A Festival of Fall

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One of the grandest discoveries of my retirement has been finding the Houston Garden Club Annual Bulb Mart. When I was first adapting to the concept of having all of the daylight hours to myself I began looking for things to fill the time. I signed up for a class at Rice, found a tutoring gig, began writing daily, and treated myself to going to the movie theater in the middle of the day. Because I tend to be a high energy person I still needed more to keep my mind entertained. That’s when I decided to search on Google for special events around my town. Luckily I found an advertisement for the Bulb Mart, and I’ve been attending ever since.

The ladies of the garden club plan their gala fundraiser all year long, and quite wisely choose a date in mid October when the weather in Houston is generally Chamber of Commerce level glorious. Somehow they avoid the rains that so often are a precursor of fall. I’ve often wondered if they consult the Farmer’s Almanac because in the seven years that I have been attending, not once has there been even a cloud in the sky. In fact the weather has always been glorious to match the moods of all of us who walk around with big grins on our faces as we gaze at the lovely offerings.

The venue for the event has changed from time to time, but it has been held at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Westheimer for the last few years. The main focus of the occasion is on an incredible variety of bulbs including tulips, irises, day lilies, amaryllis, an more. Table after table offers a variety of genres and colors. There are also many plants native to the Houston area as well as those that thrive in our particular growing zone. The ladies who volunteer are always knowledgeable and helpful in providing good information about how to best grow a delightful garden. For those wishing to have more information there are lectures and little seminars happening throughout the two day event as well.

My backyard garden is filled with gorgeous amaryllis plants that burst forth in glory each spring. They are magnificent in variety and color and never fail to fill me with joy. It’s exciting to watch them display their unique features one by one after the winter freezes are gone. I add one or two bulbs each year to go with those that have faithfully bloomed since I first began this glorious tradition.

The plants from the Bulb Mart are made for the gumbo soil, high humidity and rain soaked environment that Houston gardens must endure. I have yet to have any of them fail to flourish. I have a particularly wet side of my house that is exacerbated by the runoff from my next door neighbor’s backyard. Their entire area is dominated by a large pool and concrete decking that makes for intense drainage problems for me. On most days the area that abuts on their property is water logged. I invested large amounts of money trying to find something that would grow in that condition all to no avail. The roots would rot and I would have to try something new. Last year I spoke with the experts at the Bulb Mart and invested in a plant that seemed to be suited for the habitat. To both my surprise and delight the plant has thrived and bloomed with delicate white flowers even as the watery problem has only worsened with the continual rains of September and early October.

I attended the Bulb Mart again this year just as I have for the last seven. It has become a “must do” for me. I get an email in the summer reminding me of the date and I literally plan my October activities around it. This year I pre-ordered a few items to insure that I would get certain varieties before they ran out. The day was as lovely as it always seems to be and I found myself falling in love with my city one more time. The smiling faces of the workers and the shoppers reminded me of what a friendly place Houston is. It’s a kind of small town with four million people. The first hint of fall made me forget the heat and humidity that has kept us indoors for weeks. It was a picture perfect day in every possible way, made better by the joyful plants that I bought to enhance the gardens that bring me peace and contentment all year long.

I’m not a person who can countenance change too quickly. I like a certain orderliness in my life. Too much shuffling around creates a kind of chaos in my heart and mind. I prefer quiet and routine. The Bulb Mart has become a constant for me, a mediating force for the variables of living. I depend on it to bring me peace and contentment. Thus far it has yet to fail me.

If you happen to be in Houston around the second week of October check the events calendar to see if the Bulb Mart is happening. The admission is free and everyone gets an informative little book describing the various kinds of bulbs and when and how to plant and care for them. There are even door prizes for a lucky few. Best of all there is a festive and friendly spirit that is so typical of Houston. It’s fun just to walk around and celebrate the glory of nature at her best.

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A Brilliant Choice

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On this day in 1968, my husband Mike and I pledged to love, honor and cherish each other for the rest of our lives. For fifty years we have steadfastly done our best to live by the standards of our pledge, but in truth being married for five decades has required far more than adherence to a promise. The two of us are best friends in every sense of what that concept may mean. We enjoy being together and sharing our lives both as individuals and as a couple. We have certainly grown during our five decades together, and become even better as a team than we might have been alone.

I was nineteen years old when I walked down the aisle. My mother had to sign a document giving permission for me to marry. I was as naive as anyone might be when entering such a serious contract with another person, but I was dead certain that Mike and I had a very special relationship that was centered on love. I have often been reluctant to take a firm position of belief during my lifetime, but on the Friday evening when I walked down the aisle of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church I had no doubt that I was doing exactly what I was meant to do. Somehow it seemed as though the heavens themselves had aligned to bring me and Mike together, and I was unafraid to take the grand leap of faith that binds two people together for eternity.

We were joined by friends and family for our celebration. The church was gloriously bathed in light as Mike stood at the front of the church. The organ began to boom accompanied by the crystal clear sounds of a trumpet and my bridesmaids, Susan, Nancy and Ingrid made their way slowly toward the altar along with the groomsmen, James, Jack and Alan. When it was my turn I held on tightly to my brother Michael’s arm thinking of how proud I was that he was doing such a grand job of standing in for what might have been my father’s duty. I was lightheaded, giddy and nervous but mostly ecstatically happy. Admittedly once I reached the front of the church and stood next to Mike much of the rest of the ceremony became a blur. I recall the homily with clarity and I can still hear Mrs. McKenna’s beautiful soprano voice as she sang Ave Maria, but mostly I remember how secure I felt just being with Mike.

Our reception was a simple affair as most of them tended to be back then. We gathered in the Parish Hall and feasted on cake, punch and finger sandwiches. Mike and I greeted our guests and did all of the traditional tasks of cutting the cake, throwing out the garter and bouquet, and running under a hail of rice as we rushed to our car which was decorated with shaving cream and streamers of tin cans. Then we were off to our honeymoon in New Orleans and a life filled with challenges and good times.

We certainly did our best to be loving and honest and supportive of one another over the years. Our intentions were put to the test less than a year after we had married when my mother had the first of her mental breakdowns. It was such a strain that it might have broken our bonds, but Mike would prove to be my rock, my foundation, my support. It was a role that he would so lovingly assume over and over again whether during the times when I was caring for my mom or when I got ideas about degrees that I wanted to attain or work that I wanted to do. Mostly he was always and forever my sounding board. A voice of wisdom and concern on whom I knew that I might depend.

Our joy with one another only grew over the years as we were blessed with two daughters. We had a happy little family that was made better and stronger by the friends and family members who shared our child rearing years. I doubt that we would have been nearly as successful in our efforts had it not been for them. We had fun and exchanged concerns and sometimes even shed a tear or two together. Our circle became bound to an ever growing number of incredible people who were critical to our own matrimonial success.

Before we were even able to catch our breaths our daughters were leaving to begin families of their own. Our nest was empty and we began to enjoy the quiet contentment of just doing simple things with each other like sharing a passage from a book or laughing over a funny movie. We worked hard and together found solutions to the inevitable problems that enter every life. We centered our focus on God, family and friends. We lost loved ones and met new and wonderful individuals. The sun rose and it set through one day, one year, one decade after another.

We have weathered many a storm and celebrated even more joys. Our love has been the constant in our lives along with the people who shared our journey. We have seven grandchildren who are our pride and joy. Our daughters are as good as we had hoped we might teach them to be and they are married to very fine men. We are quite content with the story that we have created together. We know that not everyday will be sunny, but we have somehow always managed to weather the storms.

Joining our lives together fifty years ago was the very best thing that either of us have ever done. Together we are stronger than we might ever have been alone. We know that our family and our friends have also been part the success that we have enjoyed. I thank God every single day that we made that brilliant choice on October 4, 1968.

Good Fortune

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From September until the end of December I have always been deliriously happy. It somehow seems to be the best time of year for me. Six of my seven grandchildren were born in those months. My own birthday is in November and I was married in October. Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas are all celebratory times for me when I have the pleasure of being with family and friends. It’s difficult to dull my joy at this time of year, and yet I have also lost some of the most significant people in my life in the midst of all of my merrymaking. Those moments have been brutally difficult, causing me to just go through the motions of events that normally would have made me ecstatic.

Back in 2001, not long after the collapse of the Twin Towers I was already feeling quite distraught when my husband’s best friend, Egon, died suddenly from a heart attack. He had come into our lives when we were all quite young, and over time he was more like a brother than a friend. He had come from Germany to study at the University of Houston  where he eventually met the woman who would become his wife. His journeys back to his homeland would be only to visit his parents. Houston would become his new home, and he enjoyed bragging that he was not born in Texas, but had come as soon as it was possible.

Egon was a brilliant man with an astounding memory and an uncanny  ability to spin a story with vivid detail. His conversations were filled with information and insights. We often listened to him for hours on end, marveling at his ability to recall facts and describe ideas with such clarity. He would have been a remarkable college professor, but went into a career in sales instead where his skills in noting small details made him a super star. His death hit us quite hard and created a kind of emptiness in our lives that still lingers even seventeen years later.

Around the same time only a few years later my mother-in-law had a stroke that left her in a coma from which she never emerged. It was a major blow to all of us, and for me it represented losing perhaps the major source of wisdom upon which I had relied as an adult. I still long for the chats that she and I had on Sunday afternoons over a warm pot of tea. Perhaps that is why to this day drinking a cup of the brew brings me such comfort.

My mother-in-law was the kind of intellectual and confident woman who might have held court with the cafe society of Paris that included some of the world’s greatest thinkers, writers and artists. She was not just well read, but someone who was analytical and able to advance her opinions and thoughts with a persuasiveness and encyclopedic knowledge that few possess. She was the person who was able to provide me with solutions and serenity whenever I faced problems. She left a huge hole in our family that has never been properly filled.

A few years back my cousin, Jack, died from heart failure. He was a year younger than I am and it seemed rather unfair to lose him so soon. He and I were quite close when we were growing up. So many of my fondest memories of childhood were spent at his side. When I think of fun, his image almost always comes to my mind. He loved a good joke and always had the most delightfully impish smile, even in his final days when his health was failing him.

Jack was such a good man that my cousins and I joke that he is surely a saint, someone to whom we might send our prayers and petitions. He was kind and generous and loved. He was most certainly the best of us with his faithfulness and quiet ways of making us all laugh even when we were feeling down.

Last year, again at around this time, our dear friend, Bill, died. I had always said that Bill should have had his own talk show. He was incredibly entertaining as he spoke of books that he had read, trips that he had taken, or just expounded his political views. He had led a quite interesting life that took him from Detroit, Michigan all the way to NASA in Houston, Texas. He was a pioneer in the computer industry, and one of the bright young men chosen to help send humans into space.

After his wife died Bill liked to come by our house unannounced. He’d ring the doorbell in the middle of the day and then regale us for hours  with tales of his current adventures. I liked nothing better than to set aside my routines and just enjoy his visits. He is yet another person who was not just quite interesting, but also terrifically wise. There was something about him that made the world seem a bit more steady than it otherwise might have been.

I think of these remarkable people with a bit of sorrow, but I also celebrate the memories that I made with them. Those will never go away. They are tucked away so close to my heart that I am able to retrieve them anytime that I need a smile. I choose to celebrate my good fortune in having known them rather than focusing on the sadness of no longer expecting to spend a glorious afternoon or evening with them. I am one of the lucky ones who was close to them. I rejoice in my good fortune, even as I celebrate the season.

The Plan

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A good life is built on family and friends. Some people come into our lives for a particular moment and others stand with us for the long haul. We are who we are because of the relationships that we build and nurture. We learn new things, expanding our horizons because of those who share our moments. We draw our strength from the people who support is in our hopes, dreams and even our hours of grief and despair. There is always someone who surprises us, and those who are the rocks on whom we can depend. As we think about the events and the years that mark our passages there are precious moments that fill our hearts with wonder and gratitude. Without our family and friends we would be set adrift into a world of loneliness and fear. So why, I wonder, do we too often busy ourselves with tasks that are so much less important than the individuals that mean so much to us?

It’s a cliche to mention that dust and dirty laundry should wait in favor of reunions with those that we love, but we also know that it is true. Every one of us has no doubt had one of those awful experiences in which we kept promising to take the time to connect with someone, but never quite did. Then we get the horrific news that the person who meant so much to us is forever gone. We’re filled with guilt and regret for procrastinating. We wish that we had just left the unimportant tasks that we so readily prioritize over spending our hours with people. We far too often think about being with the souls we love, but never quite get there. We have appointment and tasks and routines that we dare not ruffle with interruptions, no matter how important we know it is to pause now and again to nurture our connections.

When I moved away from my old neighborhood I promised to return to visit my long time friends. Once I had left I found myself balancing work, household tasks and any number of events, but I kept putting off going to see my old friends. I told myself that there was no hurry. I would get there once things settled down, but somehow they never quite became less hectic. The next thing I knew my dear next door neighbor was dead. She had battled lung cancer and I didn’t even know of her struggles. I was devastated to learn of her passing. She had guided me with her wisdom and lovingly inspired me to be a better mom and person. Her door had always been open to me, no matter the hour of the day or night. I had loved her, but it must not have seemed so when I left and never again got around to checking on her welfare. I attended her funeral filled with angst in knowing that I never really told her how deeply she had affected me. It might have been comforting for her to hear how much she had inspired me. Instead I sat at her funeral wondering if she ever knew.

I would not feel nearly as bad about this incident if I had indeed been conscientious in other instances, but truth be told I have too often been guilty of neglecting to nurture so many of the friendships that I have known. I wonder how I might do a better job, and if there is an organized way to make my promises actually come true. Surely there must be a method for spending a few minutes here and there and staying in touch one way or another.

My friend Pat was masterful at doing that. She sent little cards to people and constantly took time to plan simple dinners and such. She’d cook up a big pot of chile and put out a call. Even when people were unable to come they knew that she was thinking about them. She thought nothing of asking someone to come along with her on her errands, making her duties more fun for her and sharing laughter and conversation with friends. She was casual and relaxed about such things because her purpose was to keep the heart of her relationships healthy and strong, not to impress.

I keep trying to improve, but I sometimes allow that basket of ironing to overtake the minutes that I might have spent sharing a few greetings on the phone with a person who is important to me. I’ve been thinking that I need to create a plan. Those calls and cards and visits need to find a place on my daily calendar along with my appointments and “to do” list. Perhaps if I designated one individual a day to get my attention I might begin to revitalize connections that appear to be stagnant or lost. It would certainly be worth a try.

We run, run, run through life hardly taking a breath until we fall into bed at night. I sometimes think that our society is as delicate as it is because we have lost our compass. If we can’t even devote time to the people who mean much to us, how can we begin to really care about the bigger problems that face us all? It just may be that the key to solving so many problems is to reach out to the people in our own backyards. We might first begin in neighborhoods and then communities. Simple acts of kindness, remembrance and appreciation done millions of times over just might transform our political landscape, but they have to start with one person at a time.

I am overwhelmed with thoughts of just how many wonderful people have impacted me, but I might reach thirty of them in a single month with a non negotiable plan to make the effort. It’s something I’m going to try. I’ll let you know later whether or not it worked, but right now I’m feeling optimistic. It seems as though the worst case scenario would be only managing to stick to my plan a third of the time. In a year that would mean that I had somehow let people know how much I care over a hundred times. That’s worth trying to do.    

Built On Love

The house

The husband loved his wife and his little daughter so much that he wanted to show his feelings by crafting a strong and beautiful home for them. He ran concrete piers deep into the gumbo like ground, wanting to avoid the shifting motions of the earth in that part of Texas. This would be a place of security, a symbol of just how much he cared for his family. Once the foundation was set, he created a pretty bungalow with curved doorways, warm wooden floors, and windows to allow the sun to lighten each room. It was small, but elegant, a place designed for gatherings of friends and brothers and sisters. It stood on a large lot shaded by trees and within view of the rest of the family homestead. Everyone agreed that it was beautiful, and best of all it made the man’s wife and child smile.

It would be the site for so many gatherings, celebrations, parties, and even times of sadness. It weathered storms, hurricanes, summer heat, icy winter mornings. Inside the family felt comfortable and safe even as life began to change. The man was quite young when he had his accident, a crazy thing really. He fell out of a tree and broke his back. He developed a dangerous infection but could not take the penicillin that might have cured him because he was allergic. He died with so little warning, leaving his wife and daughter bereft and wondering how they would manage without him. They grieved inside the house that he built until they somehow found the healing that they needed. They went on with their lives and the house stood as magnificently as ever.

The man’s wife rose to the challenges set before her. She helped to continue the business that he had built with his brothers. They worked in a back room of that house, loving and laughing and taking care of one another. The daughter grew into a beautiful woman. She set out on her own in a house nearby. She began a family and had a son. Now the rooms were filled with the sounds of play each day as the little boy spent hours with his grandmother. It was still the happy place that the now gone husband had hoped it would be. His memory lived in those rooms.

In a kind of classic love story the beloved wife seemed to long for her husband even as she carried on with courage. She one day discovered that a cancer grew in her body. She was still a young and energetic grandmother, but not able to fight the disease which overtook her body. She died and all who knew her were devastated, wondering how it would be possible to continue her legacy of compassion, love and laughter. They gathered in the house to mourn her and to recall the love that they had shared there.

The daughter moved into her mother’s house. She and her husband and son continued the traditions that her parents had so honored. The house was still as lovely as it had ever been, but the neighborhood had begun to change. Where there had once been a little forest of trees leading to a bayou, an interstate highway had been erected. Neighbors slowly began to move to suburbs far from the center of town. The view of the business district that was only a few miles away began to be dominated by gigantic skyscrapers. The town became a city growing around the little bungalow with a vengeance. Still inside those walls the daughter and her family lived life just as her father had hoped.

The boy grew and fell in love and married, moving to the other side of the city. He and his wife often visited the little house. They loved the Sunday dinners, the Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations, and the quieter times when the boy watched football with his dad and his wife enjoyed tea and conversation with his mom in the gracious dining room of the house.

Eventually there were more children crawling on the gleaming floors and playing happily with their grandparents. They especially enjoyed the times when they slept over and stayed in the room that had once been their grandmother’s and then their father’s. They heard stories of the original owners of the house and played dress up with hats that had belonged to their great grandmother.

Progress moved farther and farther from the center of the city. The streets near the little bungalow grew dangerous. Crime became a way of life. It was time to leave. The bungalow would become a rental, with hopes that one day the area would become as glorious as it had once been. The lovely rooms were emptied of the family treasures, but the walls retained memories of the wonderful times that had gone before.

Things began to fall apart for the house and the places around it. The people who rented it did not love it. They broke its windows and punched holes in its walls. They did not know how precious it had once been. It was only a way station for them, a place to stop over on the route to something better. In many ways the house and the neighborhood around it became unrecognizable to the members of the family who had at one time enjoyed and appreciated its history.

The husband’s daughter died and left the house to her son, who dreamed for a time of making it a wonderful place to live again. Such reveries never came to pass. There were drug dealers walking on the once placid streets, derelicts lounging on the curbs. At night it was a dangerous place where crimes were commonplace. Still, the boy kept the house even as he watched it sag and saw the damage that renters had inflicted on it. He grew older than his grandfather had been at the time of his death. He made repairs on the house and had to struggle with renters who would not pay. It became an onerous task to keep the house alive, and so one day he decided that it was time to sell it to someone else.

He found a buyer, someone who wanted to build his own dream on the land. The house would be torn down. There was a kind of sadness about the whole affair. As the boy walked through the rooms he saw that the little bungalow was past its time. To revive it would be costly. In some ways it would be merciful to just let it go, to rejoice in the memories of its happier days.

The husband who built that house looked down and smiled at the boy who had been his grandson. He approved. He understood that to everything there is a season and the time for the bungalow had passed. The land was not the same as it had been when he created the place with such great care and love. He would smile that the boy had tried so hard to keep it alive, but he also knew that the little house that was his gift had changed long ago.

The boy and his wife walked through the rooms one last time before surrendering the keys. The floors were scuffed and dirty but still so strong. They heard the voices and the laughter of the people who had once passed through the rooms. The house groaned and creaked and spoke of how old it felt. It told the boy that it was time to let go. It was the love that made that house, and that love lives on , not in walls and floors but in the boy’s heart.