Glory

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As I grow older I become more and more pensive. Perhaps it is because I am retired and have more time for thinking, or maybe it’s just a characteristic of my age. I watch the elders who served as my adult role models slowly die one by one, and I become more and more familiar with the inevitability of my own mortality. I no longer have the luxury of numbering my days in large denominations. I was reminded of this when I recently purchased carpet with a twenty year guarantee and realized that I’ll be ninety years old before I must replace it again. That of course is if I’m particularly careful and follow in the footsteps of many of my long living relatives. The reality is that while the carpet may have a guarantee, my own lifespan is less certain, as is everyone’s.

I have of late been thinking about the history of my seventy years here on this earth, and I keep returning to the struggle for civil rights that so dominated my very impressionable high school and college years. As a young child I had noticed the segregation that was still so common in my native south. Whenever I had questioned my parents about what I saw they would hesitate and appear to be uncharacteristically confused and even a bit frightened by my insistence that it seemed to be so wrong. I was an innocent child who was being taught by my religion to love all of mankind and by my country that we are all equal, and yet there were visible signs that this was not happening the way it should.

When I was in middle and high school the civil rights movement began to take hold in earnest. I recall hearing about the attempts at integrating schools when I visited my grandparents in Arkansas. I had much earlier traveled north to Chicago with my parents and witnessed blacks mingling without consequence with whites on the trains and in restaurants. It seemed to be the logical and just way of doing things, and so I began following the outcome of boycotts and marches and sit ins, gleefully celebrating each victory and dissolving into disappointment each time the warriors for justice were defeated. I knew in my heart that the slowly evolving changes that were taking place had been long overdue. In fact, I was never able to reconcile the idea that humans should ever be ranked in terms of value based on highly questionable characteristics like race, religion or place of origin, a tendency that has created great cruelty throughout mankind’s history. I was thrilled to believe that our society had become enlightened enough to disavow the ugliness and ignorance that was still so apparent in many corners of our country.

Sadly I was to learn that my optimism and naivety was a bit cockeyed and premature. It took a long while for real changes to happen and in the process many of my heroes were killed, leaving me more and more unsettled. Still I eagerly celebrated each small step on the road to progress as the decades rolled by. I knew that there was still an underbelly of prejudice that was alive and well, but in my circles people were loving and eager to set our history aright. I suppose that I was so insulated by the fast paced cadence of living that I failed to notice that the road to the Promised Land stretched farther ahead than I had imagined.

I have reluctantly removed my rose colored glasses long enough to discern that our problems with getting along with one another continue to abound. Particularly of late it feels as though the scabs that had so protectively covered wounds have been torn away revealing that there are many among us who still harbor bad feelings for anyone different from themselves. The sight of people marching through the streets of Virginia emulating Nazis was particularly stomach churning for me, but even worse was our president’s reluctance to condemn them without reservation. I became more observant at that point and began to contemplate things that I had seen that niggled at my conscience but didn’t really rise to the surface. That is when I understood that if we are very honest with ourselves we will admit that there is still work to do in the area of civil rights. In fact, today there are many different groups of people who are treated as though they are somehow subservient, and this trend is sadly occurring all over the world.

I don’t believe that overt prejudice is as prevalent as it was when I was a child, but the truth is that there should never be room for any of it. When we are silent when others are being abused, we become partners in the crime. There is a disconnect when we attend church and pronounce our love of God, but then voice ugly commentaries regarding His children or allow others to do so. We must all have the courage to do what is right, rather than drawing the curtains so that we don’t have to see what is before our very eyes. We may all be wary of conflict, but there are times when we must face it down with truth, and the truth is that there are still individuals being judged not so much by who they are, but by how they appear to be.

I once went on a journey to the heartland of the civil rights movement of the nineteen sixties. I was accompanied by students who had learned Algebra I from me. I saw the places that had been blurry black and white images on the tiny screen of my family’s television in a time when I was only fifteen or sixteen or seventeen years old. I found myself becoming emotional over and over again as I stood in the kitchen of Dr. Martin Luther King and touched the vey table where he often sat to pray. I shed tears in the basement of a church in Birmingham where four little girls had been killed by a bomb blast set off by a racist. I touched the prison bars that had caged Dr. KIng’s body, but not his spirit. I walked across the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma and nearly collapsed with emotion. I walked down the street with my students toward the state house in Montgomery and remembered that glorious moment when so many brave souls had finally joined together to demonstrate the need for true equality for every human.

I’ve been wanting to take that civil rights trip once again. I want to share those moments with my husband and at least one of my grandchildren. I think that we all need reminders of our past if we are to continue moving toward a better future. I don’t believe that it behooves us to ever become complacent because that is when we get fooled into thinking that everything is as good as it is ever going to get. Somehow our human nature tends to slide back into old habits unless we exercise care.

I watched the movie Selma on Mother’s Day. It was a magnificent production and a reminder to me that I never again want to allow overt racism to exist in a legal form in my country. Because I believe that there is a constant danger of this happening I am vigilant and vocal. All good people must be advocates for justice lest those who are filled with hate and spite lead us down a dark path of division. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord who showed us how to trample the grapes of wrath. I will follow Him. 

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Our Foundation

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It’s the day after Mother’s Day and I find myself thinking about what it means to be a mom. I learned all that I needed to know from my mama who was exceptionally good at the task. I always marvel at the fact that she somehow managed to raise three children each of whom is totally different from the others. She allowed us to be ourselves and ultimately it made us into very happy adults. She loved and guided us, teaching us right from wrong, but then let us develop our own passions. She parented us all alone because our father had died when we were eight, five and three respectively.

A truly good mother like her is able to provide everything that children need, but it is a challenging  job that requires full time devotion, and my mom was always ready to give us her all. She admittedly spoiled us but only with love, not things. We appreciated her, but nonetheless I don’t think that we ever really knew how important she was to us until she had died Now we remember all of the little things that she did that once seemed so insignificant. In fact I find myself calling upon her wisdom and generous spirit more and more as time goes by.

My mother-in-law was another model of motherhood who was only able to bear a single child which was quite dangerous for her. She had a congenital heart defect that doctors felt would shorten her life, and so when she became pregnant they were certain that having a baby would kill her. Not to be bullied into terminating the pregnancy, she insisted on taking the risk. The delivery was complex but ultimately successful, and one of the proudest moments of her life. After my husband was born she the proceeded to love him so much that she turned him into one of the sweetest people to ever walk the earth. Her parenting style proved that some good things are never too much.

I was a young mother who still resembled a child when I first became a mom. I made the kind of mistakes that come from immaturity, but I know without reservation that my girls were the most wonderful gift that I had ever received. I literally thought about them almost every waking moment. More than anything I wanted them to grow to be great women like their grandmothers, and my dreams have very much come true. They are not just good moms. They are extraordinary.

Mothers are the foundation of society, the first teachers of the young. They quietly sacrifice for their children, rarely drawing attention to the many things that they do. They awake in the middle of the night to feed a hungry infant or to console a feverish body. They juggle routines and schedules to get their little ones to lessons and activities. They slowly help them to develop their talents and interests, sometimes adjusting their budgets to provide opportunities for their hard work to take hold. Their own responsibilities and worries grow, but they rarely share the concerns and stresses that rattle around in their heads. The children’s joys are their joys, just as the pain becomes theirs as well.

Sometimes we grow up and look back at photographs of our mothers and marvel at how lovely they were before we were born. We forget that they were once young themselves, dreaming of lives that may or may not have turned out the way they had imagined. We find ourselves one day looking at their graying hair and wrinkled skin and we remember when they ran and played with us. We think of those times when they tucked us into bed, or just smiled at us from across a room. They seemed to love us for no particular reason, but simply because we existed. We gained and lost friends, but our moms were ever faithful, ready to hug and comfort us even without being asked, even when we had ignored them or hurt their feelings.

Moms come in so many different versions. Like snowflakes no two are exactly the same and yet they are all similar. Some moms carry us in their wombs, and others choose us when we have no other place to go, loving us as much as they would have if we were their very own. Some moms dedicate themselves to the home and others balance their care of us with careers. All of them are beautiful.

This past weekend I attended a lovely graduation party for one of my former students. She spoke to us about the things that her mother had done to help her to earn her degree. There were nights when she was up in the middle of the night studying, nearly exhausted. Her mom would arise from her own sleep and bring coffee and encouragement. When she was frustrated her mother would cheer her onward. The young woman believes that her achievement is just as much her mother’s as her own. She understands that without the sacrifices that her mom made her great day might never have come. She rightly credited both of her parents for the wondrous things they had done from the time that she was born, and realizes that they will continue to walk beside her in her journey through life.

We sometimes forget how remarkable and demanding a job being a mom actually is. Sadly the day eventually comes when she is gone. Still her spirit somehow lives on inside our hearts. We see her in the things that we say and do. Her face in forever etched in our minds. We know that she is with us, guiding and consoling us through time and space.

God bless all of the mothers of the world and those who use their maternal instincts to help all children to grow in wisdom and grace.

Staying Cool

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I was never one of the cool kids in high school. I was a bit too serious for the really fun crowd, but people liked me and I liked them. It was not until I hit my mid twenties that I achieved a semblance of swag. By then I was way more confident and willing to let myself relax enough to enjoy life and all of the wondrous things it had to offer. When I became a teacher I did my best to be one of the cool teachers insofar as teaching mathematics allowed me to do. I learned that the secret to being with it in education involved a mix of subject knowledge along with a great deal of understanding of my students and their particular needs. Over the years my contact with young people kept me abreast of new trends and I was able to pass as someone who was more cool than not, even though I slowly began to see signs that I was losing my hipness when my children began moving toward middle age. Not only did they make fun of my quirky ways and mom jeans, but my teenage grandchildren were beginning to poke fun at them. I got the message that my time of being cool had somehow passed without my realizing it.

We are warned not to go gently into the good night, and J. Alfred Prufrock reminds us of hour hair thinning hair and waning relevance. Even though the calendar tells me that I am no longer a spring chicken, something in my soul feels so very young, When I gaze into the mirror I often have a double take because I just don’t know who the person staring back at me might be. The wrinkles and gray hairs surely must belong to someone else. I wonder when my knees began to ache and why I can’t work all day in my yard like I used to do. I try to remember exactly when it was that I was no longer able to escape the pains that rack body when I over exert myself. My brain has yet to accept my reality, and it is only when some stranger politely treats me as though I am old and frail that I realize that the outside world doesn’t see me the way I see myself. This truth is compounded whenever I discern that my teenage granddaughter is a bit embarrassed when I get really silly, something that used to amuse her but now causes her to turn red in the face. It is as though the world is asking me to act my age, and I am not yet willing to comply.

There seems to be a period of time during which society expects us to begin the process of accepting that we are no longer the rockstars that we once were. We are expected to slowly and gracefully transition into the life of a senior citizen, understanding that it is anathema to dress or speak or act as though we have not aged. We have a role to play, and we must do so willingly. It is only after we have proven that we know how to be members of the elderly population that we have permission to be as daring as we were in our youth. People in their nineties are thought to be adorable if they revert into a kind of second childhood. We love Betty White because she has taken the cute and quirky factor of being old to a level of high coolness, but she is only afforded respect because she paid her dues along the way and admits proudly to her age. She doesn’t try to hide the years. She rejoices in them.

I’m admittedly still raging against the idea that my youthfulness is done. My brain is thankfully still working quite well aside from the moments when I forget what I was about to do or say. I can outwork people half my age, and I know as much about current music as anyone. Still I find myself feeling less and less in the mainstream and more and more of an antique. I have seven decades of memories which seem fresh and new until I find old photographs of myself that look like something from a museum of history. Even worse is seeing my contemporaries with graying and thinning hair wearing the same kind of comfort shoes that I need to keep from hurting myself.

Don’t get me wrong. I totally enjoy having grandchildren and being retired. I feel for the younger folk who have to go to work each day while I am as free as a bird to do whatever I wish. There are so many perks that go with being my age and I am enjoying every single one of them to the max. I just have to keep reminding myself that to every time there is a season, and mine is far different than it once was. Being cool at my age means handing over the baton to the younger generation and encouraging them to be their best selves. It is a process of enjoying every moment and loving all of the lines and scars that are the trophies of having really lived. Being hip is understanding that the good old days are still coming and while looking backward may be fun, progress is even better. I know that I will never again look like I did when I was twenty five, but I can be happy that I’m alive and active and able to still give of myself to the people around me. That in itself is very cool.

The coolest person that I have ever known was my Grandfather William. He lived to be one hundred eight years old and never once complained that the world was not as great as it used to be. He was excited about each and every sign of change, and celebrated the good that it brought to humanity. He knew when it was time to quit driving his car for safety sake. He adjusted to the challenges that came his way. He always seemed to know and appreciate how popular culture was benefiting us, and he thought that young people were brighter and more wonderful than ever. He understood that being cool meant being optimistic and resilient and that everything old becomes new again. I guess that given his example I realize that while I may not be trending like Beyonce, I’ve still managed to stay cool. Maybe I’m not getting old. Maybe I’m getting better.

Tasteless Bread

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“Radio and television speech becomes standardized, perhaps better English than we have ever used. Just as our bread, mixed and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident of human frailty, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech.” 

― John SteinbeckTravels with Charley: In Search of America

Back when I was in college I took a linguistics class that was fascinating. One of the requirements was to write a paper and I decided to do some undergraduate research. I recorded the voices of several women who had all grown up in Houston, Texas. They varied in age from the late sixties to early teens. I had them all read the same passage and then answer some questions about it so that their more natural way of speaking would become apparent. I then created a questionnaire whose purpose was to find out if the listeners detected any kind of regional dialect in the speakers. I played the recordings without comment and then had the respondents complete their answers to the questions.

The results were much as I had expected them to be, but fascinating nonetheless. A hundred percent of those who took the survey could hear a definite Texas twang in the speech of the older women, but wondered if the younger speakers were from some other part of the country like the Midwest. In fact, the survey answers indicated that as the speakers became younger, less and less of a regional dialect was apparent.

I drew some conclusions based on various theories that we had studied in class, the main one being that the younger individuals who spoke had grown up watching television which generally favors a rather bland Midwestern way of speaking. In addition our city of Houston had become much more diverse and cosmopolitan over time leading the younger women to more exposure to different ways of speaking. Finally, the educational system had impacted the young by allowing them to interact with teachers from places all over the country, unlike the older women who had mostly learned from people native to the area.

My professor was quite pleased with my study and gave me a high mark. I knew that to draw any meaningful conclusions regarding dialects I would need to have more speakers, more respondents and better controls, but it was a somewhat daring project for an undergraduate and my teacher appreciated my efforts. He also agreed with many of the conclusions that I formed as to way there was such a dramatic difference in the ways of speaking.

There was a time when it was quite easy to detect linguistic differences in people. New Orleans had its “Where ya at?’ natives, and Chicago had its south side workers who cheered for “da Bears.” There were the people from Jersey and those from Georgia, all of whom gave away their place of origin the minute they opened their mouths to speak. Of course there was also the classic Texas drawl that stereotyped our state for posterity, but according to the most recent research many of the linguistic differences are dying out as people have more and more access to the world at large. The kind of isolation that bred distinct ways of speaking is becoming less and less frequent, so for the most part there are few people today who actually never hear anyone but the people in the immediate neighborhood.

My high school English teacher used to encourage us to become citizens of the world. This was long before anyone was even dreaming of the Internet or hundreds of channels on television. At the time I rarely ventured more than a few miles from my neighborhood and even then it was to visit with relatives who spoke in ways similar to mine. To this day I have a discernible accent that has been described by strangers as cute, southern or even Texan. They seem able to determine where I was born, but mostly are unable to hear the same dialect in the speech of my daughters. Only once was one of them referred to as a “Cracker” when she was working in Chicago and someone heard a hint of the south in her speech.

We are more and more becoming just Americans with regard to the way we talk, The old differences are fading and mostly found in older citizens rather than the young as noted in the most recent studies. The old ways of speaking are becoming the venue of folklore and should probably be recorded for posterity so that we might one day remember a way of life that is vanishing.

My grandfather grew up in the hills of Virginia. He was not even listed in a census until 1930, mostly because nobody wanted to travel into the backwoods areas to find him and his family. His way of speaking was quite representative of the area where he lived. When I played a recording of him telling a story to someone whose childhood was spent in the same part of the country, he smiled with recognition and said that it sounded just like his own older relatives. He noted that there are still places so remote that the local accents thrive, but in his own case all traces are gone. His education as well as his travels to New York City and Chicago have all but eliminated any hints of his origins.

Language is a fascinating way of expressing ourselves that tells us so much about who we are and where we have been. Today our influences are so many that it is becoming more and more difficult for anyone who is not an expert or who does not possess a good ear to discern our stories simply from the way we speak. In some ways that is a sign of progress, and in others it is just a bit sad. There was something quite delightful in the variety that was once so evident in our voices. Perhaps it will one day be little more than a memory as our speech becomes one speech, better but devoid of our frailties.

Until We Meet Again

pexels-photo-424517.jpegDear Lynda,

I remember the first time I met you as clearly as if it was just yesterday. I should have been excited about moving to a new house, but I wasn’t. I liked my neighborhood, my friends and my school, and I could not imagine being as happy in a new place. I rather grudgingly traveled with my parents to our home, and was quite pleasantly surprised when your family came across the street to welcome us as soon as we arrived. When your mom found out that I was in the same grade as you she immediately introduced us and the rest was so glorious! It almost seemed as though we had been destined to meet and become friends. To this very day I still tell people that you were my first best friend, and probably the most wonderful of the lot.

I was six going on seven and could not imagine anything more wonderful than those happy days that we shared riding our bicycles all over the neighborhood while singing “Jesus Loves Me” at the top of our lungs. We’d hang out in the woods across from the school and squeal with delight on the big tree swing that went over the bayou. Each afternoon we paused to watch The Mickey Mouse Club together and discussed the Mouseketeers and the stories of Spin and Marty as though they were our real friends. I so loved being with your big family and eating at the picnic table in your kitchen. I felt as though I was your sister and sometimes even wished that I actually was.

We told each other our secrets and shared both our fears and our dreams. I don’t believe that I have ever again felt so completely close to anyone as I did with you back then. I loved your grandmother as much as my own and I still laugh with amazement as I remember her bending over to place her palms flat on the floor. That was a wonderful trick in my mind that made her even more lovable than she already was.

We joined the Brownie scouts together and I recall a sad time when Mrs. Guidry, one of our leaders, died. Our mothers took us to the funeral home to pay our respects and there she was lying in the casket in a blue negligee. You and I thought that it was hilarious to see her that way, and we began giggling so much that we were unable to stop. I think that our mom’s were horrified by our behavior, but we were just two silly girls who had never seen someone reposed in death before. I suspect that our laughing was more of a nervous reaction than a sign of disrespect, and  were such pals that our brains seemed to be melded together. We thought alike on so many things.

When my family moved once again, this time to California, I was bereft. I could not even imagine being without you. My time so far away was truly terrible and I suppose that I pouted and carried on a bit too much, but it was so painful to leave the one person with whom I felt so happy and free. Those months away were some of the worst of my lifetime and I often prayed that we would somehow be united. Of course we did come back, but our situation became so very different. My father died and I was so confused. My mother thought it best that my brothers and I not have to endure his funeral and it was you who understood how much I needed to know how the ceremony had been. You went with your family and then so honestly gave me all of the details. I always felt that our bond was even more special after that because I knew how much you understood me.

Life has a way of bringing people together and then pulling them apart, and so it was with the two of us. Even though we moved back to the old neighborhood after Daddy’s death we were many blocks away from you and so our meetings became a bit rarer, but we still stayed in touch and I so enjoyed every single time that we were able to talk and just be together. We were always able to pick up as though it had only been five minutes since we parted.

We went to different high schools and became involved in our teenage worlds and saw less and less of each other, but our special bond never grew weak. We married and started families and spent wonderful times visiting and watching our children play together. You had become so incredibly beautiful and I often laughed inside when I remembered how you had once wondered if you would ever be as lovely as your mom. Our worlds seem to be so perfect, but then life took over and jerked us into reality. I became a caretaker for my mother as she struggled with mental illness and you assumed the role of single mother, caring for your three boys and working full time. The years raced by and it seemed as though perhaps our friendship would be just a very lovely memory, but somehow we managed to speak again and found that we still had that magical feeling of comfort when we are together.

We’ve seen and done so much since those carefree days when we were little girls. Both of us will be seventy by the end of this year. I can’t even imagine where the years have gone, but my childish belief that we would somehow stay close through the years wasn’t so silly after all. The months may stretch out between our meetings, and we may be in different cities, but we somehow find our way back to each other time and again. With each meeting we realize that there is something rather special about our relationship that will never change.

I will love you and cherish our remarkable friendship for all of the rest of my days. You are a part of my heart, of my life, and I am so thankful that I met you. So much of who I am today was born on those bicycle rides and in our oh so serious conversations. You are an angel who is always on my mind. In fact, yours is one of the few birthdays that I always remember. Each April 19, for more than sixty decades I have thought of you and hoped that you are doing well. Thank you for being the remarkably loving and inspiring person that you are. May we both look forward to many more opportunities to see each other and to enjoying so much more laughter. God bless and keep you until we meet again. Happy Birthday!