Finding a Long Lost Friend

Kathy

I met Kathy at a local Tex Mex restaurant. It had been well over fifty years since we had seen each other in person. She and I had both once lived on Belmark Street in southeast Houston. Both of our mothers were widows and both of us were products of an education at Mt. Carmel High School. I was in the Class of 1966 and she was a member of the Class of 1967, the group with whom I might have shared my teenage years had my parents not decided to send me to first grade a year early. We had both lived through a lifetime of memories in the years since last being together and it was only through the miracle of Facebook that we had reconnected once again.

I adored Kathy’s mother. She was a tiny woman who was nonetheless a giant in my eyes. She seemed capable of staring down the devil if need be. She was incredibly courageous and one of the few women that I knew who actually pursued a career even after she became a mom  and her husband was still alive. Kathy’s mom and mine often attended dances and events sponsored by Parents Without Partners, a social group that gave them a place to be with people who understood what it was like to raise a family alone.

When I knew Kathy on Belmark Street she was known by the nickname, “Candy.” She was stunningly beautiful even as a child and only became more lovely as she grew. She had the same spunky spirit as her mom and I so enjoyed doing things with her. She was the perfect counterpoint to my shy and reserved nature. When I was around her I felt at ease and able to just be myself. She was a fun person who helped me push aside the awkwardness that sometimes made me wonder if I was ever going to find my way in the adult world. Her joyous nature rubbed off on me, and she made me forget all of my childhood angst.

One of our favorite activities was playing dolls on my driveway. Kathy had one of the very first Barbie dolls and I was in awe of the model like figure of the toy. I stuck with my Madame Alexander doll that was lovely in its own right. We collected milk cartons and boxes and transformed them into furniture for our dolls. We used scraps of cloth to make rugs and pillows. My mom showed me how to design a four poster bed for my doll out of a cigar box and four clothes pins. We set up our make believe homes and pretended that our dolls were stewardesses living in exotic places around the world. It was more fun than almost anything else that I did in those days. I treasure the memories and the things that Kathy taught me when we were together.

Sometimes our play was interrupted by earnest discussions of how we might actually become hostesses in the sky once we were old enough to apply for jobs that we considered highly glamorous. It was after all still in the days of infancy for mass air travel and anything associated with the industry appeared to be quite exciting to us. We had so many hopes and dreams about being independent women like our moms but on a far grander scale.

Kathy’s home was different from mine. There were no beige walls or conservative ways of decorating. Instead bright colors transformed each room into a happy place that made me smile. Kathy’s mom kept a bowl of candy on the dining table and always urged me to take whatever I wanted when I visited there. I could not imagine such a tempting treat lasting more than a few seconds at my own house, and yet it appeared that Kathy and her younger siblings rarely even touched the sweets. I decided that making something routine and commonplace made it less enticing and thought that Kathy’s mom was a very bright woman indeed for thinking of such a thing.

Kathy and her family moved away when I was a freshman in high school and while her mom and mine continued a fast friendship, I had become devoted to my studies and a small circle of classmates with whom I spent my rare hours of freedom. Kathy and I saw less and less of each other even as we no doubt passed one another in the hallways of our school. Life took hold and we went our separate ways marrying, raising children and working. The years went by one by one, slowly at first and then at a rate so fast that we hardly noticed that a whole lifetime had passed.

Suddenly we were older women, retired from our jobs, enjoying our grandchildren and finding more and more free time on our hands. Then we found each other on Facebook and began to enjoy the commentaries that we each posted. I realized that somehow even with all of the changes that had taken place in our lives at heart we were still those young girls with dolls and dreams and incredible moms. It seemed time to have a reunion, and so we decided to meet for lunch and to reminisce.

I am never quite certain how it is possible to reconnect with a long lost friend so quickly, but we had no problem whatsoever keeping a conversation going. In fact, we devoted an hour to speaking of our past, present, and future for each decade that we had been away from each other. I was a bit shocked when I finally glanced at my watch and realized that we had been chatting away for nearly five hours and I suppose that we might have continued even longer save for the fact that other responsibilities were calling us home.

It was grand seeing Kathy again and knowing that our shared experiences had somehow carried us through every challenge that came our way. Like our moms we are survivors who have seen both the good times and the most horrific and yet we are still standing. Kathy is as beautiful as she ever was and she still has the ability to make me smile. She has become a font of wisdom from whom I learned so much in just a few short hours. I’d like to think that we will continue our meetings now that we have found each other again. We share something quite special and I suspect that our mothers are smiling down on us from heaven, happy that we have found to connect again.

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Oh Honey!

IMG_0655

My Aunt Polly was a hoot, a fireball, an original, my godmother. She was the most energetic person I have ever known until she wasn’t anymore. Age caught up with her and she began to slow down around the time she was in her nineties. Before then few would have been able to guess her age. She appeared to be a good ten or twenty years younger than she actually was, but life events caught up with her, leaving her with a more careworn look on her face. Soon after her ninetieth birthday her house burned down with along with all of the photos and home movies and other small treasures that meant so much to her. She and her husband had been setting out Christmas decorations when the flames began. They were both safe but the stress of losing their home took its toll.

Aunt Polly settled into a new life style in independent living quarters where she hosted domino and card games on a regular basis. Her children and grandchildren often joined her in those pursuits and her laughter and gregarious spirit returned once again. Then she endured a series of deaths of people near and dear to her. She sat at my mother’s side only hours before my mom, her little sister, died. Not long after that her son Jack also passed and she showed up to his funeral bent and using a cane. She was subdued and even though she tried to be her old self I knew that she was suffering greatly from the loss. When I next saw her at her husband’s funeral I hardly recognized her. She sat quietly in a wheelchair looking frail and vulnerable. This was certainly not the tough courageous woman that I had always known.

Last week my Aunt Polly died quietly, but even as she slipped away most of us who knew her thought that she would recover and soon enough be her old feisty self, because more than anything she was a fighter. She never backed down from asserting herself or taking care of weaker souls like myself. Many a time she became my hero as I watched her in action. She was a true feminist before there was such a thing or such a word for it. My mother used to say that her sister Polly wasn’t afraid of the devil himself.

When my parents decided to hurriedly enroll me in the first grade when I was still five years old I was terrified and miserable. The fact that my mother made me some new dresses to wear and bought me a lunch box did not ameliorate my fears or discomfort. I felt abandoned and alone as I tried to adjust to a new environment. It was my Aunt Polly who came to the rescue.

One day I was at school eating lunch and flicking away the ants that always seemed to invade the inner sanctum of my tin lunch container when Aunt Polly suddenly appeared like a super hero. She had come to see how I was doing and when she saw the state of my food with all of those critters swarming on it her immediate response was to hug me and declare, “Oh honey! I’m going to take care of this” and she did. She marched straight to the principal’s office and raised a ruckus. Not only did the surprised administrator get me something without insect infestation to eat, but also ordered a thorough cleaning and extermination for the building. Never again did I have a problem.

My Aunt Polly was one of the first women that I knew who held a full time job and raised a family. She worked a number of different places before finally settling down at the Post Office. For a time she added to her coffers by serving as a cashier at the Trail Drive Inn and her extra perk for that job was to get free admission to the movies for family. I loved feeling like a celebrity as she waved our car into the vast parking lot without paying a fee. We saw so many movies there and she often joined us for the second feature once the box office closed. It was so much fun to hear her and my mom talking about the stories and the characters as though they were a couple of teenage girls rather than adults with children. I learned that Aunt Polly had a crush on Jeff Chandler which didn’t much surprise me because a had an uncanny resemblance to her husband Jack.

We spent lots of time at Aunt Polly’s house and she at ours. No invitations or even announcements were needed. We simply got together anytime anyone felt like it. Thus it was that on the night of my senior prom Aunt Polly showed up at our house. I was moping in the dark while pretending to watch television because I did not get to go to the big event. My mother had tried to cheer me up earlier by insisting that those kind of venues are always overrated and I was missing nothing of importance. Somehow her encouragement had fallen flat on my bad mood. It was Aunt Polly who once again saved the day when she came in and asked me what was wrong. When I told her what was going on and how I felt she took me in her arms and said “Oh honey!” while I cried. In that simple phrase there was so much truth and compassion. It was exactly what I needed to hear.

Aunt Polly gave me a beautiful bridal shower before I married. She came to visit me when I had my babies. Somehow she was always there when I needed her most and she did so without fanfare and few words even though her normal personality was akin to Rosalind Russell’s in Auntie Mame. I was in awe of her because she was the counterpoint to my own quiet nature.

Aunt Polly was born Pauline Ulrich in 1923, along with her twin sister Wilma whom we variously called Speedy or Claudia. She grew to be tall and beautiful with slender frame, blonde hair and blue eyes. My mother always said that Aunt Polly had to learn how to be tough in a family of eight kids or be pushed around by her siblings or the kids from the neighborhood who ridiculed the members of the immigrant family. Aunt Polly learned quickly how to fend for herself and she rarely backed down from a challenge of any kind.

My aunt married one of the sweetest men I have ever known named Jack Ferguson and the two of them had two sons, Jack Jr. and Andrew. My Uncle Jack died rather young and Aunt Polly eventually married another Jack when she was in her sixties and still looking as pretty as a thirty year old. The mantra of her life was to have as much fun as possible and she was known for the big parties that she held in her backyard with mountains of food and musical entertainment. She traveled all over the world once her children were grown and she regularly stopped by for visits with my mother, bringing her little gifts and checking on her well being.

A bright light has gone out with her passing. She was truly one of a kind and totally irreplaceable. I doubt that I will ever forget the moment when she came to see my mother who was dying in the hospital. She sat beside my mother’s bed along with her twin sister and she reassured my mom with words that only she knew how to deliver, “We’re here now honey. Everything is going to be okay.” The look on my mother’s face told us all that it was just what she needed to hear.

I am certain that my Aunt Polly has joined her siblings, her husbands, and her son in heaven. She was a good woman, my aunt, and my godmother. She taught me much about how to live.

I’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!

people at concert
Photo by Vishnu R Nair on Pexels.com

 

Back in the sixties when Saturday night rolled around the place to be for teenagers was at the Saturday night dances at Mr. Carmel High School in southeast Houston. Back then the two most popular radio stations for teens were KILT and KNUZ.  It was KNUZ that more or less adopted the Catholic high school by advertising the dances, sending DJs to play music, and helping to find bands to provide live music. In its heyday some of the best groups found their way to Mt. Carmel Drive to entertain teens like me in a wholesome atmosphere that was chaperoned by adults. Even my very watchful mom was quite content that I would enjoy a safe time at those gatherings, so she actually encouraged me to attend each week.

The school cafeteria was lined with folding chairs for the occasion and all of the lunch tables were moved to create a nice area for the revelry. The bands and DJs worked from the stage. The lights were dimmed and the fun began. It was a glorious place to meet up with friends, make new acquaintances, and hear some great music. For those of us who did more observing than dancing it was also a people watching bonanza.

I was shy, awkward, and as thin as a rail back then. I had little confidence in myself because my ultra fine hair would never hold the bouffant styles that were so popular back then and I still appeared to be about twelve years old. It would take me quite awhile to bloom and find my courage so I tended to either find a group of girlfriends with whom to essentially hide myself or I simply sat in one of the chairs along the perimeter hoping that by some miracle I might actually be asked to dance while also worrying that someone might.

The world was still a long way from allowing young women to dance by themselves or with a big group if they were so inclined. I had also been taught that being aggressive enough to actually take the lead and ask one of boys to dance with me was very bad form. So I spent most of my Saturdays dreaming that one day my Prince Charming might bravely rescue me from wallflower status. I felt like Rip van Winkle hibernating for years without notice. I may as well have been a fixture on the wall. That is how invisible I felt. Of course it never occurred to me that the guys might be feeling exactly the same way. It was an uncomfortable time of life.

There were a few guys who showed a bit of interest when I was still a freshman in spite of my youthful appearance. One was a very short young man who had noticed that I was not yet five feet tall. We had some good times dancing without much conversation and on most Saturdays he came looking for me. Of course since I was a late bloomer it was inevitable that the day would come when I finally added some inches to my stature. Over the space of one summer I endured a growth spurt that left me standing five feet six inches tall. When my dance partner returned at the beginning of the new school year he found me in my usual spot. As soon as I stood to accompany him to the dance floor it was apparent that I was now towering over him. Without a word he literally ran away and never again came back to choose me as his partner. I never really blamed him but I sure missed the opportunity to enjoy my own love of dancing.

For the next many years it might be said that I went to the Saturday night event but did not hit the dance floor, not even when I tried my hand at leaving my chair and flirting and hinting with some of the guys that I wanted to dance with no strings attached. It was not until I had become a senior that some young men from schools other than my own began to take a leap of faith and ask me to dance with them. There was one particular guy who was a fabulous hoofer with a funny style. We would start out in front of one another, but invariably he would move all around the floor leaving me to dance seemingly alone until he once again found his way back to me. He often laughingly insisted that I was a great dancer who needed to loosen up just a bit. We never bothered to learn much about each other. As far as we were concerned we were just dance partners, and for me it was so much better than sitting on the sidelines all night long.

I remember one evening when I spent hours dancing with this person. The next week in school one of the boys in my class commented that he had never imagined that I even knew how to dance. I wasn’t quite sure how to take his pronouncement, so I essentially ignored it. What I really wanted to do is let him know that if he had taken the time to ask me to cut the rug with him he might have found out sooner that I was more than just a very studious girl.

Eventually I graduated from high school and found a sudden burst of popularity in college. I went to a street dance at the University of Houston and never missed a beat. I suppose that everyone has their shining moment and that was the beginning of mine. Not long after  that I met my husband who loves to tell everyone that he was thunderstruck when he first saw me. I felt the same about him and the rest is fifty years of blissful history. Unfortunately he absolutely hates to dance and so my dreams of having a partner for the future was dashed. It was not until my grandsons became older that I was able to let loose on the dance floor again. 

The happy ending to the story is that in the modern world there are no holds barred when it comes to dances. Anyone can just hit the floor and move to the music all alone or with a big group. Nobody thinks less of a woman who asks someone to be her partner. The whole process has become so democratic and fun. It is no longer fraught with the angst that so dominated my feelings during my high school years. I’ve come a long way, baby, and and so have my fellow women. I love it!

Whodunnit?

Jack the Ripper

It’s rather ironic and appropriate that it is a dark and rainy day as I write about the Jack the Ripper Tour that we took while we were in London. It was a Friday evening at the end of a week in which the sun had shone gloriously on us every single day. We had seen so many of the treasures that make the city so remarkable and had enjoyed good food in spite of rumors that the cuisine often leaves something to be desired. Everything about our visit had been picture perfect, so it was only right to have a threat of rain as we boarded a double decker tour bus in search of the infamous places where five women were brutally murdered by a killer who was never found, but came to be known as Jack the Ripper.

We used our age and the fact that we were the first to arrive at the bus station to be the first in line to enter the bus. This advantage gave us a seat at the top of the bus that had a cover so that our enthusiasm was not the least bit dampened by the chilly precipitation that was moving over the city. A gifted movie director could not have created a better backdrop for the tale that our guide was about to unfold. His thick Scottish accent only made the experience seem somehow a bit more sinister.

I suppose that I had thought that a visit to London’s east end and the Whitechapel area would have taken me back in time to a place where the clock stood still. I did not expect to instead see modern buildings and signs of great progress that cloaked the poverty and want that had once defined the area. The story that we were hearing was of people whose existences were so dreary that they had often lost hope. In particular the women whose lives were so brutally taken were victims not just of a murderous rage, but of a society that had thrown them into the trash heap long before they were killed.

As I listened to the circumstances of each woman who met such a merciless ending I felt that the real tragedy lay in the way that they were perceived by a society. They were attempting to survive in a world so cruel that they had little hope of finding a semblance of peace. These ladies were sometimes abused by men, spurned as being somehow indecent, and left to their own limited resources to get from one cruel day to the next. As our journey through their nights of horror progressed I found myself pondering the sadness of their fates, and seeing them as vivid examples of the societal problems that have challenged women throughout history.

There was one victim who had come from Sweden to learn the housekeeping trade. At some point she became pregnant without benefit of marriage and was thus spurned forevermore. Left alone in a city that was foreign to her with no support systems of family or friends she had to turn to any means possible just to have food and a place to stay at night. She was at the mercy of people who viewed her as a fallen woman and her opportunities for a decent life were forever gone.

Another of the victims had been thrown out of her home by her husband, a situation that was quite common at the time. She ended up in a poor house lodged in a building that is still standing to this very day. There she had a bed and food, but few prospects for a better future. Eventually she left to be on her own, only to somehow encounter the man who murdered her.

There have been hundreds of theories about who Jack the Ripper might have been. Some believed that he got away with his crimes because he was a man of influence, perhaps a royal personage or someone who worked in law enforcement. Others considered that he might have been a doctor, a barber or a butcher because of his seeming skill in ripping the bodies of his victims apart. The saddest aspect of his crime spree is that he was almost operating in plain sight, but because his victims were at the bottom of the societal pecking order his actions seemed to have gone unnoticed. He was simply one of many men who preyed on the hopelessness of women caught in untenable situations.

Our group became rather quiet by the end of our journey. Somehow we were all thinking less on the idea of whodunnit and more on the sadness of the five women’s lives. In an ironic twist they are now remembered and even mourned. We fidgeted as we thought of their how awful they were treated not just by the killer but by all who saw themselves as more decent. They lived in the darkest shadows of a city where status was parceled out with a punishing stinginess. Simply by dent of birth they were relegated to unimaginable hardship. The true crime was the way in which they were shunned so cruelly by people who never took the time to know them.

At the end of the tour we were left at the Sherlock Holmes Pub where I suppose we were supposed to enjoy some merriment and a few laughs after our evening’s entertainment. Somehow instead we felt the need to just go quietly back to our hotel where we said little about what we had seen. Each of us were left with our own thoughts, and mine we steeped in great sadness with a touch of anger that anyone would ever have to live as the five women did. How many more like them were there? How many more like them live in fear even now? What must we do to ultimately end the cruelty that reduces the status of little girls and leads them into lives of domination and hurt? What will it take for us to make keeping them safe a priority no matter where they may live? That is a more important question than solving an old crime.

God Bless America/God Save the Queen

The Guards

Ironclad plans for a trip are fine until they fail. One of the most positive aspects of traveling independently is the ability to make last minute corrections. Such was our decision one morning at breakfast when we realized that if we hurried over to the Russell Square underground station and headed for Buckingham Palace we might be just in time to see the changing of the guard that was to be held that morning. After all the rest of our day was dedicated to places where there was no need of tickets, so we had all of the flexibility that we needed. We took a deep breath, entered the fray of early morning crowds headed to work and girded our loins for whatever we might find ahead.

The train was so packed that we felt like sardines and it only became worse as we drew closer to our destination. Our foray inside a crowded train would be good practice for the swarm of humanity that we would find waiting at the gates to Buckingham Palace. We realized immediately that we would not get a prime view of the proceedings, but at least we were there and we’d have to just do our best to catch a glimpse of the proceedings here and there.

Unfortunately most of the best spots right along the fence line were taken by very tall men who further blocked the view by raising their arms to hold their cameras high in the air. Husband Mike and my brothers had no trouble looking over the shoulders of the lucky ones who had arrived early enough to stake out a claim to prime property, but my sisters-in-law and I were unable to see much even when we stood on tippy toe. Sister-in-law Becky decided to choose a different point of view and went to the very back of the crowd so that she might see the troops as they marched into the palace grounds. Allison and I found ways of glancing down low and in between the bodies of those who blocked our normal sight of vision. All in all it was a frustrating situation but one that we learned how to eventually make work.

By the time the proceedings began the area was a mass of humanity all craning their necks to see the red coated military men marching proudly across the grounds. They played traditional pieces that most of us had expected to hear, so a sense of great satisfaction swelled over the crowd. I saw enough of the upper half of their bodies to feel a sense of exhilaration, and I had perfected my method of finding tiny holes in the wall of people to make me feel as though I was part of something quite grand.

Standing on my toes and bending down became my official “modus operandi” so I hardly noticed that people from behind were pushing forward to get a view of their own. A woman who had a birds eye view in the front row suddenly became overcome by claustrophobia and decided to leave. Before doing so she offered her spot to me. I could not believe my good fortune as I suddenly stood right behind the fence along with the row of tall men. I was mesmerized by the sheer beauty of what I saw.

The soldiers with their red jackets and polished brass buttons stood tall and stately with their heads proudly bearing the black bearskin helmets that are the trademark of their station and their duties. I saw that they were not just showmen because the guns that they carried were real and quite powerful. They were indeed trained and equipped to be guards. I later learned that many of them had served in dangerous places like Afghanistan. Their precision bespoke of discipline and pride in their work. I was almost giddy at the wondrous sight that I was watching unfold. It was as though I was part of a living fairytale not unlike the ones that my father had so often read to me. I felt like Cinderella.

We were entertained by military songs and modern music, marching, and even a mounted cavalry wearing riding boots and a different sort of cap featuring horse hair. The pageantry was even more glorious than I had imagined it would be and my companions and I were quite delighted.

As is my way I found myself thinking of the rag tag revolutionaries of the colonies of north America who had the audacity to rebel against such a well trained and disciplined army of red coats back in the eighteenth century. It must have required an enormous amount of frustration over the political situation to risk fighting such a group. Little wonder that the prevailing belief was that the so called patriots would soon be put down by the seemingly superior forces and normalcy would return. I’m not so sure that I would have had the courage to side against such a powerful army, and yet I know from the study of my family tree that there were indeed ancestors who chose to join the revolution to free themselves from what felt like tyranny.

I suppose that we Yanks are the wild children of Great Britain. We came from the same stock but the new world changed us. We were far enough away from the old ways that we began to question the authority of a king who was making our lives more and more difficult. We had risk taking in our DNA. Our thinking diverged from the land of our origin and in the end we eschewed royalty and opted for freedom, even though our first form of it was far from perfect. It would take some time before we freed our slaves and allowed women to move to the front so that they too might participate in the grand experiment of the republic.

My spot along the fence of Buckingham Palace standing as an equal to the big tall men who had at first blocked my view felt like yet another metaphor for how far I have come from the time of my ancestors. I have roots in Great Britain that make me proud, but in the end I am a foreigner in that land. Neither I nor anyone not born of the Windsor family will ever be royal, but in my country anyone might aspire to be President. That is the grand difference that came from the revolution of long ago.

I possess all of the traits of an American including great pride in my country and a kind of brash sense of equality with every other human, but I still cherish the traditions of my history. I felt a kinship and a sense of friendship as I watched the ceremony unfolding before me, knowing also that I would not have been standing there were it not for the opportunities that the United States has given me. God bless America and God save the Queen!