When History Comes Alive

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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

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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.

Therapy

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There is something about working outside in my yard that is primal. I throw myself so totally into the tasks of planting and feeding and weeding that I eventually resemble a wild woman with my matted hair and dirty fingernails. My arms and legs and clothing bear the stains of the dirt in which I luxuriate. I’m no Martha Stewart with cute rubber boots, a fashionable hat and perfectly coiffed hair as I tackle the tendencies of nature to challenge me in planning a lovely vista for the plot of land that is my domain. By the time that I finish my work I resemble someone who has been living on the streets without access to soap or water. My muscles, my back and my knees ache from the contortions to which I must subject them in order to keep my garden in tip top shape. There is nothing glamorous about the labor I do in my yard, but somehow it brings me so much contentment that it works quite well to soothe any anxieties that might be stalking me. It’s rewards are immediate and tangible unlike so many of my other duties.

I sometimes feel as though I carry genetic tendencies to luxuriate in the back breaking labor of gardening. All four of my grandparents thought of growing and caring for plants as a glorious pastime. My grandmothers tinkered with their flowers daily and my grandfathers dreamed of becoming independent of markets with the produce from their bountiful crops. Both men toiled on less than satisfying jobs for decades, dreaming of a time when they might own enough land to be known as farmers. One grandfather eventually achieved that goal. The other died before it became a realization. There is something in my own nature that compels me to hold dirt in my hands and watch my plants bursting forth with color or bounty from one season to another.

I remember going to visit my paternal grandmother as a child and taking walks with her to gaze at the wonders of what she had grown. She was known for an ability to reproduce any kind of plant. Someone once joked that she could take a dry dead stick and bring it to life. She rarely purchased vegetation at a nursery. Instead she worked with seeds and cuttings from friends. Both she and my maternal grandmother caught rainwater in barrels and took the time to lovingly water each plant by hand. They collected egg shells, coffee grounds and unused portions of fruits and vegetables to enrich the soil of compost heaps. The food they gave their flowers and bushes and trees came from the recycling of nature’s bounty. It took time and much effort to grow the magnificent specimens that decorated their yards but theirs was a labor of love and a desire to keep the earth beautiful.

Neither of my grandmothers had much formal education. They were unable to read or write, and yet the knowledge of gardening that they held in their heads was encyclopedic. Sadly I was too young to take full advantage of what they knew. I never dreamed that I would one day be as taken with growing things as they were. Had I known that my obsession with gardening would grow as much as it did I might have taken notes and garnered their expertise. They certainly were unable to leave a written record of their practices. Experience was their only guide.

I had a lovely compost heap at my last home. I lived in a neighborhood unencumbered by rules from an HOA. I chose a spot behind my garage that was visible to my neighbors who seemed unconcerned with the unsightly mound. They instead used the times when I added scraps to the soil to talk with me over the chain link fence that separated our property. We conversed quite often and got to know each other well. The loveliness of such moments made my gardening experience even more precious. It took on a communal nature that brought me happiness and security.

Now I generally work behind a wooden fence that is lovely but has the unexpected consequence of keeping me from really knowing the people who live around me. I have privacy but few opportunities to talk with them as we all come and go in a continual rush to complete the tasks of our lives. Most of them hire people to mow their lawns, put mulch in their flowerbeds and generally tend to the upkeep of their yards. When they are outside it is usually behind the wall of the fence so that we hear them but cannot see them. Like the neighbors in the old television show Home Improvement we may catch a glimpse of the tops of their heads if they are especially tall, but little more. We make promises to get together but time passes quickly and the right moment rarely comes to do more than just smile and wave as we go about our individual lives. I sometimes long to tear down the barriers that separate us but instead I just toil quietly on my own.

Working in my garden is a joy. It releases so much serotonin into my brain that I feel as though I have taken a powerful happy pill. I feel close to the earth, to my ancestors, and even to those neighbors that I cannot see. I enjoy the sounds of life and laughter along with the buzzing of the bees and the chirping of the birds. I like the idea of providing a home for butterflies and hummingbirds and tiny lizards and dragon flies. It’s a dirty job in the heat of the south, but one that brings me more happiness than I might ever describe.

As I grow older I am less able to spend hours working outside. I recall the time when my grandmothers eventually abandoned their adventures with nature. They became unable to tackle all of the work that a splendid garden requires and their lovely collections of flowers turned to seed. I dread the thought of becoming that way so I know I must take advantage of the energy and good health that I still possess while I can. Yard work is a lovely therapy for me. I intend to enjoy it while I can. 

The Dreamers

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They came to America with little more than a few belongings and hope that somehow their lives might be better than they had been from where they had traveled. They were refugees from a government that wanted to erase their language and their culture. They were hated and accused of being lazy in a place where their family had lived for ages. Perhaps in their new home things might be different, at least that is what they desperately wanted to believe as they settled into a small apartment in the foreign environment of Houston, Texas.

They found jobs that were menial by most standards but they were proud to have work so they didn’t complain. He toiled in the blazing summer sun while she worked over a hot stove cooking for the hired laborers. It was back breaking work that left them aching and exhausted at the end of each day. They struggled with learning English and their dark looks and strange accents gave them away wherever they went. Not everyone was welcoming. In fact some people insulted them without ever attempting to get to know who they were. It was a difficult and lonely life, but it was still better than what they had known. They were free. They were saving money, things that never would have happened back home.

Before long their first child was born, an honest to God official citizen of the United States of America. The man told his wife that their son must speak English and learn everything possible about this great new country. So he did as did his brothers and sisters who numbered eight before the woman was no longer able to bear another child. She had her hands full at home now raising her boys and girls, taking care of the garden and the house that they had built from the fruit of their labors. They paid for each room in full, adding to the square footage bit by bit until it was finally done.

They were not always loved by all of their neighbors. Some of them worried about having strange  people from a strange land in their midst. The children of the man and woman knew nothing of the old country. They were red, white and blue Americans right down to their toes, but still they heard taunts that they did not understand as they walked to school. Sometimes they had to dodge the rocks that hurtled dangerously close to their bodies. They did not understand why they were despised and they complained to their father, but he urged them to hold their heads high and be proud because they were citizens of the greatest country on earth. He assured them that hard work would one day change their fates. He reminded them again and again to love the United States in spite of those who wanted to chase them away.

They grew into a fine lot. They earned diplomas and served in the military. They worked as hard as their parents had taught them to do. Nobody noticed that they were the children of immigrants once they left home. They blended into society as though their ancestors had arrived on the Mayflower. They married and had children of their own. Those children became college graduates and climbed even higher up on the economic and social ladder. Their grandchildren knew nothing of hard times or being shunned. The dream that had sprouted in the hearts of their immigrant ancestors had burst forth in full bloom. It was a beautiful thing, the American way.

Those were my people. A grandmother and grandfather from Slovakia who risked all that they had ever known to find opportunity. Never again did they see their homeland or the people that they had known there. They had mothers and fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends whom they left behind. How frightening it must have been. How courageous they were even as they sometimes found prejudice and lack of understanding in their new home. What a precious gift they gave to their children and ultimately to those of us who descended from them.

Surely we owe that man and that woman some kind of payback. Perhaps it should be in welcoming the newest immigrants from foreign lands to America. If we can’t understand the people who are searching for the same freedoms that our grandparents sought, then who will? How can we deny them a new start? Why should we assume that they will not work as hard or be as devoted to the country as our ancestors were? How can we see them as less than the rest of us? Once before it was believed that people like my grandparents would ruin the United States with their ignorance and questionable habits. No such thing occurred. In fact we have contributed to the good of the country in remarkable ways. History demonstrates that in most cases those that we allow to join us enhance our society rather than tearing it down.

Houston, Texas where my grandparents settled before World War I has become the fourth largest city in the nation. It is also the most diverse. No race holds a majority position. We have people of many colors from all over the world. They have made our city vibrant and exciting. We are the future whether the rest of the nation realizes it or not. No wall will erase the fact that we are living in harmony and demonstrating to the entire world what it means to be generous of spirit and talents. Ours is the kind of place that my grandparents wanted for their children when they traveled across the ocean in a steamboat so long ago. Today there are others who are longing for the same chance. Such people have always made this country great. Perhaps it’s time for the children of yesterdays dreamers to extend a hand of welcome to the dreamers of today.

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.