Mama Says

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When I was still a child my mother often instructed me in the ways of being mannerly before we went to visit someone’s home. Among her routine admonitions was the time worn platitude, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Thus we were more likely to remain silent when we saw something that was not to our liking than to accidentally insult our hosts.

I suppose that it would be prudent to resurrect that old saw in light of the current propensity for commenting on virtually everything that occurs, often with a kind of rancor that has no place in the discussion. Because of the relative anonymity of the worldwide web with it’s platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram Snapchat and such far too many individuals feel free to say whatever comes to mind regardless of how unkind the thoughts may be. If a young girl posts a photo of herself in her prom finery invariably someone will take offense and sound off with a negative commentary that is totally inappropriate. Somehow far too many people have come to believe that their opinions matter so much that they must be pronounced regardless of the consequences.

I was watching The Today Show recently and there was a bit of a dust up over a marriage proposal and its appropriateness. It seems that a young woman was receiving her college degree when her boyfriend used the occasion to ask her to marry him. What should have been a double joy for the lady turned into a public debate after she posted the video of the incident online. The images went viral not because people thought that it was sweet, but rather because more than half of those who viewed it wanted to bash the young man for stealing attention from his fiancee’s accomplishment. The comments that followed were unbelievably blunt and accusatory, so much so that the woman at the center of the controversy felt compelled to defend her suitor. In fact she announced that it made a wonderful day even more perfect than it might otherwise have been. In spite of her protests there were still complete strangers who were enraged that the proposal had happened the way it did.

As I listened to the ridiculousness of the story I had to scratch my head in wonderment. I heard my mother’s voice in my head reminding me to bite my tongue unless asked to convey my opinion. I seriously thought that it incredibly bad form for complete strangers to seize what should have been a lovely moment for two people in love to convey their own ideas. My question for them would be, “Who asked you to critique?”

I genuinely believe that if we would revert to old times when simple etiquette was the rule, we might rid ourselves of much of the ugly hurtfulness that so plagues our society. If the young man had wanted anyone’s thoughts on the matter he probably would have inquired, and even then it would have been with people who know him and have some genuine interest in his and his fiancee’s well-being.

On the same day that I heard the story of the proposal gone unintentionally bad, I saw a cute little post on a friend’s wall. It went something like, “A real friend is someone who straightens a loved one’s crooked crown without telling the world.” I like that idea and it is one that I have always followed. It’s embarrassing to have flaws or make mistakes. Such things need not be compounded by public humiliation. There is no worse feeling in the world than having someone make a very big deal about something that should have been only a small moment of assistance.

I would say to those who have been so vehemently and publicly incensed by what they saw to be an unfortunate faux pax with regard to the proposal that it is quite simply none of their business. They have made the matter far worse than it should have been, blighting the young woman’s glorious day in ways that the man who loves her never did. That’s what generally happens when critics publicly impose their tyrannical views. If we are going to straighten crowns it should be done with quiet kindness and out of view.

For many weeks my home was under repair and I had little time for following  the news or Twitter or any of those things. I had to limit my social media time to sharing information about my blog and wishing friends and family Happy Birthday. I founds that I was feeling much more optimistic about the world in general than I had been when I was spending time encountering toxic posts and comments that needn’t have been expressed. My happiness meter went wild. Perhaps it is because I had by omission silenced the negativity that is so rampant today.

I suggest that we simply enjoy the images and commentaries of our friends and acquaintances rather than feeling some kind of compulsion to make suggestions or orchestrate critiques. Just be polite and loving. That is really all that anyone ever wants. If we feel the need to remark be certain that it is positive. Only be truthful if the person has genuinely requested ideas. It’s the old fashioned way to be, and it works rather nicely in the long run. It’s time we all took a deep breath and remembered some of those lessons our mamas taught us.

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Our Foundation

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It’s the day after Mother’s Day and I find myself thinking about what it means to be a mom. I learned all that I needed to know from my mama who was exceptionally good at the task. I always marvel at the fact that she somehow managed to raise three children each of whom is totally different from the others. She allowed us to be ourselves and ultimately it made us into very happy adults. She loved and guided us, teaching us right from wrong, but then let us develop our own passions. She parented us all alone because our father had died when we were eight, five and three respectively.

A truly good mother like her is able to provide everything that children need, but it is a challenging  job that requires full time devotion, and my mom was always ready to give us her all. She admittedly spoiled us but only with love, not things. We appreciated her, but nonetheless I don’t think that we ever really knew how important she was to us until she had died Now we remember all of the little things that she did that once seemed so insignificant. In fact I find myself calling upon her wisdom and generous spirit more and more as time goes by.

My mother-in-law was another model of motherhood who was only able to bear a single child which was quite dangerous for her. She had a congenital heart defect that doctors felt would shorten her life, and so when she became pregnant they were certain that having a baby would kill her. Not to be bullied into terminating the pregnancy, she insisted on taking the risk. The delivery was complex but ultimately successful, and one of the proudest moments of her life. After my husband was born she the proceeded to love him so much that she turned him into one of the sweetest people to ever walk the earth. Her parenting style proved that some good things are never too much.

I was a young mother who still resembled a child when I first became a mom. I made the kind of mistakes that come from immaturity, but I know without reservation that my girls were the most wonderful gift that I had ever received. I literally thought about them almost every waking moment. More than anything I wanted them to grow to be great women like their grandmothers, and my dreams have very much come true. They are not just good moms. They are extraordinary.

Mothers are the foundation of society, the first teachers of the young. They quietly sacrifice for their children, rarely drawing attention to the many things that they do. They awake in the middle of the night to feed a hungry infant or to console a feverish body. They juggle routines and schedules to get their little ones to lessons and activities. They slowly help them to develop their talents and interests, sometimes adjusting their budgets to provide opportunities for their hard work to take hold. Their own responsibilities and worries grow, but they rarely share the concerns and stresses that rattle around in their heads. The children’s joys are their joys, just as the pain becomes theirs as well.

Sometimes we grow up and look back at photographs of our mothers and marvel at how lovely they were before we were born. We forget that they were once young themselves, dreaming of lives that may or may not have turned out the way they had imagined. We find ourselves one day looking at their graying hair and wrinkled skin and we remember when they ran and played with us. We think of those times when they tucked us into bed, or just smiled at us from across a room. They seemed to love us for no particular reason, but simply because we existed. We gained and lost friends, but our moms were ever faithful, ready to hug and comfort us even without being asked, even when we had ignored them or hurt their feelings.

Moms come in so many different versions. Like snowflakes no two are exactly the same and yet they are all similar. Some moms carry us in their wombs, and others choose us when we have no other place to go, loving us as much as they would have if we were their very own. Some moms dedicate themselves to the home and others balance their care of us with careers. All of them are beautiful.

This past weekend I attended a lovely graduation party for one of my former students. She spoke to us about the things that her mother had done to help her to earn her degree. There were nights when she was up in the middle of the night studying, nearly exhausted. Her mom would arise from her own sleep and bring coffee and encouragement. When she was frustrated her mother would cheer her onward. The young woman believes that her achievement is just as much her mother’s as her own. She understands that without the sacrifices that her mom made her great day might never have come. She rightly credited both of her parents for the wondrous things they had done from the time that she was born, and realizes that they will continue to walk beside her in her journey through life.

We sometimes forget how remarkable and demanding a job being a mom actually is. Sadly the day eventually comes when she is gone. Still her spirit somehow lives on inside our hearts. We see her in the things that we say and do. Her face in forever etched in our minds. We know that she is with us, guiding and consoling us through time and space.

God bless all of the mothers of the world and those who use their maternal instincts to help all children to grow in wisdom and grace.

The Cries Of A Child

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I recently had a very long day. I had arisen early and prepared for a series of appointments which literally spanned the hours from nine in the morning to six in the evening. After completing all of my duties I picked up my husband and the two of us hit the gym around seven. We finished our workouts about an hour and a half later and only then began to think about having dinner. I instinctively understood that it was a bad idea to eat at such a late hour, but it had been one of those days in which I had moved from one thing to another without a moment to even think of nutrition. Since the YMCA that we use is across from a grocery store I suggested that we find one of their prepared meals to heat at home rather than opting for fast food. It would be a quick and preferable alternative to undoing our attempts at a healthy lifestyle and would cost less as well. It seemed to be a grand idea.

The section containing what we wanted was located near the front of the store and we quickly found choices of seafood and chicken coupled with fresh vegetables that ranged from four hundred to five hundred calories. We made our selections and headed for the checkout which wasn’t particularly crowded because by then the clock was ticking toward nine. As we were waiting behind a young couple buying ice cream and a number of items that we have chosen to eliminate from our diet I heard the screams and cries of a small child.

I glanced over to see a father attempting to control a little boy who had obviously reached his limit of navigating happily through his own long day. I felt for the father who was doing his best to console his son, but as a mom I knew that the youngster was simply exhausted and ready for bed. The frazzled dad didn’t appear to be in much better shape. I imagined that both of them had been blowing and going all day long and that the child had been the first to hit the wall. I thought of how tired I was and remembered the times when I would work all day outside of the home and be making last minute runs to the store to purchase items that we had to have for the following day. I just wanted to go hug the little boy and tell the man that things would be better and that he would one day be able to laugh about such incidents. Still, I worried about our often relentlessly fast paced and demanding society and wondered what it is actually doing to all of us.

I’m retired now, so one really rough day of obligations isn’t that tough on me. I am able to sleep in after challenging schedules, but that wasn’t always the case. My work hours were often erratic and almost always long. I recall so many times when I reached home after nine or ten at night hoping that my family’s needs had been sufficiently met. Routines were difficult to create because we each had such divergent schedules. There were times when we literally felt like strangers passing one another in the night. As a teacher I had to attend meetings, conferences, trainings, performances, and field trips. Those demands only increased once I became an administrator. I assumed the role of caring not only for my students, but also for my teachers. All too often my own family had to take a back seat, and to this very day I worry that I may have neglected them a bit more than I should have, even though they appeared to be quite resilient.

My husband too had to work strange hours from time to time. My dear mother and mother-in-law often covered for us when our obligations coincided and our girls were going to be home alone. I know that I missed some important moments with them, and even though they were safe and sound the guilt that I felt was far greater than I might have wanted to admit at the time. I have often wondered if we as a society have created an unhealthy new world order with our two parent careers, or if our children are actually okay with just rolling with the whatever happens. After all, the only reality that they know is the one that we as parents create for them. They do not experience the same type of steadfast routine that I did when I was growing up. The world is different for them and they seem to have adapted, but when I see a youngster like that little boy crying from sheer exhaustion, I wonder how many times I too pushed my children to the brink. I think about how I might have done things differently or at least a bit better.

Parenting is one of the most difficult jobs that there is. In today’s world many adults are raising children all alone. They don’t enjoy the benefits that I had of extended family members filling the gaps. I can only imagine the tough choices that they must continually make as they balance work and home obligations. Most organizations don’t take too kindly to absences even when they are supposedly allowed. Shirking overtime demands is a quick way of losing momentum in climbing the career ladder. Those who defiantly insist on working only the minimally required amount of time are in danger of receiving lukewarm appraisals and of being thought to be lazy. The tension between work and home is real and both men and women feel the push and pull. It’s tough to be all things to all people, and yet we seem oblivious to the toll it is taking on all of us. We just keep moving day after day like drones on a conveyor belt, hoping that one day there will be some rest.

There was a time when workers generally had a more carefully constructed schedule that allowed them to arrive home each evening at a fairly consistent time. If they worked long enough for the same company they would accrue as many as six weeks of vacation time and their bank of sick days would steadily grow. Jobs were fairly plentiful and raises and bonuses were an expected part of the packages. Many organizations provided generous pensions and health insurance benefits. One by one many of those things have gone the way of the buggy whip. A single worker today often fulfills the duties that might have required multiple individuals in an earlier era. Employment opportunities are more difficult to find and once someone lands a job he/she is expected to demonstrate utmost loyalty and dedication to the cause. It’s a dog eat dog environment that is putting new stresses on individuals and their families.

I have to admit to being overjoyed that I’m now retired, but I can’t just rest on my laurels. I actually worry about today’s workers as I see them struggling to keep pace and still maintain their own health and happiness. I wonder if it will ever be possible to slow things down once again as I think of a time and a promise that our inventiveness would one day create a world in which we would get things done in a shorter work day that would provide us more time to enjoy ourselves. Instead we have just decreased the need for workers and increased the demands on those lucky enough to land the jobs. There seems to be no end to the demands that we place on employees and I fear that many of the ills that we see in our society are incubated in such an environment. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the way we do things. The cries of our children are telling us that something is wrong. Surely we can do better.

Fortunate Son

5377620The little child that lives inside each of us never quite goes away, not even as we age and mature decade after decade. Our memories of childhood whether magical or nightmarish linger inside our very souls and color the way that we view the world. Those like myself lucky enough to have known mostly love are often guided by the nostalgia of kindnesses and happy times. For others overcoming painful experiences is a lifelong battle. During the holiday season we often become more acutely aware of our long ago histories, and depending upon how they are affecting us we either feel an exhilarating happiness or a sense of sadness. Thus is the power of our pasts and our emotions.

I once wrote a paper detailing the folk history of my grandfather. Rather than guiding him in any particular manner I simply asked him a series of questions and then allowed him to respond in a way that revealed his personal take on the world in which he had lived and grown. He was approaching his hundredth year when I undertook this project and I uncovered a theme in his way of dealing with the ups and downs of life that he somehow passed down to me. Every single story that he told me involved elements of strength, courage and love. It was his personal point of view. His heroes were the people who overcame difficulties through not just their own determination, but with the assistance of caring individuals who often appeared serendipitously to save them. He firmly believed in the idea of personal accountability, but understood that everyone struggles, and when things become almost too much to bear there always seems to be someone who arrives to help.

Convinced that we each have an inner strength in spite of the problems that stalk us, and realizing that we are never truly alone was my Grandpa’s foundational philosophy and the cannon of his life. His was one of those nameless stories that never lead to fame or riches of the concrete kind, but rather the wealth of friendships and love that is far more substantial than the ephemeral nature of titles and things. By the time that he had reached his one hundred eighth year he had become an inspiration to all of us fortunate enough to have known him, and I was chief among his fans. I suppose that I either consciously or unconsciously modeled my own personality after his. I adopted his optimism even in the face of difficulties and soldiered through irritations and tragedies by reminding myself that I came from strong ancestors who refused to let anyone grind them down.

I often thought of my grandfather as a young virtually orphaned boy who never knew his mother, and yet honored and cherished her by naming his daughter after her. He spoke of her a hundred years after she had left him with a profound reverence as though her death in childbirth had proven to him how much she had loved him. The sacrifice that she made to bring him into the world was the foundation upon which he built the entirety of his extraordinary character. The fact that his father abandoned him meant less to him than the knowledge that his mother had died giving him the opportunity to live. His devotion to her was as deep as if she had raised him into an adult.

It was his grandmother who did the job of guiding him into a purpose driven life, and she did so with great care, providing him with wisdom and an unstoppable sense of humor. She gave him the tools that he would need to continue even after she too had died before he was quite ready to be alone. At the age of thirteen h head already risen to a level of maturity that was far beyond his years, so when he was charged by a judge to select a guardian he decided upon an uncle who seemed to be quite noble and honest. This man was so upstanding that my grandfather ultimately adopted his name to honor him for his morality and character. Indeed he also emulated the traits that he saw in this individual who was kind enough to take on the duties of helping a teenaged boy even though he himself was barely into manhood.

Grandpa was stalked by bad fortune. Not so long after he chose the man who would be his surrogate parent a deadly hurricane came to Puerto Rico. My grandfather’s uncle who was a graduate of West Point and a military man served his country by traveling to the devastated island to direct the distribution of aide and supplies. While there he contracted typhus and died. My dear grandfather was alone once again, and so affected by his multiple losses of loved ones that he was rather confused for a time. He bounced around the country doing jobs wherever work was to be found, living in boarding houses and drinking more than he should have to still the sadness that sometimes threatened to overwhelm him. On one particular evening he experienced a moment of clarity, raealizing that he had become his own worst enemy. He thought about his mother and grandmother and uncle and suddenly felt their spirit reminding him that he was meant to be better than he had allowed himself to become. He resolved at the moment to be the man that they had intended him to be, and with an iron will he turned himself around. Luckily he did so in time to meet my grandmother, the ultimate love of his life and the woman to whom he would surrender his heart. They became lovers, buddies, the best of friends.

The funny thing is that there was never really a time in my grandfather’s life when things came easily to him. He had to work hard and deal with tragedies that broke his heart, but never his will. Somehow regardless of his circumstances he found ways to survive and to find that one tiny speck of hope that kept him going year after year. When he was one hundred eight years old he had lost his beloved wife, his son and one of his daughters. Even some of his grandchildren had preceded him in death. Most of the friends in his age group had left this earth years before, and yet he rarely complained other than to note that he missed them all.

I always enjoyed visiting my grandfather in the tiny house where he rented a room from a widow who needed the extra income to stay afloat. He maintained his independence with a fierceness that I so admired. Much as he had done throughout his life he found ways to keep moving forward even when times became tough. When he grew older he became a bit more nostalgic, and even found ways to understand and forgive his father whom he kindly referred to as a bit of a reprobate, a man whom he nonetheless had grown to love or at least accept.

I find myself thinking of my grandfather more and more often these days, and when troubles come my way I wonder what he would do in similar circumstances. I know that he would somehow find the silver lining that he insisted is a part of every situation. He had been a penniless, homeless, seemingly unwanted orphan who was dropped on his grandmother’s doorstep like a stray cat, and yet he rose above the hurt and anger that might have been his guiding light. He chose instead to focus on the positive aspects of his story and those of the people he had met along the way. He saw himself as someone whose life had been blessed again and again.

We mostly choose how to view our individual stations in life. In the proverbial way of the glass we either decide that our lives have been half empty or half full. Grandpa taught me to choose the optimistic path, to proudly be a Pollyanna. What I have encountered has not always been pretty, in fact it has often been scary and wrought with tears. My grandfather showed me that rather than wallowing in the pity that may indeed be rightfully mine, I always need to ultimately find a way to pluck up my courage and move forward once again. Like him I have repeated the drill time and time again, and along the way discovered new friends, new allies and great love. My grandfather’s worldview has been one of the most amazing gifts of my life. He was indeed a fortunate son just as he believed and I inherited his wealth.

Stayin Alive

article-2708593-04EAC45700000514-459_634x652-optimisedForty years ago the iconic movie Saturday Night Fever debuted and became not just a an instant hit, but a film classic. I was a twenty nine year old mom with two little girls and a sense that a lifetime of adventures lay ahead of me. I had matured beyond my years not just due to my parental responsibilities, but also because I had helped my mother through two difficult mental breakdowns and had watched helplessly as my husband endured chemotherapy to combat a life threatening disease. Still I was young at heart and ecstatic when my mother suggested that we go see the movie together. I knew that it was not the kind of fare that my husband would enjoy, so I was happy to have a companion with whom to share the enjoyment of escaping into a world of music and dance for a few hours.

Back then there were still several drive in movie venues in the Houston area and Mama thought that it would be fun to watch the flick in the comfort of her car. Just as she had done so many times when my brothers and I were children she created a bed for my girls in the back seat of her automobile and brought sandwiches, cold drinks and a huge bag of homemade popcorn for our dining pleasure. I loved that she was feeling so healthy that she was her old self, and I laugh now that it never occurred to either of us to consider that perhaps the content of the film might be a bit inappropriate for my underage children. We headed off with great anticipation, glad to be a group of girls out on the town.

As it happened we were all stunned by the movie. John Travolta amazed us with his dancing and the music from the Bee Gees and other disco groups of the era was incredible. We were even surprised by the actual quality of the story and the acting. My daughters who were then three and six years old never fell asleep, because they were as taken by the film as my mother and I were. I assumed that they were unable to understand the adult nuances of the plot and simply enjoyed the characters, the soundtrack and the display of talent. As for my mom and I, we were smitten and felt like a couple of giggly teenagers as we gushed about the film on our way home. Both of us had fallen for John Travolta in his white suit, and my mom who was a stunning dancer in her own right gave him a high grade for his artistry.

I suppose that I reverted to the silliness of a high school groupie when I recounted our evening to my husband. He sensed my excitement and because he has always been quite sensitive to my every need purchased several items related to the movie as Christmas gifts for me that year. Among them was the soundtrack album which I wore out with repeated playings. The girls and I danced our hearts out on many a day, pretending that we were boogying on a disco dance floor in a contest that we would surely win.

In addition to the music my man gave me the iconic poster of John Travolta dazzling the world in that gorgeous white suit in a dance pose that seemed to represent the disco era in all of its glory. I mounted the image inside my closet door and there it stood for decades making me smile every single time that I caught a glimpse of it. It made me love my husband even more because it was symbolic of his efforts to make me happy as much as possible. While I knew that he thought that my giddiness was silly, he enjoyed seeing me smile, and so he never once suggested that maybe it was time that I finally remove my remembrance of a movie that I truly loved.

When my man and I celebrated our anniversary the following year he even went so far as to present me with a lovely dress and a pair of shoes most suitable for a night at a discotheque, as well as a promise that he to take me dancing. This was the ultimate sacrifice on his part and a sign of his undying devotion to me, because everyone who has ever known him understands that he does not like to dance. I have often joked that he is almost perfect save for that one little glitch. The very idea that he was going to subject himself to a night of twirling me in rhythm to the music was stunning, but he indeed spent an entire evening making me incredibly happy as I imagined that he and I were the most striking couple on the floor. My purple dress and and new hairstyle were virtual clones of the outfit that Travolta’s partner wore in the film and my spouse was stunningly handsome. It was a night that I shall never forget.

Somehow the next forty years flew by. Drive in movies became as difficult to find as dinosaurs. My mom continued to endure peaks and valleys in her fight with mental illness. She and I and my daughters continued to dance to whatever the latest tunes happened to be. My husband reverted to his old ways and rarely tapped his feet again unless he heard the strains of a Michael Jackson tune. My children grew into lovely young women and there came a day when that old poster that still hung inside the closet had begun to dry rot. When I finally took it down it tore in so many places that I threw it away rather than attempting to salvage it. Nonetheless, I always remembered how much I had enjoyed Saturday Night Fever.

My youngest daughter laughs to think that my mother and I actually took her to see the movie when she was only three years old. It seems that she understood a great deal more than we had imagined, but it doesn’t appear to have harmed her in any way. Like me she recalls the dancing and the music so fondly and eventually she and I sat down with her daughter to relive the moment when we became so enchanted with the film long ago. We laughed at how we had missed the scene when John Travolta was preparing for his evening on the town. There he was in all of his glory blowing his hair dry while wearing nothing but a pair of black briefs. With the beauty of modern technology we were able to rewind the scene any time that we wished, and like adolescents we took full advantage of that feature while we laughed at our silliness and my granddaughter rolled her eyes.

Back in 1977, I had barely begun my lifetime of teaching. I had not even met so many of the people who would become my dear friends. I was exiting a dark and difficult time and had become far stronger than I had ever imagined I might be. My optimism was full blown in spite of the stops and starts that had changed the trajectory of my life. Saturday Night Fever gave me a moment when I did not need to feel so serious. It provided me with a memory of just how fun my mother actually was. It blunted that pain that I had so recently endured and helped me to realize that with a balance of work and play in my life I would be able to handle any challenge that came my way.

So much has changed in forty years but the essence of the human heart and its longings that the film portrayed so well is virtually the same. Each of us have dreams and experience love and joy along with tragedy. We find ways to heal and to move ever forward. If we can do so with a lilt in our steps and a little song inside our heads, we are all the better. It’s how we stay alive.