A Win for Everyone

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A few weeks ago I complained about a plan to erect statues of influential women who helped to build New York City as it is today. My beef was not with the idea of honoring outstanding females but rather with the fact that a vote was held to find potential candidates and Mother Frances Cabrini who received the most nominations and twice as many as the second place candidate was eliminated from consideration by the committee. I argued that Mother Cabrini’s contributions to immigrants not only in that great city but in others throughout the country were immeasurable. In fact she is known as the patron saint of immigrants everywhere in light of her work among the poor who came to New York City from all over the world.

I was not the only one who was upset by this slight even though the committee explained that the voting was only a way of garnering suggestions. I had nothing against the women who were finally chosen, but I felt that it to deny the incredible work and sacrifice of Mother Cabrini was unfair, especially in light of the difficulties that all immigrants to this country have and continue to endure even in the present day. Acknowledging her would have been a way of commemorating all immigrants and the positive impact that they have on our country. It seemed irrefutable to me that by leaving her from the final list a grave mistake had been made.

Ordinary citizens, celebrities and politicians took up the cause to right this wrong but received little leeway from the committee who stood firm on the choices they had made. After much criticism that Mayor Di Blasio called “manufactured,” the governor of New York, who is a descendent of an immigrant Italian family, announced that the state will finance a statue to be placed at some location in New York City to honor Mother Cabrini.

There has been much disagreement of late over the observance of Columbus Day. Many places in the United States have chosen to rename the national holiday, Indigenous Peoples’ Day. While there are indeed legitimate arguments that Christopher Columbus is not someone who should be heralded as a hero, the truth is that in many Italian communities Columbus Day has become a traditional way of celebrating Italian Americans in this country. Columbus Day parades and activities have become part of the celebratory fabric of cities like New York, Chicago and Boston where many Italian immigrants first lived after their treks across the Atlantic.

Christopher Columbus is honored in most places because of the heroism that it took for him to sail across the waters into an unknown world at a time when many still believed that the earth was flat. We now know that he was actually hoping to get to the far east but the Americas were in the way. He was not even the first European to explore the land either, and a kind of cultish set of beliefs grew up around his reputation that led to school children being taught questionable information about him for decades. Now that we are more informed there are many who just want to throw him in with a pile of deplorables.

I can think of arguments both for and against having a national holiday named for him, but I don’t see a great deal of harm in allowing Italian Americans to have their celebrations centering on him any more than I worry about Hispanic Americans enjoying Cinco de Mayo even though neither has much to do with the United States. Columbus never once set foot on north American soil nor did he interact with the indigenous people who lived here. On the other hand, Mother Cabrini did incredible work at great sacrifice to build hospitals, orphanages and schools. The appropriateness of celebrating her is so obvious to me.

Even though Mother Cabrini was a religious woman her work was never exclusively for those who shared her faith. She gave of her talents to anyone in need. While she worked in the name of God, what she did for immigrants was an equal opportunity gift to our nation, and one for which not just Italians or Catholics benefited, but all citizens of the United States.

It’s sometimes difficult to find perfect heroes. We tend to be quite critical of virtually everyone, finding fault even after someone changes. We are prone to tear down reputations and statues more than other countries do. When we have a chance to honor someone as wonderful as Mother Cabrini we need to jump at the chance.

I applaud Governor Cuomo and the people of New York who took a proactive stance and decided to do something other than merely complain. I love New York and can’t wait to visit one day so that I might see how the people ultimately decide to honor Mother Cabrini. She is a role model for all women and for all citizens of the United States. In fact our country would do well to have more like her in the craziness of today’s climate. This is a win for everyone.   

My Guru

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My life as a wife, mom, and teacher was always busy. Everyone in the household was constantly coming and going. Often it seemed as though the only times that we were all together was when we finally managed to get to sleep at night. I’d like to be able to say that I ran a tight and orderly ship but what we mostly had was a state of controlled chaos.

When the demands of our schedules and responsibilities became overwhelming I found myself wanting to go visit my grandfather who had a mysteriously calming influence on me. Being with him felt something like I imagine it would be to have an audience with the Dali Lama. Just seeing him sitting in his recliner puffing on his pipe brought my blood pressure down instantly and the wisdom he exuded with his every remark settled my anxieties more surely than the most powerful medication.

I never had to call my grandfather to set up an appointment. If I just showed up without warning he welcomed me as though he had been planning for my arrival. He was invariably clean shaven and neat in his khaki pants held up by suspenders. He wore the same style of his meticulously polished high top leather shoes that might have been the fashion in his youth before the dawn of the twentieth century. He had lost all but a ring of his hair that he kept neat and trimmed. He was a fastidious man of routine and habit whose calmness was always reliable. I knew what I would find before I even reached his home, and he never disappointed me.

His deep southern drawl cultivated in the foothills of Virginia had a soothing lilt and he gloried in telling the stories that delighted me no matter how many times I heard them. He might have mesmerized an audience in a one man show had he taken his talent on the road, but that is not who he was. Instead his magical effect on me lay in his constancy and the very story of his life that was rooted in hardship and survival without complaint. He was a person of impeccable character who had journeyed through life with grit and hard work. When he spoke he did not so much offer advice as model it through the thematic threads of his tales.

Grandpa was of another time and place who had somehow both transcended and embraced the marvels of the Industrial Revolution and the twenty first century. With his keen intellect and a set of hardcore values rooted in integrity he had somehow overcome one challenge after another. By the time I was making my pilgrimages to see him he owned little more than the clothes on his back and survived in a rented room with a meager pension that provided him with the most basic human needs. In spite of what some might call a very restricted lifestyle he found great joy in the simplicity of his existence which he always boasted was so much grander than what he had known as a boy.

I suppose that his optimism and faith in mankind was the thing that most inspired me. He taught me how to find satisfaction and joy in the most simple aspects of life and to eschew comparisons with those who appear to have more. He believed that it was futile to wish that things had been different in his story. He accepted the many hardships that he experienced as just part of the human experience. He reveled in knowing that he had overcome so much and was still standing.

When my grandfather died I was devastated. His one hundred eight years on this earth had somehow mislead me to believe that he would always be waiting to talk with me. I found myself regretting that I had not gone to see him more often or stayed just a bit longer instead of deferring to things that I had to do. I still hear his comforting voice and smell the aroma of his pipe tobacco wafting into the air. There is so much more that I want to know about him and so much that I would like to say to him.

We seem to be living in a time when society is rushing around faster than ever before. The trend is to tie ourselves and our children to unrelenting schedules. We are continually exposed to an infinite loop of complaining about how terrible things are. We attempt to assuage our stress with entertainments that are of little or no value. Some attempt to hide their pain with drugs and alcohol. It can feel overwhelming to observe the level of dissatisfaction. All of it makes me long for the calm and contentment of my grandfather, a man who dealt with the hand that was given him with grace and appreciation.

When all is said and done my grandfather taught me that we have more control over our lives than we may think. Both good and bad things will indeed happen but we have the ultimate control over what attitudes we choose to have. His philosophy was to find a grain of good even in the worst possible scenario. He was a strong and courageous man not just because he had to be but because he wanted to be. He embraced each moment just as it was, learning something about the world and himself as he went. I miss him greatly but he taught me how to survive and showed me how precious life can and should be. He was my guru.

Strong

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Childhood is a kind of bubble of naiveté that protects us while we are learning about ourselves and the world around us. Some children like myself experience tragedy early in their lives and such events become cautionary tales for them. Hurt and loss changes little ones in varying ways. I suppose that in spite of the fears that lie at the bedrock of my personality I was somehow able to develop somewhat normally into a healthy adult who is perhaps a bit less adventurous than I might other wise have been. The shock of losing my father after a long journey to and then back from California left me quietly confused and desirous of clinging to any form of security that I might find.

I blanketed myself in the luxury of routine and a certain level of isolation from the realities of the world. I spent the remainder of my growing up years in relative ignorance of hurt and intrigue. I became resilient and once again confident by living a quiet and somewhat uneventful life inside the little neighborhood from which my family and I rarely needed to venture save to visit with my grandparents and my aunts, uncles and cousins.

I cared little about world affairs or intrigue of any sort. It was not until I was fifteen and in high school that I once again faced death when my beloved grandmother developed cancer and died. That was about the same time that President Kennedy was assassinated while he was visiting Dallas. I went into the same state of shock and grief that I had felt when my father died. I wanted to look away, to somehow pretend that such events were not really part of our human experience. I buried the fears that I inside my heart and pretended that I was stronger than I actually felt.

Like so many of us so often do I ignored my feelings and stoically moved forward, avoiding contact with negative thoughts or people or situations. I tried to make life a fairytale forgetting that the theme of all such stories revolves around triumph over hardship. It was not until I was twenty years old and I saw mental illness take hold of my mother that I realized there was no running away from the tragedies that each of us must face. I had to become fearless without warning or practice and it was painful.

For some time I hid my reality as though it were some ugly thing that defined me and my family. I did not share with others. Instead I dealt with the situation hoping that my mother would be cured and I would be able to move forward as though nothing had ever happened. Of course her chronic illness kept jerking me back into a dark world that was confusing and painful beyond measure. It was only when I freed myself from the constraints that I had placed on my willingness to face the truth that I began to see the world around me in all of its good and bad iterations.

By becoming honest with myself and with the people that I knew I developed more and more trust even in the face of seemingly hopeless situations. I saw that there is always someone willing to help if only I had the courage to ask. I found friendships and relationships that made me a better person each time that I reached out for understanding and assistance. By facing the toughness of life I actually began to see its true beauty more clearly.

There are patterns among human beings that repeat themselves over and over again through the centuries. How we deal with our longings and our sorrows may change ever so slightly as we learn from the mistakes of our ancestors but the basic feelings are in total harmony with every man and woman who has ever walked on this earth. We strive for happiness while enduring the inevitable sorrows. None of us will make it through life without scars, but if we are very lucky and willing to embrace those situations with wisdom and determination we will surely learn from them.

I know so many who are suffering at this very moment. It hurts me to see their pain and to know that in some cases there is so little that I might do to help them. I offer small bits of encouragement knowing that theirs is a season of sorrow through which they must walk. In other cases there are tangible things that I am able to do because of the resources that I am blessed to have. Mostly I simply demonstrate how much I care because I have learned that even the tiniest bit of generosity has the power of bringing joy to a broken or frightened heart.

We should never underestimate our power to say or do exactly what someone needs in a dark moment. Thoughtfulness and openness are like healing salves when administered at just the right moment. From my own experiences I know for certain that small gestures of love are never forgotten. It may be a neighbor lighting the pilot light of a heater on a cold winter’s day who brings hope or a pot of soup delivered by a friend that begins the process of healing.

I see the faces of those who took the time to comfort me when my father died and then my mother. I know exactly who extricated me from the darkest times of my life. I have never forgotten how impactful their kindnesses were. They remind me even when I am feeling low that I am not as alone as I might sometimes believe. I may stumble and skin my knees in this grand adventure called life but I will always find a hand reaching out to save me. I have learned time and again that there are very good people just waiting to be at my side and in that knowledge I have become very strong.

Life Is Good

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The aroma of banana bread is baking in the oven. Songs from Sting are playing in the great room. The washer and dryer are working to clean today’s laundry while Mike irons his dress shirts. We’ve just returned from Sprouts where we purchased a week’s worth of fresh vegetables and I am boiling eggs for future breakfasts. My niece will be coming soon for afternoon tea and my level of contentment is soaring.  It would be difficult to feel any better than I do right now.

I suppose that my satisfaction is a sign of my age. It doesn’t take much these days to feel blessed. I’ve learned over time what is most important in life and it certainly isn’t things. It’s a sense of security, enough healthy food to feed my energy, and great moments with family and friends. I enjoy good music and the opportunity of another day whether it be sunny with blues skies or cold, wet and grey.

I spent the morning planning for a Pre Calculus study session with my grandsons. It’s nice to know that my brain is still working, probably better than my knees. I also created lessons for some young men who are learning Algebra I, a couple of youngsters who are mastering middle school math, and two little tikes who are learning how to tell time, read a calendar, and add numbers. Having a purpose each day is priceless and does much to boost my optimism. I see young people working very hard to learn and to move toward their own futures. They give me faith that the world will ultimately be just fine.

We humans are rather amazing. We don’t just hunt and grow food. We turn it into delicacies. We don’t just talk to communicate. We turn our voices into musical instruments with our singing. We use our words to paint lovely pictures. There is something quite miraculous about the things that we do. Our creativity and curiosity have led us to great heights throughout history and I can’t help but believe that we will continue to use our magnificent intellects to solve the world’s problems. We have always ultimately risen to every occasion and I don’t see why we won’t continue to do that.

A young man who was once my student is looking for a job. He earned a degree in petroleum engineering, a rather incredible accomplishment, but he is not from a world filled with contacts. The great thing is that with only a few strokes of the keyboard of my computer I was able to put him in touch with generous people who work in the world of oil and gas. They are eager to help, just as people usually are.

It would be easy to only see the really bad aspects of the world, but I choose not to do so. Dwelling on evil only invites depression. Instead I have always found that the key is to find the good people who are so much in the majority. I was happy to hear one of my grandsons following that same path. He recently boasted with great joy that he feels confident about the future. I suspect that he will be very much part of the new generation that tackles difficulties and I can’t think of any way better to do that than with a sense that all will be well with just a bit of work.

Of course it is important to share what I have with those who are less fortunate. Not everyone lives in the kind of luxury that I enjoy. They may have dangerous living conditions and worry about where they will find food for the next meal. They have serious problems that threaten to overwhelm them. It’s up to those of us who “have” to help those who “have not” both with tangible offerings and educational opportunities. The old saw about teaching someone how to fish rather than just giving them a fish is only half right. Sometimes they also need that initial fish just to have enough energy and ambition to learn.

At my age one never knows how much time is left. That can be a depressing thought or it can be an impetus to make the most of every single day. We just don’t know when we will hear our last song or eat our last meal, so why not savor every second to the utmost? Taking joy out of even the smallest of experience is good for the soul and helps to make the heart healthy.

It’s also important to have a willingness to learn and change. It’s never too late to take that class in geology or to tackle a new language. Keeping the mind alive and alert seems to gush lots of happy serotonin through the brain. It makes each moment feel a bit more adventurous.

The school bus will soon bring the children from the neighborhood back home. Hearing those lovely little voices never fails to bring a smile to may face. On this day of contentment it will be the cherry on top of my glorious mood. Life is good.

The Frogs

lucky frogMy grandchildren are becoming all grown up. They are all either teens or young adults in their twenties. The days of hearing the seven of them tearing through my house playing chase or hide and seek are gone. Now they are more likely to play quiet sedentary games or engage in conversations with us older folk. They have hundreds of questions about history and enjoy discovering the movies and music that are classics from the sixties, seventies and eighties. It’s rather wonderful spending time with them because our interactions are more and more adult and they become sweeter as they age, as unafraid to admit their love as they were when they were toddlers. They no longer hide with embarrassment when they see us approaching them while they are in the company of their friends. They quite openly smile at us, squeeze us with great hugs, and express their feelings with honesty. They even solicit advice and listen to our stories with keen attention.

It’s nice to know that they are going to be the kind of adults who will do a grand job of moving our world into the future. I have to give a nod of approval to my daughters and sons-in-law for parenting jobs well done. There’s still some minor work to be completed before they are fully launched into adulthood but things are looking quite promising.

I’m quite proud of the next generation but sometimes I miss the little ones with their innocent joyfulness and laughter that used to echo through the rooms of our home whenever they came to visit. When I see grandparents with babies and toddlers I remember how much fun it was to escape into a wonderland of joyful abandon when my own grandchildren hung on my every word and laughed at even the lamest of jokes.

These days I enjoy entertaining the children of my nephews and nieces who are still in the fanciful stage of development. They wander through my house giggling and asking delightfully silly questions about the most unexpected things. They notice items that I have on display that I sometimes forget that I even have. Among their favorites are my frogs, a trio of amphibians associated with my teaching days that remind me of dear friends that I now rarely see. They are whimsical and as adorable as the children who are invariably fascinated by them, the source of smiles and maybe even a story or two.

The oldest of my frog family lives upstairs in what I fondly call “the children’s room.” She is a rather lovely creature who sits atop a shelf filled with books, games, photos of former students and mementoes from my long career as a teacher. She was a birthday gift from a counselor at South Houston Intermediate, a quite beautiful woman with an impish sense of humor. The frog, not the lady, has green leathery skin and incredibly long and skinny legs that seem almost incongruent with her plump midsection. I hate to admit that her figure now resembles my own rather closely but like me she hides her flaws under a carefully selected outfit. Her gingham dress is bright and cheery and the little apron that protects it also serves as a way to keep her fat belly from being noticeable. She has lovely eyes that protrude with a kind of happiness that matches her grin. She holds a little net for catching flies and she used to boast a cute wide brimmed straw hat but it somehow got lost over the years. She is as cute as can be and nary a child fails to notice her. In fact I do believe that she might give Miss Piggy a run for her money in attracting Kermit the frog if given the chance.

The next frog that game to live with me is from Chinatown in New York City. I bought him at the suggestion of an art teacher who had invited me to join her for an award ceremony at Carnegie Hall where one of our students was to be honored. She showed me the frog in a crowded shop and convinced me that I needed to take hime home.

He’s a fierce looking but friendly character who stands guard by my front door. He is like a soldier on duty with his immovable bearing and elegant red coat. He perennially holds a quarter in his mouth which is supposed to be a sign that we will never find ourselves without the funds we need to survive. His fabled story insists that he is a bearer of luck, a creature who represents good fortune, tranquility and harmony. He is also the one object inside my house who totally fascinates every child who enters. They are never sure whether to love him or fear him until he gently allows them to take his quarter without harm. Then they seem to understand that he may look gruff but he is indeed a kind fellow whose only job is to be steadfast in his duties.

The youngest of my frog family was yet another gift from a colleague at work. He is lustrous and elegant, well toned and athletic. His sleek body and strong legs give him the appearance of an Olympic god. He proudly poses as though he is modeling his lovely attributes. His skin is a combination of jade mottled with ebony and tiny flecks of gold. He is a muscular creature who might join the ranks of the Avengers and fit right in with the superheroes. He is worthy of belonging to a king or a queen even though his actual monetary value is not great. There is just something remarkable about him that nobody fails to notice, especially youngsters who view him with a kind of reverence. They want to know who he is and why he is in my house. I always tell them that he is a treasure that reminds me of the glory of my teaching days and the dear friends who once worked with me.

I love all three of my frogs. Until I googled the word frog I had little idea of their storied history. They are the stuff of literary metaphor. No wonder they make me and my visitors smile. Mostly they remind me of other times in my life that I shared with people who brought me the good fortune that only comes from treasured friendships. Frogs are a sign of a peaceful and accomplished life and in my own case they are reminders that I did something meaningful for young people along with so many devoted people who worked alongside me. How wonderful is that!