Happy Birthday!

anniversary beautiful birthday birthday cake
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

My mother loved birthdays with the enthusiasm of a child. She was the youngest in a family of eight, growing up during the Great Depression. There wasn’t enough extra income for gifts or even special meals or desserts, so she and her siblings always received a nickel from their father on the occasion of becoming one year older. Mama always said that she like to take her new found wealth to a bakery nearby where she was able to purchase a big bag of broken cookie pieces that she swore were just as good as the ones that remained intact. As the years passed by she and her brothers and sisters would faithfully send a birthday card to one another that always contained a nickel taped inside. I sometimes sensed that she enjoyed that tradition even more than the more expensive gifts that she received.

Today would have been Mama’s ninety second birthday. She often bragged that she and Queen Elizabeth were born in the same year, and somehow that fact made her feel a kind of kinship with the monarch of England. She noted that they shared a kind of resemblance as well, along with the fact of having their first born children in the same year as well. My mother always alerted us to the Queen’s birthday as a kind of hint that hers was on the way.

She was a stickler for celebrating her natal day at the time of its actual place on the calendar. She didn’t like the idea of waiting until the weekend, so even if we planned a party for her when everyone would be able to attend, my brothers and I still had to make a big deal on the correct date. I suppose that’s why I still think about her on June 27, even though it has now been seven years since she died. I think it would please her to know that we have not forgotten how special this day always was for her. In fact, we decided after she was gone that we would gather at her favorite restaurant each year to raise a toast in her honor. As it happens the place we chose is the Cracker Barrel in League City where she spent many a happy time enjoying the homey atmosphere and the kind of cooking that she might have prepared herself.

In an effort to look after our mother while she was still alive my brothers and I agreed to visit her at least once a week on different days. She usually wanted to go out to eat when we arrived, and sometimes she was even waiting eagerly on a bench that stood on her front porch whenever we drove up. That’s how excited she was about getting out of the house, but that was not the case on her birthday. On that day she wanted all of us to come to see her at one time so that it was like a party. She put me in charge of providing the cake, ice cream and candles. She preferred German chocolate or devils food cake, but she was always okay with a change of flavor. God forbid, however, that I would forget to bring the ice cream or the candles. Those things had to be done just right.

She was exceptional at providing us with festive birthdays even when her income was sorely stretched. She made a habit of shopping all year long and setting aside things that she had found on sale. Her gifts were always quite practical and long lasting, but most of all thoughtful. She was sure to come knocking at the door bearing all of the trappings of a big to do, even as we grew older. I never knew how she managed to be so generous, but I always understood that for her a birthday was supposed to be special no matter the circumstances.

When Mama turned eighty we decide to give her a surprise party. We had little idea at the time that she would die less than five years later. We only knew that we wanted to make her day bigger and better than ever. We sent out invitations to everyone in her stable of friends and family, and they all came. My home was crowded with people who loved her and were excited by the idea of letting her know how they felt about her. They had written letters to her that we placed in an album. We huddled anxiously as she walked up to the door and shouted with delight upon her entrance. She cried tears of unmitigated joy and bore the expression of a delighted child as she opened each gift and read each card.

We all miss my mom. She was the heart of the family and a continual source of fun and laughter. She suffered more than most with the loss of her husband at the age of thirty. Her loneliness, lack of income, and mental illness pushed hard to defeat her spirit, but she battled long and courageously to avoid defeat. Somehow no matter what else was happening in her life, she always rallied on her birthday. It was as though that occasion gave her new energy, new joy, a new beginning again and again.

We’ll be going to Cracker Barrel tonight. Not everyone comes each year, but I do my best to keep my calendar clear so that I will be able to make it. I know that the eldest of her grandchildren will be there along with some of their own kids. The people at Cracker Barrel seem to get a bit flustered when we arrive with such a large group. They don’t seem to understand the importance of the occasion, but we believe that Mama is smiling down on us from heaven. The party is for her after all and we intend to celebrate just the way she would want us to do.

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Until We Meet Again

pexels-photo-424517.jpegDear Lynda,

I remember the first time I met you as clearly as if it was just yesterday. I should have been excited about moving to a new house, but I wasn’t. I liked my neighborhood, my friends and my school, and I could not imagine being as happy in a new place. I rather grudgingly traveled with my parents to our home, and was quite pleasantly surprised when your family came across the street to welcome us as soon as we arrived. When your mom found out that I was in the same grade as you she immediately introduced us and the rest was so glorious! It almost seemed as though we had been destined to meet and become friends. To this very day I still tell people that you were my first best friend, and probably the most wonderful of the lot.

I was six going on seven and could not imagine anything more wonderful than those happy days that we shared riding our bicycles all over the neighborhood while singing “Jesus Loves Me” at the top of our lungs. We’d hang out in the woods across from the school and squeal with delight on the big tree swing that went over the bayou. Each afternoon we paused to watch The Mickey Mouse Club together and discussed the Mouseketeers and the stories of Spin and Marty as though they were our real friends. I so loved being with your big family and eating at the picnic table in your kitchen. I felt as though I was your sister and sometimes even wished that I actually was.

We told each other our secrets and shared both our fears and our dreams. I don’t believe that I have ever again felt so completely close to anyone as I did with you back then. I loved your grandmother as much as my own and I still laugh with amazement as I remember her bending over to place her palms flat on the floor. That was a wonderful trick in my mind that made her even more lovable than she already was.

We joined the Brownie scouts together and I recall a sad time when Mrs. Guidry, one of our leaders, died. Our mothers took us to the funeral home to pay our respects and there she was lying in the casket in a blue negligee. You and I thought that it was hilarious to see her that way, and we began giggling so much that we were unable to stop. I think that our mom’s were horrified by our behavior, but we were just two silly girls who had never seen someone reposed in death before. I suspect that our laughing was more of a nervous reaction than a sign of disrespect, and  were such pals that our brains seemed to be melded together. We thought alike on so many things.

When my family moved once again, this time to California, I was bereft. I could not even imagine being without you. My time so far away was truly terrible and I suppose that I pouted and carried on a bit too much, but it was so painful to leave the one person with whom I felt so happy and free. Those months away were some of the worst of my lifetime and I often prayed that we would somehow be united. Of course we did come back, but our situation became so very different. My father died and I was so confused. My mother thought it best that my brothers and I not have to endure his funeral and it was you who understood how much I needed to know how the ceremony had been. You went with your family and then so honestly gave me all of the details. I always felt that our bond was even more special after that because I knew how much you understood me.

Life has a way of bringing people together and then pulling them apart, and so it was with the two of us. Even though we moved back to the old neighborhood after Daddy’s death we were many blocks away from you and so our meetings became a bit rarer, but we still stayed in touch and I so enjoyed every single time that we were able to talk and just be together. We were always able to pick up as though it had only been five minutes since we parted.

We went to different high schools and became involved in our teenage worlds and saw less and less of each other, but our special bond never grew weak. We married and started families and spent wonderful times visiting and watching our children play together. You had become so incredibly beautiful and I often laughed inside when I remembered how you had once wondered if you would ever be as lovely as your mom. Our worlds seem to be so perfect, but then life took over and jerked us into reality. I became a caretaker for my mother as she struggled with mental illness and you assumed the role of single mother, caring for your three boys and working full time. The years raced by and it seemed as though perhaps our friendship would be just a very lovely memory, but somehow we managed to speak again and found that we still had that magical feeling of comfort when we are together.

We’ve seen and done so much since those carefree days when we were little girls. Both of us will be seventy by the end of this year. I can’t even imagine where the years have gone, but my childish belief that we would somehow stay close through the years wasn’t so silly after all. The months may stretch out between our meetings, and we may be in different cities, but we somehow find our way back to each other time and again. With each meeting we realize that there is something rather special about our relationship that will never change.

I will love you and cherish our remarkable friendship for all of the rest of my days. You are a part of my heart, of my life, and I am so thankful that I met you. So much of who I am today was born on those bicycle rides and in our oh so serious conversations. You are an angel who is always on my mind. In fact, yours is one of the few birthdays that I always remember. Each April 19, for more than sixty decades I have thought of you and hoped that you are doing well. Thank you for being the remarkably loving and inspiring person that you are. May we both look forward to many more opportunities to see each other and to enjoying so much more laughter. God bless and keep you until we meet again. Happy Birthday!

A Circle of Friendship

Susan's party

We sat around the table talking about our high school days, wondering how it is even possible that by the end of this year all of us will have entered our seventies. We recalled the times when we first met and wondered how some of our absent friends were doing. Somehow we each felt exactly the same as we had when we were teenage girls even though the calendar belied our somewhat vivid imaginations. We were celebrating Susan’s birthday and and anticipating Linda’s. Charles had enjoyed his on Sunday. Each person who was present is quite special to me in one way or another.

I had met Susan, the woman of the hour, when I was only six years old. We were both in second grade and had the same teacher. She lived within walking distance of my home and we often rode our bicycles around the neighborhood laughing and singing. Her voice would ultimately become the music of an angel, but back then we were just two little girls having fun.

We went all the way through high school together, and Susan’s father often drove us to football games on Friday nights. When we were in college we both worked for Holiday Inn one summer making reservations and a pretty good sum of money. Susan was one of my bridesmaids when I married almost fifty years ago, and we both had daughters named Catherine but with different spellings, if I remember right. For a time we played bridge every Friday night and shared cheesecake and lemonade and lots of laughs. We lost touch for a time but managed to eventually find our way back to each other. We marveled at how easily we got right back into comfortable conversations as though we had seen each other only the day before. Now Susan is seventy, but somehow looks exactly as she did when I first met her, and is definitely as sweet.

I’ve known Monica as long as I have Susan. In fact the three of us had the same teacher in the second grade. Monica and I have always somehow managed to keep the fires of our friendship alive. In many ways she is much like the sister that I never had. Her husband and mine get along famously and we have taken camping trips and vacations together that are among the best memories of my life. Monica is thoughtful and creative and a genius when it comes to common sense. She’s someone who knows how to keep my flighty tendencies grounded. Our children grew up together and still get along famously. I can’t imagine what my life might have been like living without Monica by my side.

Linda is the person I always wanted to be. She is beautiful and kind and good at everything that she tries. When we were in school together I thought that she was the most perfect person ever, and the truth is that I was not being hyperbolic. We really became close while we were in college and our bond has only grown stronger over time. When her boys and my girls were growing up we spent hours together in the summers going crabbing and eating snow cones on hot days. Our children learned how to swim from the same teacher, and we often cheered for our Houston Cougars at parties that featured Linda’s culinary genius. I learned how to cook and decorate and even how to be a more caring person from Linda.

Carol is the glue for our Class of 66. She is the historian and secretary all rolled up into one. She keeps is apprised of birthdays, illnesses, parties, and even deaths. She is like a walking encyclopedia when it comes to knowing the whereabouts of everyone of our former classmates. Her heart is big and warm and she makes each of us feel loved and important. Without her we’d probably all drift apart, but she keeps the fires of our friendships burning brightly. I have grown so very close to her. She has been the happiest surprise of the past few years. I never intend to let her go again.

Shirley has the power of serenity. Somehow her sincerity and brilliant smile have always calmed me. Just sitting next to her brings serenity to my heart. Most people are only remotely interested in the things that others say, but Shirley gives off a vibe that indicates that she takes everything that quite seriously. She remembers conversations and asks how people are doing long after they have spoken of troubles. Even when her own life is in an upheaval she thinks of everyone else first. She has a very special talent of expressing profound compassion without even having to say anything. Her eyes are like windows to her beautiful soul. I have to admit that I always leave her feeling renewed.

I only recently realized that Jeanette and I were in the same class together in the first grade, so I suppose that I have known her the longest. She was a cheerleader when we were in high school. She always seemed to be smiling and having a great time. It’s uplifting to be around her. She has a cheerful aspect that brightens our reunions. I didn’t know her well until recently and I find myself regretting that we did not become close earlier because I like everything about her. She is down to earth and loyal and incredibly thoughtful in a very quiet way. She does wonderful things for others without fanfare, asking nothing in return for her generosity. I’m hoping that we manage to stay in touch now that we have found each other because she is one hundred percent the kind of person that I adore.

Janis is an icon. In many ways she was the consummate leader of our class. She wears a necklace that says Go Go which says it all about her. She is a ball of energy who gets things done no matter what is needed. She is a highly successful business woman which doesn’t surprise me at all. She uses her influence to lead charitable causes and help her city to become a better place. She is everywhere doing her magic and just being around her is inspiring, She motivates me to be better than I am, to do more. When it comes to women leading us to the future, Janis is at the front of the pack.

When we were still in high school Janis had a car and I didn’t even have a driver’s license. When we had to go places she always made sure that I had a way to get there. When we were seniors I was the May Queen and as usual my hair was a mess. I have never figured out how to deal with it. Janis very sweetly styled my locks and redid my makeup so that I looked truly regal. I walked out feeling so pretty and confident because she had taken the time to help me. I’ve always remembered that kindness.

Charles was the only male in our group. He and I both went to the same church for many years after we had graduated from high school and college and created families. I always enjoyed seeing him, but I eventually moved and thought that we would never meet again. It was a great surprise when he showed up for Susan’s party. He is so down to earth and sweet.

It’s rather remarkable how wonderful my school mates have become. There was something magical about our youth and our upbringing. We have all worked hard and loved mightily. We have terrific children and adorable grandchildren. We simply enjoy being with one another with no pressure or expectations. Our circle of friendship has grown ever stronger and made all of us just a bit better because of it.

Lion Kings

the-lion-king-disney-rebootThis year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Broadway musical The Lion King. On any given day the shows for each performance are sold out, and there is no indication that interest in the story has waned since it rocked the entertainment industry two decades ago. Aside from the stunning costumes and the enchanting music, its story of loss and love resonates with virtually everyone. We are all Simba, and have felt both the sting of death and the exhilaration of love and friendship as surely as he did.

As I think back on this past year I recall moments of great pain and sorrow that have been balanced by lovely times shared with family and friends. My journey through the past twelve months has been marked by more than enough dark days, but somehow those times were always followed by sunshine and loveliness so exceptional that they seemed to blot out the sorrow that I was experiencing. In the course of a full revolution of the earth around the sun I felt the circle of life with all of its ups and downs and like Simba I survived to stand at the mountain top and rejoice.

I’ve attended far too many funerals this year. I suppose that it is inevitable that such occasions have become more and more frequent given my age. Many of my elders who were blessed with long lives and were nearing the century mark succumbed to the inevitability of our existence. We all know that there is no infinity for any of us, but we push the envelope of our lives as far as we are able. Sometimes when someone lives a very long time we lose sight of the reality that we may not have them forever, so when they leave us we are almost as surprised as when a young person dies. It is always difficult to let go no matter how old someone may be.

I have also lost peers this year, people who have walked along beside me from the days when we were young and so full of dreams. My book of memories is overflowing with images of the fun and laughter that we shared. We grew up together and then we began to grow old together as well. Somehow our human tendency is to ignore the years and the images of ourselves that we see in the mirror. Instead we think that we are as young and spry as we were when we were in our twenties. It is shocking to us when someone from our own generation dies. Somehow it doesn’t seem right. It causes us to falter just a bit. It reminds us that our time here has an expiration date and we secretly wonder what our own will be.

In that moment when my husband lay helplessly on the floor of a bathroom after having a stroke I was filled with terror. While I understand that neither of us will live to any guaranteed age, I had not even considered the possibility that death might come so soon. Both my brain and my heart were jolted into reality in that split second and it was a painful and devastating experience. I still have flashbacks that remind me to cherish every single moment that I have with the man who has filled my days with so much happiness.

My life has changed during this year. I don’t take much for granted anymore. I somehow appreciate the breathtaking beauty of life far more than ever before. I love with a more open heart and I find particular joy in being with young people who still possess such a zest for living. I have been to weddings and graduations and birthday parties that have brought me incredible joy. Seeing love unfold before my eyes is like experiencing the most enchanting miracles that we ever enjoy. It reminds me that there is a season for everything and that I am a part of the glorious unfolding of the cycles that have repeated across the centuries.

I went to a wedding in Cancun in the summer with a group of very special friends. Two of the sweetest men that I have ever known pledged their unending love to each other. It was a beautiful ceremony wrought with so much emotion that we all cried tears of joy. I never imagined that I would be blessed to be part of something so wonderful, but there I was, and I felt so much renewed faith in mankind. I was surrounded by such an abundance of love and good feelings that it carried me through the tough times that I did not yet know lay ahead.

There have been other occasions that have kept my optimism flowing. Two of my former students were married this year and I rejoiced at the ceremonies that they invited me to share with them. I saw the expressions of devotion on their faces and thought of all the wonderful times that they would experience together just as my husband and I have. I sensed that their love is so pure and strong that they will even be able to endure tragedies and everyday problems. I felt so much happiness for them and wondered if they realized how much hope they gave me as well. Weddings allow us to come together in celebration of the most wonderful traditions of unity and commitment to one another, the joining of lives that has transcended history.

Recently my husband and I traveled out of town to a magical party at my niece and nephew’s home in Dallas. They feted us with good food, incredible generosity, and so much fun. I doubt that they realized that it was the first time that we had dared to venture so far away since the incident of the stroke. That trip meant so much to us and our family’s outpouring of love only made it all the better. It reminded us that we have never been alone and that we will be fine no matter what the future brings.

Simba the lion cub thought that all was lost when his father died. He saw his world coming to an end. He ran away from the reality of his situation and experienced the deep hopelessness that sometimes creeps into our lives. His world fell apart and he felt as though there would never again be a way of controlling it. He found small comfort in the generosity of strangers who ultimately became his friends and taught him lessons in taking what the world offers one day at a time. In the process of providing for one another the unlikely friends all changed for the better, so much so that Simba began to realize that his situation had not been as dire as he had imagined. He embraced love and his own destiny, and then found his way back home. In the end he understood that he was never truly alone in his battles and never would be. He also realized that as we travel in the circle of life we have to learn how to deal with both the good and the bad.

While 2017 might be viewed as a terrible year in so many ways, it has also been a year of discovery. Somehow when life appears to be at its worst, that is the very moment when we have the opportunity to see the best of our blessings. This year has taught me to love more deeply and to set my worries aside as much as possible. The future will unfold with or without us, and it will up to each of us to decide how we will accept its challenges and its blessings. If we open our eyes and our hearts we will surely know that the spirit of all of the people who have loved us lives forever inside our souls. We will be lions. We will be kings.    

A Celebration of Life

8-birthday-cupcake-ruth-black

I felt a bit emotional on my birthday this year. Perhaps it was because it came at the end of a week which began with a gathering of dear ones who were all saying goodbye to our very good friend, Bill. I found myself savoring each moment of my special day with a great deal more intensity than usual. I genuinely appreciated the Facebook greetings and the visits from loved ones. The thoughtfulness that abounded was moving, but mostly it was a sign to me of how genuinely wonderful people are. I was reminded by the events of the week that when all is said and done it is in the memories that we share with all of the folks that we encounter along the way that our greatest joys unfold.

My departed friend Bill had done well in this world. He used the gifts of his intellect to build a life of purpose that provided him and his family with comfort, but mostly it was his love and generosity of spirit that marked him as a great man. The stories about him that abounded all told of an adventurous soul who never forgot to be thoughtful and kind. He was a man of almost unflinching routine who nonetheless set aside time in every single day to keep his friendships alive, many of which extended all the way back into his boyhood. He took nothing with him at the end, but the riches of honor, respect and genuine love that were poured out in the stories people told of him were greater than all of the gold and jewels stowed away with King Tut. I suppose that as I listened to the recounting of his impact I sensed that we each have reasons for existing that may seem small and insignificant until the moment when we put the sum total of our efforts together. In the case of Bill, the final tally was as remarkable as anyone might ever hope to accomplish.

I pondered such ideas all last week and my thoughts culminated on Saturday, the beginning of my sixty ninth year. It was a gloriously beautiful day albeit a bit warmer than the one on which I was born. My mother always spoke of how bitterly cold it had been as she gathered pecans in the yard in front of the garage apartment that she and my father were renting in the Heights neighborhood of Houston on November 18, 1948. The war had ended and the world was in a state of rebuilding. Mama and Daddy were like millions of young folk who were starting families and hoping that they we would never again witness the violence that had brought so much pain. Mama wore my father’s wool army coat because she had grown so great with child that her own would no longer button. She had at first thought that the backache that she was feeling was the result of all of the bending that she had been doing as she filled a paper grocery bag with nuts that she intended to use to bake goodies for Thanksgiving and Christmas. When her water broke she knew that my arrival was imminent.

I thought of my mother and my father a great deal this past weekend. They would have been quite proud of the beautiful brood that resulted from their love. Almost all of their offspring gathered during the day and the evening to wish me well.

The celebrating began with lunch with my father-in-law and his beautiful second wife. He is our patriarch and his delightful sense of humor never fails to fill our home with laughter. I wanted to tarry at the table with him so that I might freeze the special time we were having into the memory bank of my mind. It was great fun as we listened to stories of the army cook who created meals for his regiment during the Korean War. Papa hid the pain of war in the humorous tales of the guys who fought with him. We felt so joyful and fortunate to still have him with us.

Later in the day my brothers and their children and grandchildren also came to wish me well. I shared the birthday celebration with my little niece Lorelai who is a bright and sweet as an angel. I delighted at the innocence of her beautiful face lit up as much by her goodness as by the lights of the candles that we blew out together. She is ten and filled with expectation and curiosity. The world lies ahead of her and will no doubt embrace her because she is such a special child. I found myself thinking of my own childhood and how fun it had been.

I tried to take in the wonder of my family that has become ever more lovely with each new person who enters our fold. We are boisterous and filled with genuine feelings for one another. We don’t always get to see each other as much as we would like, but when we do get together an explosion of unadulterated joy erupts. My sisters-in-law are the sisters that I always dreamed of having. My sons-in-law are the young men who provide my daughters and me with rock solid love. My grandchildren and nieces and nephews marvel in one another’s company and I find myself just watching them as they play together. In fact, I felt a bit like an observant fly on the wall all day long as I realized my many blessings that all come packaged in the most wonderful people who are part of my life.

The birthday posts on my Facebook wall poured in all weekend. They came from some whom I had known my entire life, some from my school days, some from coworkers, others from students, still others from neighbors. I had to admit my good fortune as I thought of each of them and I prayed that they all know how much they have meant to me.

I particularly enjoyed a group of photos from a dear teacher friend who has become like family. We had shared a beautiful wedding trip to Cancun back in June with our mutual friends Tim and Dickie. Somehow her camera had captured the exhileration that we were all experiencing on that day and it was quite beautiful. Our unfiltered emotions filled the panorama with the bliss that we were all feeling, and in viewing the images I experienced our pleasure once again.

Another teacher friend posted a greeting that I’m going to use as my mantra during the coming year.

Oops, although this a belated prayer, my prayer remains the same.

 1 Good Health for you and family

2 Financial Blessings

3 Continued Travel Blessings 

4 The Peace that Surpasses all Understanding

I think that I will have an extraordinary time indeed if I were to enjoy the fruition of all of the good wishes that were made for me. I would only add that I hope to have the pleasure of being with my friends and family as often as possible, because they are always the source of my greatest happiness. I simply have no way of being able to thank them for all that they have given me. I only hope that they truly realize how important they are to me.