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: