Finding a Long Lost Friend

Kathy

I met Kathy at a local Tex Mex restaurant. It had been well over fifty years since we had seen each other in person. She and I had both once lived on Belmark Street in southeast Houston. Both of our mothers were widows and both of us were products of an education at Mt. Carmel High School. I was in the Class of 1966 and she was a member of the Class of 1967, the group with whom I might have shared my teenage years had my parents not decided to send me to first grade a year early. We had both lived through a lifetime of memories in the years since last being together and it was only through the miracle of Facebook that we had reconnected once again.

I adored Kathy’s mother. She was a tiny woman who was nonetheless a giant in my eyes. She seemed capable of staring down the devil if need be. She was incredibly courageous and one of the few women that I knew who actually pursued a career even after she became a mom  and her husband was still alive. Kathy’s mom and mine often attended dances and events sponsored by Parents Without Partners, a social group that gave them a place to be with people who understood what it was like to raise a family alone.

When I knew Kathy on Belmark Street she was known by the nickname, “Candy.” She was stunningly beautiful even as a child and only became more lovely as she grew. She had the same spunky spirit as her mom and I so enjoyed doing things with her. She was the perfect counterpoint to my shy and reserved nature. When I was around her I felt at ease and able to just be myself. She was a fun person who helped me push aside the awkwardness that sometimes made me wonder if I was ever going to find my way in the adult world. Her joyous nature rubbed off on me, and she made me forget all of my childhood angst.

One of our favorite activities was playing dolls on my driveway. Kathy had one of the very first Barbie dolls and I was in awe of the model like figure of the toy. I stuck with my Madame Alexander doll that was lovely in its own right. We collected milk cartons and boxes and transformed them into furniture for our dolls. We used scraps of cloth to make rugs and pillows. My mom showed me how to design a four poster bed for my doll out of a cigar box and four clothes pins. We set up our make believe homes and pretended that our dolls were stewardesses living in exotic places around the world. It was more fun than almost anything else that I did in those days. I treasure the memories and the things that Kathy taught me when we were together.

Sometimes our play was interrupted by earnest discussions of how we might actually become hostesses in the sky once we were old enough to apply for jobs that we considered highly glamorous. It was after all still in the days of infancy for mass air travel and anything associated with the industry appeared to be quite exciting to us. We had so many hopes and dreams about being independent women like our moms but on a far grander scale.

Kathy’s home was different from mine. There were no beige walls or conservative ways of decorating. Instead bright colors transformed each room into a happy place that made me smile. Kathy’s mom kept a bowl of candy on the dining table and always urged me to take whatever I wanted when I visited there. I could not imagine such a tempting treat lasting more than a few seconds at my own house, and yet it appeared that Kathy and her younger siblings rarely even touched the sweets. I decided that making something routine and commonplace made it less enticing and thought that Kathy’s mom was a very bright woman indeed for thinking of such a thing.

Kathy and her family moved away when I was a freshman in high school and while her mom and mine continued a fast friendship, I had become devoted to my studies and a small circle of classmates with whom I spent my rare hours of freedom. Kathy and I saw less and less of each other even as we no doubt passed one another in the hallways of our school. Life took hold and we went our separate ways marrying, raising children and working. The years went by one by one, slowly at first and then at a rate so fast that we hardly noticed that a whole lifetime had passed.

Suddenly we were older women, retired from our jobs, enjoying our grandchildren and finding more and more free time on our hands. Then we found each other on Facebook and began to enjoy the commentaries that we each posted. I realized that somehow even with all of the changes that had taken place in our lives at heart we were still those young girls with dolls and dreams and incredible moms. It seemed time to have a reunion, and so we decided to meet for lunch and to reminisce.

I am never quite certain how it is possible to reconnect with a long lost friend so quickly, but we had no problem whatsoever keeping a conversation going. In fact, we devoted an hour to speaking of our past, present, and future for each decade that we had been away from each other. I was a bit shocked when I finally glanced at my watch and realized that we had been chatting away for nearly five hours and I suppose that we might have continued even longer save for the fact that other responsibilities were calling us home.

It was grand seeing Kathy again and knowing that our shared experiences had somehow carried us through every challenge that came our way. Like our moms we are survivors who have seen both the good times and the most horrific and yet we are still standing. Kathy is as beautiful as she ever was and she still has the ability to make me smile. She has become a font of wisdom from whom I learned so much in just a few short hours. I’d like to think that we will continue our meetings now that we have found each other again. We share something quite special and I suspect that our mothers are smiling down on us from heaven, happy that we have found to connect again.

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Oh Honey!

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My Aunt Polly was a hoot, a fireball, an original, my godmother. She was the most energetic person I have ever known until she wasn’t anymore. Age caught up with her and she began to slow down around the time she was in her nineties. Before then few would have been able to guess her age. She appeared to be a good ten or twenty years younger than she actually was, but life events caught up with her, leaving her with a more careworn look on her face. Soon after her ninetieth birthday her house burned down with along with all of the photos and home movies and other small treasures that meant so much to her. She and her husband had been setting out Christmas decorations when the flames began. They were both safe but the stress of losing their home took its toll.

Aunt Polly settled into a new life style in independent living quarters where she hosted domino and card games on a regular basis. Her children and grandchildren often joined her in those pursuits and her laughter and gregarious spirit returned once again. Then she endured a series of deaths of people near and dear to her. She sat at my mother’s side only hours before my mom, her little sister, died. Not long after that her son Jack also passed and she showed up to his funeral bent and using a cane. She was subdued and even though she tried to be her old self I knew that she was suffering greatly from the loss. When I next saw her at her husband’s funeral I hardly recognized her. She sat quietly in a wheelchair looking frail and vulnerable. This was certainly not the tough courageous woman that I had always known.

Last week my Aunt Polly died quietly, but even as she slipped away most of us who knew her thought that she would recover and soon enough be her old feisty self, because more than anything she was a fighter. She never backed down from asserting herself or taking care of weaker souls like myself. Many a time she became my hero as I watched her in action. She was a true feminist before there was such a thing or such a word for it. My mother used to say that her sister Polly wasn’t afraid of the devil himself.

When my parents decided to hurriedly enroll me in the first grade when I was still five years old I was terrified and miserable. The fact that my mother made me some new dresses to wear and bought me a lunch box did not ameliorate my fears or discomfort. I felt abandoned and alone as I tried to adjust to a new environment. It was my Aunt Polly who came to the rescue.

One day I was at school eating lunch and flicking away the ants that always seemed to invade the inner sanctum of my tin lunch container when Aunt Polly suddenly appeared like a super hero. She had come to see how I was doing and when she saw the state of my food with all of those critters swarming on it her immediate response was to hug me and declare, “Oh honey! I’m going to take care of this” and she did. She marched straight to the principal’s office and raised a ruckus. Not only did the surprised administrator get me something without insect infestation to eat, but also ordered a thorough cleaning and extermination for the building. Never again did I have a problem.

My Aunt Polly was one of the first women that I knew who held a full time job and raised a family. She worked a number of different places before finally settling down at the Post Office. For a time she added to her coffers by serving as a cashier at the Trail Drive Inn and her extra perk for that job was to get free admission to the movies for family. I loved feeling like a celebrity as she waved our car into the vast parking lot without paying a fee. We saw so many movies there and she often joined us for the second feature once the box office closed. It was so much fun to hear her and my mom talking about the stories and the characters as though they were a couple of teenage girls rather than adults with children. I learned that Aunt Polly had a crush on Jeff Chandler which didn’t much surprise me because a had an uncanny resemblance to her husband Jack.

We spent lots of time at Aunt Polly’s house and she at ours. No invitations or even announcements were needed. We simply got together anytime anyone felt like it. Thus it was that on the night of my senior prom Aunt Polly showed up at our house. I was moping in the dark while pretending to watch television because I did not get to go to the big event. My mother had tried to cheer me up earlier by insisting that those kind of venues are always overrated and I was missing nothing of importance. Somehow her encouragement had fallen flat on my bad mood. It was Aunt Polly who once again saved the day when she came in and asked me what was wrong. When I told her what was going on and how I felt she took me in her arms and said “Oh honey!” while I cried. In that simple phrase there was so much truth and compassion. It was exactly what I needed to hear.

Aunt Polly gave me a beautiful bridal shower before I married. She came to visit me when I had my babies. Somehow she was always there when I needed her most and she did so without fanfare and few words even though her normal personality was akin to Rosalind Russell’s in Auntie Mame. I was in awe of her because she was the counterpoint to my own quiet nature.

Aunt Polly was born Pauline Ulrich in 1923, along with her twin sister Wilma whom we variously called Speedy or Claudia. She grew to be tall and beautiful with slender frame, blonde hair and blue eyes. My mother always said that Aunt Polly had to learn how to be tough in a family of eight kids or be pushed around by her siblings or the kids from the neighborhood who ridiculed the members of the immigrant family. Aunt Polly learned quickly how to fend for herself and she rarely backed down from a challenge of any kind.

My aunt married one of the sweetest men I have ever known named Jack Ferguson and the two of them had two sons, Jack Jr. and Andrew. My Uncle Jack died rather young and Aunt Polly eventually married another Jack when she was in her sixties and still looking as pretty as a thirty year old. The mantra of her life was to have as much fun as possible and she was known for the big parties that she held in her backyard with mountains of food and musical entertainment. She traveled all over the world once her children were grown and she regularly stopped by for visits with my mother, bringing her little gifts and checking on her well being.

A bright light has gone out with her passing. She was truly one of a kind and totally irreplaceable. I doubt that I will ever forget the moment when she came to see my mother who was dying in the hospital. She sat beside my mother’s bed along with her twin sister and she reassured my mom with words that only she knew how to deliver, “We’re here now honey. Everything is going to be okay.” The look on my mother’s face told us all that it was just what she needed to hear.

I am certain that my Aunt Polly has joined her siblings, her husbands, and her son in heaven. She was a good woman, my aunt, and my godmother. She taught me much about how to live.

I’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!

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Back in the sixties when Saturday night rolled around the place to be for teenagers was at the Saturday night dances at Mr. Carmel High School in southeast Houston. Back then the two most popular radio stations for teens were KILT and KNUZ.  It was KNUZ that more or less adopted the Catholic high school by advertising the dances, sending DJs to play music, and helping to find bands to provide live music. In its heyday some of the best groups found their way to Mt. Carmel Drive to entertain teens like me in a wholesome atmosphere that was chaperoned by adults. Even my very watchful mom was quite content that I would enjoy a safe time at those gatherings, so she actually encouraged me to attend each week.

The school cafeteria was lined with folding chairs for the occasion and all of the lunch tables were moved to create a nice area for the revelry. The bands and DJs worked from the stage. The lights were dimmed and the fun began. It was a glorious place to meet up with friends, make new acquaintances, and hear some great music. For those of us who did more observing than dancing it was also a people watching bonanza.

I was shy, awkward, and as thin as a rail back then. I had little confidence in myself because my ultra fine hair would never hold the bouffant styles that were so popular back then and I still appeared to be about twelve years old. It would take me quite awhile to bloom and find my courage so I tended to either find a group of girlfriends with whom to essentially hide myself or I simply sat in one of the chairs along the perimeter hoping that by some miracle I might actually be asked to dance while also worrying that someone might.

The world was still a long way from allowing young women to dance by themselves or with a big group if they were so inclined. I had also been taught that being aggressive enough to actually take the lead and ask one of boys to dance with me was very bad form. So I spent most of my Saturdays dreaming that one day my Prince Charming might bravely rescue me from wallflower status. I felt like Rip van Winkle hibernating for years without notice. I may as well have been a fixture on the wall. That is how invisible I felt. Of course it never occurred to me that the guys might be feeling exactly the same way. It was an uncomfortable time of life.

There were a few guys who showed a bit of interest when I was still a freshman in spite of my youthful appearance. One was a very short young man who had noticed that I was not yet five feet tall. We had some good times dancing without much conversation and on most Saturdays he came looking for me. Of course since I was a late bloomer it was inevitable that the day would come when I finally added some inches to my stature. Over the space of one summer I endured a growth spurt that left me standing five feet six inches tall. When my dance partner returned at the beginning of the new school year he found me in my usual spot. As soon as I stood to accompany him to the dance floor it was apparent that I was now towering over him. Without a word he literally ran away and never again came back to choose me as his partner. I never really blamed him but I sure missed the opportunity to enjoy my own love of dancing.

For the next many years it might be said that I went to the Saturday night event but did not hit the dance floor, not even when I tried my hand at leaving my chair and flirting and hinting with some of the guys that I wanted to dance with no strings attached. It was not until I had become a senior that some young men from schools other than my own began to take a leap of faith and ask me to dance with them. There was one particular guy who was a fabulous hoofer with a funny style. We would start out in front of one another, but invariably he would move all around the floor leaving me to dance seemingly alone until he once again found his way back to me. He often laughingly insisted that I was a great dancer who needed to loosen up just a bit. We never bothered to learn much about each other. As far as we were concerned we were just dance partners, and for me it was so much better than sitting on the sidelines all night long.

I remember one evening when I spent hours dancing with this person. The next week in school one of the boys in my class commented that he had never imagined that I even knew how to dance. I wasn’t quite sure how to take his pronouncement, so I essentially ignored it. What I really wanted to do is let him know that if he had taken the time to ask me to cut the rug with him he might have found out sooner that I was more than just a very studious girl.

Eventually I graduated from high school and found a sudden burst of popularity in college. I went to a street dance at the University of Houston and never missed a beat. I suppose that everyone has their shining moment and that was the beginning of mine. Not long after  that I met my husband who loves to tell everyone that he was thunderstruck when he first saw me. I felt the same about him and the rest is fifty years of blissful history. Unfortunately he absolutely hates to dance and so my dreams of having a partner for the future was dashed. It was not until my grandsons became older that I was able to let loose on the dance floor again. 

The happy ending to the story is that in the modern world there are no holds barred when it comes to dances. Anyone can just hit the floor and move to the music all alone or with a big group. Nobody thinks less of a woman who asks someone to be her partner. The whole process has become so democratic and fun. It is no longer fraught with the angst that so dominated my feelings during my high school years. I’ve come a long way, baby, and and so have my fellow women. I love it!

Summer Is Coming

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I have a love/hate relationship with summer. I enjoy the long days and the possibilities of adventure, but the season brings back memories of tragedies that I have endured, and then there is the heat and humidity that slows my energy and puts me in a state of lethargy. “Summer is coming” is a phrase that causes worries to silently fill my head. I fret about storms and hurricanes that may find their way to the places where me and my family and friends live. I feel a caution and not too little anxiety in summer that does not leave me until the end of September when the first hints of fall shorten the days and cool the air. I suppose in my distrust of summer I am quite different from most of the people I know.

I do not like the heat of summer. I seem to wilt and lose my energy as the mercury rises. I become sluggish and prone to stay indoors. I don’t like using all of the electricity that is needed to keep my home at a reasonable temperature, and I hate summer fashions that leave so little to the imagination. Summer is a time when I suppose I should head to cooler places for a long stay, locales where I may still need a jacket and do not require machines to cool me.

Summer is the time when far too many people that I have loved have died. I have a difficult time recalling birthdays, but I seem to always remember the dates on which my favorite people left this earth. I go into a kind of quiet sadness at the same time that everyone else appears to be celebrating the joys of warm days outdoors. I harbor groundless fears during that time, watching for signs that someone I know will have a heart attack or a stroke or a mental breakdown because summer is when those I care about have endured such things. I don’t want to dwell on the negative, but somehow the timing of tragedy in my life almost always coincides with the summer months, and so I am cautiously optimistic when June rolls around.

Hurricane season coincides with the summer, and it terrifies me. I fear the weather reports, and watch for signs that a storm may come my way. I know the kind of destruction that those heartless freaks of nature impart on humanity. I have seen firsthand the sorrow that they may bring. I cry at the thought of a Katrina or Harvey or Maria randomly choosing an area to destroy. I don’t think upon such things every minute of every day or I would surely go insane, but I do carry a healthy fear in the back of mind. I remain alert and prepared until the danger has passed.

I worry about too much water and too little when the summer comes. I’ve seen entire forests on fire and witnessed the loss of whole towns in images on my television. I’ve watched my own plants whither under the hot summer sun unless I ply them with water that I feel guilty using when there are people dying of thirst in some parts of the world like Jordan where water is only available once a week. It seems so ironic that California may be on fire at the very same time that homes are filling with the ravages of rain in my city.

As a child I loved the summer. My mother would cut my hair each June so that breezes might caress my neck. I’d live in shorts and sleeveless tops with bare feet grown brown from the sun and the dirt. I’d run and play and ride my bike with hardly a notice of the heat. I’d enjoy the peaches, plums and watermelon of the season, and the freedom of lessons and homework. I had few worries other than how to fit all of the fun with my friends into each day. I’d read books next to an open window in the high heat of the afternoon or join in a competitive card game with my playmates. I never thought of the weather or its consequences. Worries about tragedy were not on my radar, at least not until my father died.

I sometimes long for the innocence of my youth when “summer is coming” meant swimming at a city pool and Sundays at Clear Lake with my cousins. Summer meant total freedom with adventures that would have rivaled Tom Sawyer. My skin would freckle and brown and I never once worried that I might be damaging my health or in danger of developing skin cancer. I was a free range kid of the highest order, running without shoes in the woods, romping in the muck of the ditch behind my cousin’s house, and playing almost arm breaking games of Red Rover with the multitude of kids who lived up and down my long street. I quenched my thirst from the garden hose and played from the first light of dawn until the street lights came on in the dark. I don’t recall feeling uncomfortable when I went to bed in our unconditioned house where the temperatures had to be in the high eighties. Nor did I ever worry that some evil might come into our home by way of the open windows that never closed during that season, even when we were away running errands.

Perhaps I have become too old to fully appreciate the summer. I get hot and cranky if I am outdoors for too long. I dislike the feel of the sunscreen that I am compelled to slather all over my body to protect me. I don’t like the way I appear in shorts and skimpy tops. I’ve become grumpy about the very time of year that once enchanted me, and that actually makes me sad. I so want to feel the unbridled pleasure of my youth when I lived in the joy of the moment rather than considering what might go wrong. Returning to that kind of exuberance is something that I intend to seek. Summer is coming and I want to make the most of it and be unafraid.

Fashion

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A good twenty years ago one of the principals with whom I worked was complaining about a shopping excursion with his middle school aged daughter. He described how she had begged to purchase a pair of jeans with an acid wash that made them appear to be well worn. The jeans were expensive due only to the brand, so he was appalled by the idea of paying so much for something that looked like it had come from a rag bag. He asked the girl why they didn’t just go to a thrift store and find a pair of used jeans that cost maybe one sixth of the price. He wondered if I had ever experienced what he saw as the ridiculousness of fashion or if he was simply out of touch.

I laugh even to this day as I recall his concern, and wonder what he may be thinking if he has walked through the women’s and teen’s clothing sections lately. Trends have gone from washed out colors to purposefully placed holes in jeans. Sometimes the legs are even lopped off  to create shorts with stringy edges. Even I have gone from being an ardent supporter of the vagaries of fashion to wondering if procuring some very old jeans at a thrifty cost might make just as much sense as paying premium prices in the name of fashion. It would not take much skill to create the same looks that are on display in expensive boutiques with far less expense.

Fashion has evolved in so many directions over time. My husband was only recently longing for the days when women showed up at church on Easter Sunday with lovely pastel dresses accessorized with hats and gloves. He spoke of how elegantly his grandmother dressed even for Saturday shopping excursions. Now at church on Easter Sunday we will saw everything from jeans with sloppy t-shirts to shorts that seem more appropriate for a day at the beach. There are only a handful of ladies who still adhere to the idea of dressing up for services complete with wearing beautiful hats that compliment their lovely suits and dresses.

We have become a more casual society and I don’t mind that at all. I personally don’t like to wear hats. Most of them don’t fit right on my head and leave me with a headache after a few minutes. I am actually quite happy that I no longer have to worry about finding one that suits my features. I also hate the upkeep of those white gloves that we used to wear. I say good riddance to such things, but I miss others like the requirement of wearing hosiery for more formal occasions. There are very few women over the age of forty whose legs look good without stockings. The queen is correct to insist that all royals wear hose. They really do look nicer than pasty old legs and they aren’t all that uncomfortable.

I once looked into the possibility of wearing the same brand and color of hosiery that Princess Kate wears because she always looks so natural. I found out that I can even order a pair on Amazon. I was quite excited about the prospect of hiding the always and veins of my legs in a way that appeared to be almost invisible until I noticed that one pair costs forty five dollars. I knew that with my luck I would find a way to put a run in them on the first outing, so I decided not to even experiment with a pair. The problem is that finding an alternate source that does not look funny in today’s stockingless world is not that easy, so I just go with the flow of the current trend even though I would prefer to somehow camouflage my legs.

I’ve seen crazy things come and go. I was once part of the mini-skirt revolution back when hiking skirts was shocking to my elders. I loved the look and showed off my slender gams quite willingly. My girls wanted parachute pants and Vans which I never purchase for them because I thought that the price of those things was ridiculous. I still feel a bit guilty for not indulging them with looks that were popular at the time. My grandmother wore dresses that trailed down to her ankles and my mother got by with very short skirts by claiming that they were little playsuits. Women of every era try different ways of wearing clothing, some of which are actually stunning and timeless and others that quickly become dated.

I have settled into more classic looks in accordance with my age, but I actually appreciate the trendier styles for the younger set. It’s fun to try different styles and to determine what works best. I suppose that my mother was right whenever she told me to create my own looks by choosing the colors and the cuts that enhanced my figure rather than going with the flow. Each person indeed has skin tones and body issues that can be made to look lovely with a bit of care in choosing. The women who master such techniques are always beautiful and not obsessively worried about how they appear to the world.

Fashion is a superficial kind of thing, and yet I truly enjoy attempting to create a look for myself. I’ve lost two inches in height so I have had to change the way I pick clothing. My mid section is no longer long and slender so the sleek tower look doesn’t work for me like it once did. I do my best to hide my flaws and accentuate the things that are best about me. Mostly I now just want to blend in nicely. I sometimes have to remind myself that seventy year old women don’t have to look dowdy, but they should not look ridiculous either. There’s a fine line between staying modern and seeming to be a bit daft.

My granddaughter was recently invited to attend a military ball at her school. She wisely chose a very understated and classic dress, one that would work throughout the ages. I suppose that in the end the styles of women like Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly are defined by their timelessness. A photo of Coco Chanel looks as lovely today as it did decades ago. Perhaps the key to fashion is to have some fun now and again but always remember that in general less is more.