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.

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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.

People In Boats

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I recently experienced a bout of insomnia that not even a dose of Tylenol PM was able to combat. As I lay tossing and turning I had one of those Roseanne Barr moments in which I began to think about several news items that I had seen and had an overwhelming compulsion to comment on them. Luckily I was a bit too lazy to rise from my bed to do anything destructive with my thoughts other than to use them as a form of sheep counting that eventually led to the slumber I had been seeking. I’d highly recommend the method to Ms. Barr if she ever again has the urge to sleep tweet in the middle of the night. Of course most of the damage has already been done in her case.

There had been several issues on my mind, but the one that I have not been able to simply forget, even in the light of day, is probably of little consequence to most people, but a very big deal to me. It seems that our president was praising the Coast Guard and the wonderful work that they do when he went a bit off topic as he is so often wont to do. His remarks were just fine until he made one of the most ridiculous statements that I have ever heard. “I don’t think the Coast Guard gets enough credit.  And I’ve said it, and I even say it to the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines. I said, I think this year the Coast Guard, maybe in terms of increased branding — the brand of the Coast Guard has been something incredible what’s happened. Saved 16,000 people, many of them in Texas, for whatever reason that is. People went out in their boats to watch the hurricane. That didn’t work out too well.  That didn’t work out too well.”

My eyes almost started to bleed when I read this commentary. I even checked it to be certain that it was true, and it was! I had to laugh at the sheer ignorance of the assertion. Sure there are gawkers in almost all situations but to imply that Houstonians were pulling out their boats for a little ride to watch the hurricane is too bizarre for words. First of all, those of us in Texas know that one doesn’t go out to watch a hurricane. We hunker down as our county commissioner likes to say. We await the conclusion of the event in the safety of our homes, hopefully with the electricity running and the television guiding us with the most current status of the storm. Nobody here has any idea where the president got such the idea that we were boating around for our own amusement during a very dangerous situation.

I have to admit that I was quite anxious during those many days of unending rain. I felt a bit like Noah and wondered if it would have been a good idea to have built an arc in preparation for the storm. I even wished that I still had the old flat bottom boat that we once used to navigate up and down Caney Creek behind some property that we often visited near Brazoria. I would have felt a great deal safer knowing that I had a way out if my home filled with water as was happening to so many of my friends. Their descriptions of the terror of attempting to flee the rising water were breathtaking and for many of them those people in boats were not sightseers, but heroes who took them to safety.

As far as anyone around here knows the private citizens who spent days and nights rescuing people were as wonderful as the members of the Coast Guard who were also invaluable to our cause. In fact things had become so dire so quickly that many of our elected officials encouraged anyone with boats to come to the aid of the thousands of stranded people in our town. There were simply not enough resources from the usual governmental sources to deal with the unfolding tragedy, and so ordinary people did extraordinary things. I have never been so proud of my city and its residents in all of my days. To insinuate that they were only watching the hurricane is not just ludicrous, it is insulting, and we need to loudly and proudly set the record straight.

President Trump has a rather inventive mind. Perhaps he is so busy that he lacks the time to check his ideas before he utters them, but in the case of his remarks about people watching the hurricane in boats he is dead wrong. His words demonstrate a total lack of understanding of what actually happened here. Perhaps he has been so isolated by the cloak of wealth and privilege throughout his life that he does not actually know what it is like to deal with the realities of daily living. He is simply not in touch with the day to day truth of not just my city’s situation but also those of ordinary citizens around the country. He lacks enough empathy and understanding to see problems through others’ eyes. Everything seems to revolve around his own needs, and so he comes across as an uncaring kind of clown.

Like much of the country and the world President Trump has no idea what Texans and Houstonians in particular are really like, We’ve learned to laugh at the insults and stereotypes that are hurled our way. We know how wonderful it is here and not even the heat or the mosquitoes will drive us away. We understand that being a Texan and a Houstonian is one of God’s greatest blessings. We are part of a great big family of people who will not let us down even in times of great need. They will come with their boats and their big hearts to rescue us and it matters not to them who we are or how we look. People in boats came out last August to save strangers. It actually worked out really well, Mr. President, contrary to whatever you may believe. We will never forget those people and their boats, and we thank God every single day that they were willing to place themselves in danger just out of the goodness of their hearts. You might want to learn from them, President Trump. 

A Woman of Character

Barbara Bush

She had a beautiful heart that was big, generous, loyal, loving. On Wednesday it stopped, and ours broke as we considered the loss of Barbara Bush and the hole that she has left in her family, our city, our country and the world. She was not just an extraordinary First Lady, but one of the truly great human beings, now dead at the age of ninety two. She had seemed almost immortal, immune to the illnesses that never seemed capable of stealing her spirit, so her passing was doubly difficult to comprehend. Somehow we had come to depend on her smile, her wit and her forth rightness to carry us through whatever happened with a kind of dignity that was inspiring. We had grown accustomed to seeing her at her husband’s side, a place that she cherished for well over seventy years. She and George were matching bookends, two people so perfectly compatible that their love brightened every room that they entered. Now her husband, her children, her grandchildren and all of us who felt as though she was the beloved neighbor next door will have to carry on without her, and it is so hard.

There are three women who served as First Ladies who are among my heroes. Abigail Adams might have been one of the founders of our country had women been accorded more respect in that time. As it was, she reminded her husband John to remember the ladies when drafting the design for a radically new kind of government, and she worked shoulder to shoulder with him in the family unit as more of a co-equal than a servant wife. Eleanor Roosevelt was Franklin’s conscience, often arguing in favor of justice over political appearances. She was the one who insisted that he invite black Americans to the White House. She was the angel who never forgot the common men and women of the country. Hers was a brilliant and thoughtful mind that influenced many of the decisions that Franklin ultimately made. Then there was Barbara Bush.

Barbara was born a Pierce, a descendant of President Franklin Pierce. When she was only sixteen she met George H. W. Bush at a dance. She thought that he was the most beautiful person that she had ever seen and he was smitten with her as well. Their love would only grow from there and never falter in a story for the ages. George would join the effort during World War II as the youngest pilot in the American fleet, all the while thinking of his beautiful Barbara and proclaiming his unending love for her. After he returned from the fighting they would marry and begin an adventurous life noted for its togetherness and emphasis on family. Barbara would travel wherever George’s dreams lead them and their love and their family would grow.

They ended up in Texas, a place where George would start his business and launch his political career. Somehow it seems quite fitting that Barbara would end up in the Lone Star state because her personality was the epitome of the big hearted, honest talking nature of the people in her new adopted home. She was a down to earth good neighbor and friend so she got along well with the people that she met. She approached life with purpose and a sense of service which carried her through times both joyous and tragic, exciting and disappointing. She became the glue that kept her family together even as her husband’s goals expanded. Like Abigail and Eleanor she became George’s rock and the source of some of the best advice that he ever received. She understood and loved people and they in turn responded to her sincerity in kind. She was the perfect partner in what would be an incredible life.

Barbara Bush was ever at her husband’s side even as she forged her own identity. She was unafraid to speak her mind and she always managed to do so in a way that was enlightening rather than hurtful. She reminded me so much of my own mother and my mother-in-law, two women who were her contemporaries in a time of history that spanned decades of challenge, change and promises of a better future. They were strong women who carried themselves with dignity and manners, steel magnolias who proved to have powerful influence in shaping the people and ideas in their corners of the world. All three were known for their elegance, but even more so for their wisdom and loyalty. They were feisty and accomplished all without whining or complaining. They were the towers of strength within their families, and just as I have sorely missed my mom and my mother-in-law so too will I miss Barbara Bush.

It always brought a smile to my face to see Mrs. Bush out and about in my city long after her husband had left the White House. She was known to walk her dogs with her neighbors and was always open and friendly with anyone who came across her path. One of her favorite restaurants was a pizza parlor that was as unpretentious as she was. She loved our Houston Astros baseball team and one of my favorite images of her shows her wearing Astros gear complete with a baseball cap and those pearls that she never seemed to leave home without. She was a friend to our favorite Texans player J.J. Watt and cheered for the team as enthusiastically as any of our hometown fans. She joked with the Rockets and asked them to help with a campaign to bring attention to her literacy foundation, a cause which was dear to her heart. She was ferociously determined to bring reading into every child’s life and believed that a better future lay in the ability to decipher and comprehend the written word. To that end she was devoted to visiting schools and reaching out to young people, many of whom were inspired by her genuine interest in their lives.

Barbara Bush died as she had lived, with dignity and humility. Her husband held her hand all afternoon as her body slowly succumbed to the illnesses that had plagued her. She will lie in state on Friday and the public will be able to say their last goodbyes to her. On Saturday friends and family will remember her at a funeral ceremony and later that day she will be laid to rest at the George H. W. Bush Library on the campus of Texas A&M University next to her beloved daughter Robin.

Barbara Bush was an incredible woman in her own right, not just the wife and mother of presidents. She loved deeply and laughed much. She was forthright and gentle, a person of the highest character who left a positive impression on those who knew her. She was devoted to her husband, her family and her country. She was an icon whose life was well lived. Women the world over would do well to emulate her morality, her sense of fairness, her courage, and most of all her selflessness. While she was so much the product of a remarkable era, her qualities made her timeless. May she rest in eternal peace for she has surely earned a special place in her heavenly home. May her family know how much we all loved and cherished her as they struggle to lift up their hearts after such a terrible loss. Our thoughts and prayers will be with them because we appreciate that they shared this beautiful woman with us. We are all the better for having known her.

The Time Of My Life

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It is amazing how we have certain memories that are so pleasant that the mere thought of them brings smiles to our faces. They are not always of the most remarkable events like a wedding or the birth of a child. Sometimes they are actually quite simple, like the smell of newly mown grass in the summer or the twinkle of lights on a Christmas tree. As I approach my seventieth year I have more than my share of satisfying remembrances, but few turn up the corners of my mouth into an unabashed grin more readily than the time that I shared a ride in a limousine with a group of young boys.

Schools never seem to have enough funds to do the things that they want to do, so they invariably enlist the students to raise some extra money. Such was true when I was teaching seventh grade mathematics at South Houston Intermediate. Each year the kids received brochures filled with enticing photos of candy, wrapping paper, and trinkets that they were encouraged to sell to family and friends. Those who sold the most received opportunities to enter a money machine to nab dollar bills as they floated through the air, but the grand prize was an afternoon riding around town in a limo. It was a highly coveted prize and the winner would be allowed to invite a few friends to go along. Not only would there be transportation, but also funds for food and entrainment. It provided strong motivation for the students to sell, sell, sell.

At the end of one campaign a student of mine was declared the winner. He was a sweet, bright and exceedingly well behaved young man so I was delighted that he would be treated to so much fun. It was soon apparent, however, that he had a very real problem. He had to have a parent chaperone the event and both his mother and father were not able to leave their jobs to do so. It looked as though the poor lad was going to lose his prize until he learned that if one of his teachers agreed to accompany the group all would be fine. That’s when he came to me requesting that I join him and his guests. His invitation was polite and almost impossible to refuse, and so I found myself piling into a gorgeous stretch limo one afternoon without knowing what the itinerary would be.

I drew a sigh of relief when I saw the others who would accompany us on the adventure. They were all rather delightful young men whom I knew well. I doubted that I would have any kind of trouble with them and that proved to be true. I then learned that our first stop would be a small game and go kart center located near the school. It was a very good choice of venue because the boys were occupied with rides for hours. I sat and enjoyed the solitude and people watching while they had a ball.

Next on the agenda was dinner at Sonic. The boys were laughing hysterically at the thought of driving up in a limousine to order burgers and hot dogs. They pre-arranged a storyline with me and the chauffeur that we were to recite, namely that one of the young men was a child star who was filming in Houston and wanted to take a break with his costars for a bit to eat. I was the nanny in charge of the group’s safety, care and education during the shooting of the movie. We were not at liberty to provide any more information than that lest the kids be endangered. Hilariously the waitress fell for the fib hook line and sinker while the boys roared with unmitigated joy as they watched people pointing at the big black car as though a real celebrity was on the premises.

The impishness didn’t end there. The final touch came when the chauffeur rolled down his window and spoke into the speaker with his most refined voice, “Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?” By then the car was literally swaying from the rolling around caused by the youngsters’ laughter. Even the driver and I were chuckling with unrestrained glee.

Once we had eaten we had just enough time left to visit a comic book store. I stood guard as the students browsed through the bins and selected a few items to purchase with money they had brought in case such an occasion arose. As they shopped the owner of the establishment quietly inquired about the identity of his customers. By then I was all in for my designated role and was exceedingly coy at first. Eventually I explained that one of the young men was an actor and I was his nanny. I revealed that we were out on the town after a long day of filming so that the kids might unwind just a bit. I whispered that I was not at liberty to provide any more information than that and the shopkeeper nodded with respect.

As the kids were paying for their purchases the boy who had won the prize looked at me and said, “Nanny, here’s some money to buy yourself a lottery ticket. It appears that there is a drawing tonight. Maybe you will win and be able to enjoy life more. Go ahead. Buy a ticket.”

Then he looked at the man behind the counter and smiled, “She is such a good woman. It would be nice for her to learn what it is like to be rich like me.”  With a straight face I gathered the boys together and we piled back into the limousine barely able to contain ourselves from laughing before we were once again out of sight. 

We chattered all the way back to the school as though we had just experienced something rather remarkable, and in a way I suppose we had. I truly can’t recall too many times when I had more fun. I would often think about those boys and their leader who had brought us all together and wonder how their lives had been. Then one day I found the young man who had made it all happen on Facebook and learned that he had become a teacher in an intermediate school. It was good to know that things had turned out well for him because he had given me the time of my life on that long ago day.