Unforgettable

brown cookies
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I had a tea party earlier this week with my niece. We brewed tea from the Empress Hotel in a sweet china pot decorated with pink roses and then sipped it in china cups that once belonged to my mother. We enjoyed little cookies that were a gift from one of my former students. We placed our delights on pretty china plates and my niece pretended that the goodies were crumpets. Our little ritual was enchanting, and my niece asked if we could find a day to enjoy such a tradition once each week. She has already chosen Tuesday afternoons as a possibility, and she wants to try out each of my various pots and china patterns along with different types of tea.

My niece noted that folks often have beautiful serving pieces but rarely use them, instead storing them away in cabinets for safe keeping. She thought it was nice that she was allowed to use such exquisite things, including some of my mother’s silver. Bear in mind that she is only in the fifth grade, but her wisdom and appreciation for the finer things is already fully formed.

Her comments and her joy got me to thinking about how we so often seem to wait for the perfect time to go places or use things, as though there is some magical moment for experiencing joy. All too often the so called best time for enriching our lives never actually comes. So many people die never having realized the dreams that dwell in their hearts.

Just last week I attended two funerals, one for a very young man and the other for someone only slightly older than I am. Both of them were souls who fully embraced life with trips, marathons, music, sports and friendships. They were not the sort to wait until the time seemed right to experience life to the fullest, so I wonder why so many of us seem to do that.

My paternal grandmother served her meals on china and ate with her best silver every single day. Her meals were special from breakfast in the morning to dinner at night. She used ironed tablecloths and beautiful serving bowls. She was a premier cook, but I wonder if perhaps her presentation was as important in creating an ambiance as were her culinary talents. Everyone felt quite special at her table, even on hot days in the middle of the week.

I’ve known people who kept their nice dishes and linens packed away. Their furniture was covered with sheets or plastic. They seemed to be waiting for some spectacular hour which never seemed to come. When they died nobody had ever seen the beautiful things that they owned. Often much of what they had was bartered in estate sales or sent to Goodwill because nobody associated any memories with the items. On the other hand we all recall my Grandma Little’s table settings with vivid detail. My brother even attempted to duplicate her style with the china that he purchased for his Thanksgiving feasts.

Grandma shared her pride and joy with us. We ate her tasty cooking and enjoyed stories and laughter on her well used and well worn dishes. She provided us with a feast for all of our senses that burned beautiful memories into our very souls. She made us feel special with the extra care that she took to allow us to enjoy her things as much as she did. Not once did she worry that we might break something. Instead she focused on making us feel loved and honored.

I suppose that it is natural to want to care for things that are expensive and might break. We see our everyday items bearing cracks and chips and we don’t want to damage the finer pieces. We assume that it will be wisest to bring out our best only on very special occasions and mostly save them for posterity, but what is the point of that? Why even own such things if we are only going to lock them away?

I was overjoyed that my niece enjoyed our little tea party so much. It gave me an opportunity to tell her about her great grandmother who had once owned the pieces that we used. We spoke of my mom and dad purchasing one place setting at a time as young marrieds. I told her about my father very proudly buying my mother some of her silver only days before he so tragically died. She understood the love story that I was telling her and wanted to know more. The items that we used made the tales more magical for her. We walked upstairs where I showed her pictures of my mom and dad, her great grandparents, when they were young and beautiful. She asked me to provide her with copies so that she might never forget who they were and how they once looked. She also made me promise that we would have those regular tea parties without fail. She even wants to bring one of her friends if I don’t mind.

My mother-in-law taught me how to prepare tea properly, the way her English mother had done. Each Sunday after dinner we sat at the same dining table that I now have and sipped on brew in lovely china cups while munching on tiny cookies. She told me about her family’s journey from England and of those who once braved the wild frontier of Nebraska. Like my little niece I was enchanted and invariably when I think of my mother-in-law I remember those special quiet moments that we shared. The tea and the cookies, the china and the silver, the stories and the love made our ritual unforgettable.

I suppose that if I have learned anything it is that we need to wear our fine garments, use our best dishes, travel to exotic places, live life in all of it’s glory. We only have so much time with the people that we love. Why not make those moments so special that they will never forget them?

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The Greatest Gift

Gary

My son-in-law, daughter, and grandsons are in a state of grief. Their beloved Boppa died on New Years Day. Boppa, otherwise known as Gary Greene, was a good man who loved his wife without reservation and cherished his children and grandchildren with every fiber of his body and soul. He was also filled with a spirit of fun. He believed in squeezing as much joy out of each day as humanly possible.

Gary was born in Houston, Texas and grew up in an area not far from the Texas Medical Center. He graduated from Bellaire High School and then set out for the University of Texas where he earned a degree in Chemical Engineering. While he was a student there he met his wife Barbara and the two of them fell in love, married and set out on a five decades long adventure that took them all over the United States and around the world. In fact, traveling became one of their greatest joys along with their two children Scott and Terri.

Gary worked hard at his jobs, dedicated to making a comfortable life for his family. He was a Texan through and through but whenever his companies asked him to move he dutifully went where he was needed and turned the relocation into an opportunity to learn more about different places. All the while he always found time to support his children’s interests and to open his home and his heart to their friends. His loyalty to his beloved Texas Longhorns never wavered either no matter where he roamed.

Gary eventually found his way back to Texas as his working years slowly came to a close. He retired to the Austin area and threw himself joyfully into the role of being a grandfather. He took each his six grandchildren on special trips to places like London, Germany, Washington State and such. A few years ago he planned a gala vacation right after Christmas for the entire family in Mexico. On another occasion he took everyone to Hawaii. Every excursion was punctuated with his impish sense of humor, exciting activities and lots of ice cream.

Gary rarely missed the yearly reunion of his wife’s family on Thanksgiving Day. He reveled in the games and songs and loving significance of the event and became known as the resident genealogist, creating expansive charts outlining the history of the family and recording all of the new births. For many years he and his crew were the reigning champions of the washer contest, and he became as loved by his extended family of in-laws as he was by Barbara and his children.

Gary had a sonorous voice that might have served him well as a radio broadcaster. He used it often to tell his many stories and jokes. He also enjoyed singing and had hours of fun in a barber shop quartet. He and Barbara even learned how to square dance when he demonstrated yet another unexpected talent.

Most of all Gary enjoyed watching the birds that live around us. He often rose early in the morning and walked quietly through wooded areas with his binoculars and a scope to catch a glimpse of feathered creatures. It was a relaxing hobby that was so in tune with his affection for nature and the joy that spending time outdoors always brought him.

Gary had been a leader when his son Scott was in the Boy Scouts. He never lost his interest in the remarkable training that the organization affords young people. He often wore his regalia and badges when his grandsons moved up through the ranks in their own quests of excellence in the scouts. Nothing made him prouder than watching them grow into fine capable young men with amazing skills and a love of our earth and each other.

In many ways Gary Greene was an old fashioned kind of man who earnestly embodied the traits of a Mr. Rogers or a Jimmy Stewart. Family was paramount to him and he enjoyed introducing first his children and then his grandchildren to the places and skills and ideas that he had known as a young man. He taught them how to drive and how to fish. He showed them how to respectfully handle a BB gun. He played games with them like Spoons and taught them to love listening to John Denver. He took them rafting down rivers, horseback riding in the country, and zip lining in exotic places. Mostly though he just loved each one them for whomever they chose to be.

There is great sadness among the members of Gary Greene’s family. He has died after a years long struggle with cancer during which he showed them what true courage really is. He slowly lost his ability to walk and his body was riddled with pain, but he continued bringing fun into their lives as long as he could. He has left a big hole in their hearts, but the legacy of joy and optimism with which he approached each day will sustain them for all of their years to come.

Gary Greene really lived and loved. The torch of all that he believed has been passed to his children and grandchildren to remember and honor who he was with their own lives. He demonstrated to them all of the character that one needs to live happily and well. He will no doubt live on as they emulate his spirit, the greatest gift that anyone might ever leave on this earth. 

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.   

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.

The Quest

MichaelSome people seem to have a destiny. They know from an early age what they want to accomplish in life, and then pursue that dream as soon as they are able. My brother, Michael, is one of those people. When he was still a toddler he walked around the house carrying a book by Werner von Braun describing a futuristic journey to the moon. It was filled with illustrations depicting how the spacecraft might look complete with drawings of the accommodations inside. Micheal studied the book carefully even before he was able to read, and he told anyone who asked that he wanted to be a mathematician because he liked numbers.

Michael was true to his word, graduating from Rice University with a degree in Electrical Engineering and later earning a Masters degree in mathematics. His job search involved deciding what sounded the most exciting because he was recruited for a number of positions. It did not surprise any of us when he chose to work for a contractor with NASA. After all he had been fascinated by space from those early days and by the time he was ready for the workforce mankind had already found its way to the moon. Sensing that there was more to come he eagerly began what would be a long career associated with our nation’s exploration of space.

I don’t think I have known many people as eager to go to work each day as Michael always was. His job was fun, exciting. He never told us much about what he was doing other than to sometimes speak of the long hours that he devoted to his occupation quite willingly. It was only over time as we prodded him with questions that he told us about his work with the International Space Station. We learned that he had been part of a unique team that developed the computer program for the navigational system for this extraordinary feat. He was proud of his contribution, but quite humble in his description of the need for precision in all of the necessary mathematics, noting that a slight mistake had the potential of causing a spacecraft to overshoot the destination and wander forever in space.

Michael’s work with NASA also led him to a meeting with the woman who would become his wife, the love of his life. With a characteristic determination he decided to call her but soon found that she was not easy to find because her name was more common than he had realized. Not to be daunted, he dialed one number after another until he finally reached her. By then he was already hooked and determined to win her heart. The two of them worked at their NASA related jobs and raised three terrific children in Clear Lake City, the home of NASA and many of their dreams.

Michael spent the entirety of his career working toward the various goals of the space program. He was so well regarded that his superiors often urged him to stay a bit longer than he might have. Finally he decided that it was time to enjoy the fruits of his labors in retirement. so in December he left his full-time position with the promise to return one day a week to help in the transition from his expertise. His was a glorious career that brought him great satisfaction and an unparalleled sense of purpose.

Micheal plans to travel, spend time at his cabin in Colorado, and spend more moments searching the heavens with his telescope. He will be free to revel in reading and enjoying music and his grandsons. I suspect that he will continue to see mathematics as something fun to explore, and will no doubt keep abreast with any and all steps forward in the quest to learn about the vast universe in which we live. His curiosity knows no bounds and will not be subdued by a lack of formal work.

All of us are very proud of Michael and his achievements. His brilliance never fails to stun any of us. We all marvel at the intricacies of his mind, especially my grandson Ian who has seemingly followed in his uncles footsteps by showing tendencies toward genius early in life much as my brother did so long ago.

My mother was always unabashedly enchanted with Michael and his capabilities. She nurtured his talents and encouraged him to follow his dreams. She would be quite happy to note his accomplishments as would my father if he had lived long enough to see his son finding so much joy and success in his career. I suppose that nature and nurture joined together magnificently in creating the outstanding person that Michael became.

We will celebrate Michael’s birthday tomorrow as well as his retirement. There is something somewhat poetic about the fact that he was born on Three Kings Day, the Epiphany. Three wise men followed a star on a long ago day and found the meaning of life in the form of a child born in a stable. Like those men Michael too was a wise man whose quest lead him to a most satisfying life. He has seen and done wondrous things all while looking toward the stars.