When Love Is the Way

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I used to sit next to my father listening to him read fairytales to me from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. It’s such a warm memory for me and I suppose that it is part of the reason that I am somewhat of a cockeyed optimist. Still, reality has a way of rearing its ugly head all too often. I put those books away for a very long time after my father’s death when I was only eight. Somehow it was too painful to see the stories that had been so much a part of the most wonderful times with him. It was not until I grew older that I realized that having those books and reading the tales inside of them actually brought me to a very peaceful place in which I was able to recall how wonderful it was to have those very special moments with my father. Instead of making me sad, the books now represent something very beautiful in my life and I cherish them and the feelings that they bring to me.

My own life has been punctuated with many trials and tribulations, but I have been mostly blessed. I have a family that has helped me through the most difficult times and friends who have been like brothers and sisters. I enjoy my own fairytale with my husband Mike. We’ve managed to be the best of friends for almost fifty years and I can’t even begin to imagine being with anyone else but him. We laugh and cry together and even find a bit of fun on the most ordinary of days. I suppose that I’ve had two Prince Charmings in my life, my father and my husband.

The world can be cruel and ugly sometimes, just as it is in some of those old stories that fascinated me. In most of them, however, there are happy endings that provide hope for humanity. The good guys win and the bad guys lose. It’s a simple formula, but one to which we all want to cling even when it seems a bit too easy compared to real life. Particularly these days its far easier to be cynical than positive when it feels as though we are surrounded by hatefulness and violence. It’s funny though how life sometimes imitates art, and we find ourselves watching a real fairytale coming true before our eyes.

The love story of Prince Harry Windsor and Meghan Markle has enchanted much of the world, and this past weekend the two became one in a magical ceremony that left us feeling more elated than when Cinderella and her prince lived happily ever after. These two have given us all reason to hope that there will be a triumphant victory over the evils that plague us. In their union there is so much love and the explicit understanding that we are all one people who need not be separated by the kinds of artificial barriers that create misunderstandings and sometimes even hate. All Harry and Meghan see when they gaze at one another is another loving heart. Their romance is the stuff of the imagination or the Hallmark Channel, and yet it is so real and inspiring.

Who would ever have believed that a member of the royal family would fall in love with an American, an actress, a woman of mixed race who had once been divorced? There were so many barriers to overcome, and yet true love won the day. None of those things mattered because their souls are in unison. They complete each other, and their feelings were on full display this past weekend in a ceremony so lovely that few of us who watched will ever forget it. Undoubtedly it was better than even the best fairytale because it was real and we all got to share it.

Harry was dashing in his military uniform with his older brother who will one day be king standing by his side. Meghan was simply gorgeous in the simplicity of her dress. Her beauty literally radiated in her smile and her eyes each time she looked at her prince. Her mother was as regal as the queen, and there was something quite breathtaking about seeing an African American woman whose ancestors had been slaves walking so grandly among royalty.

I always cry at weddings, but this one was extraordinarily emotional for me. It seemed to be joining nations and cultures, not in a political way, but through the very pure power of love. I found myself thinking of Harry’s mom, Diana, and feeling as though he had remembered her lessons just as I had always cherished the teachings that my own father had left in my heart. She had changed the royal worldview even in death, and she would have been so very proud of her son. He has become the man that I am certain she wanted him to be. I felt that she was there in every song, every word, every aspect of the ceremony right down to the Forget Me Nots in Meghan’s bouquet. She would have surely smiled as openly as Meaghan and embraced the spirit of what was happening with unabashed joy.

The union of traditions was particularly touching. Bishop Curry’s address was a stirring homage of the power of love, and a challenge to all of us to embrace it. It is true that when love is the way the world becomes a better place. That was the theme at the heart of the most romantic fairytales and it is more important today than ever. If only we were able to start a powerful domino effect that would lead to loving solutions to all of our problems, the world would be so much the better. Perhaps Harry and Meghan will be a catalyst to remind us of what is truly important.

I went to a fairytale wedding all because two people fell in love. I left understanding the power of that love and believing that there really is hope for our world. I saw my father’s smile in my mind and heard his voice reading to me. I remembered the giving nature and grace of Diana. I listened to the words of Bishop Curry and the angelic voices of the choirs. There was redemption and courage and most of all comfort in all of it. I believe in happy endings once again. We will overcome the strife that now so burdens us. Love will lead the way. 

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Invest In Experiences, Not Things

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Love and romance are the stuff of literature and film. From Odysseus and Penelope to Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy we humans have lived vicariously in the stories of two people whose love seems almost destined to be. We gleefully celebrate as romantic tales unfold. There is something in our natures that is drawn to the happiness that comes from the joining of two compatible souls in marriage, and so we revel in the joy of young couples who agree to love, honor and cherish one another. Our human experience is enriched by love, but that first flush of emotion is often challenged by the routines and surprises of daily life. Sustaining the fires that brought two people together in the beginning can be fraught with problems, which is why so many dreams are dashed by unfaithfulness and divorce. It is quite an accomplishment and an inspiration when couples are able to continue their devotion to each other through decades of both happiness and disappointment, health and illness, riches and financial difficulties. We are inspired by those who are still in love even as their hair grays and wrinkles line their faces.

We were reminded of the power and beauty of true love in the touching example of George and Barbara Bush, a seventy three year marriage in which their feelings never appeared to wane. Barbara thought George was the most beautiful person she had ever seen when she was only sixteen years old and a lifetime later she still boasted to her nurses that he was the most handsome man on earth. The two had most surely become a team, one working for the good of the other in every aspect of their days together. They were as complimentary as cream and sugar, adding spice and flavor to their individual strengths and talents. We admire and desire the companionship that they achieved and search for ways to incorporate their kind of devotion in our own lives.

Back in the nineteen sixties another love story was quietly unfolding on the University of Texas campus. She was a tall beautiful and fun loving young woman from San Antonio named Barbara who had come to Austin filled with hopes and dreams. He was a bright engineering student named Gary with a big inviting smile. They enjoyed crazy dates at Zilker Park and fall days at football games where they cheered for their Texas Longhorns. It didn’t take them long to realize that they wanted to become man and wife, and so on an April day in nineteen sixty eight they were married in the company of family and friends. They had little idea how much adventure lay ahead, but they somehow knew that whatever happened they wanted to be together.

Gary’s Chemical Engineering degree would take them to many different places, and all along the way they would explore the history and landscapes and befriend the people that they met. They decided early on to invest in experiences rather than things, and they lived by that ideal by taking trips to the places that they had both longed to see. Barbara was as masterful at planning their excursions as Rick Steves and each year they set forth on expeditions to learn more about their world. Those vacations became a cornerstone of who they were and created memories that would cement their time together.

Of course family was always paramount and that included rituals like a Thanksgiving reunion with Barbara’s clan that they rarely missed. Each year they joined their ever growing group of aunts uncles and cousins in a celebration of life. Even as they had their own children, a boy and then a girl, they welcomed new members of the extended family with great happiness. The foundation of who they are and what they believe was found in those gatherings filled with laughter, song, stories and food to nourish both body and soul.

Somehow the years flew by and in spite of the usual kinds of troubles that come into everyone’s lives Barbara and Gary were able to navigate their way hand in hand, dealing with problems together and maintaining hopeful optimism. They worked hard and played hard and centered their lives on each other and their children. They built traditions and character and did their best, always with an eye to keeping their own passion for each other alive.

Before long the circle of life had repeated itself as their children made their way to the University of Texas where they met their own soulmates and repeated the lessons that they had learned from their parents. Barbara and Gary welcomed the new members of their family with the same openness and love that had always been so much a part of their natures. They celebrated as one grandchild after another enriched their lives, and all the while they continued to have fun with each other, never forgetting the importance of a hug, a kiss, a compliment, or a good laugh.

There were hardships along the way of course. Gary’s dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Barbara’s sweet mom developed cancer. Gary’s brother died far too young also from cancer. They watched as people that they loved developed life threatening illnesses. Gary had a frightening heart attack. Their children and grandchildren endured difficulties. Through it all both Barbara and Gary remained rocks of strength, compassion and wisdom. They held hands and together weathered each storm that came their way, and then they found a way to celebrate with an exciting trip with family or friends, never losing sight of their promise to invest in experiences rather than things.

It’s not an easy thing to reach a fiftieth wedding anniversary in today’s world. Statistics are rife with stories of broken dreams and promises. It takes hard work and determination and more than a great deal of love to keep a relationship happy and strong. Barbara and Gary Greene have mastered the process and their secret appears to be in working together with neither person more or less than the other. They value each other in all that they do and then purposefully find ways to celebrate the life that they have. Carpe Diem is not just a platitude for them, but a way of living. The generosity of spirit that they have always shown to one another extends to everyone that they meet leaving them surrounded by people who support their journey together.

Happy fiftieth anniversary, Barbara and Gary. All of us who are part of your beautiful love story have been blessed and inspired by both of you. Thank you for showing us how it’s done.

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.

A New Family

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My father died in the nineteen fifties, a time when it seemed as though everyone had both a mother and a father. My mother assumed the role of both parents and did a rather remarkable job, but back then she was somewhat of an anomaly. Families were fairly clearly defined by tradition and ours was strange in some people’s minds. Nonetheless my brothers and I turned out quite well in spite of the naysayers who worried that our upbringing just wasn’t natural.

I would be an adult before I learned that my grandfather’s childhood was even more exotic than mine. His mom died from childbirth complications and his father felt unprepared to care for a baby, so Grandpa was taken to his grandmother’s home where he would spend his boyhood years being cared for by a single woman in her eighties. When he was thirteen his grandma died and an uncle became his guardian. In spite of what appeared to be a rather chaotic childhood with unconventional parenting, Grandpa grew to be a fine man with exemplary character traits that he learned from the two people who loved and cared for him. He would always remember them with both a sense of gratitude and a feeling that he would have done no better had he enjoyed a more typical upbringing. The fact is that good families are created from love, not some predesigned template, and there is no one right way to form a strong unit.

I sometimes worry a bit about the growing trend among young adults to shy away from commitment to another person, even when a child is part of the picture. All too often there is a reluctance to make lifelong promises of loyalty to another. That is why I find it refreshing that members of the gay and lesbian community are so eager to legalize their relationships with marriage and pledges of love. Sadly their efforts have often been thwarted and even condemned by the very people who are proponents of more stable partnerships between men and women. Somehow many in our society have failed to see gay marriage in the light of genuine love between caring people that is truly present when two souls take the step of solidifying their bond. It is in reality an example of trust and loyalty that is all too often lacking in today’s way of doing things.

I learned that my nephew Daniel was gay many years ago. I was initially sad for him, not because I thought his feelings were wrong, but because I understood the world of hurt and humiliation that he might have to endure. For a time he was quite circumspect in admitting who he really was, sometimes out of respect for people with different opinions about such things, and other times because he knew that he might be shunned for his way of life. It worried me particularly because he is quite possibly the sweetest individual that I have ever known, a sincerely generous and giving person. He has always been a bright light of kindness in our family and most likely to be voted everyone’s favorite person. Because I knew how cruel some people can be I often thought of all of the beautiful aspects of life that Daniel might never be able to experience in the light of day. I wanted as much happiness for him as all of the straight people in our family had, but wondered if the time for such possibilities would ever come.

Attitudes toward gay men and lesbian women have slowly improved from what they once were, but are hardly perfect. Still my nephew was more and more able to be completely honest with everyone as time passed. He was open about his life and enjoyed a modicum of joy that had once been denied, but he really wanted to be able to marry the person that he loved just as his sister and cousins had done. He envisioned a life with his partner Nathan that was duly sanctioned and that would be indicative of how much he cared. Thanks to the sacrifices of legions of gay and lesbian individuals the day finally came when marriage became a reality and he and Nathan began to speak of joining together for all time.

As a family we were overjoyed for both Daniel and Nathan. They seemed perfect for each other and for our crazy quilt of a family. We hoped and prayed that there would one day be an announcement of an impending union and this month we rejoiced when invitations to their special day arrived in the mail. We were giddy with excitement.

Last weekend Daniel and Nathan were married in one of the most beautiful and touching ceremonies that I have ever witnessed. Many of us who love my nephew and his new husband gathered together in his parents backyard under a beautiful blue Texas sky on a picture perfect spring day. Lovely baskets of flowers hung from the branches of a big tree that shaded the deck on which the two stood with smiles that showed their joy as they joined hands and spoke their vows. They were so handsome and so obviously relieved that this wonderful day had finally come. Tears formed in their eyes as they listened to the minister while everyone present choked up with emotion when we saw the depth of their love and felt its power. It seemed so very right for these two men to promise to honor and cherish one another for the rest of their lives. Seeing so much sincerity up close moved our hearts,

A new family was created on Saturday. It is a good and wholesome one where love reigns supreme. It is a union that all of us should celebrate because it is filled with the selflessness that is so important in making such things work. I know that years from now it will be even stronger because it is based on the best of reasons, and I am filled with happiness in knowing that maybe one day it won’t be thought to be unusual by anyone.

I now have a new nephew to love as much as I do the one whom I held in my arms long ago when he was a baby. Both Daniel and Nathan are truly wonderful people and knowing that they have an opportunity to enjoy the gift of true love just as they have always hoped is an exciting notion. I wish them all the best and pray that they will experience a lifetime of adventure and quiet comfort. I thank them for demonstrating so much courage and honor. I look forward to spending many more happy occasions with them. 

Stayin Alive

article-2708593-04EAC45700000514-459_634x652-optimisedForty years ago the iconic movie Saturday Night Fever debuted and became not just a an instant hit, but a film classic. I was a twenty nine year old mom with two little girls and a sense that a lifetime of adventures lay ahead of me. I had matured beyond my years not just due to my parental responsibilities, but also because I had helped my mother through two difficult mental breakdowns and had watched helplessly as my husband endured chemotherapy to combat a life threatening disease. Still I was young at heart and ecstatic when my mother suggested that we go see the movie together. I knew that it was not the kind of fare that my husband would enjoy, so I was happy to have a companion with whom to share the enjoyment of escaping into a world of music and dance for a few hours.

Back then there were still several drive in movie venues in the Houston area and Mama thought that it would be fun to watch the flick in the comfort of her car. Just as she had done so many times when my brothers and I were children she created a bed for my girls in the back seat of her automobile and brought sandwiches, cold drinks and a huge bag of homemade popcorn for our dining pleasure. I loved that she was feeling so healthy that she was her old self, and I laugh now that it never occurred to either of us to consider that perhaps the content of the film might be a bit inappropriate for my underage children. We headed off with great anticipation, glad to be a group of girls out on the town.

As it happened we were all stunned by the movie. John Travolta amazed us with his dancing and the music from the Bee Gees and other disco groups of the era was incredible. We were even surprised by the actual quality of the story and the acting. My daughters who were then three and six years old never fell asleep, because they were as taken by the film as my mother and I were. I assumed that they were unable to understand the adult nuances of the plot and simply enjoyed the characters, the soundtrack and the display of talent. As for my mom and I, we were smitten and felt like a couple of giggly teenagers as we gushed about the film on our way home. Both of us had fallen for John Travolta in his white suit, and my mom who was a stunning dancer in her own right gave him a high grade for his artistry.

I suppose that I reverted to the silliness of a high school groupie when I recounted our evening to my husband. He sensed my excitement and because he has always been quite sensitive to my every need purchased several items related to the movie as Christmas gifts for me that year. Among them was the soundtrack album which I wore out with repeated playings. The girls and I danced our hearts out on many a day, pretending that we were boogying on a disco dance floor in a contest that we would surely win.

In addition to the music my man gave me the iconic poster of John Travolta dazzling the world in that gorgeous white suit in a dance pose that seemed to represent the disco era in all of its glory. I mounted the image inside my closet door and there it stood for decades making me smile every single time that I caught a glimpse of it. It made me love my husband even more because it was symbolic of his efforts to make me happy as much as possible. While I knew that he thought that my giddiness was silly, he enjoyed seeing me smile, and so he never once suggested that maybe it was time that I finally remove my remembrance of a movie that I truly loved.

When my man and I celebrated our anniversary the following year he even went so far as to present me with a lovely dress and a pair of shoes most suitable for a night at a discotheque, as well as a promise that he to take me dancing. This was the ultimate sacrifice on his part and a sign of his undying devotion to me, because everyone who has ever known him understands that he does not like to dance. I have often joked that he is almost perfect save for that one little glitch. The very idea that he was going to subject himself to a night of twirling me in rhythm to the music was stunning, but he indeed spent an entire evening making me incredibly happy as I imagined that he and I were the most striking couple on the floor. My purple dress and and new hairstyle were virtual clones of the outfit that Travolta’s partner wore in the film and my spouse was stunningly handsome. It was a night that I shall never forget.

Somehow the next forty years flew by. Drive in movies became as difficult to find as dinosaurs. My mom continued to endure peaks and valleys in her fight with mental illness. She and I and my daughters continued to dance to whatever the latest tunes happened to be. My husband reverted to his old ways and rarely tapped his feet again unless he heard the strains of a Michael Jackson tune. My children grew into lovely young women and there came a day when that old poster that still hung inside the closet had begun to dry rot. When I finally took it down it tore in so many places that I threw it away rather than attempting to salvage it. Nonetheless, I always remembered how much I had enjoyed Saturday Night Fever.

My youngest daughter laughs to think that my mother and I actually took her to see the movie when she was only three years old. It seems that she understood a great deal more than we had imagined, but it doesn’t appear to have harmed her in any way. Like me she recalls the dancing and the music so fondly and eventually she and I sat down with her daughter to relive the moment when we became so enchanted with the film long ago. We laughed at how we had missed the scene when John Travolta was preparing for his evening on the town. There he was in all of his glory blowing his hair dry while wearing nothing but a pair of black briefs. With the beauty of modern technology we were able to rewind the scene any time that we wished, and like adolescents we took full advantage of that feature while we laughed at our silliness and my granddaughter rolled her eyes.

Back in 1977, I had barely begun my lifetime of teaching. I had not even met so many of the people who would become my dear friends. I was exiting a dark and difficult time and had become far stronger than I had ever imagined I might be. My optimism was full blown in spite of the stops and starts that had changed the trajectory of my life. Saturday Night Fever gave me a moment when I did not need to feel so serious. It provided me with a memory of just how fun my mother actually was. It blunted that pain that I had so recently endured and helped me to realize that with a balance of work and play in my life I would be able to handle any challenge that came my way.

So much has changed in forty years but the essence of the human heart and its longings that the film portrayed so well is virtually the same. Each of us have dreams and experience love and joy along with tragedy. We find ways to heal and to move ever forward. If we can do so with a lilt in our steps and a little song inside our heads, we are all the better. It’s how we stay alive.