The Greatest Gift

Gary

My son-in-law, daughter, and grandsons are in a state of grief. Their beloved Boppa died on New Years Day. Boppa, otherwise known as Gary Greene, was a good man who loved his wife without reservation and cherished his children and grandchildren with every fiber of his body and soul. He was also filled with a spirit of fun. He believed in squeezing as much joy out of each day as humanly possible.

Gary was born in Houston, Texas and grew up in an area not far from the Texas Medical Center. He graduated from Bellaire High School and then set out for the University of Texas where he earned a degree in Chemical Engineering. While he was a student there he met his wife Barbara and the two of them fell in love, married and set out on a five decades long adventure that took them all over the United States and around the world. In fact, traveling became one of their greatest joys along with their two children Scott and Terri.

Gary worked hard at his jobs, dedicated to making a comfortable life for his family. He was a Texan through and through but whenever his companies asked him to move he dutifully went where he was needed and turned the relocation into an opportunity to learn more about different places. All the while he always found time to support his children’s interests and to open his home and his heart to their friends. His loyalty to his beloved Texas Longhorns never wavered either no matter where he roamed.

Gary eventually found his way back to Texas as his working years slowly came to a close. He retired to the Austin area and threw himself joyfully into the role of being a grandfather. He took each his six grandchildren on special trips to places like London, Germany, Washington State and such. A few years ago he planned a gala vacation right after Christmas for the entire family in Mexico. On another occasion he took everyone to Hawaii. Every excursion was punctuated with his impish sense of humor, exciting activities and lots of ice cream.

Gary rarely missed the yearly reunion of his wife’s family on Thanksgiving Day. He reveled in the games and songs and loving significance of the event and became known as the resident genealogist, creating expansive charts outlining the history of the family and recording all of the new births. For many years he and his crew were the reigning champions of the washer contest, and he became as loved by his extended family of in-laws as he was by Barbara and his children.

Gary had a sonorous voice that might have served him well as a radio broadcaster. He used it often to tell his many stories and jokes. He also enjoyed singing and had hours of fun in a barber shop quartet. He and Barbara even learned how to square dance when he demonstrated yet another unexpected talent.

Most of all Gary enjoyed watching the birds that live around us. He often rose early in the morning and walked quietly through wooded areas with his binoculars and a scope to catch a glimpse of feathered creatures. It was a relaxing hobby that was so in tune with his affection for nature and the joy that spending time outdoors always brought him.

Gary had been a leader when his son Scott was in the Boy Scouts. He never lost his interest in the remarkable training that the organization affords young people. He often wore his regalia and badges when his grandsons moved up through the ranks in their own quests of excellence in the scouts. Nothing made him prouder than watching them grow into fine capable young men with amazing skills and a love of our earth and each other.

In many ways Gary Greene was an old fashioned kind of man who earnestly embodied the traits of a Mr. Rogers or a Jimmy Stewart. Family was paramount to him and he enjoyed introducing first his children and then his grandchildren to the places and skills and ideas that he had known as a young man. He taught them how to drive and how to fish. He showed them how to respectfully handle a BB gun. He played games with them like Spoons and taught them to love listening to John Denver. He took them rafting down rivers, horseback riding in the country, and zip lining in exotic places. Mostly though he just loved each one them for whomever they chose to be.

There is great sadness among the members of Gary Greene’s family. He has died after a years long struggle with cancer during which he showed them what true courage really is. He slowly lost his ability to walk and his body was riddled with pain, but he continued bringing fun into their lives as long as he could. He has left a big hole in their hearts, but the legacy of joy and optimism with which he approached each day will sustain them for all of their years to come.

Gary Greene really lived and loved. The torch of all that he believed has been passed to his children and grandchildren to remember and honor who he was with their own lives. He demonstrated to them all of the character that one needs to live happily and well. He will no doubt live on as they emulate his spirit, the greatest gift that anyone might ever leave on this earth. 

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Keeping Our Families Strong

Family

What is family? We have many definitions of that unit in today’s world. Our new ways of thinking go beyond the traditional union of a mother and a father with their offspring. Now we include the single parent, gay couples, friends who join together to build a home. The composition of a family is far less important than the daily inner workings of the people who focus on living together in a state of love, caring for one another’s needs.

Sadly even in the most traditional sense many families are struggling to cope with the modern world and the pulls and tugs that threaten to tear them apart. People suffer from betrayal by the very people who should be most loyal. Our routines are so fast paced that the those who live under one roof often experience far too little interaction. The question of what constitutes a healthy family troubles us as we suspect that much of our society is crumbling under an addiction to media, possessions, money, drugs, alcohol and sexual promiscuity. We worry that we are somehow short changing our young with our outward focus rather than attention to the people that we call family.

Fewer and fewer folks actually sit down to a family dinner these days. Even when they do there are interruptions from phones, computers and blaring televisions. I find this quite sad because in my own case whenever I think about my father I realize that most of what I know of him came form our interactions at dinner each evening.

For almost nine years I sat listening to my dad’s stories, questions, jokes, conversations as we savored my mother’s cooking. It was in those moments that I heard his dreams and learned about his work. This was when he seemed the most happy as he delighted us with trivia and jokes that he had heard during his day away from us at his job. He was relaxed and open, setting aside any worries that may have haunted him. All of us enjoyed a kind of sacred bond at the family table that brought us a peace and feelings of belonging to something special.

After my father died I would draw upon memories of our family time for comfort and guidance. I understood who my father was and what he might have expected of me had he lived. Those daily gatherings were a true gift, and in my estimation the model of family life. It was not the make up of our unit that defined us. It was the love and concern and joy that we shared in very small ways from day to day. I knew that I was safe because of the genuine attention that I received in our nightly ritual.

My mother continued the traditions that we had started with my father and added to them to ensure us that our family was not going to crumble. She made it a point to be home whenever we arrived from school each day. She gave us small snacks of apples or oranges and sat with us to hear about our adventures away from her. Later we would rejoin one another for dinner where the conversations continued. Mama turned off the television and studied with us while we completed our homework. Then she tucked us into our beds every night and told us how much she loved us. She never varied in the routine attention that she provided and it helped us to overcome the fears that we may have had after Daddy died.

On Sundays we always went to church where my mother reminded us that we also had a community family. Our worship was a celebration of the blessings that Mama never failed to point out to us. She made Sundays special with visits to our grandparents who extended the love and continuity that made us feel secure and happy. While I never quite got over the sadness of losing my father, my mother made it possible for me to understand that even our different family with only one parent was strong and filled with all of the sense of belonging that we would ever need.

I suspect that the families that become fractured are suffering because the people within them are looking for the fulfillment that they desire in all the wrong places. They may have idealized visions of happiness that loses sight of the pure joy that derives from the most simple things, like a much needed hug, encouragement when we are discouraged, or acceptance just as we are. My nuclear and extended family was so good at constantly sending me the message that I would never truly be alone. There would always be someone to listen to me and understand me.

I’ve witnessed many different family dynamics in my seven decades. The best of them are not defined by the way they are comprised as much as how they interact with one another. They are made from people willing to do all of the hard work of loving and laughing and living together. They adapt and give and take. Mostly they understand the importance of spending time to share their thoughts whether they be disappointments or joyful celebrations. Families are all about acceptance and redemption.

Making a commitment to be a family is a sacred trust that should be honored. There is no job more important. No wealth or fame or accomplishment will ever compare to knowing that we have a place where we need never be afraid. It’s worth every effort that we make to keep our families strong and healthy. They are the bedrock of peace and joy in our society. It’s time that we all look into our hearts to ask ourselves how we have done in keeping our families together in loving harmony.   

Seeing the Unseen

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The Netflix movie Roma is the quiet story of a young housekeeper and nanny living in nineteen seventies Mexico City. In an artistic masterpiece we watch her devoting every day to the service of the wealthy people for whom she works in a world in which she seems almost invisible and voiceless, unable to exert any control over the trajectory of her life. Nonetheless her beauty and strength illuminates the dreariness and uncertainty of the lives of the family that she serves even as she is all too often taken for granted. Roma is a triumph in its ability to portray the harshness of life for those who toil under the yoke of barriers created by the often immutable restrictions of class, but it also demonstrates the immutable importance of seemingly invisible individuals who work on the periphery of society.

The movie touched my heart and my mind in deeply moving ways and caused me to think of how many souls have journeyed through life almost without notice due to their status in the socio-economic pecking order. Their desperation is quiet and even misunderstood, while their dedication is under appreciated, and yet they sometimes demonstrate more character than those for whom they toil. Like all humans they have dreams that all too often go unfulfilled leaving them faceless in a crowd that wrongly defines them. They lose their distinct complexities in favor of generalizations, if they are even noticed at all.

My paternal grandfather somehow escaped even the notice of a census taker until he was well into his forties. The story of his early life is a blank slate making it seem as though he simply appeared from nowhere one day, a kind of cipher left to his own resources due to circumstances beyond his control. My maternal grandfather spent over thirty years traveling to a thankless job of cleaning the blood and entrails from the floor of a meat packing plant. I wonder if anyone ever realized that he was a very bright man who spent a portion of his weekly salary purchasing books that he read each evening after a day of work that left his legs and back aching, or was he simply the guy who picked up the messes that others left behind?

I think of the mother of one of my students who dropped him off at the school each morning wearing her McDonald’s uniform, a detail that embarrassed the son enough that he tried to deny that he was related to her. Then there was the yard man who drove through the carpool line pulling the trailer holding the tools of his trade and the source of income for his family. His son proudly boasted that his father was more than just someone who cut grass. According to the boy his father was an artist and a brilliant businessman. I wonder how many of us teachers with our college educations somehow felt a bit of superiority over these industrious souls. Were we guilty of chiding our students with threats that they might one day be reduced to menial jobs if they did not study? I heard such taunts quite often, comments meant to spur determination that may have unwittingly insulted the efforts of our students’ parents.

I recall the stories from my pupils of mothers and fathers who worked as many as three jobs within a single day. These souls existed on less than six hours of sleep and tortured their bodies with physical labors that left them scarred and broken. They set their pain aside for the sake of their families only to all too often be viewed by society as lazy folk who had done nothing with their lives. I wonder how many of them were thought to be little more than faceless bodies in an uneducated and unworthy mob. Were people suspicious of them, unwilling to see them as the hard workers that they were?

All too often we fail to really see the people who do not seem to be like ourselves. It does not occur to us that something as simple as where one is born may have incredible consequences in determining the course of life. We unwittingly stereotype people without truly knowing who they are. Like the family employing the young servant in Roma we see them in a kind of caricature when the truth is so much deeper. We create invisible, but powerful, barriers between ourselves. The man who mows our lawn or the woman who cleans our home is a provider of a service, not someone to be thought of as an equal, and yet the reality is that we are far more like our caretakers than we choose to accept. We are dependent on each other, and yet we rarely acknowledge the bonds that we share.  Our humanity should unite us, but the artificial structures upon which we build our societies often drive us apart.

Every single person is a unique gift to our world. Perhaps if we were to have a better understanding of that idea many of the problems that we face might be resolved. It is difficult to unravel the complexities of living, but we might begin with one person at a time. If we consciously strive to appreciate and acknowledge everyone with whom we interact we might begin to create more unity and understanding. Who knows where such a process might ultimately lead when we attempt to see the unseen?

Christmas Traditions

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I’ve been inviting a crowd of family members to my home on Christmas Day for a good while now. Back in the day both my mother and my mother-in-law hosted events that we attended. I was spoiled in never having to cook and clean for the holidays. I’d sleep in on Christmas morning and leisurely get the family ready to visit the grandparents around noon. I had little idea how much effort went into their galas until the day when my mother-in-law announced that she was very tired and feeling unable to find the energy to host such a big event any longer. She explained that she and my father-in-law would begin the preparation process weeks in advance and just could not do it anymore. That’s when I announced that I was taking on the Christmas Day project.

My mother-in-law was quite relieved, but my mother was annoyed that I was taking her special celebration away from her even though she too had become less and less enthusiastic about all of the labor and expense of such a grand celebration. It was difficult for her to accept the change, just as it was for everyone on both sides of the family who whispered that they liked things better with the old traditions. It took some time for the members of the family to actually enjoy Christmas Day at my home as they longed for the old ways. It’s been so long now since we went over the river and through the woods to grandmas’ houses that my event has taken on a hint of being a tradition. Both of the wonderful ladies who once served as hostesses are gone and the duties of providing a place to celebrate have fallen to me.

I spent many years attempting to find a good formula for feeding the guests. I tried turkeys, roasts, hams and all sorts of combinations. Nothing felt quite right, so one year I announced that I was going to do something very different. I made several batches of gumbo, cooked up some rice and offered a few salads and sides. It was an instant hit and so each December my husband Mike and I have spent days in the kitchen making enough of the seafood delight to serve the more than thirty folks who show up. It’s a long process because we do everything from scratch beginning with the rue. We use no gumbo bases or mixes which means that we do a great deal of chopping of onions, green peppers, celery, okra and garlic. It’s a yummy concoction that has granted us the designation of Gumbo King and Queen.

This year has been more busy than any I have encountered since I retired. It seemed as though making all of that gumbo would be to much for us. We usually cook two batches at a time and the process takes around four hours from start to finish. I came up with what I though was a brilliant plan to just purchase several of the huge Costco chicken pot pies and center the meal around those. I got a few thumbs up because it would certainly be a delicious way to go, but the quiet disappointment slowly began to rumble in the background. Most people still wanted the gumbo that they had learned to love.

I was steadfast until last week when my sweet son-in-law expressed shock upon learning that there would be no gumbo this year. Somehow that struck a chord with me because he’s had a tough year and I know that he needs as much joy as there is to be found. I girded my loins and went into attack mode. I purchased enough of the gumbo ingredients to make a firm commitment to insuring that there would be heaping pots of the brew on Christmas Day. I began by cooking up two batches all by myself because Mike was busy with his Christmas shopping. It took even longer than ever because I had to do all of the dicing, a task that Mike actually enjoys and I loathe. By the end of a very long session I had some very tasty gumbo simmering on the stove, ready to be frozen until just before Christmas Day. I was actually happy that I had decided to give the crowd what they want.

Like the mothers who worked so hard in the decades before I volunteered to ease their labors, I do a little bit each day to be certain that everyone will have a good time. We crowd into the house and it becomes filled with laughter and pleasant conversations. By the end of the day my home is littered with wrapping paper and dirty dishes and beautiful memories. I never regret being able to bring joy to the family.

I suppose that I too will one day find myself lacking in energy. I’ve already planned to begin cooking batches of my gumbo in October and slowly keep adding containers to the freezer until I have enough. One day I may give away my Christmas china and use paper plates and bowls in place of the finery. All of these changes will allow me to keep the tradition going until I finally pass down the baton to some willing individual. I suppose that this is the way things have been done for all time.

My grandmothers and Mike’s once opened their homes to the family on Christmas Day. Then it fell to our mothers to host the celebration. Now it is my turn. I think of it as an honor that I hope to continue as long as I can. My family is so relaxed and grateful to have a place to go that I don’t have to feel stressed or tied to certain ways of doing things. My grandchildren have even suggested that I teach them how to make the gumbo so that they can have a big gumbo making party to help me out. I’m sure that they will also be happy to enjoy some Costco pot pie whenever if it comes to that. What they really want is just to be together.

The Reason For The Season

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I’ve got my Christmas trees decorated, some of my gifts purchased and wrapped, a few of my Christmas cards addressed, and lights twinkling in my front yard. It’s really looking like Christmas 2018 is well on its way. As I celebrate this year I pause now and again to think of people that I know and even some who are strangers who are suffering and finding it difficult to find the joy that I feel. I know all too well how Christmas time can be quite difficult for those who have experienced great loss or who are watching a loved one suffer. It can be quite lonely to observe the world seeming to have so much fun when everything around you is falling apart.

As I begin my revelry I think of a family whose father died quite unexpectedly the day after Thanksgiving. They are bereft and struggling to make sense of what has happened to them. I truly understand their pain for long ago when I was only a child of eight my I awoke on a Memorial Day to learn that my beloved father had died in a car accident the evening before. My entire world crashed down around me and my family seemed to be locked in a state of chronic grief. It felt as though nothing would ever feel normal again, and when Christmas came the old rituals felt odd and out of place. It was when friends and family members came to visit that I began to understand that we would eventually be alright. The gift of love brought us through the darkness and suddenly the lights on our Christmas tree shone so brightly.

I know of a man who is so very ill that his doctors have pronounced that he is living his last days. He drifts in and out of a hazy state of mind. He is a good man and his family would love nothing more than for some beautiful miracle that would save his life for a bit longer. Sadly they know that this is unlikely to happen, and so they make their Christmas preparations with heavy hearts. It is difficult to go through the motions that have been so joyful and routine in the past. They plant smiles on their faces even while their hearts are breaking.

A few years back we were wearing their shoes. My mother-in-law lay in a hospital in a coma after suffering a stroke. While the rest of the world was partying and visiting Santa we sat in her room in a watch that would only lead to her death. We rarely left the hospital and when we did it felt so strange to see signs of Christmas all around us. It was hard to imagine the revelry that was taking place as we felt such sorrow.

That was a very strange Christmas for our family. After her death we gathered as usual on Christmas Day for dinner and the exchange of gifts. It felt as though we were in some strange out of body experiment as we so half heartedly carried on. What helped us most were the cards and letters and gifts of flowers and love from friends who demonstrated how much they understood how we felt. We were not forgotten in the rush of the season and it meant so much to us.

I know of a recently widowed woman who is attempting to find her life without the partner with whom she shared so many joys. She is hurting and more than willing to express her sorrow. She is sustained by words of compassion and indications that she has not been forgotten. It will take time for her to heal, but that time will eventually come. Until then she simply needs hugs and love.

I suspect that each of us knows of someone who is having a very hard time this Christmas. As we load our busy calendars with promises of parties and good times, we would do well to take a bit of time to remember those who are suffering. My mother was wonderful at doing that. She spent a few minutes each day just calling people to cheer them. It was a simple gesture that took little time, but when she died all of those whom she had gifted with her compassion remembered those moments and spoke of how much they had meant. I was overwhelmed when I learned just how often she had quietly brought joy for people with the simple gesture of letting them know that they had not been forgotten in the rush of the season.

I am feeling fortunate and happy this year. I plan to enjoy Christmas, but I will also take the time  to remember that it is not a joyful time everywhere. There are people who are hungry, sick, lonely, grieving all around us. As they view the celebrating their sorrow only becomes more intense. They need us to remember them and make them part of our plans.

I hope to go see my aunts who are now in their nineties and living in nursing homes. They used to decorate every corner of their homes and bake goodies for days. Now they are bound to wheelchairs and dependent on the kindness of others. I want to bring them the cheer that they so deserve. I also plan to be sensitive to those who have lost or may be about to lose a loved one as they struggle through the season. Their hearts are heavy and they are in pain. I want to do something special for them.

Christmas is a time for remembering that Jesus Himself came down for the express purpose of saving us all. If we truly celebrate in the most appropriate way we will include those who need us most when we make our plans.