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.

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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.

  

Tick Tock

collection of vintage alarm clocksChange, chaos, confusion! No, I’m not speaking of the political realm but something far more insidious, the springing forward to Daylight Savings Time that occurs each March. Even after a week people are still dragging around trying to adjust their internal clocks to the loss of an hour and wondering just why we insist on torturing ourselves by moving the hands of our mantlepieces twice a year. Who thought of this process and does it really make a difference of any kind?

During World War I someone decided that Daylight Savings Time might help the country save energy. Maybe it was a good idea back then but somewhere along the way as our world turned into a twenty four hour frenzy of lights, television programming, computer use and shopping the concept of everyone quietly turning off their lights and going to bed doesn’t appear to be what it might once have been. Research shows that having an extra hour of daylight does little to curtail the use of electricity, gasoline, natural gas or any other form of energy, not the least of which is because we use the same hour’s worth of lighting when we rise in the dark each morning that we would have used if night came a bit earlier in the evening.

I recently read that more people have heart attacks and wrecks in the first weeks after a time change than at other moments in the year. Farmers report that their animals have difficulty adjusting to changing routines as well. So the burning question that keeps coming back to mind is why we torture ourselves by doing something that most of us dread? Why don’t we just choose either Daylight Savings Time or regular time and then stick with it forever? It would certainly be easier on the constitution.

I generally reach the point at which I am fully accustomed to the new timing just shortly before it is about to readjust again. I sleep well in those last weeks and feel a level of energy that is unbounded. Once we go through the gruesome alteration process I find myself dragging for weeks and I am plagued by insomnia for months. I suspect from comments that I hear that most people feel the way that I do. I don’t particularly care if my mornings are dark or my evenings come a bit earlier as long as I get to become acclimated to one way of marking time or another and then never again have to change unless I choose to travel to a different time zone.

Unfortunately we seem to be doomed to continuing the silly tradition of switching from one method of timing to another simply because we once started it. Have you ever noticed how reluctant we are to abandon a process once we decide to try it? It is some crazy aspect of human nature to prefer sticking with a plan even if that plan proves to be ridiculous. We see it most especially in government where that status quo becomes the way of doing things ad infinitum. We fear the idea of admitting that we my have been wrong about the merit of an idea and so we commit ourselves to absurdities again and again. It almost takes a rebellion to repeal a rule once we have made it part of our routine.

I applaud states like Arizona and Indiana that don’t go along with the time change shuffle. They merrily buck the tide and enjoy the certainty of no loss or gain in hours. They have no need of clock changers who must spend wasted time moving the hands of timepieces back and forth, back and forth twice each year.

I once saw an interesting documentary detailing the unbelievable number of days that it takes just to adjust all of the clocks that belong to the Queen of England. Many of them are complex antiques that must be very carefully calibrated and only experts are able to do so properly. It is a herculean task that is both expensive and time consuming.

I feel as though we have so many truly important problems in the world and recalibrating the time again and again should not be one of them. I advocate for suspending this policy and freeing ourselves from the tyranny of sleepless nights and energy-less days. I call for letting the natural rotation of the earth determine the timing of our habits just as it did for the thousands of years before someone got the not so bright idea of artificially determining when our days should begin and end.

Since it is more than likely that we will never rid ourselves of this onerous habit I instead extend my sympathies to those who become discombobulated each March and then again in the fall. I feel for all of the teachers who must spend the next many weeks looking at students slumped lazily on the tops of their desks. My heart goes out to the mothers of babies who insist on keeping to their sleep routines regardless of what the clocks may say. I understand the frustration of pet owners whose kitties and puppies react to the sun rather than the manmade schedule. For those like me who are now spending their nights staring at the ceiling I give you the hope that this too shall pass sometime around September or October just in time for it all to begin again.

What a piece of work is man. We sure know how to make things more complicated than they need to be. Maybe instead of making so many more new rules we may want to consider getting rid of some of the ones that make our lives more difficult. Starting with omitting all of the time changes seems to me to be a great place to start.

A Very Thanksgiving Treat

elliott-pecansI always loved visiting my grandmother’s house in November. She was sure to have enamel bowls filled with tangerines and pecans. Usually it was just chilly enough to warrant using her ceramic gas heater to warm the living room. It always felt so cozy being there with my aunts and uncles and many cousins. I came to associate such things with the month of November. To this very day I have to have tangerines in my refrigerator and fresh pecans in my pantry when the eleventh month rolls around. It just doesn’t seem to feel right without them.

My Aunt Opal made pumpkin pie all year round but unless it was November we were never certain that she would have any available when we came to visit. Not so, in November. She never failed to have one ready for us whenever we chose to spend time with her then. Hers were absolutely the best that I have ever tasted. She didn’t even need a recipe to whip one up. The directions were all in her head. I used to love watching her roll out the pie dough and mix the ingredients for the filling. She always had some interesting story to tell us while her weathered hands did their work. I can still see her working the dough with her old rolling pin and stirring the creamy mixture that would gel into pure deliciousness. My mouth waters just thinking about it.

My mother liked to take the pecans that were so plentiful in November and bake them up into a pie. She transformed those nuts into a delectable southern delight. She was rather famous for her special recipe. I recall a time when she took one of her pies to a party and placed it next to a pecan pie that somebody else had prepared. When a friend of mine heard that one of Mama’s famous creations was there she rushed in to claim a piece before the dessert was gone. She took one bite and spit it back on the plate exclaiming, “This isn’t your mom’s pie! Where did this come from?” Luckily the baker of the less tasty treat wasn’t around to hear her insult but my mother had caught the gist of the conversation and quickly came to the rescue with a slice of her pie. From then on my friend always checked to be certain that she was getting nobody else’s pecan pie but Mama’s.

Yesterday after visiting with my in-laws my husband and I ventured over to the Airline farmer’s market. We were greeted by the sound of the nut cracking machine that was busy opening pounds and pounds of fresh pecans. It is a sound that I have heard each November for as long as I can remember. It tells me that my birthday is coming soon and that Thanksgiving is just around the corner. Its click clack is so comforting. It is much like hearing a train rumbling down the tracks in the dark of night. It is a link to some of the most wondrous times in my past.

While at the market I also saw a huge display of tangerines. I rushed over immediately to fill a bag. The aroma of citrus filled my senses and told me that I will be enjoying juicy fruit in the coming days. I feel content in knowing that I am able to find such delightful items so close to my home.

We really do live in a land of plenty. I had a friend who grew up in Germany at the same time that I was experiencing a childhood in the United States. He often spoke of playing in the rubble of his city of Bremen which had been bombed continuously during World War II. He developed scurvy because of the lack of vitamin C. For most of his lifetime fruits and vegetables were a luxury. He told of a time when an aunt had a single tomato to share with the family and how it was prized as a precious delicacy. Each person took a thin slice and ate it as though it was pure gold. When he eventually moved to the United States he was astounded by the abundance that we all enjoyed. He never lost his appreciation for our country and the wealth that it provided him.

My mother always told me that her parents saw themselves as being rich simply because they always had good food on the table. They turned their backyard into a garden and raised animals for milk and meat. Even during the Great Depression they always had good meals created by my grandmother. Nothing was ever wasted. Even bones and peelings were boiled for broth for soups and seasonings. When the family ate fish my grandmother would consume the head and give the more savory parts to her children.

We sometimes forget how precious food was for our ancestors and rarely think about people in other parts of the world who are starving even as we fill garbage trucks with mountains of food that might otherwise save a life. We take our food for granted and rarely realize our good fortune in having a lovely orange or a bowl of nuts. We don’t want to think about small children with bloated bellies who are wracked with pain because they do not have enough sustenance. Thanksgiving simply doesn’t have the same meaning when we have never known want as it might feel like to truly experience grinding hunger.

In November I am thankful that my mother like her mother always found a way to keep our stomachs full. Sometimes our dinner was little more than a bowl of pinto beans but there was something on our table to sustain us even when our cupboard seemed to be bare. I often took egg sandwiches to school for lunch. At the time it embarrassed me because there were often complaints about the smell. Sometimes I chose not to eat rather than reveal my strange repast. I now think of how silly I was, especially when I consider the millions of people who would have thought themselves most fortunate to have something so tasty and wholesome to eat. In so many ways I have been spoiled.

It is in the small things that we feel the most delight. For me the tangerines, pecans and pumpkins that were the treats of my childhood Novembers are still a special treasure. When I eat them they are more than just tasty. They are ways of tangibly remembering some of the most happy times of my childhood and the special people who made it so. I can see my grandmother’s smile as she watches me enjoy a tangerine with the juice running down my chin as I laugh with my cousins. I can hear my Aunt Opal telling us wondrous tales as she shoves a pumpkin pie into the oven. I recall my mother whispering her secret recipe for making the best pecan pies. The taste of the food on my tongue jogs my memory and releases happy feelings that tell me just how wonderful my life has always been. It really is a great time of year to be thankful as I remember and appreciate.