Planting A Garden Of Love


While there are still signs of winter in many parts of the world here in Houston, Texas spring has definitely arrived. The azaleas in my yard are blooming and the roses are bursting forth in all of their glory. The once barren trees have tiny leaves peeking from the limbs, and tiny ferns are popping up from the soil. Signs of life are everywhere with even the pair of doves that live in my backyard cooing in harmony with the noisy mockingbirds and jays. This is one of my favorite times of year when nature reminds us of redemption and possibilities.

This year I decided to plant some vegetables in my flowerbeds. It’s been many years since I have done that. For a time when my daughters were still young we had bountiful crops each spring and summer. Our larders were filled with green peppers, tomatoes, squash and cucumbers. This year I am hoping to enjoy my former success at gardening, but a worry about the pesky squirrel that often visits my yard or the countless birds searching for a meal. I’ve been doing some research in how to prevent critters from consuming my vegetables before I have the chance to harvest them and I’m not so sure that I will be able to ward them off because I don’t own the one thing that is supposed to be a great guard against pilferers. Namely my best bet is to have either a cat or a dog to chase them away.

Back when my farming was so successful we had a fabulous dog named Red. She was a born hunter who often displayed her trophies for us to find. She was a golden retriever who had perfected every one of her instincts. She was fast and always alert. No mice dared come near our place and birds were very respectful in her presence. They tended to stay perched in the trees rather than attempting to make a snack out of my vegetables. I suppose that I never really thought of just how much Red was doing for us in the way of standing watch. I knew that she was a great guard dog when it came to humans, but I didn’t appreciate her vigilance over my garden as much as I should have.

Red was as smart as they come and always faithful. She loved everyone in the family and most of the neighbors as well. Sometimes she hopped the fence and took little strolls around the block but she always came back home. I was amused by the fact that she was able to get out of the backyard but could not seem to get back in, so she just waited patiently on the front porch for us to notice that her wandering was done. I’d sure like to have her back, but she crossed the Rainbow Bridge long ago along with other friends like Buddy and Scarlet and Shane. So I guess I’m on my own in protecting my garden this summer if I’m to taste some juicy tomatoes or enjoy a bunch of succulent squash.

It’s going to be fun watching all of my plants grow from the sun and the rain. I’m anxious to see what varieties will be the most successful. I have onions and potatoes, cucumbers and tomatoes. There are peppers and squash and all kinds of herbs. Last year I enjoyed having fresh basil and oregano for my soups and salads. This year I’ve added parsley, cilantro and thyme.

While I was searching for ideas as to how to keep the marauders at bay I found recipes for preparing a hot pepper concoction to create a ring of protection around my plants. That’s when I discovered a cute little poem about how to plant a garden of love. It suggested that it’s time to squash hate, prejudice and jealousy while peppering our actions with kindness and compassion. I liked that idea and began to think of how appropriate it is to focus on renewing ourselves as well as our gardens at this time of year. Much like the plants that are springing back to life, now is a time for each of us to consider how we might grow and become the best versions of ourselves.

Working in the soil and creating life is one of humankind’s most basic tasks. As we plunge our hands into the dirt to plant seeds and cuttings we become one with nature and feel the kind of unity that we should always enjoy with the world around us. We need to be the stewards who care for the wonderful things that we have, and that should include the air, water, plants, creatures and people with whom we share this earth. We cannot forget our obligations to treasure this amazing planet and all that it holds. Springtime reminds us of what we need to do.

When I think of Red I realize the kind of traits that all of us need to cultivate. She was as sweet and loving as any creature might ever be. Best of all was her infinite loyalty and unwavering instinct to protect. She was also sensitive and compassionate as in a time when I was very ill with the flu and she slept by my bed all day long, making certain that I would be okay. We might all learn a thing or two about faithfulness from a wonderful pet like Red.

I jokingly told my eldest grandson that I was turning into my grandmother Minnie Bell. I would like to think that I am somewhat like her, but I have a way to go to be as remarkable as she was, a humble and uncomplicated woman who simply enjoyed life as it was given to her. She had an almost sacred communion with nature and the people around her. Without judgement she embraced every person that she met. Those are things that I am still working on achieving, but sometimes when I’m puttering in my yard and listening to the birds I think I understand how Grandma found her contentment. I realize that all the things in the world cannot compare to the pleasure of seeing someone smile or watching the earth burst into a symphony of sounds that rival the most glorious musical composition. I hope that my plants provide me with a bountiful crop, but more than that I want to spread the seeds of love this spring and all the year through.


So Beautiful To Me

pexels-photo-658687.jpeg“She woke up every morning with the option of being anyone she wished. How beautiful it was that she always chose herself.” —-Unknown

I was a gangly, awkward girl all the way through high school, so shy that I often hid in the library pretending to do homework so I wouldn’t have to mix it up with my fellow classmates in the cafeteria each morning. I often found myself wishing that I was more like this girl or that. There was the beautiful young woman with that almost electric smile, the sweet person who was able to talk with anyone. All of them had something that I wanted and thought that I would never have, a car, a boyfriend, tons of confidence. I was a mound of teenage angst, and all the while so was everyone else but I had little idea that they were as confused and self conscious as I was.

Ultimately I grew up, literally overnight. When my mother had her first and scariest mental breakdown I found myself mostly on my own in finding her the care that she needed. My love for her was so strong that I was able to pull strength from deep inside my mind that I never thought that I had. At first I simply copied the attitudes of the women that I knew and admired for their courage. Eventually muscle memory trained from encounters with doctors and bankers and such transformed me into my own person. I no longer needed to pretend to be someone. I knew that I was someone.

I met a married a remarkable man who loved to tell the story of how he was “thunder struck” from the moment that he first saw me. He became my best friend and my muse. He thought that I was beautiful just as I was and that even my imperfections were made me unique. I was hardly the kind of person who would turn heads in a room full of people, but he convinced me that loveliness begins from inside and radiates outward with little relationship to external features. It is an aura derived from depth of character and inner determination to live life with joy.

I vividly recall the very day when I totally embraced and chose myself. It had started with an unremarkable daily routine of washing my face and brushing my teeth. I was in the process of hopelessly attempting to tame my fine fly away hair when I caught a unique glimpse of my image in the mirror. It was as though I was seeing myself with a new set of eyes, and I realized how much I liked me. I smiled at the realization that even if I had the option of being anyone I wished, I would choose myself. It was a stunning moment that transformed me forevermore. It was as though I had unlocked the power that had always been there, but I had never before realized.

Over time I worked with young adolescents in middle schools and high schools. I saw their unsteadiness firsthand, and understood that even the most self assured among them was in truth filled with self doubts and sometimes even self loathing. Trying to fit into our own skin is a painful developmental process that takes as much time to achieve as physical or academic growth. Researchers into such things now know that our brains are not fully developed until well into our twenties and even then some of us take a bit longer. Just as babies meet their milestones at varying ages, so too do we adults find and believe in ourselves at different times of life. Sadly there are those who sometimes never reach a point of fully appreciating their own essences.

Of course it is in our natures to question ourselves from time to time. The stresses of living bear down on us and cause us to become dissatisfied. We look over our fences and invariably find grass that is greener than ours. There is always someone who ages more gracefully, drives a better car, lives in a more exclusive neighborhood, earns more money. If we spend a lifetime of comparing we are continually wishing to be someone other than ourselves. We never quite reach that joyful moment of truly liking ourselves and wanting to be no other, or we interrupt our contentment with waves of jealousy.

I once read a book whose title now eludes me that posited a theory that even if we were to have multiple opportunities to think and act in ways other than the ones that we initially chose we would in all probability react to various people and events in much the same way. In other words we each view the world based on our genetics and environmental realities, and those factors guide our thinking through a series of motions and emotions that slowly but surely teach us how to be. We become ourselves through trial and error, and hopefully learn to accept ourselves with whatever strengths and weaknesses we may have. As mature adults we work with what we have to make the changes that we desire. We learn to use our best traits not so much to make ourselves more attractive, but to better the world around us. The most lovely among us are those who have been able to think less about how they may appear and more about how to help the people they encounter.

I now enjoy and embrace the opportunities to be with the individuals who once walked the halls of my high school with me. We have all grown older and wiser and far more beautiful than ever before. Our thoughts are not of who seems to have done the best, but simply of each other’s welfare. We know and like who we are as individuals and we revel in the well being of every member of our group. Looking back we are able to see that our blessings have outweighed our trials. All of us know that our thinning hair and expanding waists do not define us. The wrinkles on our faces and wear and tear on our hands are badges of honor, bearing witness to our hard work and compassion. The mistakes we have made attest to our adventurous spirits. We smile at the images in the mirror without seeing the flaws or wishing that it were that of someone else. It is beautiful to choose ourselves.

God Is Not A Coke Machine


I begin each morning with prayer and then have little talks with God all throughout the day until I end with a kind of good night affirmation of gratitude. My prayer life is rather ordinary and flawed. I know people who are inspiringly spiritual whose devotionals are profound, but mine are more akin to the kind that people utter from the bottom of foxholes as bullets are flying over their heads. I say a few thank you phrases acknowledging the Lord’s presence in my life, but all too often follow up with requests for this person or that. Of late my list of those in need has grown to the point that I sometimes can’t quite recall all of the names and causes. I simply suggest that God must indeed remember all of the situations and I ask that He care for each of them. I try to include some praises of His glory, but admittedly I often sound like a child begging a parent for goodies as I reel off my hopes and dreams in a rush of impatience. I sadly all too often grow anxious that the answers I seek are taking too long to materialize. I know, and so does God, that I still have a long way to go in my prayer life.

I’ve often laughed at how we humans pray. I’ve seen students silently pleading for a good grade as I am walking through the classroom returning the results of tests. Of course, by then it is a bit late to change the scores. The real intersessions should have come earlier and might have centered around guidance during the studying phase. By the time that the marks are being returned only an impossible miracle is going to change the number that I have already made on each person’s paper.

I suppose that many of us use prayer in ways that don’t make a great deal of sense. Instead of asking for strength to deal with the human challenges that we must all face, we all too often ask God to for very specific outcomes that would force Him to choose one person over another. We beg for a win in an athletic endeavor as if the Lord is wearing the same jersey as ours. We have a tendency to place time limits on our requests and wobble in our faith when the answers that we seek are slow in coming.

The best prayer warriors that I know have a completely different style of communicating with God that is based on trust. They do not presume to question the challenges that they face, but rather seek the courage and peace that they need to deal with realities. Instead of entreating a higher power to grant them favors they ask instead for the kind of character that they will need to withstand the buffeting winds of life’s difficult moments. They focus on becoming an instrument of peace, justice and love. They ask what they must do rather than imploring for gifts. It is definitely a better way, and the sign of a deep and abiding understanding of God.

Of course there are also those who think that the very idea of some all powerful force watching over us and guiding our way is absurd. To them prayer is a wasted effort that might better be served with action and effort. They cannot imagine that otherwise sensible people believe in some nebulous and unproven concept like God, or miracles. They see religion as a kind of fantastical crutch that we humans use to explain away our own frailties.

I have several friends who meditate daily. They read the Bible or find comfort in the writings of those who have somehow found wonderful ways of explaining how best to form a meaningful relationship with God. They emphasize the need for patience as our individual purposes unfold. They urge us to quiet our minds so that we might actually begin to understand what we must do to find contentment. Theirs is a beautiful spirituality that is elevated from the kind of babble that I seem to utter in my own haste to get on with the duties of the day. I suspect that I am not unlike many of my fellow humans in that that regard.

I was humbled during the recent floods in my city by a comment from a friend whose home had been inundated. She noted all of the people who were thanking God for not sending those waters into their own houses. She suggested that comments speaking of God’s goodness in saving them implied that those whose abodes were devastated were somehow not chosen for blessings as though they may not have had enough faith or goodness to deserve salvation. She suggested instead that those who were high and dry simply be thankful that they were lucky.

A priest once explained to me that God is not like a coke machine. We can’t just insert a coin of prayer and expect a certain outcome. He insisted that the object of prayer should be to praise the Lord and seek His guidance in navigating the arduous journey that is life. We become disappointed when our only goal is to achieve very specific outcomes. “He doesn’t work like that.” When we focus on wanting rather than asking what we must do we run the risk of losing faith and questioning the very existence of God if things don’t work out the way we had hoped. If we do it properly prayer can be a very beautiful thing with the power to bring us comfort. It helps us to find answers to the questions that concern us.

My mother lead a prayerful life. She never questioned the hardships that came her way. Instead she thanked God for living inside her heart and keeping her optimism alive. She saw the dawn of a new day as a great gift from her God. At the time of her death she almost appeared to wear a halo around her head as her eyes shone brightly with the confidence that she was heaven bound. There was no doubt in her mind that she was about to receive the only reward that really mattered. She had been a faithful servant her entire life. She had always understood how to pray.

I try to improve. I watch people like my mom and others whom I greatly admire. They teach me what I must do and tell me that it is okay to have feet of clay. I just have to keep trying to get it right. God knows that I try. 

The Legacy

Mary B. Ulrich & Sharron

We each possess a unique gift which we might give our children and our grandchildren. It is the story of who we are and from whence we have come. The links that we provide from one generation to the next form a foundation for the young. Sometimes to get where they are going they need to know where they have been. They learn this when we tell them about our family history. 

I grew up in two different worlds. The first was marked by refinement and a certain level of privilege. Before my father died we lived in homes that were newer and more spacious than those of the other members of our extended family. Our house was always beautifully furnished and filled with books and music. We went on yearly vacations, traveling all over the United States in fancy cars. I mostly took my good fortune for granted. I had little idea how much work it had taken my father to earn his college degree so that he might have a well paying job that supported our lifestyle. I did not then understand that our position in the middle class had been an enormous social leap for both of my parents. I had no idea that our situation was as fragile as it actually was.

Part two of my biography was one of great challenges. My father’s death changed our situation in palatable ways. Our economic status shrunk overnight. My mother had to use her intellect and resources to stretch our budget into almost impossible proportions. Every decision had to be weighed and measured with great care lest we find ourselves without the basics of living. Somehow she always managed to see us through each struggle that we faced, but I still find myself wondering how she performed so many miracles. We had just what we needed to survive and not a bit more. Vacations became a thing of the past other than visiting our grandparents’ farm. Somehow in spite of the rigidity of our budget we never felt deprived. Our mother put food on the table at every meal and kept our few articles of clothing clean and mended.

As children we were entertained by friendships with children in the neighborhood. We built forts out of Christmas trees or by hanging sheets and bedspreads on the clotheslines where our laundry dried on warm sunny days. We held games of Red Rover and Swing the Statue in the front yard and rode our bicycles down to the woods or the park. Someone was always inventing some adventurous way of spending the daylight hours, and everyone ran free in their shorts and bare feet so that we hardly noticed that we may not have had clothes as fine as theirs.

On Friday nights we always went to visit our Slovakian grandmother who welcomed us with  mugs of sugary coffee laced with so much milk that we hardly noticed the taste of the brew. She gave us slices of fresh rye bread from Weingarten’s grocery and on very special days fried up slices of round steak in her big iron skillet.

The most English we ever heard from her was her greeting of “Hello, pretty boy/girl.” She made us feel loved and special even though we never once were able to have a conversation with her. Most of the time she sat in her chair and in the corner of her tiny living room smiling at us while we ran around like a bunch of noisy hell cats. My aunts and uncles engaged in games of penny poker or argued as though they were still young children vying for their mother’s attention. We played “hide and find,” our own version of the childhood game that has been around for centuries. Sometimes we created our own family newspaper or watched episodes of “The Twilight Zone” or Friday night wrestling.

We often sat in our bachelor uncle’s bedroom talking and telling jokes within view of his loaded pistol which we would never have dared to touch. Sadly we did use his records as coasters for our drinks, but he didn’t seem to notice our disrespect for his prize collection of music from Louis Armstrong and other jazz greats. We knew that he worked for the Post Office and had once been a railroad man until he broke his leg in an accident. He had matchbooks from gambling spots in Galveston and there was a mysterious air about him. He was both a bit scary and a great big teddy bear at one and the same time and he loved us all.

We often wondered about our grandfather who had died before most of us were born. We knew little of him, but heard that he had worked at a meat packing plant all the way up until the time that he had a stroke from which he eventually died. He had built a huge library of books of all sorts that he brought home one at a time each Friday evening after he was paid. He owned a cow that provided milk for his eight children and cherished the goal of one day having a farm of his own. Each Sunday afternoon he gave his family lessons on morality and good citizenship and taught them to be proud of who they were. I would have like to have met him because I think he must have been a very interesting man.

On Sundays we always went to see people from our father’s side of the family. Our mother thought that it was important for us to stay in contact with them. My paternal grandmother was a tiny woman who was famous for her cooking. Going to her house always meant that we would be treated to an extraordinary meal. When she wasn’t busy creating yummy dishes, she was either crocheting or embroidering or making quilts. Her sewing was like delicate works of art and her crooked old hands belied her ability to weave intricate stitches and knots. Her gardens were legendary and she even knew how to talk with birds. I always found it fascinating that her knowledge of the world was encyclopedic given that she was illiterate. I don’t have any recipes or instructions from her because she carried all that she knew inside her head.

My grandfather was a strong man with great big hands that he used to build things. He smoked a pipe and told the most delightful stories. He might have been a wonderful writer but for lack of time. He worked until he was eighty eight years old and only quit because his supervisor thought that his advanced age made him a liability. He read for hours every single day and was able to quote passages well into his nineties. He drove an old black Plymouth whose leather seats smelled of sweet tobacco. Life had always been hard for him, but he was a survivor of the highest order and insisted on maintaining optimism no matter how terrible things became.

I learned that I was from strong stock, people who were determined to live and love and carry on regardless of what befell them. They taught me the value of hard work, education and determination. They helped me to realize that I need not be held back by my circumstances. They encouraged me and my brothers to dream big and to believe in ourselves. They were always there in both the good and bad times. We knew that we were never alone, and still aren’t. This is who we were and what has made us who we are. Our children and grandchildren are part of the unending thread that traces back through the centuries. I hope that they always remember how grand and noble their heritage truly is. The legacy of their family is indeed rich.



Try to imagine living on a net monthly income of about one thousand dollars a month. It would create a constant struggle to meet even the most basic needs of food and housing. In the Houston area we have a lower cost of living than most places, but even here it’s difficult to find housing for less than seven or eight hundred dollars a month. Just paying rent alone takes a huge chunk from such a meager monthly budget, and when utilities are added to the bottom line there is very little left to take care of other basic needs.

Sadly there are very good people who work but still don’t manage to move past the level of poverty. Then, of course, there are the elderly who are no longer physically able to hold down jobs whose monthly checks provide them with ever diminishing spending power. To offset the hopelessness of living in such situations the federal government instituted the Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program, otherwise known as SNAP.

Recipients of SNAP benefits must certify that they meet the standards of one hundred percent of the designated poverty income levels. They may have a home but no more than a few thousand dollars in savings and other assets. Once they have been verified they receive an EBT card that has been preloaded with funds that they may spend at designated grocery stores for the purchase of food. Eligible recipients are free to choose the items that they prefer but may not make nonfood purchases with the card, nor may they include certain products like beer or wine. SNAP requires individuals and families to continually certify their financial status to insure that eligibility requirements are being met.

While it is generally known is that many Americans are lacking proper nutrition in their diets, the SNAP program does not restrict particular food choices, even if those include soda, candy and other questionable snacks. Studies have shown that enforcing nutritional standards would make the program far too costly, as well as creating paperwork nightmares. Efforts to improve the delivery of wholesome foods to those needing assistance have been mostly unsuccessful. Recently President Donald Trump recommended a major change to the program that would take the element of choice from those receiving the benefits. He proposes a system that would send boxes of nonperishable food items to individuals and families each month rather than reloading funds into an EBT card. The suggestion has created a firestorm of criticism and concern.

Obviously the cost and logistics of delivering the food would be enormous. There are a number of nagging questions about how to make such a system effective, and many concerns about whether or not it is even possible. Take for example the situation of someone who is not home when the box arrives. Does the delivery person just leave the food hoping that it actually ends up where it is supposed to be, or does he notify the recipient to reschedule? How efficient would such a system be when deliveries have to be made to far flung rural areas? Who will be in charge of the distribution process? Will this kind of system require whole new staffs of people?

Of course the most obvious question literally becomes one of taste. Each of us has certain dietary preferences. I can’t imagine not having the freedom to decide what kinds of foods I might purchase, and I find it insensitive to think that the poor should not be allowed the same liberties that I enjoy. I also prefer fresh fruits and vegetables and the idea of only having canned varieties is a very unpleasant one.

My mom was a widow who never made a great deal of money. There was only a brief period of time in her life after my father died when she enjoyed a high standard of living. Most of the time, especially in her later years, she was only barely above the one hundred percent poverty level. At the time of her death she missed that standard by one hundred dollars a month. Even though she owned her home by then, she barely scraped by. She reached a point at which she was stretched to the maximum and yet she was not spending money frivolously. She rarely purchased new clothing or shoes. She did not own a car. Her house needed major repairs that had to wait. Much of her income went toward utilities, medical expenses, insurance costs, and food. She pinched every single penny, especially when it came to purchasing food, and yet she always managed to have a very healthy diet. Her secret was in choosing very carefully. Rarely did she buy canned items. Instead she bought seasonal vegetables and cuts of meat that were on sale.

My mom used the skills of meal planning and her knowledge of nutrition to prepare healthy meals. A carton of eggs lasted for a week and gave her a good breakfast to eat in six of the seven days. She searched for the stores that had the best prices and always bought her food for a bargain. She regularly chose meats that would provide her with multiple meals and vegetables that would be sides as well as ingredients for soups. She loved dried beans and there was rarely a week when she did not prepare a large pot of some kind of legume that would serve as lunch or dinner for many days.

I took my mother grocery shopping on Friday evenings and she would spend hours determining how to get the most bang from her buck. Rarely did she spend more than twenty five dollars and yet she managed to get bags and bags of items. She made it a kind of challenge to walk out of the store with a wonderful variety that she had purchased at a very low cost. In fact, she often urged me to join the competition and would raise an eyebrow at any extravagant purchases that I made, pointing out that the sale apples were just as good as the more expensive ones that I had chosen.

It was difficult for my mom to make it on her low income, and yet she did. She was profoundly independent and she was proud to be able to be the mistress of her own budget. She sometimes grumbled that she was just shy of receiving some assistance from the government, but she would not have taken anything away from those who did because she understood their plight. I suspect that she would have allowed more treats in her diet had she been given a bit more purchasing power. Mostly though she enjoyed the ability to choose. I think she would have found it distasteful to have someone insinuating that she was somehow ignorant or less than able to be her own mistress simply because her income was so sparse.

I understand all of the arguments from people who worry that the taxpayers’ money is often wasted on frivolous items that don’t seem to be necessary components of a healthy diet. What I find hypocritical is that some of the very same people complained loudly when First Lady Michelle Obama helped create nutrition rules for school lunches. They voiced their objections to being told what their children might eat. Many of them often insist that their private decisions should be their own, and I agree with that concept. I just don’t think that it is right to exclude the poor from the right to determine what will be on their tables at dinner time. It’s not up to us to make decisions for them even when they slip in a bag of cookies for their children. It’s good for the soul to have a treat here and there. Why would we want to deny them?

I am open to the concern that some of the SNAP funds are not being spent properly, but I just don’t believe that we need to be nannies or create programs that will become more complex than they need to be. Let’s think of better ways to help people bring nutritious meals to the tables of our fellow citizens without insinuating our own preferences on them. Let’s put ourselves in their shoes and demonstrate a bit of understanding. But for circumstances we might one day find ourselves in their shoes.