The Ultimate Reward

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My doctors always ask for an updated family medical history. Mine demonstrates a rather promising line of longevity. The youngest age at which any of my ancestors died of natural causes is eighty two, my paternal grandmother who had colon cancer. She used to always say that everyone in her family died from gut trouble so I suppose that to some extent her fate was almost inevitable. She ignored her own symptoms when they first arose. She was too busy working on her farm to worry about what she saw as trivialities. By the time things got worse she had waited too long to be saved. The doctors tried a few things but ultimately sent her home to die. There was no Medicare back then so her end wiped out my grandfather financially but his only complaint about that was that he had lost his “buddy.”

My mom lasted until the age of eighty four. She had lung cancer no doubt brought on by smoking which she unwittingly did until she was forty. Everyone enjoyed the habit when she was young. It would be decades before smoking was linked to so many diseases. By then the damage to her lungs was already done. Like my grandmother, Mama mostly ignored her symptoms until they became pronounced. Early detection and treatment might have allowed her to reach her mid nineties like her sisters but she had an aversion to doctors and tended to avoid them as much as possible.

My maternal grandmother lived until she was eighty eight years old. She never left her home aside from an occasion when her appendix burst and she had to be rushed to the hospital by ambulance. She recovered from that scare with no problem and lived quietly and happily without ever stepping a foot from her property. Without regular medical care it was inevitable that something would overtake her as she aged otherwise I suspect that she may have lived as long as the three of her daughters who made it past ninety.

My paternal grandfather made it well past one hundred before things began to fall apart. We became so accustomed to his constant presence that it was shocking when he actually died. He had seemed to be somehow immortal as each year passed leaving him as spry as he had always been.

Since I’ve had problems with my gastric system for many years I suspect that my paternal grandmother’s prediction that gut trouble will one day take me down is fairly accurate. I’ve regularly visited a gastroenterologist since I was in my forties so I’ve managed to control any problems and keep them rather minor. Barring accidents or the unexpected I may actually follow in the footsteps of my grandfather and my mother’s three sisters. That means that I have a good shot at being around for another twenty five or thirty years.

It boggles my mind to think in those terms. I realize that my grandchildren will be middle aged if I make it that long and my daughters will be numbered among the elderly. I worry a bit about my potential for being a burden on them. They are quite loving and would be appalled to think that I have such concerns but I know full well how difficult it can be to care for an aging parent who can no longer live independently. It becomes a tremendously demanding task financially, physically and emotionally.

I am in awe of individuals who care for an elderly parent. I’ve watched friends and cousins devote untold hours to the task. They rarely complain but I witness how tired and stressful the job is for them. A lingering illness in a loved one takes its toll on everyone. I find that nobody wants to do that to their children but sometimes they outlast even their sons and daughters just as my grandfather did. Extreme old age can be lonely.

Life is uncertain. None of us know when our time here will end. I’d like to think that when I finally reach those final days that I will be as courageous and undemanding as my mother and grandmothers were. All three of them made us feel that they were comfortable with the thought of leaving this earth just as God had planned it for them. They gave us a beautiful gift of calm and certainty that they were ready. Somehow their deaths became celebrations of their lives.

I have been a somewhat competitive person for most of my life. I must admit that I do like to win and be noticed and honored. I’ve received a few awards here and there. I find that the joy in receiving them is somewhat fleeting. Life is a series of challenges and if the focus is always on excelling beyond others, it can become tiresome and meaningless. In the end the great joy of living is found in fulfilling a purpose, no matter how humble that may be. It is about loving and doing for others and using the talents that each of us have to one extent or another.

In spite of what Yoda advises there is greatness in trying. If every person tried to be the best versions of themselves our world would be even more wonderful than it already is. We make a mark on this earth not through fame or fortune or achievement but by the manner in which we treat the people who come our way. Each of us will be remembered by individuals whose hearts we have touched. There is no better reward than that.

Suffer the Little Children

brothers holding hands

The children at my church make me smile. They are so precious and innocent, God’s special creations and the future of our world. At our church they gather in the center aisle just before we adults hear the readings from the Bible and the homily from the priest or deacon. They are always so incredibly adorable that I see all of what is most beautiful in the world reflected in their little faces.

On a recent Sunday there were two brothers among the group who could not have been more than four and five years old. They were dressed in matching plaid shirts resplendent with fall colors and the older of the two tightly held his little sibling’s hand with great pride. The love between the pair shone brilliantly throughout the church and there were smiles in abundance as we all watched the little tykes sauntering off to learn about Jesus in a lesson geared more appropriately to their ages.

The gospel reading and homily is always followed by offerings from the congregation for the support of the church. The children return at that time and have their own little ceremony in which they drop dollar bills and quarters into a special basket. Once again the two brothers captivated my heart as they proudly presented their gifts. One of the parishioners gave them an extra bit of cash to place in the basket and they went back and forth between him and the place where they left the donations. All the while the big brother of the two never once let go of the younger one’s hand.

Eventually the two literally danced down the center aisle of the church in an effort to rejoin their parents. In that moment I felt certain that Jesus was smiling along with the rest of us who witnessed their guileless joy. It was such a pure and beautiful sight.

We are centered on children these days, but not always in the most appropriate ways. We know that we can’t protect them from reality forever but it’s nice to enjoy the time when they are still so filled with innocent joy. They are watching us and learning from us even when we don’t even realize that their eyes noticing everything we do. They will get tired sometimes and not behave well. They may even make us angry and impatient. We have to remember that they are not yet fully formed. We must teach them how to manage their feelings and allow them to be open and honest with us. We don’t have to be authoritarian but we must set appropriate limits from which they learn how to direct their lives.

We speak a great deal about developing and becoming the best possible versions of ourselves, but we can’t forget the children when as we continue to grow. Once my own children were college bound I offered more of my talents to my work. I was able to stay later on the job and take classes to improve my knowledge and skills. I often saw little ones who were left at school at seven in the morning and did not leave until six in the evening. They and their parents were exhausted and harried. Moms sometime complained that their babies would fall asleep on the way home and when they awakened them for dinner and bath time arguments and cranky behavior dominated the evenings. It was sad to see how anxious so many families were because of the imbalance of work and home life.

I felt for everyone because I had enjoyed the luxury of staying home with my children until they were both in school during the same hours that I worked. We had the same holidays and the same summer vacation. They never actually missed me and even when they got sick my beloved mother-in-law came to the rescue to watch them while I went to work. My girls still talk about how much they enjoyed those golden days.

I know that children are amazingly adaptable to whatever circumstances become their reality. My brothers and I learned how to live without a father in the house. So too do little ones thrive in differing situations as long as they have guidance that is centered on their well being. It does not require money or extensive activities to build character. A wise parent need only model with love and integrity to turn a boy into a man, a girl into a woman. We know that we can’t keep them as angelically innocent as the two brothers who brought smiles to our faces on that Sunday morn, but we can make certain that they will one day venture out on their own with the tools that they need to meet whatever challenges the world throws their way.

I suspect that those two boys already have a good start. Their parents are preparing them emotionally and spiritually. They are learning that they belong to and are loved by an entire community. They feel the security and protection of each other in the grip of their hand hold. Surely they will know that God is smiling on them and rooting for their success as people. It’s a wonderful start.

The Frogs

lucky frogMy grandchildren are becoming all grown up. They are all either teens or young adults in their twenties. The days of hearing the seven of them tearing through my house playing chase or hide and seek are gone. Now they are more likely to play quiet sedentary games or engage in conversations with us older folk. They have hundreds of questions about history and enjoy discovering the movies and music that are classics from the sixties, seventies and eighties. It’s rather wonderful spending time with them because our interactions are more and more adult and they become sweeter as they age, as unafraid to admit their love as they were when they were toddlers. They no longer hide with embarrassment when they see us approaching them while they are in the company of their friends. They quite openly smile at us, squeeze us with great hugs, and express their feelings with honesty. They even solicit advice and listen to our stories with keen attention.

It’s nice to know that they are going to be the kind of adults who will do a grand job of moving our world into the future. I have to give a nod of approval to my daughters and sons-in-law for parenting jobs well done. There’s still some minor work to be completed before they are fully launched into adulthood but things are looking quite promising.

I’m quite proud of the next generation but sometimes I miss the little ones with their innocent joyfulness and laughter that used to echo through the rooms of our home whenever they came to visit. When I see grandparents with babies and toddlers I remember how much fun it was to escape into a wonderland of joyful abandon when my own grandchildren hung on my every word and laughed at even the lamest of jokes.

These days I enjoy entertaining the children of my nephews and nieces who are still in the fanciful stage of development. They wander through my house giggling and asking delightfully silly questions about the most unexpected things. They notice items that I have on display that I sometimes forget that I even have. Among their favorites are my frogs, a trio of amphibians associated with my teaching days that remind me of dear friends that I now rarely see. They are whimsical and as adorable as the children who are invariably fascinated by them, the source of smiles and maybe even a story or two.

The oldest of my frog family lives upstairs in what I fondly call “the children’s room.” She is a rather lovely creature who sits atop a shelf filled with books, games, photos of former students and mementoes from my long career as a teacher. She was a birthday gift from a counselor at South Houston Intermediate, a quite beautiful woman with an impish sense of humor. The frog, not the lady, has green leathery skin and incredibly long and skinny legs that seem almost incongruent with her plump midsection. I hate to admit that her figure now resembles my own rather closely but like me she hides her flaws under a carefully selected outfit. Her gingham dress is bright and cheery and the little apron that protects it also serves as a way to keep her fat belly from being noticeable. She has lovely eyes that protrude with a kind of happiness that matches her grin. She holds a little net for catching flies and she used to boast a cute wide brimmed straw hat but it somehow got lost over the years. She is as cute as can be and nary a child fails to notice her. In fact I do believe that she might give Miss Piggy a run for her money in attracting Kermit the frog if given the chance.

The next frog that game to live with me is from Chinatown in New York City. I bought him at the suggestion of an art teacher who had invited me to join her for an award ceremony at Carnegie Hall where one of our students was to be honored. She showed me the frog in a crowded shop and convinced me that I needed to take hime home.

He’s a fierce looking but friendly character who stands guard by my front door. He is like a soldier on duty with his immovable bearing and elegant red coat. He perennially holds a quarter in his mouth which is supposed to be a sign that we will never find ourselves without the funds we need to survive. His fabled story insists that he is a bearer of luck, a creature who represents good fortune, tranquility and harmony. He is also the one object inside my house who totally fascinates every child who enters. They are never sure whether to love him or fear him until he gently allows them to take his quarter without harm. Then they seem to understand that he may look gruff but he is indeed a kind fellow whose only job is to be steadfast in his duties.

The youngest of my frog family was yet another gift from a colleague at work. He is lustrous and elegant, well toned and athletic. His sleek body and strong legs give him the appearance of an Olympic god. He proudly poses as though he is modeling his lovely attributes. His skin is a combination of jade mottled with ebony and tiny flecks of gold. He is a muscular creature who might join the ranks of the Avengers and fit right in with the superheroes. He is worthy of belonging to a king or a queen even though his actual monetary value is not great. There is just something remarkable about him that nobody fails to notice, especially youngsters who view him with a kind of reverence. They want to know who he is and why he is in my house. I always tell them that he is a treasure that reminds me of the glory of my teaching days and the dear friends who once worked with me.

I love all three of my frogs. Until I googled the word frog I had little idea of their storied history. They are the stuff of literary metaphor. No wonder they make me and my visitors smile. Mostly they remind me of other times in my life that I shared with people who brought me the good fortune that only comes from treasured friendships. Frogs are a sign of a peaceful and accomplished life and in my own case they are reminders that I did something meaningful for young people along with so many devoted people who worked alongside me. How wonderful is that!   

They Were Victims Too

Dayton shooter

I saw a news story along with comments from readers that really bothered me, but not for the reasons that most people would imagine. It was a piece about the parents of the Dayton shooter. They had posted obituaries for both their son, the young man who killed nine people, and their daughter, who was one of the victims. Each obituary was rather commonplace in the ways in which they described the lives of the two individuals. What riled those who read them was that the one for the murderer told his story as though he were some beautiful son that the parents had lost all too soon. People were so upset that the local newspaper pulled the obituary for the shooter and the mother felt compelled to explain herself and apologize.

Most of the comments regarding the obituary were quite vile with little or no respect for the grieving parents. It made me shudder to read them and to realize how vindictive people actually are. Of course there is much anger over what happened, but only one person was compassionate enough to point out that the parents of the perpetrator of the tragedy were suffering a great loss as well. They are wondering how things could have gone so terribly wrong in their son’s thinking. They are remembering the person they thought he was and trying to understand how he became so vile. It must be indeed quite horrific for them, and acknowledging their own grief in no way underscores the tragedy.

As a mom I loved my daughters from the first moments that I felt the changes in my body telling me that I was carrying them in my womb. Over the months I delighted in their kicks and the movements that they made to tell me that they were alive and well. When I first saw their faces after their births I literally cried with joy. I counted their fingers and their toes and felt the creases in their skin. Over the years my heart swelled as I watched them grow into fine young women. Neither of them matured without making mistakes, but we got past them because I loved them always. So it is with almost every mother on earth, even when children disappoint beyond measure.

I once had a student who went haywire in a classroom, cursing and assaulting a teacher. Before he calmed down he threatened several other faculty members and an assistant principal. Eventually he lost steam and sat forlornly in a conference room waiting for his mother to take him home after being expelled. He was one of my favorite students so I was heartbroken over what had happened. I went to talk with him and he immediately began to cry, proclaiming that he knew that I now hated him. I insisted that I would always love him but also hate what he had done. I could forgive him, but not his act of violence. He understood exactly what I meant.

When Jesus was condemned to die on the cross the people who had once celebrated him taunted and jeered with venom. They turned on him completely, and even his apostles hid with shame and fear of having been associated with him. His mother, however, never wavered from loving him. She stood by him until the very end of his life. This is what mothers do.

I am also reminded of a story that my dear sweet Uncle William told me. Here in Houston decades ago there was an horrific story of mass murder. A crazed man enlisted two young teens to bring victims to him. They brought unsuspecting males to a house in Pasadena where they were sexually abused, tortured and then killed. They helped the man dispose of the bodies along the beaches of Galveston and in a storage facility in southwest Houston. The accounts made the national news because they were so horrific.

One of the teens who worked with the murderer was Elmer Wayne Henley. He lived on my Uncle William’s postal route. My uncle regularly saw him and was shocked by developments because Elmer Wayne had always appeared to be such a good boy. He took care of his aging mom and provided her with the extra income that she needed as a single parent. My uncle spoke of how proud Elmer Wayne’s mother had always been of him. Even after the news of his part in the horror became fodder for gossip, Elmer Wayne’s mom spoke of the wonderful son that she knew. Until her death she did not turn away from him. It’s what mothers do.

I wish that we as a society might be able to separate the sins of a son or daughter from the love of a parent.  Perhaps if we were more inclined for compassion in such situations we might have less anger, hate and violence in our society. One of the most touching stories I have ever heard came when Amish school children were killed by a crazed man who had a family of his own. There were threats being made on his wife and children as the anger over what he had done raged. Members of the Amish community made it known that they felt as much compassion for his family as they did for their own. They embraced the woman who was as shocked as they were over what her husband had done. They extended a hand of love and sympathy. They truly understood that there was much grief to go around.

I weep for the victims of the Dayton shooting, but I also cry for the parents of the man who committed the crime. I don’t know how much they ultimately had to do with how their son turned out, but I am certain that they too lost so much on that day. It does not hurt us to allow them a bit of dignity as they grapple with the confusion and sorrow that must surely be relentlessly stalking them. If their comments about their son seemed inappropriate it is most likely because they really don’t know what to think or how to act. Their shock is a great and maybe even greater than ours. It’s time we all begin to choose kindness over revenge when dealing with the families of killers unless it is proven that they were accessories to such crimes. They are victims too.

A Mother’s Story

abstract break broken broken glass
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Moms today seem to put so much more into their parenting than I ever did. They research child rearing ideas, learn about proper nutrition, create healthy schedules, and worry when their little ones behave badly. I have great admiration for them because I was truly a fly by the seat of my pants kind of mom. There is so much that I might have done better but I was far too ignorant to even know that I was doing some things wrong. My daughters seem to have turned out just fine, but I often wonder if I might have done a better job of parenting if only I had taken a bit more time to learn more about the best child rearing methods. I suppose that I will never know what might have been if I had not been so immature, and so I content myself with knowing that it doesn’t matter anymore because they are on their own and raising their children quite well.

I laugh whenever a young mom is feeling a bit guilty about some meltdown or troubling incident with a child because I have stories to tell that would curl their hair and cause them to look askance at my own mothering. I always think about a time that I took my eldest child to the old Gulfgate Mall with a friend who had a son who was only slightly older than my girl. Each of us would eventually have two children, but at the time only our first born were around and they were still  toddlers who went on shopping trips in their strollers.

We were not looking for anything in particular on that day. We just wanted to get out of the house for a time with our kids. Little did we know that we were about to give a whole new meaning to the term window shopping. We went into one of the clothing stores and parked our strollers just long enough to glance through a bin of sale items. We honestly had not turned our backs on the two children for long at all, but when we turned around the strollers were empty. We began searching for them in a state of panic when we heard a commotion and lots of giggling in the showroom window. We peeked around the corner and there they were having a good time pretending to be on display for all the world to see. We quickly whisked them up, placed them back into the strollers and hurried out of the store lest we be called to task for our lack of control over our babies.I nervously imagined someone calling CPS on us, or even worse, telling my mom who would never have allowed such a thing to occur.

Once we were safely away we breathed easier that our close call had not resulted in some kind of tragedy, and we attempted to explain to the little ones as best we could how important it was for them to stay put in their strollers. Then we continued walking up and down the mall, proud of the more regimented behavior that our children were exhibiting, and once again enjoying our little walk. We became so certain that the worst was behind us that we made it all the way to the end of the stores where Sakowitz lured us with signs advertising great sales in progress. We moved from aisle to aisle being very careful to watch over our charges and then entered an area filled with fine glassware reminding our babies not to touch anything.

All was going well until we found some items to purchase and were standing in line to pay. That’s when we heard a loud crash and looked to see a display case on its side with broken glass littering the floor. I have to admit that I heaved a sigh of relief when I saw that my little girl was still sitting serenely and innocently in her stroller while my friend’s son toddled away in fear of the consequences for what he had so obviously done.

The two of us corralled him quickly and his mother fussed at him with tears of abject embarrassment in her eyes. When a manager came over to assess the situation her tears turned into heaving sobs as she explained that she would gladly pay for all of the damage, all the while worrying that the cost of the mess might be more than she actually had. The kindly man insisted that he was more concerned with making certain that everyone was okay. He chided himself for putting such a fragile display in the middle of a busy walkway, and assured us that store insurance would take care of the damage. 

His kindness and understanding was such a sweet thing to encounter, and he put the whole incident into perspective. We paid for the things we had selected and almost ran to our car from there. We felt humiliated, frenzied, and guilty about the seeming lack of control that we had over our children. The school of hard knocks on that day taught us a great deal about shopping with youngsters. We never again had such a difficult time, but a sense that we had been grossly neglectful refused to leave us. It would be years later before we were able to put our mishap into the past, and even smile a bit when we thought of it.

My advice to mothers who are struggling with headstrong, inquisitive or hard to control children is to learn how to take those bumps along with all of the wonder of having children. There will indeed be moments when they seem to be heading down a direct route to the penitentiary. That’s when we have to stay calm and carry on. As long as these kinds of moments are the exception rather than the rule, we are probably, and should consider the occasion as a way to learn and in turn teach our children. Mothers have to be prepared for many disappointing moments and find ways to judge how severe a reaction is  needed. Sometimes all everybody requires is a good nap.

Parenting is a marathon and the sense of responsibility does not end even as our children come of age and begin their adult lives. Every parent lies awake at times thinking of their offspring and worrying about them. It is part of the whole package and as normal as can be. That children’s story about the woman loving her son forever is truer than we care to admit. A child becomes the focus of our life and as a mom that intense connection never really ends. It’s good if we learn how to laugh at the little stuff so we will have what we need when the really big stuff comes around.