Keeping Our Families Strong

Family

What is family? We have many definitions of that unit in today’s world. Our new ways of thinking go beyond the traditional union of a mother and a father with their offspring. Now we include the single parent, gay couples, friends who join together to build a home. The composition of a family is far less important than the daily inner workings of the people who focus on living together in a state of love, caring for one another’s needs.

Sadly even in the most traditional sense many families are struggling to cope with the modern world and the pulls and tugs that threaten to tear them apart. People suffer from betrayal by the very people who should be most loyal. Our routines are so fast paced that the those who live under one roof often experience far too little interaction. The question of what constitutes a healthy family troubles us as we suspect that much of our society is crumbling under an addiction to media, possessions, money, drugs, alcohol and sexual promiscuity. We worry that we are somehow short changing our young with our outward focus rather than attention to the people that we call family.

Fewer and fewer folks actually sit down to a family dinner these days. Even when they do there are interruptions from phones, computers and blaring televisions. I find this quite sad because in my own case whenever I think about my father I realize that most of what I know of him came form our interactions at dinner each evening.

For almost nine years I sat listening to my dad’s stories, questions, jokes, conversations as we savored my mother’s cooking. It was in those moments that I heard his dreams and learned about his work. This was when he seemed the most happy as he delighted us with trivia and jokes that he had heard during his day away from us at his job. He was relaxed and open, setting aside any worries that may have haunted him. All of us enjoyed a kind of sacred bond at the family table that brought us a peace and feelings of belonging to something special.

After my father died I would draw upon memories of our family time for comfort and guidance. I understood who my father was and what he might have expected of me had he lived. Those daily gatherings were a true gift, and in my estimation the model of family life. It was not the make up of our unit that defined us. It was the love and concern and joy that we shared in very small ways from day to day. I knew that I was safe because of the genuine attention that I received in our nightly ritual.

My mother continued the traditions that we had started with my father and added to them to ensure us that our family was not going to crumble. She made it a point to be home whenever we arrived from school each day. She gave us small snacks of apples or oranges and sat with us to hear about our adventures away from her. Later we would rejoin one another for dinner where the conversations continued. Mama turned off the television and studied with us while we completed our homework. Then she tucked us into our beds every night and told us how much she loved us. She never varied in the routine attention that she provided and it helped us to overcome the fears that we may have had after Daddy died.

On Sundays we always went to church where my mother reminded us that we also had a community family. Our worship was a celebration of the blessings that Mama never failed to point out to us. She made Sundays special with visits to our grandparents who extended the love and continuity that made us feel secure and happy. While I never quite got over the sadness of losing my father, my mother made it possible for me to understand that even our different family with only one parent was strong and filled with all of the sense of belonging that we would ever need.

I suspect that the families that become fractured are suffering because the people within them are looking for the fulfillment that they desire in all the wrong places. They may have idealized visions of happiness that loses sight of the pure joy that derives from the most simple things, like a much needed hug, encouragement when we are discouraged, or acceptance just as we are. My nuclear and extended family was so good at constantly sending me the message that I would never truly be alone. There would always be someone to listen to me and understand me.

I’ve witnessed many different family dynamics in my seven decades. The best of them are not defined by the way they are comprised as much as how they interact with one another. They are made from people willing to do all of the hard work of loving and laughing and living together. They adapt and give and take. Mostly they understand the importance of spending time to share their thoughts whether they be disappointments or joyful celebrations. Families are all about acceptance and redemption.

Making a commitment to be a family is a sacred trust that should be honored. There is no job more important. No wealth or fame or accomplishment will ever compare to knowing that we have a place where we need never be afraid. It’s worth every effort that we make to keep our families strong and healthy. They are the bedrock of peace and joy in our society. It’s time that we all look into our hearts to ask ourselves how we have done in keeping our families together in loving harmony.   

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Our Loss Is Heaven’s Gain

Lance

There are special angels who live among us. If we are very lucky we have the pleasure of meeting them. I have been blessed to know more than my share of such people, and sadly I have seen far too many of them grace this earth only to be called to a heavenly reward far sooner than we would wish.

I first met Lance Bertrand when he was a young South Houston High School student. He was a year or so older than my eldest daughter and a member of St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church where I was a parishioner. Lance was someone who was hard to miss because he was stunningly handsome and always seemed to bear an almost perfect smile. He was also exceptionally bright, one of the academic stars of his class.

Back then our family hung out all of the time with my good friend, Pat and her husband Bill. We spent so many Fridays and Saturdays sharing movies and lots of good food and laughs. My daughters became like sisters to Pat’s daughter Lisa so it was quite special that all of them ended up attending the same high school, South Houston and the same church as well. We were very much like family. Eventually the girls became more and more independent as they grew older and often spent their weekends with members of their high school classes. Everybody knew everybody else, so Pat and I always felt so comfortable and assured that they were going to be safe.

Lisa was belonged to a very special group of young people that included Lance, so we got to know him quite well. We saw that he was always polite and respectful and honest and kind. He was very much the type of teenager that all parents wish their children would befriend, and to our delight he and Lisa became truly kindred spirits. A wonderful relationship grew between them that would continue from year to year, place to place.

Lance went to Texas A&M University and earned a degree in engineering. He quickly landed a job with Texas Instruments and before long he had even purchased a home. He and Lisa continued their friendship even as Lisa married and began to have her own children. Meanwhile Lance never forgot any of us and quite thoughtfully sent our family a Christmas card each year. We looked forward to hearing from him and were quite happy to know that he was doing well because he was indeed such a fine person. We thought that he deserved all the best that life has to offer.

Many years ago we were saddened to learn that Lance had brain cancer. He fought the disease like a gladiator and maintained his optimism and kindness through the ups and downs of his many treatments. He was determined to lead a glorious life in spite of the challenges that hunted him down over and over again. Along the way he fell in love with a beautiful woman who embraced his goodness and stood by him even as his cancer progressed. They had two beautiful children and for a time it felt as though Lance was going to beat the odds and defy the disease that refused to go away.

Sadly it eventually returned with a vengeance leaving him bound to a wheelchair and growing weaker with the passage of time. Somehow that beautiful smile of his that made everyone that he encountered feel so good never seemed to leave his face. He continued to be a good friend, a loving father and a devoted husband, rarely complaining. It was as though he wanted to take care of everyone else.

Last week Lance Bertrand died. His high school friends Lisa and Sam were there with his wife and members of his family. He received the last rites and went peacefully. Those who were there feel assured that he is a true angel in heaven and they were honored that they were able to be with him at the end because he had always been there for them.

I know that everyone who was lucky enough to be in Lance Bertrand’s sphere will miss him deeply. He was an exceptional person who did so much in his very short life. He was loved because he so freely gave love. He was an original, one of a kind whose absence will create a void in many hearts. At the same time he taught all of us the meaning of faith, courage, determination and generosity for his thoughts were rarely with himself and always about others.

Rest in peace, Lance  Bertrand. Your pain is gone. Your battles have ended. Now it is time to rejoice in the rewards that you have surely earned with a life well lived.

Becoming

white house
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My guess is that many women received Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, for Christmas. I know that I did and it has been a joy peering into the life of the woman who once served as our First Lady. I’ve enjoyed biographies and autobiographies from the time that my reading skills went beyond tales of Dick and Jane or David and Ann. I’ve devoured hundreds of them and it little matters whether or not the subject of each book is accomplished or ordinary. I simply enjoy learning more about people, and from my reading I have concluded that most people are similar in their hopes and dreams, even those who lived long ago. For that reason it was fun to learn that someone as brilliant and highly regarded as Ms. Obama is really not all that different from any of us. the honesty and humanity with which she told her story is surely the reason that she is beloved by so many, and why she ranks at the top of the most respected women in the world.

Michelle Obama’s life began in the most ordinary of circumstances. She was born into a loving Chicago family and spent her youth living in a rented upstairs apartment on the south side of that city. Her mother and father encouraged her and her brother to pursue education as a way of leveling the playing field of life that is too often difficult for minorities and those of lower socio economic status. Her journey was wrought with challenges that she overcame with a feisty spirit and determination to work hard and prove her own worth.

I thought of my own circumstances as a young girl as I read of the times that Michelle Obama fought to show the naysayers that she was indeed highly capable. While I will never know the horrors of racism, I can identify with the kind of negativity that was often hurled at women as they attempted to compete in a male dominated world. I also knew the roadblocks created by living in a low income single parent family where advantages were mostly nil.

I found myself understanding Michelle Obama’s frustrations and fears as she undertook the journey of becoming the person that she is today. Hers was not an easy path to follow even though on the surface it may have appeared to onlookers to be charmed. Time and again she worried that she might not be as good and strong as she wanted to be, and then set her sights high and did all of the hard work that her dreams required. Luckily, like me, she had parents who convinced her that she had everything that she might ever need to be a resounding success. She chose to believe them rather than those who discouraged her.

As I read the pages of Ms. Obama’s book I found myself considering the idea that each of us face difficulties and setbacks as we strive toward particular goals. We are told that certain aspects of what we hope to achieve may be impossible, sometimes even by well meaning persons. How we react to the negativity determines so much of the trajectory of our lives. How we allow the circumstances of our situations to define us often colors the results of our efforts.

I grew up in a world in which powerful women in the work force were a kind of rarity, and yet I met some remarkable role models along the way, not the least of which was my own mother. A next door neighbor was an artist and architect who recognized my talents and  encouraged me to use them. Another neighbor was a lawyer who often invited me to her home to discuss the world in a very adult fashion, something that she believed that I was quite able to do. I was charmed by these women who were trailblazers in a world where women still mostly stayed at home caring for families. They taught me that I might be anyone that I chose to be.

When I first began high school the principal told me that he did not think that I would be able to keep up with my peers in the honors classes, but that he would give me a short probationary period to demonstrate my abilities. Like Michelle Obama I accepted the challenge with every bit of fight that I had inside. I worked twice as hard as I might have just to prove that I was equal to the others, and I not only secured my place in the prestigious academic program but graduated with honors four years later.

In the same school my college counselor insisted that I choose a state school rather than one of more exclusive institutions. He pointed out that my low income would stand out among the wealthy and powerful sons and daughters from a class well above mine. He worried that I would feel far too uncomfortable in such places, and suggested that I set my sights a bit lower. Since few in my family had even attended college I heeded his advice unlike Ms. Obama who determined that she would shoot for the stars and then lasso them with her intellect and work ethic. As I read about her own forays with those who felt that she was unsuited for a university like Princeton I cheered her for choosing to take the risk. She possessed one the most important character traits that one might have in this world, grit.

Becoming is an important book for all women to read regardless of political preference. It is not so much about beliefs regarding the essence of our country as it is about the very personal values that a woman or perhaps anyone must cultivate to enjoy life on one’s own terms. It is the story of a girl who used the very best of the talents with which she had been blessed to became an accomplished individual in her own right and then the equal partner of one of the most powerful men in the world. Her story is one of hope built on determination and a willingness to ignore the voices of negativity that have always seemed to abound in our world. Michelle Obama is indeed a role model for the ages and a mentor for helping each of us to become our very best.

Auld Lang Syne

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Twenty eighteen was a truly great year for me, so as we ease into twenty nineteen I am experiencing a bit of worry. I’ve been around this old world long enough to know that life is a roller coaster ride, and since things went up, up, up for me all year long last year I have a sense of foreboding that I am about to follow the laws of physics and go down quickly. That can be both exhilarating and scary. I realize that moving fast and furiously down a steep slope will most likely just be quite exciting, but I worry that real dangers lie ahead. I know that such thoughts are contrary to my generally optimistic and schmaltzy approach to life, but I am also a realist and the worst of my musings dwell on the inevitability of aging that is weakening some of my favorite people and leaving them vulnerable even as they desperately attempt to fight against the dying of the light. My hopeful side dreams of miracles for them, but the realistic aspect of my personality tells me that their time with us is drawing to a close. For that reason I feel a bit unsteady as I look ahead to the coming twelve months

A new year should be hopeful and most of them usually are for me, but I learned long ago that the unexpected is always lurking just around the corner. I literally begin each day thanking God for allowing me to awake to one more day, and before I go to sleep I express my gratitude that nobody that I know and love was harmed during my waking hours. In between those prayers I try not to dwell on any worries that I have. I embrace each moment with genuine joy because life itself is so beautiful and yet so fragile.

There is something about the holidays of December and January that evoke strong memories of times past and people who are no longer with us. In the midst of all the revelry snippets of joy and sadness run through our minds. We genuinely miss the people who once shared those glorious times with us. Some left us far too soon, and others became fixtures in our celebrations. We think of the “might have beens” for those who died young, and recall the wondrous presence of those who were so long in our lives. Our thoughts evoke emotions of both happiness and sadness. We treasure the very fact that they were once with us while longing for just one more moment with them.

Such feelings seem to return each December when we least expect them. They are triggered by songs or foods or routines. The spirits of our departed loved ones seem to arrive to take our breaths away for an instant or bring a few tears to our eyes. Our minds swirl in a mixture of melancholy and joy as we remember how it was when they were laughing and vibrant in our midst. The pain of loss becomes easier to bear over time, but it never completely goes away and so we remember.

Each year I bring out my holiday decorations and traditions and see the tangible reminders of friends and family who have left this earth. I use the pewter flatware from our dear friend Egon who was like a third brother. He was with us every single Christmas, and now we think of him as we set the Nordic pewter on our table. My friend Pat is represented in the many ornaments that she gave me along with the snowflake bedspread and cheerful Christmas plaid placemats that brighten our dining experience. Mostly though I see her in the many renditions of red birds that I am inevitably drawn to because they make me believe that she is somehow still with me, laughing and thinking of fun experiences that we might share.

My Grandma Ulrich comes to our party when I set out the big enamel bowl that I rescued from her house after she died. I fill it with nuts and oranges just as she always did, and somehow I see her padding across the floor in her bare feet carrying cups of coffee for each of my guests. My mother is present as well laughing and lighting up the room with her infectious smile. The manger scene that she purchased on the first Christmas after my father died still reminds us of the true meaning of Christmas, a lesson that she taught me and my brothers so well. There is also her silver that was bought for her by my father who seemed determined to spoil her with his affection. The “First Love” pattern reminds me of how beautiful they were together, and how little time they had to show me how glorious marriage and family can be.

I open the tables that once belonged to my mother-in-law and her mother and aunt. Those wooden pieces are like altars with the memories engrained in them. They have witnessed the gathering of many generations of family. They are solid and dependable just as my mother-in-law always was. I can almost see her smiling with that beautiful heart of hers bursting with pride as we celebrate just as she always did each year.

In some ways Christmas and New Years Day are summed up in the traditional anthem Auld Lang Syne, a tune that always brought tears to my husband’s grandmother’s eyes. It was the last song she heard as she and her family set forth to travel across the ocean from Great Britain to the United States of America. She would build a wonderful life here in this country, but she would never again see her beloved England and the friends and relatives that she left behind. Much like a new year the memory of that moment was bittersweet, simultaneously evoking both hope and sadness.

I know that regardless of what may happen in the coming months I will be fine. I have experienced both the trials and tribulations of living again and again. I have the strength to face both the good and the bad. I will carry on because I know that when December rolls around again I will be reminded of the love that has always been part of my life. 

Seeing the Unseen

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The Netflix movie Roma is the quiet story of a young housekeeper and nanny living in nineteen seventies Mexico City. In an artistic masterpiece we watch her devoting every day to the service of the wealthy people for whom she works in a world in which she seems almost invisible and voiceless, unable to exert any control over the trajectory of her life. Nonetheless her beauty and strength illuminates the dreariness and uncertainty of the lives of the family that she serves even as she is all too often taken for granted. Roma is a triumph in its ability to portray the harshness of life for those who toil under the yoke of barriers created by the often immutable restrictions of class, but it also demonstrates the immutable importance of seemingly invisible individuals who work on the periphery of society.

The movie touched my heart and my mind in deeply moving ways and caused me to think of how many souls have journeyed through life almost without notice due to their status in the socio-economic pecking order. Their desperation is quiet and even misunderstood, while their dedication is under appreciated, and yet they sometimes demonstrate more character than those for whom they toil. Like all humans they have dreams that all too often go unfulfilled leaving them faceless in a crowd that wrongly defines them. They lose their distinct complexities in favor of generalizations, if they are even noticed at all.

My paternal grandfather somehow escaped even the notice of a census taker until he was well into his forties. The story of his early life is a blank slate making it seem as though he simply appeared from nowhere one day, a kind of cipher left to his own resources due to circumstances beyond his control. My maternal grandfather spent over thirty years traveling to a thankless job of cleaning the blood and entrails from the floor of a meat packing plant. I wonder if anyone ever realized that he was a very bright man who spent a portion of his weekly salary purchasing books that he read each evening after a day of work that left his legs and back aching, or was he simply the guy who picked up the messes that others left behind?

I think of the mother of one of my students who dropped him off at the school each morning wearing her McDonald’s uniform, a detail that embarrassed the son enough that he tried to deny that he was related to her. Then there was the yard man who drove through the carpool line pulling the trailer holding the tools of his trade and the source of income for his family. His son proudly boasted that his father was more than just someone who cut grass. According to the boy his father was an artist and a brilliant businessman. I wonder how many of us teachers with our college educations somehow felt a bit of superiority over these industrious souls. Were we guilty of chiding our students with threats that they might one day be reduced to menial jobs if they did not study? I heard such taunts quite often, comments meant to spur determination that may have unwittingly insulted the efforts of our students’ parents.

I recall the stories from my pupils of mothers and fathers who worked as many as three jobs within a single day. These souls existed on less than six hours of sleep and tortured their bodies with physical labors that left them scarred and broken. They set their pain aside for the sake of their families only to all too often be viewed by society as lazy folk who had done nothing with their lives. I wonder how many of them were thought to be little more than faceless bodies in an uneducated and unworthy mob. Were people suspicious of them, unwilling to see them as the hard workers that they were?

All too often we fail to really see the people who do not seem to be like ourselves. It does not occur to us that something as simple as where one is born may have incredible consequences in determining the course of life. We unwittingly stereotype people without truly knowing who they are. Like the family employing the young servant in Roma we see them in a kind of caricature when the truth is so much deeper. We create invisible, but powerful, barriers between ourselves. The man who mows our lawn or the woman who cleans our home is a provider of a service, not someone to be thought of as an equal, and yet the reality is that we are far more like our caretakers than we choose to accept. We are dependent on each other, and yet we rarely acknowledge the bonds that we share.  Our humanity should unite us, but the artificial structures upon which we build our societies often drive us apart.

Every single person is a unique gift to our world. Perhaps if we were to have a better understanding of that idea many of the problems that we face might be resolved. It is difficult to unravel the complexities of living, but we might begin with one person at a time. If we consciously strive to appreciate and acknowledge everyone with whom we interact we might begin to create more unity and understanding. Who knows where such a process might ultimately lead when we attempt to see the unseen?