The Ultimate Reward

golden-trophy-design_1355-4

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

number-3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Voices We Need To Hear

Senior Woman Relaxing In Chair With Hot Drink

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.

When History Comes Alive

newellboyd

I’ve become fascinated by a series of classes at the Rice University Glasscock School of Continuing Education featuring the history of the kings and queens of England. Dr. Newell Boyd uses primary and secondary sources to bring the reigns of the British monarchs to life. His courses are exciting strolls through history that illustrate that human nature tends to be the same from one era to the next. The cast of characters may change but the themes echo over and over through time. His is a very personal look at history through the eyes of those who wrote commentaries about the people and events as they were happening.

The thing that has most struck me throughout the series of lectures is that so many of the problems that we humans face today were concerns hundreds of years ago. Those of us who are not royalty or “mighty barons” today may have a better quality of life than the common folk of yore, but questions of religious freedom, power, and economic equality remain essentially the same as they were when peasants’ lives were brutish and brief. The saga of mankind has been a story of wars and intrigue but it has also been one of slowly evolving equality and freedom and opportunity even for those not born into wealth and power. Much of that trend began in the rise and fall and ultimate decline of aristocracy and the belief in the Divine Right of Kings.

I’ve learned from the study of the Tudor kings that the audacious dealings of Henry VII in his quest for an heir had more to do with keeping peace in the empire than simply attempting to father a male child. Prior to Henry’s reign there had been years of warring between families to claim the throne. Henry desperately hoped to maintain a firm hold of legitimacy and continuity in the royal hierarchy. He believed that only a male heir would insure that there would be no challenges to the authority of his line. Of course we know in hindsight that his beliefs about biology were erroneous and that a woman would ultimately rise to the throne and do so successfully.

This semester Dr. Newell is outlining the story of the Stuart kings who descended from Mary Queen of Scots. Because Elizabeth never married and died without an heir there were many questions about who was the rightful heir to the throne. Untangling the family tree that lead to James I  is a story in itself but the gist of his troubled monarchy lies in the fact that he was raised in Scotland as a Presbyterian and as such was never fully accepted by the people of England. His reign and that of his descendants was continually marked by both political and religious intrigue that lead to unrest, civil war and revolution.

The Protestant Reformation had let the genie out of the bottle. While the Church of England was the official religion of the land there were still Catholics and Puritans determined to defy the dictates of the king who served as the head of the church. In his efforts to demonstrate his power and legitimacy James I was rigidly doctrinaire which lead to treasonous attempts to assassinate him by religious groups, perhaps the most famous of them being the plot to blow up Parliament when James was present by a group of Catholic revolutionaries that included Guy Fawkes.

James’ son Charles did little better than his father to earn the love and respect of the people. It was during Charles’ reign more seeds of revolution were sowed as Parliament became more and more powerful and the king became more dependent on their whims. It was also a time when grand new philosophies regarding the rights of ordinary people began to flourish. The world of royalty in England would never again be quite the same.

I have been particularly intrigued by this period of time in history because I can trace my own ancestry to the times. Charles was being plagued by warring forces in Scotland. People of the Puritan faith refused to bow to his demands that they adopt the beliefs of the Church of England. In an effort to rid him of those problems while also diluting the Catholic influence of the Irish Charles encouraged many Scots to relocate to northern Ireland. It was from that migration that my paternal grandfather’s people came. He always proudly boasted that he was Scots Irish, a strange mix of cultures that I never before clearly understood. Now I know that they were probably trouble makers searching for a place where they might think for themselves.

I am also learning more about Oliver Cromwell, a defiant member of Parliament who would lead England to revolutionary ways of thinking. From a woman in my paternal grandmother’s ancestral line I am a relative of Cromwell, all of which helps me to understand my own somewhat rebellious nature and unwillingness to simply follow the crowd.

I suppose that many of the folks who eventually came to the New World in search of opportunity and a new start were pesky Puritans, Scots Irish, people who had grown weary of being persecuted and limited by kings attempting to assert their authority. The philosophies and tyranny that had once been accepted as the Divine Right of kings began to unravel with the reign of the Stuart kings and it would end with a revolution unlike anything that they might ever have imagined. It’s fun to watch it all unfold while already knowing how it will end and it’s even more exciting to know that my kinfolk were part of it. Dr. Boyd surely knows how to make history come alive!

My Guru

be3bbf50-e0f3-463f-9937-7cc3b04c3b3b

My life as a wife, mom, and teacher was always busy. Everyone in the household was constantly coming and going. Often it seemed as though the only times that we were all together was when we finally managed to get to sleep at night. I’d like to be able to say that I ran a tight and orderly ship but what we mostly had was a state of controlled chaos.

When the demands of our schedules and responsibilities became overwhelming I found myself wanting to go visit my grandfather who had a mysteriously calming influence on me. Being with him felt something like I imagine it would be to have an audience with the Dali Lama. Just seeing him sitting in his recliner puffing on his pipe brought my blood pressure down instantly and the wisdom he exuded with his every remark settled my anxieties more surely than the most powerful medication.

I never had to call my grandfather to set up an appointment. If I just showed up without warning he welcomed me as though he had been planning for my arrival. He was invariably clean shaven and neat in his khaki pants held up by suspenders. He wore the same style of his meticulously polished high top leather shoes that might have been the fashion in his youth before the dawn of the twentieth century. He had lost all but a ring of his hair that he kept neat and trimmed. He was a fastidious man of routine and habit whose calmness was always reliable. I knew what I would find before I even reached his home, and he never disappointed me.

His deep southern drawl cultivated in the foothills of Virginia had a soothing lilt and he gloried in telling the stories that delighted me no matter how many times I heard them. He might have mesmerized an audience in a one man show had he taken his talent on the road, but that is not who he was. Instead his magical effect on me lay in his constancy and the very story of his life that was rooted in hardship and survival without complaint. He was a person of impeccable character who had journeyed through life with grit and hard work. When he spoke he did not so much offer advice as model it through the thematic threads of his tales.

Grandpa was of another time and place who had somehow both transcended and embraced the marvels of the Industrial Revolution and the twenty first century. With his keen intellect and a set of hardcore values rooted in integrity he had somehow overcome one challenge after another. By the time I was making my pilgrimages to see him he owned little more than the clothes on his back and survived in a rented room with a meager pension that provided him with the most basic human needs. In spite of what some might call a very restricted lifestyle he found great joy in the simplicity of his existence which he always boasted was so much grander than what he had known as a boy.

I suppose that his optimism and faith in mankind was the thing that most inspired me. He taught me how to find satisfaction and joy in the most simple aspects of life and to eschew comparisons with those who appear to have more. He believed that it was futile to wish that things had been different in his story. He accepted the many hardships that he experienced as just part of the human experience. He reveled in knowing that he had overcome so much and was still standing.

When my grandfather died I was devastated. His one hundred eight years on this earth had somehow mislead me to believe that he would always be waiting to talk with me. I found myself regretting that I had not gone to see him more often or stayed just a bit longer instead of deferring to things that I had to do. I still hear his comforting voice and smell the aroma of his pipe tobacco wafting into the air. There is so much more that I want to know about him and so much that I would like to say to him.

We seem to be living in a time when society is rushing around faster than ever before. The trend is to tie ourselves and our children to unrelenting schedules. We are continually exposed to an infinite loop of complaining about how terrible things are. We attempt to assuage our stress with entertainments that are of little or no value. Some attempt to hide their pain with drugs and alcohol. It can feel overwhelming to observe the level of dissatisfaction. All of it makes me long for the calm and contentment of my grandfather, a man who dealt with the hand that was given him with grace and appreciation.

When all is said and done my grandfather taught me that we have more control over our lives than we may think. Both good and bad things will indeed happen but we have the ultimate control over what attitudes we choose to have. His philosophy was to find a grain of good even in the worst possible scenario. He was a strong and courageous man not just because he had to be but because he wanted to be. He embraced each moment just as it was, learning something about the world and himself as he went. I miss him greatly but he taught me how to survive and showed me how precious life can and should be. He was my guru.