Sunday, November 29, 2015

Passing on the family history

Jean Murray Parker is 86 years old and very frail. Barbara Jean and I have been talking about making a visit to Norman, OK, where she lives. Aunt Jean is guardian to us both, serving that role since our Catholic baptisms, and she is the oldest living relative in our family.

I've often told people that we all have a story to tell. My aunt is the keeper of the Murray story, the story of growing up third generation Irish Catholic with an alcoholic father. She also is keeper of the early stories of her siblings--my dad and Barbara Jean's mom. Those stories are sketchy because Daddy and Aunt Kay were 13 and 10 years older than Aunt Jean. But they are long gone and any hope we have of getting any facts to go with the mythical tales our parents told us rest with Aunt Jean. So we plan to fly to Oklahoma as soon as the college breaks for the holidays. We'd drive, but the roads north of Dallas are icy and better weather is not in the forecast. With ISIS on a killing rampage in Paris, Yemen, Tunisia and Turkey and threats they will bring the bombings across the Atlantic, we know flying is risky, but we remember the terrorist who bombed Oklahoma was an American.

I'm a great believer in recollecting and recording one's life experiences, challenges, triumphs, and yes, even--and maybe especially--family secrets, so the generations to come will have access to their family history. I often give workshop participants a quick quiz, which includes questions like these:

  1. What was life like when your grandparents grew up?
  2. Where did they go to school? What were their interests?
  3. What was their hometown like? Their home?
  4. How did your grandparents meet? What was their courtship like? Their wedding?
  5. What were their biggest challenges as parents?
  6. What job(s) did they have?
  7. Did they struggle or thrive during economic hard times?
  8. What were the  traditions of the family?
  9. What was the hardest lesson(s) they learned?
  10. What were their values?
Can you answer these questions about your grandparents? Can your grandchildren answer these questions about you? It's only been recently--with the popularity of FaceBook and other social media--that people have begun to track their happy moments and sad times. Going public, however, isn't necessary. There's a reason we all know what TMI stands for. Having said that, I believe your family should know about the lives and lessons of their relatives. Family history provides a moral compass for descendants.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Mosquito Control

My cousin Barbara Jean is visiting us this week, and we’ve entertained each other with tales of growing up in the late 1950s. It is amazing to me that children of this era share similar stories even though they lived miles and miles from each other.

Sitting on the porch and drinking coffee this morning, Ronnie told us about the trucks that drove up and down the alleys in Pampa, TX, spraying chemicals to rid the night of biting mosquitos.  They called the drivers “smoke men” and chased after them, inhaling the sweet aroma of DDT. Since DDT has no odor, the scent must have been added by the city’s public works department—or maybe from the manufacturers—so people could be assured the pesticide was saturating the air.

Barbara Jean and I responded with our own stories of the numerous times my family visited hers in Baytown, TX. Our parents, enjoying their cocktail hour, frequently sent us children outside to play in the dusk. More times than not, that meant chasing the mosquito killing trucks that drove around the neighborhood. Summer after summer, we probably inhaled enough DDT to grow an extra set of ears.

Breathing DDT particles in the air, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, affects the nervous system.  The government agency says the pesticide was used on insects that carried malaria, so Americans had a choice: Would folks rather be eaten alive by mosquitos that might be carrying deadly diseases or douse themselves with harmful repellents full of potentially dangerous chemicals? In the 1950s manufacturers convinced the public to choose the latter.  Given the choice, the danger of malaria trumped any concerns about neurological problems.

Times have changed. Today, DDT is banned in the U.S. and has been since 1972.
The replacements for DDT, however, are not free of side effects. Products with high concentrates of DEET can cause rashes, disorientation, and seizures. Picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus are two other repellents that have come to stores in the last decade. Experts say these repellents make good alternatives to DEET. They also have side effects, but they are less serious… temporary irritation of the skin, eyes, and/or lungs. (I guess temporary is the descriptor that makes them less serious.)

The fact is, three-fourths of the American public, according to Consumer Reports, are more concerned about West Nile and other deadly diseases carried by those pesky flying insects that populate warmer climates than any side effects the pesticides have. As the old saying goes, “Better living through chemistry.”

But is it the right call? I don’t know.

I can only tell you this, decades later, neither Barbara Jean, Ronnie, nor I have any more visible ears than the original two God gave us. As for the mosquitoes that are swarming around us in the late afternoons, they are keeping their distance. Our nervous systems? That’s a different story.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Sisterhood Retreat

I'm getting my groove on.

In another week I will be host the Sisterhood Retreat for a group of Lone Star College female students. A group of them came last year and we had such a delightful time that my colleague Cassandra Boyd and I decided to make it an annual event. I affectionately call my small town Nava-slow-da, and it is, which makes it a perfect place for students to get away from the frantic scrabble of college-work-family and slow their pace for reflection and renewal.

I’m welcoming these female students into my 1875 Victorian home, which sits on a corner in one of the oldest neighborhoods in Navasota. I’m creating a space where they can search inside their heads and hearts and share their stories of struggle and triumph. They will write, they will dance, they will talk, and in doing so, they will honor and support each other’s dreams.

Nothing is stronger than a circle of women sharing their stories.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Día de Muertos/ Day of the Dead

Today is Día de Muertos — the Day of the Dead —one of the biggest holidays in Mexico, and its celebration has crossed the Texas-Mexican border. Tradition says during the time of the Aztecs, a month-long summer celebration was overseen by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Lady of the Dead. After the Aztecs were conquered by Catholic Spaniards, the customs became intertwined with the Christian commemoration of All Saints' Day.

I love the tradition, mostly because it is so different from my Celtic Halloween tradition that fears death. Instead of scaring away ghosts, we welcome the souls of the departed on Día de Muertos.

Today I honor the deceased from my family two generations back: my maternal grandparents E.J. and Elise Porter Stone, my paternal grandparents Thomas J. and Elinor Meis Murray, my parents Thomas F. and Joyce Elaine (Lane) Stone Murray, my father’s sister Kathleen Murray Tarski and my mother’s brother Jack Porter Stone. My brothers and I are now the Elders of the family.

I also honor my childhood friend Charlotte Ann Stout Lynch. We became friends in the third grade. She grew up in a hotel with her father and grandmother. I lived down the street in a house my older brother dubbed the “slump,” part slum and part dump. I finished college in three years; Charlotte dropped out about 6 credits from having her bachelor’s degree. My dad convinced her to finish it long after she’d begun working as an accountant for Gulf Oil. After that, she earned her CPA and then went on to finish a law degree. That’s when I realized many people “stop out” of school rather than drop out.  Only governmental agencies and thoughtless people label them as losers. I was maid of honor in her wedding; she held the reception for mine in her home. We were planning a girlfriends’ weekend getaway on a Mexican beach when she died from a blood clot, a complication from minor surgery. I still miss her.

I honor Johnny Campbell who taught me to kiss one summer night on the back porch. He was a senior and my older brother’s best friend. I was a 15-year-old high school freshman and instantly in love after that long, steamy kiss. My mother made sure I never got another by forbidding me to date him. I never quite forgave her until I learned many, many years later that my mother was 15 and a freshman in college (she was incredibly smart, don’t you know) when a football player asked her out. Now I understand that she knew the regret that could come from kissing a boy who was too old and worldly. I thought she was being mean, but she was being protective.

And I honor James Alexander Scott who I never married, but loved so dearly throughout high school. We were so innocent and so hot for each other. If you ever saw the movie “Splendor in the Grass,” you know the teenage angst we felt. He went to Viet Nam when he was eighteen, and although he returned, he never came back, if you know what I mean. Jimmy’s job was to put the American dead in body bags before sending them home. He became part of the walking wounded, and he committed suicide in his sister’s backyard when he was forty. I still ache thinking about the twisted pain he must have felt all those years, and I curse my government for continuing to send our young to war on foreign soil.

Today especially, I honor the souls of these dearly departed who remain in my heart. They were important people in my younger life, for they helped shape me into the woman I am. God hold them close and fill them with heavenly bliss throughout eternity.