A Month of Madness

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As I took my plants back outside after a couple of days of freezing weather I thought of how cyclical life is. I’ve been through seventy one winters now and watched the seasons change in quirky ways, but always somewhat predictably. Life is a series of repetitions during which we grow just a bit older and hopefully a bit wiser. We learn about the way of things and understand that while it’s unusual, it is possible to have a freeze in March in the south. We go with the flow and the routine even as big changes may occur to make things so very different. We understand that we can count on the calendar moving at its”petty pace” but surprises both good and bad may come our way at any moment. The traditions to which we often cling are ways of keeping us anchored even as storms roar around us.

March brings us the Houston Rodeo and Mardi Gras and Lent and the madness of basketball. In this month we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day even if we don’t have an Irish bone in our bodies. We decorate our homes with colorful beads and then replace them with shamrocks and finally bunnies. We take a break from work and school with an eye toward warmer days and fun in the sun, hoping that our plans to visit a beach aren’t spoiled with rain and cold temperatures. We seek a sense of control and continuity with our rituals. They create cohesion and memories that sustain us, but they can also be a source of sorrow when things spiral out of our control as often happens.

I remember a year when my friend Pat secured a beach house for all of us to use during spring break. Our children were teenagers who were not yet driving and doing things on their own although they may have been dying to do so. We happily packed enough food and clothing for what should have been a fun adventure, but things began to fall apart almost immediately beginning with the fact that we had to wear coats because it was so chilly. Nonetheless, by the time we had reached the rented house we had outlined a Plan B that did not include swimming in the still frigid ocean, but would still be filled with tons of fun. We were bound and determined to make the best of our situation.

As soon as we opened the door of the vacation home we somehow knew that even our alternate ideas were doomed. The place reeked of deceased rodents and there was no way that we were going to be able to stay inside. At that point our anger and disappointment reached its limit. We had no choice but to complain to the owner of the place and then return home. After shedding a few tears of frustration we were on our way back to where we had started with only a few lame ideas about how to have a fun time in spite of the frustrating developments.

I don’t remember what we actually did after that. I do know that we eventually found ourselves laughing in a kind of hysteria about how awry things had gone. At the time our misadventure had seemed so significant and horrific but as the seasons came and went and our children grew into independent adults the story of that spring break became more of a treasured memory of our continuing friendship than a terrible experience. Today my friend Pat is gone and I know in my heart that I would even stay in a stinky rat invested house if it meant that we might have a bit more time together. Such is life.

After someone dear to us dies the first few cycles of the the year are exceedingly difficult to endure. Each occasion reminds us of how much we miss them. Over time our wounds heal, toughen up, and turn into scars. We once again find joy in our traditions and the memories of those who once shared them with us. We realize how lucky we were to have them and the pain becomes bearable. Just as the dormant trees bud forth each spring, so too do we find ways to carry on even after we have felt as though we too have died inside.

I love this time of year. It is one of those grandly transitional months when we humans find ways to muddle through the last gasps of winter with the promise of spring just over the horizon. We gather together to celebrate all that has gone before and all that is yet to come. Our hats, parades, ashes, decorations, foods, and gatherings are inventions of the human spirit, attempts to maintain our optimism even when everything around us feels so wrong. How wonderful it is!

March is a hopeful month even as we witness destruction from the last gasps of wintery weather. It’s a month when we never quite know how things will turn out, but we plan them anyway. We may go to the Houston Rodeo in heavy coats with rain falling on our heads, but once we are inside the arena all of our worries seem to evaporate. March is ever a new beginning, a time to set the problems of the past aside and hope that better days are ahead. It’s also a time to prepare ourselves for whatever challenges may come our way by thinking outside of our own worries and needs. I’m now old enough and experienced enough to know that it’s often a month of madness that always seems to end with a feeling of peace.

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Saturday Mornings

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I can still recall those glorious Saturday mornings when I was still a child. My mom often slept late after a hard week of working, but my brothers and I anxiously awoke to watch the cartoons and shows made expressly for children. We’d sneak quietly down the hallway in our pajamas hoping not to disturb Mama’s slumbers and then tune in our television to our favorite programs in glorious black and white. We had to be careful to keep the volume low because the house wasn’t that big and too much noise would alert our mother that it was time to do the weekly chores. As long as she was snoozing we were free to spin the dial in search of wondrous shows that kept us glued to our seats for hours.

I’m too old to remember the exact order of the shows that we watched but some of our favorites were My Friend Flicka, Kit Carson, Superman, Sky King and Rocky and Friends. Television was still in its infancy but the programmers had already realized the power of devoting hours for children. We’d watch the advertisements for cereals and toys and then urge our mom to purchase them for us. Our mother was never one to be swayed by popularity, so it mostly never worked in our case, but we were nonetheless as enthralled with the silly rabbit longing for Trix cereal as we were with the latest adventures of our favorite heroes. Saturday mornings brought us unadulterated joy, and if Mama was especially tired we reveled in the freedom to just glue ourselves to the screen.

I enjoyed by own childhood memories of Saturday mornings so much that I taught my daughters the wonders of lounging in front of the center of entertainment for a few hours on weekend mornings. By the time they were enjoying the fare designed for their generation everything was in living color and most of the shows were cartoons featuring characters like Scooby Doo. They too found the magic of those early morning dalliances with fantasy while me and my husband enjoyed the luxury of a few extra winks while the electronic babysitter kept our children safely occupied.

Life isn’t quite as simple these days. For one thing there are hundreds of channels from which to choose and most of the big three of my childhood offer very little aimed toward children even on Saturdays. Kids now have to tune in the the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon which feature twenty four hour programming that doesn’t seem to be nearly as fun as what we got to see. Most of the shows are variations on the same themes with “hip” youngsters making fun of their elders and seemingly raising themselves. I grow weary of them after only a few episodes. The writers don’t appear to  be making any great effort to create stories that inspire. There is an inanity about them and a kind of condescending attitude toward young people that assumes that they are incapable of understanding stories with deeper meanings.

As a parent today I would have to install controls and be present to monitor the dialogue and the themes to be certain that they are in keeping with our family’s values. It’s a far more challenging world than the more innocent one that I experienced as a child. Back then care was taken to be certain that children were not exposed to material that was unsuitable. Of course I laugh when I think of Soupy Sales from my generation or PeeWee Herman from that of my children. We kids secretly knew that there was something not quite right about some of their jokes but we kept our thoughts to ourselves because it was exciting to live dangerously without our parents knowing what we saw and heard on those programs.

I still have a difficult time going into action on Saturday mornings. I don’t watch television anymore. I enjoy the quiet and I lounge in my pajamas for hours. Sometimes it might be noon before I choose to get going with the routines of life. Saturday has always been the one day of the week over which I have been able to rule without demands from school or work or my mom or even my children. These days I sit with a cup of tea and read or just listen to the sounds of the neighborhood in my favorite room. Saturdays make me nostalgic. I remember how easy it was to be a child when my innocence made me fall in love with the whole world. Soon enough I would grow and learn of the ugliness that lurks around us, but back then I didn’t have to worry about such things.

I truly believe that those Saturday mornings taught me more than most people might think. My brothers and I learned to be more self reliant as we made our own breakfast and chose our own programming. I found out how to care for animals and what justice is really about from my shows. I enjoyed laughter as a way to relax and feel good inside. My independence was rooted in those long ago mornings and the characters whose stories I watched are still my heroes. They widened my horizons and taught me about honor. I feel quite lucky to have had such experiences that brought happiness and routine to me at a time when I was still feeling uncertain about life without my father.

I suppose that today’s children have their own way of doing things, but I truly wonder if all of those scheduled activities that they do are as wonderful as the leisurely times that I enjoyed. In truth I suspect that when we are young we adapt to whatever is our reality, but I would sure love for youngsters to enjoy a taste of what we had. It was glorious.

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. 

The Best Christmas Ever!

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I suppose that I’m still like a seven year old child rather than a seventy year old when it comes to Christmas Eve. I’m filled with such a sense of anticipation and joy. I know that most of my family members will be gathering at my niece’s home and soon we will all be united in an evening of fun. Christmas Even festivities have been one of the highlights of my whole year since I was a small child.

Back in the day we gathered at my Grandma Ulrich’s home, a tiny place where we were crammed together like sardines. Everyone understood that getting a chair was quite a feat, so once one was secured folks rarely moved for the entire evening. I always liked to arrive early to be certain that I would have a place to sit down.

My uncles filled big enamel tubs with oranges, apples and nuts, and my grandmother scurried about making sure that everyone had a cup of coffee. There was usually a gigantic Whitman’s Sampler on the dining table. Even though there was a nice listing of what each candy was on the lid of the box, some of my cousins determined the flavors by poking their fingers into the chocolate to see for themselves what to expect. Of course the best ones with caramel and nuts were usually gone rather quickly just like the best seats in the house.

We never exchanged gifts. Those were for my grandmother only. She reveled in all of the treasures and then promptly put them away in her room or her attic rarely to ever be seen again. My uncles had a money drawing the created quite a stir. The grand prizes were fifty dollar bills, something that I never saw. My luck generally resulted in a one and once in a blue moon a five. It was still tons of fun, and hope sprang eternal in my heart that one day I would get the big one.

It was so loud that it was difficult to hear anyone other than the person sitting right beside me. We’d laugh and carry on as though we were privy to all of the riotous conversations even though that was almost impossible. Just before midnight everyone would leave so that we would all be sound asleep when Santa made his rounds. It was incredibly fun.

After my grandmother died we kept up the tradition until my uncle who still lived in her house had died. After that everyone began creating their own Christmas Eve events. My brother decided to be the hero and host the festivities each year. We had been going to his home for decades, but his daughter requested a change of venue when she had three little ones and it became difficult for her to cart them around. Now we convene at her home.

At first we exchanged gifts, but then we decided to make things more fun by bringing a generic gift and then have a game of sorts. Each person draws a number and has an opportunity to either take a present from under the tree or steal one from someone who has already opened a gift. After three steals of the same object it becomes the property of the person holding it. It’s a loud and fun time with well over thirty folks strategizing to get the best of the lot.

My brothers and I also decided to continue the tradition of having a money drawing. Last year I actually got a twenty dollar bill. It was the best result of my entire life, so I’m now thinking that I might one day have a shot at landing one of the really big prizes. 

The best part of the evening is seeing everyone. People fly in from Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas and other places. The crowd grows with each year as new members are added through  birth or marriage. We love each other so, and our kids all get along so well. I get a warm feeling just thinking about the gathering, and I can’t really understand why such things are stressful for some people because in our family everyone is accepted and appreciated just as they are. Nobody has to put on airs or pretend.

My brother and niece make all sorts of special dishes and Mike and I forego our diet for the evening. I munch on Reuben sandwiches, my brother’s special hotdogs, pecan pie, dips, cookies and things that I won’t dare eat again until the next Christmas Eve. The pounds that I gain are temporary and go away quickly when I return to my diet of mostly fresh vegetables and fruit.

I always go home feeling especially blessed for being in such a wonderful family. We are as loud as ever, but always full of fun and love. It seems to me that our gatherings are exactly what Christmas is supposed to be all about.

Merry Christmas everyone. May your holiday be filled with peace and love however you choose to celebrate.

What’s In A Word?

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I get a big kick out of looking at all of the cute t-shirts in tourist spots like Estes Park, Colorado. Some of them are quite hilarious. On my most recent visit there I saw a shirt that made me roar with laughter. It featured two bears gazing down at a human camper who was unknowingly the subject of the bears’ conversation. One remark was, “Let’s eat. Bob.” The other was “Let’s eat Bob.” Thus noting the importance of punctuation.

Of course I chuckled over that one and would have instantly purchased the shirt but for the fact that it came in a putrid green color that made me look as though I had some kind of serious disease. Nonetheless, it made me think about how easily our words can be misinterpreted, especially in these days in which misunderstandings are so commonplace. One unfortunate word choice or misplaced comma can make a world of difference in how people view remarks. When dealing with the written word from times past it can become even more unsettling. We have a tendency to view commentaries from our own perspectives rather than taking the time to consider that there have been different ways of expressing ideas in different places and eras. What may seem just fine in a certain place or time, my appear to be rude or out of style in today’s world.

I’ve been reading all sorts of ridiculous claims from people who are finding offense in the strangest places. In one instance a national news and editorial outlet noted what they saw as blatant racism in the old Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special. The source of the angst was that Franklin, the little Black child, was sitting all by himself on one side of the table. I suppose that one might draw some conclusions about that, but the fact is that the character was introduced into the Peanuts family by Charles Shultz in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The intent of the cartoonist was to demonstrate that we are all one big family, not to discriminate. I feel relatively certain that Mr. Shultz would be appalled to think that his always loving cartoon might have offended someone.

I’ve also heard of people becoming upset with some of the classic Christmas stories and songs. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer has come under particular fire for featuring bullies and because Rudolph’s father was ashamed of him. Those who complain about it miss the point that Rudolph eventually became a hero, demonstrating that differences are powerful, not something of which to be embarrassed. Even a small child seems to understand the moral of the story, but some adults are fretting over ideas that I don’t think there are really there. What I would suggest is that those who don’t like the story or the song simply choose not to watch.

I saw a number of comments on Facebook about how virtually every well known Christmas carol might be misinterpreted depending on one’s point of view. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town might actually show Santa to be a peeping and a stalker according to one way of viewing the song. I even read a story about someone who thought that White Christmas is a homage to far right extremists. Maybe those who think such things should watch the movie with Bing Crosby and Danny Kay to set the record straight. And so it goes,,,Deck the Halls insults gays, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus is too suggestive for children, Santa Baby is about gold diggers. It’s enough to make one run screaming from the room.

It all makes me wonder how often I have unwittingly insulted someone. I write lots of word all the time. It seems certain that I have probably made people angry when my intent has never been to do so. We live in very sensitive times.

I appreciate the classes that I took as part of my college studies. Most of my professors in English, History and Psychology classes emphasized the necessity of learning more about the lives of the people in particular places and times. Without that important background information we have no context for their actions and remarks. The world has definitely changed from one decade to another and with those evolutions have come different ways of understanding the exact same words and ideas. Grass used to refer on to the green stuff that grows on lawns. By the twentieth century it was commonly used to speak of marijuana as well was the term “pot.” The word gay once only meant a form of happiness, now it is used to refer to a group of people and their sexual orientation. We add words and meanings to our dictionaries constantly, but we too often ignore the original ways that people spoke. We forget history and react as though we are the first and only generation to inhabit the earth.

I suggest that people take a chill pill unless utterances are egregiously vile and meant to be that way. When I don’t like something I simply choose to eliminate it from my world, abut I also attempt to be understanding. It doesn’t bother me that some people do not believe in the same meaning of Christmas that is mine. I’m all for wishing people Happy Holidays, Happy Kwanza, Happy Hanukkah or whatever works best for them. Diversity is a beautiful thing, but so is a “live and let live” attitude. Let’s just spread love during this holiday and everything will be so much better.