Our Foundation

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It’s the day after Mother’s Day and I find myself thinking about what it means to be a mom. I learned all that I needed to know from my mama who was exceptionally good at the task. I always marvel at the fact that she somehow managed to raise three children each of whom is totally different from the others. She allowed us to be ourselves and ultimately it made us into very happy adults. She loved and guided us, teaching us right from wrong, but then let us develop our own passions. She parented us all alone because our father had died when we were eight, five and three respectively.

A truly good mother like her is able to provide everything that children need, but it is a challenging  job that requires full time devotion, and my mom was always ready to give us her all. She admittedly spoiled us but only with love, not things. We appreciated her, but nonetheless I don’t think that we ever really knew how important she was to us until she had died Now we remember all of the little things that she did that once seemed so insignificant. In fact I find myself calling upon her wisdom and generous spirit more and more as time goes by.

My mother-in-law was another model of motherhood who was only able to bear a single child which was quite dangerous for her. She had a congenital heart defect that doctors felt would shorten her life, and so when she became pregnant they were certain that having a baby would kill her. Not to be bullied into terminating the pregnancy, she insisted on taking the risk. The delivery was complex but ultimately successful, and one of the proudest moments of her life. After my husband was born she the proceeded to love him so much that she turned him into one of the sweetest people to ever walk the earth. Her parenting style proved that some good things are never too much.

I was a young mother who still resembled a child when I first became a mom. I made the kind of mistakes that come from immaturity, but I know without reservation that my girls were the most wonderful gift that I had ever received. I literally thought about them almost every waking moment. More than anything I wanted them to grow to be great women like their grandmothers, and my dreams have very much come true. They are not just good moms. They are extraordinary.

Mothers are the foundation of society, the first teachers of the young. They quietly sacrifice for their children, rarely drawing attention to the many things that they do. They awake in the middle of the night to feed a hungry infant or to console a feverish body. They juggle routines and schedules to get their little ones to lessons and activities. They slowly help them to develop their talents and interests, sometimes adjusting their budgets to provide opportunities for their hard work to take hold. Their own responsibilities and worries grow, but they rarely share the concerns and stresses that rattle around in their heads. The children’s joys are their joys, just as the pain becomes theirs as well.

Sometimes we grow up and look back at photographs of our mothers and marvel at how lovely they were before we were born. We forget that they were once young themselves, dreaming of lives that may or may not have turned out the way they had imagined. We find ourselves one day looking at their graying hair and wrinkled skin and we remember when they ran and played with us. We think of those times when they tucked us into bed, or just smiled at us from across a room. They seemed to love us for no particular reason, but simply because we existed. We gained and lost friends, but our moms were ever faithful, ready to hug and comfort us even without being asked, even when we had ignored them or hurt their feelings.

Moms come in so many different versions. Like snowflakes no two are exactly the same and yet they are all similar. Some moms carry us in their wombs, and others choose us when we have no other place to go, loving us as much as they would have if we were their very own. Some moms dedicate themselves to the home and others balance their care of us with careers. All of them are beautiful.

This past weekend I attended a lovely graduation party for one of my former students. She spoke to us about the things that her mother had done to help her to earn her degree. There were nights when she was up in the middle of the night studying, nearly exhausted. Her mom would arise from her own sleep and bring coffee and encouragement. When she was frustrated her mother would cheer her onward. The young woman believes that her achievement is just as much her mother’s as her own. She understands that without the sacrifices that her mom made her great day might never have come. She rightly credited both of her parents for the wondrous things they had done from the time that she was born, and realizes that they will continue to walk beside her in her journey through life.

We sometimes forget how remarkable and demanding a job being a mom actually is. Sadly the day eventually comes when she is gone. Still her spirit somehow lives on inside our hearts. We see her in the things that we say and do. Her face in forever etched in our minds. We know that she is with us, guiding and consoling us through time and space.

God bless all of the mothers of the world and those who use their maternal instincts to help all children to grow in wisdom and grace.

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How Much Is Enough?

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As children we all heard the story of the fisherman who caught a magic flounder. The desperate fish worrying that he might become dinner, offered to give his captor anything that he wanted in return for being thrown back into the sea. The man agreed to the bargain and insisted that he only wanted a nice house for his wife to replace the hovel in which they lived. Of course human nature being what it is, the man thought about what he might have had and kept going back to catch the poor fish again and again. He time he asked for ever more riches and power until the sea creature had enough and put the fisherman right back in the hovel that had once been his home.

History and literature is replete with stories of people who were dissatisfied with their lots in life. Icarus wanted to fly toward the sun. Benedict Arnold desired more prestige and betrayed his comrades thinking that he might get the respect and honors were lacking. The accounts go on and on and on in every era, every region of the world. We humans sometimes have insatiable appetites.

So many stories in the news remind me of individuals who want ever more and eventually go too far, destroying themselves in the process. Bill Cosby was rich, famous and beloved. He had a devoted wife and honors beyond most of our imaginations. Still, it was seemingly not enough for him. He had to also have the adoration of women and when they did not give it willingly he stole it from them with drugs. For a time he got by with behaviors so unlike the man that we all believed that he was, but as with the story of the fisherman he did not know when to stop. His thirst for power and gratification was ever boundless and in the end it became his undoing. Now he is a convicted felon who may end up spending the remainder of his life in prison. He will have many years to consider what drove him to risk all that he had for fleeting pleasures.

It makes me unbearably sad to think doubt the downfall of a man who had once been so admired that he was lovingly known as “America’s Dad.” I doubt that I missed a single episode of his television program. He was a pioneer who showed us how much alike we actually are. To think that his wholesomeness was only an act is heartbreaking, and I feel great sadness in knowing what has become of him. He was an icon who has been brought down to a point that is difficult to observe.

I find myself asking again and again why it is that people risk all that they have when what they possess is well more than sufficient. It is as though millions of dollars are not enough. They must become billionaires. A wealthy tycoon doesn’t just want to enjoy the bounty, but needs to achieve more and more power regardless of the price needed to do so. Our natures too often push us to always be reaching for the next big thing.

Ours is the wealthiest nation on earth. The majority of our citizens live in ways that many people of the world can’t even imagine. We get a nice little house somewhere and within no time we want a bigger and more expensive one. We constantly trade in our cars not because they have become unreliable, but because we have tired of them and desire a bit more flash. Our wants are rarely based solely on need, but instead on our insistence on having ever better things.

When I was growing up after my father died we rarely purchased anything that was not absolutely essential. My brothers and I each had a couple of cardboard boxes that we retrieved from the grocery store in which we stored all of our toys. We usually had two pairs of shoes, one for school and one for church. Our clothing consisted of five changes of clothing for everyday wear and two or three very nice items to wear on special occasions. We each could have packed all of our personal belongings in a single suitcase, but for the fact that we did not each own baggage. Our cars lasted for ten years and our furniture even longer. We had one television, one phone and one bathroom that we shared. My mother did not purchase an air conditioner for the house until I was in college even though the temperatures in the summer often reached the one hundred degree mark. Amazingly it never occurred to us to think that we were somehow deprived. We were filled with the riches of satisfaction and often expressed our thanks for having a warm meal every day and a comfortable bed at night. In truth we were not at all exceptional. Most of our friends lived exactly the same way and none of us felt compelled to complain. The simplicity of our lives was in fact liberating because we were not consumed with a need to be ever worried about gaining more and more. We learned how to really enjoy what we had.

I have to admit that I am bitten by the achievements bug from time to time. The green eyed monster overtakes me once in a while. My human tendencies to compare myself cause me to worry and become a bit greedy. I have to consciously remind myself of just how good my life actually is. I find ways to pull back from thinking that destroys my sense of satisfaction. I do what I can to count the wondrous blessings that I have rather than noting what I don’t yet have.

There is certainly nothing wrong with working hard and acquiring nice things, but when the quest for money and power consumes us we almost always wind up like the fisherman. Our wings melt in the heat of the sun. We lose friends and maybe even family.

I recently had a short conversation with a woman whom I had never before met. She confided to me that both her mother and her grandmother had been all about career, prestige and earning power. They had in many ways ignored and neglected her. She was instead handed over to nannies and other adults while her own family members raced for success. Hers was a lonely life until she eventually fell in love and married a man from a large and loving family. Her mother-in-law embraced her and showed her how to have fun doing very simple things. Mostly it was knowing that someone truly cared about her that changed her life from dreary to incredible. She felt as though she had found the secret to life, and it had nothing to do with any of the accoutrements that we often associate with greatness. Instead it was all about enjoying what we have. Maybe that is the real key to knowing when we have enough.

We Can Do Better

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The truth is that there is a price for everything and that is no more apparent than in education. Few parents are able to afford the cost of private schools for their children, so the vast majority of our youngsters attend public schools. The bulk of educational expense lies in teacher salaries and benefits. Budgets are tight because the only flow of income to pay for all of the people and things needed to run a great academic program is found in taxes and a bit of federal money and grants. Parents sometimes chip in with fundraisers for a few extras. On the whole educational funding is a balancing act wrought with so many difficulties. Teachers want and deserve a fair wage commensurate with their education, knowledge, skills and experience. Schools need a certain level of educational resources all of which require additional money. At the same time citizens are only willing to accept so many taxes before they rebel even if it means cutting back on school funding. The tug and the pull is never ending, and a source of great concern both for educators and parents.

One has to be somewhat altruistic to accept teaching as a vocation. It requires not just an initial degree, but continual certifications and retraining, aspects of the job that are necessary and almost always paid for by the teachers themselves rather than the schools. Few classrooms are stocked with all of the materials necessary to keep students learning on the cutting edge, and so almost every teacher that I have ever known spends vast amounts of his/her own money to supplement what is provided. Teachers work longer hours and more days than most people realize, and often do so with little fanfare. It’s a difficult job, and I have witnessed former engineers, accountants and sales people run from its challenges after thinking that changing to a career in education would be a lark.

We see teachers across the country walking out of their classrooms to draw attention to the problems that exist. They are enduring the brunt of insults to insure that the future of public education is assured, because it is certainly true that if the conditions get bad enough the entire system will begin to fail just as it is already doing in certain corners. If we are to provide the best for all of our children, then we must get serious about the kinds of changes that we need. It’s a new world with a new way of doing things and a box of chalk and an eraser won’t cut it anymore. Nor will a salary that borders on insult be sufficient to attract the kind of teachers that our children need and deserve.

In the Houston area and other parts of Texas there are schools where the students are consistently failing. Instead of getting to the heart of the problems inside their walls the suggestions run from shutting them down to turning them over the charter programs. Perhaps thinking out of the box is the way to go, but it will take innovation, dedication from gifted educators, support from parents, time, patience and money. There are many success stories on the educational horizon, but they arose from a willingness to invest heavily in the lives of underserved populations. Drawing upon research and lessons learned there are no doubt answers to the problems, but it will require honesty and a willingness to address the staff, the facilities, the procedures, the role of parents and the students from the ground up. It may even require creating schools within schools whereby the buildings house smaller groups of youngsters who never fall through the cracks because they become part of an educational family. It may also mean providing financial and educational incentives to teachers so that the best of them will be willing to work with the most challenging populations.

It’s fairly well understood that the problems that plague failing schools are complex and include the reality that some children come from environments in which there is little understanding of the value of education. When parents become an integral part of the process the changes are almost magical. The heart of the KIPP Charter Schools lies in the commitment of parents, teachers and students to a daily routine of rigor with a goal of getting to and through college. There are more than just teachers driving the program, including counselors who follow the progress or lack of it from pre-school all the way through earning a college degree. The mantra “Once a KIPPster always a KIPPster.” is very real and every person who works in one of the schools takes the challenge to heart. The schools are kept purposely small so that everyone knows everybody. It is a true team and family atmosphere. The organization also provides opportunities for advancement paid for by the system. The best of the best have the opportunity of being awarded thousands of additional dollars in the form of stipends for excellence. At five year intervals teachers are honored with travel vouchers as well. These may appear to be small things but they drive the enthusiasm and dedication that teachers must have to make it for the long haul.

It’s time that we rethink how we treat our teachers and our students. We need to begin to redesign the way we do things and that doesn’t mean forcing the experience to revolve around standardized testing. It has nothing to do with dismantling the pension programs or simply purchasing a few computers. It will take a willingness to set things aright with funding, hard work and support from all of us, not just those who have children. Our future demands that we do a better job.

Invest In Experiences, Not Things

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Love and romance are the stuff of literature and film. From Odysseus and Penelope to Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy we humans have lived vicariously in the stories of two people whose love seems almost destined to be. We gleefully celebrate as romantic tales unfold. There is something in our natures that is drawn to the happiness that comes from the joining of two compatible souls in marriage, and so we revel in the joy of young couples who agree to love, honor and cherish one another. Our human experience is enriched by love, but that first flush of emotion is often challenged by the routines and surprises of daily life. Sustaining the fires that brought two people together in the beginning can be fraught with problems, which is why so many dreams are dashed by unfaithfulness and divorce. It is quite an accomplishment and an inspiration when couples are able to continue their devotion to each other through decades of both happiness and disappointment, health and illness, riches and financial difficulties. We are inspired by those who are still in love even as their hair grays and wrinkles line their faces.

We were reminded of the power and beauty of true love in the touching example of George and Barbara Bush, a seventy three year marriage in which their feelings never appeared to wane. Barbara thought George was the most beautiful person she had ever seen when she was only sixteen years old and a lifetime later she still boasted to her nurses that he was the most handsome man on earth. The two had most surely become a team, one working for the good of the other in every aspect of their days together. They were as complimentary as cream and sugar, adding spice and flavor to their individual strengths and talents. We admire and desire the companionship that they achieved and search for ways to incorporate their kind of devotion in our own lives.

Back in the nineteen sixties another love story was quietly unfolding on the University of Texas campus. She was a tall beautiful and fun loving young woman from San Antonio named Barbara who had come to Austin filled with hopes and dreams. He was a bright engineering student named Gary with a big inviting smile. They enjoyed crazy dates at Zilker Park and fall days at football games where they cheered for their Texas Longhorns. It didn’t take them long to realize that they wanted to become man and wife, and so on an April day in nineteen sixty eight they were married in the company of family and friends. They had little idea how much adventure lay ahead, but they somehow knew that whatever happened they wanted to be together.

Gary’s Chemical Engineering degree would take them to many different places, and all along the way they would explore the history and landscapes and befriend the people that they met. They decided early on to invest in experiences rather than things, and they lived by that ideal by taking trips to the places that they had both longed to see. Barbara was as masterful at planning their excursions as Rick Steves and each year they set forth on expeditions to learn more about their world. Those vacations became a cornerstone of who they were and created memories that would cement their time together.

Of course family was always paramount and that included rituals like a Thanksgiving reunion with Barbara’s clan that they rarely missed. Each year they joined their ever growing group of aunts uncles and cousins in a celebration of life. Even as they had their own children, a boy and then a girl, they welcomed new members of the extended family with great happiness. The foundation of who they are and what they believe was found in those gatherings filled with laughter, song, stories and food to nourish both body and soul.

Somehow the years flew by and in spite of the usual kinds of troubles that come into everyone’s lives Barbara and Gary were able to navigate their way hand in hand, dealing with problems together and maintaining hopeful optimism. They worked hard and played hard and centered their lives on each other and their children. They built traditions and character and did their best, always with an eye to keeping their own passion for each other alive.

Before long the circle of life had repeated itself as their children made their way to the University of Texas where they met their own soulmates and repeated the lessons that they had learned from their parents. Barbara and Gary welcomed the new members of their family with the same openness and love that had always been so much a part of their natures. They celebrated as one grandchild after another enriched their lives, and all the while they continued to have fun with each other, never forgetting the importance of a hug, a kiss, a compliment, or a good laugh.

There were hardships along the way of course. Gary’s dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Barbara’s sweet mom developed cancer. Gary’s brother died far too young also from cancer. They watched as people that they loved developed life threatening illnesses. Gary had a frightening heart attack. Their children and grandchildren endured difficulties. Through it all both Barbara and Gary remained rocks of strength, compassion and wisdom. They held hands and together weathered each storm that came their way, and then they found a way to celebrate with an exciting trip with family or friends, never losing sight of their promise to invest in experiences rather than things.

It’s not an easy thing to reach a fiftieth wedding anniversary in today’s world. Statistics are rife with stories of broken dreams and promises. It takes hard work and determination and more than a great deal of love to keep a relationship happy and strong. Barbara and Gary Greene have mastered the process and their secret appears to be in working together with neither person more or less than the other. They value each other in all that they do and then purposefully find ways to celebrate the life that they have. Carpe Diem is not just a platitude for them, but a way of living. The generosity of spirit that they have always shown to one another extends to everyone that they meet leaving them surrounded by people who support their journey together.

Happy fiftieth anniversary, Barbara and Gary. All of us who are part of your beautiful love story have been blessed and inspired by both of you. Thank you for showing us how it’s done.

Letters To Elsie

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A faulty hot water heater wreaked havoc in my home about a month ago. Several rooms were affected by the damage necessitating a general overhaul of many of my belongings. As I have moved things around to make room for the repairs I have used the opportunity to do a bit of spring cleaning and organizing. In the process I once again found a packet of letters that had been sitting untouched and unread in a cedar chest for many years. I came upon the missives when I was unable to move the chest to paint a room and replace the water logged carpet. I had to remove many of the items that I had stored inside compartment so that it moved more easily. That’s when I came upon those long forgotten correspondences.

They had been written to my husband’s aunt during and just after World War II. Aunt Elsie was originally from Great Britain but had moved to Houston from England in the early part of the twentieth century. She had kept in contact with relatives over time and even sent little care packages now and again. The notes that I found were striking in their honesty and the portrait of life in a war torn country. I realized that they told a tale of privation and uncertainty that continued well into the post war years. They were fascinating to say the least, and so for today here is one of them just as it was written so long ago.

26/12/44

Dear Elsie

You couldn’t have timed your letter and parcel better, for they arrived on Christmas Day. It is kind of you and we do appreciate it. We drank to your health with the tea and gave you good wishes when tasting the cake. It is ages since we had any currants, peel or almonds (we have had raisins, sultanas and other dried fruits) and so we appreciated the flavor very much. We do pretty well really but rationing does cramp one’s taste. Everyone is remarkably healthy and the children are wonderful so the diet must do us good.

I was interested to know about Wig’s visit. Olga does hope he is on his way home again. You will have all our news, I suppose. Well I got home from the nursing home on the day before Christmas Eve and I have a new daughter who is called Stella, so now I have a nice family, 2 boys and 2 girls. Beryl is delighted with her sister and just loves her. The boys too are very pleased with her so she is going to have a good time. I think 4 is a large number but 7 deserves a medal, although I believe Grandma N was a grandmother at the same age and she had 7 children.

One doesn’t know how long this war has lasted until one finds schoolboys in 1939 are married and in the Forces now. We have been free from raids and getting to think they were things of the past until the second night I was home when we had our first experience of flying bombs. I was glad I was home and not helplessly tied to bed. The lights do make a difference. Beryl and most other young children went to view the lights when they first came on. These children have never known anything but blackout and though the lights are dim it makes a great difference to see lights from houses and buses etc.

We are well except for slight colds but our weather is so variable and has been so wet since August that one can’t expect anything else. Mother is bit better but still has to take care.

I am glad to hear of Robert Q and that he is all right. What a big slice of these boys’ lives is being spent in strange places, and what hard times they are having.

Give my best wishes to all other members of the family for 1945. May it bring peace to the world though I am afraid the aftermath of the war will take more settling than the fighting has done.

My love to you all and again many thanks.

Yours affectionately

Edna

Edna was living in Cottingham at the time she wrote this letter. I was struck by the quietly resigned manner in which she spoke of the hardships that she and others so impacted by the war were experiencing. Hers is a tiny portrait of a time in history when all of Europe was struggling to carry on while life continued to play out with births, children and family traditions. She wants to be brave but her fears peek through the brave front that her words attempt to imply. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been. At the same time Elsie must have been beside herself with concern knowing that members of her British family were enduring so much hardship. Elsie’s brothers were doing their part as American troops, so she was no doubt worried about them as well. It was a time of uncertainty and sacrifice the world over and the letters that travelled across the ocean must have provided a kind of life line between loved ones. How admirable the everyday people had to be.