Life Will Go On

lv-circle-of-life920I’m reminded every May 31, just how difficult life can be. Of course that is the anniversary of my father’s death. I might have forgotten exactly when he left this earth but for the fact that his fatal accident coincided with Memorial Day of 1957, a time when it was celebrated on May 31 rather than the last Monday of May. I have not celebrated that holiday from that fateful time. Having it roll around each year is like rubbing salt in the wound that scarred my heart back when I was an eight year old child.

I am essentially an optimistic soul. I learned soon enough after my father died that our little family would survive. My mother kept us safe and sound and family and friends continuously rallied to our sides whenever we needed anything. My youth was idyllic save for the loss of my dad. I adjusted to the new normal but never really got over the void in my life that his death created. With each passing year after he was gone I found myself wondering what he would have been thinking about how my brothers and I had developed. I felt his influence on us genetically and in the memories that he left for us. Somehow he was always a factor in our lives even in his absence.

As time has passed I see my father in my brothers and in my nephews and even some of my grandchildren. I suppose that unbeknownst to me there are also hints of ancestors whom we never met in me and my brothers. The circle of life on this earth is an infinite loop that may at times appear to be bleak but the progression and evolution of humanity always finds a way to continue.

I have been cautioned by the doctors in my family to wait out the reopening of the country for another three or four weeks. Covid-19 still restricts me but i refuse to allow it to overwhelm me regardless of how it presents itself in the future. I have learned that I am capable of dealing with great sorrow and even fearful moments. I know that I will handle whatever blows the virus sends me and the members of my family.

If all of us are very lucky we will be laughing and celebrating our good fortune as the weeks and months go by and Covid-19 vanishes with little more than a whimper. If instead the virus battles on with a vengeance I am prepared to do my part in fighting back with everything that I have inside me. Experience has taught me to be patient when times get tough. I have learned that there is light even in the darkest hours. When I battled the mental illness that infected my mother I would sometimes become angry and frustrated, but I always knew that determination and time were on my side. Over and over my brothers and I were able to get her the therapies and medications that she needed to become whole again.

Life is littered with ups and downs and in this moment it feels as though the downs are overtaking all of us. Nonetheless as I look around I see the points of light that will guide us to better days. Our future joy is not to be found in false promises that are unlikely to unfold but in the quiet work of people whose goal is the betterment of all of us. The doctors and nurses and aides and researchers who continue to provide us not just with care but with facts and truths about how we should contend with the virus are heroes with no hidden agendas. They are not running for office or lining their pockets with profits. They are driven by the sole purpose of keeping us safe. When I think of them I believe that we may be wounded but we will not be crushed. This makes me smile.

I see stories about ordinary citizens making masks and little children raising funds to help those who are in financial trouble. I watch the good news from John Krasinski and I see the kind of hope that has guided me through every juncture of life. I smile at the earnestness of people all over the globe who are doing phenomenal jobs of dealing with the health and economic blows that have been inflicted on them. I laugh at the jokes that lighten our spirits remembering all the times that my father roared with delight over a good cartoon or satire. I feel him telling me to lighten up and look around at the positives that are everywhere.

I’ve made it through one more Memorial Day. I’m now more than twice as old as my father was when he died. I’ve overcome one crisis after another. Like my father I have a great interest in history. I read all of the time. I have learned that the world has been on the brink many times over. Somehow we have overcome evil, war, disease and natural disasters each and every time that they have threatened us.

While I tend to think that we have not yet seen the worst of the effects of Covid-19 I revel in the thought that we will find a way to extricate ourselves from its deadly grip. Life will go on. Memorial Day will return and my father’s spirit will be part of future generations. It has always been the way we survive. 

He Was Essential

meat

In this time of Covid-19 I have found myself thinking of my paternal grandfather, Paul Ulrich, more and more often. He came to the United States on a steamer from Germany around 1912. I never got to meet him because he died at a rather young age a few months before I was born. What little I know of him is garnered from stories from my mother and a cousin who was old enough to have actually met him. I have always wanted to know more about him and painting a picture of him is almost akin to putting together an all red jigsaw puzzle. I’ve had to infer a great deal but I’ve also found documents and scraps of evidence that tell the truth of the kind of person he was.

According the family memories much of the work that he did was typical of immigrants even to this very day. He spent time working on a big farm near what is now the Houston Ship Channel and doing lumbering work in the Beaumont area. Eventually he got a job at the Houston Meat Packing Company that operated on Navigation Street just east of downtown Houston. His job was to clean the area where the butchering of the carcasses took place. It was backbreaking work that bore heavily on his health. My mother often spoke of how her father’s legs were riddled with varicose veins so painful that he had to wrapped them in bandages before going to his job each day. In spite of the hardships his children always boasted that he never missed a single day of work until he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that ultimately lead to his death at the age of sixty five.

I have been reading a great deal about the outbreaks of the coronavirus in meat packing plants across the United States. The essential workers there are on the front line of keeping the supply chain of meat products moving to supermarkets across the country. Sadly conditions in those places have lead to contagion on a massive scale. It is as though the environment of a typical meat packing production line is the perfect place to incubate a virus. The process requires workers to perform their duties without benefit of social distancing in very cold temperatures. Without proper protective gear such places have become like petri dishes for growing Covid-19, making the carrying out the duties one of the single most dangerous jobs in terms of contracting the virus.

As I have heard about the numbers of illnesses and deaths associated with meat packing and Covid-19 I have thought back to my own grandfather who was so much like the people who today work in such places. It is a job that has brutal effects on the body even in good times. During a pandemic it is dangerous, and yet we expect to see our grocery stores filled with our favorite cuts of meat without much thought of the people who are responsible for processing the products. They are all too often simply faceless persons, numbers on a data sheet that mean little to us. I suppose that because my grandfather was once one of them I find myself wondering who they are and how they are doing. My guess is that missing work is out of the question for them just as it was for my grandfather. They not only lose income whenever they are absent but in all probability they will be replaced if they choose not the be present too often.

We take so many of our remarkable resources for granted until they are not available and then we fret and complain, rarely thinking of the people who have been delivering our goods to us. We want whatever we want even as we shelter safely in our homes. The inconveniences bother us and we tend not to associate the hardships of others with our own personal needs. It’s natural to take things for granted when they have always seemed to be there. Ours is a land of plenty that is often the marvel of people the world over. Suddenly the smooth functioning of our systems is struggling to keep up with demands and it is as novel and frightening as the virus itself.

I don’t think that we always fully understand or appreciate the contributions of every person involved in the supply chain of goods and services in our world. We don’t see the long process that brings what we desire to our homes. We don’t think of the slaughter houses or the assembly lines or the person who cleans up the leftover entrails and blood. It’s difficult to imagine how grueling such jobs would become after performing them day after day. Many like my grandfather spend their entire adult lifetimes engaged in what must be terribly unsatisfying and difficult labor.

My grandfather was a collector of books. Each Friday after being paid his wages he would visit a bookstore where he purchased a new volume that he would read in the evenings. His interests were in science, mathematics, agriculture. I learned from perusing a box of old paperwork that he had once purchased land in Richmond, Texas. He told one of my cousins that he hoped to retire and create a farm there. The deed for the property was among the receipts but somewhere along the way, no doubt from necessity, he had to sell the acreage and along with it his dream.

My grandfather was not particularly respected in his neighborhood. He was an immigrant who spoke English with an accent. He had eight children crowded into a tiny house and he never made much money. Some people assumed that they knew him. They even went so far as to say that he and his family were dirty and uneducated and low status. They did not see that he was a man who worked dutifully every single day. He paid his bills, owned his home and died without a single debt in the world. His house was lined with the bookshelves filled with volumes that he had read. He was so much more than just someone who cleaned up a sickening mess over and over again. He was an essential worker in our society, and now because of Covid-19 we should all understand how important he was.

An Introvert’s Covid 19 Story

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I’m a bonafide ninety ninth percentile introvert according to a test I once took. I didn’t argue with the results or the explanation because the comments appeared to be right on target when they came to describing me. The analysis made a point of explaining that my introversion has nothing to do with a dislike of people but rather a preference for how to recharge my emotions. In other words I’m a people person who sometimes needs to retreat from human contact for a time just to ease the stresses of living. When times get tough I prefer a quiet weekend inside the comfort and privacy of my home, alone with my thoughts rather than sharing them in a large group in public. Our tendencies toward introversion or extraversion are mostly determined by the extent to which we feel better in a serene understated setting or one that is filled with people and excitement. In my case I unwind best with a walk alone in an empty forest or snuggled in a blanket on my couch with a good book.

Once we introverts are feeling calm once again, which rarely takes more that a few hours or days to accomplish, we are fully able to return to the crowds and the noise and actually enjoy our interactions with the world. Our feelings for the people around us are often even stronger than those of our seemingly differently wired extrovert friends who find so much joy and comfort in raucous gatherings after a long week of work. Perhaps it is our intensely deep feelings for the humans around us that are at the root of our need to step back into our little cocoons now and again. We are often empathetic to a fault. We notice those who are hurting with little more than a glance at the pain in their eyes and then worry about them until we are assured that they will be okay.

As an introvert I tend to be content with little more than observing the birds in my backyard or time spent writing in my front room where I can hear the children playing in my neighborhood. So when we were asked to isolate ourselves in our homes for a time to prevent the spread of Covid-19 I believed that I had been preparing for such an eventuality for my entire life. It seemed as though being confined to my quarters would be an intensely pleasurable experience and one that would lead me to a kind of self healing of the soul that would feel luxurious. Sadly I did not count on the longings for purpose and social interaction that have always defined me. I did not seem to understand that my introversion is a healing mechanism, not a lifestyle.

At first I felt rather joyful staying home. After all I have virtually anything a person might want to keep myself busy and entertained. My husband Mike is my very best friend and I enjoy my conversations with him. We have food in our pantry, books on our shelves, flowers in our garden and interests to keep us occupied. I’m not someone who cares much about food so I honestly don’t miss eating out. I suppose I could go the rest of my life without entering a restaurant and be just fine. I used to enjoy shopping as a kind of sport but it does not give me the thrill that it once did. I can enjoy a movie as much and perhaps even more in my living room than at a theater. I politely put up with sports but don’t really miss them now that they are gone.

Nonetheless after many weeks of staying home I find myself longing to get back out into the swim of things while hearing people say that I am part of a group that should continue to maintain my now self imposed isolation. I sense that my patience with this situation is wearing thin and in that realization I see more and more clearly the true meaning of my introversion because what I long for most are intimate gatherings with my family and friends. I can see them on Zoom conferences or with a FaceTime call but I really want to hug them and see their faces. Just sitting next to them without saying a word would be glorious.

If things were still normal and Covid-19 had not entered my life I would have been as busy as the bees that flit around my yard. By now I would have spent time in the mountains of Colorado with my brothers and sisters-in-law. I would have celebrated with my grandsons on Aggie ring day and attended parties for a number of young people who are graduating from high school or college or medical school. I’d be packing and preparing for a grand tour of Scotland with a Rice professor as my guide. I’d be excited about taking our trailer out for camping trips and counting the days until the Elton John concert for which I snared tickets back in November of 2019. I would have gone to see my aunt on her one hundred first birthday and I’d get to spend time chatting for hours over lunch or dinner with friends. I would get to be with my mathematics students when I teach them the fundamentals of arithmetic and Algebra. I would sit inside my church again smiling and embracing the lovely people that I are there each Sunday. I would be out and about in my bustling city grumbling about the traffic but secretly enjoying that I live in a place so vibrant and filled with life.

I miss all of that so very much and I wonder when I will be able to feel safe enough again to join the world around me without a mask or gloves or hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes. I have grown weary of feeling a profound sense of worry about the physical and economic health of the world. I sense an almost tectonic shift in the routine ways of doing things that is shaking all of us to our very core. I long for normal even as I fear that I will have to redefine what that means. I want to believe that we will be able to come together to make positive changes that will make the world an even better version of itself than it was before Covid-19.

On some days I am filled with optimism and on others I grieve. Perhaps my introverted tendencies are too much with me. I am overthinking and instead of comforting me, those thoughts sometimes lead me to conclusions that are terrifying. I see us humans attempting to avoid truths by showering ourselves with superficialities, but thankfully I also see instances of profound compassion and sacrifice. My hope lies in the prayer that we will ultimately make our way through all of this but this time we will watch and learn how to build a better world.

When the dust settles I will cast aside my self imposed shackles and literally dance back into the flow of life. I will be everywhere with everyone. I’ll still be an introvert at heart but I will grab the world with everything that I’ve got.

Gazing At the World

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So this was on Facebook from Frank Swain@SciencePunk:

Study 3 years for degree.

Study 3 more for PhD.

Join lab, start working.

Spend years studying problems.

Form hypothesis, gather evidence.

Test hypothesis, form conclusions.

Report findings, clear peer review.

Findings published, reported in press.

Guy on internet: “Bullshit.”

This post didn’t just make me laugh hysterically, it summed up my feelings about all of the disagreements regarding Covid-19 and whether or not it is a dangerous virus. The members of the medical community and numbers of scientists and researchers are all telling us that we must be wary of underestimating the potential of the virus to continue to impact our lives. At the same time there is so much noise from individuals and groups whose only qualifications for understanding and discussing infectious disease are their gut instincts. I ask myself why they are so intent on not only ignoring the cautions from those with the most knowledge about such things, but also on insisting that the rest of us bow to their right to gamble with innocent lives.

Their answer appears to be to make fun of those of us who want to stay put in our homes. They mention our fearfulness and puff up with a kind of bravado as they boast that they are not worried. They taunt us by saying that we can just stay home as long as we wish as long as we leave them alone, give them their freedoms. They act as though we are the ignorant tyrants, the sheep who have fallen for perhaps the biggest hoax of all time. Even as I write this they are flocking to beaches and malls and gathering in large groups without masks or distancing as though to thumb their noses at those of us who are gravely concerned that their behavior will make our own isolation last even longer.

Right now all of the neighbors in my cul-de-sac are having a kind of celebration across the street. They are wonderful people and I would like more than anything to join them. Under any other circumstances I would already be there, but I observe that they are not wearing masks and they are seated too closely together. They seem to believe that there is no danger even though only a few days ago nine people from a nearby nursing home tested positive for Covid-19. They act as though they are unaware that our suburban area is among those with the highest number of cases from around Houston. They are young and mostly healthy so I suppose that they are feeling the urge to get on with life and just  allow me to hide away as I must surely seem to be doing.

What is my game? Why am I so wary? Perhaps it is because I will be seventy two in November and my husband will celebrate his seventy third birthday in September. He has heart disease and only recently underwent surgery to place stents in his heart. He has been told by his doctors to avoid going out or being in crowds. They don’t even want him to come to their offices. The teleconference with him instead. Even the local Cardinal of our church has asked that we not attend Sunday services now that they have resumed at twenty five percent capacity.

Maybe I am careful because I have a ninety one year old father-in-law who depends on me and my husband to help him. He’s looks exceptionally good to most people who see him but we know that he has a number of health issues and that he is slowing down considerably. We help him to get food and supplies and my husband keeps him updated on the technology that allows him to take care of business without leaving his home. We can neither afford to catch the virus nor accidentally infect him. It seems logical that we need to stay inside.

I have friends and relatives who are members of the medical community. They have not yet let down their caution and they urge me to be as vigilant as they are. They continue to worry that we are not yet in a safe place. I defer to their expertise because they have been correct about every other medical issue that I have presented to them. They are privy to information that most of us do not have. When they tell me to continue to take precautions I listen.

I have a grandson with asthma and I worry about him. I worry about other members of my family who have various and sundry issues. I know that I can’t allow my anxieties to overtake me and ordinarily I do not. This is different. We have been warned what may happen if we act to resume normalcy too soon and yet so many choose to ignore the very people who are most likely to have the answers. I suppose that some among us may actually have the luxury of risky behavior, but if I am to be responsible I have to face the fact that I cannot take the chances in which they are indulging.

So I sit dreaming as much as anyone else to leave the confines of isolation. I want to visit my one hundred one year old aunt who is all alone in her nursing home. I long to be back at church. I’d love nothing more than to go camping in my trailer or to travel to the Texas hill country to see my children and grandchildren. I want to teach my math students in person and have lunch with my grandson at his university. I’d love to walk through the mall and have dinner with friends. I want anyone who thinks that I am just silly or unduly afraid to understand that if I only had myself to consider I would already be out and about. What I know is that my careless actions may adversely affect many others. Therefore I stay inside. I wear my mask. I don my gloves and religiously wash my hands. I gaze longingly at the world that is moving outside. Maybe the ones celebrating their freedom are right and the experts on whom my decisions rely are all wrong. That’s not a chance that I am willing to take.

I will keep gazing at the world through a window. I hope that I won’t have to do this for very long, but my experts tell me that I am in for a long period of isolation. If I save even one person from the dangers of Covid-19 it will not have been in vain. 

A Legacy From My Mother

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It’s a dreary rainy day as I write this. Nature has provided me with a platitudinous kind of feeling and an opening statement that is devoid of originality. The situation in which I find myself is confusing. I keep track of the time and the passage of each day by attempting to create a kind of routine that reminds me of my five year old self when my mother was a stay at home mom and my father was a young man with a promising future.

Back then my mama created a repetitive schedule for herself that I too used to mark the rising and setting of the sun. If I put on my “Monday” underwear in the morning I knew that my mother would be spending the day washing clothes and I would get to help her hang them on the clothesline to dry in the sun. When our things had been warmed by gentle breezes and solar rays we would take them from the wire lines and place them in a wicker basket. Then Mama would show me how to fold each of the clean pieces and together we would put all of them away save for those that required ironing. They were set aside for the Tuesday duties, a task that she demonstrated to me but never allowed me to undertake until I was many years older.

To this day I derive pleasure from a clean load of clothes and I use the methods of ironing that my mom taught me as I watched her deftly sprinkling water from a bottle and then using the heat to remove all of the wrinkles. Of course during this current time of pandemic neither I nor my husband wear clothing that needs to be ironed. We are more likely to don jeans and whichever t-shirts happen to catch our eyes. We don’t even worry about losing socks from the monsters inside the washing machine and dryer that eat such items. Our feet are mostly bare and as free as they were on summer days when we were children. Our freedom nonetheless is constrained by an invisible virus that keeps us at home and causes me to remember each day of my mother’s seemingly confining routine. 

After the laundry chores of Monday and Tuesday my mother allocated Wednesday to sewing and mending, a task that was more creative and interesting to her. She was quite clever with cloth and made most of the dresses that I wore along with those for herself. I always enjoyed accompanying her to choose the fabric and look at the pattern books from Simplicity and McCalls. Mama was quite meticulous with her measuring and if a seam was not perfect she would rip out the threads and begin again. Everything had to lie just so. Her finished products were worthy of the tailors on Savile Row and if I was lucky she would design lovely clothing for my dolls with the extra fabric.

My mom worked in the yard on Thursdays even in the winter. There was always a flowerbed to be weeded, a plant to be fed, or a tree to be trimmed. She was not quite as gifted with a green thumb as my Grandma Little, but her yard was always stunning. She liked climbing vines that flowered in spring and old fashioned shrubs like gardenias. She grew fig trees and pear trees and then used the fruit to make jams and other delights. I loved those Thursdays when we spent whole days outside putting our hands in dirt and delighting at the sounds of the birds.

Friday was house cleaning day, a time when Mama prepared for the weekend. She was as particular with cleaning a toilet as she was with her sewing. The process had to be done just right and as I watched she would demonstrate the proper manner of reaching every nook and cranny in which germs might lurk.

Fridays were quite busy because we changed the sheets, dusted the furniture, swept and mopped all of the floors. I had a job even though I was only five. I was very serious about dusting the wooden surfaces of everything in our home. I dared not miss a single inch because I felt so wonderful when my mother complimented my efforts.

Fridays also meant an evening at my Grandma Ulrich’s house. All of my aunts and uncles and cousins would gather there as well. We had a raucous time with the adults playing poker and the kids inventing games of every sort. I treasured those times then and to this day they remain one of the most wonderful aspects of my life.

On Saturday we would go shopping with my father. It was a day filled with fun and surprises. My father often wanted to buy new records for his collection and so we would visit a music store where they allowed us to preview the recordings before purchasing them. I so enjoyed putting on the headsets and listening to my father’s selections while sitting in between my mom and dad.

We’d always end our adventures with a visit to the grocery store that was filled with the aroma of baking bread and coffee being ground by machines. My father always convinced my mother to add some cookies or ice cream to the cart and he would smile knowingly at me as though we were co-conspirators in some plot.

Sunday somehow felt more like the end of the week to me than the beginning. We attended mass at St. Peter’s Church and then visited my father’s parents. My grandmother almost always took me and my mother on a tour of her yard which was as glorious as a photo spread in Southern Living magazine. Then Grandma would finish up cooking a spectacular meal while I had the privilege of setting the dining table with her china and silver. We’d end up sitting on the front porch talking of life and watching the neighbors parade down the sidewalk on their afternoon walks.

I suppose that I have kept my sanity during this time of isolation by emulating my mother’s habits. I keep track of each day by creating a kind of schedule. I give myself regular chores to do and routine tasks to perform. I make certain that I set aside a time for reading, and even more for writing. I have a washing day and a cleaning day, a lesson planning day and a teaching day. I insist on exercising and walking on my treadmill even though doing so only reminds me of the sameness of quarantine. I call people that I know each day to see how they are doing and to let them know that I am thinking of them. I have devised a sense of order out of a confusing and often chaotic time and it calms me.


These days I often find myself thinking of my mother who so happily and pleasantly performed her household chores while teaching me how to derive pleasure from simple tasks. I don’t recall her ever complaining that she was stuck at home doing jobs that might have seemed meaningless and unimportant had she not tackled them with so much joy and pride. How could I have known way back then that her example would sustain me in a time when I might otherwise have been filled with bitterness at the losses that we have all experienced? This woman who seemed so simple in those times would eventually become a warrior in my eyes as she battled untold tragedies and challenges always with that same gratitude for life that she conveyed to me on those routine days when I was still an adoring child of five.

I know I will endure this COViD-19 experience regardless of where it takes me. I’ve learned from the best how to take each day as it comes and make meaning out of even small endeavors. Regardless of where this all goes my mother’s legacy of  joy will guide me.