Family Is Everything

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Family has always been everything to me. When I my father died it was family that kept me from feeling frightened and hopeless. I always knew that I could count on my family, both nuclear and extended. The members of my clan have been a source of love and security for all of my life. As I grow older most of the people who once watched over me have gone to their heavenly rewards just as my father did. My role within the family has changed with the flux and flow of deaths and births. Such occasions continually remind me of the importance of family relationships. I suspect that if I had to choose between careers, success and family I would select family hands down.

I was one of three children, the eldest and only girl. I sometimes wondered if my own family might have been larger had my father lived longer. He and my mother were still quite young when he lost his life. I had always dreamed of having a sister and I admittedly fretted that such a thing would never happen. I envied the close relationship that my brothers had that was so different from the one they had with me. They slept in the same bedroom and played ball together. They wrestled with each other and formed a bond that was forged with their common identity of being male. I loved them so but always wondered what it might have been like to have a sister with whom to share secrets and talk of the things that only another woman might understand.

Our extended family was a veritable haven for boys. I had only two female cousins and one them died when she was only sixteen. The other girl and I grew up together and ultimately realized that we were as close to one another as actual sisters might be and so we began to think of ourselves as sister cousins. We can talk for days on end only stopping to sleep and then resuming our conversations as we sip on coffee or tea in the early morning. We text details about our days and make phone calls when we need to talk.

Through my brothers I have two more sisters who married into our family expanding the joy and the love in the most delightful ways. Their sisters and brothers have also become mine. The branches of my family tree are thicker and stronger than ever and new people are added again and again. The circle of life expands so beautifully and satisfies my longing for roots and stability. Being with my family reassures me and soothes the little girl part of my soul that still worries about the prospect of being left all alone.

My husband is an only child. He says that he never really thought about having more siblings. His reality seemed normal and just fine. He had quite loving parents who filled the gaps of his emotional needs. Like me he he has stories of aunts and uncles and cousins from whom he learned the importance of family but he admits that having my brothers as his brothers has enriched his life in ways that he never imagined.

I spent the first days of this new year, new decade with members of my family in admittedly distressing circumstances. Two lights on our family tree were extinguished and we realized how much we would miss them but we also understood the importance of staying close with one another. My brothers and sisters and cousins came together to celebrate not just the lives of our dear ones who were gone but also to renew our commitment to one another. If we made one important resolution it was to keep those bonds of family as tight and important as they have always been.

There was a time in my life when I was so busy that I often went long stretches without any contact with my family. I’d visit my mother once a week and see my brothers at birthday celebrations and on holidays but in between we all had our noses to the grindstone, living but not really taking enough time to check on one another. We relied on our mother to keep us apprised of how everyone was doing. She was the glue that insured that we would not break apart from neglect. She made certain that we would always remember that family was far more important than anything else that we did. While her insistence that we make time for each other was sometimes annoying it was in the end a great gift and one that we now attempt to continue in her absence.

I love every single quirky thing about family. I feel my best when I am with them. I no longer dream of having a sister because I can claim three beautiful women as kindred spirits and sisters in every sense of the word. My brothers are my pride and joy and we share an unbreakable bond that traces its way back to our childhood. My cousins are my anchors just as they have always been. I now have children and grandchildren who fill my life to the very brim. Family is everything and the bigger it is the better it seems to  become.

Serenity

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I tend to be a person of moderation. I’ve never smoked. I drink very little and I actually get so sick when I eat too much that I avoid gluttony like the plague. I was once addicted to Diet Coke, a habit that started when someone told me that I might forestall my migraine headaches if I drank the brew regularly. I got to where I was gulping down one for breakfast, another at lunch and two more during the day. I was terrified to quit because the drink was like a magic elixir that actually kept my headaches more at bay than prescribed medications. I was so known for drinking Diet Coke that my Secret Santas often included a carton of them with my gifts.

Two years ago I decided that enough was enough. I did not like the idea of being controlled by a substance and so I went cold turkey. I haven’t touched a soft drink of any kind since then for fear that I might resurrect my habit. It has been especially difficult at movies. There’s nothing quite like a big cup of soda with some popcorn to feel content. The same is true whenever I eat Tex-Mex or a Whataburger. In spite of my urges I’ve kept religiously to my goal of shutting Diet Coke and all other carbonated drinks out of my life,

I suppose that I do not like the idea of doing anything to excess, but in reality I know that my hidden secret is that I worry too much. I’m good at telling others not to waste time fretting over things, but not so good at following my own advice. My grandfather often warned me not to take after my grandmother who was a chronic ball of anxiety. I suppose that my genes are predisposed to being concerned about what might be, even when I have no power to change many of the situations that occupy my thoughts.

I suspect that the world lends itself to being a source of worry. I think about school shootings, trouble in the Middle East, climate change, poverty, the education of our children and a hundred other things. Sometimes it feels as though we are in deep trouble. Other times I’m able to control my mind and do whatever is within my capabilities and leave the rest to those in power and to God.

Mostly I think about my family and my friends though. I want to fix things for them, help them to have perfectly wonderful lives, even though I understand that sometimes each person has to face his/her own problems. I am a fixer who is constantly tidying up messes in the world, That is in fact the one thing that I do excessively even though I know full well that it is impossible for me to be all things to all people.

I suppose that I am not alone in desiring to mend hearts, educate minds, heal wounds. It’s not bad that I do my best to be considerate of other people’s needs. What makes my efforts a bit on the cray cray side is when I obsess and feel as though I am never able to do enough. I become addicted to being a panacea as surely as I was hooked on those Diet Cokes. Just as I understood that it was wrong to need that drink so much, so it is a bit prideful and presumptive for me to think that I can solve the world’s problems if only I try hard enough. In fact, if I’m not kind to myself I don’t think I can be really effective in helping others. In other words, I need to get my own house in order first.

I suppose that it is never too late to learn how to be empathetic and loving without becoming overly anxious. My resolve this year is to begin thinking logically about what is possible for me to do with regard to the difficulties of others and then let things go as the ear worm song says. Even love and worry in excess can be lethal. It’s time for me to change what I can and leave what I can’t to those who are more able. The Serenity Prayer is going to become my mantra. For those who haven’t heard it for a time here it is:

God grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change; 

courage to change the things I can; 

and wisdom to know the difference.

Amen.

If I have been able to give up those darn Diet Cokes I think maybe I can achieve a bit more serenity as well.

A New Revolution

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There are moments for almost everyone when it feels as though an entire lifetime of experiences occur in the space of only a few weeks. It is as though one is riding on the most exhilarating and frightening roller coaster ever invented. The ups and downs are so extreme and come so quickly that emotions have no time to adjust and instead leave the person feeling numb and exhausted.

I have a dear friend who recently endured one of those condensed versions of This Is Your Life, reeling from the rapidity at which her entire world was changing. Fortunately she is an amazingly wise woman who sought help and was willing to ride the wave until it left her on the shore of normalcy. By year’s end she was celebrating her survival with people who truly loved her and speaking of taking things slowly while she can.

I’m old enough to have experienced a number of instances when it felt as though I was living through a microcosm of human existence in a brief span of time. While such a thing is happening it always seems as though time truly is relative because in the moment it moves so painfully slowly but in the grand scheme of things it is in fact only a blip in the entirety of history.

My entire world was upended both mentally and physically when my father died. At the age of eight I had not yet even imagined the possibility of such a thing happening particularly since my family had been planning so many fun adventures like weekends at the beach, a whole summer of freedom from school, moving to a brand new home. Suddenly we had to adjust to a strange new reality for which none of us had prepared.

The feelings that I experienced as an eight year old child repeated themselves when my mom had her first mental breakdown during my early twenties. I had enjoyed a reprieve from tragedy for twelve years after my father died and I had foolishly imagined that I would never again face such sorrow and emotional distress. I literally dreamed of how grand it would be to simply ignore my responsibility to care for my mother by running away to some wonderful magical place where I would never again be plagued by horrors. Of course there is no such thing as freedom from tragedy as I would learn over the course of many years. I would also realize that we have to deal with the pain that comes with the terrible moments just as my friend has done even when doing that is a grueling process. It takes time and patience to heal.

This past holiday season was one of many contrasts for me. It began with the celebration for my friend who had emerged like a phoenix from the hellish fires that had seemed to consume her. It was with a sense of gratitude, happiness, and inspiration that I toasted her heroic steadfastness. I took my own life by the horns and enjoyed glorious times with friends and family. It felt as though I was gloriously blessed and perhaps even immune to sorrow, but that would have been too simple an analysis of my world because I knew that there were also hardships brewing for many of the people that I love, things that worried me in the still of night.

Somehow many of them came to a head just as the new year was dawning, reminding me that each of our lives are fragile and uncertain in spite of our efforts to control destiny. I had to say final goodbyes to two souls whose light had always made me smile and laugh. I had to watch their closest loved ones struggling to accept a future without them. My emotions and were challenged to the very core and yet in the midst of such sorrow there was a ray of hope. I saw what I had experienced so many times, the power of love. It was there in the people who went out of their way to share their stories and their feelings with one another.

We know for certain that our lives will be a series of repetitions that all of mankind has experienced. We will see births and we will watch deaths. We will come together in a state of happiness and joy as well as mournful sadness. It is a certainty that we must experience both the good and the bad. Hopefully as we do so we will be surrounded by fellow travelers on this earthly journey who will hold our hands and give us the courage to keep going, for there is always a light up ahead and we will find it given enough time and forbearance.

This holiday season has provided me with the precious gift of knowing that I am not alone and that none of us need be so. There will always be good and loving people who are willing to help us carry our burdens and share our joys. We need to be willing to let them into our lives but also to know when we are so weary that it might be best to quietly rest for a time. That gooey ball of feelings is the essence of who we are. We need to embrace both our tears and our laughter while opening our hearts and minds to understanding our own experiences.

We’ve begun a new revolution around the sun and each day there is a new rotation. We are a part of the marvel of that scientific fact. Change will happen. Loss will occur but as long as we still breathe we are not yet in our final act. More is coming our way and so much of it will indeed be very good. 

Always An Angel

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I’ll never forget a magical moment when my Aunt Claudia came to visit our home when I was still a very young child. She arrived in a Studebaker, a rather trendy car for the era. As she stepped from the passenger seat she resembled a movie star in her fitted white dress and high heels that emphasized her natural beauty. Her dazzling smile lit up her finely sculpted face and her eyes twinkled with a kind of delight for life. I was playing with a neighborhood friend at the time and when my buddy expressed her awe of the vision of my aunt I felt a tinge of unmitigated pride. Aunt Claudia was a rare beauty indeed and she had come to spend time with me, at least that’s how she made me feel.

My lovely aunt was a twin who had been named Wilma Elizabeth by her parents. Perhaps she grew weary of having her moniker mispronounced by people who did not realize that the W in the name was pronounced like a V, or maybe she just thought it would be fun to choose a name more befitting of her essence so she became Claudia. The new designation didn’t stick for long because her family gave her the nickname, Speedy, because she was an uncannily quick typist. While everyone else referred to her as Aunt Speedy, I always thought that Claudia was the name that suited her.

I adored everything about my aunt. She was incredibly bright and both able and willing to talk about quite interesting topics. I loved sitting with her because she never treated me like a child and she always made me feel wonderful about myself. Somehow we were always kindred spirits who understood one another in an almost psychic way. She would tell me that I was very much like her and I loved thinking that maybe it was true that I carried a bit of her intellect and personality in my veins.

Aunt Claudia had once been married to my father’s best friend, Bob. They lived in Corpus Christi, Texas in a thoroughly modern mid-century home that was filled with excitingly sleek furniture. One room of the house held a collection of exquisite rocks inside glass cases. I loved nothing better than viewing those samples of the earth’s variety but I was terrified of my aunt’s English bulldog, Thor Darling. Looking back I realize that Thor was just a very affectionate pup but at the time he overwhelmed me with his friendliness.

Aunt Claudia and Uncle Bob came to visit us in Houston quite often. I loved that they stayed at our house just down the hallway from my room, The two of them always took the time to do something fun with just me which always made me feel rather special. Sadly Uncle Bob died from melanoma before he was even thirty. I was in the first grade when it happened and I grieved so for my aunt. Joyfully she had a little daughter named Sandra to care for and she did so quite lovingly and without ever making me feel that I had lost our special relationship.

Eventually Aunt Claudia found love again with one of the nicest men that I have ever known. My new Uncle Bill was perfect for her and for our family. Aunt Claudia bloomed again in the warmth of his love for her and before long she had another child, a sweet baby boy who looked like a clone of his dad.

I didn’t see as much of my aunt after that. We both got busy living life. Nonetheless we always felt a special connection each time we were together. I rarely felt as wonderfully content as when I was with Aunt Claudia. She was my soul sister despite the difference in our ages.

Shortly after my first child was born my Aunt Claudia’s daughter died rather suddenly at the age of only sixteen. I literally felt her pain as I watched her weakly going through the motions of the funeral. I cried for her for so long without stopping that I felt sick but somehow she rallied with her characteristic strength and I was once again in awe of her and wanting to be just like her.

Time passed and tragedy struck again for Aunt Claudia when her beloved husband, Bill, died. Overtime she herself was weakened by osteoporosis, a disease that I would eventually share with her just as we had shared so many things. In spite of her own troubles she faithfully checked on my mother every single day with a phone call and an optimistic and loving patience with my mom’s bouts of mania that sometimes became ugly.

As Aunt Claudia grew old I continued to see her as the beautiful woman that she always was. I cherished every occasion that allowed us to be together and I watched her bravely fight the crippling effects of the disease that left her bound to a wheelchair. Somehow she managed to smile and have fun in spite of her pain. She loved to play cards and dominoes and eventually came to Houston to live with her twin sister.

She was quite frail and approaching the age of ninety five when her sister died a few months ago. We all worried and wondered if she had the wherewithal to keep going. On New Year’ Eve she breathed her last and joined the loved ones who had gone before her. I imagine them welcoming her when she flashed that beautiful smile of hers that was always so mesmerizing.

I have to admit that I am particularly bereft over losing her but somehow I still feel her encouragement surrounding me like armor. If I am truly like her I will bravely carry on just as she always did and I will be happy that she is reunited with so many of her loved ones. I can imagine her delight in seeing her daughter again and I’m certain that her husbands and siblings are overjoyed to be with her as well.

Vilma Elizabeth Claudia Speedy Ulrich Janosky Robinson has always been an angel. Now she will officially get her wings.

   

Her Wonderful Life

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I vividly remember when I first met Jeanne. She was the kind of person who left a lasting impression on people and she definitely had that effect on me. I was about six or seven years old when my cousin, Leonard, brought his girl friend, Jeanne, to a family gathering at Clear Lake. She was a stunningly beautiful teenager with a mega watt smile and a confidence that made her an instant hit with my aunts and uncles. It wasn’t too long after that when she and Leonard were married providing me with my first encounter with what I thought of as the holy grail of true love.

Jeanne was undoubtedly one of a kind, a delightful spirit who found and gave joy wherever she went. She had a way of making everyone feel special and loved, and she always took time to let people know how much she cared about them. Even the smallest children knew that her interest in them was genuine. With her seemingly boundless energy she gave her heart and soul to every person who came her way. Her humble way of giving of herself guaranteed that she would become a favorite in our big extended family. It was not long before she was the person we felt most excited to see whenever she arrived at our events.

Jeanne and Leonard started a family of their own that grew and grew and grew filling their home with laughter and unmitigated love. Jeanne was at the center of the antics and delighted in planning raucous gatherings where fun and mischief were the order of the day. She was a premier hostess who literally chose her homes with entertaining in mind and understood the importance of having enough room to hold all of the love that was a constant presence in her life.

Jeanne was the bearer of so many gifts that she in turn generously lavished on her family and friends. She was a teacher, a woman of great faith. She was a light of optimism and a ray of hope. She humbly spread her kindness leaving no one untouched by her generosity. She loved to cook and she made preparing a feast for a crowd look easy to do. She danced her way through life grasping every possible opportunity to enjoy people and places and events. She built traditions that brought those that she loved together, hosting family annual reunions and scheduling week long camping trips at Garner State Park each summer.

Jeanne had a particularly amazing way of making each person that she encountered feel welcomed. Nobody in her presence went unnoticed. She took great pains to make everyone part of the fun that seemed to surround her like a halo. She possessed a charisma that made her unique and exciting but more importantly she maintained a quiet strength that was comforting. I found myself drawn to her just so that I might basque in the sunshine of her warmth.

Jeanne lived as full and meaningful life as anyone might desire. She was a loving wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, daughter, daughter-in-law, sister, sister-in-law, cousin, friend. She lived a simple life by choice but somehow everything she touched became extraordinary. She earned a college degree after her children were grown, proving to them that learning is a lifelong goal. She found ways to attend athletic events, band concerts, birthday parties, graduations and funerals with a faithfulness and sincerity that told people how important they were to her.

Jeanne had a beautiful heart but she was also an incredibly attractive woman with a flair for the flamboyant.. She loved bright colors that seemed to perfectly match her exciting personality. There were no grays and whites in her home or her way of living. Instead reds and oranges and deep blues shouted out her never ending joy and matched her ever present smile.

Jeanne left this earth last Friday. She had been very ill for some time. In her classic way she willed herself to remember others even as her health failed. She came to my fiftieth anniversary party with her oxygen tank and looking feeble, but still managing to have a glorious time. On Christmas Day she was surrounded by her huge family doing her best to laugh through the pain that had become her unrelenting companion. It was a fitting final act of love that was the definition of who she was.

Jeanne will be sorely missed. A great light in our lives seems to have gone away, but I believe that her impressions are so indelibly imprinted on our souls that we will always see and be guided by her example and her brightness. I agree with Jeanne’s granddaughter Madison who imagines her grandmother laughing and joking with Jesus and dancing with delight in her new heavenly home. She is waiting for us there, preparing a party for the time when we join her. For now we rejoice that her pain is no more and that she has so justly received her reward for living a truly wonderful life.

I saw a magnificent sunset not long after Jeanne died. Somehow I felt that it was a sign from her that we are supposed to continue to celebrate the beauty of life just as she always did. I know she would want us to embrace and comfort one another and find a way to dry our tears and carry on her traditions. She taught us well.