Ignoring the Distractions

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My foray into genealogy has provided me with a clearer understanding of the history of at least one branch of my family. My paternal grandmother was a Smith, descended from John William Seth Smith and Christina Rowsee. Her roots center on Kentucky, Virginia, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Despite the southern bent of her background she was not a child of Dixieland. In fact, her father was a soldier in the Union army with the Kentucky Volunteers. Still her hard scrabble story was typical of the people from those places who lived in an era during which life was often uncertain and harsh.

Grandma never had the time or the opportunity to take advantage of education, leaving her illiterate but not unwise. She possessed a folk knowledge and a strength that came from living in corners of the country that were often untouched by modernization. She embraced what she saw as her role in life, that of a partner in the daily contest for survival. Little in her life was easy, and yet she was a happy and content person, not out of ignorance but out of a feeling that she had enjoyed the fruits of progress in the march of time.

She reveled in the joy of knowing that her son had achieved levels of education and success that were beyond her dreams. She took pride in having plumbing and electricity in her home as she recalled times when such things were yet to become the norm. She took little for granted and was a model of thrift even going so far as to make clothing out of the flour sacks that held the lovely white ingredient for her biscuits and pies. She was a woman who straddled the agrarian society of her birth and the industrialized wonder of her later years, and she marveled at the glory of it all.

I try to imagine the kind of life that she and those who came before her must have led. I recall so well her folksy manner of expressing herself that seemed quaint and of another time even in the early nineteen sixties. Memories of her ways have become for me a kind of link to her parents and how they must have talked and believed. I witnessed the hint of her Kentucky background even though she never actually lived there. Like the earnest and hard working folk who struggle to this very day in that part of the country, she was never afraid of long days filled with sacrifices and back breaking labor. She was a survivor, someone who gallantly faced whatever came her way with determination and a sense of wonder, but still she worried. It was as though she understood all too well the fragility of life. She knew how quickly all for which she had worked might go away.

Kentucky has been in the news of late with sweeping generalizations about its nature as a state. We’ve been hopelessly focused on an event in which nothing really happened until our collective anger and beliefs set our discourse on fire. We’ve aligned ourselves with one side or another without actually knowing anything about the players in this farcical debacle. We’ve drawn conclusions and made judgements based on soundbites of a few seconds and photographs taken out of context. In an instant we’ve turned on a group of young boys and even more so on each other. Our outrage and indignation has occupied our thoughts for days which is ironic given that if we want to focus on Kentucky there is a far graver issue of which we barely speak.

Much of the state of Kentucky is reliant on coal mining, an industry that is slowly dying and causing its workers to die as well. Entire generations of people have worked in the dark cramped caves filled with dust that invades their lungs and quietly begins to ravage their bodies. We have eagerly taken that coal to run our electrical plants. Coal has fueled the very progress that so awed my grandmother. It has kept the northern climes warm in the dead of winter. We have given little thought to the price of our modernization. We don’t worry much about the people who have been left to face harsh economic times and even worse medical problems that are decimating young men who never realized what the act of working each day would do to them.

The real tragedy related to Kentucky has nothing to do with a few teenagers who may or may not have reacted well to a supercharged situation. It is instead to be found in the towns where the mines and the factories have become empty shells. It is to be witnessed in the rising numbers of people with are literally suffocating as they attempt to breathe with their damaged lungs. The fact that we are not outraged for them on a national level speaks to the twisted ways in which we find ourselves viewing the world these days. We have somehow got it wrong all the way around as we quibble over nothing while real problems fester.

My great grandfather who served in the Union army with the Kentucky Volunteers was sick and tired after the Civil War. He eventually hid himself away in the remote forests of Arkansas where he quietly tended his land. He had seen and buried the dead at Shiloh. He must have understood the horrors that come when we lose our way in anger. I suspect that if he had the chance he would caution us to calm down and strive for more understanding and compassion.

We are all far more complex than the sides that we choose, the uniforms that we wear, the work that we do, the places where we live. Life is a continuum, a marathon, an opportunity. It’s time that we once again learn how to move forward from our mistakes and agree to disagree now and again without pushing each other away. There are very real problems that we must tackle, and none of that will happen when we are distracted and filled with anger. It’s past time to prioritize. There are coal miners needing our help, young people watching to see how we guide them, issues crying for our attention. Perhaps we all need to take a deep breath and reach across the chasms.

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My Aging Thoughts

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I’ve generally felt like someone who keeps up with the world, a person who is ‘woke” as the new “with-it-ness” is called. I try not to become an old grouchy “fuddyduddy” who is out of touch. I Listen to popular music and actually enjoy most of it. I watch the movies and television programs that are trending. I am familiar with the latest fads. Of late, however, I feel myself drifting into the valley of those who are falling behind the times. Like Tevye in The Fiddler On the Roof  I have managed to adapt to the new ways again and again but sometimes I begin to think, “there  is no other  hand.” There is a definite line over which I do not wish to cross, and most recently I feel closer and closer to reaching that point.

I am a observant person. I have the ability to read people, to understand how they are feeling, to notice when they are having difficulties. This talent allowed me to bring an extra level of compassion to my students and even the teachers with whom I worked. I was often able to see problems before they became apparent to everyone else. I used this ability in dealing with my mother’s mental illness as well. I watched her carefully and did my best to provide her with the care that she needed before her difficulties became dangerous.

I sometimes wonder if I developed this skill from having a grandmother who spoke no English. The only way that she and I were able to communicate was through body language and facial expressions. I watched her carefully to determine how I needed to react. Because of this I began to notice more and more about the people around me. I had a knack for understanding.

It’s difficult for anyone not to notice how divided we have become as a nation. There are ever more frequent attempts to push us into tribes, different groups that may or may not feel comfortable. We are made to feel as though our very natures are dependent on the history of our ancestry. It is as though we are somehow defined by the people who came before us rather than by the content of our own personal character. We are instantly judged by the color of our skin, the location in which we live, the amount of education that we have, the nature of our work. Often these assessments are based on stereotypes that have little or nothing to do with who we really are. Among them is the idea of white privilege, a characteristic of which I am supposed to be guilty, but can’t truly accept given the reality of my background.

I am the product of a single parent home given that my father died when I was only eight. My mother was a first generation American citizen, the child of immigrants from a part of eastern Europe in which the people were thought to be somehow inferior. She and her siblings were often taunted by neighbors because they had parents who seemed strange with their foreign ways. Because of my economic situation I had few opportunities and no contacts for advancement. My brothers worked at a road side vegetable stand for seventy five cents an hour. If they dropped a watermelon they had to pay for it. Sometimes they took home less money that they might have earned because their boss claimed that they had made mistakes.

In spite of our condition my brothers and I worked hard. Our mother never complained about her lot in life and taught us not to do so either. We held our heads high and felt thankful for the opportunities in our country even though we sometimes found blockades in our paths. We persisted even in the face of barriers because our family believed that this was the greatest place on earth to live even with all of its flaws. Of late I hear so much belittling of not only the country itself, but also different factions of the population. We are being urged on both the far right and the far left to fight with each other and to hang our heads in shame at the very thought of being Americans.

I recently saw an article deriding virtually all older white males. Since I happen to be married to one of those types and friends with a number of them, I found the very thought of making sweeping statements about a particular facet of our society to be disgusting. I see it as the power play that it is. I understand that there are indeed groups who want us to turn on one another just as there have always been. There is nothing new about getting us to hate. It’s been de rigor for centuries. It is the reason that my grandparents moved to this country from Austria Hungary. It is a tactic that is as old as the story of Jesus being executed for His beliefs. Sadly we are falling for it in droves, and that makes me feel quite worried for the health of our country, for I believe that it is only when we work together that we are strong.

I intend to keep speaking out in favor of respecting all good people and rejecting those who would ask us to condemn entire groups without thought. We cannot become a nation of sects, groups, nationalities, races that are unwilling to trust one another. We have to face the reality that there is good and bad everywhere and we need to be discerning enough to combat evil without thoughtless condemnation. Instead we should be taking the time to better know and understand even those whose ways seem different and confusing. I fear that if we don’t the battles that we see will only escalate.

I’m seventy years old and greatly saddened that I may have to spend the next ten, twenty, or thirty years that I have left watching my country turn on itself. I have grown weary of watching good people demonized by persons with selfish intent. The noise is overwhelming even to my aging ears that don’t hear quite as well as they once did, but it tells me that we must be very careful. I suspect that the reality is that most of us feel this way.   

Unforgettable

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I had a tea party earlier this week with my niece. We brewed tea from the Empress Hotel in a sweet china pot decorated with pink roses and then sipped it in china cups that once belonged to my mother. We enjoyed little cookies that were a gift from one of my former students. We placed our delights on pretty china plates and my niece pretended that the goodies were crumpets. Our little ritual was enchanting, and my niece asked if we could find a day to enjoy such a tradition once each week. She has already chosen Tuesday afternoons as a possibility, and she wants to try out each of my various pots and china patterns along with different types of tea.

My niece noted that folks often have beautiful serving pieces but rarely use them, instead storing them away in cabinets for safe keeping. She thought it was nice that she was allowed to use such exquisite things, including some of my mother’s silver. Bear in mind that she is only in the fifth grade, but her wisdom and appreciation for the finer things is already fully formed.

Her comments and her joy got me to thinking about how we so often seem to wait for the perfect time to go places or use things, as though there is some magical moment for experiencing joy. All too often the so called best time for enriching our lives never actually comes. So many people die never having realized the dreams that dwell in their hearts.

Just last week I attended two funerals, one for a very young man and the other for someone only slightly older than I am. Both of them were souls who fully embraced life with trips, marathons, music, sports and friendships. They were not the sort to wait until the time seemed right to experience life to the fullest, so I wonder why so many of us seem to do that.

My paternal grandmother served her meals on china and ate with her best silver every single day. Her meals were special from breakfast in the morning to dinner at night. She used ironed tablecloths and beautiful serving bowls. She was a premier cook, but I wonder if perhaps her presentation was as important in creating an ambiance as were her culinary talents. Everyone felt quite special at her table, even on hot days in the middle of the week.

I’ve known people who kept their nice dishes and linens packed away. Their furniture was covered with sheets or plastic. They seemed to be waiting for some spectacular hour which never seemed to come. When they died nobody had ever seen the beautiful things that they owned. Often much of what they had was bartered in estate sales or sent to Goodwill because nobody associated any memories with the items. On the other hand we all recall my Grandma Little’s table settings with vivid detail. My brother even attempted to duplicate her style with the china that he purchased for his Thanksgiving feasts.

Grandma shared her pride and joy with us. We ate her tasty cooking and enjoyed stories and laughter on her well used and well worn dishes. She provided us with a feast for all of our senses that burned beautiful memories into our very souls. She made us feel special with the extra care that she took to allow us to enjoy her things as much as she did. Not once did she worry that we might break something. Instead she focused on making us feel loved and honored.

I suppose that it is natural to want to care for things that are expensive and might break. We see our everyday items bearing cracks and chips and we don’t want to damage the finer pieces. We assume that it will be wisest to bring out our best only on very special occasions and mostly save them for posterity, but what is the point of that? Why even own such things if we are only going to lock them away?

I was overjoyed that my niece enjoyed our little tea party so much. It gave me an opportunity to tell her about her great grandmother who had once owned the pieces that we used. We spoke of my mom and dad purchasing one place setting at a time as young marrieds. I told her about my father very proudly buying my mother some of her silver only days before he so tragically died. She understood the love story that I was telling her and wanted to know more. The items that we used made the tales more magical for her. We walked upstairs where I showed her pictures of my mom and dad, her great grandparents, when they were young and beautiful. She asked me to provide her with copies so that she might never forget who they were and how they once looked. She also made me promise that we would have those regular tea parties without fail. She even wants to bring one of her friends if I don’t mind.

My mother-in-law taught me how to prepare tea properly, the way her English mother had done. Each Sunday after dinner we sat at the same dining table that I now have and sipped on brew in lovely china cups while munching on tiny cookies. She told me about her family’s journey from England and of those who once braved the wild frontier of Nebraska. Like my little niece I was enchanted and invariably when I think of my mother-in-law I remember those special quiet moments that we shared. The tea and the cookies, the china and the silver, the stories and the love made our ritual unforgettable.

I suppose that if I have learned anything it is that we need to wear our fine garments, use our best dishes, travel to exotic places, live life in all of it’s glory. We only have so much time with the people that we love. Why not make those moments so special that they will never forget them?

The Greatest Gift

Gary

My son-in-law, daughter, and grandsons are in a state of grief. Their beloved Boppa died on New Years Day. Boppa, otherwise known as Gary Greene, was a good man who loved his wife without reservation and cherished his children and grandchildren with every fiber of his body and soul. He was also filled with a spirit of fun. He believed in squeezing as much joy out of each day as humanly possible.

Gary was born in Houston, Texas and grew up in an area not far from the Texas Medical Center. He graduated from Bellaire High School and then set out for the University of Texas where he earned a degree in Chemical Engineering. While he was a student there he met his wife Barbara and the two of them fell in love, married and set out on a five decades long adventure that took them all over the United States and around the world. In fact, traveling became one of their greatest joys along with their two children Scott and Terri.

Gary worked hard at his jobs, dedicated to making a comfortable life for his family. He was a Texan through and through but whenever his companies asked him to move he dutifully went where he was needed and turned the relocation into an opportunity to learn more about different places. All the while he always found time to support his children’s interests and to open his home and his heart to their friends. His loyalty to his beloved Texas Longhorns never wavered either no matter where he roamed.

Gary eventually found his way back to Texas as his working years slowly came to a close. He retired to the Austin area and threw himself joyfully into the role of being a grandfather. He took each his six grandchildren on special trips to places like London, Germany, Washington State and such. A few years ago he planned a gala vacation right after Christmas for the entire family in Mexico. On another occasion he took everyone to Hawaii. Every excursion was punctuated with his impish sense of humor, exciting activities and lots of ice cream.

Gary rarely missed the yearly reunion of his wife’s family on Thanksgiving Day. He reveled in the games and songs and loving significance of the event and became known as the resident genealogist, creating expansive charts outlining the history of the family and recording all of the new births. For many years he and his crew were the reigning champions of the washer contest, and he became as loved by his extended family of in-laws as he was by Barbara and his children.

Gary had a sonorous voice that might have served him well as a radio broadcaster. He used it often to tell his many stories and jokes. He also enjoyed singing and had hours of fun in a barber shop quartet. He and Barbara even learned how to square dance when he demonstrated yet another unexpected talent.

Most of all Gary enjoyed watching the birds that live around us. He often rose early in the morning and walked quietly through wooded areas with his binoculars and a scope to catch a glimpse of feathered creatures. It was a relaxing hobby that was so in tune with his affection for nature and the joy that spending time outdoors always brought him.

Gary had been a leader when his son Scott was in the Boy Scouts. He never lost his interest in the remarkable training that the organization affords young people. He often wore his regalia and badges when his grandsons moved up through the ranks in their own quests of excellence in the scouts. Nothing made him prouder than watching them grow into fine capable young men with amazing skills and a love of our earth and each other.

In many ways Gary Greene was an old fashioned kind of man who earnestly embodied the traits of a Mr. Rogers or a Jimmy Stewart. Family was paramount to him and he enjoyed introducing first his children and then his grandchildren to the places and skills and ideas that he had known as a young man. He taught them how to drive and how to fish. He showed them how to respectfully handle a BB gun. He played games with them like Spoons and taught them to love listening to John Denver. He took them rafting down rivers, horseback riding in the country, and zip lining in exotic places. Mostly though he just loved each one them for whomever they chose to be.

There is great sadness among the members of Gary Greene’s family. He has died after a years long struggle with cancer during which he showed them what true courage really is. He slowly lost his ability to walk and his body was riddled with pain, but he continued bringing fun into their lives as long as he could. He has left a big hole in their hearts, but the legacy of joy and optimism with which he approached each day will sustain them for all of their years to come.

Gary Greene really lived and loved. The torch of all that he believed has been passed to his children and grandchildren to remember and honor who he was with their own lives. He demonstrated to them all of the character that one needs to live happily and well. He will no doubt live on as they emulate his spirit, the greatest gift that anyone might ever leave on this earth. 

Keeping Our Families Strong

Family

What is family? We have many definitions of that unit in today’s world. Our new ways of thinking go beyond the traditional union of a mother and a father with their offspring. Now we include the single parent, gay couples, friends who join together to build a home. The composition of a family is far less important than the daily inner workings of the people who focus on living together in a state of love, caring for one another’s needs.

Sadly even in the most traditional sense many families are struggling to cope with the modern world and the pulls and tugs that threaten to tear them apart. People suffer from betrayal by the very people who should be most loyal. Our routines are so fast paced that the those who live under one roof often experience far too little interaction. The question of what constitutes a healthy family troubles us as we suspect that much of our society is crumbling under an addiction to media, possessions, money, drugs, alcohol and sexual promiscuity. We worry that we are somehow short changing our young with our outward focus rather than attention to the people that we call family.

Fewer and fewer folks actually sit down to a family dinner these days. Even when they do there are interruptions from phones, computers and blaring televisions. I find this quite sad because in my own case whenever I think about my father I realize that most of what I know of him came form our interactions at dinner each evening.

For almost nine years I sat listening to my dad’s stories, questions, jokes, conversations as we savored my mother’s cooking. It was in those moments that I heard his dreams and learned about his work. This was when he seemed the most happy as he delighted us with trivia and jokes that he had heard during his day away from us at his job. He was relaxed and open, setting aside any worries that may have haunted him. All of us enjoyed a kind of sacred bond at the family table that brought us a peace and feelings of belonging to something special.

After my father died I would draw upon memories of our family time for comfort and guidance. I understood who my father was and what he might have expected of me had he lived. Those daily gatherings were a true gift, and in my estimation the model of family life. It was not the make up of our unit that defined us. It was the love and concern and joy that we shared in very small ways from day to day. I knew that I was safe because of the genuine attention that I received in our nightly ritual.

My mother continued the traditions that we had started with my father and added to them to ensure us that our family was not going to crumble. She made it a point to be home whenever we arrived from school each day. She gave us small snacks of apples or oranges and sat with us to hear about our adventures away from her. Later we would rejoin one another for dinner where the conversations continued. Mama turned off the television and studied with us while we completed our homework. Then she tucked us into our beds every night and told us how much she loved us. She never varied in the routine attention that she provided and it helped us to overcome the fears that we may have had after Daddy died.

On Sundays we always went to church where my mother reminded us that we also had a community family. Our worship was a celebration of the blessings that Mama never failed to point out to us. She made Sundays special with visits to our grandparents who extended the love and continuity that made us feel secure and happy. While I never quite got over the sadness of losing my father, my mother made it possible for me to understand that even our different family with only one parent was strong and filled with all of the sense of belonging that we would ever need.

I suspect that the families that become fractured are suffering because the people within them are looking for the fulfillment that they desire in all the wrong places. They may have idealized visions of happiness that loses sight of the pure joy that derives from the most simple things, like a much needed hug, encouragement when we are discouraged, or acceptance just as we are. My nuclear and extended family was so good at constantly sending me the message that I would never truly be alone. There would always be someone to listen to me and understand me.

I’ve witnessed many different family dynamics in my seven decades. The best of them are not defined by the way they are comprised as much as how they interact with one another. They are made from people willing to do all of the hard work of loving and laughing and living together. They adapt and give and take. Mostly they understand the importance of spending time to share their thoughts whether they be disappointments or joyful celebrations. Families are all about acceptance and redemption.

Making a commitment to be a family is a sacred trust that should be honored. There is no job more important. No wealth or fame or accomplishment will ever compare to knowing that we have a place where we need never be afraid. It’s worth every effort that we make to keep our families strong and healthy. They are the bedrock of peace and joy in our society. It’s time that we all look into our hearts to ask ourselves how we have done in keeping our families together in loving harmony.