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.

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Veterans’ Day for Dad

Here’s a re-post of an earlier tribute to my dad, an army veteran who served in the Panama Canal Zone. Happy Veterans’ Day to you, Dad and all those who have served, and are serving. Thank you.

Today is Veteran’s Day and I want to add my words of gratitude to all those who have served in the armed forces, especially my cousins,  and my Dad.

My dad didn’t talk too much about his experience in the army when I was younger, and apart from my awareness that he had served,  I really didn’t know much about his experience.  He speaks more about it lately.  He served in his early twenties, in the army. According to my dad, it was good experience for him because it helped give him discipline and focus and provided him a career direction in the aerospace industry.  My dad’s Spanish-speaking skills also gave him the opportunity to be stationed in Panama–an experience he recounts fondly.  He is proud of his service, as he should be.  And although our family may not have recognized this day and celebrated with my dad in the past, today I want to say thank you Dad, and let you know that we are proud of you too.

Dad in the Panama Canal Zone, 1953

The Writing Prompt, a Tool for the Tired Brain.

It’s late. I have been working at my computer all day. Writing. Editing. But, not the kind of writing and editing that stirs my creative soul or stimulates the right side of my brain. It’s the kind of writing I do all day at my job. You know, the job that pays the bills. The job where I edit legal documents, draft factual crime summaries, and write affidavits for the victims whose lives are traumatized by crime. So, now my work day is over, dinner is done, dishes are washed and kids are asleep; and as part of November’s daily blog post challenge,  I am supposed to blog. I am supposed to write about something. Anything. Or not. I got nothing.

So, instead of writing about something that came to me in the middle of a giant brainstorm, I turn to a tool I have never used before, the writer’s prompt. I need it today, I spent the entire day working on documents for a murder case. A prompt is supposed to stir an idea, and in this case, it’s offerred to bloggers who are participating in November’s post a day challenge. The prompt changes daily and is posted at the web site hosting the National Blog Posting Month challenge. I clicked on the site and scrolled down to today’s prompt:

“Has anything traumatic ever happened to you? Describe the scene surrounding a particular event.”

Huh?

Didn’t I say I was tapped out? Didn’t I write about enough trauma today?

I thought about the traumatic events of my life. Certainly,  nothing could compare to some of the trauma crime victims experience. But, still there must be something? I could talk about the traumatic birth experience I had with Nico. No, I’ve dealt with enough graphic scenes today.  I could write about the trauma of my divorce, but that is just exhausting and I don’t want to delve into that emotional abyss. So, how about a little light-hearted trauma? Is there even such a thing?

The closest thing I can recall to a light-hearted traumatic event is the experience I had when I was a child,  camping with my family in Mammoth Lakes and fishing along the Owens Valley River. My dad loved to stream fish. My brother did too. As for me and my sister, we liked it okay until we became too frustrated by the lost bait and tangled lines, and when we grew too bored waiting for the “big one.” We would often end up abandoning our poles and create games to play along the water’s edge, like catching minnows in the marshy banks.

After I discovered a large school of baby fish, I left my pole with my father,  who was still fishing along the bank and asked my mother for a paper cup so that I could scoop up the fish.  I returned to the riverbank and found an area along the marshy bank where the tall grass provided a natural pool for the fish. Here the water seemed still, even though all around the river moved swiftly. My father was still fishing upstream, about 15 feet away. I bent down to scoop up the fish, and fell in the cold water. I found myself sinking under the cold, cloudy water. I did not feel panic, rather I felt surprise to be underwater.  I looked up and could see the clear blue sky and the deep green marsh grass along the riverbank. That must have been the moment I realized where I was. I was disoriented but I managed to surface enough to grab a hold of the tall grass, and pull my head above the water. I could see my father drop his fishing pole and begin running towards me. I saw a flash of red from his jacket and a blur of brown from his shoes, as he approached me. The panicked expression on my father’s face as he stood above me made me  realize the seriousness of the situation. I became aware of the current moving swiftly around me and under me. I felt the grass begin to give way, its roots loosening from the muddy bank, and I felt the panic set in me. I don’t know if my father jumped in or reached in to grab me, but suddenly I felt myself being lifted out of the water. Being lifted out of the water,  shocked to me as much as the cold water temperature did when I fell in. The fear in my father’s eyes sent me into a greater shock and I gasped for air, coughing up the water I did not realize I swallowed, and choking on my great,  heaving sobs, which appeared from nowhere. I was cold, wet and scared. My mother came from the car with a blanket.  The rest is a blur. But, to hear my dad’s version of the story, the current was swift and if not for his fast action, I would have been swept away

My father has told this story before. I don’t know now if my own memory of this incident has blurred with his re-telling of it, but, I have a strong sense that my initial reaction was not panic. Rather my initial reaction was disorientation, and then realization, followed by my natural instinct to save myself.  It was not until I experienced  the reaction of those around me that I began to panic. Looking back at this incident, and other traumatic events in my life, I think that I probably have experienced these events the same way, with my survival instinct helping me to surface from disorientation, and my family pulling me to safety.

Fishing without the drowning part.

On display and for sale at Olvera Street.

Celebrating the Day of the Dead

Today is Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. I have never really celebrated this holiday, even though I have long had a fascination with the rituals and the history behind this tradition.

Day of the Dead isn’t about a morbid fascination of death or the dead. It’s a time when families in many Latin American countries, and in some parts of the U.S., celebrate the memories of loved ones who have passed on.  Legend has it that on this day, the “veil” between this life and the after life is thinned, to allow the spirits of our loved ancestors to come back.  In Mexico, families gather at the gravesites of departed family members, cleaning headstones, decorating the graves, and picnicking as they tell stories, sing songs and reminisce with fondness their departed family members. Many families build altars in their homes, adorned with photos of the deceased, and offerings of favorite foods or momentos. The altar typically has other elements which symbolize the four elements of nature: air as represented by the decorative cut paper banner (papel picado), earth as represented by food, fire as represented by the altar candles, and water.

About 20 years ago, when I was in a Mexican folk dancing group, I became friends with several people who celebrated this tradition.  One year, we drove all over the Los Angeles area looking for celebrations and exhibits commemorating Day of Dead. We didn’t find too many. Recently, though, it seems you can’t go anywhere in the Los Angelesarea without running into the celebrations. Last year I went to one of the biggest celebrations in Los Angeles, held at the Hollywood Forever Cemetary. I blogged about that here. Yesterday,  I went to a local supermarket which is part of a major grocery chain, and I found a pan de muerto.  I was surprised to see this sold at the supermarket, so I had to buy it.

A sweet bread mad in the shape of bodies or decorated with shapes to resemble bones.

Today, leaving my downtown LA office I ran into someone wearing full-face make-up like a skull. No doubt, she was there to participate in the Olvera Street festival. Olvera Street is a kind of touristy, but fun, Mexican market place. I went for a walk over there yesterday during my lunch hour and the  place was filled with candy and colorful ceramic skulls, (calaveras), paper flowers, papel picado and the smell of marigolds.

On display and for sale at Olvera Street.

I love that this holiday is becoming more widely known.I think the colors and the pageantry and the rituals behind the day should be celebrated by all those who wish to participate.

This year I decided I wanted to celebrate with my family, both living and departed, so, we built altar in our family room. Here’s a photo of my altar. It includes pictures of several of our grandparents. Since we are a blended family, our altar probably honored more grandparents than the typical altar.

There are some momentos for Olivia and Erica’s maternal grandmother, Grandma Lupe.  She loved Elvis and was quite artistic

There’s a photo of Nico’s paternal grandfather, and there’s photos of both of my grandparents, and photos of my cousin and her parents.

 

Juan added a photo of his maternal grandparents, and their favorite “cafecito.” There’s a memory of our loved dog, Mischief.  We also added the typical offerings of pan de muerto and flowers, and a calavera.  The water is held in a favorite glass, which was one of a set belonging to my grandmother. The shawls, or rebozos, which were used as drapes on the altar were given to me by my grandmother too. Even though we may not get an actual visit from any of our departed relatives this evening, the act of creating the altar helped to remind us of the all those we love and miss, and that is what the Dia de los Muertos is all about.

Past and Present

Yeah! You found me. It wasn’t that hard. So, now that you are here, let me show you around. Above, is my new banner. One of my favorite things in life are old pictures. I especially love looking at old photos of people in my family. The photo on the far left  in my banner is of my grandmother and my grandfather on their honeymoon. It was taken in about 1930 when they travelled to Venice Beach, California from Airzona. My grandmother was just 16 years old and my grandfather was 21.  I love this photo because my grandparents look so young and are such a handsome couple. Even though my grandmother was 97 when she died last June, and had aged so much, I could still look at her and see glimpses of the girl in the photo. It’s hard to see, but my grandmother is wearing an interesting piece of costume jewlery, which she gave to me a few years ago. I still have it and I wear it now and then.

The middle photo is of my mother, taken when she was about 15 years-old. She is wearing a Mexican folkorico dance costume, which was made by my grandmother. My mother was, and is, a very good dancer. She especially loved to dance traditional Mexican folk dances, and she instilled the love of folkorico dance and music in me too. I grew up learning and performing some of  the dances she had performed.

The other black and white photo is of my father when he was about three or four years-old. I love this photo because it’s one of the few photos I have seen of my father when he was a boy.  In this photo I think he looks like a little prince. My father was raised by his adoptive mother and grandmother. They were two strong women who supported themselves and got by on very little income. He tells me that these women always took very good care of him and made sure he was well dressed. I think this photo shows all of that.

The last photo is one of my favorites too, although not because it’s old. It’s actually the first portrait that Juan and I took with the kids as a family. It was taken about 5 years ago so it’s a bit dated, but I still love it,  if not for the mere fact that we all are looking at the camera at the right time and smiling. Do you know how challenging that is? I love that this photo captures a moment in my family’s life. And I love that this banner, captures some of the bits and pieces of my family history, merging into my own family today.

So, now that I have shown you around, I hope you feel comfortable and would like to stay awhile. Leave me a comment. Subscribe to my blog. Follow me on Twitter. Like me on Facebook. Or just come by whenever you like. I will be here, blogging about my well blended life.