Sunday, June 10, 2018

Changes and Constants by Carolyn

My family reunion was yesterday. My mother's family has, as long as I can remember, held a reunion each summer. Some aspects remain constant through the years, some aspects change, much like everything else in our lives. My mother was one of seven children; I am one of 23 first-cousins. We cousins are now in our forties, fifties, or sixties. Most of us are parents and some of us are grandparents, so two more generations have been added to the fray.

One of the best things that happened yesterday was the gift one of my cousins gave me of a thumb drive full of photos from the past several reunions. Such a treasure! As I looked through the photos, I was struck by the changes that have happened over the last few years, as well as the things that have endured.

Through the years, we have always had our reunions at low-cost venues. We are not the kind of family that books whole floors at swanky hotels or travels to exotic locations or swarms onto a cruise ship en masse. We tend to hold our reunions in the backyards of family members or around picnic tables at public parks. This has not changed. The duration of the reunions has changed, though: in my youth, we spent an entire weekend at our reunions, often at Bastrop State Park. We rented cabins and communed together for a couple of days. The kids swam and walked through the woods and biked on the trails. The grownups played dominoes and cards and horseshoes. We all chatted and laughed and forged family bonds. These days, our reunions only last one afternoon. Our lives seem to have gotten busier and busier, and there are often many family members who cannot attend our gatherings.

We have always eaten well at our family reunions. We are not the sort of people to have our food catered - it is always good ol' home cooking, nothing fancy, but always abundant and delicious. There have always been, and probably always will be, several different casseroles and favorites such as potato salad, baked beans, fried chicken, and ham. And the desserts . . . banana pudding, lemon meringue pie, chocolate cake. It all tastes like home. And we always say grace before the meal. Even if our family members never pray in their private lives, or only enter a church to attend a wedding or a funeral, we all join in giving thanks for our food and our fellowship. We honor the heritage of our ancestors' strong Christian faith. (This year, however, I missed the prayer because my three-year-old grandson, Jude, got tired of waiting for everyone to gather around. He pulled me out of the circle by the hand and led me to his full plate waiting on the table. I feel somewhat less guilty because we did sing the "Thank You, Jesus" song he has learned in Mothers' Day Out together.)

As time has gone on, we have lost many of our family members. My grandparents, my mother, two of her sisters, and three of my cousins have passed away, as well as my husband, my brother-in-law, and three uncles by marriage. We mourn together over those we have lost. We tell stories about the good memories we have of them, and laugh together over silly things. We cry, but we also smile because there are almost always new babies making their debut at one of the reunions. (Our newest family member this year was my granddaughter, Malin. It puffed me up a little bit to hear my relatives exclaim over how beautiful she is!) There is always an abundance of children. Some run around, wending their way through small clusters of their elders, looking for something to eat or something to amuse themselves. The teens lounge about looking bored. They have not yet learned to value the importance of family gatherings, especially with people they only see once a year. They don't realize that the stories we tell are their own history, their own inheritance.

I remember going to the family reunions every year with my mother when I was a child, a teenager, and a young woman. I remember taking my children to the reunions when they were babies, young boys, and teenagers. Now I am going to the family reunions with my grown sons, my daughter-in-law, and my own grandchildren. I am grateful that my boys will make the effort to go with me. They have come to understand how important that family connection is to me.

There is always lots of conversation at our gatherings. The older generation tells about what they remember of their parents and grandparents and growing up together. My generation reminisces about adventures as cousins together or catch up on whatever has changed in our lives since last year. We talk about the tragedies and the triumphs that befall our family members.

I am worried that, as the older generation passes on and my generation of cousins continues to age and lead their separate lives, and family members move farther away from central Texas, there will be no strong bond among the younger generations. The family connection will be stretched thinner and thinner. Our reunions will likely die down to a just a handful of people, and then down to something that only happened in the distant past. It is a melancholy thought; but for now, I cherish the bond that unites me to these beloved people. We are a family.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Happy Anniversary!

Tomorrow I will be celebrating 36 years of marriage.  Although we always remember this special day, we have never made a big deal about it.  Usually we just go out to eat. It is not that we don’t appreciate our marriage or don’t recognize all the blessings and rewards our life together has brought us.  We do.  But without explicitly agreeing to it, we have come to give each other the gift of constancy - those qualities that attracted us to each other, that continue to fortify our “fortress for well-being”.  This year, I do want to testify publicly to my husband’s enduring gifts to me:

An open heart - The first time I spent any time with Ben was during a volunteer project, visiting Spanish speaking homes in a humble neighborhood in Houston.  At one house, we were invited in and offered food.  I had just arrived in the US and had very little experience with cultures and communities other than mine. Everything was new and unfamiliar to me.  Ben had a very different upbringing and had lived with diversity all his life.  He accepted the food and ate with gratitude and gusto.  I said to myself: I want to be like that, I want to feel at home with everyone.  I fell in love with his humility and his genuine love for these people we had just met.  When I tell this story, he brushes it off and says he was just hungry.

A well-trained mind - Although I was only nineteen years old when I got married, I knew enough to look for qualities that were enduring and would not fade away with the passage of time.  In our circle of friends, Ben stood out as a very knowledgeable person.  He read a lot, spoke several languages and knew something  about almost everything. He still does. He is very handy when we travel - no need for a tour guide.  I am also grateful that he has instilled that same love of learning in our children.

A different way of doing everything - I always say that it’s a good thing for our children that Ben and I are different in so many ways.  If we were both like me, our children would never leave the house, climb a tree, swim in an ocean or go down a zip line.  There would be a lot of pressure on academic performance.  If we were both like Ben, they would eat popcorn for dinner and be late to school every day.  Fortunately, we are different and we have each brought a different strength to parenting our four children. So they take risks, they love learning, they eat healthy food and they are usually on time.

The greatest lesson I have learned from my husband is that if everything works out the way we planned it, we would never feel God’s hand in our lives.  We started with lots of short and long term plans. We spent the first eight years of our marriage planning.  I used to quote from Of Mice and Men:
“Go on, George! Tell about what we're gonna have in the garden and about the
rabbits in the cages and about the rain in the winter and the stove, and how thick
the cream is on the milk like you can hardly cut it. Tell about that George."

Go on, Ben! Tell about how we’re gonna live in South America, and have children and have a house where all kinds of people gather.  Tell about that Ben.
And most of that did come true, but then the world got in the way and we had to change course. And that’s how we knew God was looking after us.  We moved back to the States and started over.  So now I say: Go on Ben! Tell about when we retire and move back to South America and have a house where all kinds of people gather. Tell about that Ben.

As I wonder what the next thirty six years will bring us, I try to remember the important things, the enduring gifts that have bound us together so far.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Blessings of Being an Instacart Shopper by Andrea

Blessings of Being an Instacart Shopper

After a few days of my daughter coming home saying things like “I made $70 in two hours!” and “Today I got a $30 tip!”, I declared, I could spare a couple of hours a few times per week to make some extra money.  I want my house painted and I want new furniture and I want to add more money to my savings accounts!  She shared her referral code with me.  I applied and within a couple hours, I was an independent full service contractor with Instacart.  After a few days, I was on the job.  After three shifts and six hours on the clock, I had only made $33.  I tried to continue with a happy attitude, positive self-talk (it takes time to make money, to work out the kinks and learn how to do this well).  Then I met a hill, a third floor apartment with two cases of Topo Chico and a 8-count package of Bounty Paper Towels.  By the end of the my two hour shift and burning 800 calories in two deliveries, I had blown my on-time metrics, made about $20 and was absolutely OVER Instacart.  At work the next day, I mentioned this to a colleague who also works for the delivery service.  She encouraged me not to give up, to give it more than a week.  She shared that there is in fact much money to be made on Instacart.  She averages $25-35 per hour she said.  And for some reason, I decided to trust her and give it a go once again. She shared a couple of tips.  So I adjusted my techniques (if you ever decide to work for Instacart, talk to me first I’ve got some hacks for you) and went back out again.  By my fifth shift, I was hooked.  And it was not the money, though that started to add up, too.  I enjoyed the service.  My customers turned the whole deal around for me.

I started that shift picking up 30+ packages for three customers.  The first of whom opened the door standing alongside a huge barking dog, making the 30 pound bag of dog food in my trunk seem too small to satisfy that guy for very long.  The customer was youngish. I told him it would take me a couple more trips to get all of his packages to his second floor apartment.  He offered to come down to help.  We got to chatting while unloading his groceries, with me remarking how cool it is to have your packages delivered and not having to spend an hour in the grocery store with the lines and traffic.  He remarked, “Yes it is, especially when you don’t have a car.  Imagine carrying a 50 pound bag of dog food on the bus!”  Instant gratification for me to know that I was helping someone who really did need me. 

My second delivery landed me at another apartment complex (I detest apartment complexes.  I want to know who thought it would be a great idea to label the buildings at angles which are impossible to see and to number them out of order!).  This time, my customer was waiting for me at  her door.  She wore a housedress and slippers, though it was early afternoon.  I greeted her by exclaiming, “Hello!  Your groceries are here!”  She smiled and stepped back a little as I came up the steps.  At first she said I could put the packages right inside her door, but I realized she was moving rather slowly and with great effort.  I told her I could take them inside and put them wherever she needed them to go to make it easier for her to unload.  She let out a breath and said “Oh, thank you so much!”  She watched as I hauled the bags in, making space in her small kitchen to put them down.  She commented, “You’ve got to be in shape to do this job.”  This, too, is an unexpected benefit of working for Instacart.  I burn a lot of calories climbing apartment stairs and carrying heavy loads of groceries.  She apologized for the disorganization in her kitchen then explained that she had just gotten out of the hospital!  She said the groceries were priority one, then laundry and eventually she would get around to cleaning.  After a couple more casual exchanges about my work and her health, we parted ways and I was so much better for having served her in this small, yet important way. Feeling light on my feet and a flutter in my heart, I headed over to my third and final delivery of that batch. 

Another apartment complex.  Luckily, this customer, like the last, was an older citizen who lived on the bottom floor.  I found the building and correct door fairly quickly.  On one shoulder I carried an Ikea cargo bag filled with HEB grocery bags, on the other a Costco keep cool storage bag with milk among other refrigerated items and a case of water in my hands.  Like I said, I get to burn a lot of calories!   As I made it close to the entryway of the apartment, I noticed a gentleman sitting out front.  As soon as I greeted him and made my way through a small opening leading up to his door, I could see he was a double amputee sitting in a wheelchair.  My heart quickened and filled with joy at my fortune of being sent to another soul in need of service.  We talked briefly about where to put the groceries.  He needed me to line them up in the kitchen in a way that would allow him to maneuver his wheelchair as he put the packages away.  Well, there were more packages than space so I called out to ask if I could begin in another area.  A voice answered from behind me and I looked to see another person confined to bed by an oxygen tank softly humming next to her.  I practically floated out of their home after I said my goodbyes. 
You see, I prayed a few things about my work with Instacart.  One, I prayed that I would be able to have a lot of fun and that the time I would be taking away from my home or family a couple hours a day, a few times a week, would not be in vain.  That if this was not going to be profitable, at first I was thinking financially, then let me figure that out quickly.  I prayed, too, that I would meet great people along the way and that if even just for a few moments, I could bring light into someone else’s day.  I prayed to see all sorts of people and for my heart and hands to be open to them. 

After my shift the next day, I sent my co-worker a text with a million thank-yous for encouraging me to stick with it.  I had, in fact, made a ton of money.  But my eyes, ears and heart were opened in ways that money could never buy nor replace.  I got a cash bonus on my first real week working Instacart.  It is called a five-star bonus and is given to the shoppers who are ranked in the top 25% for customer satisfaction ratings.  I cheered and cried when I got it, again not because of the money, but because it meant that I had provided my customers with the very things I had prayed. 

My only wish, other than apartment complexes doing better with their numbering, lighting and ordering systems, is that I could see the same customers each week.  I have only highlighted three here but in the weeks I have been serving in this way, I met a man who gave me a packet of morning glory seeds, a lesson on how to plant them and an admonishment to join him in spreading joy all around central Texas by passing on the first harvest of seeds from my flowers then he gave me a big hug and a God Bless.  He told me he liked my smile and my spirit.  I’d give anything to see him again.  I liked his smile and his spirit, too.  I have helped elderly ladies put away items they couldn’t reach and saved a mom the agony of getting off work, and facing the parking lot that is Ranch to Market Road 620 at rush hour to get water bottles and gatorade for a soccer game the next morning.  I had the pleasure of delivering to an elderly, visually impaired customer placing her first order on Instacart.  She was so proud and so was I.  It may sound crazy because my first job as an educator is one that brings me so much joy, but I would work Instacart all day if I could.  I am worn out at the end of a shift- carrying groceries up flights of stairs while on a timed delivery system is my Camp Gladiator- but the joy in my heart is worth every sore muscle and shin.  “Do work you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”  As a teacher and an Instacart shopper, I am doubly blessed in the world of work.

Monday, May 21, 2018


No one told me about this stage in life.  The one where your heart kind of swells with pride, practically explodes with love, and then also breaks slowly all at the same time.  No one talks about that. The stage when your children start moving from the “Mom, hug me! Hold me!” Stage, to the “I need my space.”

When I first got pregnant, I heard all about the morning sickness possibilities.  I was given advice about making sure to walk a lot and the right things to eat and foods to avoid.  So I prepared and I planned. Finally the moment comes and I am given this absolutely perfect baby in my arms.  My life before that moment was completely forgotten. Nothing else mattered looking into those eyes.

The advice follows me with the birth of my babes.   A longer list of do’s and don'ts. With every stage of the younger years, terrible two’s, potty training, starting school, I heard advice.  Everyone had opinions, and in a way it made me feel better because it helped navigate my uncharted ocean. I could always see land, so I was grounded even when the seas got rocky.  No one told me though, about the letting go bit. No one told me about what to do when my kids start growing up and maybe don’t need me quite as much as they used to. No one warned me about that mix of emotions.  The hurt for myself, excitement for them and pride in them. Maybe because it’s different for everyone. Or maybe because it’s truly hard to explain all the emotion or give advice for this stage. You just have to experience it.  

The closing of the school year, floods our facebook pages with graduation caps and gowns.  Faces of proud mommas and daddy’s, and hope in the eyes of their children. Little ones moving from the pond of elementary school diving into a new place with much bigger fish.  Lots of firsts come with the closing of one chapter and the beginning of another. As a parent, it’s blessing to be a part of every stage. It’s been an even bigger blessing to have a team of people stand by you when any amount of words or advice doesn’t really help.

As my son enters high school next year, and my daughter middle school, I feel a mixture of emotions.  These are uncharted waters. I no longer truly control the direction of the boat. I now have two co-captains with opinions and dreams, and they to want to sail their own boat.  They have their own path to explore and conquer. I will be okay to sail beside them. Maybe even sometimes behind them. I have no other choice. They know I will be there when they need me, just like I know I have people to pick me up when I’m struggling, or a friendly ear for listening.  The sea is too big to handle alone after all.


Sunday, May 13, 2018

Remembering My Mother by Carolyn

If you are blessed enough to have a mother still living, I hope you realize (and let her know) what a precious gift she is. If you are estranged from your mother, please reach out to her - tomorrow is not guaranteed for any of us. If your mother has passed away, I hope your heart is full of wonderful memories and the assurance of the love she had for you. If you were not blessed with a beautiful, loving relationship with your mother, I hope you will make it a priority to forgive and to become the best possible mother (or father, or grandmother, or grandfather, or aunt, or uncle, or whatever) to someone in need of your special touch. Everyone should have that kind of love in their lives.

My mother was incredible: strong, independent, funny, thoughtful, and generous. She was the middle child of seven siblings who were raised on little money and lots of hard work, but likewise lots of affection. Her father was a rancher, her mother a housewife. She attended a small-town "business school", where she studied secretarial skills such as typing and shorthand, and met my father, who was studying bookkeeping there. 

She had two children, my older sister and me. In that era most mothers did not work outside of the home. My mother did. She worked as a clerk in government offices for many years, eventually rising in the ranks through her own hard work and dedication. In spite of working outside the home, she still kept the house and cooked and grocery shopped and everything else women were/are expected to do. I have an idea that our home was immaculate, but that may not really have been true. I do know that for many years she vacuumed the house every day, and always had dinner on the table by 6:00. Even though we didn't have much money, she made sure that my sister and I were enrolled in dance lessons, or piano lessons, or whatever we were interested in exploring. Looking back, I realize now what a sacrifice it must have been for her to save enough money to provide us those opportunities, although I took it for granted then. 

My parents divorced when I was about eleven, which was quite unusual for the time. I know she was very unhappy about the situation, but she never showed her sadness to us. She suffered silently to protect us from the unpleasantness. Shortly after that, she needed to move us to Dallas to pursue a job opportunity. My sister and I were horrible to her about that move - at our ages (maybe 12 and 14?) we only saw situations by how they affected us, and we were devastated to have to leave our friends. Mom took all of our abuse with dignity and strength. 

Mom was universally loved by my friends. When I was a teenager, our house was the cool place to hang out. My friends gathered there regularly, attracted by Mom's easy-going attitude and friendliness. It probably helped that she was single and dating at that time, which made her seem really cool to a bunch of teenagers. She treated them with kindness and consideration.

She used to tell us, "I will trust you until you give me a reason not to." and, "I will say 'yes' to you whenever I can, because there will be so many times I will have to say 'no' to you." She showed great wisdom and reflection and generosity. Sometimes parents go too far one way or the other - too much a dictator or too much a friend. Mom treated us with respect, but also set boundaries for us. She treated us as real people, worthy of her respect, and she expected respect from us as well.

Although she had no college education herself (nor did anyone in our family), Mom always encouraged my sister and me to follow whatever our dreams for our future might be. It was always assumed that we would go to college. I never felt any limitation on what my mother thought I could do or become. She made me believe that I could do whatever I decided to do with my life. I know that she was very proud when I graduated from college and when I earned a Masters degree. But she did tell me, "I don't want to hear you complain about how little you earn as a teacher - you knew that when you entered the profession!" 

Mom had some physical problems that led to her being retired because of disability by the age of 40. Through her ever-present pain and limited mobility, she smiled and laughed and enjoyed her life. I vividly remember a conversation we had driving back from an extended-family Christmas gathering. She said, "If I had my life to live over again, I wouldn't change a thing." I was incredulous. An arduous childhood, a troubled  and failed marriage, years of pain and limited mobility, always limited money, yet she was grateful for all of it. It made her a strong and tender woman.

When I was 26, with an almost-two-year-old toddler and very pregnant with my second child, my mother unexpectedly passed away. She was only 50. For over 30 years now, I have missed her hugs, her love, her sage advice. I have missed her advice as I have raised my own children and gone through my own ups and downs in life. My children have missed the opportunity to have such a loving, generous woman as their grandmother. And now my grandchildren are missing the chance to be loved by a sweet, funny, quirky great-grandmother. More times than I can count, I have ached to ask her opinion or seek her counsel or have her just listen as I poured out my heart. I haven't been able to do that, so I have done the best I could without her (with lots of help from my sister and my friends). I hope she would be proud of the mother and grandmother I have become. I know without a doubt that she would adore my children and grandchildren. She had so much love to give.

I miss her terribly, but I am so grateful that I had her in my life.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Lost in Translation

I teach children whose first language is Spanish.  Sometimes when they are talking to me in English they call me Teacher.  I never thought anything of it, because I know that they are just translating from Spanish Maestra.  In many cultures, including those of my students, a teacher is held in high esteem.  Just as you would call your physician Doctor, you address a teacher as Maestro or Maestra. Years after the children have left my classroom, their parents still call me Maestra when we run into each other at the grocery store. Recently, I realized to non-Spanish speaking teachers this form of address seems odd and maybe even disrespectful. The intention of showing respect and honor is lost in translation.  

When my family first arrived in the US in the late 70's, my parents found it odd that friends whom they knew personally, who had eaten dinners at our house, would call and ask for me by simply saying: Is Susan there? or Can I talk to Susan? Without hello, without how are you.  If the friend had been a fellow Iranian the conversation would have gone something like this:

-Hello, Mr. Ahmadi? This is Fariba.  How are you? How is Mrs. Ahamdi? Everything good?  Your health? Mrs. Ahamdi's health?  I hope I haven't called at a bad time.  Please forgive me, is Susan there? Can I please talk to her?

My American mother-in-law found all these pleasantries annoying!  Why don't Persians just get to the point? She would say.  All that courtesy and consideration was lost in translation.

It makes me wonder, how often we pass judgement on each other because we simply do not speak the same cultural language? How can we overcome this tendency to define things by our own personal dictionary, written by our nationality, race, religion, gender or even personal experiences? Maybe instead of a dictionary we need a translator.  A translator that is activated by curiosity and a genuine desire for understanding. We also need more grace.  Instead of assuming the worse, what if we assumed the possibility of a different explanation?  Last weekend, I walked into a bakery, spent a few minutes looking at the various displays and then walked up to the counter with my selection.  It was only then the cashier told me they were not open yet.  I was baffled as to why she would not tell me that when I walked in?  I have been thinking about that encounter all week, wondering if my irritation was uncalled for because there was another explanation. 

Then there are all those times when we completely understand each other, despite our vast differences.  My daughter's first friend was a Korean boy she met at her preschool in Venezuela.  Neither one of them spoke Spanish.  Neither one of them spoke the other's language.  We also turned out to be neighbors in the same apartment building.  One day, the little boy and his mom were locked out of their apartment.  Despite the language barrier, I was able to help her call her husband.  As a token of appreciation, she brought me a platter of Korean noodles.  It was delicious!  In my culture, you don't return a platter empty.  So I took it back filled with Persian rice.  That gesture was perfectly understood by both of us.  

Sunday, April 22, 2018


“I’m fine” is a  phrase I use regularly.  More often than not it’s what comes out of my mouth when my Friends or family ask how I’m doing.  It is a comfortable, safe response, and the least complicated. It isn’t a lie. Most times I am fine.   Regardless, one Monday morning when I was rushed and stressed, and not fully recovered from the weekend a friend asked me how I was doing.  I said fine with a smile of course, and then we shut our portable doors to start our day. I stayed in that same spot near the door for a bit, as I contemplated how much I actually claim to be fine.  It got me thinking, was I really fine? Why do those words just spill off my tongue so easily without any thought. What am I trying to communicate to others and to myself? I decided to further investigate so I googled the definition of the word I claimed to be so many times a day.  One definition of fine was: to be very well, in a satisfactory manner.  Doesn’t sound bad. It’s not negative.  There is no emotion or umph behind it though.  It just is. The second definition, however was: high quality.  I liked the sound of that. Sounded better than satisfactory. I continued my search with some synonyms.  First-class, first-rate, great, exceptional, splendid, exquisite, superb.   Wow!  They all had a powerful ring to them more so than the fine I was used to referring to.  When I used my old kind of fine, I felt it. I felt satisfactory. I was going through the motions of the day.   Counting the minutes, not the moments. Why just be satisfactory when we can be superb? Why not exquisite or splendid?  
In our busy day to day of living life, the tasks can be mundane at times if we let them.  We don’t have to though. From now on, when and if I use my favorite phrase, it won’t just mean satisfactory.  My hope is that when someone asks how you are doing, you can smile and answer with emotion and honesty, I’m fine.