Finding Beauty In Life and Death

red rose flower
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I’ve seen more than my share of death. As the calendar moves relentlessly forward I have had to watch the passing of my elders, the people who loved and guided me when I was a child. Of late I have seen far too many of my peers leaving this earth as well. Death is inevitable and yet still such a frightening and unwanted state for most of us. We cling tenaciously to life even as we understand that not one of us is immortal.

A friend posted an article that defined the ways in which one might experience a “good” death. It was filled with all sorts of ideas that might work if one has the luxury of knowing that the end is near because of an illness that points in that direction. For many death is more sudden and unexpected, making it impossible to take charge of the event as described in the article.

My mother always spoke of being ready to die at any moment. She did not broach this topic in a morose manner, but rather from the standpoint of living life in such a way that no matter what might happen she would be ready whenever her time on earth was over. She did this with several routines from which she rarely diverged and from open discussions about her preferences long before there were any signs that her death was drawing near. As a result her passing was beautiful, and done on her terms just as she had always wished.

Mama never let a single day end in anger or hurtfulness. She asked for forgiveness for her transgressions which were always of the very minor variety anyway. She communicated her love for the people that she knew daily. There was no need at the end of her life for her to make an act of contrition to either God or family members. We already knew as I’m sure God did as well that she was sorry for anything that she had done that hurt anybody.

My mother expressed her desires to refuse all artificial means of prolonging her life on many occasions. She only hoped to be as free of pain as possible, but beyond that she insisted that we not take any extraordinary measures. We therefore felt comfortable conveying her wishes to her doctors who all smiled in agreement with her wisdom.

Mama lived a faith filled life that never wavered. She believed with all of her heart that our earthly home is only temporary and imperfect. She looked forward to an eternity of peace and happiness with God. On her last day of life she had an angelic glow and a beatific smile as she motioned toward heaven whenever we asked how she was feeling. She believed that her reward for a life well lived was coming soon. She had no anxiety and her peacefulness spread to each of us who visited with her in those final hours.

One by one the people who had meant the most to her came to pay their last respects. She made each visitor feel her love as she held hands and did her best to help them to accept the inevitable. She orchestrated final moments that none of us would ever forget, and gave us a gift of peacefulness that is unimaginable. In fact, even the nurses who cared for her in the ICU felt the joyousness that she projected. One of them cried as she left her shift, telling me and my brothers that she had never witnessed such a blessed ending to a life. She understood as we did that my mother had chosen this way of spending her final hours by living her entire life in preparation for the end.

My mother was always a caretaker who sacrificed for the needs of others. She asked for very little for herself and she certainly had moments when she was filled with all of the human frailties that we have. Somehow she always found her way back to a kind of inner peace and a total dependence on God to comfort her. She never asked Him for things or even to take away her sorrows or pain. All she wanted from Him was a bit of help in managing her attitude toward whatever was happening. Sometimes it took awhile, but always she found the serenity that she sought.

Mama’s life was difficult from beginning to end and yet she was one of the happiest people that I have ever known. From the time that I was a child she explained her joy by reasoning that she was able to tackle any challenge because she always knew that God was not going to leave her to act alone. Even, and perhaps most especially, in death she had a certainty that He was with her and that the best was coming. She was never angry with Him for the difficulties that mounted at her door. She accepted her travails as being a part of life.

I understand that it is difficult for many of us to curtail our anger, resentments, suffering and sorrow. Life can appear to be very cruel and death is often prolonged and painful. Keeping the faith and finding a way to smile even under the worst of circumstances can seem impossible, and yet I saw firsthand the power and beauty of my mother’s unwavering determination to be in charge of her life and her death by choosing an attitude of trust, faith, hope, and joy. She showed me and those who knew her how to have a beautiful death. I only hope that I will be able to follow her lead whenever that day comes for me.

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Finding a Long Lost Friend

Kathy

I met Kathy at a local Tex Mex restaurant. It had been well over fifty years since we had seen each other in person. She and I had both once lived on Belmark Street in southeast Houston. Both of our mothers were widows and both of us were products of an education at Mt. Carmel High School. I was in the Class of 1966 and she was a member of the Class of 1967, the group with whom I might have shared my teenage years had my parents not decided to send me to first grade a year early. We had both lived through a lifetime of memories in the years since last being together and it was only through the miracle of Facebook that we had reconnected once again.

I adored Kathy’s mother. She was a tiny woman who was nonetheless a giant in my eyes. She seemed capable of staring down the devil if need be. She was incredibly courageous and one of the few women that I knew who actually pursued a career even after she became a mom  and her husband was still alive. Kathy’s mom and mine often attended dances and events sponsored by Parents Without Partners, a social group that gave them a place to be with people who understood what it was like to raise a family alone.

When I knew Kathy on Belmark Street she was known by the nickname, “Candy.” She was stunningly beautiful even as a child and only became more lovely as she grew. She had the same spunky spirit as her mom and I so enjoyed doing things with her. She was the perfect counterpoint to my shy and reserved nature. When I was around her I felt at ease and able to just be myself. She was a fun person who helped me push aside the awkwardness that sometimes made me wonder if I was ever going to find my way in the adult world. Her joyous nature rubbed off on me, and she made me forget all of my childhood angst.

One of our favorite activities was playing dolls on my driveway. Kathy had one of the very first Barbie dolls and I was in awe of the model like figure of the toy. I stuck with my Madame Alexander doll that was lovely in its own right. We collected milk cartons and boxes and transformed them into furniture for our dolls. We used scraps of cloth to make rugs and pillows. My mom showed me how to design a four poster bed for my doll out of a cigar box and four clothes pins. We set up our make believe homes and pretended that our dolls were stewardesses living in exotic places around the world. It was more fun than almost anything else that I did in those days. I treasure the memories and the things that Kathy taught me when we were together.

Sometimes our play was interrupted by earnest discussions of how we might actually become hostesses in the sky once we were old enough to apply for jobs that we considered highly glamorous. It was after all still in the days of infancy for mass air travel and anything associated with the industry appeared to be quite exciting to us. We had so many hopes and dreams about being independent women like our moms but on a far grander scale.

Kathy’s home was different from mine. There were no beige walls or conservative ways of decorating. Instead bright colors transformed each room into a happy place that made me smile. Kathy’s mom kept a bowl of candy on the dining table and always urged me to take whatever I wanted when I visited there. I could not imagine such a tempting treat lasting more than a few seconds at my own house, and yet it appeared that Kathy and her younger siblings rarely even touched the sweets. I decided that making something routine and commonplace made it less enticing and thought that Kathy’s mom was a very bright woman indeed for thinking of such a thing.

Kathy and her family moved away when I was a freshman in high school and while her mom and mine continued a fast friendship, I had become devoted to my studies and a small circle of classmates with whom I spent my rare hours of freedom. Kathy and I saw less and less of each other even as we no doubt passed one another in the hallways of our school. Life took hold and we went our separate ways marrying, raising children and working. The years went by one by one, slowly at first and then at a rate so fast that we hardly noticed that a whole lifetime had passed.

Suddenly we were older women, retired from our jobs, enjoying our grandchildren and finding more and more free time on our hands. Then we found each other on Facebook and began to enjoy the commentaries that we each posted. I realized that somehow even with all of the changes that had taken place in our lives at heart we were still those young girls with dolls and dreams and incredible moms. It seemed time to have a reunion, and so we decided to meet for lunch and to reminisce.

I am never quite certain how it is possible to reconnect with a long lost friend so quickly, but we had no problem whatsoever keeping a conversation going. In fact, we devoted an hour to speaking of our past, present, and future for each decade that we had been away from each other. I was a bit shocked when I finally glanced at my watch and realized that we had been chatting away for nearly five hours and I suppose that we might have continued even longer save for the fact that other responsibilities were calling us home.

It was grand seeing Kathy again and knowing that our shared experiences had somehow carried us through every challenge that came our way. Like our moms we are survivors who have seen both the good times and the most horrific and yet we are still standing. Kathy is as beautiful as she ever was and she still has the ability to make me smile. She has become a font of wisdom from whom I learned so much in just a few short hours. I’d like to think that we will continue our meetings now that we have found each other again. We share something quite special and I suspect that our mothers are smiling down on us from heaven, happy that we have found to connect again.

Oh Honey!

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My Aunt Polly was a hoot, a fireball, an original, my godmother. She was the most energetic person I have ever known until she wasn’t anymore. Age caught up with her and she began to slow down around the time she was in her nineties. Before then few would have been able to guess her age. She appeared to be a good ten or twenty years younger than she actually was, but life events caught up with her, leaving her with a more careworn look on her face. Soon after her ninetieth birthday her house burned down with along with all of the photos and home movies and other small treasures that meant so much to her. She and her husband had been setting out Christmas decorations when the flames began. They were both safe but the stress of losing their home took its toll.

Aunt Polly settled into a new life style in independent living quarters where she hosted domino and card games on a regular basis. Her children and grandchildren often joined her in those pursuits and her laughter and gregarious spirit returned once again. Then she endured a series of deaths of people near and dear to her. She sat at my mother’s side only hours before my mom, her little sister, died. Not long after that her son Jack also passed and she showed up to his funeral bent and using a cane. She was subdued and even though she tried to be her old self I knew that she was suffering greatly from the loss. When I next saw her at her husband’s funeral I hardly recognized her. She sat quietly in a wheelchair looking frail and vulnerable. This was certainly not the tough courageous woman that I had always known.

Last week my Aunt Polly died quietly, but even as she slipped away most of us who knew her thought that she would recover and soon enough be her old feisty self, because more than anything she was a fighter. She never backed down from asserting herself or taking care of weaker souls like myself. Many a time she became my hero as I watched her in action. She was a true feminist before there was such a thing or such a word for it. My mother used to say that her sister Polly wasn’t afraid of the devil himself.

When my parents decided to hurriedly enroll me in the first grade when I was still five years old I was terrified and miserable. The fact that my mother made me some new dresses to wear and bought me a lunch box did not ameliorate my fears or discomfort. I felt abandoned and alone as I tried to adjust to a new environment. It was my Aunt Polly who came to the rescue.

One day I was at school eating lunch and flicking away the ants that always seemed to invade the inner sanctum of my tin lunch container when Aunt Polly suddenly appeared like a super hero. She had come to see how I was doing and when she saw the state of my food with all of those critters swarming on it her immediate response was to hug me and declare, “Oh honey! I’m going to take care of this” and she did. She marched straight to the principal’s office and raised a ruckus. Not only did the surprised administrator get me something without insect infestation to eat, but also ordered a thorough cleaning and extermination for the building. Never again did I have a problem.

My Aunt Polly was one of the first women that I knew who held a full time job and raised a family. She worked a number of different places before finally settling down at the Post Office. For a time she added to her coffers by serving as a cashier at the Trail Drive Inn and her extra perk for that job was to get free admission to the movies for family. I loved feeling like a celebrity as she waved our car into the vast parking lot without paying a fee. We saw so many movies there and she often joined us for the second feature once the box office closed. It was so much fun to hear her and my mom talking about the stories and the characters as though they were a couple of teenage girls rather than adults with children. I learned that Aunt Polly had a crush on Jeff Chandler which didn’t much surprise me because a had an uncanny resemblance to her husband Jack.

We spent lots of time at Aunt Polly’s house and she at ours. No invitations or even announcements were needed. We simply got together anytime anyone felt like it. Thus it was that on the night of my senior prom Aunt Polly showed up at our house. I was moping in the dark while pretending to watch television because I did not get to go to the big event. My mother had tried to cheer me up earlier by insisting that those kind of venues are always overrated and I was missing nothing of importance. Somehow her encouragement had fallen flat on my bad mood. It was Aunt Polly who once again saved the day when she came in and asked me what was wrong. When I told her what was going on and how I felt she took me in her arms and said “Oh honey!” while I cried. In that simple phrase there was so much truth and compassion. It was exactly what I needed to hear.

Aunt Polly gave me a beautiful bridal shower before I married. She came to visit me when I had my babies. Somehow she was always there when I needed her most and she did so without fanfare and few words even though her normal personality was akin to Rosalind Russell’s in Auntie Mame. I was in awe of her because she was the counterpoint to my own quiet nature.

Aunt Polly was born Pauline Ulrich in 1923, along with her twin sister Wilma whom we variously called Speedy or Claudia. She grew to be tall and beautiful with slender frame, blonde hair and blue eyes. My mother always said that Aunt Polly had to learn how to be tough in a family of eight kids or be pushed around by her siblings or the kids from the neighborhood who ridiculed the members of the immigrant family. Aunt Polly learned quickly how to fend for herself and she rarely backed down from a challenge of any kind.

My aunt married one of the sweetest men I have ever known named Jack Ferguson and the two of them had two sons, Jack Jr. and Andrew. My Uncle Jack died rather young and Aunt Polly eventually married another Jack when she was in her sixties and still looking as pretty as a thirty year old. The mantra of her life was to have as much fun as possible and she was known for the big parties that she held in her backyard with mountains of food and musical entertainment. She traveled all over the world once her children were grown and she regularly stopped by for visits with my mother, bringing her little gifts and checking on her well being.

A bright light has gone out with her passing. She was truly one of a kind and totally irreplaceable. I doubt that I will ever forget the moment when she came to see my mother who was dying in the hospital. She sat beside my mother’s bed along with her twin sister and she reassured my mom with words that only she knew how to deliver, “We’re here now honey. Everything is going to be okay.” The look on my mother’s face told us all that it was just what she needed to hear.

I am certain that my Aunt Polly has joined her siblings, her husbands, and her son in heaven. She was a good woman, my aunt, and my godmother. She taught me much about how to live.

Wanderlust

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I spent a whole lot of years keeping my nose the the grindstone of life. I had two children by the time I was twenty five years old and I devoted most of my days and nights to them. I did teaching jobs of one sort or another for over forty years. Over time I taught every age group from pre-school to high school and subjects ranging from religion to Algebra II. I was as devoted to my students as I was to my two daughters and I sometimes worry that they may have felt in competition with them. My mom struggled with mental illness whose symptoms began to display themselves fifty years ago about the time that mankind first landed on the moon. All in all I never felt comfortable taking too much time away from my duties. There always seemed to be someone who needed me to be around.

My husband was as devoted to taking care of the family and other people as I was. I can count on one hand the number of days that he took off from work, and he often let vacation time lapse because he felt so responsible for happenings at his places of business. Even during the  days when we were newly weds he labored in double shifts at NASA pulling electrical cable under the floor of the Mission Control building to insure that the historic moon landing went off without a hitch. Later he would become a banker and the type of person who spent long days attempting to be of service to his bosses and his customers.

Over the years we found that we had very little time to take trips, and often not enough money to make them extravagant. We eventually purchased a canvas tent and tossed it in the back of our various vehicles to travel across the United States in two week increments. We tended to enjoy vacations in cooler climates since we were depending on Mother Nature to keep us comfortable as we slept at night. We have fond memories of laughing and telling stories inside our humble traveling abode. We always felt safe and happy and blessed to be together enjoying the wonders of our country which we discovered are indeed many.

We created a number of rather corny traditions that still make us smile. We generally began each journey by playing Willie Nelson’s On the Road Again. We’d eat sandwiches for lunch and cook on our propane gas stove for dinner. Somehow the food always tasted better on those adventures than it did at home. We learned how to “rough it” in great style and on those long drives we read a ton of books that we often shared with one another when they turned out to be especially good.

Once our daughters were grown and gone we had a bit more time and money to expend on our explorations even as we spent years paying off the students loans that we had contracted for their college educations. We became a bit more willing to be extravagant on our vacations, flying instead of driving and staying in hotels rather than a tent. Our new found freedom and income spoiled us just enough that we one day found ourselves complaining about sleeping in a tent. It felt as though no matter where we chose to travel it was either too hot or too cold. Besides it became increasingly less comfortable to sleep on the floor and then arise in the morning ready to overcome multiple aches and pains.

We set aside our old camping gear and opted for a trailer instead. It’s not huge, but rather just right for our needs. We’ve taken it all around Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas and even all the way out to San Diego with two of our grandchildren. It’s nice to have an actual bed for sleeping and a real bathroom for taking care of all of our hygiene needs. We’ve had just as much fun in our Sonic as we ever did inside our tent without all of the nuisances that we endured when we were young and hardy.

Now that I am retired I get a case of Wanderlust quite often. I feel compelled to travel as much as I can while I can. While there are exotic places I like to see I find that short and simple trips have their own magic. I’ve discovered the beauty of east Texas and its people. It is a kind of hidden jewel that I had never before thought of as a great destination. I have learned that it is filled with green forests, rolling hills and breathtaking vistas that appear from out of nowhere. The little towns out there hold treasures like the Buttercup Cafe in Gladewater where a young woman and her family make the best hamburgers and coconut cream pie that I have ever tasted. I’ve visited a boutique winery in Mineola filled with amazingly interesting characters and elegantly tasting wines. I’ve wandered around an old home in Tyler that was filled with stories and objects from the past and I’ve sat of an evening in Tyler State Park marveling at the splendor.

I still long to travel across the Atlantic to see Paris and Rome and Vienna. I’d like to visit the towns where my Slovakian grandparents were born. I love New York City and think it would be grand to return there regularly. I’m longing to spend more time in Canada which I consider to be a kind of cousin to my own country. I have yet to visit Alaska or Hawaii and I’ve heard such wonderful things about both of those places.

The clock is ticking. I am going to be seventy one on my birthday this year. Many of my peers have already left this earth and some have been slowed down by illnesses. I want to keep going as long as I can. I have fewer responsibilities now than ever before. I have the time and the wherewithal for traveling, so I plan to take advantage of every opportunity to explore the world around me.

If my travels have taught me anything it is that we humans are even more amazing than the environments in which we live and the things that we have created. People are good everywhere. I’m looking forward to meeting ever more of them.

A Roman Treasure

Bath

We often forget that the Romans had outposts in Britain long before the nation had become organized enough to have kings and its own government. There is evidence of the Roman era in great walls around cities like York, and in the magnificent edifices in the city now known as Bath. We journeyed to that ancient area not certain what we would see as we looked farther back into the history of England than even the medieval cathedrals and towns had been able to take us.

The Romans found the natural hot springs of the area and created magnificent spas and temples around them. At the time of their conquest it was a thriving region where Roman citizens came to worship their gods and goddesses and to bathe and relax. The discovery of the remains of the magnificent structures that once stood there must have been quite exciting to those who accidentally found them, and thankfully they understood the importance of unearthing and preserving the ruins.

Walking through the site is a profound experience. There is something quite humbling about seeing the engineering and architecture of people who walked the earth so long ago. The sheer beauty of their creations is breathtaking, but the idea of witnessing how their way of life must have been is even more exciting. They were unbelievably advanced in their knowledge of how to move and drain water and how to build great structures. It is fascinating to think of them traveling to this distant place from Rome and putting their lasting mark on its landscape. We spent hours inside the complex where all of the ruins are housed, mesmerized by the ingenuity of its creators.

The city of Bath is a treasure not just for the contributions of the Romans but also for the magnificent buildings that were created in later eras. It is a place of elaborate churches and beautiful apartment buildings. There is something exceptionally creative about the place that attracts singers, painters, and artists of all sorts. 

We listened to the singing of a woman with a wonderful soprano voice, and jigged in place when a trio of musicians played English folk tunes. We’ve witnessed a number of exceptional street performers in many cities, but we agreed that the artists in Bath were some of the very best. With the pleasantly cool weather and the preponderance of seating we might have tarried all day in the main plaza of Bath had our tour of the Roman baths not taken so long, and we had another appointment that we wanted to keep. We were hoping to get a glance of Highclere Castle where the television hit Downton Abbey is filmed, so we needed to leave by mid afternoon.

We reluctantly said our goodbyes to Bath and were off again in the hopes of taking some selfies in front of the well known castle. First we paused for some lunch at a rest area and perhaps took a bit longer than we should have. When we finally entered the road to the famed estate we were stopped by a sign announcing that no tourists would be allowed after four in the afternoon. Since it was well past five we knew that we had missed our opportunity to explore the grounds. We had been led to believe that we could walk around the area until seven each day, but soon learned that the late hours do not start until the summer. We were profoundly disappointed because we had gone well out of our way to get there, and besides we might have spent more time in Bath had we known that our trip was to be fruitless.

It was time to head back to London and our old familiar haunts. Soon enough we were back at our hotel and planning to meet up in our favorite pub for some dinner and perhaps a game of Jokers and Marbles at the big table that had in some ways become ours. We had a great time recounting our adventures and looking on the positive side of even our disappointments. I enjoyed a lovely bowl of soup with some delicious bread and we women kept our winning record with the game intact. We also had some laughs with the regulars who seemed to come to the pub each evening and made our plans for our final day in London.

We planned a shopping day in some of the most famous mercantile areas of the city for our last hurrah. We agreed to allow ourselves a bit more sleep time and then we would be off to Harrods, Oxford Street, and Selfridge’s to see what wonders were inside these famous places of which we had only heard stories in the past. There was something quite exciting about the prospect of dressing up and mingling with the in crowd along with a horde of tourists like ourselves. I love to shop whether it is in thrift shops or elegant department stores. The thrill of the hunt has always fascinated me. I only wished that my mother was with us to enjoy the moment as well. I know that she too would have been extremely excited about perusing the wares of London’s most exclusive merchants. I seemed almost like the night before Christmas to me.