The Metaphor

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In early spring our yard was a mess. Weeds filled the flowerbeds and the lawn. Our neglect of simple maintenance was in full view. It was time to begin the restoration process in earnest if we were to reclaim what had once been a lovely sanctuary for birds, bees, and ourselves. We spent whole days pulling the offending stray plants, adding new soil, spreading mulch, and fertilizing grass, roses, azaleas, and hibiscus. We had to rebuild barriers to keep the nutrients where they belonged, instead of allowing them to run into the street when it rained. To do that we hauled heavy stones, one after the other for hours. By the time we had completed our tasks we were covered with scratches and scapes, insect bites and allergic reactions. Our backs ached and our hands were worn, but the view from our windows was enchanting. With the help of God and nature we had created a bit of heaven on earth.

It was during the renovation phase that I found myself thinking of the past, and the kind of hard labor that our ancestors had done. I viscerally felt what it must have been like to haul stones to build some magnificent structure, or to be bent over in a field under a hot sun. My work had been brief in the grand scheme of things, but many humans spent their entire lives engaged in brutally harsh conditions, and they didn’t have the luxury of retreating inside an air conditioned home at the end of the day. I felt a kind of kinship with them, and an appreciation of their efforts.

As I labored I somehow thought of people who had been forced into cattle cars and taken to concentration camps to either be worked to death or killed immediately for no real reason. I realized that there had been individuals as old as I am among the prisoners, and I understood that they would have had to prove their mettle or die. I am certain that I would not have made it more than a week or so before being tapped for extinction. I felt their pain as I pushed back my own, and wondered why we humans are sometimes so cruel.

As I grow older I feel the presence of God and our human history all around me. I now have the time to slow down and think. I realize both the beauty and the ugliness of what we have wrought in ways that eluded me when I was raising a family, working, and balancing a million different responsibilities. Now I see the past, the present and the future with far more clarity. I appreciate small things that I had ignored before. Seeing a butterfly flit across my yard makes my day exhilerating. Hearing the joyous giggling of the children on my street is all I need to make even a dreary day seem perfect. My needs are little, and I find happiness in the most unexpected places.

Just as we were completing the reclamation of our yard I learned that the glorious Notre Dame cathedral was on fire. I had never seen it in person, but I have an image of it in my mind from the countless times that I have viewed it in the photos from friends and family who traveled there. I have visited its smaller reproduction at Notre Dame University. As a Catholic Notre Dame has always been a symbol of my faith, and as a human it has spoken to the efforts of humankind to rise from the muck of the earth toward heaven. Seeing it in flames tore at my heart and left me pondering for days and then weeks. The event was a metaphor, a symbol, a message that I needed to consider.

I thought of how nothing about our humanity is a forever thing. We are from dust and to dust we shall return. We create things and ideas and sometimes seem to have little need for higher powers than ourselves. It is possible to live a very good life without religious fervor, but I often wonder if such an existence is missing something essential. We are a truly great species, but we are also flawed. We can build soaring structures that stand for centuries after we are gone, but without attention they become cracked and weak, just as do our hearts and souls when we become more enchanted with power and wealth than with the needs of our collective humanity.

I saw a commentary from a stranger asking why God had allowed the destruction of the cathedral. Wasn’t the Lord after all powerful enough to save it if he is actually real? I thought of how Jesus had performed miracles but did not use his abilities to save himself from an excruciating death on the cross. That is not how any of it works. God does not prove himself in that way, and yet somehow I heard a message whispering from the ashes of Notre Dame, a lesson or reminder of how we are supposed to be.

On the day after the fire there were videos of people of all nations, economic status, political persuasions, and religions holding hands and singing in a united sense of determination. I viewed a photo of the inside of the church demolished save for the altar and the cross. I felt it was truly God’s way of telling us that even as we sometimes attempt to destroy ourselves, he never leaves us. I thought of Jesus reminding us again and again that we need only remember to love one another and we will have understood his teachings and the reason why he lived and died among us.

I believe that there is hope for us in the burnt structure of Notre Dame. The grand lady will indeed rise again just as we humans keep finding our way even as we sometimes become lost. What we have in our souls is the capability to bend the arc of our history in the right direction as long as we remember that our first duty is to love.   

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Surrender

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At the age of thirty my mother was left alone with three small children in an era when women were still mostly housewives, not yet integrated into the work force. She was faced with raising her little family with no money, not even a life insurance policy to ease her worries while she quickly learned how to make ends meet and provide safety and security for herself and her family. A little more than then years later she would have proven her mettle and determination to make things work, but her troubles were far from over. The symptoms of her bipolar disorder revealed themselves in full force with a psychotic episode of paranoia that would make her life even more difficult in the years to come.

Her hospitalization and treatment would weigh heavily on her mind for the rest of her life. It was a frightening experience for everyone, but mostly for her. The nurses carefully checked her belongings to be certain that she had no objects with which she might harm herself. They spoke of great fear that she might be suicidal. Of course no such thoughts were ever present in my mom’s mind. Her faith in God and profound belief that he would always love and protect her insured that she was never going to consider such violence upon herself. Even in the worst episodes of her illness suicide was not part of her frightening thoughts. The psychiatrists who took the time to know her well all insisted that she was never at risk of killing herself. Somehow her profound faith was like a protective shield of armor even in her most confused moments.

This past Easter season I found myself being reminded again and again of how much my mother loved God. She was one of those persons who proudly displayed the palms that she received at church on each Palm Sunday. During Holy Week she virtually lived at the church beginning with Holy Thursday and culminating with special services on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter itself. She seemed to have a very special relationship with Jesus, and she found great comfort in the story of his short life here on earth. She often spoke of how he protected widows, and she sincerely believed that he was actively caring for her from heaven.

Good Friday was a particularly moving occasion for my mother. She seemed to understand the message of Jesus’ death on the cross far more clearly than most Christians. She often cried at the very thought of the pain that he endured and the injustice of his execution, but she saw it as the ultimate sacrifice that anyone might make for his/her fellow human. She also thought of it as a model for the kind of suffering that each of us will experience on earth. She felt that such challenges would ultimately be a passing thing when our time here reached an end and we are reunited with God in heaven. She was so unswervingly convinced of the truth of her beliefs that she literally glowed with joy on her deathbed in the knowledge that she was about to receive the ultimate reward for all humans who have done their best to live good and decent lives.

I admittedly often felt sorrow for my mom. It seemed to me that she had convinced herself that the tragedy of her life was not nearly as bad as some seemed to think. She focused on the prize and never once wavered in her beliefs. She often spoke of how blessed she was and how good God had been to her. Not poverty, nor illness, nor the loss of those that she loved ever led her to question that love that she was convinced he had shown her. She daily read her bible and made it from one difficulty to the next with an optimism that sometimes annoyed me. It was only at the very moment of her death that I felt that there was something bigger than the challenges of humanity at work in our lives. In the years since she left this earth I have found myself remembering just how much comfort she found in the words and deeds of Jesus. I have recalled how she actually felt privileged to have suffered a bit like he did. She found so much joy in the spiritual relationship that she had with him, and she truly believed that he was the reason that she had made it.

My mother was a very special and saintly woman, a tower of strength in spite of the illness that rose up to threaten her again and again. Where I became angry about her fate, she saw it as life unfolding just as it was supposed to be. Somehow she found virtue even in her own imperfections. Her interpretation and understanding of the message of the Christian gospels was one of great exultation. I on the other had often over thought and focused on the horrors that I saw in the world, particularly those inflicted on her. Unlike my mother I wanted to know how she could be so content when she seemed to have been give so little. I had a hard time accepting her belief that she was fortunate and blessed.

In the years since her death I have found myself pondering her life and realizing just how carefree and generous she always seemed to be. While I was worrying about worldly things, she was viewing life through a far more spiritual lens. She did not need the trappings of humanity to feel good. She was truly like the lilies of the field in her innocence and her willingness to find beauty and peace in small things. She needed little more than her bible to feel safe and secure.

Somehow this past Easter season I began to truly understand her life, and mostly her faith. I had moments when I was overcome with emotion in the realization of how powerful her relationship with God had been. I felt her presence in my heart and it allowed me to feel closer to her and to God than ever before in my life. I realized that I too have been the beneficiary of God’s goodness even when it was not apparent to me. Somehow I began to have a clearer understanding of his message to us. While I cannot explain it to the extent that I wish, I now understand that it is about surrender, the same kind that Jesus demonstrated when he allowed himself to die on a cross. It is not about rules or judgements or the kind of things that we humans have added to virtually every religion on earth, but about love and trust. That is the secret that my mother discovered, the truth that kept her untroubled even when her story seemed to be so unfair. I’m working on becoming more like her. I still have a long way to go, but I can see a ray of light that has never been there before.

One Hundred Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Birthday, Aunt Valeria!

    

Lost

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Some stories stay in a little corner of the mind and never go away. I suppose for me one of those is something that I read in Texas Monthly magazine years ago. No doubt my reaction was tempered by my experience of caring for my mother when she was struggling with mental illness, but even beyond that it was a cautionary tale that said so much about the state of mental health in our society.

A college professor was enjoying coffee and a lively conversation with her colleagues inside a little cafe on the Drag just across the street from the University of Texas Austin campus. She was having a relaxing time until a bedraggled woman entered the eatery and began yelling at the cashier in the front of the establishment. Virtually all of the customers including the professor stared at the commotion with a sense of dismay and embarrassment. It was obvious that the woman was inebriated, high on drugs, or out of her mind. She wore the strange rags of a homeless person, her hair filled with tangles and even bits of debris. Nobody knew quite what to make of the situation or what to do. It was left to the manager to escort the woman back onto the street outside before things returned to normal.

At that moment the professor looked furtively at her watch and explained that she had forgotten an appointment with a student, and had to leave immediately. She apologetically put two twenty dollar bills on the table indicating that they should take care of her share of the charges and rushed out in a noticeably agitated state.

When she reached the sidewalk she searched for the woman who had just been in the cafe. She was relieved to see the old lady limping slowly just a few feet away. The professor rushed to the woman’s side, smiled and implored, “Mama, it’s me, your daughter Elizabeth. Do you remember me?”

The woman paused and with a faraway look appeared to be attempting to remember something very important. She touched the professor’s face with her grimy hands and then grinned as though a warm memory had come into her mind. “Lizzie,” she whispered, “I’m so glad to see you. How have you been?”

The professor expressed her own joy in finding her mother and then suggested that they go to her home where they might have a more comfortable place to catch up on what had been happening in their lives. She guided the still somewhat confused woman across the street, into the campus, and toward the parking spot where the car awaited. While the professor drove she exchanged small talk with her mother and thought of all of the time that had passed since she had last seen her.

The professor’s mom had been a brilliant and beautiful woman, an accomplished artist and a stunning mother. Life back then had been so happy and devoid of any indication that tragedy was looming. Her mother’s illness demonstrated itself quite slowly. At first it simply seemed as though the woman was a bit depressed, but the depression led to mania and the mania exhibited itself in paranoia. Before long the professor’s mom was undergoing treatments for mental illness that worked until she refused to take her medications. Then one day she disappeared. All efforts to find her had been in vain. The professor became frantic and lost all sense of normalcy while she invested in private detectives and spent evenings and weekends driving up and down streets hoping to find her mother. Was she in jail or dead or in another town?

Eventually so much time went by that everyone told the professor to just give up. She was becoming ill in her own way from all of the stress. It was time to live again, which she did, but always with the hope that one day she would find out what had happened to her mother. Now here she was sitting next to this raggedy lady who was not anything like the once accomplished person that she had called Mom.

In the following days the professor took a sick leave from work. She cleaned up her mother, fed her healthy meals, gave her new clothes and a safe place to sleep. She made appointments with doctors and began to think that life was finally going to return to normal. The doctors agreed that her mother’s mental and physical health was so fragile that she needed to go to the hospital for a time. The professor visited her each morning and evening. The two women began to have conversations that made sense. They expressed their love and devotion for one another. They began to make plans for the future.

One afternoon the professor went to the hospital with a celebratory bouquet of flowers for her mom. She was over the moon with happiness as she went to her mother’s room until she opened the door and found the room empty. In a panic she rushed to the nurses’ station to find out what had happened. She was informed that her mother had been released earlier that day and nobody knew where she had gone.

The professor upbraided the staff demanding to know how they could have sent her away without any notification. She demanded to know what they had been thinking. Their response was that it was the woman’s right to leave without permission from anyone. The laws did not include making the professor a party to any decisions. They were sorry, but it was just the way things were.

The professor looked for her mom for weeks and then months all to no avail. Someone suggested that her mom might have taken a bus to another city like Houston or Dallas. The professor drove to those places on weekends in a fruitless attempt to find her mother. At the time that the article was published the professor still had no idea where her mom may have gone. She was lost to her once again.

A Mother’s Story

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Moms today seem to put so much more into their parenting than I ever did. They research child rearing ideas, learn about proper nutrition, create healthy schedules, and worry when their little ones behave badly. I have great admiration for them because I was truly a fly by the seat of my pants kind of mom. There is so much that I might have done better but I was far too ignorant to even know that I was doing some things wrong. My daughters seem to have turned out just fine, but I often wonder if I might have done a better job of parenting if only I had taken a bit more time to learn more about the best child rearing methods. I suppose that I will never know what might have been if I had not been so immature, and so I content myself with knowing that it doesn’t matter anymore because they are on their own and raising their children quite well.

I laugh whenever a young mom is feeling a bit guilty about some meltdown or troubling incident with a child because I have stories to tell that would curl their hair and cause them to look askance at my own mothering. I always think about a time that I took my eldest child to the old Gulfgate Mall with a friend who had a son who was only slightly older than my girl. Each of us would eventually have two children, but at the time only our first born were around and they were still  toddlers who went on shopping trips in their strollers.

We were not looking for anything in particular on that day. We just wanted to get out of the house for a time with our kids. Little did we know that we were about to give a whole new meaning to the term window shopping. We went into one of the clothing stores and parked our strollers just long enough to glance through a bin of sale items. We honestly had not turned our backs on the two children for long at all, but when we turned around the strollers were empty. We began searching for them in a state of panic when we heard a commotion and lots of giggling in the showroom window. We peeked around the corner and there they were having a good time pretending to be on display for all the world to see. We quickly whisked them up, placed them back into the strollers and hurried out of the store lest we be called to task for our lack of control over our babies.I nervously imagined someone calling CPS on us, or even worse, telling my mom who would never have allowed such a thing to occur.

Once we were safely away we breathed easier that our close call had not resulted in some kind of tragedy, and we attempted to explain to the little ones as best we could how important it was for them to stay put in their strollers. Then we continued walking up and down the mall, proud of the more regimented behavior that our children were exhibiting, and once again enjoying our little walk. We became so certain that the worst was behind us that we made it all the way to the end of the stores where Sakowitz lured us with signs advertising great sales in progress. We moved from aisle to aisle being very careful to watch over our charges and then entered an area filled with fine glassware reminding our babies not to touch anything.

All was going well until we found some items to purchase and were standing in line to pay. That’s when we heard a loud crash and looked to see a display case on its side with broken glass littering the floor. I have to admit that I heaved a sigh of relief when I saw that my little girl was still sitting serenely and innocently in her stroller while my friend’s son toddled away in fear of the consequences for what he had so obviously done.

The two of us corralled him quickly and his mother fussed at him with tears of abject embarrassment in her eyes. When a manager came over to assess the situation her tears turned into heaving sobs as she explained that she would gladly pay for all of the damage, all the while worrying that the cost of the mess might be more than she actually had. The kindly man insisted that he was more concerned with making certain that everyone was okay. He chided himself for putting such a fragile display in the middle of a busy walkway, and assured us that store insurance would take care of the damage. 

His kindness and understanding was such a sweet thing to encounter, and he put the whole incident into perspective. We paid for the things we had selected and almost ran to our car from there. We felt humiliated, frenzied, and guilty about the seeming lack of control that we had over our children. The school of hard knocks on that day taught us a great deal about shopping with youngsters. We never again had such a difficult time, but a sense that we had been grossly neglectful refused to leave us. It would be years later before we were able to put our mishap into the past, and even smile a bit when we thought of it.

My advice to mothers who are struggling with headstrong, inquisitive or hard to control children is to learn how to take those bumps along with all of the wonder of having children. There will indeed be moments when they seem to be heading down a direct route to the penitentiary. That’s when we have to stay calm and carry on. As long as these kinds of moments are the exception rather than the rule, we are probably, and should consider the occasion as a way to learn and in turn teach our children. Mothers have to be prepared for many disappointing moments and find ways to judge how severe a reaction is  needed. Sometimes all everybody requires is a good nap.

Parenting is a marathon and the sense of responsibility does not end even as our children come of age and begin their adult lives. Every parent lies awake at times thinking of their offspring and worrying about them. It is part of the whole package and as normal as can be. That children’s story about the woman loving her son forever is truer than we care to admit. A child becomes the focus of our life and as a mom that intense connection never really ends. It’s good if we learn how to laugh at the little stuff so we will have what we need when the really big stuff comes around.