An Unexpected Journey

coffee-plantIt was late on a Friday night, just after a Houston Astros baseball game and fireworks display. The crowd was a bit down because the hometown team had lost. Everyone was anxious to get home, and Houston’s congested streets weren’t cooperating. After waiting for what seemed to be forever we turned out of our parking garage needing to navigate instantly across four lanes of wall to wall cars. It became apparent soon enough that such a maneuver wasn’t going to happen. We were stuck and had to go in a direction that was the exact opposite of what we needed. Luckily I knew exactly what to do because the baseball park is located in the eastern end of downtown Houston, an area that I have known for all of my life.

My grandmother once lived only minutes away from where we were in a tiny house just off of Navigation. I had traversed these streets in the backseat of my mother’s car hundreds of times as she regaled me with the stories of her young life and the places that had been so much a part of her history. For most of my childhood this area had been rundown and a bit foreboding. There were often women of the night walking the littered streets or drunken men sipping brew out of bottles hidden in brown paper bags. The old train station was still there back then and Mama often boasted that she had taken a trip all the way to San Diego to visit a friend just after she graduated from high school. That had seemed a rather bold and daring thing to do, and I was proud of my mom’s adventurous spirit. I loved hearing about her youth and the history of east Houston where she had lived with her seven brothers and sisters. It had always been difficult for me to envision what that section of town had actually once been like because it seemed so abandoned and dreary by the time that I was going there.

Today Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros, stands where the train station once dominated the area. In 1912, My grandfather rented a room in a long gone boarding house not far from the stadium before my grandmother arrived from Slovakia. Eventually he purchased a small parcel of land and built a home for his family just to the east of downtown. He had a variety of jobs before settling down at the Houston Packing Company located on Navigation making his commute from home a short one. A service station now stands where there were once pens filled with livestock waiting to be slaughtered.

On the night when we were forced by the traffic to head in the direction of my family’s old homestead I assured my husband that I knew exactly where I was going. Soon enough I was overcome with joy as the aroma of roasting coffee beans filled my nostrils. For the entirety of my childhood I had inhaled that delicious smell on Friday nights when we routinely went to visit my grandmother. It was always so lovely.

The whiff of coffee literally transported me back to a time when I ran and played with my cousins while our parents played penny ante poker as though they were in a Las Vegas competition vying for hundreds of thousands of dollars. In my mind’s eye I could once again see my grandmother padding across the worn wooden floors of her home in her bare feet carrying enameled cups of steaming hot coffee in her hands to offer her guests, including us children. She always smiled beatifically as she offered the brew filled with heaping mounds of sugar and milk. I thought of her saintly face and that sweet smile of satisfaction that she flashed when we sipped on the liquid without complaint. She always kept a big pot of the weak honey colored coffee on her stove, ready for any guests who arrived.

Grandma was ever a loving and generous hostess, and to me she was so beautiful with her blue eyes and her hair arranged in a long black pigtail that trailed down her back. She was not quite five feet tall and as round as Mrs. Santa Claus. She wore faded cotton dresses that she washed by hand and hung out to dry on a clothesline just outside of her back door. The only modern appliances that she owned were her refrigerator, a radio, a record player and a television which she never really watched. The T.V. was there mainly for entertaining two of her sons who still lived with her. She had been born in the nineteenth century and she remained very much a representative of a pre-modern era. Hers was a very simple life. She asked for little and used even less than she was given.

I never got to talk with my grandmother. She did not speak English and I did not speak Slovak. We communicated with facial expressions and hand signals. She called everyone either “pretty boy” or “pretty girl.” It was calming being with her, but I always wondered what she was thinking and what her own history had been. It would have been nice to know how she met my grandfather and what gave her the courage to follow him all the way to a new country, far away from her family and friends. According to one of my aunts she had once spoken enough English to work outside of the home but as her children were born she became more and more tied to her home and lost her ability to speak the words that were foreign to her. Oddly enough most of her children knew only enough Slovak to have the most basic interactions with her. My grandfather had insisted that they speak only English even at home so that they would be fully assimilated into American culture. Perhaps because of his rule not a single one of them had even a slight accent and few would realize that they had grown up with a mother who was unable to speak their tongue.

My husband and I relived my childhood days as we drove through the east Houston streets. I retold my history as we drove along. I gleefully pointed out Eastwood Park where my mother had once danced to the cheers of friends who admired her fancy footwork. I pointed out the building where we had often purchased groceries at Weingarten’s and the spot where we stopped for ice cream on the way home from our Friday night visits. We meandered over to Harrisburg where the new Metro line runs. There I witnessed gentrification efforts inside what had once been little shops where my mother purchased my school shoes and dresses for Sunday church. The Sears store where I first sat on Santa’s lap is gone, replaced by a gaudy strip mall without the elegance of the old department store. We flew past Immaculate Conception Catholic Church and I pointed to a venerable old structure that had at one time been a hospital. So much had changed and yet I felt that I was in familiar territory.

Our journey through my past was a serendipitous little gift for a brief moment in time. It cheered me to return to a place where I had not been for such a long time. My memories of being there will always be so pleasant and filled with so much love and belonging. My grandmother’s house is still is still there, crowded by businesses and industries that make it seem out of place. The new owners have cared for it, preserving its uniqueness. I think they would be quite surprised by the stories they would hear if those walls could talk. I wish that I might share with them how special it always was. Perhaps they already know.

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The End of the Curse

chicago-cubs-world-series-slot-2016-10-22For a time my daughter and her husband lived on a corner in an apartment in Wrigleyville, a neighborhood in Chicago. It was a busy area right across the street from a tavern where locals always seemed to be celebrating something. The elevated train system was only steps away so the clattering noise of mass transit was just one of the everyday sounds that echoed through the open windows of their place. It sat on the top floor providing an excellent view of the shops and eateries nearby. It was an old school residence without an elevator or air conditioning. The walk from the ground floor on the steep steps provided an unadvertised perk of daily exercise. The apartment was small but quite lovely with its polished wooden floors and windows that allowed the sun to create a homey warmth. It had the kind of character that comes from tradition and age. My daughter somehow made do with the tiny kitchen that barely provided enough room for two people to stand. It lead to a small private stoop and a fire escape that fascinated me. Somehow it felt like a setting right out of a novel.

I am a creature of the wide open spaces of Texas who had only read of multistory housing in crowded urban settings. When I first heard where my daughter was living I secretly worried for her safety. Upon visiting her domain and actually walking through the neighborhood near her place I became enchanted. Everything about Wrigleyville was quite wonderful, even the raucous noise that filled the air each evening as revelers relaxed in the local bar across the street. I most enjoyed sitting at her dining table in a corner room with windows overlooking the expanse. I imagined being there day after day and finding inspiration for my writing. I was intoxicated by the sheer adventure of observing so much humanity.

The area was called Wrigleyville because the home of the Chicago Cubs baseball team stood proudly at the center of the residences and businesses. It was an easy walk from the apartment to the field so of course I wanted to attend one of the games but my first visit was in the winter so I had to wait until my return in the summer. I had no idea that I would fall in love with the Cubs when I first entered the stadium on a warm afternoon. Everything about the experience was wondrous. It seemed to me to be what baseball was supposed to be like. The fans were all decked out in their gear and the place was packed. The hot dogs were a gourmet delight so unlike the plastic almost inedible ones that I had tried back home. People sat on the tops of nearby buildings to catch the action without benefit of sound. The crowd was happy, cheering and totally into the game. I can’t recall a single time that I have had so much fun at a baseball game. Forevermore the Cubs would be my favorite team with the exception of my Houston Astros.

I heard all about the curse that had once been placed on the Cubs by a local tavern owner who became incensed when he and his goat were turned away from the stadium back in 1948. I tend to be a believer in such things since I am sometimes a bit of a jinx myself. I’ve been known to turn the victorious tide of a sporting event just by my mere presence. I take such matters quite seriously. Somehow the whole idea that the Cubs were the victim of black magic seemed to be confirmed a few years back when they were on the road to finally ending their drought when a fluke play shattered their dreams. I just happened to be visiting my daughter at that time and watched in shock as a fan reached out from the stands and caught a fly ball before one of the players had the opportunity to force an out. I vividly recall how stunned we were as we realized that the Cub’s dreams had gone up in flames.

The apartment where my daughter lived caught on fire one evening. One of the residents had fallen asleep while burning a candle which eventually touched off a blaze that filled the entire building with smoke and flames. Luckily everyone escaped with only minor injuries but the firefighters had to vent the roof to control the burn and almost everything that my daughter owned was ruined by falling debris, smoke, and water. She was expecting twins at the time and decided that perhaps it was time to move to a place with more green space and so she left Wrigleyville but not without a heavy heart. We would all think back on that lovely place for years to come and reminisce about those Cubs games and the walks down tree lined avenues.

Eventually she and her family moved back to Texas taking memories with them that never grew dim. Year after year we all rooted for the Cubs but saw our hopes dashed again and again. Then came the news that they were going to the World Series. Prognosticators boldly pronounced that they were the underdogs in the matchup and I feared that something would surely go wrong in their quest to end the curse and become victorious. Slowly but surely they proved everyone wrong in one of the most exciting battles in decades, going back and forth with the Cleveland Indians until it was game number seven and they had to lay everything that they had on the line.

I had butterflies in my stomach all last night and did my best not to somehow influence the outcome of the game with my thinking. I busied myself and tried not to become too overjoyed when they held the lead for so long. When the game tied up near the end I held back the negative thoughts that clouded my mind. A delay of the game due to rain made me want to panic but I instead remained calm. I wondered if there had ever before been such a build up of tension in such a major contest. Then it happened. The Cubs won the pennant. After one hundred eight years they had finally done it.

I can almost hear the cheering in the tavern that still stands across from where my daughter once lived. I can see the smiles on the faces of the people of Chicago as they ride the trains to work and school. I want to walk down the street and celebrate with them. I want to eat a hotdog and wear a blue shirt. In a time filled with so much negativity and uncertainty it feels so good to have a grand reason to shout with joy. The Cubbies have shown us all how to keep the faith. I for one rejoice.

His Story

US_$10_Series_2003_obverse.jpgHe was a small man with a gigantic intellect. Nothing about his background might have indicated the greatness that he would achieve. He was born out of wedlock on an island in the West Indies at a time when illegitimacy was considered a curse. By the age of thirteen he was an orphan who so impressed a local benefactor that he was sent to New York to further his education. He eventually graduated from King’s College and became an up and coming lawyer. Without any wealth or influence he used his genius to be one of the driving forces behind the American Revolution and the development of the Constitution of the United States of America.  He earned the undying respect and trust of George Washington and became his personal aide during the war and the first Secretary of Commerce in the early years of the nation. Certain tragic flaws led to scandal, blackmail and ultimately his death in a duel. He has been the often forgotten Founding Father known best as the face on the ten dollar bill and the man shot and killed by Aaron Burr. In truth he is the person most responsible for creating the economic foundations of the country and in many ways he is perhaps the most quintessential representative of the American citizen. His name is Alexander Hamilton.

A few years back I became fascinated by Alexander Hamilton after reading a biography by Ron Chernow that my husband had given to me for Christmas. I identified with the sheer humanity of his story. He was someone who overcame tremendous deficits through sheer will and talent. He was a man who was unafraid to fight for what he believed to be right and just and yet he was also guilty of harboring resentments and falling prey to dishonest flattery. He was supremely confident in some situations and unsure of himself in others. He was a man filled with contradictions who often allowed his unbridled ego to determine his fate. He reminded me of so many highly gifted individuals who in spite of their multiplicity of talent too often become embroiled in personal battles that destroy them. Ultimately each and everyone of us struggle with inner demons.

It seems that while I was learning about Alexander Hamilton and celebrating his complexity there was someone else coming to the same conclusions as mine. In a stroke of genius Lin-Manuel Miranda created a brilliant musical to introduce the world to this fascinating character. Mixing history with modern day rap Miranda has created a stunning chronicle of the life and times of our nation’s earliest beginnings through the story of one of its most interesting founders. Hamilton represents the nitty gritty of America from his humble birth to his tragic downfall and Miranda has captured the sheer irony of Hamilton’s life in music that brings our forefathers into the modern world with all of their glory and baggage. The play has garnered well earned critical acclaim, honors and nightly packed houses. Best of all it has brought renewed interest in Hamilton and his costars in the unfolding of America’s story.

My dream is to one day see this musical on Broadway but that will have to wait until the tickets become more affordable for an average Josephine like me. Still I would love nothing more than to travel to all of the places that served as a backdrop to Hamilton’s life and then attend a showing of the play as the grand finale to my journey back through time. I think that it would prove to be the perfect vacation. My all time favorite trips have been educational in nature and this one would be beyond incredible. Judging from the ticket calendars for Hamilton that I have studied it will be several years before I will be able to fulfill my fantasy but in the meantime it will be a fun excursion to plan.

There are many aspects of Alexander Hamilton that remind me of my own grandfather. For all intents and purposes he too was an orphan. His mother died when was only three days old and his father gave him away to a woman that he lovingly called his grandmother. No documentation confirms who his relatives actually were. It is as though he simply sprang spontaneously from the earth. When he was only thirteen the woman who had raised him died leaving him on his own. He chose an uncle to oversee his small income and even stayed for a time with his father but it was not long before he was traveling across America alone and in search of work. He used his wits and determination to survive.

Grandpa was a brilliant man who in many ways was self taught. He loved this country and exercised his right to a voice in government by regularly voting well into his one hundredth eighth year of life. Like Alexander Hamilton he refused to allow his humble birth to dictate the direction of his life. He used all available opportunities to keep himself and his family afloat even in the most difficult times. He witnessed more than one economic depression, five different wars, and every presidential race from 1878 until his death in the mid nineteen eighties. Through it all he was an optimist who believed that each passing year of his life was just a bit better than his last.

My grandfather saw our human progress as a sign that the government was working just as it had been intended. He kept the faith in America’s democracy until the very day that he died. One of his last big reads was a biography of Thomas Jefferson which he was able to discuss at length just after he turned one hundred eight. He believed that his longevity and his gifts of freedom were great treasures. He left this world with not a penny to his name but he would have insisted that he was rich. He loved his country as much as he had his family. He had weathered a lifetime of tragedy and yet he was a happy man who thought himself blessed simply for living in a place that seemed to be ever improving. His take on history was that the United States of America was slowly but surely moving forward and that we all benefit from its continual search for justice and freedom.

Right now we are in a kind of valley of fear and criticism with regard to our country. We act as though these are somehow the worst of times and yet our history demonstrates that we have been in similar circumstances before. We find the divisiveness between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to be deplorable and we are shocked that they won’t even shake hands. We forget that Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were such political rivals and enemies that they ended up on a field in New Jersey to settle their differences with pistols. Hamilton was mortally wounded and Burr who had been the Vice President of the United States was charged with murder and thought to be a villain for all time. Somehow our country moved beyond such a shocking turn of events just as it always seems to do.

My grandfather was able to use the breadth of his experience to see that we may falter and even lose our momentum but we always find our way back. He realized that great men like Alexander Hamilton understood the nature of humans even when they ignored their own flaws. Together individuals from different backgrounds and alternative points of view developed a government that was capable of sustaining itself and correcting its mistakes. Over two hundred years later it’s still here and not even the bombast and prevarication will tear it down as long as we the people cherish it and continue to work to make things right just as Hamilton did so long ago. He lived and died just as we all do but what a story he left behind.

To Infinity and Beyond

Alan and Sean13413120_10210403732116445_9006089120690796231_nEveryone who knows me well realizes that I have always loved young people. When Mike and I moved from our home of over thirty years several of my friends suggested that we might enjoy being in a senior living community. I quickly squelched that idea because I knew that I would miss the sounds of children playing. We chose a house in a neighborhood where there are mostly young families and that is the way I prefer it to be. The most pleasant part of my day is watching the kids boarding the buses for school and then returning safely in the afternoon. I like that I can hear the joyful noises of the children next door as they play in their swimming pool. The most difficult aspect of retirement has been the loss of the glorious hordes of students who populated my life for so many years.

Of course I have my grandchildren to satisfy my need for youthfulness but they are often quite busy, which is as it should be. Tutoring is almost a selfish hobby for me. It allows me to stay young and keeps my mind vibrant. Mostly it provides me with an opportunity to be around the young people who keep my optimism soaring. Our hope and our future is always to be found in them. They see the world through different lenses than ours. It is important that we pay attention to what they have to say because what they are thinking will ultimately shape the course of history. Thankfully I have been quite blessed to know many hundreds of youngsters who are already assuming the reigns of leadership and it soothes my heart to know that we are in such good hands.

Every grandmother believes that her grandchildren are the most special angels on the planet. I am fortunate enough to have proof that my assessment of them is absolutely true. All seven of them are eagerly embracing life’s challenges and striving to be their personal best. Most importantly they are truly good people. They are reflective souls intent on doing what is right and just. I have to give their parents credit for guiding them in the right direction but I am unabashedly proud that they are of my flesh and blood.

There are other special children in my life and chief among them are Alan and Sean, two young men who are the grandsons of my dear friend, Pat. It still saddens my heart that Pat died before her sweet boys ever had a chance to really know her. They would have loved her so, just as those of us who were her friends did. I have had several wonderful opportunities to spend quality time with Alan and Sean and I treasure those moments as much as I would if they were my very own grandchildren. As an added bonus Sean is my godson and it is a special treat to be his godmother.

Four years ago I first began writing this blog during a time when I was watching Alan and Sean while their parents traveled to Germany. They were already delightfully well behaved young gentlemen so my task was quite easy. I wrote while they were in school and the three of us played when they returned home. I delighted in their joyfulness and the profoundness of their intellect. Alan being the eldest is the more serious of the two. Sean is a little sprite whose laughter and impishness is contagious. The week that I spent with them galvanized my love for them and I have enjoyed watching them grow like weeds and find their individual voices.

Alan, like my twin grandchildren Ian and Abby,  will be a seventh grader in the fall. He has already grown taller than I am. His deep voice signals that he is becoming a man. He is a thinker and a bit more cautious than his brother. He is mostly quiet but when he speaks there is so much wisdom in his words that it boggles the mind. He has a sharp wit and a photographic memory. He loves history and has the ability to cite people and events to support his ideas.

Sean is close in age to my youngest grandson William. He will be in the fifth grade in the coming school year. He bears a continual smile on his face and seems to be filled with boundless energy just as his grandmother always was. He enjoys a good joke and laughter is his constant companion. People appear to be naturally drawn to him and he to them. He somehow manages to make every occasion just a bit more fun.

I was blessed recently when Alan and Sean’s mother asked me to be their chaperone while she attended a conference in Boston. For four days I romped around that glorious city with them and enjoyed some wonderful conversations, all while having so much fun. There is an adult way of touring and another that sees things through the innocence of childhood. I learned that Alan is leaning more and more toward a passage into maturity while Sean is still one hundred percent little boy. I enjoyed my time with both of them and it was wonderful to realize that they, like my own grandchildren, are already well on their way to being outstanding keepers of the flame of integrity and wisdom.

Sean and I shared a touching moment while we were waiting for the Red Sox game to begin at Fenway Park. Alan and his mother had left us in our seats as they searched for food for our dinner. As the two of us sat admiring the stadium and the gloriously beautiful evening I remarked that my mother loved baseball so much that she watched an Astros game on the very day that she died. Sean whose birthday is only one day later than my mom’s smiled and asked how I thought my mother might enjoy being with us. Of course I knew that she would have been thrilled as long as she didn’t have to root against her beloved Astros. Sean then asked me with all earnestness if I thought that my mom’s spirit was with us. I told him that not only did I think that she was there but that his own grandmother was smiling on us as well. I felt that they were both happy that we were having so much fun. He grinned and there was a knowing look in his eyes. For a second I was torn between laughing and crying. I chose joy because it was truly a grand night and I believed that our departed angels wanted us to celebrate life. A bit later a photographer took our picture and froze our wonderful memory into a precious keepsake that I will value for all time.

It would be easy to fall into a pit of cynicism and despair given the tenor of the world today but the children that I meet teach me time and again to be ever hopeful. As long as we have all of those glorious young people showing us how to remain optimistic we don’t have to worry about making any place great again, it already is. Our young remind me over and over to choose life and love and laughter over bleakness. They are our ultimate salvation. It is in them that our ideals live on and take us to infinity and beyond.

Play Ball!

jackie-robinsonOh how my mother loved baseball! Even on the day that she died she wanted to watch a few innings of an Astro’s game. She thought of baseball as an all American sport, almost an inspirational game with heroes whose faces donned cardboard collectors’ cards. The reality is that once upon a time baseball had a very ugly side. Years after the Emancipation Proclamation African American players were denied access to the big leagues. Instead they were relegated to all black minor league teams despite their talent. All of that changed on this day, April 15, 1947, when the Brooklyn Dodgers debuted their newest player, Jackie Robinson. Continue reading “Play Ball!”