Flying High and Rocking with the Angels

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I did not really know him. I mostly knew of him. He was my neighbor Betty’s son-in-law and his name was Mike Wade. Over the years he and his wife Vickie would come visit Betty at Christmastime and other occasions. I’d see them and then later Betty would tell me all about them just as loving mothers so often do. She was proud of her daughter and the man who was more like a son than an in-law.

After years of having Betty right next door to be a kind of mentor and confidante, Mike and I moved away. Not long after that Betty’s husband, Dave, died. We were worried about how she would do living all alone in the neighborhood that was rapidly changing, but we needn’t have been so concerned because her children all made generous offers to move her closer to one of them. Betty chose to go to Pittsburg, Texas where Mike and Vickie lived. They built a wonderful new house for her on land that lay right next door to their own place. I was so happy that Betty would  be loved and safe. I had heard all of the stories of her children and felt that all would be well for her.

Mike and I traveled to Pittsburg a couple of times to visit Betty, staying in our trailer in Bob Sandlin State Park. We learned that the little east Texas town was a lovely and inviting place where Betty was living a quiet and comfortable life. It warmed our hearts to know that she was doing so well and we vowed to continue our little journeys to the area so that we might see her now and again. We felt so renewed spending moments with her and reminiscing about the old days. She’d ply us with homemade cookies and stories of what she had been doing in the times since we had parted ways. 

On our last visit to Pittsburg we finally had the opportunity to spend some time with not just Betty, but also her daughter Vickie and son-in-law Mike. It would be an understatement to say that all of us hit it off immediately. The two Mikes, my husband and Mike Wade, were particularly taken with each other. They were essentially the same age and shared a love of music and history. It felt as though they had been friends forever as they chatted about this and that for literally hours.

Mike Wade was born and raised in Pittsburg, Texas. He had even played saxophone in his high school band and was known for being quite talented. After his graduation the war in Vietnam was in full swing and he was a patriotic soul who believed that he was being called to serve. Eventually he enlisted in the Air Force and proudly gave several year in service to the country.

It was at a swimming pool on an Air Force base that he first saw Vickie, a cute blond girl who was the daughter of an Air Force mechanic, our friend Dave. Vickie and Mike hit it off almost immediately and eventually fell in love and married. For a time they lived in Houston, but the piney woods of east Texas were calling Mike, and so they ultimately moved to Pittsburg where his heart seemed destined to always be.

Mike was an electrician, a truly bright man who loved his wife, his work and his hometown. He had a big smile and a sense of humor that led to lots of laughs. Like many children of the sixties he was taken by the music of the times, and he not only possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the songs and the lyrics, but he was able to discuss the complexities of the instrumentation. On the day that we visited with him, he and my Mike were soon in a conversation of their own, talking of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and talented guitarists from both the past and the present day.

We also learned of Mike Wade’s health issues and how on the very day that Betty was life flighted to a hospital in Tyler for emergency heart surgery, Mike too ended up undergoing his own surgery for issues with his heart. They recovered together under the watchful eye of Vickie who is a nurse. Betty and Mike joked about the scooters that they rode to get around and how neither of them were letting any grass grow under their feet in spite of their health problems. In fact, on the day that we visited Betty, Mike had just finished riding over his property on his lawn mower in order to keep both his lawn and Betty’s looking well groomed.

We talked and laughed and dined and enjoyed Mike and Vickie’s generosity for literally more than nine hours. We might have stayed even longer but for the worry that the state park where we were staying might close the gate and lock us out of access to our trailer. We left vowing to return soon. We had felt so welcome and the old feeling of being loved that always enveloped us whenever we had been in Betty’s presence now seemed to be expanded to include Vickie and Mike as well.

We’ve had a busy year, but we often spoke of going back to Pittsburg to see Betty, and hopefully Mike and Vickie as well. Thus it was with great sadness that we learned that Mike Wade had died in April. Of course we worried about Vickie and Betty, but we also found ourselves grieving for this man whom we had really only known for those few hours. It is a tribute to his openness and magnanimity to realize what an impact he had had on us so quickly. We have spoken often of just how much he impressed us, and now we know that we will never see him again. Somehow, nonetheless, we will always remember this man whose smile and love of life touched our hearts.

Mike Wade lived without bounds. He was a devoted husband, father, and son-in-law. He enjoyed his work as an electrician and found joy in the quiet and simple life of Pittsburg, Texas. He loved his country, his family and his hometown. He embraced the people around him, giving whatever he might have to those who needed help. I know he will be missed by those who knew him best, but he will also me missed by me and Mike.

I have learned that Vickie is planning to move into the house that she and Mike built for her mother Betty, and that Vickie’s son Aaron will live in the home next door that she and Mike shared for so many years. It will be a good arrangement for everyone, family members taking care of one another in an old fashioned but quite lovely kind of way. I suspect that it would please Mike to know that they will be alright because that is the sort of thing that seemed to matter most to him.

I feel privileged to have shared that special day with Mike. It was a visit with Betty made even more special for us because of his presence. It has always warmed my heart to witness the unconditional love that Betty and her husband Dave always offered to everyone. Now I know that their warmth and beneficence took root in their children and, in the case of Mike Wade, in their children-in law as well.

Rest in peace Mike Wade. You were a righteous man who strove to give your very best to everyone that you encountered. I hope that you are flying high and rocking to the songs of the angels. I believe that you truly earned your wings.

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One Hundred Years

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When I think of my Aunt Valeria I think of her raisin and pecan cookies that she called “hermits” and her carrot cake that was the best that I have ever tasted. She was is a woman with simple tastes, not needing much in the way of luxuries to be content. She was born in April of 1919, the first daughter of Paul and Mary Ulrich, two recent immigrants from the Slovakian region of Austria Hungry. Of course, if you do the math, you realize that she is turning one hundred years old, a milestone that few of us ever reach, but I’ll talk about that later.

Aunt Valeria was a good child who dutifully helped her mother as the family grew and grew. She was there to watch the birth of most of her siblings and to help her mother care for them. By the time she was sixteen she was already well schooled in household duties and the intricacies of raising children, for she had been a source of great assistance to every one of her eight brothers and sisters, often setting aside her own needs to care for them. She was the essence of the responsible eldest daughter, but she had fallen in love and was hoping that her father would be amenable to the proposal of marriage that her boyfriend, Dale, had delivered to her. She waited expectantly as Dale asked for her hand in a deep conversation in which his true intentions were being assessed by her dad.

Dale passed muster and before long he and Valeria were married. They settled down in a bungalow on the East end of Houston where he would be close to his work at one of the refineries that were popping up along the Ship Channel. He was as good a man as ever there had been, and he was quite handsome to boot. Valeria loved him with all of her heart and wanted little more than a quiet and steady life with him. Before long they had a baby boy whom they named Leonard who was followed by another named Delbert Dale who quickly earned the nickname D.D.

The boys went to St. Christopher’s Catholic School and attended mass each Sunday with their mom who was devoted to her faith. They were already teenagers who had matriculated to St. Thomas High School when Valeria surprisingly learned that she was again pregnant, this time with a little girl. Valeria gave the gorgeous child the name Ingrid after the beautiful movie star Ingrid Bergman who had so impressed her in The Bells of St. Mary’s.

The family squeezed into the house that had been Valeria’s home since the earliest days of her marriage and made do with the tight fit, adding a little bed to the dining room to accommodate everyone. Dale often suggested that they purchase a bigger home, but being a practical woman Valeria never felt the need to expand. She was happy in knowing that the house was paid for, free and clear. She had grown up in a much smaller place with more people, and she had seen the hardships of the Great Depression. She was not willing to take financial risks that to her seemed unnecessary.

I remember visits to my Aunt Valeria’s house. My mother loved and admired her older sister so much. The two of them called each other on the phone every single day, and my mama often spoke of the wise advice that she received from her sister. Aunt Valeria represented stability and no nonsense to me. She was the first person to come to my mother’s aid in the middle of the night when my father died. When a kid at my school insisted that I would be sent to an orphanage if my mother also died, I was able to protest that I knew that my Aunt Valeria would take care of me even though I had never asked her if that was true. I simply assumed that the extra little bed in her dining room was there for me if I ever needed it.

Aunt Valeria liked to watch Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby on television. I recall sitting on her sofa, which was perennially covered with a sheet to make it last longer, while the two crooners enchanted her. She had copies of movie magazines on her coffee table with tantalizing headlines about scandals and such. I always wanted to read them or at least sneak a peek at what was inside, but children didn’t dare do such things back then.

Aunt Valeria was very religious, devoted to her faith. She often tuned in to hear Bishop Fulton Sheen preach. When I had to sit quietly while she and my mother listened to his homilies I silently squirmed inside wishing that I were watching my father’s comedies or my uncle’s westerns. Nonetheless I was always deeply respectful of my Aunt Valeria because my mother was so in awe of her. I felt that I was in the presence of someone quite special and I truly was.

When I think of my Aunt Valeria I immediately hear her little giggle and see her face with an impish smile. She has always been responsible, but also a bit girlish with her joy for music and movie stars. Some of my all time favorite moments were spent seeing musicals like Oklahoma with her in gilded movie theaters that we attended in our finest regalia. I liked being with her because she always made me feel special, happy and so relaxed. I knew that she loved me and hoped that she understood how much I loved her.

Somehow my Aunt Valeria was always the person who showed up whenever I needed someone on whom to lean, but the years went by and she and her beautiful first love, Dale, grew older. One day he died quite peacefully just as she was serving lunch to him in the house that they had purchased decades before. She was bereft and alone, so she called my mother more and more often, the two of them sharing their widowhood and all of the love that they had for each other. Eventually Aunt Valeria became disabled and moved to St. Dominic’s Village where she would receive the kind of care that she had always given others. My mom and I often visited her, bringing her a burger from Burger King or potato salad from Pappa’s Barbecue. Always we snuck in a coke and a snickers bar and Aunt Valeria was as delighted as a child with our presence.

When my mother spent her last year of life in my home I grew to look forward to taking her to see Aunt Valeria for those visits. It seemed that my aunt was ageless and her magical effect on my mother and I was a constant in our lives that we dearly needed. After my mother died there was a kind of sadness in my aunt that I had never before seen. I suppose that she was slowly watching one loved one after another pass away while she still remained. Now there are only two of her siblings left and they are no longer healthy enough to make the journey to visit her. Even her children are growing old and becoming less and less able to be as devoted as they once were. She spends her days in a never ending routine, but whenever any of us visit that same beautiful smile lights up her face and we know that we have made her happy.

One hundred years of service to everyone that she ever encountered is my Aunt Valeria’s legacy. She asked for little, but has given so much. She has been her mother’s helper, her husband’s partner, her children’s devoted caretaker, her sister’s lifeline, my rock in a world that was so confusing and frightening, a faithful servant to her God. Her one hundred years have been well spent. There is no feminist or member of Pantsuit Nation who is as phenomenal as my aunt. Hers has been a life well lived.

Happy Birthday, Aunt Valeria!

    

A Remarkable Man

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My father-in-law, Julio Gonzalez, was born in April of 1929, in Lares, Puerto Rico, a little mountain town where the hillsides were filled with coffee plants and orange groves. He was a joy to his huge extended family of aunts and uncles and cousins, people who would pitch in to help raise him after his very young parents’ marriage fell apart and his brilliant father left him in their care while he continued his studies of medicine in Spain. He grew into a happy boy in the town where everyone seemed to be a relative watching over him, unaware of the worldwide economic depression and the political cataclysms that would lead to World War II. His was a place of fun with his cousins and baseball with his chums. When the winds of war hit the United States he was still a bit too young to join the young men enlisting to fight. His introduction to mortal conflict would be the Korean War when he proudly represented Puerto Rico in the regiment that had once been under the command of General Patton during the earlier war.

He spoke little of being a soldier in Korea. The memories were tainted by the death of comrades, visions that were painful to revisit. Nonetheless he was proud of his service as a citizen of the United States and after his stint in the army he and a buddy agreed to meet up for college. A bit of miscommunication about just where that would be landed his friend in Hawaii and brought him to Houston, Texas where he sat one day in the Cougar Den at the University of Houston when my mother-in-law was introduced to him.

Theirs was an almost instant attraction. They were still talking with each other long after their mutual friends had left. He was quite handsome and she was beautiful. Both of them were incredibly intelligent and managed to converse through his knowledge of English and her fluency in Spanish. She had been married before and had a little boy, my future husband, Mike. She was back in college attempting to forge a future on her own. She had not expected to meet someone who would attract her attention the way Julio had, but life is serendipitous and somehow changed direction for both of them as they fell hopelessly in love in a very short time.

They married and Julio took on the job of being both a husband and father. He was devoted to doing that role well. His whole world would center on being a good and responsible man. Neither he nor my mother-in-law would ever finish their college degrees, but they would use their innate intelligence to build a very good and secure life together. Julio eventually found work at a Hormel plant near downtown only minutes away from where they lived on the near north side of Houston. He began in the meat processing area, doing back breaking work in a cold environment. Eventually he worked his way into the business office where he did accounting and won the hearts of his fellow workers with his jovial ways.

He raised my husband as his own, being as loving a father as ever their was. He was a cautious man who lived frugally, enjoying the simple but most important aspects of life. He toured America with his wife and son, played poker on Friday nights with friends from church, and became a beloved and respected member of his wife’s family. He enjoyed golfing and partying with friends from work, and became more and more fiercely proud of being an American. He’d save for trips back home to see his family in Puerto Rico. His father had become a highly respected doctor who eventually remarried and had a second family of half siblings whom Julio loved with all of his heart.

My father-in-law taught his son to be as quintessential a gentleman as he himself has always been. He instilled a sense of honor and integrity in Mike and modeled all the best qualities of a good husband and father. He became the beloved center of the family as he proved time and again to be concerned and compassionate and willing to sacrifice for the needs of those around him. Year after year passed and so too did so many of the people he had loved including my mother-in-law, his loving partner for so many years.

He was heartbroken after her death, so bereft that his health seemed to falter. We worried that he might succumb to his sorrow, but he is at heart a survivor. He knows how to embrace challenges and keep moving forward. Before long he had not only recovered, but had met a sweet woman who stole a piece of his heart. The two married and now provide each other with fun and companionship.

My father-in-law loves children. He is the kind of man who likes to get down on the floor to join in their games. He runs with them and makes them smile with his gentleness and his playfulness. He spreads love wherever he goes.

It’s hard to believe that he is celebrating his ninetieth year on this earth. He looks far younger than that. He is hale and hearty save for a few minor issues. He still drives his car and takes care of both himself and his wife. He’s a good man who worries a bit too much about his son and granddaughters and great grandchildren. He has worked hard his entire life to insure that they will feel safe and secure. He has loved without bounds and in turn he is loved by everyone lucky enough to know him.

Julio Gonzalez is a quietly remarkable man who has asked for little and given so very much. We hope and pray that we will have the honor of having him with us for many more years to come.

Hearts Bigger Than Mouths

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There are a number of celebrities who are finding themselves in deep trouble these days. It almost seems as though they believe that they are somehow immune from the rules that the rest of us have to follow. They operate from a different point of view inside the bubble of their wealth and fame. There are others who are constantly giving advice to the rest of us as though they somehow believe that their wisdom is more profound than ours. Then there is actor, Gary Sinise, most famous for his role as Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump. I fell in love with the character that Mr. Sinise played in that movie but knew better than to attribute the fictional characteristics to the real man. Over time I’ve realized that Gary Sinise is perhaps one of  the finest men in Hollywood and perhaps even the whole country.

Gary has already set records for his new book Grateful American but most importantly he has proven to be a man who demonstrates his gratitude for his own good fortune by helping the members of the military and their families. He has invested countless dollars and hours in helping wounded warriors, gold star families, and those serving our country in war zones. He is a genuine hero in his own right, someone who is quite modest about the wonderful things that he has done for our armed forces. While others are tweeting and inciting anger, he is actually doing something positive, not to ingratiate himself with his fans, but because it is the right thing to do.

In many ways Gary Sinise reminds me of Jimmy Carter, another truly loving human who has spent his retirement years building homes for those who might otherwise have no place to live. People like Sinise and Carter have the right idea in doing positive things rather than always whining about our society and our country’s faults. They have answered the cry, “Well what are you going to do about that?” 

It’s easy to complain and to cast aspersions, but too few people actually attempt to right the wrongs that they see. They seek attention from social media or hurl insults during interviews on television, but are nowhere to be seen when it comes to digging in to do the hard work. They think that just writing a check is all that they have to do to look and feel better, even if that check is to wrongfully pay for someone willing to cheat to get their children into prestige universities or if it is used as hush money to cover egregious acts. They are actors even in the realm of real life, playing a part that they believe we want to see, but rarely taking real action.

I’m also a fan of Glen Close. She is not only an extraordinary actress who probably should have won an Academy Award this year, but she is also an unrelenting advocate for the mentally ill. She is unafraid to weigh in on a topic that still has a strong element of taboo associated with it. We are so far behind in our treatment of those with mental illnesses that it is both a national tragedy and a shame. Ms. Close’s honesty and understanding regarding her family’s struggles with depression and bipolar disorder is helping so many who deal with similar issues to come forward and seek help.

Instead of using their money and their influence for Prada shoes or Gucci purses those who have reached the heights of fame and fortune might emulate those who find joy and purpose in helping others. If more people would follow the lead of Gary Sinise or Glen Close or Jimmy Carter many of the ills that we face might at the very least begin to fade. It’s up to each of us for that matter to find a cause and then do our best to contribute our time and our talents.

It only takes a few hours a week to mentor a student who needs either academic or psychological help. Just providing a bit of wisdom and compassion goes a long way in helping a young person to navigate the minefields of want or neglect. There are children who benefit from the attention of a coach or a leader. I recall a very nice man who took the time to help one of my brothers with his pitching and served as an advocate for advancing my brother’s talent. This man brought so much joy to a young man who never knew what it was like to have a dad.

I recently watched an episode of Frontline that reported on those with severe mental illnesses who are attempting to live independently. Sometimes they need to know that someone is watching over them, checking in regularly to make sure that they are doing well. My brothers and I did that for our mom but all too often mentally ill persons are abandoned by frustrated families and doctors who grow weary of their noncompliance with treatments. They need the type of kindness that my mother’s neighbors and coworkers always showed her. She would never have survived as well as she did without a village of people quietly acting as her guardian angels.

I know sweet people who regularly visit elderly relatives or family members, bringing sunshine into other’s somewhat dreary lives. There are others who answer every call for food, every request for support for a team or a cause. They don’t just look the other way. They regularly spend their vacation time on medical missionary tours or working in clinics that serve the underserved. We rarely hear such people boasting or complaining because they are too busy getting things done.

I’ve got a hero list and it is comprised of such individuals. Some of them are famous like Gary Sinise. Others are folks that nobody has heard of save their friends. All of them have hearts that are bigger than their mouths, generosity that is selfless. We could certainly do with more of that.

A Joyful Presence

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Eileen and her big family lived within sight of the church and school that I attended when I was growing up. She was a beautiful girl with long blonde hair and a welcoming smile. She was also very smart with a level of confidence that I was still hoping to find back then. By the time that we were in high school we were scheduled for the same classes with the same teachers and our friendship blossomed.

Eileen sometimes got to take her family’s  van out for a drive, thus becoming the designated chauffeur for our group. She’d take us to Friday night football games, days at the beach, and now and again a special concert like the time when we saw the Beach Boys. I adored her and counted myself lucky for being invited to partake in so many fun times with her and the rest of our friends. Some of the very best times of my teenage years were spent with Eileen.

Of course things change after graduation. Eileen and I went our separate ways. From time to time I would hear about what she was doing and where she was living. I knew that she had become a nurse and ended up in Washington state. I suppose that I should have made an effort to contact her to see how her life was going, but the world intervened and created a busy schedule for me. I was caring for two daughters, teaching, taking classes, and being a caretaker for my mother.  Somehow I barely kept up with my responsibilities and so I never found the time to reach out to Eileen. Nonetheless I often thought of her and remembered how much fun she had brought into my life. I hoped that she was doing well.

It was not until our fiftieth high school reunion that I saw Eileen again. She was as beautiful and as sweet and friendly as ever. She had a daughter and a handsome husband who seemed to adore her. She enjoyed living in Washington State and was hoping that some grandchildren might be in her future. We traded addresses and reignited our friendship on Facebook. I so enjoyed catching glimpses of her world. Over time I learned just how faith filled she was.

Eileen battled breast cancer for a time after I was once again in contact with her, and during that time she inspired those of us who read her optimistic posts that demonstrated her determination and belief that God was by her side. We rejoiced when her weeks of treatment resulted in a positive outcome, and celebrated even more when she announced the birth of her first grandchild. As when we were both young, I found myself in awe of this wonderful woman who somehow offered hope and happiness even in her darkest hours. It was so fitting that life appeared to be falling into place for her with long golf games and photos of lovely moments with her grandchild.

It never occurred to us that Eileen’s cancer might return, but it did. The news was difficult to accept, but as always seems to be the case with Eileen she was soon attempting to soothe our concerns. She stoically insisted that she had the very best doctors as well as the comfort of God to guide her through her latest journey with cancer. Even with her courageous spirit we saw how hard it was for her and so we began to pray.

Eileen keeps us updated on her progress. Some weeks leave her exhausted and without even enough energy to let us know how she is. Others seem to revitalize her. Always she tells us how wonderful God is and how she has doctors in whom she places all of her confidence. Inevitably I find myself thinking of her all day long, praying each morning and evening that the outcome of her battle will prove to be positive and with as little pain as possible.

Recently one of our classmates started a prayer chain for Eileen. It didn’t surprise me at all to learn how beloved she was. She has always been a generous and giving person to virtually everyone. She is open and honest in ways that few of us possess, so much so that I still find myself wanting to be more like her when I finally grow up. I want more than anything for the power of love that we are directing her way to gird her and comfort her.

It amazes me how neither time nor distance has the power to destroy the feelings that we have for another person. Eileen was and will always be quite special to me. She kindly took the gawky unsure teenager that I was under her wing. She made me laugh and feel good about myself at a time when I sometimes thought that I would always be a misfit. She still has the power to make my day with her smiles and her serenity. She is truly a joyful presence, a living angel. I only hope that she knows just how much she has impacted so many lives and how ferociously we are praying for her.