A Month of Madness

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As I took my plants back outside after a couple of days of freezing weather I thought of how cyclical life is. I’ve been through seventy one winters now and watched the seasons change in quirky ways, but always somewhat predictably. Life is a series of repetitions during which we grow just a bit older and hopefully a bit wiser. We learn about the way of things and understand that while it’s unusual, it is possible to have a freeze in March in the south. We go with the flow and the routine even as big changes may occur to make things so very different. We understand that we can count on the calendar moving at its”petty pace” but surprises both good and bad may come our way at any moment. The traditions to which we often cling are ways of keeping us anchored even as storms roar around us.

March brings us the Houston Rodeo and Mardi Gras and Lent and the madness of basketball. In this month we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day even if we don’t have an Irish bone in our bodies. We decorate our homes with colorful beads and then replace them with shamrocks and finally bunnies. We take a break from work and school with an eye toward warmer days and fun in the sun, hoping that our plans to visit a beach aren’t spoiled with rain and cold temperatures. We seek a sense of control and continuity with our rituals. They create cohesion and memories that sustain us, but they can also be a source of sorrow when things spiral out of our control as often happens.

I remember a year when my friend Pat secured a beach house for all of us to use during spring break. Our children were teenagers who were not yet driving and doing things on their own although they may have been dying to do so. We happily packed enough food and clothing for what should have been a fun adventure, but things began to fall apart almost immediately beginning with the fact that we had to wear coats because it was so chilly. Nonetheless, by the time we had reached the rented house we had outlined a Plan B that did not include swimming in the still frigid ocean, but would still be filled with tons of fun. We were bound and determined to make the best of our situation.

As soon as we opened the door of the vacation home we somehow knew that even our alternate ideas were doomed. The place reeked of deceased rodents and there was no way that we were going to be able to stay inside. At that point our anger and disappointment reached its limit. We had no choice but to complain to the owner of the place and then return home. After shedding a few tears of frustration we were on our way back to where we had started with only a few lame ideas about how to have a fun time in spite of the frustrating developments.

I don’t remember what we actually did after that. I do know that we eventually found ourselves laughing in a kind of hysteria about how awry things had gone. At the time our misadventure had seemed so significant and horrific but as the seasons came and went and our children grew into independent adults the story of that spring break became more of a treasured memory of our continuing friendship than a terrible experience. Today my friend Pat is gone and I know in my heart that I would even stay in a stinky rat invested house if it meant that we might have a bit more time together. Such is life.

After someone dear to us dies the first few cycles of the the year are exceedingly difficult to endure. Each occasion reminds us of how much we miss them. Over time our wounds heal, toughen up, and turn into scars. We once again find joy in our traditions and the memories of those who once shared them with us. We realize how lucky we were to have them and the pain becomes bearable. Just as the dormant trees bud forth each spring, so too do we find ways to carry on even after we have felt as though we too have died inside.

I love this time of year. It is one of those grandly transitional months when we humans find ways to muddle through the last gasps of winter with the promise of spring just over the horizon. We gather together to celebrate all that has gone before and all that is yet to come. Our hats, parades, ashes, decorations, foods, and gatherings are inventions of the human spirit, attempts to maintain our optimism even when everything around us feels so wrong. How wonderful it is!

March is a hopeful month even as we witness destruction from the last gasps of wintery weather. It’s a month when we never quite know how things will turn out, but we plan them anyway. We may go to the Houston Rodeo in heavy coats with rain falling on our heads, but once we are inside the arena all of our worries seem to evaporate. March is ever a new beginning, a time to set the problems of the past aside and hope that better days are ahead. It’s also a time to prepare ourselves for whatever challenges may come our way by thinking outside of our own worries and needs. I’m now old enough and experienced enough to know that it’s often a month of madness that always seems to end with a feeling of peace.

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Older Than Dirt

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I just saw a Facebook post called Older Than Dirt that lists seventeen items that have mostly gone the way of the buggy whip. If you are familiar with ten or more of them you supposedly qualify for the title Older Than Dirt. There were seventeen things listed and I not so fondly remembered all of them, so I guess that I’m officially ancient. I hadn’t even thought about or missed most of the items, but I felt a slight tug of nostalgia when I saw them on the list. I also realized that in many ways I’m part of a generation that has straddled the old ways and the new.

I still recall the weird inconvenience of being on a telephone party line. I must have been about five or so when we finally got our own private line. Before then it was not all that unusual to lift the receiver and hear someone who lived in another house talking away. My mom taught me the code of phone etiquette which meant that I would hang up quickly and be certain that I never mentioned anything that I might have heard. Even then it seemed weird to have to share telephone time with complete strangers, but it was the way things actually were. I had totally forgotten about that strange situation until I saw it listed with a string of other oldies. While party lines may sound unbelievable to young folk, I encountered an even more old time way of talking on the phone when I visited my grandparents in rural Arkansas. They actually had to go through the services of an operator to make a call, something that I had only seen in old movies from the thirties and forties.

I never knew what eventually happened to Studebakers, but my aunt and uncle owned one. It was a sporty little car that was much more adventurous looking than than the big featureless models that most people drove back then. I still remember being filled with awe whenever my aunt and uncle drove up in their Studebaker. They were young and attractive and newly married. To five year old me they looked like movie stars, and when they took me for a ride in their automobile I felt like a celebrity. The last Studebaker I ever saw belonged to my husband’s best friend. The car was old and doing its best to fall apart. The designers had lost their mojo and turned it into a featureless box, which is no doubt why the line of cars went the way to the junkyard, but I would always remember just how sweet the models were in the early nineteen fifties.

By the time my girls were using roller skates they simply slipped on a boot with wheels, but when I was a child we had roller skates that would last a lifetime because the parts were adjustable. The process of properly sizing the skates involved using a metal key to lengthen or shorten and fit the mechanism onto the sole of whatever shoe the skater was wearing. A pair of skates that came to a five year old at Christmas time might last until they were no longer used as a teenager. Our mothers usually found some twine or ribbon to make a kind of necklace on which we kept the key that made the whole thing work. I used to keep mine inside my jewelry box so that I might quickly find it whenever I got the urge to skate.

We had very few luxuries in our home, but one that my mom faithfully used was milk delivery. Our milkman left the white liquid on our front porch in big glass gallon containers. Once the milk was gone Mama would rinse out the bottle and then leave it on the porch to be recycled by the milk company which for us was always Carnation. We got to know the milkman better than the mailman because he came with three or four gallons of milk every week and rang our doorbell to let us know that the bottles had arrived. My brothers were voracious milk drinkers and my mother often attributed their strong teeth and bones to the calcium that they consumed. Eventually grocery stores were close enough that it was easier to just make a quick trip for some milk and the idea of having things delivered to the house went away. Now I laugh that young folk think that home food delivery is a new thing.

We used to use ice trays to make the cubes that we used to cool our water or tea. Back in the day they were made of metal and used a large handle to release the ice. Even the best ones never really worked very well, so when the flexible plastic ones came along it felt as though someone had invented a miracle device. The problem was that the trays took up a considerable amount of space inside the freezer section of the refrigerator so there was never much ice available at any give time. If someone neglected to refill the trays, which happened far too often, we were reduced to drinking things at room temperature like so many Europeans do. The ice makers of today are a joyful luxury that still leave me in awe each time I see the almost boundless supply of frozen water.

The Older Than Dirt list included drive in movie theaters which are worthy of an entire blog, and candy cigarettes which made us feel grown up and sophisticated in a time when it seemed as though every adult smoked without knowing the dangers. There were metal lunch boxes which often featured our favorite movie and television characters like Roy Rogers. They held our baloney sandwiches and apples and thermoses of warm milk. There were forty five rpm records that we played on speakers that sounded tinny, and Blackjack gum which to me tasted like melted blacktop. Our soda machines dispensed glass bottles that we had to either leave once we were finished drinking or had to pay a deposit to take with us. There was Butch Wax for styling hair that I never used because it was a product for the boys, but we gals had Dippity Do which we slathered on our hair along with our curlers so that we might create the enormous bouffants of the sixities. There were five and dime stores which were small versions of Walmart, and home economics classes where students learned how to run a household efficiently long before Marie Kondo came to tell us what to do. Books came with records that in a sense were the first audio versions of our favorite stories, and rather unsophisticated drinkers consumed Boone’s Farm wine.

Yes, I knew about all of those things, but I also realized how far we have come in making the world far better than it once was. I can only think of a few things on the list that we might do well to emulate in a more modern way. Recycling glass bottles was a great idea and I’d like to see it happen again. Those stunning Studebakers of the early fifties were a sight to see. Drive In movies were a great place to take the kids on summer evenings. The metal lunchboxes were akin to Bento boxes and prevented much wasting of paper. Most of the rest were fun while we had them, but hardly worth reinventing. We’ve moved on and in most cases it has been for the best. I like my streaming music and the mountains of ice at my fingertips. Nostalgia is fine but progress is better, especially when it takes the health of our planet into account. 

Go Climb A Tree

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I was lying on a table about to get a bone scan when I saw the loveliest sight. It was an overhead image of a perfectly blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds and the green canopy of a tree. It reminded me of being a kid again and lying in the soft grass on a spring day doing nothing more than gazing at the sky. If I exerted any effort at all in those long ago moments it was to use my imagination to find cloud formations that looked like animals or objects. Mostly I was simply chilling out, enjoying the glorious day and the joy of just being a child. There is something quite magical about that. It’s a time in life that can never quite be duplicated as an adult, a time of innocence when worries and cares are still mostly related to friendships and school.

Back when I was young I liked nothing better than climbing a tree, finding a nice niche between two branches and lying back to do some sky gazing. We once lived in a house that had a specimen that was perfectly made for such things and I spent more than a good share of time high above the earth leaning back in a chair created by nature. It was such a sturdy place that I was even able to read among the branches. One day I carved my name on the trunk to let some future climber know that I had once been there.

I often wonder what became of that tree. I suspect that a big storm or hurricane may have damaged the spot where I left my signature, but I like to believe that it is still standing tall. Perhaps it is inviting a new group of kids to find a foothold and use it as a magnificent stairway to the heavens. I hope nobody cut it down, but then such things happen all the time in the name of progress.

I have lots of memories associated with trees. There was a great tall one near the bayou where I grew up. It looked as though it had possibly been growing when explorers used those waters to navigate inland. Perhaps native Americans had once camped underneath its shade. It was quite magnificent and we used it as a launching pad for a rope swing that carried us over the water and back to the safety of the bank. I don’t think that I’ve ever had as much fun or felt as excited as I did when I climbed higher and higher into that tree and then jumped through the air clinging to the rope that was tethered in the highest branches. Sadly someone wanted to build a home right in the middle of where it once stood, and so it has been gone for some time now. I just wish that those of us who loved it might have saved it. There’s something so sad about losing a truly great tree.

Really old trees are spiritual. When I walk among the redwood forests of California I feel a kind of magic emanating from the gigantic plants that have withstood the centuries. Somehow they seem to be whispering to one another as the wind caresses their leaves, and I wonder what they are saying. Do they want us to go away, or do they understand that some of us truly love them?

My grandparents had a peach tree that filled with luscious fruit each summer. I once helped my grandmother pick the juicy orbs by skittering high up into the branches. It never occurred to me to worry that I might fall or break a bone. I felt the exhilaration of climbing until the branches became too thin to hold my frame. Then I would grab as many peaches as my arms would hold and slowly move back down to my waiting grandmother. I repeated my journey over and over again never getting tired or bored. Youth is like that, a time of unlimited stamina. I suppose that I miss that as much as sitting in a tree, something that I would now be afraid to attempt.

I hope that children still have fun like I did. I hope that they get as much joy out of nothing more than lying down at the foot of a tree and just staring up into the sky. There really is nothing quite as glorious as getting in touch with nature. Nothing that we humans can create or buy is quite as magnificent, save for our children, but that’s another topic for another day.

These days I have to even be careful about something as simple crouching down into the grass. Unless someone is there to assist me I may have a very difficult time getting back up if it’s a day when my knees decide to get surly. Of course I am unable to climb anymore, and even if I had the ability it would be dangerous for me. One small misstep might create a fall bad enough to break my now fragile bones. It’s such a bummer to lose the glorious abilities that I once had. If I could I would find a tree and climb it on a nice spring day. I’d look heavenward and just let my mind relax. Now the closest proximity that I have to such a sight is from the table on which a machine takes pictures of my bones.

Still, I have those memories that are so vivid that they still make me smile. If I close my eyes I am a child again, able to conquer the challenge of climbing as high as I wish. it’s a truly wonderful image. For now it will have to do.

Angelic Creatures

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Images of President George H.W. Bush’s service dog lying faithfully near the former leader’s casket encapsulated the gentleness and loyalty of the animal often designated as “man’s best friend.” The whole world was taken by the beautiful sight and reminded of just how wonderful dogs can be. I suspect that almost every person has a story of a wonderful pup that brought joy into his/her life. There is something almost spiritual about the relationship between humans and their dogs, a bond that is pure, guileless and angelic. Most of us have experienced the unconditional love derived from having such gentle creatures in our world.

I’ve often told the story of the little white hound that came mysteriously to our front door right after the death of my father. He had no identification and nobody in the neighborhood had ever before seen him, and yet there he was. He came each night to guard our home and then went on his rounds during the day. He was sweet and friendly, seemingly aware that we were frightened and fragile. Of all the houses on the street he somehow chose ours and we felt as though he had been sent from heaven to ease our pain and our fears. We called him Whitey and waited patiently each afternoon for him to return to us secretly hoping that he would choose us to be his permanent family even as our mother warned us that he might one day return to his rightful owners.

We eventually became confident enough to put him in our backyard behind a chain link fence where he appeared to be quite content to stay. Then one morning he was gone never again to return. He had done his magic, taking us through the toughest days of our grief. Our mother told us that it was time for him to move on to someone else who needed him more. He had been our miracle for just enough time to help us to adjust to our new normal. We would never forget him and the joy that he brought us and we would always believe that he was a special gift to us from heaven. 

A few years later we bought another dog, a collie as lovely as Lassie of television fame. His name was Buddy and he was as good and faithful as any creature might be. He became a kind of mascot for the entire street where we lived, watching after not just our family but many of the other children on our block. We loved him like he was a brother and took it for granted that he would always be with us. He carried us through our childhoods and then one day became sick and died. Our trauma was as deep as if he had been a little brother who passed away. 

My husband and I have had two dogs during our time together, both female Golden Retrievers. The first had been named Red before we brought her home. She was a perfect dog in every possible way. Like Buddy she was beloved by all of our neighbors because she had not a mean bone in her body unless she was protecting one of us. When she died our hearts were so broken that we felt unable to go through such an experience ever again. Our daughters convinced us that our grief would be lessened if we brought a new puppy into our home and so we found Scarlet who was as sassy as the famous character from literature who went by that name. She too burrowed into our hearts.

Dogs sense our moods and seem to know exactly how to react to the way we are feeling. If we are sad they snuggle with us and quietly show us how much they care. When we are happy they play with us. If we are sick they watch over us. They warn us of dangers and let us know whom we might trust. Their instincts are attuned to our hearts. They are innocents who may annoy us with their mischief but never betray us.

I do not have a dog now. After Scarlet died we decided to remain without a pet for a time. Instead we enjoy our grand dogs, five cute little creatures who are as different from one another as any brood might be. Cooper, a pug, is the elder among them. He has spent many sleepovers at my house while his family travels. He’s a sweet fellow who loves to cuddle and only barks when he wants food. I’ve grown rather close to him over the years so when he became seriously ill and in need of surgery this past fall I was greatly concerned.

It took him quite a while to recover from his illness and he lost a great deal of weight and his usual personality. I worried incessantly about him but my fears were unfounded because he slowly began to revert to his old ways. When I visited his home last week he greeted me with an insistent bark that told me he wanted me to provide him with his dinner. I felt overjoyed as I filled his bowl and watched him devour the food and then saunter over so that I might scratch his back. We had a moment together that was quite touching. I wanted to spend the rest of the evening petting him and letting him know how much I loved him but I had math tutoring to do with my grandsons, so Cooper and I had to be content with knowing that we really do love each other.

Horses are enchantingly beautiful and cats are mysteriously lovely, but dogs are gifts for our souls. They are the perfect companions who ask for little more than nourishment, a few pats on the rump, and space to run and play. They love and protect us and bring a kind of magic into our lives. It’s little wonder that we notice that God spelled backwards is dog. They are angelic creatures and we are the fortunate recipients of their loving presence. 

My How Things Have Changed

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A young woman who is soon to be married was asking friends to share memories of their weddings. I sat back and listened with interest, noting how much such things had changed in the fifty years since my own nuptials. An enormous amount of time and money goes into the planning of today’s marriage galas. They are often so complex that it’s little wonder that some women turn into bridezillas. Things were so much simpler back in my day.

I actually went to work at Elliot Elementary School on the day of my wedding. It was a seven in the evening affair so I saw no reason to take time from my job. I would have four hours between the end of my work day and the time when I needed to walk down the aisle which seemed to be more than sufficient for getting ready. I don’t recall being especially nervous as I followed my usual routines with the students. In fact I suspect that working kept me centered and less prone to bouts of anxiety.

I had done all of the planning with my mother and together we created an event rather typical of the times. I found a dress on sale that was quite lovely. If I remember right it cost just a bit less than a hundred dollars which still seemed like a fortune to me. I enlisted the florist who did a majority of the weddings at my church and he promised to do a glorious job using white roses for me and red ones for my bridesmaids. He designed a beautiful white creation for the altar and great flowers for the moms and all of the men. I had every confidence that his work would be lovely and he came through with perfection.

My photographer was a member of our church who also did a great deal of work for special occasions. He had even done the photos for my graduation from high school. He was a nice man who understood the monetary restrictions under which me and my mother worked and he gave us an exceptional deal on his services.

I held my reception in the Parish Hall as was customary with the majority of my friends. A lady from the church made the cakes and included punch and coffee in her offer. My mom wanted just a bit more for our guests so we also purchased some lovely tea sandwiches from another neighborhood woman and to our delight they would end up being the hit of the evening.

Mrs. McKenna, the mother of one of my bridesmaids sang in her beautiful soprano voice and a young man who was a master of the trumpet played in cadence with the organist as I walked down the aisle. The music would not have been better if we had hired folks from Houston Grand Opera and the Houston Symphony. Best of all, back then the charge for singers and musicians was minimal.

After working at school on the appointed day I went straight to the hairdresser who washed and styled my hair and then attached my veil so that it looked right. I traveled home with time to spare and gathered my dress, shoes and such. Then my mom and I drove straight to the church. I wasn’t in the habit of wearing makeup back then so I didn’t even think to goop up my face for the occasion. I was soapy clean with only the complexion that nature provided on my beaming countenance.

A nice lady who worked with the photographer helped me and my bridesmaids to put on our dresses. She fluffed my veil and made sure that the train on my gown was well presented. Then I grabbed my brother Michael’s arm and floated down to aisle with my gaze set firmly on my soon to be husband Mike. I still remember all of the smiling faces demonstrating their love as I made that long trip to Mike’s side.

The rest of what happened is enshrouded in a bit of a fog. I was exceptionally pleased with the music, especially Mrs. McKenna’s singing of Ave Maria. The homily was profound with its message of hope in the face of the turmoil of 1968. It had been a tough year for the country and most of us were reeling from assassinations, protests and the war. The priest rightly noted that the exchange of vows until death was a leap of faith in such conditions. His words resonated with me and kept me going whenever difficulties arose over the next five decades.

After mass we convened in the Parish Hall with our guests and greeted them one by one with a traditional receiving line. We cut the cake and took silly photos feeding the sweet morsels to each other, threw the bridal bouquet to the single girls, and then had the usual ceremony with the blue garter that I wore on my leg. I have no idea who caught the cherished items but I hope that they one day found happiness with a loving partner like I did.

We left in a car decorated with tin cans streaming from the rear bumper and lots of shaving cream announcing our nuptials. Our destination was Hobby Airport which was only minutes away. Our cousins Alan and Susan followed us to the plane and the stewardesses were kind enough to allow Susan to come onboard to take photos of us just before we flew away to New Orleans. It would be the first time I had ever flown and I felt like a kid on a rollercoaster as the wheels left the tarmac.

We stayed in the Crescent City for the weekend enjoying accommodations at the Monteleone Hotel which was being remodeled at the time. We ate breakfast at Brennan’s and beignet at Cafe du Monde. We devoured the traditional muffulettas at the Central Grocery and sampled pralines at Aunt Sally’s. Mike’s uncle gave us the gift of an evening at the Blue Room in the Roosevelt Hotel were we enjoyed dinner and a show with a surprisingly wonderful performance by Fran Jeffries, an entertainer who was unknown to me. Of course we sipped on hurricane’s and feasted on gumbo. We fell in love with the patio at Broussard’s where we laughed at a salute to Napoleon. We rode the streetcar to Loyola University where Mike showed me his old dorm room and the places where he spent time as a student. We purchased gifts for our parents in the quaint shops and walked up and down the French Quarter on some of the loveliest autumn days that I have ever seen in New Orleans. When we left on Monday we had under a dollar left in our pockets but memories that would make us smile for all the years to come.

We both went back to school and work immediately. We would very soon be facing some very adult challenges that we somehow overcame in spite of our immaturity and lack of experience. We became a team and found ways to laugh even when we wanted to cry. We’d never forget how much fun we had with our very simple wedding that to me still seems the best of any I’ve ever experienced. We didn’t break the bank or send ourselves into gales of anxiety back then. Instead it was all about our promises to each other and the support of the people that we loved. That was all that we needed, and it was very good.