Oh Honey!

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My Aunt Polly was a hoot, a fireball, an original, my godmother. She was the most energetic person I have ever known until she wasn’t anymore. Age caught up with her and she began to slow down around the time she was in her nineties. Before then few would have been able to guess her age. She appeared to be a good ten or twenty years younger than she actually was, but life events caught up with her, leaving her with a more careworn look on her face. Soon after her ninetieth birthday her house burned down with along with all of the photos and home movies and other small treasures that meant so much to her. She and her husband had been setting out Christmas decorations when the flames began. They were both safe but the stress of losing their home took its toll.

Aunt Polly settled into a new life style in independent living quarters where she hosted domino and card games on a regular basis. Her children and grandchildren often joined her in those pursuits and her laughter and gregarious spirit returned once again. Then she endured a series of deaths of people near and dear to her. She sat at my mother’s side only hours before my mom, her little sister, died. Not long after that her son Jack also passed and she showed up to his funeral bent and using a cane. She was subdued and even though she tried to be her old self I knew that she was suffering greatly from the loss. When I next saw her at her husband’s funeral I hardly recognized her. She sat quietly in a wheelchair looking frail and vulnerable. This was certainly not the tough courageous woman that I had always known.

Last week my Aunt Polly died quietly, but even as she slipped away most of us who knew her thought that she would recover and soon enough be her old feisty self, because more than anything she was a fighter. She never backed down from asserting herself or taking care of weaker souls like myself. Many a time she became my hero as I watched her in action. She was a true feminist before there was such a thing or such a word for it. My mother used to say that her sister Polly wasn’t afraid of the devil himself.

When my parents decided to hurriedly enroll me in the first grade when I was still five years old I was terrified and miserable. The fact that my mother made me some new dresses to wear and bought me a lunch box did not ameliorate my fears or discomfort. I felt abandoned and alone as I tried to adjust to a new environment. It was my Aunt Polly who came to the rescue.

One day I was at school eating lunch and flicking away the ants that always seemed to invade the inner sanctum of my tin lunch container when Aunt Polly suddenly appeared like a super hero. She had come to see how I was doing and when she saw the state of my food with all of those critters swarming on it her immediate response was to hug me and declare, “Oh honey! I’m going to take care of this” and she did. She marched straight to the principal’s office and raised a ruckus. Not only did the surprised administrator get me something without insect infestation to eat, but also ordered a thorough cleaning and extermination for the building. Never again did I have a problem.

My Aunt Polly was one of the first women that I knew who held a full time job and raised a family. She worked a number of different places before finally settling down at the Post Office. For a time she added to her coffers by serving as a cashier at the Trail Drive Inn and her extra perk for that job was to get free admission to the movies for family. I loved feeling like a celebrity as she waved our car into the vast parking lot without paying a fee. We saw so many movies there and she often joined us for the second feature once the box office closed. It was so much fun to hear her and my mom talking about the stories and the characters as though they were a couple of teenage girls rather than adults with children. I learned that Aunt Polly had a crush on Jeff Chandler which didn’t much surprise me because a had an uncanny resemblance to her husband Jack.

We spent lots of time at Aunt Polly’s house and she at ours. No invitations or even announcements were needed. We simply got together anytime anyone felt like it. Thus it was that on the night of my senior prom Aunt Polly showed up at our house. I was moping in the dark while pretending to watch television because I did not get to go to the big event. My mother had tried to cheer me up earlier by insisting that those kind of venues are always overrated and I was missing nothing of importance. Somehow her encouragement had fallen flat on my bad mood. It was Aunt Polly who once again saved the day when she came in and asked me what was wrong. When I told her what was going on and how I felt she took me in her arms and said “Oh honey!” while I cried. In that simple phrase there was so much truth and compassion. It was exactly what I needed to hear.

Aunt Polly gave me a beautiful bridal shower before I married. She came to visit me when I had my babies. Somehow she was always there when I needed her most and she did so without fanfare and few words even though her normal personality was akin to Rosalind Russell’s in Auntie Mame. I was in awe of her because she was the counterpoint to my own quiet nature.

Aunt Polly was born Pauline Ulrich in 1923, along with her twin sister Wilma whom we variously called Speedy or Claudia. She grew to be tall and beautiful with slender frame, blonde hair and blue eyes. My mother always said that Aunt Polly had to learn how to be tough in a family of eight kids or be pushed around by her siblings or the kids from the neighborhood who ridiculed the members of the immigrant family. Aunt Polly learned quickly how to fend for herself and she rarely backed down from a challenge of any kind.

My aunt married one of the sweetest men I have ever known named Jack Ferguson and the two of them had two sons, Jack Jr. and Andrew. My Uncle Jack died rather young and Aunt Polly eventually married another Jack when she was in her sixties and still looking as pretty as a thirty year old. The mantra of her life was to have as much fun as possible and she was known for the big parties that she held in her backyard with mountains of food and musical entertainment. She traveled all over the world once her children were grown and she regularly stopped by for visits with my mother, bringing her little gifts and checking on her well being.

A bright light has gone out with her passing. She was truly one of a kind and totally irreplaceable. I doubt that I will ever forget the moment when she came to see my mother who was dying in the hospital. She sat beside my mother’s bed along with her twin sister and she reassured my mom with words that only she knew how to deliver, “We’re here now honey. Everything is going to be okay.” The look on my mother’s face told us all that it was just what she needed to hear.

I am certain that my Aunt Polly has joined her siblings, her husbands, and her son in heaven. She was a good woman, my aunt, and my godmother. She taught me much about how to live.

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I Am the Median

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From a statistical point of view my life has hovered around the median. I represent continuity and moderation and a mix of conservative and progressive points of view. While my life was tragically made a bit unusual for the times in which I lived by my father’s early death, that anomaly was mediated by the environment in which I grew into an adult. I am a product of a small and insular neighborhood in a time when my native city of Houston was still more of a town than a city. My life was guided by routines and traditions that rarely varied. There was an entire village of people both familial and unrelated by blood who watched over me. I grew strong and happy and so loved that I was ready to tackle any challenges that came my way. As an adult I was so busy attempting to reconstruct my own sweet world for my children that I barely noticed how much the times were actually changing.

When I was seven years old I was uprooted from everything and everyone that I had ever known to accompany my family on a journey west where a quiet revolution of opportunity and change was overtaking people like a fever. My days there were painful because I had lost the anchor of extended family and friends that always made me feel so secure. I was among people who were so busy building dreams that they had little time to welcome us. I went to school each day feeling nameless and misunderstood. Ironically my father felt the same way at his work. None of us ever fit in to the race for something unknown that so dominated life in the part of California that would one day be the epicenter of Silicon Valley. Before long we all just wanted to be back home in Texas.

With little more than a wing and a prayer we slowly made our way back to what we had known. Along the way my father searched for a job. His efforts to find work lead us all the way back to Houston, and for the very first time in a long time I recall feeling quite relieved even though we had not yet settled into a permanent home. My father’s deadly car accident left my mother bereft and scrambling to create a sense of continuity for all of us. Luckily we had returned to the people for whom we had longed when we were far away and they gathered in unison to help us every step of the way. Oh, how I loved them and still do!

My mother wisely returned us to the very neighborhood from whence we had moved only months before. We were welcomed like the Prodigal Son. Our life began its constant revolution around church, school, family and friendships. There was a lovely sense of calm about the way we lived. We stayed in the same house until all of us were grown and on our own. We had the same neighbors for years. It was rare for anyone to move away back then. When we went to church each Sunday we saw the familiar faces of people who smiled and greeted us by name. We attended the same school with the same kids who are friends with us even fifty years later. Each Friday evening we visited my maternal grandmother in a gathering that included all of my aunts and uncles and cousins. In the summer we traveled to visit with my paternal grandparents on their farm.

We constantly heard stories from our elders about the history of who we were that carried little nuggets of expectation without being overbearing. At church we learned about the comfort that is always available from God and the ways of compassion and love that Jesus taught the world. Our teachers and our parents spoke openly to us about both the greatness and the imperfections of our country, urging us to always remember our responsibility to maintain a healthy democracy.

We were always a bit behind the fads and movements along the two coasts of the country. We were more inclined to study how things went there before jumping into the idea of adopting radical change without much thought. Our lives were slow and steady like the tortoise. We knew that we would eventually get to our desired destinations, but we did not want to lose sight of more important things like family and friends along the way.

Suddenly it seemed as though both the innovations and the cautions that were brewing along the two poles of our nation roared up around us, forcing us to see the world through different eyes. The titans of media and advertisement from the east coast were burrowing into our brains with television. The movie moguls influenced us with films. Finally the masters of Silicon Valley invaded our lives with computers and smart phones and a burgeoning social media. People began moving around and moving up. Extended families had less and less time for each other and friends were often on the go. We woke up one morning and the city of Houston had become the fourth largest metropolitan area in the country.

Some of what happened while we were sleeping was very good. There were breakthroughs in civil rights that were imperfect, but steps in the direction of equality. Women were provided more opportunities than ever and their voices began to be heard. We acknowledged that love is love regardless of whether the people who express it for one another are man and woman or man and man, woman and woman. Medicine and science made our lives easier and our affluence grew.

At the same time we have lost many things as well. Our neighborhoods flux and flow to the point that the relationships that we form there are constantly changing as people move from one place to another. Our extended families are in far flung places and gathering our relations together becomes more and more complex. Our churches and our beliefs are continually challenged. We fear for our children to play outside alone. We argue and rankle with one another and wonder if how far we change is enough or too much. We feel as though we are being ruled by extremes, either far too cautious or far too willing to upend all that we have known. We have lost our sense of history and our willingness to accept that none of us, not even ourselves, are free from the taint of bad decisions or hurtful behaviors. We judge and decry those who do not share our own philosophies. We honor those who boast and demean while turning our backs on the people who live with quiet dignity and respect. It feels as though we are somehow being manipulated by some unseen hand as though we are merely robots. None of it feels good, and some of us long for the good old days not because we are unaware of the problems that some people faced while we were comfortable, but because we need to bring the village of diverse people who loved us back together once more. We need to feel that sense of chest bursting pride in our families and friendships and churches and cities and states and our country that might have once brought us to a sense of belonging to something special.

We have many folks attempting to understand our thinking and our motivations and I suspect that they are getting us all wrong. They tend to make assumptions about us based on their own backgrounds rather than ours. Suddenly I find myself feeling untethered much as I did when I was seven years old in an environment so different from what I had always known. I understand how it must have been to be my father daring to dream, but realizing that he did not quite fit into a way of life so unlike his own. I am the median, an average person with a big heart and a dream of embracing the people to both the right and the left of me in a hug that says,  “You might want to know how folks like me really feel rather than foisting your ideas on everyone. Your constituency reaches from sea to shining sea and there is a great deal in the middle that you are yet to understand. Maybe it’s time for you to learn.”

Happy Birthday USA

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The grills are warming up. The watermelon is chilling on ice. The fireworks will commence at night fall. America is ready to once again celebrate its birthday, but this year the occasion is tinged with a bit of worry. Lady Liberty has a few aches and pains and there is genuine concern from some that the ole girl ain’t what she used to be, and from others that she needs to change her ways. A kind of surliness has overtaken the unbridled delight that used to mark the July 4th holiday, and there are those who wonder if we Americans will ever again find a way to agree on what our country should represent.

Let’s go a few hundred years back in time before our nation was ever conceived. The original thirteen colonies were a rag tag amalgam of different of kinds folks loosely working together while rigidly governed by Great Britain. Many of the people who lived in the cities and towns of the north, the south and the in between had been born and raised in North America, never having ever seen the country from whence their ancestors had traveled in search of opportunity. They were mostly intent on survival and had begun to resent the invasive rules and taxes emanating from a king who appeared to have little understanding or concern for their needs. In reality they had little in common with one another save for their disgust with the status quo, but they nonetheless chose a few leaders from their ranks and sent them to Philadelphia during a very hot summer to discuss the unthinkable, a total break from the mother country.

Their ideas were based on philosophies that were still in the theoretical stage at that time. They spoke of ideals of liberty for common folk and protections of inalienable rights. It was all quite radical, but they were in a revolutionary mood that might well have ended with everyone of them hanging for treason. Their discussions were heated and it took a great deal of compromise to finally reach an agreement that would be mostly satisfactory to every representative. As with all such attempts at reason there were imperfections in the plan that many members of that august group understood might need to be addressed again at a later time. It was a start, and a truly audacious one at that. They were agreeing to stand up to perhaps the most powerful nation in the world. It must have seemed like sheer insanity to some.

As with all things human everywhere on earth there were flaws in both the plan and the people who came up with the ideas that launched the new nation that would become the United States of America, but the brilliance was in creating a system of government that would allow for changes when they were needed while protecting the overall intent of the Constitution. It would take a hundred years and a war among the people before slavery was finally abolished. It would be even longer before Abigail Adam’s wish of remembering the women would result in suffrage for the female half of the country. In fits and starts we have attempted to repair the problems and maintain the republic.

Today we, the people, know that we continue to face problems. Thus is the fate of any government. The great divide between those who wish to move incrementally into the future and those who want to bring sweeping changes to the country continues with more urgency and venom than ever. To the credit of the Founding Fathers, our system of government is protected by checks and balances that may not always appear to work, but eventually seem to right the ship of state even in violent storms. Perhaps the fact that so little is getting done these days is exactly what the creators of this nation had in mind. Until we find a way to work together again maybe it’s not such a good idea to make willy nilly long lasting decisions.

This is still such a great place to live that people from all over the world want to become part of our family. Like all families we squabble and have different ideas about how to accomplish things. We even have members who embarrass us with their vileness. Still we know how important it is to find ways to bridge our differences and accept each other just as we are. That was the main idea set forth in our founding documents. Liberty meant that we would be allowed to live without threat of tyranny. While that hasn’t always worked out, particularly for certain people among us, we seem to keep trying. All of the rumbling and grumbling that we see and hear today is just more proof of our freedom. There are few places on earth were such open criticism is allowed. We must be vigilant in protecting that right regardless of how much we may disagree with the one who is speaking out. We must protect the wearers of MAGA hats, rainbow clothing, and knitted cat hats in the same way with all of our might. It is the right of each American to speak his/her mind. This is the true heart of our way of life and this is the freedom that we should celebrate on this day.

So Happy Birthday, United States of America. Here’s hoping that you may have many many more. God bless you and your people and guide you to be a positive force in the world. Thank you to those brave men who risked their lives in that long ago dangerous time to create such a remarkable example of freedom. Thank you to those who worked to make the improvements that we needed to continue to be a beacon of light. Thank you for my own life which has been all the better because I live in this place known as the United States of America.

An Exceptional Plan

Great planning results in a great trip. Our recent foray into Great Britain was a success in part because we embarked on a great deal of research long before we departed for our journey across the pond. It began with a copy of Rick Steve’s book outlining the wonders of London that was gifted to us by our good friends Eric and Jenny Brunsell on the occasion of our fiftieth anniversary. Known as “Jeneric” on their travel blog the two have coursed across the globe on week long junkets. They encouraged us to do our homework and then create a master plan.

Once we had a general idea of what we hoped to accomplish on the trip we met with another good friend, Gerald Warren, who travels to London and environs at least once each year and has become quite comfortable leading tours to that great city. We sat down with him over dinner and he shared the nuts and bolts of where to stay, how to get there and the best sights. His insights were incredibly useful from noting that we would get a lower rate on fights from Austin rather than Houston, to helping us find a hotel where we would feel comfortable.

From Gerald we learned that the Holiday Inn Bloomsbury is both a bargain and a great place to stay. It is located in one of the safer areas of London while still being only a block away from the Russell Square underground station. The staff is exceedingly helpful. The food, especially the breakfast, is excellent. The rooms are clean. All in all staying there eliminated any worries that we may have had about where to sleep at night.

Gerald also alerted us as to the best way of getting from the airport to our hotel. We learned that the easiest and least costly route was to take the Heathrow Express train to Paddington Station and then get a black cab from there. His suggestion that we buy a round trip ticket saved us from a great deal of stress on our return trip home. We also spent far less money than we might have if we had simply jumped into a cab to journey to the hotel.

It was also Gerald who urged us to purchase an Oyster card at the underground station. There is a six dollar a day cap to charges on the card so all we had to do is calculate how many days we would be traveling around London and then put that amount on our cards. After that we simply used the card to go from one place to another without any problems. Once we had completed the trip we were able to get a refund on any remaining funds by filling out a form. The instructions for doing so were clearly posted in each station.

My husband Mike and sister-in-law Becky were both project managers in their working days and their skill in designing plans for our sightseeing were invaluable. We met at Becky’s home several months in advance of the trip to determine what we wanted to see and when we would do so. Becky kept careful records that included the cost of each event and the distance between venues. We borrowed from ideas in the Rick Steves book and from suggestions made by Gerald at our dinner meeting. Mike had the idea of using a London city map, also a gift from Eric and Jenny, to note where each place was located and then visit those venues in the same area on the same days. I reserved tickets at a number of places and found hotels or flats for our travel outside of London. Whenever I made purchases for the entire group Becky made note on a spreadsheet that she meticulously kept current so that we would be able to share all of the expenses equally.

Having different points of view led us to do things that we might otherwise never have considered. We ended up in Brighton because my sister-in-law Allison wanted to see a beach. While the area was not quite what we expected we nonetheless encountered situations that serendipitously made our trip even better. My brother Pat wanted to take the Jack the Ripper tour and that too ended up being a grand way to spend an evening. Allison also introduced us to the idea of spending some of our evenings playing games inside a local pub that in many ways was one of the highlights of the vacation. Our unique personalities created a nice balance for the trip and allowed us to experience many different kinds of places and events. 

Since my husband Mike had a stroke during a July 4th trip two years ago I was a bit leery of traveling to a place outside of the United States even though his health has been quite good for many months. Having a small group of people with us gave me far more confidence than I otherwise would have had. We looked after one another and I knew that if anything happened to anyone we would be able to work together to make things go well. My brother Pat and his wife Allison have both driven ambulances and cared for people as first responders. They know how to stay calm in an emergency and that alone eliminated any fears that I might otherwise have had.

Pat not only operated an ambulance but in his multi-faceted work life he drove a mail truck with the steering wheel on the right side, an eighteen wheeler delivery truck, and a fire engine. He was a natural choice for driving around the countryside and he did a yeoman’s job. Nobody else in our group would have been able to chauffeur us around as safely as he did. We instead would have had to take trains and as a result might have missed so many of the sights that we saw from our car.

My brother Mike was our Zen master. He is always so calm and flexible that he kept us all working together. He was our model of patience. He enjoyed himself regardless of the circumstances, never complaining or creating controversy. I often found myself looking to him to keep my anxieties at bay. Sometimes a quiet person who appears to just be following is in fact a kind of silent leader.

I can’t imagine having a more perfect trip than the one that we enjoyed. We used the suggestions and talents of many individuals and then just went into auto pilot once we landed in London. Ours was a memorable trip that none of us will ever forget. I’m hoping that we might be able to come together once again to perhaps travel to Vienna and from there to the birthplace of our grandparents in Slovakia. I know that I am more than ready to begin to planning.

They Live On

York Minister is a glorious example of medieval craftsmanship and mankind’s efforts to glorify the religious experience through great feats of art and engineering. It is also one of the most remarkable repositories of stained glass windows which tell stories of the past and provide a look into the humorous nature of humans. Located in the city of York north of London it is a grand architectural marvel that is alive with the tales of the people who built it. In its pillars, massive windows and fanned ceilings are quirky little jewels of commentary about the way things once were. It has withstood wars, fires and the erosion of time, but still stands as a voice of determination to overcome life’s setbacks and vagaries.

Our tour of York Minster was hosted by a lovely woman who had once been a teacher but is now retired and spending her time as a volunteer in the church where she worships. She was as interesting a character as the building itself with her distinctive northern England accent and her teacher like attention to interesting details. She delighted us with insights into what York Minster meant to the people who built it and the parishioners who worship there today.

York Minster is even more massive than Westminster Abbey. Over time one section after another was added to the original plan creating a space filled with chapels and archways beyond the main worship area. The medieval workers left their own quirky messages to the future in the shape of monkeys, political jokes, dragons and other features that speak of a different time.

The church began as a Catholic edifice that included statues and homages to the Virgin Mary that were later destroyed by protestants who believed such icons to be sacrilegious. Only one small image of Mary remains, somehow left unnoticed by those intent on removing any signs of such reverence. It has the typical structure of such churches with a high altar separated from the area for worshipers by the choir section that was being renovated at the time of our visit. Much of the stained glass has been taken apart, cleaned and reinforced with modern methods that alleviate the dark black lead that distracts from the lightness of the colored glass. The cost of such projects runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars and the upkeep of the grand building is a constant effort to insure that the ravages of time do not cause the building to deteriorate.

York Minster has had a number of devastating fires and the caretakers of the building have a keen understanding of how to rebuild after such disasters. At the present time they are offering their expertise on such matters to those charged with repairing Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Our guide assured us that it will indeed be possible to rebuild the damaged areas of Notre Dame, but she is convinced that it will take far longer than the four years that has been set as a goal for the project. She noted that the process of renovating an historical treasure must by its very nature be painstakingly careful and slow to insure that everything is done properly.

York Minster has only one saint that pilgrims of old came to see. His is an interesting story born from a need to attract visitors and with them monetary offerings to take care of the expense of keeping up the grand structure. Way back in time there was a bridge over a nearby river that collapsed sending a crowd of people in the water. When it was discovered that none of the victims of the disaster died the incident was deemed a miracle and the thinking was that a local cleric was surely the reason for this wonderful outcome and so he was declared a saint. Thus York Minster had its own patron saint and the pilgrims began to come. Other than that the crypt in the basement is the eternal resting place of the remains of mostly local dignitaries and heroes who were not familiar to me.

Perhaps the most touching moment of the tour of York Minster came when my husband Mike revealed that he had recorded the voice of our guide because she sounded so much like his Granny. I had never met the woman who held such a special place in his heart. She had died while he was still in high school. Nonetheless I had heard so much about her bubbly personality and her kindness to everyone who was acquainted with her. I had learned of her journey to Texas from Newcastle England when she was only eight years old. I knew that she had been proud of her English roots and had never again seen her homeland. She enjoyed afternoon tea and prepared roast beef and Yorkshire pudding on Sundays. She was a devout Episcopalian who wore lovely dresses, stockings, hats and gloves for her weekly shopping trips to downtown Houston. Mike adored her as did all of her many friends and family members. Her legacy lived long after she had died at a rather young age. What I had never realized is that she had retained her English accent even after years of living in Texas. It was a special treat to now have a better idea of how she sounded when she spoke and to truly understand how important her English roots had been.

For Mike the trip to England was a kind of pilgrimage in its own right. He felt his Granny’s spirit everywhere that we traveled and he liked to think that she was smiling down on him as he thought, “Granny here I am at last!” Now I too have a better idea of who this remarkable woman had been and of the history of people from my own background as well. I sensed their struggles and their determination throughout the passage of time and into the present. I know that their sacrifices and hard work have led to my own good fortune, and I somehow hear the voices of all of the people who came before me. I have a better feel for the hopes and dreams that are so present in the things that they built and the customs that they developed. Now I believe that they live on and always will.