The Three

number-3

I was challenged to create three doable goals, things that I might actually be able to achieve in my lifetime. Since I am already in my seventies the odds are rather good that I won’t be doing anything that requires many years to accomplish or athleticism that I am unlikely to develop at this late stage of the game of life. Instead my three goals are rather modest because I have already done the big things that I hoped to do. My life is slower and more peaceful since retirement and so too will be my goals.

The book that I have written hangs over me like a nagging tyrant. I only need to get someone to create a cover for it and format it for printing and I can instantly put it on the market.  Heretofore I have allowed outside circumstances to distract me from that task. I suppose that I have also unconsciously worried that the response to my writing efforts will be ignored, or even worse, criticized. It’s time for me to screw up my courage and get the job done. I will be quite disappointed with myself if this year ends and I have not yet made that one important task come to fruition. It’s been eight years since I composed the final chapter of my memoir. Now it’s well past time to bring it into the light of day for all to hopefully read.

I also want to travel as much as possible while my health allows me to do so. There are so many places that I still want to explore. Vacations to different parts of the world comprise many of my fondest memories and I’m still healthy and energetic enough to enjoy the excitement of a good trek. I want to see Italy and perhaps go to the homeland of my immigrant grandparents in Slovakia. Scotland is calling me as is Paris. I have longed to take an Alaskan junket and I still haven’t seen states like Oregon and Idaho. I’d like to go back to New York City and London for a deeper dive into the wonder of those glorious cities. I long to keep going until I no longer am able. There will be time enough to languish around the house when my old bones grow weary. Until then I will keep going and seeing and doing.

My third goal is to keep myself healthy and alert. That means developing a routine of diet and exercise that will make the most of my aging body. It will require a willingness to continue to learn and change with the times. I want to stay fit and woke, surrounding myself with positive people and experiences. I want to go into my twilight years with few regrets which means that I have to aggressively keep in mind that a failing body or mind will limit my ability to accomplish other things. I’ve ordered The Blue Zones Kitchen cookbook and plan to follow recipes that have proven to help with longevity. I also intend to head back to the gym with a vengeance that was sorely lacking last year.

I have no idea what actually lies ahead for me or for the rest of the world. I’ve seen things change on a dime in my lifetime and read about cataclysms in history that upended lives in unexpected and dramatic ways. Nonetheless I’m not yet ready or willing to retire to the comfort of my home living a quiet existence as I wait for the final chapters of my life. I long to write them instead by controlling as much as I can and reacting to challenges as they arise.

I do not plan to go gently into that good night, at least for now, unless I truly believe that it is God’s will for me to hang up my spurs. The beginning of this year was punctuated with the deaths of two dear people who fought valiantly against the dying of the light. My cousin extended her time here on earth beyond the predictions of her doctor. She willed herself to squeeze every waking minute out of her waning days. My aunt was told many years ago that she would not walk again but she defied the odds through sheer determination. She refused to surrender to other people’s beliefs about what she might accomplish. It was only in the last couple of years as she approached her ninety fifth birthday that she began to noticeably slow down bodily, but her mind was still as strong as ever. Only a day or so before she died she beat the younger members of her family in a game of intellectual skill. She went to her grave the winner that she always was.

My idols are the people who refuse to allow the specter of old age to daunt them. They operate as though they are still young at heart, making the most of every single day for as long as they can. My grandfather read and quoted a biography of Thomas Jefferson on his one hundred eighth birthday. He walked to the polls to vote in a presidential election when he was almost a hundred years old. He was still building things and doing repairs in his home deep into his nineties. I want to be like him and so my goals revolve around continuing to have a purpose. I intend to keep tutoring students in math, writing each day, taking care of business until my mind and body prevent me from doing so, My three goals reflect my determination.

If I were to take after my relations I might still have over thirty years to make a difference on this earth. I’m not done yet, so it’s time for me to get with the program and meet those three goals.

Always An Angel

80448396_2854843364566015_9201299645869850624_o (1)

I’ll never forget a magical moment when my Aunt Claudia came to visit our home when I was still a very young child. She arrived in a Studebaker, a rather trendy car for the era. As she stepped from the passenger seat she resembled a movie star in her fitted white dress and high heels that emphasized her natural beauty. Her dazzling smile lit up her finely sculpted face and her eyes twinkled with a kind of delight for life. I was playing with a neighborhood friend at the time and when my buddy expressed her awe of the vision of my aunt I felt a tinge of unmitigated pride. Aunt Claudia was a rare beauty indeed and she had come to spend time with me, at least that’s how she made me feel.

My lovely aunt was a twin who had been named Wilma Elizabeth by her parents. Perhaps she grew weary of having her moniker mispronounced by people who did not realize that the W in the name was pronounced like a V, or maybe she just thought it would be fun to choose a name more befitting of her essence so she became Claudia. The new designation didn’t stick for long because her family gave her the nickname, Speedy, because she was an uncannily quick typist. While everyone else referred to her as Aunt Speedy, I always thought that Claudia was the name that suited her.

I adored everything about my aunt. She was incredibly bright and both able and willing to talk about quite interesting topics. I loved sitting with her because she never treated me like a child and she always made me feel wonderful about myself. Somehow we were always kindred spirits who understood one another in an almost psychic way. She would tell me that I was very much like her and I loved thinking that maybe it was true that I carried a bit of her intellect and personality in my veins.

Aunt Claudia had once been married to my father’s best friend, Bob. They lived in Corpus Christi, Texas in a thoroughly modern mid-century home that was filled with excitingly sleek furniture. One room of the house held a collection of exquisite rocks inside glass cases. I loved nothing better than viewing those samples of the earth’s variety but I was terrified of my aunt’s English bulldog, Thor Darling. Looking back I realize that Thor was just a very affectionate pup but at the time he overwhelmed me with his friendliness.

Aunt Claudia and Uncle Bob came to visit us in Houston quite often. I loved that they stayed at our house just down the hallway from my room, The two of them always took the time to do something fun with just me which always made me feel rather special. Sadly Uncle Bob died from melanoma before he was even thirty. I was in the first grade when it happened and I grieved so for my aunt. Joyfully she had a little daughter named Sandra to care for and she did so quite lovingly and without ever making me feel that I had lost our special relationship.

Eventually Aunt Claudia found love again with one of the nicest men that I have ever known. My new Uncle Bill was perfect for her and for our family. Aunt Claudia bloomed again in the warmth of his love for her and before long she had another child, a sweet baby boy who looked like a clone of his dad.

I didn’t see as much of my aunt after that. We both got busy living life. Nonetheless we always felt a special connection each time we were together. I rarely felt as wonderfully content as when I was with Aunt Claudia. She was my soul sister despite the difference in our ages.

Shortly after my first child was born my Aunt Claudia’s daughter died rather suddenly at the age of only sixteen. I literally felt her pain as I watched her weakly going through the motions of the funeral. I cried for her for so long without stopping that I felt sick but somehow she rallied with her characteristic strength and I was once again in awe of her and wanting to be just like her.

Time passed and tragedy struck again for Aunt Claudia when her beloved husband, Bill, died. Overtime she herself was weakened by osteoporosis, a disease that I would eventually share with her just as we had shared so many things. In spite of her own troubles she faithfully checked on my mother every single day with a phone call and an optimistic and loving patience with my mom’s bouts of mania that sometimes became ugly.

As Aunt Claudia grew old I continued to see her as the beautiful woman that she always was. I cherished every occasion that allowed us to be together and I watched her bravely fight the crippling effects of the disease that left her bound to a wheelchair. Somehow she managed to smile and have fun in spite of her pain. She loved to play cards and dominoes and eventually came to Houston to live with her twin sister.

She was quite frail and approaching the age of ninety five when her sister died a few months ago. We all worried and wondered if she had the wherewithal to keep going. On New Year’ Eve she breathed her last and joined the loved ones who had gone before her. I imagine them welcoming her when she flashed that beautiful smile of hers that was always so mesmerizing.

I have to admit that I am particularly bereft over losing her but somehow I still feel her encouragement surrounding me like armor. If I am truly like her I will bravely carry on just as she always did and I will be happy that she is reunited with so many of her loved ones. I can imagine her delight in seeing her daughter again and I’m certain that her husbands and siblings are overjoyed to be with her as well.

Vilma Elizabeth Claudia Speedy Ulrich Janosky Robinson has always been an angel. Now she will officially get her wings.

   

Oh Honey!

IMG_0655

My Aunt Polly was a hoot, a fireball, an original, my godmother. She was the most energetic person I have ever known until she wasn’t anymore. Age caught up with her and she began to slow down around the time she was in her nineties. Before then few would have been able to guess her age. She appeared to be a good ten or twenty years younger than she actually was, but life events caught up with her, leaving her with a more careworn look on her face. Soon after her ninetieth birthday her house burned down with along with all of the photos and home movies and other small treasures that meant so much to her. She and her husband had been setting out Christmas decorations when the flames began. They were both safe but the stress of losing their home took its toll.

Aunt Polly settled into a new life style in independent living quarters where she hosted domino and card games on a regular basis. Her children and grandchildren often joined her in those pursuits and her laughter and gregarious spirit returned once again. Then she endured a series of deaths of people near and dear to her. She sat at my mother’s side only hours before my mom, her little sister, died. Not long after that her son Jack also passed and she showed up to his funeral bent and using a cane. She was subdued and even though she tried to be her old self I knew that she was suffering greatly from the loss. When I next saw her at her husband’s funeral I hardly recognized her. She sat quietly in a wheelchair looking frail and vulnerable. This was certainly not the tough courageous woman that I had always known.

Last week my Aunt Polly died quietly, but even as she slipped away most of us who knew her thought that she would recover and soon enough be her old feisty self, because more than anything she was a fighter. She never backed down from asserting herself or taking care of weaker souls like myself. Many a time she became my hero as I watched her in action. She was a true feminist before there was such a thing or such a word for it. My mother used to say that her sister Polly wasn’t afraid of the devil himself.

When my parents decided to hurriedly enroll me in the first grade when I was still five years old I was terrified and miserable. The fact that my mother made me some new dresses to wear and bought me a lunch box did not ameliorate my fears or discomfort. I felt abandoned and alone as I tried to adjust to a new environment. It was my Aunt Polly who came to the rescue.

One day I was at school eating lunch and flicking away the ants that always seemed to invade the inner sanctum of my tin lunch container when Aunt Polly suddenly appeared like a super hero. She had come to see how I was doing and when she saw the state of my food with all of those critters swarming on it her immediate response was to hug me and declare, “Oh honey! I’m going to take care of this” and she did. She marched straight to the principal’s office and raised a ruckus. Not only did the surprised administrator get me something without insect infestation to eat, but also ordered a thorough cleaning and extermination for the building. Never again did I have a problem.

My Aunt Polly was one of the first women that I knew who held a full time job and raised a family. She worked a number of different places before finally settling down at the Post Office. For a time she added to her coffers by serving as a cashier at the Trail Drive Inn and her extra perk for that job was to get free admission to the movies for family. I loved feeling like a celebrity as she waved our car into the vast parking lot without paying a fee. We saw so many movies there and she often joined us for the second feature once the box office closed. It was so much fun to hear her and my mom talking about the stories and the characters as though they were a couple of teenage girls rather than adults with children. I learned that Aunt Polly had a crush on Jeff Chandler which didn’t much surprise me because a had an uncanny resemblance to her husband Jack.

We spent lots of time at Aunt Polly’s house and she at ours. No invitations or even announcements were needed. We simply got together anytime anyone felt like it. Thus it was that on the night of my senior prom Aunt Polly showed up at our house. I was moping in the dark while pretending to watch television because I did not get to go to the big event. My mother had tried to cheer me up earlier by insisting that those kind of venues are always overrated and I was missing nothing of importance. Somehow her encouragement had fallen flat on my bad mood. It was Aunt Polly who once again saved the day when she came in and asked me what was wrong. When I told her what was going on and how I felt she took me in her arms and said “Oh honey!” while I cried. In that simple phrase there was so much truth and compassion. It was exactly what I needed to hear.

Aunt Polly gave me a beautiful bridal shower before I married. She came to visit me when I had my babies. Somehow she was always there when I needed her most and she did so without fanfare and few words even though her normal personality was akin to Rosalind Russell’s in Auntie Mame. I was in awe of her because she was the counterpoint to my own quiet nature.

Aunt Polly was born Pauline Ulrich in 1923, along with her twin sister Wilma whom we variously called Speedy or Claudia. She grew to be tall and beautiful with slender frame, blonde hair and blue eyes. My mother always said that Aunt Polly had to learn how to be tough in a family of eight kids or be pushed around by her siblings or the kids from the neighborhood who ridiculed the members of the immigrant family. Aunt Polly learned quickly how to fend for herself and she rarely backed down from a challenge of any kind.

My aunt married one of the sweetest men I have ever known named Jack Ferguson and the two of them had two sons, Jack Jr. and Andrew. My Uncle Jack died rather young and Aunt Polly eventually married another Jack when she was in her sixties and still looking as pretty as a thirty year old. The mantra of her life was to have as much fun as possible and she was known for the big parties that she held in her backyard with mountains of food and musical entertainment. She traveled all over the world once her children were grown and she regularly stopped by for visits with my mother, bringing her little gifts and checking on her well being.

A bright light has gone out with her passing. She was truly one of a kind and totally irreplaceable. I doubt that I will ever forget the moment when she came to see my mother who was dying in the hospital. She sat beside my mother’s bed along with her twin sister and she reassured my mom with words that only she knew how to deliver, “We’re here now honey. Everything is going to be okay.” The look on my mother’s face told us all that it was just what she needed to hear.

I am certain that my Aunt Polly has joined her siblings, her husbands, and her son in heaven. She was a good woman, my aunt, and my godmother. She taught me much about how to live.

One Hundred Years

art blur bright candlelight
Photo by Hakan Erenler on Pexels.com

When I think of my Aunt Valeria I think of her raisin and pecan cookies that she called “hermits” and her carrot cake that was the best that I have ever tasted. She was is a woman with simple tastes, not needing much in the way of luxuries to be content. She was born in April of 1919, the first daughter of Paul and Mary Ulrich, two recent immigrants from the Slovakian region of Austria Hungry. Of course, if you do the math, you realize that she is turning one hundred years old, a milestone that few of us ever reach, but I’ll talk about that later.

Aunt Valeria was a good child who dutifully helped her mother as the family grew and grew. She was there to watch the birth of most of her siblings and to help her mother care for them. By the time she was sixteen she was already well schooled in household duties and the intricacies of raising children, for she had been a source of great assistance to every one of her eight brothers and sisters, often setting aside her own needs to care for them. She was the essence of the responsible eldest daughter, but she had fallen in love and was hoping that her father would be amenable to the proposal of marriage that her boyfriend, Dale, had delivered to her. She waited expectantly as Dale asked for her hand in a deep conversation in which his true intentions were being assessed by her dad.

Dale passed muster and before long he and Valeria were married. They settled down in a bungalow on the East end of Houston where he would be close to his work at one of the refineries that were popping up along the Ship Channel. He was as good a man as ever there had been, and he was quite handsome to boot. Valeria loved him with all of her heart and wanted little more than a quiet and steady life with him. Before long they had a baby boy whom they named Leonard who was followed by another named Delbert Dale who quickly earned the nickname D.D.

The boys went to St. Christopher’s Catholic School and attended mass each Sunday with their mom who was devoted to her faith. They were already teenagers who had matriculated to St. Thomas High School when Valeria surprisingly learned that she was again pregnant, this time with a little girl. Valeria gave the gorgeous child the name Ingrid after the beautiful movie star Ingrid Bergman who had so impressed her in The Bells of St. Mary’s.

The family squeezed into the house that had been Valeria’s home since the earliest days of her marriage and made do with the tight fit, adding a little bed to the dining room to accommodate everyone. Dale often suggested that they purchase a bigger home, but being a practical woman Valeria never felt the need to expand. She was happy in knowing that the house was paid for, free and clear. She had grown up in a much smaller place with more people, and she had seen the hardships of the Great Depression. She was not willing to take financial risks that to her seemed unnecessary.

I remember visits to my Aunt Valeria’s house. My mother loved and admired her older sister so much. The two of them called each other on the phone every single day, and my mama often spoke of the wise advice that she received from her sister. Aunt Valeria represented stability and no nonsense to me. She was the first person to come to my mother’s aid in the middle of the night when my father died. When a kid at my school insisted that I would be sent to an orphanage if my mother also died, I was able to protest that I knew that my Aunt Valeria would take care of me even though I had never asked her if that was true. I simply assumed that the extra little bed in her dining room was there for me if I ever needed it.

Aunt Valeria liked to watch Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby on television. I recall sitting on her sofa, which was perennially covered with a sheet to make it last longer, while the two crooners enchanted her. She had copies of movie magazines on her coffee table with tantalizing headlines about scandals and such. I always wanted to read them or at least sneak a peek at what was inside, but children didn’t dare do such things back then.

Aunt Valeria was very religious, devoted to her faith. She often tuned in to hear Bishop Fulton Sheen preach. When I had to sit quietly while she and my mother listened to his homilies I silently squirmed inside wishing that I were watching my father’s comedies or my uncle’s westerns. Nonetheless I was always deeply respectful of my Aunt Valeria because my mother was so in awe of her. I felt that I was in the presence of someone quite special and I truly was.

When I think of my Aunt Valeria I immediately hear her little giggle and see her face with an impish smile. She has always been responsible, but also a bit girlish with her joy for music and movie stars. Some of my all time favorite moments were spent seeing musicals like Oklahoma with her in gilded movie theaters that we attended in our finest regalia. I liked being with her because she always made me feel special, happy and so relaxed. I knew that she loved me and hoped that she understood how much I loved her.

Somehow my Aunt Valeria was always the person who showed up whenever I needed someone on whom to lean, but the years went by and she and her beautiful first love, Dale, grew older. One day he died quite peacefully just as she was serving lunch to him in the house that they had purchased decades before. She was bereft and alone, so she called my mother more and more often, the two of them sharing their widowhood and all of the love that they had for each other. Eventually Aunt Valeria became disabled and moved to St. Dominic’s Village where she would receive the kind of care that she had always given others. My mom and I often visited her, bringing her a burger from Burger King or potato salad from Pappa’s Barbecue. Always we snuck in a coke and a snickers bar and Aunt Valeria was as delighted as a child with our presence.

When my mother spent her last year of life in my home I grew to look forward to taking her to see Aunt Valeria for those visits. It seemed that my aunt was ageless and her magical effect on my mother and I was a constant in our lives that we dearly needed. After my mother died there was a kind of sadness in my aunt that I had never before seen. I suppose that she was slowly watching one loved one after another pass away while she still remained. Now there are only two of her siblings left and they are no longer healthy enough to make the journey to visit her. Even her children are growing old and becoming less and less able to be as devoted as they once were. She spends her days in a never ending routine, but whenever any of us visit that same beautiful smile lights up her face and we know that we have made her happy.

One hundred years of service to everyone that she ever encountered is my Aunt Valeria’s legacy. She asked for little, but has given so much. She has been her mother’s helper, her husband’s partner, her children’s devoted caretaker, her sister’s lifeline, my rock in a world that was so confusing and frightening, a faithful servant to her God. Her one hundred years have been well spent. There is no feminist or member of Pantsuit Nation who is as phenomenal as my aunt. Hers has been a life well lived.

Happy Birthday, Aunt Valeria!

    

Happy Birthday To Me

anniversary beautiful birthday birthday cake
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

By the end of this weekend I will have turned seventy years old. It’s a bit of a milestone. Most of the classmates with whom I attended school have already crossed that bridge. It’s far older than the average lifespan of people determined by actuarial science in the year that I was born. It’s a rather sobering sounding number by anyone’s standards, and for the first time in my life it actually seems to indicate that I am growing old.

I suppose that it would be best to accept my fate since it is the most natural of events. In fact, being able to add another year, another decade to my history is cause for celebration. In a time not that far past being seventy was not that common. It would have landed me among a blessed few. Still, I have to admit that reaching that age is a bit unnerving, not so much for superficial reasons, but because the unknown becomes a bit more murky after the age of seventy. It is indeed a very good idea for me to hold tight to every single day that remains in the rest of my life, for it is uncertain how many they will be, and certain that they are growing fewer with each passing year.

Save for accidents, wars, or natural disasters I have two possible scenarios for living out my days. One side of my family tends to enjoy good health until about the age of eighty when things fall apart. Most of the people in that group either suffered from heart disease, which I do not have, or they became afflicted with cancer like my mother, and both of my grandmothers. The other branch of my family lives very long lives, well into their nineties and beyond, and mostly in relatively good health with the ability to read and think and discuss clearly. My grandfather was literally in almost perfect condition until he celebrated his one hundred eighth birthday. I now have three aunts, siblings of my mother, who are living well past their mid nineties and slowly but surely approaching the one hundred mark. It remains to be seen which group I am most like, but given my present condition it appears that I more closely resemble the latter.

That realization gets me to a point of concern, for I vividly recall my grandfather quietly noting that growing as old as he did has the capacity of bringing sadness into an otherwise optimistic life. By the time of his death all of my grandfather’s children save one had died. His beloved spouse had been gone for thirty years. He had depleted his savings and lived from one month to the next on a ridiculously low government check. While he admitted to being fortunate because he was able to live independently until the final few months of his life, he still felt more and more alone as each passing year brought a new one. He missed the friends and family members who had one by one gone before him. In particular the death of his children was a sobering blow. He was blessed to be able to rent a room from a dear woman who became such a friend that he called her daughter, and rightly so. Still, he admitted that he had grown weary and was ready to get to heaven.

Long life is surely a blessing and I intend to enjoy mine and pray for good health in the coming years, but I’ve actually reached an age at which I am beginning to comprehend my grandfather more and more. He was a joyfully optimistic man, but I understood the worries that he hid so gallantly behind a curtain of courage. His conversations in the later years centered on nostalgia, and a kind of folksy wisdom that he wished to impart to us. As he continued to be with us year after year he became almost immortal and saintly in our minds. It was just as shocking when he died as it might have been at a far earlier age. We mourned the loss of a truly great man, but also understood how selfish it would have been to keep him with us any longer.

I suppose that these are somewhat dreary thoughts on a birthday weekend, and this is truly the first time that a new year of life has brought me such musings. There is something about the number seventy that tells me that I must enjoy each day with far more gusto than ever before. I must embrace my friends and my family and somehow let them know how much they mean to me with every single encounter.

Today the world is brilliantly beautiful to me with its vibrance and possibilities. There has never been a time in my life when technology, medicine, science and creative arts promised so much to even the most common human. Like my grandfather before me I see the past, present and future with new eyes. I understand that even as we quibble with one another and face problems that never seem to end, these truly are “the good old days.”

Mankind is without question a magnificent piece of work. I can see clearly beyond the ugliness and my view from this point in my life is glorious. I suppose that I realize that life itself is my most precious gift, and though my joints ache on most days, I am still filled with an inner energy that takes me to glorious places in my mind. I have learned like my grandfather that the world has a way of righting itself in spite of the quarrels that we create. The young take our places and lead us into a future that will no doubt only get better, without walls or artificial divisions. That sounds very nice, and I intend to go joyfully forward and push my concerns aside for another day. Happy Birthday to me!