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Abilene, Abilene

Most people have never been to Abilene, Texas. I, myself, had probably been there, or through there, in my childhood, but who remembers? It is familiar to most people because of the song,  Abilene, Abilene, recorded  over the years by country greats since the 1960s by everyone from Buck Owens to Bobby Bare to George Hamilton IV.  “Abilene, Abilene, prettiest town I’ve ever seen …” Chet Atkins did a wonderful instrumental version of it at one point, and Willie Nelson and Sheryl Crow recorded a duet of a song called Abilene written by Crow in 2002; she said it was meant to be interpreted “not only as a place, but as a person or a state of mind.”

I don’t know if Abilene is the “prettiest town I’ve ever seen,” but it certainly became a welcome state of mind to me a couple weeks ago when I attended the opening  reception of the art quilt show, “Today’s Quilts: Art in Stitch,” at the Center for Contemporary Arts downtown. My piece, “Art Glass Quilted,” was included in this show (see above). The exhibition proudly displayed 33 pieces by 23 artists; 13 of us were present at the opening reception, which is quite remarkable, considering that Abilene is somewhat “out-of the-way,” even for people who live in Texas. But this exhibit was a juried show, and other exhibitors like me were pleased to be a part of it, and willing to drive long distances for the privilege. It was nice to meet other artist members of the Studio Art Quilt Associates, and to feel honored and celebrated as individuals for our work. (In case you’re in the neighborhood, the show runs through November 11, and then it travels to Texas Tech University Museum in Lubbock through February 18, 2018.)

The Center for Contemporary Arts is a beautiful two-story museum space downtown on Cypress Street; it has been there now for 27 years and is one of the major cultural scenes in Abilene, along with the Grace Museum (of Texas art) and the landmark Paramount Theatre (1930), one of America’s grand, historic theatres hosting live performances, concerts, and classic films. The Cypress Street Station Restaurant down the street is something of a beacon in itself, at least for the foodies among us. A railroad divides Abilene right down the center of town, and that downtown area is typical old West Texas, with long, low brick buildings flanking streets with angled, front-end parking. No skyscrapers here, though this is a city of about 110,000 people.

Those who know Texas history know Abilene as an early stock shipping point, established by cattlemen on the Texas and Pacific Railway in 1881 and named after Abilene, Kansas, the endpoint of the Chisholm Trail. Today it has become the commercial, retail, medical and transportation hub of a 19 county area known as “The Big Country” or the “Texas Midwest.”  The people here have, in fact, something of that flat, mid-western nasal accent (think Matthew McConaughey — all rite …all rite)  and that calm, unassuming demeanor so characteristic of the hospitality and modesty of those in the central United States.

Regardless of how it is described,  to the people of West Texas, residents and visitors alike, “Abilene has it going on!” Certainly, my stay there, however brief, provided a much-needed respite from these long and difficult weeks I continue to endure here in South Texas post Harvey, and a gentle reminder that I, too, have to keep “it going on.”

Postscript: No, I have not been hired by the Chamber of Commerce for Abilene, Texas, to promote their city.

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Part 2: The Debris

The storm hits and the drama of it all dominates the media: wind-blown newscasters hold fast to the nearest pole as they report on nature’s fury; rescue workers wade through waist-high water as they search for those refusing to leave; ravaged evacuees huddle in make-shift shelters, too tired and too terrorized to even think about what they’ve left behind.

Then, after the storm hits, the reality of what has happened settles in: friends and relatives call to see “if you’re okay;” relief organizations and FEMA set up headquarters in parking lots; the National Guard rolls in and politicians land in helicopters. Promises are made, damages are estimated, and recovery gets underway.

Except that recovery is not immediate; it is long and hard and sad and dull, and soon there are other crises, other “storms” of one sort or another, that will deflect attention and divert resources. The drama is over, as is the media coverage, and once again, people are left on their own to help themselves, to pick up the pieces and clear the debris of their uprooted lives.

So I returned to Victoria after my Mother was returned there from evacuation, to a town with power lines down, trees uprooted, roofs ripped off and piles of debris in the streets. The scene was dire, like something out of a sci-fi novel. Schools, businesses and most restaurants were closed; motels, the ones that were open, were full of evacuees from the Coast and relief workers from all over. And yes, there were those long lines for gasoline and long lines using up that precious gasoline waiting for entry into the circus-tent collection of relief agencies dispensing food and water, diapers and baby formula. I went there myself one day, in my Cadillac, to Samaritan’s Purse, to get help in clearing the giant limbs from a downed tree in my Mother’s yard which prevented me from getting electrical lines restored; the ladies at the sign-up table thought I was there to volunteer.

They must have forgotten that Mother Nature is nothing if not an “equal opportunity destroyer.” My Mother’s house had no electricity and no clean water. I spent the week mostly in my car, where I had air conditioning and wi-fi, sleeping at a benevolent neighbor’s house at night. The temperatures were in the 90s and the mosquitoes were the size of dive bombers; I washed my face with Evian and didn’t take a shower for a week. A most humbling week, certainly; gives you a whole new appreciation for the basics in life, like water and electricity.

As it happened, this was also the week when the hospital discharged my Mother, so I had to hustle to get her into a local nursing/rehab facility; of the two the case worker had recommended, only one was still standing, so the choice was easy. The day of her transfer was the longest of my life. They allowed me to drive her, so I was able to take her by her house and to let her neighbors come out to greet her. I knew that she thought , we both thought, that she might not ever see her home again. I wanted to give her a chance to say good-bye. Later that evening, after she was settled across town, I found myself back at her house rummaging through the closets and drawers with a flashlight trying to assemble the long list of required necessities the facility had given me.

So this is how our recovery goes. My Mother’s house was without electricity for almost two weeks. Her damage, while considerable, is not catastrophic, and not enough to meet the large deductible on her homeowner’s insurance: a huge tree came down and took the fence and some cables and lines with it, some shingles are shorn, debris still litters (though the goodness of neighbors helped clean most of that up), and a huge stump with roots has to be removed (see photo above).  It could be worse, a lot worse. Except for the fact that we personally have experienced the “trifecta” of health, home and hurricane events all at once, I guess I shouldn’t complain. It’s just “deja vu all over again.”

We have now entered the calm after the storm, except it isn’t calm for me. I am going to be living between two places for a while, until all this gets taken care of and my Mother gets well enough to go … where? The physical debris of Hurricane Harvey will eventually get cleared, but the emotional debris of this whole episode, happening again as it did almost 20 years ago, may remain forever. And I am not as young as I used to be.

And neither is she.

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Come Hell or High Water

Photo: A home in the Harvey floodwaters; photo by Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

 

The rains start gently, tentatively, as though they need to practice after months of prolonged drought. Over the next day or two, they build into steady showers — not unwelcome, mind you, since they bring the cooler temperatures of fall after a hot, dry summer.

We are sitting, my mother and I, out on the lovely Spanish-style patio in the courtyard of the famous Warm Springs Rehabilitation Center in Gonzales, Texas.  Founded on the banks of the San Marcos River in 1937 during the height of the polio epidemic, Warm Springs got its name from the artesian well of healing mineral waters nearby, which not surprisingly in Texas were discovered during drilling by Producers Oil Company of Houston in 1909. Over time, Warm Springs built a national reputation as one of the most comprehensive rehabilitation and treatment centers for victims of traumatic injury in the country.

I had flown into South Texas from Connecticut in an emergency a couple weeks earlier because my Mother, who still lived in my hometown of Victoria, had suffered a massive stroke. She was totally paralyzed on one side, couldn’t speak, and barely able to recognize me when I arrived at her bedside. It was devastating, and distressing, and overwhelming; I promptly had to exercise her power of attorney, take over her life, and take a leave of absence from my own.

Initially, I had been told that my mother would probably need custodial care for the rest of her life, but now here we were, barely three weeks later, sitting outside on a cloudy October afternoon. The road back was destined to be a long one, but “come hell or high water,” we were determined. Even though she couldn’t speak or read or write yet, she was getting the intensive therapies she needed at Warm Springs and would, hopefully, be able to go home at some point and resume her life. But now, with the clouds thickening and the rain beginning to fall again, she frowned and pointed upward as we moved inside. I knew she meant I needed to get on the road for the 70 mile drive back to Victoria before the skies opened up.

And open they did, into rain that lasted for days, though most of the 22-30 inches that fell did so in less than 24 hours. Ultimately, the floods in South Texas of the Guadalupe and San Antonio River basins between October 17-31, 1998, became a national disaster — this after the area had already been declared a national disaster due to drought earlier that summer. How could that be? There wasn’t even a hurricane!

But in fact, this “atmospheric event” of a low-pressure trough with high water vapor was caused by hurricanes far, far away, one near Baja and one near Acapulco. The rains fell, the rivers converged and over-flowed, and the earth was just too parched to absorb it all. The results were catastrophic: record flash flooding, which most forecasters missed, turned into $750 million in damage; the Guadalupe River in Victoria crested at 33.8 feet above flood stage, putting much of that city’s downtown totally under water, and completely flooding many neighboring small towns and surrounding farmlands.  Remember the famous photograph of the cow stranded on a rooftop above flood waters?

Of course Warm Springs on the banks of the San Marcos River flooded, as well, and I got a call in the middle of the night that my Mother had been airlifted by military helicopter from the roof and evacuated to … parts unknown. I located her eventually in Halletsville, TX, but it was several days before the water receded and the roads were clear enough for me to go get her.      Ultimately, we survived through “hell and high water,” but it took months before she, and I, could return to our lives.

That was nineteen years ago. Mother still lives in Victoria and I have now retired and live in San Antonio, which is a little over two hours away. Three weeks ago, one of her neighbors called to tell me that Mother had had “an event.” He suspected stroke, called EMS, and she was rushed to the hospital. I arrived as fast as I could; when I saw her in the ER, I thought that was it.

When we walked into her room the next morning, however, she was sitting up in bed. “Hi,” she said weakly. She had a major infection, along with some fluid on the lung, and probably several TIAs along the way, but she was going to make it, according to her doctor. “I feel good about this one,” he said. Three days later she was moved into the hospital’s Rehab unit; that old “come hell or high water” determination resurfaced.

With her settled in, I returned home for a weekend to grab what I needed to stay in her house in Victoria for however long I needed to. I would, once again, have to resume power of attorney and manage her care and affairs. She was doing well in rehab, getting physical, occupational, and speech therapy every day, though she tired easily and needed to build strength. Now the frantic search was on for a skilled nursing/rehab facility to which she could be transferred after Medicare’s allotted twelve-day stay was up.

A couple days into the week, I made a trip to the local HEB (a huge supermarket chain in Texas) to buy some things I preferred to cook and have at her house, rather than the Pringles and cheese sandwiches she favors. Wow! Welcome to madness! The parking lot was full, there were no shopping carts, and inside looked as though the place had been looted. The bread aisle was bare, the dairy was depleted, and people were searching area stores on their cell phones to find available water. “What on earth is going on here?” I asked a guy in front of me with a cart full of Budweiser in the very long, quick-checkout line for those with fewer items.

“A hurricane is coming,” he answered. “Haven’t you heard? Better stock up. They’re even running out of beer!”  He eyed the wine in my own basket and smiled.  Tsk, tsk, I thought. These people must not be real Texans, to let a little tropical storm in the Gulf get them all in a tizzy.

The very next day, on Thursday, August 24, I’m at the hospital for a team evaluation meeting that doesn’t take place. The hospital is going on half staff, and the rains and winds have begun. I try to talk to people to make some arrangements, but everyone is in “hurricane mode.” The doctor in charge assures me that he will not put my Mother out on the street with an umbrella, and says, “Go. Get back to San Antonio before the roads flood. Your mother is safe here, we have generators.”  Once again, South Texas is coming off a severe drought. This strikes me as  “deja vu all over again.”

The rains don’t start gently this time; they come in squalls. At her house, the neighbors help to move her patio furniture, board all the windows, and secure things that might blow. Now the rain is torrential, in sheets; I drive back to San Antonio late in the day.  Harvey hit the next day as a category 4 hurricane directly into Rockport, Texas, which is directly south of Victoria on the Gulf; the eye of Harvey lingered over Victoria for a couple days thereafter, before moving on up the coast to Houston.  (Ironically, we had just been down to Rockport with my Mother two weeks earlier to shop and have our usual summer seafood dinner there at Charlotte Plummer’s restaurant.)

And then, of course, I got that phone call again two days later, late at night, that Mother was being evacuated to … San Antonio … Austin …? It ended up being to Gonzales.  I had a meltdown, because Gonzales is exactly where she had been airlifted from 19 years ago. Sort of like muscle memory… or PSTD.  Or “deja vu all over again.”

But she landed in a lovely country hospital all last week. I wish she could have stayed; she seemed to thrive there. But then, late Thursday night, she was moved back to Victoria, where there is still city-wide contaminated water (though the hospital assures me that they are chlorinating), where there are still areas of no electricity (including her house), where there is considerable wind damage (including her house), and where there are shortages of food, water, gasoline, and other essentials. We went down on Saturday, after waiting three hours in line in San Antonio for a tank of gas to make the trip (while the price per gallon was being raised as even we sat in line). Victoria is in a shambles. So am I.

This saga will continue for a while, I fear, but I am headed back down to Victoria tomorrow. I have enough gas to make the trip, though I have nowhere to stay until the electricity gets turned on. But hey, I drive a Cadillac. I can get wi-fi and sleep in my car.

“Come hell or high water.” This time I have both, again. Cosmic symmetry?

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Fast and Slow

I stopped by a Whataburger the other day, something I don’t do too often, but I just HAD to have a milkshake. The drive-thru line was out to forever, so I ran inside to get it, which is often quicker. Even so, I still had to wait; seems the “fast” in fast food has become a relative term.

While waiting, I examined a wall-size photo mural of what was obviously the first Whataburger, a nostalgic picture of happy families and smiling children racing toward the familiar orange-and-white striped A-frame building. “That was our first Whataburger,” the lady behind the counter told me when she saw I was studying the scene. “It was in Odessa, Texas.” Actually, it wasn’t; the first Whataburger opened in Corpus Christi on August 8, 1950, a fact substantiated on their website.

I have always associated Whataburger with the summertime (maybe because it is always hot in South Texas), and I can vividly recall how excited I was when the first one opened, in the summer, in my hometown. It was probably sometime in the mid-to-late 1950s, and my mother drove me over there. I felt as though we had finally arrived, that my little town was now on the map because it had its very first fast-food chain restaurant (well … stand). I didn’t know at the time that it was only a regional chain, but never mind…The burgers were different from the ones I was used to from local sellers: they were much larger (5 inches) and had everything on them: pickles, onions, mustard,  mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato and even ketchup, I think. And then there were those milkshakes.

The next to arrive in town was Wienerschnitzel, which first opened in Los Angeles in 1961 and then operated mostly in California and Texas. “The Wiener,” as my friend Judy and I used to call it when we walked there from her house, sold — what else? — hot dogs smothered in chili and cheese and onions. Yum. You could buy two — somehow you always ate two — for about 25 cents; to this day, Wienerschnitzel promotes their hot dogs in meals of multiples. I just saw a sign outside one advertising six dogs and three large fries for a bargain price.

But the hands-down milkshake winner, then as now, was Dairy Queen, though they didn’t open in my town till after Wienerschnitzel did, which is curious since we have always joked that a town can’t make the roadmap in Texas until it has a DQ. Even though Dairy Queen began in Illinois in 1940, and today is owned by Berkshire Hathaway with franchises all over the US and Canada and in 18 other countries (we visited one in Shanghai, above), DQ is still thought of as a “Southern thing” for some reason. Again, must have something to do with the heat. DQ’s motto today is “Fan Food, Not Fast Food;” believe me, nothing will make you a fan faster than meeting the challenge of melting chocolate coating over a soft-serve cone on a hot summer’s day.

Of course, in the vast pantheon of fast food, nothing is more notable, more loved and reviled, than McDonald’s, whose golden arches have become not only ubiquitous in the American landscape, but recognizable symbols of American expansionism the world over. Founded in its franchise form by Ray Kroc in 1955, McDonald’s production-line approach to food preparation pioneered and truly delivered “fast” food for the very first time. In spite of its phenomenal growth, McDonald’s didn’t open in my hometown until after I had moved away (but I soon found them elsewhere).  Today The Golden Arches generate $27 billion a year serving 69 million customers a day, and I’ll admit that I’m one of them. I absolutely love the Big Mac — and I think I wear it well.

Ironically, it was the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant near the Spanish Steps in Rome in 1986 that sparked outrage by journalist and political activist Carlo Petrini, who inadvertently created the “slow food” movement with his much-publicized protest of  the fast life that fast food represented. Petrine identified the loss of conviviality and communal sharing, the abandonment of the joy of cooking, and the inability to savor a well-prepared meal as modern abominations. Now some might dismiss this as “typically Italian,” given that country’s love of food and wine and afternoon respites, but then think about it: Taking the kids to McDonald’s for dinner instead of cooking a family meal you eat together? Hitting the drive-thru and eating your own breakfast/lunch/dinner on the run all alone in your car?  Hastening the epidemics of obesity, high cholesterol and diabetes with all those oversized fries and sugary soft drinks? Fast life indeed…

Over time, the slow food movement promoted slow cooking methods, and then slow gardening morphed into the farm-to-table craze, and then slow goods (production) became defined as using artisan products, sustainable methods, being eco-friendly, green, ethical  — always with emphasis on quality over quantity. The ground-breaking book Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser (2001) moved the discussion beyond just food into all the related political/ethical  issues created by the fast food industry, such as marketing and globalization, agriculture and food processing, wages and working conditions, and yes, even the health of the American family.

The slow-but-sure result of all of this has been nothing short of a world-wide cultural shift to a Slow Movement, with the “slow” epithet being applied to everything from fashion— creating garments and accessories by hand or recycling vintage clothing; to media—particularly television, focused on ethical production and reduced media consumption; to parenting— less-scheduled children and the landing of “helicopter” parents; to technology —emphasis on research and reflection, rather than just speed and efficiency; to travel— immersion in a destination and staying in one place long enough to enjoy it! Whatever the subject or activity, the Slow Movement is about slowing the pace, taking the time, and paying attention.

Hey, I’ll drink to that — slowly — with a good cold glass of Rombauer chardonnay, which I promise to savor.

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Dog Days

I’m grumpy. It’s hot. It hit 106 this weekend. I know, I know… it’s San Antonio in the summer, so of course it’s hot.  I was born and raised down here, without air conditioning I might add, so I should know about hot as well as anyone, but still…  It is dreadfully, awfully, terribly, unbearably hot. And I am well aware that this part of the country is not the only place that’s suffering. Even my friend in the Pacific Northwest can make that claim.

It’s not only hot here, though, it’s ugly because we have a drought. The grass is dead, the flowers have faded, the trees look limp, and the vegetables, including the jalapeños, have all shriveled and died. When it’s too hot for peppers, you know the situation is dire! The swimming pool is steadily evaporating and what water  remains registers a “cool” 91 degrees. No matter; it’s too hot to swim anyway, and the pool is too far to reach.  You open the door from our den to the outside and the bomb of white-hot heat that that goes off in your lungs is enough to make you keel over before you can make it across the patio.

We are surely, certainly, absolutely, thoroughly in the Dog Days of summer. Everyone is unmotivated, uncomfortable, and generally unconcerned about anyone or anything else except making it to fall.  Even our usually energetic Swiss Mountain Dog, Mac, always the first one to bolt out the door for a walk or a ride or a meet-and-greet, has taken to lying on the couch (where he isn’t supposed to be) under the big overhead fan for hours at a time. Apparently, the Dog Days of summer are even too much for a dog!

Many people think that the expression Dog Days comes from exactly that: the image of an exhausted, over-heated canine with his tongue hanging out, panting and plopping down onto the pavement. Actually, though, the descriptive expression dates from ancient Egypt and has its origins in astronomy.  So-called Dog Days refer to the period around the summer solstice when the star Sirius rises at roughly the same time as the sun. In the Northern Hemisphere, this period ranges from early July to mid-August or so. For the Egyptians, this was the new year, the time when the inundation of the Nile began and the land got replenished. Interestingly, the hieroglyph for Sirius was a dog.

The ancient Greeks identified Sirius as the “the dog star” at the tip of the nose of a dog constellation, Canis Major, but they hardly saw the season of Sirius rising as welcoming. Rather, they and Romans developed superstitions about Dog Days, claiming that they brought not only heat and drought and storms, but bad luck, fever, and madness of all kinds, including mad dogs. Some of those beliefs endure to this day, reinforced by modern horror stories of deaths due to closed cars, heat prostration in homes without air circulation, and heat stroke at marathons and football practice. Sadly, eleven children died of heat suffocation in closed cars in this country just this last month in July.

For most of us, thankfully, the effects of Dog Days aren’t quite so dire, though the lethargy and moodiness created by unrelenting heat is a real phenomenon which has been studied and documented by researchers. As reported in a recent column by Dr. Oz, extreme heat makes people tired and less willing to help others. “Heat triggers an inflammatory response that boosts stress hormones, aggravates residual pains or aliments, and amps up mood-altering hormones.” (San Antonio Express-News, 7/31/2017) In other words, people tend to get “hot under the collar” in hot weather.  They are not nice, even here in the friendly “Hi y’all” state. This is not encouraging news in America, where aggression and aggravation are already at a fevered pitch everywhere, regardless of the temperatures.

Meanwhile, I’ll confess: I don’t feel friendly either, nor do I feel especially well physically. I am listless and uncomfortable and I just don’t want to be bothered. I don’t like to shop in the heat, finding the stores too hot and the getting in and out of cars , with those bombs of white-hot heat hitting me,  too debilitating; I don’t like to cook in the heat, finding the prep too much trouble and the heat from the oven or the fire from the outdoor grill just too much to endure; and I certainly don’t like to walk, or garden, or do any outside activities, finding them all too sweaty and more arduous than I can endure.  As the Victorians so properly put it, the Dog Days are just “… the hottest, most unwholesome time of year.”

So, I remain unapologetically grumpy, and tired and listless and uncomfortable. I have historic precedence and modern research as my rationale to do so. In The Seven Year Itch (1955), Marilyn Monroe put her underwear in the fridge to soothe the New York summer heat. As for me,  I’m going go to lie down with Mac on the couch under the fan. It may not be the 1950s, but Mac is a pretty “cool cat.”

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Anniversaries

My husband and I are celebrating our 576th month wedding anniversary this week. In each of the first 100 of those months, we exchanged little greeting cards, a romantic gesture to mark the date and to celebrate our progress as a couple, much as teenagers do when they manage to sustain a relationship for more than a few weeks. While we were hardly teenagers, we were still young enough, and naive enough, to consider ourselves remarkable. “Hey! Another anniversary and we’re still married.”  This was, after all, the era of Woodstock, of free love and flower children; couples didn’t last very long, much less bother to get married in the first place.

Anniversary. The word comes from the Latin anniversarius, meaning “year” and “turning,” though anniversaries don’t always count years. People track daily, weekly, or monthly anniversaries of having quit smoking, for example, or of having maintained a dietary program. Birthdays are anniversaries. The remembrance of major events, personal achievement, national holidays — all are anniversaries of sorts. We even have words for anniversaries that become too numerous to count: centennial, sesquicentennial, bicentennial.

Not all anniversaries are happy, of course. Many mark catastrophes that have left death and destruction in their wake and emotional scars on entire populations: 9/11 comes to mind. Psychologists have a name for the grief and anxiety survivors often experience on or around the anniversary of a traumatic event or personal loss: “the anniversary reaction.”  Some people struggle openly with such reactions, while others may have only a vague idea, if any at all, why they experience a recurring malaise at certain times of the year.

Good or bad, happy or sad, what all anniversaries have in common is that they mark a remembrance and serve as a way of reminding us to not take anything, or anyone, for granted — not love, or life, or freedom, or security, and especially not the presence of those who are dearest to us. Gratitude for what we have while we have it may be the one true secret to joy in life, and the best antidote to experiencing debilitating loss and regret later.

So this week, my husband and I will celebrate our 48th wedding anniversary (in years), along with the “coincidental 48th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing (a lesser commemoration, to be sure).  We will get all dressed up and go out for a lovely dinner at one of our favorite restaurants. Yes, we will exchange anniversary cards both serious and silly, and we will toast to our good fortune in being alive and well and together in love. And we will be grateful, because we know what we have is rare; we may no longer be young and naive, but we still consider ourselves and our relationship to be remarkable.

A lasting marriage is one thing, and there are all sorts of ways and reasons why couples stay together in spite of their problems and dissatisfactions. But a good marriage, a truly happy, fulfilling marriage, is something else again. Any marriage counselor will tell you that “marriage takes work,” work to develop the interpersonal skills required in any partnership. But actually, marriage takes more than that: it takes awareness. Relationships are never static; they grow or diminish, move in different directions “for better or worse.” The wedding ceremony isn’t the end of the courtship dance; it’s only the beginning. You have to pay attention if you want to keep dancing in the right direction.

My mother was widowed when I was a little girl, so I was raised by her and my grandmother. (Interestingly, my husband’s mother was also widowed when he was a boy, which probably accounts for why gender issues and divisions of domestic labor have never been points of contention between us.) Growing up, I was the only kid with a single working mother, so my models of the typical family were found in the homes of my friends with whom I spent so much time. Even as a youngster, I could feel the undercurrents and readily see that some marriages were better than others, that some homes were happier and more harmonious than other, and that the state of the marriage and the home were somehow related.

My best friend from 5th grade on was Judy, and she lived nearby on top of a small grocery store and gas station they ran. Her family, she, her parents and her two brothers, became my second family and have remained so for my entire life, though only Judy and one brother are now still living. Her mother and father, Mr. and Ms. P as I called them, had a very traditional marriage: Ms. P cooked and cleaned and yelled at the kids, and Mr. P worked long hours and was entitled to rest and relax when he got home. Everyone deferred to Daddy — but Mom called the shots.

These were not people of wealth and sophistication. They lived modestly, often frugally, but always with joy, generosity and gratitude. There was a love you could feel in their home, a genuine, palpable affection among them that welcomed and embraced everyone else. And there was humor, always humor, even in times of hardship and disappointment.

Judy and I grew up and moved away, she to the West Coast and I to the East Coast, but I stayed close with her parents who lived well into their mid-90s. On the occasion of their 70th wedding anniversary (yes, in years), they took a cruise to Alaska. They became quite the “celebrity couple” on the ship, and were honored on the last night at the Captain’s gala. The MC congratulated them on their anniversary and then asked for the secret to their long and happy marriage. Ms. P thought a second and simply said, “Just be nice.”

Mr. P didn’t have to think at all. “Just do what she says,” he replied.

And that’s how you have a happy anniversary year after year.

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Chihuly in the Sky

It’s hot — most days over 100 degrees.  It’s South Texas. It’s July. Of course it’s hot!

For people in more northern parts of the country, summer brings welcome relief to the gray, cold, heavy days of winter that seem to linger too long. Summers mean a change over in wardrobe, from winter sweaters to summer whites; it means men don’t wear jackets and women don’t wear hose. It means cleaning up the yard, clearing the deck of fall and winter debris, and  firing up the grill. It means making weekend trips to the shore, stocking beer in the pantry, and digging out recipes for potato salad and cold slaw. In short, for most of the country, summer means relaxing into that school-is-out, livin’-is-easy lifestyle — casual, convivial, even chic.

But not in Texas. Here, summer means a descent into environmental hell: budget-wrecking electric bills for the AC that runs 24/7; swimming pools like bath water at 90 degrees; citronella candles and bug sprays in battle with mosquitos; chiggers and ants in the lawn, cockroaches and millipedes in the house, and sun screen and sun lotion and sun hats on everybody everywhere every day.  Oh, but yes, there’s beer in the cooler and margaritas in the freezer, because damn it’s hot!

Texans don’t especially love summer, which may be why the 4th of July isn’t celebrated here with quite the fanfare that it is in say Boston, or Washington or New York. When you live in a place where fireworks are often banned as a fire hazard, the holiday tends to lose some of its “sparkle.” When I was a kid growing up down here, July 4th meant going out to the drive-in movie theatre where the hamburgers and hot dogs in the concession stand were grilled for you  and where there would, in fact, be fireworks overhead at intermission, if fireworks were allowed at all that year. We would sit out on the hood of the car and watch them spiral downward almost close enough to touch — until I invariably got scared and scrambled back into the car.  To this day, I have never really liked fireworks.

But then there are the pyrotechnics by Grucci, which is in a class all by itself — virtually a “Chihuly in the sky,” full of color and wonder and whirling fantasia. The Gruccis of New York have been in business for six generations in America and are affectionately known as “America’s First Family of Fireworks.” Little wonder: they have staged the official inaugural fireworks for every US president since Ronald Reagan in 1981. Their fiery starbursts and exploding chrysanthemums have rained down on Olympic Games, World’s Fairs, America’s Bicentennial in New York, the Millennium on the Mall in Washington, and on countless other holidays and celebrations across the country and around the world. These days there are other big pyrotechnic companies competing for their business, but Grucci still sets the standard. (And you can catch a Grucci display this July 4th, either in person or on TV,  bursting over the Charles River in Boston.)

I don’t have many fond Independence Day memories, but a couple of the most vivid do involve Gucci, such as being at America’s Bicentennial in 1976 with Operation Sail and fireworks over the Hudson River in New York or, some years later, sitting out on a boat with good friends on Long Island Sound with Grucci overhead being choreographed to the music of “Dirty Dancing.” Mostly, though, the July 4th picnics and cookouts and treks to the beach all blend together, highlighted here and there by sometimes humorous, sometimes less-than-fond recollections of horrendous traffic, hot-as-Hades temperatures, and minor mishaps with barbecue grills and firecrackers.

Memories have a way of coming full circle, as does so much in life. On a recent July 4th evening, I found myself once again sitting on the hood of a car to watch fireworks. This time, though, I wasn’t at a drive-in movie theatre, but here in “Military City” San Antonio, parked outside the fence around Randolph AFB, where a broad collection of  off-the-highway humanity had gathered to ooh and aah at the lighting of the Nation’s birthday candles. And ooh and aah we did, all of us, expressing spontaneous enthusiasm for the show and general good will toward each other. There were no marching bands, no empty political slogans, not even much flag waving. There was simply us, a wildly diverse group of gathered spectators — kids and grandmas, old and young and middle-aged, black and white and brown, with coolers and lawn chairs and blankets alongside pick-ups or Cadillacs or Camrays— all of us there simply sharing a pride of place in America, a moment of — dare I say it? — unity.

The fireworks may not have been Grucci “Chihuly in the sky” that night, but we certainly had a “rainbow coalition” on the ground. Now there’s a concept worth trying to recapture and a memory worth holding onto, especially this year.

Happy Birthday USA.