The Car


The stories on the television series This Is Us are so heartwarming and real that rarely a week goes by that I do not identify with some aspect of an episode. They have a universal appeal that reaches into the heart and soul of who we are as members of a family. I have duly noted the kinship that I have with the characters depicted on the show. As with my own situation there are three siblings, a girl and two boys, who continue to struggle with the impact of their beloved father’s death. I have known the pain of their loss of their father all too well, and like them I have never quite come to grips with the reality of the situation even years later. The writers of the series are certainly gifted to make each of us feel as though they have somehow tapped into our own personal memories. The title itself hints that we are all part of a great big family of mankind that endures the same types of struggles. The characters are us. Their history is ours.

A recent episode of This Is Us was titled The Car, a brilliant look at how an inanimate object becomes a symbol for a father’s love and all that is good about a family. The storyline was particularly touching for me because it was one car that devastated my family and another that brought us a new day of hope.

My father was a Pontiac man. He loved the sporty nature of that brand and insisted on getting a new one almost as soon as the last payment was made on the one he was driving. He had proudly purchased a brand new Pontiac with all of the bells and whistles for our move from Houston, Texas to San Jose California. It was an automobile boasting the kind of luxury that earned second glances as we drove down the road. It carried us in grand style and comfort thousands of miles to our new home. When things didn’t work out there it brought us back to Houston and the promise of a fresh start in familiar surroundings. We used it to visit friends and family whom we had missed while we were gone. We drove it to inspect houses that we might purchase to set up a household. We were planning to take it to the beach on Memorial Day to launch a summer on the Gulf Coast. We loved that car and the sight of our daddy sitting so happily behind the wheel. How could we have known that it would become the instrument of his death?

He died in that car on a lonely stretch of road when he accidentally drove into a deep ditch that was unmarked and laying in wait on a dark night. It had no seatbelt to protect him, no collapsable steering wheel, no exterior designed to take the brunt of the crash. Instead the car built as it was became a weapon that crushed his chest and stopped his heart. It would change our lives and create questions in our minds that haunt us even to this day.

We would later find evidence of our father’s loving nature in the gifts that he had already purchased in anticipation of his wedding anniversary and my mother’s birthday. A card would arrive in the mail from him with a postmark from the day before he died. He had used his car to plan for a future that would never come for him. He was dead and the car had become a heap of scrap.

My mother had to pull herself together somehow. She began the process of building a new kind of life for us, and for that she needed a car. The one that she purchased became the auto that would carry us through our youth and into our adulthood. It was a homely thing, almost ugly, but it was reliable. It was painted in a two tone pattern of white and a strange beige color. It had ordinary cloth seats and rubber mats on the floorboard. It was as basic as a car might be, not even possessing an automatic transmission or an air conditioner. It was so unlike anything our father might have purchased, but my mother was able to pay for it with the insurance money that she received from his accident. It was so stripped down that there was very little that might break, and best of all she owned it. It was a good car in spite of its appearance and it became the vehicle that drove us into our future.

Once we managed to move beyond our grief that car became a source of great fun. We used it to visit our grandparents in Arkansas, and piled inside on Friday nights to meet up with our aunts and uncles and cousins. We sat inside it at drive-in movie theaters enjoying grand epics on the big screen even as we batted the mosquitoes that buzzed about. We ran our weekend errands and drove to church in our ever faithful auto. We motored to Dallas and San Antonio for vacations, and went to Corpus Christi to enjoy the ocean that our dad had so loved. When we were sick we sat safely inside the car as we traveled to see the doctor. The car took us to ballgames and bowling alleys, pancake breakfasts and excursions at the mall.

From time to time one of our mechanically inclined uncles would change the oil, rotate the tires, or install a new battery. Year after year passed and it was that ugly old car that took us to the places where we celebrated the milestones of our youth. It was ever dependable, always waiting to help us enjoy a new adventure. It helped us to heal and to move on from the tragedy that had so changed us. It served us as well as anything might have, requiring little attention to keep faithfully working.

About the time that I was close to graduating from high school my mother decided that it was time to replace the car which was nearing its eighth or ninth year of service to our family. One of my cousins purchased it from her and our next car was a great deal fancier, but somehow not as comforting as the old one had been. I found myself missing our friend even as we toured the city in grander style more akin to the kind that our father had always enjoyed. We had carpet on the floorboards and air conditioning to keep us cool, but somehow it would never feel as secure as “The Car” had been. In fact, I have few memories attached to the new model. It would always be that ugly old stripped down Ford that I would remember with so much fondness.

It’s funny how a car can become such a vivid part of life, representing all of the things that are good about its owners. That’s the way it was with ours. The car was one of us and we loved it.


The Suit

William Mack Little - Suit

My husband used to have to wear a suit to work every day. Each morning he would don a newly laundered and starched shirt, arrange one of his ties from his vast collection around the collar, and select one of the suits that served as his uniform. When he retired he stored the suits in the back of the closet and rarely pulled one on save for funerals and the like. Eventually he noted that those symbols of his forty years of daily toil were probably at least fifteen or more years old and looking a bit threadbare. Besides he had recently lost fifty pounds and they hung on him like a tent. It was time to purchase a new suit.

I accompanied my man to the store for consultation and while he was being measured by the tailor I found myself laughing at a memory of my grandfather. Grandpa had purchased a brand new gray suit for his ninetieth birthday party. He sat regally among his family members wearing the trappings of a sharp dressed man including a hat that shielded his bald head from the burning rays of the sun. Someone took a photograph of him on that day that became a treasure for those of us who so loved him. It would always remind us of how gentlemanly he always carried himself and how handsome he was. He hardly looked his age in the image, nor did his countenance betray the hardships that he had endured over ninety decades. I vividly recall that he had joked that he had purchased the clothing both as a birthday suit and the outfit that he planned to wear to his own funeral. Ironically he lived to the grand old age of one hundred eight and as he neared his last days he would note that his suit was all worn out.

Doctors said that my grandfather’s longevity was due mostly to having good genes. Nonetheless I always believed it was because he had the spirit of a survivor. Somehow he managed to use the tragedies of his life to grow stronger rather than to brood over his sorrows. He never knew his mother who died twenty days after he was born and by his own admission his father was a heavy drinking reprobate who did not amount to much. He was essentially abandoned to the care of his grandmother, a widow, who left a very positive impression on him. They lived a somewhat isolated existence in the backwoods of Virginia and his stories of their time together brought a mischievous twinkle to his eyes. Sadly his grandmother died when he was only thirteen and he became a ward of the court until the judge appointed one of his uncles as his guardian. Around that time his birth father who was still very much alive contracted small pox and Grandpa went to care for him. Some of his best tales centered around that time and the primitive nature of medicine back then. His father miraculously survived the disease and my grandfather amazingly never contracted the illness in spite of its highly contagious nature.

My grandfather grew up quickly as so many young men did in that era. He was on his own well before he had left his teenage years. His education was minimal but he was a quick learner with a willingness to adapt to any situation. He began traveling around the country picking up work wherever he went. It was a tough and lonely life but not that different from the norm of that era. He found solace in drinking which lead him to follow in his father’s alcoholic footsteps. After one evening of heavy imbibing he felt particularly repulsed with himself and vowed to mend his ways. He never again touched even a drop of liquor demonstrating the strength of character that we all saw in him.

Grandpa was forty before he met my grandmother and married. She was the center of his life and whenever he spoke of her his face lit up with pure joy. He often called her his buddy and talked of how much fun they had even long after she had died. Together they had two children, one of whom was my father. They were quite proud of my dad. He was a brilliant man who was the first in his family to graduate from high school and then earn a college degree. They always referred to my daddy as a good boy, so it was quite devastating to both of them when he died when he was only thirty three years old.

My grandmother was never quite the same after her beloved son died. Grandpa did his best to make her happy and the two of them enjoyed tending to their farm in Arkansas but seven years after my father died my grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Grandpa moved her to Houston so that she would be nearer the medical care that she would need. He tended to her with loving care, watching his savings dwindle to nothing because of the huge expenses associated with her treatment. He was eighty eight years old when she died. His pockets were empty and he had to sell his home to pay all of the medical bills. He found a room to rent and the strength to carry on.

By the time that my grandfather was ninety years old and wearing his new suit in his birthday photo his worldly goods consisted of what he was wearing, a few other changes of clothing, some favorite books and magazines, and the pipe that he smoked as he sat in his favorite recliner reading or enchanting his many visitors with his tales of a time so different from the modern era. His mind was sharp as a tack and his sense of humor never wavered. Only now and again would he speak of feeling tired, and that mostly occurred when someone that he loved had died which was happening with greater greater frequency as the years continued.

Grandpa took great pride in being independent. He admired courageous people. He took care of himself, proudly living within his limited means. He was perennially optimistic even when times became tough. He would tell us of the Panic of 1893, which in his words was a depression even more horrific than the so called Great Depression of the twentieth century. He had seen the world convulsing through the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the war in Vietnam. He had witnessed the world at its best and its worst over and over again. He understood that there really is a circle of life that repeats itself at intervals. He believed in the brilliance and goodness of mankind because he had seen the changes again and again that set the world aright even as it sometimes teetered into chaos. He had learned that there is always a way to carry on even in the most horrific of times.

We sometimes act as though our present situation is somehow unique in the annals of history. We behave as if the end of times is somehow near. We complain that daily life is more terrible than it has ever been. We wish for quieter times and complain about how difficult things have become. If my grandfather were still here with us he would calmly suggest that the world is actually unfolding in ways that make it just a tiny bit better with each passing day. Every generation has had is share of troubles and woes, but ours occur against a backdrop of plenty that was not even dreamed of in earlier times. Our advances in medicine, education, science, technology and even social programs were astounding to my grandfather and made him feel hopeful even when things became quite difficult. My grandfather was certain that we were headed in the right direction even when we felt lost or had to take a circuitous route to get back on track. He was a patient man who in the end taught those of us who knew him how to remain strong and positive and most of all loving. When I think of him in his dapper suit and I take a deep breath and carry on.

Who Will Hear Our Cries

pexels-photo-170840.jpegAs a mom, a grandmother, a teacher, a human being I grieve over the violence in our world. As a problem solver I wonder what we might do to lessen the number of tragedies that our society must endure. As a realist I understand that most issues are far too complex to be successfully resolved with simple solutions. As someone who prefers getting things done to continually ignoring situations, I am frustrated by the bickering among our lawmakers that seems to perennially end in stalemate. I have grown weary of being able to predict the various responses to the major concerns of our time. I find myself searching in vain for leaders who will set aside their own quests for power to become the heroes that we so desperately need. There are so few profiles in courage in our precarious times. Where is an Abraham Lincoln, a Martine Luther King Jr. or a Gandhi? What will it take for the wars of words to stop and the work to begin?

We find ourselves at a perennial impasse. We struggle to even set governmental budgets that allow us to live within our country’s means. We know that we need answers to questions about immigration, but when good souls attempt to forge compromises, the “all or nothing” crowds shoot down any possibilities of resolution. We bow to the bullying demands of the outliers rather than listening to the reason of the middle ground. We can’t even make a deal to insure that all Americans have access to rudimentary healthcare. Again and again we lower our heads in grief, shame and prayer over mass shootings that surely might be mitigated if only we were willing to set aside all of our prejudices and simply build a plan.

On the very day meant to celebrate love, a deranged shooter entered a high school at the end of an academic day and began randomly shooting. He was indeed a troubled soul whose history had alerted many who knew whom. He had been adopted by a loving family but in spite of their efforts to provide him with the nurturing that he needed, things went awry. His father died when he was still a young child. His mother did her best to raise him alone but struggled with his emotional and behavioral issues. She sought the help of therapists and even contacted the police from time to time hoping to find answers to her concerns about her son. He was different, withdrawn, violent, frightening to many who knew him. Fellow students joked that he had the mind of a mass murderer. His school expelled him. A stranger noted one of his posts on social media and even reported him to the FBI. In November, his mother contracted the flu, then pneumonia and died. He was on his own but found shelter in the home of a friend. There were so many clear indications that he needed heavy duty counseling, maybe even medication but none of it was demanded or even offered. Instead he freely purchased guns even as his online posts became more and more foreboding.

There were so many individual measures that might have been taken with this young man that were not. Whether they would have prevented the massacre that he inflicted on innocent students is debatable, but at the very least there would have been attempts to curtail the ticking of the time bomb that was exploding in his mind.

The mental health system in this country is broken. Getting needed care is costly, time consuming, and ultimately frustrating. The cards are stacked in favor of doing nothing, leaving countless individuals and their families and friends feeling alone and even betrayed. All too often it becomes easier just to give up and let the cards fall where they will. The financial and mental energy needed to ameliorate mental health issues is far more costly than it needs to be. It is difficult to find doctors willing to take  on particular cases. The cost can be prohibitive and even with insurance the coverage is spotty at best. The patients themselves more often than not fight against treatments. They can become violently opposed to any form of needed therapy, resulting in a tendency to ignore the obvious and just look away. Even when a family manages to insist on medical intervention or hospitalization the science of mental health is still almost experimental. It takes time and patience to find the right keys to health. Most mental difficulties are chronic so the difficulties become a lifelong struggle. It can be a lonely and never ending fight for both the person affected and those attempting to help him/her.

We desperately need for both our political and medical community to face the realities of the mental health epidemic that plagues us. it is real, not imagined and it is well past time for our society to embrace a well reasoned plan for insuring that nobody is left to deal with such illnesses alone. it will take money, but that is not the only resource that we need. There must be more doctors, more research, more support systems. better coverage of mental healthcare, more facilities for rehabilitation, more openness in discussing these very real illnesses.

Every school needs additional counselors devoted only to the mental health of the students. In far too many instances those designated as counselors are too busy creating class schedules, coordinating testing, and serving as college admissions advisors than actually working with the mental issues of students in conjunction with their parents and teachers. In so many cases teachers are the first to notice warning signs and these should be taken seriously. The counselors should be ready to investigate and draw up plans for addressing concerns. If a student has a history of behavioral problems the counselors should be involved in all discussions of what to do. No student should just be expelled without being also sent to therapy as an additional requirement. If indications of violence are present this may even necessitate informing law enforcement. Under no circumstances should this process be so hidden from view that the individual has the freedom to purchase guns and ammunition.

We do not allow anyone under the age of twenty one to purchase alcohol and yet we allow teenagers as young as sixteen to buy certain weapons as long as they pass a background check that most likely does not include an accounting of their emotional difficulties at home or school. This needs to be remedied immediately and parents who circumvent this law by encouraging their knowingly disturbed children to have weapons should be held accountable for such egregious transgressions. When a parent is worrying about how a child is acting to the point of calling police or seeking professional care for them, it should be apparent that giving access to guns is the last thing that should happen. Even the most stable of youngsters should be supervised and limited in their contact with weapons.

There are common sense laws that we might pass with regard to types of weapons and ammunition clips that should be allowed as well. Nobody other than law enforcement officers and the military needs an arsenal nor do they require weapons that fire rapidly. Furthermore we need to make it more difficult to purchase weapons without some form of training and a more in depth background check. We require anyone driving an automobile to receive driver’s training and pass a test in order to earn a license. That license has to be renewed periodically as well. Perhaps it is time to initiate such a program for guns. Nobody should be able to legally purchase a gun without qualifying for a license after fulfilling age, training,  mental health and testing requirements. 

I am no fool. I understand that if someone wants to kill others that person will find a way. I also know that there will always be an underground community willing to provide guns and ammunition illegally to those who can’t get what they need within the law. No plan will ever be one hundred percent perfect. Nonetheless such arguments are not reason enough to do nothing at all. We craft many laws to make untenable situations better all of the time, and yet when it comes to issues such as mass shootings we wring our hands as though frozen in fear that anything we choose to do will be so flawed that it is better to do nothing at all.

As I cry for the lost souls and the people who loved them I worry that we will just keep kicking the can down the road and responding to our fears by arming more and more people. I shutter as I listen to the snarky comments being hurled back and forth from the differing points of view that do little to instill calm and reason. I wonder when we will come to our senses all around. Surely we can get past our differences and at least try to make things better. How many more need to die before we act? Who will hear our cries and step up to lead us?


Living With Passion

27751901_10214050313705370_7567982830482257335_nI suppose that it is a natural human trait to want to be someone who makes a difference in people’s lives. Sometimes that just means being an exceptional friend, or parent or co-worker. Most of us leave a small but nonetheless meaningful footprint on the earth. Some of us achieve a wider reach. Joann Stringer was a woman who impacted a multitude of lives in an exceptional way.   

I did not know Joann Stringer personally other than through contacts at parent/teacher meeting, and yet I loved her and even modeled my own teaching style after hers. She was a biology teacher at South Houston High School for twenty six years and both of my daughters as well as scores of my former students spent time in her classroom. She had a gift for making what might have been a difficult subject not only understandable, but also fun and exciting. Both of my girls came home from school filled with gleeful stories about the topics that she had introduced to them. They felt that she had opened a whole new and interesting world that had hitherto been unknown to them. Best of all she did so in a gentle and loving way that took into account the needs of each of her students. They never felt stressed or unworthy in Ms. Stringer’s care. There was no time in which they believed that she had been unfair or had not tried hard enough to teach difficult concepts. As a parent I appreciated their anecdotes about a truly caring and passionate teacher. As an educator I quietly filed alway those stories to use in my own classroom, knowing that I was learning from a giant in the profession. 

Even after my own children had left Ms. Stringer’s classroom I continued to hear about her magical abilities. Former students would tell me of how her inspiration had literally changed the courses of their lives. So many of her pupils realized possibilities that they might otherwise have never considered with her encouragement. They became doctors, nurses, researchers and even teachers. They fondly told and retold stories about this incredible woman who had so influenced the trajectories of their lives. I understood what they were telling me because one of my daughters who is presently launching a career as a science teacher often mentions how much she hopes that she will be able to teach as effectively as Ms. Stringer.

Joann Stringer truly dedicated her life to the thousands of students who came to her as freshmen, uncertain about what high school life would be. She reassured them and helped them to find their best selves. She made Biology seem almost easy with her artful explanations and exciting activities. They remember skinning rats, dissecting cats and even being reminded of how to be more mannerly. Ms. Stringer took them on field trips and mentored them as they followed pathways to careers in science. She kept in touch with them, attending their weddings and congratulating them as they reached so many adult milestones. She was in every way an exemplary teacher, the kind that we wish for all of our young people.

Joann Stringer retired in 2011. She pushed herself to keep going long after she might have taken the opportunity to rest. I suspect that she was so devoted to her calling that she was reluctant to leave even as she grew more weary. She suffered from a number of illnesses in her final years but still managed to reach out to her students via Facebook. She always seemed ready and willing to continue to assist them. Last week she died, leaving so many bereft, but also grateful for the imprint that she had made on their lives.

I watched as my Facebook feed filled with one tribute after another for this incredible woman. She indeed lived her life so fully that we would all do well to emulate the best of her qualities. I doubt that she grew rich in a material way, but her spiritual and emotional rewards were surely beyond our ability to count. As we walk through this life each of us has a vocation, a reason to be. Joann Stringer found hers and ran with it like a champion.

I suppose that Joann Stringer is still teaching those of us who knew of her in her own unique way. Her life is a lesson in itself. She showed us that our goal should always be to discover whatever we were meant to do, and then execute our talents unselfishly and with passion. Each of us has something to share, and Ms. Stringer taught us how to do that well. Perhaps it was her ability to help mold young people into happy and productive adults that was after all her greatest contribution to this world. Thousands of her students are paying forward the gifts that she helped them to develop. Her work was of the greatest importance for the future of our society and her impact will be felt for years to come.

I truly hope that Joann Stringer knew how loved and appreciated she was. I will always remember meeting her as a parent and feeling so reassured by her gentle words and her sincere smile. Now she will rest with the angels and we will hopefully carry on her work wherever we may happen to be.



1933604_774098892733890_4368455666911963627_o.jpgI didn’t know Edi Cruz as well as I might have liked, but what I do know is that he was a KIPPster and I was a Big KIPPster and that makes us family. I recall seeing Edi in the hallways at KIPP Houston High School and what I noted about him was his always pleasant demeanor. His smile was of the legendary sort, and just spotting him made me beam inside. I wish I’d taken more time to get to know Edi better because from what I can gather he was greatly loved for being a truly genuine and caring person. Edi was slated to graduate in a few months from The University of Texas Permian Basin, but his dreams and those of all who knew him were tragically cut short when he was recently killed in a terrible car accident. All too soon a wonderful young person has left us all wondering why such horrific things happen to such good people.

Edi Cruz was known around the school for his unending sense of humor. He approached life with a joke and a feeling that every day was a good time for a laugh. He made people feel good about him and about themselves, and now they are left to consider all of the ”might have beens” for their good friend. Edi was not just about being hilariously funny, but also quite serious about earning a college degree, and he had worked hard for so many years to achieve his goal. It is a testament to his dedication that his plans were so soon to have come to fruition. No one could have known that his life would be so suddenly snuffed out. Even his college roommate is still stunned.

Edi Cruz was a very good friend. He gave fully of himself to others and his loving nature was always reflected in his face. After his death those who knew him spoke of his considerate nature and revealed things that he had done for them so unselfishly. He was someone who would take the time to thank a teacher with a sincerely written note, or stop to help a classmate who was struggling with some issue. He didn’t mind being a bit silly if it reduced tensions, or just made everyone enjoy the moment. He embraced life with an open heart that lead him to a loving relationship with a beautiful young woman who had hopes of her own for their future together. Everyone believed that they were going have had a wonderful time.

Edi had so many talents and interests. He liked to ride horses and looked as natural in the saddle as walking down the street. He was a people person who once served as a representative at a National Council of La Raza conference. He was a favorite of his high school art teacher who saved a caricature that he had created of himself long after he had left her class. The drawing captured his wonderful essence. It was as though he really knew and understood himself and felt confident in being a person who spread sunshine with his mere presence by his willingness to be humble and self deprecating.

Edi Cruz.jpgThere is a great feeling of sadness in losing someone of his moral stature, particularly at such a young age. In our humanity we can’t quite comprehend why such a terrible thing would happen, even as we console ourselves in knowing that he had lived a glorious life while he was here. Somehow thinking about Edi Cruz reminded me of a poem by an unknown author that I once read.

Do not judge a biography by it’s length,
Nor by the number of pages in it.
Judge it by the richness of it’s contents

Sometimes those unfinished are among the most poignant

Do not judge a song by it’s duration
Nor by the number of it’s notes
Judge it by the way it touches and lifts the soul

Sometimes those unfinished are among the most beautiful

And when something has enriched your life
And when it’s melody lingers on in your heart
Is it unfinished?
Or is it endless?

I am quite certain the Edi Cruz touched hearts so fully that he will live on in the cherished memories that friends and family have of him. For now they will grieve as they remember the good times that they had with him and think of the future that is no more, but one day their hearts will be healed and remebering Edi will make them smile again. 

I cannot think of anything more heartbreaking than the death of someone so young. Thoughts of what we might have shared never quite leave us. That person is permanently fixed in our minds as a never aging soul as we ourselves grow old. I can tell you from experience that everyone who knew and loved Edi Cruz will remember him from time to time even as the years go by. The impact of a person as wonderful as he was is in truth endless.