He Was Essential

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning From the Past and the Present

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Several years ago I read a fascinating book about the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. It was one of those page turners that I was unable to set aside, so I found myself neglecting all of my other duties until I had reached the final page in the hours after midnight. After reading the story of the world’s battle with the unknown disease I had a difficult time thinking about anything else.

I suppose that aside from my fascination with the vivid first person descriptions of the horrific time was the fact that I had never before heard of this event. My grandfather who was a storyteller of the first order had spoken of small pox, the Great Depression, the Cleveland Panic and all sorts of historic events but not once had he even cursorily mentioned the pandemic that killed millions of people worldwide. Sadly, by the time that I had finally learned of this historic emergency Grandpa had died so I was unable to question him about what he might have known.

Today we get minute by minute updates on Covid-19 with our twenty four hour newsrooms and breaking headlines on the internet. We get texts from local authorities with news of what is happening near us. We learn how our friends and members of our family are doing from social media and any number of communication platforms. In 1918, I suspect that the average person was mostly privy to what was happening nearby and only peripherally concerned with faraway events. It’s possible that my grandfather was untouched by the Spanish flu and so he simply went about his work and thought little of it.

On the other hand I have often suspected that my grandmother, Minnie Bell, was more personally impacted by the events of 1918 of something that I found as I was researching my family tree. She had been married to Orville Thompson prior to meeting my grandfather. Her first husband who was still rather young died in 1918, and her son seems to have somehow vanished in the same year. The next thing I know about my grandma is that she and my Aunt Opal were working in a boarding house a couple of years later where she met my grandfather. They had a kind of whirlwind courtship that lead to marriage and eventually the birth of my father.

I knew that my grandmother had been a widow but she never once spoke of her first husband, nor did she ever tell me that she had a son other than my father. Of course adults rarely spoke of their personal business to children back then so I knew very little about the most private feelings that my grandmother may have had, but I have since become intrigued by the possibility that her first husband may have been a victim of the pandemic. I wonder if what she witnessed was so horrific that she chose not to speak of it ever again. Since the official death records of Oval Thompson do not list the cause of death I will never know but I think that my conjecture may hold some truth.

The Spanish flu coincided with the end of World War I and the homecoming of soldiers who had served in battle. The first recorded outbreaks were in military bases. There was so little knowledge of the illness that doctors were uncertain how to treat it. There were no vaccines, no drugs, nothing of particular impact and the numbers of the sick began to rise exponentially especially in places like Philadelphia where the city leaders had decided not to cancel a celebratory parade that attracted thousands of people even though there were credible warnings that such an event would be dangerous. That city would become one of the hardest hit places in the country.

When word of the rapid rate of infection began to spread to middle America many cities and towns essentially locked down just as we are now doing. The incidence of illness and death in those places was considerably less than locales where the people continued as though nothing was happening. Thus the historical precedence that is guiding our activities today.

Back then researchers worked feverishly to understand the nature of the Spanish flu and to find ways of protecting people from its ravages. It would be many years later before they unlocked the mysteries of that virus. By then the world was fighting new battles that would ultimately lead to another war, but the knowledge gained would keep us relatively safe from another such occurrence for a hundred years.

The scientific and medical communities have been studying diseases that affect humans for decades. Since 1918, they have found vaccines for chicken pox, measles, polio and the common seasonal flu. My generation still came down with serious illnesses like the measles, chicken pox and mumps but our children and grandchildren have never known such diseases. I had friends who were struck down by polio but now it is a disease of the past. I suspect that within a very short time there will be a reliable vaccine for Covid-19 along with viable measures for better treating those who contact the disease in the future. 

Nonetheless those on the forefront of medical science tell us that we will face new challenges as viruses and bacteria mutate in their natural tendency to fight for survival. It would be good for us to learn from the Covid-19 experience just as our ancestors may have done with the Spanish flu. Each family, state, city, country and organization must include the possibility of a worldwide pandemic in their risk management plans so that the mistakes that we have made this time around will not be repeated in the future. I suspect that there will be many discussions as to how to successfully prepare for any health eventuality once we are clear of our current danger. We need to take such conversations seriously and be willing to respond to honest critiques. It is imperative that we prioritize such efforts rather than becoming so relaxed that we dismantle programs designed for readiness because they appear to be unneeded. 

It would be a grave mistake to simply bury this event in the pages of history. Instead it is an opportunity to honestly reassess our responses and our institutions. If we are very lucky we will never again witness such a thing, but we must nonetheless be cautious about becoming complacent. Just as we sometimes grow weary of fire drills we do them anyway lest the practice session becomes a reality one day. So too must we adapt to the new emergency requirements that Covid-19 has revealed. The first step will be listening intently to those whose life’s work is to know more about these tiny microbes that lurk among us. They will tell us how to proceed. 

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.

The Three

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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.

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.