Pure Bliss

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The annual RV show hit Houston this week reminding me of the time when we first decided to hit the road each summer to see the USA in our Chevrolet. We had a bright blue Chevy truck, a feeling of wanderlust and the germ of an idea about traveling across the United States smoldering in our minds. The RV show nailed our resolve to take some summer trips when we found a super deal on a camper shell for the back of the truck. Mike worked all spring that year turning the interior of the enclosure into a veritable wonder by installing sets of wooden structures along the front and sides that served the dual purpose of holding our gear and serving as platforms for mattresses that would become our beds. By the time summer vacation came around our truck was a self contained traveling machine.

We got married young and life took over to keep us busy with the art of surviving. Before we had even celebrated our first anniversary my mother became ill with first and most frightening episode of psychosis. I was not even twenty one when I had to swing into action to get her the medical care that she needed and bring my younger brothers to our apartment where they stayed while she was in the hospital. I spent that summer visiting Mama in the hospital, caring for my brothers, and keeping up with the bills that came to my mother’s mailbox.

There was no time for travel that year and the following summer the birth of our first child kept as at home as well. After that there always seemed to be some kind of family emergency or illness that left us busy on the home front, including one year when Mike developed a rare disease and ended up spending three months undergoing chemotherapy four days a week. We were in our early thirties when things finally seemed to settle down and thoughts of summer road trips became our dream.

Our first foray in our rolling conveyance, mobile restaurant and makeshift hotel was to Rocky Mountain National Park. We packed away our cooking gear, food, lanterns, clothing and other necessities and niceties in the wooden boxes along the perimeter of the camper shell and placed almost perfectly fitting mattresses on top of the lids to serve as our sleeping quarters. A fourth mattress on the floor of the truck bed would become Mike’s spot for when we grew weary each evening. With a tape deck playing Willie Nelson crooning On the Road Again and piles of books to keep us entertained during the long drive we were as excited as we might have been if we were traveling first class.

We took our sweet time reaching our destination with a couple of stops at campgrounds along the way. It was then that we developed an elaborate system for keeping things organized. Our youngest daughter entered the camper first and skittered to the far back bunk which was the smallest in total surface area. Next came our first born to claim one of the side beds and then me on the opposite side. Finally Mike crawled into the middle space on the floor and we settled down for a few last minute stories and jokes before we finally fell asleep in what we considered to be our high class quarters. With windows along three sides we were quite comfortable and content and mostly excited about the adventures that lay ahead.

Once we reached Estes Park, Colorado we parked our truck in a spot at Mary’s Lake Campground in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. We set up shop under an awning that Mike created from a gigantic tarp. We had two dish tubs for cleaning our cookware and a propane double burner stove for preparing our food. A plastic tablecloth on our concrete dining table completed the scene of our temporary home along with four folding chairs around the fire ring. We could not have been happier about our vacation heaven under the stars.

We’d travel into the national park each day and spend hours hiking and enjoying the majestic views. At night we’d build a fire and enjoy hot dogs, hamburgers, soup, chile or whatever culinary delight we fancied. We could not have been more comfortable or satisfied with our accommodations and we thought ourselves the luckiest and happiest family on the planet.

We took side trips to see a railroad museum, a few ski towns, a mining town, lakes and other wonderful sights. We had contests to see who could find the best souvenir for five dollars or less. We told spooky stories and read book after book. We gazed at the stars in wonder and marveled at the glory of our world.

Over the years we put thousands of miles on our little vacation conveyance and home. We saw Texas, Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, most of Colorado and even the Canadian Rockies. Eventually we outgrew the our sleeping quarters and opted for a gigantic tent for sleeping but we would never forget those glorious summers inside our magical truck when we saw so many wonders of the United States and realized how lucky we were to have each other.

The girls are grown and gone with family’s of their own now. Mike and I have a much fancier travel trailer complete with its own kitchen, bathroom and comfortable bed. Air conditioning and a heater protect us from the elements and we even have a television to entertain us when we wish. It’s perfect for the two of us as we age but on its best day it simply can’t compete with those times when we and our children were young and thinking ourselves so fortunate to have the cramped quarters of that tiny camper on the back of our truck. Those trips were incredible and filled with the most special of memories. I can still hear our laughter as we climbed into our beds after a long day of exploration. It was in those days that we experienced the meaning of pure bliss.   

Travel Trinkets

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I pick up souvenirs whenever I travel. They are generally small things that remind me of the places I have been. Often they are rocks, shells, leaves, pinecones. I like to decorate my home with framed prints of locales I have seen so that I might be reminded of the joy of my vacations for years to come. I have a thing for books that fill the shelves of my bookcases with colorful and informational volumes about the sights that I have been fortunate enough to have seen. When I find special pottery or glass I am almost always tempted to purchase a piece to join the collections that grace my rooms. I almost never buy kitsch unless it somehow seems to signify a very special moment from my trip, like the gigantic chigger from Arkansas that made me laugh instead of cry when I became infected with bites from those pesky insects, Mostly, though, I’m inclined to bring back Christmas ornaments from each of the sites that I have visited. I have so many now that I copied my daughter and purchased a special travel tree to exhibit my finds each December.

It’s amazing how my collection of ornaments from around the world has grown. Their eclectic nature makes for a whimsical display that includes everything from bears to fine crystal. I have a stained glass reproduction of the rose window from Westminster Abbey and a yellow cab from New York City. One of my loveliest items is a set of old fashioned handmade straw snowflakes from Salzburg, Austria. They add a wonderful finishing touch to the design of the tree. I have glass pinecones, gold dipped aspen leaves, and a number of replicas of Spanish missions. There is a ceramic reproduction of Cafe du Monde and another of a little grocery store in Maine where I ate the best lobster sandwich I have ever had. Perhaps one of my favorites is a set of Revolutionary War soldiers from Boston.

I try to find a representative ornament from each place that I go. Then when I set up my Christmas decorations each year I relive the joy of visiting each place. The little trinkets that I hang on the branches never fail to bring back a flood of wonderful memories. Vacations are wonderful for the way that they seem to soothe any anxieties that I might have and they allow me to set aside my type A driven personality in favor of living totally in the moment. They are a panacea that I don’t take for granted because I know all too well how privileged I am to be able to spend money on trips to wonderful places rather than having only enough to live from day to day.

The vast majority of people in the history of the world have not had the luxury of travel for the sake of enjoyment. My grandparents went from one place to another in search of work. Their parents essentially were born, lived and died in the same place without ever leaving. Such is true of most of the world’s people even today. Those of us who ride down highways in our comfortable cars or fly through the skies to distant lands are fortunate indeed. The frivolousness of vacationing was once only the domain of the wealthy few. Today those of us in the middle class enjoy it in ways that our ancestors would never have known.

I appreciate the freedom that allows me to go see the wonders of the world and those in my backyard as well. My father had been determined to see as much as possible in his lifetime and he was on his way to becoming acquainted with most of the United States when his life was cut short. I imagine that he would have ultimately seen it all and added to his journeys with trips across the ocean. Back before he died I already knew that my family was somewhat unusual in the grandeur of our trips. I got to see Disneyland in the first year it opened and I remember sitting with my father on the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago while he fished when I was only six.

After my father died our only family trips were to visit my grandparents in Arkansas. We would arise before dawn so that my mother could drive as far as possible before it grew dark. We only stopped for gasoline and to spend one night in a motel before reaching my grandparents’ farm. Only one other time did we take a vacation to San Antonio and Austin. It was a grand adventure that included visits to the Alamo and the state capitol. I vividly recall how fun it was to splurge by going to see The Sound of Music in a lovely indoor theater unlike our usual viewings at the drive in on nights when an entire car of people got in for a greatly reduced price.

Now I am planning a possible jaunt to Colorado in the spring and a gala trip to Scotland at the beginning of summer. I’m still in awe of the good luck that has allowed me to do such things. The worrywart in me sometimes thinks that the time may one day come when it may no longer be possible to go on such extravagant excursions. The world may change in ways that preclude a continuation of the way we have grown accustomed to doing things. My own health may fail as I continue to age in ways that make it difficult for me to travel too far away from home. It’s important that I do my best to see as much as I may for now and while I’m wherever the winds take me I’ll surely be adding to my collection of Christmas ornaments. 

There is little that I would rather do these days than go to new places and revisit my favorite old ones. I never take my good fortune for granted. I have seen gloriously wondrous things that only a few ever get to glimpse. My souvenirs are like a tangible record of my memories. They are wonderful beyond words,

Another Year Has Passed

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2019 was a fairly typical year in that it had both its ups and its downs. We lost some wonderful family members and friends who will be missed for some time to come and yet we celebrate the impact they had on our lives. I suppose that with the passage of time we will eventually consider only the joy that they brought us rather than the pain of their deaths.

Mike and I took a trip of a lifetime with my brothers and sisters-in-law. We saw the sights of London, York, Bath, Cambridge and the Cotswolds. We laughed our way across the English landscape and grew closer to one another than ever. I realized on our journey that I indeed have the sisters that I always dreamed of having. We shared good times that we will never forget and hopefully we will reunite for more travel in the future.

Mike and I enjoyed two semesters of classes at Rice University from our favorite professor, Dr. Newell Boyd. We learned all the dish about the Tudor and Stuart monarchs, reinforcing the idea that history repeats itself again and again. We humans are a quirky bunch indeed. We are on a waitlist for a trip with him to Scotland this June and I have my fingers crossed that we will get an opportunity to actually go.

We were able to watch our grandson, Eli, compete in the Track and Field Junior Olympics in Sacramento over the summer and steal away for some sightseeing in Napa Valley, San Francisco and Lake Tahoe. It was an unexpected journey that was great fun.

Speaking of grandchildren, ours continue with their educations and dreams for the future. We are immensely proud of the people they have become. They are thoughtful and concerned about the world’s problems. They give us great hope for the future,

We celebrated the ninetieth birthdays of my father-in-law and mother-in-law. We should all be as healthy and active as they are. They continue to inspire us and with their optimism and wisdom. They never seem to slow down. They have truly found the secret to a good life,.

A dear cousin celebrated her eightieth birthday as well. She seriously doesn’t look a day over fifty. Somehow the beauty of her soul shines forth in her gorgeous countenance. Her special occasion gave us an excuse to have fun with our cousins and to make plans for more meetings in the coming year.

We ended  2019 with a mega party for one of our nieces that was the event to top all events. The theme was Camelot and to say it was a stunning occasion is an understatement. We enjoyed three days of eating and talking and laughing and recognizing how wonderful family truly is.

I had tea time each week with another niece that became a special highlight of the year. We used my various teapots and flavors of tea along with special cookies that a former student brought me as a gift. I enjoyed those weekly gatherings in which I learned just how much my niece and I are kindred spirits.

Some of our friends and relatives had a very difficult year dealing with major illnesses and losses. It was hard to watch them suffering and feel so helpless to do anything that might change their situations. All we have been able to do is pray for them and let them know the we care,

We had many fun times with friends and neighbors throughout the year. Mardi Gras, time at the beach, fun in the backyard, lunches and dinners spiced up the routine or our lives. Those were great moments when I realized how truly blessed we have always been.

We checked a few more things off of our bucket list like seeing the Rolling Stones, Mark Knopfler,  a Game of Thrones concert, and Willie Nelson. Now we look forward to watching Elton John this  summer. We also saw our Astros make it into the World Series and up until the last minutes of the final game we thought that perhaps we might win that match one more time. Maybe we will have an even better baseball year in 2020.

We have learned to roll with whatever each year brings and snatch as much happiness as we can. Life roll on with abandon beginning every January 1. Here’s to the coming year. May it bring you many blessings and few sorrows.



Our Own Hero’s Journey

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My teen years were a time of awakening. It was as though I had lived in a childish bubble for all of my previous ages and only then began to look at the realities of the world around me. My education in high school was rigorous. I found myself working harder than I ever had. I learned about things that not even my mother knew. Before I had seen myself predominantly as a citizen of Houston, Texas and the United States of America with little interest in other places. I suddenly saw the possibilities of exploring new locales, new ideas, new ways of living.

I had little realization that even my ever expanding horizons were still restricted by the small size of my high school and the fact that my classmates and I were at heart so much alike. Still I somehow sensed that I needed to purposely seek different ways of doing things. Since I did not have the income to attend college out of town I chose a large public university in my city instead of accepting scholarships to the smaller private ones. I wanted to increase the likelihood that I would meet a diversity of people and thinking which is exactly what happened.

I found myself itching to go out on my own to see all of the world. I had briefly lived in both northern and southern California and had found those locales lacking in the kind of southern hospitality of my own city so I was more inclined to look to the east where I imagined myself writing and hobnobbing with the artsy set. I thought that perhaps I might one day be a professor of literature at some well known university, sitting on a stool in front of my students wrapped in a shawl and quoting passages from Shakespeare.

Life has a way of rearranging dreams. I met a young man who was intriguing. He had also grown up in Houston but on the opposite side of downtown from me. His mother had been married more than once which was unique at that time and his stepfather, whom he considered to be his real father, was a handsome Puerto Rican fellow with a slight accent and a perfect mastery of both English and  Spanish. My new beau had studied for a time in New Orleans and he introduced me to the wondrous glories of that city, a kind of Paris only a few hundred miles from where I lived. I found him to be exotic in an exciting way that was different from anyone I had ever before known.

We fell quickly and hopelessly in love and in the tradition of the day were soon married and bearing more responsibilities that we were likely prepared to face. Somehow we muddled through living off of an income that was impossibly small and learned how to fend for ourselves on the fly. He and I dreamed together of both becoming college professors and landing jobs in grand universities. All such fantasies halted when my mother first became ill with her bipolar disorder. It became apparent that we would need to stay close to her so that we might be ready to care for her and for my brothers who were still minors whenever her depression and mania became extreme. It was a blow, but one that was not as bad as we might have imagined.

A succession of challenges awaited us including the birth of our two children and a frightening illness that my husband contracted just as we were beginning to feel comfortable in our edited futures. He spent four days a week in the hospital getting chemotherapy for several months during which he was unable to work. We were not yet thirty but we had adapted to the point of being like forty year olds. Our sense of responsibility for our children led us to a very careful lifestyle that precluded any but highly practical ways of living. It was not as vagabonds roaming across the globe that we grew up, but as people clawing just to stay afloat. Somehow we made it work and we did it together and with the support of our families. It wasn’t as glamorous as we had dreamed but it brought us ever closer together and made us stronger than we might have been.

I often hear people insist that success may only be found in attending prestigious universities and living in new places. There is a tendency these days for young people to extend their youthful activities into their thirties, eschewing the kind of responsibilities that my husband and I had to face when we were still quite young. “To each his own” has always been my mantra but I worry that we are more and more becoming a society in which our relationships are built on false dreams that will not make us as happy as responsibility for others does.

I learned that in caring for others at a young age I matured quickly and learned important skills for my work life. My experiences were as critical in developing me as any formal class has ever been. I became a better person than the one I had pictured in my mind. It did not take moving away or traveling to exotic places for me to understand the nature and glories of people. I studied in the school of hard knocks and rose to the top of the class. My hardships and how I dealt with them were as instructive as a series of theoretical lectures.

When I first began teaching my principal noted that I behaved as though I had been in a classroom for years. She attributed my confidence to the excellent education that I had received at the same university that Elizabeth Warren attended. There was a certain truth in her observation, but more than that was the humility and appreciation for humankind that I had learned from the struggles that I had personally overcome one by one. It was not just learning from books and brilliant professors that brought me success, but also the kind of knowledge that is only found in the responsibilities of maintaining the health and welfare of others.

Wisdom is not a commodity that is easily purchased and there is no one way of achieving it. It often comes serendipitously. It is in the unexpected turns of our lives and how we approach them that we often grow the most. Facing up to our circumstances and making the sacrifices necessary for overcoming problems teaches us our capabilities. It is often in a crisis that our true natures appear. As painful as those moments may be they are indeed the most glorious opportunities for our ultimate development. Like all heroes on a difficult journey we too can become better than we had ever imagined.

The Happy Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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