The Greatest Gift

Gary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Auld Lang Syne

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Twenty eighteen was a truly great year for me, so as we ease into twenty nineteen I am experiencing a bit of worry. I’ve been around this old world long enough to know that life is a roller coaster ride, and since things went up, up, up for me all year long last year I have a sense of foreboding that I am about to follow the laws of physics and go down quickly. That can be both exhilarating and scary. I realize that moving fast and furiously down a steep slope will most likely just be quite exciting, but I worry that real dangers lie ahead. I know that such thoughts are contrary to my generally optimistic and schmaltzy approach to life, but I am also a realist and the worst of my musings dwell on the inevitability of aging that is weakening some of my favorite people and leaving them vulnerable even as they desperately attempt to fight against the dying of the light. My hopeful side dreams of miracles for them, but the realistic aspect of my personality tells me that their time with us is drawing to a close. For that reason I feel a bit unsteady as I look ahead to the coming twelve months

A new year should be hopeful and most of them usually are for me, but I learned long ago that the unexpected is always lurking just around the corner. I literally begin each day thanking God for allowing me to awake to one more day, and before I go to sleep I express my gratitude that nobody that I know and love was harmed during my waking hours. In between those prayers I try not to dwell on any worries that I have. I embrace each moment with genuine joy because life itself is so beautiful and yet so fragile.

There is something about the holidays of December and January that evoke strong memories of times past and people who are no longer with us. In the midst of all the revelry snippets of joy and sadness run through our minds. We genuinely miss the people who once shared those glorious times with us. Some left us far too soon, and others became fixtures in our celebrations. We think of the “might have beens” for those who died young, and recall the wondrous presence of those who were so long in our lives. Our thoughts evoke emotions of both happiness and sadness. We treasure the very fact that they were once with us while longing for just one more moment with them.

Such feelings seem to return each December when we least expect them. They are triggered by songs or foods or routines. The spirits of our departed loved ones seem to arrive to take our breaths away for an instant or bring a few tears to our eyes. Our minds swirl in a mixture of melancholy and joy as we remember how it was when they were laughing and vibrant in our midst. The pain of loss becomes easier to bear over time, but it never completely goes away and so we remember.

Each year I bring out my holiday decorations and traditions and see the tangible reminders of friends and family who have left this earth. I use the pewter flatware from our dear friend Egon who was like a third brother. He was with us every single Christmas, and now we think of him as we set the Nordic pewter on our table. My friend Pat is represented in the many ornaments that she gave me along with the snowflake bedspread and cheerful Christmas plaid placemats that brighten our dining experience. Mostly though I see her in the many renditions of red birds that I am inevitably drawn to because they make me believe that she is somehow still with me, laughing and thinking of fun experiences that we might share.

My Grandma Ulrich comes to our party when I set out the big enamel bowl that I rescued from her house after she died. I fill it with nuts and oranges just as she always did, and somehow I see her padding across the floor in her bare feet carrying cups of coffee for each of my guests. My mother is present as well laughing and lighting up the room with her infectious smile. The manger scene that she purchased on the first Christmas after my father died still reminds us of the true meaning of Christmas, a lesson that she taught me and my brothers so well. There is also her silver that was bought for her by my father who seemed determined to spoil her with his affection. The “First Love” pattern reminds me of how beautiful they were together, and how little time they had to show me how glorious marriage and family can be.

I open the tables that once belonged to my mother-in-law and her mother and aunt. Those wooden pieces are like altars with the memories engrained in them. They have witnessed the gathering of many generations of family. They are solid and dependable just as my mother-in-law always was. I can almost see her smiling with that beautiful heart of hers bursting with pride as we celebrate just as she always did each year.

In some ways Christmas and New Years Day are summed up in the traditional anthem Auld Lang Syne, a tune that always brought tears to my husband’s grandmother’s eyes. It was the last song she heard as she and her family set forth to travel across the ocean from Great Britain to the United States of America. She would build a wonderful life here in this country, but she would never again see her beloved England and the friends and relatives that she left behind. Much like a new year the memory of that moment was bittersweet, simultaneously evoking both hope and sadness.

I know that regardless of what may happen in the coming months I will be fine. I have experienced both the trials and tribulations of living again and again. I have the strength to face both the good and the bad. I will carry on because I know that when December rolls around again I will be reminded of the love that has always been part of my life. 

Seeing the Unseen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All That Ever Really Matters

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So here we are at the last Friday in 2018, and once again I find myself wondering where the year went. It’s been a good one for me with no devastating floods in my backyard, no horrific surprises. It was mostly quiet as Mike and I worked hard to become healthier after his stroke scare in 2017. We found ourselves feeling thankful for small blessings like waking up in the morning and sharing time with family and friends. The year ended with a bang starting with Mike’s birthday in September, our fiftieth anniversary in October, and my seventieth birthday in November. We hit some milestones that we might never have imagined in our long ago youth.

We finally found enough courage to travel again. A trip to Arkansas with dear friends Franz and Monica was glorious. We laughed and talked and saw so much beauty. No doubt we ate a bit too much and gained some pounds that we will have to carve away in the coming year. Mostly we created some new and beautiful memories with people who mean so much to us.

In November we headed to Colorado for some winter time adventure and a wedding. It was a bitter sweet time as we watched a beautiful young couple begin their own life together, and learned of the death of a dear friend of my brother and sister-in-law who had to abruptly leave us to return home for the funeral. Nonetheless we finished our mini-vacation in the quiet splendor of the mountains and the little towns that surround them. I suppose that we savored the moments more than we might have because of the reminder of how fragile life is.

December took us to Austin to watch over two wonderful young men whose parents went on a business trip. They were so polite and well behaved that we actually had very little to do other than make certain that they arrived on time to the practices that they needed to attend. We went to see one of the latest of the gazillion Rocky movies with them, and I thought of how different life is with boys rather than girls. All in all we felt honored to be entrusted with their care.

Most recently Mike and I became Eucharistic Ministers at our church. The first time that we held chalices with the blood of Christ and offered the sacred wine to our fellow parishioners was moving beyond anything I had ever imagined. I was filled with a sense of awe for God’s goodness in our lives and for the blessedness of our humanity.

As the new year beckons there is trouble on the horizon that worries us. A very good friend, who also happens to be our daughter’s father-in-law, is very sick and reaching the end of his days. He is a bright light who will be sorely missed by all who know him. An aunt is struggling with major health problems and we are quite concerned about her. She is one of the truly good people on this earth and we hope and pray that she will be granted more time with us. Another long time friend suffered a terrible fall and was hospitalized before Christmas. Now she faces a long journey in physical therapy. They are all vivid reminders to us that life is filled with surprises that affect us when we least expect them. We must take care of ourselves and enjoy each moment while we can.

It doesn’t take as much to make me happy as it once did. I need little and treasure the blessings that I have. I’m not much into resolutions anymore, because I have learned all too well that changes often come suddenly. I’d like to think that Mike and I will get to make that trip to London that we have planned, and I intend to keep doing whatever I can to stay as healthy and fit as my seventy year old body will allow. I’ll take one day at a time and do my best to make the most of whatever happens. Mostly I want to spend more and more time with friends and family because it is never a good idea to take anyone for granted.

As I approach my seventy first year of living on this planet I know that I have seen both wondrous and horrific things. Life is a mix of ups and downs, good times and bad, life and death. There is a kind of inevitability of the seasons of our lives. The one thing over which we have control is how we respond to each phase. I hope and pray that no matter what happens I will have learned from the remarkable people who have passed my way by bearing both my joys and my burdens with dignity and optimism. So far the sun has never failed to rise on each of my days regardless of what I had to face with the new dawn. The days and the weeks and the months have led me to celebrations and moments of sorrow just as they have done for all the generations throughout history. The routines of living come and go, testing our mettle and sometimes bringing us the fruition of dreams.

So as the new year beckons I expect both little and much. There are certainties about the future and great possibilities in the unknown. That is the stuff of life that makes us who we are. Still, if I were to be granted one single wish it would be that in the year of 2019 we might become a kinder, more just, more understanding and peaceful world. I suspect that all across the globe people have grown weary of the anger and hatred that seems to be festering in dark corners. May the new year be one filled with tangible signs that we are turning a corner and doing a better job of loving unconditionally. That seems to me to be all that ever really matters.

Shout For Joy!

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Christmas is my favorite day of the year. For me it is a time to pause from the hurry of life and to contemplate my many blessings while in the company of the family and friends that mean so much to me. As a Catholic it is also a reminder of the birth of our Savior, a humble beginning of an incredible story that resonates with millions and millions of believers and even non-believers across the world. Jesus was born in Bethlehem in a stable on a cold winter’s night and would grow to become one of the most influential voices ever heard on this earth. Even without the religious overtones of His preaching, the kind of life He advocated is beautiful in its simplicity and its immense love. It is so fitting that we still acknowledge His impact on the world over two thousand years after He walked and talked among the people of His time.

I’m not one to proselytize. I think that each of us has a right to whatever beliefs suit us, but I am eternally gratefully that my parents, and particularly my mother, taught me about Jesus and encouraged me to accept His teachings. I was baptized at All Saints Catholic Church by Father John Perusina. My godparents were my Aunt Polly and Uncle Jack. I was an infant then and recall nothing of that moment, but I do know that my godparents took their vow to guide me in my religion very seriously. I understood that I would be able to count on them to be like two guardian angels quietly watching over me. They and my mother and father modeled the essence of being good people, the kind that Jesus said that we all should be. Following His word and their example has brought much happiness to me and taken me through the most difficult of times. I truly cannot imagine my life without my faith to sustain me.

I understand that the world is comprised of a vast diversity of beliefs. I try to honor the opinions and ways of thinking of others. I value their right to view the world through their own unique lenses. At Christmas time I know that my Jewish friends are just as sincere in their religious philosophies as I am in mine. So too it is with the Muslims that I know, the Christians of other sects, and even those who choose not to believe in a higher power. Still I would argue that Jesus was a good guy with very brilliant thoughts that if followed even in a secular sense would make for a glorious world. After all, what can possibly be wrong with following His mandate to love one another? I suppose that is what Christmas means to me.

At this time of year I am reminded to stop long enough to share my own bounty and joy with others. I know that mine has been a wonderful life, mostly because of people who have followed the ways of Jesus, even when they did not adhere to Christianity. I have mostly encountered and been surrounded by individuals who did their best to be kind and generous, honest and loyal. In that regard I suppose that I may count myself as rich. In the end not a single one of my possessions is even remotely equal to the value of the family, friends and acquaintances that I have met in the journey that has lead to my seventy first Christmas. The gifts that I give and receive are but symbols of the love that surrounds me. In this regard I have been truly saved.

At the center of all of our Christmas revelry is a man who was willing to give his life so that we might all be saved. Even if we do not believe that he was not anymore godlike than the rest of us, he left us the treasure of his way, truth and life. Surely everyone must admit that it was a glorious gift that has indeed saved millions of us throughout the ages. I know that it has been my hope and salvation.

So on this Christmas Day I shout for joy! The Lord has come and He has been my Guide and my Savior.

Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! May each of you find the words and the teachings that will anchor you to happiness throughout the days of your lives.