Surrender

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At the age of thirty my mother was left alone with three small children in an era when women were still mostly housewives, not yet integrated into the work force. She was faced with raising her little family with no money, not even a life insurance policy to ease her worries while she quickly learned how to make ends meet and provide safety and security for herself and her family. A little more than then years later she would have proven her mettle and determination to make things work, but her troubles were far from over. The symptoms of her bipolar disorder revealed themselves in full force with a psychotic episode of paranoia that would make her life even more difficult in the years to come.

Her hospitalization and treatment would weigh heavily on her mind for the rest of her life. It was a frightening experience for everyone, but mostly for her. The nurses carefully checked her belongings to be certain that she had no objects with which she might harm herself. They spoke of great fear that she might be suicidal. Of course no such thoughts were ever present in my mom’s mind. Her faith in God and profound belief that he would always love and protect her insured that she was never going to consider such violence upon herself. Even in the worst episodes of her illness suicide was not part of her frightening thoughts. The psychiatrists who took the time to know her well all insisted that she was never at risk of killing herself. Somehow her profound faith was like a protective shield of armor even in her most confused moments.

This past Easter season I found myself being reminded again and again of how much my mother loved God. She was one of those persons who proudly displayed the palms that she received at church on each Palm Sunday. During Holy Week she virtually lived at the church beginning with Holy Thursday and culminating with special services on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter itself. She seemed to have a very special relationship with Jesus, and she found great comfort in the story of his short life here on earth. She often spoke of how he protected widows, and she sincerely believed that he was actively caring for her from heaven.

Good Friday was a particularly moving occasion for my mother. She seemed to understand the message of Jesus’ death on the cross far more clearly than most Christians. She often cried at the very thought of the pain that he endured and the injustice of his execution, but she saw it as the ultimate sacrifice that anyone might make for his/her fellow human. She also thought of it as a model for the kind of suffering that each of us will experience on earth. She felt that such challenges would ultimately be a passing thing when our time here reached an end and we are reunited with God in heaven. She was so unswervingly convinced of the truth of her beliefs that she literally glowed with joy on her deathbed in the knowledge that she was about to receive the ultimate reward for all humans who have done their best to live good and decent lives.

I admittedly often felt sorrow for my mom. It seemed to me that she had convinced herself that the tragedy of her life was not nearly as bad as some seemed to think. She focused on the prize and never once wavered in her beliefs. She often spoke of how blessed she was and how good God had been to her. Not poverty, nor illness, nor the loss of those that she loved ever led her to question that love that she was convinced he had shown her. She daily read her bible and made it from one difficulty to the next with an optimism that sometimes annoyed me. It was only at the very moment of her death that I felt that there was something bigger than the challenges of humanity at work in our lives. In the years since she left this earth I have found myself remembering just how much comfort she found in the words and deeds of Jesus. I have recalled how she actually felt privileged to have suffered a bit like he did. She found so much joy in the spiritual relationship that she had with him, and she truly believed that he was the reason that she had made it.

My mother was a very special and saintly woman, a tower of strength in spite of the illness that rose up to threaten her again and again. Where I became angry about her fate, she saw it as life unfolding just as it was supposed to be. Somehow she found virtue even in her own imperfections. Her interpretation and understanding of the message of the Christian gospels was one of great exultation. I on the other had often over thought and focused on the horrors that I saw in the world, particularly those inflicted on her. Unlike my mother I wanted to know how she could be so content when she seemed to have been give so little. I had a hard time accepting her belief that she was fortunate and blessed.

In the years since her death I have found myself pondering her life and realizing just how carefree and generous she always seemed to be. While I was worrying about worldly things, she was viewing life through a far more spiritual lens. She did not need the trappings of humanity to feel good. She was truly like the lilies of the field in her innocence and her willingness to find beauty and peace in small things. She needed little more than her bible to feel safe and secure.

Somehow this past Easter season I began to truly understand her life, and mostly her faith. I had moments when I was overcome with emotion in the realization of how powerful her relationship with God had been. I felt her presence in my heart and it allowed me to feel closer to her and to God than ever before in my life. I realized that I too have been the beneficiary of God’s goodness even when it was not apparent to me. Somehow I began to have a clearer understanding of his message to us. While I cannot explain it to the extent that I wish, I now understand that it is about surrender, the same kind that Jesus demonstrated when he allowed himself to die on a cross. It is not about rules or judgements or the kind of things that we humans have added to virtually every religion on earth, but about love and trust. That is the secret that my mother discovered, the truth that kept her untroubled even when her story seemed to be so unfair. I’m working on becoming more like her. I still have a long way to go, but I can see a ray of light that has never been there before.

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Fashion

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A good twenty years ago one of the principals with whom I worked was complaining about a shopping excursion with his middle school aged daughter. He described how she had begged to purchase a pair of jeans with an acid wash that made them appear to be well worn. The jeans were expensive due only to the brand, so he was appalled by the idea of paying so much for something that looked like it had come from a rag bag. He asked the girl why they didn’t just go to a thrift store and find a pair of used jeans that cost maybe one sixth of the price. He wondered if I had ever experienced what he saw as the ridiculousness of fashion or if he was simply out of touch.

I laugh even to this day as I recall his concern, and wonder what he may be thinking if he has walked through the women’s and teen’s clothing sections lately. Trends have gone from washed out colors to purposefully placed holes in jeans. Sometimes the legs are even lopped off  to create shorts with stringy edges. Even I have gone from being an ardent supporter of the vagaries of fashion to wondering if procuring some very old jeans at a thrifty cost might make just as much sense as paying premium prices in the name of fashion. It would not take much skill to create the same looks that are on display in expensive boutiques with far less expense.

Fashion has evolved in so many directions over time. My husband was only recently longing for the days when women showed up at church on Easter Sunday with lovely pastel dresses accessorized with hats and gloves. He spoke of how elegantly his grandmother dressed even for Saturday shopping excursions. Now at church on Easter Sunday we will saw everything from jeans with sloppy t-shirts to shorts that seem more appropriate for a day at the beach. There are only a handful of ladies who still adhere to the idea of dressing up for services complete with wearing beautiful hats that compliment their lovely suits and dresses.

We have become a more casual society and I don’t mind that at all. I personally don’t like to wear hats. Most of them don’t fit right on my head and leave me with a headache after a few minutes. I am actually quite happy that I no longer have to worry about finding one that suits my features. I also hate the upkeep of those white gloves that we used to wear. I say good riddance to such things, but I miss others like the requirement of wearing hosiery for more formal occasions. There are very few women over the age of forty whose legs look good without stockings. The queen is correct to insist that all royals wear hose. They really do look nicer than pasty old legs and they aren’t all that uncomfortable.

I once looked into the possibility of wearing the same brand and color of hosiery that Princess Kate wears because she always looks so natural. I found out that I can even order a pair on Amazon. I was quite excited about the prospect of hiding the always and veins of my legs in a way that appeared to be almost invisible until I noticed that one pair costs forty five dollars. I knew that with my luck I would find a way to put a run in them on the first outing, so I decided not to even experiment with a pair. The problem is that finding an alternate source that does not look funny in today’s stockingless world is not that easy, so I just go with the flow of the current trend even though I would prefer to somehow camouflage my legs.

I’ve seen crazy things come and go. I was once part of the mini-skirt revolution back when hiking skirts was shocking to my elders. I loved the look and showed off my slender gams quite willingly. My girls wanted parachute pants and Vans which I never purchase for them because I thought that the price of those things was ridiculous. I still feel a bit guilty for not indulging them with looks that were popular at the time. My grandmother wore dresses that trailed down to her ankles and my mother got by with very short skirts by claiming that they were little playsuits. Women of every era try different ways of wearing clothing, some of which are actually stunning and timeless and others that quickly become dated.

I have settled into more classic looks in accordance with my age, but I actually appreciate the trendier styles for the younger set. It’s fun to try different styles and to determine what works best. I suppose that my mother was right whenever she told me to create my own looks by choosing the colors and the cuts that enhanced my figure rather than going with the flow. Each person indeed has skin tones and body issues that can be made to look lovely with a bit of care in choosing. The women who master such techniques are always beautiful and not obsessively worried about how they appear to the world.

Fashion is a superficial kind of thing, and yet I truly enjoy attempting to create a look for myself. I’ve lost two inches in height so I have had to change the way I pick clothing. My mid section is no longer long and slender so the sleek tower look doesn’t work for me like it once did. I do my best to hide my flaws and accentuate the things that are best about me. Mostly I now just want to blend in nicely. I sometimes have to remind myself that seventy year old women don’t have to look dowdy, but they should not look ridiculous either. There’s a fine line between staying modern and seeming to be a bit daft.

My granddaughter was recently invited to attend a military ball at her school. She wisely chose a very understated and classic dress, one that would work throughout the ages. I suppose that in the end the styles of women like Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly are defined by their timelessness. A photo of Coco Chanel looks as lovely today as it did decades ago. Perhaps the key to fashion is to have some fun now and again but always remember that in general less is more.

One Hundred Years

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When I think of my Aunt Valeria I think of her raisin and pecan cookies that she called “hermits” and her carrot cake that was the best that I have ever tasted. She was is a woman with simple tastes, not needing much in the way of luxuries to be content. She was born in April of 1919, the first daughter of Paul and Mary Ulrich, two recent immigrants from the Slovakian region of Austria Hungry. Of course, if you do the math, you realize that she is turning one hundred years old, a milestone that few of us ever reach, but I’ll talk about that later.

Aunt Valeria was a good child who dutifully helped her mother as the family grew and grew. She was there to watch the birth of most of her siblings and to help her mother care for them. By the time she was sixteen she was already well schooled in household duties and the intricacies of raising children, for she had been a source of great assistance to every one of her eight brothers and sisters, often setting aside her own needs to care for them. She was the essence of the responsible eldest daughter, but she had fallen in love and was hoping that her father would be amenable to the proposal of marriage that her boyfriend, Dale, had delivered to her. She waited expectantly as Dale asked for her hand in a deep conversation in which his true intentions were being assessed by her dad.

Dale passed muster and before long he and Valeria were married. They settled down in a bungalow on the East end of Houston where he would be close to his work at one of the refineries that were popping up along the Ship Channel. He was as good a man as ever there had been, and he was quite handsome to boot. Valeria loved him with all of her heart and wanted little more than a quiet and steady life with him. Before long they had a baby boy whom they named Leonard who was followed by another named Delbert Dale who quickly earned the nickname D.D.

The boys went to St. Christopher’s Catholic School and attended mass each Sunday with their mom who was devoted to her faith. They were already teenagers who had matriculated to St. Thomas High School when Valeria surprisingly learned that she was again pregnant, this time with a little girl. Valeria gave the gorgeous child the name Ingrid after the beautiful movie star Ingrid Bergman who had so impressed her in The Bells of St. Mary’s.

The family squeezed into the house that had been Valeria’s home since the earliest days of her marriage and made do with the tight fit, adding a little bed to the dining room to accommodate everyone. Dale often suggested that they purchase a bigger home, but being a practical woman Valeria never felt the need to expand. She was happy in knowing that the house was paid for, free and clear. She had grown up in a much smaller place with more people, and she had seen the hardships of the Great Depression. She was not willing to take financial risks that to her seemed unnecessary.

I remember visits to my Aunt Valeria’s house. My mother loved and admired her older sister so much. The two of them called each other on the phone every single day, and my mama often spoke of the wise advice that she received from her sister. Aunt Valeria represented stability and no nonsense to me. She was the first person to come to my mother’s aid in the middle of the night when my father died. When a kid at my school insisted that I would be sent to an orphanage if my mother also died, I was able to protest that I knew that my Aunt Valeria would take care of me even though I had never asked her if that was true. I simply assumed that the extra little bed in her dining room was there for me if I ever needed it.

Aunt Valeria liked to watch Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby on television. I recall sitting on her sofa, which was perennially covered with a sheet to make it last longer, while the two crooners enchanted her. She had copies of movie magazines on her coffee table with tantalizing headlines about scandals and such. I always wanted to read them or at least sneak a peek at what was inside, but children didn’t dare do such things back then.

Aunt Valeria was very religious, devoted to her faith. She often tuned in to hear Bishop Fulton Sheen preach. When I had to sit quietly while she and my mother listened to his homilies I silently squirmed inside wishing that I were watching my father’s comedies or my uncle’s westerns. Nonetheless I was always deeply respectful of my Aunt Valeria because my mother was so in awe of her. I felt that I was in the presence of someone quite special and I truly was.

When I think of my Aunt Valeria I immediately hear her little giggle and see her face with an impish smile. She has always been responsible, but also a bit girlish with her joy for music and movie stars. Some of my all time favorite moments were spent seeing musicals like Oklahoma with her in gilded movie theaters that we attended in our finest regalia. I liked being with her because she always made me feel special, happy and so relaxed. I knew that she loved me and hoped that she understood how much I loved her.

Somehow my Aunt Valeria was always the person who showed up whenever I needed someone on whom to lean, but the years went by and she and her beautiful first love, Dale, grew older. One day he died quite peacefully just as she was serving lunch to him in the house that they had purchased decades before. She was bereft and alone, so she called my mother more and more often, the two of them sharing their widowhood and all of the love that they had for each other. Eventually Aunt Valeria became disabled and moved to St. Dominic’s Village where she would receive the kind of care that she had always given others. My mom and I often visited her, bringing her a burger from Burger King or potato salad from Pappa’s Barbecue. Always we snuck in a coke and a snickers bar and Aunt Valeria was as delighted as a child with our presence.

When my mother spent her last year of life in my home I grew to look forward to taking her to see Aunt Valeria for those visits. It seemed that my aunt was ageless and her magical effect on my mother and I was a constant in our lives that we dearly needed. After my mother died there was a kind of sadness in my aunt that I had never before seen. I suppose that she was slowly watching one loved one after another pass away while she still remained. Now there are only two of her siblings left and they are no longer healthy enough to make the journey to visit her. Even her children are growing old and becoming less and less able to be as devoted as they once were. She spends her days in a never ending routine, but whenever any of us visit that same beautiful smile lights up her face and we know that we have made her happy.

One hundred years of service to everyone that she ever encountered is my Aunt Valeria’s legacy. She asked for little, but has given so much. She has been her mother’s helper, her husband’s partner, her children’s devoted caretaker, her sister’s lifeline, my rock in a world that was so confusing and frightening, a faithful servant to her God. Her one hundred years have been well spent. There is no feminist or member of Pantsuit Nation who is as phenomenal as my aunt. Hers has been a life well lived.

Happy Birthday, Aunt Valeria!

    

A Remarkable Man

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My father-in-law, Julio Gonzalez, was born in April of 1929, in Lares, Puerto Rico, a little mountain town where the hillsides were filled with coffee plants and orange groves. He was a joy to his huge extended family of aunts and uncles and cousins, people who would pitch in to help raise him after his very young parents’ marriage fell apart and his brilliant father left him in their care while he continued his studies of medicine in Spain. He grew into a happy boy in the town where everyone seemed to be a relative watching over him, unaware of the worldwide economic depression and the political cataclysms that would lead to World War II. His was a place of fun with his cousins and baseball with his chums. When the winds of war hit the United States he was still a bit too young to join the young men enlisting to fight. His introduction to mortal conflict would be the Korean War when he proudly represented Puerto Rico in the regiment that had once been under the command of General Patton during the earlier war.

He spoke little of being a soldier in Korea. The memories were tainted by the death of comrades, visions that were painful to revisit. Nonetheless he was proud of his service as a citizen of the United States and after his stint in the army he and a buddy agreed to meet up for college. A bit of miscommunication about just where that would be landed his friend in Hawaii and brought him to Houston, Texas where he sat one day in the Cougar Den at the University of Houston when my mother-in-law was introduced to him.

Theirs was an almost instant attraction. They were still talking with each other long after their mutual friends had left. He was quite handsome and she was beautiful. Both of them were incredibly intelligent and managed to converse through his knowledge of English and her fluency in Spanish. She had been married before and had a little boy, my future husband, Mike. She was back in college attempting to forge a future on her own. She had not expected to meet someone who would attract her attention the way Julio had, but life is serendipitous and somehow changed direction for both of them as they fell hopelessly in love in a very short time.

They married and Julio took on the job of being both a husband and father. He was devoted to doing that role well. His whole world would center on being a good and responsible man. Neither he nor my mother-in-law would ever finish their college degrees, but they would use their innate intelligence to build a very good and secure life together. Julio eventually found work at a Hormel plant near downtown only minutes away from where they lived on the near north side of Houston. He began in the meat processing area, doing back breaking work in a cold environment. Eventually he worked his way into the business office where he did accounting and won the hearts of his fellow workers with his jovial ways.

He raised my husband as his own, being as loving a father as ever their was. He was a cautious man who lived frugally, enjoying the simple but most important aspects of life. He toured America with his wife and son, played poker on Friday nights with friends from church, and became a beloved and respected member of his wife’s family. He enjoyed golfing and partying with friends from work, and became more and more fiercely proud of being an American. He’d save for trips back home to see his family in Puerto Rico. His father had become a highly respected doctor who eventually remarried and had a second family of half siblings whom Julio loved with all of his heart.

My father-in-law taught his son to be as quintessential a gentleman as he himself has always been. He instilled a sense of honor and integrity in Mike and modeled all the best qualities of a good husband and father. He became the beloved center of the family as he proved time and again to be concerned and compassionate and willing to sacrifice for the needs of those around him. Year after year passed and so too did so many of the people he had loved including my mother-in-law, his loving partner for so many years.

He was heartbroken after her death, so bereft that his health seemed to falter. We worried that he might succumb to his sorrow, but he is at heart a survivor. He knows how to embrace challenges and keep moving forward. Before long he had not only recovered, but had met a sweet woman who stole a piece of his heart. The two married and now provide each other with fun and companionship.

My father-in-law loves children. He is the kind of man who likes to get down on the floor to join in their games. He runs with them and makes them smile with his gentleness and his playfulness. He spreads love wherever he goes.

It’s hard to believe that he is celebrating his ninetieth year on this earth. He looks far younger than that. He is hale and hearty save for a few minor issues. He still drives his car and takes care of both himself and his wife. He’s a good man who worries a bit too much about his son and granddaughters and great grandchildren. He has worked hard his entire life to insure that they will feel safe and secure. He has loved without bounds and in turn he is loved by everyone lucky enough to know him.

Julio Gonzalez is a quietly remarkable man who has asked for little and given so very much. We hope and pray that we will have the honor of having him with us for many more years to come.

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.