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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“Without Forgiveness There Is No Future”

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“If you want peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies.”– Desmond Tutu

“Without forgiveness, there is no future.” – Desmond Tutu

During the summer months a nice breeze finds blows into my backyard along about dinner time,  so my husband and I usually enjoy our dinner outside each evening. We talk and enjoy the birds that find their way into the trees on our property and onto the fountain that they use as their personal birdbath. We hear the voices of neighbors who are bustling about on walks or doing a bit of work while the temperature is bearable. We linger at our seasonal dinner table until the sun is about to set and then we go back inside to end our evenings with reading or a television program before we retire for the night.

The big three channels are filled with silly summer offerings that are of little interest to us, a waste of our time. We search instead for more riveting fare and for that Netflix and Amazon Prime are difficult to beat. Recently we encountered a movie starring Forest Whitaker and Eric Bana called Forgiven that proved to be both entertaining and enlightening. It was set in South Africa in the days just after apartheid became illegal and Nelson Mandela had been elected President of the country.

In a spirit of unity Mandela had insisted that it was a time for reconciliation between all of the people so that they might all move forward together. He appointed Archbishop Desmond Tutu to head the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, a group tasked with examining crimes against humanity that had taken place in the past and determining how to deal with the both the victims and the perpetrators in a fair and compassionate way. Archbishop Tutu was a brilliant choice for this endeavor because he had worked tirelessly for social justice for most of his life, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

The movie uses a fictional character played by Eric Bana to portray the racist and murderous nature of those who had previously inflicted murderous treatment on the native peoples of South Africa. The film creates a storyline to demonstrate the intent of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in which Forest Whitaker as Desmond Tutu is frustrated by discoveries of mass graves and extreme violence. In the process Tutu becomes personally interested in the tragedy of one mother whose daughter simply disappeared on day never to be heard from again. He promises the woman that his commission will find the answers that she is seeking even while he struggles to fully understand what happened.

Archbishop Tutu receives a letter from a prisoner, the Bana character, seeking amnesty for his crimes. The convicted murderer is vile and violent, unrepentant for the horrific things he has done, virtually challenging Tutu to maintain his composure and his belief in the ultimate goodness of all people. The movie is a thoughtful and well acted commentary on mankind itself.

As I watched the plot unfold I found myself contemplating the differing schools of thought regarding how to deal with violence, racism, and other evils in the world. Some like Archbishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela chose models of kindness and reconciliation as a tool to bring people together. Others in history have eschewed such behaviors for aggressive militancy. Today we appear to be in a time in which passive resistance is out of fashion, and instead an unwillingness to even consider alternate points of view is the more popular problem solving methodology. Those who find ways to expose flaws and judge without understanding are winning the day and I find the trend to be difficult to stomach. My personal heroes are people like Mother Teresa, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Archbishop Tutu.

In my own country I find it difficult to watch the ways in which we are tearing one another apart. The trend has been simmering for some time and now it is in full blown mode. I was certain that President Donald Trump would be rejected for his bullish ways, but instead he has been viewed by many as a kind of hero for his brash insults. Now we have some candidates for the Democratic nomination for President vying to bring down even those who mostly share the same points of view as they do.

Frankly I was quite embarrassed when Kamala Harris chose to publicly chastise Joe Biden for his past even as she insisted that she did not really think he is a racist. If that is true then I wonder why she felt it necessary to even bring up the matter. I was stupefied when the very person who began the “food fight” of the debate condemned what she saw as the childish behaviors of the other candidates. Even more confusing to me is the fact that her popularity has suddenly increased as many see her antics as a breath of fresh air rather than the bullying that it is. 

I am quite saddened by today’s political environment. It seems to be propelling us backward in time rather than pushing us forward. I do not believe that it will bring us to solutions to our problems nor will it heal the divisions that are growing like an ugly crack in the windshield of a car. We desperately need a peacemaker to step forward to lead our country back into a place of forgiveness. As Archbishop Tutu so brilliantly contends without it there is no future. 

What Have You Done For Humanity Today?

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I am a true baby boomer, one of the millions of children born in the immediate aftermath of World War II. I grew up in a time when stories of that horrific conflict were less like history and more akin to the kind of vivid recollections that parents recount from their own lives. The people who taught me about what happened there had endured the hardships, but all of their memories paled in comparison to those of the Jews and outcasts who were caught up in the murderous horror of the Holocaust. From the very personal diary entries of Anne Frank to the images of the camps that I saw in grainy black and white detail, I grew up wondering how the moral degeneration that overtook so many Germans can overtake ordinary humans. I have been haunted by concerns of man’s inhumanity to those different from themselves that seems to be  repeated a common theme in the long story of mankind. Nonetheless I remain optimistically hopeful that quite slowly we humans are inching toward more and more acceptance and protection of the rights of each person.

Recently I came across the story of a quite interesting individual whose biography and philosophy give me great expectations. His name is Ben Ferencz, and he is the last living prosecutor of war crimes at Nuremberg. At ninety eight years old he is still quite outspoken in his belief that wars have the capacity to bring out some of the worst possible instincts in people, causing ordinary souls who might otherwise have offered goodness to the world to evolve into monsters. His solution to this problem is to work as hard as possible to prevent and perhaps one day eradicate war entirely.

Mr. Ferencz is an interesting character who has lately been featured on the CBS Sunday evening program Sixty Minutes and in a Netflix documentary, Prosecuting Evil. He is now ninety eight years old, born in what was once Hungary and now is Romania. His parents managed to immigrate to the United States in 1919, traveling to New York City on a steamer ship much like the ones that brought my own grandparents to Galveston, Texas in that same decade. He recounted the hardships of being a third class passenger sleeping on the deck in all kinds of weather. Once he and his family reached America things did little to improve. Their lives were difficult and they felt very alone, but much like my grandparents they always believed that as bad as things were here, they were infinitely better than the conditions that they had left.

Mr. Ferencz had a special teacher in high school who recognized his giftedness and encouraged him to attend college, something that neither he nor anyone in his family had ever thought to do. Eventually he earned a law degree at Harvard University where he duly noted how out of place he felt among his well dressed wealthier classmates. Nonetheless he forged an alliance with one of his professors who was engaged in research into war crimes and human rights. That connection ultimately led him to Nuremberg at the age of twenty seven.

Ben Ferencz is a small man who had to stand on a pile of books to be seen over the podium from which he would prosecute the war criminals. He had no experience inside a courtroom, and yet the images of Auschwitz that he had experienced from a visit propelled him to find justice for the millions who had been murdered. Thanks to the meticulous record keeping that the Nazis used to keep track of the slaughter, he had more than enough evidence to convict.

Mr. Ferencz described how he and the others who tried German citizens for their crimes had purposely selected people like doctors, lawyers, formerly respected businessmen as their defendants to emphasize the diabolical nature of what had taken place. He noted that each of the men had been highly educated and seemingly on the road to exemplary careers until the machinery of war and propaganda had warped their sense of right and wrong to the point of turning them into unthinking monsters. He was particularly surprised that none of them were ever willing to express sorrow for what they had done, instead insisting that they were attempting to prevent an even greater danger from overtaking the world. To this day it is difficult for Ferencz to speak of the horrors that he uncovered or the degradation of the character of people should have known better.

Mr. Ferencz continued to work for the rights of all people throughout his long career. He built a good life for himself in America along with his wife of many decades who is also ninety eight. His children say that they grew up with a question that their father asked them regularly, “What have you done for humanity today?” It has been his life’s compass, guiding him to the conclusion that our ultimate goal should be to one day find a way to eradicate wars forever. It’s a tall order but we might begin by doing something for mankind one day at a time, one person at a time. If enough of us begin that process perhaps a tidal wave of goodness may one day overtake the world. 

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.

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.