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.

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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. 

Not Yet Down and Out

shutterstock_441927634-1024x683.jpgIt was a sunny day in Houston, Texas on a January afternoon. The streets and highways were filled with people enjoying the break in the cold weather. It somehow seemed impossible that only five or six months ago those same roads were filled with flood water from hurricane Harvey, creating unbelievable images of devastation. Everything appeared to be so normal, and it felt as though the recovery and healing of our scarred city had gone smoothly and far more quickly than anyone might have ever imagined. We had even begun to believe that we might have a good chance of winning the big Amazon prize that would bring thousands of jobs to our area along with millions of dollars to boost our economy. Perhaps it is in our Houston DNA to be upbeat and unwilling to be counted out. We’d done the impossible so many times before that those of us native to this flat featureless plain see our city with different eyes than those of outsiders.

This is a town built on land encircled by bayous that is otherwise landlocked, and yet we have one of the busiest ports in the country, dug from the Gulf of Mexico to a site in the shadow of the place where Texas gained its independence. Somehow our town took a field that had once been home to grazing cattle and transformed it into the center of the worldwide space race. A wealthy academic from the east coast imagined a Harvard of the south and founded the prestigious and renowned Rice University. A doctor imagined a home for cutting edge medicine and convinced benefactors to build a medical center that would one day be a leader in research and talent. We have done the impossible time and again with the help of visionaries who saw beyond the limitations of our geography, and on any give day it feels as though we have miraculously moved beyond the horrors that beset our beloved Houston on those three days in August when the sky rained its fury on all of us.

We all know that things are not always what they seem to be. Those whose homes were filled with brackish water that rushed in through the weep holes inundating their rooms and their peace of mind are mostly still working to get back to normal. The piles of debris that represented the destruction are generally gone misleading observers to believe that all is well. Inside the repair work continues at various stages. The mucking out of water and dirt is done. The walls of water soaked sheetrock have been removed leaving frameworks of studs marking load bearing structures and outlines of rooms. In some cases fresh new sheetrock and paint now brighten the areas. In others the skeletal frames await the resolution of claims that may one day bring the funds for repairs. Carpet and flooring is difficult to find even when there is money to purchase it. Cold concrete has become a way of life for many Houstonians who celebrated Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and the new year with their homes torn apart, and still wait for normalcy to return. They sit on lawn furniture and sleep on air mattresses attempting to stay calm and carry on when in truth they are exhausted and broken hearted.

On that sunny day when all seemed so normal, of course it was not. I drove through a neighborhood that had been heavily impacted by the storms and at least a third of the homes still had huge dumpsters parked in the driveways. Trailers and RVs dotted the landscape and told a tale of homeowners still camping out while their homes recovered very slowly. Daily life has become a marathon for them as they cope with realities and fears that sometimes feel overwhelming. They walk through their days attempting to be as positive as possible even as they worry about the impact this all has had on their psyches and savings.

It has been estimated that eighty percent of those affected by hurricane Harvey did not carry flood insurance. They have had to rely on FEMA for funds to repair their houses and many of them still wait for that money to be forthcoming. Generally the most that they might receive is only slightly more than $30,000, and in the majority of cases it will be far less than that. FEMA does not replace their household goods, so many people are creating massive debts just to begin again. Those who did have flood insurance are all too often waiting even longer for the relief that they need to put their homes back into working order. Supplies are scarce, and the great deals that merchants offered in the early days after the disaster are mostly long gone. Nobody thought that there would still be people in need this long after the catastrophic event.

Our city is wounded and our spirit is being sorely tested. Naysayers warn us that we will never again be the same. Our luster feels somehow diminished as investors and dreamers grow wary of locating here. Amazon passed us over, choosing Austin and Dallas as more worthy possibilities for their center. People from outside our area view our town as an ugly humid place more suited for mosquitoes than humans. They underestimate our determination to overcome the odds that have often appeared to be stacked against us. Houston has always been a city that should never have been, and yet here we are winners of the World Series even as we limp through the worst days of our history. It seems that Amazon missed the essence of who we are as people and may have ignored the very qualities that would have made their venture truly great. They did not understand that the images of courage and community that they witnessed when nature had battered us mercilessly were not aberrations, but rather an unvarnished revelation of who we really are. The secret of Houston is that we are willing to take on any challenge and rise from the muck and the mud to triumph over adversity. This is a hard working city with dirt under its finger nails and visions of a better future in its soul. 

Think of us now and again. We are still here even though we have not yet totally healed. There remains much to do, but you will rarely hear us complain. We don’t want to be pitied or thought to be beyond hope for we still believe that our city has a great future. Don’t pass over us or assume that we are out of the game. This city called Houston is a miracle built on unstoppable dreams. Plan to keep hearing from us. We’re not yet ready to be down and out.

Winter In My City

winter-weather-and-chimneys-houston-tx-lords-chimneyThe weather on Christmas Day was glorious, but the days following have been cold, damp and dreary. The only thing to do in such a situation is make soup, hot chocolate, tea, coffee or all of the above which is exactly what I have been doing. Being from Texas my first inclination was to make chicken tortilla soup, but I’m known as the soup and bean queen so I had a number of possibilities, including a really mean potato leek concoction that I sometimes prepare. Somehow the standby chicken tortilla soup seemed most perfect for the occasion, and so I settled on preparing a steaming pot to take the chill off of the day. I suspect that I’ll be making all sorts of delicious brews in the coming weeks because winter in Houston is brief but almost always rainy and bone chilling when it occurs.

Coats last forever around here because we don’t really wear them that much from year to year. I’ve got jackets and capes that have served me for decades. Sweaters go out of style long before they become threadbare. They are more likely to dry rot or get eaten by moths than to fall apart from use. I always wonder why the stores carry so many heavy items in October and November when the temperatures are most likely to be in the eighties, and then replace them with spring clothing just when it finally becomes cold enough to use that sort of thing.

The few times that I have been in traditionally cold climates I have truly enjoyed the frigid weather. I’m told that I would soon grow weary of winter weather if I had to live in such places, but as a visitor who rarely witnesses low temperatures or snow, I get quite excited by what I consider to be normal climate. I’ve got wonderful memories of walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago with snow falling on my face. The best such event, however, was in a little mountain town in Austria where I went on a nighttime sleigh ride through the countryside. I was so cold on that trip that I literally lost feeling in my limbs even though I was wearing long johns as well as snow boots and woolly socks that I had purchased from L.L. Bean. I’ve had those shoes for twelve years now and never had occasion to wear them again. I keep them just in case but unless I travel far from home in the winter I don’t expect to need them ever again.

My idea of truly enjoying a snowy place would have to include having someone to shovel the white stuff from my driveway and sidewalks, not to mention retaining an experienced driver to take me on my errands. I haven’t mowed my lawn in years, and I don’t think I would enjoy shoveling snow either. I just want to enjoy the experience like a tourist, and then return home when I grow tired of the work associated with winter.

Even in my temperate climate I somehow I love the wintery moments far more than the summer. I like log cabins in the mountains and hillsides glistening with snow. I enjoy sitting by a warm fire and wearing layers of clothing with cute boots and warm gloves. I like hearing the crunch of snow under my feet and building snowmen. Somehow in spite of the fact that I have always lived near the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and rarely experienced a true winter, I long to have that experience. It just seems more natural than wearing Hawaiian shirts and flip flops in the middle of January. Still, I love my hometown and have no desire to leave except for a brief interlude that might provide me with the winter wonderland of which I dream.

It’s ironic that so many snow birds come our way for the winter because they have grown weary of the long relentless winters. They’ve traded in their snow shovels for RVs that allow them to be sun seekers. One of the prime spots for such folks has traditionally been Rockport, Texas, a small town only a few hours away from Houston, which welcomes folks from northern states each winter. The town is usually filled with refugees from Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and other frigid places. This year there is no town of Rockport. It was quite literally blown away by hurricane Harvey. There are tent cities in vacant lots even six months later, and there is a grave shortage of places for the natives to live. The rebuilding has been brutally slow because in some ways Rockport has been forgotten and many of the citizens worry that the quaint seaside town will never again be the same. The regular visitors have had to find other places to stay this year and it’s possible that they will never return again now that they have been forced by circumstances to find an alternative location for wintering.

I suppose that the grass is always a bit greener in places that are not like our own. We wish for things that we don’t have without really thinking about the implications. I never consider how much work it might be to live in a place that fills with snow, while those who come to our neck of the woods rarely consider the horrors of the hurricanes that now and again come our way.

I suppose that I will have to be content to have a kind of make believe winter experience. I’ll wear my winter gear when I can and enjoy our small doses of soup weather with an appreciation for not having to endure the more difficult aspects of Jack Frost. I’ll crank up the fireplace and maybe even build a bonfire in our outdoor pit on cold dry days. I know that I probably appreciate the cold more because it is so rare, something very special around here. Soon enough it will be warm again and I’ll be donning my sleeveless shirts and sandals.

I’m afflicted by never ending hot flashes. I’ve been told that if they have not gone away by now, they never will. I’ve done research to find out how I might minimize them and learned that the best way to do so is to live in a cold place. Since that is not going to happen, I’ve had to learn to live with them much as northerners understand how to avoid frostbite. It’s funny how we adapt to whatever our situations may be.

This is still my favorite time of year even though it’s wintery aspects are short for those of us who live this far south. I’ll miss going to visit the Whooping Cranes that winter in Rockport each year. I hope that their habitats will be sufficient for them because I suspect that the humans who generally protect them are busy with their own survival this year. We’ll all make do with what we have, but I still have hopes of a snowy January day.

Win Win

920x920Houston has been looking like a winner of late, which is quite grand given what happened a little more than three months ago. We’re still celebrating our World Series championship and to top everything off we got a lovely dusting of white flakes last week that literally made everyone smile. The landscape that had been covered in a different kind of precipitation back in August look like a picture postcard with every rooftop and tree glistening with just enough snow to create a winter wonderland.

We’ve really needed those little bits of joy because there is till so much recovery work needed. It breaks our hearts to know that there are still people not yet back in their houses. For some the journey home has been long and hard. Many were turned down for relief funds and others are being told that they will have to raise their foundations before getting permits for repairs. Families have wiped out their savings and in some cases spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for which they have had to get loans. While the rest of us have been getting ready for the holiday season, they’ve been consumed with worry. Still, we are all Houston Strong and the viral photo of a Houstonian cheering on a plastic lawn chair during the final game of the World Series inside his stripped down home seems to represent who we are.

You can imagine how wonderful we felt when we learned that not one, but two of our hometown heroes had won the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Award. Both J.J. Watt and Jose Altuve are beloved figures here in H Town and their twin win was glorious, because there are times when we wonder if anyone even knows where Houston is or that it is the fourth largest city in the nation. It sometimes seems that Cleveland is more identifiable to the world than Houston, but much of what is best about our city has put us on the map this year. Watt and Altuve are among our finest treasures and we are swelled with pride in knowing that they have been duly honored.

J.J. Watt is the kind of man that everyone mom wants her son to become. Aside from his tremendous talent on the gridiron he is a truly fine and generous human being. We’ve all come to realize that he is a gift to our city both on and off of the field. He’s perhaps our most reliable player when he’s not injured and so he is undoubtedly the fan favorite. When he immediately stepped up to help raise funds for those affected by the floods we were not surprised, but we were definitely grateful and humbled by his efforts which paid off beyond all of our wildest expectations. This was one of J.J’s most public moments of largesse, but those of us who live here know that he has been constantly and often very quietly doing wonderful things for the people of Houston.

J.J. Watt has been known to show up at hospitals and nursing homes. He even takes the time to attend high school sporting events to encourage local athletes. He is a superstar who has somehow managed to maintain his sense of humility. We are in awe of his towering presence, but we also view him as the guy next door because that is the way he wants to be. He’s our neighbor, one of us. His pain is ours, and so when his leg was shattered fairly early in the season we were heartbroken for him. It was as though one of our own sons had been sidelined. Now that he is enjoying the honor that is so well deserved we find ourselves celebrating with him as well.

Jose Altuve has played his heart out all season long on the Houston Astros. When our city was so devastated he became a man with a mission. He was determined to work harder and better to bring a win to our town. He made it known that he and the team were unwilling to let us down. In perhaps the darkest hour that Houston has ever experienced he was a beacon of hope, a bookend for J.J. Watt.

Altuve too is a young man who works hard to be his very best both on and off of the baseball diamond. He is a team player who understands what he must do each time he walks up to the plate. Somehow he appears to be less concerned with personal acclaim and more focused on sharing his athletic brilliance with his fellow players and his fans. He understood all too well how much we needed the championship that had eluded us for decades, and on an evening when many were watching in rooms with concrete floors and only studs for walls he and his teammates took us to the Promised Land. We were as united as we had been back in August when we were working to help those affected by the storms, only this time we were deliriously happy. He gave us an unexpected gift and demonstrated that his heart was bigger than his entire body. In stature he is the exact twin of J.J. Watt.

Sometimes the universe appears to align in such a manner that the most deserving receive the awards. In a year punctuated by a great deal of suffering and ugliness it is refreshing to be reminded that there are still exceptionally talented and noble individuals in our midst. J.J. Watt and Jose Altuve are the role models that we need for our young. They are the heroes who rank with the legends. All of us in Houston are proud to embrace them as our own.

The Christmas lights in H Town are burning a bit brighter and with a bit more hopefulness. The world has been set aright for once. In their great wisdom the editors of Sports Illustrated have chosen two individuals who represent the very best of the human spirit. Our congratulations will never be enough to thank J.J. Watt and Jose Altuve for all that they have given us. They are heroes whose stories will be enshrined in the crazy history of this incredible town. The mere mention of their names will bring smiles to our faces as we will always remember how much they meant to us when things seemed so bleak. All of Houston will be forever grateful and strong.