The Greatest Gift

Gary

My son-in-law, daughter, and grandsons are in a state of grief. Their beloved Boppa died on New Years Day. Boppa, otherwise known as Gary Greene, was a good man who loved his wife without reservation and cherished his children and grandchildren with every fiber of his body and soul. He was also filled with a spirit of fun. He believed in squeezing as much joy out of each day as humanly possible.

Gary was born in Houston, Texas and grew up in an area not far from the Texas Medical Center. He graduated from Bellaire High School and then set out for the University of Texas where he earned a degree in Chemical Engineering. While he was a student there he met his wife Barbara and the two of them fell in love, married and set out on a five decades long adventure that took them all over the United States and around the world. In fact, traveling became one of their greatest joys along with their two children Scott and Terri.

Gary worked hard at his jobs, dedicated to making a comfortable life for his family. He was a Texan through and through but whenever his companies asked him to move he dutifully went where he was needed and turned the relocation into an opportunity to learn more about different places. All the while he always found time to support his children’s interests and to open his home and his heart to their friends. His loyalty to his beloved Texas Longhorns never wavered either no matter where he roamed.

Gary eventually found his way back to Texas as his working years slowly came to a close. He retired to the Austin area and threw himself joyfully into the role of being a grandfather. He took each his six grandchildren on special trips to places like London, Germany, Washington State and such. A few years ago he planned a gala vacation right after Christmas for the entire family in Mexico. On another occasion he took everyone to Hawaii. Every excursion was punctuated with his impish sense of humor, exciting activities and lots of ice cream.

Gary rarely missed the yearly reunion of his wife’s family on Thanksgiving Day. He reveled in the games and songs and loving significance of the event and became known as the resident genealogist, creating expansive charts outlining the history of the family and recording all of the new births. For many years he and his crew were the reigning champions of the washer contest, and he became as loved by his extended family of in-laws as he was by Barbara and his children.

Gary had a sonorous voice that might have served him well as a radio broadcaster. He used it often to tell his many stories and jokes. He also enjoyed singing and had hours of fun in a barber shop quartet. He and Barbara even learned how to square dance when he demonstrated yet another unexpected talent.

Most of all Gary enjoyed watching the birds that live around us. He often rose early in the morning and walked quietly through wooded areas with his binoculars and a scope to catch a glimpse of feathered creatures. It was a relaxing hobby that was so in tune with his affection for nature and the joy that spending time outdoors always brought him.

Gary had been a leader when his son Scott was in the Boy Scouts. He never lost his interest in the remarkable training that the organization affords young people. He often wore his regalia and badges when his grandsons moved up through the ranks in their own quests of excellence in the scouts. Nothing made him prouder than watching them grow into fine capable young men with amazing skills and a love of our earth and each other.

In many ways Gary Greene was an old fashioned kind of man who earnestly embodied the traits of a Mr. Rogers or a Jimmy Stewart. Family was paramount to him and he enjoyed introducing first his children and then his grandchildren to the places and skills and ideas that he had known as a young man. He taught them how to drive and how to fish. He showed them how to respectfully handle a BB gun. He played games with them like Spoons and taught them to love listening to John Denver. He took them rafting down rivers, horseback riding in the country, and zip lining in exotic places. Mostly though he just loved each one them for whomever they chose to be.

There is great sadness among the members of Gary Greene’s family. He has died after a years long struggle with cancer during which he showed them what true courage really is. He slowly lost his ability to walk and his body was riddled with pain, but he continued bringing fun into their lives as long as he could. He has left a big hole in their hearts, but the legacy of joy and optimism with which he approached each day will sustain them for all of their years to come.

Gary Greene really lived and loved. The torch of all that he believed has been passed to his children and grandchildren to remember and honor who he was with their own lives. He demonstrated to them all of the character that one needs to live happily and well. He will no doubt live on as they emulate his spirit, the greatest gift that anyone might ever leave on this earth. 

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Just Like That

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Colorado, at least in the mountainous areas, is like a picture postcard. On its best days It is a slice of what heaven must surely resemble, but much like life it can also be treacherous and filled with untold problems. Thus it was on my most recent visit to that gloriously beautiful part of the world, a kind of bittersweet journey that challenged me with a cornucopia of emotions.

Day one was perfection, a picture postcard of memories beginning with an easy stress free flight from Houston to Denver on the day after Thanksgiving. My brother, Pat, and my sister-in-law, Allison picked us up from the airport and we chattered all the way to Estes Park where we enjoy a delicious lunch. There we learned that there would be a parade later that afternoon, and so we decided to stroll through the shops to take advantage of seeing the special event.

It was so cold that not even our layers of undershirts, sweaters, coats, mufflers, hats and gloves were sufficient to keep us warm. We purchased woolen blankets and found places offering coffee and hot chocolate to ease the chill that seemed to go down to the marrow of our bones. In spite of the frigid conditions we talked and laughed and had a glorious time. We were happy to be spending time together and spoke of our plans for the coming days.

The parade was a local affair with floats and decorated cars that spoke of homespun efforts and lots of heart. The high school band played Christmas carols and the Knights of Columbus strutted in full gear. There was a twinkling light bedecked bus that carried waving seniors from the nursing home, and many a float that appeared to have been crafted inside someone’s garage. It was precious and genuine in a way that the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade will never quite understand. It reminded us of the parade in the movie A Christmas Story, a kind of throw back to a simple era when folks just had a good time and didn’t worry too much about perfection. It was a most wonderful way to launch the Christmas season.

We stayed in Pat and Allison’s cabin on Storm Mountain, a home built of logs and lots of love. We munched on popcorn and spoke of all the things that we were going to do together during our visit, but since Mike and I had awakened that morning at four to get to the airport on time we were exhausted fairly early and had to give in to the signals from our bodies that we were done for the day. We knew that the morrow would be the reason for our journey, the wedding of a cousin in a lovely setting in Lyons.

When I awoke the early I found Allison sitting at the dining table looking grim and tired. She had been awake for hours after receiving the kind of phone call that dashes dreams and joy. Her daughter-in-law’s father had suddenly died. He was by all accounts a very good man, beloved by everyone who knew him. He was also quite young, only fifty four, and seemingly in the peak of health. His last day on this earth had been spent with friends and he had prepared for bed no doubt thinking of how wonderful his life was. Nobody would have thought that he would collapse and die so instantly. The shock of what had happened ricocheted through the roster of friends and family members who so loved him.

His daughter had to learn of this tragedy from a celebratory vacation in Thailand. Her world went from joy to grief in a matter of seconds. Allison had spent hours rerouting and rescheduling the journey home for her sweet daughter-in-law and her son. What had been the trip of a lifetime had spun into a nightmare. Pat and Allison would have to leave Colorado immediately and return home to Houston. Mike and I would attend the wedding and finish our trip alone. Just like that everything had changed.

A winter storm was brewing that day. There was promise of snow and ice in the mountains. We rented a car and soon enough learned that it handled the roads well until we tested its mettle on treacherous trails filled with ice and snow. It could even not make it up the driveway at the cabin and the worst weather was yet to come. Thus we settled for a hotel room in Loveland and said our goodbyes to Pat and Allison with heavy hearts. They would battle the elements on their long journey home, an added reminder of how quickly things can change.

We made it to the wedding feeling a bit other worldly. Our minds were on the people who were dealing with the end of a beautiful life while we were focusing on the new beginning of two people very much in love. It was a vivid reminder of the cycle of our lives and the need to always be mindful of our blessings. Being at the wedding was the perfect panacea for the dreariness that had invaded what we had intended to be a great celebration. It was impossible not to smile when witnessing the unadulterated joy of the bride and groom. Our disappointment and concerns melted away even as the wind outside whipped at the windows and reminded us that another young couple was far away making the arduous trip home to bury a father.

By the following day the storm had passed. The sun came out and shone gloriously as if to encourage us to maintain our optimism even in the face of tragedy. We attended church surrounded by strangers who nonetheless embraced us. A friend suggested on Facebook that we thank God all day long rather than petitioning for favors. As I noted the wonders of our day I realized that my world was indeed crowded with beauty and kindness and ways of feeling happy in spite of the trials that come our way.

The remainder of our trip was quiet and comforting. We seemed to have acquired the Midas touch because each day was somehow golden. We thought of Allison and her daughter-in-law’s family often and hoped that they somehow felt the vibrations of our love and concern for them. We relished our own moments perhaps a bit more acutely as we had been reminded how fragile and precious life actually is. Just like that the sweet may turn bitter and the bitter may become sweet. It is the way of the world. It is the circle of life even for the very good.

My heart is still heavy for the family of that good man. I understand all too well that shockingly terrible feeling that comes from losing a loved one without warning. Nothing can adequately describe the sense of unfairness and loss. I can only assure all who loved him that this wonderful man will be remembered for the joy that he so generously showered on family and friends. In time the overwhelming sadness will be replaced with beautiful memories and his spirit will enable all of them to go on to embrace both the bitter and sweet of life. Just like that winter will pass and spring will come again.

A Spiritual Journey

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I felt my grandmother’s spirit all around me when I visited Arkansas last week. Her family had a homestead not far from where I was camped at Lake Ouachita State Park. My great great grandmother and great grandfather are buried on the land that is now part of a national forest. In a churchyard nearby lies my great grandmother. The area is graced with a natural beauty that is breathtaking, so it is little wonder that my grandmother returned when she was growing old to retire to a farm in Caddo Gap.

I spent many happy summers with my grandparents enjoying the wonders of Arkansas. My grandmother took me and my brothers on hikes in the hills when she taught us how to identify the birds and showed us where to find quartz crystals. The sounds and smells were permanently imprinted on my brain back then, Returning brought back vivid memories and made me feel as though my grandmother might pop out from behind one of the trees at any moment smiling and extending her hand to lead us on yet another adventure.

I do understand why my grandmother loved this little piece of heaven so. The forests, hills, rivers, lakes and stone outcroppings are stunning and the people are as friendly as though they were old friends. The whole state is dotted with parks that have unique features that make them lovely. Lake Ouachita is encircled with a forest of pines, oaks and hickory trees that  change into lovely yellow, red and orange colors as the days grow colder. Geese fly in V formation over the lake and ducks waddle across the campgrounds. Now and again a deer wanders through the quiet. It would be quite lovely just to stay there and find a sense of calm and satisfaction that is sometimes hard to duplicate in the rush of daily living.

Instead, we traveled around the vicinity visiting places like Hot Springs, best known for the spas that once attracted the rich and the famous from around the world. Now all but one of the bathhouses are historical artifacts of a different time. Walking along the avenue in front of them garners images of people strolling and laughing as they vacation and enjoy the waters that ease their pains. In my own case I think of the last photograph of my parents together on our family trip less than a year before my father died. My mother wears a sundress with a full skirt and my dad is in a short sleeved shirt with khakis. They are holding hands like two lovers in spite of the fact that they had been married for ten years and had three children following behind. Their faces exude happiness and they are truly beautiful.

At the edge of town in Hot Springs is a lovely botanical garden, Garvin Woodland Gardens. It is a kind of paradise with paths meandering along streams and groves of azaleas, camellias, hydrangeas, magnolias and roses. The walk takes about an hour and a half but seems to pass far too quickly. It is cool and refreshing under the big trees, and the silence save for the wind and cries of birds creates a meditative feel. The last stop is a glorious church built with wood and glass that looks out on a forest. It is a place that refreshes the body and the soul all at the same time.

Not far from Lake Ouachita is Mount Ida, a treasure trove of rock shops that offer quartz crystals and other gems from the area as well as a variety of specimens from around the world. In many of the places there is the added feature of being able to actually dig for treasures with the promise of finding something even more unusual. It is a place where a a fun day being an amateur geologist becomes reality.

Another gorgeous park is located at Mt. Nebo which requires a drive up a narrow road that twists and turns and ends with a magnificent view of the valley below. There are stone cabins for rent that are fully equipped with everything but food. Best of all they have outdoor patios with fireplaces and unbelievable scenic views. I’ve already put a return visit to this wonderful place on my bucket list.

Of course we traveled to Caddo Gap, the site of so many of my childhood memories with my grandparents. It was a thriving little town once, but that was long long ago. The old jailhouse has been converted into a residence and the suspension bridge over the creek that once served as a way to walk out of the hills is now in tatters. Only those who saw it when it was still fit for use will understand how remarkable it used to be. I recall watching my grandmother bravely walk across its wooden planks high above the water and thinking that she must surely have been the most courageous woman in the world. I can still she her smiling down on me and encouraging me to be more adventurous, a trait that seems to be a must in Arkansas.

I fell in love with the glorious place where my grandparents and great grandparents lived and worked so long ago. Arkansas is a beautiful state with wonderfully inviting people. I will definitely be returning. 

A Victim of Circumstance

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I’m one of those people who believes that whether the government had prevented 9/11 or it had happened as it actually did there would have been those who complained. Every since that fateful day there has been much criticism of TSA  and its methods designed to prevent another such tragedy. I suspect that those folks who watch over as at airports are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Like teachers and police officers they have a sometimes thankless job.

I’ve had a full body pat down in Paris and had to hand over a snow globe that I was carrying onto a plane in New York City. I’ve received glares from TSA agents when I attempted to nervously joke a bit. I find the passage way through the TSA gauntlet to be the most nerve wracking aspect of flying. Still I applaud those fine folks for doing work that few of us would care to endure. I suspect that we’ve mostly been safe as we jet from one place to another since they have been screening passengers. In spite of a few mistakes here and there they have done an admirable job.

It seems that The New York Times recently featured an investigative report revealing that TSA agents watch for certain suspicious behaviors from travelers. Among them are profuse sweating and multiple trips to the bathroom. Folks who do such things are sometimes judged to be unnaturally nervous and up to no good. Often they end up on a no fly list.

I had to laugh out loud when I heard this because on that basis I should most certainly be someone to watch carefully. My long years as a teacher have weakened my bladder to the point of ridiculousness. So many times over the years I had to ignore nature’s call in spite of warning from doctors that doing so would one day cause me grave problems, but what was I to do? I always had to wait for break time or the lunch half hour to take care of my needs. The resulting bladder problem is a common ailment among educators that leads us to the ladies’ room more often than most.

I suppose that visits to the bathroom might be forgiven by the TSA, but I have an additional affliction that might give them pause. I’m one of those lucky women who suffered from hot flashes during menopause. Unfortunately those bursts of profuse perspiration have never gone away. I am liable to grow beet red and without warning end up with droplets of sweat running down my face for no reason at all. It happens so often that I have actually frightened people who worry that I am having some type of medical emergency. It can occur even in freezing weather, and sadly I have been told by my doctor that it will in all probability never go away.

I imagine a TSA agent observing me and wondering if I am some radical old woman ready to do harm as I sweat in my seat and wander back and forth from the bathroom. Little wonder that the agents in France worried enough to pull me aside and feel around for who knows what on my person. Add to that the fact that I was carrying rock specimens for my grandchildren and their reasoning becomes crystal clear.

The Times article appears to have been intended to bring sighs of indignation from those concerned with violations of our civil rights. Nonetheless I find myself sympathizing with TSA rather than being irritated. I know that our human natures will crucify any agent who unwittingly allows a terrorist to get through the airport gaunlet. We won’t be so concerned about fairness if another tragedy occurs. For that reason I actually applaud those folks who are hyper vigilant. I wonder how many times they have prevented disasters that we don’t even know about.

I have a love/hate relationship with flying ever since 9/11. I always breathe a sigh of relief once I have passed inspection. Everything changed on that fateful day when the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center came tumbling down. We became more suspicious and fearful of one another. We began to pull apart as a nation. It didn’t take sweat or trips to the bathroom for us to begin to question our way of life. Ours has been a sad decline into extreme political orthodoxies and divisions. In many ways much of our nation has become as surly as those agents who check us out before we get access to a plane. It is a sad state of affairs that bothers me more than I care to admit, but I don’t mind the TSA agents at all and I urge them to  keep up the good work.

I try to laugh at our problems and keep an even disposition. It’s the only way that we will come out of this anxious state of mind that so plagues us. So if you see me sweating as I wait in a long line at the airport just know that I am simply a victim of Mother Nature and lousy circumstance. If I worry you because I make so many trips to the bathroom have pity and maybe even a bit of appreciation for one of the sacrifices I made as a teacher. I mean no harm to anyone in how I act, and I love our TSA.

Flip or Fly Away

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I’m addicted to HGTV. I love watching the transformation of homes from rundown and ugly to bright and beautiful. Chip and Joanna and the Property Brothers make the whole process seem so quick and easy, not to mention affordable. It’s like watching a sweet fairytale unfold in under an hour. Of course I get inspired and think of small changes here and there that I might make inside my own home. That’s when reality rears its ugly head and I realize that what I have viewed on television is little more than fantasy for most of us.

The first thought that I generally have once I’m pulled back down to earth is that the people who seek the home improvements and upgrades are certainly well heeled financially. They reel off budget figures that make my head spin like someone in need of an exorcism. I mean who walks around with an eight hundred thousand dollar home purchase budget with one hundred thousand dollars set aside for renovations? What do these young thirty somethings actually do for a living that allows them to throw around money like that? How realistic is it for the rest of us to watch their homes being created with seemingly limitless income flows when we might be lucky to have a few thousand to devote to a project.

As I’ve reported in past blogs we recently had a bit of damage from a faulty hot water heater in our house. The estimate of the damage was in the range of about eight thousand dollars. Of course we have a high deductible so we did not receive that amount but the figure actually did represent the reality of the situation. What we got for almost ten thousand dollars was the replacement of most of the walls in an upstairs bathroom and a great deal of ceiling work in the kitchen. In addition those areas were freshly painted and we replaced an outdated light fixture. Since much of our carpet was ruined we decided to replace all of it and luckily got a sweet deal since manufacturers had reduced prices to help the victims of hurricane Harvey. Our nephew provided us with the electrical work that we needed and we did a great deal of the painting ourselves. Still the cost ate up what to me was an enormous amount of money, so I found myself wondering if those of us devotedly following the dream house episodes on HGTV are deluding ourselves into believing that with a few dollars and a hammer we too might transform our homes into nirvanas worthy of a photo shoot.

I laugh at those programs on another level as well. The designers react in horror to the wear and tear that they often discover in homes. They cringe at the crayon marks on walls and the scuffs on wooden floors caused by the children who occupy the spaces. They hint that the parents should take the little ones away and teach them how to be more orderly and respectful of property. They sneer at the everyday items that crowd closets and lurk in corners of rooms. They seem to want the occupants to tread lightly, not really using the house as a real home.

Let’s face it. Most of us actually sleep in our beds, eat food on the sofa, and purchase big televisions to watch our favorite programs. In other words we live in the buildings that protect us. They are not just showplaces staged to appeal to the masses. They are our very own and sometimes that means that there will be a puzzle on the dining room table, books piled next to the bed, dirty dishes in the sink, clothes tossed on a chair or even the floor, signs of life everywhere. We, the viewers of these programs, know in our hearts that nothing that we are watching seems real.

I used to truly enjoy following the guy who flipped houses in San Antonio. He’d find a bargain for well under two hundred thousand dollars and fix it up for maybe thirty or forty thousand more. The places weren’t perfect but they were definitely nice and clean and affordable for the common man. I suspect that this fellow was instrumental in starting a trend of regular folks buying an ugly house, doing a few repairs and then attempting to sell it at a profit of maybe ten or twenty thousand dollars. Along the way they no doubt found that the process was fraught with way more problems than they might ever have imagined. It took longer, cost more and brought in less gain than they had hoped.

I suppose that I will continue watching these shows if for no other reason than to get a few decorating ideas, but after having spent my traveling budget on my home this year I realize as I’m stuck in my four walls that seeing new places is a much better investment. Decorating trends come and go. The house continually needs repairs here and there. The joy of spending money on paint and flooring is soon gone, but those fabulous trips to exciting places pay back dividends again and again. The memories never fade or become thread bare. Even years later they bring smiles.

I suspect that what we really need is more Rick Steves or Anthony Bourdain. A great trip is a bargain and its profit is priceless. The average Joe doesn’t need a million bucks to live like one as long as he/she leaves home now and again to see the rest of the world. Instead of flipping a house, maybe we should just fly away.