Tasteless Bread

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“Radio and television speech becomes standardized, perhaps better English than we have ever used. Just as our bread, mixed and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident of human frailty, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech.” 

― John SteinbeckTravels with Charley: In Search of America

Back when I was in college I took a linguistics class that was fascinating. One of the requirements was to write a paper and I decided to do some undergraduate research. I recorded the voices of several women who had all grown up in Houston, Texas. They varied in age from the late sixties to early teens. I had them all read the same passage and then answer some questions about it so that their more natural way of speaking would become apparent. I then created a questionnaire whose purpose was to find out if the listeners detected any kind of regional dialect in the speakers. I played the recordings without comment and then had the respondents complete their answers to the questions.

The results were much as I had expected them to be, but fascinating nonetheless. A hundred percent of those who took the survey could hear a definite Texas twang in the speech of the older women, but wondered if the younger speakers were from some other part of the country like the Midwest. In fact, the survey answers indicated that as the speakers became younger, less and less of a regional dialect was apparent.

I drew some conclusions based on various theories that we had studied in class, the main one being that the younger individuals who spoke had grown up watching television which generally favors a rather bland Midwestern way of speaking. In addition our city of Houston had become much more diverse and cosmopolitan over time leading the younger women to more exposure to different ways of speaking. Finally, the educational system had impacted the young by allowing them to interact with teachers from places all over the country, unlike the older women who had mostly learned from people native to the area.

My professor was quite pleased with my study and gave me a high mark. I knew that to draw any meaningful conclusions regarding dialects I would need to have more speakers, more respondents and better controls, but it was a somewhat daring project for an undergraduate and my teacher appreciated my efforts. He also agreed with many of the conclusions that I formed as to way there was such a dramatic difference in the ways of speaking.

There was a time when it was quite easy to detect linguistic differences in people. New Orleans had its “Where ya at?’ natives, and Chicago had its south side workers who cheered for “da Bears.” There were the people from Jersey and those from Georgia, all of whom gave away their place of origin the minute they opened their mouths to speak. Of course there was also the classic Texas drawl that stereotyped our state for posterity, but according to the most recent research many of the linguistic differences are dying out as people have more and more access to the world at large. The kind of isolation that bred distinct ways of speaking is becoming less and less frequent, so for the most part there are few people today who actually never hear anyone but the people in the immediate neighborhood.

My high school English teacher used to encourage us to become citizens of the world. This was long before anyone was even dreaming of the Internet or hundreds of channels on television. At the time I rarely ventured more than a few miles from my neighborhood and even then it was to visit with relatives who spoke in ways similar to mine. To this day I have a discernible accent that has been described by strangers as cute, southern or even Texan. They seem able to determine where I was born, but mostly are unable to hear the same dialect in the speech of my daughters. Only once was one of them referred to as a “Cracker” when she was working in Chicago and someone heard a hint of the south in her speech.

We are more and more becoming just Americans with regard to the way we talk, The old differences are fading and mostly found in older citizens rather than the young as noted in the most recent studies. The old ways of speaking are becoming the venue of folklore and should probably be recorded for posterity so that we might one day remember a way of life that is vanishing.

My grandfather grew up in the hills of Virginia. He was not even listed in a census until 1930, mostly because nobody wanted to travel into the backwoods areas to find him and his family. His way of speaking was quite representative of the area where he lived. When I played a recording of him telling a story to someone whose childhood was spent in the same part of the country, he smiled with recognition and said that it sounded just like his own older relatives. He noted that there are still places so remote that the local accents thrive, but in his own case all traces are gone. His education as well as his travels to New York City and Chicago have all but eliminated any hints of his origins.

Language is a fascinating way of expressing ourselves that tells us so much about who we are and where we have been. Today our influences are so many that it is becoming more and more difficult for anyone who is not an expert or who does not possess a good ear to discern our stories simply from the way we speak. In some ways that is a sign of progress, and in others it is just a bit sad. There was something quite delightful in the variety that was once so evident in our voices. Perhaps it will one day be little more than a memory as our speech becomes one speech, better but devoid of our frailties.

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Until We Meet Again

pexels-photo-424517.jpegDear Lynda,

I remember the first time I met you as clearly as if it was just yesterday. I should have been excited about moving to a new house, but I wasn’t. I liked my neighborhood, my friends and my school, and I could not imagine being as happy in a new place. I rather grudgingly traveled with my parents to our home, and was quite pleasantly surprised when your family came across the street to welcome us as soon as we arrived. When your mom found out that I was in the same grade as you she immediately introduced us and the rest was so glorious! It almost seemed as though we had been destined to meet and become friends. To this very day I still tell people that you were my first best friend, and probably the most wonderful of the lot.

I was six going on seven and could not imagine anything more wonderful than those happy days that we shared riding our bicycles all over the neighborhood while singing “Jesus Loves Me” at the top of our lungs. We’d hang out in the woods across from the school and squeal with delight on the big tree swing that went over the bayou. Each afternoon we paused to watch The Mickey Mouse Club together and discussed the Mouseketeers and the stories of Spin and Marty as though they were our real friends. I so loved being with your big family and eating at the picnic table in your kitchen. I felt as though I was your sister and sometimes even wished that I actually was.

We told each other our secrets and shared both our fears and our dreams. I don’t believe that I have ever again felt so completely close to anyone as I did with you back then. I loved your grandmother as much as my own and I still laugh with amazement as I remember her bending over to place her palms flat on the floor. That was a wonderful trick in my mind that made her even more lovable than she already was.

We joined the Brownie scouts together and I recall a sad time when Mrs. Guidry, one of our leaders, died. Our mothers took us to the funeral home to pay our respects and there she was lying in the casket in a blue negligee. You and I thought that it was hilarious to see her that way, and we began giggling so much that we were unable to stop. I think that our mom’s were horrified by our behavior, but we were just two silly girls who had never seen someone reposed in death before. I suspect that our laughing was more of a nervous reaction than a sign of disrespect, and  were such pals that our brains seemed to be melded together. We thought alike on so many things.

When my family moved once again, this time to California, I was bereft. I could not even imagine being without you. My time so far away was truly terrible and I suppose that I pouted and carried on a bit too much, but it was so painful to leave the one person with whom I felt so happy and free. Those months away were some of the worst of my lifetime and I often prayed that we would somehow be united. Of course we did come back, but our situation became so very different. My father died and I was so confused. My mother thought it best that my brothers and I not have to endure his funeral and it was you who understood how much I needed to know how the ceremony had been. You went with your family and then so honestly gave me all of the details. I always felt that our bond was even more special after that because I knew how much you understood me.

Life has a way of bringing people together and then pulling them apart, and so it was with the two of us. Even though we moved back to the old neighborhood after Daddy’s death we were many blocks away from you and so our meetings became a bit rarer, but we still stayed in touch and I so enjoyed every single time that we were able to talk and just be together. We were always able to pick up as though it had only been five minutes since we parted.

We went to different high schools and became involved in our teenage worlds and saw less and less of each other, but our special bond never grew weak. We married and started families and spent wonderful times visiting and watching our children play together. You had become so incredibly beautiful and I often laughed inside when I remembered how you had once wondered if you would ever be as lovely as your mom. Our worlds seem to be so perfect, but then life took over and jerked us into reality. I became a caretaker for my mother as she struggled with mental illness and you assumed the role of single mother, caring for your three boys and working full time. The years raced by and it seemed as though perhaps our friendship would be just a very lovely memory, but somehow we managed to speak again and found that we still had that magical feeling of comfort when we are together.

We’ve seen and done so much since those carefree days when we were little girls. Both of us will be seventy by the end of this year. I can’t even imagine where the years have gone, but my childish belief that we would somehow stay close through the years wasn’t so silly after all. The months may stretch out between our meetings, and we may be in different cities, but we somehow find our way back to each other time and again. With each meeting we realize that there is something rather special about our relationship that will never change.

I will love you and cherish our remarkable friendship for all of the rest of my days. You are a part of my heart, of my life, and I am so thankful that I met you. So much of who I am today was born on those bicycle rides and in our oh so serious conversations. You are an angel who is always on my mind. In fact, yours is one of the few birthdays that I always remember. Each April 19, for more than sixty decades I have thought of you and hoped that you are doing well. Thank you for being the remarkably loving and inspiring person that you are. May we both look forward to many more opportunities to see each other and to enjoying so much more laughter. God bless and keep you until we meet again. Happy Birthday!

A Circle of Friendship

Susan's party

We sat around the table talking about our high school days, wondering how it is even possible that by the end of this year all of us will have entered our seventies. We recalled the times when we first met and wondered how some of our absent friends were doing. Somehow we each felt exactly the same as we had when we were teenage girls even though the calendar belied our somewhat vivid imaginations. We were celebrating Susan’s birthday and and anticipating Linda’s. Charles had enjoyed his on Sunday. Each person who was present is quite special to me in one way or another.

I had met Susan, the woman of the hour, when I was only six years old. We were both in second grade and had the same teacher. She lived within walking distance of my home and we often rode our bicycles around the neighborhood laughing and singing. Her voice would ultimately become the music of an angel, but back then we were just two little girls having fun.

We went all the way through high school together, and Susan’s father often drove us to football games on Friday nights. When we were in college we both worked for Holiday Inn one summer making reservations and a pretty good sum of money. Susan was one of my bridesmaids when I married almost fifty years ago, and we both had daughters named Catherine but with different spellings, if I remember right. For a time we played bridge every Friday night and shared cheesecake and lemonade and lots of laughs. We lost touch for a time but managed to eventually find our way back to each other. We marveled at how easily we got right back into comfortable conversations as though we had seen each other only the day before. Now Susan is seventy, but somehow looks exactly as she did when I first met her, and is definitely as sweet.

I’ve known Monica as long as I have Susan. In fact the three of us had the same teacher in the second grade. Monica and I have always somehow managed to keep the fires of our friendship alive. In many ways she is much like the sister that I never had. Her husband and mine get along famously and we have taken camping trips and vacations together that are among the best memories of my life. Monica is thoughtful and creative and a genius when it comes to common sense. She’s someone who knows how to keep my flighty tendencies grounded. Our children grew up together and still get along famously. I can’t imagine what my life might have been like living without Monica by my side.

Linda is the person I always wanted to be. She is beautiful and kind and good at everything that she tries. When we were in school together I thought that she was the most perfect person ever, and the truth is that I was not being hyperbolic. We really became close while we were in college and our bond has only grown stronger over time. When her boys and my girls were growing up we spent hours together in the summers going crabbing and eating snow cones on hot days. Our children learned how to swim from the same teacher, and we often cheered for our Houston Cougars at parties that featured Linda’s culinary genius. I learned how to cook and decorate and even how to be a more caring person from Linda.

Carol is the glue for our Class of 66. She is the historian and secretary all rolled up into one. She keeps is apprised of birthdays, illnesses, parties, and even deaths. She is like a walking encyclopedia when it comes to knowing the whereabouts of everyone of our former classmates. Her heart is big and warm and she makes each of us feel loved and important. Without her we’d probably all drift apart, but she keeps the fires of our friendships burning brightly. I have grown so very close to her. She has been the happiest surprise of the past few years. I never intend to let her go again.

Shirley has the power of serenity. Somehow her sincerity and brilliant smile have always calmed me. Just sitting next to her brings serenity to my heart. Most people are only remotely interested in the things that others say, but Shirley gives off a vibe that indicates that she takes everything that quite seriously. She remembers conversations and asks how people are doing long after they have spoken of troubles. Even when her own life is in an upheaval she thinks of everyone else first. She has a very special talent of expressing profound compassion without even having to say anything. Her eyes are like windows to her beautiful soul. I have to admit that I always leave her feeling renewed.

I only recently realized that Jeanette and I were in the same class together in the first grade, so I suppose that I have known her the longest. She was a cheerleader when we were in high school. She always seemed to be smiling and having a great time. It’s uplifting to be around her. She has a cheerful aspect that brightens our reunions. I didn’t know her well until recently and I find myself regretting that we did not become close earlier because I like everything about her. She is down to earth and loyal and incredibly thoughtful in a very quiet way. She does wonderful things for others without fanfare, asking nothing in return for her generosity. I’m hoping that we manage to stay in touch now that we have found each other because she is one hundred percent the kind of person that I adore.

Janis is an icon. In many ways she was the consummate leader of our class. She wears a necklace that says Go Go which says it all about her. She is a ball of energy who gets things done no matter what is needed. She is a highly successful business woman which doesn’t surprise me at all. She uses her influence to lead charitable causes and help her city to become a better place. She is everywhere doing her magic and just being around her is inspiring, She motivates me to be better than I am, to do more. When it comes to women leading us to the future, Janis is at the front of the pack.

When we were still in high school Janis had a car and I didn’t even have a driver’s license. When we had to go places she always made sure that I had a way to get there. When we were seniors I was the May Queen and as usual my hair was a mess. I have never figured out how to deal with it. Janis very sweetly styled my locks and redid my makeup so that I looked truly regal. I walked out feeling so pretty and confident because she had taken the time to help me. I’ve always remembered that kindness.

Charles was the only male in our group. He and I both went to the same church for many years after we had graduated from high school and college and created families. I always enjoyed seeing him, but I eventually moved and thought that we would never meet again. It was a great surprise when he showed up for Susan’s party. He is so down to earth and sweet.

It’s rather remarkable how wonderful my school mates have become. There was something magical about our youth and our upbringing. We have all worked hard and loved mightily. We have terrific children and adorable grandchildren. We simply enjoy being with one another with no pressure or expectations. Our circle of friendship has grown ever stronger and made all of us just a bit better because of it.

Store Closing

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There was a time when my Saturdays were spent shopping in downtown Houston. Back then we would dress in our best duds and ride a bus to the center of the city. We spent most of our time in Foley’s department store, a multistory affair with the best buys down in the basement. We’d look at clothing, furniture, and household items hoping to find great bargains. It would take hours to peruse all of the items, but once in a while we had time to check out other stores along Main Street and even take in a movie at one of the theaters. It was always great fun, but it wasn’t long before malls were opening in the suburbs taking away much of the business from the old city establishments. Slowly the places downtown closed one by one for lack of customers and our focus turned to the centers near our neighborhoods.

By the time I was a teenager I was frequenting Gulfgate Mall almost every single Saturday. I would start at one end of the complex and browse through every store until I had reached the last store. It was a kind of gathering place for everyone, and I often encountered neighbors and friends from school while I was there. As the suburbs moved farther and farther from downtown Houston newer shopping areas opened like Almeda Mall and then Baybrook. We adjusted to the changes as they came enjoying the weekend adventures at our favorite stores and restaurants.

The time came when Gulfgate Mall was torn down and rebuilt on a smaller scale with none of the retailers who had once been there. Almeda Mall also changed bit by bit until the only original merchant was Palais Royal. Only Baybrook remains as a somewhat viable shopping center in our end of the suburbs, but the hometown feeling that was once part of the experience of going there is diminished. Somehow the old weekend activity of haunting the local mall is going the way of the dinosaur just as downtown did.

It seems that hardly a week passes that we don’t hear of yet another store closing its doors. Sears is gone, leaving only memories of exciting features like a full service candy counter and aisles and aisles of tools and appliances. I first sat on Santa’s lap in a Sears store that used to be located on the corner of South Wayside and Harrisburg Boulevard. We purchased plants for our yard in the garden area there and bought our school clothes each August. It was torn down years ago and the other big Sears stores followed one by one. There are no more Sear’s catalogs or Christmas wish lists, nothing to remind us of the grand old days when the company even sold kits for building homes.

Toys R Us is in the process of shuttering its entrances, leaving behind hulking empty spaces and parking lots. I have so many memories of following my grandchildren up and down the rows and rows of toys while they carefully chose a special item. I delightedly watched two of them enjoying the huge store on Times Square in New York City when we visited not long ago. Such stores dedicated to only toys have become few and far between.

I find myself checking off so many of my favorite places that are no more. Where are Casual Corner, Coldwater Creek, Baker’s Shoes, Woolworth’s, Foley’s, Joske’s, Grant’s, B Dalton Bookseller? They have disappeared from the landscape leaving behind places that have little interest for me, and sadly there are signs of trouble for so many more that I actually enjoy. I worry about Penny’s and Macy’s all of the time because I still visit both of those places, but I hear that they are struggling to stay in business. I wonder what will become of the malls and where I will be able to go to purchase shoes and clothing. I certainly can’t do such things online.

I’m not easy to fit. I have to try on eight pairs of shoes to find one that works. Double that number for dresses. I can’t just look at a photo online and determine if it is going to be right for my body or have the quality that I expect. I find it alarming to think that my sources of basic items are evaporating before my very eyes. Target and Walmart are fine, but they don’t have all of the things that I need, nor do I get the same joy out of shopping at such places as I do when leisurely strolling through a mall. Somehow the passing of the mall tradition makes me as sad as when the downtown area withered away. Changes are fine, but sometimes I actually feel victimized by some of them.

I recall visiting Los Angeles more than twenty five years ago. At the time I was stunned to learn that so many of the banks there were little more than ATM machines. The personal aspect of having people to help with financial matters was stunningly absent and it never occurred to me that this was a trend that would ultimately make its way to my own town. The changes that are happening in retail may be making more money for the various companies, but they seem to be doing little for the customers or the people who used to have jobs in those places. Everything is moving faster and faster and we don’t seem to be willing to slow down just to walk in the town squares greeting our neighbors and friends as we purchase our goods. Instead we order online or drive through pick up stations and hurry on our way. Something rather refined is ending and we just don’t appear to have much time for others anymore. It’s become a rush, rush, rush way of life with the personalized touches fading away.

There was a time when we knew the man who fitted our shoes personally. He would take half an hour to make certain that our feet would be caressed by the leather that we put on them. He talked with us about our lives and knew about our ups and downs. Now we look through boxes trying to find our sizes and then walk around hoping that the shoes will feel okay after we have taken them home. Nobody helps us until we walk through a long queue line and get to the cash register. The idea of customer service is almost a thing of the past, and it saddens me. I miss those wonderful days of elegant window displays and retailers who really cared. I truly hope that we don’t throw it all away.

The Art Of The Deal

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My brothers and I were discussing our family heritage the other day. We are all too aware that the untimely death of our father changed the trajectory of our lives dramatically. We often wonder what things might have been like if…

Our daddy had an unstoppable sense of humor. His book collection included volumes filled with jokes. His favorite television programs featured comedians. He was a great storyteller and peppered his tales with yarns that made his friends laugh. He found something funny in the darnedest places and when they happened to be from real life, that was even better.

The first house that my parents purchased was in southeast Houston on Kingsbury Street in a new housing development like many that were springing up all across America in the years after World War II. My father had finally earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering and he landed a job in downtown Houston. The location of the house was perfect for starting a new career and raising a family. Most of our neighbors were young like my parents and the men were college graduates engaged in all sorts of interesting professions. They had children in the same age groups as my brothers and I so there was always lots of fun to be had. 

Most of our moms stayed home back then while our fathers went to work each day. The women had routines that they carefully followed for the care of  their children and homes. I remember that my mother washed clothes on Mondays, which was a bigger deal than it might seem because dryers were still a dream of the future, and so she had to hang her wet items on a clothesline to dry in the sun. 

Tuesdays were for ironing and as I recall my mother had a bottle with a perforated lid that she would fill with water to shake on the clothes that needed a bit of steam from the iron. On Wednesdays our mother dusted and cleaned and mopped the wooden floors and linoleum until they gleamed. Sometimes she even used floor wax to achieve a better shine. Thursdays were reserved for her sewing and mending. She made all of my clothing and most  of hers. Friday brought meal planning, dusting and changing the linens on the bed. Saturdays meant shopping trips and Sundays were for church and visiting grandparents.

While all of this activity was happening I was mostly a free range kid which meant that I roamed the neighborhood with my friends, but never without checking in frequently with my mom. Bear in mind I was only around six years old when I began to assert my independence, but things were quite different back then. All of the ladies kept their doors and windows wide open and provided a kind of community watchfulness over the children. At any given moment an adult was checking on us without drawing attention to that fact.

I generally just went up and down the street playing with whichever kid was available. Most of the time my favorite partner was a girl named Merrily, but sometimes she was busy so I would hang out with a boy who was about my age. His dad was a very successful businessman according to the rumors that floated around the area. His family owned two very luxurious cars and his mom even employed a maid. His house was furnished with exquisite furniture and art work. I enjoyed visiting with him and vicariously living in style.

I had earned a number of holy cards as prizes for good grades and exemplary behavior in my first grade class at St. Peter’s Catholic School. They were beautifully illustrated so I thought that an art connoisseur like my friend might enjoy seeing them. I took them with me on one of my forays to his home, and just as I had thought he marveled at how exquisite they were. He was not a Catholic so he had never before seen such things and he begged me to give him some of them. Instead I struck a financial deal with him, asking for one dollar for each of the lovely images. Without hesitating he broke open his piggy bank and presented a five dollar bill for the lot. I was happy to oblige because I figured that I would earn more of them if I tried really hard at school. It was a win win situation.

All seemed well until the phone rang as I was eating dinner with my family that evening. My mom was a bit irritated by the interruption but answered the phone nonetheless. When she returned she gave me a foreboding look and told my dad that I had sold holy cards to the kid down the street. She explained that his mother was quite upset because they did not believe in such things. Besides, the woman had argued, the price I had charged was prohibitive. She wanted me to return the five dollars immediately and reclaim my holy cards.

I could tell that my mother was not pleased with me but before I even had a chance to explain myself my father burst into uncontrollable laughter, leaving me and my mother quite confused. He smiled and winked at me as he stood to remove his wallet from his back pocket and then he removed a five dollar bill and handed it to my mother. “Use this to pay for the holy cards,” he told her. “Let Sharron keep her profit. It’s worth it to know that my little girl outsmarted the financial wizard’s son. I love it,” he bragged with a huge grin on his face. With that pronouncement I breathed a sigh of relief and smiled with pride at my wonderful daddy who had who seemed to understand the importance of my first foray into the art of the deal. My mom on the other hand simply shook her head while attempting to hide her own amusement with the situation.

I always loved the way my father appreciated the ingeniousness of me and my brothers. He often laughed at antics that might have driven other parents wild. When my little brother took things apart Daddy almost always defended him by asserting that he was only attempting to understand how things work. My dad encouraged us to have an adventurous spirit that would guide us as we explored the world. He believed that life was meant to be lived without fear and I suppose that he went out in a blaze of glory following his own credo.

After my father died I became more cautious. It would be years before I was willing to leave my comfort zone and try things, but I always remembered those moments when he encouraged me to use my imagination and intellect. Mostly though I loved that he knew how to laugh whenever we were just being kids. In some ways he was the man who never quite grew up, a kind of Peter Pan who left this earth for Never Never Land far too soon. Somehow in the brief time that he was around he taught me the importance of viewing the world through humorous eyes. Knowing when to laugh rather than cry has made things so much better than they might otherwise have been.