A Woman of Character

Barbara Bush

She had a beautiful heart that was big, generous, loyal, loving. On Wednesday it stopped, and ours broke as we considered the loss of Barbara Bush and the hole that she has left in her family, our city, our country and the world. She was not just an extraordinary First Lady, but one of the truly great human beings, now dead at the age of ninety two. She had seemed almost immortal, immune to the illnesses that never seemed capable of stealing her spirit, so her passing was doubly difficult to comprehend. Somehow we had come to depend on her smile, her wit and her forth rightness to carry us through whatever happened with a kind of dignity that was inspiring. We had grown accustomed to seeing her at her husband’s side, a place that she cherished for well over seventy years. She and George were matching bookends, two people so perfectly compatible that their love brightened every room that they entered. Now her husband, her children, her grandchildren and all of us who felt as though she was the beloved neighbor next door will have to carry on without her, and it is so hard.

There are three women who served as First Ladies who are among my heroes. Abigail Adams might have been one of the founders of our country had women been accorded more respect in that time. As it was, she reminded her husband John to remember the ladies when drafting the design for a radically new kind of government, and she worked shoulder to shoulder with him in the family unit as more of a co-equal than a servant wife. Eleanor Roosevelt was Franklin’s conscience, often arguing in favor of justice over political appearances. She was the one who insisted that he invite black Americans to the White House. She was the angel who never forgot the common men and women of the country. Hers was a brilliant and thoughtful mind that influenced many of the decisions that Franklin ultimately made. Then there was Barbara Bush.

Barbara was born a Pierce, a descendant of President Franklin Pierce. When she was only sixteen she met George H. W. Bush at a dance. She thought that he was the most beautiful person that she had ever seen and he was smitten with her as well. Their love would only grow from there and never falter in a story for the ages. George would join the effort during World War II as the youngest pilot in the American fleet, all the while thinking of his beautiful Barbara and proclaiming his unending love for her. After he returned from the fighting they would marry and begin an adventurous life noted for its togetherness and emphasis on family. Barbara would travel wherever George’s dreams lead them and their love and their family would grow.

They ended up in Texas, a place where George would start his business and launch his political career. Somehow it seems quite fitting that Barbara would end up in the Lone Star state because her personality was the epitome of the big hearted, honest talking nature of the people in her new adopted home. She was a down to earth good neighbor and friend so she got along well with the people that she met. She approached life with purpose and a sense of service which carried her through times both joyous and tragic, exciting and disappointing. She became the glue that kept her family together even as her husband’s goals expanded. Like Abigail and Eleanor she became George’s rock and the source of some of the best advice that he ever received. She understood and loved people and they in turn responded to her sincerity in kind. She was the perfect partner in what would be an incredible life.

Barbara Bush was ever at her husband’s side even as she forged her own identity. She was unafraid to speak her mind and she always managed to do so in a way that was enlightening rather than hurtful. She reminded me so much of my own mother and my mother-in-law, two women who were her contemporaries in a time of history that spanned decades of challenge, change and promises of a better future. They were strong women who carried themselves with dignity and manners, steel magnolias who proved to have powerful influence in shaping the people and ideas in their corners of the world. All three were known for their elegance, but even more so for their wisdom and loyalty. They were feisty and accomplished all without whining or complaining. They were the towers of strength within their families, and just as I have sorely missed my mom and my mother-in-law so too will I miss Barbara Bush.

It always brought a smile to my face to see Mrs. Bush out and about in my city long after her husband had left the White House. She was known to walk her dogs with her neighbors and was always open and friendly with anyone who came across her path. One of her favorite restaurants was a pizza parlor that was as unpretentious as she was. She loved our Houston Astros baseball team and one of my favorite images of her shows her wearing Astros gear complete with a baseball cap and those pearls that she never seemed to leave home without. She was a friend to our favorite Texans player J.J. Watt and cheered for the team as enthusiastically as any of our hometown fans. She joked with the Rockets and asked them to help with a campaign to bring attention to her literacy foundation, a cause which was dear to her heart. She was ferociously determined to bring reading into every child’s life and believed that a better future lay in the ability to decipher and comprehend the written word. To that end she was devoted to visiting schools and reaching out to young people, many of whom were inspired by her genuine interest in their lives.

Barbara Bush died as she had lived, with dignity and humility. Her husband held her hand all afternoon as her body slowly succumbed to the illnesses that had plagued her. She will lie in state on Friday and the public will be able to say their last goodbyes to her. On Saturday friends and family will remember her at a funeral ceremony and later that day she will be laid to rest at the George H. W. Bush Library on the campus of Texas A&M University next to her beloved daughter Robin.

Barbara Bush was an incredible woman in her own right, not just the wife and mother of presidents. She loved deeply and laughed much. She was forthright and gentle, a person of the highest character who left a positive impression on those who knew her. She was devoted to her husband, her family and her country. She was an icon whose life was well lived. Women the world over would do well to emulate her morality, her sense of fairness, her courage, and most of all her selflessness. While she was so much the product of a remarkable era, her qualities made her timeless. May she rest in eternal peace for she has surely earned a special place in her heavenly home. May her family know how much we all loved and cherished her as they struggle to lift up their hearts after such a terrible loss. Our thoughts and prayers will be with them because we appreciate that they shared this beautiful woman with us. We are all the better for having known her.

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The Time Of My Life

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It is amazing how we have certain memories that are so pleasant that the mere thought of them brings smiles to our faces. They are not always of the most remarkable events like a wedding or the birth of a child. Sometimes they are actually quite simple, like the smell of newly mown grass in the summer or the twinkle of lights on a Christmas tree. As I approach my seventieth year I have more than my share of satisfying remembrances, but few turn up the corners of my mouth into an unabashed grin more readily than the time that I shared a ride in a limousine with a group of young boys.

Schools never seem to have enough funds to do the things that they want to do, so they invariably enlist the students to raise some extra money. Such was true when I was teaching seventh grade mathematics at South Houston Intermediate. Each year the kids received brochures filled with enticing photos of candy, wrapping paper, and trinkets that they were encouraged to sell to family and friends. Those who sold the most received opportunities to enter a money machine to nab dollar bills as they floated through the air, but the grand prize was an afternoon riding around town in a limo. It was a highly coveted prize and the winner would be allowed to invite a few friends to go along. Not only would there be transportation, but also funds for food and entrainment. It provided strong motivation for the students to sell, sell, sell.

At the end of one campaign a student of mine was declared the winner. He was a sweet, bright and exceedingly well behaved young man so I was delighted that he would be treated to so much fun. It was soon apparent, however, that he had a very real problem. He had to have a parent chaperone the event and both his mother and father were not able to leave their jobs to do so. It looked as though the poor lad was going to lose his prize until he learned that if one of his teachers agreed to accompany the group all would be fine. That’s when he came to me requesting that I join him and his guests. His invitation was polite and almost impossible to refuse, and so I found myself piling into a gorgeous stretch limo one afternoon without knowing what the itinerary would be.

I drew a sigh of relief when I saw the others who would accompany us on the adventure. They were all rather delightful young men whom I knew well. I doubted that I would have any kind of trouble with them and that proved to be true. I then learned that our first stop would be a small game and go kart center located near the school. It was a very good choice of venue because the boys were occupied with rides for hours. I sat and enjoyed the solitude and people watching while they had a ball.

Next on the agenda was dinner at Sonic. The boys were laughing hysterically at the thought of driving up in a limousine to order burgers and hot dogs. They pre-arranged a storyline with me and the chauffeur that we were to recite, namely that one of the young men was a child star who was filming in Houston and wanted to take a break with his costars for a bit to eat. I was the nanny in charge of the group’s safety, care and education during the shooting of the movie. We were not at liberty to provide any more information than that lest the kids be endangered. Hilariously the waitress fell for the fib hook line and sinker while the boys roared with unmitigated joy as they watched people pointing at the big black car as though a real celebrity was on the premises.

The impishness didn’t end there. The final touch came when the chauffeur rolled down his window and spoke into the speaker with his most refined voice, “Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?” By then the car was literally swaying from the rolling around caused by the youngsters’ laughter. Even the driver and I were chuckling with unrestrained glee.

Once we had eaten we had just enough time left to visit a comic book store. I stood guard as the students browsed through the bins and selected a few items to purchase with money they had brought in case such an occasion arose. As they shopped the owner of the establishment quietly inquired about the identity of his customers. By then I was all in for my designated role and was exceedingly coy at first. Eventually I explained that one of the young men was an actor and I was his nanny. I revealed that we were out on the town after a long day of filming so that the kids might unwind just a bit. I whispered that I was not at liberty to provide any more information than that and the shopkeeper nodded with respect.

As the kids were paying for their purchases the boy who had won the prize looked at me and said, “Nanny, here’s some money to buy yourself a lottery ticket. It appears that there is a drawing tonight. Maybe you will win and be able to enjoy life more. Go ahead. Buy a ticket.”

Then he looked at the man behind the counter and smiled, “She is such a good woman. It would be nice for her to learn what it is like to be rich like me.”  With a straight face I gathered the boys together and we piled back into the limousine barely able to contain ourselves from laughing before we were once again out of sight. 

We chattered all the way back to the school as though we had just experienced something rather remarkable, and in a way I suppose we had. I truly can’t recall too many times when I had more fun. I would often think about those boys and their leader who had brought us all together and wonder how their lives had been. Then one day I found the young man who had made it all happen on Facebook and learned that he had become a teacher in an intermediate school. It was good to know that things had turned out well for him because he had given me the time of my life on that long ago day. 

Jack

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Jack is one of those names that almost instantly brings warm feelings to my heart and a smile to my face. I suppose that it is mainly because that was my father’s name and he set the standard for the type of person whom I believe should bear that moniker. Jack of Titanic fame only confirmed my belief that those who bear that designation are adventurous, loving, and courageous souls just like my dad. Then along came Jack from This Is Us who reminds me of my own daddy in so many ways. In fact I’ve yet to meet or hear of a Jack that I didn’t like, souls so full of joy and intellect, people like Jack Kennedy and even a man with whom I attended school for dozens of years who still makes me laugh with his humorous ways just like those with which my father so impishly entertained us. One of my brothers officially bears the Jack designation even though he goes by Mike, and a grandson honors his great grandfather by living with the same level of joy that seems to go hand in hand with being known by that grand but simple title. Even a favorite cousin was named Jack and the two of us enjoyed the most amazing childhood together.

Somehow when I hear the name Jack I have a Pavlovian reaction of comfort and happiness. I suppose that there are actually Jacks who are not good at all, but I have never met them. My own reaction to hearing that short but sweet sound is always positive and my Aunt Polly’s two husbands, my uncles, only strengthened my belief that there is something magical about people who bear the appellation of Jack.

My first Uncle Jack was a delight. He was a tall thin drink of water with a grin that lit up his face like Times Square. He seemed born to laugh and was an encyclopedia of  stories and jokes. He is the man who introduced me to westerns, and I liked nothing better than spending time watching those old black and white adventures like Maverick, The Rifleman, Gunsmoke, and Have Gun Will Travel with him.

After my father died it was Uncle Jack who saved my family by helping us to purchase a new car to replace the one that was wrecked in Daddy’s accident. He accompanied us as we searched for a home to settle into our new life. He was smart and understood how to get things done even though his education had been limited. He was a practical soul, a survivor, someone who overcame challenges. I loved him so, and always felt quite safe when he was around. He was the uncle who was the most fun, someone who actually talked to me. Sometimes he seemed like a kid himself who never became too old to have a good time. When he died suddenly I was heartbroken. Like my own father I felt that he was far too young to leave us, but I suppose that some people are so spectacular that they have only a limited amount of time to live on this earth.

My Aunt Polly has always been a beautiful and gregarious woman who doesn’t spend much time feeling sorry for herself. It wasn’t too long after Uncle Jack’s death that she began socializing once again. In the process she met a new Jack and the two of them fell in love and were married. His full name was Jack Tolbert and he like the other Jacks that I have known was sweetness itself, as well as being a most interesting character. He had experienced great tragedy and yet he somehow always appeared to be so serene and pleasant. He loved music and often carried his guitar with him so that he might lead a group in song. He played with other musicians and found much delight in strumming different tunes with his friends. He also had a profound love of God that no doubt sustained him through the trials that he endured.

When Jack Tolbert was only eleven years old he was riding with his older brother when one of the tires on the car blew out. He waited inside the vehicle whole his sibling was replacing the flat. Without warning another driver came speeding by and hit Jack’s brother, killing him instantly. This terrible event was only the beginning of a string of tragedies that would seem to haunt his life. Another sibling was later crippled while hunting, and a third died in the assault on Normandy on D-Day. Jack’s parents both left this earth while still in their forties, and still he carried on, working for an airline and finding solace in his music and his God.

When Jack was in his sixties his beloved wife was diagnosed with ALS. For three years he cared for her with patience and love until she succumbed to the crippling disease. Like my Aunt Polly he eventually began to embrace life again and that is when the two of them met and fell in love. It was a second chance at happiness for both of them and in the next twenty five years they would have great fun together, traveling and hosting big parties for family and friends. As always Jack would regale those of us who were his guests with song and his own sweet smile.

Aunt Polly and my new Uncle Jack liked to play cards and dominoes and loved seeing their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. They would sadly lose sons even as they grew older and older. Just before Christmas one year they were decorating their front yard with lights when their house somehow caught on fire and quickly was engulfed in flames. So many of their belongings and memories burned before their eyes. They were in their nineties by then and the loss took a terrible toll on their health. They moved to a home for seniors and Jack’s mind slowly began to fade away. It was not long before he was a shell of himself, barely understanding what was happening from day to day. Last week he quietly passed away at the age of ninety nine, leaving friends and family to remember what a fine man he had always been, another Jack of such distinctive character, someone who had grasped life with all of his heart.

The Jacks that I have known have been a noble lot, the kind of men who seem to spread delight wherever they go. I miss the Jacks who have already gone to be with God, but I will never forget how wonderful they made my life and I appreciate the ones who are still here to lift up my spirit even on difficult days. Jack is such a simple name and yet the Jacks I have known have meant so much to me that the very sound of that single syllable is music to my ears.

The Art Of The Deal

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My brothers and I were discussing our family heritage the other day. We are all too aware that the untimely death of our father changed the trajectory of our lives dramatically. We often wonder what things might have been like if…

Our daddy had an unstoppable sense of humor. His book collection included volumes filled with jokes. His favorite television programs featured comedians. He was a great storyteller and peppered his tales with yarns that made his friends laugh. He found something funny in the darnedest places and when they happened to be from real life, that was even better.

The first house that my parents purchased was in southeast Houston on Kingsbury Street in a new housing development like many that were springing up all across America in the years after World War II. My father had finally earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering and he landed a job in downtown Houston. The location of the house was perfect for starting a new career and raising a family. Most of our neighbors were young like my parents and the men were college graduates engaged in all sorts of interesting professions. They had children in the same age groups as my brothers and I so there was always lots of fun to be had. 

Most of our moms stayed home back then while our fathers went to work each day. The women had routines that they carefully followed for the care of  their children and homes. I remember that my mother washed clothes on Mondays, which was a bigger deal than it might seem because dryers were still a dream of the future, and so she had to hang her wet items on a clothesline to dry in the sun. 

Tuesdays were for ironing and as I recall my mother had a bottle with a perforated lid that she would fill with water to shake on the clothes that needed a bit of steam from the iron. On Wednesdays our mother dusted and cleaned and mopped the wooden floors and linoleum until they gleamed. Sometimes she even used floor wax to achieve a better shine. Thursdays were reserved for her sewing and mending. She made all of my clothing and most  of hers. Friday brought meal planning, dusting and changing the linens on the bed. Saturdays meant shopping trips and Sundays were for church and visiting grandparents.

While all of this activity was happening I was mostly a free range kid which meant that I roamed the neighborhood with my friends, but never without checking in frequently with my mom. Bear in mind I was only around six years old when I began to assert my independence, but things were quite different back then. All of the ladies kept their doors and windows wide open and provided a kind of community watchfulness over the children. At any given moment an adult was checking on us without drawing attention to that fact.

I generally just went up and down the street playing with whichever kid was available. Most of the time my favorite partner was a girl named Merrily, but sometimes she was busy so I would hang out with a boy who was about my age. His dad was a very successful businessman according to the rumors that floated around the area. His family owned two very luxurious cars and his mom even employed a maid. His house was furnished with exquisite furniture and art work. I enjoyed visiting with him and vicariously living in style.

I had earned a number of holy cards as prizes for good grades and exemplary behavior in my first grade class at St. Peter’s Catholic School. They were beautifully illustrated so I thought that an art connoisseur like my friend might enjoy seeing them. I took them with me on one of my forays to his home, and just as I had thought he marveled at how exquisite they were. He was not a Catholic so he had never before seen such things and he begged me to give him some of them. Instead I struck a financial deal with him, asking for one dollar for each of the lovely images. Without hesitating he broke open his piggy bank and presented a five dollar bill for the lot. I was happy to oblige because I figured that I would earn more of them if I tried really hard at school. It was a win win situation.

All seemed well until the phone rang as I was eating dinner with my family that evening. My mom was a bit irritated by the interruption but answered the phone nonetheless. When she returned she gave me a foreboding look and told my dad that I had sold holy cards to the kid down the street. She explained that his mother was quite upset because they did not believe in such things. Besides, the woman had argued, the price I had charged was prohibitive. She wanted me to return the five dollars immediately and reclaim my holy cards.

I could tell that my mother was not pleased with me but before I even had a chance to explain myself my father burst into uncontrollable laughter, leaving me and my mother quite confused. He smiled and winked at me as he stood to remove his wallet from his back pocket and then he removed a five dollar bill and handed it to my mother. “Use this to pay for the holy cards,” he told her. “Let Sharron keep her profit. It’s worth it to know that my little girl outsmarted the financial wizard’s son. I love it,” he bragged with a huge grin on his face. With that pronouncement I breathed a sigh of relief and smiled with pride at my wonderful daddy who had who seemed to understand the importance of my first foray into the art of the deal. My mom on the other hand simply shook her head while attempting to hide her own amusement with the situation.

I always loved the way my father appreciated the ingeniousness of me and my brothers. He often laughed at antics that might have driven other parents wild. When my little brother took things apart Daddy almost always defended him by asserting that he was only attempting to understand how things work. My dad encouraged us to have an adventurous spirit that would guide us as we explored the world. He believed that life was meant to be lived without fear and I suppose that he went out in a blaze of glory following his own credo.

After my father died I became more cautious. It would be years before I was willing to leave my comfort zone and try things, but I always remembered those moments when he encouraged me to use my imagination and intellect. Mostly though I loved that he knew how to laugh whenever we were just being kids. In some ways he was the man who never quite grew up, a kind of Peter Pan who left this earth for Never Never Land far too soon. Somehow in the brief time that he was around he taught me the importance of viewing the world through humorous eyes. Knowing when to laugh rather than cry has made things so much better than they might otherwise have been. 

A Real Prince Charming

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He was a man who never met a stranger, someone with a smile so big that he instantly lit up a room. He liked to laugh and being around him always felt so comfortable. He was a very handsome man who stayed perennially fit with his devotion to exercise and athletics. He was a brilliant man with a degree in Chemistry who headed a laboratory for decades. He loved his beautiful wife and his two daughters. He was a Godly man who gave enthusiastically of his time and talents to his church. He was a friend who died quietly and peacefully last week. Those of us who knew Ed Millin have beautiful memories of him that we will treasure for the remainder of our days.

Ed Millin was from New York and he bore the characteristic accent of people from there even after living and working for decades in Texas. He came south for work and found love with a very sweet and pretty girl named Judy. Together they built a home and a family and along the way my husband Mike and I met the two of them. We enjoyed many wonderful times together at parties, gatherings and dinners. Ed was easy to get to know, because he was always open and inviting. He loved to tell stories and to listen with an intentness that meant that he really cared about what people were saying. He had a knack for making everyone feel good about themselves, and an evening spent with him was always relaxing and fun.

Ed was a runner who might be found racing around a track or through the streets all of the time. He was a high energy individual who worked all day long at his lab, and then played a rousing round of tennis or pickle ball. He was always in great shape and seemed more like a someone half his age. In fact he never seemed to grow older the way the rest of us did. His secret to what seemed like never ending youthfulness was certainly because of all of his physical activity, but it was also his big grin and the fact that he never took life too seriously that appeared to contribute to his good health.

Years ago I taught one of Ed’s daughters in a religious education class at our church. I had a the ridiculous idea of inviting the parents to attend one of the sessions so they might witness what their children were doing. The problem was that I was working with seventh graders, and anyone with even an ounce of experience with that age group understands that they are easily embarrassed, particularly when it comes to their parents. None of the other moms and dads came, most likely because their children had asked them not to do so, but Ed arrived with his always friendly demeanor and eagerness. When his daughter saw him she turned fifty shades of red and bolted from the room. Ed was dumbfounded, but rather quickly flashed a knowing grin as he realized that showing up had been a breach of teenage etiquette. Without missing a beat he made a quick exit and never mentioned the affair again. I can only imagine what the conversation at home with his child must have been, but I always believed that Ed handled it with finesse. He was a great student of human nature.

Because I thought that Ed was ageless it was particularly shocking when I sadly learned that he was afflicted with an early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. He slowly drifted into a state of confusion and became more and more of a recluse under the loving care of his wife Judy and his daughters. I missed seeing him and enjoying his warm personality. Eventually many members of the group with whom we had enjoyed such wonderful times together began to grow ill and die. Judy and I began to see each other far too often at funerals, but Ed hung in there even though his mind became more and more clouded with the passage of time.

Nobody should ever have to endure the slow deterioration that Ed endured, but it was especially poignant given his former vibrancy. I suppose that there is some consolation in knowing that he had lived life with a vengeance, and put every bit of his being into all of the minutes before illness ultimately took its toll. I suspect that we will all remember him running like the wind, chasing after a tennis ball, and always always grinning with a kind of joy that was infectious.

Ed was blessed to have the most remarkable partner. Judy was devoted to him and rarely complained about her role as his caretaker for so many difficult years. She demonstrated the kind of love that is the stuff of romantic novels even as her handsome man became less and less focused. The two of them were known in their circles of church and work and neighborhood as a generous and compassionate team, always together and doing so much good.

Ed’s daughters are as beautiful and good natured as he was. They returned the love that he had given them a thousandfold. I’m sure that they will hold fast to the wonderful memories that they shared with their remarkable father. He blessed them in ways that few ever enjoy.

Some people have a charisma that is difficult to explain. That was Ed Millin. All I have to do is think of his name and I can see him once again looking so dashing, laughing so heartily and enjoying every person and every situation with a kind of rare innocence. He was a very good man who led a very good life. I suppose that he’s running in heaven and maybe even challenging St. Peter to a quick game of tennis. No doubt he has enchanted them already because Ed Millin was a real life Prince Charming.