moments that we find what we really need. Like Robert Frost we learn from our suffering and choose to just go on.

Taking Some Stress Out of Christmas

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So many people get annoyed with those of us who start shopping and prepping for Christmas when Halloween has barely passed, but I find that if I don’t do a bit here and a bit there for many weeks I get caught at the last minute expending all of my energy in one fell swoop. Instead I learned long ago that if I slowly chip away at all of my Christmas tasks and I will have time to enjoy the season with friends, neighbors and family. It takes a bit of planning but I learned how to do that quite well as an educator when I had to be certain of teaching all of the concepts within a certain timeframe.

One aspect of my holiday traditions is the sit down dinner that I host on Christmas Day. I truly enjoy readying my home for that gala but in the past few years I have found that I spend most of the day getting the food served and then cleaning all of the dishes and pans for hours afterward. I have lovely Christmas place settings that are so festive but they generally have to be washed by hand and doing so takes far more time than it should. I have guests who quite sweetly attempt to help but the problem is that they get to visit with every one even less time that I do when they volunteer, and that isn’t much fun for any of us.

This year I decided to do something about the one Christmas duty that I abhor. I made a visit to the Party City website and ordered plastic plates that appear to be elegant china with matching bowls, dessert plates and even cups. All I need now are a few of those huge Costco garbage bags and the cleanup will be quick and easy. I will spend my time actually enjoying my guests rather than making sure that my kitchen stays orderly enough not to be designated as a toxic waste dump.

I still plan to use my Christmas tablecloths and napkins. They are easy to just toss into the washing machine. I also plan to set out my mother’s silver and the pewter utensils that my dear friend Egon left for me upon his death. I really don’t care to eat with plastic knives and forks and spoons and using the real thing will not create much mess at all. The entire lot will fit nicely into a sink of hot soapy water where it can soak until later. I’m thinking of maybe going with throw away serving bowls as well, but I have a wonderful Christmas platter that I always use for my roast or turkey or ham. It is a tradition that I refuse to surrender. It won’t take much to clean it and put it safely away. 

I feel a bit guilty about possibly damaging the environment with so many disposable items. The modern trend is to recycle everything but I will be seventy one this month and quite frankly I am tired of the annual cleanup. My mother-in-law announced her retirement from hosting the Christmas gala when she was younger than I am. My mother followed suit rather quickly thereafter. I don’t want to give away my day to provide the family with a feast just yet, but I am going on strike over the task of using all of the good china. I don’t think anybody really cares what the plates look like as long as what is on them tastes good. I’ll spend more time perfecting my menu and less washing and drying crystal and china.

Everyone seems to have a great time on Christmas Day. They have lively conversations and play games. I tend to be puttering about for so long that by the time I finally join the group they announce one by one that it is time to go home. I suspect that such has been the lot of women for decades. We eat our food cold and perform the “Martha” role to the point of missing all the fun. This year I am going to remedy that.

I’ve even sent out a family email to determine what everyone actually wants to eat this year. I have set a deadline of November 18, for the input and I will go by majority rule. I think it will be fun for everyone to have some say in what we our feast will be.

Many have suggested that I have a potluck but I don’t mind the cooking at all. It is one task that is fun for me and I prefer knowing ahead of time how to balance the meal. Besides the idea is that the dinner is a gift from me to the family. It is the one time of year when everyone comes and I have the honor of treating them. I get great joy out of the entire event.

I’ve bought a few Christmas gifts already. It’s easy to find great gifts for some people and almost impossible for others. I don’t know how it is for anyone else but the men are the hardest for me. I can only purchase so many ties or shirts or books or whatever. The guys tend to have very specific desires whereas women like just about anything. It will take me many weeks to figure it all out and then I will just have to hope that I have hit the spot.

Christmas is undoubtably my favorite time of the year and I plan to keep streamlining it so that I can get every bit of enjoyment out of the season and keep stress at a bare minimum. I’ll let you know how the plastic place settings work out. I suspect that they will be a hit.

Hats

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I love watching the old black and white movies from the thirties, forties and fifties. They remind me of my childhood and how lovely my mother and aunts were when they were young women. In those old films the ladies always wear glamorous hats and the men sport fedoras. It’s actually the way people dressed whenever they went out on the town back in the day and it was always fun to watch the parade of people styling in their finest fashions. I sometimes think that most of us have lost the sense of elegance that was more commonplace decades ago. We are certainly more comfortable but there was something so refined about the efforts that people made when they went to church or just on a downtown shopping excursion.

I still see those who go all out for Sunday services. They wear fashions worthy of a visit to the Queen of England. They don lovely bonnets and wear stockings with their polished pumps. They are a lovely sight and in my mind they present an aura of respect for the occasion. They take the time to elevate their style from the more casual look of jeans and flip flops or sneakers. they stand out from the norm in their fastidiousness unlike the times when dressing up was more common place. 

When I was a young I always had a pair of dress shoes, gloves and a hat at the ready for Sunday services at church and special occasions. The millenary sections of department stores were filled with delightful bonnets of every conceivable style designed to perfectly compliment whatever outfit a woman or girl might wear. In all honesty I never looked particularly good in hats but I loved them nonetheless. I always managed to find at least one that complimented my features that I kept in a round hatbox of the kind that was a mainstay in most women’s closets.

I must admit that all of the lovely styles were sometimes distracting at church, especially on Easter Sunday when there was a virtual parade of fascinators bearing flowers and feathers and veils. It was a day when the old hats that were beginning to fray just a bit were put aside in lieu of the newer models for the spring and summer months. Along with all of the spring frocks, white shoes and spotless gloves the hats were indeed a sight to see.

Whenever we went shopping in downtown Houston my mom would insist that I dress in my Sunday best which meant polishing my shoes until they gleamed, wearing nylon stockings, putting gloves on my hands and donning whichever hat I had that went with the season. We’d catch the city bus so that we would not have to worry about parking a car and ride to Main Street feeling a sense of growing excitement about our adventure.

When we entered the splendor of Foley’s Department Store we felt as grand as any of the ladies wearing Chanel suits, designer hats and furs even though our fashions had been purchased in the bargain basement downstairs. I always thought my mother was one of the most beautiful women of all in her lovely dress and chapeau. She had an elegance that transcended the cost of the things that she wore. She carried herself with so much dignity and confidence that she might have been a resident of River Oaks. I always felt that those little accoutrements like gloves and stockings and hats were the keys to adding a touch of glamour to the occasion.

My husband tells me that he too accompanied his grandmother on shopping excursions downtown on many Saturdays. She had a large collection of hats that she always wore whenever she went out. She was a rare beauty who was able to choose any style and look stunning. She might literally have stepped out of one of those old films that I so enjoy with her sense of fashion and the hats that complimented her lovely features.

The days of men and women wearing fine hats as a matter of fashion are all but gone. The gimme cap is the choice of most men and women rarely cover their locks. Hats are more likely found in antique shops than in department stores. They are the stuff of  history that is slowly fading. We find hats for sale at amusement parks and quirky gift shops. We wear them on Halloween and at festivals but not so much on fine occasions. We seem to prefer to be relaxed and unencumbered by excess gear. Comfort is our accessory of choice.

I enjoy the notion that the members of the royal family in England still adhere to the old ways. Their custom demands that the ladies wear hats for special occasions. The queen always reminds me of my own mother whenever she appears in public. She has her lovely suits and still wears stocking on her legs and always there are her beautiful hats that make her look elegant even as she grows old.

Some traditions are so lovely that they should always have a place. Wearing hats is one that I think we should revive. I greatly admire those who have never given up the custom. They are so wonderfully lovely.   

A Fall Tradition

pumpkin

Fall is filled with a number of traditions for me. I don’t ever see leaves turning glorious colors unless I travel away from my home near Houston. Everything stays green here until the leaves eventually dry into a crispy brown and fall to the ground, so I bring out all of my artificial wreaths and garlands to remind me that somewhere the colors of fall are glorious. I decorate with pumpkins, acorns and pine cones, festooning my home with shades of orange, yellow, red and brown. It’s quite lovely and in many ways I enjoy the decorations of the fall season even more than those of Christmas.

I take an annual fall pilgrimage to The Cheesecake Factory to share a piece of pumpkin cheesecake with husband Mike. The treat is only available for a short time each year so I make careful plans to be certain that I don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy the creamy goodness while I can. I used to purchase an entire pumpkin cheesecake for my birthday but the days when I might eat entire slices without adding inches to my waist are long gone. Sometimes it feels as though simply looking at a slice of pumpkin cheesecake adds a pound or two to my girth. Now I eat sensibly and sparingly, but always include at least one shared slice of my favorite taste of fall.

I rearrange my closet each fall to bring jackets and sweaters within reach in case the weather finally turns cool. I store shorts and sleeveless tops farther to the back. It’s like getting a whole new wardrobe and I always find myself feeling a bit giddy about the way that the clothes hide a multitude of sins in my eternal fight to maintain a healthy weight.

So much about fall makes me incredibly happy save for one tradition that never fails to come around. Ever since I can remember there is a time when my throat begins to feel as though it is going to close up so tightly that I won’t be able to swallow. Almost without warning I am unable to speak in a normal tone of voice. My laryngitis forces me to weakly whisper any communication that I wish to convey. No lemon or honey or medication seems to help until it has run its course. For a few days each and every year I learn what it would be like to be trapped in a state of muteness.

Now that I am retired I am able to simply stay home until my body adjusts to whatever allergic reaction I have had to things floating in the air. When I was still teaching my problem was far more serious. I never felt so bad that I need to retire to bed or stay at home, but attempting to teach a lesson in mathematics with a voice so small that it sounded as though it belonged to a tiny mouse was almost impossible. Sadly each school year of my career I found myself attempting to manage students while keeping them in a learning mode without the aid of my voice that would carry across a room. It was always a challenge.

Amazingly my students always rallied to help me. They immediately sensed my predicament and rather than taking advantage of my inability to actually control the situation they resorted to extreme kindness toward me. No matter how rowdy the group of kids might have been under ordinary circumstances they rose to the occasion and proved themselves to be helpful in my time of need. It was as though their natural tendencies to be good overcame any temptations to use my illness against me. I always let them know how much I appreciated their efforts once my voice finally returned, and they assured me that they would save their shenanigans until it was a fair competition.

I find that all people, not just my students, trend toward kindness. This year when my annual bout of laryngitis came I was scheduled to have my driver’s license renewed. Upon my arrival the workers at the DPS were determined to be as surly as they are known to be until they realized that the squeak in my voice was real. Each person suddenly became incredibly helpful and even smiled at me. They actually seemed to enjoy having an opportunity to be nice. Instead of barking orders they treated me gently and even made suggestions as to how I might treat my illness.

On an evening when I was slated to help my grandsons review for a Pre Calculus test I stopped at a Starbuck’s to get some hot tea in the hopes that it might keep my voice going long enough to be of use to the study process. The barista was quite patient as I attempted to squeak out my order. The expression on his face told me that he was feeling my pain. When I was searching for the change I needed to pay my bill he anxiously waved away the few pennies that I was unable to locate and wished me godspeed and a quick recovery.

I suppose that my point is that each fall when my allergies wreak havoc on my system I am reminded that people are truly good. It’s always been that way and I am certain it always will be. It’s easy to focus on the ugliness in the world but it is the exception, not the rule. That’s why we notice it. What we often fail to see are the thousands of moments when we humans take care of one another without even being asked to do so. Being nudged to remember this each fall is just one more reason that I so love this time of year.

Nothing More Special

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When my father’s parents were living on Arlington Street in the Houston Heights we would go visit them every Sunday after church. My grandmother always prepared a lovely dinner for us and since she was a gifted cook it was invariably our most delicious meal of the week. What was most wonderful about it had little to do with the food, however, and everything to do with the joy of sitting around her big mahogany dining table laughing and talking while we filled our bellies with her beloved dishes.

My grandmother was a stickler for tradition. She covered the table with a crisply ironed cloth on which she placed her Sunday best china. She always waited for me to arrive to set the silverware next to the plates. It was from her that I learned the proper way of placing the knives and forks and spoons and folding the napkins.

In the meantime the aroma of chicken or roast beef tempted our tastebuds while Grandma put the finishing touches on potatoes, vegetables gravy and baked breads. I marveled at her ability to juggle so many culinary tasks at one time and still be so pleasantly patient. She reveled in the art of making us happy with her homegrown abilities that were all memorized in her head. Years of practice made every single item perfect and we waited with growing anticipation for her to finally announce that it was time to gather at our places to say grace before digging into all of the wondrous foods that she had prepared.

I loved the sameness of those Sunday afternoons and I missed them when my grandparents moved away to their farm in Arkansas. My mother did her best to reproduce the feel of those Sunday afternoon galas but I sorely missed the ceremonial nature of the tradition that my grandmother had brought to the table. After my father died my mom switched to going out for brunch after church which was quite a fun treat but was not nearly as wonderful as those formal gatherings at Grandma’s house.

I suppose the my wise mother knew that attempting to reproduce our once glorious Sunday tradition without my grandparents and my father would only serve to emphasize their absence in our lives. She redirected our thoughts of the old times to the adventures of eating yummy pancakes and waffles in restaurants filled with joy and laughter. Still, I would often think about how much I missed Sunday dinner with the family until I rediscovered the routine with my mother-in-law after I married.

To my great delight she was well versed in the art of entertaining on a Sunday afternoon. Like my grandmother she prepared her dining table with fine linens and her best china, silver and glassware. She was particularly well versed in the preparation of a Sunday roast in the grand tradition of England. She had learned how to perfectly roast the meat from her mother, always including potatoes and carrots and green peas. She was masterful at making a dark brown gravy to pour over the muffin-like Yorkshire pudding that was the highlight of the feast. My husband Mike always insisted that his mom never quite mastered the art of making Yorkshire pudding the way his grandmother had, but I never found any reason to fault it. It was gloriously delicious.

As my daughters grew older my mother-in-law taught them the art of setting a table just as my grandmother had done with me. They delighted in being helpful and being part of a routine that had been passed from one generation to the next. It was one of the best times of each week for all of us as we sat together being reminded of the loveliness of family and tradition.

Once the meal was finished the menfolk always went to another room to watch sporting programs or talk about the latest news. My mother-in-law brewed coffee for them and a big pot of tea for me and my girls. She always served it so elegantly along with a tray of cookies bought especially for the occasion. She showed us how to warm the pot before pouring the hot water over the tea and cautioned us in how to wait for the brew to steep. I still laugh because her very English mother who had been born in Newcastle, England had told her that Lipton tea bags made the very best brew.

We would sit and talk about wonderful things while we sipped on our tea and munched on little cookies. I so loved those times because they reminded me of the importance of family and tradition. I’d think of my grandmother who had died when I was fifteen and how she too would have enjoyed the time spent with just us women bonding over conversation and tea.

It’s been a long while since I sat down for a traditional Sunday dinner. My mother-in-law has been gone for sixteen years now. For a time I attempted to resurrect her routine for my children and grandchildren but the world was moving so quickly for everyone that it became more and more difficult to find a time when everyone was free. Sundays used to be more sacred but now weekend homework assignments and even athletic and club obligations pull children away. Everyone is moving at breakneck speed and spending three or four hours eating and relaxing is all too often a luxury that nobody can afford.

I miss those Sunday dinners and the love that they represented. Mostly I miss the people who gathered with us on the Lord’s Day. They have been gone for so long now but I still see them smiling and laughing and enjoying the biggest feast of the week. I’m so happy that I have those wonderfully joyous moments to remember. The memories are so vivid that I can almost smell the food and see my grandmother and my mother-in-law bustling about the kitchen preparing heaping mounds of love for us. There is nothing more special than that.