Three Days in August

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Some things are so traumatic that they leave a permanent scar on the heart. We vividly remember how such events felt even years later. For me those moments have been the morning when I learned of my father’s death, the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the moment when I heard that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had also been killed, 9/11, and the three days of rain that flooded my city last August as a result of hurricane Harvey.

It has now been a year since fifty one inches of rain fell in virtually every part of Houston over that three day period. I remember all of the dire warnings that were being bandied about even before a drop of precipitation made its way to earth. I made a few preparations, but truly believed that the weather forecasters were overreacting. As a matter of fact, I joked with both of my daughters in a group text noting that the news reporters were all going to have egg on their faces when the whole incident became a bust. We all three worried that such wolf crying would one day lead to disaster when none of us bothered to listen to them anymore.

Most of the people in my neighborhood stayed home all day long getting ready for we knew not what, but before long we were bored and more than ready to get out and about. Precaution kept us home nonetheless and we reverted to binging on Netflix just to get away from the dire predictions on the local television stations. My next door neighbors baked cookies to fill the hours of waiting for a disaster that seemed in grave doubt of ever materializing. It finally began to rain in the evening, but nothing about the downpour seemed to be especially alarming. My husband, Mike, and I retired feeling content that the morning would find everyone doing well.

Of course that was not the case. By the time I awakened and turned on the television to see what had transpired during the night there were already areas of town that were severely flooded. Almost one third of Friendswood which is only about fifteen minutes away from my home had been hit hard. People were being evacuated in boats after their homes filled with water. All along Interstate 45 there were reports of grave problems. The images on television were frightening, and even more so were the messages from friends on Facebook who had been forced from their houses in the middle of the night.

The rain kept coming down, with no sign of letting up. I became more and more concerned mostly because Mike had been struck down by a stroke only a few weeks before. We had been told that he was in a critical time period when the chances of his having another attack were the most likely. I began to worry that he might need emergency medical care that would not be forthcoming, but I said nothing to him because I wanted to keep him calm.

Mike was sleeping quite a bit at that time, so I took advantage of the moments when he was dozing to slowly move items upstairs just in case our house began to take on water. I put many things on countertops and high shelves in closets. All the while I monitored the nonstop coverage of the event. The news was not good. The rains kept coming and the photos got worse and worse. I prayed for even a few minutes of respite from the inundation, but none came. My neighbors and I sometimes met outside to determine how well our street was draining. Somehow it seemed as though there was no way that we would ultimately be spared from flooding inside our homes. We promised to watch over one another to the end, whenever that might be. Day two ended with even more horrific stories than the first, but we were somehow safe.

Mike and I went to bed upstairs but I slept very little. The constant droning of the rain made me anxious. I checked over and over again to see if my home was taking on water. I’d also quietly turn on the television to see if there were any signs that the rains were finally going to end. Somehow all hope seemed to be gone. I cried over the images that I saw. I sobbed each time another of my friends or relatives reported that they had been forced to evacuate their homes. I thought surely that my beloved city was so hopelessly wounded that it would die an excruciating death. Not even the stories of courage and compassion that were so numerous were able to convince me that we would somehow survive the ordeal. Mostly I continued to worry about Mike and all of the unfortunate souls who had already lost so much. One of my students provided me with a small slice of optimism when he texted me to assure me that if Mike needed to get to a hospital he come immediately with his big truck to save the day.

There were fears of levees bursting in neighborhoods where dear friends and relatives resided. It seemed as though the news grew worse and worse and worse. Still the rain kept coming and I finally reached a point of sheer terror. I had done all that I might to prepare for the worst. I was exhausted but unwilling and unable to sleep. I kept watch all night on the third day, certain that my street and my home would soon have no place to drain. Many people that I love had already had to flee. It seemed that no area of town was untouched.

It was early in the morning, about five, when I realized that the rain had stopped. I held my breath expecting the inundation to return at any moment, but we had finally reached the end. Four and one quarter feet of rain had come done without even a short pause. There were people whose houses flooded only thirty minutes before the end came. Some who had survived the deluge went under water when the county had to open two reservoirs to prevent the downtown area from going under water. As a city we were wet and tired and overwhelmed by what had happened. I truly believe that we may have suffered the largest case of mass PTSD ever recorded. Little did we realize that the work of repairing our city had only just begun, and it would continue for months, and in some cases, more than a year.

I used to love rainy days. I reveled in the sound of thunder and the raindrops falling on my roof. I have yet to find storms as relaxing as I once did. I watch the weather reports religiously. I have been on high alert all during the current hurricane season. I sometimes suffer from guilt that I was spared while so many had to endure sheer terror as the water rushed in through the weep holes of their walls. I am thankful for my good fortune, but not able to celebrate because I know all too well how horrible the past year has been for so many others.

Even with flood insurance or assistance from FEMA most people had to dip far into their savings to return their homes to a livable state. Those without such funds still walk on concrete floors and lack the privacy of walls. For many it will still be a very long time before life returns to normal. It’s difficult to know who they are because from the outside it appears that Houston is as normal as it ever was. Still we know that the suffering lingers.

We are proud of how we behaved and the ways in which we helped one another. We will be eternally grateful for the kindnesses extended to our city from people all over the world. We will move forward as we always seem to do, but we will forever be haunted by far too vivid memories of those three days when biblical tales came to life. I suppose that if we make through a few years without a repeat performance from Mother Nature we will eventually calm down, but for now we just want to reach the end of hurricane season without any excitement. We remember what happened on those three days in August all too well.

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Our Mothers, Our Angels

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I recently participated in a podcast dealing with the question of how to form meaningful relationships. As I told my own stories I realized how much I had learned about compassion, gratitude, courage, loyalty, trust and other important morals from my own mother and those of my friends and cousins. I suppose that in many ways I lived a kind of unblemished childhood with the exception of my father’s untimely and unexpected death. From the many women that I encountered, the mothers of my peers, I learned the lessons of being someone on whom others might depend. These were wonderful women who opened their homes and their hearts to me little realizing what an impact they would have on my own development and worldview.

I have sadly been reminded again and again of what these ladies meant to me as they one by one die from the diseases of advanced age. Just last week I learned of the death of the remarkable mother of one of my high school friends. I had only met this woman once, but in that brief encounter I was taken by the way in which she welcomed me and made me somehow feel quite special. I would tell people about her and that brief encounter from time to time as the years passed. It was only in reading her obituary that I realized what a truly stunning life she had lived, and I felt proud to have known her no matter how fleetingly. 

The women who were my role models were children of the Great Depression. They were young and on the verge of beginning their lives as adults during World War II. Their early years were often punctuated with sacrifices that few of us born in the second half of the twentieth century will ever completely understand. In spite of varying hardships they all maintained a strong sense of optimism and can do spirit that followed them into their roles as mothers. They passed down their love of family to all of us, both male and female. They were devoted to their children without hovering like helicopters. They worked hard to maintain a sense of peace and contentment inside their homes. They rarely complained, instead celebrating the blessings that they had, regardless of how small they were. They were an exceptional group, and it pains me to see their generation slowly leaving our earth, because they were living breathing angels who gave their all to be certain that we would have good lives.

These were not women who were always barefoot, pregnant and under their husband’s thumbs, even though many of them never worked outside of the home. They were strong and able to overcome incredible challenges. They worked for the betterment of their little corners of the earth through jobs, volunteer work, keeping their families safe and happy. Often their responsibilities included elderly parents for whom they lovingly took into their homes. I used to enjoy visiting with the old ones who became part of the big extended families of my friends. It was not until my own mother came to live in my home in her final year of life that I realized the difficulties of caring for an adult day in and day out. The women I had witnessed had always made it seem so easy.

The women who continue to inspire me thought it natural to pitch in whenever someone was in need. They’d bring food, condolences, and a helping hand to any tragedy. They were not the least bit afraid of long hours of back breaking work. They did whatever needed to be done with little fanfare or need of accolades. 

If I were to make a list of the women who taught me how to live a purpose driven life it would begin with my own mother but then continue almost endlessly, for I always found something remarkable about the generation that came before me. Mrs. Barry showed me what love and loyalty really meant when she stepped forward to help me during my mother’s first mental breakdown. Mrs. Daigle taught me how to be the consummate hostess regardless of who came to my door. Mrs. Bush demonstrated courage over and over again, even in situations that might have overwhelmed a lesser soul. My aunts showed me how to keep family close. Mrs. Janot helped me to understand how to balance the daily toil of living with fun. Mrs. Frey demonstrated how to fully utilize my own talents and creativity. Mrs. Wright helped me to discover my own worth. Mrs. Loisey was my teacher who showed me the impact of a great educator. Mrs. Pryor helped me to understand the possibilities found in giving myself to the community. Mrs. McKenna brought beauty and music into my life. Mrs. Martin showed me the new worlds to be found in books. Mrs. Brochtrup seemed to be a living saint whose faith inspired me. Mrs. Caldwell, Mrs. Gallerano, and Mrs. Cash made my life more fun and interesting by spending hours  guiding me in Girl Scouts and on our school’s drill team. Mrs. Mandola was elegant and made me feel that way as well. All of them had a way of making it clear that they genuinely cared for me. They listened to me and valued what I had to say. They understood the importance of every relationship, but probably never realized what an enormous impact they had on me.

Our mothers were our angels on earth, and now so many of them are our angels in heaven. I do miss them and the calmness that they always brought to me. When we speak of women’s rights and the roles of women we would do well to look to these wonderful ladies for examples and guidance. They were far more amazing than our society gives them credit for being. From them I learned what it really means to be a woman.

Gratitude

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It was during the middle of the Great Depression that a monastery in New York began offering food each afternoon to citizens who were hungry and out of work. The fare was rather plain, just a sandwich with nothing special about it, but it was substantial. Often it was the only meal of the day for some of the recipients. Those who came reacted to the meager offering in many different ways. Some were so hungry that they gulped down the food in only seconds. Others ate half of the sandwich and saved the rest for a later time when they would once again feel the pangs of starvation. There were those who took the food home to share with others. Then there were always a very few who grumbled that the meal wasn’t very tasty, somehow forgetting the gratitude that they might have shown. Nonetheless the monks continued their daily ritual giving as much as possible to the multitudes who came even though their own pantry was sometimes bare.

I heard this story a few Sundays ago and I thought of how often we tend to take our blessings for granted, and sometimes even complain when given a gift out of the generosity of someone’s heart. We are truly a land of plenty compared to some parts of the world where hunger is rampant. In such places children regularly lie dying from lack of nourishment, their bellies swollen, their eyes sunken. There are many places in our own country that offer food for those who are not able to provide for themselves and for the most part people are grateful for whatever they receive. Nonetheless we have all seen or heard of those who grumble and seek more than the charitable groups are able to provide. It hurts us when we see generosity being so under appreciated, even as we understand how deprivation can breed anger.

I’m reminded of a chapter in the classic novel To Kill A Mockingbird in which Scout describes a cantankerous old woman who lives near the Finch family. The lady invariably hurls insults at Scout and her brother Jem as they pass in front of her home. One afternoon the woman says such vile things about the children’s father that Jem becomes enraged. He later returns and cuts off all of the blooms on the neighbor’s favorite bush and breaks Scout’s new baton in half. Ultimately he is confronted by his father who chides him and insists that the he be kind to the woman because she is old and sick.

As a punishment for his egregious actions Jem has read to the cranky lady each day. He chooses Ivanhoe as his subject and visits her home every afternoon. Little by little his task becomes less onerous and the woman less and less demanding. When she dies shortly after he has fulfilled his duties Jem learns that she had been addicted to a powerful drug given to her because of her illness. She spent her last days weaning herself from its hold by listening to Jem’s recitations. She died clean and sober with her pride intact. Jem’s father insists that she was one of the bravest people he ever knew.

We never really know what is causing someone to be grumpy or inappreciative. It is easy to chide them for their seeming lack of graciousness, but if we take time to find the source of their crossness we often learn that something quite terrible is plaguing them. Sometimes it is simply the idea of wanting to be thought of as being just as good and important as everyone else. Still, on the whole we would all be better served by being more thankful for whatever we have rather than wishing for more. We appear spoiled, churlish and even a bit childish whenever we judge any kind of gift to be unworthy. Often the things that we receive from people who care about us are the very best that they have to offer, even when they are quite humble. We need to think more about the intent to please us and less about the actual object.

Each day there are probably wonderful opportunities for demonstrating a sense of appreciation. A smile is a gift. Having someone help us with a problem is a blessing. Having a roof to shelter us from the elements is wondrous. Experiencing joy and laughter is beautiful. An education is one of the greatest gifts we might ever receive. Seeing a sunrise one more day, watching a baby play, enjoying the quenching goodness of clean water, sitting under the shade of a tree are such simple things that in reality are glorious. We forget to be thankful for such things because we take them for granted, but we notice immediately when they are gone.

I used to feel embarrassed because my mother sent me to school on most days with a fried egg sandwich. I often tried to hide my meal in shame because it seemed to shout that I was poor. I forgot to be happy that I did not have to go hungry. That egg filled my belly and gave me energy for the afternoon. It was more than better than nothing. It was tasty and made with my mother’s love. It took me years to understand just how lucky I was to have that meal wrapped in waxed paper and gently placed in a brown paper bag to keep me nourished. I was silly and superficial not to be more grateful. It took me many years and many experiences to realize my folly.

Take the time each day to really notice the many gifts coming your way, particularly those that are sent with the best of intentions. Appreciate each little effort, every special gift. Set aside anger or feelings of want and revel in whatever you have. You will soon find your heart filling with contentment. Even a plain sandwich will become a gourmet meal.

  

We Never Know

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We hear it over and over again, and may even experience it, yet we so often seem to momentarily forget. Perhaps we do so because to consider the possibilities of such horror is just too difficult, and so we find ourselves being shocked by reality again and again.

Of course I am speaking of our need to cherish and appreciate all that is wonderful in our lives because we may one day find ourselves all too sadly staring into the abyss of a tragic loss. I learned that fateful truth at the age of eight when I awoke expecting to spend a day with family at the beach, but instead learned that my father had been killed in a car accident. There was so much that I might have said to him had I known what was to happen, so many questions I might have asked. Like so many I was blindsided and left with a nagging feeling of wondering if he ever truly understood how much I loved him.

Over the years I’ve seen such situations play out for me and others that again and again. There was the death of a dear friend from a heart attack, and my mother-in-law’s stroke both of which came so suddenly and unexpectedly. Beloved students died far too soon from car accidents and even murders. I comforted a cousin through marriage whose own cousin and best friend was killed in a freak accident while he was vacationing. A long time family friend was close to death after being injured while having an adventure with good friends. That time we all got lucky, and he did manage to survive but not without a long battle to regain his health. Like most people I might go on and on with examples of tragic and shocking events that knocked me off of my feet. 

Each of us has endured far too many such incidents. They tear at our hearts and sometimes even leave us with regrets. We want just one more hour with loved ones who are ripped from us so quickly, that we feel as though big chunks of our hearts went with them. We may have complete trust that God’s will is being done as it should be, but still feel as though the very earth has suddenly been pulled out from under our feet. We tell ourselves that we are going to be far better at opening our hearts to the people that we love. We pledge to never again take our lives for granted, and then we let the business of the world intrude.

I was reminded of that hollow feeling in times of great and unexpected loss by a heartbreaking post from my niece. A sweet family including a young couple, their two year old child, and their mom and dad had gone to Canada for vacation. They were traveling in a van down a mountainous highway when something quite terrible happened. They had a head on collision with another vehicle and in the aftermath six people lay dead and two were in serious condition in the hospital. Miraculously the toddler was unhurt, but his father and grandmother had died and his mother and grandfather were injured. The other victims had been in the other car when the fiery crash turned deadly.

My niece, Katie posted the article because her daughter’s kindergarten teacher was one of the survivors. Katie asked for prayers and explained that the young woman was an angel who had been exceedingly patient and kind to her little child. Katie was quite naturally very upset and concerned about the wonderful woman who had made such a lasting and beautiful impression on the children that she taught each day. 

Knowing Katie as I do, I am certain that she went out of her way to let this teacher know how much she was appreciated. Katie’s daughter truly loved this woman and in turn felt safe and secure in her classroom. There are probably countless other parents and students who feel the same way, but how many of them actually let their feelings be known?

It takes so little time to voice gratitude or to tell someone how much impact he/she has on our lives. So why do we seem to hesitate or get distracted by work and worries? I’ve brought up this topic so many times because I know without a doubt how important it is to sing praises when someone is alive to hear them. We’d like to think that our dearly departed know how we feel, but why take chances when we might make someone’s day while they are still very much with us? A quick call or note or email is all that it takes, and it will not just make the recipient smile, but will also bring a sense of joy to the sender of the good wishes.

I cried upon learning about the tragedy of this precious family that will never be the same after their horrific accident. I understand in a visceral way the physical and emotional pain that they will endure. I’d like to think that as they travelled together that they had so much fun that once the horror begins to fade, they will have beautiful memories to comfort them. I intend to pray for them, and remind myself once again just how fragile our existences really are. As the saying goes, we just never know what will happen from one moment to the next. We should always be prepared in both the way that we live and the ways in which we build loving relationships with the people that we encounter along our way. It’s a bitter lesson, but one that teaches us the importance of appreciating beyond measure every single breath that we take.

And So It Begins Again

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Old habits die hard. I still find myself living by the school year calendar even though I have now been retired for seven years. It seems as though summer vacation gets shorter and shorter for my friends who are still giving it their all in classrooms. Their time off gets squeezed into little more than five or six weeks when training sessions and voluntary prep time are considered. Somehow in spite of the low pay, lack of respect and physically and emotionally draining environment of their jobs, they return August after August filled with hope, altruism and optimism. As they troop back to their stations I find myself empathizing with them, understanding just how demanding their occupations actually are. At this time of year my body reverts to a mode of insomnia, peppered with concern for my fellow teachers and the battles that they will face in the coming months. My thoughts are focused on sending them good vibrations in the hopes that all will go well for them and for their students. Even knowing how challenging their days will be, I still find myself quietly envying them for the wondrous feelings of accomplishment that they will no doubt feel as they educate yet another group of young people.

I laugh as I read comments from my teacher buddies as they sit through those first days of seemingly useless inservice sessions that keep them from doing what they really want to do. Their thoughts are on planning lessons and preparing their classrooms, not reinventing the educational wheel or climbing ropes to build relationships with their colleagues. For the most part they find most of the mandatory sessions to have little value in preparing them for what they are about to encounter. They feel anxious and care little about what is being said.

Ironically I spent the last several years of my career being that person charged with designing the district required meetings that every teacher was compelled to attend. I did my best to make them interesting and a bit fun even though I knew in my heart that I had a captive audience that would have rather been free to ready themselves for the exhausting road that lay ahead. It often felt like performing at a comedy club with a tough audience that refused to laugh at even my best jokes. I read the body language that was ever so polite, but far from being engaged. What they rarely knew was that I mostly agreed with them that those first days back at work needed to be spent tackling the nitty gritty of working inside their own classrooms, not considering recycled education theories. It was simply neither the time nor the place for such things.

When I think back on my forty odd years of returning to work each August I remember only a handful of inservice moments that somehow struck my fancy. All of the others were akin to the vacuous sound of the teacher in a Peanuts cartoon. Mostly they were lessons in how not to inspire, and reiterations of theories that came and went. Because so little time was allowed for the things that we actually had to accomplish before the students came the following week, most of us worked long after being dismissed from the sessions, often returning on the weekend just before the opening day of school. Generally we were exhausted before the first bell had even rung.

One year I heard a vivacious women speak. She was a true story teller and her remarks were both touching and funny. What I recall the most about her talk was her admonition that we understand that there never has been nor ever will be one best way of teaching. Because each person is unique she advised us to adapt to the individual needs of our students, and sometimes that meant stripping down our efforts to the most basic and primitive methods, requiring only a stick and a plot of wet sand. Mostly, she advised us, it meant connecting with our students in truly meaningful ways, understanding what they needed to feel confident and successful.

On another occasion we began the academic year by taking a brief personality test, eating a glorious breakfast, and then being set free to take care of the business of preparing for the arrival of our students. It was such a magnificent experience to be trusted by our superiors to do the right thing. Everyone worked hard and there was more team building that year than I ever before or since experienced. At the end of the week when the entire school was gleaming and fabulous lesson plans were in the books, we gathered once again to enjoy a deliciously catered lunch and to learn the results of our personality tests. The gifted principal used the occasion to stress that the faculty with its differing individuals was a microcosm of our own classrooms. She emphasized that each type of person brought particular talents to the table just as our pupils would.  She ended by insisting that we leave early and reserve the weekend for some final relaxation. She gave each of us a basket filled with supplies, snacks, coupons, and even a little bonus check. Somehow I still remember that school year as the best ever, and I suspect that it was mostly because of its glorious start.

Teachers do indeed sacrifice a great deal for their students. It is a ridiculous myth that they are mostly individuals who are not suited for better pursuits. Those without talent and intellect are lucky to last for a year. The ones who return again and again are generally the best of our society. They come because they are truly dedicated to a breathtaking cause. They will work for peanuts for twelve or more hours a day from August until June. They will spend their weekends planning and grading and worrying about their students. They are known for generously spending hundreds and even thousands of their own dollars to keep their classrooms stocked with supplies.They will develop weak bladders and problems with their feet, backs and knees from the abuse that comes from being on constant alert for the welfare of their charges. They will learn to ignore the never ending insults that are hurled at them from a public that has no idea how difficult their jobs actually are. They will soldier on because deep in their hearts that know how important their work is to our society. They are building the foundation upon which everything else depends, and accomplishing it without much respect or help.

So, yes, I think of all the teachers at this time each year. I feel the sense of anticipation, the worries, and the wish that just once our world might truly acknowledge the massive contributions of that all of these wonderful individuals give so freely. Perhaps one day we will learn how to treat them the way that they deserve.