Invest In Experiences, Not Things

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Love and romance are the stuff of literature and film. From Odysseus and Penelope to Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy we humans have lived vicariously in the stories of two people whose love seems almost destined to be. We gleefully celebrate as romantic tales unfold. There is something in our natures that is drawn to the happiness that comes from the joining of two compatible souls in marriage, and so we revel in the joy of young couples who agree to love, honor and cherish one another. Our human experience is enriched by love, but that first flush of emotion is often challenged by the routines and surprises of daily life. Sustaining the fires that brought two people together in the beginning can be fraught with problems, which is why so many dreams are dashed by unfaithfulness and divorce. It is quite an accomplishment and an inspiration when couples are able to continue their devotion to each other through decades of both happiness and disappointment, health and illness, riches and financial difficulties. We are inspired by those who are still in love even as their hair grays and wrinkles line their faces.

We were reminded of the power and beauty of true love in the touching example of George and Barbara Bush, a seventy three year marriage in which their feelings never appeared to wane. Barbara thought George was the most beautiful person she had ever seen when she was only sixteen years old and a lifetime later she still boasted to her nurses that he was the most handsome man on earth. The two had most surely become a team, one working for the good of the other in every aspect of their days together. They were as complimentary as cream and sugar, adding spice and flavor to their individual strengths and talents. We admire and desire the companionship that they achieved and search for ways to incorporate their kind of devotion in our own lives.

Back in the nineteen sixties another love story was quietly unfolding on the University of Texas campus. She was a tall beautiful and fun loving young woman from San Antonio named Barbara who had come to Austin filled with hopes and dreams. He was a bright engineering student named Gary with a big inviting smile. They enjoyed crazy dates at Zilker Park and fall days at football games where they cheered for their Texas Longhorns. It didn’t take them long to realize that they wanted to become man and wife, and so on an April day in nineteen sixty eight they were married in the company of family and friends. They had little idea how much adventure lay ahead, but they somehow knew that whatever happened they wanted to be together.

Gary’s Chemical Engineering degree would take them to many different places, and all along the way they would explore the history and landscapes and befriend the people that they met. They decided early on to invest in experiences rather than things, and they lived by that ideal by taking trips to the places that they had both longed to see. Barbara was as masterful at planning their excursions as Rick Steves and each year they set forth on expeditions to learn more about their world. Those vacations became a cornerstone of who they were and created memories that would cement their time together.

Of course family was always paramount and that included rituals like a Thanksgiving reunion with Barbara’s clan that they rarely missed. Each year they joined their ever growing group of aunts uncles and cousins in a celebration of life. Even as they had their own children, a boy and then a girl, they welcomed new members of the extended family with great happiness. The foundation of who they are and what they believe was found in those gatherings filled with laughter, song, stories and food to nourish both body and soul.

Somehow the years flew by and in spite of the usual kinds of troubles that come into everyone’s lives Barbara and Gary were able to navigate their way hand in hand, dealing with problems together and maintaining hopeful optimism. They worked hard and played hard and centered their lives on each other and their children. They built traditions and character and did their best, always with an eye to keeping their own passion for each other alive.

Before long the circle of life had repeated itself as their children made their way to the University of Texas where they met their own soulmates and repeated the lessons that they had learned from their parents. Barbara and Gary welcomed the new members of their family with the same openness and love that had always been so much a part of their natures. They celebrated as one grandchild after another enriched their lives, and all the while they continued to have fun with each other, never forgetting the importance of a hug, a kiss, a compliment, or a good laugh.

There were hardships along the way of course. Gary’s dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Barbara’s sweet mom developed cancer. Gary’s brother died far too young also from cancer. They watched as people that they loved developed life threatening illnesses. Gary had a frightening heart attack. Their children and grandchildren endured difficulties. Through it all both Barbara and Gary remained rocks of strength, compassion and wisdom. They held hands and together weathered each storm that came their way, and then they found a way to celebrate with an exciting trip with family or friends, never losing sight of their promise to invest in experiences rather than things.

It’s not an easy thing to reach a fiftieth wedding anniversary in today’s world. Statistics are rife with stories of broken dreams and promises. It takes hard work and determination and more than a great deal of love to keep a relationship happy and strong. Barbara and Gary Greene have mastered the process and their secret appears to be in working together with neither person more or less than the other. They value each other in all that they do and then purposefully find ways to celebrate the life that they have. Carpe Diem is not just a platitude for them, but a way of living. The generosity of spirit that they have always shown to one another extends to everyone that they meet leaving them surrounded by people who support their journey together.

Happy fiftieth anniversary, Barbara and Gary. All of us who are part of your beautiful love story have been blessed and inspired by both of you. Thank you for showing us how it’s done.

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Love Honor Cherish

15975072_10211601975865667_328586816067567646_oParenting is one of the most difficult tasks that we humans attempt to master. It pains us to see our children hurting, but we know that we will never be able to completely eliminate struggles from their lives, so we teach then how to effectively deal with both trials and tribulations. We hope that our foundation will help them when we launch them into the adult world. Mostly we pray that they will know how to surround themselves with good people who love and care about them as they begin their independent journeys without us. So it was with my two girls.

Like any other parent I did my best and hoped with all of my heart that my efforts would be enough. My eldest Maryellen had always made me proud, and she appeared to have a good head on her shoulders as she left our home to become educated by others at the University of Texas in Austin. There were some shaky moments in her early days there when I received phone calls and heard the strains of uncertainty in her voice, but she managed to make it through the rough patches and secured a place for herself among friends both new and old. Along the way she met a young man named Scott through the encouragement of one of her more gregarious friends.

At first Maryellen was tentative about being more than just a good pal to Scott, but before long she was drawn to his good nature and his intellect and they began to date. Her face would light up whenever she spoke of him and I could tell that her relationship with him was far more special than any that she had ever experienced. He had a way of understanding her and treating her as an equal that pleased her. Even his gifts to her at Christmastime were astutely thoughtful and romantic. I found myself believing that she had found the man of her dreams and when I finally met him I was pleased to sense that he was a truly good person who respected and cherished her as much as I did.

Maryellen and Scott enjoyed a delightful courtship at the university, peppered with serious study sessions and fun times with a group of remarkable friends. They cheered the Longhorns at football and basketball games and enjoyed the same music and movies. Mostly they talked and realized how neatly their hopes and dreams meshed with one another. They fell in love.

I was quite pleased when they announced that they were engaged. They were both mature and thoughtful individuals who had transitioned well into adulthood. They both were within striking distance of earning degrees in the respected fields of business and engineering. Their futures were promising and together they were certain to be a power couple, but more importantly they shared values that would help them to build a life of love and devotion.

Twenty five years ago today they exchanged their vows at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church. It was a beautiful service shared with a crowd of friends and relatives. Maryellen glowed with the flush of love and anticipation and Scott had “the look” in his eyes that assured me that he would be forever faithful and loving to my daughter. Our family priest John Perusina said the mass and Scott’s Lutheran minister assisted with the proceedings. The bridesmaids wore blue and one of Maryellen’s childhood friends sang Sunrise, Sunset like an angel, making everyone in attendance cry as we recalled how quickly the years had gone by since the bride and groom had been children. It was a gloriously happy day that bode well for the future.

Maryellen and Scott moved to Beaumont after a memorable honeymoon in Yosemite National Park, yet another idea of Scott’s that was so perfectly suited to Maryellen. They set up housekeeping in a cute apartment and began their careers. It was a fun time and it was wonderful to see how happy they were and how well things were going for them.

Eventually Scott received an offer that he couldn’t refuse from a firm in Indiana and so the two of them were on the move. They purchased a lovely house in Lafayette and began to explore the midwest during their free time. They were only two hours away from Chicago and so that exciting city became a frequent destination. It was a time filled with new adventures and new confidence for them when all of us realized that they had indeed become a powerful team.

Four years after they married their first child, Andrew, was born and our visits to Indiana became ever more frequent as we enjoyed visits with our grandchild. I always felt so intensely happy to see the relationship between Maryellen and Scott growing ever stronger and thus it would be as one year flowed into the next and three more children joined the family as they moved again to Beaumont and finally back to the Houston area.

Maryellen and Scott have been models of love and dedication. They are beloved pillars of of their community known for their dedication to being exceptional parents and generous neighbors. They inspire others with their devotion to each other and to their sons. Together they have weathered the rollercoaster ride that is life and managed to overcome every challenge that appeared on their horizon.

In a very troubled world where it almost seems old fashioned to hold tightly to values and traditions Maryellen and Scott Greene have proven that the power of love is still one of the most priceless treasures that any of us might possess. For twenty five years they have steadfastly honored one another and passed on their mutual love to their sons who are growing in the same wisdom and age and grace that they have so beautifully exhibited.

Somehow I am overwhelmed by the rapid passage of time. In my mind they are still the twenty something young adults with so much hope in their eyes and a whole lifetime ahead of them. They have done a remarkable job of cherishing the promise that they made on that day in the glow of tiny lights from the Christmas trees on the altar. They have fulfilled all of their vows and done the hard work of keeping the flame of their never ending love alive. It makes my heart burst with joy to know that they are such incredibly fine people.

Happy Twenty Fifth Anniversary, Mr. and Mrs. Greene. May you enjoy many more wonderful days together as you share a special love. You are a blessing to all of us.

How To Be a Great Partner

our weddingOn this day forty nine years ago at 7:00 in the evening I kneeled at the altar of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Catholic Church in Houston, Texas to pledge my love and commitment to my husband Mike. I find myself looking back over our many years together and remembering all of the times that we have shared. Not once has it ever crossed my mind to consider that my leap of faith in joining hands with Mike might have been anything but the most wonderful and important decision that I have ever made. On Mike’s seventieth birthday which occurred only a few days ago our eldest daughter compiled a list of reasons why each his children, grandchildren and I love him as much as much as we do. I find that those praises for him that came from each of us encapsulate the essence of how being married to him for forty nine years has been a glorious adventure that I pray with all of my heart will continue for many more years. They also serve as a guideline for anyone wishing to create a loving and exciting partnership with another human being. If someone were to follow Mike’s example even partially I suspect that he/she would find the kind of great happiness that I have enjoyed day after day for all of those forty nine years. So here are some of the descriptors of my loving spouse that are offered as a gift to all of my readers on this day when I feel as though I won the lottery of a lifetime. Enjoy learning how to provide unconditional love from my Mike who is a master of such things.

Mike is always supportive of anything we want to do and he is always ready to help when we need it. He wears crazy hats and is so hilarious that even when times are hard he is still super funny and cracks funny jokes. He gave us an appreciation of good music that endures to this day. He is a fitting patriarch for the family, moral and loving. He always makes us feel welcome. He has a calm presence. He appreciates history and perspective. He would always give smart, logical and sound advice whenever we came to him. He well known for giving great hugs. He is temperate. His conversations are always filled with wit and information. He let two fine young men date and marry his daughters. He is hardworking and loves his family unconditionally, seeing only the best in every member. He is tech savvy and knowledgable, kind and intellectual. He doesn’t always let it shine through, but he has a soft side like a teddy bear. His wise comments mean a lot to all of us and demonstrate how caring he is. In fact, he is kind hearted and sweet to everyone in his family and it makes us feel special. He is a history buff who demonstrates a desire to go deep into an interesting topic. He is the number one Women’s Lib advocate for his wife, daughters and granddaughter.  He makes us feel safe and secure and cheers us on in anything that we do and comes to all of our special events. He is generous and showed us how fun and amazing camping can be. He took his eldest daughter on a special journey to Chaco Canyon that the two of them will never forget. He understands that football is special and he tells really good jokes. He demonstrates subtle simple shows of affection, like wearing a brand new TAMU polo to a grandson’s graduation party. He often sacrifices his own needs for the rest of us. He is guileless and what you see in him is real. He maintains a calm and confident demeanor in difficult situations, even when he is in the midst of having a stroke. He’s grateful for what he has and generous to others. He can fix almost anything and enjoys doing it. He gives those around him unwavering trust and loyalty. He taught us all everything we know about interior illumination. He has a chill vibe. He brings unique perspectives and culture to the family and keeps things spiced up. He loves to play the guitar. He is reasonable whenever something is going on or if we have a conflict. He shares personal interests with us such as trains, models and history. He’s willing to do anything for our enjoyment. He warmly welcomed two young men as his sons-in-law. He too many talents to number. He is a kind man. He has filled our lives with beautiful moments and memories. His is known for just always being there. He loves his family.

So there you are, descriptions of the man that I love from those who know him best. How could our union not have worked? He took all of his vows so seriously and mostly showed all of us how to love. It has been a marvelous journey walking by his side and feeling that love that he is always so eager to share.

A Memorial Day

american-flags.jpgThere was a time when Memorial Day was celebrated on May 31, regardless of when that day fell on the calendar. Thus it was in 1957. I had just completed the third grade after a rather adventurous year of moving from Houston to San Jose to Los Angeles to Corpus Christi and back to Houston. My father had begun working for Tenneco and we were living in a rented house in southeast Houston. My parents were thinking of closing a deal on a home in Braes Heights and we were all excited about meeting up with all of my aunts and uncles and cousins on Memorial Day at the beach.

My mom had spent most of May 30, preparing foods like potato salad and baked beans as well as her famous homemade barbecue sauce that my father would use on the burgers that he planned to grill the next day. We were beside ourselves with the anticipation of launching our summer vacation with our relatives. We knew that it would be a day of playing in the waves, fishing and crabbing on the pier, rollicking on the playground and listening to stories from our hilariously funny family members. It felt so good to be back in Houston after having been so far away for so many months.

My brothers and I went to bed before our father arrived home that evening. Mama explained that he had to complete a project that was due right after the holiday. He was a mechanical engineer and I was so proud of the work he did. I knew that if he failed to come home for dinner what he was doing had to be very important. I twisted and turned for a time but finally fell into a deep slumber with dreams of the fun that lay ahead. I did not awake until the sun peeked through the blinds in my bedroom window.

When I opened my eyes and acclimated myself to the new day I heard my mother talking on the phone in the hallway of our house. She sounded as though she was crying and her voice broke now and again. She seemed to be answering questions about my father and her answers were strange. She used past tense verbs which immediately alarmed me. Somehow without ever asking I had the idea that something dark and terrible had happened. I lay in my bed listening and grew ever more worried.

I finally crept into the kitchen searching for a glass of water because my anxiety had caused my throat to become dry. I was both surprised and alarmed to see my Aunt Valeria puttering about. Now I was convinced that this was not a good sign. I sat down at the kitchen table without saying a word while she nervously began attempting to explain to me that my father had died. It was difficult for her to get out the words and her eyes were filled with grief. I sat motionless and stunned as though I had not understood what she was saying, but truthfully I had figured things out before ever entering the room. I felt for my aunt because she literally did not have any idea what to do and I had no energy to help her. I suppose that we were both in a state of shock.

There have been few days in my life as terrible as that May 31, 1957. It has now been exactly sixty years ago since my life changed so dramatically. I was one person on May 30, and became someone completely different on May 31. I was only eight but I felt eighty, and in many ways forced myself to become an adult so that I might deal with the tragedy that so altered my world. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry. I wanted to lock myself in my room forever. I wanted to run away. I wanted to tell my father one last time how much I loved him. I wanted to scream at him for going away from us. My emotions were a jumble that left me bereft for months. I wanted to know exactly what had happened but never really would. I could only draw inferences and surmise what might have brought his brilliant life to such a crashing end.

Based on conversations with my mother and stories in the newspaper my best guess is that after working late my dad went out with some of his coworkers and had a few celebratory drinks. I suppose that my mother became angry when he finally came home and they had a fight. Perhaps he left in a huff to attempt to calm down. He decided to drive to Galveston. He was on his way back home on a freeway system that was still under construction. Instead of being on the main road he was on the feeder. There was a deep unmarked ditch directly ahead of his path. He was driving as though he was on a highway when he was in reality heading to a death trap. Too late his car slammed into the cavernous depression. The front of the auto was crushed and caused the steering wheel to slam into his chest stopping his beating heart. He died instantly and so did a little bit of everyone who loved him. It seemed such a meaningless end.

Of course I eventually adjusted to the reality of the situation but a profound grief lay under my thin veneer of courage. I was never quite the same after that. I worried more and often found myself avoiding adventures lest I be the source of more pain for my mother. I grew up almost instantly while somehow being in an eternal childhood. A piece of my heart would always be eight years old and every Memorial Day it would hurt again. I would experience a lifetime of questions and what ifs. I learned the importance of empathy because I had needed it so on that day and there were special people who provided it for me when I most wanted it.

I have friends and acquaintances who have also suffered unimaginable losses. I suspect that those who have not had such experiences don’t quite understand how we never really and truly get over the pain. Our wounds heal but now and again something triggers an ache. In my own case I have so much more that I want to know about my father. I would give anything to experience an adult relationship with him. I wonder if the images that I have of him are just a creation of my mind. I want to hear his voice for I can no longer remember it. It would be nice to share stories with him and see his reactions to my accomplishments. I would so like for my children and grandchildren to know him.

I have a friend whose husband died suddenly. She has young sons who are suffering. When I read of their hardships I literally feel their pain and cry for them. They are lucky to have a wonderful mom who allows them to express their feelings, so I believe that like me they will one day have the courage to move on with life. It is what we do even when we think that surely we too will die.

Sixty years is a very long time. I am almost twice the age my father was when he died. My memories of him are all pleasant for he was a very good man. They have sustained me again and again. It doesn’t really matter how or why he died, but only that he set the world afire while he was here. He loved fiercely and squeezed every ounce out of life. He left his mark and I have told stories of him all throughout the years. He still lives in me and my brothers and our children and grandchildren. Sometimes I see him in my brother Pat or my nephew Shawn. His life had great meaning and we continue to keep his spirit alive.

Watch and Learn

123images-of-loveI come from a great big crazy Slovakian family on my mother’s side. She was one of eight siblings who were the first born in the USA. They grew up in a Catholic home that was often chaotic and lacking amenities but they always had a roof over their heads and food on the table. Their parents taught them to work hard and be responsible. When they went out into the world all but two of them found mates and built families resulting in dozens of cousins. We grew up as close as any extended family might be with gatherings almost every Friday night at our grandmother’s house and all day picnics at Clear Lake or Sylvan Beach. Most of our elders are either gone now or becoming increasingly incapacitated as they move through their nineties. It falls to the eldest among the cousins, Leonard, to be our wise and inspirational family leader. Luckily there is no better man to serve as the consummate role model for how to live a very good life.

My mother used to admonish me to watch and learn. From Leonard I have collected much knowledge about how to have a loving marriage, how to be a truly good parent  and how to build a strong relationship with God. While he is a remarkable man I suspect that he would not be nearly as amazing without an equal partner by his side, his wife Jeannie. Sixty years ago the two of them stood before God and man to exchange vows to love, honor and cherish one another till death and they have honored that pledge through both good times and bad. They were impossibly young when they became man and wife. They did not launch their life together with an expensive ceremony. In fact, Jeannie jokes that the whole shebang, including her dress and the reception, cost only fifty dollars. They had a church ceremony and a party at Jeannie’s mother’s home with a cake, some homemade sandwiches, punch and coffee. They began life together on a wing and a prayer but more importantly with a profound love and respect for one another.

Leonard worked steadily to support his family which grew to four children, two girls and two boys. Their life centered around their kids and their God. Jeannie eventually held down various jobs to supplement the family income and even earned a college degree. They developed traditions of laughter and fun that cost little but enriched them all. Each summer they went to Garner State Park where they spent a week swimming in the river during the day and dancing under the Texas stars at night. They went to football games to watch their children perform with the band and raised livestock when their kids joined the FFA. They kept close and always operated as mutual partners.

Their children soon enough ventured out into the world to find their own adventures. Now Leonard and Jeannie’s family gatherings are thirty four souls strong and growing. When they get together the laughter and the unconditional love is palatable. They joke and tease and hug and tell stories. It feels good to be with them in a world that sees less and less of the kind of stability that they have maintained for six decades. I have watched them and I have learned.

I often have young people asking me to help them to understand what makes a strong marriage. It is a complicated question to answer because no two situations are ever alike but from observing those who have been successful like Leonard and Jeannie I have noticed a few characteristics that seem to form much of the glue that binds them. Perhaps the most important aspect is to begin with a mutual respect for one another.

We have all experienced that tingly feeling of being in love. While that is certainly part of the experience it is not the most important. What really matters is having a total acceptance of another person exactly as they are, not as we might wish to remake them. It is the ability to see that individual as our very best friend, the person with whom we may confidently share our deepest desires and secrets without worry of being judged. It is having a comfort level and a trust that nobody, not our parents, our children nor our friends will put asunder. Building this kind of relationship is not easy. It requires a concerted effort for all time. It means communicating and understanding and  supporting and loving.

For Leonard and Jeannie life has unfolded together. They face problems as a team. They enjoy happy times hand in hand. They work hard and play hard. They share themselves with friends who enhance their marriage and avoid those who would break them apart. They talk to one another and decide together how to overcome the difficulties that are a part of existence. Their focus is on family but they also have a deep faith in God and turn to Him again and again. They have found solace and even fun at church. Mostly though they try to walk the walk of good and faithful servants in everything that they do. When they or their loved ones make a mess they know how to forgive and move ever forward rather than holding on to grievances.

It is comforting to be around Leonard and Jeannie. They are very human and yet they have somehow managed to overcome every single impediment that might have broken the ironclad ties that encircled them sixty years ago. They have grown old together and only strengthened in their love with the passing years.  They truly only have eyes for each other and seeing them dance together or just hold hands is a beautiful thing.

Leonard and Jeannie would be the first to tell you that they didn’t get where they are today without a concerted effort. They made their marriage great because they both put their hearts and their minds and their very souls into keeping their love as alive from day to day, week to week, year to year as it was on that September morn of long ago. It was honesty, trust, compassion that made their union great. It was always remembering the commitment that they made in that simple ceremony and renewing it again and again. Now they share their glorious union with the thirty two individuals who sprang from the values that they shared and with the rest of us who so admire them.

Our world needs more people like Leonard and Jeannie, especially our children. We must be able to see the proof of what unyielding commitment to promises looks like. We live in a society where far too many throw away their relationships as easily as they put out their trash. Too many children are living in broken homes simply because one or both of their parents have been unwilling to go the extra mile to uphold a strong and faithful union. Too many are putting things and whims before the pledges to love, honor and cherish. Leonard and Jeannie show us how its done and that it can be done. Watch and learn from them.