The Happy Place

The road

When summer days get so hot that hardly anyone is stirring outside I often think of the trips that we took to visit my grandparents in Arkansas when I was still a young child. Grandma and Grandpa fulfilled a long held dream by purchasing a little farm in a tiny town called Caddo Gap. My grandmother had spent time growing up not far from there and she still had siblings in the area. Her mother, father, grandmother were buried nearby on land that was once their homestead and is now part of a national forest.  She had fond memories of life in the country and while she never learned to read and write, her head was filled with knowledge of how of nature. She was a master gardener whose thumb was so green that it sparkled brighter than an emerald.

My grandfather spent his boyhood somewhere in a nameless place in view of the hills of Virginia. He too loved the quiet and serenity of being far away from the noise of the city, and so it should have been of little surprise to us that he and his best buddy, my grandmother, one day pulled up stakes from Houston and began an adventure that would bring them some of the happiest days of their lives.

My grandpa was a rambling man without roots or obligations until he met my grandmother when he was in his forties. He had been searching for something that he couldn’t find at the bottom of a bottle of booze or in the countless boarding houses where he lived while following opportunities to work. By his own admission he often felt abandoned. His mother had died when he was born and he was taken to live with his grandmother who passed when he was barely in his teens. The guardian that he chose to tend to his affairs died unexpectedly from typhus not long after Grandpa reached an age at which he became an independent adult. His life was untethered and dreary. Then one day he met a lovely woman, a widow who cooked in a boarding house in Oklahoma where my grandfather had landed while in search of a job. The rest would be one of the world’s great love stories as Grandpa fell head over heels for the tiny lady who would prove to be his savior.

They had two children together and continued to move from place to place until my grandfather grew old and retired from working. At first they settled in a house in the Houston Heights but the city was already growing faster than they wished. They longed for quiet and a rendezvous with nature. It surprised us all when they announced their plan to move away to begin a new kind of life when they were in their late seventies. With great anticipation they packed up all of their belongings and made the journey to their new home.

Theirs was a busy but idyllic life. They awoke before dawn each day to tend to the cow and the chickens. By the time the sun rose they had already completed hours of labor and they would continue their toil until late into the night. They grew a variety of crops using the knowledge that was stored in my grandmother’s head. They carefully tended each plant and when it was time to harvest and preserve their bounty they existed on only a few hours of sleep each night. Their cellar was filled with racks of canned corn, tomatoes, squash, green beans, pickles, peppers and other varieties of fruit and vegetables. Their huge freezer held fish that they had caught, deer meat for which  they had hunted, and even delicacies like squirrel that my grandmother turned into a delightful fricassee. They lived off of the land and became one with it. They were happier than they had ever been. 

We spent our summers visiting them and grew to love their way of life as much as they did. We always felt so much anticipation as we left from our home early in the morning and drove all day long to reach the road that carried us over the Caddo River and wound into the hills toward their house. The path was a narrow gravel affair that only allowed for one car at a time in some spots, so our parents had to honk the horn when they reached a blind spot to warn anyone coming from the other side that we were on our way. When we finally reached our destination we were always greeted by Grandma’s collie, Lady, who barked a greeting while wagging her tail. Soon enough my grandparents would emerge from their screened porch with smiles and open arms ready to hug us until we could hardly breathe.

Our days would be filled with milking the cow, gathering peaches from the big trees that shaded the driveway, exploring the hills behind the farm, visiting with neighbors, and learning new skills from both of the grandparents. Grandma showed us how to make biscuits and pasteurize milk. She demonstrated how to capture lightning bugs and put them in a jar so that they became a home made flashlight. She designed nets from old t-shirts with which we might capture a butterfly when the morning came. Always she cautioned us to free our captives when we were done.

Grandpa taught us how to milk a cow and catch a fish. He let us watch while he repaired things, explaining what he was doing as he worked. He proudly took us with him on his daily journeys into town where he introduced us to his friends and bought us sodas from huge chests filled with ice.

At night we sat on the screened porch and chatted about this and that. Grandpa always spoke of things he had read in The Saturday Evening Post or The Reader’s Digest and Grandma showed us how to embroider and crochet. We laughed and talked about a hundred different things. We had no electronic games or cell phones to distract us, so all of our attention was focused on the grandparents as was theirs on us. Once in a great while we might adjourn to the living room to watch a favorite television program but that was mostly rare.

We went to bed in a house without air conditioning. Instead it was cooled by the breezes that came through the open windows that were designed to keep the air moving with cross currents. It was still in the dark with only the sounds of animals breaking the silence. There might be a moo or a bark or the howl of some kind of wild cat. It was magical.

My grandparents lived on the farm for only about ten years. My grandmother began to lose her energy and realized that something was wrong. A local country doctor diagnosed her with cancer so she and Grandpa decided to move back to Houston for more advanced treatment. By the time they sold their place and found a new home in Texas her situation was dire. There was little more that the doctors could do than keep her comfortable until she died.

We would all remember those halcyon days in the country with the greatest of pleasure. Grandpa would get a dreamy look in his eyes whenever he spoke of them. We would think of them as the highpoint of our childhood, and even many decades later I can still see the road that led us to our happy place. It is as vivid as if I were there once again.

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An Ounce of Caution

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Here in Houston we get hurricanes from time to time and they are capable of causing great damage from both wind and rain. I worry during the long hurricane season that runs from about June through October in this area. I get especially anxious around the middle of August until the middle of October because that seems to be the time in which we are the most likely to get a violent storm. I’ve learned how and where to hunker down if I decide to stay in my home until everything blows over. I prepare myself both mentally and physically in July while there is still time to get things in order without a rush at the last minute.

I’ve learned to have plenty of batteries, flashlights, lanterns and water on hand along with a supply of nonperishable food. My mother-in-law taught me to fill all of the bathtubs and big pots in the house with water ahead of the hurricane so that I will have a good source of that life saving liquid for some time. I’m always happy that I have a gas stove because even if the electricity goes out I am still able to cook. I store away anything that might blow around in my yard and put tape on my windows. Then I usually go to my father-in-law’s house in the Heights. It’s been standing there for over a hundred years and is rarely affected by anything other than the loss of electricity.

There are more precautions that I have wanted to take but somehow I just never get around to accomplishing the necessary tasks. I have friends who cut and store plywood to cover windows. They have each plank numbered according to the area of glass it is designed to protect. There are many years in which the custom designed works of caution do little more than gather dust in the rafters of the garage, but when a storm threatens in the Gulf of Mexico they are ready to prepare their property while everyone else is scurrying around like folks gone mad.

My husband and I have looked at various generators from time to time as well, including the ones that are permanently affixed to the natural gas supply and designed to automatically kick into gear the moment that the power goes out. The folks who have those experience a small blip and then everything continues working as though nothing had happened. The rest of us with no backup system might find ourselves operating like our ancestors with candles and oil lamps until Reliant Energy gets around to repairing the lines. It can be miserably hot and humid, not to mention cut off from information since none of the electronics work. I’ve tried to encourage my husband to make an investment in some kind of generator, but so far he has not seen a reason for purchasing an expensive item that may be used once in a blue moon.

The hurricanes that I remember are Carla, Alicia, Ike and Harvey. We stayed with my Aunt Polly during Carla when I was just entering the eighth grade. The storm did a great deal of damage around the area but our home suffered nary a scratch. For Alicia we went to my father-in-law’s house. Again our own place was high dry and untouched but the electricity stayed off in part of the neighborhood for weeks. I was a teacher then and the schools did not reopen for quite some time. Ike sent us back again to my father-in-law’s place. I was awake when the storm passed over Houston and I marveled at the strength of the house. It was like watching a hurricane in a movie. The windows barely moved in spite of the power of the storm. For Harvey we stayed in our own home. We had no idea how devastating that event would be for so many of our friends and family, but we luckily came through unharmed. Nonetheless I recall becoming uncontrollably anxious as I watched images of my city going under water. I was certain that we would have to bail at some point, but somehow the water kept miraculously draining.

There is something quite serendipitous about Mother Nature. It’s difficult to predict where she will aim her fury, but there is enough time with the approach of a hurricane to get a fairly good idea of the path that it will take. There are ways to prepare and usually time to do so. The only trick is to get things done early because once it seems certain that an area will bear the brunt of tropical fury  most of the needed supplies will fly from the shelves of the stores leaving only blank spaces for those who have procrastinated.

While I become anxious each summer lest a powerful storm come to our city, I know what I need to do when the threat is clear. Tornadoes and earthquakes are another thing entirely. They come with little or no warning which to me makes them doubly frightening. Living under a constant threat of such things would no doubt make me a basket case just as it has done for those in Houston whose homes flooded with the nonstop rains of hurricane Harvey. Now when thunder and lightning roar in the sky they worry in ways that they never did before. I suspect that living in an earthquake or tornado area might have a similar effect.

My family lived in both northern and southern California for a time when I was eight years old. I recall real estate agents instructing us in what to do in the event of an earthquake. We even had periodic drills at school. I was terrified because we learned that such incidents are rarely predicted. I feared that I would be away from my parents when one struck or that some enormous piece of furniture might fall on top of me. I found myself checking out buildings for strong areas and ways of exiting and wishing that I might return to Texas where such things were exceedingly rare.

My daughter often experienced tornado warnings when she lived in a Chicago suburb. She kept a closet under the stairs cleared so that she might readily run inside with her babies whenever the sirens began to blare. It was nerve wracking because things happened so instantly. I suppose that none of us ever know when we will become entwined in the wrath of nature but it’s always a good idea to have a plan of what to do and how to keep in touch with friends and loved ones when such events come our way.

My brother was a first responder and always told us to check for exits in movie theaters and hotels. He cautioned us to use stairs rather than elevators in an emergency situation. As a teacher I took part in planning and drills for all sorts of possibilities. I learned to be ever alert. I’d like to think that I am ready for just about anything, but I also understand that the world is filled with the unexpected most of which we luckily never experience. Still I am reminded each summer to be prepared. An ounce of caution never hurts. Maybe this year I’ll buy that generator just to be sure.

When Our Days Were Magic

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It sometimes seems to me that we spend far too much time planning ahead, and far too little time just enjoying the moment. I see evidence of that tendency in all of my daily travels. For example, it’s barely the beginning of July and already the stores are filling with school supplies, uniforms, and fall clothing. It’s bad enough that we push our children back into the classroom before Labor Day, but now we begin eagerly preparing for that moment six weeks in advance. Why can’t we just give our children a break and allow them to enjoy unadulterated fun for a time rather than loading them down with mathematics packets, required summer reading, long essays to complete? We hardly ever give our youngsters time to think for themselves, to decide how to spend their hours. We seem determined to fill every waking hour with activities that we think will help them to achieve more in the future.

Many young folk don’t know the joys of waking up on a warm July day with no plans and no place to go. They have not had the wonderful experience of using their own creativity to make life more adventurous. I rarely see the children in my neighborhood gathering by themselves to play. There are no sounds of games or fort building or any of the many activities that filled my vacations as a child.

I can still feel the exhileration of waking up on those summer morns with the knowledge that we kids had total freedom to face down the day. I can’t recall ever feeling bored, but rather torn between so many ideas for having fun. We often spent the earliest hours of the day in outdoor pursuits because it was still a bit cooler then. We’d ride our bicycles pretending to perform stunts by standing up on the seats or letting go of the handlebars for a few seconds. We travelled to the woods down by the bayou and explored the area with the determination of Lewis and Clark. We’d listen for the calls of the birds and watch for specimens of nature that we’d claim for the cigar box collections that we prized.

Once the sun had climbed high into the sky, and the temperature soared we’d shift gears and begin playing board and card games. There was always at least one mom like mine who gladly offered the kitchen table for a gathering place. We’d have tournaments that lasted for days and pitted us good-naturedly against each other. There was nothing grander than using our skills and a bit of luck to become champions.

We dabbled in the creative as well. We produced plays, performed musicals, and wrote neighborhood newspapers. I remember reading a biography of Truman Capote that told of how he and his neighborhood friend, Harper Lee, used an old typewriter to compose stories about the people that they knew. We did that as well where I lived. None of us ever became famous, but I am certain that my love of writing began way back then.

Sometimes we’d ask our mom to take us to the library, or instead we would ride our bikes to the mobile library that stood by Garden Villas Park. We’d load up with as many titles as allowed, and lie in front of the open windows with the fan blowing on us, enraptured by the stories inside those pages. I was into mysteries back then. I could not seem to get enough of them, and it always thrilled me to unravel the twists and turns of the plots before the big reveal at the end.

Of course there was swimming at one of the city parks. Back then we had an hour to bask in the cool water and then we had to leave for the next group of kids waiting in along line for their turn to enjoy the pool. We’d walk through showers before we were allowed to get into the water and then we’d play Marco Polo and stand on our hands so that our bodies were under the cooling blue waves. It’s remarkable how quickly the time went by, so we celebrated if the life guard decided that the crowd was small enough to allow us an extra hour.

I don’t ever recall our television being on during the day either in the summer or when school was in session. We simply didn’t waste our time on such activities. We had way too many other ideas for amusement. It seemed that there was never enough time to fit our bounty of ideas into those lovely three months when we were our own masters.

It saddens me a bit that so few children today are able to enjoy the kind of childhood that was so commonplace in my youth. I realize that times are a bit more dangerous than those years when we slept with our windows open and rarely locked our doors during the daytime hours. Parents have to be more watchful than our moms and dads were back then. I also understand that taking classes or participating in sports can be meaningful life lessons, but sometimes it’s just as important to provide children with time to figure out things on their own. I suppose that I learned how to think critically, problem solve, and work in cooperative groups during those days of hanging with the kids from the neighborhood without parents organizing us. My free time prepared me for the future in immeasurable ways.

I wish that our children today might know the joy that we did. It was in the summer that I learned to cook or how to earn a little money by doing odd jobs or selling lemonade. I honed my negotiation skills toe to toe with my peers. It was a glorious time, when being a kid meant learning how to navigate and explore. Nothing was rushed. It was summer and each day was magic.

Summer Is Coming

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I have a love/hate relationship with summer. I enjoy the long days and the possibilities of adventure, but the season brings back memories of tragedies that I have endured, and then there is the heat and humidity that slows my energy and puts me in a state of lethargy. “Summer is coming” is a phrase that causes worries to silently fill my head. I fret about storms and hurricanes that may find their way to the places where me and my family and friends live. I feel a caution and not too little anxiety in summer that does not leave me until the end of September when the first hints of fall shorten the days and cool the air. I suppose in my distrust of summer I am quite different from most of the people I know.

I do not like the heat of summer. I seem to wilt and lose my energy as the mercury rises. I become sluggish and prone to stay indoors. I don’t like using all of the electricity that is needed to keep my home at a reasonable temperature, and I hate summer fashions that leave so little to the imagination. Summer is a time when I suppose I should head to cooler places for a long stay, locales where I may still need a jacket and do not require machines to cool me.

Summer is the time when far too many people that I have loved have died. I have a difficult time recalling birthdays, but I seem to always remember the dates on which my favorite people left this earth. I go into a kind of quiet sadness at the same time that everyone else appears to be celebrating the joys of warm days outdoors. I harbor groundless fears during that time, watching for signs that someone I know will have a heart attack or a stroke or a mental breakdown because summer is when those I care about have endured such things. I don’t want to dwell on the negative, but somehow the timing of tragedy in my life almost always coincides with the summer months, and so I am cautiously optimistic when June rolls around.

Hurricane season coincides with the summer, and it terrifies me. I fear the weather reports, and watch for signs that a storm may come my way. I know the kind of destruction that those heartless freaks of nature impart on humanity. I have seen firsthand the sorrow that they may bring. I cry at the thought of a Katrina or Harvey or Maria randomly choosing an area to destroy. I don’t think upon such things every minute of every day or I would surely go insane, but I do carry a healthy fear in the back of mind. I remain alert and prepared until the danger has passed.

I worry about too much water and too little when the summer comes. I’ve seen entire forests on fire and witnessed the loss of whole towns in images on my television. I’ve watched my own plants whither under the hot summer sun unless I ply them with water that I feel guilty using when there are people dying of thirst in some parts of the world like Jordan where water is only available once a week. It seems so ironic that California may be on fire at the very same time that homes are filling with the ravages of rain in my city.

As a child I loved the summer. My mother would cut my hair each June so that breezes might caress my neck. I’d live in shorts and sleeveless tops with bare feet grown brown from the sun and the dirt. I’d run and play and ride my bike with hardly a notice of the heat. I’d enjoy the peaches, plums and watermelon of the season, and the freedom of lessons and homework. I had few worries other than how to fit all of the fun with my friends into each day. I’d read books next to an open window in the high heat of the afternoon or join in a competitive card game with my playmates. I never thought of the weather or its consequences. Worries about tragedy were not on my radar, at least not until my father died.

I sometimes long for the innocence of my youth when “summer is coming” meant swimming at a city pool and Sundays at Clear Lake with my cousins. Summer meant total freedom with adventures that would have rivaled Tom Sawyer. My skin would freckle and brown and I never once worried that I might be damaging my health or in danger of developing skin cancer. I was a free range kid of the highest order, running without shoes in the woods, romping in the muck of the ditch behind my cousin’s house, and playing almost arm breaking games of Red Rover with the multitude of kids who lived up and down my long street. I quenched my thirst from the garden hose and played from the first light of dawn until the street lights came on in the dark. I don’t recall feeling uncomfortable when I went to bed in our unconditioned house where the temperatures had to be in the high eighties. Nor did I ever worry that some evil might come into our home by way of the open windows that never closed during that season, even when we were away running errands.

Perhaps I have become too old to fully appreciate the summer. I get hot and cranky if I am outdoors for too long. I dislike the feel of the sunscreen that I am compelled to slather all over my body to protect me. I don’t like the way I appear in shorts and skimpy tops. I’ve become grumpy about the very time of year that once enchanted me, and that actually makes me sad. I so want to feel the unbridled pleasure of my youth when I lived in the joy of the moment rather than considering what might go wrong. Returning to that kind of exuberance is something that I intend to seek. Summer is coming and I want to make the most of it and be unafraid.

Learning by Doing

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The warm weather has been a bit long in coming this year which is just fine with me. I don’t want to live in northern climes where winter lingers until May. Nor do I wish to deal with snow and blizzards, but I do prefer cooler weather that allows me to dress in layers and wear cute boots. My figure is long past the showy stage. The less skin I expose, the better for multiple reasons not the least of which is my tendency to get skin cancers. Too much sun leaves freckles and brown splotches on my face, and my waistline is hardly bikini worthy. Fall and winter fashion serves me best. I can fool the world into thinking that I’m still slender. It’s amazing how many sins a nice long sweater can hide.

Nonetheless  I remember my childhood when I longed for the warmth of the sun, even though my family did not own an air conditioner. How we managed to survive the hot Houston summers with only  open windows and an attic fan is beyond me, but I don’t recall feeling unduly uncomfortable. I suppose that we humans adapt to whatever is customary, and back then summers meant wearing very little clothing and eschewing footwear in favor of bare feet. We’d found comfort under the shade of trees or through strategically created ventilation from open windows. Of course an invitation here and there from a friend whose home was mechanically cooled never went unanswered. Now I don’t think that I would make it through a summer without my thermostatically controlled coolness, and I certainly am no longer willing to reveal the true nature of my physical shape by wearing skimpy outfits.

I wonder what we would do if we were somehow forced to return to those days of ninety degree temperatures inside our homes. To hear some scientists’ claims it could very well happen again. We might once more have to learn how to deal with whatever Mother Nature sends our way. It will take a great deal of cleverness like we used back in the day. For now I’ll just be glad that the continuous state of sweat is but a distant memory, made pleasant by the selective nature of my mind.

I laugh when I think of how my generation grew up. In today’s world our mothers would be reported to CPS for doing things that were just natural back then. We rode in cars without any kind of seatbelts, sometimes even standing on the seats, riding in the front, and hitching rides in the back of pickup trucks like cargo. We had no kneepads or helmets for skating or riding bicycles which we often mounted in our bare feet. We stepped on nails and glass and as long as our tetanus shots were up to date our moms cleaned our wounds, splashed some mercurochrome on them and finished with a bandaid that fell off within minutes of our returning to the streets without benefit of shoes.

We played games in the middle of the road, and Red Rover was one of our favorite neighborhood competitions. We almost always sported scabs on our knees and cuts on our fingers. We’d cool down with water from the hose which also served as our drinking fountain. We roamed the area in little hoards finding adventure down by the bayou or in walks along the railroad tracks. We all knew the sting of hot asphalt on the soles of our feet or sticker burrs between our toes. We’d have make believe battles with the little berries on tallow trees, tossing those makeshift weapons like grenades. I don’t remember anyone losing an eye, but I  suspect that somewhere some poor kid may have been injured in that way.

We were as free as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and just as inclined to mischief. We’d scale mountains of sand meant to be spread on some neighbor’s yard. We’d climb roofs and stand on the peaks like intrepid adventurers who had successfully scaled some high peak. Nothing was out of the bounds of our imaginations and in the process we got tough and learned how to work as teams. We thought out of the box, inventing ways to have fun without many store bought tools.

Summers were great times when we were free as the birds in the sky, little noticing the stifling heat that hung over our childhood games. Now I get weak in the knees and short of wind if I attempt to be too energetic in the hottest times of the year. I’ve grown far too accustomed to the luxury of central air conditioning to submit myself to the tortures of the sun. In some ways it makes me sad to admit that I have lost my toughness. I was once like a young warrior ready for any challenge regardless of the weather. Now I am more like a hot house flower, as I suspect most of us, including many children, have become. So yes, the cooler times of year are now my favorite. That’s when I don’t mind taking a many miles long walk or working all day in my garden. To my utter delight of late there have been more days suited to my taste than usual.

I’m still admittedly proud of the way I grew up. I sometimes think that the “greatest generation” that raised me understood how to treat children far better than we do today. My friends and I have glorious memories of fun that don’t appear to be duplicated by many young folk today. Children have their play dates and formal classes which I suppose are fun, but I worry that they don’t have enough experience in which they make all of the decisions without adult supervision. There’s something quite wonderful about working things out by trial and error. It is a glorious way to gain all sorts of knowledge. The warm weather always reminds me of my outdoor classroom and all of the things that I learned by doing.