Finding a Long Lost Friend

Kathy

I met Kathy at a local Tex Mex restaurant. It had been well over fifty years since we had seen each other in person. She and I had both once lived on Belmark Street in southeast Houston. Both of our mothers were widows and both of us were products of an education at Mt. Carmel High School. I was in the Class of 1966 and she was a member of the Class of 1967, the group with whom I might have shared my teenage years had my parents not decided to send me to first grade a year early. We had both lived through a lifetime of memories in the years since last being together and it was only through the miracle of Facebook that we had reconnected once again.

I adored Kathy’s mother. She was a tiny woman who was nonetheless a giant in my eyes. She seemed capable of staring down the devil if need be. She was incredibly courageous and one of the few women that I knew who actually pursued a career even after she became a mom  and her husband was still alive. Kathy’s mom and mine often attended dances and events sponsored by Parents Without Partners, a social group that gave them a place to be with people who understood what it was like to raise a family alone.

When I knew Kathy on Belmark Street she was known by the nickname, “Candy.” She was stunningly beautiful even as a child and only became more lovely as she grew. She had the same spunky spirit as her mom and I so enjoyed doing things with her. She was the perfect counterpoint to my shy and reserved nature. When I was around her I felt at ease and able to just be myself. She was a fun person who helped me push aside the awkwardness that sometimes made me wonder if I was ever going to find my way in the adult world. Her joyous nature rubbed off on me, and she made me forget all of my childhood angst.

One of our favorite activities was playing dolls on my driveway. Kathy had one of the very first Barbie dolls and I was in awe of the model like figure of the toy. I stuck with my Madame Alexander doll that was lovely in its own right. We collected milk cartons and boxes and transformed them into furniture for our dolls. We used scraps of cloth to make rugs and pillows. My mom showed me how to design a four poster bed for my doll out of a cigar box and four clothes pins. We set up our make believe homes and pretended that our dolls were stewardesses living in exotic places around the world. It was more fun than almost anything else that I did in those days. I treasure the memories and the things that Kathy taught me when we were together.

Sometimes our play was interrupted by earnest discussions of how we might actually become hostesses in the sky once we were old enough to apply for jobs that we considered highly glamorous. It was after all still in the days of infancy for mass air travel and anything associated with the industry appeared to be quite exciting to us. We had so many hopes and dreams about being independent women like our moms but on a far grander scale.

Kathy’s home was different from mine. There were no beige walls or conservative ways of decorating. Instead bright colors transformed each room into a happy place that made me smile. Kathy’s mom kept a bowl of candy on the dining table and always urged me to take whatever I wanted when I visited there. I could not imagine such a tempting treat lasting more than a few seconds at my own house, and yet it appeared that Kathy and her younger siblings rarely even touched the sweets. I decided that making something routine and commonplace made it less enticing and thought that Kathy’s mom was a very bright woman indeed for thinking of such a thing.

Kathy and her family moved away when I was a freshman in high school and while her mom and mine continued a fast friendship, I had become devoted to my studies and a small circle of classmates with whom I spent my rare hours of freedom. Kathy and I saw less and less of each other even as we no doubt passed one another in the hallways of our school. Life took hold and we went our separate ways marrying, raising children and working. The years went by one by one, slowly at first and then at a rate so fast that we hardly noticed that a whole lifetime had passed.

Suddenly we were older women, retired from our jobs, enjoying our grandchildren and finding more and more free time on our hands. Then we found each other on Facebook and began to enjoy the commentaries that we each posted. I realized that somehow even with all of the changes that had taken place in our lives at heart we were still those young girls with dolls and dreams and incredible moms. It seemed time to have a reunion, and so we decided to meet for lunch and to reminisce.

I am never quite certain how it is possible to reconnect with a long lost friend so quickly, but we had no problem whatsoever keeping a conversation going. In fact, we devoted an hour to speaking of our past, present, and future for each decade that we had been away from each other. I was a bit shocked when I finally glanced at my watch and realized that we had been chatting away for nearly five hours and I suppose that we might have continued even longer save for the fact that other responsibilities were calling us home.

It was grand seeing Kathy again and knowing that our shared experiences had somehow carried us through every challenge that came our way. Like our moms we are survivors who have seen both the good times and the most horrific and yet we are still standing. Kathy is as beautiful as she ever was and she still has the ability to make me smile. She has become a font of wisdom from whom I learned so much in just a few short hours. I’d like to think that we will continue our meetings now that we have found each other again. We share something quite special and I suspect that our mothers are smiling down on us from heaven, happy that we have found to connect again.

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I Am the Median

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From a statistical point of view my life has hovered around the median. I represent continuity and moderation and a mix of conservative and progressive points of view. While my life was tragically made a bit unusual for the times in which I lived by my father’s early death, that anomaly was mediated by the environment in which I grew into an adult. I am a product of a small and insular neighborhood in a time when my native city of Houston was still more of a town than a city. My life was guided by routines and traditions that rarely varied. There was an entire village of people both familial and unrelated by blood who watched over me. I grew strong and happy and so loved that I was ready to tackle any challenges that came my way. As an adult I was so busy attempting to reconstruct my own sweet world for my children that I barely noticed how much the times were actually changing.

When I was seven years old I was uprooted from everything and everyone that I had ever known to accompany my family on a journey west where a quiet revolution of opportunity and change was overtaking people like a fever. My days there were painful because I had lost the anchor of extended family and friends that always made me feel so secure. I was among people who were so busy building dreams that they had little time to welcome us. I went to school each day feeling nameless and misunderstood. Ironically my father felt the same way at his work. None of us ever fit in to the race for something unknown that so dominated life in the part of California that would one day be the epicenter of Silicon Valley. Before long we all just wanted to be back home in Texas.

With little more than a wing and a prayer we slowly made our way back to what we had known. Along the way my father searched for a job. His efforts to find work lead us all the way back to Houston, and for the very first time in a long time I recall feeling quite relieved even though we had not yet settled into a permanent home. My father’s deadly car accident left my mother bereft and scrambling to create a sense of continuity for all of us. Luckily we had returned to the people for whom we had longed when we were far away and they gathered in unison to help us every step of the way. Oh, how I loved them and still do!

My mother wisely returned us to the very neighborhood from whence we had moved only months before. We were welcomed like the Prodigal Son. Our life began its constant revolution around church, school, family and friendships. There was a lovely sense of calm about the way we lived. We stayed in the same house until all of us were grown and on our own. We had the same neighbors for years. It was rare for anyone to move away back then. When we went to church each Sunday we saw the familiar faces of people who smiled and greeted us by name. We attended the same school with the same kids who are friends with us even fifty years later. Each Friday evening we visited my maternal grandmother in a gathering that included all of my aunts and uncles and cousins. In the summer we traveled to visit with my paternal grandparents on their farm.

We constantly heard stories from our elders about the history of who we were that carried little nuggets of expectation without being overbearing. At church we learned about the comfort that is always available from God and the ways of compassion and love that Jesus taught the world. Our teachers and our parents spoke openly to us about both the greatness and the imperfections of our country, urging us to always remember our responsibility to maintain a healthy democracy.

We were always a bit behind the fads and movements along the two coasts of the country. We were more inclined to study how things went there before jumping into the idea of adopting radical change without much thought. Our lives were slow and steady like the tortoise. We knew that we would eventually get to our desired destinations, but we did not want to lose sight of more important things like family and friends along the way.

Suddenly it seemed as though both the innovations and the cautions that were brewing along the two poles of our nation roared up around us, forcing us to see the world through different eyes. The titans of media and advertisement from the east coast were burrowing into our brains with television. The movie moguls influenced us with films. Finally the masters of Silicon Valley invaded our lives with computers and smart phones and a burgeoning social media. People began moving around and moving up. Extended families had less and less time for each other and friends were often on the go. We woke up one morning and the city of Houston had become the fourth largest metropolitan area in the country.

Some of what happened while we were sleeping was very good. There were breakthroughs in civil rights that were imperfect, but steps in the direction of equality. Women were provided more opportunities than ever and their voices began to be heard. We acknowledged that love is love regardless of whether the people who express it for one another are man and woman or man and man, woman and woman. Medicine and science made our lives easier and our affluence grew.

At the same time we have lost many things as well. Our neighborhoods flux and flow to the point that the relationships that we form there are constantly changing as people move from one place to another. Our extended families are in far flung places and gathering our relations together becomes more and more complex. Our churches and our beliefs are continually challenged. We fear for our children to play outside alone. We argue and rankle with one another and wonder if how far we change is enough or too much. We feel as though we are being ruled by extremes, either far too cautious or far too willing to upend all that we have known. We have lost our sense of history and our willingness to accept that none of us, not even ourselves, are free from the taint of bad decisions or hurtful behaviors. We judge and decry those who do not share our own philosophies. We honor those who boast and demean while turning our backs on the people who live with quiet dignity and respect. It feels as though we are somehow being manipulated by some unseen hand as though we are merely robots. None of it feels good, and some of us long for the good old days not because we are unaware of the problems that some people faced while we were comfortable, but because we need to bring the village of diverse people who loved us back together once more. We need to feel that sense of chest bursting pride in our families and friendships and churches and cities and states and our country that might have once brought us to a sense of belonging to something special.

We have many folks attempting to understand our thinking and our motivations and I suspect that they are getting us all wrong. They tend to make assumptions about us based on their own backgrounds rather than ours. Suddenly I find myself feeling untethered much as I did when I was seven years old in an environment so different from what I had always known. I understand how it must have been to be my father daring to dream, but realizing that he did not quite fit into a way of life so unlike his own. I am the median, an average person with a big heart and a dream of embracing the people to both the right and the left of me in a hug that says,  “You might want to know how folks like me really feel rather than foisting your ideas on everyone. Your constituency reaches from sea to shining sea and there is a great deal in the middle that you are yet to understand. Maybe it’s time for you to learn.”

An Exceptional Plan

Great planning results in a great trip. Our recent foray into Great Britain was a success in part because we embarked on a great deal of research long before we departed for our journey across the pond. It began with a copy of Rick Steve’s book outlining the wonders of London that was gifted to us by our good friends Eric and Jenny Brunsell on the occasion of our fiftieth anniversary. Known as “Jeneric” on their travel blog the two have coursed across the globe on week long junkets. They encouraged us to do our homework and then create a master plan.

Once we had a general idea of what we hoped to accomplish on the trip we met with another good friend, Gerald Warren, who travels to London and environs at least once each year and has become quite comfortable leading tours to that great city. We sat down with him over dinner and he shared the nuts and bolts of where to stay, how to get there and the best sights. His insights were incredibly useful from noting that we would get a lower rate on fights from Austin rather than Houston, to helping us find a hotel where we would feel comfortable.

From Gerald we learned that the Holiday Inn Bloomsbury is both a bargain and a great place to stay. It is located in one of the safer areas of London while still being only a block away from the Russell Square underground station. The staff is exceedingly helpful. The food, especially the breakfast, is excellent. The rooms are clean. All in all staying there eliminated any worries that we may have had about where to sleep at night.

Gerald also alerted us as to the best way of getting from the airport to our hotel. We learned that the easiest and least costly route was to take the Heathrow Express train to Paddington Station and then get a black cab from there. His suggestion that we buy a round trip ticket saved us from a great deal of stress on our return trip home. We also spent far less money than we might have if we had simply jumped into a cab to journey to the hotel.

It was also Gerald who urged us to purchase an Oyster card at the underground station. There is a six dollar a day cap to charges on the card so all we had to do is calculate how many days we would be traveling around London and then put that amount on our cards. After that we simply used the card to go from one place to another without any problems. Once we had completed the trip we were able to get a refund on any remaining funds by filling out a form. The instructions for doing so were clearly posted in each station.

My husband Mike and sister-in-law Becky were both project managers in their working days and their skill in designing plans for our sightseeing were invaluable. We met at Becky’s home several months in advance of the trip to determine what we wanted to see and when we would do so. Becky kept careful records that included the cost of each event and the distance between venues. We borrowed from ideas in the Rick Steves book and from suggestions made by Gerald at our dinner meeting. Mike had the idea of using a London city map, also a gift from Eric and Jenny, to note where each place was located and then visit those venues in the same area on the same days. I reserved tickets at a number of places and found hotels or flats for our travel outside of London. Whenever I made purchases for the entire group Becky made note on a spreadsheet that she meticulously kept current so that we would be able to share all of the expenses equally.

Having different points of view led us to do things that we might otherwise never have considered. We ended up in Brighton because my sister-in-law Allison wanted to see a beach. While the area was not quite what we expected we nonetheless encountered situations that serendipitously made our trip even better. My brother Pat wanted to take the Jack the Ripper tour and that too ended up being a grand way to spend an evening. Allison also introduced us to the idea of spending some of our evenings playing games inside a local pub that in many ways was one of the highlights of the vacation. Our unique personalities created a nice balance for the trip and allowed us to experience many different kinds of places and events. 

Since my husband Mike had a stroke during a July 4th trip two years ago I was a bit leery of traveling to a place outside of the United States even though his health has been quite good for many months. Having a small group of people with us gave me far more confidence than I otherwise would have had. We looked after one another and I knew that if anything happened to anyone we would be able to work together to make things go well. My brother Pat and his wife Allison have both driven ambulances and cared for people as first responders. They know how to stay calm in an emergency and that alone eliminated any fears that I might otherwise have had.

Pat not only operated an ambulance but in his multi-faceted work life he drove a mail truck with the steering wheel on the right side, an eighteen wheeler delivery truck, and a fire engine. He was a natural choice for driving around the countryside and he did a yeoman’s job. Nobody else in our group would have been able to chauffeur us around as safely as he did. We instead would have had to take trains and as a result might have missed so many of the sights that we saw from our car.

My brother Mike was our Zen master. He is always so calm and flexible that he kept us all working together. He was our model of patience. He enjoyed himself regardless of the circumstances, never complaining or creating controversy. I often found myself looking to him to keep my anxieties at bay. Sometimes a quiet person who appears to just be following is in fact a kind of silent leader.

I can’t imagine having a more perfect trip than the one that we enjoyed. We used the suggestions and talents of many individuals and then just went into auto pilot once we landed in London. Ours was a memorable trip that none of us will ever forget. I’m hoping that we might be able to come together once again to perhaps travel to Vienna and from there to the birthplace of our grandparents in Slovakia. I know that I am more than ready to begin to planning.

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.

You Are Where You Belong

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Everything you did brought you where you are now, where you belong.

—-Bran, Game of Thrones

Both the books and the HBO series of the epic Game of Thrones have been an international success making countless individuals famous and wealthy, not the least of which is the author, George R.R. Martin. Like The Lord of the Rings the story serves as a kind of fantastical history of mankind with a cast of characters with both godlike abilities and disappointing human frailties. GOT as it came to be known is made exciting with dragons, magic, battles and intrigue but at its heart is the story of people. It is one gigantic metaphor for all that each of us endures as we march steadfastly on our personal hero’s journey.

I once wrote an extensive paper about my paternal grandfather for an oral history/folklore class. I interviewed the patriarch of my family over a period of countless hours learning as much about the facts of his life as possible, as well as determining the overriding theme of his existence as revealed by his words and the things that he chose to remember. By the time that I made my recordings he was over one hundred years old and had experienced the most incredible events of the twentieth century which he often used as a comparison to the nineteenth century into which he was born. While his life was filled with hardship and abandonment much like Jon Snow in Game of Thrones he harbored little ill will toward those who had chosen to neglect him, instead patterning his life after those he most admired.

Grandpa often spoke of everyday heroes like the grandmother who raised him with a kind of reverence for nature and people. He was apt to recall a strong man from his childhood community who performed unbelievable feats. He borrowed his name and his greatest admiration from an uncle who had graduated from West Point. He regaled us with stories of people of honor and integrity as though they had been gallant knights of old. He almost pridefully boasted of his own prowess in being immune to the ravages of the smallpox epidemic that overtook his town as well as his determination to boldly walk away from what he believed to be his drunken ways. He journeyed alone from one place to another until he found his ultimate purpose in life which was to love and care for the fair maiden, Minnie Bell, his wife and my grandmother. He was loyal to her and to his children, and he overcame one challenge after another with the overriding belief that his journey was exactly as it had been meant to be.

I cut my teeth on stories from my grandfather and the fairytales that my father read to me. My own life was punctuated with tragedies that changed my course again and again. While I am at heart a person of routine I had to learn how to adapt to sudden and unexpected changes just as we all do. Life is never a straight open road, instead it is a series of twists and turns and rocky pathways. We have to not only be willing to endure the surprises that await us but also to deal with them. Like my grandfather I not only learned how to don my armor in difficult times, but also how to appreciate how each little alteration of the journey seemed to lead me to people and places that I was destined to encounter. Everything brought me to this very moment in time and I know that it is exactly where I belong.

Each of us is a character in our own epic story in which we meet villains, heroes, brave knights who protect us. We are sometimes betrayed, but more often we find comrades who stand beside us through the worst that nature or mankind throws in our paths. We ourselves falter and learn and grow. We are surprised by those who rise to occasions when we had underestimated their bravery. We are humbled by those who seem lost and then fight to redeem themselves. We find true love when we least expect it. We learn how to appreciate the best of our days because we understand that there will also be those that leave us exhausted and bereft. If we are wise we are flexible and willing to embrace change for it is as inevitable as the rising and setting of the sun.

The stories that we tell, that we read, that we cherish have only so many themes, so many literary devices. No matter how fantastical they may be, in the end they are based on our common human experiences and they center on people and how they adapt to the forces that enter their lives. Our history is in fact a personal tale that should remind us of our imperfections and the power of mercy and redemption in moving us forward.

We are living is strange time. All the progress of mankind should be making us happy but instead the world is tinged by discontent. We are walling ourselves off inside our castle keeps, when our knowledge should tell us that eventually the things that we most fear will find a way inside. We need to be open to alliances with those who differ from us and we must develop alternative ways of thinking. We need to search for the real heroes who are often the quiet ones rather than those who boast. Mostly we must remember that each of us has a grand purpose that is not nearly as ordinary as we may believe. Let us rejoice and be happy in the good that we have done and show mercy when we falter, never forgetting that we are just where we belong.