Discovering a Remarkable Story

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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.

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Happy Birthday To Me

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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

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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 .

Yesterday Today and Tomorrow

default-1464355425-834-scientists-believe-they-have-explained-the-great-flu-outbreak-of-1918A hundred years ago in the fall of 1918, there were many who seriously wondered if the world was coming to an end.  A great war was still raging in Europe and decimating the young male population. Across the globe there was unrest and a general feeling that life would never be quite the same again. The worst surprise of that autumn was to come in the form of a tiny virus not yet visible to the human eye with the microscopes of the day. It would lead to an outbreak of influenza that eventually killed as many as five million people worldwide and hundreds of thousands in the United States. One sneeze from an infected person had the potential to infect ten thousand, and for a time nobody knew what to do.

It appears to have begun at a military base in Kansas where it was first thought to be little more than the typical seasonal outbreak of illness. It soon became apparent that the new strain was unlike anything doctors and biologists had ever before seen. It started with coughing and a fever that quickly grew ever more severe. It filled the lungs of the ill with so much fluid that they literally drowned. Before long there were not enough beds or doctors for the affected, and not enough coffins for those who died. During the months of September and October of that year the disease spread like wildfire, sparking dire accusations that the Germans had somehow planted germs in the bodies of soldiers fighting in the trenches. The fact that German troops were just as susceptible to the sickness did not allay the fears of those who were losing loved ones and friends so rapidly that it felt as though there was nothing that was going to stop the rampage of death.

More American citizens died during those weeks than in all of the wars of the twentieth century, and yet there was no cure, no idea of what the cause might be. For some reason the virus was more likely to spare the very young and old, but was most deadly for strong and healthy adults in their twenties and thirties. It would be years later before researchers found the virus that had wreaked such havoc on the population, and began to understand that the sickness had burned itself out when those who survived became immune without any form of medical assistance. Our understanding of such diseases grew over time, but always there continues to be a silent fear that something similar may one day return to infect humanity like a plague.

I had never heard about the horrific influenza of 1918, until I read a book shared by my daughter. She is a nurse and science teacher who has a great deal of interest in such things, and she thought that I might find the topic interesting as well. I was stunned to learn about the horrific events and to realize that none of the older people I had known who would have been young adults during that period had ever mentioned the event. I was particularly surprised that my grandfather who was well known for his vivid stories of the past had not brought up the topic. Since I was unaware of that part of history I had not known to quiz him about what he remembered regarding that sad chapter, and so I was not privy to his eye witness account.

Historians conjecture that this particular episode must have been so personally horrific that those who had endured it did not want to speak of it again. Perhaps it was the impetus for the roaring liveliness of the twenties when people appeared to throw all caution to the wind. Living through such tragedy must have caused people to view the world much differently than they otherwise might have. Most certainly they would have wanted to blunt the memories that must have been quite horrific. When the next decade of frivolity was followed by a worldwide depression and eventually another war, the personal stories of illness and death might have seemed trivial to them by comparison. In truth, they would have been right to wonder if the bad news would ever stop, and when it finally did they most probably decided never to speak of it again.

My father-in-law served in Korea during the war there. He has only mentioned what he saw there once in all of the years that I have known him. His eyes filled with tears as he recounted his experience and his voice was shaky. It was much too painful a memory for him to think about for very long. I have noticed that my uncles who fought during World War II were just as reluctant to share stories of their adventures as were my peers who fought in Vietnam. I suppose that there are events that are so horrible that we prefer to bury the thoughts of them deep within our psyches. It is simply too much to dwell on them for very long. 

I suspect that those who were witness to the 1918 influenza epidemic simply did not want to speak of the unspeakable. They lost loved ones and friends in a matter of days and weeks. They worried that the horror might return at any moment. To dwell on their heartbreak and fears would have been unbearable and so they did not include mention of the outbreak in their tales of living. The story languished until curious souls began to ferret out the details and bring them to light once again. What is a curiosity for those of us removed by a hundred years was all too real for those who were there when it happened.

Each generation has its share of tragedy. For those of us who grew up just after World War II the events etched permanently inside our brains include the good, the bad and the ugly. We recall with clarity exactly where we were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It pains us to think of the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy that made is wonder if anarchy was going to rule the day. Many of have personal tragedies that affected us as well, the death of a father or hearing that a friend was killed in Vietnam. We smile when when we think of the first man to walk on the moon, and recoil at the vision of the twin towers in New York City falling like toy constructions before our eyes. These things affect us and change us and our ways of viewing the world, but we don’t often speak of them because the thoughts associated with them are too powerful and emotional. I suppose that the reality is that no matter how conversant we are there are no words sufficient to describe such things, and so we are silent just as my grandparents were about so much of the history that affected them.

Today we have new worries, but mostly go about our business hoping and praying that none of our biggest concerns will ever take place. Our natures compel us to be optimistic and to carry on even when situations seem dire. Like Scarlett O’Hara we believe that tomorrow will be a better day and we concentrate our thinking on the future rather than the past and the present. It’s how we survive. Still, there is something so fascinating about events like the influenza epidemic of 1918, that we can’t avert our gaze. We have to look if only for a moment so that we might remember that we are not immune to the same kinds of heartbreaking situations that plagued our ancestors. We are as human as they were, and we can only hope that when faced with tragedy we will respond well and not be judged too harshly for any mistakes that we make.

It’s all too easy to form opinions of what might have or should have happened. but we will never know what we might actually have done if we had faced similar hardships. It must have been a dark time, but somehow those who came before us found a way to keep moving forward without focusing too much on a past that they could not change. Perhaps we might learn from them and embrace each new day as an opportunity rather than dwelling on the heartache of the past. Yesterday is gone, today is an opportunity, and tomorrow allows us to repair any mistakes we have made. It’s the cycle that keeps the story of humanity alive.