Do I Dare?

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The seventy fifth anniversary of the liberation of the people imprisoned in Auschwitz touched my heart. Somehow I realized for the first time that the horror of that place only ended four years before my own birth. What had always seemed like a far away event was actually something that happened shortly before the beginning of my lifetime. It hit me hard to think of the people who had endured the horrors of that place and I found myself wondering as I have often done how I might have acted if I had been caught up in the maelstrom of evil that overtook so much of Europe in those years.

I had always believed that I would have been safe from any of the repercussions of the Nazi terror, but a DNA test proved me wrong. I indeed have a small percentage of genetic compatibility with those who are descended from Eastern European Jews. Would I have been classified as someone who needed to be erased from society? Would the fact of my grandmother’s and mother’s mental illnesses have further increased my likelihood of being sent to a concentration camp? Who knows? I shudder to even consider such a consequence just for being born, and yet that was the fate of millions who had done nothing more than bear the mark of traits that Adolf Hitler and his crazed followers deemed unworthy of human respect.

More important to me than the possibility of being among the numbers herded onto trains and sent to an unthinkable hell is the question of whether or not I would have had the courage to do something to help those whose human rights were being abused in the most savage ways. I’ve always wanted to think that I might have helped them in some way either by speaking out or taking part in some sort of underground movement intent on providing aide. It’s easy to imagine such a thing in theory but actually being brave enough to risk everything would have been daunting. I’m honestly not certain that I would have mustered the courage to to the right thing.

For that reason I was incredibly inspired when I learned the story of Stanislawa Leszczyńska, a midwife who resided in Poland during the Nazi occupation. Stanislawa and her family were quite active in helping the Jews who had were living in abysmal conditions in the overcrowded ghetto where they had been separated from the rest of the population. For a time their work went unnoticed but eventually they were discovered and Stanislawa ended up a prisoner of Auschwitz.

While she was there she offered her services as a midwife, doing her best to improve the unsanitary conditions that lead to many childbirth deaths. The routine way of doing things was to kill the babies as soon as they were born and to force the women to watch their newborns being drowned in a bucket. Stanislawa refused to participate in such murder and it is believed that she managed to save at least a thousand babies who might otherwise have been killed. Many women who gave birth in the camp credit Stanislawa with keeping both them and their children alive. 

I cannot even imagine the kind of fearlessness that it took for Stanislawa to threaten the safety of her life and that of her family in an effort to do what was morally right. She might easily have turned away her gaze and pretended that she was unaware of the monstrosity of what was happening to the people in her town. She and her family would never have seen the inside of Auschwitz had they simply protected themselves through inaction. When she was caught and sent to a camp she might have chosen to quietly follow the rules in order to insure her own survival but once again she challenged authorities and ignored commands that she knew were immoral. How she got away with her brazen actions is a kind of miracle.

There are amazing people in the world who refuse to worry about negative consequences in the crusade for justice. They literally risk their own lives in the pursuit of right over wrong. It is never an easy thing to do and while I want to believe that given the same circumstances I would be willing to surrender my own freedom to help those being wrongfully abused, I wonder if I would instead quietly accept the status quo out of fear. Being a Thomas Moore, a Martin Luther King, Jr., or an Oskar Schindler is risky and often deadly business. It’s so much easier to just look away and pretend that nothing is happening.

The world is riddled with problems even today. Dare I talk of them or do something constructive to correct them? I have friends willing to speak their minds while I often shudder with the fear of being misunderstood or ostracized if I were to openly do or say what I believe to be right. Stansilawa Leszcynska inspires me. Do I dare be like her?

The Best of the Best

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When I was a child we had exactly one dog. His name was Buddy and he was one of the finest pets ever.  Buddy was a beautiful collie that we rescued from the local animal shelter. He was still rather young when we decided to make him a member of our family. He already had his name and we decided not to change it lest he be confused. We saw that he was already a bit nervous about coming home with us and we wanted to let him know that he was going to be safe.

Buddy was smart and always gentle. Even though he was a very big dog we sensed that we did not need to be afraid that he might harm us. Back in those days most animals lived outside all of the time and so it was with Buddy. We let him inside the house for short visits but mostly his domain was inside the fence that marked the extent of our property behind the house. Because he was an energetic dog from a breed known for herding sheep he enjoyed running around the perimeter as though he was a sentinel watching over us. Before long he had created a grassless pathway marking his exercise track.

We always felt quite safe with Buddy acting as our security system. While we understood that he was as mild    as a lamb, outsiders were afraid of his ferocious bark and his tenacious insistence that nobody that he did not know should get past him or dare to enter the yard. We never worried about marauders intruding into our home when Buddy was on guard.

It did not take Buddy long to learn how to climb the chain link fence so that he might explore the neighborhood. In the beginning we worried that he might never return when he wandered away but he always found his way back home before dark, waiting patiently at the gate until we let him back inside his province. After a time Buddy became a celebrity of sorts in the neighborhood. Everyone seemed to know and love him. They watched over him when he took his strolls and guided him back in our direction when he appeared to be a bit confused about how to get back to his little empire.

Our garage was attached to the house but we had to cross under a little covered porch to actually get to an entry door that went directly into the kitchen. Our mom kept Buddy’s food and water under the roof of the porch and always left the side door to the garage ajar so that Buddy would be able to find shelter from rain or cold weather conditions. Mama kept a quilt in there for Buddy to use when he was sleeping but he generally slumbered right in front of the back door to the house as though he was our protector.

My brothers taught Buddy a few tricks but mostly he was just a good fellow who loved us with every fiber of his being. When our friends came around he was as sweet to them as he was to us. I recall a time when I found a little neighbor boy of no more than about three years old hitting Buddy with a thin board that had a nail on the end. Amazingly Buddy endured the pain that the boy was inflicting on him as though he realized that the child was too young to understand what he was doing. Buddy was always like that. He loved all of the kids in our neighborhood.

In the summers my mother had Buddy’s hair cut so that he would not be too hot. He always looked a bit like a lion because the groomer left his mane intact and kept a little ball of hair on the end of his tail. Years later I would learn that he was probably better off with his coat intact but so much was different then and people didn’t possess as much knowledge about how best to care for dogs. They thought that dogs were simply animals who belonged in the great outdoors. I don’t think I knew a single person who kept a pet inside the house unless it was a hamster, a fish or a snake.

Eventually my brothers and I grew older and so too did Buddy. His coat that had once gleamed with a healthy sheen became mostly gray and white, especially around his muzzle. He walked rather than ran and his fence climbing adventures ceased. He spent most of his time sleeping under a big fig tree. He ate less and less and had to make more and more visits to see the veterinarian for little problems. Still he defied the odds of having an exceptionally long life by easing into his twelfth year of faithful service to our family and fourteenth year of life. One day when I was about nineteen I noticed that he had not touched his morning meal. I found him panting under the fig tree and he was unable to even lift his head to acknowledge my presence. It looked dire for him and I knew he needed medical attention quickly. Since nobody else was home and I did not drive I called on help from a friend who quickly came to the rescue.

We drove Buddy to see the vet who had always cared for him with a sense of deep sorrow and foreboding. His breathing was shallow and he seemed unable to move. An aide had to carry him inside for us and the face of the doctor was grim as he surveyed Buddy’s condition. I suppose I knew all along that Buddy was dying but I kept hoping that some miracle might cure his condition. Sadly it was not meant to be. I stood in a state of shock as the kindly veterinarian announced that the only compassionate thing to do would be to put Buddy to sleep.

That was the first time that I had to let go of a beloved pet. Even knowing that it was the most humane thing to do it tore at my heart. Buddy was so good, so faithful, so innocent and I could not imagine our family without him. He was our animal brother who loved more deeply and loyally than any human is capable of doing. I hated being the one who had to end his beautiful life.

My brothers and I would have other dogs over the years. They were wonderful in their own right but somehow they never quite gained the status that we reserved for Buddy. He was our childhood pet at a time when our family needed stability and love, two qualities that Buddy gave us without reservation. He was the best of the best, our most beloved and beautiful pet ever. 

Always An Angel

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I’ll never forget a magical moment when my Aunt Claudia came to visit our home when I was still a very young child. She arrived in a Studebaker, a rather trendy car for the era. As she stepped from the passenger seat she resembled a movie star in her fitted white dress and high heels that emphasized her natural beauty. Her dazzling smile lit up her finely sculpted face and her eyes twinkled with a kind of delight for life. I was playing with a neighborhood friend at the time and when my buddy expressed her awe of the vision of my aunt I felt a tinge of unmitigated pride. Aunt Claudia was a rare beauty indeed and she had come to spend time with me, at least that’s how she made me feel.

My lovely aunt was a twin who had been named Wilma Elizabeth by her parents. Perhaps she grew weary of having her moniker mispronounced by people who did not realize that the W in the name was pronounced like a V, or maybe she just thought it would be fun to choose a name more befitting of her essence so she became Claudia. The new designation didn’t stick for long because her family gave her the nickname, Speedy, because she was an uncannily quick typist. While everyone else referred to her as Aunt Speedy, I always thought that Claudia was the name that suited her.

I adored everything about my aunt. She was incredibly bright and both able and willing to talk about quite interesting topics. I loved sitting with her because she never treated me like a child and she always made me feel wonderful about myself. Somehow we were always kindred spirits who understood one another in an almost psychic way. She would tell me that I was very much like her and I loved thinking that maybe it was true that I carried a bit of her intellect and personality in my veins.

Aunt Claudia had once been married to my father’s best friend, Bob. They lived in Corpus Christi, Texas in a thoroughly modern mid-century home that was filled with excitingly sleek furniture. One room of the house held a collection of exquisite rocks inside glass cases. I loved nothing better than viewing those samples of the earth’s variety but I was terrified of my aunt’s English bulldog, Thor Darling. Looking back I realize that Thor was just a very affectionate pup but at the time he overwhelmed me with his friendliness.

Aunt Claudia and Uncle Bob came to visit us in Houston quite often. I loved that they stayed at our house just down the hallway from my room, The two of them always took the time to do something fun with just me which always made me feel rather special. Sadly Uncle Bob died from melanoma before he was even thirty. I was in the first grade when it happened and I grieved so for my aunt. Joyfully she had a little daughter named Sandra to care for and she did so quite lovingly and without ever making me feel that I had lost our special relationship.

Eventually Aunt Claudia found love again with one of the nicest men that I have ever known. My new Uncle Bill was perfect for her and for our family. Aunt Claudia bloomed again in the warmth of his love for her and before long she had another child, a sweet baby boy who looked like a clone of his dad.

I didn’t see as much of my aunt after that. We both got busy living life. Nonetheless we always felt a special connection each time we were together. I rarely felt as wonderfully content as when I was with Aunt Claudia. She was my soul sister despite the difference in our ages.

Shortly after my first child was born my Aunt Claudia’s daughter died rather suddenly at the age of only sixteen. I literally felt her pain as I watched her weakly going through the motions of the funeral. I cried for her for so long without stopping that I felt sick but somehow she rallied with her characteristic strength and I was once again in awe of her and wanting to be just like her.

Time passed and tragedy struck again for Aunt Claudia when her beloved husband, Bill, died. Overtime she herself was weakened by osteoporosis, a disease that I would eventually share with her just as we had shared so many things. In spite of her own troubles she faithfully checked on my mother every single day with a phone call and an optimistic and loving patience with my mom’s bouts of mania that sometimes became ugly.

As Aunt Claudia grew old I continued to see her as the beautiful woman that she always was. I cherished every occasion that allowed us to be together and I watched her bravely fight the crippling effects of the disease that left her bound to a wheelchair. Somehow she managed to smile and have fun in spite of her pain. She loved to play cards and dominoes and eventually came to Houston to live with her twin sister.

She was quite frail and approaching the age of ninety five when her sister died a few months ago. We all worried and wondered if she had the wherewithal to keep going. On New Year’ Eve she breathed her last and joined the loved ones who had gone before her. I imagine them welcoming her when she flashed that beautiful smile of hers that was always so mesmerizing.

I have to admit that I am particularly bereft over losing her but somehow I still feel her encouragement surrounding me like armor. If I am truly like her I will bravely carry on just as she always did and I will be happy that she is reunited with so many of her loved ones. I can imagine her delight in seeing her daughter again and I’m certain that her husbands and siblings are overjoyed to be with her as well.

Vilma Elizabeth Claudia Speedy Ulrich Janosky Robinson has always been an angel. Now she will officially get her wings.

   

Her Wonderful Life

Jeanne

I vividly remember when I first met Jeanne. She was the kind of person who left a lasting impression on people and she definitely had that effect on me. I was about six or seven years old when my cousin, Leonard, brought his girl friend, Jeanne, to a family gathering at Clear Lake. She was a stunningly beautiful teenager with a mega watt smile and a confidence that made her an instant hit with my aunts and uncles. It wasn’t too long after that when she and Leonard were married providing me with my first encounter with what I thought of as the holy grail of true love.

Jeanne was undoubtedly one of a kind, a delightful spirit who found and gave joy wherever she went. She had a way of making everyone feel special and loved, and she always took time to let people know how much she cared about them. Even the smallest children knew that her interest in them was genuine. With her seemingly boundless energy she gave her heart and soul to every person who came her way. Her humble way of giving of herself guaranteed that she would become a favorite in our big extended family. It was not long before she was the person we felt most excited to see whenever she arrived at our events.

Jeanne and Leonard started a family of their own that grew and grew and grew filling their home with laughter and unmitigated love. Jeanne was at the center of the antics and delighted in planning raucous gatherings where fun and mischief were the order of the day. She was a premier hostess who literally chose her homes with entertaining in mind and understood the importance of having enough room to hold all of the love that was a constant presence in her life.

Jeanne was the bearer of so many gifts that she in turn generously lavished on her family and friends. She was a teacher, a woman of great faith. She was a light of optimism and a ray of hope. She humbly spread her kindness leaving no one untouched by her generosity. She loved to cook and she made preparing a feast for a crowd look easy to do. She danced her way through life grasping every possible opportunity to enjoy people and places and events. She built traditions that brought those that she loved together, hosting family annual reunions and scheduling week long camping trips at Garner State Park each summer.

Jeanne had a particularly amazing way of making each person that she encountered feel welcomed. Nobody in her presence went unnoticed. She took great pains to make everyone part of the fun that seemed to surround her like a halo. She possessed a charisma that made her unique and exciting but more importantly she maintained a quiet strength that was comforting. I found myself drawn to her just so that I might basque in the sunshine of her warmth.

Jeanne lived as full and meaningful life as anyone might desire. She was a loving wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, daughter, daughter-in-law, sister, sister-in-law, cousin, friend. She lived a simple life by choice but somehow everything she touched became extraordinary. She earned a college degree after her children were grown, proving to them that learning is a lifelong goal. She found ways to attend athletic events, band concerts, birthday parties, graduations and funerals with a faithfulness and sincerity that told people how important they were to her.

Jeanne had a beautiful heart but she was also an incredibly attractive woman with a flair for the flamboyant.. She loved bright colors that seemed to perfectly match her exciting personality. There were no grays and whites in her home or her way of living. Instead reds and oranges and deep blues shouted out her never ending joy and matched her ever present smile.

Jeanne left this earth last Friday. She had been very ill for some time. In her classic way she willed herself to remember others even as her health failed. She came to my fiftieth anniversary party with her oxygen tank and looking feeble, but still managing to have a glorious time. On Christmas Day she was surrounded by her huge family doing her best to laugh through the pain that had become her unrelenting companion. It was a fitting final act of love that was the definition of who she was.

Jeanne will be sorely missed. A great light in our lives seems to have gone away, but I believe that her impressions are so indelibly imprinted on our souls that we will always see and be guided by her example and her brightness. I agree with Jeanne’s granddaughter Madison who imagines her grandmother laughing and joking with Jesus and dancing with delight in her new heavenly home. She is waiting for us there, preparing a party for the time when we join her. For now we rejoice that her pain is no more and that she has so justly received her reward for living a truly wonderful life.

I saw a magnificent sunset not long after Jeanne died. Somehow I felt that it was a sign from her that we are supposed to continue to celebrate the beauty of life just as she always did. I know she would want us to embrace and comfort one another and find a way to dry our tears and carry on her traditions. She taught us well.

Choosing a Different Way of Learning

homeschoolingNow that I am retired there are days when I think it would be nice to sleep in each morning or sit all day watching romantic comedies. In other words I feel as though I am entitled to just being a slug, but so far I have been unable to surrender to the gypsy life. Perhaps it is my type A personality that keeps me striving to stay active and purposeful or maybe I do the things that keep me busy to have meaning in my life.

I almost religiously write a blog each weekday morning while sipping on my tea and munching on a small breakfast. I have six students that I am homeschooling and I carefully plan to meet with them once each week to teach them mathematics. I’m relearning Pre-Calculus so that I will be able to help two of my grandsons prepare for tests.

All of these things take chunks of my time that I might otherwise devote to the art of relaxation, a luxury that I have certainly earned but am still loathe to experience to its fullest. Instead I enjoy knowing that I have a purpose beyond simply spoiling myself. I realize all too well that one day I may no longer be capable of doing such things as I age each year and move toward my inevitable end here on earth.

I’ve been particularly enthralled by my foray into home schooling, In my full time working days I experienced both public and private schools. I am a strong advocate for both because I feel that we need variety in our society. People choose one over the other for good reasons and in both instances I have found a range of quality education.

When it came to home schooling I was always a bit dubious and even a bit indignant that it was a form of escape from the realities of society. When I first received an offer to work with two young men in their home I did so mostly as a kind of opportunity to see what the world of children who forgo the lockstep approach to learning with a large group of peers is really like. To my utter delight I found that, at least in the case of my pupils, schooling at home is indeed a very serious endeavor that takes a great deal of support and planning from parents who have decided that they prefer an education for their children over which they have more control.

I soon discovered that children who are homeschooled generally receive a more classical education. They begin taking Latin and foreign languages as very young children. They usually belong to a Co-op where they meet regularly with other students to read literature, learn history, perform science labs and such. They get their physical workouts on team sports and every one of the six that I now teach plays an instrument of some sort and engages in artistic endeavors that fill their homes with paintings and sculptures. They are an incredibly imaginative and happy group with plans to ultimately attend college. Once they reach high school age they enroll at the local community or junior college and take dual credit classes in various subjects that allow them to graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate degree.

I am in awe of how much material we can cover in a once a week class when the focus on the material is entirely on mastering the concepts. I have zero interruptions, no discipline problems, no worries. I have ample opportunities to reinforce concepts and have a complete picture of what the pupils strengths and weaknesses are. I know exactly whether or not my students understand the information that I have conveyed to them. I provide them with enough homework to practice and if they have questions they call or text me for more information.

I suppose the key to successful homeschooling lies in how well the parents enforce a regular schedule. The mothers of the children with whom I work are dedicated to devoting each weekday to creating an academic atmosphere in the home and to chauffeuring their children to the Co-ops and enrichment programs. They are very serious about the education of their kids and so I have to be that way as well. 

It takes a bit of work on my part to be fully prepared for the classes each week but it is a joyful experience. I know what lies ahead for the students because of my own years in a classroom. I feel comfortable leading them along a spiral path of learning that will bring them to a point of readiness for a more advanced bit of mathematics later.

Home schooling is not for everyone. I doubt that it would be an effective alternative for working moms who would have to rely on relatives, neighbors or nannies to enforce the structure that the program requires. Without genuine dedication to the task of education families will not succeed. There must be structure and discipline from hour to hour on a daily basis and many folks simply are not attuned to being that self motivated. They do better in the more formalized setting of a public or private school, but for those who have the willingness to work at the process of homeschooling it is a rewarding experience.

In the past I myself have used many of the arguments against home schooling. I had long believed that it’s main flaws are in the socialization of the child. I have learned that the best home school experiences include regular contact with peers and diversity. The children with whom I work know full well how to navigate in the real world and sometimes they even ask me to bring them questions from standardized tests so that they will understand what the public school kids on their street are learning. They continually challenge themselves with an interest and drive that is sometimes missing in the mass production of learning.

I continue working as a teacher in a new environment. I will not grow wealthy from doing so unless I extend my hours from four or five a week but I feel a joyfulness with my tiny band of students. I now educate in a stressless environment free from standardized tests and silly rules and curriculum guides. It feels like the way that learning was meant to be and generally was in a time of long ago. It makes me understand why so many parents are choosing to keep their children at home. The work they are doing is not easy but so far the results, as I see them, are remarkable.