Blink

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I’m a child running barefoot through the grass with beads of sweat running down my back. It never dawns on me that my idyllic life will one day change. I live in the moment and enjoy each new day. I blink, and I am a skinny little spit of a girl just starting high school and dreaming of teenage years with all of the good times portrayed in the movies that I so love. I find myself working hard to learn new things that challenge me in ways that are wonderful. I blink, and it is graduation day and I am heading to college little realizing that it will be many years before I see many of my classmates again. I blink, and I have met the man of my dreams. I fall deeply in love and marry long before I should. It’s war time and things are so uncertain. I know that I must grab the golden ring while I am able. I stand at the altar and pledge my undying love. I am filled with so many hopes and dreams.

I blink, and I am expecting my first child. Even though I am barely out of childhood myself I am so ecstatic about being a mother. I talk to my baby even before she is born. I am naive about how much responsibility my new role will entail. I just know that I already love her and I have not yet seen her face. I blink, and she is running barefoot through the grass. I chase after her laughing and feeling so glad that I have these moments with her. I blink, and another baby is on the way. I love that my family is growing and I can’t wait to see my new little girl. I blink, and we are moving into our first home with both of our daughters, a toddler and an infant. I immediately fall in love with my neighbors. Somehow I know that I will be friends with them forever even though forever seems so far away.

I blink, and my girls are heading off to school. I wonder where the time went and how they grew so quickly. They are sweet and bright and they make me proud but I miss them when the house becomes so quiet. I go back to school again and use my free time to study and earn a degree. I blink and my eldest is entering high school while I have been a teacher for many years. I love the times when we share weekends with the good friends that we have made from church and school and the neighborhood. There is never a dull moment. We are always buzzing about. It’s so much fun and it never occurs to me that it may one day change.

I blink, and daughter number one is heading to the University of Texas for college. I don’t quite yet realize that she will never again be a permanent resident of our home. I focus on the second girl and love having her friends practically living at our place. Life is good. Work is good. Family is fabulous. I blink, and my eldest is receiving her college degree while the youngest is graduating from high school. I can’t believe that they are grown. Where did the time go? Where are those precious little babies that I held in my arms? How I love the young women they have become. How I miss the infants that snuggled and cooed.

I blink, and my eldest is getting married and moving out of the city. My youngest is studying at Texas A&M University. The house is so quiet. I have my work. It sustains me. I decide to go back to school for an advanced degree. I need to fill the vacant hours. I am not yet accustomed to such a quiet house. I spend more time with my husband. We fall in love again and again.

I blink and I am a grandmother of a new baby boy. I fly to the faraway place where he and his parents live. He is an angel and I love him so. I like to sit for hours just holding him and watching him sleep in my arms. My youngest daughter is in love as well and will soon be engaged. How is it possible that I have reached a time when my girls will be so independent? I work and begin to enjoy my students even more than ever. They become my new children, my extended family.

I blink and I am at the wedding of my youngest. She is moving all the way to Chicago. I now have two grandchildren from my eldest. Both of them are beautiful little boys. They now live close enough that I get to visit them all of the time. Life is good. Work is good. I have so much fun with my friends. I take my good fortune for granted and then I blink.

My family grows and grows. A set of twin boys from my eldest daughter delight me. Another set of twins, a boy and girl, arrive to my youngest. Not long after a little boy rounds out the crew. I can’t even describe how much fun I am having. I am so happy that I want the world to stop spinning. I don’t want to blink, but I must.

Death comes to visit us. My mother-in-law dies so unexpectedly. Dear friends leave this earth. I turn to my work as a distraction. I spend time with my own mother and my grandchildren to protect me from the sadness that I am feeling. The cycle doesn’t want to stop. One after another I lose important people and then I blink, and my mother is gone as well. I look up and my grandchildren are all in school. They are not babies anymore. My daughters are fine women who help me in my grief. My husband remains my rock.

I blink, and I am a senior citizen, retired from my teaching days and spending time traveling and writing and enjoying hobbies. My grandchildren are in college, high school, and middle school. They won’t stop growing, but that is not so bad because I am so proud of each of them. I keep in touch with my former students who truly are like members of my extended family. I smile at the photos of their weddings and their children. I enjoy hearing about their jobs and knowing that they too are just fine. I get back together with long lost friends from high school. I am amazed at how easily we reconnect. They look the same to me even though their hair is sometimes grey and their faces wear the wrinkles of time. I know that if I blink there is no telling what changes will come, but I have learned that each phase of life has the power to be grand. My life is unfolding just as it was meant to be.

My husband is still my best friend. These days we are quietly in love. We share all of those moments that came in between our blinks. We know that even the hard times have had a way of making us stronger and bringing us closer together. We’ve learned to dream a bit less and just enjoy whatever is happening. We walk through the grass in our bare feet and are able to see all the way back to our own childhoods. We blink and the world is a wonderful place to be.

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Embracing Grief

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I have a memory of being very young and quite frightened as I sit on my mother’s lap. We are on a boat of some kind and I can feel the rocking of the craft on the waves. My mother comforts me as I cling ever closer to her chest. There are many people around and all of them are chattering and unwittingly making me feel quite nervous. The sea breeze is brisk and I don’t like the way that it stings my face, so I bury my head in my mother’s gentle caress. Suddenly everyone is moving toward the railing of the ship, even my mother who appears to be happy and excited as she carries me toward the crowd that is cheering and pointing at something that is confusing to me. Whatever it is seems gigantic and I don’t want to look at it, but my mother’s soothing voice convinces me that I am safe. I quickly glance just long enough to see a huge object seemingly floating in the water. Then the imagery of that long ago recollection instantly stops in my mind.

I have often wondered where I might have been on that day. My mother seemed to think that we were on a vacation trip to New York City. My vague description of my recurring vision led her to believe that I had somehow remembered going out into the harbor to view the Statue of Liberty. Still she had her doubts because I was well under two years old when we took that trip together, so she often mused that perhaps I was recreating an image from a movie that I had seen and attributing it to my own life. Somehow I believe that the incident was absolutely real and so scary to me that I was able to relive the scene even decades after it had occurred. Mostly my thoughts of that day are reminders of how safe and protected I felt in my mother’s arms, a feeling that never changed in all of the years that I have journeyed in this world.

Mothers have been on my mind of late. Three of my friends have recently lost their moms. Another is agonizing over the anniversary of her mother’s death a year ago. Her grief was renewed as the date that her mother left this world approached. In her honesty about her sadness and her descriptions of the wonderful things that she and her mother shared, I have found myself realizing that a mother’s love is unique in its intensity. A mom is eternally connected to her children in a spiritual way that transcends even death. I know that I have felt my mother’s enduring presence in my heart again and again in the six years since she has been gone. I find that I actually understand her more in her absence than I ever did when I was rushing around and taking her for granted. It is not difficult at all for me to identify with the men and women that I know who are filled with a mixture of sadness and joy as they are reminded of the unconditional love that their moms showered on them.

It’s funny how we find ourselves thinking of small moments that meant so much to us whenever we begin to think back on the influence that our mothers had on our lives. I always return to a cold February when I was nine years old and bedridden with a high fever and a measles induced rash. I felt weak and my head pounded incessantly. My mother kept me warm under quilts that my grandmother had made. She constantly checked on me and brought me cool drinks and homemade soup to keep me sustained at a time when I had no desire for anything other than sleep. Best of all she hugged and caressed me and softly assured me that I would soon be well again. Even in the middle of the night as I tossed and turned uncomfortably she was there watching over me. I needed her so, and she was my guardian angel.

Thinking back I realize that this happened only months after my father had died. Mama had somehow managed to create a safe environment for me and my brothers in such a short time. She had set aside her own tears and worries, at least on the surface, so that we might feel confident that all would be well. She must have felt overwhelmed by the responsibilities that had so suddenly fallen upon her, and yet she never let on that she was even remotely concerned. She threw herself into the task of parenting all alone, never even hinting that it might be quite difficult. All I knew back then is how much I loved her and how good she always made me feel.

Mothers can be such imperfect beings but somehow those of us who are their children ultimately see only the perfection of their love. They are our mentors, our muses, our cheerleaders, our rocks, our security. No matter how many mistakes that we make their love endures. They see us without the criticisms that others may heap upon us. They believe in us and want all that is best for us, but mostly they just want us to know that they will never leave us, so I always understand the profound sense of loss that occurs when someone’s mother dies.

Sometimes it is the other way around. A mother loses a child, an unnatural event that is capable of tearing a woman’s heart from her soul. I often think of my grandmother Minnie when my father died and the startling pain that remained etched on her face from that day forward. I thought of her when my friend Tien lost her baby boy Jhett. I sense that there are few greater tragedies than the untimely death of a child, and even though I have witnessed the great courage of those who have endured such misfortune, I also have seen their quiet desperation and undying love for the children who might have been.

It is important that we acknowledge the feelings of children who have lost their mothers, or mom’s who have lost their children. The mother/child relationship never really dies and so the emotions that surround the memories are raw and real. Our role as friends is to simply be supportive and willing to embrace the feelings that they have, no matter how deeply sad they may seem to be. In many ways the person who is willing to admit to their overwhelming emotions is actually just being honest. Our society tends to look away from grief and want people to pretend that they are stronger than they really are. Being able to admit to feeling crushed by loss is actually a healthy way of dealing with reality.

My mother was always the stoic, the person who gave the impression that all was well. I suspect that she did this to shield me and my brothers from the many worries that stalked her. When her mother died she finally decided to let all of the world see her true state of mind. She sobbed openly and spoke of her mom incessantly, so much so that one of her brothers cautioned her to get a grip on herself. By that time in her life she had been treated for bipolar disorder for many years. She went to her psychiatrist concerned about the intensity of her grief. He assured her that she was finally reacting in an incredibly healthy and normal manner and he congratulated her for learning how to deal realistically with the feelings that are so much a part of being human.

Yes, our mothers are such special people. They are our first teachers and the people who like us just the way we are. It is indeed perfectly natural for us to miss them when they are gone and to want to remember them, sometimes even with tears in our eyes. Be kind to those who have those moments of remembering how much they miss that relationship. It is something to honor and embrace. Be the person who allows them to express themselves. Be the person who understands. Help them to embrace their grief.

A Birthday Gift To Us All

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I have to pinch myself when I look at my husband, Mike. I still can’t believe how lucky I have been to have him as my husband. I tend not to notice that he is no longer the young lion that I met so long ago nor that his hair has grown white and thinner than it once was. I marvel that he is still with me after so many years, as loving and faithful as ever. I rejoice that we will celebrate another of his birthday’s together today, and I can’t quite believe that this will be his seventieth. As I look back over time I have so many wonderful memories of our life together, but mostly I marvel at the person that he has always been.

I have learned that he is the amalgam of lessons learned from his grandmother, his mother, his father and his education at St. Thomas High School. He was taught through example how to be a truly great man. His mother was a remarkable woman who was far ahead of her time with her independent spirit. If she had run for President of the United States I feel certain that she would have won. She always insisted that Mike treat women with great respect and who better to learn from than his father who has always been the consummate gentleman? In high school Mike was shown the importance of faith, loyalty and good character. He learned his lessons well but in many ways it was his grandmother who showed him the value of unconditional love. All of these factors produced a man who has always been kind and generous and guileless, but never naive. He is a strong protector but also an equal and supportive partner.

Mike has a brilliant mind that allows him to digest and synthesize information readily. Conversations with him are beyond interesting because he draws his comments from a library of information that he has somehow managed to catalog in his brain and pull up at a moment’s notice. He is one of those lifelong learners who reads and watches continuously. He has made our life together so much more exciting because of his encyclopedic knowledge on so many topics. In many ways he is a true renaissance man with his abilities to do and discuss almost anything. He is as good at wiring a house as discussing history or business. He is a truly delightful person to be with and I have had the honor of walking at his side for almost fifty years, never once growing bored with our companionship.

Mike often tells people that he was thunderstruck when he met me, but I don’t mention enough that the feeling was quite mutual. I remember telling my friends at the time that I thought I had just met the man with whom I was going to spend the rest of my life. I had no idea then just how exciting our journey together would be. When people see me today they are encountering a woman who was much different when I first met Mike. He has been my mentor, my muse, and the one person who encouraged me to take risks to become who I am today. No matter what I have wanted to accomplish, he has been my cheerleader, telling me that I have the power to accomplish anything. I suspect that I would not have been nearly as happy or successful in life had it not been for our chance meeting so long ago. I thank God for him every single day.

This particular birthday for Mike is of especial importance to me because of my understanding that I might very well have lost him this summer when he had a stroke. In true Mike fashion he has been the rock who has helped me to deal with our new reality. He has prepared me for any eventuality and insisted that I will do well with whatever situation arises. That is the kind of person that he is, always thinking of me and our family. He loves with a passion that is immeasurable and he has always been willing to sacrifice for the well being of me and our girls.

Mike is a humble man except for when it comes to our children and grandchildren. Then he puffs out his chest and fairly glows with pride. He has quietly watched them grow in wisdom and age and grace and it brings him great contentment to see how well they continue to do. His love for them and for all of the members of our extended family is boundless. He is always at the ready to open his home and his heart to any one them who may be in need.,

Perhaps my greatest admiration for Mike is related to the way that he treated my mother. Her bipolar disorder often created very unlikeable symptoms. When she was in the throes of a manic episode she sometimes said horrific things to him. Somehow he always remained steadfast in understanding that it was her disease speaking and not her true heart. He continued to show her kindness even as she insulted him in every possible way. When she came to stay at our home at the end of her life he was welcoming and enjoyed being able to provide her with a touch of security as she slowly became more and more ill. At the very end he sat holding her hand and promising to take care of me and my brothers with all of the powers within him. He and my mom shared a bond of mutual understanding on the day that she died. They expressed their love for one another and it made my mother comfortable to know that he would indeed watch over her family in her absence. Like me, she had witnessed his steadfast strength and love.

I can only hope and pray that there will be many more birthdays with Mike, but I have most recently learned just to appreciate the moments that we have without overthinking and worrying too much about the distant future. He is a most extraordinary man and I celebrate that our world has been lucky enough to have someone of his caliber working day after day to make our little corner of it a better place. It’s funny how on his birthday I am reminded that he has been a gift to all of us who know him. It is so typical of him to be the giver just by his existence even on his birthday.

Two Women of Distinction

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I was a Catholic school girl. I attended Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Elementary School from the second grade all the way through the eighth. The years when I was there were at the height of the Baby Boom, and so we had multiple classes for each grade and the classrooms were always crowded. I knew everyone’s name, but didn’t always have the opportunity to become close friends with all of the students in my grade. Still, there were certain people who stood out as being quite special even as children. Because I felt gawky and shy I found myself longing to be like some of the kids that I considered to be a cut above the rest of us ordinary souls.

In the eighth grade an annual ceremony honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary took place each May. We had the honor of voting for the one girl that we believed to be worthy of such a high distinction. We were instructed to consider our choices carefully, not basing them on popularity, but rather on evidence of impeccable character. Even though I only knew her from afar at that time, I did not hesitate to vote for Linda Daigle, a friendly and generous young lady who always appeared to be thinking of others more than herself. I saw her as the embodiment of the lessons that we were taught in our daily religion classes.

Eventually Linda and I matriculated to the same high school. I still only observed her from from admiration rather than a close relationship, but she only impressed me more and more over the next four years. Somehow she had a way of making people feel so comfortable and she was humble about her talents and her good nature. I continued to believe that she was someone whose character I wanted to emulate. Imagine my surprise when we ended up becoming fast friends once we had moved on to the same university. Over more the than forty years that we have shared a friendship absolutely nothing has changed my original assessment of Linda as a model of compassion and love.

When Linda and I first began to grow close I finally had the pleasure of meeting her mother, Rose Daigle. In Rose I saw the beauty that was the source of Linda’s attractiveness. I also found the same ever present welcoming nature and spirit of boundless hospitality. I loved visiting that house where we often sat at the kitchen table enjoying one of Mrs. Daigle’s special homemade treats. She spoke with a unique accent that is only found in the speech patterns of people born and raised in New Orleans, and I found it to be delightful. I always felt so special just listening to her.

Rose Daigle had grown up in New Orleans but eventually set up a household in Houston, Texas with her husband Bernard. Together they raised four very bright and well mannered children. Rose made her home quite lovely with her skills at sewing, decorating, gardening and cooking. I liked the atmosphere that pervaded her house and thought her to be as wonderful as her daughter Linda.

I’ve been friends with Linda for decades now. We raised our children together and somehow managed to keep in touch even if we only saw each other once a year. When we talk we are able to converse for hours, mostly because Linda is such a good listener and a truly sensitive and concerned person. I suppose that I have told her as much about myself as anyone knows, because I feel as safe with her as I often did when I visited her mother.

Rose Daigle lived quietly in her home long after her children had all left and many years beyond the time when her husband had died. Her life centered on her children, grandchildren, her church and her home. She loved to putter in her yard and always got a kick out of showing her handiwork to visitors and giving them cuttings of her plants. She began to slow down though as her energy waned and her mind became more and more muddled. Her children finally realized that she had reached the point at which she would no longer be able to stay alone at her house. They tried various solutions and ultimately found a secure place for Rose in an assisted living facility.

True to form Rose’s daughter Linda was completely devoted to her mother’s care. She lovingly visited her mother three times every single day, making certain that all of Rose’s needs were met. Linda did all of her mom’s laundry and created little celebrations not just for her parent, but for all of the workers who watched over Rose. She was steadfast in her resolve to make her mother’s twilight years as lovely as possible and she did a yeoman’s job in that regard. Over time Rose thrived because of Linda’s efforts and seemed to become even more beautiful and ageless than she had ever been. I loved seeing photos of the birthdays, the Mardi Gras celebrations, and the Christmas parties that put huge smiles on Rose’s face. She seemed to revel in the love and attention that she received from Linda as well as the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren who religiously visited with her

In the past few months Rose’s health began to fail. She was 98 years old and becoming more and more weak. She had stays at the hospital and even received the last rites at one point, but somehow she rallied time and again. Sadly last week she seemed to have lost the old spark that had so defined her life. Linda continued to stand vigil over her mom while still managing to help Houston flood victims by washing mountains of clothing and linens as well as dishes, antiques and kitchen utensils. I suspect that she was just being wonderful Linda the way that her mother had so often showed her how to be, always giving in every regard.

Rose died this past weekend. She became another precious angel in a heaven that is being crowded with the parents of my generation. I suspect that she is free of pain and glowing radiantly like the vision of loveliness that she always was. She’s no doubt reuniting with friends and relatives and maybe even puttering in a perfect garden or creating a culinary delight. She was indeed a very good woman of distinction of the kind that all of us should strive to be. She loved with all of her heart and now she is receiving her just rewards.

My heart is heavy for Linda and her family. No matter the circumstances it is always difficult to lose a parent, especially one as remarkable as Rose Daigle. I pray that Linda will find peace and comfort in her heart and that she will also get some much needed rest. In my estimation Linda is as close to being a living saint as anyone I have ever known. I suppose that I will continue to be in awe of her forevermore.

Summers and Huckleberry Finn

1622398_origI have to admit that I have never much liked August for the same reason that I used to have an aversion to Sunday evenings. August meant that it was nearing the time when I would have to return to school, something I did both as a child and later as an adult. August seemed to be the dog days of the entire year, a month in which the heat had built to a climax and the fun and relaxation that I had enjoyed in the summer was in its waning days. When August came around I was generally filled with a sense of dread knowing that my vagabond adventures would soon be replaced by early rising each morning and working on school related projects until late in the evening. I seriously didn’t want to even think about all of the labors and restrictions on my time that lay ahead.

Don’t get me wrong. I was a devoted student as a child and once I became a working adult I threw myself wholeheartedly and enthusiastically into the teaching profession. I enjoyed being in school, but I had a love/hate relationship with the entire experience. On the one hand I felt a rush of excitement about the new challenges that I would most certainly encounter in each new year, but on the other hand I fully understood how much intensity I would surely throw into my labors. Thus each time August rolled around I longed to extend my freedom and relaxation just a bit longer.

When I was a child I had the luxury of enjoying all thirty one of the final days of my annual holiday. Not even once did we return to the classroom before Labor Day. The trend of beginning  the school year before the eighth month of the year had ended did not come about until I had been working for a time as a teacher, and so our family often planned a big vacation to cooler climes to take a break from the heat. Some of our best vacations to places like Montana and Wyoming happened during the first couple of weeks in August. I didn’t even think about school until the middle of the month, and even then the transition from vagabond days to almost total preoccupation with work were usually gradual enough to help me grow accustomed to a return to my labors.

All of that began to change over time. The old school year ended later and later and the new one began earlier and earlier. Expectations regarding professional development became more demanding, so much so that I often spent most of June attending classes designed to improve my teaching. By the first week in August I was already planning lessons and visiting the school to prepare my classroom. My summers became more and more constricted as did those of my daughters who had to attend practices and complete summer assignments.

When August rolled around we were no longer able to make family plans because everyone in the household was quite busy gearing up for the coming months. I adapted to the changes albeit a bit grudgingly. I knew that many of my friends had little sympathy for me because they worked all year long with only one or two weeks of vacation. It was difficult for them to understand just how much I needed the down time of a full three months when such an extended break was an unheard of luxury for them. What I knew is that very few of them would be grading papers and creating lessons at eleven in the evening and all weekend long just to stay afloat of the demands of their jobs. The extra work that I did at home every day of the school year was easily equivalent to the eight to ten hour days that they spent at their jobs all summer long. In other words our labors were equivalent, even though they were not performed in the same time frame.

Now I’m watching the demands of the school year begin as soon as August rolls around. A grandson who is in his middle school orchestra has already been practicing for several weeks for a performance that his group will give to returning teachers. Another grandson is working with his band from seven in the morning until five at night. Teacher friends are attending conferences and training sessions that will dovetail with requirements to be on duty beginning early in August. Many schools will open their doors to their students by the middle of the month, making the summer seem shorter and shorter. Soon the buses that stop at my corner will be rolling again and everyone will be in full swing.

Part of me feels quite sad about the abbreviated summer vacation for students and teachers even though it really doesn’t affect me anymore. In retrospect I think that as a youngster I learned as much during my time off as I did during the school year, maybe even more. By the age of fifteen I had a job as a receptionist for our family doctor from June through August. I learned how to work with the public and deal with emergencies. I became an expert at keeping books and running a small office. I developed people skills and found talents that I had no idea even existed. I also learned how to spend and save the money that I earned in a wise and reasonable manner. I would have been unable to go on my senior trip or purchase a class ring without the income that I generated during the three months that were mine to use in exploring the world.

Those three months also allowed me to read purely for pleasure. It was in my self selected forays into literature and nonfiction that I have the most wonderful memories and grew most fond of reading. I had time to learn how to dance and twirl a baton, how to paint and mold clay into sculptures. I enjoyed being creative with the other kids in the neighborhood and spent hours writing and performing in backyard plays or creating a neighborhood newspaper. I had bridge tournaments with friends and made my first attempts at cooking. I had time to do exciting things that I was too busy to tackle during the school year when my teachers filled my calendar with assignments of their choosing. Summers were glorious moments spent on my grandparents’ farm soaking in their folk wisdom. It was an opportunity for education of a different sort than the kind that is ruled by curriculum guidelines or a scope and sequence of learning. Summer was the frosting on the cake of my learning.

I suppose that today’s kids have little idea of what they are missing. They go with the flow and follow the new rules because it has always been that way for them. Everything in their lives is far more organized than my experiences were. I don’t see many children playing outside even on the hottest days. Summer jobs like the ones I had are hard to find. It’s a different world and I suppose that everyone takes the new ways for granted just like I did those glorious three months of freedom. Perhaps it is best to prepare students for the realities of a world that is far different from the one that existed when I was growing into an adult. With air conditioning there is little difference between August and November, so schools may as well be open for business. Still I find myself wondering which way really is the most effective. Somehow I think that I would not be nearly as interesting if I had not had those precious three months each year in which to develop myself just as I wished. Those were my Huckleberry Finn moments and I am all the richer for enjoying them.