Matriarch
Home Up Education

   

Book One:

A SIMPLE ACT OF KINDNESS


PART FOUR: RETROSPECT

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE:
MATRIARCH

Written by Rick Archer

 © 2015, Richard Archer

 


SUBCHAPTER 117
- AN ACT OF KINDNESS REVISITED

 

Most people are familiar with the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Thanks to this parable, we have come to associate the name "Samaritan" with kind, decent people.  Strangely enough, back in Biblical times, the Samaritans were reviled by the Jews as some sort of pagan half-humans.

Jesus told the story of a Jewish man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho.  In the desert, this man fell among robbers.  The robbers beat him and stripped him of his clothes.  They departed, leaving the man to die. 

By chance a priest was going down that road.  When the priest saw the broken man, he never even stopped.  Later a Levite passed by without stopping as well.

Later a Samaritan came upon the man.  When he saw the dying Jewish man, he had compassion.

The Samaritan took the broken man in his arms and used oil and wine to cleanse his wounds.  Then he bound his wounds.  Next the Samaritan placed the half-dead man on his horse. 

When they passed an inn, the Samaritan purchased a room and spent the night restoring the man's strength.  The next day he took out a day's wage and handed it to the innkeeper. 

The Samaritan said, "Please take care of this man.  Whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back this way."

Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jan Wijnants (1670)
 

 

Given the impact of what Mrs. Ballantyne did for me, one can imagine why I love the story about my coincidental parking lot meeting with Mrs. Ballantyne so much.  I contend her actions embodied the teachings of Jesus. 

Somehow Mrs. Ballantyne had chanced upon the lowliest child in her realm.  A high and mighty woman who occupied the same lofty social status as the Levite and the priest, Mrs. Ballantyne could have easily excused herself and left the parking lot without a word.  No one would have ever been the wiser... including me.  Mrs. Ballantyne owed me nothing; I expected her to leave at any moment.

Instead Mrs. Ballantyne, ordinarily a very busy woman, went out of her way to stay and take care of me.  She spent 30 minutes at a minimum with me and quite possibly longer than that.  She refused to leave until my strength was restored.  She asked nothing in return. 

Half a century later, this incident remains the closest thing to a religious experience I have ever had.  Nothing in the past fifty years has changed my mind that something extraordinary took place that day.

What if our chance meeting was not "chance"?  What if it was arranged by a hidden hand?

In my heart I cannot shake the feeling that Mrs. Ballantyne was intentionally steered my way by someone special to put me out of my suffering.  Nor do I believe that 'someone' was a human being. 

I have spent my entire life believing some sort of higher power sent Mrs. Ballantyne my way to help me snap out of my depression.

There is no other explanation that makes any sense to me.

The easiest way for me to explain the impact of her visit would be to compare her intervention to that of Clarence, the angel in Jimmy Stewart's "Wonderful Life".  Clarence was sent to help George Bailey in his hour of greatest need.  

I was in practically the same fix.  I was spiraling out control.

For that single moment in my life, I needed Mrs. Ballantyne just as much as George Bailey needed Clarence.  At that moment, I felt like the whole world was stacked up against me. 

Our strange encounter restored my strength to continue.

That is how important this healing event was to me. 

Not only did I stop worrying about college tuition, I also let go of the destructive bitterness I felt towards my classmates.  My talk with Mrs. Ballantyne opened my eyes to the possibility that many people at St. John's were actually very nice.  Our conversation allowed me to release the resentment I felt towards practically everyone at St. John's. 

Most of all, Mrs. Ballantyne helped me regain my self-esteem.  During our half hour talk, Mrs. Ballantyne's kind words of praise made such a difference. 

At the time, there were several aspects to that conversation where I was simply too young and too naive to understand.

For example, I could not understand why Mrs. Ballantyne was willing to pay so much attention to me.  Keep in mind this intervention was accomplished in a random encounter between two people who began the conversation as complete strangers.  I kept asking myself why Mrs. Ballantyne stuck around.  Anyone else would have been gone by now, but she showed no signs of leaving.

Yes, I was grateful that Mrs. Ballantyne stayed, but puzzled at the same time. 

It took me a long time to figure it out, but I think I have an answer.

I am convinced that Mrs. Ballantyne was surprised in her own right.  Surely she had no idea why this strange, unusual boy who reminded her of her own childhood had appeared before her eyes.  However, once she assessed the situation, there can be no doubt she recognized a child in great distress.  It is to her credit that her heart went out to me.  No doubt she made a snap decision to try to help in some way.

As her son Michael would point out to me in a 2009, Mrs. Ballantyne had great empathy.  In Michael's words, due to her own difficult upbringing, his mother became a true champion of the underdog. 

I believe Mrs. Ballantyne told me her life story during the parking lot conversation because she wanted to explain that no matter how upset I was at this moment, I had a bright future awaiting me.  Her own story served as the perfect example of why I should hang in there.  After all, when her mother died and her father deserted her, she was in just as big a fix as me.  And when George left her to go to college, she was certainly just as lonely as me. 

Her unusual empathy born of that experience is the best explanation why Mrs. Ballantyne stayed with me for thirty precious minutes.  Once Mrs. Ballantyne recognized the young man standing before her was in desperate need of the parenting skills she possessed in abundance, she rolled up her sleeves.  On the spot, Mrs. Ballantyne willingly responded to my unspoken plea for help.

During Mrs. Ballantyne's conversation with me that day, she performed sheer magic.  She literally put me back on the path when my life was on the brink of disaster.  Once she took me under her wing, my life headed in a totally new direction.

Responding to her mother's touch, I was able to emerge from my terrible depression.  As I would one day discover, there was indeed a remarkable life awaiting me further down the road.  However, I am not sure how I would have gotten over my giant hurdle without her help. 

Although the strange similarity in our childhoods surely took her off guard, Mrs. Ballantyne knew from her own experience that I had a bright future ahead... as long as I didn't do something stupid.

Given the research done on the alarming frequency of teen suicide, we all know how vulnerable moody kids can be.  Wouldn't it be nice if each of those victims had the wisdom of someone like Mrs. Ballantyne to calm them down before making a rash decision?

Due to the importance of that moment, I have found myself examining every angle of our meeting ever since.

Our conversation impacted me throughout my life.  This moment served as the strongest evidence I have ever witnessed that unseen hands might have been involved.  The entire reason I began asking questions about fate and karma can be traced directly to this life-changing encounter.  I felt such an intense curiosity over possible explanations for her "mystical" appearance that I spent two solid years during college exploring concepts such as fate and miracles.

One might ask if I learned anything.  Well, to be honest, I didn't find the solid proof I was looking for.  But I did find enough circumstantial evidence to develop a firm belief there is more to this world than meets the eye.

Does God exist?  That is a question I ask myself every day.  Blind faith is not in my nature.  Although I want to believe in the existence of God, I am the kind of person whose faith requires evidence.  Considering the astronomical odds against the appearance of Maria Ballantyne that afternoon, perhaps I have that evidence right before me.

Although the series of unusual coincidences in my life can hardly be considered definitive proof of the existence of God, I must say this coincidence... and several others... has left me extremely open-minded to the possibility.
 


FURTHER MEDITATION ON COINCIDENCE

"When you live your life with an appreciation of Coincidences and their meanings, you connect with the underlying field of infinite possibilities."

        -- Deepak Chopra

"The more frequently one uses the word ‘Coincidence’ to explain bizarre happenings, the more obvious it becomes that one is not seeking, but rather evading the real explanation."   
 
        -- Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson

 


SUBCHAPTER 118
- MARIA BALLANTYNE'S SAGA

 

Have I convinced you to take a closer look at coincidences?   Well, here's another one. 

In February 1978, Mrs. Ballantyne and I had a second accidental meeting.  Although it lacked the fireworks of the first meeting in 1968, in its own way this encounter was just as precious. 

Our second meeting took place on a Saturday morning on a very bitter winter day.  It was already cold outside and about to get worse.  Since a serious cold front was sweeping down from Dallas, the night was predicted to get into the low twenties.  This was unusually cold for Houston.  There were some winters when the temperature never even went below freezing, but not this year.

In the ten years had passed since our meeting at the parking lot.   I had not seen Mrs. Ballantyne once since then, not even at my high school graduation ceremony. 

Our second random meeting took place at Stevens of Hollywood, the dance studio where I had been working for about eight months.

Thanks to Saturday Night Fever, Disco was in full swing.  I had recently started my career as a dance teacher.  One Saturday morning as I taught a private dance lesson at the dance studio, my mouth dropped open in shock when I saw Mrs. Ballantyne walk into the dance studio.  It was 11 am.

I noticed Mrs. Ballantyne before she noticed me.  I couldn't believe it was her.

Some of the exact same thoughts that had crossed my mind ten years earlier now crossed my mind again.  How improbable was this?  What is Mrs. Ballantyne doing here?  Did she come here to see me?

Finally the disbelief began to wear off.  It was definitely Mrs. Ballantyne.  I was tempted to welcome her with the classic Bogart line from Casablanca...

"Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine..."

Yes, this was another one of those special "Coincidences" that bedevil me so.  In a manner identical to the parking lot meeting ten years earlier, Mrs. Ballantyne had popped up out of nowhere. 

As I walked over to greet her, Mrs. Ballantyne recognized me immediately.  She was just as surprised to see me as I was to see her.  She obviously had no idea I was here.

They talk about "once in a lifetime" chance meetings.  Well, this was twice in a lifetime.  Although today's reunion sidestepped the high drama of the first meeting, this day would turn out to be very special in its own right. 

How improbable was our second meeting?  I would say it was just as remote as the first one.  I had never seen Mrs. Ballantyne here in the eight months of my employment.

Stevens of Hollywood was located on Westheimer and Shepherd about a mile from Mrs. Ballantyne's River Oaks home.  Although the dance studio wasn't particularly out of her way, I had no idea why she was here today in this unlikely place. 

I regret to say I don't even remember her reason for being there that morning.  Whatever the reason was, it was unremarkable.  It had to be something random because over the next two years I worked there, I never saw her enter this dance studio again.

What I do remember is that once Mrs. Ballantyne recognized me, she was very happy to see me. 

I have never seen anyone turn the energy on faster than her.  Mrs. Ballantyne instantly had me backing up with her enthusiasm.

Her first words were something like, "Rick Archer, of all the people!  Where the heck have you been?  Why haven't you been to see me?"

She made me laugh.  I had spoken to this woman one time in my life and now she greeted me like we had known each other forever.  The thought crossed my mind that maybe we had known each other forever.

Ten years had passed since that unusual meeting in the Weingarten's parking lot.  Mrs. Ballantyne immediately began peppering me with questions.  As I had just begun my dance teaching career, this was an exciting time for me.  Mrs. Ballantyne was genuinely pleased to see I was doing well in my life.  In fact, she was so curious that she wanted to talk more. 

Unfortunately I had my dance student waiting for me.  Unwilling to part without learning more, Mrs. Ballantyne asked if I was free for lunch. 

Of course I was free.  I would have dropped anything I was doing just to have another talk with her.  This lady had no way of knowing the degree of her importance in my life.  After all, I had spent two solid years back in college thinking about the implications of our previous meeting.

So I said yes, but could we make it a bit later?  I would be through at 1 pm.  Would that work?   Mrs. Ballantyne smiled and said that would be fine.

I expected she would suggest some nearby coffee shop, but to my surprise, Mrs. Ballantyne invited me to her River Oaks home instead.

I felt flattered.  This was quite an honor.

Although I had never been to her house before, I knew exactly where it was.  Back in 1968 when I lost my Jones Scholarship to Katina Ballantyne, I had become so bitter that I had looked up her address in the St. John's directory.   Overcome by my Rich Man-Poor Man grudge, I wanted to confirm with my own eyes what kind of house Katina lived in.  After school the next day, I had driven by their house.  It gave me a grim satisfaction to confirm my hunch that the Ballantyne family indeed lived in an attractive River Oaks home.  This gave rise to the grudge that my loss had been nothing short of highway robbery. 

Fortunately that terrible grudge had disappeared long ago.  Now as I pulled into her driveway at 1 pm, I felt nothing but joy at reuniting with my special benefactor.

Once I was inside, I was surprised to see the house was empty except for Mrs. Ballantyne and her maid.  As I looked around for signs of even one of the seven children, Mrs. Ballantyne grinned and said a lot had changed in ten years.  Her children had all moved out long ago.  They were busy pursuing their own lives.  She added that her husband Jay was here, but he was doing something up on the roof and was too busy to join us.  So lunch would just be the two of us. 

As we ate lunch, Mrs. Ballantyne began by telling me how proud she was that I had received a full scholarship to Johns Hopkins.  That was interesting... not once today had I told her about that scholarship.  How did she know about my scholarship?  And how did she know where I went to college?  So I asked her.

Mrs. Ballantyne replied she had made a point to learn more about me following the parking lot incident. 

As I mulled over her reply, I could not help but wonder if Mrs. Ballantyne had energy on our strange meeting ten years earlier.  Looking at that event from her perspective, I imagine Mrs. Ballantyne had been genuinely shocked to meet a young man who reminded her so much of herself. 

Was it possible that in her private thoughts Mrs. Ballantyne was as curious about the metaphysical possibilities of that meeting as me?

I was dying to ask her that question, but felt it was too aggressive.  Better to wait for an opportunity.

 


SUBCHAPTER 119
- THE GIFT

 

I was in for a surprise.  After she caught up on my story... college, getting thrown out of graduate school, my lucky break with the dance teacher job... Mrs. Ballantyne took the occasion to pick up her life story right where she had left off ten years ago. 

Mrs. Ballantyne reminded me what she had said ten years earlier... money was tight in her home when she was growing up and that she had faced a desperate college situation nearly identical to mine. 

How would she ever be able to pay for college? 

Mrs. Ballantyne was resigned to finding whatever work she could after high school when out of nowhere an offer to pay her college tuition came from a highly unlikely source - an underworld gangster. 

She asked me if I remembered her saying that.

I nodded.  Mrs. Ballantyne had no way of knowing I had every word she had said that day memorized like the Lord's Prayer.  I also remembered that Mrs. Ballantyne had barely whispered that a mobster had paid her way to college. 

Now today for some reason she spoke openly about the man.  She identified him as Sam Maceo, the Godfather of Galveston. 

Mrs. Ballantyne said Sam Maceo was the most powerful man in Galveston when she was a little girl. 

Maceo knew who she was because her father occasionally did small jobs for the Maceo syndicate.  In addition, Maceo visited her uncle's restaurant on occasion because he had one of his gambling operations there.

Sam Maceo always seemed to go out of his way to greet her.  Maceo would spot her as she walked through the restaurant after school and smile at her.  She liked the man and would smile back.  Then one day he waved at her and invited her to come over.  He asked her how school was going and if she needed anything.  He handed her a dollar and told her to spend it wisely.  After that, she got in the habit of going over to his table to chat whenever she saw him.  They struck up a friendship.

Starved for attention, Mrs. Ballantyne said she was grateful to anyone willing to be nice to her.

She was 12 at the time.

Mrs. Ballantyne paused, then made sure I understood there was nothing improper here.

I nodded.  

Mrs. Ballantyne said a real low point in her life came after her brother George enrolled up at Texas A&M in 1935.  After her mother had died in 1932, her father had forced her to go live with his sister Virginia and her husband Gus.  Now with George gone, Uncle Gus and Aunt Virginia decided this was a good time to move to San Antonio. 

She strongly objected to leaving Galveston.  However, since she was only 14, what choice did she have?

Mrs. Ballantyne said the next two years in San Antonio were the loneliest years of her life.  She never dated and didn't make any friends at her new school.  Instead she kept her nose in books whenever she wasn't playing tennis. 

Mrs. Ballantyne made good grades, but it all seemed futile.  As she was about to finish high school, her college chances looked bleak.

That is when Sam Maceo unexpectedly stepped in and offered to pay her way to the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, a women's school in Belton, Texas. 

I asked why this man had done this for her.  That was quite a gesture.

Mrs. Ballantyne smiled. 

"That's a good question.  Mr. Maceo had helped my brother George out of a really tough spot a couple years earlier.  George was in danger of getting kicked out of school for lack of tuition.  My father didn't have a dime, so he decided to ask his boss if he could help.  Mr. Maceo asked him a question.  'How well is this son of yours doing up at school?'

My father replied, 'George is the top student in his class, sir.  He really studies hard!'

With that, Mr. Maceo reached in his pocket and handed my father the money.

We found out later that Mr. Maceo had someone check with Texas A&M.  When he found out that George was indeed at the top of his class, he was impressed.  Mr. Maceo was an immigrant just like my father was.  He knew how tough it was to make it here in America.  So to find the kid of my father, a dubious character, was the best student in his class, that was very unusual.  Very few children of the immigrants here in Galveston were good students, so that set George head and shoulders above the rest. 

Unbeknownst to any of us, Mr. Maceo also kept tabs on me after I moved away to San Antonio.  He would occasionally ask my father how I was doing.  One day my father explained that I wanted to go to college, but they didn't have enough money.  Typical of my father, he quickly added that since I was girl, what difference did it make, I could get a job as a clerk somewhere.

Mr. Maceo smiled and informed my father he would like to pay my way to college.

And that's how I went to college!"


I couldn't help myself, so I asked.  "Wasn't it risky taking money from a mobster?"

Seeing the curious expression on my face, Mrs. Ballantyne shrugged her shoulders. 

"It was strange that my education was bankrolled by a mobster, but I didn't care.  In the eyes of many, Sam Maceo was seen more as benefactor than evil presence.  I admired the man.  He came all the way from Sicily without any money and education, yet here he was the most important man in the city.  He knew how tough it was to be an immigrant.

At the time, I didn't really understand why he was helping me.  George and I talked about it.  George believed that Mr. Maceo understood the importance of education as a way to give the children of immigrants equal footing.  Greek, Italian, it didn't matter to him.  He wanted the children of the immigrants here on the Island to succeed.  He felt a connection to lift us up.

What mattered to him was that George and I were good kids.  And he also knew what my father had done to us.  To him, that wasn't right.

Even though we had gotten a rotten break, he was impressed that we worked hard in school without any encouragement.  Mr. Maceo felt for us both.  Thanks to George, now he wanted to help me too.  I could not be more grateful.  Now I had my chance just like George did." 

 


SUBCHAPTER 120
- BATTLE OF THE TITANS

 

Impressed by George's performance at Texas A&M, Sam Maceo decided to help out the pretty but shy Greek girl as well.  Maceo paid her way to Mary Hardin-Baylor for all four years.

Mrs. Ballantyne said she loved college, but continued to remain the shy, quiet, unwanted girl.  Since meeting men at this women's college was something of a challenge, Mrs. Ballantyne said she didn't bother to date.  She said it was easier to concentrate on her studies instead.  Then, with a smile, she added, "I played a lot of tennis in college too." 

I smiled ruefully at that comment.  Mrs. Ballantyne had no way of knowing her line about using tennis as a substitute for dating had never left my mind since the parking lot meeting.  I had spent four years at Hopkins thinking of Mrs. Ballantyne every time I visited the gym to use pick-up basketball as my own substitute for not dating in college. 

Thanks to my lousy love life, I had become quite a basketball player. 

That memory raised an idle thought.  What kind of effect had Mrs. Ballantyne's non-existent love life had on her tennis game?

Curious, I asked a question.

"Mrs. Ballantyne, when I first met you ten years ago, you mentioned you never dated in high school.  Now you just said it again.  Is that true?  If so, why was that?  Why didn't you ever date?"

Mrs. Ballantyne laughed. 

"That's a funny story, Rick.  Tennis was the story of my life when I was growing up.  My brother George was two years older than me.  George became the most important person in my life after my mother died and my father split the family up.  He became my constant companion due to how lonely I was.

After my father split us up, we lived in different homes and went to different schools.  George made a point to come look me up after school practically every day.  George loved tennis with a passion; he couldn't get enough of it.  Tennis and astronomy were the two great loves of his life, oh, and fishing too.  But tennis was everything.

Every day he would challenge me to another game of tennis.  This became a daily curse.

Don't get me wrong, ordinarily George was wonderful to me, but tennis was different.  George was pretty mean when it came to tennis.  He refused to let me win and loved to rub it in how superior he was.

George was older, taller, and faster than me.  I couldn't beat him to save my soul.  You have no idea what it is like to lose time and time again to someone."
 

Well, actually I did know what it was to lose all the time.  When I was 13, there was once an older man named Neal I despised.  He was my mother's live-in boyfriend.  Neal tormented me with his chess skills.  I could not beat him... until I studied like mad in secret and turned the tables on him.  However I lost enough times to know what Mrs. Ballantyne was talking about. 
 

"The thing is, I was a very good player.  None of my friends had a chance against me.  but I didn't care about beating them.  All I wanted to do was beat George.  George wasn't going to let that happen.  No way his kid sister would ever beat Mr. High and Mighty.  I lost every game we ever played and George teased me about it.

He made me so mad!  I wanted to quit so many times I lost count, but the next day I would be out there playing him again.  I vowed that one day I would beat him.  Didn't know when, didn't know how, but someday I would beat George.  It became a point of honor for me.  The thing that irritated me is that I was getting better playing him all the time, but George was also getting better playing me!  I couldn't catch up to him.

After three years of this torment, George went off to college up at A&M.  My Aunt and Uncle decided this was a good time to leave Galveston and move to San Antonio.  Like I said earlier, I was furious.  This forced me to leave my hometown and what few friends I had.  I decided I would find a boyfriend and handle my loneliness that way.

I was in the 11th grade now and I wanted to start dating.  I made the mistake of telling George.  Dumb move.  George was fiercely protective of me and didn't want me dating anyone unless he could check the boy out first.  I argued with George no end that I was old enough to take care of myself, but he wouldn't listen.  I couldn't believe George thought he had the right to order me around like he was my father.

I wrote him a letter and I said I was going to start dating whether he liked it or not.   Since he was up at A&M, George was in no position to control me.  Or so I thought.

Well, George pulled a dirty trick on me.  One day he showed up at the house with my two older brothers Johnny and Christie.  They completely ganged up on me.  All three brothers were terribly overprotective.  In their minds, I was this naive little Catholic girl who needed to be protected from all those dangerous school boys.  They didn't want me dating when they weren't around to inspect the boys first and keep their eagle eyes on me.  Their solution was to forbid me to date period.   So my brothers gave Uncle Gus and Aunt Virginia explicit orders not to let their sister date anyone without their consent. 

I was sitting right there in the living room listening to them.  They said it was for my own good!  I could not believe the words that came out of their mouths!  My brothers made me so damn mad!

I was about to lose my temper, so I stomped out of the room and ran out of the house to cool down.

Sure enough, when I came back, those were the rules.  No dating in high school.  I was stunned.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love George from the bottom of my heart and I know he thought he was doing the right thing.  But I didn't agree with him.  It was my life he was interfering with.  I was trapped. 

Here I was in San Antonio without a friend in the world and forced to live like I had been sent to a nunnery.  Everyone at my school dated but me. 

Thanks to George, I was a hermit.  So I got mad.  And because I was mad, I played tennis.  And more tennis.  It was the only thing I could do to control my frustration.   Sometimes I challenged the boys from the school tennis team.  I was encouraged when I started to beat some of them.  I was getting better.  Every time I played tennis, all I could think about was how I wanted to get even with George.

Meanwhile George, bless his soul, had written to tell me he had become captain of the tennis team at Texas A&M.  He was so proud of himself.  George added that he was virtually unbeatable.  That was a mistake.  George shouldn't have told me he was unbeatable.  Now I practiced even harder!

George is in the middle wearing the A&M tee-shirt
 


I was so mad at George for not letting me date, I decided to teach him a lesson.  From his letters, I knew he was struggling hard to make enough money to stay in school.  I figured if George was that busy, there was no way he could be playing much tennis.  That gave me an advantage because I had all the free time in the world thanks to his knucklehead idea that I couldn't date. 

Around Thanksgiving, George called the house to apologize for not coming to see me.  He mumbled something about the Aggie football game with Texas as his excuse.  Then he promised to come see me at Christmas.  I smiled because that was exactly what I wanted to hear. 

I played tennis every day against the toughest players I could find.  When I wasn't playing tennis, I trained as hard as I possibly could.  I walked to and from school and jogged in my spare time.  I was in the best shape of my life.

When George came to San Antonio to visit me over Christmas, it was time to spring the trap. I casually asked him about his game.  It was the dead of winter and George told me he hadn't played in months.  He was busy working odd jobs and studying constantly, so he had to put tennis on hold till spring.  I smiled.  Just like I thought! 

Meanwhile George had no idea I played constantly.  Plus I was older now and more physically mature.  I was also a lot faster than he realized.  However in his ignorant mind, I still looked like his little kid sister, a weakling too frail to keep up with the likes of him. 

So I casually asked if we could we play.  Well, sure, George was more than happy to play his favorite patsy.

I was so nervous.  When I took my jacket off, I was scared to death he would notice that my Greek skin was practically black from all that time practicing in the sun.  After all, it was Christmas.  Why would I have a tan?  Fortunately George was a boy.  Boys are too stupid to notice anything that obvious.  George never suspected a thing.

I jumped all over him.  George never knew what hit him.  I got to balls he had never seen me reach before.  Not only was George out of shape, he was in shock over how much I had improved.  Before he could recover, I had too big a lead for him to catch up.  I beat him soundly in the first set.  I was so thrilled!  I had never taken a set off George before.

George was not used to being whipped.  Oh no, not by a long shot.  George was so mad!  Now George was bent on revenge.  When I saw him set his jaw and get that determined look of his, I knew I was in trouble.  No more element of surprise.  Sure enough, he beat me handily in the second set.  However, I noticed he was really huffing and puffing towards the end. 

After his victory, George was ready to give me a big hug and call it a day.  He smiled and said, "Hey, let's call it even, Maria.  Nice job on the first set."

I said, "No way, Buster, you're not getting off that easy.  You know the rules... tie-breaker.  One more set."

The third set was the battle of century.  Neither of us could break the other person's serve, but I noticed George was tiring.  He wasn't chasing down balls he would normally get to.  He just let them go for winners because he was too tired.  That was so totally out of character for him.  Ordinarily George chased everything in sight, but not today.  That really encouraged me, so I refused to give up.  My goal was to wear him down and it worked.  I finally broke through in a marathon match, then held my serve for the victory.  George was so tired he could barely move in the last game.  

Afterwards George was numb.  This could not have happened!!  He stared at me like I was an alien or something.  He couldn't believe his little sister had beaten him.  George was so glum, it was wonderful.  I started to feel sorry for him, but then I remembered all that teasing.  Then I remembered he wouldn't let me date either.  Let him suffer; George deserved it.

I never beat George again, but it didn't matter.  For some reason, my one victory rankled him more than anything.  He had countless victories over me, but he couldn't seem to accept that one day 10, 20, 30 years ago through some bizarre fluke his weak little sister had beaten him, Mr. Invincible, the best tennis player in Texas. 

I have spent the rest of my life teasing George unmercifully about the upset victory.  It still bugs him every time I bring up the subject.  So naturally I will never let him forget!!"

 


SUBCHAPTER 121
- THE MATRIARCH

 

Maria Ballantyne finished college while World War II was still in progress. 

After college, she returned to her aunt and uncle's house in San Antonio. 

This is when Maria Ballantyne finally blossomed.  Once she started working as an executive secretary, for the first time in her life she became popular.  She had become quite a beauty.

Guess what her favorite activity was?  Mrs. Ballantyne said she loved to dance. 

With a grin, she said her friends referred to her as "Maria the dancer". 

Every chance she got, she danced with a big grin on her face to the big band music of that era.  In addition to her love of Big Band Swing dancing, she developed a reputation as a flamboyant performer in traditional Greek folk dances. 

No doubt her provocative style certainly got her noticed. 

As a beautiful Greek woman with a strong, athletic figure honed from years of tennis, she was soon much in demand with the young professional set of San Antonio. 

I asked Mrs. Ballantyne how she met her husband.

   

Mrs. Ballantyne replied that this was an interesting story. She said she met her husband Alando "Jay" Ballantyne in the swimming pool at a San Antonio air force base.  

Jay was so handsome he took her breath away.  However, once she discovered he was a flight surgeon, Mrs. Ballantyne was convinced he was way out of her league. 

Her future husband begged for her phone number, but she refused to give it to him.  Mrs. Ballantyne said she hesitated due to a failure of confidence. 

This young man was so well-educated and so good-looking that every girl at the pool could not take their eyes off of him.  What chance did she have? 

The young Maria chose to withhold her phone number because she could not figure out what he saw in a shy girl like herself. 

I smiled quietly. I was having a hard time picturing this beautiful, vivacious woman as 'shy' and 'lacking confidence'.

That said, I appreciated her modesty. 

Fortunately, Jay Ballantyne would not take 'no' for an answer. 

Undeterred, he went behind her back. 

When she wasn't looking, he got the coveted phone number from one of Mrs. Ballantyne's girlfriends at the pool.

Maria quickly learned that her suitor was a very impressive man.  Graduating Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Arizona, Jay Ballantyne had been awarded a scholarship to Columbia Medical School. 

During World War II, Ballantyne served as an army captain and medical doctor.  He was stationed at Randolph AFB when he had the good fortune to meet Maria at the swimming pool.

They began dating and were married three months later. 

The reason for the whirlwind decision to marry was typical of young couples that age during the war...

Jay had received orders to report to Hawaii.  Uh oh. It was either get married or be separated.

Mrs. Ballantyne winked at me.  "We had not known each other long, but I was so in love. I could not bear the thought of letting him leave.  If something went wrong... another Pearl Harbor... I could never forgive myself. However I didn't dare know let him know I would follow him to the end of the earth.  I played hard to get.  I told Jay ordinarily I would make him wait longer, but if it was Hawaii, maybe I would reconsider."

Mrs. Ballantyne said their time in Hawaii was the happiest she had ever been in her life. 

Following the war, her husband's training took them to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. 

In 1947, Dr. Ballantyne became the first resident at the new M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston. 

He would become a highly respected cancer surgeon at M.D. Anderson and would serve as a teaching professor for the University of Texas medical system as well.

At this point Dr. Ballantyne moved his growing family to Houston, Texas. 


Now the conversation drifted to the story of her home. 

Mrs. Ballantyne smiled at the memory of how her family was able to move into Houston's prestigious River Oaks area. 

"You know, Rick, people always think we are rich, but we have everyone fooled. 

We aren't rich, we're just lucky. 

All the mothers at St. John's assumed that since my family had a nice big home in River Oaks and I had seven children at the school that my husband must be filthy rich. 

This was my family's big secret. 

We weren't wealthy, we were fortunate. 

We only lived in River Oaks thanks to a generous gift from my brother and a couple of lucky breaks."


In the late Fifties, George, Mrs. Ballantyne's brother, had bought an undeveloped property on the edge of River Oaks.

Dana, Mike, Marina, and Katina in back
Christie, Dr. Ballantyne, Lisa, Mrs. Ballantyne, and George in front
 

Located on the banks of muddy Buffalo Bayou, the lot was inexpensive by River Oaks standards.  There was a reason for that... the property was a veritable jungle at the time. 

Heavily forested with oak trees and dense underbrush, the lot was infested with mosquitoes, snakes and countless squirrels.

George, now a prosperous Houston oil man, had thought about building there himself, but changed his mind and sold it at a fair price to his sister's family. 

Soon after, the City of Houston bought an easement down to Buffalo Bayou.  The money from the city purchase nearly paid for the whole lot.  This gave them enough money to build.

Now came another lucky break.  A German architect offered to build the family home at a significant discount.  The architect wished to build a showcase home in the exclusive River Oaks area.  In this way, he could demonstrate his talent to the booming Houston real estate market.  

As it turned out, the lot and house together cost only $60,000.  Although this was a lot of money in the early 1960s, the price tag was still far below what one would have guessed.

 

Getting this house had been quite an accomplishment.

Now the Ballantyne family owned a prestigious River Oaks address in the land of the uber-rich although at best her husband's earnings at the time were no better than upper middle class.  She added his salary was stretched very thin with seven children to support.  She added with another wink that the kids ate her out of house and home.

The next step was finding new schools for the children.  Mrs. Ballantyne looked to nearby St. John's School for her oldest son Michael.  Referring to him as her "Trailblazer", Mrs. Ballantyne said that Michael was very intimidated by the wealth he was surrounded by on a daily basis.  At this point, Michael was convinced he was the poorest kid in the school.

Mrs. Ballantyne looked at me and grinned.

"I have a guilty confession to make, Rick.  You have no way of knowing this, but back when we had our long talk at Weingarten's, I almost broke out laughing when you told me you were the poorest kid at St. John's. 

My oldest son Michael used to say the same thing.  I told Michael he was crazy, but he never stopped arguing with me.  He was so convinced we were the poorest family at the school. 

Michael was very fortunate he was away at college when I met you. 

Otherwise I would have taken you home with me that afternoon and let him meet you just so I could finally win the argument!"

With Michael's admission to St. John's, the legend of the Ballantyne family at St. John's School began. 

Michael, the self-described poorest kid in school, performed brilliantly.  Mike was a Senior when I became a Freshman.  Mike was the shining light of his class - a genius with many academic honors and very athletic.  Mike was so fast that he set a school record in the mile that stood for over thirty years.  

Mike was the Trailblazer indeed.  Mr. Chidsey was very taken with Michael's combination of academics, leadership and athletics.  He wasted no time informing Mrs. Ballantyne that all of her children were more than welcome at his school. 

Mr. Chidsey arranged a series of scholarships to make this possible.  Following in Michael's path, all seven brothers and sisters would get their education at St. John's. 

Now with a smile, Mrs. Ballantyne looked directly at me and waved her hand in a sweeping motion to call attention to her home and the pictures of her family. 

"It was always my dream to marry a man I could respect.  I wanted him to be the kind of father I never had.  I wanted him to help me create the home I never had growing up.  Thanks to Jay, this dream has come true in more ways than I could possibly imagine.  My family means everything to me."

Although things were much quieter now that the children were grown, over the years this home had been quite the beehive of activity.  Her home was constantly filled with her children's friends, then later on her grandchildren, plus people from all over the world who lived with the family at various times.

"Who would have ever believed this was possible? 

When I was a little girl and my mother had just died, things were very bleak for me.  I never dreamed it could get worse.  When my father sent me away, I was broken hearted.  I had just lost my mother and could barely cope.  Now my father didn't want me either.  I could not understand why my own father would abandon me. 

My father was a real jerk.  First he sent George away to his brother.  Then he turned me over to his sister and said, 'Here Virginia, I can't take care of these kids. I want you to give Maria a home.' 

Virginia didn't want me.  She had a family of her own, but her older brother bullied her into taking me.  I thought he would at least come to visit, but I was wrong.  At that point, my father turned his back on me and started chasing women.  I was so angry at him.

After that, it didn't take me long to realize that Aunt Virginia didn't have time for me.  She had her own children to worry about and hated that my father had used guilt to make her take some little kid against her will.  I was only 11 years old and convinced my life was going absolutely nowhere. 

Then a few years later some gangster hands me a college scholarship.  It was the break of a lifetime."

Mrs. Ballantyne gestured again to her living room and the wall full of family pictures.

"I spent my entire childhood dreaming that I would someday have a family like this.  You have no idea the pain I felt when my family disintegrated around me. 

My father was a confused man.  He had no business walking away from his duty to George and I.

I was bound and determined that when I grew up, I would create my own family.

Now look.  I have my home, my marvelous husband and seven of the best children any mother could ever hope for.  I could not possibly be more proud of my children.  Who would ever believe a story like mine?"

Then she smiled at me. 

"Rick, I don't tell my gangster story to very many people, but that was how I escaped my trap and found a way become my own person.

I could not believe how lucky I was.  I could barely imagine that a man who barely knew me had paid for me to go to college."

 

I smiled back at Mrs. Ballantyne.  Just as her simple act of kindness had saved me in the Weingarten's parking lot ten years earlier, it was apparent that she too had benefitted from a simple act of kindness of her own. 

What a funny coincidence.  And what an interesting coincidence that one day Mrs. Ballantyne was given the chance to pass that act of kindness on to me.  As they say, if you can't pay a favor back, then pay it forward.

 


SUBCHAPTER 122
- KARMA

 

The one question I wish I had asked Mrs. Ballantyne that afternoon was what her own thoughts had been that day back in the parking lot.  I was working up the courage to do just that when Mrs. Ballantyne's husband made a surprise appearance.  Now our conversation ended.  

Something was wrong.  Dr. Ballantyne had a huge frown on his face and he seemed upset.  He didn't say a word to me.  In fact, he was so oblivious to my presence I had to assume he was used to his wife bringing unexpected guests to the house. 

Mrs. Ballantyne got up from the table to see what was bothering him.  I watched quietly as Dr. Ballantyne and his wife talked over by the kitchen.  To my surprise, Mrs. Ballantyne turned to glance over at me.  Then she pointed me out.  For the first time, Dr. Ballantyne seemed to notice me as well. 

Something odd was going on.  What was this all about?

Mrs. Ballantyne said, "Rick, could I ask you a big favor?"

"Sure.  What do you need?"

"There is a cold front coming into town this evening.  Temperatures are expected to hit the low 20s.  Jay is worried that the freeze could easily destroy our tropical plant collection.  He has been up on the roof all day trying to cover our open-air atrium with plastic for protection, but he is getting nowhere because it is a two-man job. 

Do you have an hour to spare to help him?"

I smiled.  "Of course.  I'm not busy.  I would be glad to help."

So up on the roof I went.  Brrr!  I had forgotten how cold it was.  There was definitely a storm coming.  It was ridiculously chilly and the wind was brisk.  The moment the cold wind hit, I realized full well what Dr. Ballantyne was worried about.

Outlined by the house on three sides, the atrium was open to the sky to permit sunlight.  On the ground below were dozens upon dozens of warm-weather tropical plants vulnerable to the coming threat.

The fourth side of the atrium was open to the swimming pool and expansive lawn.  The gap between the two parallel sides was 15 feet across.  In order to stretch the flapping plastic properly in the heavy wind, one man had to secure part of the plastic while his counterpart walked his part to the other side.  Once the plastic was properly stretched across the atrium, we could hammer in our respective sides.

Dr. Ballantyne wasn't satisfied with just one layer.  He did not feel the individual rolls of plastic were thick enough to guarantee sufficient protection, so the process had to be repeated several times. 

 

In addition, we had to drop more plastic from the roof to the ground below.  In this way, the open side of the house facing the swimming pool would be completely enclosed.  Dr. Ballantyne placed a 16 foot piece of wood across the roof, then using ladders we nailed on more plastic to finish enclosing the area with a temporary fourth wall. 

During the project, Dr. Ballantyne and I spoke little.  Dr. Ballantyne was a formal man who carried himself with great dignity.  Unlike his gregarious wife, I noticed Dr. Ballantyne was a man of few words.  He was very reserved. 

Dr. Ballantyne was quite the workhorse.  Unwilling to take any chance of losing his valuable plants, he refused to take a break until the job was done.  As the day progressed, I was amused by the transformation in his features.  Slowly but surely, Dr. Ballantyne's deep frown was replaced by a greatly-relieved smile.  

As the darkness rolled in, the temperature began dropping rapidly just as predicted.  It was freezing up there!  I had spent the afternoon noting how beautiful his tropical plants were down below us.  I could understand why his plant collection was a source of pride to him.  Dr. Ballantyne had been wise to cover the open area or he would have lost every one of those plants.

In all, we were on the roof for three hours until we finished.  It was probably a good idea to avoid breaks because we finished not a minute too soon.  As Mrs. Ballantyne handed us a reward of some much-welcome hot chocolate, I was pleased with my good deed.  Like the little Dutch boy and the leaking dike, I had come along at a most opportune moment.

While I had been up there, I thought it was strange that in a family of seven grown children, not one of them was anywhere in sight today to pitch in.  Nor did anyone show up with the job in progress.  What were the odds of that happening? 

Not that I minded; this had been a fascinating day for me.  Not only did I learn more details about Mrs. Ballantyne's life story, I had fulfilled a long-held wish by inadvertently becoming a Ballantyne for a day.

During the project, an odd thought had crossed my mind.  It had been ten years earlier when Mrs. Ballantyne had appeared out of nowhere at a time when I greatly needed her help.  Now out of the blue ten years later, she and I had "accidentally" re-connected at the exact moment when her husband needed my help.   

In a sense, we had traded a favor for a favor.  That in itself wasn't unusual.  People do favors for each other all the time.  However, in everyday life, people typically ask each other for help directly ahead of time... phone, email, letter, knock on the door, etc.

There had been no one to arrange today's event.  I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.  Very odd.

As I spent the afternoon quietly repaying some of the immense debt I owed to Mrs. Ballantyne, I could not help but wonder if this latest coincidental meeting had been Karma in action.  It was unusually convenient that I just happened to cross Mrs. Ballantyne's path on a day when I was free to help. 

The realistic side of me suggested we crossed paths by accident.  However the mystic side of me was convinced this encounter had been arranged by unseen hands just like the parking lot meeting ten years earlier.

 


SUBCHAPTER 117
- THE SEEDS OF MY BOOK ARE PLANTED

 

Following the 1978 encounter, 27 years passed. 

One day in 2005 I noticed an email that suggested Dana Ballantyne, one of Mrs. Ballantyne's four sons, was taking a Salsa dance class at my studio.  Salsa was my off-night, so I never saw Dana.  However, his name got me to thinking about his mother again.  Busy running the studio and raising my daughter, I had not given Mrs. Ballantyne much thought these past years.  Now I couldn't get her out of my mind. 

Recently I had begun writing stories for my SSQQ web site.  On the spur of the moment, I cranked out the story of the parking lot meeting and published it in my studio Newsletter.  The response was excellent.  I was very pleased with my story.

Shorty after I wrote the 2005 story, out of the blue none other than Mrs. Ballantyne herself called me on the phone.  I was stunned.  This was third time in my life that Mrs. Ballantyne had appeared out of nowhere to surprise me.  She certainly had her way of sneaking up on me! 

However this particular phone call was no coincidence.  Mrs. Ballantyne had a ready explanation.  She said that one of her granddaughters had stumbled across this story on my website while doing a Google Search on the name "Maria Ballantyne". 

That made sense.  More than likely, my story was Number One on Google's list of website stories containing her name.

Maria Ballantyne and her beautiful daughters
Marina and Katina

 

Over the phone, Mrs. Ballantyne said her granddaughter had been so excited.  She couldn't wait to tell her grandmother!  Mrs. Ballantyne was intrigued by her granddaughter's discovery.  So she went to her computer and found my story on the Internet. 

Mrs. Ballantyne said my story was amazing.  She was very flattered to receive such kind words from me. 

I smiled, then assured her I meant every word I said. 

At this point, Mrs. Ballantyne invited me to meet her for lunch.  A few days later, we met at a restaurant near her River Oaks home.   It was good to see Mrs. Ballantyne.  She was 85 now, but just as vigorous as she had ever been.  I was pleased to see that her daughter Katina had come along as well.

When I got the chance, I asked Mrs. Ballantyne what she remembered about our meeting in the parking lot 40 years earlier.  As usual, Mrs. Ballantyne had a surprise for me. 

"Rick, you always thought you were so sneaky.  Back when you were just a little grade school kid, I remember seeing you watch me.  I noticed on several occasions that you seemed to be studying me from some corner of the Commons Room. 

I never knew your name or who you were, so I called you my secret admirer.  I always knew when you were watching.  I suppose as you grew older, I lost track of you."

This revelation embarrassed me.  I didn't realize my distant admiration had been that obvious, but then I suppose kids always think they are a lot sneakier than they turn out to be.  It also surprised me to discover Mrs. Ballantyne had sensed my interest in her went much deeper than the parking lot meeting.  Fortunately, Mrs. Ballantyne seemed comfortable with my hero worship, so I relaxed. 

Now Mrs. Ballantyne continued. 

"After your face broke out in high school, I felt so sorry for you.  However, I never knew you were the same boy.  I never once made the connection between you and that little boy who had been my secret admirer.   What I did know was that whoever you were, I could see you were in tremendous pain.  The unhappy look on your face said it all. 

Another thing I remember was that my heart went out to you in the parking lot.  In the parking lot that day, it took me a while to realize that you were the same boy that used to watch me.  Once I heard your story, I hurt for you so much.  Your story hurt me in another way as well.  You reminded me so much of the pain I went through in my own childhood.  If you recall, I told you that day I had led a very secluded and stressful life as a teenager."

I nodded.  How could I forget that conversation?  It changed the direction of my life.  In fact, that conversation led directly to the search that cemented my belief in God.  However, I was much too shy around my hero to express thoughts as sensitive as these. 

Mrs. Ballantyne's recollections had a deep effect on me.   At the time of the 1968 meeting, I had tremendous difficulty understanding what possible reason the most important woman at my school would take the time to talk to a complete nobody like me.  Now she had answered my question... her sympathy and her kinship with my story had connected us. 

Of course I enjoyed seeing Mrs. Ballantyne and Katina, but to be honest, I left feeling disappointed that day.  Mrs. Ballantyne's thoughts had left me hungry for more information.  I had twenty burning questions that I was dying to ask.  For example, I wanted to ask if she had ever wondered about the coincidences that brought us together.  Didn't she think it was strange how we met in the parking lot that day?  However, I had been far too introverted to speak up.  It was easier to let Mrs. Ballantyne control the conversation.  To this day, I still kick myself for not speaking up when I had my chance. 

Given how much I talk about Mrs. Ballantyne (Chapters 15-17), it might come as a surprise that I only spoke to the lady on five occasions.

How could I describe our relationship?   On the surface, we were acquaintances.  Mrs. Ballantyne had played a critical role in my life, but I had not played a critical role in her life.  Due to the fact that I was not part of her life circle, I respected her privacy and did not seek her out. 

Mrs. Ballantyne was a very busy woman who had to budget her time carefully. In addition to her wonderful seven children, Mrs. Ballantyne had countless grandchildren as well.  

In addition, her brother George had ten children plus countless grandchildren as well.  I saw some pictures of their family reunions... rows upon rows! 

Therefore, as one might gather, Mrs. Ballantyne did not have time to spare for me.  I respected that and kept my distance. 

That said, Mrs. Ballantyne and I knew each other on a profound level that made little sense given our limited interaction.  Because we had once shared that special conversation, whenever we met, she and I got right down to business.

Clockwise: Maria Ballantyne, Dana, Katina, Marina, Lisa, George, and Christie in the middle.  Michael is in the picture.
 

 

Mrs. Ballantyne would let down her guard and talk about personal things in a way that showed she trusted me.  From my perspective, each conversation with Mrs. Ballantyne convinced me further that we were linked in a powerful way that defied conventional explanation. 

No doubt her children were understandably baffled by our close connection.  However, Marina and Katina as well as their younger brother Christie had the chance to observe first-hand the warmth that I shared with their mother, so I think they came to trust me.

Over the years, I continued to get heart-felt compliments on the original 2005 story.  Over time, I quietly came to realize that someday it would become my responsibility to share the story of Maria Ballantyne... and her brother George... with the world.

It has been an honor to do so.

 


CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX: EDUCATION

 

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