Visions of Sugar Plums

One of my annual pilgrimages is to the Nutcracker Market in Houston, Texas. It’s a yearly gala hosted by the Houston Ballet in a fundraising effort that has grown into an extravaganza that takes place just ahead of the Christmas season. It provides a gathering of unique merchants from all across the country inside the vast halls of the Reliant Center, offering everything from holiday decorations to furniture. It is also one of the most interesting places to people watch, or should I say mostly women watch. Thousands of ladies converge on the event starting early on a Thursday morning in November, with a rare male joining their ranks now and again. It is a carnival, a celebration, and at some moments a truly crazy experience.

I have to admit that I had never even heard of the Nutcracker Market until one of the school administrators with whom I worked told me about almost thirteen years ago. She was shocked to learn that I had never been and decided to show me the ropes by inviting me to join her in taking a “sick” day from work and playing a bit of adult hooky. I reluctantly agreed because it was not my style to be anything but dependable, but the lure of adventure ultimately caused me to agree to her plan.

I was mystified as to why she insisted that we travel in one car on the morning of our glorious day off until we reached the entrance to the parking lot and sat in a long line of traffic waiting expectantly to get inside. We had to leave the car so far away from the hall that we must surely have satisfied our daily exercise routines before even reaching the next huge line of women purchasing tickets. Even though we had begun our journey early in the morning it was almost ten before we finally walked into shopping Nirvana.

Since I have a tinge of Attention Deficit Disorder I was almost overcome when I saw the swarms of people, the array of colors, and the bazaar like atmosphere that lay before us. Thanks to my friend I was able to keep a semblance of focus under her tutelage. She took me to the best vendors first and even insisted that we buy mimosas to calm my anxiety of not knowing where to first turn. We walked from one stall to another in a determined hike that must have been miles. All along the way were women feverishly searching for items that they might never find in a big box or department store. My friend was a veteran of the Nutcracker wars so I felt confident that I would not make any mistakes. She knew where to find the less frequently visited restrooms, and how to secure a table for lunch which she insisted had to be catered by a tamale company that came every year. We talked and laughed and tried on clothes and filled our bags with gifts for friends and family and for ourselves as well. When our purchases became too heavy or bulky my friend demonstrated how to get tons of things inside one bag that we paid to be stored for us for a small price until we were finished shopping. When we finally felt the first tinges of exhaustion we realized that we had been inside the strange world for well over eight hours, and it was growing dark outside. We left as happy and chatty as when we had started earlier that day and vowed to return again.

My friend left the school where I had been working and I lost contact with her but I was hooked and had to go back to the Nutcracker Market each season. Over the years I have found different partners and groups willing to accompany me to the astoundingly celebratory event. During all that time I have watched the crowds swell to unimaginable sizes and the outrageousness of the shoppers become more and more interesting. I still go into a kind of ADD trance when I first enter the scene, and I doubt that I would be capable of navigating the rows and rows of merchants without someone to keep me focused. Those with whom I have gone come and go, either because they have moved away or they just can’t quite handle to zaniness. Nonetheless I remember my times with them with great fondness.

This year I attended the market with my sister-in-law, Allison, who is a great partner in any situation. She’s full of energy and laughter and has a knack for taking on any challenge with a relaxed and optimistic attitude. I was quite grateful that she was driving because the craziness began in the parking lot where there were already of groups of women sitting in lawn chairs enjoying breakfast and a few cocktails to gird their loins for the shopping battle ahead. We ended up parking so far away that walking from my home would not have been a much farther distance. As we searched for a spot to leave her car we saw ladies wearing matching shirts and exotic headdresses. There was a carnival atmosphere in the air and I became as excited as a child.

As usual my brain froze up once we got inside. I knew the drill but there were so many choices and my mind started jumping around like a pinball machine. Allison took charge much to my great joy, and after a time I calmed down enough to actually see what I was doing. We found great gifts from friends and family members and chatted like two sisters. Our bags became as full as Santa’s sleigh and still we walked and walked and walked viewing the great wonders and sampling soups and candies and muffins. As is always the case we lost track of time, and of the world in general. For those wonderful hours we were in our element, just having fun without a care, bonding the way women so often do.

About seven hours into our adventures our feet and our knees and our pocketbooks told us that we were done for this year. We took a trolley to the edge of the parking to retrieve Allison’s car and drove through the parcel pickup station to claim the treasures that we had found. We returned home a bit tired, but feeling so close to one another for what we had shared. It had been another wonderful day at the Nutcracker Market.

I’m already plotting and planning for next year. I hope that Allison will want to go again because she is a fabulous partner. Visions of sugarplums danced in my head as I dreamed last night. I suppose that if truth were to be told it was not the actual shopping that was so much fun, but rather the time spent with my sister-in-law and thousands of women letting their hair down and having a good time. We were a motley crew with smiles on our faces, and for a brief moment in time our cares and woes were set aside.

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A Festival of Fall

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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.

Three Days in August

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Some things are so traumatic that they leave a permanent scar on the heart. We vividly remember how such events felt even years later. For me those moments have been the morning when I learned of my father’s death, the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the moment when I heard that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had also been killed, 9/11, and the three days of rain that flooded my city last August as a result of hurricane Harvey.

It has now been a year since fifty one inches of rain fell in virtually every part of Houston over that three day period. I remember all of the dire warnings that were being bandied about even before a drop of precipitation made its way to earth. I made a few preparations, but truly believed that the weather forecasters were overreacting. As a matter of fact, I joked with both of my daughters in a group text noting that the news reporters were all going to have egg on their faces when the whole incident became a bust. We all three worried that such wolf crying would one day lead to disaster when none of us bothered to listen to them anymore.

Most of the people in my neighborhood stayed home all day long getting ready for we knew not what, but before long we were bored and more than ready to get out and about. Precaution kept us home nonetheless and we reverted to binging on Netflix just to get away from the dire predictions on the local television stations. My next door neighbors baked cookies to fill the hours of waiting for a disaster that seemed in grave doubt of ever materializing. It finally began to rain in the evening, but nothing about the downpour seemed to be especially alarming. My husband, Mike, and I retired feeling content that the morning would find everyone doing well.

Of course that was not the case. By the time I awakened and turned on the television to see what had transpired during the night there were already areas of town that were severely flooded. Almost one third of Friendswood which is only about fifteen minutes away from my home had been hit hard. People were being evacuated in boats after their homes filled with water. All along Interstate 45 there were reports of grave problems. The images on television were frightening, and even more so were the messages from friends on Facebook who had been forced from their houses in the middle of the night.

The rain kept coming down, with no sign of letting up. I became more and more concerned mostly because Mike had been struck down by a stroke only a few weeks before. We had been told that he was in a critical time period when the chances of his having another attack were the most likely. I began to worry that he might need emergency medical care that would not be forthcoming, but I said nothing to him because I wanted to keep him calm.

Mike was sleeping quite a bit at that time, so I took advantage of the moments when he was dozing to slowly move items upstairs just in case our house began to take on water. I put many things on countertops and high shelves in closets. All the while I monitored the nonstop coverage of the event. The news was not good. The rains kept coming and the photos got worse and worse. I prayed for even a few minutes of respite from the inundation, but none came. My neighbors and I sometimes met outside to determine how well our street was draining. Somehow it seemed as though there was no way that we would ultimately be spared from flooding inside our homes. We promised to watch over one another to the end, whenever that might be. Day two ended with even more horrific stories than the first, but we were somehow safe.

Mike and I went to bed upstairs but I slept very little. The constant droning of the rain made me anxious. I checked over and over again to see if my home was taking on water. I’d also quietly turn on the television to see if there were any signs that the rains were finally going to end. Somehow all hope seemed to be gone. I cried over the images that I saw. I sobbed each time another of my friends or relatives reported that they had been forced to evacuate their homes. I thought surely that my beloved city was so hopelessly wounded that it would die an excruciating death. Not even the stories of courage and compassion that were so numerous were able to convince me that we would somehow survive the ordeal. Mostly I continued to worry about Mike and all of the unfortunate souls who had already lost so much. One of my students provided me with a small slice of optimism when he texted me to assure me that if Mike needed to get to a hospital he come immediately with his big truck to save the day.

There were fears of levees bursting in neighborhoods where dear friends and relatives resided. It seemed as though the news grew worse and worse and worse. Still the rain kept coming and I finally reached a point of sheer terror. I had done all that I might to prepare for the worst. I was exhausted but unwilling and unable to sleep. I kept watch all night on the third day, certain that my street and my home would soon have no place to drain. Many people that I love had already had to flee. It seemed that no area of town was untouched.

It was early in the morning, about five, when I realized that the rain had stopped. I held my breath expecting the inundation to return at any moment, but we had finally reached the end. Four and one quarter feet of rain had come done without even a short pause. There were people whose houses flooded only thirty minutes before the end came. Some who had survived the deluge went under water when the county had to open two reservoirs to prevent the downtown area from going under water. As a city we were wet and tired and overwhelmed by what had happened. I truly believe that we may have suffered the largest case of mass PTSD ever recorded. Little did we realize that the work of repairing our city had only just begun, and it would continue for months, and in some cases, more than a year.

I used to love rainy days. I reveled in the sound of thunder and the raindrops falling on my roof. I have yet to find storms as relaxing as I once did. I watch the weather reports religiously. I have been on high alert all during the current hurricane season. I sometimes suffer from guilt that I was spared while so many had to endure sheer terror as the water rushed in through the weep holes of their walls. I am thankful for my good fortune, but not able to celebrate because I know all too well how horrible the past year has been for so many others.

Even with flood insurance or assistance from FEMA most people had to dip far into their savings to return their homes to a livable state. Those without such funds still walk on concrete floors and lack the privacy of walls. For many it will still be a very long time before life returns to normal. It’s difficult to know who they are because from the outside it appears that Houston is as normal as it ever was. Still we know that the suffering lingers.

We are proud of how we behaved and the ways in which we helped one another. We will be eternally grateful for the kindnesses extended to our city from people all over the world. We will move forward as we always seem to do, but we will forever be haunted by far too vivid memories of those three days when biblical tales came to life. I suppose that if we make through a few years without a repeat performance from Mother Nature we will eventually calm down, but for now we just want to reach the end of hurricane season without any excitement. We remember what happened on those three days in August all too well.

A Mission From God

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Not long ago Attorney General Jeff Sessions came to Houston, Texas. Somehow he ended up at one of the El Tiempo Cantina restaurants owned by the Laurenzo family. It was a surprise to the management that someone from the presidential cabinet was there, and one of the employees had a photo taken of himself and the AG. The social media staff then posted the image on Facebook. It was seemingly innocent enough, but a firestorm soon ensued. Protestors gathered outside of the eatery, calls for boycotts of the businesses were made, insults were hurled against the owners, and sadly there were even threats of violence made toward the members of their family. The unfortunate situation led to a regular brouhaha with insinuations that the owners of the establishment were white racists who had somehow gravely insulted their loyal customers.

Unfortunately all of the accusations were based almost solely on highly charged emotions rather than the facts of the situation. Roland and Dominic Laurenzo are the co-owners of several El Tiempo restaurants in the Houston area. They are not at all like the image that is being painted of them. I know this because my husband attended high school with Roland, and my mother-in-law was friends with Roland’s mother, Ninfa.

The Laurenzo story is a great one of success built on imagination and hard work. Ninfa Laurenzo was born in Harlingen, Texas to a Mexican farming family. She met her husband Dominic when she was visiting a cousin. The two fell in love, married and decided to cast their lots with Houston which they had heard was a rapidly growing city. They moved to a tiny wooden house just east of downtown Houston and opened the Rio Grand Tortilla company, selling pizza dough and tortillas. They had four children including Roland. Life took a downturn when Dominic died and the tortilla company began to fail. Ninfa supplemented the family income by opening a tiny restaurant with only ten tables located  in front of the tortilla factory. She also began to prepare a dish for her customers that was still relatively unknown in the United States, fajitas.

Roland was a hard working and talented young man, and after he had graduated from college he helped his mother to expand the little restaurant in the shadow of downtown. Ninfa’s featured Mama’s beef and chicken fajitas, and thrived with Roland’s business acumen added to the mix. Soon people were coming from all around town to taste the food and meet Mama Ninfa, a woman with a broad grin and a big heart. She was known to sing for her customers and listen intently to anyone who needed to tell her of their troubles. Before long there were Ninfa’s restaurants all over town and Mama Ninfa was a local celebrity. Along the way she and her sons never forgot to pay forward their good fortune. Some of their charitable causes were well known, and others were done quietly and without fanfare.  It was in their natures to always volunteer to help the community whenever there was a need.

Eventually the family sold all of the restaurants bearing the Ninfa name and began other ventures, among them the El Teimpo Cantinas. They created a classic Tex Mex environment at their new eateries complete with lots of traditional recipes and some new takes on cooking. Old family photographs in black and white silently and proudly tell the family’s story. The wait staff is mature and appears to have been part of the Laurenzo journey for many years. Everyone is friendly and helpful and desirous of making the dining experience exceptional and unforgettable.

I have been saddened by the turn of events since the Attorney General’s visit to one of the El Tiempo establishments because this is a family that represents all that is good about the story of diversity in America. If ever there were people who should be celebrated rather than abhorred, they are the ones. Mama Ninfa was a founding board member of the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans. The family has supported Houston Community College, the Houston Food Bank, and the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center among many other causes. It is little wonder that they hosted Jeff Sessions so well because it would not have been in their natures to deny him the same level of hospitality that they provide to every single person who walks through their doors. The fact that someone associated with their business got a bit excited about having a famous person eating in one of their establishments says nothing about their ideologies or who they are as individuals. It is a very silly thing to become so angry about this incident that it would lead one to insult and threaten them without ever really taking the time to know their essence.

Luckily this is Houston, Texas and the people here realize how wonderful the Laurenzo family has been to our city. They also mostly have a very strong sense of fairness, and so there has been an outpouring of support for the business. My husband and I joined in that effort by having lunch at El Tiempo after all of the hubbub. Like the Blues Brothers my Mike saw it as a kind of mission from God to support his classmate, Roland, whom he knew to be a kind a generous man.

The thing that struck us were the number of older Hispanic people employed by the restaurant, and we wondered if the protesters had taken into account what would happen to these individuals if the businesses failed. Where would they go to work? How would they get by? Why would they get caught up in such a ridiculous disagreement? It would not just be Roland and Dominic who would suffer, but hundreds of people who depend on them to provide jobs. We always need to remember that no action operates in a vacuum. It’s effect almost always impacts many more people than we might imagine.

The Laurenzos are big boosters of a program that raises funds for the Houston Food Bank. They are always ready to provide food at little or no cost for dozens of causes. One photograph can’t possibly negate all of the good that they have done for decades. Besides, why should that one moment in time even matter? By today’s definitions Roland is a person of color himself, one who has never used his identity to harm anyone.

I was relieved to see the packed house when I visited El Tiempo, and I believe that all the restaurants will thrive. Still, I shudder at the idea that such a small thing as a photo with a disliked politician has lead to the besmirching of people with such good reputations. That is wrong on every level, and like my husband, I see it as a kind of mission from God to do my part to set the record straight.

God Willing And The Creek Don’t Rise

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Ladybird Johnson was a Texan through and through. Growing up in east Texas she adopted mannerisms and a style of speaking that is unique to our state. One of her best quotes always reminds me of my own mother, “God willing and the creek don’t rise.” My mama rarely gave a definitive RSVP to an invitation. Her assents were invariably prefaced with a “God willing” admonition. She often cautioned us to consider that events beyond our control might suddenly change even the best of plans. The sudden and very unexpected death of my father only served to demonstrate the wisdom of her thinking. I often find my self tentatively setting dates on my calendar that I hope will come to pass, knowing that the good Lord may have other ideas in mind. On this July 3, I am reminded all too well of the whimsy and challenges of life.

A year ago I was enjoying one of many events that would entertain me in the summer of 2017. I had already travelled to Cancun for a beautiful wedding and was luxuriating in the promise of more joy to come. My husband and I were spending the Fourth of July holiday with all of our children and grandchildren in San Antonio. Later in the month we were scheduled to camp with friends in east Texas near where Ladybird grew up. In August we planned to drive to a mountain cabin in Colorado to meet up with one of my brothers and his family to relax and hike, and then go to Wyoming to watch the total eclipse in one of the best vantage points in the country.

God willing it was going to be a fun filled summer, but things began to unravel without warning. On July 3, after enjoying breakfast and lunch with our family we were in the process of deciding what to do for the remainder of the day when we heard banging and a faint voice from the guest bathroom. Our inspection of the source of the noises lead us to the discovery of my husband Mike lying on the floor unable to rise on his own. It was immediately apparent from the crooked line of his mouth and the slurring of his words that he was having a stroke. From there life changed in ways for which I had no plans.

Of course we cancelled the camping with friends, the travel to the mountain cabin and the journey to view the eclipse. Our attention was focused entirely on making Mike healthy again. After his release from the hospital we returned home to Houston to begin a year long regimen of visits to doctors, healthier diets, exercise and enjoying life quietly from day to day. We had been warned that there is a statistical danger of another stroke that is most likely to occur within the first three to six months after the initial one. Needless to say I hovered over Mike like a hawk, noting his every breath, listening for signs of trouble. We were instructed not to go to isolated areas or places without cell phone reception and good hospitals, so we mostly stayed at home.

We watched the eclipse here in Houston along with others who had crowded into the Museum of Natural History in Hermann Park. The was not as dramatic as it might have been because it was not directly over our city, but we felt grateful that Mike was still here to enjoy whatever slice of life he was afforded. Only days after we heard on the news that the proverbial creek might rise here in Houston from the predicted rains of hurricane Harvey. We did not leave to find a safer place because we wanted to be near the Houston Medical Center if anything happened to Mike, and besides we could never have imagined how bad the historic weather event might actually be. We hunkered down as instructed by a county commissioner and waited for the storm to pass, only it took its precious time in doing so. In the process of constant rain for three day our little neighborhood became an island in a sea of flooding that was overtaking Houston and surrounding areas like Noah’s epic torrent. How could I have ever known just how much our creeks were going to rise? Who had ever even heard of 51 inches of rain in a single event?

It’s been a year since our trials began on July 3. Mike has not had another stroke, and God willing he never will. Houston has mostly healed but we still shudder when storms come our way. I suspect that we have an entire population suffering from a form of PTSD. I still worry from time to time and have not yet been able to plan the kind of adventures that I have always loved. I find myself tempering my enthusiasm for coming events with the realization that they may or may not come to pass. Our biggest journey in the last twelve months was a five hour trip to east Texas to visit with a former neighbor who is now in her eighties. Being with her was a healing experience for us because we have learned all too well the importance of embracing those that we love as often and as tightly as we can.

Some great friends were not as lucky as we were last year. I attended far too many funerals and still think about the wonderful people that I will no longer see. My home was spared from the damages of the floods, but people that I know had to deal with the horrors of  water rushing inside their houses. It took months for their lives to return to normal. In an ironic turn of events I experienced a small slice of their trauma when my own domicile was damaged from a rush of water coming from the hot water heater. Eight weeks of frustration later we returned to normal, but not without a taste of just how terrible the suffering of the flood victims had actually been.

We’re wiser and far more grateful for even the tiniest joys than I was a year ago. We’ll spend July 4, in San Antonio hoping for a better outcome than last year.  We’re also looking forward to finally completing the plans to camp with good friends in October, and it looks as though we may get another chance to view a total eclipse of the sun when it comes right over Texas a few years from now. There is much for which to be happy and new adventures ahead, “God willing and the creek don’t rise.”