The Happy Place

The road

When summer days get so hot that hardly anyone is stirring outside I often think of the trips that we took to visit my grandparents in Arkansas when I was still a young child. Grandma and Grandpa fulfilled a long held dream by purchasing a little farm in a tiny town called Caddo Gap. My grandmother had spent time growing up not far from there and she still had siblings in the area. Her mother, father, grandmother were buried nearby on land that was once their homestead and is now part of a national forest.  She had fond memories of life in the country and while she never learned to read and write, her head was filled with knowledge of how of nature. She was a master gardener whose thumb was so green that it sparkled brighter than an emerald.

My grandfather spent his boyhood somewhere in a nameless place in view of the hills of Virginia. He too loved the quiet and serenity of being far away from the noise of the city, and so it should have been of little surprise to us that he and his best buddy, my grandmother, one day pulled up stakes from Houston and began an adventure that would bring them some of the happiest days of their lives.

My grandpa was a rambling man without roots or obligations until he met my grandmother when he was in his forties. He had been searching for something that he couldn’t find at the bottom of a bottle of booze or in the countless boarding houses where he lived while following opportunities to work. By his own admission he often felt abandoned. His mother had died when he was born and he was taken to live with his grandmother who passed when he was barely in his teens. The guardian that he chose to tend to his affairs died unexpectedly from typhus not long after Grandpa reached an age at which he became an independent adult. His life was untethered and dreary. Then one day he met a lovely woman, a widow who cooked in a boarding house in Oklahoma where my grandfather had landed while in search of a job. The rest would be one of the world’s great love stories as Grandpa fell head over heels for the tiny lady who would prove to be his savior.

They had two children together and continued to move from place to place until my grandfather grew old and retired from working. At first they settled in a house in the Houston Heights but the city was already growing faster than they wished. They longed for quiet and a rendezvous with nature. It surprised us all when they announced their plan to move away to begin a new kind of life when they were in their late seventies. With great anticipation they packed up all of their belongings and made the journey to their new home.

Theirs was a busy but idyllic life. They awoke before dawn each day to tend to the cow and the chickens. By the time the sun rose they had already completed hours of labor and they would continue their toil until late into the night. They grew a variety of crops using the knowledge that was stored in my grandmother’s head. They carefully tended each plant and when it was time to harvest and preserve their bounty they existed on only a few hours of sleep each night. Their cellar was filled with racks of canned corn, tomatoes, squash, green beans, pickles, peppers and other varieties of fruit and vegetables. Their huge freezer held fish that they had caught, deer meat for which  they had hunted, and even delicacies like squirrel that my grandmother turned into a delightful fricassee. They lived off of the land and became one with it. They were happier than they had ever been. 

We spent our summers visiting them and grew to love their way of life as much as they did. We always felt so much anticipation as we left from our home early in the morning and drove all day long to reach the road that carried us over the Caddo River and wound into the hills toward their house. The path was a narrow gravel affair that only allowed for one car at a time in some spots, so our parents had to honk the horn when they reached a blind spot to warn anyone coming from the other side that we were on our way. When we finally reached our destination we were always greeted by Grandma’s collie, Lady, who barked a greeting while wagging her tail. Soon enough my grandparents would emerge from their screened porch with smiles and open arms ready to hug us until we could hardly breathe.

Our days would be filled with milking the cow, gathering peaches from the big trees that shaded the driveway, exploring the hills behind the farm, visiting with neighbors, and learning new skills from both of the grandparents. Grandma showed us how to make biscuits and pasteurize milk. She demonstrated how to capture lightning bugs and put them in a jar so that they became a home made flashlight. She designed nets from old t-shirts with which we might capture a butterfly when the morning came. Always she cautioned us to free our captives when we were done.

Grandpa taught us how to milk a cow and catch a fish. He let us watch while he repaired things, explaining what he was doing as he worked. He proudly took us with him on his daily journeys into town where he introduced us to his friends and bought us sodas from huge chests filled with ice.

At night we sat on the screened porch and chatted about this and that. Grandpa always spoke of things he had read in The Saturday Evening Post or The Reader’s Digest and Grandma showed us how to embroider and crochet. We laughed and talked about a hundred different things. We had no electronic games or cell phones to distract us, so all of our attention was focused on the grandparents as was theirs on us. Once in a great while we might adjourn to the living room to watch a favorite television program but that was mostly rare.

We went to bed in a house without air conditioning. Instead it was cooled by the breezes that came through the open windows that were designed to keep the air moving with cross currents. It was still in the dark with only the sounds of animals breaking the silence. There might be a moo or a bark or the howl of some kind of wild cat. It was magical.

My grandparents lived on the farm for only about ten years. My grandmother began to lose her energy and realized that something was wrong. A local country doctor diagnosed her with cancer so she and Grandpa decided to move back to Houston for more advanced treatment. By the time they sold their place and found a new home in Texas her situation was dire. There was little more that the doctors could do than keep her comfortable until she died.

We would all remember those halcyon days in the country with the greatest of pleasure. Grandpa would get a dreamy look in his eyes whenever he spoke of them. We would think of them as the highpoint of our childhood, and even many decades later I can still see the road that led us to our happy place. It is as vivid as if I were there once again.

Advertisements

Discovering a Remarkable Story

beige analog gauge
Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

I loved my maternal grandmother, Maria Bartacovik Ulrich, but never really knew her. She was a sweet presence in my life, but because she spoke little or no English and I had no knowledge of her Slovakian language we communicated mostly with facial expressions. She was a short, round woman filled with the wrinkles of old age. She kept her hair in a long braid that trailed down her back, at least until she became seriously ill and her daughters cut it to make the task of maintaining it easier. She seemed to be of another world, another century and I always longed to be able to ask her questions and learn more about the girl she had once been. Instead we exchanged smiles as she called me “pretty girl,” and while I loved the simplicity of her greeting I wondered if she actually knew my name or those of my many cousins.

Grandma Ulrich padded around her home in her bare feet which were tiny but often appeared swollen. At gatherings she prepared cups of coffee for all of her guests, bringing the watery brew proudly in enamel cups filled with more milk and sugar than java. I loved that gesture which she repeated hundreds of times when the members of her family filled her home with raucous conversation. I saw her as an exceptional hostess who wanted us to feel welcome in her domain, and we always did.

Grandma Ulrich had lovely blue eyes, and as I gazed into them I wondered what thoughts were behind them. It would not be until long after she was dead that I would do enough research and ask enough questions to learn a tiny bit about her. It amazed me to find that this shy and unassuming woman had traveled alone from her hometown in the Slovakian region of Austria Hungary to Bremen, Germany where she boarded a steamship bound for Galveston, Texas. She came to meet my grandfather who had arrived before her to pave the way of their new life together. Somehow it almost seems inconceivable that such an unassuming woman would have the courage to embark on a journey to a world of which she knew very little. She must have been very much in love, and perhaps she was guided by the exuberance of youth as well.

She arrived not too many years before the outbreak of World War II and for all intents forever lost track of her family back home. My eldest aunt says that Grandma worked as a cook for the laborers on a large farm in an area of Houston on the east side of town. Later she tried a variety of jobs including laboring as a cleaning woman in a large downtown building. When her English improved she even found work behind the counter of a small bakery. This was a daring Grandma Ulrich that I had never known, and even now I have a difficult time imagining the woman who was frightened to leave her home as such a courageous person.

My grandmother was a woman of her times without benefit of any form of birth control other than abstinence, and so she had one baby after another. There were nine pregnancies in a row including one in which she carried twins. By the time my mother, the youngest of her children, was born Grandma had buried two of her babies. Her body must have been in a state of hormonal hell as she yo-yoed from conception into post partum depression again and again. Her tiny home and her life was dominated by rowdy children whom she dearly loved, but I can’t fathom that she ever had a moment to herself.

At some point my grandmother showed signs of a mental breakdown and she was taken away by force to the state hospital in Austin. It was a traumatic time for her and for her children who rarely spoke of it, carefully guarding a secret that was too painful to mention. Once Grandma returned home she would never again have enough trust to leave the safety of her house without putting up a fight. She was content to simply create a daily routine and quietly live out the rest of her days.

I am fascinated by the woman who was my grandmother. I suppose that if truth be told we, her grandchildren, took her for granted. She was someone who was just there, an almost invisible presence in our lives. She seemed simple and yet she was so complex. We thought her witless and yet she must surely have had thoughts and dreams. Like so many women her contribution to the world was unseen and under appreciated. We did not think to connect the dots of her existence and the incredible impact it has had on the world. We assumed that she would not have been interested in knowing that from her humble beginnings in America have come engineers, doctors, teachers, accountants, business leaders, athletes, lawyers. Members of her now very extended family are brilliant and beautiful, and genetics tells us that her contribution to such success is present in all of us. Most importantly the lessons that she taught her children have been passed down through the generations. We may not have been able to communicate with her but her children knew and understood her messages of integrity and hard work. She modeled a steadfastness for them that they emulated often without even realizing how deeply her character had imprinted on them.

If by some magic I were able to see my grandmother again and actually speak with her without the restrictions on communication that once defined our relationship I would want to know everything about her. I have grown to understand how amazing she was and how worthy of my attention to her story should be. Like so many many women she was dutiful and in her role she built the foundation of a family and the future. Her contributions are incalculable but her legacy continues to blossom. Now I finally realize through discovery of her remarkable story that this tiny quiet woman was a tower of strength and I feel honored to be part of the world that she helped to build.

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!

A Spiritual Journey

red and orange maple leaves on tree
Photo by Dariusz Grosa on Pexels.com

I felt my grandmother’s spirit all around me when I visited Arkansas last week. Her family had a homestead not far from where I was camped at Lake Ouachita State Park. My great great grandmother and great grandfather are buried on the land that is now part of a national forest. In a churchyard nearby lies my great grandmother. The area is graced with a natural beauty that is breathtaking, so it is little wonder that my grandmother returned when she was growing old to retire to a farm in Caddo Gap.

I spent many happy summers with my grandparents enjoying the wonders of Arkansas. My grandmother took me and my brothers on hikes in the hills when she taught us how to identify the birds and showed us where to find quartz crystals. The sounds and smells were permanently imprinted on my brain back then, Returning brought back vivid memories and made me feel as though my grandmother might pop out from behind one of the trees at any moment smiling and extending her hand to lead us on yet another adventure.

I do understand why my grandmother loved this little piece of heaven so. The forests, hills, rivers, lakes and stone outcroppings are stunning and the people are as friendly as though they were old friends. The whole state is dotted with parks that have unique features that make them lovely. Lake Ouachita is encircled with a forest of pines, oaks and hickory trees that  change into lovely yellow, red and orange colors as the days grow colder. Geese fly in V formation over the lake and ducks waddle across the campgrounds. Now and again a deer wanders through the quiet. It would be quite lovely just to stay there and find a sense of calm and satisfaction that is sometimes hard to duplicate in the rush of daily living.

Instead, we traveled around the vicinity visiting places like Hot Springs, best known for the spas that once attracted the rich and the famous from around the world. Now all but one of the bathhouses are historical artifacts of a different time. Walking along the avenue in front of them garners images of people strolling and laughing as they vacation and enjoy the waters that ease their pains. In my own case I think of the last photograph of my parents together on our family trip less than a year before my father died. My mother wears a sundress with a full skirt and my dad is in a short sleeved shirt with khakis. They are holding hands like two lovers in spite of the fact that they had been married for ten years and had three children following behind. Their faces exude happiness and they are truly beautiful.

At the edge of town in Hot Springs is a lovely botanical garden, Garvin Woodland Gardens. It is a kind of paradise with paths meandering along streams and groves of azaleas, camellias, hydrangeas, magnolias and roses. The walk takes about an hour and a half but seems to pass far too quickly. It is cool and refreshing under the big trees, and the silence save for the wind and cries of birds creates a meditative feel. The last stop is a glorious church built with wood and glass that looks out on a forest. It is a place that refreshes the body and the soul all at the same time.

Not far from Lake Ouachita is Mount Ida, a treasure trove of rock shops that offer quartz crystals and other gems from the area as well as a variety of specimens from around the world. In many of the places there is the added feature of being able to actually dig for treasures with the promise of finding something even more unusual. It is a place where a a fun day being an amateur geologist becomes reality.

Another gorgeous park is located at Mt. Nebo which requires a drive up a narrow road that twists and turns and ends with a magnificent view of the valley below. There are stone cabins for rent that are fully equipped with everything but food. Best of all they have outdoor patios with fireplaces and unbelievable scenic views. I’ve already put a return visit to this wonderful place on my bucket list.

Of course we traveled to Caddo Gap, the site of so many of my childhood memories with my grandparents. It was a thriving little town once, but that was long long ago. The old jailhouse has been converted into a residence and the suspension bridge over the creek that once served as a way to walk out of the hills is now in tatters. Only those who saw it when it was still fit for use will understand how remarkable it used to be. I recall watching my grandmother bravely walk across its wooden planks high above the water and thinking that she must surely have been the most courageous woman in the world. I can still she her smiling down on me and encouraging me to be more adventurous, a trait that seems to be a must in Arkansas.

I fell in love with the glorious place where my grandparents and great grandparents lived and worked so long ago. Arkansas is a beautiful state with wonderfully inviting people. I will definitely be returning. 

Only Time Will Tell

33750316_1843978448978317_6669086996591280128_nThere was a time when I believed that the first twenty years of the twentieth century were boring, a bit of a snooze. I have since become wildly fascinated with that time in history because it was responsible for perpetuating so many changes and problems that are affecting us even to this very day. Learning more about my grandparents has also enlivened my interest in this particular time because it ultimately had such a profound influence on me.

As children all four of my grandparents grew up in homes without plumbing or electricity. Neither of my grandmothers had enough education to know how to either read or write. At the dawn of the twentieth century they were both still wearing long dresses that modestly covered their legs, and women in the United States did not yet have the right to vote.

My European grandparents were subject to the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a conglomerate so vast and diverse that ruling it was unwieldy, leading to laws that prohibited the use of their native tongue and culture. Life in Slovakia was difficult but moving to the United Sates of America brought the promise of possibilities. Thus my grandfather bought a one way ticket to Galveston, Texas on a steamer that he boarded in Hamburg, Germany only a couple of years before the outbreak of World War II. What an adventure that must have been!

After working on all sorts of odd jobs, scrimping and saving every penny, and living all alone in a boarding house near present day Minute Maid Park in downtown Houston he was able to send for my grandmother. The two of them worked in the fields of a farm near the Houston Ship Channel and in the wooded forests near Beaumont just as oil was being discovered.

The little country of the United States that was still somewhat of a joke to the powers in Europe was on the move with an industrial revolution and an inventive spirit that thrust the United States into the modern era. Towns were being lit by Mr. Edison’s marvel known as electricity and two brothers had flown a plane for the first time in North Carolina. Mr. Ford was making cars affordable for the common man and people were marveling at having running water and working toilets inside their homes. It was an exciting time when the sleepy giant known as America was waking up and stretching its limbs.

My paternal grandparents were both working in Oklahoma where oil and almost free land was luring people from all parts. They would meet each other in a boarding house crowded with people seeking a living and, if lucky, even riches. Wild and crazy places like Tulsa and Houston were booming at a time when everyone seemed to be on the move in search of something.

Back in Europe the winds of war and revolution were blowing ominously in ways that would ultimately change the face of not just that country but places as far away as the Middle East and Africa as well. By 1914, everyone was honoring alliances and choosing sides in a battle that was supposed to end all battles once and for all. Modern warfare reared its ugly head producing weapons more terrible than anything ever before seen.

In the middle of it all the Communist revolution unseated the Czar of Russia and locked the world into an idealogical and political battle between Communism and Capitalism that continues to this day. My Slovakian grandfather was said to have been eternally grateful to be safe in Texas rather than locked into a lifestyle that would have limited his options and those of his children had he stayed in his native country. 

In 1918, the world experienced one of the worst outbreaks of influenza in history. Research into the disease did not lead to a cure in time to save the millions who died, but would create a better understanding of how such diseases are spread and lead to the discovery of antibiotics that would help to stem the tide of future outbreaks.

By 1920, women in the United States finally had gained the right to vote. Along with this victory came short skirts and other once unimaginable freedoms. Their homes began to fill with modern conveniences and appliances that made daily routines easier to perform. Radios provided instant news from the world and travel became available to even the common man and woman thanks to Mr. Ford.

In the meantime the treaty agreed upon at the end of World War I created unresolved problems across the globe that still echo in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, not to mention much of Europe. The United States was seen as less of a backwater nation and more of a possible partner in world affairs, and the spirit of innovation accelerated along with an emphasis on more universal education for both men and women.

The stage was being set in motion for my parents to be born and to live far more prosperous lives than their parents had ever known. The city of Houston continued to attract men and women with a pioneering spirit and a willingness to take audacious risks. It was not the boring and quaint time that I once imagined it to be, but in fact was exciting and bursting with some of the most important changes that humankind had ever known.

We often hear the men and women of the World War II era being called “the greatest generation” but there is great evidence that those who navigated the first two decades of the twentieth century like my grandparents may well have been even better. They were members of the transitional forces that led the way to modernity, unafraid to enter brave new worlds.

My Grandpa Little often spoke of experiencing the wonders of that era firsthand. He recalls seeing a city lit up with lights for the very first time. He remembers the first radio broadcast that he ever heard. He brags that he went from a tiny home with no plumbing and no electricity to using a television in the comfort of his home to view a man walking  on the moon. He did this all in a single lifetime. 

I sometimes wonder if the first twenty years of the present century will bring the same sense of awe to future generations. What is happening now that will still have an impact on the world in a hundred years and will we be remembered for being creative and courageous? Sometimes I fear that we are guided more by a tendency to cling to the past than a willingness to imagine the future. Only time will tell if we possess the same can do spirit that so defined the first years of the modern age .