Broken Pieces

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Have you ever had one of those horrific dreams in which you forgot something crucial and it affected your entire life? One of my recurring nightmares is that I somehow fail to remember to take a final exam in one of my college courses, thus losing credit for the class. Time passes and life is good until this error is discovered and I end up having my degree rescinded and I lose my job. The emotions that I experience in my sleep are so visceral that I wake up feeling anxious and even a bit stupid as though I really did do something as farfetched as forgetting to take care of a major responsibility.

In the real world of wakefulness I generally take care of business without any close calls. I’ve missed a deadline here and there, but those moments were never fatal nor as costly as my dreaded dream. Most of my big mistakes have taken the form of accidentally breaking something or causing mishap because I have been day dreaming or thinking about some issue.

I once backed out of my garage with the gate on my SUV still in the open position. I was on my way to a funeral and not really feeling like myself when my thoughts were interrupted by a big bang and a neck wrenching jolt. I stopped immediately and as I exited my car to see what had happened I saw one of my neighbors doing his best to stifle his laughter as he considered the ridiculousness of what I had done. I felt so sheepish that I quickly closed the mangled part as best I could and continued on my way. Luckily my husband was infinitely understanding when I later explained to him what had happened. In fact, he suggested that it had no doubt occurred because I was in a delicate state of mind. He’s always known how to make me feel better.

Because my spouse is a very good man I wanted to do something special for him as we near the one year mark of his stroke and the many trials and tribulations that he has experienced in the months since that terrible day. I found a special way to celebrate when I saw that Joe Bonamassa was scheduled to perform at a nearby venue. I excitedly purchased tickets and announced that it was an early Father’s Day present for him.

Joe Bonamassa is a gifted guitarist and my Mike has listened to his music and watched videos of his playing for years. Once when we attended a graduation at Syracuse we saw that Bonamassa was performing in town that weekend, but all of the tickets had already been sold. I knew that Mike would be thrilled to be able to finally see and hear the artist that he so admired, and it was a grand way to put aside the health challenges he had faced.

At the time that I bought the tickets our house was literally turn apart and encased in plastic and grime from the repairs that resulted from a leaking hot water heater.  From start to finish it took around eight weeks to return to normal. During that time I carefully guarded the tickets lest they become lost in the mess that surrounded us. I watched over them as though they were the most valuable item in our home. When all of the dust finally settled and we had returned to a state of normalcy I still knew exactly where the tickets were, and I gleefully imagined how much fun we were going to have as I watched the days move ever closer to the date I had saved on our family calendar.

It seemed fitting that we would be going to do something fun on May 28, Memorial Day, because I have had a difficult time with that holiday ever since my father’s death on that day of remembrance over sixty years ago. I become anxious and admittedly a bit morose year after year. I find myself reliving that moment when I found out that he had died, but this year was going to be different. I was determined to put away my childhood fears and do something fun with the man I love. I anticipated our  glorious evening all day long on May 28, and when the time came I had a lilt in my step as I readied myself for our outing.

In his usual manner Mike decided that we would have dinner near the venue and so he went online to determine how long it would take to drive from the restaurant to the concert. His search lead him to the home page of the arena where he noticed that there was no mention whatsoever of a concert featuring Joe Bonamassa. He rushed from his office to our bedroom where I was relaxing a bit before our departure and asked to see the tickets. When I handed them to him he instantly noticed that they clearly listed the date of the performance as May 21. We had missed it entirely!

I went into a state of shock and disbelief. I could feel a storm of tears gathering in my heart but I showed only a stunned reaction. I kept looking at the tickets as though somehow I might magically change the printed date to the one that I had erroneously recorded on our calendar. The difference between a 1 and an 8 is rather clear, not like a 1 and a 7. I wondered how it was possible that I had been so discombobulated as to make such a mistake. I felt as foolish as I ever have. Not only had I ruined the wonderful evening that I had planned for Mike, but I had also just flushed a great deal of money down the drain.

As usual Mike came to the rescue. He insisted that we still go out to eat and he jokingly played some of Joe Bonamassa’s music as we drove to our destination. After dinner we walked around different shops for a time and then splurged by sharing a piece of cheesecake. He made no mention of his disappointment but instead kept us laughing and having a good time. Eventually we moved our party back home where we sat on our patio under a full moon enjoying glasses of wine and ending our evening with more of Bonamasssa’s music. The best part came when Mike sweetly announced that a good night was just being with me. That comment put everything into perspective and I didn’t feel as foolish anymore.

We’re all human and we do silly things, but when all is said and done they rarely become the nightmares that we so dread. Things break, fall apart, get lost and always they remain just things. People are all that really matter, and so we pick up broken pieces, throw them away, and move on.

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Jack

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Satisfaction

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Last year my high school Class of 1966 had its fiftieth reunion. It was fun seeing people who had dropped out of my life for so long. Since then I’ve tried to stay in touch with many of them via Facebook and the occasional lunches and such that our class leaders schedule. I’ve attended a few funerals as well where I have encountered the most faithful among us. Mostly those sad occasions have been for the parents of my school pals, but now and again we gather for one of our own. I have written blogs about many of those people in an effort to honor their memories and to thank them for the impact they had on my life. It’s particularly sad to see peers losing battles with disease. It is a reminder that all of us are headed in one direction, so we need to be certain that we are getting the most out of life while we have the opportunity.

Last week we received notification that yet another among us is now gone. Harry Butler did not attend our reunion which was rather in keeping with his general personality, but I often thought of him even though I never saw him again after our graduation day. Harry was in the same honors class in which I was. Since the school chose to send us from class to class as a group we were rather constant companions for four years, but I still didn’t know him as well as some of the others. Nonetheless I was fascinated with Harry because he was one of those individuals who insisted on marching to his own drumbeat. There was always something quite interesting about him. I always believed that he would have an exciting life.

It did not take long for all of us to realize that Harry was a gifted writer with an imagination and wit that was intriguing. As someone who longed to be a journalist or a story teller I watched Harry with great interest because I believed that I would learn much from him. It became sadly apparent to me that I would never be able to equal his talent. He had a way with words that set him apart from those of us who labored away at composing. He was an artist who painted stunning pictures with his sentences and paragraphs. He was able to make us all howl with uncontrollable laughter with his essays and newspaper articles. When he created much of the script for our annual Junior/Senior banquet one year the whole class saw how remarkable he truly was.

Harry went to St. Thomas University in Houston, Texas after graduation form high school and majored in English. I lost track of him except through friends who would encounter him from time to time. I learned that he eventually went to Los Angeles to try his hand at screenwriting. I heard rumors that he had actually done well out there and I often found myself scanning film and television credits to see if his name popped up. I really did expect to see him at an awards ceremony one day because I felt that he was that good at his craft. Of course I never saw such a thing but I never really forgot about him. When I traveled to that part of the country I found myself wondering where he lived and how he was doing. I tried to imagine whether or not he had worked with famous people and what scripts he may have created.

I learned from his obituary that he had been sick since January of this year. He had developed an infection of unknown origin that caused an embolism in his brain. This is how he died and it made me so very sad because he possessed a truly remarkable brain. I hoped and prayed that his final days and weeks had not been too painful and that he had been able to read the books that he always enjoyed and listen to the music that enchanted him.

Harry’s father had been a record distributor when we were in high school. Because of that Harry always seemed to have advance knowledge of what new music would be coming our way. He enjoyed regaling us with his insider information and I delighted in being privy to it.. Harry was a character in every sense of the word and his musical insights only added to an air of mystery that always seemed to surround him.

Harry was an exceptional debater, another talent of which I was a tiny bit jealous because Lord knows that I tried so very hard to master that skill. No matter how hard I worked at it I was unable to come close to being as exceptional as he was. Harry was quite simply one of those people who thought on his feet and was able to come up with just the right retorts at just the right moments. He and his debate partner and friend had quite a run as superstars. I often thought that he might become a lawyer but I suspect that such a career was just a bit too tame for him. Harry was out of the ordinary and we all seemed to sense that.

I learned that Harry spent his work life in Los Angeles but returned to Texas after he retired. He chose to settle in Galveston where he loved reading and listening to music. He brought a former ballerina with them and the two of them enjoyed a quiet life near the sea. Even in his final days Harry managed to seem a bit exotic and to have done things on his own terms.

It’s amazing how we never quite forget the people with whom we spend our teenage years. I regret that I never really got to know Harry just a bit better or to tell him how much I admired him. I suspect that I was too much in awe of his remarkable talent in areas in which I so wanted to succeed in my own right. It was as though I saw myself as little more than a hack whenever I compared my abilities with his. Eventually I found the confidence that I had lacked back then and realized that Harry and I had very different styles. I became content to have watched him from afar and to know that maybe just maybe he had found some magic out in Hollywood. At least I certainly hope that is true. I’d like to believe that he lived the kind of life of which he had dreamed so long ago.

Harry’s death signals the passing of another extraordinary member of our class. I feel confident that he is now resting in peace with the angels and cracking them up with his razor sharp sense of humor just as he shared his gift with us so long ago. I remember a time when he proclaimed that the Rolling Stones were the best rock group ever. I argued with him at the time and lost of course, but I always thought of him over the years as that group became my favorite as well. Upon hearing of his death I heard the strains of Satisfaction in my brain and thought of his grin and sarcastic humor that always made us laugh. Thank you, Harry, for some really good times.

Never Let Go

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So much has been said about the examples of heroism and unconditional love that were exhibited in Houston, Texas both during and in the aftermath of hurricane Harvey. Suddenly the entire world is beginning to understand what it is that we love about this place that is as flat as a pancake, a perfect breeding ground for mosquitos, and has very little in the way of scenic views other than a downtown skyline that is quite beautiful on an autumn day. For years I have tried to explain our town to those who have never been here, and I suppose that I never truly made my point that this city is all about people. The view of who we are has suddenly changed as Houston has become the symbol of what is right with the human spirit.

Sure we have some basic problems with flood control and such, but what the attraction to Houston comes down to, is to be found in the generosity and determination of its citizens. As I travel from place to place I see so many wondrous sights and I find that the people that I encounter are generally welcoming, but nowhere do I feel as accepted for who I am than right here where I live. I always find myself feeling a sense of relief whenever I reenter the city limits. The outpouring of courage and unity and pure love that we have witnessed in the past few weeks has proven my lifetime contention that there are many great places to visit, but Houston is one of the best places to live.

I’d like to think that if any real good comes from this disaster that has so horrifically impacted so many in Houston, it will be the reminder that when all is said and done we are all brothers and sisters aiming for the same comfort and security in life. In the middle of the night during a storm when floodwaters forced a family onto the roof of their house the background of the savior who drove up in a boat to retrieve them from danger mattered not a wit. The reactions that we have when we don’t have time to think are often the purest and most perfect. The reality is that nobody who endured the terrifying days when fifty one inches of rain filled our streets even thought to consider differences. We were all just human beings lashed together in an horrific situation. Our only goal was to survive and to help others to make it to safety with us.

I suppose that politics raged on as usual during those days, but we weren’t even aware of the day or the time much less who was arguing with whom. My neighborhood received a bit more than forty three inches of rain. My only worry was whether or not the drainage system for my street would continue to operate. I silently prayed that my husband would not have another stroke because I suspected that we would not be able to reach the hospital that is only five minutes away if he did. I constantly checked to be certain that my neighbors, family members and friends were okay. When I heard of people who had flood waters entering their homes I was not able to rest until I knew that they had reached a safe and secure refuge. Mine was a scene that was taking place a million times over throughout the area, and we were all hoping for the best for one another. 

I’m not known as a fan of Donald Trump, but I was happy when he came to survey the damage and worked to speed the funding for the recovery of our city. He seemed sincere in his concern, and somehow my animosity toward him didn’t feel appropriate given the situation in which we found ourselves. I am thankful that he seems to understand our plight and that he is willing to do something about it. I have no criticism of his willingness to help.

I have been moved to tears by the outpouring of love from all parts of the country and the world. Our brothers and sisters in Louisiana were some of the first to render aide. The people of New York City understood our pain. Again and again I have heard of volunteers from Israel, Saudi Arabia and countries that may not have heretofore even thought of Houston, Texas. It has been simply amazing to me how wonderful we humans truly are and my faith in mankind has been bolstered.

I watched the Hand in Hand telethon earlier this week and when I saw the genuine concern of the arts community hoping to help us in some way I found myself shedding tears once again. There was Oprah Winfrey manning a telephone line. Tom Hanks and George Clooney and Leo DiCaprio  were there to help the people of my city. Usher and Blake Shelton sang so beautifully. Matthew McConaughey spoke eloquently of the road forward for the citizens of our city. Dennis Quaid wore his Bellaire High School shirt. George Strait led some of the best country artists in a beautiful rendition of Texas. I don’t think that I will ever again see any of the many people who gathered together for this cause without wanting to hug them in thanksgiving. They became as one with my city and they earned the key to my heart.

Beyonce, a native Houstonian, said it best when she noted that we have seen far too much violence and hatred of late. Houston has shown the world that love still exists. Houston has demonstrated that race and politics and social standing don’t matter as much as a willingness to stand toe to toe with one another in an hour of need. In our darkest and most frightening days it was the best of humanity that rose to the occasion. Let us pray that we will not let go of that ideal now that it has come to the fore. We need to join hands all across the world and never again let go.