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.

A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood

Mr. Rogers

I grew up watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood on television. I liked the simplicity of it and the routine. It was all so calming for a girl like me who had so many unexpected tragedies. I suppose that I always preferred the quiet nature of Mr. Rogers and his show. At some point I outgrew him and began to think that it wasn’t cool to watch the program anymore. Like Wendy I moved on and didn’t really think about him very much. My own daughters were from the Sesame Street generation with a spot of The Electric Company thrown in now and again. Since I only allowed them to watch so much television per day Mr. Rogers was not on the agenda. In other words I more or less forgot about him as time passed.

My dear friend Pat gave me a book of his wisdom as a gift one time. Reading it made me feel a wave of nostalgia for the simpler times of my youth and those comfortable moments when I watched Mr. Rogers in lovely shades of black and white in our living room on Belmark Street. I always felt so safe and secure back then and had little idea of the challenges that lay ahead. All I knew is that I liked Mr. Rogers. He somehow seemed so real. Reading the book that held his thoughts convinced me that there was much more to him than I had realized when I was still a child.

When I heard that there was a new movie about him starring Tom Hanks I knew that I had to go to the theater to see how he might be portrayed. I eagerly sat back in the theater’s luxury lounger armed with lemonade and popcorn as A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood began just as the old program had done back in the day. There was Mr. Rogers come to life again under the stunning acting of Tom Hanks, putting on his sweater and his tennis shoes while welcoming us to his little world. It was indeed magical.

Before long I realized that the movie was so much more than a biography. It was a look into the kindness of a very gifted man who so genuinely understood and loved people of all ages. In a sense it was a grownup version of the old program designed to tackle the difficult topics that Mr. Rogers so openly discussed in a more moving and adult way.

The screenplay for A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood is brilliant, There is nothing sappy about it. It tackles subjects that plague everyone and demonstrates the power that we have over ourselves, a theme that Mr. Rogers so beautifully made central to his programs for children. It is a story that we desperately need in these times in which we are so divided and angry as a society. We are reminded of the truths that Mr. Rogers taught us so long ago, wisdom that is timeless.

The actors are all incredible and most certainly one or more of them will be nominated for awards. Tom Hanks is one of the greats of our time and Chris Cooper gives his usual blockbuster performance. The real surprise came from Matthew Rhys whose acting was Oscar worthy and a show stealer.

This is not a movie for the faint of heart. You will need some tissues for those moments when the film asks you to look into your own journey through life. There are minutes when catching your breath will be difficult but there will be no need to feel embarrassed because the sniffling will be happening all around you.

Fred Rogers was a real human being who disliked the idea of being called a saint or a hero and yet he had all of the qualities of an extraordinary human. He was known for personally praying for dozens of people at a time and for genuinely caring about the welfare of all the people he met. He believed that each of us is uniquely wonderful and worthy of being loved not for what we might become but just for who we already are.

A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood is one of those inspiring movies that will leave you feeling good about yourself and optimistic about the world. It will remind you of what is truly important and it will show you what love is really all about.

Hats

hat

I love watching the old black and white movies from the thirties, forties and fifties. They remind me of my childhood and how lovely my mother and aunts were when they were young women. In those old films the ladies always wear glamorous hats and the men sport fedoras. It’s actually the way people dressed whenever they went out on the town back in the day and it was always fun to watch the parade of people styling in their finest fashions. I sometimes think that most of us have lost the sense of elegance that was more commonplace decades ago. We are certainly more comfortable but there was something so refined about the efforts that people made when they went to church or just on a downtown shopping excursion.

I still see those who go all out for Sunday services. They wear fashions worthy of a visit to the Queen of England. They don lovely bonnets and wear stockings with their polished pumps. They are a lovely sight and in my mind they present an aura of respect for the occasion. They take the time to elevate their style from the more casual look of jeans and flip flops or sneakers. they stand out from the norm in their fastidiousness unlike the times when dressing up was more common place. 

When I was a young I always had a pair of dress shoes, gloves and a hat at the ready for Sunday services at church and special occasions. The millenary sections of department stores were filled with delightful bonnets of every conceivable style designed to perfectly compliment whatever outfit a woman or girl might wear. In all honesty I never looked particularly good in hats but I loved them nonetheless. I always managed to find at least one that complimented my features that I kept in a round hatbox of the kind that was a mainstay in most women’s closets.

I must admit that all of the lovely styles were sometimes distracting at church, especially on Easter Sunday when there was a virtual parade of fascinators bearing flowers and feathers and veils. It was a day when the old hats that were beginning to fray just a bit were put aside in lieu of the newer models for the spring and summer months. Along with all of the spring frocks, white shoes and spotless gloves the hats were indeed a sight to see.

Whenever we went shopping in downtown Houston my mom would insist that I dress in my Sunday best which meant polishing my shoes until they gleamed, wearing nylon stockings, putting gloves on my hands and donning whichever hat I had that went with the season. We’d catch the city bus so that we would not have to worry about parking a car and ride to Main Street feeling a sense of growing excitement about our adventure.

When we entered the splendor of Foley’s Department Store we felt as grand as any of the ladies wearing Chanel suits, designer hats and furs even though our fashions had been purchased in the bargain basement downstairs. I always thought my mother was one of the most beautiful women of all in her lovely dress and chapeau. She had an elegance that transcended the cost of the things that she wore. She carried herself with so much dignity and confidence that she might have been a resident of River Oaks. I always felt that those little accoutrements like gloves and stockings and hats were the keys to adding a touch of glamour to the occasion.

My husband tells me that he too accompanied his grandmother on shopping excursions downtown on many Saturdays. She had a large collection of hats that she always wore whenever she went out. She was a rare beauty who was able to choose any style and look stunning. She might literally have stepped out of one of those old films that I so enjoy with her sense of fashion and the hats that complimented her lovely features.

The days of men and women wearing fine hats as a matter of fashion are all but gone. The gimme cap is the choice of most men and women rarely cover their locks. Hats are more likely found in antique shops than in department stores. They are the stuff of  history that is slowly fading. We find hats for sale at amusement parks and quirky gift shops. We wear them on Halloween and at festivals but not so much on fine occasions. We seem to prefer to be relaxed and unencumbered by excess gear. Comfort is our accessory of choice.

I enjoy the notion that the members of the royal family in England still adhere to the old ways. Their custom demands that the ladies wear hats for special occasions. The queen always reminds me of my own mother whenever she appears in public. She has her lovely suits and still wears stocking on her legs and always there are her beautiful hats that make her look elegant even as she grows old.

Some traditions are so lovely that they should always have a place. Wearing hats is one that I think we should revive. I greatly admire those who have never given up the custom. They are so wonderfully lovely.   

The Game that Filled Her Head With Dreams

houstonastros

When my father was still alive football was king in our household. Of course it was not just any brand of football. It was always about Texas A&M football. After my dad died my mother kept his love of the Texas Aggies alive. Anytime a game was aired on television she faithfully tuned in and sang all of the school songs with gusto. Thanksgiving dinners were always timed to work around the annual game against the University of Texas. She’d get almost reverential when chanting the Aggie cheers and songs on those occasions and she fill our heads with stories of the times that she spent with my father on campus when they were young newlyweds and he was earning his degree in engineering.

She had a way of making Texas A&M seem like a magical place with her tales that she spun like the fairytales of old. The Aggies were heroes in my mind and my father was a knight in shining armor who captivated my beautiful mother with his Aggie manners and brilliance. I listened to her memories of happy times with a kind of reverence and awe.

My mother remained faithful to the Texas Aggies and their football team throughout her life with a fervor that belied the fact that she had not had the opportunity to be a student there because it was an all male institution back when she was young. Sometimes she even hinted that she thought it should have remained that way, but once my youngest daughter was a student there she changed her tune. She was quite proud of finally having another Texas A&M graduate in the family and felt doubly blessed that she also gained an Aggie grandson-in-law in the bargain.

If possible, my mother was an even bigger fan of baseball. She made sure that both of my brothers took part in Little League and was rather proud of their prowess on the field of dreams. She recounted the times that she attended baseball games for a minor league team in Houston back when she was young. Baseball was her game and she knew it well. As soon as the city of Houston landed a major league team she became an instant fan. The guys started as the Colt 45s and she would take us to watch them play in an outdoor park filled with hot nights and mosquitoes. Those were amazingly fun times when my mother became as raucous as the most enthusiastic fans. 

Eventually the Houston team got the first ever indoor playing field and a new name, the Astros. Mama was giddy with excitement each spring when the season began and she never once lost her childlike spirit when it came to the hundreds of games that the Astros played. If she wasn’t at the stadium or if the team was out of town she tuned in on her radio listening to every play and punctuating the air with her cheers and groans. I’ve never known anyone to be as faithful to a team particularly during some years when the Astros were not doing well at all. She weathered many disappointments with optimism and spoke of the players as though they were her good friends.

Mama had grown up listening to the radio so just hearing a game was as vivid to her as being there in person. She was able to feel the excitement and see each play in the vividness of her mind. She often spoke of the stats of each player and described their incredible feats as though they were living heroes. She knew the opponents just as well and talked of what to expect from them. She critiqued the manager’s decisions and made predictions that often came to pass. She was not to be disturbed whenever there was a game. During those times she did not answer her phone and only came grudgingly to her front door if there was knock.

She had a collection of baseball cards that she purchased over the years. Most of them were Astros but she also had those of other players that she admired for their prowess. She thought of Nolan Ryan as a kind of baseball god and she boasted that she had actually seen a couple of the famed “Killer Bs” in a restaurant on one occasion. Getting her started on a discussion of baseball was unwise unless there was a great deal of time to hear a long history of what she saw as the greatest game in America.

When I was a teen my mother befriended a woman named Emily whose brother worked with the New York Mets. The lady was as much of a fan as my mom and the two of them often went to games together at the Astrodome. Mama would come home as giddy as a child at Christmas with blow by blow accounts of every inning and every play. Sometimes she even got extra special seating when the Mets came to town compliments of her Emily’s brother. You would have thought that she had won the lottery.

We took our mother to an Astros game at Minute Maid Park one Mother’s Day. She was having trouble walking by then and she became easily exhausted from the hike to the seats. She enjoyed being there in person but somehow knew that she would have to be content with “seeing” them on the radio in the future. When she spent her last spring in my home I often heard the sound of the play by play announcements coming from her room. She would lie on her bed and visualize the ballpark, the guys in shades of orange and blue and white, the hotdogs and peanuts and beer.

My mother never got to see her Astros go all the way to the big championship. She died six years before they won the World Series, but somehow I knew she was watching. She never missed a game, not even on the day that she died. From her bed in the ICU she watched her beloved Astros one last time before she fell peacefully asleep and later breathed her last breaths.

I think of her each spring when the Astros take to the mound. She would have been so happy and proud of their accomplishments, even when they struggled. I suspect that her spirit is always with them each time they take to the field. There was a never a more devoted fan. Spring and summer were her favorite times of the year when her boys took to the field and played the game that filled her head with dreams. 

Nothing More Special

img-3327509-2-Roast-dinner

When my father’s parents were living on Arlington Street in the Houston Heights we would go visit them every Sunday after church. My grandmother always prepared a lovely dinner for us and since she was a gifted cook it was invariably our most delicious meal of the week. What was most wonderful about it had little to do with the food, however, and everything to do with the joy of sitting around her big mahogany dining table laughing and talking while we filled our bellies with her beloved dishes.

My grandmother was a stickler for tradition. She covered the table with a crisply ironed cloth on which she placed her Sunday best china. She always waited for me to arrive to set the silverware next to the plates. It was from her that I learned the proper way of placing the knives and forks and spoons and folding the napkins.

In the meantime the aroma of chicken or roast beef tempted our tastebuds while Grandma put the finishing touches on potatoes, vegetables gravy and baked breads. I marveled at her ability to juggle so many culinary tasks at one time and still be so pleasantly patient. She reveled in the art of making us happy with her homegrown abilities that were all memorized in her head. Years of practice made every single item perfect and we waited with growing anticipation for her to finally announce that it was time to gather at our places to say grace before digging into all of the wondrous foods that she had prepared.

I loved the sameness of those Sunday afternoons and I missed them when my grandparents moved away to their farm in Arkansas. My mother did her best to reproduce the feel of those Sunday afternoon galas but I sorely missed the ceremonial nature of the tradition that my grandmother had brought to the table. After my father died my mom switched to going out for brunch after church which was quite a fun treat but was not nearly as wonderful as those formal gatherings at Grandma’s house.

I suppose the my wise mother knew that attempting to reproduce our once glorious Sunday tradition without my grandparents and my father would only serve to emphasize their absence in our lives. She redirected our thoughts of the old times to the adventures of eating yummy pancakes and waffles in restaurants filled with joy and laughter. Still, I would often think about how much I missed Sunday dinner with the family until I rediscovered the routine with my mother-in-law after I married.

To my great delight she was well versed in the art of entertaining on a Sunday afternoon. Like my grandmother she prepared her dining table with fine linens and her best china, silver and glassware. She was particularly well versed in the preparation of a Sunday roast in the grand tradition of England. She had learned how to perfectly roast the meat from her mother, always including potatoes and carrots and green peas. She was masterful at making a dark brown gravy to pour over the muffin-like Yorkshire pudding that was the highlight of the feast. My husband Mike always insisted that his mom never quite mastered the art of making Yorkshire pudding the way his grandmother had, but I never found any reason to fault it. It was gloriously delicious.

As my daughters grew older my mother-in-law taught them the art of setting a table just as my grandmother had done with me. They delighted in being helpful and being part of a routine that had been passed from one generation to the next. It was one of the best times of each week for all of us as we sat together being reminded of the loveliness of family and tradition.

Once the meal was finished the menfolk always went to another room to watch sporting programs or talk about the latest news. My mother-in-law brewed coffee for them and a big pot of tea for me and my girls. She always served it so elegantly along with a tray of cookies bought especially for the occasion. She showed us how to warm the pot before pouring the hot water over the tea and cautioned us in how to wait for the brew to steep. I still laugh because her very English mother who had been born in Newcastle, England had told her that Lipton tea bags made the very best brew.

We would sit and talk about wonderful things while we sipped on our tea and munched on little cookies. I so loved those times because they reminded me of the importance of family and tradition. I’d think of my grandmother who had died when I was fifteen and how she too would have enjoyed the time spent with just us women bonding over conversation and tea.

It’s been a long while since I sat down for a traditional Sunday dinner. My mother-in-law has been gone for sixteen years now. For a time I attempted to resurrect her routine for my children and grandchildren but the world was moving so quickly for everyone that it became more and more difficult to find a time when everyone was free. Sundays used to be more sacred but now weekend homework assignments and even athletic and club obligations pull children away. Everyone is moving at breakneck speed and spending three or four hours eating and relaxing is all too often a luxury that nobody can afford.

I miss those Sunday dinners and the love that they represented. Mostly I miss the people who gathered with us on the Lord’s Day. They have been gone for so long now but I still see them smiling and laughing and enjoying the biggest feast of the week. I’m so happy that I have those wonderfully joyous moments to remember. The memories are so vivid that I can almost smell the food and see my grandmother and my mother-in-law bustling about the kitchen preparing heaping mounds of love for us. There is nothing more special than that.