Happy Birthday!

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My mother loved birthdays with the enthusiasm of a child. She was the youngest in a family of eight, growing up during the Great Depression. There wasn’t enough extra income for gifts or even special meals or desserts, so she and her siblings always received a nickel from their father on the occasion of becoming one year older. Mama always said that she like to take her new found wealth to a bakery nearby where she was able to purchase a big bag of broken cookie pieces that she swore were just as good as the ones that remained intact. As the years passed by she and her brothers and sisters would faithfully send a birthday card to one another that always contained a nickel taped inside. I sometimes sensed that she enjoyed that tradition even more than the more expensive gifts that she received.

Today would have been Mama’s ninety second birthday. She often bragged that she and Queen Elizabeth were born in the same year, and somehow that fact made her feel a kind of kinship with the monarch of England. She noted that they shared a kind of resemblance as well, along with the fact of having their first born children in the same year as well. My mother always alerted us to the Queen’s birthday as a kind of hint that hers was on the way.

She was a stickler for celebrating her natal day at the time of its actual place on the calendar. She didn’t like the idea of waiting until the weekend, so even if we planned a party for her when everyone would be able to attend, my brothers and I still had to make a big deal on the correct date. I suppose that’s why I still think about her on June 27, even though it has now been seven years since she died. I think it would please her to know that we have not forgotten how special this day always was for her. In fact, we decided after she was gone that we would gather at her favorite restaurant each year to raise a toast in her honor. As it happens the place we chose is the Cracker Barrel in League City where she spent many a happy time enjoying the homey atmosphere and the kind of cooking that she might have prepared herself.

In an effort to look after our mother while she was still alive my brothers and I agreed to visit her at least once a week on different days. She usually wanted to go out to eat when we arrived, and sometimes she was even waiting eagerly on a bench that stood on her front porch whenever we drove up. That’s how excited she was about getting out of the house, but that was not the case on her birthday. On that day she wanted all of us to come to see her at one time so that it was like a party. She put me in charge of providing the cake, ice cream and candles. She preferred German chocolate or devils food cake, but she was always okay with a change of flavor. God forbid, however, that I would forget to bring the ice cream or the candles. Those things had to be done just right.

She was exceptional at providing us with festive birthdays even when her income was sorely stretched. She made a habit of shopping all year long and setting aside things that she had found on sale. Her gifts were always quite practical and long lasting, but most of all thoughtful. She was sure to come knocking at the door bearing all of the trappings of a big to do, even as we grew older. I never knew how she managed to be so generous, but I always understood that for her a birthday was supposed to be special no matter the circumstances.

When Mama turned eighty we decide to give her a surprise party. We had little idea at the time that she would die less than five years later. We only knew that we wanted to make her day bigger and better than ever. We sent out invitations to everyone in her stable of friends and family, and they all came. My home was crowded with people who loved her and were excited by the idea of letting her know how they felt about her. They had written letters to her that we placed in an album. We huddled anxiously as she walked up to the door and shouted with delight upon her entrance. She cried tears of unmitigated joy and bore the expression of a delighted child as she opened each gift and read each card.

We all miss my mom. She was the heart of the family and a continual source of fun and laughter. She suffered more than most with the loss of her husband at the age of thirty. Her loneliness, lack of income, and mental illness pushed hard to defeat her spirit, but she battled long and courageously to avoid defeat. Somehow no matter what else was happening in her life, she always rallied on her birthday. It was as though that occasion gave her new energy, new joy, a new beginning again and again.

We’ll be going to Cracker Barrel tonight. Not everyone comes each year, but I do my best to keep my calendar clear so that I will be able to make it. I know that the eldest of her grandchildren will be there along with some of their own kids. The people at Cracker Barrel seem to get a bit flustered when we arrive with such a large group. They don’t seem to understand the importance of the occasion, but we believe that Mama is smiling down on us from heaven. The party is for her after all and we intend to celebrate just the way she would want us to do.

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The Banquet Table of Anthony Bourdain

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(It’s taken me a bit to consider what I wanted to say about Anthony Bourdain. I suppose that is okay, because all too often we mourn the loss of someone and then seem to move on to other things. I think that he is someone worth remembering, and we would do well to model his approaches to learning about and loving people. His suicide will never define the incredible person that he was. Mental illness all too often steals some of the best among us away.)

When I think of good times with family and friends it almost always involves food. My grandmother Little was a country woman through and through whose dishes focused on things like fried chicken, fresh fish that she caught herself, pot roast and oodles of vegetables from her garden. Eating Sunday dinner with her was more than just a consumption of cuisine worthy of the Pioneer Woman. It was a communion of love that was special from the Happy Village dishes on which she served her recipes to the strawberries and cream that she spread on thin slices of cake. We understood that those gatherings were a gift from our grandma that we have never forgotten. Our senses somehow manage to recall the bounty that she spread on her mahogany dining table with clear detail. Even decades later we are able to recover the tastes, aromas, and sights from the memory banks of our brains. They serve as a the trademark of the wonderful moments that we shared with her. Those memories keep her alive in our minds decades after she was gone.

We so often associate food with our relationships. My mouth waters just a bit when I think of Ed’s “fancy” that included oysters Rockefeller, red beans and rice and conversation that I will never forget. I smile at the thought of Linda’s perennially delicious dishes over which we sat for hours raising our families together and building  lifelong relationships. Bieu’s pig roasts and crawfish boils always bring a diverse group of people together even when we sometimes have no idea what everyone is saying. Monica gives us a taste of Europe and a feeling of welcoming warmth. Michael grills his burgers as the children play and we reminisce about times past and celebrate those yet to come. Granny’s tea time was a backdrop for serious discussions. Uncle Paul’s  green eggs and ham were the stuff of our jokes that in truth were somehow strangely delicious. The tangerines and nuts that filled bowls at Christmas time reunions represented the bounty that our crazy immigrant family had achieved. Grandma Ulrich with her weak, milky, sugary cups of coffee taught us how to bring elegance and joy to the most simple fare. Food is most certainly intimately intertwined with family, friends, relationships.

Anthony Bourdain was one of those people who understood the power and symbolism of sharing food. He traveled the world, breaking bread in places where many of us would not dare tread. He introduced us to the loveliness of our humanity and also taught us the importance of being respectful to all cultures. He truly loved people not for how he wanted them to be, but exactly the way they really were. His enthusiasm for the unusual was always apparent in his stories and interviews. He understood that there is not one right or wrong way of doing things or being. He was a beautiful man in that regard. There was a complexity of his intellect and ability to use words, but there was also a simplicity in his delight over very small joys.

We need more people like Anthony Bourdain, a man who appeared to be judgement free. One of my favorite stories of him was about his defense of an older woman who wrote a restaurant review column for a newspaper in North Dakota. She became the butt of snarky commentary and jokes after she published an earnest piece about the opening of an Olive Garden in her town. She was polite and complimentary of everything from the decor to the professionalism of the server. For her efforts she was virally ridiculed. It was Anthony Bourdain who came to her rescue by noting quite gallantly that she was providing us with a portrait of a part of our society that we sometimes don’t see, and doing it very well. He eventually invited her the New York City and encouraged her to publish her best work. He took the time to get to know her better over coffee in a moment that so special for her. Ultimately her book became a hit with his help, but what was most telling about this incident was his compassion and understanding that each of us has something to offer, something new that will enrich lives. This I believe was the key Anthony Bourdain’s success.

The best people, like Anthony Bourdain, not only regale us with good food and exciting stories. They also show us how to treat one another. My grandmothers and my mother both modeled the same kind of behavior for me, demonstrating how to find the beauty in every single person. They encouraged me to open my heart free of preconceived notions. I have been all of the better because of that and I have attempted to pass down that way of embracing the world to my children and grandsons.

I often recall a time when I took my eldest grandson to a small neighborhood grocery store that often attracted an odd assortment of characters. As we pushed our cart through the narrow aisles we heard a gaggle of languages and witnessed some rather odd forms of dress. All the while music sung in a multitude of foreign languages blared over the loud speakers. After we had been there for a few minutes my grandson beamed his most glorious smile at me and exclaimed, “I like dis place. It’s happy!” His comment swelled my heart with pride.

Anthony Bourdain continually challenged us to move out of our comfort zones so that we might find the enriching experiences that truly make life so much more interesting and enjoyable. He showed us that the way to do that is to sit down and enjoy a meal with strangers who in the exchange might even become friends. There’s a whole world of people out there who very likely would love to spend a few hours sharing their stories while supping on the stuff of life. Anthony Bourdain showed us how to do that and how to really live. May he now rest in peace with a special seat at the great heavenly banquet table.

A Hero Indeed

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I grew up on a rather heavy diet of reading, and my first forays into the written word were fairytales followed by stories of the lives of the saints. I admittedly felt that perhaps those icons of religion were more superhuman than I thought possible, and so the ones like St. Theresa and St. Augustine who were flawed like I was became my favorites. Eventually I developed an addiction to biographies of famous people in which I learned of the human frailties of some of my heroes who nonetheless impressed me with their courage. In those critical moments when the world needed them to overcome their weaknesses, they rose to the occasion. Profiles In Courage was like a kind of historical Bible to me that outlined some of the finest stories of humans who were willing to risk everything to do what they believed was right. I suppose that I learned much about character from the many volumes that I devoured, and in the process I began to believe that there are special people among us who have the same imperfections that we all possess but also a moral foundation and strength that separates them from the pack.

The list of my heroes is long and eclectic but one of the traits that all of them shared was a willingness to admit to wrongs. They understood their own imperfections and fought internally to eliminate them, but in their humanness they sometimes lost those battles. Mostly though they were able to follow a path of righteousness no matter how difficult it sometimes became. People like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, and Gandhi have sometimes been picked apart by people who have concentrated more on their mistakes than on the totality of their dedication to justice and compassion. I prefer instead to view them from an assessment of their willingness to make difficult and even dangerous decisions in order to do what they believed to be right.

Sometimes it seems as though we have a dearth of heroes in today’s world. I admire Pope Francis for his loving candor and I think that Jimmy Carter is one of the kindest people on the planet, but in general there is far too much tribalism and anger. Those who apologize for their missteps are often deemed to be weak or wishy washy. Instead we seem to prefer people who barrel ahead with bravado even when it is obvious that they are wrong. We mistake anger for courage, bullying behaviors for strength. From out of the crowd of puppets and posers a true American hero has emerged, and his name is John McCain.

John McCain is an interesting fellow. He’s from a military family who expected him to serve his country, something that he initially did willingly but with little enthusiasm. It was not until he became a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War that he began to truly understand what it means to be a patriot. His injuries were so extensive that to this very day he is unable to lift his arms to comb his own hair. When offered the opportunity to be freed simply because he was the son of an important military figure, he insisted on following the tradition of going in proper order. After much torture he broke at one point, a fact that haunts him to this day, but on the whole he demonstrated a kind of bravery that few of us would have been able to muster.

Upon his return to a normal life after the war was ended he struggled to know what to do with his life. His marriage foundered, another flaw for which he takes full credit. When he finally found himself he knew that he wanted to be a public servant and began a decades long career as a Senator from Arizona. His military background led him to believe in the necessity of working with his colleagues rather than fighting them. He often disagreed with their ideas, but was willing to find ways to allow everyone to win for the sake of the country. He was admired by his fellow lawmakers regardless of party affiliation and created lasting friendships along the way. He was a principled man who believed that it was indeed possible to stand for certain ideals without ignoring differing points of view and finding common ground.

Twice John McCain decided to make a run for President of the United States. In 2000 he lost his party’s nomination to George W. Bush, but came out on top in 2008. He had wanted to choose Joe Lieberman as his running mate but was talked out of that idea by his handlers, a moment that he still regrets. His campaign never really got off of the ground because he lacked the charisma of his opponent Barrack Obama, and his own party viewed him as being weak, lacking the kind of fighting spirit for which they were searching. He instead gave them fairness even to the point of defending Obama against false accusations. The fact that he was a good man seemed to have little appeal to the electorate.

John McCain has continued to be his own person, even as his party has taken a direction so unlike him. He votes according to his conscience, a trait that is all but lost in the present political arena. He voices his beliefs even when they are unpopular. He refuses to be beholden to the pressures of a base or the leader of any party, and while I may not always agree with his ideas, I am in awe of his conviction. Now he is dying and in his last moments on this earth he continues to show us how we should live. He is truly among the greats in my estimation and I hope that other politicians are taking note of his character because men and women like him are all too lacking.

I would like to think that the madness that is present day Washington D.C. is temporary, and that one day we will come to our senses as a nation and insist that our country be run by men and women who understand the necessity of working together for the welfare of all of us. I would like to believe that collegiality and respect will return. John McCain has demonstrated how to do that throughout his lifetime. Notwithstanding comments from our current president, he is indeed a hero.

Being Leonard

10246301_10205604543090004_3263112611847433681_nIt’s graduation time, and when it rolls around each year I can’t help thinking of my own commencements from junior high, high school and college. So much hard work, angst and happy memories lay behind those glorious moments, and so much hard work, angst and happy memories lay ahead. Graduation day itself was somewhat like a wedding, a blur of people and speeches and congratulations that went by so fast. It somehow didn’t seem right for the culmination of so much effort to come and go so quickly, but that’s the way good times always seem to be. What strikes me most as I think back to those glorious moments of achievement is that each time I was surrounded by a core of my friends and family who took the time out of their busy lives to celebrate with me. While so many variables have challenged me in my life, such people have been a constant source of stability and love.

Graduations always make me think of my cousin Leonard. He’s the elder statesmen of our raucous bunch of cousins who is almost as close in age to our parents as he is to those of us who played Hide and Find each Friday night at our grandmother’s house. He was married and raising children while I was still happily engaged in the loveliness that was my childhood. When we saw him, he was far more interested in conversing with my mother and father than getting on the floor to entertain me. I always looked up to him not just because he was the first of our long line of cousins, but because he always appeared to be so happy and wise and confident.

Anyway, Leonard became known as the one person who never missed a single graduation. No matter what the timing was, or how bad the weather had become, Leonard would represent the whole family with his presence at one commencement after another. It almost became a game for us to scan the crowd at such events to find our own “Waldo” in the crowd. We always knew that we could count on seeing him just so long as we had sent him an invitation. While we joked about his perennial presence, I suppose that we never really took the time to think of how remarkable his devotion to family actually has been over the years. Little wonder that his own brood that has grown to gargantuan proportions is such a loving and tight knit group. With a kind of superhuman energy Leonard has managed to quietly take the helm and demonstrate to us the importance of finding time to honor members of the family as they pass through the milestones of life.

We Americans are a chronically busy and productive bunch. It doesn’t seem to be in our DNA to slow down even after we retire. There is nothing quite as shocking to us as someone who chooses to chill for a bit too long. We join organizations and volunteer and fill the nooks and crannies of our calendars so tightly that when we receive heartfelt invitations we quite often have to beg off, send our regrets. We’d love to be with family, but there is just so much to do that forces us to decline. Such has never been so with Leonard, a man who worked hard at his career, raised four delightful children, helped at his church and within his community, and still found ways to pause just enough to demonstrate his love for his us time and again. He has been as dependable as they come.

I suppose that if I were to give one single bit of advice to graduates it would be to follow Leonard’s example. As I look back on my life a sea of faces and experiences fill my head. Jobs and honors have come and gone. People entered my life and exited never to be heard from again. Many of the things that I labored to purchase have broken or gone out of style. The one aspect of my life that has continued to sustain and support me has been family and a circle of special friends who have stayed by my side. I have learned that when someone is as continually faithful as Leonard has been, it is due to great sacrifice and genuine concern. It is not easy to be as responsible and dependable as he is, but somehow he has made it his mission to be so. He is a rare gift in a day and age when behavior such as his is becoming less and less common. He has not allowed the rat race to become the focus of his pursuits. He has found balance and purpose in a life well lived.

There are so many stories of people on their deathbeds voicing regrets, being alone, realizing that they in their quests for riches, power, glory they forgot to remember the people who might have loved and remembered them most. When we hear such tales we marvel that someone who seemed to have it all actually had so little, and yet we also have tendencies to expend all of our energies chasing people and things that may ultimately leave us lonely and forgotten. Leonard on the other hand is a man who is beloved because little that he does is only about himself.

I attempt to emulate Leonard. He has demonstrated to me the importance of showing up again and again. He may not be able stay long but he always manages to demonstrate that he cares enough to be part of our most important milestones. That is all that we need to see. He has been our immutable constant in a world that seems ever less dependable, but he is growing older and time is taking its toll on his health. He won’t be able to carry the family banner forever, so its up to the younger generation to accept and honor his lead. He has shown us how its done. It would be a terrible shame to forget the importance of his efforts. It’s time for all of us to be more like Leonard.

Our Foundation

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It’s the day after Mother’s Day and I find myself thinking about what it means to be a mom. I learned all that I needed to know from my mama who was exceptionally good at the task. I always marvel at the fact that she somehow managed to raise three children each of whom is totally different from the others. She allowed us to be ourselves and ultimately it made us into very happy adults. She loved and guided us, teaching us right from wrong, but then let us develop our own passions. She parented us all alone because our father had died when we were eight, five and three respectively.

A truly good mother like her is able to provide everything that children need, but it is a challenging  job that requires full time devotion, and my mom was always ready to give us her all. She admittedly spoiled us but only with love, not things. We appreciated her, but nonetheless I don’t think that we ever really knew how important she was to us until she had died Now we remember all of the little things that she did that once seemed so insignificant. In fact I find myself calling upon her wisdom and generous spirit more and more as time goes by.

My mother-in-law was another model of motherhood who was only able to bear a single child which was quite dangerous for her. She had a congenital heart defect that doctors felt would shorten her life, and so when she became pregnant they were certain that having a baby would kill her. Not to be bullied into terminating the pregnancy, she insisted on taking the risk. The delivery was complex but ultimately successful, and one of the proudest moments of her life. After my husband was born she the proceeded to love him so much that she turned him into one of the sweetest people to ever walk the earth. Her parenting style proved that some good things are never too much.

I was a young mother who still resembled a child when I first became a mom. I made the kind of mistakes that come from immaturity, but I know without reservation that my girls were the most wonderful gift that I had ever received. I literally thought about them almost every waking moment. More than anything I wanted them to grow to be great women like their grandmothers, and my dreams have very much come true. They are not just good moms. They are extraordinary.

Mothers are the foundation of society, the first teachers of the young. They quietly sacrifice for their children, rarely drawing attention to the many things that they do. They awake in the middle of the night to feed a hungry infant or to console a feverish body. They juggle routines and schedules to get their little ones to lessons and activities. They slowly help them to develop their talents and interests, sometimes adjusting their budgets to provide opportunities for their hard work to take hold. Their own responsibilities and worries grow, but they rarely share the concerns and stresses that rattle around in their heads. The children’s joys are their joys, just as the pain becomes theirs as well.

Sometimes we grow up and look back at photographs of our mothers and marvel at how lovely they were before we were born. We forget that they were once young themselves, dreaming of lives that may or may not have turned out the way they had imagined. We find ourselves one day looking at their graying hair and wrinkled skin and we remember when they ran and played with us. We think of those times when they tucked us into bed, or just smiled at us from across a room. They seemed to love us for no particular reason, but simply because we existed. We gained and lost friends, but our moms were ever faithful, ready to hug and comfort us even without being asked, even when we had ignored them or hurt their feelings.

Moms come in so many different versions. Like snowflakes no two are exactly the same and yet they are all similar. Some moms carry us in their wombs, and others choose us when we have no other place to go, loving us as much as they would have if we were their very own. Some moms dedicate themselves to the home and others balance their care of us with careers. All of them are beautiful.

This past weekend I attended a lovely graduation party for one of my former students. She spoke to us about the things that her mother had done to help her to earn her degree. There were nights when she was up in the middle of the night studying, nearly exhausted. Her mom would arise from her own sleep and bring coffee and encouragement. When she was frustrated her mother would cheer her onward. The young woman believes that her achievement is just as much her mother’s as her own. She understands that without the sacrifices that her mom made her great day might never have come. She rightly credited both of her parents for the wondrous things they had done from the time that she was born, and realizes that they will continue to walk beside her in her journey through life.

We sometimes forget how remarkable and demanding a job being a mom actually is. Sadly the day eventually comes when she is gone. Still her spirit somehow lives on inside our hearts. We see her in the things that we say and do. Her face in forever etched in our minds. We know that she is with us, guiding and consoling us through time and space.

God bless all of the mothers of the world and those who use their maternal instincts to help all children to grow in wisdom and grace.