Planting A Garden Of Love

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While there are still signs of winter in many parts of the world here in Houston, Texas spring has definitely arrived. The azaleas in my yard are blooming and the roses are bursting forth in all of their glory. The once barren trees have tiny leaves peeking from the limbs, and tiny ferns are popping up from the soil. Signs of life are everywhere with even the pair of doves that live in my backyard cooing in harmony with the noisy mockingbirds and jays. This is one of my favorite times of year when nature reminds us of redemption and possibilities.

This year I decided to plant some vegetables in my flowerbeds. It’s been many years since I have done that. For a time when my daughters were still young we had bountiful crops each spring and summer. Our larders were filled with green peppers, tomatoes, squash and cucumbers. This year I am hoping to enjoy my former success at gardening, but a worry about the pesky squirrel that often visits my yard or the countless birds searching for a meal. I’ve been doing some research in how to prevent critters from consuming my vegetables before I have the chance to harvest them and I’m not so sure that I will be able to ward them off because I don’t own the one thing that is supposed to be a great guard against pilferers. Namely my best bet is to have either a cat or a dog to chase them away.

Back when my farming was so successful we had a fabulous dog named Red. She was a born hunter who often displayed her trophies for us to find. She was a golden retriever who had perfected every one of her instincts. She was fast and always alert. No mice dared come near our place and birds were very respectful in her presence. They tended to stay perched in the trees rather than attempting to make a snack out of my vegetables. I suppose that I never really thought of just how much Red was doing for us in the way of standing watch. I knew that she was a great guard dog when it came to humans, but I didn’t appreciate her vigilance over my garden as much as I should have.

Red was as smart as they come and always faithful. She loved everyone in the family and most of the neighbors as well. Sometimes she hopped the fence and took little strolls around the block but she always came back home. I was amused by the fact that she was able to get out of the backyard but could not seem to get back in, so she just waited patiently on the front porch for us to notice that her wandering was done. I’d sure like to have her back, but she crossed the Rainbow Bridge long ago along with other friends like Buddy and Scarlet and Shane. So I guess I’m on my own in protecting my garden this summer if I’m to taste some juicy tomatoes or enjoy a bunch of succulent squash.

It’s going to be fun watching all of my plants grow from the sun and the rain. I’m anxious to see what varieties will be the most successful. I have onions and potatoes, cucumbers and tomatoes. There are peppers and squash and all kinds of herbs. Last year I enjoyed having fresh basil and oregano for my soups and salads. This year I’ve added parsley, cilantro and thyme.

While I was searching for ideas as to how to keep the marauders at bay I found recipes for preparing a hot pepper concoction to create a ring of protection around my plants. That’s when I discovered a cute little poem about how to plant a garden of love. It suggested that it’s time to squash hate, prejudice and jealousy while peppering our actions with kindness and compassion. I liked that idea and began to think of how appropriate it is to focus on renewing ourselves as well as our gardens at this time of year. Much like the plants that are springing back to life, now is a time for each of us to consider how we might grow and become the best versions of ourselves.

Working in the soil and creating life is one of humankind’s most basic tasks. As we plunge our hands into the dirt to plant seeds and cuttings we become one with nature and feel the kind of unity that we should always enjoy with the world around us. We need to be the stewards who care for the wonderful things that we have, and that should include the air, water, plants, creatures and people with whom we share this earth. We cannot forget our obligations to treasure this amazing planet and all that it holds. Springtime reminds us of what we need to do.

When I think of Red I realize the kind of traits that all of us need to cultivate. She was as sweet and loving as any creature might ever be. Best of all was her infinite loyalty and unwavering instinct to protect. She was also sensitive and compassionate as in a time when I was very ill with the flu and she slept by my bed all day long, making certain that I would be okay. We might all learn a thing or two about faithfulness from a wonderful pet like Red.

I jokingly told my eldest grandson that I was turning into my grandmother Minnie Bell. I would like to think that I am somewhat like her, but I have a way to go to be as remarkable as she was, a humble and uncomplicated woman who simply enjoyed life as it was given to her. She had an almost sacred communion with nature and the people around her. Without judgement she embraced every person that she met. Those are things that I am still working on achieving, but sometimes when I’m puttering in my yard and listening to the birds I think I understand how Grandma found her contentment. I realize that all the things in the world cannot compare to the pleasure of seeing someone smile or watching the earth burst into a symphony of sounds that rival the most glorious musical composition. I hope that my plants provide me with a bountiful crop, but more than that I want to spread the seeds of love this spring and all the year through.

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Two Women of Distinction

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I was a Catholic school girl. I attended Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Elementary School from the second grade all the way through the eighth. The years when I was there were at the height of the Baby Boom, and so we had multiple classes for each grade and the classrooms were always crowded. I knew everyone’s name, but didn’t always have the opportunity to become close friends with all of the students in my grade. Still, there were certain people who stood out as being quite special even as children. Because I felt gawky and shy I found myself longing to be like some of the kids that I considered to be a cut above the rest of us ordinary souls.

In the eighth grade an annual ceremony honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary took place each May. We had the honor of voting for the one girl that we believed to be worthy of such a high distinction. We were instructed to consider our choices carefully, not basing them on popularity, but rather on evidence of impeccable character. Even though I only knew her from afar at that time, I did not hesitate to vote for Linda Daigle, a friendly and generous young lady who always appeared to be thinking of others more than herself. I saw her as the embodiment of the lessons that we were taught in our daily religion classes.

Eventually Linda and I matriculated to the same high school. I still only observed her from from admiration rather than a close relationship, but she only impressed me more and more over the next four years. Somehow she had a way of making people feel so comfortable and she was humble about her talents and her good nature. I continued to believe that she was someone whose character I wanted to emulate. Imagine my surprise when we ended up becoming fast friends once we had moved on to the same university. Over more the than forty years that we have shared a friendship absolutely nothing has changed my original assessment of Linda as a model of compassion and love.

When Linda and I first began to grow close I finally had the pleasure of meeting her mother, Rose Daigle. In Rose I saw the beauty that was the source of Linda’s attractiveness. I also found the same ever present welcoming nature and spirit of boundless hospitality. I loved visiting that house where we often sat at the kitchen table enjoying one of Mrs. Daigle’s special homemade treats. She spoke with a unique accent that is only found in the speech patterns of people born and raised in New Orleans, and I found it to be delightful. I always felt so special just listening to her.

Rose Daigle had grown up in New Orleans but eventually set up a household in Houston, Texas with her husband Bernard. Together they raised four very bright and well mannered children. Rose made her home quite lovely with her skills at sewing, decorating, gardening and cooking. I liked the atmosphere that pervaded her house and thought her to be as wonderful as her daughter Linda.

I’ve been friends with Linda for decades now. We raised our children together and somehow managed to keep in touch even if we only saw each other once a year. When we talk we are able to converse for hours, mostly because Linda is such a good listener and a truly sensitive and concerned person. I suppose that I have told her as much about myself as anyone knows, because I feel as safe with her as I often did when I visited her mother.

Rose Daigle lived quietly in her home long after her children had all left and many years beyond the time when her husband had died. Her life centered on her children, grandchildren, her church and her home. She loved to putter in her yard and always got a kick out of showing her handiwork to visitors and giving them cuttings of her plants. She began to slow down though as her energy waned and her mind became more and more muddled. Her children finally realized that she had reached the point at which she would no longer be able to stay alone at her house. They tried various solutions and ultimately found a secure place for Rose in an assisted living facility.

True to form Rose’s daughter Linda was completely devoted to her mother’s care. She lovingly visited her mother three times every single day, making certain that all of Rose’s needs were met. Linda did all of her mom’s laundry and created little celebrations not just for her parent, but for all of the workers who watched over Rose. She was steadfast in her resolve to make her mother’s twilight years as lovely as possible and she did a yeoman’s job in that regard. Over time Rose thrived because of Linda’s efforts and seemed to become even more beautiful and ageless than she had ever been. I loved seeing photos of the birthdays, the Mardi Gras celebrations, and the Christmas parties that put huge smiles on Rose’s face. She seemed to revel in the love and attention that she received from Linda as well as the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren who religiously visited with her

In the past few months Rose’s health began to fail. She was 98 years old and becoming more and more weak. She had stays at the hospital and even received the last rites at one point, but somehow she rallied time and again. Sadly last week she seemed to have lost the old spark that had so defined her life. Linda continued to stand vigil over her mom while still managing to help Houston flood victims by washing mountains of clothing and linens as well as dishes, antiques and kitchen utensils. I suspect that she was just being wonderful Linda the way that her mother had so often showed her how to be, always giving in every regard.

Rose died this past weekend. She became another precious angel in a heaven that is being crowded with the parents of my generation. I suspect that she is free of pain and glowing radiantly like the vision of loveliness that she always was. She’s no doubt reuniting with friends and relatives and maybe even puttering in a perfect garden or creating a culinary delight. She was indeed a very good woman of distinction of the kind that all of us should strive to be. She loved with all of her heart and now she is receiving her just rewards.

My heart is heavy for Linda and her family. No matter the circumstances it is always difficult to lose a parent, especially one as remarkable as Rose Daigle. I pray that Linda will find peace and comfort in her heart and that she will also get some much needed rest. In my estimation Linda is as close to being a living saint as anyone I have ever known. I suppose that I will continue to be in awe of her forevermore.

Bliss

18622147_10212589589995817_4316414510225396392_nI got my first real job when I was fifteen years old. Our family physician was looking for a summer replacement for the receptionist in his clinic. In spite of the fact that I looked about ten years old at the time he took a chance by hiring me. After that I worked for him each summer until I graduated from high school. I also did babysitting on weekends from the age of twelve, and I was particularly popular because I was always available since I was a dateless wonder in those days. My foray into the world of work continued unabated from those times until I finally retired a few years back. If you count tutoring gigs that I still do you might say that I have never completely stopped earning a paycheck, but I have definitely slowed down. Now I am still constantly on the go, but mostly in the form of trips here and there. I like to travel whenever the opportunity presents itself because I am fully aware of the reality that the day may come when I am no longer able to do so.

I take great delight in my little jaunts no matter how simple they may be. I find it quite exciting to leave my own backyard and venture to places that are far away from home. I’ve learned a great deal about humans and nature and how much we are actually alike from my travels. The people and places that I have encountered have generally been quite welcoming, and I discover something new each time that I explore new horizons. Still, I have learned that there is much to be celebrated right at home. I don’t have to hit the road to find the bliss of adventure which is often staring me in the face in my own hometown.

After travels to New Orleans and Cancun this summer I needed to recharge my batteries so to speak by sticking around Houston for a time. When I learned that my daughter was embarking on some landscaping and renovation projects around her house I eagerly volunteered to be part of the work crew because being a fixer upper is in my DNA. My ancestors were farmers and builders and somehow I feel a spark of genetic compatibility with them each time that I hold dirt in my hands or transform broken objects and rooms into things of beauty. In an unexplainable way I get as much joy out of such enterprises as jetting away to picturesque destinations.

Thus I found myself spending three days working the soil and puttering with the plants in my daughter’s backyard. I listened to the birds chattering and announcing my intrusion into their domain and heard the dreamy sound of a train whistle in the distance. Somehow I felt a kinship with all of the ancestors whom I had never met but felt myself to be so much like. I wondered what they would think of me and my family, their descendants who have done so well. We are all educated and part of the middle class while they were lucky to go to school beyond the fifth grade. They tilled the soil to make the food that would carry them through heartless winters while I was creating a tropical paradise beside my daughter’s pool. I thought of how far our family had come, and I felt a burst of pride and gratitude for the blessings that have been bestowed upon us as a direct result of the extreme sacrifices of my family members of so long ago.

A few days later I was feting my father-in-law with wine from the Texas hill country, shrimp from the waters around New Orleans and steak from our local HEB. It was an intimate gathering with just me, my husband, and my in-laws. We laughed and spoke of this and that and I thought of how much I loved being with them. In fact if I had to choose between a junket to Europe or an afternoon with them, there would be no contest. I would want to spend my time just enjoying their presence.

I suppose that I have reached that age of wisdom when I understand what true bliss actually is. It has little to do with great wealth or possessions and everything to do with treasuring the moments that we have whether they be simple or extravagant. Being truly and fully part of the passing parade that defines our lives is what matters most. In the long run all of the money on earth can’t buy contentment. It has to come from inside our hearts.

I fully understand that each of us needs certain material possessions to insure our well being, but our constant pursuit of greater and greater riches is a poor way to spend our time, especially when we consider that we never really know how much more of it we will have to enjoy the people and places that bring us joy. It is up to us to find pleasure no matter where we are, and it isn’t all that difficult to do.

My husband and I have taken to eating dinner outside each evening when the temperature cools down just a bit. We like to watch the wildlife that joins us during our nightly meals with great regularity. We enjoy the antics of a particular lizard whose injured tail has given him the dubious name of Stubby. We listen for the doves who greet us from the rooftop and the bluejays who fly from one tree to another. We catch quick glances of hummingbirds who flit around the yard so fast that we can barely keep up with them. Our little routine is a joyful experience that brings us together quietly and with little fanfare. It gives us the kind of bliss that we have learned to more fully appreciate.

I am no fool. I realize that I have been truly blessed and that there are those who never received the gift of time to rest and enjoy the fruits of a lifetime of labor. Even more so because I understand that truth, I am grateful for the small and the great pleasures that come my way. I have learned to find the exquisite beauty of a moment and it is a wonderful way to experience life.

Becoming Temporary Hermits

solitude.jpgAbout a hundred years ago my maternal grandmother traveled from Slovakia to Galveston, Texas all by herself on a steamboat. It must have taken incredible courage for her to leave everything and everyone that she had ever known to meet up with my grandfather who had taken the same journey a year earlier. In the beginning of her American adventure she held a number of jobs outside of her home, including one in which she worked behind a counter at a bakery. Before long she had so many children that she devoted all of her time exclusively to running the family household. Her life was demanding with one pregnancy after another, poverty and the deaths of two of her babies weighing heavily on her. At some point she had a breakdown and was committed to the state mental hospital. She was taken by force in front of her children who would never forget the horror of that moment. When she returned she was not the same, and she became a recluse, never again leaving her home save for a couple of medical emergencies that required hospitalization.

I met my grandmother long after the incident that so altered her life. She seemed happy enough to me, but even as a child I wondered how it was possible for her to be content with such a strange and limiting way of living. Her days were so routine. Her self imposed boundaries were so confining. She had the habit of repeating the same tasks day after day. Each morning she made coffee in a big enamel pot whose inside was stained a warm brown color from the countless iterations of the warm brew. Her rituals included sweeping and mopping the floors, a task that took little time because her house was so small. She worked in her garden, preferring to water her flowers by hand rather than with the hose that stood at the ready nearby.

Grandma often sat on her front porch surveying her domain and the world that kept changing around her. She was a tiny woman, barely five feet tall, and so her bare feet dangled from a chair like those of a tiny girl. Everything about her was childlike, her seeming contentment and lack of worry, her surrender to an uneventful lifestyle, the sweet smile that rarely left her face. She was at once both somewhat strange and quite wonderful to me. She appeared, at least on the surface, to have found a kind of nirvana that few of us ever achieve. I always wanted to know more about her. I desired to learn her thoughts and maybe even her secrets. She was so wonderfully simple and yet her long journey across an ocean told me that there was far more to her than I would ever know. Like my cousins I simply accepted her just as she was, a kind of saintly woman who had chosen to avoid the complexities that so often distract humans from what is most important in life. The essence of her existence was to love and be loved.

As strange as it may sound I thought of my grandmother recently when I was reading a magazine at my dentist’s office. I was anxious about my checkup on a number of levels. I have a phobia about dental work that was born when I first began seeing a pediatric dentist at the age of three. For whatever reason I am one of those unfortunates who has a tendency to get cavities, so at a young age I learned all about anesthetics and the drill. It was horrifying to me and I have never quite developed a more adult way of thinking about dental care. Thus I was attempting to distract my thoughts by reading about the strange case of Richard Simmons.

For those who may not be up to speed, Richard Simmons was a fitness guru who gained great popularity for his bubbly personality, frizzy hair and enthusiasm for a healthy lifestyle. He had his own televised exercise program and was a frequent guest on talk shows. He made a small fortune with fitness videos like Sweating With the Oldies. Up until 2014, he was still quite active, regularly holding exercise sessions at his gym and visiting with his countless friends. Then without warning he one day became a virtual recluse. Few of his former associates have even seen him for the last three years. The concern for his safety grew as this once gregarious man became a seeming prisoner in his own home, creating talk that something terrible must be happening to him.

A podcast detailing the strange disappearance of Richard Simmons became an instant hit as a former business partner took on the role of amateur sleuth in search of answers. Millions tuned in week after week to hear many strange theories being proposed. One fear was that Simmons was being held hostage by his longtime house keeper. Another idea was that he was transitioning into being a woman. It was unfathomable that such a vibrant individual might simply have decided to take a break from the madding crowd. The public concern for Mr. Simmons became so strong that the Los Angeles police eventually visited his home for a wellness check. They reported that they found a very healthy and happy Richard Simmons who spoke of enjoying his new quiet life.

It seems that Richard Simmons who is now sixty eight just decided that it was time to scale back the intensity of his existence. He no longer wanted to be that celebrity that we all know. He wasn’t mentally ill, but he was tired. He didn’t want to be a woman, but rather just to be himself, which included growing a beard and letting his hair go grey. He was not being held against his will, but had chosen to spend time in the serenity of his gardens. He now luxuriates in the quiet and simplicity of a life that he believes he has earned. He feeds the hummingbirds that skitter among his flowers and watches their antics for hours. He luxuriates in the peacefulness that he now feels each and every day.

We modern souls are constantly rushing. We fill our calendars with appointments and rise each morning certain that there will not be enough hours to accomplish all that we must do. We chide ourselves for sleeping too late or allowing ourselves to get off schedule. We are so busy exercising our bodies, counting our calories, building our resumes that we are often chronically exhausted. We race around and around and around like little gerbils on an infinite wheel. We look at someone like my grandmother or Richard Simmons and think that surely there must be something terribly wrong with them. After all, who would choose to stop the world and actually get off? And yet, somewhere in the back of our minds we envy their wisdom and their courage. We sense that they have found the ultimate secret to a life well lived.

Few of us have the capability of dropping out. We don’t enjoy the wealth that would provide us with surrogates to take care of our duties like Richard Simmons. We are not blessed with eight children who will provide us with all that we need like my aunts and uncles did for my grandmother. We have to buy our food and pay our bills and taxes. We must clean and repair our homes and care for our family and friends. We can’t simply hide ourselves away from the world, but we can learn how to give ourselves the gift of solitude now and again. We can plan our calendars in ways that allow us to relax and reflect. We don’t have to have an all or nothing way of dealing with our responsibilities, but we really should learn how to bring more balance into our days. We should find time for ourselves and never feel the need to explain those moments when we become temporary hermits escaping the hustle and bustle and finding peaceful solitude. It is our right to be good to ourselves.

The Honor of Work

Mexican_Fruit_Pickers_(7618119180).jpgWhen I work in my yard I go all in. I usually end up with dirt smeared on my face and caked under my fingernails. Sweat runs downs my neck and my hair sticks up in all directions. There is nothing pretty about me in those times. The work is hard and often leaves my muscles aching and my back shouting at me in pain. The truth is that I overlook all of those things because I love being a weekend gardner so much. I can feel bursts of serotonin taking me to a happy place in my brain. Still, I think of my grandparents who themselves worked on farms day after back breaking day. I imagine how difficult it must have been for them to rise early and routinely toil in the sun. For me the labor is a hobby, one that I have the power to ignore anytime that I tire of the effort. For them it was the means of earning money to pay for a place to live and food on the table.

My grandparents’ descendants have done well. We generally have professional occupations that allow us to work in air conditioned buildings and bring home salaries good enough to pay others to do most of the back breaking work that we require if we so wish. We purchase our fruits and vegetables from Sprouts and have enough income for luxuries that they never even dreamed of owning. I feel their spirits when I am on my hands and knees caring for my plants while the sun beats down on my head. I frequently stop to savor a cold drink when I grow weary. I survey land that is my own, not the property of someone else. I remember and appreciate all of the things that they did so that one day all of us who came from their blood, sweat and tears would have a far better existence than they had.

I see beauty in the tomatoes, oranges and other produce that lines the bins at HEB. I don’t take such delights for granted because I understand the drudgery that people endured to bring those items to the markets where I shop. There were individuals who picked the fruits and vegetables hour after hour, day after day as long as the sun was shining. They were paid little and only received monetary rewards for full bushel baskets and bins. Their work was routine and tough on both body and soul. They are the nameless men and women whose plight has almost always been ignored throughout history. At one time they may have been slaves or indentured servants. In other eras they were the poor like my grandparents. Today they are mostly immigrants who toil from farm to farm, season to season in search of jobs that few of us would want.

I once traveled to a small town school to work with teachers who were struggling with the Hispanic children in their classrooms. They complained that the sons and daughters of migrant workers were skewing the test scores used to appraise their effectiveness as educators. They referred to the parents “the tree cutters” and insisted that these uneducated people didn’t care enough about their kids to realize the importance of schooling. It didn’t seem to occur to the baffled teachers that the mothers and fathers who worked so hard were in fact incredibly dedicated to their children, so much so that they were willing to do even the dirtiest of jobs. I was saddened by the ignorance of people who should have known better than to treat a significant portion of their student body as stereotypes. Even after my partner and I had shown them how to reach their charges they appeared to be as adamant as ever that the children of these hard working people were an inconvenience that would have preferred to simply wish away.

Most of us who live in the United States of America enjoy a level of plenty that might have made our ancestors feel wealthy. We are provided educational opportunities that were not afforded them. It was not uncommon in my grandparents’ day for youngsters to rarely attend school after the third or fourth grade. Sadly in many parts of the world even today people struggle to meet their most basic needs and even to feel safe. They are chronically hungry and suffer from health problems that are rarely addressed. We on the other hand are a nation that has mostly forgotten what it is like to live the way so many of our grandparents and great grandparents actually did. The conditions under which they labored are now mostly deemed illegal. 

I watched a group of students perform in the one act play, Gut Girls, not long ago. It addressed the working poor at the beginning of the twentieth century. It featured young women who worked in meat packing plants where the conditions were deplorable. I found myself imagining my grandfather who did a similar job for all of his working days. His legs became riddled with varicose veins and more often than not he was in pain but he never missed a single day of work. He boasted to his children that he had managed to feed them all the way through the Great Depression and keep a roof over their heads when others became homeless. He was proud to have regular work no matter how difficult it may have been and his children do not recall a single time when he complained. He endured his aches stoically.

There is great honor in hard work. We should celebrate anyone who is willing to devote time and effort to making an honest living. The person who collects our garbage is important just as the clerk behind the counter of a fast food restaurant is. The janitor is as indispensable as the manager, maybe even more so. We need our engineers and our electricians, our professors and our plumbers. The yard man who sculpts my lawn each weekend is always reliable and willing to do whatever is needed to make my home a lovely place to be. I truly don’t know what I would do without him. 

After a day of manicuring my plants, my hands are shouting at me with the sting of cuts and scrapes and bruises. They remind me to be thankful for what I have. They tell me to appreciate all good people everywhere. They urge me to be more generous and kind. But for the grace of God I might just as well have been born in another place or time that would have demanded more of me than I have ever had to expend.