Family Vacation in Colombia: A Wish Come True?

I am writing this somewhere over Mexico, en route to El Salvador. My final destination is some two hours after that, Medellin Colombia. Why Colombia? Well, you might recall, a little over 3 years ago Juan and I traveled to Italy for my 50th birthday, and as part of my list of 50 Things to Do Before 50.  Juan didn’t have a list of 50 things he wanted to do, but he liked the idea of taking a birthday trip. We considered all sorts of destinations to mark his milestone birthday—Argentina, Spain, or perhaps even Portugal? They all sounded like wonderful and romantic locations for the both of us to get away. Ultimately, his birthday wish was to travel to Colombia. The country of his parents’ birth, the country where he spent many happy summer vacations of his youth, and the place where found solace when his first marriage ended. So here we are traveling on, appropriately enough, Father’s Day. It’s an appropriate day to begin this trip because the second part of Juan’s birthday wish was that we take this trip with all four of our kids. He wanted to experience Colombia with our kids, and show them how special this country is to him, and introduce them to the extended family who live here. You know that adage, “Be careful what you wish for, because you might just get it?” That’s kind of how I am feeling.

Blogging somewhere over the Americas.

Blogging somewhere over the Americas.

If I sound like I am anxious about this trip, it’s because I am. Not since our disaster of a family vacation in 2008 have I ever dared to think we would all travel together for any extended period of time. That year, I spend an inordinate amount of money and time planning a week-long vacation at a beautiful resort on the Mexican Riviera. I had high hopes that the kids would spend hours on end in one of the four resort pools, complete with a lazy river and water slide. They would occupy themselves while Juan and I lounged poolside, reading and sipping tropical drinks. Instead, one of us spent the majority of time sleeping in the darkened hotel room, others complained of heat, humidity, foreign food, and the lack of internet, some of us got the “Turista” and the balance of the time we spent trying to pretend we were enjoying ourselves. The week ended with a major meltdown where some of us ended up flinging clothes at each other and the rest of us couldn’t wait to get home and back to work again.

A happy moment before the turista hit and the vacation imploded.

A happy moment before the Turista hit us and the vacation imploded.

Here it is eight years later and we are trying it again. This is not to say we haven’t all been together for any trips. We did a short camping trip with friends who ran interference among siblings, and we took a vacation with my extended family.  There were enough adults to act as referees, allowing us all to get away relatively unscathed. That is, until the ride home from the airport which ended with an embarrassing teenage temper tantrum, and my parents racing to their car so they could drive themselves home to their peaceful retired life.

This time around I am trying to manage expectations and yet I still have hope this vacation will be different. The “kids” are not kids anymore. They are almost 21, 18, 17 and 11. Olivia just got home yesterday after a semester in France. Maybe her travels abroad and maturity will enable her to roll with the punches and not throw any at her sister. Erica has gone through a lot in the last year, and she has learned techniques to help her regulate her emotions. Now, If she could just put the techniques to use when she feels triggered. Nico has always flown under the radar, and acts with the neutrality of Switzerland during most family conflict, even when he knows better than to stay silent. With only two months left before he leaves home for college, I hope he can find it in himself to speak out instead of going along to get along. Diego is just the right age to enjoy this vacation with the siblings he loves, and not so old that he doesn’t want to hang out with his parents. I am also excited to see how fluent he has become since finishing his elementary school education in a Spanish language immersion program. As for Juan and I, we know that with the kids being the ages they are, this could very well be the last time we vacation together as a family. I just hope that we all get along well enough that none of us regret Juan’s birthday wish.


Ready for take-off. Who looks more nervous?

Dancing with the Dead: My Own Día de los Muertos Celebration

Last week was Dia de las Muertos. This is centuries old holiday which originated in in Mexico and is currently enjoying a surge in popularity. The holiday honors loved ones who have died. Celebrants typically build a three-tiered altar called ofrendas and decorate with symbols as marigolds, papel picado and photographs and favorite foods of the deceased. On November 1 and 2 it’s thought that the veil which separates the living and the departed is thinner, allowing the living to experience the presence of the deceased. Even though it sounds eerie or maybe a bit morbid, I really like this holiday.

I love the decorations, the foods and the tradition. I don’t think of it as eerie but see the holiday as an opportunity to remember my grandparents, my cousin and others who are no longer here with me physically but remain a part of my life.  One year I put together an altar and another time I joined in a local Muertos celebration. This year I was so busy I didn’t build an altar or join one of the many events around Los Angeles.

This week I had to go to a meeting just down the street from the cemetery where my grandparents are buried. The meeting ended and I decided to stop by the cemetery and say hello to my grandparents.  The cemetery was filled with flowers, especially marigolds whose strong scent is believed to help guide the departed to earth.

A beautiful day for a visit to the cemetery.

A beautiful day for a visit to the cemetery.

I stopped at the flowershop and bought a bouquet to bring to my grandparents. I thought I knew where their graves were located but I couldn’t find them so I went to the office to get a map.  Since I am, as my husband likes to say, “directionally challenged,” I wandered around lost, even after I had the map.  There were so many graves and no landmarks. Frustrated, I paused under a pine tree. In my frustration I asked my grandmother to help me find her and set out again among the graves.  All of a sudden I felt something inside my pants pricking me.  I must have looked ridiculous as I squirmed around and hopped up and down until a pine needle fell out of my pant leg. My grandmother must have had a good laugh at my expense.  Then, a cemetery groundskeeper approached me and asked if I needed help. I don’t know if my grandmother heard my plea, or the groundskeeper was just drawn to me by the sight of my ridiculous gravesite dance! Whatever. I finally found my grandparents’ graves.  I put out the flowers, said hello and was reminded of all the good times I had with them.

Even though missed missed the actual date, I celebrated my own Dia de los Muertos, laughing and dancing with my grandparents.

Saying hello to the grandparents.

Saying hello to the grandparents.

How do you honor your ancestors?

Celebrating Thanksgiving in a Blended Family

This was originally posted last year but I thought I’d share it again. This year I am again hosting Thanksgiving dinner, and this year Nico won’t be with us to celebrate. He will be joining his dad and his other family and Olivia and Erica will be with us. Somehow we’ve gotten off our schedule. I guess it’s one of the downsides of being in a blended family. I’ll be thinking of Nico as I give thanks for the many blessings in my life. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your families.

Over the river and through the woods,

To Grandmother’s, Mother’s, Father’s,  house we go….

I remember singing that song during a holiday recital when I was a young girl in elementary school. The words to the song were very personal to me because they reminded me of celebrating holidays with my own family. My grandmother, who died this past June, was the matriarch of our family, and during the holidays, my extended family of uncles, aunts and cousins, would gather at her house to celebrate. It did not matter that she had a small house, her kitchen lacked a dishwasher, and a reliable oven, her house became the meeting place for our family gatherings. It was only in the last several years, when she was well into her 90’s, that we stopped gathering at her house, and Juan and I took on the job of hosting Thanksgiving dinner for our large, extended families.

Even though hosting Juan’s family and my own extended family means a house full of people, and a sink full of dirty dishes, I really do enjoy having everyone gather at our house. I love creating and maintaining the family traditions that go along with hosting the traditional Thanksgiving meal. However, in our blended family, creating traditions can be a challenge, because, unlike the song I learned to sing as a child, we don’t always know who house our kids will be going to for the holidays.

In our house, like most blended family households with joint custody, our kids share the holidays between our house and their other parent’s house, alternating every year. So far, we have managed to keep the kids on the same schedule, so that when Nico is with his dad, the girls are are also with their mom. This means that we have to be resourceful and creative to keep the traditions throughout the years, even when we are not all together. I remember the first Christmas that Nico and I spent apart because he travelled out of state with his father. Nico was three years-old and excited to be going on a plane to see his grandparents. I was single, home with my parents and broke down in tears at the sound of his voice on the phone. I still cannot think back to that time without feeling sadness and loss. These days I still feel a loss when Nico is not with me on a holiday, or when we can’t be together as a family, but I know that the kids have to experience these holidays and celebrations with their other family as well, and their lives will be enriched by it. I try not to let my own sadness spill over into their own celebrations, and I try to carve out some time for us to celebrate as a family, even if that celebration may not happen on the actual holiday. For instance, in the past, I have made a mini-Thanksgiving dinner for just the 6 of us. We celebrated early because the kids were going away for Thanksgiving day. On another occasion, we celebrated an early Thanksgiving and during a spontaneous moment of good will we invited the other parents. It made for an impromptu blended family portrait and it captured a moment in our family history.

Our 2007 early Thanksgiving celebration with the kids and all their parents.

This Thanksgiving will be one of those times when we won’t be together on the actual holiday. It’s an exceptional year, because typically this would be a year that is “ours.” However, this year, the girls will be celebrating with their mother and her family. I am happy for them, since they have a lovely family on that side, and for this they have a lot to be thankful. But, they will be missed by our extended families, who are gathering at our house. Nico will be with us, and of course, Diego is all ours. This year when we gather to eat we will feel my grandmother’s absence, and the absence of Olivia and Erica, but our hearts will be filled with gratitude for all the blessings in our lives. Blessings of health, home and family–in whatever form that comes in.


In the House of an Angel

A few weeks ago I took another step towards saying good-bye to my grandmother. My grandmother died last June, at the wonderfully old age of 97. She died while living alone, in the house she had lived in for over 50 years. The only house I had ever known her to live in, and the place where , when I was a young girl, I would spend any weekend I could. Every Friday afternoon I’d call my cousin on the phone and ask her to meet my sister and I at Grandma’s. It was a ritual weekend for us. A weekend that began with packing our matching overnight suitcases that Grandma bought us, loading them with clothes and Barbies, and heading to Grandma’s. Saturdays we spent the day in a Barbie marathon, followed by lunch served outdoors in the patio, and maybe a trip to the grocery store, where Grandma could be easily persuaded to buying us something special. Saturday nights were spent staying up late, playing cards or Chinese checkers, watching The Carol Burnett Show”, and finally falling asleep in her spare bedroom. The house was small, but the heart of the house was huge.

Even into her last year of life, my grandmother enjoyed playing a game Chinese Checkers with her great-grandchildren.

This same house where my large extended family spent every holiday. Never mind that the tiny kitchen did not have a dishwasher, or that the dining room could only seat 8 comfortably, or even that there was just one bathroom, my grandmother’s house expanded to fit anyone who stopped by for a Christmas tamale, a bite of Easter ham, or her ambrosia salad at Thanksgiving. It was also the house with the bountiful apricot tree which shaded our small wooden playhouse with the dutch door, and the flower filled backyard which my grandmother cared for.

Helping my grandmother tend to her garden. Circa 1967.

Flowers from my grandmother's garden.

I have countless memories that were made in the house that was nearly unchanged throughout my life. Since she died, the house remained vacant, but my mother made weekly trips to begin thinning out my grandmother’s belongings. In January, we had a huge garage sale. I thought to myself, how my grandmother would have hated it. Little by little, the house emptied, until it was finally ready for the market. When it was listed by a family friend and realtor, the house sold in less than two weeks. It was a cash offer. As is. My mother, who had grown weary of the process of settling my grandmother’s estate, was relieved. And sad.

Escrow closed quickly. Suddenly, I had only one weekend to move out a couple of things that I wanted to keep. On a warm Saturday afternoon Juan and I took our van and drove to my grandmother’s house for the last time. I found the spare key in its usual hiding place. I walked inside and noticed the carpets had been cleaned, but the house emptied of furniture, and its walls stripped of photos and decor, showed years of wear. As I walked through the house looking around I felt sad yet strangely comforted. Even though the house held all sorts of memories for me, it was no longer the home I knew. With my grandmother’s passing, the heart of the house ceased to exist. Juan followed me around taking pictures of the rooms with his iPhone. I told him I didn’t need photos, but he insisted that I would want them later. He continued taking pictures, the music from Pandora radio on his phone playing. As we moved into the kitchen I began looking at it for the last time. So many meals prepared here, so many visits spent at the kitchen table, chatting and reminiscing. The last time I saw her alive, one week before she died, I said good-bye to her as she sat at her usual spot at the kitchen table, with the TV on and a stack of newspapers close by.

One last look around the kitchen that remained unchanged after all these years.

I opened the kitchen cabinets looking for anything left behind. Nothing. Not even any of her handwritten notes, or newpaper clippings she kept taped to the inside of the cabinet doors. As I looked inside the last cabinet I noticed a lone news clipping taped to the door. The words from a song by The Beatles, and on the last line, a reminder to me.

The only remaining newspaper clipping I found taped to a kitchen cabinet.

And then I became aware of the music that was playing from Juan’s iphone, “The Arms of an Angel\” by Sarah McLachlan.

It was as if she was there. It wasn’t scary, a little eerie maybe, but mostly it was, well, perfect. I had come to say good-bye to the house and walk through it one last time, but suddenly I knew that even though I would probably never return to the house that held so many memories, those memories, and my grandmother would never leave me. The memories of all that we shared would carry me through the moments I would miss her. I said good-bye to her house, but not to the memories and love that we shared in her home.


Easter Traditions

I’ve been a bit quiet on my blog lately, but just because things are quiet here, doesn’t mean that it’s quiet anywhere else in my life. Work has been crazy busy and family life has become very complicated with baseball, exams, drama practice, and scouting–not to mention two Spring breaks. But, at least it’s an improvement over last year, when we had three different Spring breaks to juggle. I guess it’s understandable then when, a week before Easter, we still didn’t make any plans for Easter Sunday. In our family, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year celebrations are usually split between my house, my sister-in-law’s house, and my parents’ house. Easter is the one holiday we all just wait and see who’s going to step up–it’s kind of like a game of chicken. Whoever blinks first is the one who gets to host it. As Easter Sunday was fast approaching and no one stepping up, I began to consider that maybe Juan and I should host. But, when I looked at my overgrown backyard lawn, my untidy house, and growing piles of laundry, and then considered the fact that our family needed to be at church by 6:30 a.m. for the older kids to assist at mass, I knew I would rather let an Easter celebration pass me by, than volunteer to have our families over dinner. I did not blink.

Alleluia, my mother and sister-in-law did!

So, that is how I found myself with two Easter celebration invitations. We chose to go to my parents house, since we spent last Easter with my in-laws. With my parents hosting, I offered to get the kids to dye eggs for the hunt. What was I thinking? Once upon a time, when I had three little kids and I had Martha Stewart ambition, I would organize a night of egg dying and Easter sugar cookie decorating. Today, I have three teenagers who have no interest in doing anything with hard boiled eggs, and I have one 7 year-old who would rather be outside playing on our neighbor’s trampoline than inside coloring eggs. Whew!

Olivia and Erica coloring Easter eggs, Easter 2004.


Olivia and Nico decorating Easter sugar cookies.

But, I still felt I owed Diego some kind of Easter cooking/coloring experience. I was at the farmers’ market when I saw these beauties.


Fresh strawberries the size of an egg.

All of a sudden I had a Martha Stewart moment. I decided to dip strawberries instead of dying eggs. I thought this was a brilliant idea! No one in my family likes hard-boiled eggs anyway, and who doesn’t like to eat strawberries, especially when they are dipped in white chocolate and sprinkled with Easter candy decorations? I think we have a new tradition to add to the whoever-blinks-first-gets-to-host-Easter contest.

Dipping the berries.

The finished product.

It’s good to have new traditions because other family Easter traditions have died out. My kids used to dress up for Easter. When Nico was two years-old I dressed him in this cute seersucker suit that my mom made for my younger brother.

Nico looked so cute as a blonde baby dressed in his Easter suit.

I kept that tradition going when I dressed up Diego in the same suit one Easter.

Diego, Easter 2007. Seersucker Suit, Easter 1976.

I liked dressing the kids in coordinating Easter outfits when they were younger.

Easter 2004. Blue and Green is the theme.

Last Easter was probably the last time I’ll ever get any of my kids to wear anything coordinating. Nico officially HATES this!

I promise I won't make you do this ever again.

This year, Diego was the only child I could coerce encourage into wearing something nice.

He took off  his tie was off as soon as we got to my parents’ house and he saw his cousins. Bathing suits were the attire of day.  Besides, you can move faster in the egg hunt when you run barefoot through the grass.

Diego on the hunt.

Another tradition in my family that was resurrected this Easter (hehe) was the time-honored egg hunt with the special prize in the plastic egg. We used to hunt eggs, hard-boiled and plastic. The plastic eggs were the best since they usually had money in them or a note which said sometime like this, “Go see Uncle John for your special prize.” The special prize could be anything from a candy bar to a dollar bill.

Egg Hunt preparations by my mom and grandmother.

Well, this year my cousin Michael had a stop over from Japan on his way to North Carolina, so he stayed for Easter dinner. The kids love him, especially since he always seems to be on some kind of adventure, and he seems to have the resources to go on these adventures. This year we filled the plastic eggs with notes directing the kids to get their special $5 prize from Michael. We put several notes like this in the eggs. We figured Michael was good for at least $40.

Egg hunt preparations by my mom and a new generation.

My nephew got the first note and took it to Michael. Michael read the note and took out his wallet. The next note was retrieved by my other nephew. Michael read it and said, “I’m insulted. If you are going to ask me for money, why don’t you ask me for something worthwhile!” Hah. The joke was on us. Michael took out a large denomination bill, ripped it into four pieces and gave each of his nephews a piece. He then told them they needed to work together to figure out how to share the money. My nephew cried. Nico and his cousin organized themselves, taped up the bill and decided the next day that Nico would go to the bank and get change so they could share the money. How do you like that? An egg hunt and a a lesson in cooperation. A new tradition.

Dad in his Easter bonnet. Also makes a good hiding spot for the Easter eggs.

Hope you and your family had a wonderful Easter/Passover, filled with all kinds of new and old traditions!