A Spiritual Journey

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I felt my grandmother’s spirit all around me when I visited Arkansas last week. Her family had a homestead not far from where I was camped at Lake Ouachita State Park. My great great grandmother and great grandfather are buried on the land that is now part of a national forest. In a churchyard nearby lies my great grandmother. The area is graced with a natural beauty that is breathtaking, so it is little wonder that my grandmother returned when she was growing old to retire to a farm in Caddo Gap.

I spent many happy summers with my grandparents enjoying the wonders of Arkansas. My grandmother took me and my brothers on hikes in the hills when she taught us how to identify the birds and showed us where to find quartz crystals. The sounds and smells were permanently imprinted on my brain back then, Returning brought back vivid memories and made me feel as though my grandmother might pop out from behind one of the trees at any moment smiling and extending her hand to lead us on yet another adventure.

I do understand why my grandmother loved this little piece of heaven so. The forests, hills, rivers, lakes and stone outcroppings are stunning and the people are as friendly as though they were old friends. The whole state is dotted with parks that have unique features that make them lovely. Lake Ouachita is encircled with a forest of pines, oaks and hickory trees that  change into lovely yellow, red and orange colors as the days grow colder. Geese fly in V formation over the lake and ducks waddle across the campgrounds. Now and again a deer wanders through the quiet. It would be quite lovely just to stay there and find a sense of calm and satisfaction that is sometimes hard to duplicate in the rush of daily living.

Instead, we traveled around the vicinity visiting places like Hot Springs, best known for the spas that once attracted the rich and the famous from around the world. Now all but one of the bathhouses are historical artifacts of a different time. Walking along the avenue in front of them garners images of people strolling and laughing as they vacation and enjoy the waters that ease their pains. In my own case I think of the last photograph of my parents together on our family trip less than a year before my father died. My mother wears a sundress with a full skirt and my dad is in a short sleeved shirt with khakis. They are holding hands like two lovers in spite of the fact that they had been married for ten years and had three children following behind. Their faces exude happiness and they are truly beautiful.

At the edge of town in Hot Springs is a lovely botanical garden, Garvin Woodland Gardens. It is a kind of paradise with paths meandering along streams and groves of azaleas, camellias, hydrangeas, magnolias and roses. The walk takes about an hour and a half but seems to pass far too quickly. It is cool and refreshing under the big trees, and the silence save for the wind and cries of birds creates a meditative feel. The last stop is a glorious church built with wood and glass that looks out on a forest. It is a place that refreshes the body and the soul all at the same time.

Not far from Lake Ouachita is Mount Ida, a treasure trove of rock shops that offer quartz crystals and other gems from the area as well as a variety of specimens from around the world. In many of the places there is the added feature of being able to actually dig for treasures with the promise of finding something even more unusual. It is a place where a a fun day being an amateur geologist becomes reality.

Another gorgeous park is located at Mt. Nebo which requires a drive up a narrow road that twists and turns and ends with a magnificent view of the valley below. There are stone cabins for rent that are fully equipped with everything but food. Best of all they have outdoor patios with fireplaces and unbelievable scenic views. I’ve already put a return visit to this wonderful place on my bucket list.

Of course we traveled to Caddo Gap, the site of so many of my childhood memories with my grandparents. It was a thriving little town once, but that was long long ago. The old jailhouse has been converted into a residence and the suspension bridge over the creek that once served as a way to walk out of the hills is now in tatters. Only those who saw it when it was still fit for use will understand how remarkable it used to be. I recall watching my grandmother bravely walk across its wooden planks high above the water and thinking that she must surely have been the most courageous woman in the world. I can still she her smiling down on me and encouraging me to be more adventurous, a trait that seems to be a must in Arkansas.

I fell in love with the glorious place where my grandparents and great grandparents lived and worked so long ago. Arkansas is a beautiful state with wonderfully inviting people. I will definitely be returning. 

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An Encyclopedia of Knowledge

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Discovering something brand new is quite exhilarating, and with the Internet it is far easier to do ever before. There was a time when a family set of encyclopedias often formed the basis of new learning, and many a curious person spent large amounts of time scanning the pages of those glorious collections of facts and ideas. Even the old volumes that were somewhat outdated still offered a cornucopia of information about the world in a time when the only other alternative for vicarious exploring was the library. Many a child lucky enough to live in a house with a set of Encyclopedia Brittanica held a world of excitement from “A to Z” at the fingertips.

Of course those old collections of Wikipedia like information have gone the way of the dinosaurs making it less and less necessary for young children to learn how to spell “encyclopedia” from Disney character, Jiminy Cricket. The Internet has taken the place of those rows of volumes that grandly announced that certain homes were purveyors and supporters of knowledge, and the extravagant investment in companies like Britannica or Compton or World Book was physical proof of dedication to learning.

There were often installment plans for encyclopedias back in the day. Patrons would purchase one volume at a time on a monthly payment plan. Each beautifully bound book would arrive along with a bill. My own father being consumed with a devotion to knowledge, books, and libraries had signed on for a set of Compton encyclopedias that were of dubious age by the time my brothers and I had learned to read. Nonetheless, most of the historical information was sound, and they became a kind of centerpiece in our family library that was lovingly stored in bookcases that lined our hallway. When my dad died, purchasing books became a luxury replaced by regular visits to the library. The encyclopedias became cracked and the pages began to rot. At some point my mother must have decided to divest herself of them because I don’t know what eventually happened to them.

Now the Worldwide Web is my go to source of quick research. As with the old books that I used, I have to be a bit wary of what I see, and I must check data against multiple sites. I find that there is always at least one address that contains quite accurate and up to date facts. It’s like living inside the great library that once graced Alexandria. I can lounge in my pajamas and munch on my breakfast while traveling through a virtual universe. Nothing is beyond my scope, and I revel in the excitement of it all.

I often think of my father and how intrigued he might have been by the technology that makes it so easy and affordable to discover faraway worlds and cultures. A good laptop provides more data at a far lower price than even the best encyclopedia. I can almost picture my dad surfing from one topic to another and enjoying all of the latest innovations with the same glee that he demonstrated for his prized books. He was a futurist who enjoyed reading about travels to the moon in an era in which such thoughts seemed to be the purview of dreamers. He had a wanderlust that he satisfied with his vacations and subscriptions to The National Geographic Society. He devoured literature and history, and never seemed to be able to find enough reading material to satisfy his voracious appetite. Having so much available with a few strokes of his fingers on a keyboard would have no doubt made him as giddy as a child on Christmas day.

Like my father I am perennially searching for interesting new ideas, and my trusty laptop is one of my most valued possessions. It takes me to places both sought out and unexpected. Each day I find that I am surprised by the new learning that it brings my way. I am admittedly as addicted to its power to transport me as my dad was to the books and the libraries that satisfied his academic thirst.

A good example of how the Internet sates my curiosity occurred recently when I was reading an article and an image popped up in a corner of my screen that distracted me for its color. As soon as I had finished the essay I clicked on the photo. It was the first in a series of slides about human towers. It seems that each year in Catalonia thousands of people converge to enjoy the tradition of watching organized groups take turns building a “castell.” These castles  are formed by creating a foundational base called a “pinya” upon which two additional bases are built before people then climb as high as nine to twelve feet into the air to form a tower of humans. Each group wears white pants and a solid colored shirt of a single color. Around their waists are sashes that also serve as a means of climbing. The process involves arranging the strongest and sturdiest of the members on the bottom level and then slowly moving upward until the lightest and most acrobatic form the summit. Then the process is reversed, all in a smooth flowing and systematic manner.

The photos that I saw were stunning in their beauty and so tickled my curiosity that I did additional research and learned about the history and terminology of this traditional event. I became quite intrigued by the difficulty of creating this human work of art, and wondered why I had never before heard of it. I suppose that next I will find some videos that show the process from start to finish.

We often complain that all of the technology that surrounds us is taking too much of our time or invading our privacy. We don’t stop to realize just how wonderful it has been in helping us to quickly and conveniently learn about the world in which we live. While the Internet has the power to drive us apart, it also might be the very thing that ultimately brings us together. We now have the capacity to see how true it is that we humans are amazing and to understand how much alike in our dreams we really are. Those dusty encyclopedias were once our bridges to understanding, but the new peddlers of information found at the stroke of a few keys are far more glorious.   

Good Fortune

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From September until the end of December I have always been deliriously happy. It somehow seems to be the best time of year for me. Six of my seven grandchildren were born in those months. My own birthday is in November and I was married in October. Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas are all celebratory times for me when I have the pleasure of being with family and friends. It’s difficult to dull my joy at this time of year, and yet I have also lost some of the most significant people in my life in the midst of all of my merrymaking. Those moments have been brutally difficult, causing me to just go through the motions of events that normally would have made me ecstatic.

Back in 2001, not long after the collapse of the Twin Towers I was already feeling quite distraught when my husband’s best friend, Egon, died suddenly from a heart attack. He had come into our lives when we were all quite young, and over time he was more like a brother than a friend. He had come from Germany to study at the University of Houston  where he eventually met the woman who would become his wife. His journeys back to his homeland would be only to visit his parents. Houston would become his new home, and he enjoyed bragging that he was not born in Texas, but had come as soon as it was possible.

Egon was a brilliant man with an astounding memory and an uncanny  ability to spin a story with vivid detail. His conversations were filled with information and insights. We often listened to him for hours on end, marveling at his ability to recall facts and describe ideas with such clarity. He would have been a remarkable college professor, but went into a career in sales instead where his skills in noting small details made him a super star. His death hit us quite hard and created a kind of emptiness in our lives that still lingers even seventeen years later.

Around the same time only a few years later my mother-in-law had a stroke that left her in a coma from which she never emerged. It was a major blow to all of us, and for me it represented losing perhaps the major source of wisdom upon which I had relied as an adult. I still long for the chats that she and I had on Sunday afternoons over a warm pot of tea. Perhaps that is why to this day drinking a cup of the brew brings me such comfort.

My mother-in-law was the kind of intellectual and confident woman who might have held court with the cafe society of Paris that included some of the world’s greatest thinkers, writers and artists. She was not just well read, but someone who was analytical and able to advance her opinions and thoughts with a persuasiveness and encyclopedic knowledge that few possess. She was the person who was able to provide me with solutions and serenity whenever I faced problems. She left a huge hole in our family that has never been properly filled.

A few years back my cousin, Jack, died from heart failure. He was a year younger than I am and it seemed rather unfair to lose him so soon. He and I were quite close when we were growing up. So many of my fondest memories of childhood were spent at his side. When I think of fun, his image almost always comes to my mind. He loved a good joke and always had the most delightfully impish smile, even in his final days when his health was failing him.

Jack was such a good man that my cousins and I joke that he is surely a saint, someone to whom we might send our prayers and petitions. He was kind and generous and loved. He was most certainly the best of us with his faithfulness and quiet ways of making us all laugh even when we were feeling down.

Last year, again at around this time, our dear friend, Bill, died. I had always said that Bill should have had his own talk show. He was incredibly entertaining as he spoke of books that he had read, trips that he had taken, or just expounded his political views. He had led a quite interesting life that took him from Detroit, Michigan all the way to NASA in Houston, Texas. He was a pioneer in the computer industry, and one of the bright young men chosen to help send humans into space.

After his wife died Bill liked to come by our house unannounced. He’d ring the doorbell in the middle of the day and then regale us for hours  with tales of his current adventures. I liked nothing better than to set aside my routines and just enjoy his visits. He is yet another person who was not just quite interesting, but also terrifically wise. There was something about him that made the world seem a bit more steady than it otherwise might have been.

I think of these remarkable people with a bit of sorrow, but I also celebrate the memories that I made with them. Those will never go away. They are tucked away so close to my heart that I am able to retrieve them anytime that I need a smile. I choose to celebrate my good fortune in having known them rather than focusing on the sadness of no longer expecting to spend a glorious afternoon or evening with them. I am one of the lucky ones who was close to them. I rejoice in my good fortune, even as I celebrate the season.

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.

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.