Labor of Love Day, 2005
On this extraordinarily bright day marking the end of summer, she watched Houston's buildings flash by as she was driven to the Astrodome from their home in the suburbs. It was one of those glorious clear blue-skied days touted by Texans. Days like today made the place and all things in it somehow larger, longer and taller. A big state filled with big-hearted people, she thought. The land in Texas seemed to stretch wider and its roads further than in other parts of the country.
She enjoyed looking at the Houston skyline along the route her driver was taking. The big open sky gave the illusion of lengthening the buildings. There was hardly any traffic due to the holiday and her driver sped along the open highway.
Each building reminded her of a person or family close to her heart. As she glimpsed the Enron building, she felt her heart swell with a deep sadness. The former owners were going through taxing, difficult times. She was a stoic woman of stout Puritan stock, never prone to histrionics, but a tear welled up in her eye at the thought of their plight.
Wealth was a fortification her family had always had. She and her husband had insured it would never be lost. Their wealth was widely dispersed across the world held in generation-skipping trusts. Her family would never suffer as some of their friends had.
She could not think of her poor dear friends now. She pushed those thoughts out of her head except to know that in all times of trouble her friends would support her, as she had supported her friends in their times of need. She was known for her tremendous generosity among the best families of Texas (their adopted home), and indeed among the best families across all of America.
Normally on Labor Day, she and her husband, their five children, twelve grandchildren and various other family members and friends would be enjoying a grand Texas-style barbecue prepared and served by their long-time cook and housekeeper, Lucille. With the press and pundits blaming so many of Hurricane Katrina's deaths on her son, she felt compelled to cancel the traditional Labor Day barbecue. She needed to do "her part" to bolster support for her son.
She resented feeling forced to do anything, especially charity work, but she was duty bound to protect her son from unfair assaults. They were making a huge to-do over what they called her son's inaction. His inaction? Really. There had been inaction, but not her son's. Why didn't the press focus on the inaction of the people who had sat and waited when they were told to evacuate New Orleans?
Her charity work today was not to aid personal friends. Like countless times in the past, it was aimed at those completely different from her and her family. She did not mind that. What she minded was that these charitable acts were under-reported.
God knows she had allowed her name and that of her husband to be placed high on thousands of lists of charities and committees to help those in need, so long as they were not expected to personally contribute to each charity or event. They had a family foundation—the Points of Light Foundation—to make those donations.
Running the foundation was an enormous responsibility one of her other sons had volunteered to shoulder. Again, something the press didn't focus upon. He even quit his regular job to run it. The press did focus on the salary he received from the foundation. Of course he needed to be paid to run the foundation. But no one gave their family credit for any of that.
They were barraged with requests to raise awareness and support for the downtrodden. They did their part, especially to help those who wanted to help themselves.
Quite simply, they had always done their part, as she was doing today. On a national holiday mind you. This time she hoped the press would take note of their family's sacrifice.
She neither expected nor sought any remuneration for her charitable appearances (no speaking fees or book signings for her), allowing herself to be photographed at thousands of events shaking hands with countless strangers and the leaders of the best charities. She was told she helped raise money with these photographs because she looked so "sweet", so "grandmotherly". She never told anyone that she disliked that characterization which stemmed from her hair grown white at too early an age and her figure grown matronly at the same pace.
Oh, let them call her "grandmotherly". Really anything if it would help someone less fortunate than herself or her family. It didn't cost anything except a little of her pride. Her husband's mother was the true grandmother of their family, but she was in no position to be photographed. She looked entirely too old, too ill. She required the constant care of Lucille in the south wing of their Houston home.
She forced a small smile as she thought of her mission for the afternoon. She needed to "buck up", as she used to tell her boys, make the best of the circumstances even though her normal holiday celebration had been utterly destroyed.
She pictured herself at the Astrodome graciously thanking the leaders of the Red Cross for their efforts to help the displaced stragglers finally forced out of New Orleans by the floods. These Red Cross workers were the true heroes of this horrific natural disaster. Those deserving big-hearted folks deserved her focus and attention.
She ran through a few potential inspiring hopeful memorized phrases in her head. She always thought of Churchill's words in circumstances like these, but then those probably wouldn't work in this case. Churchill had a different quality of citizen to help him win his war. They'd be doing a lot better in Iraq if the US soldiers had a bit more of the English people's grit and guts. Pluck. That's what they were sadly lacking over there. As for today, she concluded it would be best not to say much at all. Being there was really the important thing.
As her limousine pulled up to the VIP and players' entrance to the Astrodome, she was struck by the fine sight of the Red Cross, Texas State and United States flags snapping in the breeze as the young National Guardsmen snapped to attention along the red carpet entrance. She looked down at the lapel of her white Chanel suit jacket and smiled again. She knew she had worn the right things—a white suit with red trim accented by her red and white spectator pumps.
When she agreed to visit this site, she called her jeweler to request he craft a lapel pin in the shape of a plus sign made of large rubies surrounded by a border of smaller, but not too small, pave set diamonds. She felt no need to pay for the "red cross" pin and she knew it was short notice, but she also knew he would get his staff to get it done. His company would make hundreds of thousands of dollars selling identical pins once she had worn this one in public. She asked the jeweler to ensure that ten percent of the proceeds from the sale of the pins be donated in her family's name to the Red Cross.
It was Labor Day. She had a steadfast rule not to wear white after Labor Day. She had thrown caution to the wind. The white Chanel suit with its red trim, accented by the simple ruby and diamond Red Cross pin along with her red and white Ferragamo spectator pumps were perfect for this occasion. After all, it was not "after" Labor Day. It was Labor Day. White was okay.
The newspapers and the local radio and television news teams were calling this her "Labor of Love Day". Actually, only the Fox affiliates had used that description, but she hoped others would pick up the clever phrase. Of course, she would have preferred hosting their annual holiday barbecue. But she appreciated the characterization of her work at the Astrodome as a "labor of love". It reinforced how the American people viewed her and, by maternal connection, her son. She was happy for that.
Truth be told, they may not have had the barbecue anyway. Lucille was getting quite old and had not been feeling well lately. She might not have been able to handle the cooking and serving for fifty people anymore. What with her ever-increasing diabetes symptoms, it might be about time to let Lucille go.
She fretted over who she would ever find to replace their wonderful cook, housekeeper and nurse for her mother-in-law. She pushed these worries aside.
This was not the time to worry about missed parties, sick servants and ailing family members. She needed to focus on helping her son.
Coming over to the Astrodome was her "job" for the afternoon, after all. What better day for her to do her good works than upon Labor Day?
Her car door was opened by a National Guardsman in full dress uniform who helped her out of the back seat with his white-gloved hands, supporting and directing her to the two Co-Chairmen of the local Red Cross organization. She was disappointed that the Chairwoman of the national Red Cross organization who was also a friend was not there to greet her.
She was also disappointed to see that these men were not wearing suits or ties. Not even jackets. They wore khaki pants and polo shirts. She smiled anyway. They guided her through the flags between the parallel lines of National Guardsmen into the Astrodome.
When they entered the Astrodome, she turned left to go to the VIP elevators that led to the private sky boxes. Her family had once had a sky box at the Astrodome until the football team moved to the newer Enron stadium downtown. She assumed that was where she would be taken.
One of the polo-shirted Co-Chairmen stopped in front of her to ask her if she would like to meet a few of the homeless hurricane survivors on the floor of the Astrodome. She had made many presentations on a raised dais above the floor of the Astrodome so she readily agreed. "Anything I can do to help, of course," she volunteered.
She never expected to be on the same level as the refugees. But, as the curtains parted, there she was, at eye level, in touching distance from thousands of them. There was no stage, no dais, no platform. She smoothed her clean white skirt wishing she had thought to wear gloves.
She was astounded by what she heard, smelled and saw—ceaseless crying of babies and children, the rank smell of unwashed humans, and the vast number of people lying on cots or loitering in the aisles between the cots. She had paid visits to sick children, the elderly and wounded soldiers. She'd seen news coverage of the Astrodome on the television during the prior week, but the scene before her was more chaotic than anything she'd ever witnessed.
Dante's Inferno, no, Mardi Gras gone enormously awry and torn asunder, came to her mind.
She was introduced to refugee after refugee. Picture after picture was taken showing her shaking hands at stiffened arms length from each one. She knew her white suit looked ridiculous next to the ill fitting mishmash of outfits these people were wearing. But she pressed on. Anything she could do to help her son.
She was surprised at first, then flattered, then frightened, as almost every refugee told her the same thing. They were all so pleased with the hospitality of the people of Texas that they wanted to stay. Well, of course, she thought, they had nothing where they lived before the hurricane; here they have food, clothing and a roof over their heads.
When asked for her comments by a reporter, she reported on these conversations: "Almost everyone I've talked to says we're going to move to Houston."
Then she added, "What I'm hearing which is sort of scary is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality."
She continued raising her hands and pointing to the displaced masses of people surrounding them, "And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this—this (she chuckled slightly) is working very well for them."
The frozen faces of the adjacent volunteers added to the Co-Chairmen's quick exchanged glances informed her she had somehow blundered. If that wasn't enough for her to feel awkward, the reporters were beaming as they wrote down and recorded what she'd said. They usually never beamed around her.
She felt a tug on her jacket and looked down into the face of a beautiful dark-skinned child. The little girl looked up at her and said, "My daddy worked in New Orleans. He is a chef. He worked at one of the best restaurants there. My mama is a registered nurse. We want to stay here. Our house is gone. Can't you help my daddy and mama to find jobs?"
One of the Red Cross Co-Chairmen moved to stand between the little girl and her. He said, "Honey, we're going to help your daddy as much as we can, but this lady..."
She interrupted the Co-Chairman—something she rarely did, for it was rude. "I'd like to respond to this young lady," shoving the Red Cross interrupter aside.
She smiled at the beaming reporters, who edged closer as she continued, "There must be somebody here in Houston who can find a good job for this little girl's parents. I promise you this young lady," looking down at the girl while gripping her small black hand as the cameras flashed, "I'll think of somebody. I always say we should use our inventive minds to help one another, so I'll use mine to come up with somebody who can hire your parents and maybe even find your family a place to stay."
Shortly thereafter, feeling she had shaken enough hands, she motioned for one of the Tweedledum or Tweedledee Co-Chairmen to come to her side. When one did she politely whispered in his ear, "I'm through with these people." He in turn whispered to a few people close to him. "What a lot of work on a holiday," she thought as she was whisked away and carefully deposited in her limousine.
As she was driven back to the suburbs, she thought of the little girl's desperate plea for help. That family needs a place to live and jobs. She thought of Lucille's wavering health, her waning abilities as cook, nurse's aid and house keeper. Finally, she thought of Lucille's living quarters over the garage.
True to her promise to the little girl, she used her inventive mind to come up with a solution.