A New Revolution

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There are moments for almost everyone when it feels as though an entire lifetime of experiences occur in the space of only a few weeks. It is as though one is riding on the most exhilarating and frightening roller coaster ever invented. The ups and downs are so extreme and come so quickly that emotions have no time to adjust and instead leave the person feeling numb and exhausted.

I have a dear friend who recently endured one of those condensed versions of This Is Your Life, reeling from the rapidity at which her entire world was changing. Fortunately she is an amazingly wise woman who sought help and was willing to ride the wave until it left her on the shore of normalcy. By year’s end she was celebrating her survival with people who truly loved her and speaking of taking things slowly while she can.

I’m old enough to have experienced a number of instances when it felt as though I was living through a microcosm of human existence in a brief span of time. While such a thing is happening it always seems as though time truly is relative because in the moment it moves so painfully slowly but in the grand scheme of things it is in fact only a blip in the entirety of history.

My entire world was upended both mentally and physically when my father died. At the age of eight I had not yet even imagined the possibility of such a thing happening particularly since my family had been planning so many fun adventures like weekends at the beach, a whole summer of freedom from school, moving to a brand new home. Suddenly we had to adjust to a strange new reality for which none of us had prepared.

The feelings that I experienced as an eight year old child repeated themselves when my mom had her first mental breakdown during my early twenties. I had enjoyed a reprieve from tragedy for twelve years after my father died and I had foolishly imagined that I would never again face such sorrow and emotional distress. I literally dreamed of how grand it would be to simply ignore my responsibility to care for my mother by running away to some wonderful magical place where I would never again be plagued by horrors. Of course there is no such thing as freedom from tragedy as I would learn over the course of many years. I would also realize that we have to deal with the pain that comes with the terrible moments just as my friend has done even when doing that is a grueling process. It takes time and patience to heal.

This past holiday season was one of many contrasts for me. It began with the celebration for my friend who had emerged like a phoenix from the hellish fires that had seemed to consume her. It was with a sense of gratitude, happiness, and inspiration that I toasted her heroic steadfastness. I took my own life by the horns and enjoyed glorious times with friends and family. It felt as though I was gloriously blessed and perhaps even immune to sorrow, but that would have been too simple an analysis of my world because I knew that there were also hardships brewing for many of the people that I love, things that worried me in the still of night.

Somehow many of them came to a head just as the new year was dawning, reminding me that each of our lives are fragile and uncertain in spite of our efforts to control destiny. I had to say final goodbyes to two souls whose light had always made me smile and laugh. I had to watch their closest loved ones struggling to accept a future without them. My emotions and were challenged to the very core and yet in the midst of such sorrow there was a ray of hope. I saw what I had experienced so many times, the power of love. It was there in the people who went out of their way to share their stories and their feelings with one another.

We know for certain that our lives will be a series of repetitions that all of mankind has experienced. We will see births and we will watch deaths. We will come together in a state of happiness and joy as well as mournful sadness. It is a certainty that we must experience both the good and the bad. Hopefully as we do so we will be surrounded by fellow travelers on this earthly journey who will hold our hands and give us the courage to keep going, for there is always a light up ahead and we will find it given enough time and forbearance.

This holiday season has provided me with the precious gift of knowing that I am not alone and that none of us need be so. There will always be good and loving people who are willing to help us carry our burdens and share our joys. We need to be willing to let them into our lives but also to know when we are so weary that it might be best to quietly rest for a time. That gooey ball of feelings is the essence of who we are. We need to embrace both our tears and our laughter while opening our hearts and minds to understanding our own experiences.

We’ve begun a new revolution around the sun and each day there is a new rotation. We are a part of the marvel of that scientific fact. Change will happen. Loss will occur but as long as we still breathe we are not yet in our final act. More is coming our way and so much of it will indeed be very good. 

Our Crazy Christmas Eve

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It’s Christmas Eve and I feel as giddy as a child because this evening my big extended family will gather together at my niece’s home to celebrate together. It’s quite a shindig with people traveling from the north, the east and the west to be together as one great big crazy family. It may quite possibly be my most favorite evening of the entire year.

Time was when we gathered at my Grandma Ulrich’s house with all of my aunts, uncles and cousins. I still can’t believe that all of us fit into her tiny home but we somehow managed to cram inside where the noise and laughter was so loud that it must have been heard in downtown Houston. We feasted on apples and oranges and mixed nuts and old fashioned hard candy while my grandmother reveled in having her whole family around her. I always thought it was the most magical place on earth.

Eventually my grandmother died and one of my bachelor uncles did his best to keep the tradition alive but it was never quite the same and when he too left this earth nobody had the will to host such a party each year. That’s when my brother stepped up to have a celebration at his house for our branch of the clan. On the first occasion he made Rueben sandwiches for everyone and a new way of partying was born. Eventually his daughter took over the reigns as the family grew and grew.

It has long been said that only the bravest of souls dare to attend one of our Christmas Eve parties. It’s a way to determine whether or not prospective brides or grooms will be able to adjust to our wild group. Only the strong survive the noise and the chaos that we think of as great fun. It can be an unnerving experience but once someone proves to have what it takes, they tend to embrace the fun and long to be part of it each year.

We are a very open and loving group. We like anyone and it shows in the diversity of ethnicities, political persuasions, religious convictions, and personalities of the people that we embrace unconditionally. Nobody has to be a certain way for us to love them, but they will have to have a bit of patience with the roar of conversations and laughter.

Our gift exchange can get rather competitive and certain members of the family are particularly good at knowing how to walk away with the best possible gifts. They possess strategies that win year after year while the rest of us resolve to figure them out in the next round of the game. We take our rules for the sport quite seriously and each year there is someone who wants to change them at the eleventh hour. So far we have prevented such a travesty.

I spend an entire year searching for something that will garner the fancy of the crowd. Some years I have done well. Others I have sensed the disappointment of someone who chooses the Echo Dot that I brought and doesn’t know how to use it. Everyone likes gift cards but there doesn’t seem to be much thought or fun in that so I strive for the unique.

Sometimes I just sit quietly on the couch observing all of the fun. I’ve watched my children and nieces and nephews grow from children to adults with families of their own. We always seem to have a new crop of children to delight us with their Christmas time innocence Our own heads are greying or balding and our skin shows wrinkles of age but somehow we don’t feel old at all on Christmas Eve. We become like kids again.

I keep reading that the family unit is being threatened and that time with extended family is becoming less and less common. I truly hate to hear that because it has been the crazy crew of relatives who have sustained me through all of the uncertainties of my life. On that first Christmas after my father died it was at my grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve that I knew I was going to be alright. I felt the outpouring of love all around me and understood that I was part of a group that would never let me and my brothers down. Somehow they never did.

Now my brothers and I are hopefully sending the same message to our children and grandchildren. They are part of a loving group that will always be ready to embrace them. There is no more important knowledge to give our young.

I suppose that I have been very lucky to have a yearly reminder of my good fortune. Not everyone has experienced the joy of being loved by so many. I hope with all of my heart that our tradition continues through the coming years. It is a living example of what the Christmas spirit should be.

Love Was Born At Christmastime

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year, or so the song goes. Colorful lights add a bit of merriment to the nights, Christmas carols fill the air in cars and homes and stores. Aisles of grocery stores are filled with tasty treats and ingredients for special feasts. We deck the halls of our homes and plan for special parties and lunches with friends. Our Facebook walls and Instagram accounts fill with photos of people having a good time. It feels as though the world is bursting with happiness, so much so that we sometimes forget about those who are suffering from loneliness, painful health problems or profound loss. For some “last Christmas” is not just a George Michael song, but a reality as they face the certainty of death.

It can be incredibly difficult to watch all the frivolities and rejoicing when one’s world feels as though it is careening toward disaster. I know from profound experience how difficult it can be to fake it through the holiday season after the death of a special person. I have spent a Christmas time confined to my home with a serious illness. The season of celebration can emphasize sorrows making them seem doubly hurtful. Sadly there are many among us each Christmas who have difficulty feeling the jocular spirit and in our rush to post our Christmas cards in time and purchase presents for those we love we sometimes forget about them.

It’s not particularly difficult to make a donation on Thankful Tuesday or fill a shoebox with gifts for a child, but taking the time to genuinely remember the people around us who are struggling with sadness is all too often ignored. We sometimes fear talking about unhappy topics or being around someone who is feeling defeated or confused or sad. Instead we seek the comfort of fun people, places, and things. All of which makes life feel a bit more dreary for those whose turn in life is not so jolly at this particular time. It would be nice if we would add to our list of things to buy and do a reminder to set aside some time for anyone who might be having a hard go this December.

I have always had angels in my own life who comforted me when I least expected their notice. I cannot even begin to describe how much their compassion meant to me. When as a child the very thought of Christmas saddened and frightened me because of my father’s death only months before there were lovely friends and family members who came to our home bearing good cheer and sometimes a tin of homemade cookies or just the gift of their time. On the occasion of my Christmas confinement because of a four month long case of hepatitis everyone save for my mother and my husband’s parents avoided our family like the plague. When our dear friends Egon and Marita came to visit it was as though the three kings had arrived to honor us. Another time when my mother-in-law died only weeks before December 25, friends from the school where I worked sent so many greetings and condolences and baskets of flowers and fruits. Just knowing that someone was thinking of me during those sad times brightened my mood and helped me to remember what the holiday is really all about.

Over two thousand years ago a baby who would change the world was born. He grew to preach a gospel of love and compassion. Every aspect of his brief life here on the earth demonstrated what it means to be a human and how we have the ability to elevate the meaning of our lives through faith, hope and charity. He came not as an intolerant judge who lacked an understanding of how it feels to suffer, but instead as a beacon of hope even during the times when our lives feel almost unbearable. He was betrayed by a friend, denied by another, and abandoned by all but one member of the group of apostles that he had formed. He was jeered by a crowd that had only recently cheered him. He died a painful death like a common criminal even though he was an innocent. What he wanted us to know is that even in the midst of injustice, pain, and loss we are never alone. He demonstrated how he expected us to treat everyone. That is the purpose of his birth. He is the reason for the season, and all too often they very idea that we ignore.

I have a cousin who has produced a most loving and remarkable family. In past years he and his wife have been the joy and the life of the Christmas celebration. This year they have endured great health challenges that have made it difficult for them to feel the happiness that they once exuded. On Thanksgiving day every one of their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren descended on their home bringing a feast of food and joy. After the dinner the family decorated a Christmas tree, hung lights on the house, set out the stockings and transformed the place into a lovely scene. They laughed, took photos, told stories and hugged each other over and over again. They brought joy to a place that had felt hopelessly bleak. They filled every nook and cranny with their love and no doubt will return again and again during the weeks ahead. They showed us all what Christmas should mean.

Don’t forget the forgotten. That was the message of the founder of the Christmas feast, Jesus Christ. It was a plainly simple idea that we would all do well to follow even if we are not religious. It is a certainty that someone that you know needs your love at this time of year more than ever. Be there for them and give them the gift of your love. 

Nothing More Special

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When my father’s parents were living on Arlington Street in the Houston Heights we would go visit them every Sunday after church. My grandmother always prepared a lovely dinner for us and since she was a gifted cook it was invariably our most delicious meal of the week. What was most wonderful about it had little to do with the food, however, and everything to do with the joy of sitting around her big mahogany dining table laughing and talking while we filled our bellies with her beloved dishes.

My grandmother was a stickler for tradition. She covered the table with a crisply ironed cloth on which she placed her Sunday best china. She always waited for me to arrive to set the silverware next to the plates. It was from her that I learned the proper way of placing the knives and forks and spoons and folding the napkins.

In the meantime the aroma of chicken or roast beef tempted our tastebuds while Grandma put the finishing touches on potatoes, vegetables gravy and baked breads. I marveled at her ability to juggle so many culinary tasks at one time and still be so pleasantly patient. She reveled in the art of making us happy with her homegrown abilities that were all memorized in her head. Years of practice made every single item perfect and we waited with growing anticipation for her to finally announce that it was time to gather at our places to say grace before digging into all of the wondrous foods that she had prepared.

I loved the sameness of those Sunday afternoons and I missed them when my grandparents moved away to their farm in Arkansas. My mother did her best to reproduce the feel of those Sunday afternoon galas but I sorely missed the ceremonial nature of the tradition that my grandmother had brought to the table. After my father died my mom switched to going out for brunch after church which was quite a fun treat but was not nearly as wonderful as those formal gatherings at Grandma’s house.

I suppose the my wise mother knew that attempting to reproduce our once glorious Sunday tradition without my grandparents and my father would only serve to emphasize their absence in our lives. She redirected our thoughts of the old times to the adventures of eating yummy pancakes and waffles in restaurants filled with joy and laughter. Still, I would often think about how much I missed Sunday dinner with the family until I rediscovered the routine with my mother-in-law after I married.

To my great delight she was well versed in the art of entertaining on a Sunday afternoon. Like my grandmother she prepared her dining table with fine linens and her best china, silver and glassware. She was particularly well versed in the preparation of a Sunday roast in the grand tradition of England. She had learned how to perfectly roast the meat from her mother, always including potatoes and carrots and green peas. She was masterful at making a dark brown gravy to pour over the muffin-like Yorkshire pudding that was the highlight of the feast. My husband Mike always insisted that his mom never quite mastered the art of making Yorkshire pudding the way his grandmother had, but I never found any reason to fault it. It was gloriously delicious.

As my daughters grew older my mother-in-law taught them the art of setting a table just as my grandmother had done with me. They delighted in being helpful and being part of a routine that had been passed from one generation to the next. It was one of the best times of each week for all of us as we sat together being reminded of the loveliness of family and tradition.

Once the meal was finished the menfolk always went to another room to watch sporting programs or talk about the latest news. My mother-in-law brewed coffee for them and a big pot of tea for me and my girls. She always served it so elegantly along with a tray of cookies bought especially for the occasion. She showed us how to warm the pot before pouring the hot water over the tea and cautioned us in how to wait for the brew to steep. I still laugh because her very English mother who had been born in Newcastle, England had told her that Lipton tea bags made the very best brew.

We would sit and talk about wonderful things while we sipped on our tea and munched on little cookies. I so loved those times because they reminded me of the importance of family and tradition. I’d think of my grandmother who had died when I was fifteen and how she too would have enjoyed the time spent with just us women bonding over conversation and tea.

It’s been a long while since I sat down for a traditional Sunday dinner. My mother-in-law has been gone for sixteen years now. For a time I attempted to resurrect her routine for my children and grandchildren but the world was moving so quickly for everyone that it became more and more difficult to find a time when everyone was free. Sundays used to be more sacred but now weekend homework assignments and even athletic and club obligations pull children away. Everyone is moving at breakneck speed and spending three or four hours eating and relaxing is all too often a luxury that nobody can afford.

I miss those Sunday dinners and the love that they represented. Mostly I miss the people who gathered with us on the Lord’s Day. They have been gone for so long now but I still see them smiling and laughing and enjoying the biggest feast of the week. I’m so happy that I have those wonderfully joyous moments to remember. The memories are so vivid that I can almost smell the food and see my grandmother and my mother-in-law bustling about the kitchen preparing heaping mounds of love for us. There is nothing more special than that.

A Win for Everyone

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A few weeks ago I complained about a plan to erect statues of influential women who helped to build New York City as it is today. My beef was not with the idea of honoring outstanding females but rather with the fact that a vote was held to find potential candidates and Mother Frances Cabrini who received the most nominations and twice as many as the second place candidate was eliminated from consideration by the committee. I argued that Mother Cabrini’s contributions to immigrants not only in that great city but in others throughout the country were immeasurable. In fact she is known as the patron saint of immigrants everywhere in light of her work among the poor who came to New York City from all over the world.

I was not the only one who was upset by this slight even though the committee explained that the voting was only a way of garnering suggestions. I had nothing against the women who were finally chosen, but I felt that it to deny the incredible work and sacrifice of Mother Cabrini was unfair, especially in light of the difficulties that all immigrants to this country have and continue to endure even in the present day. Acknowledging her would have been a way of commemorating all immigrants and the positive impact that they have on our country. It seemed irrefutable to me that by leaving her from the final list a grave mistake had been made.

Ordinary citizens, celebrities and politicians took up the cause to right this wrong but received little leeway from the committee who stood firm on the choices they had made. After much criticism that Mayor Di Blasio called “manufactured,” the governor of New York, who is a descendent of an immigrant Italian family, announced that the state will finance a statue to be placed at some location in New York City to honor Mother Cabrini.

There has been much disagreement of late over the observance of Columbus Day. Many places in the United States have chosen to rename the national holiday, Indigenous Peoples’ Day. While there are indeed legitimate arguments that Christopher Columbus is not someone who should be heralded as a hero, the truth is that in many Italian communities Columbus Day has become a traditional way of celebrating Italian Americans in this country. Columbus Day parades and activities have become part of the celebratory fabric of cities like New York, Chicago and Boston where many Italian immigrants first lived after their treks across the Atlantic.

Christopher Columbus is honored in most places because of the heroism that it took for him to sail across the waters into an unknown world at a time when many still believed that the earth was flat. We now know that he was actually hoping to get to the far east but the Americas were in the way. He was not even the first European to explore the land either, and a kind of cultish set of beliefs grew up around his reputation that led to school children being taught questionable information about him for decades. Now that we are more informed there are many who just want to throw him in with a pile of deplorables.

I can think of arguments both for and against having a national holiday named for him, but I don’t see a great deal of harm in allowing Italian Americans to have their celebrations centering on him any more than I worry about Hispanic Americans enjoying Cinco de Mayo even though neither has much to do with the United States. Columbus never once set foot on north American soil nor did he interact with the indigenous people who lived here. On the other hand, Mother Cabrini did incredible work at great sacrifice to build hospitals, orphanages and schools. The appropriateness of celebrating her is so obvious to me.

Even though Mother Cabrini was a religious woman her work was never exclusively for those who shared her faith. She gave of her talents to anyone in need. While she worked in the name of God, what she did for immigrants was an equal opportunity gift to our nation, and one for which not just Italians or Catholics benefited, but all citizens of the United States.

It’s sometimes difficult to find perfect heroes. We tend to be quite critical of virtually everyone, finding fault even after someone changes. We are prone to tear down reputations and statues more than other countries do. When we have a chance to honor someone as wonderful as Mother Cabrini we need to jump at the chance.

I applaud Governor Cuomo and the people of New York who took a proactive stance and decided to do something other than merely complain. I love New York and can’t wait to visit one day so that I might see how the people ultimately decide to honor Mother Cabrini. She is a role model for all women and for all citizens of the United States. In fact our country would do well to have more like her in the craziness of today’s climate. This is a win for everyone.