Discovering a Remarkable Story

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I loved my maternal grandmother, Maria Bartacovik Ulrich, but never really knew her. She was a sweet presence in my life, but because she spoke little or no English and I had no knowledge of her Slovakian language we communicated mostly with facial expressions. She was a short, round woman filled with the wrinkles of old age. She kept her hair in a long braid that trailed down her back, at least until she became seriously ill and her daughters cut it to make the task of maintaining it easier. She seemed to be of another world, another century and I always longed to be able to ask her questions and learn more about the girl she had once been. Instead we exchanged smiles as she called me “pretty girl,” and while I loved the simplicity of her greeting I wondered if she actually knew my name or those of my many cousins.

Grandma Ulrich padded around her home in her bare feet which were tiny but often appeared swollen. At gatherings she prepared cups of coffee for all of her guests, bringing the watery brew proudly in enamel cups filled with more milk and sugar than java. I loved that gesture which she repeated hundreds of times when the members of her family filled her home with raucous conversation. I saw her as an exceptional hostess who wanted us to feel welcome in her domain, and we always did.

Grandma Ulrich had lovely blue eyes, and as I gazed into them I wondered what thoughts were behind them. It would not be until long after she was dead that I would do enough research and ask enough questions to learn a tiny bit about her. It amazed me to find that this shy and unassuming woman had traveled alone from her hometown in the Slovakian region of Austria Hungary to Bremen, Germany where she boarded a steamship bound for Galveston, Texas. She came to meet my grandfather who had arrived before her to pave the way of their new life together. Somehow it almost seems inconceivable that such an unassuming woman would have the courage to embark on a journey to a world of which she knew very little. She must have been very much in love, and perhaps she was guided by the exuberance of youth as well.

She arrived not too many years before the outbreak of World War II and for all intents forever lost track of her family back home. My eldest aunt says that Grandma worked as a cook for the laborers on a large farm in an area of Houston on the east side of town. Later she tried a variety of jobs including laboring as a cleaning woman in a large downtown building. When her English improved she even found work behind the counter of a small bakery. This was a daring Grandma Ulrich that I had never known, and even now I have a difficult time imagining the woman who was frightened to leave her home as such a courageous person.

My grandmother was a woman of her times without benefit of any form of birth control other than abstinence, and so she had one baby after another. There were nine pregnancies in a row including one in which she carried twins. By the time my mother, the youngest of her children, was born Grandma had buried two of her babies. Her body must have been in a state of hormonal hell as she yo-yoed from conception into post partum depression again and again. Her tiny home and her life was dominated by rowdy children whom she dearly loved, but I can’t fathom that she ever had a moment to herself.

At some point my grandmother showed signs of a mental breakdown and she was taken away by force to the state hospital in Austin. It was a traumatic time for her and for her children who rarely spoke of it, carefully guarding a secret that was too painful to mention. Once Grandma returned home she would never again have enough trust to leave the safety of her house without putting up a fight. She was content to simply create a daily routine and quietly live out the rest of her days.

I am fascinated by the woman who was my grandmother. I suppose that if truth be told we, her grandchildren, took her for granted. She was someone who was just there, an almost invisible presence in our lives. She seemed simple and yet she was so complex. We thought her witless and yet she must surely have had thoughts and dreams. Like so many women her contribution to the world was unseen and under appreciated. We did not think to connect the dots of her existence and the incredible impact it has had on the world. We assumed that she would not have been interested in knowing that from her humble beginnings in America have come engineers, doctors, teachers, accountants, business leaders, athletes, lawyers. Members of her now very extended family are brilliant and beautiful, and genetics tells us that her contribution to such success is present in all of us. Most importantly the lessons that she taught her children have been passed down through the generations. We may not have been able to communicate with her but her children knew and understood her messages of integrity and hard work. She modeled a steadfastness for them that they emulated often without even realizing how deeply her character had imprinted on them.

If by some magic I were able to see my grandmother again and actually speak with her without the restrictions on communication that once defined our relationship I would want to know everything about her. I have grown to understand how amazing she was and how worthy of my attention to her story should be. Like so many many women she was dutiful and in her role she built the foundation of a family and the future. Her contributions are incalculable but her legacy continues to blossom. Now I finally realize through discovery of her remarkable story that this tiny quiet woman was a tower of strength and I feel honored to be part of the world that she helped to build.

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Wisdom, Prayers, and a Pot of Soup

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The day on which I am writing this blog is rainy, a situation that I might normally find to be peaceful and comforting. On this occasion it simply feels dreary and sad because a dear friend is dealing with great loss that she must not only bear, but which she must explain to her children. She is a strong woman and I have little doubt that she will ultimately rise from the ashes of her life, but I know from experience how crushingly cruel such interludes in time can be.

It is part of our human experience to encounter tragedies, some of which are life changing. We react to such events in a multitude of ways, perhaps turning to prayer or leaning on people who are close to us. Sometimes we attempt to go it alone, mustering as much courage as we can find inside our souls. Regardless of how we choose to react we feel great pain, often both mental and physical. For lack of a better description I have called it “the elephant sitting on my chest.” Tragedy makes it difficult to even breath or move. There is a tendency to want to stay in bed and shut out the world, but we all know that such reactions do not work forever. Eventually we must straighten our backs and bear the weight until we heal enough to feel somewhat normal. Sadly we will carry scars from our experiences for all time, but if we are lucky they will only hurt now and again.

What can we do to help someone who is in the throes of such an experience? It is difficult to know, but I think we must try. In my own lifetime very small gestures done with love have provided me with the hope that I needed to continue my journey as a human. The help has often come from the most unexpected places, but it has always occurred at just the right moment when my despair was overwhelming me.

I still carry the vision of my Aunt Valeria puttering around our kitchen on the day my father died. She represented a kind of stability on the shaky ground that I felt all around me. My Uncle William gave me hope on that day with an ice cream cone offered as a sign that he truly cared about me and my brothers. A lovely plant sent to me by my dear friend, Adriana, on the occasion of my mother’s death still grows in my home. She sent it with a simple note that reminded me that I had done all that was possible for my mom. I needed to hear that, and somehow she knew. Another friend, Linda, brought me a big pot of chicken soup when I was hurting from surgery. Somehow that soup tasted better than anything that I had ever eaten.

Often it is a stranger who brings us comfort. I once went to a doctor that I had never before seen for a yearly physical. He was supposed to spend thirty minutes outlining my health issues in a post conference. He laughed because the test results showed that I was in excellent shape, so he wondered aloud what we might speak about to fill the time. He innocently asked if anything was pressing on my mind. At the moment I was gravely worried about my mother’s bipolar disorder, and also wondering if I was doing the right things for her. In many ways I was filled with guilt that I was not doing enough. He assuaged all of my negative feelings and encouraged me to begin talking openly about the situation. He was so engaged in my situation that the conference lasted for over an hour, and I ended up releasing tears that had been pent up in my heart for years. I have thought back on him over and over again with so much gratitude because he freed me from the worry that had overwhelmed me for so long.

A fellow teacher once prayed with me for my grandchildren who were threatening to be born far too early. The predictions of their health if they came were dire. My dear colleague calmed me and assured me that she would be storming the heavens with pleas for a miracle. Somehow in spite of the frightening warnings from the doctors my daughter’s labor stopped, and the babies stayed safely inside her womb for enough weeks to insure that their problems would be minimal. The teacher who so understood my panic has remained in my gratitude for sixteen years as I have watched those little ones grow into beautiful and bright teenagers.

When my husband, Mike, had a stroke there were so many souls praying for him and for our family. The doctors and nurses who cared for him were not just knowledgeable, but also kind and compassionate. Our friends and many of my former students sent messages of encouragement that sustained us. When hurricane Harvey hit Mike was still highly susceptible to having another episode. As the waters rose and our home became like an island I worried about what I would do if he had another attack. In the darkest moment of my anxiety a former student, Bieu, texted to assure me that if anything happened he would come with help in his big truck, and that together we would get Mike to the hospital. I cannot even describe the relief that I felt upon receiving that message. Luckily nothing occurred, but I will always and forever love Bieu for his empathy at just the right moment.

Someone you know may be suffering for one reason or another. You may not think that there is much that you may do to help them, but it is in the simple acts of compassion that they will regain their strength and have the courage to soldier on. Don’t hesitate to offer your wisdom. your prayers, or a pot of soup. Your efforts may be exactly what that person needs. You may make the very difference that will sustain them.

Inspiration

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I just got around to viewing First Man and I was once again reminded of what an incredible feat the journey to the moon actually was. The movie highlighted the primitive nature of the systems that existed back then making the accomplishment even more impressive than any of us imagined at the time. The movie’s focus was on Neal Armstrong so it almost minimized the efforts of thousands of individuals who made the event possible, and it gave only a brief nod to President Kennedy’s role in supporting the program and inspiring to help in the effort. In truth it was his leadership that created a sense of purpose and urgency to the idea of traveling to the moon.

John Kennedy had a way with words, or at least his speechwriters did. His talent was delivering them in such a way that we all wanted to get onboard with his ideas. He united most of us in realizing that we had the brains and the wherewithal to get the job done. He created a lovely picture of what such an accomplishment would be, and he challenged us to support the journey. In that regard he was a true leader, someone who garnered enthusiasm for a cause without denigrating those who were a bit wary. He made it seem patriotic and wonderful, and remarkable individuals like the astronauts reinforced his thoughts. They were men of high character and intelligence who had served their country and were willing to possibly sacrifice their lives for a lofty goal. That was the real beauty of Kennedy’s ability to rally all of us.

When Neal Armstrong stepped on the moon in July of 1969, John Kennedy was long dead but those of us who had heard his clarion call for the space program understood that he was in many ways the founder of the celebration. The whole world watched those grainy images with a sense of awe, and those of us in the United States felt great pride in the remarkable accomplishment. We knew that some of the best minds in the country had worked long and hard to accomplish the unbelievable. We celebrated not just Neal Armstrong and his crew, but also the best of mankind’s determination and abilities. We remembered with reverence John Kennedy’s words that first inspired us to believe that the impossible was truly possible.

I think of challenges that we have today and I realize that what is lacking is a brilliant leader with the ability to bring us together in common cause. Winston Churchill was able to do this for his country in one of the darkest hours of Great Britain. Franklin Roosevelt kept the people of the United States utterly devoted to the cause of bringing freedom and peace to a warring world. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought the plight of Blacks in our country into crystal clear focus and brokered change without violence or threats. Then there was Abraham Lincoln who desperately worked to keep the country together and to right the wrongs of the past. Each of these individuals had a gift, an ability to describe a brilliant future with stirring words and practical plans. Sadly today’s revolutionary ideas are being voiced in such a way as to alienate half of the population.

Our leaders are not only at odds with each other but at odds with huge swathes of the citizenry. They patronize us by insinuating that we are not capable of taking care of ourselves, so they must do the job for us. In their quests to push their plans forward they demand and foment fear rather than inspire. Whether speaking of the need for a border wall or ways to deal with climate change they use scare tactics and hurl insults at anyone who dares to disagree with them. They seem to be urging us to go their way or take the highway. This is hardly the way to take care of problems if the great leaders of the past are any indication.

I’m a believer that we do indeed need to address climate change but I also feel that we need to do so with a realistic goal in mind. To simply say that we have to completely wean ourselves from fossil fuels without actually having an idea of how to do that other than vague outlines is frightening. People have hundreds of questions that are either being ridiculed or ignored. I find myself feeling like the boy who noticed that the emperor was stark naked while the rest of the crowd acted as though they did not see the problem. We have to consider the consequences both intended and unintended of any actions that we choose to take or not take. That only makes sense. To rally behind either the climate change deniers or those with militant half baked ideas its the wrong course to take. Sadly our leaders are lining up behind one faction or another without steering us in a clear path and making us part of the solution process. We have to understand that rushing headlong into a brave new world is frightening for most people. There is a way to get things done one step at a time without throwing away our way of life. We just have to provide realistic alternatives that may actually work and then get the populace on board by explaining rather than lecturing.

Our young have always been impatient and revolutionary. It was young men who designed our country’s government, but their radical enthusiasm was often tempered by those who understood the need for a bit of caution. Our history is one of moving incrementally toward positive change with a few instances of exponential bursts led by extraordinary people who understood how to help people understand both the problems and solutions without patronizing or ignoring or insulting.

We can keep our union, fight a war for all humanity, bring justice to forgotten people and send a man to the moon. We are not afraid of a cause, but we need a leader who knows how to help us understand our individual roles in the solutions. It has been done before. Perhaps now more than ever we must search for the person who works for the good of all mankind, not just a select group that already agrees with all that they have to say. So far I don’t see such a person on the horizon, but surely there is someone and hopefully he or she will step forward.

The Humanity

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The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana is now the third most visited museum in the United States. The attraction has become one of the most popular in the Big Easy and its expansion continues. I’ve been going there since well before hurricane Katrina when the place was still being called the D Day Museum. At that time it was dedicated mostly to the big event when the Allies first reclaimed French territory from the Germans. The site of the museum was chosen because it was a New Orleans manufacturer who had designed the Higgins boats that were used in the assault on Normandy.

I’ve found something new every single time that I have walked through the exhibition halls. On one occasion I concentrated on understanding the geography of the battles. In another I was most interested in the timing of battles and the equipment used by each side. In my most recent visit I found myself mostly thinking of the human aspect of World War II and in truth it was my most moving encounter yet.

Each person who comes to the museum is given a “dog tag” that outlines the personal story of someone who participated in the war. As each guests moves through the displays there are opportunities to scan the dog tag to learn what part their person played in the era. Since there were five of us in our party on this occasion we got a wide spectrum of interesting histories, including the record of James “Jimmy” Stewart, the lovable actor that we all know from some of Hollywood’s greatest hits.

My dog tag belonged to a young American girl who was living in the Philippines when the Japanese overtook the island. Her father was in the military and had been sent elsewhere but her mother was a teacher who felt she must stay at her post. The Japanese sent the young girl and her mom to a kind of concentration camp along with countless others that they deemed untrustworthy. Life in the camp was difficult for a child and the girl remembered how frightened she felt when her mother became ill and was sent to a hospital. She was all alone in dealing with the horrific conditions. She spoke of eating gruel for virtually every meal and being set to work with only a minimal amount of time for education or play.

One of my grandson’s drew the Jimmy Stewart dog tag and we learned that Jimmy had been an actual hero in the war. When he first signed on Louis B. Mayer did everything to keep him from going into battle because Jimmy was one of the biggest draws in Hollywood. Jimmy nonetheless insisted that he wanted to serve the country and soon enough was leading squadrons on air raids that helped to turn the tide of war.

Another dog tag belonged to a Marine who won countless medals for bravery. His feats were almost unbelievable. We expected to learn that he had been killed but in fact he went on to serve with honor and distinction in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars before retiring from the military.

Yet another of our stories was of a man who had been in the OSS, a precursor of the CIA. He did some of the most audacious things imaginable and somehow his luck held out even when he probably should have been captured or killed. He was incredibly brave for sure.

What really caught our attention were the telegrams informing families that one of their loved ones had died. We realized that there were people who saved those horrific notices for all of the years since the war, sometimes along with sympathy cards. It was beyond touching to see how dear those lost in battle had been to people back home. It made me think of my mom’s fiancé who died in the battle for Saipan. It was hard for her to speak of him even years after. Even though she had found love with my father she never completely forgot the man who had first asked her to be his bride.

All of the sacrifices that entire populations across the world endured became so real as we listened to the voices of survivors and gazed at the items and photographs that had been so intimately tied to them. We felt one touching moment after another as we looked at the images of young men who were fighting in the war when they were as young as my grandsons. It had to have been an incredibly difficult and frightening time across the globe. The sheer humanity of learning that the world lost more souls in World War II than in any other conflict in history moved me to tears.

I suppose that the museum is dedicated not just to providing facts about the war but also to helping us to understand the enormity of what was happening and its impact on everyone from the boy next door to a major movie star. So many of those who were alive during that fateful time are slowly leaving this earth. It is important that we remember their stories and their sacrifices. The National World War II Museum is insuring that we will not forget.

Finding Joy In the Story You Are Living

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Sometimes you have to let go of the picture of what you thought life would be like and learn to find joy in the story you are living.

I saw this quote on Facebook and realized that as trite as it sounds it is actually quite profound. Who among us has not experienced unexpected changes in the trajectory of our lives that seemed to wreck our plans and challenge our optimism? For most of us life is peppered with a series of surprises that usually come at inopportune times and often threaten our sense of security, but sometimes in dealing with them we find strength, friendship and new opportunities that we never considered.

When my father died at the age of eight my world toppled around me and my family. I felt as though our entire existence was doomed as we scaled back on plans to move to an exciting new neighborhood, replaced our luxury car with an ugly stripped down model, and had to learn how to live from one paycheck to the next. I still recall the anxiety that filled my mind and the feelings that life would always be dreary and uncertain for us, but as it turned out we ultimately found peace and perhaps a bit more compassion than we might otherwise have had. Our mother showed us how to grieve and then rebound from the tragedy that befell us. She taught us how to find happiness in the simple aspects of life like a roof over our heads on a rainy night and a warm bed when it was freezing outside. We found fun with our imaginations, books from the library, and Friday nights with our cousins at Grandma’s house.

I had been a bit spoiled before my father died, self absorbed and desirous of impressing people. After his death I found solace in my studies and my friends. I learned about kindness from generous neighbors on our blue collar street. I realized that hard work was a pathway to opportunities. All in all I am certain that I became a better more giving and understanding person than I might have been.

When I was eighteen years old I met the man who would become my husband. We had an instant connection with one another. It seemed to be fate bringing us together. We quickly fell deeply in love which caused me to worry. I had graduated at the top of my high school class. I was doing well in college, but had not yet been able to declare a major. I was filled with confusion about my future. The only thing that seemed certain to me was that I wanted to spend it with this man. He had so instantly become my muse, my confidante, my best friend.

We were caught up in the craziness of the late nineteen sixties when the world seemed almost on the verge of collapse. We felt as though we had to seize happiness in the moment or risk losing it forever, and so we decided to marry six weeks before I turned twenty. Neither of us yet had a college degree and our income was dependent on his teaching assistant salary and my teacher’s aide pittance. With a wing and a prayer we took a great leap of faith much to the chagrin of our elders.

Our earliest days of marriage were difficult mostly due to our finances barely stretching far enough to keep us housed and fed. I knew how to squeeze every dime out of a budget because of my childhood experiences, and so we survived but not without a great deal of tension and concern that perhaps we had been premature in launching our lives together. Then before we had even celebrated our first anniversary my mother had a mental breakdown, and I became the caretaker for her and my brothers. Somehow we managed to use our meager funds to feed two additional mouths and pay a number of Mama’s bills. More importantly, my husband rose to the tragic occasion and became my rock. In all honesty I don’t believe that I would have had what I needed to help my mother through her illness had he not been at my side at every frightening  turn.

Once my mother was well again the doctor told me that she was cured. He did not believe that she would ever again be as sick as she had been, but of course he was wrong. He had misdiagnosed her bipolar disorder as simple depression. Over the next forty years she would have relapse after relapse and my brothers and I would have to learn how to watch over her. Our journey together created an impenetrable bond between us. We became expert at looking for signs of trouble in her behavior and worked as a team to keep her well and safe. We are as close as siblings ever might be.

If did eventually choose a college major and earn a degree, although decidedly later than I had thought I would. I graduated with honors but due to a glut of teachers in the area I was among the many who were unable to find teaching jobs. I ended up at a Catholic school near my home earning a salary that was considerably less than those of the public schools, and teaching mathematics rather than the English classes for which I had prepared. I felt that I was somehow a failure without realizing that I had actually been blessed with the most perfect job that a first year teacher might ever experience. My principal was supportive, my students were eager and well behaved, and I found that I truly enjoyed teaching math. I had six different preparations each day, sponsored a school newspaper, and headed a committee tasked to purchase computers for the students. It was a busy schedule that proved to be gloriously enjoyable in an environment that allowed me to really stretch my wings. It also assured me that I had indeed chosen the right profession.

I could go on and on and on about seemingly disappointing moments that turned out to bring me remarkable adventures that I had never before imagined. I learned over time to go with the flow of life applying my skills and my strengths to pull myself through even the most daunting challenges. Each and every experience forced me to be more than I ever thought I might be, and while they were often painful in the moment they enriched me in the long run. Ultimately I realized the fruitlessness of creating a picture of my life limited by my own world view. In the end there was so much more joy to be found in taking on the challenges and evolving into more than I had ever expected. There has been great joy in the story that I have lived.