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.

Rejoice

Alec_200x300

His parents had dreamed of having a son and after three attempts their wish finally came true. Sadly before he was even born they learned that he had a rare condition commonly known as “brittle bones.” They were nonetheless undeterred by the dreary picture that the doctors painted for them. He was their child and they already loved him. They would do whatever they needed to do to care for him and show him how much they cherished him even with his physical imperfections. They named him Alec and convinced him that he should never be defeated by the challenges that his condition posed. They taught him how to be his best and to find optimism in the midst of his pain.

They sent him to the best doctors in Chicago where he found kindness and assistance from the Shriners who had worked to provide hospitals and care for children such as Alec. The boy grew to be happy and articulate and courageous even as he endured countless fractures of his fragile bones. Surgeries to mend and strengthen him became part of his routine as did learning how to maneuver his wheelchair so that he might play basketball with other youngsters with afflictions that left them unable to walk.

Along the way Alec became a spokesperson for the Shriners. His infectious smile and sincerely winning mays made him an instant hit and familiar face to millions of television viewers who stopped to listen to the precious boy who asked for help with the very worthy cause of sharing with youngsters who deal with crippling conditions, He possessed a natural charisma that was enchanting.

Alec is seventeen now and still a popular spokesman for the Shriners. He is small in stature due to his condition but his personality is gigantic. He is proud to represent the organization that has done so much for him and for his family. He admits that his life has not been easy but credits his parents for continually providing him with the motivation and love that keeps him moving forward with his life. He feels a sense of purpose in being able to bring attention to the children like him who continually struggle with their crippling illnesses. He has found multiple ways to enjoy the life he has without self pity.

Alec’s parents recently gifted him with a new car fitted out to accommodate his needs. It has a lift and hand controls that allow him to have a new sense of freedom. His voice is deep now but the same smile that made him a star as a child is ever present on his very recognizable face. He confides that he has suffered at times but he revels in the kindness that people have exhibited toward him again and again. He appreciates the gift of life that his parents gave him and the unending support that they continue to provide.

The story of Alec and his parents is uplifting and reminds us of our own blessings. It also demonstrates that the promise of life is not without challenges and suffering. How we face the pain that all humans endure is a measure of our understanding that each of us has the power inside our souls to endure even the most unthinkable. Our attitude determines how well we manage both the good and the bad events and Alec shows us that with determination and a will to find good wherever we go we indeed may find meaning and happiness in spite of difficulties that taunt us.

Depression is on the rise across the globe. Babies such as Alec are routinely aborted. Millions bury their sorrows in alcohol and drugs. We so fear pain and suffering that we attempt to run from it. When we have no other recourse we so often fill our hearts with rage, which is a very natural and human reaction that even Alec admits to having felt. The key to overcoming our inclinations to give up is to understand that while life can be overwhelming there are powerful alternatives to our sorrow. We only need keep the faith that each breath we take is a sign that we have something to give to the world even if it is just a genuine smile.

I have been blessed to personally know people who inspire me just as Alec has done. They have been beset with plagues of sorrow and pain and yet they soldier on, changing direction as needed but always surviving with determination to make the best of the hand that has been dealt them. My own mother was the consummate example of someone who might have given up but she remained one of the happiest individuals I have ever known through grave loss, debilitating illnesses and economic misfortune. The key to her happiness lay in her ability to find great joy in small things. She had an the wonder and appreciation of a child.

Take time each day to consider all the good things about the world rather than the bad. Think of the people who love you rather than those who hurt you. Be thankful for the talents that you possess and build on them. Each and every one of us is a precious and unique creation and the key to the contentment that we seek is first to cherish ourselves just as we are and then to do whatever we might to share our rejoicing with others.

A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood

Mr. Rogers

I grew up watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood on television. I liked the simplicity of it and the routine. It was all so calming for a girl like me who had so many unexpected tragedies. I suppose that I always preferred the quiet nature of Mr. Rogers and his show. At some point I outgrew him and began to think that it wasn’t cool to watch the program anymore. Like Wendy I moved on and didn’t really think about him very much. My own daughters were from the Sesame Street generation with a spot of The Electric Company thrown in now and again. Since I only allowed them to watch so much television per day Mr. Rogers was not on the agenda. In other words I more or less forgot about him as time passed.

My dear friend Pat gave me a book of his wisdom as a gift one time. Reading it made me feel a wave of nostalgia for the simpler times of my youth and those comfortable moments when I watched Mr. Rogers in lovely shades of black and white in our living room on Belmark Street. I always felt so safe and secure back then and had little idea of the challenges that lay ahead. All I knew is that I liked Mr. Rogers. He somehow seemed so real. Reading the book that held his thoughts convinced me that there was much more to him than I had realized when I was still a child.

When I heard that there was a new movie about him starring Tom Hanks I knew that I had to go to the theater to see how he might be portrayed. I eagerly sat back in the theater’s luxury lounger armed with lemonade and popcorn as A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood began just as the old program had done back in the day. There was Mr. Rogers come to life again under the stunning acting of Tom Hanks, putting on his sweater and his tennis shoes while welcoming us to his little world. It was indeed magical.

Before long I realized that the movie was so much more than a biography. It was a look into the kindness of a very gifted man who so genuinely understood and loved people of all ages. In a sense it was a grownup version of the old program designed to tackle the difficult topics that Mr. Rogers so openly discussed in a more moving and adult way.

The screenplay for A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood is brilliant, There is nothing sappy about it. It tackles subjects that plague everyone and demonstrates the power that we have over ourselves, a theme that Mr. Rogers so beautifully made central to his programs for children. It is a story that we desperately need in these times in which we are so divided and angry as a society. We are reminded of the truths that Mr. Rogers taught us so long ago, wisdom that is timeless.

The actors are all incredible and most certainly one or more of them will be nominated for awards. Tom Hanks is one of the greats of our time and Chris Cooper gives his usual blockbuster performance. The real surprise came from Matthew Rhys whose acting was Oscar worthy and a show stealer.

This is not a movie for the faint of heart. You will need some tissues for those moments when the film asks you to look into your own journey through life. There are minutes when catching your breath will be difficult but there will be no need to feel embarrassed because the sniffling will be happening all around you.

Fred Rogers was a real human being who disliked the idea of being called a saint or a hero and yet he had all of the qualities of an extraordinary human. He was known for personally praying for dozens of people at a time and for genuinely caring about the welfare of all the people he met. He believed that each of us is uniquely wonderful and worthy of being loved not for what we might become but just for who we already are.

A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood is one of those inspiring movies that will leave you feeling good about yourself and optimistic about the world. It will remind you of what is truly important and it will show you what love is really all about.