Into the Weeds

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I love to watch all of the programs on HGTV. There are so many good ideas that always appear to be so easy, at least until I try them. Then I find myself taking two to three times longer to accomplish any of the tasks than indicated by the always lovely looking stars of such programs. Not only do I generally end up with a huge mess to deal with but I myself look like a homeless person or a time traveler from the Tudor era when nobody took baths or washed their hair. I have no idea how to stay put together when attempting home repairs, decorating or gardening. In fact, I try to do such things during the week when my neighbors are not around so they won’t see what becomes of me when I begin to sweat and get grimy. I’d hate for them to be thinking, “Well there goes the neighborhood!”

I have lately been working on my yard. Aside from the fact that it almost always rains when I choose a day for such work, I find that I invariably end up looking like I have been participating in a mud wrestling competition. I also have a tendency to get scratched by thorns and bitten by any stray insect that might be around. I do wear gloves and heavy rubber boots, but somehow the injuries to my skin and my appearance have a way of happening in spite of my best efforts, and I always run into some unforeseen problem.

I have a nineteen foot long flowerbed on the side of my house that is filled with double knockout roses that are simply gorgeous at this time of year. I prune and feed them and watch for problems. Generally they are quite lovely, literal car stoppers. I’ve had folks drive by and thank me for brightening the neighborhood with them. So why is it that in the long hedge there is that one bush that doesn’t make it? All of the others did just fine, so why that one that leaves a hole?

It reminds me of the time that I planted a trio of pines in my front yard. They were growing just the way I had hoped, and the look was exactly what I wanted to achieve. Then one day one of them was damaged by beyond repair by a freak accident. Somehow the balance was never quite right again, but I suppose that it could have been worse like the time a tiny tornado moved over the yard taking out everything in sight. I was glad that nobody was hurt and nothing major was damaged, but had to wonder if my yard was some kind of magnet for trouble.

I’ve put down tile floors and painted just about everything known to man. I’m not afraid to do things on my own, but I have learned that if the directions say it will take an afternoon, I must expect that afternoon to turn into several days. I don’t know if I’m just slow or if it’s a rule of thumb for Murphy’s Law to be part of every home improvement project. If there is something that might go wrong, it will go wrong for me. I’ve had to cultivate lots of patience which I suppose is a good thing after all.

My neighbor across the street works as hard as I do to make his home lovely, and it really is, but both of us noticed that the lawn at the house where nobody does anything is the greenest on the street. We were wondering if the key is to neglect and let nature take it’s course. Instead I’m becoming a devotee of Randy Lemmon, a local radio talk show host who has a supposedly sure fire schedule for achieving the perfect lawn. I’ve applied the fertilizers and pre-emergent herbicides as well as the weed attacker exactly as he outlines. I’m waiting to see if the dollar grass goes away and the St. Augustine flourishes. We’ll see. With my track record it will work and then some fool will lose control of his car as he enters the cul-de-sac and make tire tracks on the lovely green carpet.

I suppose that I should just be satisfied that I am not one of those poor souls who has lost a home due to flood or fire or tornado. I saw so much of that during hurricane Harvey. My heart was saddened by the damage that was all around me. Earlier this spring I saw a before and after photo of a home that was totally destroyed by a tornado. I can’t even imagine how horrific such a thing would be. My little annoyances are nothing by comparison, so I should just count my blessings.

Still I am intrigued by the beautiful women who demolish walls, install wiring and plumbing, paint exteriors and still look as though they are ready to model the latest home repair fashions. Seriously, do they not think that we are on to them? Of course they don’t really do any of the work. They just pose for the cameras after some poor soul gets their hands in the muck. They can preach all they want, but I know how it really works, and it is never easy.

I tip my hat to the folks who work in yards or on construction sites every single day. They must have callouses and scratches and dirt under their fingernails. They are hardy souls who wade into the weeds and rarely get the credit for the beauty of the world. I try to remember that they are the ones who dug the holes and carried the bricks. They are my heroes.

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Let’s Get This Thing Going!

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In just a little over I week I’ll be flying off to London. I’m currently in that frantic state of mind in which I just want to board a plane right now, and be done with all of the anticipation. I’ve been scheduling a full calendar of events for weeks now, and I am beginning to worry that if we don’t just get things going something is going to happen to blow the whole thing up. Sadly a lifetime of experience has taught me that the best laid plans often go awry. I get especially anxious in May given that my father died so unexpectedly in that month just before we were supposed to have a family gala at the beach on Memorial Day. It is the time of year when my mother also died the day before a retirement party that my daughters had sweetly planned in my honor. I’ve found that all too often when I fill my calendar with grand expectations too far in the future something almost always happens to change my course. I suppose that’s why I prefer a vagabond approach to life. I simply go whenever the urge hits me, and I’m rarely disappointed.

Traveling to London is a long held dream of mine. If only I can get there without too many glitches I’m certain that I will have a glorious time. My first challenge will be the flight. I always become anxious at an airport, not because I am afraid of flying, but because I absolutely hate the process of making my way to the plane. The lines are long and the ways of doing things are constantly changing. I don’t relax until I have maneuvered my way through all of the checkpoints. I truly admire those young women that I see with young children in tow because I would no doubt go insane having to herd little ones in addition to taking care of myself. I have to take deep breaths not to come unglued and frighten the TSA agents. Luckily I’ll have my husband, my brothers, and my very stable sisters-in-law to keep me grounded and point me in the right directions.

Once we actually arrive in London I know that I will be happy with whatever happens. We have reserved tickets to all sorts of places, but in all honesty just being there will be good enough for me. Most of the time my favorite thing about visiting a place is just walking around observing the people and the vibrancy of life. I don’t need to go inside anywhere to have a glorious time, but nonetheless we have a hefty schedule for the two weeks that we will be there.

My husband was talking about how we will have to be sure to allow time to eat, but in truth all I need is a bag of fruit or some nuts and I am fine. I rarely go anywhere and think about food. I’d rather use the time that I have exploring. The idea of spending hours in an eatery doesn’t appeal to me at all when there are palaces and towers and churches from hundreds of years ago to see. I want to take in the sheer magnitude of the British Museum and walk through the universities where Newton and other geniuses once studied and worked. I look forward to riding the Tube and feeling the heartbeat of a great city.

We have tickets to see The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Globe Theater. The Shakespearean comedy is not even close to being a favorite of mine and I realize that the present day theater is only recently built replica, but it will still give me a feel of what the Elizabethan world of so long ago might have been like. I’m brushing up on the story of Falstaff and his antics ahead of time so that I will be able to wholeheartedly enjoy being part of something that has endured in literature and the arts for hundreds of years.

We plan to travel to Bath and Highclere Castle of Downton Abbey fame, to York and York Minster. We will journey through the Cotswolds and hopefully get a taste of life in small towns. I hope to see farms and fields of livestock, and maybe sit in a pub of an evening to speak of the wonders that I enjoyed during the day. I want to take in the old and the new, the Tower of London as well as the Tate Modern and the London Eye. I hope to stroll through gardens and down tiny hidden alleyways.

I expect to leave with memories that will remain in my mind for the remainder of my days, but I am becoming so anxious to get things going that I can hardly sleep at night. I worry that there has been far too much time for fate to enter the picture and turn things topsy turvy. I suppose that I am filled with Shakespearean forebodings that will probably never unfold, but my mind is in hyperdrive as I wait, and wait and wait.

Travel is a glorious experience. I’ve always found ways to enjoy every minute in every place that I have ever visited regardless of the weather or other unforetold events that changed the direction of my plans. I know that all I need do is get to London and everything will work out for me, and so I impatiently attempt to calm myself. I will soon enough return to the land of my at least half of my ancestors, the people who gave me much of my history and appearance. I plan to revel in discovering what their world might have been like.

In the end I remember that they left the places that I will visit, and came to the new world where they became Americans through and through, Yanks who fought in the revolution and patriots who served with the Union Army to preserve the nation. In many ways my trip will be in honor of the people whose hard work ultimately provided me and my brothers with opportunities unlike anything that they ever knew, and the financial wherewithal to travel for pure enjoyment. I will remember and appreciate them as I tour the land from whence they came. In the meantime can we please just get this thing going!

Like a King

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A bed is such a simple thing that many of us take for granted that we will have a warm and safe place on which to rest our weary bodies each night. It hasn’t always been so, and for some it remains a luxury.

My mom used to speak of her sleeping arrangement when she was a girl. She and her three sisters shared a single full size bed, as did her four brothers. I sometimes think that I don’t have enough room on a queen bed with only my husband taking some of the space. I can’t even imagine how cramped it must have been to be crammed together with three other people, especially as they began to grow. I suppose that we adapt to whatever situation we have, but such living arrangements seem horrible to me.

I’ve had students whose only wish was to have beds of their own. One boy made horrific grades and fell asleep in most of his classes. When I quizzed him as to why he didn’t get more sleep at night he reluctantly admitted that his bed was the living room sofa. He further revealed that he had to wait until all of his family members were ready to slumber before the couch became his own. He noted that on most evenings someone was still using what should have been his bed until two or three in the morning. When I asked why he didn’t either use a vacant bed or ask the persons who were hogging his space to leave, he claimed that nobody would have agreed to an alternate plane. They just expected him to wait until they were finished using his resting place. He insisted that his situation really wasn’t that bad. 

I’ve heard of babies sleeping in dresser drawers and youngsters lying on the floor with only a blanket and a pillow. It seems that there are more people enduring discomfort while they dream than I had ever realized. Of course as we travel around the world we find that many cultures use only mats for resting and some families sleep under the stars each night.

Our ancestors often slumbered in a communal room on the floor along with the family animals. If they were lucky they had a bit of clean straw to ease their bones, but often they dreamed right next to the earthen floor. The wealthy had bed frames with ropes stretched across to hold a kind of cloth envelope of straw or down. It took a very long time to collect enough feathers from the ducks and the geese to make a comfy mattress.Those with such luxuries were indeed quite fortunate.

Now we have all sorts of mattresses designed for the needs of virtually every body type, and some that adjust to conform to anyone who happens to lie down. We use sheets with so much thread that they are like soft butter on our skin. We have a variety of pillows and even play ambient sounds to hasten our sleep. Still there are those who toss and turn in a state of insomnia that ultimately requires the use of sleep aides, music or meditation. We generally have some of the most comfortable sleeping arrangements in the history of humankind and yet we are often filled with anxieties that rob us of the slumbers that we need.

There is something so very personal about a bed. It is akin to a pair of shoes, fitted to the contours of specific people with specific needs. We think of our beds as a kind of refuge, but for some people unspeakable horrors occur in beds. There is an irony that some of the most egregious crimes take place in what should be the sanctity of a bed. It’s difficult to think of a bed as an instrument of horror. 

I have had students who had beds but chose instead to sleep on the floor lest a stray bullet find its way through the walls and into their bodies. It always made me cry to think of young people dealing with fears that nobody should ever experience. I always worried about those kids who were so tired that they were unable to keep from nodding off by the middle of the school day. There were certainly those who simply chose to play video games or send communications to friends on their phones all night, but some of them truly did not have a decent place to sleep or they were even afraid to sleep.

Many of us decorate our beds and the rooms where they stand. Our choices of color and fabric speak volumes about who we are and what our sleep means to us. A bedroom is a place where we are generally truly ourselves. What is there or not there tells a short story about us and the kind of existence that we enjoy or from which we hope to flee. Whatever the case we humans tend to adapt to our circumstances. My mom laughingly spoke of the routine that she and her sisters developed so that everyone would be comfortable in their tiny bed. They learned how to sleep in the same direction and turn in tandem at regular intervals. She maintained that she never had a complaint nor missed a night of blissful sleep, but she did appreciate the extra room when her eldest sister got married.

Now that I think about it, I feel that my own bed is a great treasure, a kind of blessing for me. I suppose that I need to be more thankful when when lay down my head, pull up the covers, and ask Alexa to turn out the lights. I sleep like a king. I am indeed fortunate.

One Hundred Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday, Aunt Valeria!

    

A State of Mind

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A couple of little girls were trying to guess my age and gingerly asked if I was over fifty. My response was a vague, “Sure,” which seemed to satisfy them and made me wonder how I actually appear to the world, not that it really matters. Getting older puts an all new meaning into the concept of making plans. There is always a somewhat higher probability that a sudden illness or some other change may alter a schedule. More and more often setting a calendar is a tentative affair barring undue circumstance. It makes for a bit of anxiety and uncertainty.

Last year hubby and I had tickets to go see Joe Bonamassa play his masterful guitar licks, but we had relied on memory rather than putting the date on a calendar, and memory failed us. We actually showed up a week too late. I understand that the performance was incredible, but we were not there to see it because we now know that our own minds are no longer as reliable as they once were. I should have realized that fact every time that I walked to another room to do something and then just stood there wondering what it was that I had set out to do.

This year we excitedly purchased tickets to see the Rolling Stones in what was supposed to be their final tour. Taking no chances, we recorded the date on a number of calendars and on all of our devices. We were confident that Google, Alexa, and our phones would provide us with enough reminders to get us there without a hitch this time. We were taking no chances on reliance of our “feeble” minds. Who knew that Mick Jagger would suddenly need heart surgery and have to cancel the tour? This is the man who at seventy five seemed ageless with his healthy lifestyle. If he is being called a septuagenarian in the press what hope is there for the rest of us? The irony is that Keith Richards who has ignored all of the conventional platitudes about clean living appears to be in relatively good health even as he chain smokes and ingests enough alcohol (among other things) to pickle his brain.

The fact is that we can do our best to take good care of ourselves but none of us are immortal or will miss the unavoidable signs of aging. I know people young enough to be my children who are scheduled for procedures like hip replacement, heart surgery, and chemotherapy. We may be able to stall the inevitable if we work hard to maintain our health, but nobody yet has found away to live forever. Such a realization can be depressing, or it can be an incentive to squeeze as much out of whatever time we each have as possible. It should prompt us to do that thing that we have always wanted to do, or to be that person that we have dreamed of being. The clock is ticking, but it isn’t holding us back.

I am in awe of friends my age who are still accomplishing wondrous things. They are learning how to paint, recording songs, writing novels. They go birding in the early morning hours and photograph the beautiful creatures that they see. They never miss a game or activity that involves their grandchildren. They are active in politics. Sometimes they work their adventures around doctors’ appointments and exercise regimens, but they are actively pushing themselves to enjoy each day and to continue to be part of the vibrancy of the world. They optimistically make plans, and when life throws them a curve they tackle the challenge and then get right back into the saddle.

I remember a time when a friend was caring for his mother who was not a great deal older than I am now. He often remarked that she had given up on herself and rarely left the confines of her home. She spent countless hours watching the news and becoming more and more depressed about the future. He felt that by isolating herself and giving up on the possibility of still finding meaning in each day she had condemned herself to a very dreary existence. In spite of his continual efforts to pull her from her self inflicted doom, she insisted that she just was just deferring to her age and the way life was supposed to be. She actually lived well into her late eighties with a kind of anger that drove her to complain about how long she had felt useless to the world.

I always felt sorry for both my friend and his mother because I had seen the example of my grandfather who never gave up squeezing the most out of life even as one challenge after another came along to defy his optimism. He lived to the ripe old age of one hundred eight and with the exception of the last few months he was clear headed and happy. The key to his joy filled longevity was certainly a bit of good DNA, but also his determination to greet each day with joy and gratitude. He loved the world and the people in it. He was fascinated by those who remained strong regardless of what they had to endure. He focused on actively treating his body and his brain with respect, and he believed that our best days are continually unfolding.

We’ve been told to hang on to our Rolling Stones tickets. Mick is vowing to recover quickly and reschedule the tour beginning in July. His surgery went well and he is determined to rock us once again.  He appears to be a believer that his story isn’t over until it is over, and so do I. I’ll keep making plans, taking new risks, learning new things, and getting out of my head and my house. I don’t feel thirty anymore, but that fifty that the little girls suggested as my age is about right. There is still way too much fun to be had to lock myself away with worry. Age really is a state of mind.