Our Mothers, Our Angels

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I recently participated in a podcast dealing with the question of how to form meaningful relationships. As I told my own stories I realized how much I had learned about compassion, gratitude, courage, loyalty, trust and other important morals from my own mother and those of my friends and cousins. I suppose that in many ways I lived a kind of unblemished childhood with the exception of my father’s untimely and unexpected death. From the many women that I encountered, the mothers of my peers, I learned the lessons of being someone on whom others might depend. These were wonderful women who opened their homes and their hearts to me little realizing what an impact they would have on my own development and worldview.

I have sadly been reminded again and again of what these ladies meant to me as they one by one die from the diseases of advanced age. Just last week I learned of the death of the remarkable mother of one of my high school friends. I had only met this woman once, but in that brief encounter I was taken by the way in which she welcomed me and made me somehow feel quite special. I would tell people about her and that brief encounter from time to time as the years passed. It was only in reading her obituary that I realized what a truly stunning life she had lived, and I felt proud to have known her no matter how fleetingly. 

The women who were my role models were children of the Great Depression. They were young and on the verge of beginning their lives as adults during World War II. Their early years were often punctuated with sacrifices that few of us born in the second half of the twentieth century will ever completely understand. In spite of varying hardships they all maintained a strong sense of optimism and can do spirit that followed them into their roles as mothers. They passed down their love of family to all of us, both male and female. They were devoted to their children without hovering like helicopters. They worked hard to maintain a sense of peace and contentment inside their homes. They rarely complained, instead celebrating the blessings that they had, regardless of how small they were. They were an exceptional group, and it pains me to see their generation slowly leaving our earth, because they were living breathing angels who gave their all to be certain that we would have good lives.

These were not women who were always barefoot, pregnant and under their husband’s thumbs, even though many of them never worked outside of the home. They were strong and able to overcome incredible challenges. They worked for the betterment of their little corners of the earth through jobs, volunteer work, keeping their families safe and happy. Often their responsibilities included elderly parents for whom they lovingly took into their homes. I used to enjoy visiting with the old ones who became part of the big extended families of my friends. It was not until my own mother came to live in my home in her final year of life that I realized the difficulties of caring for an adult day in and day out. The women I had witnessed had always made it seem so easy.

The women who continue to inspire me thought it natural to pitch in whenever someone was in need. They’d bring food, condolences, and a helping hand to any tragedy. They were not the least bit afraid of long hours of back breaking work. They did whatever needed to be done with little fanfare or need of accolades. 

If I were to make a list of the women who taught me how to live a purpose driven life it would begin with my own mother but then continue almost endlessly, for I always found something remarkable about the generation that came before me. Mrs. Barry showed me what love and loyalty really meant when she stepped forward to help me during my mother’s first mental breakdown. Mrs. Daigle taught me how to be the consummate hostess regardless of who came to my door. Mrs. Bush demonstrated courage over and over again, even in situations that might have overwhelmed a lesser soul. My aunts showed me how to keep family close. Mrs. Janot helped me to understand how to balance the daily toil of living with fun. Mrs. Frey demonstrated how to fully utilize my own talents and creativity. Mrs. Wright helped me to discover my own worth. Mrs. Loisey was my teacher who showed me the impact of a great educator. Mrs. Pryor helped me to understand the possibilities found in giving myself to the community. Mrs. McKenna brought beauty and music into my life. Mrs. Martin showed me the new worlds to be found in books. Mrs. Brochtrup seemed to be a living saint whose faith inspired me. Mrs. Caldwell, Mrs. Gallerano, and Mrs. Cash made my life more fun and interesting by spending hours  guiding me in Girl Scouts and on our school’s drill team. Mrs. Mandola was elegant and made me feel that way as well. All of them had a way of making it clear that they genuinely cared for me. They listened to me and valued what I had to say. They understood the importance of every relationship, but probably never realized what an enormous impact they had on me.

Our mothers were our angels on earth, and now so many of them are our angels in heaven. I do miss them and the calmness that they always brought to me. When we speak of women’s rights and the roles of women we would do well to look to these wonderful ladies for examples and guidance. They were far more amazing than our society gives them credit for being. From them I learned what it really means to be a woman.

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An Open and Loving Heart

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I have to admit that I am one of those people who is sometimes uncomfortable with my appearance. I’ve had hair dressers and acquaintances make negative comments about my tresses, noting how difficult it is to do anything with them because they are so baby fine. When I complained about having bangs it was noted that my forehead is too high to sweep my locks back away from my face. I’ve been asked if I’ve had a stroke because one of my eyelids is drooping noticeably. I never had much of a chin, and I try to forget that facial flaw until someone asks if I’ve ever thought of surgery. I don’t think that anyone intends to be mean by making such comments. They are probably just passing suggestions meant to give me ideas for self improvement, but sadly they only tend to remind me of my imperfections.

I’m old enough now to just let such comments go, but like any other woman I’d love to be viewed as someone who is physically beautiful. Instead I concentrate of making my heart a lovely place for people find solace. I smile and live with myself just as I am. At this point in time I understand all too well that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the pursuit of vain glorious attractiveness is worth far less than concentrating on the really important aspects of life.

Our society doesn’t help much with its barrage of so called icons of feminine pulchritude. We are continually reminded of what is thought to be pretty and what is not. Hair and makeup are billion dollar industries, and with all of that emphasis on appearance women often feel as though they are judged not just on their character and talents, but also on their physical presentation.

Social media with its constant flow of photographs and selfies makes beauty seem to be even more important than it ever was. With filters and editing so many ladies and young girls are now removing wrinkles and flaws in attempts to perfect themselves. Now there is a real psychological thing called Snapchat dysmorphia. It is an overwhelming desire to look exactly like the perfected images that appear on the pages of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. In fact, psychologists are learning that many females are often fearful of appearing in person lest their friends learn that they are less beautiful than the photos that they have created of themselves. Some are even going as far as visiting plastic surgeons hoping to make the altered versions of themselves become reality.

I’m not against a bit of self improvement. I enjoy perusing the aisles of Ulta as much as anyone. I apply night creams and moisturizers to my face, and correct my dark circles as much as possible. I like to brighten my face with cosmetics, and I get my hair trimmed once a month and highlighted twice a year. I find nothing more relaxing than enjoying a good pedicure. Still, I worry that we are unintentionally adding just one more stress to women’s plates by not so subtly implying that physical beauty is an important aspect of success.

When I was growing up I was typically gangly. I was probably in the eighth grade before I even thought about attempting to make myself more presentable. That’s when I suddenly became aware of the real beauties around me. In fact, my one and only female cousin was one of those people with golden locks that swirled naturally around her lovely face. As the two of us grew into our teenage years she became known among members of the extended family as the pretty one while I was the smart one. Little did I know that while I was longing to be thought of as attractive at least once, she was stewing over the idea that she was not considered to be as bright as I was. No such delineations were ever directed at the males in the family. They were simply whoever they wished to be. While I don’t believe that my family or most people set out to deliberately make young girls and women feel uncomfortable about themselves, we still have a way of sending hidden messages and hurtful comments without intending to do so.

I’m not certain that there is a clear answer to this conundrum other than insisting to our little girls that beauty is a total package that includes character and talents, not just an image. A truly exceptional and caring person becomes attractive in our eyes without makeup or coiffure.

We all know of people who are lovely by dent of personality rather than superficiality. In particular I recall a student that I once taught who had been badly burned over most of her body. Her face was horribly scarred to the point that people often looked away when she passed before them. Over the course of a school year I learned just how remarkable she was, and over time she became transformed in my mind to a one of the most gorgeous people I have ever known.

If I had one bit of advice for young women it would be to just smile and look beyond themselves. The most beautiful woman in the room is always the one who is more concerned with others than with herself. It doesn’t take plastic surgery or filters to be attractive. It only requires an open and loving heart.

When Two Beautiful Hearts Become One

37125721_10212650429280251_3292675091942342656_oThey were a cute couple, high school sweethearts who fell in love. Paul was a football hero, an all state lineman who was a beast on the gridiron, but a teddy bear off the field. It is little wonder that he was attracted to Shirley who was a real beauty with a warm and inviting smile. They found each other when they were still young kids, but they both understood that somehow their relationship was meant to last for the duration, and so they married fifty years ago.

Our world is overrun with problems these days. Divorce is on the rise, almost commonplace. Families are often torn apart by differences, disloyalty, and neglect. All too often relationships fizzle out before they have even begun to take hold. Single parent families are on the rise. Young people are wary of making promises to one another. Not so with Paul and Shirley. They not only pledged to honor and cherish one another till death, but they made good on their oaths to one another as their lives unfolded in one decade after another.

I knew Paul from a time when he and I were a young children. I met Shirley in high school. I was in awe of both of them even back then because they each appeared to be so genuinely kind and humble. Shirley was a particularly sweet person who rarely thought of herself, but always did her best to make those around her feel welcome. She was the kind of person who went out of her way to notice the one individual who was feeling uncomfortable or ignored. With her ever present calmness and inviting smile she took the time to say a hello or just to inquire about how someone was doing. I loved and admired her so, thinking myself quite fortunate to know her.

Paul was so handsome and gifted in his athletic prowess. I on the other hand was so awkward that he scared me just a bit, but like Shirley he had a million dollar smile and a way of being so open and friendly that I somehow felt okay around him. His innate sweetness was both charming and refreshing, and when he and Shirley began dating I thought that they were indeed a most perfect couple that somehow the angels had put together.

High school graduation came and I lost track of many of my classmates, just as always seems to happen. I went my way and Shirley and Paul went theirs. It would be almost five decades before I saw them once again and I learned that they had enjoyed a beautiful life together. As always both of them spent more time listening to the tales of others than boasting about their own accomplishments. They were as sweet as they had ever been, and it did my heart good to know that with a few ups and downs, they had mostly enjoyed the years.

Shirley was even more beautiful than ever, and her iconic smile still radiated the same loveliness that lit up her eyes and revealed the inner beauty of her heart. Paul was like a rock, one of those incredibly kind men who is unafraid to show just how much he cares about people. Together they had created  a loving family and worked to cement the relationship with each other that they had built so long ago.

Just about a year ago Shirley and Paul’s home flooded from the rains of Hurricane Harvey. Instead of complaining about the slowness of the recovery, the pain of losing so much, they instead smiled as they always seem to do, and worried about how everyone else was doing. In the midst of their own troubles they took the time to send me a lovely card expressing their hopes that my husband would fully recover from his stroke. I suppose that they never really knew just how much their thoughtfulness meant to me in that moment, but it was so typical of them to be selfless.

Anyone who has ever met Shirley and Paul Jauma knows just how much they love one another. Theirs is a union grounded in a deep faith that God is a partner in all that they do and endure. They have taken their vows to a spiritual level that is not often seen and have made good on the promises that they exchanged with each other on their wedding day. Their fifty years together have inspired the people who know them as evidenced in the many tributes that have come their way.  We find ourselves feeling so happy for them, and fortunate to number them among the people that we have known.

Shirley and Paul are quiet people who laugh at any suggestions that they are somehow icons, but I know differently. They represent the best of humanity with traits that are all too infrequently seen. I suspect that if there were more people like them in the world, we would be a much happier lot. They have much to teach all of us about love and what it really means to honor and cherish another person for a lifetime.

I’m quite delighted for Shirley and Paul Jauma, and I pray that they will be blessed with many more years together. We all need to witness their model of a loving couple, and I thank them for sharing the goodness of their hearts.

Still Young and Beautiful

14711048_10209517113076623_2425488735163912169_oI’ve often been told that my blogs about people that I know are my best. In all honesty they are also the easiest to compose. The stories write themselves mostly because people are innately interesting, and the ones who have been part of my life are particularly so.

I grew up in a little neighborhood in southeast Houston. At the time it was almost on the far edge of the city, just barely outside the area that now encompasses Loop 610 which was not constructed until I was a teenager. The enclave was part of the post World War II boom and it centered around churches and schools and family life. In many ways it was a “Leave It To Beaver” kind of environment in which children were generally protected from the troubles of the adult world.

I attended a Catholic school because back then parents were told that it was their duty to provide a religious education for their children. The tuition was minimal, so it wasn’t a particular sacrifice for my parents to pay the monthly fees, particularly when my engineer father was still alive. After his death it became a hardship for my mother, but the nuns who taught at my school hired her to work for them and announced that free tuition was one of the perks of employment. Thus my brothers and I spent our earliest years in classrooms together with other Catholic children.

In the fifties and sixties in seems as though adults didn’t change their addresses nearly as much as they now do. Once we moved into our home on Belmark Street we essentially had the same neighbors until we ourselves became adults and struck out on our own. The same was true at school. With only a few exceptions we grew up with the same set of kids and got to know them quite well. Their parents were friends with ours, so it was as though we all belonged to a huge extended family.

Many of us went on to attend Mt. Carmel High School after the eighth grade. I received a scholarship which made it possible to continue my education in familiar surroundings with friends I had known from the time I was six years old. Sadly there were those who opted for the local public high school which had one of the best reputations in town. I missed them terribly when they were gone, but I made knew acquaintances with kids who came from a variety of Catholic schools in the southeast and east Houston areas.

As is true with most high school students I foolishly believed that the people that I met during my four years would all be lifelong friends. I did not realize that graduation was a turning point at which time we went forth in far too many directions to remain as devoted to one another as we had once been. Over time I slowly lost track of all but a handful of the people that I had known and loved, often wondering where the others were and how they were doing, but too busy to take the time to track them down.

Decades passed and suddenly there was this thing called social media that allowed us to communicate with friends and family without leaving our homes. Little by little I found long gone but never forgotten friends and began to vicariously follow the routines of their lives. Through the extraordinary efforts of individuals like my friend Carol more and more of my former classmates were found and just seeing that they were still alive and well cheered my heart.

It’s difficult to adequately describe what we shared in those long ago years when the foundations of our academic and spiritual educations were being built on very solid ground. Our differences came in the years that followed, but in many ways they were only superficial. What bound us together was a long history of learning the importance of the one commandment that truly matters which is “Love thy neighbor.”

I am neither a republican nor a democrat. Instead I am fiercely independent, but many of my school chums are die hards in their political persuasions. My own philosophies often confound them and they have even been known to chastise me for what they believe to be unwise thinking. This sometimes angers people that I have met later in life, but it only makes me smile. What I know is that even in our differences there is a commonality of truly caring about our world and each other that was imbued in our very natures long ago. We were not so propagandized that we became nonthinking clones, but rather we were taught to consider many points of view before choosing our own. The one constant, however, was the knowledge that God is our protector and that we in turn must be protectors of His people.

From what I can tell we’ve done a grand job each in his or her own way. We run the gamut from  Paul who is as progressive as anyone might become to Ted who is a staunch defender of conservative ideas. What guides us is memory of those long ago school days when we learned and played and laughed together. Somehow those times glued us together even as we went out on our own to discover more of the world. We now come together with little thought of our differences because what we share is far stronger.

I feel blessed to have the opportunity of getting to know my old friends once again. There was a time when such reunions would have been unlikely. Now I have the privilege of sharing the ups and downs of their lives. I see the smiling faces of their children and grandchildren. I commiserate with them in times of stress, health problems or deaths. I celebrate their birthdays and marvel at images of their vacations. Mostly though I remember them when they were young and beautiful and full of boundless hopes and dreams. I see that like me they have survived the roller coaster ride and are doing their best to be the kind of people that the adults who guided us hoped we would be.

I am so proud of my classmates, my friends. They have worked hard to be good people, and all of them are. I hope they know how much I admire them, and how happy it makes me to know them. My heart fills with joy whenever I think back to our school days. I laugh at the stories that I recall and wonder if they realize how much they have meant to me.

As we all enter our seventies we can no longer claim to be young, but from my vantage point I see that we are all still quite beautiful and young at heart.

Shades of Gray

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Years ago a friend of mine decided to enlist a professional decorator to help her enhance the appearance of her home. The artist walked through the house quietly looking around, picking up items now and again, jotting down observations. When she had completed her tour she sat down with my friend and bluntly asked, “How much of this junk are you willing to remove?”

There was a stunned silence as my friend attempted to understand exactly what the designer had just asked her. “All of it has to stay,” was her halting reply. “These are my family’s things. We use everything that you see. They have special meanings to us. I just need you to add some color, move a few things around, arrange our belongings in a more inviting way. The books, music, mementoes and such are part of who we are. They have to be incorporated into your plan.”

With a look of unadulterated disgust the interior artist suddenly stood up while putting away her notebook and pen. She announced with an arrogant emphasis, “I can’t help you. I can’t do a thing for you if you are unwilling to completely change the way things look around here. This is too much. You need to find someone else or do it yourself.”

My friend likes to tell everyone that she was stunned into a state of silence as the decorator promptly left. Later she did all of the rearranging and painting by herself and the results were quite lovely. She realized in that moment that she had chosen all of the things that seemed like clutter to the designer, and they were more than just junk. They were pieces of her family’s history.

I was reminded of this story when I recently read one of those click bait articles that often appear on Facebook. The topic was how to know when your home decorating is no longer trendy. The author consulted with respected interior designers to determine how to know when things go out of style. The entire essay came across as being snooty and out of touch with the realities of ordinary people. It insisted that kitchens with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances are already passé. It further suggested that homes done in shades of gray and white are hopelessly behind the times. The author knocked the country look, anything resembling a Chip and Joana home, items purchased at Target, Edison light bulbs and so on. The words reeked of the same kind of arrogance that my friend had endured in her one encounter with a professional. The comments from Facebook users tore the suggestions apart, with readers hurling their fury at the unrealistic haughtiness of the writer.

I had to laugh because according to the article my home should be in the “what not to do” hall of fame. Nonetheless I really like the way things look around here. Every inch of my space tells a story about people I have known and places that I have been. The walls are filled with art that either reminds me of trips that I have taken or friends and relatives who created the work for me. I have books in every room that touched my soul as I read them. The furniture is an eclectic mix of inherited antiques and comfortable modern pieces that I like. There are colors that make me happy, not those that happen to be in style. I have plants scattered about that bring in the outdoors and magazines waiting to be read. There is a lovely memory everywhere that I glance, right down to the heart shaped rock that my grandchildren discovered on a back backing hike that I shared with them in the mountains of Colorado. I am more than content with what I see because my environment is personal and meaningful. I never feel as though I am in a hotel or someone else’s space.

I certainly have no trouble with the idea of incorporating suggestions from someone who has studied color, fabric, furniture, proportion and such. I regularly read Southern Living and watch HGTV now and again. I have items from Target and Home Goods but I also sometimes splurge on something special from Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware. I consider my purchases carefully most of the time, but it can be fun to bring something whimsical into the picture, and I almost always find a lasting memento to add to my collection when I take a trip. I have a giant pine cone from California and a lovely print of a sailing ship from Cape Cod. A cobalt blue pitcher that was handblown in Estes Park, Colorado adorns my dining room, and prints of Savannah, Georgia hang in the living room. When I see these things I recall the fun that I shared with my family. They allow me to relive such grand moments again and again.

Decorating is a very personal thing, and I suspect that a truly gifted designer understands that. Years ago when my mother in law was redoing a grand old home she enlisted the help of a professional who wisely surveyed the items that would be used as well as the color palette that my mother in law preferred. Mostly the work of creating a pleasing environment involved incorporating my mother in law’s taste into the final product. The result was picture perfect and best of all it reflected the personality of the owners of the home, not the person who would never live there.

Decorating is fun, but it needn’t be expensive or impersonal. The best homes are the ones that instantly capture the essence of the people who reside inside. A great house is warm and inviting. If done right it doesn’t matter if it is gray or filled with a rainbow of colors, clean and sleek or crowded with interesting accessories. The most important goal of decorating should be to make the people who live there feel warm and comfortable and happy. Once that is accomplished nothing else really matters.

By the way…I really do like the style of Chip and Joanna, my appliances are stainless steel, I often shop at Target, and I still have some Edison lightbulbs. So there…!