Skye Garden

London is not just about the past. It’s skyline is filled with ultra-modern buildings with unique architecture. Among them is Skye Garden, a thirty seven floor wonder with a three hundred sixty degree glass viewing area. This unusual structure literally appears to be falling forward onto the pavement below, but it is a sturdy structure that provides some of the best available panoramas of the city.

After a long day of taking in the sights of Buckingham Palace and the Victoria and Albert Museum we rode across town to learn what we might see. Because the number of visitors allowed into the viewing area of Skye Garden at any one time is limited, we reserved six spots for the late afternoon. The venue is free, so all we needed were the tickets that we had secured a month or so before our trip. That way we were assured a space without having to possibly wait in a long line.

The ride up to the rooftop area was smooth and we were immediately delighted when the doors opened to an airy garden like atmosphere. Because the days are long in London during the spring and summer months we were in no hurry to make the circuit on the viewing platform, so we paused at the bar ordering our individual favorites among the many wines, ciders, and beers being offered. It was pleasant just sitting and looking over the landscape as far as the eye might see as well as watching the people who were comprised mostly of young Londoners enjoying happy hour after working all day.

We spoke of the things that we had experienced on that day and celebrated our good fortune with weather, knowing that the clear sky would afford us a special look at the city. After a time we scurried out to promenade around the perimeter of the upper floor. What we saw was quite breathtaking and well worth our effort in getting there. There was the River Thames, the London Eye, and the Tower. We were able to point out the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral and some of the newer structures like the Shard which literally appears to be a pieces of broken glass belonging to some giant. Of course there was also the building formally known as 30 St. Mary’s Axe but better recognized by its nickname, the Gherkin, a silly structure that is often ridiculed with rather insulting monikers.

It was incredible fun to see the city as a whole and to realize the sheer density of the over eight million person population as evidenced in the many high rise apartments. It was also astounding to view the old historical structures seemingly side by side the more modern buildings. It seems that Londoners honor both history and progress.

There is a lovely restaurant at the top of Skye Garden but it was a bit much for us on that evening when we were growing a bit weary from our many adventures, so after taking multiple photos and marveling at the beauty both inside and outside the glass platform we decided to head back to our hotel in Bloomsbury.

By this time we had already grown fond of the pub inside the Holiday Inn which appeared to cater to more locals than tourists. We had already made friends with several of the people who came each night to visit with one another, watch some football and drink a bit of stout beer. We ordered some great pub food and set up a game of Jokers and Marbles, a strategy game that is a cross between Sorry and Parcheesi.

We played in teams of women versus men. In a three out of five tourney that lasted for more than a week the women were the victors. More importantly was the laughter and fun that we enjoyed of an evening as we gathered around a huge wooden table sipping on brews and snacking on pub food like bangers and mash, fish and chips, meat pies, onion rings, or soup with bread. It was a great way to get to know the people from the neighborhood and to sample some of the traditional food and drink. Over the course of our trip we grew to look forward to the leisurely evenings in Callahan’s Pub.

We had already experienced so much of both the old and the knew in London. We had been dazzled by the rich history of this city and delighted by the friendliness of the people that we had encountered. We felt right at home in the hotel and on the Tube. In fact, I was greatly impressed by the polite behaviors that I continually encountered. Each time I entered a tightly packed train car there was invariably some young man wanting to surrender his seat to me. It was nice to see such mannerly behavior to be called “Mum or Mother” out of respect. I was very quickly learning to love this city and its people.

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The Yanks Come Home

The Yanks Come Home

Each of us is unique and yet through a combination of nature and nurture we also share common traits and histories from our ancestors and our relationships. Our characteristics and our personalities come together to make us who we are and how we react in the world around us. I am a mixture of European DNA and a lifetime of experiences in the United States of America. I have always been curious about the long strand of genes and stories that brought me to my personal place and time. I have been surrounded by books and tales and inherited traits for all of my life, and I have sought answers to questions that swirl in my mind.

In a sense I have been slowly moving in search of the source of so much of who I am from the time that I listened to my father reading fairytales to me and the days when my English teacher, Father Shane, enthralled me with literature and poetry from the greatest authors of Britain. I am a “Yank” who desperately needed to see the place from whence I came, and so I embarked on a journey meant to enlighten me and answer the questions for which I longed to find answers.

Thus I planned a trip to England with my husband, and my siblings and their wives that was to commence in the middle of May and end on the anniversary of my father’s death which seemed a fitting tribute to him and the people who had made him. It would prove to be more than a casual adventure, and instead provide me with the a kind of spiritual appreciation of the intricate dreams and journeys of the people who came before me. I have witnessed my own humanity in the eyes of strangers in a foreign land who nonetheless seemed so much like me.

Our trip began with the irritations and vagaries of rainy weather that left my brother and his wife stranded in Houston and threatened to prevent the rest of our party from making a connection in Dallas. Luckily we had a determined pilot who got us where we needed to be just in the nick of time. Our economy seats were hopelessly uncomfortable and so we spent the night fully awake and thinking that perhaps we might never again want to board a plane to fly home unless we upgraded our accommodations.

I had to admit that one night of torture in cramped conditions was nothing to fuss about when compared with the dangers and discomfort that our long ago ancestors must have endured as they traveled on ships to a world of unknowns. I wondered what hardships had driven them to leave kith and kin behind, and thought of how awed they would be to see me watching movies while a bird like machine flew me across the Atlantic in only a few hours. Somehow my complaints seemed overblown when viewed through the lens of their realities.

It was around noon London time when we arrived. Thanks to the help of Gerald Warren, a friend and work colleague who travels frequently to that glorious city, we knew exactly how to navigate from the airport to our hotel in Bloomsbury. We took the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station and then secured a taxi for a ride to the Holiday Inn where we would stay for the next fifteen days.

Since it was a Sunday we quickly left our rooms in search of the traditional English Sunday roast, and found a nice pub just across the street that was serving the food we sought in a warm environment filled with locals who chattered happily with one another. My husband Mike had grown up eating his grandmother’s roast and Yorkshire pudding. She had immigrated to Texas from Newcastle just before World War I when she was only eight years old. While she grew to love her new country she often recalled hearing the strains of “Auld Lang Syne” when her ship departed and she could never again enjoy that tune without feeling a bit of wistfulness. All that she had known seemed to have been left at that dock, but she never forgot the traditions of her native land which included having afternoon tea and preparing Yorkshire pudding with roast beef on Sundays.

The roast, potatoes and carrots at the pub were quite good, but the Yorkshire pudding was rather disappointing. Mike had eaten the muffin like delicacy that his grandmother made and he was searching for some that might come close to hers. Ours was not even close to his granny’s. Nonetheless we felt quite satisfied and ended our first day in London with a leisurely walk around the neighborhood. We were tired from staying awake all night and eager to begin our tour in earnest on the following day, so we went to the Russel Square underground station that was just around the corner from our hotel and purchased Oyster cards to cover the cost of rides on the Tube in the coming days.

I was already enchanted by what little I had already seen of London and I felt somewhat like a young and eager child as I tried to quell my anticipation of the wonders that lay ahead. Thanks to the common language, the friendliness of the people,  and the advice from Gerald and others who had already visited England I felt certain that we were in for a glorious time. My brother Pat and his wife Allison were finally on their way to meet up with us, and I had rain gear at the ready for London’s notoriously wet weather. I was ready and so I fell soundly asleep feeling as though in some spiritual way I was back home visiting relatives. I felt that we Yanks had finally come home.

Food Poverty

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My brothers and I were incredibly thin while growing up, but we never missed a single meal. Our mother’s food budget was often as slim as we were, but she new enough about nutrition to build a menu schedule that provided us with what we needed without breaking the bank. She was a creative grocery shopper who also had great talent for making delicious meals using a small number of ingredients. Thus we enjoyed the luxury of never going to bed hungry. What we ate had a healthful purpose, so it was a rare day when there were empty calorie foods like sodas or sugary snacks in our home.

My mom understood the value of basics like eggs, beans, and milk in helping our bones to grow and our muscles to maintain their strength. We often took egg sandwiches to school for lunch which admittedly embarrassed me, but they actually tasted good and filled us with enough protein to get us through the afternoon classes. She checked the circulars which were left on our door or arrived in the mail to find the best sales on produce and meat. Our jaunts to various stores were based on a well planned journey in search of the lowest prices. What we would consume during the week was based on whatever was seasonably inexpensive. We learned to appreciate whatever was placed before us, and ate only the amount that was offered. Mama enforced portion control to ensure that the food in our pantry would last for a week at a time. We knew that we were never to take something from the refrigerator or the cabinet without explicit permission lest we ruin her carefully laid plans for feeding us. Snacks were an unknown luxury unless it was a Saturday evening during the times of the month when our mother got paid.

We never had free lunch at our school. We had to purchase the meals, so it was rare for us to eat fare other than whatever we brought from home. Once in a great while Mama would treat us to pizza day or something that we really enjoyed like the turkey and dressing feast at Thanksgiving time. The nice ladies who worked in the cafeteria gave me noticeably huge mounds of food whenever I came through the line. Some of my friends would puzzle over why my portions were so much bigger than theirs. I often suspected that the servers looked at my skinny arms and legs and felt a surge of compassion, adding an extra spoonful to my plate. I always appreciated their generosity and eagerly ate every single drop of food on my tray.

I recently saw an article on the BBC website noting “food poverty” in economically wealthy nations including Great Britain and the United States. The story asserted that one in five children in the U.S.A. come to school hungry. I’m sure the data is correct, but I truly wonder why. As a teacher I know that low income children had access to free or reduced cost breakfast and lunch. The meals were generally nutritious and inviting, but I witnessed so many youngsters throwing most of it away, complaining that it was not what they wanted to eat. The amount of food that ended up in the trash boggled my mind, especially since it was often a step up from the fried egg sandwiches that filled my own childhood belly on so many days. Somehow there is a kind of disconnect between the hunger that children have and their willingness to take the food that is being offered to them.

I also know that with food stamps, food pantries and food banks there are multiple sources of food, so I wonder why families with school aged children are unable to provide just one more meal at home in the evening. There were times when our dinner consisted of a pot of pinto beans. We’d fill a bowl and enjoy the flavor of a high protein and fiber item that also contained vitamin C among other nutrients. We went to bed without pangs of hunger, and never thought to complain that it was such a homely meal. I wonder if there is truly a lack of food of any kind in homes or if the problem is that the children simply don’t want to eat what is available or the parents don’t know how to prepare low cost nutritious meals.

I have a long time friend who spent years working in a church food pantry. She insists that it is very rare for a family to have no source of food. She often speaks of the many places where staples may be found for free. I also know that most public schools are open for breakfast and lunch in the summer that is available without cost for not just children, but the adults in their families as well. The offerings that I have seen are both nutritious and appealing, leaving only one meal to be prepared at home. A good soup can be created without a great deal of money, and if it is paired with some bread it fills the belly nicely. I know this to be true because my mom was the soup queen who used leftover bits of this and that to create fine stews.

I don’t wish to downplay the scourge of hunger or to insinuate that it does not exist, but I wonder if we are adequately preparing those who suffer from “food poverty” in the methods for securing staples and then preparing wholesome meals. My mom learned from her mother who managed to feed a family of ten during the Great Depression. Maybe there are simply too many people who have no idea how to make limited resources work to keep hunger from stalking. Perhaps programs designed to feed the less fortunate should also include lessons on how to make the most of a food budget. I wonder how much waste is created from a lack of the kind of knowledge that my mother had.

It seems almost unbelievable that anyone in our country should be hungry, and yet the data shows that we have yet to feed everyone in spite of great efforts to do so. Maybe we need to include menus and recipes with the food that people purchase with food stamps that might help them to gain maximum benefit from what they choose to buy. Surely we need to determine exactly where the problems lie so nobody need complain of hunger. We have a cornucopia of food in this nation, much of which is destroyed each day. Somehow we are doing something wrong, and we need to honestly determine what changes might work to eliminate the scourge of hunger once and for all.

A Great Destination

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It’s January and I have roses and azaleas blooming in my yard. Houston is a funny place. Some years the weather is like Florida or southern California. The temperature stays in the sixties and seventies for most of the winter and the plants are fooled into thinking that it is already spring. Now and again we actually get some ice and snow, but generally our winters are mild. It’s one of those lovely things that makes up for the heat of the summer, and it’s still just cool enough to allow women to wear their boots.

Houston was named a top place to visit by Forbes magazine. Lots of folks wondered why in the world anyone would choose our city as a destination. After all our roads are perennially under construction and the traffic can often be brutal. Most of us who live here take it for granted that nobody would come for the scenery with our flat as a pancake landscape. What we don’t seem to think about are some quite wonderful attractions that we have that might actually be quite appealing for visitors.

For some time now Houston has been ranked as one of the best foodie towns in the country. It competes nicely with New Orleans, New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. There are some who believe that the food here may even be the best in the country. We have some amazing chefs and they don’t just provide a meat and potatoes kind of fare. The diversity in our city brings cuisine from all over the world and innovations in cooking that make it worthy of a visit for anyone who enjoys fine dining at its best.

Of course it may seem ridiculous to think that anyone would want to visit H-Town just to eat, and that’s a good point, but there are still lots of things to do here. We have sporting events at the professional level year round and our universities provide additional athletic venues that are lots of fun. Our museums are wonderful and boast variety from science to medicine to space to modern art. It would take a week to visit each of them and the effort would be well worth it.

Speaking of the arts, our Alley Theater is world renowned and it’s not the only cast of players in town. There’s also the Houston Symphony, the Houston Ballet, and Theater Under the Stars. At any given moment there are great musicians and comedians playing in town at Jones Hall, the Reliant Center, the Toyota Center, the Smart Financial Center, Jones Hall, the Woodlands, the Wortham Center or the Hobby Center. Our universities also host plays and musical festivals which are of exceptional quality.

Shopping is world class as well with the Galleria attracting folks from all over the world and smaller places like Memorial City, Highland Village, or the Woodlands offering a wonderful experience in their own right. There are even outlet malls and quaint shops dotted all over the city and its suburbs. Houston has a number of Farmer’s Markets as well that offer everything from spices to pottery along with fresh fruits and vegetables.

A short trip of about an hour will take visitors to Galveston with its beaches, historical homes, and quirky shops. There’s fun to be had swimming, boating or just relaxing in the sun and sand. The seafood there has its own unique taste and ranks with some of the best to be found anywhere.

I think that those who are quick to make fun of Houston’s designation as a great place to visit forget about how fun a trip here might be. With the right planning a traveler can catch the Houston Rodeo or spend a day at the Nutcracker Market. We host quilt shows that feature exhibitions from all over the world. The Houston Garden Club Bulb Mart is a fall favorite along with some of the most glorious weather that the city has to offer.

Those of us who live here are always so busy that we don’t stop to think of how much there is to do at any given moment. For a newcomer the possibilities for fun and entertainment are almost endless. We don’t boast any mountains or grand natural wonders but our springtime Azalea Trail is breathtaking. A trip along Buffalo Bayou is a wonder. A day spent at Brazos Bend State Park is both educational and inspiring with its up close encounters with wildlife and its observatory aimed at the heavens. A drive through River Oaks is a fun as visiting the lovely homes in New Orleans.

I suspect that an out of towner would easily be able to fill a calendar with activities for weeks just with things I have mentioned and I haven’t even skimmed the surface of the many sights that we have here in Houston. I totally understand why my city was chosen as a great destination for anyone hoping to have a great vacation. In fact, I’d like to challenge Houstonians to try a “staycation” someday to enjoy what our great city has to offer.

I am the first to admit that Houston has its flaws but I have yet to travel to any place that is perfect. In the grand scheme of things Houston can be lots of fun and even provide a few nature activities for those who prefer the outdoors. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to find more than enough to do. 

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?