Built On Love

The house

The husband loved his wife and his little daughter so much that he wanted to show his feelings by crafting a strong and beautiful home for them. He ran concrete piers deep into the gumbo like ground, wanting to avoid the shifting motions of the earth in that part of Texas. This would be a place of security, a symbol of just how much he cared for his family. Once the foundation was set, he created a pretty bungalow with curved doorways, warm wooden floors, and windows to allow the sun to lighten each room. It was small, but elegant, a place designed for gatherings of friends and brothers and sisters. It stood on a large lot shaded by trees and within view of the rest of the family homestead. Everyone agreed that it was beautiful, and best of all it made the man’s wife and child smile.

It would be the site for so many gatherings, celebrations, parties, and even times of sadness. It weathered storms, hurricanes, summer heat, icy winter mornings. Inside the family felt comfortable and safe even as life began to change. The man was quite young when he had his accident, a crazy thing really. He fell out of a tree and broke his back. He developed a dangerous infection but could not take the penicillin that might have cured him because he was allergic. He died with so little warning, leaving his wife and daughter bereft and wondering how they would manage without him. They grieved inside the house that he built until they somehow found the healing that they needed. They went on with their lives and the house stood as magnificently as ever.

The man’s wife rose to the challenges set before her. She helped to continue the business that he had built with his brothers. They worked in a back room of that house, loving and laughing and taking care of one another. The daughter grew into a beautiful woman. She set out on her own in a house nearby. She began a family and had a son. Now the rooms were filled with the sounds of play each day as the little boy spent hours with his grandmother. It was still the happy place that the now gone husband had hoped it would be. His memory lived in those rooms.

In a kind of classic love story the beloved wife seemed to long for her husband even as she carried on with courage. She one day discovered that a cancer grew in her body. She was still a young and energetic grandmother, but not able to fight the disease which overtook her body. She died and all who knew her were devastated, wondering how it would be possible to continue her legacy of compassion, love and laughter. They gathered in the house to mourn her and to recall the love that they had shared there.

The daughter moved into her mother’s house. She and her husband and son continued the traditions that her parents had so honored. The house was still as lovely as it had ever been, but the neighborhood had begun to change. Where there had once been a little forest of trees leading to a bayou, an interstate highway had been erected. Neighbors slowly began to move to suburbs far from the center of town. The view of the business district that was only a few miles away began to be dominated by gigantic skyscrapers. The town became a city growing around the little bungalow with a vengeance. Still inside those walls the daughter and her family lived life just as her father had hoped.

The boy grew and fell in love and married, moving to the other side of the city. He and his wife often visited the little house. They loved the Sunday dinners, the Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations, and the quieter times when the boy watched football with his dad and his wife enjoyed tea and conversation with his mom in the gracious dining room of the house.

Eventually there were more children crawling on the gleaming floors and playing happily with their grandparents. They especially enjoyed the times when they slept over and stayed in the room that had once been their grandmother’s and then their father’s. They heard stories of the original owners of the house and played dress up with hats that had belonged to their great grandmother.

Progress moved farther and farther from the center of the city. The streets near the little bungalow grew dangerous. Crime became a way of life. It was time to leave. The bungalow would become a rental, with hopes that one day the area would become as glorious as it had once been. The lovely rooms were emptied of the family treasures, but the walls retained memories of the wonderful times that had gone before.

Things began to fall apart for the house and the places around it. The people who rented it did not love it. They broke its windows and punched holes in its walls. They did not know how precious it had once been. It was only a way station for them, a place to stop over on the route to something better. In many ways the house and the neighborhood around it became unrecognizable to the members of the family who had at one time enjoyed and appreciated its history.

The husband’s daughter died and left the house to her son, who dreamed for a time of making it a wonderful place to live again. Such reveries never came to pass. There were drug dealers walking on the once placid streets, derelicts lounging on the curbs. At night it was a dangerous place where crimes were commonplace. Still, the boy kept the house even as he watched it sag and saw the damage that renters had inflicted on it. He grew older than his grandfather had been at the time of his death. He made repairs on the house and had to struggle with renters who would not pay. It became an onerous task to keep the house alive, and so one day he decided that it was time to sell it to someone else.

He found a buyer, someone who wanted to build his own dream on the land. The house would be torn down. There was a kind of sadness about the whole affair. As the boy walked through the rooms he saw that the little bungalow was past its time. To revive it would be costly. In some ways it would be merciful to just let it go, to rejoice in the memories of its happier days.

The husband who built that house looked down and smiled at the boy who had been his grandson. He approved. He understood that to everything there is a season and the time for the bungalow had passed. The land was not the same as it had been when he created the place with such great care and love. He would smile that the boy had tried so hard to keep it alive, but he also knew that the little house that was his gift had changed long ago.

The boy and his wife walked through the rooms one last time before surrendering the keys. The floors were scuffed and dirty but still so strong. They heard the voices and the laughter of the people who had once passed through the rooms. The house groaned and creaked and spoke of how old it felt. It told the boy that it was time to let go. It was the love that made that house, and that love lives on , not in walls and floors but in the boy’s heart.

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Our Mothers, Our Angels

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I recently participated in a podcast dealing with the question of how to form meaningful relationships. As I told my own stories I realized how much I had learned about compassion, gratitude, courage, loyalty, trust and other important morals from my own mother and those of my friends and cousins. I suppose that in many ways I lived a kind of unblemished childhood with the exception of my father’s untimely and unexpected death. From the many women that I encountered, the mothers of my peers, I learned the lessons of being someone on whom others might depend. These were wonderful women who opened their homes and their hearts to me little realizing what an impact they would have on my own development and worldview.

I have sadly been reminded again and again of what these ladies meant to me as they one by one die from the diseases of advanced age. Just last week I learned of the death of the remarkable mother of one of my high school friends. I had only met this woman once, but in that brief encounter I was taken by the way in which she welcomed me and made me somehow feel quite special. I would tell people about her and that brief encounter from time to time as the years passed. It was only in reading her obituary that I realized what a truly stunning life she had lived, and I felt proud to have known her no matter how fleetingly. 

The women who were my role models were children of the Great Depression. They were young and on the verge of beginning their lives as adults during World War II. Their early years were often punctuated with sacrifices that few of us born in the second half of the twentieth century will ever completely understand. In spite of varying hardships they all maintained a strong sense of optimism and can do spirit that followed them into their roles as mothers. They passed down their love of family to all of us, both male and female. They were devoted to their children without hovering like helicopters. They worked hard to maintain a sense of peace and contentment inside their homes. They rarely complained, instead celebrating the blessings that they had, regardless of how small they were. They were an exceptional group, and it pains me to see their generation slowly leaving our earth, because they were living breathing angels who gave their all to be certain that we would have good lives.

These were not women who were always barefoot, pregnant and under their husband’s thumbs, even though many of them never worked outside of the home. They were strong and able to overcome incredible challenges. They worked for the betterment of their little corners of the earth through jobs, volunteer work, keeping their families safe and happy. Often their responsibilities included elderly parents for whom they lovingly took into their homes. I used to enjoy visiting with the old ones who became part of the big extended families of my friends. It was not until my own mother came to live in my home in her final year of life that I realized the difficulties of caring for an adult day in and day out. The women I had witnessed had always made it seem so easy.

The women who continue to inspire me thought it natural to pitch in whenever someone was in need. They’d bring food, condolences, and a helping hand to any tragedy. They were not the least bit afraid of long hours of back breaking work. They did whatever needed to be done with little fanfare or need of accolades. 

If I were to make a list of the women who taught me how to live a purpose driven life it would begin with my own mother but then continue almost endlessly, for I always found something remarkable about the generation that came before me. Mrs. Barry showed me what love and loyalty really meant when she stepped forward to help me during my mother’s first mental breakdown. Mrs. Daigle taught me how to be the consummate hostess regardless of who came to my door. Mrs. Bush demonstrated courage over and over again, even in situations that might have overwhelmed a lesser soul. My aunts showed me how to keep family close. Mrs. Janot helped me to understand how to balance the daily toil of living with fun. Mrs. Frey demonstrated how to fully utilize my own talents and creativity. Mrs. Wright helped me to discover my own worth. Mrs. Loisey was my teacher who showed me the impact of a great educator. Mrs. Pryor helped me to understand the possibilities found in giving myself to the community. Mrs. McKenna brought beauty and music into my life. Mrs. Martin showed me the new worlds to be found in books. Mrs. Brochtrup seemed to be a living saint whose faith inspired me. Mrs. Caldwell, Mrs. Gallerano, and Mrs. Cash made my life more fun and interesting by spending hours  guiding me in Girl Scouts and on our school’s drill team. Mrs. Mandola was elegant and made me feel that way as well. All of them had a way of making it clear that they genuinely cared for me. They listened to me and valued what I had to say. They understood the importance of every relationship, but probably never realized what an enormous impact they had on me.

Our mothers were our angels on earth, and now so many of them are our angels in heaven. I do miss them and the calmness that they always brought to me. When we speak of women’s rights and the roles of women we would do well to look to these wonderful ladies for examples and guidance. They were far more amazing than our society gives them credit for being. From them I learned what it really means to be a woman.

Love and Work Ethic

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Saturday mornings never varied when my brothers and I were kids. We’d wake up with the chickens and turn on the shows designed just for children. They were so good back then, and they’d last for hours, or so it seemed. Our mother usually slept a bit late after working all week which we didn’t mind at all because it meant more time to view our programs. When she did finally join us it was usually with a big mug of coffee and a long list of chores that we had to accomplish before the weekend fun began.

Each of us got special jobs beyond the usual duties of cleaning our rooms and folding laundry and putting it away. For some reason I inherited latrine duty. I was as well trained as a G.I. when it came to making our bathroom spic and span. An inspector might have run a mirror under the toilet rim and never found a single germ. I took great pride in my work and enjoyed my mother’s compliments once I had finished. My brothers often had the loathsome task of mowing the lawn which was made even more difficult by the fact that they had to use a push mower with no motor. They claimed that it made them stronger which was probably true, but I always felt terrible for them. Somehow sanitizing the bathroom fixtures seemed much easier than what they had to do.

We always had to change the linens on our beds as part of the weekly routine and our mother taught us how to make tight corners on the top sheet. With our work abilities we would have been great candidates for the military, but none of us ever leaned that way. Instead we imagined ourselves as characters in some exciting adventure as we made up stories to make our work seem more like play. Our mom turned on classical music as we merrily did our chores which were often punctuated with pauses for sword fights or pretend flying through the sky. Somehow she managed to convince us that our labors were tons of fun, so we willingly dusted and swept and made our home gleam again.

On Saturdays once the work was done we were rewarded with a shopping trip. Back then my favorite place was Palm Center because it had the best places to spend the quarter that she gave us for jobs well done. The hunt for some item worthy of our hard earned pay was all part of the fun and our mom was quite patient in allowing us to spend as much time as we needed to make a selection.

During the school week our focus was on our studies. Our mama didn’t worry too much about how the house looked when we had to read, write papers and study for tests. At the end of each evening she’d manage a five or ten minute drill that involved taking whatever belonged to us to our respective rooms. That way the shoes and socks and clothes were confined to the back of the house leaving the front area looking rather nice save for the dust that accumulated from Saturday to Saturday.

My mother and I took turns washing dishes each evening. We couldn’t even imagine having a dishwasher back then. It was a luxury for wealthier folk. Instead we used the sink as it was originally intended, filling it with warm sudsy water on one side and saving the other for rinsing. Mama was compulsive about removing all of the soap residue, so she often checked my work. Luckily she thought that it was okay to let the items air dry on a drainer making the task go more quickly.

Eventually we grew older and added real jobs to our resumes. I was the local babysitter until I landed a position as a summer receptionist at my doctors’ office. I was all of fifteen years old and appeared to be around ten. I must have been quite a sight to the patients, but the doctor thought that my work was swell. He paid me eighty eight dollars a month for my services. I suppose that I was a bargain for him because I worked five days a week from nine in the morning until six at night. I never missed a day and I faithfully accepted payments from the patients and balanced the books at the end of each day. I did this for three summers until I landed a better gig at Holiday Inn. While I didn’t make much money I would one day be quite happy when it came time to claim Social Security. Those quarters from my teen years added up.

My brothers worked at a produce stand along the side of Mykawa Road. Like me they earned little money but they took great pride in their work and were able to get regular pay starting from very young ages. They followed up with a variety of work with better compensation like moving furniture and driving a mail truck for the United States Postal Service.

All three of us eventually graduated from college and later earned advanced degrees. Our work ethic was formed in those years when we were no more than eight or nine. Our mother had high expectations for us and we never wanted to disappoint her. By the time we were adults we had created our own goals and aspirations for ourselves. To this day, even in retirement, we energetically fill our days with a variety of responsibilities and somehow make even the most mundane tasks seem like fun. Our mother slyly taught us how to do that long, long ago. Not only did she require us to learn the value of work, but she did so with heaping mounds of love. That was the real secret to our willingness to work hard even to this very day.

Researchers now agree that two important traits of a good parent are showing love and developing a work ethic in children beginning even when they are small. I recall my mom handing me a dust cloth and demonstrating how to clean her collection of salt and pepper shakers when I could not have been more than about five or six years old. I graduated from there to folding towels and carrying them to the linen closet. Little by little she advanced my skills and those of my brothers, always finding ways to let us know how much she appreciated our efforts, even when she was not able to do so monetarily.

My mother often joked that she should have written a parenting book. She was quite proud that we had turned out so well in spite of being raised in a single parent home. I think that perhaps she was quite right in believing that she had somehow found the secret to mothering success. I still have a tendency to spend my Saturday mornings tidying up my home, and then going out to shop in the afternoon. I turn on music and dance my way around the dusting and mopping and fondly recall those days of long ago when my mother’s routines spelled order, renewal, accomplishment. They set the foundation for lives that my brothers and I have lived quite well.

 

 

 

 

 

The King Center Drive In

37400793_10204729964807004_1633942547380305920_nA high school friend posted a photo of an empty lot that is for sale in Houston, Texas for $1,975,000. The raw land located at Martin Luther King Drive and Loop 610 was once the home of the King Center Drive In, a glorious place that served up entertainment to the folks who lived in southeast Houston for most of my childhood, teen years and early married life. Eventually the place closed down and went the way of other outdoor theaters, attracting fewer and fewer customers as we became less acclimated to the heat and mosquitoes over time. Nonetheless those of us who saw the image of the long gone movie mecca were filled with grand memories of good times with friends and family.

I have to admit that there was nothing more exciting to me as a kid as going to the King Center Drive In on a Friday or Saturday night. I’d check the newspaper to see what was showing, and if it was fit for family watching I’d connive with my brothers to work with me to get our mother to take us. We often used my youngest brother as our secret weapon because Mama somehow never seemed able to turn him down. He’d go to her with all of his cuteness and hint that he’d love to spend an evening at the movies. Since our mother enjoyed such outings as much as we did it was never really that difficult to get her to say yes to our proposals.

There was always a snack bar at the theater but we were on a fairly strict budget so our mom made sandwiches and iced down bottles of coke to satisfy our hunger. She also made enough popcorn in her iron skillet to fill a grocery bag. We’d stow away our food and a few pillows inside the car and head off for what was sure to be a fun evening.

Mama always wanted to get there early to secure a prime spot. She’d test the speakers before settling for a specific place and then while she set things up in the car we’d run to the playground located just in front of the big screen. We often saw friends from our neighborhood or made new acquaintances as children seem to so naturally do. Mostly though we were eager for the sky to grow dark so that the movie might begin.

Mama always kept something called a Pic in the glove compartment along with a box of matches. The incense like coil was supposed to discourage mosquitoes from entering the car, but we still had a few of the brave pests nipping at our skin. I suppose that it was actually quite hot in the summer, but since we didn’t have air conditioning at the house we never noticed the temperature. Instead we munched on our sandwiches, sipped our cokes and topped off our feast with the popcorn while glorious films of the fifties and sixties played out larger than life right before our eyes.

The initial feature was always a first run film, but it wasn’t always our favorite of the movies. After an intermission designed to lure us to the snack bar there was a second feature that was older, a kind of rerun. If Mama was feeling flush she’d give us some money to purchase whatever we wanted at the snack bar before the next movie began. It was so hard to decide what delicacies to choose. There were donuts, chips, candies of all kinds. Since we never had sweets at home I almost always chose some chocolatey, gooey delight filled with caramel.

Sometimes one of my brothers would be unable to fight off sleep and surrendered to slumber in the back seat. I proudly fought off all inclinations to doze off if only to prove to my mother that I was worthy of the prime seat in the front of the car. Also the really cool movies with more adult content came in the second slot, and I enjoyed feeling a bit more mature than my little brothers.

As I grew into my teen years I began attending the movies with my friends. I was a dateless wonder in high school but I had great fun with big groups of girls. We went with whoever was able to get a car. We did a great deal more talking and giggling than paying attention to the movies. My favorite times were with Karen, a neighbor from across the street. She drove her mother’s big yellow Buick which held enough gals to qualify as one of those clown cars at the circus. At first I was embarrassed when my mother shoved a grocery bag of popcorn into my arms as we were leaving for one of the outings, but the yummy snack was such a hit that the girls always requested that I bring my offering along.

I often laughed at the antics of people in other cars. There were of course the couples whose only purpose in coming seemed to be to make out. Then there were the goobers who honked their horns whenever a love scene came on the screen. There were groups who hid some of their passengers until they were safely past the pay station since the cost was sometimes based on the number of folks inside the car. There were families that made way too much noise, and since we mostly had to keep our windows open that was quite annoying. Then of course there were the malfunctions of the speakers and projectors that drove everyone to honk in protest.

Eventually I was going to to the King Center Drive In with my husband and my small children. Those days didn’t last very long because by then we had become spoiled by the air conditioned comfort that was almost universal. It just seemed nicer to watch a movie at an indoor theater. Of course that meant paying way too much all around. Soon enough it became preferable to wait for the release of tapes and then DVDs to see our movies in the comfort of our homes. For little or no money we could watch while wearing our pajamas and munching on fabulous snacks. By then the King Center Drive In was long gone, but not our memories.

Perhaps we lost something special with the closing of those once fabulous places. Whole generations have no idea how fun it was to wait in a long line of cars anticipating an evening of make believe. The lot for the King Center Drive In may now be empty but our memories of being there are still as vibrant and colorful as ever.

Still Young and Beautiful

14711048_10209517113076623_2425488735163912169_oI’ve often been told that my blogs about people that I know are my best. In all honesty they are also the easiest to compose. The stories write themselves mostly because people are innately interesting, and the ones who have been part of my life are particularly so.

I grew up in a little neighborhood in southeast Houston. At the time it was almost on the far edge of the city, just barely outside the area that now encompasses Loop 610 which was not constructed until I was a teenager. The enclave was part of the post World War II boom and it centered around churches and schools and family life. In many ways it was a “Leave It To Beaver” kind of environment in which children were generally protected from the troubles of the adult world.

I attended a Catholic school because back then parents were told that it was their duty to provide a religious education for their children. The tuition was minimal, so it wasn’t a particular sacrifice for my parents to pay the monthly fees, particularly when my engineer father was still alive. After his death it became a hardship for my mother, but the nuns who taught at my school hired her to work for them and announced that free tuition was one of the perks of employment. Thus my brothers and I spent our earliest years in classrooms together with other Catholic children.

In the fifties and sixties in seems as though adults didn’t change their addresses nearly as much as they now do. Once we moved into our home on Belmark Street we essentially had the same neighbors until we ourselves became adults and struck out on our own. The same was true at school. With only a few exceptions we grew up with the same set of kids and got to know them quite well. Their parents were friends with ours, so it was as though we all belonged to a huge extended family.

Many of us went on to attend Mt. Carmel High School after the eighth grade. I received a scholarship which made it possible to continue my education in familiar surroundings with friends I had known from the time I was six years old. Sadly there were those who opted for the local public high school which had one of the best reputations in town. I missed them terribly when they were gone, but I made knew acquaintances with kids who came from a variety of Catholic schools in the southeast and east Houston areas.

As is true with most high school students I foolishly believed that the people that I met during my four years would all be lifelong friends. I did not realize that graduation was a turning point at which time we went forth in far too many directions to remain as devoted to one another as we had once been. Over time I slowly lost track of all but a handful of the people that I had known and loved, often wondering where the others were and how they were doing, but too busy to take the time to track them down.

Decades passed and suddenly there was this thing called social media that allowed us to communicate with friends and family without leaving our homes. Little by little I found long gone but never forgotten friends and began to vicariously follow the routines of their lives. Through the extraordinary efforts of individuals like my friend Carol more and more of my former classmates were found and just seeing that they were still alive and well cheered my heart.

It’s difficult to adequately describe what we shared in those long ago years when the foundations of our academic and spiritual educations were being built on very solid ground. Our differences came in the years that followed, but in many ways they were only superficial. What bound us together was a long history of learning the importance of the one commandment that truly matters which is “Love thy neighbor.”

I am neither a republican nor a democrat. Instead I am fiercely independent, but many of my school chums are die hards in their political persuasions. My own philosophies often confound them and they have even been known to chastise me for what they believe to be unwise thinking. This sometimes angers people that I have met later in life, but it only makes me smile. What I know is that even in our differences there is a commonality of truly caring about our world and each other that was imbued in our very natures long ago. We were not so propagandized that we became nonthinking clones, but rather we were taught to consider many points of view before choosing our own. The one constant, however, was the knowledge that God is our protector and that we in turn must be protectors of His people.

From what I can tell we’ve done a grand job each in his or her own way. We run the gamut from  Paul who is as progressive as anyone might become to Ted who is a staunch defender of conservative ideas. What guides us is memory of those long ago school days when we learned and played and laughed together. Somehow those times glued us together even as we went out on our own to discover more of the world. We now come together with little thought of our differences because what we share is far stronger.

I feel blessed to have the opportunity of getting to know my old friends once again. There was a time when such reunions would have been unlikely. Now I have the privilege of sharing the ups and downs of their lives. I see the smiling faces of their children and grandchildren. I commiserate with them in times of stress, health problems or deaths. I celebrate their birthdays and marvel at images of their vacations. Mostly though I remember them when they were young and beautiful and full of boundless hopes and dreams. I see that like me they have survived the roller coaster ride and are doing their best to be the kind of people that the adults who guided us hoped we would be.

I am so proud of my classmates, my friends. They have worked hard to be good people, and all of them are. I hope they know how much I admire them, and how happy it makes me to know them. My heart fills with joy whenever I think back to our school days. I laugh at the stories that I recall and wonder if they realize how much they have meant to me.

As we all enter our seventies we can no longer claim to be young, but from my vantage point I see that we are all still quite beautiful and young at heart.