Encounters in a Room

futureI sit across from you in the same room and wonder what it is you are doing. You seem to be intently staring at a slim metal box that lights up both your the area and your face when you set it on your lap and lift the lid. I hear the sound of your fingers tapping in a regular cadence on the surface of the object that is so strange to me. Sometimes I detect sounds coming from where you are sitting but nobody else it there so I don’t understand who is making them. I wish you would sit closer to me so that I might discover what it is that has so captured your attention.

I’m very old and you treat me well. I like the way you smile whenever you glance at me. I enjoy the feel of your hand gently caressing me. I’ve overheard you telling people to take care of me even after you are gone. I appreciate that and I hope that I will be as loved by the next person who takes me to their home as have been by you.

You remind me of a girl I knew long ago. She had the same features as you and she too appreciated me. Back then I was able to do more. I had not yet become as fragile as I am now. I was flawlessly beautiful. Now there are dark spots on my countenance and visible cracks and breaks in my once strong stature. I’ve heard it said that I have grown fine with age but I wish that you might have seen what I once was just as the girl was able to do.

I knew her mother Christina first. I helped Christina and made her smile for a time but she became busy with her family and her endless chores. She had little time to even notice me, but the girl never forget me. When she grew into a woman she took me with her to a new home where we got to know each other better.

I liked to watch her sewing quilts and creating intricate embroidery patterns on tablecloths. She sat humming contentedly as her fingers fashioned magic out of cloth. She was such a sweet and gentle soul and I enjoyed being with her. She and I understood each other, so I was both surprised and a bit worried when she asked you to care for me in her stead. I wasn’t sure how that would work because you were so young and hardly even looked at me.

For a long time I felt lonely and abandoned and then one day you were no longer a child, but a woman with a voice like hers and a face that was more kind than beautiful. You gave me one of the best rooms in the house and came to visit with me every single day unless you were off traveling somewhere. I never spoke to you but I wanted to tell you so much about Christina and the girl. I have a sense that you would like my stories about them if only I were able to tell them. Sadly I do not know exactly how to begin nor do I even have the voice to do so.

Christina’s house was in the woods. The lights that she had were not like yours. They were dim and smelled of candle wax and oil. She hardly ever sat quietly contemplating like you do. I’m fairly certain that she was unable to read. She was a hardy soul who did what she had to do without complaint. Her life was what it was and she was content.

The girl on the other hand worried a great deal. She seemed to dwell on the possibility of tragedy overtaking her life. Maybe that is because it so often did. She was quite young when her first husband died leaving her to raise her children alone in a time when there wasn’t much likelihood of a woman earning a decent living. Even after she met your grandfather she brooded incessantly but she always smiled when she saw me. I hope I reminded her of the times when she was still carefree and both of us were still young.

It broke my heart to see how damaged she was by her son’s death. He was her pride and joy. She never really mended after that. Maybe that’s why she sent me to you. Perhaps she felt that I would be living in a happier place and she not longer had it in her to pretend that all was well. Maybe she merely sensed that something was wrong long before anyone diagnosed her cancer. Anyway she somehow wisely knew that you would be good to me. It’s been quite nice sharing your home with you.

Some people might only see me as an object, and an old one at that. You have never treated me that way. You have always understood that I am an important part of your history and so you cherish me even though I am a shadow of what I once was.

I sit across from you on the wooden secretary that is almost as old as I am. I am silent when I so wish to speak. I once was at the center of family life as I held water or milk for lovely meals. The roses painted on my white porcelain finish were as bright and colorful as the life that I lived back then. Now I am antique whose value lies not in what I do, but in my age. I am confused by a world so different from the one in which I first lived. Times have changed and I do not always understand what is happening around me. It is only because you seem to appreciate me that I feel safe and loved. I am a pitcher, a container, a repository of the love and laughter, sorrow and hard times through which I have existed. Like Christina and the girl you too are now part of who I am. I only hope that one day someone like you will still want me. Perhaps it will be one of those boys or girls to whom you have introduced me. I hope so.

Pure Bliss

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The annual RV show hit Houston this week reminding me of the time when we first decided to hit the road each summer to see the USA in our Chevrolet. We had a bright blue Chevy truck, a feeling of wanderlust and the germ of an idea about traveling across the United States smoldering in our minds. The RV show nailed our resolve to take some summer trips when we found a super deal on a camper shell for the back of the truck. Mike worked all spring that year turning the interior of the enclosure into a veritable wonder by installing sets of wooden structures along the front and sides that served the dual purpose of holding our gear and serving as platforms for mattresses that would become our beds. By the time summer vacation came around our truck was a self contained traveling machine.

We got married young and life took over to keep us busy with the art of surviving. Before we had even celebrated our first anniversary my mother became ill with first and most frightening episode of psychosis. I was not even twenty one when I had to swing into action to get her the medical care that she needed and bring my younger brothers to our apartment where they stayed while she was in the hospital. I spent that summer visiting Mama in the hospital, caring for my brothers, and keeping up with the bills that came to my mother’s mailbox.

There was no time for travel that year and the following summer the birth of our first child kept as at home as well. After that there always seemed to be some kind of family emergency or illness that left us busy on the home front, including one year when Mike developed a rare disease and ended up spending three months undergoing chemotherapy four days a week. We were in our early thirties when things finally seemed to settle down and thoughts of summer road trips became our dream.

Our first foray in our rolling conveyance, mobile restaurant and makeshift hotel was to Rocky Mountain National Park. We packed away our cooking gear, food, lanterns, clothing and other necessities and niceties in the wooden boxes along the perimeter of the camper shell and placed almost perfectly fitting mattresses on top of the lids to serve as our sleeping quarters. A fourth mattress on the floor of the truck bed would become Mike’s spot for when we grew weary each evening. With a tape deck playing Willie Nelson crooning On the Road Again and piles of books to keep us entertained during the long drive we were as excited as we might have been if we were traveling first class.

We took our sweet time reaching our destination with a couple of stops at campgrounds along the way. It was then that we developed an elaborate system for keeping things organized. Our youngest daughter entered the camper first and skittered to the far back bunk which was the smallest in total surface area. Next came our first born to claim one of the side beds and then me on the opposite side. Finally Mike crawled into the middle space on the floor and we settled down for a few last minute stories and jokes before we finally fell asleep in what we considered to be our high class quarters. With windows along three sides we were quite comfortable and content and mostly excited about the adventures that lay ahead.

Once we reached Estes Park, Colorado we parked our truck in a spot at Mary’s Lake Campground in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. We set up shop under an awning that Mike created from a gigantic tarp. We had two dish tubs for cleaning our cookware and a propane double burner stove for preparing our food. A plastic tablecloth on our concrete dining table completed the scene of our temporary home along with four folding chairs around the fire ring. We could not have been happier about our vacation heaven under the stars.

We’d travel into the national park each day and spend hours hiking and enjoying the majestic views. At night we’d build a fire and enjoy hot dogs, hamburgers, soup, chile or whatever culinary delight we fancied. We could not have been more comfortable or satisfied with our accommodations and we thought ourselves the luckiest and happiest family on the planet.

We took side trips to see a railroad museum, a few ski towns, a mining town, lakes and other wonderful sights. We had contests to see who could find the best souvenir for five dollars or less. We told spooky stories and read book after book. We gazed at the stars in wonder and marveled at the glory of our world.

Over the years we put thousands of miles on our little vacation conveyance and home. We saw Texas, Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, most of Colorado and even the Canadian Rockies. Eventually we outgrew the our sleeping quarters and opted for a gigantic tent for sleeping but we would never forget those glorious summers inside our magical truck when we saw so many wonders of the United States and realized how lucky we were to have each other.

The girls are grown and gone with family’s of their own now. Mike and I have a much fancier travel trailer complete with its own kitchen, bathroom and comfortable bed. Air conditioning and a heater protect us from the elements and we even have a television to entertain us when we wish. It’s perfect for the two of us as we age but on its best day it simply can’t compete with those times when we and our children were young and thinking ourselves so fortunate to have the cramped quarters of that tiny camper on the back of our truck. Those trips were incredible and filled with the most special of memories. I can still hear our laughter as we climbed into our beds after a long day of exploration. It was in those days that we experienced the meaning of pure bliss.   

The Passage of Time

Tree circles

I suppose the surest sign of advancing age is in full view whenever someone speaks of the good old days with a kind of reverence. I have to admit to being guilty of that more and more often even though I purport to be a forward thinker. Sometimes it just feels as though everything is changing way too fast. Time is fleeting and for some reason it seems that the older I get the more it accelerates. In just a few short years I’ve gone from being part of a younger generation to serving as one of the heads of the family as all but less than a handful of my elders have left this earth. It’s an uncomfortable feeling to watch traditions slowly change or even die because the world is so demanding of everyone’s time.

I haven’t known whether to laugh or just sigh when I hear my children and some of my former students speak of the times when life felt so much better as though they were speaking of some ancient age of glory that no longer exists. Somehow in our rush toward innovation we’ve managed to make so many things more complicated and more expensive than they have ever before been. The idea of decreasing our workloads and having more time for ourselves and family has seemingly become a broken promise as the hours that we gained through our inventiveness have been filled with new demands at higher and higher costs. Ours has become a kind of pressure cooker lifestyle particularly for our young who worry incessantly about what their futures may be.

There really was a simpler time but it was never trouble free. We humans have grappled with universal problems since the beginning of history. Our need for the basics of survival, security, relationships and self development are part of our makeup. They transcend time, place, ethnicity and politics. When all is said and done we are all searching for the same things and when we witness the death of a superstar like Kobe Bryant we are reminded that even he was after all just like us in his love of family. With all of the adoration that was shown to him, it was inside the small circle of those who knew him best that the ultimate purpose of his life was defined,

I vividly recall my days as a young adult just beginning the process of becoming responsible. I was in many ways playing a role that I was yet to fully understand but I had huge dreams and felt unstoppable. I truly did think that I somehow had a better grasp on life than the adults who had been instrumental in raising me from a child and I felt that it would be my generation that would somehow set the whole world aright in a way that no other had managed to do.

Back then an apartment cost only a bit of change over a hundred dollars and the rent included all utilities. I could purchase gasoline for nineteen cents on occasion. A loaf of bread was a quarter and a gallon of milk was under a dollar. I bought groceries with a twenty dollar bill and dreamed of a glorious time when I might be rich enough to have an income of a thousand dollars a month. My first semester of college cost me less than five hundred dollars but I remember worrying that I might not have the finances to pay for the next semester and the next.

I indeed struggled to maintain a budget even with the seemingly low prices of everything because the cost of living was proportional to the average wages that people made. The first lesson that I learned as a fledgling adult was how much brighter my elders were than I had given them credit for being. I also began to appreciate the sacrifices they had made to care for me and my peers, almost always without complaint. I saw how difficult it is just to provide the basics of life. I was tired most of the time and became more and more in awe of the men and women that I had seen faithfully attending to their jobs day after day when I was still a child. I realized how much I had taken their efforts for granted.

Through each new decade my confidence rose along with my income. So often my progress was offset by rising costs. By the time my own daughters were attending college the cost of a semester ran into the thousands of dollars. Groceries and gasoline and housing prices required far more than they had thirty years before. A thousand dollars a month was a pittance and would not even cover the most basic lifestyle. Worse still was the realization that with all of the dreams I had shared with my generation we had yet to find the nirvana for the world that we had been so certain we would be able to create. Like generations before us we had fallen into the cycles of survival that have ruled mankind for centuries.

Now I’m watching my grandchildren set out toward adult life with the same swagger that I had when I first began to live on my own. Their world is a much different place with pressures and problems and costs that are staggering and yet I have great faith in them. They may not be able to conquer all of the problems, for surely new ones that we have yet to even realize will arise. I have faith that like my peers and my parents’ peers and those of countless generations before us they will learn what they need to do and eventually take the reins to tackle whatever challenges may come.

We live and learn, advance and falter, create wonders and make messes. It is who we are as people. Ideas and things come and go just like we humans do. Costs rise and so do incomes. We chip away at our problems and actually begin to eliminate some. We figure out how to defeat polio and how to build machines that travel into space. We are innovators at heart, essentially kind people who overcome hatred and violence again and again. The costs of improving ourselves and our world may rise but we always seem to find ways to make things happen. Life goes on.

Travel Trinkets

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I pick up souvenirs whenever I travel. They are generally small things that remind me of the places I have been. Often they are rocks, shells, leaves, pinecones. I like to decorate my home with framed prints of locales I have seen so that I might be reminded of the joy of my vacations for years to come. I have a thing for books that fill the shelves of my bookcases with colorful and informational volumes about the sights that I have been fortunate enough to have seen. When I find special pottery or glass I am almost always tempted to purchase a piece to join the collections that grace my rooms. I almost never buy kitsch unless it somehow seems to signify a very special moment from my trip, like the gigantic chigger from Arkansas that made me laugh instead of cry when I became infected with bites from those pesky insects, Mostly, though, I’m inclined to bring back Christmas ornaments from each of the sites that I have visited. I have so many now that I copied my daughter and purchased a special travel tree to exhibit my finds each December.

It’s amazing how my collection of ornaments from around the world has grown. Their eclectic nature makes for a whimsical display that includes everything from bears to fine crystal. I have a stained glass reproduction of the rose window from Westminster Abbey and a yellow cab from New York City. One of my loveliest items is a set of old fashioned handmade straw snowflakes from Salzburg, Austria. They add a wonderful finishing touch to the design of the tree. I have glass pinecones, gold dipped aspen leaves, and a number of replicas of Spanish missions. There is a ceramic reproduction of Cafe du Monde and another of a little grocery store in Maine where I ate the best lobster sandwich I have ever had. Perhaps one of my favorites is a set of Revolutionary War soldiers from Boston.

I try to find a representative ornament from each place that I go. Then when I set up my Christmas decorations each year I relive the joy of visiting each place. The little trinkets that I hang on the branches never fail to bring back a flood of wonderful memories. Vacations are wonderful for the way that they seem to soothe any anxieties that I might have and they allow me to set aside my type A driven personality in favor of living totally in the moment. They are a panacea that I don’t take for granted because I know all too well how privileged I am to be able to spend money on trips to wonderful places rather than having only enough to live from day to day.

The vast majority of people in the history of the world have not had the luxury of travel for the sake of enjoyment. My grandparents went from one place to another in search of work. Their parents essentially were born, lived and died in the same place without ever leaving. Such is true of most of the world’s people even today. Those of us who ride down highways in our comfortable cars or fly through the skies to distant lands are fortunate indeed. The frivolousness of vacationing was once only the domain of the wealthy few. Today those of us in the middle class enjoy it in ways that our ancestors would never have known.

I appreciate the freedom that allows me to go see the wonders of the world and those in my backyard as well. My father had been determined to see as much as possible in his lifetime and he was on his way to becoming acquainted with most of the United States when his life was cut short. I imagine that he would have ultimately seen it all and added to his journeys with trips across the ocean. Back before he died I already knew that my family was somewhat unusual in the grandeur of our trips. I got to see Disneyland in the first year it opened and I remember sitting with my father on the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago while he fished when I was only six.

After my father died our only family trips were to visit my grandparents in Arkansas. We would arise before dawn so that my mother could drive as far as possible before it grew dark. We only stopped for gasoline and to spend one night in a motel before reaching my grandparents’ farm. Only one other time did we take a vacation to San Antonio and Austin. It was a grand adventure that included visits to the Alamo and the state capitol. I vividly recall how fun it was to splurge by going to see The Sound of Music in a lovely indoor theater unlike our usual viewings at the drive in on nights when an entire car of people got in for a greatly reduced price.

Now I am planning a possible jaunt to Colorado in the spring and a gala trip to Scotland at the beginning of summer. I’m still in awe of the good luck that has allowed me to do such things. The worrywart in me sometimes thinks that the time may one day come when it may no longer be possible to go on such extravagant excursions. The world may change in ways that preclude a continuation of the way we have grown accustomed to doing things. My own health may fail as I continue to age in ways that make it difficult for me to travel too far away from home. It’s important that I do my best to see as much as I may for now and while I’m wherever the winds take me I’ll surely be adding to my collection of Christmas ornaments. 

There is little that I would rather do these days than go to new places and revisit my favorite old ones. I never take my good fortune for granted. I have seen gloriously wondrous things that only a few ever get to glimpse. My souvenirs are like a tangible record of my memories. They are wonderful beyond words,

Another Place In Time

Dickens

I live less than an hour away from Galveston, Texas, a heavenly island in the Gulf of Mexico with a storied history. On a lovely day it’s easy to understand why it was one of the fastest growing and most influential cities in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. It’s avenues boasted lovely Victorian homes, many of which still stand, and panoramic views of sandy beaches and the ever changing sea. It was a mecca for entrepreneurs and folks hoping to enjoy a better life. It certainly seemed to be a place that would fulfill all of the hopes and dreams of its citizens. In 1900, a storm approached that would destroy much of the city and kill more individuals than any other hurricane ever has. The terror of the night when nature turned what had been a model city into splinters dashed the optimism of many, but not the underlying spirit of the city of Galveston itself.

While the neighboring town of Houston became the behemoth of growth and progress Galveston settled for transforming itself into more of a sleepy resort and home for a determined populace that would forever boast of the courage and ingenuity of those who were BOI, born on the island. They literally raised the entire city and built a seawall as a defense against future hurricanes. While the citizenry has seen destruction from storms again and again it always finds a way to bounce back from the momentary setbacks and to enjoy and celebrate life on the island.

There are a number of festivals that have become traditional in the city that is a little bit New Orleans, a little bit refined gentry, a little bit touristy, and always bold. It feels as though life in Galveston is a year long party, a determined celebration of life. Perhaps it is so because the people there understand just how tenuous the human experience actually is.

My favorite of the Galveston festivals has always been the Christmas themed Dickens on the Strand. The buildings of commerce from long ago Galveston still grace the landscape near the city’s port, a place where immigrants first saw the land of the United States and where titans once ruled. Lovely shops and restaurants now attract visitors from places near and far. It’s a wonderful weekend haunt for residents of Houston and its suburbs and for vacationers from other parts of the country and sometimes even the world.

In early December the Strand is decked in Christmas finery and peopled by actors in regalia from the time of Charles Dickens complete with visits from Queen Victoria herself. Those who attend the annual party often wear period costumes filling the street with a long ago feel as they walk among wardens from London, men in top hats, and ladies boasting their finest bonnets.

There are craftsmen and merchants selling all form of goods from Christmas ornaments to art and fine clothing. The smells of roasting chestnuts and cinnamon treats fill the air along with the music of bagpipes and the tunes of Irish jigs. It’s a kind of frivolous way to simply enjoy the season without the worries of time constraints and shopping lists. For a moment it feels like Galveston may have seemed in the long ago when Victoria was still on the throne and a lovely December day in the city was filled with soft sea breezes and brilliantly blue skies. It’s a time when everyone is friendly and happy and seemingly without cares.

The event extends from a Friday evening preview until late afternoon on Sunday usually on the first December weekend before the big Christmas rush begins. Each day features a parade and St. Nicholas wanders through the crowd ready to pose for photos and a recitation of Christmas wishes. One might encounter a band of pirates or a group of steampunk dandies, There are British Bobbies and Scottish clansmen. In other words, its a feast for the eyes and the imagination.

My husband Mike and I have generally arrived incognito in our modern attire but this year we decided to join in the fun of dressing as characters from the past. Mike was particularly impressive with his striped grey suit pants with matching vest, his long coat, top hat and paisley cravat. His neatly polished shoes and silver handled cane made him a Victorian dandy for certain. I found a long black skirt to pair with my high collared white blouse which I adorned with a cameo pin that came from either my mother or my grandmother. I found a hat worthy of a visit with the queen and wore a black shawl in case the fickle weather turned cool. I also happened to have a pair of black boots with three little button fittings to secure them. On the whole we looked rather authentic and turned a head or two as we strolled down the Strand.

It was amusing to be approached by strangers who wanted to take their pictures with us. There was even one child who held us in as much awe as she might have done with Mickey and Minnie Mouse. I found myself getting into character and wishing the people that I passed a good day in my most refined accent.

Our afternoon was a much needed diversion from the hectic demands that seem to overtake us the closer we get to December 25. It reminded us to focus on the fun and meaning of the season, perhaps more so because we silently remembered the Galveston citizens of long ago who had so innocently believed that they had found heaven on earth before their lives were ended so brutally and abruptly . Life is indeed short and unpredictable so we have to grab delight wherever and whenever we find it. Dickens on the Strand is a wonderful way to remember to have fun and to love.