To Marion

Ireland by NASA Goddard Photo and Video is licensed under CC-BY 2.0

I’m planning to cook my tractional St. Patrick’s Day feast today. I’ll be making corned beef with cabbage and potatoes. I may even include a loaf of Irish soda bread or a reasonable facsimile. It’s something I’ve done for years now because it’s fun to be Irish. 

I used to believe that I was only playing at being Irish until I discovered that my great grandmother was Marion Rourke, a woman of mystery who gave birth to my grandfather and then died three days later. I know nothing about her and never thought to ask my grandfather if he knew anything that might shed light on who she was. All I know is that Grandpa named his daughter after the mother that he never knew. He wrote her name in a bible he gave to my mother, but rarely mentioned her in his story telling. 

Marion is lost in the records of history. I have never found any reference pointing to her existence, and yet the fact that my grandfather was very much alive speaks to her importance in my family. With a moniker like Rourke, she was surely of Irish decent. In fact, my grandfather often spoke of himself as being Scots Irish, a bow to his father whose name was Mack and to the mother he would only know for a brief time. 

Marion has haunted me from the time that I first heard of her. I long to know more about her if only to discover more about myself. I had never thought of being a descendant of the Irish but I have always had an affinity for the Emerald Isles and its people. I like knowing that I have a bit of Irish in my DNA. I don’t have to play at celebrating St. Patrick now that I know that I am one of the many Americans with Irish roots. 

I find it interesting that even St. Patrick is as mysterious as my great grandmother, Marion. There is only spotty proof that such a person ever existed, let alone chased all of the snakes out of Ireland. Maybe he was real or maybe he was just a creation drawn from many different holy men. Whatever the case, he’s part of my tradition and the namesake for my youngest brother. 

I often think of Marion. I wonder how she felt when she held her baby boy, William, in her arms. I think of how tragic it must of been when she suffered to the point of death knowing that she would not live to see her son grow into a man. I find myself wanting to know what had happened during that birth that caused her demise. I can only imagine how she may have looked based only on the appearance of my grandfather. Did she have his pale skin dotted with freckles? What color was her hair, her eyes? Who were her parents. Was the grandmother who raised my Grandpa her mother? Why is there no mention of her in any of the records I have found?

I won’t be wearing green today because I truly look sick in that color regardless of the shade. Instead I’ll deck out my table with a green cloth and placemats that feature shamrocks. I’ll ask Alexa to play some Irish music and I’ll celebrate my heritage with my daughter and my grandsons. I’ll give a toast to Marion Rourke and tell my family the tiny bit that I know of her. 

My guess is that Marion was quite poor. Perhaps she and her family had not been in the United States for very long. Maybe she had even come here alone. She married James Mack who moved around so much that he too is never mentioned in census records. Perhaps the two of them lived in a rural area. I doubt that she had any assistance in giving birth. Any problems that arose would have gone unanswered. She would quietly die and become a cipher in the annals of history like so many souls who have traveled for a time on this earth. Her story, or lack of it, was quite usual for the times. 

Few of us find princes and potentates in our lineage. The United States has been a refuge for immigrants seeking better lives from its beginnings. Sadly many of those who came here continued to struggle. It was only in later generations that things sometimes turned around. We see that pattern even today with new immigrants seeking asylum from their troubles. They often remain as nameless and faceless as Marion, only to be discovered by a great grandchild farther down the line. Our stories are all linked together in the saga of humankind. 

Today is for celebrating and thanking Marion for bringing my family to life. I think she would smile if she were able to see what she created. We are a happy lot who have taken full advantage of the opportunities that were handed down to us. We’re a little bit Irish because of her and quite grateful to her for the gift of life that she gave to us. Have a Happy St. Patrick’s Day wherever you are and if you get a chance lift a cup to Marion who will never be forgotten again.  


How Old Do You Think You Are?

How old do you feel? No, I’m not asking how old you are. I want to know how old you feel. It seems that studies show that in most cultures in the western world people have their real age and an age in their heads that they think they are. In general people have a vision of themselves being twenty percent younger than they are. Depending on how one views this phenomenon it can be either a good thing or a bad thing. 

First consider cultures that treasure aging rather than desiring to turn back the clock. In Japan growing old is generally accepted and respected. People there let their grey hair show forth and revel in those wrinkles that are a sign of wisdom and living. They tend not to fight the passage of time but rather to revel in it. They don’t just lay down and die, but they also seem to be more willing to be who they really are as they age rather than attempting to hide the signs that the years are passing. They stay active while also slowly changing how they do things as the signs of life guide them. In many ways they are more mentally and physically healthy than their counterparts who fight to appear younger than they actually are.

I was reminded of my Grandpa Little as I read about the phenomenon of real age versus the age that one feels. I know that I have often viewed myself as being younger than I really am. In fact I seem to fall right in line with the twenty percent deduction of my actual age that researchers have found to be the case over and over again. Because I am still quite active both mentally and physically I see myself as a version of my younger self, so when someone treats me as though I really am my actual age I feel a bit shocked.

As we traveled through London a few years ago I was constantly being deferred to because of my age. Young men immediately surrendered their seats to me on the crowded Tube. Clerks in stores called me “Mum” and smiled at me the way they might do with a grandmother. At first I found the behavior to be off putting because I did not feel like someone old enough to need a seat or deserve an extra smile. Once I thought about it, I felt foolish, because in truth I am that older grandmother whether I think of myself that way or not. 

There is a vast difference between admitting to one’s age and its limitations and acting old. The truly wise person begins to understand that he or she can no longer safely do everything that was once so much part of life, but nonetheless remain active and joyful. I saw this kind of behavior in my grandfather. Nobody had to hide the keys to his car when driving became dangerous to himself and others. While he was still a safe driver he understood that his reflexes and vision were not what they needed to be and so he gave away his car and never drove again. He was still making repairs on the house where he lived when he was over one hundred years old, but he no longer climbed on a ladder because he realized the danger in doing so. He was cautious but not totally inactive. His mind and body continued to function well but he accepted that he had to curb some of the activities that he once did or possibly endanger himself or those around him. He celebrated his actual age with aplomb.

I suppose that there is another phenomenon of aging that has not been considered too often. It is the tendency of aging parents to insist on seeing their offspring as children. They demand to always be in charge, refusing to admit that the younger generations have indeed developed enough wisdom and independence to take care of the world. I remember my mother calling her eighty something year old nephews, “Boys.” My own father-in-law sees himself as the only member of the family with enough sense to make good decisions even though his son is in his seventies and his granddaughters are in their fifties and late forties. We are still children in his eyes just as my older cousins were still the “boys” that my mother had once watched as their babysitter. For some older folks it is difficult to let go of the reins and allow the younger people to take over the decision making. 

I still recall a conversation with a very frustrated friend whose husband was attempting to care for his ailing mother. The older woman lived in Detroit while her son was residing and working in Houston. He realized that his mom was no longer able to live alone in her home and made arrangements to move her to Houston where he had found a lovely assisted living site for her to spend the remainder of her days. She, however, was adamant that her son and his wife needed to uproot their lives and move to Detroit instead. She was unmoved by his arguments that he could not leave his job. In the end he had to force her to be where he was and their relationship was tense for the rest of her life. 

I’d like to think that I am growing older gracefully, but I know that I sometimes flinch a bit when I someone figures out how old I must be and then treats me accordingly. I like to think that the person in my mind is not the same as the person in the mirror that I sometimes do not recognize. I want to be like my grandfather and be so logical and helpful and accepting of my stages in life that I never cause any anxiety for my children and grandchildren. I want to be the kind of person who enjoys each phase without demanding power over the people around me. 

For now I can still do hard labor, but for only about half the time that I once did. My mind is good enough to write blogs and teach mathematics. My driving is okay but I don’t really enjoy being on a crowded highway anymore. I’ll be seventy five this year and that’s not just okay, it’s a good thing. I hope to enjoy watching the young people take charge of the world because I have every confidence that they will do well. Still, inside I think that I am still in my fifties and that is probably okay as long as I don’t act like a fool. How old do you think you are?

The Glory of Imagination

My mother used to regale me with stories of going to the movies when she was a teen. She lived with her family in a tiny house just off of Navigation Blvd. where she once watched Franklin Delano Roosevelt pass in a motorcade. On Saturdays, if she had a quarter, she would board a bus and ride the short way into downtown Houston where she watched films from the golden era of the nineteen forties. She was madly in love with Tyrone Power and Dana Andrews whose brother was her English teacher at Austin High School. She described those times so vividly that I too became enthralled with movies, often enjoying some of the favorites from her youth as they were rerun on television.

After my father died we often went to drive-in movie theaters on family nights when a carload got into the parking area for a single, reduced price. After my Aunt Polly went to work at the Trail Drive In we went any time she was working with the complimentary tickets that she regularly gave us. Mama always packed dinner and drinks and a grocery bag of popcorn to enhance our viewing pleasure. Those were some of the most glorious times of my childhood as I watched my favorite actors playing different roles. 

I have no idea when the Academy Awards ceremony first came to television, but I suspect that I may have been watching from the start. Mama and I loved the beautiful gowns, the funny jokes, the singing and dancing and the anticipation of finding out if our own favorites would win awards. I don’t think I’ve missed a single airing of the Oscars over a span of decades. I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly of it all, and been disappointed many times when my own picks did not win or even get nominated. 

Once the nominations are announced I do my past to watch all of the contenders and rank them in my own mind. Of course I have my own favorites that don’t always conform with the popular thinking. I’ve learned that I tend to most enjoy movies with beautifully written scripts. I suppose that words and the thoughts they engender mean more to me than special effects. I dream of one day writing something so meaningful that it will become the kind of story that inspires a movie. As a very ordinary writer, I still know when I am watching the work of a genius. 

Last year my favorite movie was Belfast which won the Oscar for the best original screenplay. It was based on the recollections of Kenneth Branagh when he was a young boy growing up in Northern Ireland during the nineteen sixties when Irish Catholics and British Protestants were engaging in regular conflicts. The story was heartfelt and vividly portrayed the trauma of that era through the eyes of a young child. With stellar acting and a wonderful script it instantly became a classic in my mind.

This year it was another magnificently written script that captured my admiration. Women Talking was adapted from the book of the same title written by Miriam Toews. Based on a true event, it tells the story of a group of women who have been attacked by men in their in their  isolated religious community. They gather in a hayloft to decide if they will stay in the community and fight back or leave to build a new life where they and their children will be safe. The challenge in leaving lies in their belief that that they may be barred from entering heaven if they go. 

We do not see the attack in the film nor does the setting move far from the confines of the hayloft. The storyline is a conversation between the women that is recorded by a man who is a school teacher for the boys. The women are mostly illiterate because they have not been granted the privilege of an education. They have been led to believe that the attacks on them were the work of the devil. They must overcome their personal fears and differences to reach a decision about what to do. That is where the real beauty of the film unfurls with acting that is world class and a discussion that seems to almost timelessly define the challenges of being a woman. The movie is a work of art. 

Films can be as though provoking as the greatest literature. Some burrow into our hearts and we never forget them. They become so much more than just bits of entertainment, respite from our daily cares and woes. They make us think or laugh or cry. I’m a fan just as my mother was. Movies have inspired me and enriched my life. I admire those who take their craft to the level of greatness. Movies are an extension of our human capacities to create. They represent one of the most incredible abilities of being human by demonstrating the most unique power of our minds. We have glorious imaginations that lift us from the depths of ignorance. Movies are but one more grand evolution in the ascent of humankind.

We’ve Come A Long Way

Women In Aerospace Awards (201010260004HQ) by NASA HQ PHOTO is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

I’ve lived long enough to witness remarkable changes in the world of being a woman. When I was a child most of the fathers went to their jobs and the mothers stayed home tending to the children and caring for the house. It was somewhat rare for a married female to have a job, but I did witness a small number of women who worked outside the home. Most of them were either teachers or nurses, thus my original belief that I would have few choices in a career when I became an adult. Nonetheless, I was most enchanted with two neighbor women who seemed to be blazing an independent trail of their own. One was a commercial artist and the other was a lawyer. 

For some reason these two women took a shine to me. They invited me to their homes for little visits that involved walking into a different kind of world in which they were coequals with their husbands. I suppose these trailblazers left an indelible impression on me because I absolutely adored and admired them. I was impressed by their advanced educations and the interesting ways in which they lived their lives. Sometimes I think they were attempting to reframe my thinking by giving me a glimpse of possibilities.

After my father died I watched my mother become responsible for all of the tasks involved with working outside of the home and returning each evening to maintain the routines of keeping our household in order. She seemed to accomplish those her work with great aplomb, making me believe that women can be as strong and independent as men. I entered my own marriage with an attitude that I was as capable as my husband in almost every regard save for lifting heavy objects. He and I became a wedded team rather than assuming the old fashioned models that I had so often observed when I was a young girl. The old traditions of the man taking charge did not work for me. Luckily the times were changing and most of the marriages of my friends mirrored the new independence that women were achieving everywhere. 

Today’s modern married couples have taken the teamwork idea up an even more amazing notch. I watch the younger men sharing in household duties and caring for the children on an equal footing. They think nothing of cooking the dinner, doing their own laundry, getting the kids ready for school. It is simply a natural progression of mutual respect that seems to have grown from the pioneering days of women like the artist and lawyer that I once knew and from brave souls like my mother who proved that a woman can beautifully handle the whole shebang on her own when necessary. 

I still see vestiges of the old ways of doing things, especially among the older folks who are still with us. My father-in-law always takes my husband into another room to discuss business. He balks at suggestions that I have for getting repairs or managing money. He requests me to take care of the once female only duties like washing his clothes and shopping for the items he needs for his diet. He is stunned to see my husband and grandson cooking. He is visibly uncomfortable with my independence. He has balked at the openness of my opinions. I think that he can’t quite decide if he likes the way I behave or is somewhat repulsed by it. His two wives were highly capable and bright women who mostly deferred to his demands. He sees himself as the ultimate protector of the “weaker” women and he is gentlemanly in doing that in a very traditional way, but I am unwilling to give in to his old fashioned demands. He is a man of his era while I am a woman of mine. 

My granddaughter is thoroughly modern. She has run an organization with thousands of members. She flies across the country alone without batting an eye. She has formed her own set of beliefs and opinions and is not afraid to voice them. She is the newest generation of brilliant and educated women who have goals as lofty as only men once had. She brings my admiration full circle as she works toward a goal of becoming a lawyer. She is unafraid, competent, reliable and no doubt cannot even imagine being treated like a hot house flower unable to make decisions or understand complex ideas. 

There are still some people who long for the old days. They have romanticized the times when women could not have their own credit cards or bank accounts. They seem to to think that having the men in charge of everything outside of the home was chivalrous, and maybe it was back then, but those days are long gone. Women have proven that they can and will serve as equal members of a team. The young women that I know share responsibilities with their husbands in a spirit of mutual respect. 

We still don’t have a perfect record when it comes to the role of women in society. Many cultures in the world have reverted to tragically domineering treatment of the females in their midst. They withhold education and deny women opportunities to work outside of the home. Even in our own country women are often under attack when they assert their freedoms. We have to be watchful for any signs that indicate a backward trend. Our young girls deserve to be equal to their male counterparts. We’ve come a long way and there should be no turning back. 

Can We Make the Insanity Stop?

Photo by Ola Dapo on

So here we are again, groping around in the dark at a time marked on our clocks when the sun was peeking through our windows only a couple of days ago. We’ll walk around feeling like we are jet lagged even though we haven’t been on a trip. About the time that we begin to adjust to the clock, we will start all over again by falling backwards. We are rather divided in our political thinking these days, but surely we are mostly united in our desire to pick one method of marking time and stick with it. At this point in my life, I don’t really care which way we decide to forever set our clocks. I just want the insanity of going back and forth to stop. 

We tend to believe that springing forward and falling back is simply an established way of life, but the reality is that this nonsense first occurred because of World War I. What should have been a reaction to war that changed back to normal once the conflict was over, has droned on for over a hundred years. All the while people have complained about the flipping and flopping  of our routines without doing something about it. 

Doctors have challenged the changing of times, insisting that it is bad for humans to deviate from routines biannually. Statistics confirm that there are always increased numbers of visits to emergency rooms in the days after the change takes place. Often the health issues revolve around heart attacks and serious accidents. For workers and school children it means changing the feel of the morning and evening commutes. It’s an irritating way of attempting to tame the rising and falling of sunlight that makes little sense when all is said and done since electricity now brings light to us twenty four hours a day. 

I tend to be a standard time fan rather than daylight savings time. I’m not much for arising in the dark as I must do when Daylight Saving Time comes around. I worry about the school children who will be waiting for their buses to arrive before the sun has come into view. I don’t need daylight until nine at night. My system never feels quite right until we return to

Standard time. Nonetheless, I’m willing for forgo my preference for the sake of picking a plan and then sticking with it. If the majority prefers to arise in the dark and come home to many hours of sunlight before going to bed, I’m okay with that. I know that I will adjust in a few months and all will be well going forward. 

I just don’t get the reluctance to set one way of keeping time and staying with it. The whole silliness reminds me of our human tendency to try something new, dislike it, and then keep it just because its been the norm for a time. I’ve seen that happen in education more often than it should. We all have a sense that the constant testing of young children is bad for everyone, but we keep those exams going anyway. Time and again we have seen that the SAT and ACT are not as accurate in determining success in college and life as we would like them to be, but we continue to harass our young with such hurdles. We humans have a tendency to stick with whatever we have legislated even when common sense tells us that our laws and routines are not working. 

We could use a win for everyone and I suspect that ridding ourselves of the biannual changing of the clocks would be a great place to start. Imagine the joy of seeing Democrats and Republicans high-fiving each other in celebration of working together. Think of the joy of setting our clocks and never having to perform that onerous task again. Imagine becoming accustomed to a set routine with regard to our daily rotation around the sun. It would be a glorious common sense approach to life that might even begin to unite us in a teeny tiny way. 

I’m feel off kilter this morning as I attempt to conform to the idea that last Monday my body awakened on its own at six. This week I have to set an alarm if I want to arise by that hour because my brain tells me it is really only five. The children are on mercifully on Spring Break this week but when school resumes they will be at the bus stop huddling in the dark without their usual energy and laughter. The mothers will stand watch over them in silence. Nobody will have the urge to chatter like they usually do until they have once again adjusted to the artificially inflicted time keeping.

Studies show that productivity will drop on jobs. More workers will arrive late than is usual. Some will have bouts of insomnia as they attempt to fall asleep. Their bodies are not fooled by the clocks. It will take time to find a natural routine again. Just as we finally adjust we will repeat the change in the fall. The complaining will begin anew. Talk of ridding ourselves of this plague will ensue. Nothing will happen once again.

Best of luck to all of you today. Only the folks in Arizona and Hawaii know what it is like to maintain a steady routine all year long. The rest of us will grumble and mumble and swear that the insanity needs to stop, but do little to make it happen. We will drone on until someone in Congress finally has the courage and good sense to propose a bill. Even that may fail because we seem to have decided to be contrary rather than finding ways to work together. It’s all rather tiring, isn’t it?