Grandma Gertie always said there's not a savory dish that can't be made tastier by just a touch of tarragon.

Tsunami and Me

Tsunami and Me
too big to escape now....

Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas, Mari Lou...and Namaste

My Christmas letter this year emphasized all the things I'm grateful for at the close of what has turned out to be an unexpectedly harrowing year. A couple of days ago I spent a few hours at Fairhaven Memorial Park with my late daughter-in-law's mother. Maria and I talked about how people struggle to cope with grief during the holidays. We so much mourn the loss of Mari Lou.

"How can you give a Christmas card to a mother who lost her child just a couple of months earlier? What do you say...Merry Christmas?" Maria asked. Maria sometimes brings her rosary to the gravesite and prays for her daughter's soul. She says she finds peace sitting by the grave, and is relieved that it's so close, only a mile, from her home.

I've been thinking about our conversation this morning as I prepare to meet Maria and my son for a holiday meal this afternoon. Steve wanted to do something special, even though last year's Christmas dinner quartet is now a trio. We're heading for one of Mari Lou's favorite places, Downtown Disney's Rainforest Cafe. Maybe I won't feel merry...but I'll be thankful to be with them. I might not wish them a merry Christmas. But I can wish them blessings...and my heartfelt hopes that they see brighter days ahead.

Why Rainforest? "There's lots to choose from on the menu, and there's the animatronics show that could cheer us up a little," Steve explained. He'd earlier made reservations for the Queen Mary's Sir Winston, but decided to cancel, thinking it might be too formal, too somber. Plus its set menu featured a number of seafood choices, and Maria, born and raised in Cuba, paradoxically does not eat fish or seafood.

I remember Mari Lou's words from last year, as we dug into our dinner at El Torito: "How wonderful it is for Steve and me to finally have both of our mothers here for Christmas." Nobody would have expected that this year we'd be a trio, and that the missing member of the quartet would be that speaker.

My son chose Downtown Disney Rainforest Cafe as the venue for our meal this year because Disney movies and this restaurant had been favorites of Mari Lou's. Not long after she died, I came across her gratitude journal. It inspired me to detail in my annual Christmas letter this year what I'd found to be grateful for this year. Here's that list:

  • Family. I live closer to my son, stepson's family, my brother, and I'm in contact with nieces and grandchildren.
  • Old friends, here and overseas, and new ones, both Californian and virtual.
  • Travel. This year Italy, North Carolina and Georgia.
  • Writing. Publishing in anthologies, online blogs, even eBooks.
  • Mobility. Still agile enough to take yoga and low impact aerobics.
  • California culture. Plays, concerts, movies, museums, beaches.
  • Recruiting for Peace Corps in both LA and Orange Counties.
  • AAUW and library book, film and travel discussion groups.
  • Sunny days, roses in December, mangoes and avocados year round.
About a month ago I wrote this story...not yet published, but I have hopes.

Rain, Pelicans, Chocolate…

"At times, our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person." Albert Schweitzer

Sue, the yoga teacher at my senior living complex, incorporates the theme of gratitude into all of our sessions. She asks that we clear our minds of troubling thoughts about a past that can't be undone and a future that can't be predicted.

"Think about this moment," she'll say. "Let's begin today by giving thanks for this morning's gorgeous sunrise, and the beauty of our surroundings."

One recent morning, though, I blinked back a tear. "What difference does it make whether there's a nice sunrise or not?" I thought to myself. "Who even cares?"

I tried to follow Sue's instructions to empty my mind of negativity. But when I leaned forward as we concluded our session, clasping my hands in "Namaste," I noticed how they trembled. I'd been shaking intermittently with anger and grief since my daughter-in-law had died a week earlier.

Mari Lou had been only 53, with everything to look forward to. She'd recently reached an agreement with a major publishing house for publication of her first young adult novel. She'd celebrated the good news with her Tuesday morning writing group, to which I belonged, by toasting to its success with hard-to-find classic Nehi Orange Soda. Her fictional heroine, Possum, who lived in the South during the 1930s, drank it in the book. Orange, too, always had been Mari Lou's favorite color. She'd even bought an orange, cream and black handbag for her anticipated book tour.

She'd been preparing for a stay at a friend's desert condo in Indian Wells to finish her final edits. She'd packed her clothes and provisions. My son, Steve, had planned to drive her there, but she felt so ill she'd asked to be taken to an ER. There they discovered she was jaundiced and hospitalized her immediately. Over the next week she was subjected to a series of biopsies. After a month's stay in the ICU she'd succumbed to complications from a combination of a previously undetected heart defect and lymphoma.

Her mom, Maria, Steve and I had taken turns staying in her hospital room so she'd never be left unattended. It was on my watch that she drew her final labored breaths. Now, in yoga class, as Sue suggested we be grateful that we could inhale purifying air, I was reminded of how Mari Lou's own breathing had become such torture for her in her final days. What was there to be grateful about?

Though I'd always believed in the old bromide, it's always darkest before the dawn, now I doubted its truth. Each new day seemed even darker. I even woke up wondering what would go wrong next. Sure enough, my negative expectations almost magically managed to be met. I ruminated on my woes.

I'd taken my car in for a routine oil change and learned that it needed new tires and brakes, expenses I suspected would stretch my budget to its limits. A few people I'd thought were close friends looked the other way when I passed them in the hallways of my senior complex. My email inbox filled with a flurry of rejections for stories I'd hoped would get published. I even noticed a hole in the shoulder of the dress I was about to slip on to wear to Mari Lou's commemorative service. Nothing was going right.

Not only did I grieve Mari Lou's death, I also grieved the loss of my ability to look forward to each new day. I no longer expected ever again experiencing joy. Life seemed devoid of purpose.

Finally, in an attempt to do something positive, I began to help my son tidy up the house that had gone neglected during Mari Lou's illness. After cleaning out a few kitchen cupboards, I wandered into the den and noticed a box on a sofa with items that my daughter-in-law had packed in preparation for that prospective trip to her desert retreat. Idly, I began sorting through it. Beneath some boxes of Girl Scout Tagalongs, I discovered a faded, frayed black notebook. Its cover had been decorated with stickers featuring a variety of Dr. Seuss characters. Its label read, "My Book about Me." 

Apparently, Mari Lou had begun keeping it during a dark period of her life. In one entry dated a decade ago, under the heading, "Things I am Grateful For," she had listed, "The luxury of saying I hate my life." In addition to that one negative comment, though, she had listed some things she found delight with: rain, pelicans, chocolate, cats, Steve.

On subsequent pages her "Grateful" lists began to shine with positive thoughts. She gave thanks for her
writing and editing talents, and for her ability to appreciate ballet, the theater, and the arts. Every list, though, included the basics: rain, pelicans, chocolate, cats, Steve.

Though I'd never kept such a journal myself, I felt inspired now to begin. That evening I sat down and opened a blank notebook of my own. Even at my advanced age, it's not too late to begin my book about me, I reasoned. So I began my own gratitude list.

Remembering the harrowing hospital days, I listed how grateful I was to encounter Father John in the visitor's lounge a few days before Mari Lou died. He had stopped to watch the television news showing Pope Francis visiting St. Patrick's Cathedral. I'd approached him,

"Excuse me, Father," I began. "My daughter-in-law is on life support in the ICU, and her mother, who is Catholic, has been hoping a priest would drop by to pray for her."

"I'll go there with you immediately," he'd said.

I'm grateful that he gave Mari Lou sacraments, thus comforting her mom.

I quickly added to my list. An old friend, who had sent me a stuffed bear when my husband had died, surprised me again by sending another, something new to hug. I also remembered the kind words and condolence cards I'd received from other unexpected sources.

I'm certainly grateful that Mari Lou's publisher attended her memorial and promised a big launch for the book when it's released. I'm grateful I covered that hole in my dress with an orange-beaded pendant Steve had given me for Mother's Day when he about ten years old.

I'm grateful that my son has started to see a bereavement counselor, and that he continues to be in touch with Mari Lou's writing group students. I'm thankful he's planning to spend Christmas with her mom and me.

Most of all, I'm grateful that Mari Lou kept her gratitude journal so that I could learn now how much pleasure she had derived from rain, pelicans, chocolate…and my son. And that finding that well-worn notebook could rekindle my spark.

This week, after a long hiatus, I returned to yoga class.

"Let's begin by giving thanks for this beautiful warm morning," Sue began. I smiled.

When we concluded, and bowed in "Namaste," as I clasped my hands before my heart, I noted that my body no longer trembled. Sorrow remains with me, of course, but anger has been quelled.

I'm grateful that I, too, live in a world with rain, pelicans, chocolate…and my son.

I'm grateful for the sunrise.

Mari Lou and Steve

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Love, Joy and Unicorns at Laguna's Winter Fantasy

Joy to the World
For twenty-five years the Laguna Beach Sawdust Art Festival artists and staff have staged a holiday arts and crafts festival in a three-acre eucalyptus grove. I've longed to go, but have always been elsewhere. 

Yesterday I went, feeling particularly festive in my heavy fleece "Joy" tunic, especially when The Pawnshop Kings at the Tavern broke into a rousing version of "Joy to the World." I couldn't quit tapping my toe and smiling as if my joy would burst right through my shirt. It was that kind of sunny but chilly morning.

I intended to buy something, not just browse. I wanted to support local artists, even though I've finished my Christmas shopping. Though my nagging conscience kept nattering that I'd already spent enough money this month on holiday gifts, I shushed it, and decided it was only fair to find something for myself. There's not much room left on the walls of my tiny apartment, so I sadly had to tell myself  "no" to some of the framed paintings that caught my eye. I wish I could find a place for this piece of art, fabric letters spelling out "Love." What a great message this would be to wake up to each morning.
Dr. Neon's radiant butterflies
Dr. Neon's shop ended my quest. I was drawn inside when I spied the dragonflies and butterflies catching the midday sunlight. What wares he had on display...knives and daggers, horses, toy soldiers, dragons and more dragons...and finally, on one side shelf I saw the unicorns. I already own over two dozen of the creatures, plus half a dozen paintings featuring the mythical beasts. I also wear a gold unicorn on a chain, which Doc Neon noticed when I told him I hadn't treated myself to a unicorn for some time.

New addition to the menagerie
"I treat myself to them, whenever the mood strikes me," he replied. "I even have unicorn tattoos, and make myself one whenever I'm so inclined." A kindred spirit indeed. I'm happy that I treated myself to another unicorn, and that I have it to remember what a glorious morning in Laguna Beach it had been yesterday. I'm still filled with joy.

Here's The Pawnshop Kings rocking "Joy."

And here's an interview with Dr. Neon, who bills himself as a "creator of light, feminist, miniaturist, bon vivant, epicurean, alchemist, innovator, anti-fascist, futurist, fabricator of dreams, actor, comedian, poet, mold maker, blacksmith, renowned car/bike builder...and teller of tall but true tales!" It's worth your while to visit him in his lab, as I did via You Tube this morning:

Sunday, December 6, 2015

I Still Remember Pearl Harbor

It happened long before most of my friends were born. But for me, December 7 still has a special meaning, and is one of my earliest childhood memories. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's voice poured from our bulky living room Philco, and Mama had started to cry. She'd received a phone call from her brother, who said he was likely to set sail shortly in defense of our nation.

Not long ago I gathered together my memories...this is how I remember Pearl Harbor.

From Sea to Shining Sea

"Of all the so-called natural human rights that have ever been invented, liberty is least likely to be cheap and is never free of cost.” –Robert A. Heinlein

My New Year's resolution in 1976 was to see more of the United States. I decided a significant start would be to watch the Tall Ships sail into New York Harbor. I'd heard that sixteen of the stately vessels from all around the world would participate in a special Parade of Ships on July 4, led by the United States Coast Guard Academy's Eagle. All would bear the tricolor star insignia of the Bicentennial. The mere thought of witnessing this in person stirred within me a sense of patriotism I'd long thought dormant.

Not only had I never been to New York City, I'd never seen the Atlantic Ocean, so it seemed only proper to celebrate the glory of this great country by crossing the continent. A native Californian, I revered the Pacific, but our country, I reminded myself, was beautiful from sea to shining sea.

My husband, a Long Beach policeman, immediately bid for a July vacation slot. Summer shift schedules had to be charted months in advance, to accommodate officers who wanted to take their children on school vacation trips.

"I don't know for certain about time off," Bob warned me in early January, "but don't worry. We'll do something special to celebrate the holiday."

"Nothing else could be the same as the thrill of seeing the Tall Ships," I remember replying.

I'd already planned how we could travel on from New York City to Boston or Philadelphia. I'd never visited any of the original thirteen colonies that our forefathers had founded. I longed to see the Liberty Bell and where the Boston Tea Party took place. I wanted to pay patriotic homage to it all during this special year.

Bob had sighed. "We'll see what the watch commander decides. We'll know in another month or so which weeks I'll get for vacation."

In late March we learned that he'd had been granted the last two weeks of July. No Tall Ships for us on the Fourth. I immediately asked our travel agent to find some tour deals later in July for the area I wanted to visit, but, she reported, it was already too late. Even motels in outlying East Coast areas were fully booked for this special summer.

I tried not to despair. After all, this would be a landmark year for our family. Our son would graduate from high school in mid-June, and recently he'd announced his intentions to spend the summer hanging out with buddies. Old enough now to stay home alone, he'd be starting college in the fall.

Additionally, I'd been accepted at UCLA's graduate school of social welfare and in September would begin driving across Los Angeles County to attend classes. There'd be little time during the next two years for Bob and me to travel anywhere together.

Could we find an alternative destination that would commemorate the spirit of America? I finally hit upon a resolution.

A few years earlier, in 1959, Hawaii finally had been admitted to the Union. I'd never been there, either. If we couldn't explore the original colonies, why not investigate our 50th state?

I'd asked Bob once before about the possibility of a trip to the islands.

"No," he'd said. "I've no interest in going back to Hawaii. I was there for basic training at Schofield Barracks back in the '50s before I went to Korea. That was enough for me."

This time I altered my pitch.

"If I can't see the Tall Ships, I want to visit the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor."

Bob hesitated. "You know I'm not into swimming or sunbathing. I'm a brickyard blond. I sunburn. I don't tan."

I nodded. "We don't have to spend our days at the beach. I burn, too." I smiled and took his hand. "You know that my earliest memories are tied to World War II. We'll visit the Punchbowl, too."

I figured Bob wouldn't want to miss seeing the site of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific where we'd pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

I continued. "Going there would be very patriotic. After all, I still remember how my parents hushed my sister and me as they listened on the Philco console to President Roosevelt. Somebody gave us a doll, a nurse
wearing a Remember Pearl Harbor banner. My sister even won a war bond for singing in a talent contest."

Bob gave my hand a squeeze. "All right. It doesn’t sound like too bad an idea. You're right that it would be timely. And maybe we can hit a luau or two, and even see Don Ho."

On July 4th as usual we strolled a quarter mile over to the block party at a friend's home. Each year he and his neighbors petitioned the city to be able to cordon off the street and erect volleyball nets. Everybody set out their barbecues. All afternoon the ocean breezes wafted the mouthwatering aroma of grilling burgers throughout the neighborhood. We slathered on sun lotion and boogied to the latest hit, the Starland Vocal Band's "Afternoon Delight."

We all capped the day by trouping inside to watch a broadcast of a massive fireworks display as the Tall Ships sailed up the Hudson River.

Two weeks later, on a clear-skied Sunday morning, Bob and I sailed out to the Valor in the Pacific National Monument, and placed our leis in the water near the sunken USS Arizona. I watched as the chains of tiny cymbidium orchids drifted back towards shore, and said a quick silent prayer for the souls of the slain sailors. As I reached into my purse for a tissue, I noticed Bob wiping a tear from his cheek, so I handed him one, as well.

In subsequent years we finally got to New York City. We saw in the 1980s in Times Square. We sailed past the Statue of Liberty on the Staten Island Ferry the next night, and caught a close up of the Lady aglow, with her torch held high.

Subsequently, there have been other memorable patriotic moments in my life. In 1994 I even celebrated, as a Peace Corps Volunteer, the Quinto Centenario at the lighthouse in the Dominican Republic, the five hundredth celebration of the discovery of the New World, on the very island where Columbus' sailors first set foot.

I've since paid a call to Philadelphia's Liberty Bell, but not yet to Boston Harbor, scene of the Tea Party. I've lived and worked in Washington DC, and attended briefings at the Capitol and the National Press Club. But I've yet to witness the elegant majesty of the Tall Ships in sail.

Nonetheless, I know in my heart I've most deeply felt the stir of the spirit of America that long ago Bicentennial summer. My patriotism hadn't been rekindled in New England as I'd originally planned, but rather when I found myself afloat on the placid waters of Pearl Harbor…where over 2400 Americans lost their lives in service to our country.
Here's a link to FDR's stirring address to the nation:

Saturday, December 5, 2015

MIM: Music, Music, Music

Put another nickle in, in the nickleodeon...

Those of us who grew up in the 1950s remember Teresa Brewer's infectious version of "Music, Music, Music," which extolled the nickleodeon. I'm betting that few of us had ever seen one. I never had until last weekend. What a treat to the ear to hear this one in actual action!

Tree features instruments, too.
At the world's only global musical instrument museum, MIM, opened in 2010, music lovers can "see, hear, and feel the vibes of instruments played by musical icons including Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley®, Pablo Casals, John Lennon, “King” Sunny Adé, Taylor Swift, and many others from around the world." So Thanksgiving weekend, we dropped by while I visited family in Casa Grande, AZ.

I spent a long morning wandering through the well-designed galleries of this compendium of instruments and tributes to those who play them. Granddaughter Kendra even got to play the grand piano in the lobby, since all music students are invited to try that magnificent Steinway keyboard.
Here's Johnny...Cash, that is.

The costumes and instruments of Native Americans vary from tribe to tribe.
The Family Wilson in action.

In addition to the Artist Gallery, featuring those virtuosos listed above, I had time to explore the galleries devoted to North America and Europe. We also spent time in the Mechanical Music Gallery and the Experience Library, where I tried out a series of drums, gongs and bells.  If I'd had several more hours and a lot more stamina, I'd have visited the rooms displaying the instruments of other nations. These are the major upstairs exhibits:

Mother and Child Reunion
  • The Africa and Middle East Gallery, which displays instruments and artifacts from sub-Saharan, North African, and Middle Eastern nations.
  • The Asia and Oceania Gallery, which features instruments from countries and island groups in five sub-galleries devoted to regions of East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Oceania, and Central Asia and the Caucasus.
  • The Europe Gallery, where guests encounter instruments ranging from an antique charter horn and a foot-operated drum kit to a child’s vessel flute.
  • The Latin America Gallery , which features instruments and ensembles displayed in three sub-galleries: South America; Central America and Mexico; and the Caribbean.

  • The United States/Canada Gallery, where guests can observe the diverse array of instruments that shaped the North American musical landscape, including the Appalachian dulcimer, sousaphone, ukulele, and electric guitar. Special exhibits focus on iconic American musical-instrument manufacturers like Martin and Steinway.
If you've got a long winter's weekend coming up, there's plenty to do in Phoenix...but be sure to take in this stellar attraction. Here's a link to help you plan your trip:

Friday, November 20, 2015

Snarls Dickens? When Holidays are Hard to Face

Grumpy Cat as Snarls Dickens, by artist Jewel Renee
This morning I opened the high kitchen cupboard above the refrigerator for the first time since I put away the Christmas cards I bought last January. I thought I'd get the cards down and begin to address them this weekend. I hope to get my annual Christmas letter written before I leave for Arizona for Thanksgiving.

Peering into the cupboard, I took stock of the few ornaments stored there, and once again regretted having brought so few. When I sold my house in NE Washington late last year, I gave away nearly all my Christmas decorations, keeping only a fluffy Santa that a Peace Corps friend had mailed me when I was so far from family in distant Seychelles, and a couple of other trinkets. I thought I'd have no room to store anything. I was right. I really don't. But there's a handful of ornaments that I now wish I'd kept.

For some reason, I forgot to rescue a circa 1960s Norman Rockwell coffee table Christmas book, which I inadvertently left behind. Year after year, I'd dig it out, and reread some of the holiday stories and find myself infused with the spirit of the season anew. I could use such a dose of good cheer this year.

Last Christmas was the first I'd celebrated with my son and daughter-in-law in the 25 years they'd been married. I'd always been in another country, another state, another city.

"I can't believe we're finally all together," Mari Lou had said that afternoon, as she and Steve made certain her mother, Maria, and I were seated comfortably at El Torito. Some might think a Mexican restaurant is an odd choice for Christmas dinner, but we'd all agreed we were still weary of turkey and stuffing from Thanksgiving. I remember savoring a chicken tostada and a strawberry Margarita. On Christmas a drink should be red.

Later we drove to Long Beach to revisit Daisy Avenue, with its annual Christmas Tree Lane. We concluded the evening with dessert at my new apartment, Coco's Pumpkin Harvest Pie, and glasses of sparkling
cranberry juice.

This year Mari Lou won't be with us. Losing her at the onset of her favorite time of the year, not long before Halloween, has devastated all three of us. Nonetheless, we plan to spend Christmas together once again.

Christmas still can be magical, I remind myself. As I compose my Christmas letter, I'll count my blessings. I'll banish old Grumpy Cat, and think of all those Christmases from long ago, when I couldn't wait to wake up on December 25. I'll get my letter written and the cards mailed, thankful that I still have friends who will want to open them. I'll remember the Fezziwigs and the Crachits and will honor Christmas in my heart.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Traveling in Times of Terror: Andechs

Kloster Andechs

Yesterday an acquaintance asked if I planned to cancel my planned trip to London for this coming February. Puzzled, I asked why.

"Well, because of what happened in Paris last night...that's why. Nobody with any sense with leave home with all the terrorists out there."

Believe me, I do understand why people are fearful. I've been fearful when overseas myself. I remember, for instance, the aftermath of 2001, when many were afraid to get on an airplane. My recollection of those harrowing days is recorded below. My late husband, Ken Wilson, and I were among the few who traveled shortly after the terrorist attack. I can't foresee the future, but figure I'll likely be seeing a West End musical and basking in the sunlight on the Isle of Wight, come February.

Suds and Solace

 By Terri Elders

“The future is an opaque mirror. Anyone who tries to look into it sees nothing but the dim outlines of an old and worried face.”  --Jim Bishop

The morning of September 11, 2001, I’d just opened an HIV/AIDS seminar in a shabby hotel two hours north of Port-au-Prince, when I was pulled aside by the Peace Corps/Haiti health program manager. I'd been excited to travel to the Caribbean to facilitate this training, the first on the issue conducted in Haiti by the United State's grassroots development agency. 

“The World Trade Center and the Pentagon have been attacked by planes,” she whispered. “It’s not a joke.”

She shared what little she’d heard with the Volunteers. Horrified, everybody crowded into the adjacent bar
which had a generator-powered television set.

After a while we decided to join hands and recite The Lord’s Prayer. Our Haitian partners would arrive the next day, most hiking miles across rugged rural terrain to reach bus stops. I prayed for strength to get through the week.

I worried, too, about my husband’s safety. A late riser, he’d still be sleeping soundly in our townhouse in Silver Spring, MD. Married a little over a year, Ken and I looked forward to finally taking a belated  honeymoon. We’d planned to go to Munich for Oktoberfest. The future now looked murky.

Incredibly, the HIV/AIDS training went forward without mishap. The following Sunday the US Embassy somehow maneuvered me aboard a return flight to Miami. Even more improbably, American Airlines rerouted one extra flight to Dulles, since Reagan National, my original destination, had closed down. I got its last remaining seat.

When I reached home Ken welcomed me with a hug and a glass of Chardonnay. He settled on the sofa beside me.

“What do you think?” he asked. “The news commentators are speculating about more possible hijackings. Should we cancel the trip?”

In our sixties, we’d married the previous summer. Right after the wedding I’d started to work at Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington DC, so we’d postponed our honeymoon until I’d accrued some vacation time. Ken pined to revisit the towns he’d lived in during his Air Force service in the 1950s, so we’d chosen Germany.

“I want to see one more Oktoberfest,” he’d said. “This’ll be my fourth, and the best, since you’ll be along. You’ll learn to love German beer, I promise.”

I preferred a glass of chilled white wine to a mug of tepid beer, but agreed. I knew Germany was famous for its Liebfraumilch and Riesling, as well as all that celebrated beer.

But now I fretted. We were scheduled to fly out in just a few days. Would we be safe? Would it be foolhardy to travel at such an uncertain time? New travel regulations had gone into effect, so navigating airport security lines would be arduous. On the plus side, we’d already arranged for a rental car at Franz Joseph airport in Munich, and Ken claimed to remember enough German to ask for directions as we headed for the Black Forest, Landsberg, Garmisch and all those other magical-sounding places he’d described.

“Let’s do it,” Ken finally said. “We’ll probably be safer in Germany now than here in the outskirts of the capital. You’ve been working hard. You deserve a vacation.”
So we went, with me praying for our safety every leg of the journey. On the first day of October we settled in at Oktoberfest’s Hofbrau Haus, surrounded by crowds of young people, nearly all from New Zealand and Australia.

“We were able to find lodgings here after so many Americans cancelled their travel plans,” one young couple told us. “Let’s toast America!”

We all raised our litre mugs and sang along with a brass band that pounded out “Stop in the Name of Love” and “Roll Out the Barrel.” We ate salted radishes and pretzels as big as our heads, and toasted every English-speaking nation on Earth, including Belize, Guyana and Seychelles, countries that may have gone unmentioned if I hadn’t a personal Peace Corps knowledge of them. Then the Kiwis and Aussies even joined us in a chorus of “Blame Canada” when a trio from Ottawa asked to join us.

Ken and I listened appreciatively as our new friends poured out their sympathy for the States, and gratefully accepted their gracious good wishes for a safe return home. We left Oktoberfest carefree, flushed with lager and love.

Then the United States initiated a bombing mission over Afghanistan. We heard that American citizens abroad should register at American embassies, and that tourists in other European countries had been threatened by terrorists.

“Should we try to return home early?” I asked, nearly overwhelmed with fear.

“I don’t want to leave Germany until you’ve seen Andechs,” Ken replied, shaking his head. “We’ll be all right. We’ll be safe here.”
Ken described Andechs Abbey, an hour south of Munich, as a Benedictine monastery housed in a castle that dates from the twelfth century. Its brewery produces lagers with an alcohol percentage nearly as strong as fortified sherries.

“We’ll sit in the beer garden, share a basket of rye bread and monastery cheese, and sip a beer and contemplate the frescoes and stuccoes. We’ll really relax at Andechs,” he insisted.

Ken drove along the eastern shore of Lake Ammersee, eventually pointing out a castle looming on a hill.

“There’s Andechs!”  He patted my hand.

I’d read that Andechs had been a cherished destination for pilgrims for over five hundred years. Now, as we headed up the hill that frosty morning, I felt as if we, too, were on a pilgrimage.

The beer proved just as delicious and heady as Ken had promised. Then after lunch, we toured the ground floor of the church. I sat for a while in the Chapel of Sorrow, praying for the United States, for Washington DC, for peace, and for our marriage. I especially prayed for a sense of serenity. As soon as I asked the Lord to instill peace in my heart, I felt an enormous sense of relief. The fear seeped away, leaving me calmer than I’d been since the morning of September 11.
The medieval Chapel of Sorrow houses the grave of Carl Orff, the 20th century composer of “Carmina Burana,” hypnotic music that for me always makes everything seem epic. 

When we crossed to the St. Anthony Chapel, with frescoes by 17th century artists, I reflected on how so
many pieces of the past seem to come together at Andechs. As we left, I picked up a brochure that quoted the Andechs’ Abbot, Dr. Johannes Eckert, on the purpose of the monastery. One phrase hit a chord, and I read it aloud to Ken. Eckert hoped pilgrims would “relish the present and the moments which go by so quickly, yet indeed not forget that which went on before.”

I recalled that September day in Haiti, when we all decided to move forward, to not become paralyzed with fear. As we strolled to our rental car I turned to Ken.

“In the chapel I prayed for help in giving up fear,” I said. “There’s no room for it on our honeymoon. I think it worked. I feel more peaceful now.”

“Good decision. Just don’t ask Him to make us give up German beer.”

I laughed. Suds and solace seemed perfect mates, just like us. I squeezed my wise spouse’s hand. And thanked the Lord for restoring peace in my heart.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Never Forgetting: El Dia de los Muertos

When I lived in Antigua Guatemala in the early nineties, I used to go to the cemetery for All Soul's Day, and marvel at how the food left on the gravesites late on All Saint's Day had been consumed by hungry spirits before the sun rose on November 2.

In Antigua, markets and cafes would take orders in advance for fiambre, so I never cooked those days. This traditional cold salad, made of cold cuts, had a purely Guatemalan history. I don't know where I could find a takeout order of fiambre here, but am fairly certain that I can locate some of the other traditional Hispanic dishes, such as Mexican pan de muerto.

This year Fairhaven Memorial Park will be celebrating the holiday. This is how it's described on the Fairhaven website:
Fairhaven honors a traditional Hispanic celebration of the lives of those who have passed on the day the souls of departed loved ones return to partake of offerings from friends and family. It is a thanksgiving of family ties and togetherness, as well as an experience of the seamless continuity of life and death. We join together with our families in celebrating this colorful Mexican custom which includes a memorial service, ofrendas, live music, and the sharing of pan de muerto, a soft round bread covered with sugar that is often in the shape of bones or a skull. Everyone is welcome to join us on this memorable evening to celebrate those we have lost and will never be forgotten.

My son  offered to make a copy of a picture of Mari Lou for Mari Lou's mother and me to leave at the altar. Mari Lou had been a Cuban-American, and enchanted with her Hispanic heritage. We chose this photo:
Mari Lou Laso Elders in Catalina

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Unfinished Chapters: It's Never Over Till It's Over

If Life came with a “rewind” button, we could insert ourselves into missed opportunities, give voice to unspoken words, make amends for hurtful deeds, keep friendships from falling by the wayside, and even linger to smell the roses. Twenty exceptional writers share their true stories of love, loss, missteps, chance encounters, do-overs, and the musing of “woulda/coulda/shoulda” moments that make us so uniquely human.
My contributor's copy of Unfinished Chapters arrived this week, just in time for me to make good on my promise to myself to spend some time at the ocean. My story in this collection, "Secret Love," is set at what used to be known, back in the forties and fifties, as Tin Can Beach.
Tin Can Beach in earlier days
It's now spruced up as Bolsa Chica State Beach, pristine with fire pits, evenly spaced lifeguard stations, and meticulous restrooms. I revisited the site last month, an evening bonfire singalong respite from the long vigil of sitting in ICU at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange where my daughter-in-law had been surviving on total life support.

Then, when Mari Lou Laso Elders died on September 28, just two months after her 53rd birthday, one of my closest friends, Chris, suggested we needed to go stare at the ocean. It's always been soothing for my spirit to watch the waves roll in. Chris, a musician, had been reading yet another biography of John Lennon, so we discussed Lennon's sibling rivalry with his Liverpool pal, Paul McCartney...and debated if the two, who fell out when the Beatles dissolved, ever would have reunited. He and I agreed it was likely that they would...they, of course, had unfinished chapters to write.

I'd been reading my copy of my Unfinished Chapters yesterday morning. The title reminds me of  F. Scott Fitzgerald's concluding lines in The Great Gatsby, the words engraved on his tombstone that I once saw in the St. Mary's churchyard in Rockville, MD.
Yesterday afternoon while Chris and I stared at the Pacific at Alamitos Bay in  Long Beach, we breathed in the brisk ocean air, fretted over a seagull that seemed unduly tired, and watched a bevy of hydrobike riders pedal out toward the far shore. I thought more about lives cut short...John Lennon at 40, Fitzgerald at 44, Mari Lou barely 53. And I wondered about their unfinished chapters...what turns their lives would have taken had they lived.

I had been delighted to have "Secret Love" chosen for inclusion in this particular anthology. Earlier this year, editor Christina Hamlett, had staged an international essay competition to discover, as she writes on the back of the book, the best "true stories about love, loss, missteps, chance encounters, do-overs, and the musing of woulda/coulda/shoulda moments that make us so uniquely human." Released now in paperback, the collection features the work of twenty writers. Copies can be purchased directly from the publisher or via Amazon, Amazon UK, and Amazon Europe. A Kindle version will be released later this year.

So far I've read half a dozen of the stories, and am eager to's difficult to put this book down. Each writer has presented a scenario that raises the eternal questions about the road not taken...the moment not seized...the twists of fate that intervene as we struggle against the tide with our flimsy oars. 
Sunset at Bolsa Chica State Beach
 Here are the writers who share their personal stories in this engrossing and thought-provoking compilation:
Christina Hamlett (Author), Debbie McClure (Contributor), Chaynna Campbell (Contributor), Johanna Baker-Dowdell (Contributor), Tina Jensen (Contributor), Maeve Corbett (Contributor), Rachael Protzman Hardman (Contributor), Lisa Romeo (Contributor), Marnie Macauley (Contributor), Rachel McGrath (Contributor), Anita G. Gorman (Contributor), Cindy Matthews (Contributor), Kelsey Poe (Contributor), Danise Malqui (Contributor), Catherine S. Blair (Contributor), Josephine Harwood (Contributor), Tracy Falenwolfe (Contributor), Terri Elders (Contributor), Charlotte Nystrom (Contributor), Clifford Protzman (Contributor), Robert B. Robeson (Contributor)

Thursday, October 1, 2015

For Mari Lou Laso Elders, Our Brown-Eyed Girl

Mari Lou and Steve Elders
If I'd been reading this story in a novel, I'd never have predicted this woefully inadequate ending. When I reached the final page, I'd probably have tossed the book aside and penned a scathing review, chastising the author for sloppy plotting. Nothing had foreshadowed this tragic conclusion.

Yes, I know life sometimes takes unexpected turns. But still...just when your spunky protagonist achieves success, it's not fair to your readers to then toss her off a cliff. What kind of an unsatisfying conclusion is that? How do you reconcile your anger at fickle fate? How do you find gratitude when every moment suddenly seems empty of joy? How do you remember that all you need is love?

This Saturday I'll be sitting next to my son and my daughter-in-law's mom, Maria, at Waverly Chapel at Fairhaven Memorial Park and Mortuary. We'll be paying last respects to our beloved Mari Lou, who died Monday morning, after an arduous illness.

Despite the fatigue that prevented her from picking up so much as a pencil, a few weeks ago Mari Lou was able to finish most of the final edits to her young adult novel, The Morning Come, which is scheduled for publication by Scholastic Press in spring 2017. She had labored over this delightful book for nearly a decade. During the height of the depression during the election campaign that finally saw FDR win the White House, Possom, a young girl in the rural south, struggles to cope with the death of her mother. She looks to Eleanor Roosevelt as a role model. Mari Lou hoped that the novel captured the spirit of youthful idealism. One of her favorite literary characters was Scout of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

During the past several years Mari Lou mentored a circle of writers, The Tuesday Morning Class, who met in Orange to critique whatever poetry, fiction or memoir each participant might be working on. Mari Lou provided writing prompts, exercises, resources, individual edits and inspiration.

I had the privilege to be a guest presenter for the group a few years ago on a visit to Southern California, discussing how to mine your life's story for creative nonfiction pieces for magazines and anthologies. In recent months, when Mari Lou began to ail, I was able to step in a few times, to help the members refine their efforts and actually submit them to such paying markets as Chicken Soup for the Soul. What a joy to hear the writers laud my daughter-in-law, and tell me how much they had depended on her encouragement to continue with their writing.

For twenty-six years I've thought of Mari Lou as the daughter I never had. I've rejoiced that she and Steve found each other on the features copy desk of the Orange County Register way back in 1988. I met Mari Lou when I was home on a Medavac from Belize, where I'd gone in the fall of 1987 as a Peace Corps Volunteer. After I returned overseas, I looked forward to my son's letters describing how the relationship was progressing. A few years ago I wrote the story below about how desperate I was to get me to the church on time for Steve and Mari Lou's wedding.

Mari Lou listed her favorite things on the My Story form for the ICU at St. Joseph's Hospital: pumpkins, the color orange, pelicans, and her teddy bear April. She loved her family and her fellow writers. Many will be at the Saturday service.Yesterday Maria and I chose a proper party dress for April. She'll be pretty in pink.

In my daughter-in-law's honor I'll wear the only piece of orange jewelry I own, a beaded peace sign given to me by Steve on Mother's Day back in the late sixties. Peace and love, Mari Lou Laso Elders. Rest in peace. And love.

Mother of the Groom
Because of their size, parents may be difficult to discipline properly.”  ~P.J. O'Rourke

Perching on the steps of my rickety house on stilts in Belize City, I opened the long-awaited letter from my son. When I’d snatched the envelope from my slot at Peace Corps Headquarters, I’d decided to read it in the relative quiet of my Southside neighborhood, far from the blaring boom boxes of downtown. I expected good news…and got it.

Steve, my only child, and his girlfriend of the past year, Mari Lou, had set their wedding date for September 9.

I gazed across the road at the apricot-hued buds of the tree in the courtyard of St. John’s Cathedral, and made some calculations. It was July, so I had enough time to make the necessary arrangements to attend, but there would be so much to do.

I often sought comfort in soaking up the beauty of this compelling tree of many names. I’d learned that it’s called a Flame in Africa, a Royal Poinciana in Florida, and a Flamboyant in Belize, where it bloomed from May through July. Inhaling its subtle grape scent always brightened my mood.

So, I reflected, I’ll finally get to be the mother of the groom. I’d read somewhere that this supporting character’s role is to show up, shut up and wear beige. Unlike the father of the bride, she never takes center stage. She’s supposed to blend into the background. But as a parent, I didn’t want to a shadowy outsider, a drab bystander, on Steve’s big day. Every mother surely wants to preen just a bit as her child takes a major life step forward.

Show up? I sure would, even though the logistics were worrisome. I lived on the Caribbean coast of Central America. Over two thousand miles lay between my house and the UCI University Club, in Irvine, California, venue for the nuptials.

What would it take to get me to that club on time? I’d have to request vacation time, line up a plane reservation, secure lodgings with a California friend, and locate an escort.
Finding the latter might be difficult, but I decided I’d ask Rob, an old friend from the days we taught school together. He’d retired to Thailand, so I’d have to send a telegram. To my delight he responded within days.

“I’d planned a trip home this fall, so I’ll make it for September,” Rob telegraphed. “I’ll order a silk suit here in Bangkok.”

A week before my scheduled flight, I stayed overnight with a friend who lived near the Guatemala border. When I got home, I discovered I’d been burglarized. Somebody had shinnied up the banana tree next to a living room window, jimmied it open and tracked muddy footprints across the cushions of my rattan sofa.

Just days earlier I’d retrieved my passport and a couple of hundred American dollars from the Peace Corps vault. I’d tucked them into a zippered compartment in my carry-on bag, along with my airline ticket. I raced to my closet. The bag was gone. So was a box with a few inexpensive but treasured pieces of costume jewelry, including a Belizean black coral necklace and earrings I’d planned to wear to the wedding.

I wanted to howl to the heavens, but instead I hustled over to the Cathedral and collapsed in the shade of the Flamboyant. I wiped away tears and once again noticed the symmetry of the graceful lacy bell-shaped flowers.

“There’s proportion and purpose to life,” I deduced. “Destiny won’t let me miss my boy’s wedding.” I headed toward the Peace Corps office.

The director called the U.S. Embassy to order me a new passport, and tapped his emergency fund to replace my stolen money. Taca Airlines booked me seats on my original scheduled flights. They’d see if anybody tried to use my stolen tickets, and would send me a refund later. In the meantime they’d put the cost of substitute tickets on my credit card.

Before I left I started to call my son to explain what had happened. I picked up the lobby phone and suddenly realized that I’d most likely cry and complain. Then I remembered the second duty of the mother of the groom…shut up. Maybe I’d better begin right then. In the Caribbean the pods of the Flamboyant are called “woman’s tongue,” because of the clattering noise they make when rattled by the wind. Steve, engrossed in wedding plans himself, didn’t need to hear my laments. I replaced the receiver.

Once I arrived in California, I had exactly one day to shop for clothes.

“Wear something snazzy,” Rob had said. “Remember, my new suit’s elegant, but I don’t want to outshine the mother of the groom.”

Wear beige? No. I wouldn’t settle for biscuit, mushroom, taupe or oatmeal either. I didn’t want to resemble an early harbinger of Halloween. I craved something with color, something bright so I’d feel special, not nondescript or invisible.

When I got to the mall I feared I’d spend hours roaming through the racks. But it was if Destiny decided to take my side once again. At the very first shop I found exactly the dress I’d envisioned.

Friday’s rehearsal dinner went well. Though the groom’s dad and stepmom headed up the table, Rob and I comfortably chatted in our corner with friends of the bridal couple who seemed fascinated with our lives in our adopted countries. We regaled them with tales of our overseas derring-do, some of them even true, we laughingly confessed later to one another.

The evening of the wedding I donned my chiffon dress, a blend of jewel-tone blues, greens and lavender. Though I missed the black coral jewelry I’d planned to sport, I substituted a strand of glass beads that echoed the hues of my gown.

“Not at all dowdy, we two,” Rob commented when he arrived to pick me up, dapper indeed in his exquisitely tailored navy blue suit, with matching vest and tie. I relaxed. I wouldn’t be invisible at my son’s wedding.

At the reception following the ceremony, my son took his bride by the hand and spoke into a microphone.

“We’d like to invite everybody to join us as we dance to the first song I ever learned.” He looked over at me and grinned. “My mom taught me to sing this when I was four years old. I’d always loved the tune, but never had known the meaning of a ‘huckleberry friend’ until I met Mari Lou.”

The disc jockey put on a dreamy orchestration of “Moon River.”

Rob and I joined the other couples moving towards the dance floor.

“I’m so happy for Steve,” I whispered, flushed with joy, “and glad I found this dress.”

He winked and gathered me close. As we twirled and my chiffon skirt flared our, I didn’t feel like a mousy nonentity at all.

The mother of the groom might not have a major role at her child’s wedding... but she certainly doesn’t have to fade into the background in beige. As long as she doesn’t try to upstage the bride or the bride’s mother, she’s free to dress with just a hint, just a touch of…flamboyance.

Waverly Chapel, Fairhaven Memorial Park

My son is writing Mari Lou's obituary and it will soon appear here, where those who were fortunate enough to have known my remarkable daughter-in-law may leave lines of remembrance:
In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to either a Los Angeles organization that encourages young girls to write, WriteGirl, or the International Bird Rescue (, two causes that were special to Mari Lou.

May 2015 family gathering: Steve, Mari Lou, stepson Rick, me, stepdaughter--in-law Angela. Stepgranddaughter Kendra holds April, Mari Lou's teddy bear that my son gave to her on their wedding day September 9, 1989.