A Fall Tradition

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Fall is filled with a number of traditions for me. I don’t ever see leaves turning glorious colors unless I travel away from my home near Houston. Everything stays green here until the leaves eventually dry into a crispy brown and fall to the ground, so I bring out all of my artificial wreaths and garlands to remind me that somewhere the colors of fall are glorious. I decorate with pumpkins, acorns and pine cones, festooning my home with shades of orange, yellow, red and brown. It’s quite lovely and in many ways I enjoy the decorations of the fall season even more than those of Christmas.

I take an annual fall pilgrimage to The Cheesecake Factory to share a piece of pumpkin cheesecake with husband Mike. The treat is only available for a short time each year so I make careful plans to be certain that I don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy the creamy goodness while I can. I used to purchase an entire pumpkin cheesecake for my birthday but the days when I might eat entire slices without adding inches to my waist are long gone. Sometimes it feels as though simply looking at a slice of pumpkin cheesecake adds a pound or two to my girth. Now I eat sensibly and sparingly, but always include at least one shared slice of my favorite taste of fall.

I rearrange my closet each fall to bring jackets and sweaters within reach in case the weather finally turns cool. I store shorts and sleeveless tops farther to the back. It’s like getting a whole new wardrobe and I always find myself feeling a bit giddy about the way that the clothes hide a multitude of sins in my eternal fight to maintain a healthy weight.

So much about fall makes me incredibly happy save for one tradition that never fails to come around. Ever since I can remember there is a time when my throat begins to feel as though it is going to close up so tightly that I won’t be able to swallow. Almost without warning I am unable to speak in a normal tone of voice. My laryngitis forces me to weakly whisper any communication that I wish to convey. No lemon or honey or medication seems to help until it has run its course. For a few days each and every year I learn what it would be like to be trapped in a state of muteness.

Now that I am retired I am able to simply stay home until my body adjusts to whatever allergic reaction I have had to things floating in the air. When I was still teaching my problem was far more serious. I never felt so bad that I need to retire to bed or stay at home, but attempting to teach a lesson in mathematics with a voice so small that it sounded as though it belonged to a tiny mouse was almost impossible. Sadly each school year of my career I found myself attempting to manage students while keeping them in a learning mode without the aid of my voice that would carry across a room. It was always a challenge.

Amazingly my students always rallied to help me. They immediately sensed my predicament and rather than taking advantage of my inability to actually control the situation they resorted to extreme kindness toward me. No matter how rowdy the group of kids might have been under ordinary circumstances they rose to the occasion and proved themselves to be helpful in my time of need. It was as though their natural tendencies to be good overcame any temptations to use my illness against me. I always let them know how much I appreciated their efforts once my voice finally returned, and they assured me that they would save their shenanigans until it was a fair competition.

I find that all people, not just my students, trend toward kindness. This year when my annual bout of laryngitis came I was scheduled to have my driver’s license renewed. Upon my arrival the workers at the DPS were determined to be as surly as they are known to be until they realized that the squeak in my voice was real. Each person suddenly became incredibly helpful and even smiled at me. They actually seemed to enjoy having an opportunity to be nice. Instead of barking orders they treated me gently and even made suggestions as to how I might treat my illness.

On an evening when I was slated to help my grandsons review for a Pre Calculus test I stopped at a Starbuck’s to get some hot tea in the hopes that it might keep my voice going long enough to be of use to the study process. The barista was quite patient as I attempted to squeak out my order. The expression on his face told me that he was feeling my pain. When I was searching for the change I needed to pay my bill he anxiously waved away the few pennies that I was unable to locate and wished me godspeed and a quick recovery.

I suppose that my point is that each fall when my allergies wreak havoc on my system I am reminded that people are truly good. It’s always been that way and I am certain it always will be. It’s easy to focus on the ugliness in the world but it is the exception, not the rule. That’s why we notice it. What we often fail to see are the thousands of moments when we humans take care of one another without even being asked to do so. Being nudged to remember this each fall is just one more reason that I so love this time of year.

A Festival of Fall

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Photo by Suneo1999 on Pexels.com

One of the grandest discoveries of my retirement has been finding the Houston Garden Club Annual Bulb Mart. When I was first adapting to the concept of having all of the daylight hours to myself I began looking for things to fill the time. I signed up for a class at Rice, found a tutoring gig, began writing daily, and treated myself to going to the movie theater in the middle of the day. Because I tend to be a high energy person I still needed more to keep my mind entertained. That’s when I decided to search on Google for special events around my town. Luckily I found an advertisement for the Bulb Mart, and I’ve been attending ever since.

The ladies of the garden club plan their gala fundraiser all year long, and quite wisely choose a date in mid October when the weather in Houston is generally Chamber of Commerce level glorious. Somehow they avoid the rains that so often are a precursor of fall. I’ve often wondered if they consult the Farmer’s Almanac because in the seven years that I have been attending, not once has there been even a cloud in the sky. In fact the weather has always been glorious to match the moods of all of us who walk around with big grins on our faces as we gaze at the lovely offerings.

The venue for the event has changed from time to time, but it has been held at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Westheimer for the last few years. The main focus of the occasion is on an incredible variety of bulbs including tulips, irises, day lilies, amaryllis, an more. Table after table offers a variety of genres and colors. There are also many plants native to the Houston area as well as those that thrive in our particular growing zone. The ladies who volunteer are always knowledgeable and helpful in providing good information about how to best grow a delightful garden. For those wishing to have more information there are lectures and little seminars happening throughout the two day event as well.

My backyard garden is filled with gorgeous amaryllis plants that burst forth in glory each spring. They are magnificent in variety and color and never fail to fill me with joy. It’s exciting to watch them display their unique features one by one after the winter freezes are gone. I add one or two bulbs each year to go with those that have faithfully bloomed since I first began this glorious tradition.

The plants from the Bulb Mart are made for the gumbo soil, high humidity and rain soaked environment that Houston gardens must endure. I have yet to have any of them fail to flourish. I have a particularly wet side of my house that is exacerbated by the runoff from my next door neighbor’s backyard. Their entire area is dominated by a large pool and concrete decking that makes for intense drainage problems for me. On most days the area that abuts on their property is water logged. I invested large amounts of money trying to find something that would grow in that condition all to no avail. The roots would rot and I would have to try something new. Last year I spoke with the experts at the Bulb Mart and invested in a plant that seemed to be suited for the habitat. To both my surprise and delight the plant has thrived and bloomed with delicate white flowers even as the watery problem has only worsened with the continual rains of September and early October.

I attended the Bulb Mart again this year just as I have for the last seven. It has become a “must do” for me. I get an email in the summer reminding me of the date and I literally plan my October activities around it. This year I pre-ordered a few items to insure that I would get certain varieties before they ran out. The day was as lovely as it always seems to be and I found myself falling in love with my city one more time. The smiling faces of the workers and the shoppers reminded me of what a friendly place Houston is. It’s a kind of small town with four million people. The first hint of fall made me forget the heat and humidity that has kept us indoors for weeks. It was a picture perfect day in every possible way, made better by the joyful plants that I bought to enhance the gardens that bring me peace and contentment all year long.

I’m not a person who can countenance change too quickly. I like a certain orderliness in my life. Too much shuffling around creates a kind of chaos in my heart and mind. I prefer quiet and routine. The Bulb Mart has become a constant for me, a mediating force for the variables of living. I depend on it to bring me peace and contentment. Thus far it has yet to fail me.

If you happen to be in Houston around the second week of October check the events calendar to see if the Bulb Mart is happening. The admission is free and everyone gets an informative little book describing the various kinds of bulbs and when and how to plant and care for them. There are even door prizes for a lucky few. Best of all there is a festive and friendly spirit that is so typical of Houston. It’s fun just to walk around and celebrate the glory of nature at her best.

Good Fortune

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

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.

A Wedding, Two Funerals, and A Hurricane

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This summer has left me forever changed in ways more dramatic than I might ever have imagined. It began innocently enough with a visit to New Orleans with grandson Ian. He saw my favorite city with a new set of eyes that were innocent and inquisitive. It was the history of the place that fascinated him more than even the food and entertainment. He was particularly entranced with the World War II Museum which filled him with wonder and so many questions. I suppose that in many ways the day that we spent reliving the drama and importance of that era when was the beginning of a circle of life that left me profoundly different by the end of my journey through the warm lazy days that have heretofore represented fun and frolic to me, but would no longer be so simple to consider.

After our sojourn in New Orleans we travelled to Cancun for the wedding of two of our favorite friends, Tim and Dickie. We learned just how powerful love can be and that how it cannot be narrowly defined. We also went on a journey back in history to study the Mayan people and their glorious civilization that had been quite advanced in its time. It humbled us to learn of the ingenuity of mankind, but also to understand that the upheavals of life and how we humans react to them have the power to take down or raise up even nations.

We had scheduled so many more amazing travels for July and August when our world was shaken to its very foundation. My husband Mike had a stroke on July 3, and it was as though the earth itself had stood still. Nothing really mattered to me other than Mike’s health and I was thankful that he was still alive and that I would have more time to convey my feelings for him. I suppose that from that exact moment forward I quit taking anything for granted. I became more attuned to the colors and sounds and people all around me. I rejoiced each day when both Mike and I arose. I reveled in even the smallest bits of joy that came our way. Somehow I found myself caring little for things and greatly appreciative of relationships and love.

Mike and I shared a viewing of a partial eclipse of the sun rather than than the total one that we had planned to witness. I suppose that I should have been disappointed that we were not able to travel to Wyoming for the event, but having the pleasure of sitting with Mike in a park watching the little piece of wonder that we were given was more than ample for me. I felt that our day together was truly glorious just because we had the gift of being together. Whenever I thought of what might have been, I felt frightened but mostly grateful for my blessings. Each new day was glorious, but I had little idea that an even greater test of my endurance lay ahead.

As the summer drew to a close my two eldest grandsons readied to go off to college. We celebrated at our favorite Cuban restaurant, El Meson, in the Village area of Houston near Rice University and the Medical Center. It was a beautiful night in which we enjoyed knowing what fine young men our Andrew and Jack had become. It was yet another reason to be thankful and our hearts were filled with joy.

Later we had the privilege of having our twin grandsons Ben and Eli at our home while their parents helped their older brother to check into his dorm at Texas A&M. I was charged with helping the two boys to complete a project for their English class and we worked quite hard for an entire Saturday. I woke them up early on Sunday so that we might finish and still have time for some fun before their parents returned. Just as I had hoped we found ourselves with enough free hours that we were able to go bowling at the Main Event. Later that evening we played a rousing game of Scrabble with no holds barred, and Eli literally blew us all away with a remarkable score. We laughed and felt so good that I once again found myself silently saying prayers of thanks for such precious moments.

Then came the threat of hurricane Harvey. It seemed that because the eye of the storm would be so far away we would be in little danger. There were predictions of massive rainfall but somehow that didn’t seem to be much of a problem, and so we decided to stay in our home. On the first day after the hurricane made landfall we spoke of the hysteria of the forecasters because their promises of floods appeared to have been premature. We were much more saddened by images of the devastation in Rockport, Texas, one of our all time favorite camping spots. It was not until the evening that the rains began and kept going and going and going for three solid days leaving forty three inches in our neighborhood alone.

We began to hear dire reports of friends and family members whose homes were taking on water. The television stations showed us live pictures of familiar places that looked like ocean front property. More and more people that we knew were evacuating, sometimes in the middle of the night. Suddenly I became fearful because it was apparent that if my husband had another stroke there would be little that we might do to get the help that he would need. Those three days became a kind of terror for me. I watched the rain and the street in front and the yard in the back, ever vigilant and unable to sleep lest I might need to get Mike to a medical facility. I cared not about any of the things in my home, but only about my husband and his safety. I realized that I was going to do whatever it took to get him through.

When the rain finally stopped and moved away from our city after dumping fifty one inches across a one hundred mile wide area I was emotionally drained and filled with conflicting emotions. I cried for all of the souls whose worlds had been turned upside down. I sobbed for those who had lost their lives and their homes. I felt lucky that Mike had made it through the days and nights in good condition. I laughed that we had stayed home from camping trips and the eclipse lest he be in a situation in which he might not be able to receive immediate medical care, and ironically for three days we had essentially been trapped on a kind of island with so much happening all around us that we were actually quite alone. I had to praise God for caring for us and for giving me the strength and the calm that I had needed to weather the storm.

Last week our city began to attempt a return to normalcy in earnest. Children returned to school. Adults went back to work. There were actually days that felt so much like the glorious beginning of fall that has always made Houston a kind of Chamber of Commerce postcard. Only rides around town reminded us of the horror of what had happened. Still we had to be happy that we were able to meet with great friends for a brunch on Sunday. We were grateful that we got to visit Mike’s father on Monday and see that he was doing well. Then our week was punctuated with the sorrow and celebration of the lives of two incredible women who had died. I think that perhaps more than any other event their funerals impacted me with a realization of what is truly most important as we live out our days.

Both of these beautiful souls had lived through those harrowing events of World War II that we had studied in New Orleans with Ian. One of them had resided in England. She met her soulmate during that conflict, an American GI. The two of them fell in love and he took her back to his home in Texas where they had seven children that they raised in a home filled with love and goodness and faith in God. The other woman had been born in Italy but eventually immigrated to New Orleans where she too met the love of her life. They also wound up in Houston in the same neighborhood where I grew up. They had four children who would become dear friends of mine. Both women were devoted to their families and required very little in the way of possessions or wealth to be happy. They sacrificed for family and felt honored to do so. In the end they were in turn loved and adored by their children and their friends.

When I attended the two funerals I was accompanied by people that I had known since I was quite young. We had each accumulated a lifetime of stories and memories, but somehow we knew that those women had demonstrated to us how to truly get the most out of life. I felt a sense of peace and a feeling of understanding that has all too often eluded me as I have fought to accomplish rather than to relate. I saw that these women had always realized that titles and bank accounts and possessions were not the things that define a life well lived, but rather the moments when we touch hearts. Somehow I understood that in spite of the topsy turvy nature of this summer, it had been magnificent because it had opened my eyes to how I need to embrace each moment that I have. Somehow I am all the better for what I have learned from that wedding, the hurricane and those two funerals.

Never Let Go

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So much has been said about the examples of heroism and unconditional love that were exhibited in Houston, Texas both during and in the aftermath of hurricane Harvey. Suddenly the entire world is beginning to understand what it is that we love about this place that is as flat as a pancake, a perfect breeding ground for mosquitos, and has very little in the way of scenic views other than a downtown skyline that is quite beautiful on an autumn day. For years I have tried to explain our town to those who have never been here, and I suppose that I never truly made my point that this city is all about people. The view of who we are has suddenly changed as Houston has become the symbol of what is right with the human spirit.

Sure we have some basic problems with flood control and such, but what the attraction to Houston comes down to, is to be found in the generosity and determination of its citizens. As I travel from place to place I see so many wondrous sights and I find that the people that I encounter are generally welcoming, but nowhere do I feel as accepted for who I am than right here where I live. I always find myself feeling a sense of relief whenever I reenter the city limits. The outpouring of courage and unity and pure love that we have witnessed in the past few weeks has proven my lifetime contention that there are many great places to visit, but Houston is one of the best places to live.

I’d like to think that if any real good comes from this disaster that has so horrifically impacted so many in Houston, it will be the reminder that when all is said and done we are all brothers and sisters aiming for the same comfort and security in life. In the middle of the night during a storm when floodwaters forced a family onto the roof of their house the background of the savior who drove up in a boat to retrieve them from danger mattered not a wit. The reactions that we have when we don’t have time to think are often the purest and most perfect. The reality is that nobody who endured the terrifying days when fifty one inches of rain filled our streets even thought to consider differences. We were all just human beings lashed together in an horrific situation. Our only goal was to survive and to help others to make it to safety with us.

I suppose that politics raged on as usual during those days, but we weren’t even aware of the day or the time much less who was arguing with whom. My neighborhood received a bit more than forty three inches of rain. My only worry was whether or not the drainage system for my street would continue to operate. I silently prayed that my husband would not have another stroke because I suspected that we would not be able to reach the hospital that is only five minutes away if he did. I constantly checked to be certain that my neighbors, family members and friends were okay. When I heard of people who had flood waters entering their homes I was not able to rest until I knew that they had reached a safe and secure refuge. Mine was a scene that was taking place a million times over throughout the area, and we were all hoping for the best for one another. 

I’m not known as a fan of Donald Trump, but I was happy when he came to survey the damage and worked to speed the funding for the recovery of our city. He seemed sincere in his concern, and somehow my animosity toward him didn’t feel appropriate given the situation in which we found ourselves. I am thankful that he seems to understand our plight and that he is willing to do something about it. I have no criticism of his willingness to help.

I have been moved to tears by the outpouring of love from all parts of the country and the world. Our brothers and sisters in Louisiana were some of the first to render aide. The people of New York City understood our pain. Again and again I have heard of volunteers from Israel, Saudi Arabia and countries that may not have heretofore even thought of Houston, Texas. It has been simply amazing to me how wonderful we humans truly are and my faith in mankind has been bolstered.

I watched the Hand in Hand telethon earlier this week and when I saw the genuine concern of the arts community hoping to help us in some way I found myself shedding tears once again. There was Oprah Winfrey manning a telephone line. Tom Hanks and George Clooney and Leo DiCaprio  were there to help the people of my city. Usher and Blake Shelton sang so beautifully. Matthew McConaughey spoke eloquently of the road forward for the citizens of our city. Dennis Quaid wore his Bellaire High School shirt. George Strait led some of the best country artists in a beautiful rendition of Texas. I don’t think that I will ever again see any of the many people who gathered together for this cause without wanting to hug them in thanksgiving. They became as one with my city and they earned the key to my heart.

Beyonce, a native Houstonian, said it best when she noted that we have seen far too much violence and hatred of late. Houston has shown the world that love still exists. Houston has demonstrated that race and politics and social standing don’t matter as much as a willingness to stand toe to toe with one another in an hour of need. In our darkest and most frightening days it was the best of humanity that rose to the occasion. Let us pray that we will not let go of that ideal now that it has come to the fore. We need to join hands all across the world and never again let go.