May the Road Rise Up To Meet You

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This weekend there will be grand St. Patrick Day celebrations in Boston, New York City, Chicago,  New Orleans and all across the United States. There will be many a river died green and folks will don their emerald colored clothing lest they be pinched. Lots of corned beef and cabbage will be the dish of the day along with beer and soda bread. It’s a fun occasion and everybody gets into the act even if they don’t have an Irish bone in their bodies.

It was not until a few years back that I discovered that I am a descendant of the real article. My great grandmother was Marion Rourke, a true Irish name if ever there was one. I know little more than that she existed, married my great grandfather James Mack, had a baby boy that she named William, and died only a few days after giving birth. That baby boy was my paternal grandfather, a man who like me would often think of his mother and wish that he had known her. She is a kind of mystery in that she doesn’t show up on census records or death certificates of the time. Nobody knows for certain why she died, but my grandfather would never forget her, one day naming his daughter “Marion” in her honor.

I’ve searched record after record hoping to know her better. A general discussion of her name mentions that Roarks are probably descendants of a Viking  named Ruaric who found his way to the Emerald Isle and stayed to build a life and a legacy in a territory known as Breffny, now Cavan and West Leitrim located in Northeastern Ireland. The Roark family was at one time quite powerful in Ireland and their motto was “I govern by serving.” Over time famine and poverty drove many of them to seek new possibilities in places like the United States. I suppose that I will never really know how Marion got here and where she met James Mack. Somehow though I suspect that through her DNA her spirit and maybe even her physical characteristics live on in members of our family.

It makes me sad to know that she died before ever getting to know her son. I think that she would have been quite proud of the man that he ultimately became. She might have enjoyed knowing that she had a granddaughter and a grandson. Surely my father with his intellect and impish sense of humor would have brought her the same kind of joy that I derive from my own grandchildren. I wonder if it is possible that the twinkle in my youngest grandson William’s eyes is part of his Irish heritage. Is the quick wit of my brother Patrick right in keeping with Marion’s ethnicity? Surely he has the perfect name for the great grandson of an Irish lass, as do his own sons Ryan and Shawn.

When I gave birth to my first daughter I had a long labor of over eighteen hours that was complicated by the fact that my baby weighed more than nine pounds and was determined to arrive in a breech position. My doctors eventually got her facing in the right direction, but he told me that in the days of yore I might not have made it. When the same thing happened with my second child he asked if I knew of anyone in my family who had experienced a similar situation. I never thought of my great grandmother Marion but now I wonder if her labor and been similar to mine. Without a hospital, nurses, and a highly trained doctor the delivery may have been so difficult as to render her weak and unable to rebound.

I try not to get too sad thinking about Great Grandmother Marion. Instead I prefer to celebrate the ancestry that she gave me. I like to think of how she must have loved her baby boy William if only for a very short time. I suspect that her life was always a bit difficult but she had found some joy with James and hope for the future with William. Her son was a very handsome and articulate man, a storyteller and gifted craftsman. Did some of those traits come from her?

Now I celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a new feeling that I am very much entitled to this annual fest by birth right. This year I have bangers from Ireland that I will try along with some cabbage and potatoes. I may make a trip to Central Market for some Irish soda bread like my dear friend Marita Doyle used to bake. She would get a kick out of knowing that the two of us now share a link to Ireland because she was an Irish girl from Chicago through and through.

In a touch of irony my grandfather William ended up being raised by his grandmother Sarah Reynolds. I find that interesting because when I was teaching at a local Catholic school I worked with a fine woman named Therese Reynolds who spoke with a lovely  brogue and had the same kind of humor that runs from my grandfather down to my youngest grandson. Like my grandfather she was a teller of tales that were filled with blarney and fun. She once gave me a beautiful copy of the Irish Blessing that hangs in the entryway to my home. I’ve always been taken by it’s words and now I know that it is part of my heritage. So on the eve of St. Paddy’s Day I pray:

May the roads rise to meet you,

May the winds be always at your back,

May sun shine warm upon your face,

The rains fall soft upon your fields,

And until we meet again

May God hold you in the hollow of His hand.

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The Brilliance of Forgetting

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Well that’s a relief! I just found out that forgetfulness is a sign of exceptional intelligence. If that’s the case I must be a genius because I’m one of those folks who walks from one room to another with great purpose and then ends up wondering why I’m standing in a closet in a state of confusion. I’ve had to incorporate all sorts of apps into my routine just to keep track of appointments and passwords and even to handle a record of tasks that I need to complete. If the electricity ever went our for several days I’d be up a creek wandering about dazed and disorganized.

I’ve never been good at recalling things like my license plate number. That’s why I so loved my GAMMY 7 car with its never to forget personalized identification. When I eventually gifted the car to my grandsons I was happy to help them out, but I hated losing the one thing identified by a series of letters and numbers that I never ever forgot. It does’t even seem like the same car with its now generic set of symbols. I’d probably lose it in a parking lot without its familiar name smiling at me on that little metal plate. I’d be wandering about hoping to hear a little honking sound as I pressed the remote on my key fob.

I have to look up the numbers on my driver’s license every single time that someone asks me for that bit of identification, but I can spout my social security info without even thinking because I’ve had to be able to retrieve that combination of numbers since I was a student. It’s been an important piece of usefulness for jobs and all sorts of situations, so it’s become second nature to me like my name or my phone number. Speaking of which, having both a land line and cell can become a bit confusing, but so far I’ve managed to differentiate between the two. I keep wondering if it’s time to ditch the land land though because it has become rare for me or anyone that I know to use it.

I’ve always had a bit of dyslexia so I frequently transpose numbers, a tendency which can be lethal when teaching mathematics. I learned long ago to always check my solutions to problems. I became rather adept in determining if an answer appeared to make sense or not. Whenever I made a mistake while instructing my students I used it as a way to encourage them by admitting that we all have those moments of imperfection. I also took that time to demonstrate how to assess an answer in terms of whether or not it made sense. Nonetheless to this very day I sometimes find myself freezing in terror when faced with the seven and nine multiplication facts. I have to take a deep breath and hope that my brain is not so rattled that I make a fool of myself in front of my students.

When it comes to birthdays I’m really bad. Facebook has done me one of the grandest favors of my lifetime by reminding me of who is celebrating on any given day. Unfortunately their algorithm does not always choose to keep me in touch with all of the people that I definitely want to remember, so I suspect that I am missing a few of my favorite people from time to time. I ask anyone who has been forgotten to just understand that I’m not a birthday wizard. I know mine, those of my children and my grandchildren. After that I have to check a calendar.

A friend was asking me about someone’s address recently. I had no idea how to respond. I’m one of those kooky women who is able to drive to the homes of my friends and family members strictly by dent of landmarks and house styles and colors. If you ask me for numbers and sometimes even street names I’m lost, but I know exactly what places of business are on the corners where I must turn and I have an uncanny sense of direction. I know immediately whether or not I am traveling the right way even in a deep fog. In spite of that I still think of Siri as my new best friend as she navigates me all over the country. It’s as though I have a dear companion in the seat next to me making certain that I will never get lost.

I know people who describe life events with exact dates. I can’t remember whether an occasion transpired this year or a decade ago. I hate the medical forms that ask me when I broke my foot. I really have no idea how old I was other than the fact that I was young enough to participate in a miles long fund raiser. I didn’t wear proper shoes for the occasion and I ended up with a stress fracture because I did not yet I know that I had osteoporosis and was more likely than most to get broken bones. i suppose that I am one of those folks whose mind keeps track of general details rather than specifics.

I am able to recall events and conversations from my childhood quite vividly. For that matter any situation involving an encounter with another person is planted clearly in my mind. I suppose that such incidents are of particular importance to me. It is as though I can actually relive them, hear the voices, see the details and colors, have the same feelings. I find myself back in those times as though they were happening right now. It’s so strange how the mind works. I wonder how we unconsciously decide what is important enough to recall with clarity?

When I was a teenager working as a receptionist for our family doctor during the summer I learned about the power of knowing how and where to find information. The kindly physician showed me his vast collection of medical books and demonstrated how he would listen to a patient’s description of symptoms and then use the volumes to match them to a disease and its requisite treatments. That’s when I realized that we never really know everything, at least those of us who are not brilliant savants. It was quite freeing to understand that much of education teaches us how to find the resources that lead us to the answers that we need.

As I grow older I must indeed be getting more and brilliant if the research is to be believed because I am more and more forgetful without the electronic reminders that I have set in place. I have to say that our brave new world of information right at our fingertips has come along at just the right time of life for me. I can at least face the world without looking ridiculously confused about what to do next. Still, I miss those lovely calendars that I used to religiously carry in my purse or briefcase. Being the tactile learner that I am made them all the more meaningful. I found myself recalling the color coding that I used and the little pictures that I drew to emphasize the importance of certain things. I suppose that like Mitt Romney I still prefer relying on binders to sort and organize my life. Those images on little screens sometimes rattle my dyslexia in a way that the paper images never did, but at least they don’t get lost and they take the time to remind me of what I need to do with bells and whistles and little bubbles. I’m growing more and more fond of them by the day, at least until those moments when I can’t find my phone or my laptop.

A Month of Madness

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As I took my plants back outside after a couple of days of freezing weather I thought of how cyclical life is. I’ve been through seventy one winters now and watched the seasons change in quirky ways, but always somewhat predictably. Life is a series of repetitions during which we grow just a bit older and hopefully a bit wiser. We learn about the way of things and understand that while it’s unusual, it is possible to have a freeze in March in the south. We go with the flow and the routine even as big changes may occur to make things so very different. We understand that we can count on the calendar moving at its”petty pace” but surprises both good and bad may come our way at any moment. The traditions to which we often cling are ways of keeping us anchored even as storms roar around us.

March brings us the Houston Rodeo and Mardi Gras and Lent and the madness of basketball. In this month we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day even if we don’t have an Irish bone in our bodies. We decorate our homes with colorful beads and then replace them with shamrocks and finally bunnies. We take a break from work and school with an eye toward warmer days and fun in the sun, hoping that our plans to visit a beach aren’t spoiled with rain and cold temperatures. We seek a sense of control and continuity with our rituals. They create cohesion and memories that sustain us, but they can also be a source of sorrow when things spiral out of our control as often happens.

I remember a year when my friend Pat secured a beach house for all of us to use during spring break. Our children were teenagers who were not yet driving and doing things on their own although they may have been dying to do so. We happily packed enough food and clothing for what should have been a fun adventure, but things began to fall apart almost immediately beginning with the fact that we had to wear coats because it was so chilly. Nonetheless, by the time we had reached the rented house we had outlined a Plan B that did not include swimming in the still frigid ocean, but would still be filled with tons of fun. We were bound and determined to make the best of our situation.

As soon as we opened the door of the vacation home we somehow knew that even our alternate ideas were doomed. The place reeked of deceased rodents and there was no way that we were going to be able to stay inside. At that point our anger and disappointment reached its limit. We had no choice but to complain to the owner of the place and then return home. After shedding a few tears of frustration we were on our way back to where we had started with only a few lame ideas about how to have a fun time in spite of the frustrating developments.

I don’t remember what we actually did after that. I do know that we eventually found ourselves laughing in a kind of hysteria about how awry things had gone. At the time our misadventure had seemed so significant and horrific but as the seasons came and went and our children grew into independent adults the story of that spring break became more of a treasured memory of our continuing friendship than a terrible experience. Today my friend Pat is gone and I know in my heart that I would even stay in a stinky rat invested house if it meant that we might have a bit more time together. Such is life.

After someone dear to us dies the first few cycles of the the year are exceedingly difficult to endure. Each occasion reminds us of how much we miss them. Over time our wounds heal, toughen up, and turn into scars. We once again find joy in our traditions and the memories of those who once shared them with us. We realize how lucky we were to have them and the pain becomes bearable. Just as the dormant trees bud forth each spring, so too do we find ways to carry on even after we have felt as though we too have died inside.

I love this time of year. It is one of those grandly transitional months when we humans find ways to muddle through the last gasps of winter with the promise of spring just over the horizon. We gather together to celebrate all that has gone before and all that is yet to come. Our hats, parades, ashes, decorations, foods, and gatherings are inventions of the human spirit, attempts to maintain our optimism even when everything around us feels so wrong. How wonderful it is!

March is a hopeful month even as we witness destruction from the last gasps of wintery weather. It’s a month when we never quite know how things will turn out, but we plan them anyway. We may go to the Houston Rodeo in heavy coats with rain falling on our heads, but once we are inside the arena all of our worries seem to evaporate. March is ever a new beginning, a time to set the problems of the past aside and hope that better days are ahead. It’s also a time to prepare ourselves for whatever challenges may come our way by thinking outside of our own worries and needs. I’m now old enough and experienced enough to know that it’s often a month of madness that always seems to end with a feeling of peace.

A Loving Tradition

Andy and ThuyMy brother married a beautiful and brilliant young woman who was originally from Taiwan. She was one of five siblings, a brave girl who sought her dreams in the United States. She earned a degree, landed a job with a NASA contractor, and caught my brother’s eye at meeting. Back then it was quite a challenge to learn someone’s contact information, but my brother was determined to find her and get to know her better. After searching the telephone book like a detective, and following many false leads, he eventually found her and not long after that they had fallen in love.

Their wedding was a fitting beginning for a truly beautiful couple. It was during all of the festivities that I first met my sister-in-law’s family among whom was her lovely and thoughtful older sister, Diana, who was married to a sweet man who went out of his way to entertain us and to be certain that we felt included in the celebrations. He and his young wife had a small son, Andy, who was close in age to my two little girls, so we had parenthood in common. I remember feeling so comfortable with them and wishing that they lived in the USA rather than Taiwan so that I might be able to spend more time with them.

My brother and his bride settled into a wonderful life in the Clear Lake area of Houston so that they would be close to the work at NASA that would become an integral part of who they are. We soon learned that in the Chinese tradition we were honored as family members just as much as those related by blood, and in the same tradition my mother held an exalted place. I truly appreciated the all loving culture of my sister-in-law and her family.

While we were still in our twenties we learned the tragic news that Diana’s husband had died. It seemed to be far too early for someone as young and kind as he was to leave this earth. It was a sad time when we worried about the widow and her young son, but our fears were soon somewhat abated when Diana came to America to earn a degree of her own at Lamar University. While she studied there Andy lived with my brother and sister-in-law. He became a beloved member of our extended family who played with my daughters and practiced his English with them. We spent holidays together, celebrated birthdays, and traveled to Colorado in an overcrowded van filled with laughter and noise.

Eventually Diana earned her degree and she too found work with companies associated with NASA. She was always the person at every event who checked to be certain that everyone was having a good time. She raised Andy to appreciate the opportunities that he had and to make full use of them. He grew to be tall and lanky like his father, and just as sweet as both of his parents. Soon he was heading to the University of Texas in Austin to forge his future. While there he met Thuy, a lovely and determined young woman whose family had immigrated from Vietnam. The two of them dated and studied and soon realized that together they were a powerful team. Both of them wanted to become doctors and they supported each other in that quest. With much hard work they were soon on their way to medical school in Dallas, but first they married in a beautiful ceremony that celebrated their love.

Much time has passed. Both Andy and Thuy have highly successful careers as physicians. He is a gastroenterologist and she is an oncologist. They are well regarded as among the best in their respective fields. They work hard and have the trappings of success, but they have never forgotten the people who were part of their journey. They now have two children, a boy Ethan and a girl Allie, who share their intellect and generous personalities. The children are incredibly bright and unspoiled. Like their grandparents and their parents they are thoughtful and respectful. They take the time to honor the guests in their home following a tradition that seems to be part of their DNA.

Andy and Thuy love to have fun. They travel the world with Ethan and Allie and attend sporting events and concerts. They enjoy trying different kinds of food and being adventurous. They appear to have boundless energy that allows them to be constantly on the go. They are happy people who work hard and play hard. Still, there are quiet times for reading and learning, always learning. They love their children and focus on bringing them up with wonderful values of kindness, honesty and determination. They make weekly visits to the library and in between they voraciously devour the stories and information contained in the pages. Their lives are busy, but well balanced.

Andy and Thuy celebrate life with incredible parties that center around themes. Each child receives such an honor every other year. They are amazing affairs with decorations worthy of a Hollywood production and a well planned schedule that includes food and fun in abundance. Mike and I have been lucky to be included in many of them, and we look forward to those occasions with almost childish glee.

This year it was Ethan’s turn to bask in the limelight for his eleventh birthday. The theme was “Mission Mars” and we had our choice of coming as astronauts or aliens. My brother and his wife wore their work clothes and NASA badges and looked more official than anyone. Mike and I concocted alien costumes to join in the fun. Thuy made certain that everyone would be able to dress for a part in the festivities by using her imagination to design both astronaut and alien gear. I never cease to be amazed by her ingenuity.

The house was decorated with huge rockets and astronauts floating from the ceiling among the stars. There was a magician, a debate, a trivia contest, and a confetti egg battle between aliens and astronauts. Every child walked away with an incredible gift and many adults won prizes for their participation. Best of all was the camaraderie and the love that filled the rooms, all encouraged by Andy, Thuy and their children.

I suppose that I most enjoyed just talking with Ethan and Allie. They are utterly delightful in every regard. They are first and foremost very sweet, and they have been taught to honor adults, especially those who are seniors. They are infinitely polite, but also filled with unique personality traits that make them funny and delightful.

I’ve told Thuy that she if she ever finds the time she should speak to young people at high schools. Hers is an inspirational story that proves that goodness, hard work, grit, and compassion do indeed lead to a glorious life. She has dutifully sacrificed and followed an orderly progression toward a way of life that is fulfilling and purposeful. Now she and Andy are passing those traits on to their children, continuing a way of life that has roots all the way to Taiwan and Vietnam.

Andy and Thuy are family, and they make me proud. They are literally saving lives each day, but on a more personal level they teach all of us how to truly love.

My How Things Have Changed

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A young woman who is soon to be married was asking friends to share memories of their weddings. I sat back and listened with interest, noting how much such things had changed in the fifty years since my own nuptials. An enormous amount of time and money goes into the planning of today’s marriage galas. They are often so complex that it’s little wonder that some women turn into bridezillas. Things were so much simpler back in my day.

I actually went to work at Elliot Elementary School on the day of my wedding. It was a seven in the evening affair so I saw no reason to take time from my job. I would have four hours between the end of my work day and the time when I needed to walk down the aisle which seemed to be more than sufficient for getting ready. I don’t recall being especially nervous as I followed my usual routines with the students. In fact I suspect that working kept me centered and less prone to bouts of anxiety.

I had done all of the planning with my mother and together we created an event rather typical of the times. I found a dress on sale that was quite lovely. If I remember right it cost just a bit less than a hundred dollars which still seemed like a fortune to me. I enlisted the florist who did a majority of the weddings at my church and he promised to do a glorious job using white roses for me and red ones for my bridesmaids. He designed a beautiful white creation for the altar and great flowers for the moms and all of the men. I had every confidence that his work would be lovely and he came through with perfection.

My photographer was a member of our church who also did a great deal of work for special occasions. He had even done the photos for my graduation from high school. He was a nice man who understood the monetary restrictions under which me and my mother worked and he gave us an exceptional deal on his services.

I held my reception in the Parish Hall as was customary with the majority of my friends. A lady from the church made the cakes and included punch and coffee in her offer. My mom wanted just a bit more for our guests so we also purchased some lovely tea sandwiches from another neighborhood woman and to our delight they would end up being the hit of the evening.

Mrs. McKenna, the mother of one of my bridesmaids sang in her beautiful soprano voice and a young man who was a master of the trumpet played in cadence with the organist as I walked down the aisle. The music would not have been better if we had hired folks from Houston Grand Opera and the Houston Symphony. Best of all, back then the charge for singers and musicians was minimal.

After working at school on the appointed day I went straight to the hairdresser who washed and styled my hair and then attached my veil so that it looked right. I traveled home with time to spare and gathered my dress, shoes and such. Then my mom and I drove straight to the church. I wasn’t in the habit of wearing makeup back then so I didn’t even think to goop up my face for the occasion. I was soapy clean with only the complexion that nature provided on my beaming countenance.

A nice lady who worked with the photographer helped me and my bridesmaids to put on our dresses. She fluffed my veil and made sure that the train on my gown was well presented. Then I grabbed my brother Michael’s arm and floated down to aisle with my gaze set firmly on my soon to be husband Mike. I still remember all of the smiling faces demonstrating their love as I made that long trip to Mike’s side.

The rest of what happened is enshrouded in a bit of a fog. I was exceptionally pleased with the music, especially Mrs. McKenna’s singing of Ave Maria. The homily was profound with its message of hope in the face of the turmoil of 1968. It had been a tough year for the country and most of us were reeling from assassinations, protests and the war. The priest rightly noted that the exchange of vows until death was a leap of faith in such conditions. His words resonated with me and kept me going whenever difficulties arose over the next five decades.

After mass we convened in the Parish Hall with our guests and greeted them one by one with a traditional receiving line. We cut the cake and took silly photos feeding the sweet morsels to each other, threw the bridal bouquet to the single girls, and then had the usual ceremony with the blue garter that I wore on my leg. I have no idea who caught the cherished items but I hope that they one day found happiness with a loving partner like I did.

We left in a car decorated with tin cans streaming from the rear bumper and lots of shaving cream announcing our nuptials. Our destination was Hobby Airport which was only minutes away. Our cousins Alan and Susan followed us to the plane and the stewardesses were kind enough to allow Susan to come onboard to take photos of us just before we flew away to New Orleans. It would be the first time I had ever flown and I felt like a kid on a rollercoaster as the wheels left the tarmac.

We stayed in the Crescent City for the weekend enjoying accommodations at the Monteleone Hotel which was being remodeled at the time. We ate breakfast at Brennan’s and beignet at Cafe du Monde. We devoured the traditional muffulettas at the Central Grocery and sampled pralines at Aunt Sally’s. Mike’s uncle gave us the gift of an evening at the Blue Room in the Roosevelt Hotel were we enjoyed dinner and a show with a surprisingly wonderful performance by Fran Jeffries, an entertainer who was unknown to me. Of course we sipped on hurricane’s and feasted on gumbo. We fell in love with the patio at Broussard’s where we laughed at a salute to Napoleon. We rode the streetcar to Loyola University where Mike showed me his old dorm room and the places where he spent time as a student. We purchased gifts for our parents in the quaint shops and walked up and down the French Quarter on some of the loveliest autumn days that I have ever seen in New Orleans. When we left on Monday we had under a dollar left in our pockets but memories that would make us smile for all the years to come.

We both went back to school and work immediately. We would very soon be facing some very adult challenges that we somehow overcame in spite of our immaturity and lack of experience. We became a team and found ways to laugh even when we wanted to cry. We’d never forget how much fun we had with our very simple wedding that to me still seems the best of any I’ve ever experienced. We didn’t break the bank or send ourselves into gales of anxiety back then. Instead it was all about our promises to each other and the support of the people that we loved. That was all that we needed, and it was very good.