A Loving Tradition

Andy and ThuyMy brother married a beautiful and brilliant young woman who was originally from Taiwan. She was one of five siblings, a brave girl who sought her dreams in the United States. She earned a degree, landed a job with a NASA contractor, and caught my brother’s eye at meeting. Back then it was quite a challenge to learn someone’s contact information, but my brother was determined to find her and get to know her better. After searching the telephone book like a detective, and following many false leads, he eventually found her and not long after that they had fallen in love.

Their wedding was a fitting beginning for a truly beautiful couple. It was during all of the festivities that I first met my sister-in-law’s family among whom was her lovely and thoughtful older sister, Diana, who was married to a sweet man who went out of his way to entertain us and to be certain that we felt included in the celebrations. He and his young wife had a small son, Andy, who was close in age to my two little girls, so we had parenthood in common. I remember feeling so comfortable with them and wishing that they lived in the USA rather than Taiwan so that I might be able to spend more time with them.

My brother and his bride settled into a wonderful life in the Clear Lake area of Houston so that they would be close to the work at NASA that would become an integral part of who they are. We soon learned that in the Chinese tradition we were honored as family members just as much as those related by blood, and in the same tradition my mother held an exalted place. I truly appreciated the all loving culture of my sister-in-law and her family.

While we were still in our twenties we learned the tragic news that Diana’s husband had died. It seemed to be far too early for someone as young and kind as he was to leave this earth. It was a sad time when we worried about the widow and her young son, but our fears were soon somewhat abated when Diana came to America to earn a degree of her own at Lamar University. While she studied there Andy lived with my brother and sister-in-law. He became a beloved member of our extended family who played with my daughters and practiced his English with them. We spent holidays together, celebrated birthdays, and traveled to Colorado in an overcrowded van filled with laughter and noise.

Eventually Diana earned her degree and she too found work with companies associated with NASA. She was always the person at every event who checked to be certain that everyone was having a good time. She raised Andy to appreciate the opportunities that he had and to make full use of them. He grew to be tall and lanky like his father, and just as sweet as both of his parents. Soon he was heading to the University of Texas in Austin to forge his future. While there he met Thuy, a lovely and determined young woman whose family had immigrated from Vietnam. The two of them dated and studied and soon realized that together they were a powerful team. Both of them wanted to become doctors and they supported each other in that quest. With much hard work they were soon on their way to medical school in Dallas, but first they married in a beautiful ceremony that celebrated their love.

Much time has passed. Both Andy and Thuy have highly successful careers as physicians. He is a gastroenterologist and she is an oncologist. They are well regarded as among the best in their respective fields. They work hard and have the trappings of success, but they have never forgotten the people who were part of their journey. They now have two children, a boy Ethan and a girl Allie, who share their intellect and generous personalities. The children are incredibly bright and unspoiled. Like their grandparents and their parents they are thoughtful and respectful. They take the time to honor the guests in their home following a tradition that seems to be part of their DNA.

Andy and Thuy love to have fun. They travel the world with Ethan and Allie and attend sporting events and concerts. They enjoy trying different kinds of food and being adventurous. They appear to have boundless energy that allows them to be constantly on the go. They are happy people who work hard and play hard. Still, there are quiet times for reading and learning, always learning. They love their children and focus on bringing them up with wonderful values of kindness, honesty and determination. They make weekly visits to the library and in between they voraciously devour the stories and information contained in the pages. Their lives are busy, but well balanced.

Andy and Thuy celebrate life with incredible parties that center around themes. Each child receives such an honor every other year. They are amazing affairs with decorations worthy of a Hollywood production and a well planned schedule that includes food and fun in abundance. Mike and I have been lucky to be included in many of them, and we look forward to those occasions with almost childish glee.

This year it was Ethan’s turn to bask in the limelight for his eleventh birthday. The theme was “Mission Mars” and we had our choice of coming as astronauts or aliens. My brother and his wife wore their work clothes and NASA badges and looked more official than anyone. Mike and I concocted alien costumes to join in the fun. Thuy made certain that everyone would be able to dress for a part in the festivities by using her imagination to design both astronaut and alien gear. I never cease to be amazed by her ingenuity.

The house was decorated with huge rockets and astronauts floating from the ceiling among the stars. There was a magician, a debate, a trivia contest, and a confetti egg battle between aliens and astronauts. Every child walked away with an incredible gift and many adults won prizes for their participation. Best of all was the camaraderie and the love that filled the rooms, all encouraged by Andy, Thuy and their children.

I suppose that I most enjoyed just talking with Ethan and Allie. They are utterly delightful in every regard. They are first and foremost very sweet, and they have been taught to honor adults, especially those who are seniors. They are infinitely polite, but also filled with unique personality traits that make them funny and delightful.

I’ve told Thuy that she if she ever finds the time she should speak to young people at high schools. Hers is an inspirational story that proves that goodness, hard work, grit, and compassion do indeed lead to a glorious life. She has dutifully sacrificed and followed an orderly progression toward a way of life that is fulfilling and purposeful. Now she and Andy are passing those traits on to their children, continuing a way of life that has roots all the way to Taiwan and Vietnam.

Andy and Thuy are family, and they make me proud. They are literally saving lives each day, but on a more personal level they teach all of us how to truly love.

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The Dance

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“If you stumble make it part of the dance.” Author Unknown

My eldest daughter took dance lessons from the time that she was five or six years old. She had a kind of natural talent from the beginning, catching on to the steps and generally reveling in the art of using her body as a kind of poetry. She was a shy child but somehow being on the stage transformed her. She invariably began each performance with her head down and a serious look on her face as though she was trying to convince herself that everything was going to be okay. With the first beat of the music she would pop her head back, hold her chin up high, and flash a glorious smile. Then she became the very image of a swan moving with grace and beauty.

Her first recital as a toddler foretold of the kind of transformation that she would invariably undergo each time she performed in the future. She and her fellow dance students had learned a fairly simple routine centered around a song called “Tattle Tail Duck.” The girls were tiny fluffs of bright yellow with their rubber “duckie” colored leotards, tutus and feathery headdresses. They were quite adorable as they shuffled and pointed their toes while twirling in circle and singing with abandon. It was a somewhat chaotic scene as each girl seemed to be dancing to her own tune but my daughter was quite the performer having shed her usual inhibitions. She delighted those of us in her family with her entertaining expressions and total command of the steps. She was in her element.

Her performance was going well until the velcro on her tutu failed and the netting fell into a puddle of yellow around her feet. Without missing a single step or changing the happy expression on her face she somehow freed her feet from the obstacle and continued as though nothing had happened. If she was upset or embarrassed her face did not betray such thoughts. Instead her photogenic smile and look of confidence never faded. When the routine was over she gracefully bent down, picked up the tutu and raised it above her head with a flourish as she bowed. The crowd went wild with applause and laughter and she ended up receiving a standing ovation. That was when I knew for certain that she was already a warrior, a mighty woman who would meet life’s challenges with aplomb.

It sometimes feels as though we live in a perfectionist society in which everyone is being watched in  the hopes of catching them in moments in which they stumble. Once that happens the public seems to remember the flaw that occurred unwilling to allow the individual to forget the mistake. Such tendencies are particularly prevalent in politics and show business. We tend to hold lapses against people forever rather than applauding the ways they attempt overcome their deficiencies. Repentance may clean the slate with God, but we humans hold suspicions and grudges far too often.

In my mind there is nothing quite as glorious as watching someone take the wreckage of a situation or a lifetime and turn it around. I have always been of the opinion that as long as there is breath in a person it is not too late to change and adapt. I delight in stories of people who find their way out of bad situations, and I am a firm believer in the idea of forgiveness. It is just as important to reward good behavior as it is to sometimes punish the bad. I truly believe that it is possible for even an horrific individual to embrace penance and genuinely strive to become better.

Most of us make small mistakes here and there. We hopefully learn from them, change move on. We pray that the bumbling versions of ourselves will graciously be forgotten by those who witnessed us at our worst. We dread the thought that our past sins will corner us into living self fulfilling prophecies. We want to be able to make our stumbles a positive part of the choreography of our lives.

Our decisions to own our mistakes and find ways of turning them into victories should be a source of applause. Sadly so much of our society now deems admissions of wrong thinking to be a sign of weakness rather than the evidence of strength that is actually is. We tend to spurn those who express contrition and want to change. We wrongly attribute an unwillingness to own up to our flaws as a sign of greatness and character, when the opposite is actually the case.

We often don’t do enough to applaud the heroism of those who take positive steps to correct the slip ups and blunders in their lives. We act as though each of our actions is a still photograph that is forever unchangeable when the reality is that we are fluid and changing from one moment to the next. Very little in life is immutable and if it were some of the greatest stories in history might never have been allowed to happen. Failure has been a moving force from the beginning of time. It has been the catalyst for remarkable feats that changed the world. The importance of a stumble is not to be found in that instant but in the glory of what comes next when a person decides to  change from a wormy caterpillar to a magnificent butterfly, or when a little girl becomes a swan rather than a duck.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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When I was growing up I was surrounded by boy relatives. I had two brothers who instantly bonded with each other and dozens of cousins who were male. I remember being relegated to stereotypical female roles in our play time or being left out entirely when it came to sports or opportunities like scouting. I never wanted to be more like the boys, but I often dreamed of having a few more girls in my midst. I even wished for a sister to make things more even in my family. Since that never happened I had to learn to cope with things as they were, and I looked outside of my little world to find friendships with girls who might become like the sisters that I longed to have.

I had two female cousins but one of them lived in another city and I rarely had occasion to see her. She was also six years younger than I was and in the world of children that seemed like a gap too large to bridge. It was left to my other girl cousin to bring me the kind of companionship for which I longed.

Since she was a tiny bit older I idolized her and thought that every single thing about her was exceptional. She was beautiful with her blue eyes and perfectly proportioned features. Her golden girls brushed her shoulders and accentuated her loveliness. She was also smart, seeming to know about the world in ways that I had never encountered. I was so in awe of her that I was reluctant to share my insecurities with her. Instead I spent many years attempting to turn myself into a carbon copy of her, a futile effort given that there was little about me that was like her. It would be years before I was able to embrace myself just as I was and love her more for the beauty of her heart than her outward appearance. She indeed became my soul sister or “sister cousin” as she likes to say. We share an unbreakable bond, not to mention a long history of shared experiences.

I also found girl friends with whom I became so close that they might have been called “sisters from other mothers.” These have been the women with whom I was able to share my deepest feelings in an almost spiritual way. Some have been more reserved than others in what they are willing to discuss, but all of them have provided me with moments of understanding that only another woman can provide.

I love my brothers dearly, and my husband is undoubtedly my best friend, but sometimes I need to say and do things that are somewhat confusing to men. I have to vent some strange feelings, maybe even be a bit catty. My imperfections need a safe haven in which to exorcise themselves and the most special female friends are those who know and understand that when I make my revelations I am only clearing my head, thinking out loud, trying to free myself of poisonous thoughts. They let me carry own without judgement. They realize that once I have said the unthinkable I feel better and am ready to move on to being a very good person. Men don’t always understand such things. They want women to be angelic. They may become uncomfortable, offended or hurt if we let out our inner demons.

It’s funny how there are certain women  with whom we feel the safe kinship that allows us to be so honest. My cousin has ended up being one of those people. My mother-in-law was amazingly another one in whom I was able to confide without fear of recrimination. My friend Pat and I were sounding boards for each other and now I find that I can be the same way with her daughter.

In a kind of unique twist of fate I have rekindled the same kind of relationship with an old high school friend who had been one of the bridesmaids in my wedding and with whom I had essentially lost contact for almost fifty years. She moved to Atlanta and became a highly successful business woman. I became engrossed with raising my daughters, caring for my mother, and devoting myself to teaching thousands of students. We never meant to ignore each other, but life stepped in and kept us so busy that the years went by and it one day seemed as though perhaps a longterm friendship between us was simply not meant to be.

Then came Facebook, our fiftieth class reunion and retirement from our occupations. Suddenly there was a way for us to come back into contact. At first it was just a comment here and there on social media. Then came a phone call now and again. Eventually we were talking as though our last meeting had been only a few days before. The connection that we had felt in the long ago was as strong as ever. Even with our differing lives we had somehow remained the same, two people who could be totally ourselves without worrying about what the other might think. It was a glorious feeling to reignite our kindred spirits.

I had a meltdown last week. I needed to make some tacky comments just to get them off of my chest. I wanted to complain about some silly things just because. When I attempted to launch into a tirade with my husband as a sounding board confusion ensued. I needed a special woman to hear me. My friend in Atlanta became that person. We complained and laughed and ended a long conversation feeling a thousand times better and way more optimistic. More than anything it felt so good to know that I had found another person who would let me be the good the bad and the ugly versions of myself and still love and understand me. It was grand.

I adore my husband, my brothers, and the men who are my friends, but I also know that now again only the ear of just the right woman will do. Luckily I have some darn good “sisters” to whom I can turn.

Angelic Creatures

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Images of President George H.W. Bush’s service dog lying faithfully near the former leader’s casket encapsulated the gentleness and loyalty of the animal often designated as “man’s best friend.” The whole world was taken by the beautiful sight and reminded of just how wonderful dogs can be. I suspect that almost every person has a story of a wonderful pup that brought joy into his/her life. There is something almost spiritual about the relationship between humans and their dogs, a bond that is pure, guileless and angelic. Most of us have experienced the unconditional love derived from having such gentle creatures in our world.

I’ve often told the story of the little white hound that came mysteriously to our front door right after the death of my father. He had no identification and nobody in the neighborhood had ever before seen him, and yet there he was. He came each night to guard our home and then went on his rounds during the day. He was sweet and friendly, seemingly aware that we were frightened and fragile. Of all the houses on the street he somehow chose ours and we felt as though he had been sent from heaven to ease our pain and our fears. We called him Whitey and waited patiently each afternoon for him to return to us secretly hoping that he would choose us to be his permanent family even as our mother warned us that he might one day return to his rightful owners.

We eventually became confident enough to put him in our backyard behind a chain link fence where he appeared to be quite content to stay. Then one morning he was gone never again to return. He had done his magic, taking us through the toughest days of our grief. Our mother told us that it was time for him to move on to someone else who needed him more. He had been our miracle for just enough time to help us to adjust to our new normal. We would never forget him and the joy that he brought us and we would always believe that he was a special gift to us from heaven. 

A few years later we bought another dog, a collie as lovely as Lassie of television fame. His name was Buddy and he was as good and faithful as any creature might be. He became a kind of mascot for the entire street where we lived, watching after not just our family but many of the other children on our block. We loved him like he was a brother and took it for granted that he would always be with us. He carried us through our childhoods and then one day became sick and died. Our trauma was as deep as if he had been a little brother who passed away. 

My husband and I have had two dogs during our time together, both female Golden Retrievers. The first had been named Red before we brought her home. She was a perfect dog in every possible way. Like Buddy she was beloved by all of our neighbors because she had not a mean bone in her body unless she was protecting one of us. When she died our hearts were so broken that we felt unable to go through such an experience ever again. Our daughters convinced us that our grief would be lessened if we brought a new puppy into our home and so we found Scarlet who was as sassy as the famous character from literature who went by that name. She too burrowed into our hearts.

Dogs sense our moods and seem to know exactly how to react to the way we are feeling. If we are sad they snuggle with us and quietly show us how much they care. When we are happy they play with us. If we are sick they watch over us. They warn us of dangers and let us know whom we might trust. Their instincts are attuned to our hearts. They are innocents who may annoy us with their mischief but never betray us.

I do not have a dog now. After Scarlet died we decided to remain without a pet for a time. Instead we enjoy our grand dogs, five cute little creatures who are as different from one another as any brood might be. Cooper, a pug, is the elder among them. He has spent many sleepovers at my house while his family travels. He’s a sweet fellow who loves to cuddle and only barks when he wants food. I’ve grown rather close to him over the years so when he became seriously ill and in need of surgery this past fall I was greatly concerned.

It took him quite a while to recover from his illness and he lost a great deal of weight and his usual personality. I worried incessantly about him but my fears were unfounded because he slowly began to revert to his old ways. When I visited his home last week he greeted me with an insistent bark that told me he wanted me to provide him with his dinner. I felt overjoyed as I filled his bowl and watched him devour the food and then saunter over so that I might scratch his back. We had a moment together that was quite touching. I wanted to spend the rest of the evening petting him and letting him know how much I loved him but I had math tutoring to do with my grandsons, so Cooper and I had to be content with knowing that we really do love each other.

Horses are enchantingly beautiful and cats are mysteriously lovely, but dogs are gifts for our souls. They are the perfect companions who ask for little more than nourishment, a few pats on the rump, and space to run and play. They love and protect us and bring a kind of magic into our lives. It’s little wonder that we notice that God spelled backwards is dog. They are angelic creatures and we are the fortunate recipients of their loving presence. 

The World Is A Choir

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I have lovely memories of my home life when I was a very young child and my father was still alive. The house is filled with the sounds of piano concertos from the records playing on our RCA Victrola. My father sits reading, a habit that was integral to his daily routine. My mother is busy with baking or sewing, her own hobbies that she delightedly enjoyed. I bask in the calm of the moment when my life seemed perfect, and I had no idea of the challenges yet to come. I suppose that ever since those idyllic moments I have had a penchant for reading, and I have secretly wished to be a pianist.

I have few regrets about the pathways that I have chosen in life save for one. I have always wanted to play the piano beautifully. I had a cousin named Lily who entertained and awed us with her skill on those ebony and ivory keys. I so longed to have her talent. Somehow I have always imagined that is must be incredibly rewarding and relaxing to be able to bring music into the world. I have romanticized the very act of playing a piano and wondered what it must be like to have such a remarkable ability.

I have learned over time that there is definitely a branch of my ancestry that possesses musical talent. In fact many of them gather each spring in New Mexico to learn more about our family’s history and to sing and play instruments. I suspect that this may be the source of cousin Lily’s abilities, but in my own case it is rather unlikely that I would ever have been capable of taming those keys the way she did. My fingers are quite short and even in my younger days I was unable to stretch them far enough apart to span the distances between keys. Somehow I inherited the hands of my maternal grandmother, short and stubby and strong but not particularly flexible. I appear to have been made for other talents unrelated to making actual music.

Thus it is with each of us. We have the power to orchestrate different kinds of music that is as lovely and necessary as that of a concert pianist. Some like my brother Mike are masters of mathematics with the capacity to chart and direct pathways to the stars. Others like my friend Tricia have an innate ability to understand and guide our human natures to health and happiness. Jose is an artist in the care of my lawn. Dr. Septimus understands how to keep my body working in tip top condition. Teachers like Father Shane led me to finding my own talents and then helped me to perfect them. In other words, we each have destinies that are important for the functioning of our world. Some appear to be more glorious than others, but all of them are necessary for the smooth functioning of society. Each of us contributes in important ways based on our interests and our potential.

I was helping a young girl with an essay and I was reminded of how unique and important we each are. She is in that confusing adolescent stage during which we humans question ourselves and wonder if we will ever find the purpose for our existence. It can be a frustrating time during which we more easily see the wonder of everyone else, but can’t seem to realize our own essence. So it was with this teen.

She spoke of a friend who has the gift of compassion and wisdom. She wondered why she can’t be more like her brother for whom learning appears to come so easily. She complained that she works twice as hard as he does, and still comes up short. She worries that perhaps she will never find her own talents because she suspects that they may not exist. She is not yet able to understand that her willingness to take risks, accept challenges and dedicate herself to overcoming difficulties are qualities that will take her farther than innate aptitude. She is unafraid to experience the world warts and all. This will make her strong and interesting and able to persevere when the going gets tough, which it most certainly will.

We underestimate ourselves and the people around us. Sometimes we are unable to see the remarkable value of that person who smiles and greets us as we enter a Walmart. We joke about such jobs as though they are unworthy, and forget to consider the impact that the simple act of greeting has in humanizing us in a busy world. We take people and their life’s work for granted, focusing only on those whose skills seem superior. We rarely stop to think of the importance of each contribution made by our fellow humans.

I’ve recently become a Eucharistic minister at my church. It has humbled me and made me ever more aware of the people around me. I stare into the faces of the communicants and I am moved. I see longing and goodness and earnestness in their eyes. I realize how precious they are, and how much we need them. 

I don’t have to be able to play the piano. I can simply appreciate the music of those who do. I have found my own muse, my distinct talents and those of each of the people that I encounter. We are all important, unique, and wonderful. The glory of our diversity is what makes our world a choir.