A Great Destination

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It’s January and I have roses and azaleas blooming in my yard. Houston is a funny place. Some years the weather is like Florida or southern California. The temperature stays in the sixties and seventies for most of the winter and the plants are fooled into thinking that it is already spring. Now and again we actually get some ice and snow, but generally our winters are mild. It’s one of those lovely things that makes up for the heat of the summer, and it’s still just cool enough to allow women to wear their boots.

Houston was named a top place to visit by Forbes magazine. Lots of folks wondered why in the world anyone would choose our city as a destination. After all our roads are perennially under construction and the traffic can often be brutal. Most of us who live here take it for granted that nobody would come for the scenery with our flat as a pancake landscape. What we don’t seem to think about are some quite wonderful attractions that we have that might actually be quite appealing for visitors.

For some time now Houston has been ranked as one of the best foodie towns in the country. It competes nicely with New Orleans, New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. There are some who believe that the food here may even be the best in the country. We have some amazing chefs and they don’t just provide a meat and potatoes kind of fare. The diversity in our city brings cuisine from all over the world and innovations in cooking that make it worthy of a visit for anyone who enjoys fine dining at its best.

Of course it may seem ridiculous to think that anyone would want to visit H-Town just to eat, and that’s a good point, but there are still lots of things to do here. We have sporting events at the professional level year round and our universities provide additional athletic venues that are lots of fun. Our museums are wonderful and boast variety from science to medicine to space to modern art. It would take a week to visit each of them and the effort would be well worth it.

Speaking of the arts, our Alley Theater is world renowned and it’s not the only cast of players in town. There’s also the Houston Symphony, the Houston Ballet, and Theater Under the Stars. At any given moment there are great musicians and comedians playing in town at Jones Hall, the Reliant Center, the Toyota Center, the Smart Financial Center, Jones Hall, the Woodlands, the Wortham Center or the Hobby Center. Our universities also host plays and musical festivals which are of exceptional quality.

Shopping is world class as well with the Galleria attracting folks from all over the world and smaller places like Memorial City, Highland Village, or the Woodlands offering a wonderful experience in their own right. There are even outlet malls and quaint shops dotted all over the city and its suburbs. Houston has a number of Farmer’s Markets as well that offer everything from spices to pottery along with fresh fruits and vegetables.

A short trip of about an hour will take visitors to Galveston with its beaches, historical homes, and quirky shops. There’s fun to be had swimming, boating or just relaxing in the sun and sand. The seafood there has its own unique taste and ranks with some of the best to be found anywhere.

I think that those who are quick to make fun of Houston’s designation as a great place to visit forget about how fun a trip here might be. With the right planning a traveler can catch the Houston Rodeo or spend a day at the Nutcracker Market. We host quilt shows that feature exhibitions from all over the world. The Houston Garden Club Bulb Mart is a fall favorite along with some of the most glorious weather that the city has to offer.

Those of us who live here are always so busy that we don’t stop to think of how much there is to do at any given moment. For a newcomer the possibilities for fun and entertainment are almost endless. We don’t boast any mountains or grand natural wonders but our springtime Azalea Trail is breathtaking. A trip along Buffalo Bayou is a wonder. A day spent at Brazos Bend State Park is both educational and inspiring with its up close encounters with wildlife and its observatory aimed at the heavens. A drive through River Oaks is a fun as visiting the lovely homes in New Orleans.

I suspect that an out of towner would easily be able to fill a calendar with activities for weeks just with things I have mentioned and I haven’t even skimmed the surface of the many sights that we have here in Houston. I totally understand why my city was chosen as a great destination for anyone hoping to have a great vacation. In fact, I’d like to challenge Houstonians to try a “staycation” someday to enjoy what our great city has to offer.

I am the first to admit that Houston has its flaws but I have yet to travel to any place that is perfect. In the grand scheme of things Houston can be lots of fun and even provide a few nature activities for those who prefer the outdoors. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to find more than enough to do. 

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The Greatest Gift

Gary

My son-in-law, daughter, and grandsons are in a state of grief. Their beloved Boppa died on New Years Day. Boppa, otherwise known as Gary Greene, was a good man who loved his wife without reservation and cherished his children and grandchildren with every fiber of his body and soul. He was also filled with a spirit of fun. He believed in squeezing as much joy out of each day as humanly possible.

Gary was born in Houston, Texas and grew up in an area not far from the Texas Medical Center. He graduated from Bellaire High School and then set out for the University of Texas where he earned a degree in Chemical Engineering. While he was a student there he met his wife Barbara and the two of them fell in love, married and set out on a five decades long adventure that took them all over the United States and around the world. In fact, traveling became one of their greatest joys along with their two children Scott and Terri.

Gary worked hard at his jobs, dedicated to making a comfortable life for his family. He was a Texan through and through but whenever his companies asked him to move he dutifully went where he was needed and turned the relocation into an opportunity to learn more about different places. All the while he always found time to support his children’s interests and to open his home and his heart to their friends. His loyalty to his beloved Texas Longhorns never wavered either no matter where he roamed.

Gary eventually found his way back to Texas as his working years slowly came to a close. He retired to the Austin area and threw himself joyfully into the role of being a grandfather. He took each his six grandchildren on special trips to places like London, Germany, Washington State and such. A few years ago he planned a gala vacation right after Christmas for the entire family in Mexico. On another occasion he took everyone to Hawaii. Every excursion was punctuated with his impish sense of humor, exciting activities and lots of ice cream.

Gary rarely missed the yearly reunion of his wife’s family on Thanksgiving Day. He reveled in the games and songs and loving significance of the event and became known as the resident genealogist, creating expansive charts outlining the history of the family and recording all of the new births. For many years he and his crew were the reigning champions of the washer contest, and he became as loved by his extended family of in-laws as he was by Barbara and his children.

Gary had a sonorous voice that might have served him well as a radio broadcaster. He used it often to tell his many stories and jokes. He also enjoyed singing and had hours of fun in a barber shop quartet. He and Barbara even learned how to square dance when he demonstrated yet another unexpected talent.

Most of all Gary enjoyed watching the birds that live around us. He often rose early in the morning and walked quietly through wooded areas with his binoculars and a scope to catch a glimpse of feathered creatures. It was a relaxing hobby that was so in tune with his affection for nature and the joy that spending time outdoors always brought him.

Gary had been a leader when his son Scott was in the Boy Scouts. He never lost his interest in the remarkable training that the organization affords young people. He often wore his regalia and badges when his grandsons moved up through the ranks in their own quests of excellence in the scouts. Nothing made him prouder than watching them grow into fine capable young men with amazing skills and a love of our earth and each other.

In many ways Gary Greene was an old fashioned kind of man who earnestly embodied the traits of a Mr. Rogers or a Jimmy Stewart. Family was paramount to him and he enjoyed introducing first his children and then his grandchildren to the places and skills and ideas that he had known as a young man. He taught them how to drive and how to fish. He showed them how to respectfully handle a BB gun. He played games with them like Spoons and taught them to love listening to John Denver. He took them rafting down rivers, horseback riding in the country, and zip lining in exotic places. Mostly though he just loved each one them for whomever they chose to be.

There is great sadness among the members of Gary Greene’s family. He has died after a years long struggle with cancer during which he showed them what true courage really is. He slowly lost his ability to walk and his body was riddled with pain, but he continued bringing fun into their lives as long as he could. He has left a big hole in their hearts, but the legacy of joy and optimism with which he approached each day will sustain them for all of their years to come.

Gary Greene really lived and loved. The torch of all that he believed has been passed to his children and grandchildren to remember and honor who he was with their own lives. He demonstrated to them all of the character that one needs to live happily and well. He will no doubt live on as they emulate his spirit, the greatest gift that anyone might ever leave on this earth. 

A Spiritual Journey

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I felt my grandmother’s spirit all around me when I visited Arkansas last week. Her family had a homestead not far from where I was camped at Lake Ouachita State Park. My great great grandmother and great grandfather are buried on the land that is now part of a national forest. In a churchyard nearby lies my great grandmother. The area is graced with a natural beauty that is breathtaking, so it is little wonder that my grandmother returned when she was growing old to retire to a farm in Caddo Gap.

I spent many happy summers with my grandparents enjoying the wonders of Arkansas. My grandmother took me and my brothers on hikes in the hills when she taught us how to identify the birds and showed us where to find quartz crystals. The sounds and smells were permanently imprinted on my brain back then, Returning brought back vivid memories and made me feel as though my grandmother might pop out from behind one of the trees at any moment smiling and extending her hand to lead us on yet another adventure.

I do understand why my grandmother loved this little piece of heaven so. The forests, hills, rivers, lakes and stone outcroppings are stunning and the people are as friendly as though they were old friends. The whole state is dotted with parks that have unique features that make them lovely. Lake Ouachita is encircled with a forest of pines, oaks and hickory trees that  change into lovely yellow, red and orange colors as the days grow colder. Geese fly in V formation over the lake and ducks waddle across the campgrounds. Now and again a deer wanders through the quiet. It would be quite lovely just to stay there and find a sense of calm and satisfaction that is sometimes hard to duplicate in the rush of daily living.

Instead, we traveled around the vicinity visiting places like Hot Springs, best known for the spas that once attracted the rich and the famous from around the world. Now all but one of the bathhouses are historical artifacts of a different time. Walking along the avenue in front of them garners images of people strolling and laughing as they vacation and enjoy the waters that ease their pains. In my own case I think of the last photograph of my parents together on our family trip less than a year before my father died. My mother wears a sundress with a full skirt and my dad is in a short sleeved shirt with khakis. They are holding hands like two lovers in spite of the fact that they had been married for ten years and had three children following behind. Their faces exude happiness and they are truly beautiful.

At the edge of town in Hot Springs is a lovely botanical garden, Garvin Woodland Gardens. It is a kind of paradise with paths meandering along streams and groves of azaleas, camellias, hydrangeas, magnolias and roses. The walk takes about an hour and a half but seems to pass far too quickly. It is cool and refreshing under the big trees, and the silence save for the wind and cries of birds creates a meditative feel. The last stop is a glorious church built with wood and glass that looks out on a forest. It is a place that refreshes the body and the soul all at the same time.

Not far from Lake Ouachita is Mount Ida, a treasure trove of rock shops that offer quartz crystals and other gems from the area as well as a variety of specimens from around the world. In many of the places there is the added feature of being able to actually dig for treasures with the promise of finding something even more unusual. It is a place where a a fun day being an amateur geologist becomes reality.

Another gorgeous park is located at Mt. Nebo which requires a drive up a narrow road that twists and turns and ends with a magnificent view of the valley below. There are stone cabins for rent that are fully equipped with everything but food. Best of all they have outdoor patios with fireplaces and unbelievable scenic views. I’ve already put a return visit to this wonderful place on my bucket list.

Of course we traveled to Caddo Gap, the site of so many of my childhood memories with my grandparents. It was a thriving little town once, but that was long long ago. The old jailhouse has been converted into a residence and the suspension bridge over the creek that once served as a way to walk out of the hills is now in tatters. Only those who saw it when it was still fit for use will understand how remarkable it used to be. I recall watching my grandmother bravely walk across its wooden planks high above the water and thinking that she must surely have been the most courageous woman in the world. I can still she her smiling down on me and encouraging me to be more adventurous, a trait that seems to be a must in Arkansas.

I fell in love with the glorious place where my grandparents and great grandparents lived and worked so long ago. Arkansas is a beautiful state with wonderfully inviting people. I will definitely be returning. 

The Lessons of Summer

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It’s been a tough school year for both students and teachers around here. There was a great deal of trauma to overcome in my neck of the woods. The fall semester began with hurricane Harvey and the spring neared a close with a shooting at Santa Fe High School. I suspect that everyone associated with education in these parts is more than ready to say hello to summer and engage in a bit of unwinding and relaxation. The trouble is that these days there is not always a great deal of rest for the weary.

After a very brief break summer school will begin and many teachers supplement their incomes with that extra bit of cash that working an extra month allows. Sadly some of the students who struggled during the year will have to make up for their lack of attention and effort. Then there are all of those required training classes that educators must take to keep their various certifications up to speed. I’ve also seen signs advertising all kinds of activities for kids that range from football, basketball, baseball and cheerleading camps to art and theater lessons. It seems as though few individuals enjoy summer the way I did back in days that were much slower paced.

Summer was a time for staying up well past bedtime and sleeping in each morning. Shoes stood unused in the closet, collecting dust with the exception of Sundays when they were donned for church. Every day brought new adventures, all unplanned and easy. There were three months of doing whatever sounded good at any given moment, and boredom was an unknown in our world.

My summer uniform was a pair of pull on shorts with a crop top that allowed the circulation of the warm air to keep me as comfortable as is possible in the humid Houston heat. My mother usually cut my hair short for the occasion and my brothers sported almost shaved heads. Our looks were all about simplicity and comfort. There was no need to worry about appearance because we were on vacation from routine.

We always managed to find something wonderful to do, and none of it involved watching television. Of course video games were in a future far far away. Instead we mostly played outside with the hordes of neighbor children who lived up and down our street. We invented all sorts of competitive games and used the middle of the street or someone’s big front yard as our playground. We were continually running and laughing and tumbling so that our knees and elbows were skinned more often than not. When the sun hit its zenith we often retired to someone’s home to play car and board games while our moms quenched our thirst with ice cold water or lemonade. If we were especially lucky our midday snack might include a cookie or some homemade peach ice cream.

Sometimes it was so hot that our moms would send us to our beds to rest a bit after lunch. I enjoyed lying in front of the open windows feeling the breeze that was produced by the big attic fan that worked day and night all summer long. Sometimes the heat would lull me to sleep, but mostly I used that time to read. I kept a collection of books from the library and went through them with such speed that I had to make many trips to the bookmobile in Garden Villas Park.

Of course there was always swimming and it never took much to convince our mother to drive us to the city pool where we had exactly one hour to luxuriate in the cool water playing Marco Polo and seeing who could stand on their hands the longest. If it wasn’t an especially crowded day, which was almost never, the lifeguards would ignore the clock and let us stay longer than expected. We so enjoyed those times, especially when we were joined by one or more of our cousins.

Sometimes I delighted in a world of make believe with my girl friends as we built houses for our dolls and pretended that they were stewardesses or glamorous actresses. I had created all sorts of furniture for my dream home out of milk cartons, tin cans, and cigar boxes. I knew enough about sewing to make pillows, bedspreads and tablecloths. I kept all of my gear in a cardboard box that once held green beans at the grocery store. My friends and I would spend hours with our little rooms spread out on the drive way and our imaginations taking flight.

Like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in film we often decided to produce a neighborhood talent show. Everyone had to audition of course but our standards were fairly accessible. It was rare for an act to be turned away. We’d dance and sing and tell jokes and perform magic tricks all for the entertainment of our moms. Admission was a quarter, a rather exorbitant amount for the times, but we were saving to earn enough money to build a fort. Somehow we never quite earned enough to actually erect the structure that we had envisioned but we did have some rather nice make shift efforts, especially the ones made out of sheets and quilts that we designed on the clotheslines.

Our bicycles were our ticket to exotic places like the bayou or the woods where we felt as adventurous as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. When I grew older I even learned a route to Gulfgate Mall that I followed on my bike with one of my friends. We’d window shop and get cool inside the stores and sometimes even have enough money to actually purchase an ice cream sandwich or a candy stick.

At night we’d lie on our backs in the grass gazing at the stars and telling scary stories. We could hear the whispers inside the households up and down the street because most people had their windows and doors wide open. By that time of day our necks would be ringed with little necklaces of dirt and sweat that we called Grandma’s beads. Our feet would be black from all of the running and playing we had enjoyed. Our contentment was sublime and we seemed not to have a care in the world.

We had little idea back then how much the world would change. It would become rarer and rarer to see children outside all summer long. The kind of unscheduled lifestyle that we so enjoyed would be replaced with carefully choreographed activities designed to keep kids busy and free from boredom. Everyone would be rushing around almost as much as they did during the school year. There would be required summer reading and math packets to complete. The freedoms that we so loved would be replaced with more purposeful pursuits or hours spent in front of a computer or video game.

The sounds of summer that were once so comforting to me are rarely audible these days. Neighbors move in and out. Children are either inside or off doing more structured things. Dream houses for dolls are manufactured out of plastic and little girls only play with them for a short time and then they become too mature to engage in such things even though their ages indicate that they are still children. It’s unsafe for little ones to be unsupervised for even a moment. The freedoms that I enjoyed are unthinkable today and that actually makes me sad. I wonder if the magic of summer vacation is somehow diminished by our efforts to orchestrate it so. Our children have lost a wonderful opportunity to learn how to find simple pleasures in very small things. Perhaps many of the problems we face today might be resolved if we were to once again allow them to get outside and explore the world on their own. The lessons of an unstructured summer may well be the most important of their lives.

The Car

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The stories on the television series This Is Us are so heartwarming and real that rarely a week goes by that I do not identify with some aspect of an episode. They have a universal appeal that reaches into the heart and soul of who we are as members of a family. I have duly noted the kinship that I have with the characters depicted on the show. As with my own situation there are three siblings, a girl and two boys, who continue to struggle with the impact of their beloved father’s death. I have known the pain of their loss of their father all too well, and like them I have never quite come to grips with the reality of the situation even years later. The writers of the series are certainly gifted to make each of us feel as though they have somehow tapped into our own personal memories. The title itself hints that we are all part of a great big family of mankind that endures the same types of struggles. The characters are us. Their history is ours.

A recent episode of This Is Us was titled The Car, a brilliant look at how an inanimate object becomes a symbol for a father’s love and all that is good about a family. The storyline was particularly touching for me because it was one car that devastated my family and another that brought us a new day of hope.

My father was a Pontiac man. He loved the sporty nature of that brand and insisted on getting a new one almost as soon as the last payment was made on the one he was driving. He had proudly purchased a brand new Pontiac with all of the bells and whistles for our move from Houston, Texas to San Jose California. It was an automobile boasting the kind of luxury that earned second glances as we drove down the road. It carried us in grand style and comfort thousands of miles to our new home. When things didn’t work out there it brought us back to Houston and the promise of a fresh start in familiar surroundings. We used it to visit friends and family whom we had missed while we were gone. We drove it to inspect houses that we might purchase to set up a household. We were planning to take it to the beach on Memorial Day to launch a summer on the Gulf Coast. We loved that car and the sight of our daddy sitting so happily behind the wheel. How could we have known that it would become the instrument of his death?

He died in that car on a lonely stretch of road when he accidentally drove into a deep ditch that was unmarked and laying in wait on a dark night. It had no seatbelt to protect him, no collapsable steering wheel, no exterior designed to take the brunt of the crash. Instead the car built as it was became a weapon that crushed his chest and stopped his heart. It would change our lives and create questions in our minds that haunt us even to this day.

We would later find evidence of our father’s loving nature in the gifts that he had already purchased in anticipation of his wedding anniversary and my mother’s birthday. A card would arrive in the mail from him with a postmark from the day before he died. He had used his car to plan for a future that would never come for him. He was dead and the car had become a heap of scrap.

My mother had to pull herself together somehow. She began the process of building a new kind of life for us, and for that she needed a car. The one that she purchased became the auto that would carry us through our youth and into our adulthood. It was a homely thing, almost ugly, but it was reliable. It was painted in a two tone pattern of white and a strange beige color. It had ordinary cloth seats and rubber mats on the floorboard. It was as basic as a car might be, not even possessing an automatic transmission or an air conditioner. It was so unlike anything our father might have purchased, but my mother was able to pay for it with the insurance money that she received from his accident. It was so stripped down that there was very little that might break, and best of all she owned it. It was a good car in spite of its appearance and it became the vehicle that drove us into our future.

Once we managed to move beyond our grief that car became a source of great fun. We used it to visit our grandparents in Arkansas, and piled inside on Friday nights to meet up with our aunts and uncles and cousins. We sat inside it at drive-in movie theaters enjoying grand epics on the big screen even as we batted the mosquitoes that buzzed about. We ran our weekend errands and drove to church in our ever faithful auto. We motored to Dallas and San Antonio for vacations, and went to Corpus Christi to enjoy the ocean that our dad had so loved. When we were sick we sat safely inside the car as we traveled to see the doctor. The car took us to ballgames and bowling alleys, pancake breakfasts and excursions at the mall.

From time to time one of our mechanically inclined uncles would change the oil, rotate the tires, or install a new battery. Year after year passed and it was that ugly old car that took us to the places where we celebrated the milestones of our youth. It was ever dependable, always waiting to help us enjoy a new adventure. It helped us to heal and to move on from the tragedy that had so changed us. It served us as well as anything might have, requiring little attention to keep faithfully working.

About the time that I was close to graduating from high school my mother decided that it was time to replace the car which was nearing its eighth or ninth year of service to our family. One of my cousins purchased it from her and our next car was a great deal fancier, but somehow not as comforting as the old one had been. I found myself missing our friend even as we toured the city in grander style more akin to the kind that our father had always enjoyed. We had carpet on the floorboards and air conditioning to keep us cool, but somehow it would never feel as secure as “The Car” had been. In fact, I have few memories attached to the new model. It would always be that ugly old stripped down Ford that I would remember with so much fondness.

It’s funny how a car can become such a vivid part of life, representing all of the things that are good about its owners. That’s the way it was with ours. The car was one of us and we loved it.