The Dreamers

many cultures

They came to America with little more than a few belongings and hope that somehow their lives might be better than they had been from where they had traveled. They were refugees from a government that wanted to erase their language and their culture. They were hated and accused of being lazy in a place where their family had lived for ages. Perhaps in their new home things might be different, at least that is what they desperately wanted to believe as they settled into a small apartment in the foreign environment of Houston, Texas.

They found jobs that were menial by most standards but they were proud to have work so they didn’t complain. He toiled in the blazing summer sun while she worked over a hot stove cooking for the hired laborers. It was back breaking work that left them aching and exhausted at the end of each day. They struggled with learning English and their dark looks and strange accents gave them away wherever they went. Not everyone was welcoming. In fact some people insulted them without ever attempting to get to know who they were. It was a difficult and lonely life, but it was still better than what they had known. They were free. They were saving money, things that never would have happened back home.

Before long their first child was born, an honest to God official citizen of the United States of America. The man told his wife that their son must speak English and learn everything possible about this great new country. So he did as did his brothers and sisters who numbered eight before the woman was no longer able to bear another child. She had her hands full at home now raising her boys and girls, taking care of the garden and the house that they had built from the fruit of their labors. They paid for each room in full, adding to the square footage bit by bit until it was finally done.

They were not always loved by all of their neighbors. Some of them worried about having strange  people from a strange land in their midst. The children of the man and woman knew nothing of the old country. They were red, white and blue Americans right down to their toes, but still they heard taunts that they did not understand as they walked to school. Sometimes they had to dodge the rocks that hurtled dangerously close to their bodies. They did not understand why they were despised and they complained to their father, but he urged them to hold their heads high and be proud because they were citizens of the greatest country on earth. He assured them that hard work would one day change their fates. He reminded them again and again to love the United States in spite of those who wanted to chase them away.

They grew into a fine lot. They earned diplomas and served in the military. They worked as hard as their parents had taught them to do. Nobody noticed that they were the children of immigrants once they left home. They blended into society as though their ancestors had arrived on the Mayflower. They married and had children of their own. Those children became college graduates and climbed even higher up on the economic and social ladder. Their grandchildren knew nothing of hard times or being shunned. The dream that had sprouted in the hearts of their immigrant ancestors had burst forth in full bloom. It was a beautiful thing, the American way.

Those were my people. A grandmother and grandfather from Slovakia who risked all that they had ever known to find opportunity. Never again did they see their homeland or the people that they had known there. They had mothers and fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends whom they left behind. How frightening it must have been. How courageous they were even as they sometimes found prejudice and lack of understanding in their new home. What a precious gift they gave to their children and ultimately to those of us who descended from them.

Surely we owe that man and that woman some kind of payback. Perhaps it should be in welcoming the newest immigrants from foreign lands to America. If we can’t understand the people who are searching for the same freedoms that our grandparents sought, then who will? How can we deny them a new start? Why should we assume that they will not work as hard or be as devoted to the country as our ancestors were? How can we see them as less than the rest of us? Once before it was believed that people like my grandparents would ruin the United States with their ignorance and questionable habits. No such thing occurred. In fact we have contributed to the good of the country in remarkable ways. History demonstrates that in most cases those that we allow to join us enhance our society rather than tearing it down.

Houston, Texas where my grandparents settled before World War I has become the fourth largest city in the nation. It is also the most diverse. No race holds a majority position. We have people of many colors from all over the world. They have made our city vibrant and exciting. We are the future whether the rest of the nation realizes it or not. No wall will erase the fact that we are living in harmony and demonstrating to the entire world what it means to be generous of spirit and talents. Ours is the kind of place that my grandparents wanted for their children when they traveled across the ocean in a steamboat so long ago. Today there are others who are longing for the same chance. Such people have always made this country great. Perhaps it’s time for the children of yesterdays dreamers to extend a hand of welcome to the dreamers of today.

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Be That Person

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It’s quiet this morning. As I write my blog the children in my neighborhood have not yet started back to school, but by the time it is posted their educational routines will have begun again in earnest. This time of year causes me to review the totality of my own life and to consider the challenges that I faced in growing up as well as those that plague today’s youngsters.

I was five years old when I became a student for the first time. My father dropped me off rather unceremoniously at St. Peter’s Catholic School where I began the first grade with little preparation for the routine that would overtake my life. My mother had only days before returned from the hospital with my brand new baby brother. My favorite uncle was fighting for his life at the Veteran’s Hospital in a battle that would not end well. There was a bit of chaos in my little world and thus the adults decided that I would be happier in the structured environment of school than the free range of a home turned upside down by life’s events.

Nobody took a photograph of my milestone entrance into school nor did they explain to me what lie ahead. I was simply told at the last minute that the time for my formal education had arrived. To say that I was unhappy and a bit overwhelmed would be an understatement, but I was always an obedient child and so I quietly demurred to my parents’ wishes even though I was frightened and confused. Luckily my teacher was an extraordinary educator who sensed my reluctance and did her best to help me to feel more comfortable about being away from my family for long periods of time. A sweet girl named Virginia who befriended me in my hour of need helped to soften the experience as well.

I soon found that learning provided me with a profound sense of control over my life. I was by nature an anxious child, but once I began to read and perform mathematical calculations I actually became so caught up in the experiences that time passed quickly and I hardly thought about the concerns that so often crowded my mind. I found solace and escape from worry in the lessons that inched me toward becoming the person that I would ultimately be. Still, as each successive school year rolled around I found myself dreading the return to structure and assignments and being away from my family only to be surprised at how much I enjoyed being a student.

My fourth grade years brought eight year old me to school as a fatherless child. My world had been turned upside down by my father’s sudden death and I had spent the summer in a kind of sorrowful haze. I remembered how much he had loved learning of all kinds and thought of him dropping me off at the first grade. I was a psychological mess, and sadly I did not get a kind and gentle teacher that school year so I experienced my first episode of school as a source of stress. I protected myself by retreating into my books and I found that even without the kindness of the adult in whose care I existed each day I still felt a sense of serenity within the pages of those tomes that carried me to faraway worlds.

Year after year I repeated the rituals of school until one day I was the one greeting the children and directing the lessons. Knowing how important it had been to me to be in the presence of a compassionate teacher, I suppose that I spent an inordinate amount of my efforts trying to make the learning experience a lovely one for my students. I understood all too well what it was like to come to school carrying baggage that made it difficult to concentrate or think. I had learned the power of kindness and understanding in breaking through my own walls, and so I did my best to appreciate each of my students just as they were rather than worrying too much about how I wanted them to be. I always hoped that they understood how much I cared about them.

So many children today begin their educational journeys as infants when their parents place them in daycares and pre-schools while they work. The educational scope and sequence has been accelerated to a level that is demanding and allows little time for relaxing. The buses that come to my neighborhood arrive before seven in the morning and don’t return until after four in the afternoon. The school year begins earlier and earlier. Today’s kids spend most of their young lives outside of their homes and the demands placed on them are often enormous. In an effort to help them be well rounded they are enrolled in extra curricular activities and spend afternoons and weekends competing in athletic events. Their time at home just resting and being themselves is ever shrinking. With homework and projects they are at times in a perennial cycle of exhaustion that allows them less sleep than they actually need and few moments of quiet time.

As adults we have seen these things and maybe even worry about them but continue to simply go with the flow lest our youth fall behind the progress of their peers. After all the college years are looming and our kids must be competitive enough to earn spots on the finest campuses. There is no time to waste, or at least it seems so. Our intentions are good but sometimes the pressure is too much for certain individuals to bear. They break and feel as though their lives have ended. I know this because I have counseled many a young person who felt as though he or she had reached the end of all possibilities. They saw themselves as failures who would no doubt spend their adult lives feeling ashamed. They had been programed to judge themselves with rubrics that did not allow for those moments in which we demonstrate our humanity with bad decisions or horrific mistakes.

As we send our children off to school this year each of us would do well to help them to maintain perspective. A life is not a series of sprints, but rather a long distance marathon that requires us to save some of our energy for the inevitable times that become difficult. The best lessons that we might teach our children are how to pace themselves, how to keep balance in their lives, how to know when they are attempting too much, how not to constantly compare themselves to others, how to choose the right people to be in their lives, how to learn from mistakes and get back in the race. We owe it to their futures and ours to help them keep a positive perspective and to give them our time and attention every single day.

Academics are important, but it will be in the love and understanding of caring adults that our children learn the lessons that will sustain them for a lifetime. Be that person in the life of every child that you encounter. Never underestimate the power that you have to make a difference in the world one young person at a time. The best lessons are not found in books.  

Rest In Peace

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Back when Mike and I were newlyweds he was working toward an advanced degree and serving as a teaching assistant at the University of Houston. He had already been the best of friends with a fellow from Germany named Egon and the two of them were selected for the honor of working with undergraduates along with a few other students. Among them was a bright and lovely young woman from the University of St. Thomas, whose name was Marita. She hailed from a big Irish family in Chicago and it wasn’t long before the three of them became inseparable at the university.

Marita liked to joke that she was looking for a relationship at that point in her life, and that she first set her sights on Mike until she noticed the gold band that he wore on his left hand. Being a good Catholic girl she quickly shifted gears and began a flirtation with Egon who was flattered by the attention from a cute girl with the mischievous twinkle in her eyes. Soon enough they were a steady couple who often joined Mike and I for fun on weekends. It didn’t surprise us at all when they announced their engagement and impending wedding. It was to be an elegant affair with their families from Chicago and Germany coming to Houston to attend. Mike and I were honored to be members of the wedding party where we met their relatives and celebrated with joy.

Mike and Egon were both only children who became like brothers rather quickly. Mike’s mom would joke that she was happy to have two sons. We spent countless evenings laughing and talking with both Egon and Marita until late in the night. They were both intellectual giants whose conversations were always interesting and fun. Ours was a glorious friendship that seemed certain to extend well into our old ages. Somehow we were simply perfect together.

Egon and Marita were unable to have children of their own in spite of many valiant efforts so they more or less “adopted” our two girls. Both of their families lived so far away that they became bonafide members of ours. They were fixtures at every party, celebration or gathering that we had. They watched our children grow into adults and in the interim they became incredibly successful in their jobs. Egon worked as a sales representative for an international company and he was consistently one of their top earners. Marita used her talents to become a lawyer, graduating with honors and scoring high on the Texas Bar exam. She was hired by one of the premiere law firms in the city. We celebrated each milestone in our individual lives and found such great joy in being able to take for granted that these two remarkable people would always be by our side.

Life has a way of throwing challenges at us when we least expect it. Egon’s parents both died in Germany rather suddenly and unexpectedly. Shortly thereafter he was diagnosed with a number of very serious diseases including diabetes and heart problems. Marita’s father had died when she was young but her mother too died while all of this was transpiring. I suppose that they were reeling from the constant ponding of bad news and they turned to terrible and unhealthy habits to still their demons. Their lifestyle affected their performance at work and before long both of them had lost their jobs, something that was almost unthinkable given their talents and their intellects. They became more and more depressed, more unhealthy and more isolated. We saw less and less of them and we worried.

I urged them to visit their doctor and follow his instructions to the letter. They had made an appointment and assured me that they were not only going to pull themselves together, but also come to visit us on my upcoming birthday. Sadly they were never able to fulfill either promise. Shortly before their meeting with the doctor Marita became so ill that she had to be rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. Her prognosis at the time was dire and so our concern focused on Egon who was not handling the situation well.

One afternoon I had a bout of foreboding and called Egon to tell him that I was coming to check on him once the school day was over. He insisted that he was fine and asked me to just go home and visit him at another time. I reluctantly agreed but had such a strong sense that something was amiss that I called my daughter, the nurse, to get some reassurance that I was doing the right thing.

At approximately the time that I might have arrived at Egon’s home had I gone there that day he died of a heart attack. It appeared that he had checked his blood sugar and his blood pressure just as I had urged him to do because the instruments that he used for those things were sitting on a table right next to his phone. It broke my heart to think that he died alone although I realized that I would not have known what to do had I been there other than call 911. Still I felt very guilty for a long time.

Miraculously Marita recovered from her own illness and worked successfully for several more years but two separate strokes left her unable to endure the rigors of a job. She instead required help at home and slowly but surely became worse. She became a shell of her former self who was almost unrecognizable as the once powerful woman that she had been. When her best friend from college died she seemed to lose her willingness to fight. By then she was quite alone save for visits from me and Mike. She was too far away from Chicago for family there to check on her regularly and she and her brother had not been close for some time. It was a dreary and sad situation.

Marita died about fourteen years after Egon left this world. Only the staunchest of her friends attended her funeral. I gave a halting eulogy and some of my dear friends and family were there to honor Marita and support me. I felt empty and sad.

Both Egon and Marita were cremated and Mike and I kept their ashes in our home hoping that one day we might determine their ultimate fate. On several occasions they had spoken of wanting to be spread in the fjords of Norway where they had spent many happy times with Egon’s relatives from his mother’s side of the family. Now most of them were also gone and we had no idea how to fulfill their wishes. We considered taking the two of them to Galveston Bay because they had often camped on the beach there. They loved the ocean and had many happy times together in their pop up camper. Still, we just never felt that our idea was completely right.

Recently Marita’s brother who lives in Chicago with the rest of her clan contacted me. He had begun to worry that he had done nothing to provide his sister with a final resting place. He asked if I still had the ashes and wondered if I would be willing to send them to him. Of course I  understood that he had more right to them than I did. I was also happy that he had overcome whatever feelings had kept him at bay for so long. I let him know that I not only had Marita’s ashes but Egon’s as well. I asked if he wanted them both and he eagerly replied in the affirmative. We both believed that they would have wanted to stay together no matter where that may be. Soon they will find a place with Marita’s family where they will be honored and loved by nephews and cousins who like us remember how gloriously wonderful they were.

Sending them away is somewhat bittersweet, but it feels right. I have a sense of relief in knowing that their fate will be resolved. It is time for them both to rest in peace. I hope they will also know how much they were loved.

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.

I Am the Median

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Photo by Gratisography on Pexels.com

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.”