Finding Joy In Work

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When I was a little girl I kept my toys sorted in cardboard boxes that I found at the grocery store. One carton held board games, another had all of my dolls and their clothing and a third container was filled with items for playing school. I generally had a difficult time recruiting volunteers to pretend that they were in my classroom because nobody wanted to do extra work during time away from the real thing and I was notoriously strict as an erstwhile educator.

I used some of my father’s books for my lessons and meticulously created practice examples and comprehensive tests. I graded everything in red ink of course and gave each of my somewhat unwilling students report cards at the end of each session. Needless to say I always had to search for new victims each time that I decided to open my classroom but I had enough sway over my brothers that they grudgingly went along with my role playing. I suppose that it was almost a certainty that I would one day be a teacher, but in truth I fought against that idea until I was in my early thirties.

I am a woman from the pioneering era of equality for women. The trend for my peers was to eschew the customary female occupations for positions in traditionally male roles. I was encouraged to become a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, an accountant, anything but a teacher. The word on the street was that those who were unable to do anything else became teachers and I was a bit too proud to channel my intellect into a job that was rapidly losing its luster. I changed my major so many times that I finally took a sabbatical so that I might clear my head and contemplate what I really wanted to do with my life, not what everyone was telling me to do.

No matter how much I meditated on my ultimate role in society I kept circling back to the idea of teaching. Ultimately I became determined to follow my heart and I returned to college to finish my degree. The second time around I encountered the most incredible professors who encouraged me to use my talents in what they deemed to be one of the noblest of professions. I channeled all of my enthusiasm into learning about the science of teaching. I soon realized that there was way more to the profession than just bending students to my will. I became an eager advocate for the profession that would become an integral part of my life.

My first job was literally a Godsend. There happened to be a glut of teachers in the Houston area due to an economic downturn in the oil business and my fellow graduates and I were having a difficult time finding open positions anywhere. I submitted applications all over town and finally got a call from a private Catholic school only minutes away from my home. Surprisingly I landed a job teaching mathematics to sixth, seventh and eighth graders, something that I had never intended to do. I had to create lesson plans for six completely different classes as well as sponsor the school newspaper and head a committee taxed with purchasing computers for the campus.

I don’t think that I have ever worked as hard as I did during that first year but I enjoyed every minute of the experience. My students were delightful and I found out that I was fairly good at my chosen occupation. I was surrounded by other teachers from whom I learned how to improve my craft and the atmosphere at the school was one of kindness and optimism. I was certain after my maiden voyage as a teacher that I had found the perfect fit for my interests and my talents.

My determination to be an educator was solidified by that initial foray, but I wanted to have experiences in different settings so that I might define both my strengths and my weaknesses. Before long I set my eye on working with economically disadvantaged students in elementary school. There I had to plan for lessons in every single subject including art. It was an incredible challenge because my students were often riddled with home problems which often showed themselves in bad behaviors at school. It was time consuming to prepare for each day of school and I was challenged by both classroom management issues and methods for conveying knowledge of every conceivable kind. Each day I was responsible for twenty seven little souls who ranged from brilliant to learning disabled, well behaved to difficult. With the help of an amazing principal I learned much and became more confident than ever that I had made the right choice in deciding to be a teacher.

The rest is history as they say. I returned to an upscale private school for a time and then agreed to work in a public school filled with gang members. By then I understood that kids are kids and they all struggle to get past the angst of adolescence and teen years. My specialty became understanding where they were and starting from that reality to encourage them to move forward. I found myself loving every single one of my pupils and every challenge that I encountered with them.

I ended my career as a Dean of Faculty. By then I was working with the teachers, understanding the problems that they faced and doing my best to encourage and help them the way others had done for me. I never regretted a single day that I spent in the teaching profession. I felt that I had found my true purpose in life and I still get great joy from helping young people to learn. Our society may not have much regard for the teaching professions, which is unfortunate, but I learned that only those who can, teach. It takes dedication, long hours of hard work, physical and mental stamina, and a true heart. I’m glad I followed mine and found so much joy as a teacher.

Harriet Tubman

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The first time I learned about Harriet Tubman I was stunned by her story. She was born a slave as were her mother, father and siblings. Her father eventually earned his freedom but was unable to free his children. Over time he bought his own wife when she had grown old and confused and was of little use to her master but many of his children still languished as property.

Harriet was originally known as Minty. She married a free man but still had to live on the plantation of her owner. Nonetheless she dreamed of freedom and hoped to one day join her husband as a free woman and start a family. She watched helplessly as her sisters were sold and sent to some unknown place. She suffered under the yoke of slavery and finally reached a point of preferring to die rather than remain enslaved. Somehow she managed to travel over a hundred miles all alone to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where she finally lived as a free woman and chose her own name of Harriet.

Most people would have simply enjoyed their good fortune and lived happily ever after without chains and the whims of slave masters but Harriet was not happy knowing that her husband still lived so far away and that the members of her family were suffering. She decided to return to the place of her captivity risking her very life to be reunited with her husband and bring him north with her.

What she found was that he had married again when he thought that she had died. He was unwilling to leave his new wife who was with child. Harriet soon found that her brothers were about to be sold and so she decided to help them escape just as she had. Others joined her in the journey north which was hazardous but ultimately successful.

Over time Harriet worked with the Underground Railroad returning south again and again to free as many as seventy slaves. During the Civil War she served as a spy for the Union Army and even became involved in combat. She is credited with freeing another seven hundred slaves during that conflict.

In spite of risking her own freedom Harriet was passionate about helping others who lived in bondage. She understood what might happen to her if she were caught but she nonetheless felt compelled to fight for others who were still suffering under the chains of slavery.

Harriet Tubman is indeed one of the most courageous women in the history of the world. I cannot even imagine the kind of bravery that it took for her to accomplish as much as she did. She was a fearless warrior for justice and I think she should be honored as much as historical giants like Abraham Lincoln. I seriously can’t think of another woman in the story of our country who compares to her.

Now there is a wonderful movie about this amazing woman. Harriet is a beautifully crafted film that tells her inspiring story with a cast of actors who seem to be passionate about their roles. It is one of those films that I recommend to everyone, young and old alike. It is also one that I will probably watch again and again because its story is one of faith and grit and honesty. I can’t think of when I have been so moved by a movie, and knowing that it is true makes it even more wonderful.

I once visited a landmark in Memphis, Tennessee that had been part of the Underground Railroad. The guide told us how the slaves developed a way of communicating through their songs and with quilts that alerted them to which locations were safe. There was a whole world of intrigue that helped thousands of slaves find the freedom that they so deserved. It both a tragic and touching story of the human spirit and all people’s desire to live free.

The holiday season is upon us and people will be going to movie theaters for the annual round of family entertainment. I know that there will be cute little films reprising the Frozen story and even action and adventure movies, but I can’t think of a better way to spend time with the family than watching Harriet together. It is a story that has been longing to be told and everyone needs to see it.

Taking Some Stress Out of Christmas

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So many people get annoyed with those of us who start shopping and prepping for Christmas when Halloween has barely passed, but I find that if I don’t do a bit here and a bit there for many weeks I get caught at the last minute expending all of my energy in one fell swoop. Instead I learned long ago that if I slowly chip away at all of my Christmas tasks and I will have time to enjoy the season with friends, neighbors and family. It takes a bit of planning but I learned how to do that quite well as an educator when I had to be certain of teaching all of the concepts within a certain timeframe.

One aspect of my holiday traditions is the sit down dinner that I host on Christmas Day. I truly enjoy readying my home for that gala but in the past few years I have found that I spend most of the day getting the food served and then cleaning all of the dishes and pans for hours afterward. I have lovely Christmas place settings that are so festive but they generally have to be washed by hand and doing so takes far more time than it should. I have guests who quite sweetly attempt to help but the problem is that they get to visit with every one even less time that I do when they volunteer, and that isn’t much fun for any of us.

This year I decided to do something about the one Christmas duty that I abhor. I made a visit to the Party City website and ordered plastic plates that appear to be elegant china with matching bowls, dessert plates and even cups. All I need now are a few of those huge Costco garbage bags and the cleanup will be quick and easy. I will spend my time actually enjoying my guests rather than making sure that my kitchen stays orderly enough not to be designated as a toxic waste dump.

I still plan to use my Christmas tablecloths and napkins. They are easy to just toss into the washing machine. I also plan to set out my mother’s silver and the pewter utensils that my dear friend Egon left for me upon his death. I really don’t care to eat with plastic knives and forks and spoons and using the real thing will not create much mess at all. The entire lot will fit nicely into a sink of hot soapy water where it can soak until later. I’m thinking of maybe going with throw away serving bowls as well, but I have a wonderful Christmas platter that I always use for my roast or turkey or ham. It is a tradition that I refuse to surrender. It won’t take much to clean it and put it safely away. 

I feel a bit guilty about possibly damaging the environment with so many disposable items. The modern trend is to recycle everything but I will be seventy one this month and quite frankly I am tired of the annual cleanup. My mother-in-law announced her retirement from hosting the Christmas gala when she was younger than I am. My mother followed suit rather quickly thereafter. I don’t want to give away my day to provide the family with a feast just yet, but I am going on strike over the task of using all of the good china. I don’t think anybody really cares what the plates look like as long as what is on them tastes good. I’ll spend more time perfecting my menu and less washing and drying crystal and china.

Everyone seems to have a great time on Christmas Day. They have lively conversations and play games. I tend to be puttering about for so long that by the time I finally join the group they announce one by one that it is time to go home. I suspect that such has been the lot of women for decades. We eat our food cold and perform the “Martha” role to the point of missing all the fun. This year I am going to remedy that.

I’ve even sent out a family email to determine what everyone actually wants to eat this year. I have set a deadline of November 18, for the input and I will go by majority rule. I think it will be fun for everyone to have some say in what we our feast will be.

Many have suggested that I have a potluck but I don’t mind the cooking at all. It is one task that is fun for me and I prefer knowing ahead of time how to balance the meal. Besides the idea is that the dinner is a gift from me to the family. It is the one time of year when everyone comes and I have the honor of treating them. I get great joy out of the entire event.

I’ve bought a few Christmas gifts already. It’s easy to find great gifts for some people and almost impossible for others. I don’t know how it is for anyone else but the men are the hardest for me. I can only purchase so many ties or shirts or books or whatever. The guys tend to have very specific desires whereas women like just about anything. It will take me many weeks to figure it all out and then I will just have to hope that I have hit the spot.

Christmas is undoubtably my favorite time of the year and I plan to keep streamlining it so that I can get every bit of enjoyment out of the season and keep stress at a bare minimum. I’ll let you know how the plastic place settings work out. I suspect that they will be a hit.

Hats

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I love watching the old black and white movies from the thirties, forties and fifties. They remind me of my childhood and how lovely my mother and aunts were when they were young women. In those old films the ladies always wear glamorous hats and the men sport fedoras. It’s actually the way people dressed whenever they went out on the town back in the day and it was always fun to watch the parade of people styling in their finest fashions. I sometimes think that most of us have lost the sense of elegance that was more commonplace decades ago. We are certainly more comfortable but there was something so refined about the efforts that people made when they went to church or just on a downtown shopping excursion.

I still see those who go all out for Sunday services. They wear fashions worthy of a visit to the Queen of England. They don lovely bonnets and wear stockings with their polished pumps. They are a lovely sight and in my mind they present an aura of respect for the occasion. They take the time to elevate their style from the more casual look of jeans and flip flops or sneakers. they stand out from the norm in their fastidiousness unlike the times when dressing up was more common place. 

When I was a young I always had a pair of dress shoes, gloves and a hat at the ready for Sunday services at church and special occasions. The millenary sections of department stores were filled with delightful bonnets of every conceivable style designed to perfectly compliment whatever outfit a woman or girl might wear. In all honesty I never looked particularly good in hats but I loved them nonetheless. I always managed to find at least one that complimented my features that I kept in a round hatbox of the kind that was a mainstay in most women’s closets.

I must admit that all of the lovely styles were sometimes distracting at church, especially on Easter Sunday when there was a virtual parade of fascinators bearing flowers and feathers and veils. It was a day when the old hats that were beginning to fray just a bit were put aside in lieu of the newer models for the spring and summer months. Along with all of the spring frocks, white shoes and spotless gloves the hats were indeed a sight to see.

Whenever we went shopping in downtown Houston my mom would insist that I dress in my Sunday best which meant polishing my shoes until they gleamed, wearing nylon stockings, putting gloves on my hands and donning whichever hat I had that went with the season. We’d catch the city bus so that we would not have to worry about parking a car and ride to Main Street feeling a sense of growing excitement about our adventure.

When we entered the splendor of Foley’s Department Store we felt as grand as any of the ladies wearing Chanel suits, designer hats and furs even though our fashions had been purchased in the bargain basement downstairs. I always thought my mother was one of the most beautiful women of all in her lovely dress and chapeau. She had an elegance that transcended the cost of the things that she wore. She carried herself with so much dignity and confidence that she might have been a resident of River Oaks. I always felt that those little accoutrements like gloves and stockings and hats were the keys to adding a touch of glamour to the occasion.

My husband tells me that he too accompanied his grandmother on shopping excursions downtown on many Saturdays. She had a large collection of hats that she always wore whenever she went out. She was a rare beauty who was able to choose any style and look stunning. She might literally have stepped out of one of those old films that I so enjoy with her sense of fashion and the hats that complimented her lovely features.

The days of men and women wearing fine hats as a matter of fashion are all but gone. The gimme cap is the choice of most men and women rarely cover their locks. Hats are more likely found in antique shops than in department stores. They are the stuff of  history that is slowly fading. We find hats for sale at amusement parks and quirky gift shops. We wear them on Halloween and at festivals but not so much on fine occasions. We seem to prefer to be relaxed and unencumbered by excess gear. Comfort is our accessory of choice.

I enjoy the notion that the members of the royal family in England still adhere to the old ways. Their custom demands that the ladies wear hats for special occasions. The queen always reminds me of my own mother whenever she appears in public. She has her lovely suits and still wears stocking on her legs and always there are her beautiful hats that make her look elegant even as she grows old.

Some traditions are so lovely that they should always have a place. Wearing hats is one that I think we should revive. I greatly admire those who have never given up the custom. They are so wonderfully lovely.   

Nothing More Special

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When my father’s parents were living on Arlington Street in the Houston Heights we would go visit them every Sunday after church. My grandmother always prepared a lovely dinner for us and since she was a gifted cook it was invariably our most delicious meal of the week. What was most wonderful about it had little to do with the food, however, and everything to do with the joy of sitting around her big mahogany dining table laughing and talking while we filled our bellies with her beloved dishes.

My grandmother was a stickler for tradition. She covered the table with a crisply ironed cloth on which she placed her Sunday best china. She always waited for me to arrive to set the silverware next to the plates. It was from her that I learned the proper way of placing the knives and forks and spoons and folding the napkins.

In the meantime the aroma of chicken or roast beef tempted our tastebuds while Grandma put the finishing touches on potatoes, vegetables gravy and baked breads. I marveled at her ability to juggle so many culinary tasks at one time and still be so pleasantly patient. She reveled in the art of making us happy with her homegrown abilities that were all memorized in her head. Years of practice made every single item perfect and we waited with growing anticipation for her to finally announce that it was time to gather at our places to say grace before digging into all of the wondrous foods that she had prepared.

I loved the sameness of those Sunday afternoons and I missed them when my grandparents moved away to their farm in Arkansas. My mother did her best to reproduce the feel of those Sunday afternoon galas but I sorely missed the ceremonial nature of the tradition that my grandmother had brought to the table. After my father died my mom switched to going out for brunch after church which was quite a fun treat but was not nearly as wonderful as those formal gatherings at Grandma’s house.

I suppose the my wise mother knew that attempting to reproduce our once glorious Sunday tradition without my grandparents and my father would only serve to emphasize their absence in our lives. She redirected our thoughts of the old times to the adventures of eating yummy pancakes and waffles in restaurants filled with joy and laughter. Still, I would often think about how much I missed Sunday dinner with the family until I rediscovered the routine with my mother-in-law after I married.

To my great delight she was well versed in the art of entertaining on a Sunday afternoon. Like my grandmother she prepared her dining table with fine linens and her best china, silver and glassware. She was particularly well versed in the preparation of a Sunday roast in the grand tradition of England. She had learned how to perfectly roast the meat from her mother, always including potatoes and carrots and green peas. She was masterful at making a dark brown gravy to pour over the muffin-like Yorkshire pudding that was the highlight of the feast. My husband Mike always insisted that his mom never quite mastered the art of making Yorkshire pudding the way his grandmother had, but I never found any reason to fault it. It was gloriously delicious.

As my daughters grew older my mother-in-law taught them the art of setting a table just as my grandmother had done with me. They delighted in being helpful and being part of a routine that had been passed from one generation to the next. It was one of the best times of each week for all of us as we sat together being reminded of the loveliness of family and tradition.

Once the meal was finished the menfolk always went to another room to watch sporting programs or talk about the latest news. My mother-in-law brewed coffee for them and a big pot of tea for me and my girls. She always served it so elegantly along with a tray of cookies bought especially for the occasion. She showed us how to warm the pot before pouring the hot water over the tea and cautioned us in how to wait for the brew to steep. I still laugh because her very English mother who had been born in Newcastle, England had told her that Lipton tea bags made the very best brew.

We would sit and talk about wonderful things while we sipped on our tea and munched on little cookies. I so loved those times because they reminded me of the importance of family and tradition. I’d think of my grandmother who had died when I was fifteen and how she too would have enjoyed the time spent with just us women bonding over conversation and tea.

It’s been a long while since I sat down for a traditional Sunday dinner. My mother-in-law has been gone for sixteen years now. For a time I attempted to resurrect her routine for my children and grandchildren but the world was moving so quickly for everyone that it became more and more difficult to find a time when everyone was free. Sundays used to be more sacred but now weekend homework assignments and even athletic and club obligations pull children away. Everyone is moving at breakneck speed and spending three or four hours eating and relaxing is all too often a luxury that nobody can afford.

I miss those Sunday dinners and the love that they represented. Mostly I miss the people who gathered with us on the Lord’s Day. They have been gone for so long now but I still see them smiling and laughing and enjoying the biggest feast of the week. I’m so happy that I have those wonderfully joyous moments to remember. The memories are so vivid that I can almost smell the food and see my grandmother and my mother-in-law bustling about the kitchen preparing heaping mounds of love for us. There is nothing more special than that.