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....

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.