They Just Set Women Back

St Frances Cabrini

For many years in my adult life I was a member of St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church. I spent some of my happiest times there, making lifelong friends who literally changed me for the better. At one point I even became one of the Directors of Religious Education which was a groundbreaking move for the parish which had before only employed nuns in such positions. I was honored to have been chosen, but always felt humbled and a bit lacking in the ability to fill the shoes of the two inspirational religious ladies who had come before me. Not everyone in the community was happy with having lay people in charge of such an important program but the times were changing and it was incredibly difficult to find nuns willing to work at such jobs.

My co-leader and I met with a great deal of opposition and worked for an abysmally low salary. The Parish Council had yet to realize that they needed to balance out our pay with the reality that they were not furnishing us with a house, car and food as they had done for the religious women who before had literally lived at the church in a makeshift convent. Because I was able to make four times more working as a teacher I eventually left that job and upon my departure recommended my dear friend Pat as a replacement and that they actually pay her more than the four thousand dollars a year that they had given me. They understood and deferred to my wisdom in both choosing Pat and providing her with an income that was worthy of all of the hard work that the job required.

While I was St. Frances Cabrini Church I was always a bit too busy to learn much about the woman for whom the parish was named. It was not until much later that I took the time to read about her and that is when I understood that I should have made more effort to unravel her story while I was still in charge of the religious education of so many children. Indeed her life should be an inspiration to people of all faiths.

St. Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini was born in Italy the last of thirteen children near the midpoint of the nineteenth century. The times were quite difficult for her family which was hardworking but barely able to live adequately due to grinding poverty. Most of Mother Cabrini’s siblings died before reaching adulthood and she herself was always in poor health. Nonetheless she possessed a great faith in God and decided to dedicate her life to helping others by joining a religious group.

At first St. Frances was rejected by several orders because she was deemed too weak to handle the routine and rigors of religious life, but she persisted and finally found a place to begin her religious life. She proved to be incredibly dedicated to helping the poor. So much so that her work caught the eyes of the bishops in her country. They asked her to travel to the United States of America where millions of Italians were going in hopes of finding a better way of life. Unfortunately they rarely moved beyond New York City itself and the conditions in which they lived there were almost as bad as those they had left behind. Mother Cabrini agreed to lend her compassion and abilities to get things done for them.

While in New York City she worked tirelessly to help not just Italian immigrants but those of all kinds who were pouring into the country from all over the world. She founded schools, hospitals and orphanages that made a stunning difference in the lives immigrants struggling to get a foothold in the new land. She found time in the midst of her work to become an American citizen and before long she was taking to her talents to other cities and states like Chicago and places as far away as Colorado. In spite of recurring illnesses she was a tireless advocate for the downtrodden and by the time of her death at the age of sixty eight she had accomplished wondrous things for the poor. Eventually she would be named a saint by Pope Pius XII and be known as the patron of immigrants, the first ever American citizen to have such an honor.

Recently the wife of the mayor of  New York City headed an effort to honor women who had contributed to the development of the metropolis in a drive called She Built NYC. The intent of the program was to choose a group of women who would have statues erected in their names to correct the unbalance of male versus female icons. A committee was formed to determine who the outstanding women might be. In order to include the voice of the people of NYC a contest was held and not so amazingly St. Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini was the unmatched winner. Sadly the committee chose to ignore the votes and instead choose four women who did not even appear on any of the ballots that people sent to them. This was done with no explanation and has thus infuriated many of the people who had supported St. Frances Cabrini, particularly because she was such an advocate of the immigrant. Instead of honoring the peoples’ choice the committee decided to go with an abortion activist and two drag queens whom they deemed to be more in keeping with the intent of the project. 

I am saddened that the work of a woman as dedicated and giving as St. Frances Cabrini would somehow be considered less important and perhaps less woke than those with more radical contributions to the city. If the committee had always been looking for only those women who had upended traditions then that should have been made clear from the outset. Instead the title of the the drive is She Built NYC, and it is impossible to argue that building schools and hospitals for immigrants is not as meaningful as being a rebel. Thus a furor has arisen within the city of New York and across the country.

I have no problem with honoring unconventional women but I would argue that leaving one’s native country and traveling to New York City in the early years of the twentieth century to work in the bleak conditions of Italian ghettoes was as challenging a task as one might ever accept. To deny Mother Frances’ contribution to the City of New York because she was not audacious or minority enough is certainly to miss the essence of her work. This was a woman whose character was made of steel and she should be serving as an inspiration to women all over the world. It would have been courageous and proper for the committee to choose her, especially given that so many thought of her when considering who best deserved the honor. I’m sorry to say that the committee blew it in some contrived way of appearing to be progressive. Their efforts will forever be tainted by the kind of stereotyping that has challenged women for all time. They just set women back.

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Overworked

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Houston, Texas finds itself in contention for “bests” quite often, and the titles are not always laudatory. We are definitely a foodie town with award winning restaurants that rival New Orleans and New York City. In fact, recently our chefs were honored as the best in the country. Along with that award comes the very negative note that we are also one of the “fattest” places in America. The truth is that we Houstonians seem to do a everything with just a bit more effort. in fact we might well be called the city that tries harder.

Recently Houston was highlighted as the second most overworked city, one upped only by Washington D.C. The designation was based on number of hours worked each week, daily commute time, work/life balance, and support systems from local government and employers. Most Houstonians spend around 43 hours on the job and drive one way to on average about thirty minutes. Benefits in terms of vacation time, cost of medical insurance and such perks falls well below most cities. With this kind of news one might wonder why anyone would ever want to live here, and that is a valid question indeed.

The reality is that Houston has been known from its earliest history as a place to find employment. My Slovakian grandparents arrived here just before World War I because of opportunities to work and my born in the USA grandparents found their way to Houston in the forties for the same reason. Houston has never been a city known for its beauty because it is as flat as a pancake and as wildly tossed together as a city without zoning might be. It’s a patchwork of businesses and neighborhoods that sprang up willy nilly through the wild ideas of entrepreneurs who weren’t above creating travel brochures for Houston that featured mountain scenes. Houston has always had audacious ideas like building a world class medical center in the middle of a prairie and cutting an enormous ditch from the Gulf of Mexico to the landlocked east end of town to create a major port of commerce. Our town has a university known as the Harvard of the south and landed the center for space travel. Movers and shakers with incredible ideas find a welcome home here and then create jobs for the masses.

Those of us who have always lived in Houston do our best to travel to more scenic areas where we often dream of luxuriating in rolling hills or mountains or seasides, but work always pulls us back. Houston is a place where almost anyone with a willingness to labor can find a job, and so it has grown and grown and grown. it also attracts the kind of people who don’t mind putting in a few extra hours each week, and because of the snarls of traffic many, like myself, prefer arriving early and leaving late to miss the height of the commuting congestion. I suppose that when averages of time spent at work are calculated such outliers make a difference. In my years traveling to my various job locations I always marveled at the number of drivers on the freeways as early as six or six thirty each morning.

Traffic is a fact of life in Houston. Our freeways get bigger and ever more crowded as more and more people like my grandparents arrive in search of work. Ours is a vast city spread out over many square miles. We are linked together by a network of concrete that is perennially under construction. We have a little Metro train that is only a spit in the bucket in terms of moving our citizens from one place to another. It has few routes and has yet to catch on as a viable way to move about. Thus each morning and afternoon those who work are subjected to a slow moving caravan of wall to wall cars.

Perhaps our work benefits are not up to par either, but then it really does cost less to live here than even many other cities in the state of Texas so economically things manage to balance out. We may pay more for health insurance but our homes and groceries and other needs are more of a bargain. In Houston even those with low incomes often have houses with big yards. It’s a trade off that works rather well in the long run.

Houstonians like to take trips. We travel through the state, across the nation and around the world. Such jaunts help us to deal with the lack of scenery in our own town. Nonetheless there are other diversions and perks in town that make up for our somewhat homely appearance. Ours is a very friendly and diverse place to live. We welcome people from all over the world and we tend to work together in relative harmony. Sure we have some tortured souls who never quite get with the program of inclusion, but they really are more aberrations than the norm. Somehow we generally understand that we are in this great big crazy working town together, and so we celebrate our rodeos and sports teams and families with as much abandon as we give to our jobs. We promote the arts and sciences and search for ways to have fun. On any given day there are so many things to do and see if only we take the time to seek them out.

The statistics may point to some problems in Houston, but they rarely tell the whole story. The very things viewed as negatives are often the reasons that our city has grown. This is a place filled with opportunity that makes it possible for ordinary souls to take an idea and run with it. Houston is a place where crazy dreams have come true and jobs have been available even in times of hardship. It’s where the where often find a place to rest and be accepted as well as work.

We have our problems and even know what they are. We have more crime than we would wish and we’ve been experiencing floods almost since the city’s inception. Water tends to accumulate in a place dominated by ribbons of bayous that are barely above sea level. We’ve been overrun by mosquitoes decade after decade and the summer heat would be unbearable without air conditioners that vie in size with the furnaces of the north. In spite of all of its flaws Houston is a wonderful place, a working place, and if we put in a few more hours of labor each week that is alright. We have Simone Biles, and J.J. Watt, and the Houston Astros and we have jobs. As both of my grandfathers always boasted, it is preferable to have a job than none at all. The rewards for our hard work are many, and so we stay.

We Must Not Forget

I went to church and there was a table filled with little white cards on which names were printed in a lovely black font. I had no idea why they sat quietly in the entryway, but they caught my attention enough to wonder about them until the commencement of the mass shifted my thoughts back to the reason why I was there. It was not until the service had almost ended that I learned the secret of those lovely little name plates. All of them represented someone who had died in the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton and we were asked to take one name and then pray for that person.

I randomly chose both a female and a male without really knowing who they were other than someone whose life had ended in tragedy. I carefully placed the cards inside my purse and went about my very busy day until I found a moment to remember them. That’s when I Googled each name hoping to find out a bit more about the persons that I had promised to recall in my conversations with God.

One of my souls was Logan Turner who had been killed in Dayton, Ohio. According to his mom he had turned thirty only days before his death and was out celebrating with friends. His grieving mother spoke of her boy with high regard insisting that he was indeed “the world’s best son.” She noted that he was both sweet and smart, the kind of person who worked hard and lived life well. He had earned a degree in engineering and had a good job and a promising future but for fatefully encountering a madman on the Saturday night which was supposed to just be fun times. Now his mother has been robbed of her pride and joy, and his wonderful life has been cut short.

Without knowing Logan I somehow felt that I understood the kind of person that he was. I have known young men like Logan in my career as a teacher. They are kind and bright and full of dreams. They love their friends and their moms. They work hard but like to have fun. I felt Logan’s spirit moving inside my soul, and I knew that I would indeed think of him and pray for him and those who lost him in the coming days. I felt a great sadness that he was taken from our world all too soon. I promised not to forget him even though we had never met.

The other card that I had chosen bore the name of Teresa Sanchez who I learned was an eighty two year woman who lived with one of her sisters. She and two family members were innocently shopping in the Walmart when the shooter began his assault.  I have found very little information about her or her life. Only one source that I found had a photo that I was unable to copy. It was a black and white print that showed her lined face with a serious expression. As I gazed at her countenance I imagined that she was perhaps someone’s grandmother, a feisty woman who still maintained her independence. I thought of her routinely visiting the Walmart to accomplish her errands which reminded me of my own mother.

I remembered what joy my Mama found when we were shopping together on so many Saturdays. One of her favorite things to do with me was to spend literally hours perusing the aisles in the Walmart near her home. It never occurred to either of us that we might be in danger simply by pursuing a rather commonplace experience. As I recalled my own sweet mother I felt a wave of grief thinking that what should have been a fun time for Teresa and her sisters had turned into such a tragic loss. There were no doubt people waiting for her return who would never get to see her alive again. 

We each go about our daily lives with little thought that the unthinkable might happen. We follow our routines or take little vacations or sojourns from our work. It is so incongruous that we might be struck down without warning in the midst of doing something that is supposed to be fun. There is a double kind of insult when such things happen without warning. There is no time to say goodbye or to remind our family and our friends how much we love them. Instead those who knew Logan and Teresa are left forever with a sense that there is something unfinished in their lives.

I have been praying for Logan and Teresa just as I promised that I would. I find them coming into my thoughts in different moments of the day. They have somehow burrowed into my heart. I see them as martyrs cut down by ignorance and hate and I believe that they are now resting peacefully with God, but we should not be complacent about what has happened to them. They have left behind people who knew them and loved them and will never again be quite the same. I feel compelled to offer prayers for them as well. I want them to somehow find a semblance of comfort amid all of the rancorous debates that somehow miss the humanity of the loss that they feel. While we argue about guns and immigration and who is right and who is wrong, they are suffering and a part of them always will regardless of how we as a society finally decide how to address the issues that have brought them so much grief. 

I pray for you, Logan and Teresa. I pray for those whom you loved. I pray that we will have the fortitude to set things right in our country. I pray that we might still the voices of anger and hate. I pray that we will not forget you or the hurt that your loved ones feel. May we all learn and grow and take positive measures to better insure the safety of anyone who leaves home to have an enjoyable time. May you rest in peace with the angels and may we work hard in your name to stop the kind of terror that you had to endure. 

 

Rest In Peace

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Back when Mike and I were newlyweds he was working toward an advanced degree and serving as a teaching assistant at the University of Houston. He had already been the best of friends with a fellow from Germany named Egon and the two of them were selected for the honor of working with undergraduates along with a few other students. Among them was a bright and lovely young woman from the University of St. Thomas, whose name was Marita. She hailed from a big Irish family in Chicago and it wasn’t long before the three of them became inseparable at the university.

Marita liked to joke that she was looking for a relationship at that point in her life, and that she first set her sights on Mike until she noticed the gold band that he wore on his left hand. Being a good Catholic girl she quickly shifted gears and began a flirtation with Egon who was flattered by the attention from a cute girl with the mischievous twinkle in her eyes. Soon enough they were a steady couple who often joined Mike and I for fun on weekends. It didn’t surprise us at all when they announced their engagement and impending wedding. It was to be an elegant affair with their families from Chicago and Germany coming to Houston to attend. Mike and I were honored to be members of the wedding party where we met their relatives and celebrated with joy.

Mike and Egon were both only children who became like brothers rather quickly. Mike’s mom would joke that she was happy to have two sons. We spent countless evenings laughing and talking with both Egon and Marita until late in the night. They were both intellectual giants whose conversations were always interesting and fun. Ours was a glorious friendship that seemed certain to extend well into our old ages. Somehow we were simply perfect together.

Egon and Marita were unable to have children of their own in spite of many valiant efforts so they more or less “adopted” our two girls. Both of their families lived so far away that they became bonafide members of ours. They were fixtures at every party, celebration or gathering that we had. They watched our children grow into adults and in the interim they became incredibly successful in their jobs. Egon worked as a sales representative for an international company and he was consistently one of their top earners. Marita used her talents to become a lawyer, graduating with honors and scoring high on the Texas Bar exam. She was hired by one of the premiere law firms in the city. We celebrated each milestone in our individual lives and found such great joy in being able to take for granted that these two remarkable people would always be by our side.

Life has a way of throwing challenges at us when we least expect it. Egon’s parents both died in Germany rather suddenly and unexpectedly. Shortly thereafter he was diagnosed with a number of very serious diseases including diabetes and heart problems. Marita’s father had died when she was young but her mother too died while all of this was transpiring. I suppose that they were reeling from the constant ponding of bad news and they turned to terrible and unhealthy habits to still their demons. Their lifestyle affected their performance at work and before long both of them had lost their jobs, something that was almost unthinkable given their talents and their intellects. They became more and more depressed, more unhealthy and more isolated. We saw less and less of them and we worried.

I urged them to visit their doctor and follow his instructions to the letter. They had made an appointment and assured me that they were not only going to pull themselves together, but also come to visit us on my upcoming birthday. Sadly they were never able to fulfill either promise. Shortly before their meeting with the doctor Marita became so ill that she had to be rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. Her prognosis at the time was dire and so our concern focused on Egon who was not handling the situation well.

One afternoon I had a bout of foreboding and called Egon to tell him that I was coming to check on him once the school day was over. He insisted that he was fine and asked me to just go home and visit him at another time. I reluctantly agreed but had such a strong sense that something was amiss that I called my daughter, the nurse, to get some reassurance that I was doing the right thing.

At approximately the time that I might have arrived at Egon’s home had I gone there that day he died of a heart attack. It appeared that he had checked his blood sugar and his blood pressure just as I had urged him to do because the instruments that he used for those things were sitting on a table right next to his phone. It broke my heart to think that he died alone although I realized that I would not have known what to do had I been there other than call 911. Still I felt very guilty for a long time.

Miraculously Marita recovered from her own illness and worked successfully for several more years but two separate strokes left her unable to endure the rigors of a job. She instead required help at home and slowly but surely became worse. She became a shell of her former self who was almost unrecognizable as the once powerful woman that she had been. When her best friend from college died she seemed to lose her willingness to fight. By then she was quite alone save for visits from me and Mike. She was too far away from Chicago for family there to check on her regularly and she and her brother had not been close for some time. It was a dreary and sad situation.

Marita died about fourteen years after Egon left this world. Only the staunchest of her friends attended her funeral. I gave a halting eulogy and some of my dear friends and family were there to honor Marita and support me. I felt empty and sad.

Both Egon and Marita were cremated and Mike and I kept their ashes in our home hoping that one day we might determine their ultimate fate. On several occasions they had spoken of wanting to be spread in the fjords of Norway where they had spent many happy times with Egon’s relatives from his mother’s side of the family. Now most of them were also gone and we had no idea how to fulfill their wishes. We considered taking the two of them to Galveston Bay because they had often camped on the beach there. They loved the ocean and had many happy times together in their pop up camper. Still, we just never felt that our idea was completely right.

Recently Marita’s brother who lives in Chicago with the rest of her clan contacted me. He had begun to worry that he had done nothing to provide his sister with a final resting place. He asked if I still had the ashes and wondered if I would be willing to send them to him. Of course I  understood that he had more right to them than I did. I was also happy that he had overcome whatever feelings had kept him at bay for so long. I let him know that I not only had Marita’s ashes but Egon’s as well. I asked if he wanted them both and he eagerly replied in the affirmative. We both believed that they would have wanted to stay together no matter where that may be. Soon they will find a place with Marita’s family where they will be honored and loved by nephews and cousins who like us remember how gloriously wonderful they were.

Sending them away is somewhat bittersweet, but it feels right. I have a sense of relief in knowing that their fate will be resolved. It is time for them both to rest in peace. I hope they will also know how much they were loved.

A Piece of My Heart Stays In San Francisco

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It’s easy to understand why Tony Bennet left his heart in San Francisco. It is one of those cities that never grows old for me. I return again and again to find that I am still enchanted with its beauty. I can’t imagine getting tired of looking into the bay or crossing over the Golden Gate Bridge. I am delighted by the undulating hills of the streets that are adorned with the most delightful houses. It is a city comparable to London, Paris or Rome in my mind, and it is only a short plane ride away from my home town of Houston. Periodically I get the itch to return, and luckily I enjoyed the opportunity to be there a week or so ago.

The nice thing about my actual destination of Sacramento is that it is really close to lots of great places most of which I was able to visit in between my grandson’s races. I was actually a bit disappointed to learn that next year’s Junior Olympics will be held in a different locale because Sacramento was just perfect in every possible way.

Our brief sojourn in San Francisco was made even shorter by a massive traffic jam that we encountered on the way to the city. Our two hour drive time was almost doubled by some kind of difficulty that we never actually saw. As far as we knew it occurred just because so many people were traveling to the city by the bay on a beautiful Friday afternoon. Whatever the reason we ultimately reached the outskirts and were directed by Siri to travel in an unusual direction that gave us the opportunity to see the bay from the viewpoint of an industrial port. It was a great reminder of how and why San Francisco developed over time and it also happened to be quite interesting.

Eventually we circled around to a high end area on the Sausalito side of the Golden Gate Bridge. There were lovely homes nestled in the hills and exclusive shops that spoke of a clientele with excellent incomes. The traffic on the bridge was moving freely but fog covered the structure even though it was an almost cloudless day. The usual gorgeous view was obstructed, but there was nonetheless something quite appropriate about seeing it in this different way. I had always heard about San Francisco fog but never seen it in any of my former visits.

We were specifically searching for the Rothy’s shoe store in downtown so that we might purchase a particular pair of pumps for our daughter who has become a big fan of the trendy flats made from recycled plastic water bottles. The style she wanted is only available in the store, so we knew that she would be quite excited to receive them. We got a cook’s tour of the city as we turned here and then there to reach the tiny shop that was jam packed with excited women trying on their favorite colors and styles. I was able to bypass all of the commotion because I knew exactly what I wanted and luckily they had what I needed in stock. The very accommodating sales lady gave me a wonderful canvas bag to carry my purchase and I was soon waving Mike down as he circled the street again and again.

I had heard vicious rumors about San Francisco streets littered with homeless people and human feces. I saw nothing like that as we drove from one end of town to the other. In fact everything was impeccably clean and all of the residents and tourists seemed to be having a great time. There were smiles all around.

Of course a brief look at real estate prices showed me that few people can actually afford to live in San Francisco. The only home that I found that would cost the same as my house was a six hundred fifty square foot studio. It’s difficult to imagine how much someone must make to afford the luxury of living in that grand city.

We continued our drive down memory lane by traveling over the bridge into Oakland and finally into Berkeley. I saw something there that was both dismaying and at the same time rather nice. A kind of homeless tent city had been set up near a park. There was a sign indicating that a concerned group was managing the care of the people who lived inside the cloth structures that were neatly lighted up in rows. Someone had installed solar panels to create electricity and there was a Porta-potty for the use of the homeless souls.

A few of the people were sitting at a table playing dominoes and all in all it appeared to be a safer and cleaner alternative to the homeless encampments that I have seen across America. Since few of those who are homeless like the idea of being confined in shelters with lots of rules this solution was a rather ingenious one, something that we might immolate everywhere. Because so many of the people in these conditions are either suffering from some kind of addiction or a severe mental illness they need to be actively monitored while at the same time granting them the dignity of freedom. I mentally applauded the group that had taken the initiative to help in small but powerful ways.

We ended our excursion with a visit to Rudy’s Can’t Fail Cafe in Emmeryville where we enjoyed burgers and onion rings. We were happy to see Pixar flourishing across the street and marveled at all of the improvements in the once downtrodden area. What had at one time been an almost abandoned industrial disaster is now looking modern and upbeat.

I was quite happy to be able to visit San Francisco before returning to Houston. I hope that I will be able to see it again and again. There is something magical about it that soothes my soul. A piece of my heart always stays there even if I will never call it home.