Consumer product warning: This is not a picture of my birthday cake. This is a stock image I grabbed off the internet. But the candles are like the ones my mom used to put on my birthday cakes, so that’s close enough. This picture also made me think about all the used birthday candles that Mom carefully collected in a drawer in the kitchen at my parents’ house. After our folks died, we sold the house with a ton of stuff still in it, including the used birthday candles. Did the buyer just shake her head when she opened that drawer? I wonder sometimes.
In case you’re wondering now – about where this is going, I mean, and not about the candles – I’m writing about birthdays because yesterday was mine. I turned 63, which means I am now three times as old as I was when the laws of the state of Texas declared me to be an adult. FYI, I spent most of my birthday dinner last night scribbling with crayons on the butcher paper covering our table. The waiter was very amused when I asked for crayons, but he correctly figured he’d get a bigger tip if he brought them to our table. The state may need to rethink its maturity markers.
By the way, my 21st birthday was really great. At that time, you could drink and vote at 18, so this day was more symbolic than life-changing. But my college friends threw me a party, which was my first birthday party not of my parents’ making. It felt momentous! If you were there, thanks again. If not, you missed a great party.
You may be thinking by now that having a birthday on January 4 stinks, since it’s just after the holidays, so people are no longer in the mood to celebrate. They’ve sung ”Auld Lang Syne” and have no desire to launch into ”Happy Birthday.” There is some truth in that, and there were several years when we went back to school on my birthday. I admit, that stank. But mostly I really like my birthday. The mercenary roots of this sentiment lie in the fact that my mother was a soft touch. Every year, she would buy in December for Christmas and my birthday and declare herself done. Then she’d start feeling sorry for me because I had a birthday on such an unfortunate date and put all of those presents under the tree. She would then shop the Christmas sales, where she would buy twice as much since everything was half off. I had extremely well-equipped Barbies.
And I’ve had some pretty stellar birthdays since then. For my 40th, Mark, Jane, Mary, and I flew to Cancun, stayed at a lovely resort, and saw the truly spectacular remnants of Chichen Itza. For my 50th, the family told me were taking a trip but wouldn’t tell me where we were going. I packed by placing three piles on the bed: one to take anywhere, one to take to a cold climate, and one to take to a warm climate. We ended up spending four days in San Francisco, staying at the Mark Hopkins and having a blast.
This birthday was a little quieter than those were. This was my third Covid birthday, so I was prepared with a great library book and a pair of soft pajamas to lounge around in. Mark and I took a walk in the sunshine, and we toddled out in the evening for the afore-mentioned Italian dinner. But of course the best part was getting lots of lovely birthday greetings from friends and family. I heard from a ton of people, which was great fun. The funniest was a gif sent by a pal in Spain, who texted me a Smurf singing the birthday song in Spanish. It is truly hilarious, and some of you may receive it yourselves this year. Reduce, reuse, recycle!
Look, I know that an early January birthday isn’t optimal. Like I said, when I was a kid, we went back to school on my birthday several times. People are a bit partied out. Decorations are either down or bedraggled. Many people who’ve resolved to lose weight refuse an offer of cake, which they wouldn’t do a week later. And I miss my mom calling me to tell me the story of the day I was born, and how she wisely decided to skip teaching Sunday School that morning and that the delivery room was really cold. I know all this, and yet I still love my birthday. It comes with good memories and, at this age, a little bit of perspective. Remember that good stuff. Focus on what you have. Savor the small joys. Be grateful for every single time someone cares enough to wish you well. And bear in mind that some birthday will arrive without you around to celebrate it, so try to give others good memories along the way.
I’m going to close by recounting a discussion that took place in the summer of 1978. I can fix the date precisely because I was talking to a guy who had a summer job at the same place I did. We got onto the subject of birthdays, and he allowed as how he hated his and wished he’d been born just about any other time. I told him I really liked mine and was glad I’d been born then. And you know what? It turns out our birthdays were the same day. So happy birthday a little late, Mike, and auld lang syne to boot.
My bucket list contains very few items, but a trip to Greece has been at the top for many years. The yen to see Greece started when I was a kid. Ive forgotten how I came to own a copy of D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, but acquiring that tome changed my life. I devoured the tales of thunderbolt-throwing Zeus, wing-sandaled Hermes, and the mighty huntress Artemis. Demeter and I wept over the kidnapping of Persephone and rejoiced at her return, and I marveled at Athena’s cleverness in creating the olive tree and her small-mindedness in fighting for the Greeks against the Trojans when Paris, Prince of Troy, refused her bribe and named Aphrodite the fairest of the goddesses. I could go on, but I’ll leave it at this: this book is beautifully written and illustrated, and it gives you the good, the bad, and the ugly about Greek myths.
So half a century and change later, Mark and I have spent the last three weeks in Greece. My friend Carie McKinney told me before we left that this country is magical, snd she’s spot on. Where else do you walk where Socrates queried his students, touch stones so large that the ancients declared they could only have been hoisted to make walls by Cyclopes, and scramble up graveled paths in cities that Homer described in the Illiad and the Odyssey? It’s been absolutely blissful.
But the Greece of today is pretty special, too. The people here have been nothing but friendly and very encouraging when we deployed our feeble Greek. (Shout out here to Sally Watkins, our travel agent extraordinaire, who not only planned and booked this mega-trip but tucked in a sheet of useful Greek words and phrases. Sally is amazing!) Mark studied ancient Greek in college and can actually decipher a few signs and menu items, but I will call this excursion a linguistic success if my vocabulary list reaches double digits. And my dears, the food! Spanikopita and moussaka and souvlaki and baklava – and eggplant dishes to die for and cheeses and yogurt with sour cherries and orange cake soaked in honey…. You get the idea. And this doesn’t even touch the joys of shopping in crowded stores opening onto narrow, twisting cobbled lanes, enjoying the view of the Acropolis from the rooftop hot tub, swimming out from rocky beaches into the Agean and Ionian seas, or cruising Greek isles with our friends Lynne Campbell and Sherry Lesikar. And I’ve only scratched the surface here!
But while a Greek vacation may be idyllic, it is not perfect. For one thing, the entire country is uphill both ways. Greece is the world’s most scenic stairmaster. If you’re coming here, take a step class beforehand and pack Advil. Too, the plumbing appears to be a bit wobbly. It’s wise to ask whether you can drink the tap water, even in major cities, and there are more toilet stalls than not with signs exorting you to throw the toilet paper in the bin and not the potty. In fact, I currently feel vaguely guilty about throwing TP in the toilet in our high class hotel here in Athens. But perhaps the worst thing about Greece is that you’re acutely aware that you’re doing exactly what a zillion tourists have done before you – and, sometimes, at exactly the same time as you, with the odd motor scooter thrown in just to make things more interesting. You’re taking the same photo of where the Colossus of Rhodes used to be that millions of people have taken. You’re laboring up marble steps at the theater at Epidauros that have been trod by several hundred people the day you were there. You’re clapping your hands and listening to the echo in the beehive tombs at Mycenae just like all of the people before you and all of the people after you. It would be possible to feel just a little sad at how cookie cutter you are.
So instead, you have to work to make Greece your own. And if you succeed, you savor those moments. Happily, we had lots of them. For example, there’s video on Facebook of one of them, when Mark took advantage of the acoustics at the theater at Epidarous and sang ”The Impossible Dream” to the applause of delighted spectators. Some moments are more fleeting, like our laughter when we discovered we were driving on the Poseidon Interchange on the highway from Corinth to Athens. (This god gets around; he also has a campground near the ruins of Tiryns.) We took pictures of some, like Hercules Rent-a-Car (clearly a second career choice for the hero) and epic food experiments, like Greek coffee (fail) and honeycomb (big win). But the most personal Greek moment is pictured above. In case you were wondering, it’s a picture of an Albanian family at a Greek restaurant.
Honestly, I took this shot on what had started out as a less than stellar evening. We were in Nafplio, which is nice enough but nothing to write home about. The hotel was difficult to find, probably because it’s not on a street, and we had to schlep three bags and three backpacks down three flights of slippery stone steps AT NIGHT. Our room was fine, but the bathroom smelled like mildew. We opened the doors to the balcony to air out the room and clambered down 50 mores steps (Mark counted) to find some dinner. We ended up at an Italian place, which was fine, except the “pizza with no meat” had bacon and sausage on it. The proprietor gamely apologized and went for a replacement, but by this time I was ready to use the one cry per vacation I allow myself. But that’s when the Kingdom of God showed up.
Here’s a little context, because I know that the Gospels aren’t everyone’s bag. Particularly in Matthew, Jesus compares the Kingdom of God, which I interpret as what happens when we follow God in our hearts and our actions, to various ordinary things. The Kingdom, Jesus says, is like a mustard seed, a farmer sowing his crops, yeast, and other commonplaces. Notably, Jesus does not compare the Kingdom to piles of gold, kings, armies, celebrities, or beautiful or rich people.
With that information, return to the Greek restaurant with me. As we wait for pizza 2.0, I notice an older man and woman steering a woman in a wheelchair down the bumpy stone street. The woman in the wheelchair is maybe 40, and she has a body that is contorted in unusual angles. She also is missing most of her teeth. But she’s smiling, as are the man and the woman. They sit down at a table one away from us; at the table in between, another, younger couple quietly eats gyros. I think that’s about all that’s going to happen, but then a tall guy comes up to the threesome, greets them happily and loudly, and sits down with them. Then a small, wiry, deeply tanned older man who’s straight out of Central Casting for a Greek fisherman, plops himself down at the end of the table and, all smiles, starts talking rapidly and cheerfully. And then, one by one and two by two, about 20 people gather at the table. Hugs and kisses are exchanged. The woman in the wheelchair gets everyone’s first kiss and hug, and she returns them all enthusiastically. Concerns about Covid aside, this is a genuinely beautiful love fest, especially when somebody shows up with a baby girl to pass around, which starts a new round of kissing and laughing and loud talking. The people around the table don’t look alike; they range from my fisherman to a dyed blond in a white miniskirt to a grandmother who’s about as big around as she is tall to a lanky twenty-something guy with glasses and scruff who is running around with his phone taking pictures and recording video. Wine, beer, and food appear, and before our eyes a festival, a celebration of love and togetherness, unfolds.
The reactions of those around the celebrants is fascinating. The couple with the gyros looks self-conscious and uncomfortable; they gobble the last of their food and toss down some Euros so that they can leave as fast as possible. A beggar girl – Greece has a lot of beggars, and this one looks to be about eight years old – shyly approaches the happy table; she stares with big brown eyes at the group and tentatively holds out her plastic cup. The partygoers put money in and smile at her, evoking a shy smile in return. We put some coins in her cup, too. She leaves, and then up comes the musician you see in the picture. He sings in Greek, a happy, fast song that makes the partiers laugh and clap their hands. They put money in his cup, too, and he goes on his way smiling before we can chip in.
And what about us? My blues are gone, swept away by the sights and sounds of people loving life and each other and anyone else who happens by. Mark and I eat our new, correct pizza and pay our bill, exchanging occasional smiles with the revelers. As we are leaving, Mark tapped the guy with the phone on the shoulder and asked if he would like us to take a picture of everyone at their table, and the man handed him the phone. The partiers looked up and smiled widely. Mark took photos and handed the phone back to its owner. A quick check of the screen brought a broad grin to the guy’s face. ”Oh, these are the best yet!” he exclaimed, and he asked us where we were from. He declared his love for the USA upon hearing our answer, and he explained that his family is from Albania but lives in Greece now. We smiled and waved our goodbyes to the happy group and headed back to the 50 steps up to the hotel. But the climb doesn’t seem as arduous as it was on the way down, and our hotel room smells fresher when we open the door. I think it’s because we saw something like the kingdom of God at that restaurant. Everyone was welcome, the old and the young, the able and the more challenged, the smartly-dressed and the shabby. The beggar got money, and music was made. Some people didn’t know what to do with the hubbub and left, but we contributed just a tiny bit and got radiant smiles and happy goodbyes from the partygoers in return. And we were the better for it.
I know the language about kingdoms is sexist, and I know that most of what I love about Greece is what all travelers here love. So I’m a little hypocritical and a lot trite here. But we had a unique moment on this trip, and I’m happy to get to share it with you. Maybe what I’m really saying is that the Kingdom of God, for me, is like a blog post being read by a friend: it’s a love letter and an invitation. Come sit at table with me, in Greece or wherever, and let’s celebrate!
And just like that, Mark and I are back in Spain. As many times as I’ve flown over the years, it never ceases to amaze me that you can start the day on one continent and end it on another.
In addition to unpacking our suitcases over the last few days, we’re also been unpacking several boxes and bins that have been in our storage room since our departure in March. We rented out our apartment this summer, which generated a nice bit of cash. But of course we couldn’t leave our personal things in a rental, so away it all had to go. I still haven’t found the bath mats, but life is full of little mysteries like that. Anyway, we’re mostly done now, but it’s been a long few days. So today we knocked off for a while and went swimming – floating, mostly – in the Mediterranean.
We didn’t have to go far; a little beach lies just about 150 yards from our building. We strolled there after the sun had begun to lower in the sky, which was the prettiest shade of blue and adorned with fluffy, white clouds. We had a grand time and felt refreshed in a way that’s hard to describe. It’s like being rehydrated inside and out. One of my favorite parts is when the salt water settles on your lips and you lick it off. It’s like something in your body recognizes that taste, that tang. I don’t know. Maybe that happens because our kind began its journey in such water, with the first amino acids making funny, insignificant chains in the vast seas of a younger Earth. And later, each of us floated in our mothers’ wombs before being born. Maybe our body remembers and rejoices in the gentle roll of the waves; maybe our cells cry out in delight at the familiar feel.
But as lovely as contemplating water at the beginning of life may be, the water today made me think about its end. This wasn’t a morbid concern about drowning; where we were, the water only comes up to your waist if you stand up in it. No, I was thinking about the fact that the water we were in has existed across space and time, endlessly recycling by way of evapotranspiration. Today a certain drop of water was in the Mediterranean, but two weeks ago it might have been in China. Two hundred years ago, it might have been part of a rainstorm that watered my ancestors’ crops in Connecticut. Two thousand years ago it may have been in a goblet of wine that Cleopatra drank while toasting Julius Caesar. Two million years ago a Homo erectus may have stared at its face in a pool containing my water drop. Two hundred million years ago that drop may have been in one of the ponds appearing between the chunks of Pangea that were slowly moving apart. And perhaps in twenty years, but certainly in two hundred, the drop of water that entered me when I licked my lips will have to be somewhere else than in me, be I won’t exist any more. The water will, though.
And that led me to wonder about how we talk about the end of life. In church, when we contemplate our mortality, we talk about “ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.” This makes sense on some level, because ashes and dust are about all that’s left after a body deteriorates. But we’ve skipped a step here! When a plant or an animal dies, its body, its physical being, dries out (witness what may be in your refrigerator right now!). The water leaves – and then it moves back into circulation. It goes down a drain or into a pipe or into the ground. And then it joins another body, or a rain cloud, or a lake. Maybe it seeps into an aquifer and hides underground in a slow-moving journey through porous rock laid down millions of years ago. And maybe, just maybe, it finds its way to the Mediterranean, where it lands on the lips of a happy woman floating under blue skies and puffy white clouds on a Sunday afternoon.
So what I’m saying is this: maybe instead of thinking about ashes to ashes, we could think of our lives and our deaths as water to water. We are not ultimately dry and brittle bits to be blown away by the first puff of wind to come along. No, we’re water to water, endlessly moving and nourishing and giving life. And I’m grateful for that.
When I was a kid, my family didn’t travel much. We didn’t have a lot of money, we weren’t the camping sort, and my dad really didn’t like breaking with routine. So my “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” papers were pretty much a variation on a theme: I read, watched TV, and slept a lot. We were homebodies.
But when we did travel, we always drove. Dad did the vast majority of the driving. Mom would sit next to him in the front. My brother would sit next to one window in the back, and my sister would sit next to the other. I sat in the middle, straddling the hump in the floor, because I was the youngest and smallest. It was close quarters in our 1958 Chevrolet Biscayne. There was, for example, nowhere to go when my brother decided to whistle in my ear all the way from Beaumont to Dallas when we went to Six Flags Over Texas one time. And the car didn’t have air conditioning or seat belts, so it could hardly be characterized as luxury travel.
Two things were sure to be wonderful on each trip, though. One was that many hotels had “Magic Fingers” beds in them. If you inserted a quarter into a slot at the head of the bed, the bed would vibrate. This probably had some sexual uses that we can skip over here, but we kids thought that the vibration was almost as good as the rides at the amusement park. The other thing that was great was that we would always stop at a Stuckey’s along the way.
Just in case you’ve never experienced the joys of a Stuckey’s, let me assure you that a stop there was grand. On a practical level, Stuckey’s was air conditioned and had clean restrooms. But the magical part about Stuckey’s was that the store was a wonderland of stuff for sale. They had pecan candies, commemorative thimbles, gimme caps with American flags on the front, actual cotton bolls in baggies, and soap-on-a-rope in every color and scent imaginable. You could buy impossibly large candy bars and salty snacks like chili peanuts that would necessitate stops at the next two Stuckey’s, one for a giant drink of water and the next for a bathroom break. Witty and sometimes slightly racy postcards filled racks that were as fun to twirl as they were to peruse. I remember one postcard to this day. It pictured a car speeding down an empty highway stretching through a desert; the caption read, “The sun has riz and the sun has set/And here I is in Texas yet.” What literary genius pasted on a card stock rectangle! It was dizzying.
Fast forward a few decades. Mark and I didn’t do lots of driving vacations with our children, but over the past couple of years COVID and the need to bring furniture from Texas to kids settling into homes in the Midwest have prompted us to drive Texas to Ohio and Indiana a couple of times. This trip we’re in a rented Nissan Rogue. It was white when we picked it up at the airport in late March, but currently it’s mostly the color of dust and a few miscellaneous squashed bugs. I can find it in a parking lot because it has Louisiana plates, and those are rare in Indiana.
Our trips have been blessedly uneventful thus far. Mark does most of the driving, but I generally do the midday shift. We listen to books downloaded from the library or from Audible. We’ve mostly chosen light mysteries, but right now we’re listening to Barack Obama recount tales from his early life and first term as President. And our pit stops tend to be at Starbucks if we need coffee or McDonald’s if we’re craving soda. But as the attached picture proves, we did find one of the remaining 117 Stuckey’s in the USA (down from a high of 350-odd shortly after WWII). Out of sheer nostalgia, we stopped at the teal-roofed building for a restroom stop (still clean, although the paper towel holder was jammed) and to see what wondrous goods might be on offer. FYI, Stuckey’s still sells gimme caps and giant portions of candy, although there was nary a soap-on-a-rope in sight.
Our visit to Stuckey’s was a throwback to yesteryear, and it was fun. But as with with most things from the past, I don’t miss it. I didn’t sigh as we pulled out of the parking lot or yearn for what used to be. One of your jobs as an adult is to decide what relationship you’re going to have with your own past. And I’ve decided mostly to leave it behind. Sure, I can chuckle or wince or regret or get gooey about something that happened before – singing silly songs with one of our babies and both of us laughing like crazy, asking a classmate at a reunion about his wife and finding out that they’ve just concluded a bitter divorce, looking at Mark when I got to the altar at our wedding – but mostly the past is, well, past, and I’m ready for it to stay there. The past is a gray country set behind an impermeable barrier. You can’t go there, and you can only vaguely trust what you see.
I know that this attitude doesn’t work for everyone. I’ve been fortunate not to have lost a spouse or a child, for example, so there’s no one in my past I yearn for. My parents are gone, but since I’m in my 60s that’s not surprising. I’ve lost other family members, friends, and pets; I’ve missed opportunities and closed doors that I might, on reflection, have wanted to take hold of. But with each loss I’ve also tried to learn something from it, square my shoulders, and push on. We carry the marks of every win, loss, or draw we ever experienced, whether we relive them in remembrance or not. And I refuse to be held hostage to what was or might have been.
So stopping at Stuckey’s was fine, but never stopping there again is fine, too. Face it, all of us here on this planet are on a road trip we call life, but the catch here is that our cars are different from our rented Rogue. Life only has one gear, and that’s drive. So get comfy in the driver’s seat, grab the wheel, and hit the gas. If you must look in the rear view mirror, only spare it a quick glance. The road awaits.
As you read this blog post, I hope you’ll hum the word “Procrastination” to the tune of Carly Simon’s wonderful song, “Anticipation.” Because I know it’s been a while since I blogged, and there’s no other reason than sheer procrastination.
It’s certainly not due to a lack of things going on. Mark and I flew to Texas from Spain in late March. We came to our beloved place in the Hill Country to find lots of large tree limbs down or, worse, partially down, as a result of the severe winter weather the state experienced last winter. We pulled the big stuff off the roof (no appreciable damage there, thank goodness) and the driveway, packed up our rental car, and drove to Bloomington, Indiana to see Mary.
We had a delightful visit with our dear daughter, just mostly hanging out and being together. Visiting Mary always includes visiting her two cats, Bud and Sutton, as well. We came away happy, well-loved, and covered in fur. It was a great visit.
Next we drove to Cincinnati to see our granddaughter, Harriet, and her parents, Jane and JJ. We spent close to five weeks there, ostensibly to help the new parents but in fact mostly to let the baby sleep on our shoulders and discuss whose turn it was to get to hold her. Harriet didn’t sleep all the time, of course, and is generally a happy, smiley baby. She has opinions, of course – she is her mother’s daughter, after all – but generally after she’s made her views know she cheers up and goes back to her usual charming self.
We did do some work while in Cincinnati. We got vaccinated (woohoo!). Mark painted Harriet’s room, and he and Jane assembled her crib. We cooked and did laundry, and Jane and I put in her garden. I also did some yard work. Mark and I took days off to explore the area and enjoyed local museums and a cold but interesting expedition to the Great Serpent Mound, which is about an hour from the kids’ house.
After saying our adieus to the Morris/Moffitt clan, we returned to Bloomington to see Mary graduate from Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law. The graduation was in person for the JD students, and we watched a livestream of the ceremony. Afterwards we took Mary out to dinner and went to a delightful party at the house of some of her friends. After lots of hugs and congratulations, we headed back to Texas. The trip took us to Mammoth Cave and to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis.
We then returned to Texas, but only for a few days. We made a short and rather jet-laggy trip to Spain to finish renewing our visas. Given COVID, Harriet’s birth, and Brexit, we left in March without finishing the renewal process. But we managed to obtain our visa cards – not the credit kind – and, as a bonus, completed our Spanish tax returns. That was painful, as Spain taxes both wealth and income worldwide, but a few happy visits with friends made the trip fun overall.
Since we’ve been back in Texas, we’ve pretty much been working on the trees and seeing friends. We intend to head back to the Midwest to see our Buckeyes again and then head to Indiana to help Mary in her move to Indianapolis. She has rented a lovely apartment there, which is walking distance to the law firm where she’ll start working in September. We will also help take care of her and her cats as she studies for and takes the bar exam at the end of July. After that, we’re planning to head to New Hampshire for a couple of weeks. Then it will be back to Texas to get ready to return to Spain in September. And, with luck, we’ll start traveling again!
So that’s the report. It’s a busy time, filled with family and friends and, I hope, an end to my procrastination. I’m trying to enjoy every moment. Because as Carly says, “these are the good old days.”
if you’re American, Mother’s Day is the second Sunday in May. But if you’re British, Mothering Sunday is the fourth Sunday in Lent. Because we socialize with lots of Brits here in Spain, I now get to enjoy two celebrations of motherhood!
The origins of Mothering Sunday apparently lie in the Middle Ages. The day is said to have been inspired by the some of the lectionary readings for this week in Lent. Specifically, passages from Isaiah and Galatians read in this week refer to Jerusalem as “mother. Church leaders inferred from this a command for the faithful to return to the mother church – literally. Congregants were enjoined to return on this date to the church where they were baptized. This was generally not much of a hardship, because most people didn’t move from the area where they were born. If you weren’t near that church, you could go to a cathedral, which was considered the mother of all churches. Later, another tradition was added. Girls in domestic service were allowed a day off to go visit their mothers on this Sunday. Special cakes were and still are baked for Mothering Sunday. Now, of course, flowers, chocolates, cards, visits, and phone calls have been added into the celebratory mix.
This Mothering Sunday was a special one, as our family was celebrating the birth of Harriet Ruth Moffitt. She is the daughter of our daughter Jane and our son-in-law, JJ Moffitt. Harriet was born on March 11 and is gloriously adorable. Because of privacy concerns, I’m not posting a picture of her. So you’ll have to trust me on the adorable part.
Instead, I’ve posted a picture of my mother, Jane Ellen Crissey Tullos. She was born in 1926 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and died in 2006 in Beaumont, Texas. In between, she lived through the Great Depression, WWII, marriage to my father, and the raising of us three kids. She adored children, especially the little ones, and was a beloved mother to us and several of our friends. Later, she became a precious Gramby to her three grandchildren, Ellen, Jane, and Mary. The picture I’ve posted here was taken on our wedding day, and you can see her joy in getting to add Mark to her list of beloved people.
But that was then, and this is now, and it’s Jane’s turn to be Mom. I’ve become Gramgram, and Mark is now Pops. We’re headed to the USA next week to see all of our darling kiddos, and I CAN’T WAIT. It’s a three-day trip, due to the paucity of flights between Spain and the USA right now, but it’s a small inconvenience to endure to get to see our loved ones. I’m going to hug my children and hold my granddaughter. That’s pretty much the only agenda items that matter for this trip. Oh, yes, and I’m going to buy a gigantic jar of decent peanut butter to bring back to Spain.
Harriet’s birth, of course, has prompted me to think about the other mothers in our line. This is particularly true with regard to my mother’s mother’s mother, Harriet Samantha Lapham Heermans. Jane and JJ honored her memory by selecting her name for their baby, and by all accounts they picked a remarkable woman as a namesake. Harriet was born in Morrison, Illinois in 1877. She had several siblings, including a younger sister named Sibyl (which was her mother’s name). In the late 1890s the family cow contracted tuberculosis. Sibyl, who was about 14 at the time, got TB from the cow’s milk and was not doing well in the cold Midwestern climate. So Harriet, who was all of 20, packed up her suitcase and her sister and headed for a warmer area. She bought tickets to Flagstaff, Arizona (which is not officially in the USA at this point, because Arizona didn’t become a state until 1912). The two met a friendly railroad conductor somewhere along the way, who took an interest in them and advised them not to go to Flagstaff, as it was relatively wet and cool. He changed their tickets on the spot for ones to Phoenix, and that’s where they went to live.
In Phoenix , Harriet met Paul Heermans, and they married in October 1897. Sadly, Sibyl only lived long enough to play the piano at their wedding. Harriet went on to bear three children, one of whom died as a young boy. Harriet was a suffragist and helped support the family by selling homemade fudge to soldiers from Fort Bliss when times were tough with Paul’s printing business in El Paso. She was known for her kindness and sense of humor. She died before I was born, but her grandchildren adored her and told lots of stories about her.
So that’s where Harriet gets her first name. (I assume that the existence of Harriet Tubman was an added incentive). It means “ruler of the home,” which is probably pretty accurate right now. Ruth is for Ruth Badger Ginsburg, who is much admired in our family. That name means “friend” in Hebrew and “compassion” in English. And while we probably all know that a person can be ruthless, it’s also true that a person can be ruthful. I like that.
So here’s to mothers, people who mother, and people who have or had mothers. They make us a lot of who we are. And please wish our family luck as we welcome the new addition. I need to stop writing, now, though, and get back to the serious business of being a grandmother. Those toys aren’t going to order themselves, people! Now, where did I put that credit card?
Now I know that today is actually Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday. In normal years, on this day the world would engage in wild, colorful, extravagant carnivals. Streets would become pathways for parades of carefully-crafted floats, complete with riders in colorful, often risqué costumes tossing out beads and candy. Alcohol and the desire to cut loose would send people into the streets in places like Rio, New Orleans, and Venice. And friends and strangers, costumed and masked, would indulge in music, dancing, and, sometimes, all of the things that Baptists are afraid music and dancing lead to.
At the same time, Fat Tuesday exists because it provides the last chance to party before the world gets more serious. It’s the day before the church calendar turns to Lent, the season of self-denial and repentance preparing us for Easter. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. That’s a day where, in churches across the globe, ministers and priests draw sooty crosses on the heads of their congregants, reminding each person that they came from ashes and will return to ashes. Those ashes, by the way, are the charred remains of the palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday services. There’s a cycle there, a satisfying rhythm to this part of the liturgical year.
But lest we settle into the somber business of Lent too quickly, bear in mind that just two days ago we celebrated Valentine’s Day. This is no longer primarily a church holiday, but it is celebrated by millions of people all over the world. Valentine’s Day, of course, is devoted to love, and cards, flowers, candy, and other gifts serve as tangible expressions of that sentiment. Roses and hearts appear in store windows; street vendors sell teddy bears and balloons decorated with expressions of love. Even grocery stores get in on the act, displaying seemingly endless bottles of cava and boxes of chocolates on end caps. So today is a day set between the headiness of love and the dark solemnity of mortality.
Today’s odd in-between-ness seems even more profound than usual this year. COVID has caused most cities to cancel their carnivals. Streets that usually would be packed with revelers will be quiet tonight. Valentine’s Day was quieter, too; restaurants that normally would be packed with diners were closed or relatively empty as people stayed home to avoid getting sick. Even Ash Wednesday is changed. As a precaution against contagion, many churches are not holding in person services. Many more that are meeting in person are not dispensing ashes by means of one person touching another’s forehead. We are indeed in-between, not skipping our special days altogether, but finding offbeat ways to mark them in some fashion.
That’s certainly been the experience for Mark and me. Take Valentine’s Day as an example. We’re kind of disgustingly lovey-dovey on normal days (much to the chagrin of our daughters in their teenage years), so a celebration of love is right up our alley. In addition, we accidentally had our first date on Valentine’s Day in 1985. (That’s a whole other story.) We therefore typically go out for a nice dinner and splurge a bit. But this year, the restaurants are all closed in our part of Spain, at least for in-house dining. So we got a lovely takeout Italian meal at a small restaurant nearby that’s become a favorite of ours. The restaurant, fittingly for the occasion, is named Emilia Corazon. It’s fitting because “Corazon” means “heart” in Spanish. I don’t know who Emilia is, but the restaurant is run by Ilaria and Stefano, a couple from Italy. The place has about four tables inside and six outside, and the decor is anything but fancy. But Ilaria cooks fresh, delicious dishes, and Stefano welcomes patrons with a big smile and pours a generous glass of vino tinto. Mark went and got our meal, which consisted of a salmon and potato appetizer, risotto and a potato/apple/onion/ham bake for the entree, and apple/raisin crumble for dessert. We used our nice dishes and put the flowers Mark bought me on the table. So that was lovely, if not what we usually do.
Ash Wednesday also will be different this year. Instead of going to an in person service, we will use the liturgy our beloved church in Texas has provided. The service requires ashes, of course; we decided to try for authenticity and picked up a dead palm frond from one of the palm trees on the Paseo in front of our apartment. Finding the palm may have been easy, but turning it into ashes was tough. Apparently, palms do not want to burn. This is especially true when you’re burning them in a minuscule aluminum pie pan that a Tesco chicken and veg pie came in on a terrace that’s being buffeted by winds from the Mediterranean. And it’s particularly especially true when the only flame you have to work with is an ancient Bic lighter that some long-ago renter left in your apartment. Trying to huddle over the pie pan to block the wind and hold the Bic into palm bits is every bit as complicated as it sounds. But we managed to burn enough palm to get some ashes – see picture above – so our substitute Ash Wednesday will go on tomorrow, and we’ll begin Lent the best way we can.
So happy in-between, where the calendars of love and mortality collide and the COVID-improvised rituals move us forward in our year. May you find your own spaces for joy and reflection in the place where the pandemic finds us.
Be proud of me, y’all. I got the plumber to come unplug our bathroom sink (pictured) – in Spanish.
Now, I admit that I wasn’t starting from scratch. This plumber, a nice guy named Domingo, has worked on our apartment before. We found him through our friend Valeria. Valeria coordinates work on the apartments and houses handled by our property management company. She’s from Eastern Europe originally, but she speaks Spanish like a native (which means competently and really, really fast). Her English is okay, but she’d like to improve it. Therefore, we have a tacit language agreement; she texts me in English, and I text her in Spanish. The results are sometimes hilarious, but so far she’s gotten us what we need.
She’s been so helpful to us partly because she’s a nice person to start with, but Valeria also has the right disposition for her job. She’s a born fixer, and I mean that in the very best way. If Valeria worked in Washington, DC, she would be the person you’d turn to for tickets to a sold-out show at the Kennedy Center, an interpreter in an obscure language for a foreign dignitary, or the private number of the person who’s an expert on a given subject and an entrèe into the office of the Congressional representative who chairs the committee your new expert needs to talk to. Instead, she’s in Torrevieja, so she lavishes her talents on dispatching house cleaners, car services, carpenters, appliance installers, and the like. And plumbers, like Domingo.
So when our bathroom sink started draining about as quickly as Mitch McConnell moves legislation sponsored by Democrats, and we’d exhausted our DIY drain-cleaning options, it was time to call Domingo. I called him, and we arranged IN SPANISH for him to come take a look the next morning. He arrived promptly and set to work with liquids and plumbing tools and God only knows what. We could hear him working and muttering; my Spanish isn’t great, but I’m pretty sure there was some heavy duty swearing going on. Periodically he would emerge from the bathroom, announce, “I have to go down to my car to get a bigger tool,” and return a couple of minutes later with all sorts of things that probably were lines for reaming the pipe but which looked like something left over from the Spanish Inquisition. Finally, after about an hour, Domingo came out of the bathroom with a huge smile on his face. “Forty years! I think no one has cleaned this line in 40 years!” He gestured for us to come look. A wad of what looked like hairball that a woolly mammoth would cough up lay on the floor. Having been paid and thanked, Domingo cleaned up and went on his way. The hairball is now out of the pipes and the apartment, and water no longer accumulates in the basin when I wash my hands or brush my teeth. Hooray!
Our experience got me thinking that the United States really needs a good plumber. I’m thinking here of the systemic racism that plagues our beloved country. We don’t have 40 years of accumulated, toxic gunk of white supremacy and oppression and violence against people of color; we have 400. If you hadn’t seen it before, surely the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th laid that nasty fact bare. The willingness to kill in order to protect entrenched white supremacy should make it clear to everyone that calls for unity and having a Vice-President of color are not going to be enough to change the necessary number of hearts and minds to the necessary degree. Don’t get me wrong; those calls are important, and Kamala Harris is amazing and historic and fantastic. But we have a hairball the size of our beautiful 50 states. In the words of Domingo, we’re going to need a bigger tool.
I don’t pretend to have the answers, friends. And I know that systemic racism is not the only problem our country faces or the sole motivation for the attack on the Capitol. But I do know what happens when you allow the blockages to continue, and it’s not pretty. So let’s use our voices and our votes to be part of that bigger tool.
I use this title with deep apologies to the late, great James Baldwin. This post is not marginally in the same league as his masterpiece, The Fire Next Time. But given what we’ve adopted as our emblem for 2020 – see picture below – this opportunity was too good to pass up.
In case you’re puzzling over said picture, let me explain. It’s a Christmas tree ornament that’s shaped like a dumpster on fire and labeled “2020.” This post could probably end here and you’d still get the idea. But the coup de grace in this situation is that we ordered three of these little charmers in November (one for us and one for each of the households of our kids), and THEY NEVER ARRIVED. We did get an email last week saying that the ornaments had finally cleared Customs. I’ll believe it when I see it.
So you can see why this ridiculous bit of plastic has become our year’s emblem. Granted, we had a better year than millions of people across the globe. Many are hungry and afraid. Many are ill with COVID and other diseases, and, as of the date of this post, over 1,778,000 people worldwide have died from COVID alone. This number includes a friend of ours and several friends and relatives of our friends and relatives. Our country remains politically divided. And many millions are isolated and lonely.
We’ve had our share of disappointments, too, although they’re smaller than the ones listed above. The biggest is missing Christmas with our kids. We did mitigate our loss somewhat by watching “Elf” simultaneously while chatting about it in What’s App; we then had a lovely family Zoom. But it wasn’t like being together. Mark and I both had COVID, although we’re pretty much recovered now. We also missed visiting with people here in Texas this Fall and were locked down in Spain for most of the Spring. And our travel plans pretty much went to hell in a hand basket this year. Last year, we were in 20 countries; this year, we were in two. Places we missed included Israel, Petra (in Jordan), Florence, Milan, Lake Como, Bordeaux, Avignon, Morocco, and the Baltics. To top it all off, we missed at least five sets of visitors. In my book, that qualifies as a dumpster fire.
Hope accompanies us into 2021, though. Mark and I leave for Spain on Wednesday, God willing. There, we will renew our visas so that we can continue our Spanish adventures. Our first grandchild is due to arrive in March. Our younger daughter will graduate from law school, take the bar exam, and embark on her legal career. We plan to return to the USA in the Spring for these amazing events. And who knows? Maybe my skepticism will be proved to be unfounded, and our ornaments will be waiting for us when we are back in Texas. That truly would be the dumpster fire next time. But in the meantime, let me wish you a happy and safe new year, with much love from Mark and me.
In case you’re wondering why Mark and I have stayed married for 35 years, here’s the deal: he wakes me up every morning with a cup of coffee and a kiss. If you needed marital advice, you’re welcome.
While we’re in Texas, we enjoy our coffees in the living room of our small house. A bank of four windows gives us a view of the back part of our 28 acres, which lie about 45 minutes outside of Austin. The land is part of the lovely Texas Hill Country. Rolling hills that are actually mostly bulges of limestone created by a long ago shallow sea stretch out before us. Gorgeous live oaks, pernicious cedars (actually Ashe junipers), and native grasses adorn the landscape. We’ve put up a couple of bird feeders in the trees outside the windows and watch our customers enjoying their birdseed. We see titmice, chickadees, scrub jays, white-wing doves, sparrows, cardinals, ladderback woodpeckers, and various other species.
It’s really fun to watch the birds. The titmice tend to come in groups; maybe there’s an invisible dinner bell summoning them. They eat efficiently, perching on a feeder and pecking away steadily. The chickadees, which are very small, seem like nervous eaters. They land, look around, peck once, and flutter away to hide and survey the scene before approaching again. The little brown sparrows prefer to eat the spillage from the ground. They’re the same color as the dirt and leaves, so mostly you can spot them by watching for movement. And the white-wing barely fits on either feeder and often falls off after attempting to twist itself into some strange position to partake of the goodies. Apparently hope springs eternal in the dove breast, because the white-wing we see most often spends a lot of time walking up and down the branch on which the tube feeder hangs, looking at the feeder below. My theory is that this bird is strategizing about what contortion to try next time. And this dove must be doing something right, because it is a chubby one.
Sometimes in the late afternoons, we sit on the porch, drink wine, and watch the birds at the feeders as well. These days we can watch the sunset, too, because it’s cool enough to be outside. We have a porch swing, but usually for this purpose we sit in rockers as the sun dips through the lace of the leaves and slips below the horizon. We do talk some during these interludes, but actually we’re often quiet. If there’s no human noise, the birds come back for one pre-sleep feed. The titmice grab the bowl feeder, the chickadees dart back and forth to the tube feeder, and the sparrows take the ground. On really quiet days, you can hear the flutter of wings as the birds flit back and forth a few feet to rest in a tree or bush between bites. I love that sound. It’s like you can hear feathers.
Birds aren’t the only things with feathers, though. Emily Dickinson explained:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
Dickinson, I understand, was petite and rather birdlike herself. Her poems are punctuated like the one above, so that ideas and images roll out in short breaths. She’s kind of a chickadee poet, moving in for a moment and then skittering back to her bush with the thrust of a hyphen. Maybe that’s why she appears to know something about feathers – and hope.
And this Christmas season, I’d like to think I know something about hope, too. Honestly, this is unfamiliar territory for me. In a world that preaches “Hope for the best, plan for the worst,” I’m way better at the latter than at the former. It made me darn good at assessing environmental plans, because the concept of a “reasonable worst case scenario” made perfect sense to me. I’d been anticipating that all my life. And the kids always used to complain about their care packages when they got home from camp. The problem wasn’t the contents; rather, it was the entire roll of packing tape I’d use on each parcel. Apparently at mail time the counselors didn’t give the girls long enough to disembowel one of my packages. I tried to sell this circumstance as anticipation rather than frustration, but without much success.
But this December, I’m actually feeling a bit hopeful. Yes, COVID is rampant right now, and my heart drops at the daily statistics. But vaccines are rolling out, and non-crazy officials are saying that 2021 should see a decline in cases as vaccinations increase. Too, we’re apparently going to have an adult in the White House, which is a welcome prospect. In fact, Mark and I are feeling sufficiently sanguine that we’ve put down a deposit on a seven-day Greek Islands/Turkey cruise in September. Granted, the deposit is refundable, but as Mark put it, it’s kind of like the Old Testament (Protestant nomenclature here) prophet Jeremiah buying land and burying the deed in a pot even as the Assyrian army was bearing down on Jerusalem. It’s a marker of hope for the future, an act to affirm the belief that better days lie ahead. I don’t know that Jeremiah would be my choice of cruise buddy – those prophets could be rather dour – but you get the idea. I think it’s more like putting out birdseed. If you feed them, birds will come. If you hang in there, hope – and the fruits of hope – will come, too.
So this Christmas season I have a few feathers of hope. It’s a chickadee kind of hope, that looks around nervously and flies a few feet into a handy bush to hide every once in a while, but it’s there. And I hope that the same is true for each person who reads this post. I wish you a wonderful holiday, and I wish you hope.