A Kind of Angel

pexels-photo-414586.jpegThe first time I saw her I was struck by her elegance. Her hands were particularly lovely with long slender beautifully manicured fingers. She used them for effect in conversation and they were mesmerizing. She was kind and welcoming, but I somehow still felt inadequate in her presence. I found myself fidgeting and trying to think of something intelligent to say, some remark that would prove that I was worthy of her company. Nothing came to me so I just sat quietly listening to her confidently speak of this and that. I liked her, but I was in awe and so I felt uncomfortable and hardly tasted the food that was set before me. It would be a very long time before I understood that her strength and confidence made her kind and loving. She would be a lifelong ally, a kind of angel protecting me and those that I loved. That’s the way she was, a selfless person.

She was a tiny thing, only five feet tall, but she somehow always seemed statuesque. When she drove her car her head barely peeked over the dashboard. Sometimes it appeared that nobody was behind the wheel, and the sight of it made me laugh. She taught me many things about people and their natures. She was a great listener, someone who truly cared. Her advice was right on target, but I didn’t always take it. Perhaps I was hard headed or maybe a bit silly or even a tiny bit jealous from time to time. Still, I loved her so and took our moments together for granted as though she would always be around.

She had often told me of her health problems. She had already lived far longer than she should have. She was born with a heart condition. Not even surgery would guarantee that she would live as long as most of us do. I suppose that knowing that the clock was ticking made her more aware of the need to get as much out of each day as possible. She lived with optimism and a generous spirit, but she was unwilling to put up with hypocrites or fools. She was intensely loyal and protective of those that she loved. Like a mama bear she went after anyone who attempted to hurt the members of her family. She was not someone with whom to trifle.

I hung on to her words and tucked them away in my memory for future use, which was wise because she is gone now, and I miss her so. There are occasions when I need her wisdom and wish that we might have just one more opportunity to discuss the things that worry me. She had a way of setting things right by helping me to find the answers that I sought. She was stern with me whenever I was being foolish. She reminded me of my own strength and pushed me to be the person that I was meant to be.

I know that I am very fortunate for having known such a remarkable woman. Her spirit still lives inside my heart. When I waver I can almost hear her voice urging me to be courageous. It’s almost as though she leaves me little hints that tell me that she is still watching over me like a guardian. A few nights ago when I was stewing over a situation unable to sleep I listened to music from Pandora, and out of the blue came Fur Elise a song that she often played on the piano with those exquisite hands. I smiled as a calm came over me. I recalled the words she had used to soothe me when I became stressed and certain that my world was crashing down. She taught me how to control whatever I might and ignore those things that were beyond my reach.

It is something that she had learned as a child after she was told that she must relax or run the risk of dying. Instead of stewing over the possibility of an early demise she decided to pack as much wonder into each day as she might. She understood that she did not have time to waste on worry if her days were numbered. She did all of the things that she was instructed to do to stay as healthy as possible and then really lived. She ultimately survived far longer than her doctors had predicted. I suspect that was because she did not waste a single moment on cynicism or sadness.

She died peacefully. One moment she was hugging her husband and telling him how much she loved him. In the next second she had a violent headache and then went into a stroke induced coma. As she lay dying she appeared to be a sleeping beauty. It almost seemed as though she would awake and smile at us and give us her laugh of delight that literally brought sunshine into a room. We didn’t want to believe that she was taking her final breaths because she meant so much to all of us. She waited until we had all gone for some dinner to partake of her heavenly reward. It was so like her not to upset us by leaving while we watched. She would not have wanted us to be hurt.

It has been almost sixteen years since she left but somehow I feel her presence again and again. I see her in her granddaughters and great grandchildren. I retell them her stories and know that she would want me to remind them of what is important. Family and friendships were the focus of her life. Nothing was more important even though she was a woman who might have done anything. Those of us who knew her rank her among the greatest heroines of all time. Those who did not will never understand what they missed. She lived her life with integrity and compassion. I was lucky to be her daughter-in-law and her friend.


Planting A Garden Of Love


While there are still signs of winter in many parts of the world here in Houston, Texas spring has definitely arrived. The azaleas in my yard are blooming and the roses are bursting forth in all of their glory. The once barren trees have tiny leaves peeking from the limbs, and tiny ferns are popping up from the soil. Signs of life are everywhere with even the pair of doves that live in my backyard cooing in harmony with the noisy mockingbirds and jays. This is one of my favorite times of year when nature reminds us of redemption and possibilities.

This year I decided to plant some vegetables in my flowerbeds. It’s been many years since I have done that. For a time when my daughters were still young we had bountiful crops each spring and summer. Our larders were filled with green peppers, tomatoes, squash and cucumbers. This year I am hoping to enjoy my former success at gardening, but a worry about the pesky squirrel that often visits my yard or the countless birds searching for a meal. I’ve been doing some research in how to prevent critters from consuming my vegetables before I have the chance to harvest them and I’m not so sure that I will be able to ward them off because I don’t own the one thing that is supposed to be a great guard against pilferers. Namely my best bet is to have either a cat or a dog to chase them away.

Back when my farming was so successful we had a fabulous dog named Red. She was a born hunter who often displayed her trophies for us to find. She was a golden retriever who had perfected every one of her instincts. She was fast and always alert. No mice dared come near our place and birds were very respectful in her presence. They tended to stay perched in the trees rather than attempting to make a snack out of my vegetables. I suppose that I never really thought of just how much Red was doing for us in the way of standing watch. I knew that she was a great guard dog when it came to humans, but I didn’t appreciate her vigilance over my garden as much as I should have.

Red was as smart as they come and always faithful. She loved everyone in the family and most of the neighbors as well. Sometimes she hopped the fence and took little strolls around the block but she always came back home. I was amused by the fact that she was able to get out of the backyard but could not seem to get back in, so she just waited patiently on the front porch for us to notice that her wandering was done. I’d sure like to have her back, but she crossed the Rainbow Bridge long ago along with other friends like Buddy and Scarlet and Shane. So I guess I’m on my own in protecting my garden this summer if I’m to taste some juicy tomatoes or enjoy a bunch of succulent squash.

It’s going to be fun watching all of my plants grow from the sun and the rain. I’m anxious to see what varieties will be the most successful. I have onions and potatoes, cucumbers and tomatoes. There are peppers and squash and all kinds of herbs. Last year I enjoyed having fresh basil and oregano for my soups and salads. This year I’ve added parsley, cilantro and thyme.

While I was searching for ideas as to how to keep the marauders at bay I found recipes for preparing a hot pepper concoction to create a ring of protection around my plants. That’s when I discovered a cute little poem about how to plant a garden of love. It suggested that it’s time to squash hate, prejudice and jealousy while peppering our actions with kindness and compassion. I liked that idea and began to think of how appropriate it is to focus on renewing ourselves as well as our gardens at this time of year. Much like the plants that are springing back to life, now is a time for each of us to consider how we might grow and become the best versions of ourselves.

Working in the soil and creating life is one of humankind’s most basic tasks. As we plunge our hands into the dirt to plant seeds and cuttings we become one with nature and feel the kind of unity that we should always enjoy with the world around us. We need to be the stewards who care for the wonderful things that we have, and that should include the air, water, plants, creatures and people with whom we share this earth. We cannot forget our obligations to treasure this amazing planet and all that it holds. Springtime reminds us of what we need to do.

When I think of Red I realize the kind of traits that all of us need to cultivate. She was as sweet and loving as any creature might ever be. Best of all was her infinite loyalty and unwavering instinct to protect. She was also sensitive and compassionate as in a time when I was very ill with the flu and she slept by my bed all day long, making certain that I would be okay. We might all learn a thing or two about faithfulness from a wonderful pet like Red.

I jokingly told my eldest grandson that I was turning into my grandmother Minnie Bell. I would like to think that I am somewhat like her, but I have a way to go to be as remarkable as she was, a humble and uncomplicated woman who simply enjoyed life as it was given to her. She had an almost sacred communion with nature and the people around her. Without judgement she embraced every person that she met. Those are things that I am still working on achieving, but sometimes when I’m puttering in my yard and listening to the birds I think I understand how Grandma found her contentment. I realize that all the things in the world cannot compare to the pleasure of seeing someone smile or watching the earth burst into a symphony of sounds that rival the most glorious musical composition. I hope that my plants provide me with a bountiful crop, but more than that I want to spread the seeds of love this spring and all the year through.

So Beautiful To Me

pexels-photo-658687.jpeg“She woke up every morning with the option of being anyone she wished. How beautiful it was that she always chose herself.” —-Unknown

I was a gangly, awkward girl all the way through high school, so shy that I often hid in the library pretending to do homework so I wouldn’t have to mix it up with my fellow classmates in the cafeteria each morning. I often found myself wishing that I was more like this girl or that. There was the beautiful young woman with that almost electric smile, the sweet person who was able to talk with anyone. All of them had something that I wanted and thought that I would never have, a car, a boyfriend, tons of confidence. I was a mound of teenage angst, and all the while so was everyone else but I had little idea that they were as confused and self conscious as I was.

Ultimately I grew up, literally overnight. When my mother had her first and scariest mental breakdown I found myself mostly on my own in finding her the care that she needed. My love for her was so strong that I was able to pull strength from deep inside my mind that I never thought that I had. At first I simply copied the attitudes of the women that I knew and admired for their courage. Eventually muscle memory trained from encounters with doctors and bankers and such transformed me into my own person. I no longer needed to pretend to be someone. I knew that I was someone.

I met a married a remarkable man who loved to tell the story of how he was “thunder struck” from the moment that he first saw me. He became my best friend and my muse. He thought that I was beautiful just as I was and that even my imperfections were made me unique. I was hardly the kind of person who would turn heads in a room full of people, but he convinced me that loveliness begins from inside and radiates outward with little relationship to external features. It is an aura derived from depth of character and inner determination to live life with joy.

I vividly recall the very day when I totally embraced and chose myself. It had started with an unremarkable daily routine of washing my face and brushing my teeth. I was in the process of hopelessly attempting to tame my fine fly away hair when I caught a unique glimpse of my image in the mirror. It was as though I was seeing myself with a new set of eyes, and I realized how much I liked me. I smiled at the realization that even if I had the option of being anyone I wished, I would choose myself. It was a stunning moment that transformed me forevermore. It was as though I had unlocked the power that had always been there, but I had never before realized.

Over time I worked with young adolescents in middle schools and high schools. I saw their unsteadiness firsthand, and understood that even the most self assured among them was in truth filled with self doubts and sometimes even self loathing. Trying to fit into our own skin is a painful developmental process that takes as much time to achieve as physical or academic growth. Researchers into such things now know that our brains are not fully developed until well into our twenties and even then some of us take a bit longer. Just as babies meet their milestones at varying ages, so too do we adults find and believe in ourselves at different times of life. Sadly there are those who sometimes never reach a point of fully appreciating their own essences.

Of course it is in our natures to question ourselves from time to time. The stresses of living bear down on us and cause us to become dissatisfied. We look over our fences and invariably find grass that is greener than ours. There is always someone who ages more gracefully, drives a better car, lives in a more exclusive neighborhood, earns more money. If we spend a lifetime of comparing we are continually wishing to be someone other than ourselves. We never quite reach that joyful moment of truly liking ourselves and wanting to be no other, or we interrupt our contentment with waves of jealousy.

I once read a book whose title now eludes me that posited a theory that even if we were to have multiple opportunities to think and act in ways other than the ones that we initially chose we would in all probability react to various people and events in much the same way. In other words we each view the world based on our genetics and environmental realities, and those factors guide our thinking through a series of motions and emotions that slowly but surely teach us how to be. We become ourselves through trial and error, and hopefully learn to accept ourselves with whatever strengths and weaknesses we may have. As mature adults we work with what we have to make the changes that we desire. We learn to use our best traits not so much to make ourselves more attractive, but to better the world around us. The most lovely among us are those who have been able to think less about how they may appear and more about how to help the people they encounter.

I now enjoy and embrace the opportunities to be with the individuals who once walked the halls of my high school with me. We have all grown older and wiser and far more beautiful than ever before. Our thoughts are not of who seems to have done the best, but simply of each other’s welfare. We know and like who we are as individuals and we revel in the well being of every member of our group. Looking back we are able to see that our blessings have outweighed our trials. All of us know that our thinning hair and expanding waists do not define us. The wrinkles on our faces and wear and tear on our hands are badges of honor, bearing witness to our hard work and compassion. The mistakes we have made attest to our adventurous spirits. We smile at the images in the mirror without seeing the flaws or wishing that it were that of someone else. It is beautiful to choose ourselves.

The Legacy

Mary B. Ulrich & Sharron

We each possess a unique gift which we might give our children and our grandchildren. It is the story of who we are and from whence we have come. The links that we provide from one generation to the next form a foundation for the young. Sometimes to get where they are going they need to know where they have been. They learn this when we tell them about our family history. 

I grew up in two different worlds. The first was marked by refinement and a certain level of privilege. Before my father died we lived in homes that were newer and more spacious than those of the other members of our extended family. Our house was always beautifully furnished and filled with books and music. We went on yearly vacations, traveling all over the United States in fancy cars. I mostly took my good fortune for granted. I had little idea how much work it had taken my father to earn his college degree so that he might have a well paying job that supported our lifestyle. I did not then understand that our position in the middle class had been an enormous social leap for both of my parents. I had no idea that our situation was as fragile as it actually was.

Part two of my biography was one of great challenges. My father’s death changed our situation in palatable ways. Our economic status shrunk overnight. My mother had to use her intellect and resources to stretch our budget into almost impossible proportions. Every decision had to be weighed and measured with great care lest we find ourselves without the basics of living. Somehow she always managed to see us through each struggle that we faced, but I still find myself wondering how she performed so many miracles. We had just what we needed to survive and not a bit more. Vacations became a thing of the past other than visiting our grandparents’ farm. Somehow in spite of the rigidity of our budget we never felt deprived. Our mother put food on the table at every meal and kept our few articles of clothing clean and mended.

As children we were entertained by friendships with children in the neighborhood. We built forts out of Christmas trees or by hanging sheets and bedspreads on the clotheslines where our laundry dried on warm sunny days. We held games of Red Rover and Swing the Statue in the front yard and rode our bicycles down to the woods or the park. Someone was always inventing some adventurous way of spending the daylight hours, and everyone ran free in their shorts and bare feet so that we hardly noticed that we may not have had clothes as fine as theirs.

On Friday nights we always went to visit our Slovakian grandmother who welcomed us with  mugs of sugary coffee laced with so much milk that we hardly noticed the taste of the brew. She gave us slices of fresh rye bread from Weingarten’s grocery and on very special days fried up slices of round steak in her big iron skillet.

The most English we ever heard from her was her greeting of “Hello, pretty boy/girl.” She made us feel loved and special even though we never once were able to have a conversation with her. Most of the time she sat in her chair and in the corner of her tiny living room smiling at us while we ran around like a bunch of noisy hell cats. My aunts and uncles engaged in games of penny poker or argued as though they were still young children vying for their mother’s attention. We played “hide and find,” our own version of the childhood game that has been around for centuries. Sometimes we created our own family newspaper or watched episodes of “The Twilight Zone” or Friday night wrestling.

We often sat in our bachelor uncle’s bedroom talking and telling jokes within view of his loaded pistol which we would never have dared to touch. Sadly we did use his records as coasters for our drinks, but he didn’t seem to notice our disrespect for his prize collection of music from Louis Armstrong and other jazz greats. We knew that he worked for the Post Office and had once been a railroad man until he broke his leg in an accident. He had matchbooks from gambling spots in Galveston and there was a mysterious air about him. He was both a bit scary and a great big teddy bear at one and the same time and he loved us all.

We often wondered about our grandfather who had died before most of us were born. We knew little of him, but heard that he had worked at a meat packing plant all the way up until the time that he had a stroke from which he eventually died. He had built a huge library of books of all sorts that he brought home one at a time each Friday evening after he was paid. He owned a cow that provided milk for his eight children and cherished the goal of one day having a farm of his own. Each Sunday afternoon he gave his family lessons on morality and good citizenship and taught them to be proud of who they were. I would have like to have met him because I think he must have been a very interesting man.

On Sundays we always went to see people from our father’s side of the family. Our mother thought that it was important for us to stay in contact with them. My paternal grandmother was a tiny woman who was famous for her cooking. Going to her house always meant that we would be treated to an extraordinary meal. When she wasn’t busy creating yummy dishes, she was either crocheting or embroidering or making quilts. Her sewing was like delicate works of art and her crooked old hands belied her ability to weave intricate stitches and knots. Her gardens were legendary and she even knew how to talk with birds. I always found it fascinating that her knowledge of the world was encyclopedic given that she was illiterate. I don’t have any recipes or instructions from her because she carried all that she knew inside her head.

My grandfather was a strong man with great big hands that he used to build things. He smoked a pipe and told the most delightful stories. He might have been a wonderful writer but for lack of time. He worked until he was eighty eight years old and only quit because his supervisor thought that his advanced age made him a liability. He read for hours every single day and was able to quote passages well into his nineties. He drove an old black Plymouth whose leather seats smelled of sweet tobacco. Life had always been hard for him, but he was a survivor of the highest order and insisted on maintaining optimism no matter how terrible things became.

I learned that I was from strong stock, people who were determined to live and love and carry on regardless of what befell them. They taught me the value of hard work, education and determination. They helped me to realize that I need not be held back by my circumstances. They encouraged me and my brothers to dream big and to believe in ourselves. They were always there in both the good and bad times. We knew that we were never alone, and still aren’t. This is who we were and what has made us who we are. Our children and grandchildren are part of the unending thread that traces back through the centuries. I hope that they always remember how grand and noble their heritage truly is. The legacy of their family is indeed rich.

The Suit

William Mack Little - Suit

My husband used to have to wear a suit to work every day. Each morning he would don a newly laundered and starched shirt, arrange one of his ties from his vast collection around the collar, and select one of the suits that served as his uniform. When he retired he stored the suits in the back of the closet and rarely pulled one on save for funerals and the like. Eventually he noted that those symbols of his forty years of daily toil were probably at least fifteen or more years old and looking a bit threadbare. Besides he had recently lost fifty pounds and they hung on him like a tent. It was time to purchase a new suit.

I accompanied my man to the store for consultation and while he was being measured by the tailor I found myself laughing at a memory of my grandfather. Grandpa had purchased a brand new gray suit for his ninetieth birthday party. He sat regally among his family members wearing the trappings of a sharp dressed man including a hat that shielded his bald head from the burning rays of the sun. Someone took a photograph of him on that day that became a treasure for those of us who so loved him. It would always remind us of how gentlemanly he always carried himself and how handsome he was. He hardly looked his age in the image, nor did his countenance betray the hardships that he had endured over ninety decades. I vividly recall that he had joked that he had purchased the clothing both as a birthday suit and the outfit that he planned to wear to his own funeral. Ironically he lived to the grand old age of one hundred eight and as he neared his last days he would note that his suit was all worn out.

Doctors said that my grandfather’s longevity was due mostly to having good genes. Nonetheless I always believed it was because he had the spirit of a survivor. Somehow he managed to use the tragedies of his life to grow stronger rather than to brood over his sorrows. He never knew his mother who died twenty days after he was born and by his own admission his father was a heavy drinking reprobate who did not amount to much. He was essentially abandoned to the care of his grandmother, a widow, who left a very positive impression on him. They lived a somewhat isolated existence in the backwoods of Virginia and his stories of their time together brought a mischievous twinkle to his eyes. Sadly his grandmother died when he was only thirteen and he became a ward of the court until the judge appointed one of his uncles as his guardian. Around that time his birth father who was still very much alive contracted small pox and Grandpa went to care for him. Some of his best tales centered around that time and the primitive nature of medicine back then. His father miraculously survived the disease and my grandfather amazingly never contracted the illness in spite of its highly contagious nature.

My grandfather grew up quickly as so many young men did in that era. He was on his own well before he had left his teenage years. His education was minimal but he was a quick learner with a willingness to adapt to any situation. He began traveling around the country picking up work wherever he went. It was a tough and lonely life but not that different from the norm of that era. He found solace in drinking which lead him to follow in his father’s alcoholic footsteps. After one evening of heavy imbibing he felt particularly repulsed with himself and vowed to mend his ways. He never again touched even a drop of liquor demonstrating the strength of character that we all saw in him.

Grandpa was forty before he met my grandmother and married. She was the center of his life and whenever he spoke of her his face lit up with pure joy. He often called her his buddy and talked of how much fun they had even long after she had died. Together they had two children, one of whom was my father. They were quite proud of my dad. He was a brilliant man who was the first in his family to graduate from high school and then earn a college degree. They always referred to my daddy as a good boy, so it was quite devastating to both of them when he died when he was only thirty three years old.

My grandmother was never quite the same after her beloved son died. Grandpa did his best to make her happy and the two of them enjoyed tending to their farm in Arkansas but seven years after my father died my grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Grandpa moved her to Houston so that she would be nearer the medical care that she would need. He tended to her with loving care, watching his savings dwindle to nothing because of the huge expenses associated with her treatment. He was eighty eight years old when she died. His pockets were empty and he had to sell his home to pay all of the medical bills. He found a room to rent and the strength to carry on.

By the time that my grandfather was ninety years old and wearing his new suit in his birthday photo his worldly goods consisted of what he was wearing, a few other changes of clothing, some favorite books and magazines, and the pipe that he smoked as he sat in his favorite recliner reading or enchanting his many visitors with his tales of a time so different from the modern era. His mind was sharp as a tack and his sense of humor never wavered. Only now and again would he speak of feeling tired, and that mostly occurred when someone that he loved had died which was happening with greater greater frequency as the years continued.

Grandpa took great pride in being independent. He admired courageous people. He took care of himself, proudly living within his limited means. He was perennially optimistic even when times became tough. He would tell us of the Panic of 1893, which in his words was a depression even more horrific than the so called Great Depression of the twentieth century. He had seen the world convulsing through the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the war in Vietnam. He had witnessed the world at its best and its worst over and over again. He understood that there really is a circle of life that repeats itself at intervals. He believed in the brilliance and goodness of mankind because he had seen the changes again and again that set the world aright even as it sometimes teetered into chaos. He had learned that there is always a way to carry on even in the most horrific of times.

We sometimes act as though our present situation is somehow unique in the annals of history. We behave as if the end of times is somehow near. We complain that daily life is more terrible than it has ever been. We wish for quieter times and complain about how difficult things have become. If my grandfather were still here with us he would calmly suggest that the world is actually unfolding in ways that make it just a tiny bit better with each passing day. Every generation has had is share of troubles and woes, but ours occur against a backdrop of plenty that was not even dreamed of in earlier times. Our advances in medicine, education, science, technology and even social programs were astounding to my grandfather and made him feel hopeful even when things became quite difficult. My grandfather was certain that we were headed in the right direction even when we felt lost or had to take a circuitous route to get back on track. He was a patient man who in the end taught those of us who knew him how to remain strong and positive and most of all loving. When I think of him in his dapper suit and I take a deep breath and carry on.