Honestly Caring

Shipwrecked

As I write this on Good Friday I’m filled with so many conflicting emotions much like everyone else. I am confused but determined, content with my own situation but frustrated, prone to laughter from dark humor and on the verge of tears from touching notifications. In other words my mind is grabbing onto every little bit of encouragement that it can find but a little voice in my head is also warning me not to get too excited too soon. I’m more than ready to get back to the old routines but concerned that jumping back in right away will be dangerous.

I can tell from reading posts on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, editorials from various pundits, reports from news agencies that pretty much everyone is in the same state of mind as I am. We’re all trying to keep a smile on our faces while hoping that nobody notices the sorrow in our eyes. Everyone looks so tired of making the best of the situation and yet we all soldier on, each in our own way, and that is what keeps me feeling so hopeful.

We humans may be a bit battered right now, some worse than others, but we have a wonderful ability to pull ourselves together to do whatever we need to do in the moment. Still, we have to be careful that we don’t attempt to be superhuman. Everyone has a breaking point and it’s really alright to give into it now and again. Each of us may have a moment or several moments in which we meltdown without warning. We may see our children losing it and acting uncharacteristically bratty. That’s when it’s time to take a deep breath and find ways to get those toxic feelings out of our systems.

There are constructive and destructive ways of dealing with our feelings but the one thing that is certain is that we should never just ignore them. We should be supportive of anyone that we know who is having a particularly difficult time. Maybe all we need do is just sit quietly beside them or maybe we allow them to voice all of their anger without judgement or attempts to assuage their emotions. If we really know and love someone we will understand whether they need a good laugh or a virtual hug or the freedom to vent.

At this point we probably all know someone who is exceedingly afraid or angry or annoyingly optimistic or calm. It’s important to remember that we each process the global grief that we are feeling in very different ways. I tend to appear to be a bastion of strength in difficult moments, which is true, but few see my breakdowns once the danger has passed. The feelings that we are experiencing are very real and important and if we watch carefully we will surely note that even our youngest children are reeling from them. Enough of us may have closeted ourselves away from Covid-19 to begin to flatten the curve of contagion but the curve of our feelings is growing exponentially with each passing day.

I got a surprise FaceTime call from my niece, Lorelai, last week. She is a delightfully vibrant, bright and honest child. Our conversation began with questions about a mathematics assignment that she had to complete, but eventually became a tour of her newly organized bedroom and her feelings. It was one of the happiest and healthiest encounters that I have enjoyed of late.

I learned that Lorelai had used most of her time away from school doing lessons online and cleaning her bedroom. She had done a remarkable job with each of these endeavors but admitted that without a live audience with her teachers it was sometimes difficult to grasp concepts. She joked that she was finding out that there is an alternative way of speaking the English language that is quite foreign to talking in Texan. She mentioned that in spite of the dramatic changes in her life she was feeling closer to and more understanding of her siblings. She concluded our little chat by showing me color samples of paint that she was considering for the walls of her bedroom. We both agreed that a lovely lilac color called Opera was a magnificent choice.

I felt so uplifted after talking with Loreali mostly because she is so real about her feelings. All too often we adults tend to hide behind veils of bravery when we really just want to scream like a little nephew of mine did when his mom made him wear a pair of tight fitting shorts that were uncomfortable and not his style. We don’t have to pretend how we are feeling nor should we be upset with others who are emoting in ways that feel uncomfortable to us.

I have a friend who has the most wonderful conversations with her little boy. They sit together and address his issues as they arise. Sometimes his toddler logic is confusing, perhaps because he himself is feeling uncertain. She is a model of patience with him and as a result together they get past all of the toxic moments with love.

Reach out with an open mind. It’s perhaps the most wonderful thing that we might do for one another right now. If you are in a very bad place, don’t hide. Find someone who will listen with compassion. Allow the tears or laughter or prayers or whatever helps to cleanse the toxins from your soul. We may all be in the same boat but some around us are in yachts while others are floating on wreckage. Be aware, be kind and be above all be honest.

The Voices We Need To Hear

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As I grow older I have more and more appreciation for history and the times in which my parents and grandparents lived. As we head toward a new year and new decade I find myself thinking of my grandparents as young men and women who had endured World War I and seen the influenza epidemic that killed millions worldwide. Somehow they managed to find enough optimism to carry on with their lives and their work. They began their families with hopefulness and hard working attitudes that they passed down to their children. They wanted little more than to have a home and food on the table at night. At the dawn of the 1920’s there was a feeling that the world had finally set itself aright and there was much rejoicing. They had no idea that by the end of the decade a gut wrenching economic depression would threaten the very security that they so longed to have but they were not to be defeated. Instead they took all means necessary to keep going.

Both of my parents were born in the roaring twenties of the last century. They would feel the effects of the cataclysms that were to come. The rising storm in Europe of the nineteen thirties would punctuate their youth and the attack on Pearl Harbor in the nineteen forties would send them to war. They had inherited a can do spirit from their parents that would define their lives and cause them to wonder again and again about the complaints of the generations to come. They knew how to sacrifice and save and endure hardship with a stoic determination.

The grandparents of my era have long been gone and the parents are slowly leaving this earth as they struggle with the diseases of the very old with the same kind of dignity and courage that has defined their entire lives. As one of my high school classmates pointed out about her recently deceased mother they would expect us their children to “dust off our boots and keep on.” This is the way they were and so too were their parents.

I don’t recall hearing many complaints from my elders. They took it for granted that life would sometimes be quite hard. They tackled difficulties silently and with a sense that all things both good and bad end soon enough, They seemed to have the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon. They needed very little to be happy, finding contentment in meaningful relationships rather than things. They never seemed to dwell on the negative, instead they set to work each day rejoicing in the simple fact of having a roof over their heads and dinner on the table. For the most part they were a happy lot who understood the ebb and flow of life and accepted both their tribulations and their trials with great dignity.

We have so much more bounty today than our elders ever did and yet we seem to be stuck in a rut of discontent. We do a great deal more complaining than they ever did. Perhaps a critique now and again is a good thing, but constant whining seems to be counterproductive and a bit ridiculous given how much progress we have enjoyed. We seem to take our luxuries for granted in ways that my generation’s parents and grandparents never would have. Our wants seem at times to be unquenchable.

As children my grandparents had no electricity or indoor plumbing. They were lucky to get seven or eight years of education before being sent to work. Both of my grandmothers were illiterate. My mother and father were the first in their families to graduate from high school and then continue on to college. They were frugal even as their prospects for success rose. They vividly recalled the depression years and the lengths to which their parents went to keep them housed and fed. When my father died and my mother assumed the role of a single parent she already possessed the survival skills that she would need to lead me and my brothers into adulthood.

I learned so much from my elders but I often wish that I had listened to them even more. They had a remarkable approach to living that is sometimes missing in today’s world. They were the generations that kept calm and carried on even in the face of challenges that should have broken their spirits. They attempted to pass on their wisdom to me but my mind was always in a hurry to be its own master. Their stories and advice were all too often like the incomprehensible babble of Charlie Brown’s teachers. Now that they are gone I find myself wishing that I had spent more time recording their voices, asking them questions and taking their experiences to heart. I suppose that the curse of our youth is our tendency to disregard the common sense of the adults who raised us. By the time we realize our mistake it is often too late.

In my own family only my father-in-law and two of my aunts remain to provide me with guidance. I find myself valuing their sagacity more and more. They all possess a kind of contentment that comes from a clear understanding that life can at times be quite hard but there is always joy to be found in the smallest of things. They have learned the value of family and laughter and seeing the sun rise in a new dawn. They have known economic hardship, war, loss, bad health and yet they still smile and feel gratitude. They know better than to sweat the small stuff because they understand that there is always small stuff that matters little. I hope I can continue to learn from them and listen with a rapt attention when they speak that I should have adopted long ago. Theirs are the voices that all of us need to hear.

The Cries Of A Child

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I recently had a very long day. I had arisen early and prepared for a series of appointments which literally spanned the hours from nine in the morning to six in the evening. After completing all of my duties I picked up my husband and the two of us hit the gym around seven. We finished our workouts about an hour and a half later and only then began to think about having dinner. I instinctively understood that it was a bad idea to eat at such a late hour, but it had been one of those days in which I had moved from one thing to another without a moment to even think of nutrition. Since the YMCA that we use is across from a grocery store I suggested that we find one of their prepared meals to heat at home rather than opting for fast food. It would be a quick and preferable alternative to undoing our attempts at a healthy lifestyle and would cost less as well. It seemed to be a grand idea.

The section containing what we wanted was located near the front of the store and we quickly found choices of seafood and chicken coupled with fresh vegetables that ranged from four hundred to five hundred calories. We made our selections and headed for the checkout which wasn’t particularly crowded because by then the clock was ticking toward nine. As we were waiting behind a young couple buying ice cream and a number of items that we have chosen to eliminate from our diet I heard the screams and cries of a small child.

I glanced over to see a father attempting to control a little boy who had obviously reached his limit of navigating happily through his own long day. I felt for the father who was doing his best to console his son, but as a mom I knew that the youngster was simply exhausted and ready for bed. The frazzled dad didn’t appear to be in much better shape. I imagined that both of them had been blowing and going all day long and that the child had been the first to hit the wall. I thought of how tired I was and remembered the times when I would work all day outside of the home and be making last minute runs to the store to purchase items that we had to have for the following day. I just wanted to go hug the little boy and tell the man that things would be better and that he would one day be able to laugh about such incidents. Still, I worried about our often relentlessly fast paced and demanding society and wondered what it is actually doing to all of us.

I’m retired now, so one really rough day of obligations isn’t that tough on me. I am able to sleep in after challenging schedules, but that wasn’t always the case. My work hours were often erratic and almost always long. I recall so many times when I reached home after nine or ten at night hoping that my family’s needs had been sufficiently met. Routines were difficult to create because we each had such divergent schedules. There were times when we literally felt like strangers passing one another in the night. As a teacher I had to attend meetings, conferences, trainings, performances, and field trips. Those demands only increased once I became an administrator. I assumed the role of caring not only for my students, but also for my teachers. All too often my own family had to take a back seat, and to this very day I worry that I may have neglected them a bit more than I should have, even though they appeared to be quite resilient.

My husband too had to work strange hours from time to time. My dear mother and mother-in-law often covered for us when our obligations coincided and our girls were going to be home alone. I know that I missed some important moments with them, and even though they were safe and sound the guilt that I felt was far greater than I might have wanted to admit at the time. I have often wondered if we as a society have created an unhealthy new world order with our two parent careers, or if our children are actually okay with just rolling with the whatever happens. After all, the only reality that they know is the one that we as parents create for them. They do not experience the same type of steadfast routine that I did when I was growing up. The world is different for them and they seem to have adapted, but when I see a youngster like that little boy crying from sheer exhaustion, I wonder how many times I too pushed my children to the brink. I think about how I might have done things differently or at least a bit better.

Parenting is one of the most difficult jobs that there is. In today’s world many adults are raising children all alone. They don’t enjoy the benefits that I had of extended family members filling the gaps. I can only imagine the tough choices that they must continually make as they balance work and home obligations. Most organizations don’t take too kindly to absences even when they are supposedly allowed. Shirking overtime demands is a quick way of losing momentum in climbing the career ladder. Those who defiantly insist on working only the minimally required amount of time are in danger of receiving lukewarm appraisals and of being thought to be lazy. The tension between work and home is real and both men and women feel the push and pull. It’s tough to be all things to all people, and yet we seem oblivious to the toll it is taking on all of us. We just keep moving day after day like drones on a conveyor belt, hoping that one day there will be some rest.

There was a time when workers generally had a more carefully constructed schedule that allowed them to arrive home each evening at a fairly consistent time. If they worked long enough for the same company they would accrue as many as six weeks of vacation time and their bank of sick days would steadily grow. Jobs were fairly plentiful and raises and bonuses were an expected part of the packages. Many organizations provided generous pensions and health insurance benefits. One by one many of those things have gone the way of the buggy whip. A single worker today often fulfills the duties that might have required multiple individuals in an earlier era. Employment opportunities are more difficult to find and once someone lands a job he/she is expected to demonstrate utmost loyalty and dedication to the cause. It’s a dog eat dog environment that is putting new stresses on individuals and their families.

I have to admit to being overjoyed that I’m now retired, but I can’t just rest on my laurels. I actually worry about today’s workers as I see them struggling to keep pace and still maintain their own health and happiness. I wonder if it will ever be possible to slow things down once again as I think of a time and a promise that our inventiveness would one day create a world in which we would get things done in a shorter work day that would provide us more time to enjoy ourselves. Instead we have just decreased the need for workers and increased the demands on those lucky enough to land the jobs. There seems to be no end to the demands that we place on employees and I fear that many of the ills that we see in our society are incubated in such an environment. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the way we do things. The cries of our children are telling us that something is wrong. Surely we can do better.

The Art Of The Deal

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My brothers and I were discussing our family heritage the other day. We are all too aware that the untimely death of our father changed the trajectory of our lives dramatically. We often wonder what things might have been like if…

Our daddy had an unstoppable sense of humor. His book collection included volumes filled with jokes. His favorite television programs featured comedians. He was a great storyteller and peppered his tales with yarns that made his friends laugh. He found something funny in the darnedest places and when they happened to be from real life, that was even better.

The first house that my parents purchased was in southeast Houston on Kingsbury Street in a new housing development like many that were springing up all across America in the years after World War II. My father had finally earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering and he landed a job in downtown Houston. The location of the house was perfect for starting a new career and raising a family. Most of our neighbors were young like my parents and the men were college graduates engaged in all sorts of interesting professions. They had children in the same age groups as my brothers and I so there was always lots of fun to be had. 

Most of our moms stayed home back then while our fathers went to work each day. The women had routines that they carefully followed for the care of  their children and homes. I remember that my mother washed clothes on Mondays, which was a bigger deal than it might seem because dryers were still a dream of the future, and so she had to hang her wet items on a clothesline to dry in the sun. 

Tuesdays were for ironing and as I recall my mother had a bottle with a perforated lid that she would fill with water to shake on the clothes that needed a bit of steam from the iron. On Wednesdays our mother dusted and cleaned and mopped the wooden floors and linoleum until they gleamed. Sometimes she even used floor wax to achieve a better shine. Thursdays were reserved for her sewing and mending. She made all of my clothing and most  of hers. Friday brought meal planning, dusting and changing the linens on the bed. Saturdays meant shopping trips and Sundays were for church and visiting grandparents.

While all of this activity was happening I was mostly a free range kid which meant that I roamed the neighborhood with my friends, but never without checking in frequently with my mom. Bear in mind I was only around six years old when I began to assert my independence, but things were quite different back then. All of the ladies kept their doors and windows wide open and provided a kind of community watchfulness over the children. At any given moment an adult was checking on us without drawing attention to that fact.

I generally just went up and down the street playing with whichever kid was available. Most of the time my favorite partner was a girl named Merrily, but sometimes she was busy so I would hang out with a boy who was about my age. His dad was a very successful businessman according to the rumors that floated around the area. His family owned two very luxurious cars and his mom even employed a maid. His house was furnished with exquisite furniture and art work. I enjoyed visiting with him and vicariously living in style.

I had earned a number of holy cards as prizes for good grades and exemplary behavior in my first grade class at St. Peter’s Catholic School. They were beautifully illustrated so I thought that an art connoisseur like my friend might enjoy seeing them. I took them with me on one of my forays to his home, and just as I had thought he marveled at how exquisite they were. He was not a Catholic so he had never before seen such things and he begged me to give him some of them. Instead I struck a financial deal with him, asking for one dollar for each of the lovely images. Without hesitating he broke open his piggy bank and presented a five dollar bill for the lot. I was happy to oblige because I figured that I would earn more of them if I tried really hard at school. It was a win win situation.

All seemed well until the phone rang as I was eating dinner with my family that evening. My mom was a bit irritated by the interruption but answered the phone nonetheless. When she returned she gave me a foreboding look and told my dad that I had sold holy cards to the kid down the street. She explained that his mother was quite upset because they did not believe in such things. Besides, the woman had argued, the price I had charged was prohibitive. She wanted me to return the five dollars immediately and reclaim my holy cards.

I could tell that my mother was not pleased with me but before I even had a chance to explain myself my father burst into uncontrollable laughter, leaving me and my mother quite confused. He smiled and winked at me as he stood to remove his wallet from his back pocket and then he removed a five dollar bill and handed it to my mother. “Use this to pay for the holy cards,” he told her. “Let Sharron keep her profit. It’s worth it to know that my little girl outsmarted the financial wizard’s son. I love it,” he bragged with a huge grin on his face. With that pronouncement I breathed a sigh of relief and smiled with pride at my wonderful daddy who had who seemed to understand the importance of my first foray into the art of the deal. My mom on the other hand simply shook her head while attempting to hide her own amusement with the situation.

I always loved the way my father appreciated the ingeniousness of me and my brothers. He often laughed at antics that might have driven other parents wild. When my little brother took things apart Daddy almost always defended him by asserting that he was only attempting to understand how things work. My dad encouraged us to have an adventurous spirit that would guide us as we explored the world. He believed that life was meant to be lived without fear and I suppose that he went out in a blaze of glory following his own credo.

After my father died I became more cautious. It would be years before I was willing to leave my comfort zone and try things, but I always remembered those moments when he encouraged me to use my imagination and intellect. Mostly though I loved that he knew how to laugh whenever we were just being kids. In some ways he was the man who never quite grew up, a kind of Peter Pan who left this earth for Never Never Land far too soon. Somehow in the brief time that he was around he taught me the importance of viewing the world through humorous eyes. Knowing when to laugh rather than cry has made things so much better than they might otherwise have been. 

A Real Prince Charming

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He was a man who never met a stranger, someone with a smile so big that he instantly lit up a room. He liked to laugh and being around him always felt so comfortable. He was a very handsome man who stayed perennially fit with his devotion to exercise and athletics. He was a brilliant man with a degree in Chemistry who headed a laboratory for decades. He loved his beautiful wife and his two daughters. He was a Godly man who gave enthusiastically of his time and talents to his church. He was a friend who died quietly and peacefully last week. Those of us who knew Ed Millin have beautiful memories of him that we will treasure for the remainder of our days.

Ed Millin was from New York and he bore the characteristic accent of people from there even after living and working for decades in Texas. He came south for work and found love with a very sweet and pretty girl named Judy. Together they built a home and a family and along the way my husband Mike and I met the two of them. We enjoyed many wonderful times together at parties, gatherings and dinners. Ed was easy to get to know, because he was always open and inviting. He loved to tell stories and to listen with an intentness that meant that he really cared about what people were saying. He had a knack for making everyone feel good about themselves, and an evening spent with him was always relaxing and fun.

Ed was a runner who might be found racing around a track or through the streets all of the time. He was a high energy individual who worked all day long at his lab, and then played a rousing round of tennis or pickle ball. He was always in great shape and seemed more like a someone half his age. In fact he never seemed to grow older the way the rest of us did. His secret to what seemed like never ending youthfulness was certainly because of all of his physical activity, but it was also his big grin and the fact that he never took life too seriously that appeared to contribute to his good health.

Years ago I taught one of Ed’s daughters in a religious education class at our church. I had a the ridiculous idea of inviting the parents to attend one of the sessions so they might witness what their children were doing. The problem was that I was working with seventh graders, and anyone with even an ounce of experience with that age group understands that they are easily embarrassed, particularly when it comes to their parents. None of the other moms and dads came, most likely because their children had asked them not to do so, but Ed arrived with his always friendly demeanor and eagerness. When his daughter saw him she turned fifty shades of red and bolted from the room. Ed was dumbfounded, but rather quickly flashed a knowing grin as he realized that showing up had been a breach of teenage etiquette. Without missing a beat he made a quick exit and never mentioned the affair again. I can only imagine what the conversation at home with his child must have been, but I always believed that Ed handled it with finesse. He was a great student of human nature.

Because I thought that Ed was ageless it was particularly shocking when I sadly learned that he was afflicted with an early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. He slowly drifted into a state of confusion and became more and more of a recluse under the loving care of his wife Judy and his daughters. I missed seeing him and enjoying his warm personality. Eventually many members of the group with whom we had enjoyed such wonderful times together began to grow ill and die. Judy and I began to see each other far too often at funerals, but Ed hung in there even though his mind became more and more clouded with the passage of time.

Nobody should ever have to endure the slow deterioration that Ed endured, but it was especially poignant given his former vibrancy. I suppose that there is some consolation in knowing that he had lived life with a vengeance, and put every bit of his being into all of the minutes before illness ultimately took its toll. I suspect that we will all remember him running like the wind, chasing after a tennis ball, and always always grinning with a kind of joy that was infectious.

Ed was blessed to have the most remarkable partner. Judy was devoted to him and rarely complained about her role as his caretaker for so many difficult years. She demonstrated the kind of love that is the stuff of romantic novels even as her handsome man became less and less focused. The two of them were known in their circles of church and work and neighborhood as a generous and compassionate team, always together and doing so much good.

Ed’s daughters are as beautiful and good natured as he was. They returned the love that he had given them a thousandfold. I’m sure that they will hold fast to the wonderful memories that they shared with their remarkable father. He blessed them in ways that few ever enjoy.

Some people have a charisma that is difficult to explain. That was Ed Millin. All I have to do is think of his name and I can see him once again looking so dashing, laughing so heartily and enjoying every person and every situation with a kind of rare innocence. He was a very good man who led a very good life. I suppose that he’s running in heaven and maybe even challenging St. Peter to a quick game of tennis. No doubt he has enchanted them already because Ed Millin was a real life Prince Charming.