Since my husband Arnold and I moved to Mexico (from Santa Fe, New Mexico) in 2007, any number of our friends have asked me “why don’t you start a blog?” Truthfully I never really considered it because I kept thinking “oh, honestly, all those ‘We restored a wrecked house in (insert name of exotic foreign country)’ books have been written, and they were pretty much all far better than what I could have written. But when we’d see friends back in the States, or they came to visit us here, and I would tell stories about this or that thing that happened to me (they really loved the tale of the carjacking-at-gunpoint I endured a few years ago, it was much juicier than the dishwasher blowing up). Anyway, folks have persisted and at least for the moment, overridden my “who cares about my little life?” protests, so here I am.
My family lived in Mexico City in the ‘fifties and I certainly must admit that I came to our present expat adventure with certain advantages: I knew and loved Mexico, even though it was the Mexico I remembered from childhood and quite different from Mexico in the 21st century. I spoke the language, loved the weather and the aesthetic, and I learned the first time around that I could survive and thrive here. In fact, now that we have indeed been here for awhile, I actually feel that I may have developed a better instinct for interpreting what I see around me. My Spanish is much better now, even Arnold, my husband, is much more comfortable here. It is an interesting time to be living in Mexico and it is also an interesting time to be viewing the events back in the U.S., our Ancestral Homeland, from another perspective. Now, here we are, in this no-longer-third-world-but–not-first-yet-either country, with a front row seat.
So, welcome to my new blog; let’s see how long and if I keep it up!
Sunset over Lake Chapala – the view from my office window.
A week ago it was New Year’s, an occasion which always signals to Rosa that it is time to make tamales. Hers are without a doubt among the world’s best, but as with much great artistry, they don’t come into this world without a great deal of sturm und drang. This year was no exception, as it turned out.
We have had all sorts of adventures, over the years, with the making and delivery to our house of Rosa’s tamales, almost always around Christmas or New Year’s. One year not too long after we’d arrived, I had asked her what she wanted for her birthday, and she said “Really??? I would love to have a tamalera.” This item is a huge steel steamer, almost a meter across, that can accommodate a vast quantity of tamales, enough to feed a big crowd. If it’s full, it might need two people to carry it. There wasn’t anyplace nearby where we could get such a thing, but I knew that the enormous Mercado Libertad in Guadalajara had a whole wing dedicated to restaurant supplies and cookware and I had seen them there. I said “Let’s go to the city on the bus – I’ll pay for it if you carry it home!” Done deal!
So we went in to the city on the bus, got ourselves to Mercado Libertad, and there indeed was a group of stalls in the market that had every variety and size of cooking accessory, from stoves to spatulas, that might be needed to prepare Mexican food. And tamaleras in a variety of sizes. Rosa picked out a huge one and she did nobly carry it on her lap for more than an hour all the way back home on the bus. That tamalera has now been used for innumerable fiestas and we have all gotten terribly spoiled because pretty much like clockwork she will make a bunch of them for our “extended family” at Christmastime, and at the traditional Mexican time of Candelaria, February 2. She will pack the tamalera with several different varieties; pork in red sauce, rajas de chile (green chile strips) in a white sauce (divine), and varieties with chicken and beef. They are incredibly good. The most calorie-conscious and picky of our visiting friends have been known to lose all control and pack away half a dozen of them in one sitting.
We always love her tamales and are like little kids waiting for them to arrive. However, à la mexicana, they always arrive very late, way after the hour she has told us to expect her (and the laden tamalera). One year, I foolishly invited a bunch of expat friends over for Christmas Day and comida to share in these delights just at the hour Rosa was supposed to arrive. They of course all showed up promptly at the appointed hour, and since I believed that they would all be stuffing themselves silly with tamales (and whatever other food the family brought over), I didn’t prepare anything for the guests myself.
Well, we waited, and waited, for several hours. If I called her she would just say “soon, we’re on our way, we will be there soon!” No food, we ran out of wine and mineral water and refrescos (soft drinks) and I had to just sort of shrug and laugh and say “Well,”Bienvenidos a Mexico!” Finally, the tamales arrived. The parade of transport personnel included Rosa, her son-in-law carrying the now very heavy and full tamalera, her three daughters each carrying various sauces and some chickens and salads, for good measure. Never a “Gee, I’m sorry I’m so late,” nor any explanation of why she took so long and guests were twiddling their thumbs for at several hours (she knew perfectly well I was inviting some friends over); just – “well, we’re all here now, so let’s eat!” We were all left typically scratching our heads, but everyone dug into the tamales happily and apparently forgot about the seemingly interminable delay.
It was only after the holidays, on her first Monday back to work cleaning our house, that she casually mentioned what had really happened – she confessed that actually she had run out of gas to run her stove. And it being Christmas Day, all the gas trucks which usually roam the streets of the village hawking propane, were nowhere to be found, and she was basically out of luck till she found someone who could deliver her a canister of gas.
But why didn’t she simply call to let us know what was going on? We of course would have understood. Naturally all of our friends, who live here, are used to this sort of thing and took it in stride. But I still have enough of my mother’s “flawless dinner party” genes in me to have had my feathers ruffled. I had made gringa plans, to have the guests arrive just when the tamales did, so they would have been super fresh and super delicious. Well, they were indeed super fresh and super delicious, but at 8 p.m. instead of 3 p.m. No one was annoyed but me. I hissed to Arnold that in the time we were waiting, we could have all flown to Nueva York for dinner. It just puts into relief the oft-spoken dictum around here “It’s their culture, and we will never understand it no matter how hard we try.”
Well, a version of the same thing happened again this year, but this time I was better prepared. I asked her when SHE thought she would like to arrive, and asked Mirella when SHE thought the kids would be ready to come over and open their presents. “Around two,” was the response. (Not like American kids who are pawing the earth at 6 a.m. to open their presents.) So, we got a bit of a win, because on the stroke of two the kids appeared, but MINUS Rosa and whichever family members were supposedly helping her out in the kitchen. The kids opened their presents and there was much merriment around that. Fortunately Mirella had brought the requisite several chickens so there was plenty to eat. But nary a tamal did appear, but Rosa finally did. She said she thought it would be better if she brought the tamales over for New Year’s Day instead. Fine, we said, and continued with gifts and comida. Fun was had by all.
Fast forward to New Year’s Day. No tamales. We waited somewhat forlornly for a communiqué from down the hill. Nary a peep from Rosa, it began to be dinnertime, 5, 6, 7 p.m. I fixed something else. The following day, Arnold and I were still planning on having the still phantom tamales (mistake of course), so I didn’t really plan anything for dinner either that day. And we thought we were just staying home quietly anyway, so it would be perfect to have the tamales if and when they appeared. Finally I said to Arnold, “I’m not going to call her, she’ll just say that she will be here soon, so I’ll fix some pasta and that will be the end of it.” So I fixed some nice pasta with sausage and some homemade sauce, set the table, and we chowed down. By that time it’s cast 8 p.m. and we were both starving.
Literally as Arnold put the last forkful of his pasta alle salsicce into his mouth, the doorbell rang. We both locked eyes and froze, Arnold with that great twinkle in his eye that I love. Then of course, we both fell apart laughing. Of course, there was Rosa, with a casserole full of tamales! She said she was all set to make them, had everything ready, but all the places where she could purchase masa, the cornmeal dough to make them, were – surprise surprise! – closed yesterday. She was furious. How could they possibly all close on New Year’s Day? (Especially in the middle of a pandemic with many businesses short-staffed).
The tamales, of course, were wonderful and Rosa made us stand at the kitchen counter and each eat a couple of different kinds to make sure we liked them. This despite the fact that we were totally stuffed from the pasta we’d just devoured. When I look back at the fact that I lived pretty much on 20 grams of carbohydrates a day for several years long ago to lose weight, I am pretty sure I couldn’t do it now.
We still negotiate, literally week in and week out, the differences in Mexican culture and our own. They treat communications and messaging completely differently, and one has to figure out different ways to communicate, and sometimes there just is no communication, or what we would call communication, at all. As it was when we first arrived years ago, no one uses email. If you leave a message for someone in their buzón – voice mail – rarely will they get it and rarely will they answer it. I think this may be because the phone company charges for voicemail messages, but I don’t really know.
There is probably some truth to the commonly held notion that Mexicans never want to give you any bad news. I can accept this as an outcome of their violent and persecuted history, because if the result of your bad news is that you get killed by your Spanish overlord, well, sure. But whatever the historical or psychological underpinnings of our differences in how we perceive time and social relations, it seems never to really change. Newly arrived expats still wait in utter frustration for plumbers and repair people who never arrive, never leave messages, never call to explain. Parties really start two or three hours after the announced invitation time. If you’re lucky, the person you’re waiting for inexplicably shows up late, but at least he/she cheerfully shows up eventually, no explanation for the delay proferred, and you’re happy to see them because you really need a plumber. If there is an excuse, it’s sometimes hysterically funny and pretty unbelievable, to us gringos, at least. One of my favorites was the plumber who apologized for his weeklong absence and lack of communication with me due to the fact that he had lost his phone several days before in a water cistern.
There are exceptions, and often they are tradespeople who have lived in the States and understand our ways. But our job is to scratch our heads and figure out something else to make for dinner….the tamales will surely arrive some other day.
My parents always had one or two cats and dogs, so I have pretty much always had pets. As soon as I could, I brought cats back into my home as a single girl, and when Arnold and I got together years later, we had a house and situation big enough for cats AND dogs. Arnold always loved schnauzers, and we adopted a quite handsome silver one from the Santa Fe Animal Shelter who we were warned was going to be a problem dog, and he was. We named him Fafner, because he had a wicked temper and had been so traumatized by someone, somehow, in his life, that he was unpredictable and difficult to have around guests. Unlike the two dogs we have now, Figaro and Minnie, who are hyperactive and nuts, and if anything TOO friendly, Fafner would growl and be very unpleasant. But we did our best with him. The shelter was probably expecting us to bring him back, but it never occurred to us to surrender him, because that had happened to him before. We just did the best we could, and enjoyed him when he was relaxed enough to act a little bit like a normal dog. He died when he got out of our fenced yard in Santa Fe, and three coyotes encircled him and injured him so badly that despite a ton of late-night veterinary care at the Emergency Hospital in Santa Fe, he didn’t make it.
A few months later, we got the “we need a dog” bug again, but this time, we decided to try to avoid the random result of a shelter adoption, and I began a research project to try to find a schnauzer breeder who bred “for disposition”, so we could pick out a puppy and have a reasonable chance at getting a dog that would be fun to be around and easy to train. We ultimately found a highly respected breeder who sounded like she bred the sort of dog we would like, so sight unseen, she put this adorable looking little puppy into a crate and shipped him to us in Santa Fe via air. He turned out to be a total delight from the second we released him from the crate at the airport. We named him “Figaro”, sticking to our custom of usually giving pets operatic names, and we – and my parents – adored him. He died, way too young, of a heart deformity we couldn’t have fixed even if we’d known about it.
Thus we were dogless when we moved from Santa Fe down to Mexico, but once we got settled, we asked Dr. Jesus, our classical-guitar playing vet, whether or not he could help us find or rescue a schnauzer. We were encouraged because on his office wall he had taped a photo montage of some adorable schnauzer puppies. He said, yes, actually, he knew a breeder, and he’d try to find out if there were any puppies available, or any that needed homes. This went on for months….we would take one of the cats in for a booster shot or something, and ask him if there were any schnauzers available. Yes, there were, but the puppies were too young to adopt. Yes, there might be some next spring. Yes, there were, but the litter was all spoken for. Yes, there were, but the breeder ultimately decided to keep them all.
And on and on it went, until one day we were in there with one of our cats and Dr. Jesus told us that a couple of days ago, someone dumped a puppy on his office doorstep (a frequent occurrence here). He said, “She isn’t a schnauzer, but she has some schnauzer in her, I am sure. She seems to be a very bright and healthy little dog, who won’t get to be too big, with no major physical problems that I can see. Would you like to see her? I have her in back….” We thought, “well, why not? Let’s meet this doggie and see what we think.” So out comes bounding this snow-white, long-bodied (more dachshund than even a drop of schnauzer) little puppy, who had some mange (being treated) from being out on the street, and pretty skinny. But very sweet, and most definitely a dog who needed a home. Only two months old, so it seemed like whatever trauma she had endured being dumped could be ameliorated by love and good care. Schnauzer or “part-schnauzer”, we were ready for a puppy in our new Mexico life. Now, rather than buy from a breeder, it made sense to rescue a street dog. We took her.
That little white puppy became Reina, and she lived with us for thirteen years. Everyone loved her. When she had to be put to sleep, it was horrible, but it was time. She battled an aggressive cancer very bravely, but there came that point when we knew we had to put a stop to it.
Along the way we thought she might like to have a companion, above and beyond the multiple cats. Arnold still wanted a schnauzer and in spite of Dr. Jesus’ insistence that she had schnauzer “in her” (not a chance, see earlier photos of pure white mixed terrier), he persisted in wanting the real thing. I kept an eye out for dogs “en adopción” on the internet. A few months later, a notice appeared that an obviously purebred Standard Schnauzer was up for adoption, and we got him. He became Figaro II, after our little miniature who had died so unexpectedly in Santa Fe. He has been an incredible dog. Yet after Reina’s death, Figaro went into a real depression, and we looked for a second dog. We soon found Mimi, a delightful little black terrier mix, rescued by a Canadian lady who sadly had some health issues and had to give her up. She and Figaro bonded immediately and we thought they would be together forever.
But in spite of supposedly having been vaccinated, after just a couple of months with us, she suddenly became inexplicably very sick. We rushed her to the vet, and it turned out to be distemper. Our new vet (closer to home than Dr. Jesus) said she would not be able to survive it, as it had advanced, and told us that sooner rather than later, her neurological symptoms would progress in a matter of days, to a point where she, too, was going to have to be put to sleep. We were in a state of shock. The lady who gave her to us had provided her vaccination card and clearly she had been vaccinated. But the vet said “sometimes there is a bad batch of the vaccine, it isn’t refrigerated, expired, or not at a low enough temperature; all kinds of things can go wrong with it. Here at our clinic we are meticulous about keeping our vaccines at the correct temperature.” It was heartbreaking, because one day we had a cheerful, healthy little doggie who was fitting beautifully into our family and a week later she was dead.
So Figaro was once again droopy and depressed, and so were we. He had bonded happily with his new playmate, and we also had fallen in love with sweet little Mimi. She came to us with that name, and we kept it because (La Bohème) it was operatic enough and it kind of fit her personality. In retrospect, I think she knew she was doomed, just like the operatic Mimi. In those moments when you are communicating with your dog, she would inexplicably gaze up at me with these very sad eyes, and I never understood why, until suddenly she got so sick. I really felt she knew that she was destined to die young, a weird thing to sense from a dog. But it turned out to be true.
Eventually, after the shock wore off a bit, I asked our vet, who does a lot of volunteer work with the various dog rescue groups here, to let us know if he had any dogs brought to him who he thought might be a fit for us. Sure enough, a couple of weeks later, he told me that he had just examined a litter of part-schnauzer strays that had been brought in by Lucky Dog, to get them ready for adoption. He said “these are all very healthy, seem intelligent, and they are at least half schnauzer, because someone left the three puppies and their Miniature Schnauzer mom in a box outside the gate of Lucky Dog a few days ago. I have given them all their vaccines, and they should be ready for adoption next week after their isolation period.”
As soon as the puppies were “available”, I raced over to Lucky Dog to check them out. Two were very quiet and didn’t pay any attention to me, but one kept jumping up, completely focused on my face, frantically trying to lick me, and if that wasn’t a case of “Take me, take me, PLEEZE take me!” I didn’t know what was. Having had dogs most of my life, it was clear to me that this puppy was going to be a hyperactive handful but she also had a ton of personality and was seriously cute. We named her after Minnie (from Fanciulla del West, one of the few operas where the title role female character is actually very cool and doesn’t lie down and die of love for some man. She has indeed turned out to be a handful but we love her, and she and Figaro are absolutely inseparable.
So for now the animal situation is stabilized a bit, symmetrically, with two cats and two dogs. With both dogs calm in their crates nearby, Tabitha and Missoni sleep with us at night; like clockwork both cats come in and jump up on our bed. Missoni waits till I get comfortable and then walks over Arnold to lie down beside me and put her paw in my hand, and then we both go to sleep. it is very sweet; and it goes on until I inevitably turn over and then she gets annoyed and bites me, but not too hard. Tab has a little space between Arnold and me that is her nest and she gets in the same place every night, curls up and begins to purr and also goes to sleep. I’m aware that both those kitties are getting older. Tab has to be at least eighteen by now (no one really knows). And Missoni is getting on too. You’re aware that you’ll have to go through the same horrible drill with their deaths at some point, but it is so worth it to have them for an innumerable list of reasons. They give so much life and fun to a household, and I can’t imagine not having one or several of them around.
But you never do totally get over the loss of any of them after they are gone. I was completely broken up when we lost Achille, our wonderful Korat, and Rosie, Arnold’s little Abyssinian, who got a nasal cancer that deformed her gorgeous face. Jet-black Luigi, one of the most beautiful cats I’d ever seen, came down to Mexico with my parents. He lived to be quite old (no one knows for sure) but cancer and old age got him too. He died on our living room floor in the middle of he night, trying to get to us one last time in our bedroom. I knew he was sick, but couldn’t deal with how sick he was. I still regret that we didn’t just put him to sleep a few days earlier, but I couldn’t deal with it after Mimi and all the others. I guess on some weird level I wanted him to die at home, but in retrospect, it was a mistake. Rosa and Arnold all swooped in to spare me more pain after we’d discovered him, and took him wrapped in towels down below us to the San Antonio cemetery, where Rosa’s husband was the caretaker. Only humans supposedly are buried there, but Luigi is buried down there too. I can see where he is from my office window, for what it’s worth. I still miss him horribly. Someday I would love to have another black cat, but who knows.
After another long absence, I guess I am back. We are still dealing with the virus, facing another lockdown with the latest Coronavirus variant (this time it’s Omicron) and once more retreating back to our house, double-masking, and all the rest. We are all figuring this is the new normal, beyond sick (pun not intended) of it all. And so is everyone we know.
I’m writing this on January 31, New Year’s Eve for 2021. It was a horribly stressful year, what with the pandemic, and at least up until May, we were still dealing with Arnold not being able to see out of one eye. In spite of the virus, we braved an airplane and airports and ended up going to Florida, to the highly-recommended Bascom-Palmer Eye Institute, to see if any of their surgeons could help Arnold regain his eyesight, which was completely messed up for a variety of reasons. Since he only had one good eye to start with (the one that had the botched surgery), having that eye so badly compromised was a disaster for both of us. He couldn’t drive, could barely to see to read, and the list of things he couldn’t do any more was getting longer and longer every month. From being his generally cheerful and ironic self, he descended into depression and fear that the rest of his life was going to be completely compromised. We were prepared to do anything we could, and basically to go anywhere, to see if there was any remedy for it. Fortunately there was a great surgeon at Bascom-Palmer (Mexican, as it turned out!) who was able to fix the several things inside Arnold’s eye that were causing problem upon problem. His iris was messed up, his pupil was messed up, the cornea was a bit damaged, and on and on. None of the surgeons we saw here in Mexico were willing to tackle it because of him only having that one good eye.
It was hard; because of the virus they wouldn’t even let me into the hospital except for our first meetings with the doctor. Even during the several hours of the surgery, I was holed up back at the hotel with no communication from anyone. However, there was a miraculously positive outcome to the surgery, for which we are eternally grateful, but the truth is that the two prior years took a lot out of both of us. Now that it’s the end of the year I can look back and acknowledge how difficult and discouraging it was. Anything creative – ceramics, or writing – was just set aside. But after a few months of just licking our wounds and healing – literally and figuratively – Arnold began cautiously to drive again, and to pick up where he left off back in 2018 when the messed up eye surgery called a halt to what had been our previous lives.
As is my usual wont, I consoled myself during Arnold’s recovery and return to a bit of normalcy with a major remodeling project which was actually lots of fun. Our house has always had a beautiful view of Lake Chapala from the roof, but getting up there to enjoy it was up a dangerous flight of stairs, and the actual exit from the stairwell onto the roof was also risky and awkward. There was no electricity up there, hence, no lighting anywhere. The way the door opened, you actually had to back up. You had to reverse down a few stairs to get around the door that let you actually out onto the roof, and then, when you were out there, you had the view, but you were still up on the barren roof. Dangerous and not particularly inviting, but from that day back in 2013 when we saw the house for the first time, I promised myself that when the time was right, I would turn that dreary roof into something wonderful. So, basically stuck here because of the pandemic, I found a great construction guy, who continues to be our do-everything person for household jobs, who brought in a crew and with a bit of outside help, I pretty much designed the whole thing myself. It turned out great, and now we can actually go up there and sit on our new mirador (rooftop deck) and enjoy the breezes from the lake, the sunsets and sunrises, and the ever-changing view of the lake beyond the pueblo. I am still finishing up the last decorating touches up there, but I love doing that stuff, so it’s fun to bit by bit see it come together, including designing some very cool chairs, and having them built by our trusty ironworker.
Of course with the pandemic we haven’t had any guests, and other than a couple of furtive, double-masked trips north to help my sister move into a new house, we haven’t traveled either. It’s so sad – this is the time in our lives when we should be able to be zipping off to Paris or whatever, but that is out of reach at least for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, we haven’t gotten sick, and in that respect, so far, so good. Tomorrow, New Year’s Day, hopefully will start off a year that might see the end – or at least the reduction – of the pandemic, but we will have to get through a couple of months of this Omicron thing raging throughout Mexico before we can even begin to think about relaxing a bit. So I am just going to stay home, hopefully work out in my ceramic studio, and be thankful, for what it’s worth, that I have managed to get to be 75 years old without anything serious going wrong with me.
Ditto for Arnold – but it is certainly true that with me now being 75 and him being 85, we are treading a little more tenderly and facing the fact that in some areas, we are beginning to slow down a bit. Nothing too horrible, but I do notice a difference in some things – my balance is shot, my eyesight is being hindered by a small cataract that will have to be dealt with at some point, and so on. But things could be so much worse. And after Arnold’s misadventures with cataract surgery, I am terrified by the whole thing. One of us has to be able to see, and he will never be able to see particularly well, but at least he can function reasonably well these days. I will try to write more often and make note of at least a few things that life is throwing at me these days. At least I am going to try, and for the moment, that is all I can say. We, like so many, have lost a few friends to the virus, so no one is taking anything for granted, as far as future plans might be concerned, around here. All we can say as we have raised our glasses for New Year’s, is that we hope we are around for the next one, and that’s about it.
Like half the rest of the world, Arnold and I have been in quarantine, for five months now. Of course I haven’t had the energy to write anything but I am hoping that now perhaps I will, given everything that is going (or not going) on here. Friends have commented that they are surprised how little energy they actually have for doing all the things they wished they had time for before the lockdown. My answer has been that one cannot overlook the stress level of being confronted with the scary reality of a virus that can kill you in a matter of days after you’ve contracted it, so we are all, at the base of things, terrified for our lives. It is very complicated, because I have found that I’m actually liking the reality of not being able to go out, not being able to travel, at least right now. I have been working in my ceramics studio, doing some fixing up and rearranging in the house, and I seem happy to be cooped up here, as it turns out. Arnold is doing exactly what he always does – stay in his office and listen to opera recordings. So it hasn’t really been too bad.
No one here that we know has gotten sick, we are all taking precautions, wearing masks, washing our hands, trying to be careful. We do miss seeing our friends but we are beginning, after five months of this, to talk about ways to do “healthy, social distancing”, dinner parties or cocktail parties on our terrace. We haven’t actually done anything yet, except for a friend or two coming over occasionally. Sofia has finished college and it’s all very anticlimactic – no graduation for her, nor for any of the other kids who would have graduated from Primaria and Secundaria respectively. I had fantasized about hiring a van to take her entire family and some of our close friends to Guadalajara for her college graduation and then throwing a big party. But….well, it was not to be. And she has decided, given that there are absolutely no jobs available for newly minted lawyers with the pandemic, to stay in school and go on for the Mexican equivalent of an M.B.A.
She has already begun her summer courses, and everything is online now. Classes, meetings, even my workouts with my trainer River have gone online. My outings from our house now are limited to masked runs to get groceries and do banking, and that’s about it. I am grateful to at least be able to go out every week or so, to see what has changed in our little village in the days since my last excursion. There are changes – new construction, they are building what should be a nice bike path linking Chapala to the west end of Ajijic. New houses and developments to make way for the expats and wealthier Mexicans who continue to come here to live.
I think the best thing about the enforced lockdown is that the noise and clatter of what was our everyday lives has now slowed way, way down. We actually have had relatively few cases of the virus here in Chapala, so the restrictions in March were a sort of dress rehearsal for the real lockdown we have now. And it is likely to continue for many months, and no one knows how this is all going to end, of course.
So I walk out on my balcony and listen to the soundscape of the village down below us and it is the usual mix of modernization, madness and occasional echoes of a traditional Mexico that is fast disappearing. Even in the early evening, the construction racket from a new shopping center and a new apartment building mix with the twilight chattering of birds, screaming truck brakes, a band playing somewhere for someone’s birthday (though no one is supposed to be having any parties); dogs barking, radios playing. If you have to be cooped up, this isn’t too bad a place to have it happen to you. Most of our friends are saying the very same thing.
When we do talk, it’s the same themes for all of us – the meltdown in the U.S.A., our Ancestral Homeland, the thousands upon thousands of incomprehensible deaths, the apparent disintegration of so much that we had gotten used to as sort of a baseline. All of that is in play, and no one really knows how this “New Normal” is going to affect us in the long run. All we can do for the moment is do what they tell us, stay home – trucks are going up and down the streets with bullhorns that are blaring, on top of the noises noted above, “Quedate en Casa” == (stay home) – wash your hands, use hand sanitizer, don’t go anywhere you don’t absolutely have to go, cross your fingers, and hope for the best.
So I can see that the last time I posted anything on this blog was 2017, announcing the arrival of our newly adopted dog Figaro. Wow! For someone who purportedly loves to write, this has been a dismal two year silence, apparently with my having had nothing to say. That isn’t really the case, life just got in the way. But to be honest, for the last several months it has really been nagging at me that I just up and quit writing anything here. I fully intend to reform! But there have been reasons for it; and rather than – as Arnold would say – beating myself up about it, I suspected that the best thing would be just to sit down at the computer and try to get myself going again and start up in whatever scrabbly fashion I can. Hence this sort of thrown-together post, but at least here I am again. I am hoping that as I get back into the swing of it, news and comments will be more structured. But for now, I think the most important thing is that I just get started again. Sort of swinging at the piñata until you manage to hit something.
So, in brief, a lot has gone in our lives since 2017. Arnold has had some serious health issues – among other things a routine cataract surgery that went badly off the rails last year, almost costing him his eyesight, and supporting him throughout this ordeal has sucked up almost all my energy for pursuits of my own; last year, before the surgery, we managed to do some traveling to Europe, and some fairly substantial work on our house; and it has been difficult for me to pull myself away from all of it and write – or, for that matter, do much of anything creative. My ceramics studio has been pretty much closed up for a year as well.
Meanwhile, sort of like Brunnhilde, I have awakened after this long sleep to of course find that I am a couple of years older, grayer, and increasingly both of us are aware of our own mortality, as is happening to a lot of our friends. We are still in Mexico, still in our house, still planning to stay here indefinitely. The political situation back in the States has become so awful that more than ever now, we’re committed to staying here in our paid-off house in a place with pretty much glorious weather, and a great circle of friends, both Mexican and American. What’s going on in Ajijic and our whole region as Americans flock down here to retire or just to escape, is the subject of another blog post, which in my newly reformed “I promise to keep it up this time” frame of mind, I hope to write soon.
Our much-loved little dog Reina had to be put to sleep in February because she had an inoperable and horrible cancer. Figaro is now the senior dog in the family as he now has a younger sister, an adorable little black terrier mix puppy we adopted a couple of months ago. Her name was Mimi when we got her – and in keeping with our tradition of giving our pets operatic names, we just decided to let her continue as Mimi but we put the accent on the last syllable and called her Mimi from La Bohème. That’s also the way Mimí is pronounced in Spanish, so it was easy all the way around. She has been a lot of fun and Figaro and she are of course inseparable. He just seems to be the kind of dog that needs to have another dog around to play with.
When Reina became so ill at the end, we could tell that he knew what was going on, in that way that dogs have. When Reina went to the vet one day and didn’t come home, he plunged into a real doggie depression, and it seemed to me, at least, that we needed to find another dog soon to bring into the household. Mimi was part of a litter of seven-week old puppies that was dumped at the local cat shelter in the middle of the night – the usual story. She was taken in by a very kind lady who gave her a home until she wasn’t able to keep her any longer due to her own health concerns, and she went up for adoption. I took one look at her picture on Facebook and immediately decided I wanted to check her out….went to meet her and of course came home with her in the car. We got her at about six months (no one knows for sure, because she was a rescue, of course) but she certainly has her forever home as far as we are concerned.
Here’s a picture of Mimi at six months, with yogurt all over her face. Her favorite thing is to lick out Arnold’s empty morning yogurt container.
We lost our Abyssinian kitty Rosina too, also to an inoperable nasal cancer. She was proud and gorgeous until the end, when we knew she had to be in a great deal of pain. So we have leveled off at three cats and two dogs, and we are hoping the kitties – who are actually becoming quite ancient – can hang in there for awhile longer. We’ve lost a few of our best human friends, too – we are of course getting to the age – me in my 70’s, Arnold in his 80’s, where we are beginning to have friends die, sometimes very unexpectedly, which is incredibly scary. It has scared me into starting to exercise with some regularity, working out with a terrific personal trainer. More on that in a subsequent post!
Our adopted Mexican family continues to be a big and fascinating part of our lives. Rosa and Mirella still are cleaning our house; although Mirella is trying to go back to school and become a nurse. Sofia is entering her last year of college to finish her law degree. We sent her to Madrid this summer to go to summer school there and she returned – as we knew she would – a completely changed young woman. She will be 23 this year – and she continues to be a real joy to both of us, with brilliant grades and tremendous self-discipline and focus. Nicol, America and Carlos are growing up very fast and the two girls are now most decidely teenagers, which is a whole different experience from having them around as little kids.
So, there is lots to report and I hope that I will be able to – having hopefully at least broken the ice with a baby “I am still here” post – begin to write again about the changes in our life here, of which there are many with the political developments both here and of course back in the Ancestral Homeland, the U.S.A. Stand by, I am hoping there will be more!
It was especially beautiful today after a big rainstorm last night. Here is the afternoon view of our village, San Antonio Tlayacapan, and Lake Chapala, from my office…
I was awakened at five a.m. this morning by the sound of our neighbor’s dog barking, once again. This miserable dog barks constantly at night; everyone on the street complains to each other about it but no one wants to approach our neighbor about it. The fragility of the peace we enjoy on the block is apparently worth the molestia of this poor dog’s incessant barking. But it also got me to thinking about dogs, what makes them happy and what turns them into neurotic messes, and it reminded me also that in my attempts to once again post something here every once in a while, I have neglected to note the arrival of our newest animalito, who certainly at least hasta la fecha (up until now) counts among the really happy ones.
Indeed, our most significant domestic news is that we have now a wonderful new family member, a rescued Standard Schnauzer puppy we named Figaro after our last schnauzer, who died way too young and was a lovely dog. He has given Reina a new lease on life and the two of them have been inseparable from the moment they laid eyes on each other. Their antics playing and running around the house and garden have had us in stitches much of the time. I had been thinking for quite awhile that it might be a nice idea to look for a second dog to be a companion for Reina – somehow she had severed a ligament in one of her hind legs, and ultimately needed surgery to repair it. While she had recovered perfectly well from the surgery and two nights in the fancy orthopedic veterinary hospital in Guadalajara, she was a bit tentative in running around and had become a lot more quiet. Also, hard to believe, but she is nine years old now….not a puppy herself anymore! So I had been thinking that maybe a second dog might be just the trick to perk her up. But with everything else going on, the usual stream of houseguests and our own travels hither and yon, I never had time to get really serious about it.
Until, one day glancing through Facebook, I saw a post from a woman who was fostering what was apparently a quite fine Standard Schnauzer who had been running loose on the carretera, then had been hit by a car. She and another good samaritan ran to rescue the dog and take him to a vet – it turned out his injuries were minor and after a week of observation and a bath and a proper schnauzer haircut (apparently he had been out there for awhile, and was matted and filthy and pretty miserable) he was now ready for adoption as no one had stepped forward to claim him. When I showed the Facebook post to Arnold he was as curious as I was and – well, it was indeed a schnauzer, his favorite breed. I wrote back to the lady immediately and said we were interested in meeting this dog. It seemed like potentially the best of both worlds: while we both had loved the idea of having another schnauzer, there is no way you can live in Mexico and not rescue a stray. There are just so many in shelters and loose on the streets who need homes. This solved that ethical problem and from the picture he also looked like a particularly fine dog. I just had a funny feeling looking at his pictures, you know, one of those very powerful sensations, that this dog might well be the one for us and I determined to move heaven and earth if I had to, to at least get to meet him. He looked wonderful, cheerful and intelligent, in the Facebook photos. Somehow it just seemed like we had to pursue it.
The lady said “well, there are two people ahead of you who have expressed an interest in him, and I am going to interview them and check out their situations, and if neither of them works out for any reason, I will let you know.” We were of course crestfallen thinking that surely one of those petitioners would work out – it seemed as though quite a number of people had seen the photo of this doggie and suspected that he was something pretty special. The vet had estimated that he was somewhere between six and eight months old; he still had several of his baby teeth. I loved the idea of a younger dog we could train and socialize ourselves. I told her that we were very seriously interested, that we’d had two schnauzers back in the States, and please to keep us posted. Sure enough, the following day she phoned to say Potential Adopters #1 and #2 hadn’t worked out, and were we still interested and available to see the dog? #1, it turned out, was about to depart for a six-week trip leaving this puppy in the care of a housekeeper (or someone) and no, that isn’t the way to bond with a puppy who is newly rescued from what was obviously a terrifying experience out on the streets. #2 was a sadder story – a lady who already had two dogs, a younger one who would have been a fine companion to a new, younger dog, but also had a 15-year-old second dog who was dying of cancer. There was no way the couple fostering Figaro were going to “do that” – e.g. sic an exuberant and playful puppy – on a dog who was clearly in need of as little external stress as possible. So that left us.
It turned out that the dog’s foster parents had a lunch club meeting that day at a restaurant literally a block away from us, so I suggested that they drop the dog off here, see our setup, meet us and our other animals, and then come back after their luncheon and we’d all see how Reina and the new dog were getting along, and take it from there. When they arrived soon thereafter, they could see that our property is totally walled and safe, and it was pretty obvious that this dog was going to have a pretty cool life here.
They brought him in, took his leash off, and we brought Reina out. They sniffed each other, touched noses while all four of us were watching them anxiously for any signs of aggression or discomfort. After two or three minutes of sniffing and investigating, they took off playing and chasing each other across the lawn; then they played and played for a couple of hours until they both just collapsed in a heap for doggie naps; then they woke up and started in again until the foster parents came back from their lunch. When they asked “how is it going?”, all we had to do was point to the black flash alternately chasing or being chased by the white flash across the lawn and then both of them on their backs rolling around on the grass or nuzzling one another. To say they were getting along was the understatement of the century.
Simultaneous sleeping, after a morning of running around.
So the lady said, “Well, looks like we are just going to leave him with you!” with the caveat that if anything changed they would of course come back and pick him up. It turned out that in her pre-retirement life she had been a dog breeder and exhibitor and she knew dogs and terriers, in particular, very well. She knew this was a special dog and if no suitable new owner had turned up she and her husband were actually planning to keep him themselves.
But he stayed with us; that first night we dragged out Reina’s old crate and he calmly went right into it. He seemed to know what to do; we’ll never know, of course, but we could tell he had been well socialized and how he got out, got lost, escaped, was dumped, and ended up loose on the highway will forever remain a mystery. We have showered him with love and attention; began to “touch up” his housebreaking a bit – there were a few accidents in the house – and get him used to the cats. He is just thriving, of course. He is very smart and easy to train, and Reina continues to think he is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Luigi and Missoni got used to him very quickly; we have had more trouble with Tabitha who for some reason is terrified of him – he runs around and barks a lot and he is much bigger, of course, than Reina. But even she, gradually, is a bit calmer now around him now and we are hoping that in a few more months she’ll be back to normal. We have a lot of training to do; he barks a lot and jumps up on people, the usual puppy stuff. But for the next month we are home, no travel, no houseguests – so aside from me wanting to get into my studio and finally spend some time in the art world, we’ll have time to work on his training without so many interruptions.
Arnold and his new best friend on his office sofa….
So now, our little domicile is populated by two humans, three cats and two dogs. All of them, whether originally from Santa Fe or here, are rescues. We are doing our bit for the dog and cat overpopulation problem and having a lot of fun with them all at the same time. To Rosa and Mirella, he is “Figarito”. ¡Bienvenido!
Arnold had his eightieth birthday back in August, and true to his fundamentally reclusive nature, despite the entreaties of Rosa, Mirella, and everyone else in our “Mexican family”, he steadfastly refused to have any sort of commemorative fiesta, even a smallish one for our closest friends. He admitted to me that for him, especially now with several stents in his heart and a pacemaker, the marker of 80 was for him a complicated and emotionally challenging birthday. He was quite clear about it – not only did he not wish to have any sort of public acknowledgement of it, he was angling to leave town and head for New York – his favorite stomping ground – and celebrate it privately there, with me, à deux, in a nice restaurant somewhere in Manhattan.
I was happy to grant him his wish – I loved the idea of going off to Nueva York, especially in August – the heat (unlike the cold, which always makes me end up with bronchitis) wouldn’t bother me, and it would be fun to wander all over the city shopping and prowling and eating, enjoying the city. So off we went last August 7, leaving plenty of time to get in and get settled before his real birthday on the 9th; and cashing in a bunch of mileage so we could go Business Class to celebrate the momentous occasion. We got to the Guadalajara airport in plenty of time only to be advised that Delta’s computer system had gone down, and no one was flying anywhere for several hours at the very least. At least the Delta people dragged out a coffee cart and offered coffee and pastries to everyone who was hanging around waiting.
Finally we made it to Atlanta that evening, but the situation was even worse there, no flights in or out. I feared that I was going to have to call the restaurant where I’d reserved a table for us the following evening near our hotel in New York, and cancel because we were apparently going to be stuck in Atlanta for a while. But being in Business Class had its advantages – they found us a hotel for the night and told us to come back in the morning to try to catch an early afternoon flight, as things were by then slowly coming back on line. It sounded like this whole massive meltdown, which brought all of Delta Airlines to its knees, was caused by some funky router the size of a shoebox! Or so they said.
In any event, we ultimately made our way to LaGuardia, and thence to our hotel, threw our bags on the bed, and walked the couple of blocks to the restaurant, and managed to get there literally eight minutes ahead of our 7 p.m. reservation on August 9, Arnold’s actual birthday. After years of experience with air travel, we had planned the extra day just for disasters such as this. We got ourselves settled in our very nice hotel and then spent our remaining days in New York, just as we had said – nothing going on in the way of big-deal concerts, but we enjoyed the city. Arnold said on several different occasions that this was the birthday he had thought he’d like to have. Thankfully the flight back to Guadalajara was completely uneventful, and I was a happy camper because we’d been just in time for all the end-of-season sales for summer weight clothes at some of my favorite stores.
That was fine, but then there remained the matter of my own upcoming 70th birthday, and obviously it was going to fall to me to have the big fiesta. Rosa and Mirella were itching to plan it, and there wasn’t any remodeling going on, no health issues, no plausible excuse – and we did have a lot of friends for whom we needed to reciprocate for various invitations over the past year, and friends we just plain hadn’t seen for awhile. So I sat down with Rosa and Mirella and we began to sketch out an extravaganza that hopefully wouldn’t break the bank and would be fun for everyone. I was also stuck because as it turned out the actual date fell on a Friday. Given that my birthday is December 23, we’d have to deal with the fact that the evenings here are nippy (even if the days are warm and beautiful) – we wanted to have it in the garden, where people could spread out, and for me, live music was “obligatorio”.
One reality about life here in our little Ajijic bubble is that there tends to be a “gringo” price and a “local” price for many things, and often things related to parties fall into the “you will pay the ‘gringo tax’” category. So Rosa and Mirella offered to make all the arrangements so it would be less expensive, and I would discreetly hand them envelopes at the end of the fiesta to pay everyone involved in cash. But the conceit would be that they were throwing this party for us, which was fine with me because they were going to have to deal with most of the logistics themselves anyway. From parties I had been to here over the years, I had managed to save two business cards – one from a guy who comes to your house with a crew and sets up a taco bar “wherever” in your house or on your terraza, including waitstaff and a bartender. Simple! People come and eat gazillions of tacos and guacamole and whatever else they proffer. And Arnold wouldn’t be stuck behind a card table somewhere pouring glasses of vino.
The other dog-eared card was from a lovely trio of older guys who sang the beloved old Mexican songs from the forties and fifties – no amplification – and I thought that would be just the right touch. There would be a guitarrón, a regular guitar, and a requinto, the tiny little guitar you see in mariachi and jarocho music as well. As the daughter of a musicologist, of course I wanted the real deal. Rosa said “they know all the songs you will want, trust me”. And so I did, and they were perfect, even though as it turned out that at the last minute, we lost one of the trio to a gout attack. His doctor had prohibited him from standing, but he sent a buddy to replace him and all was well. I would have loved a mariachi but since a mariachi is usually ten or twelve guys, it would have been a lot more expensive. I’m saving that idea for the next big fiesta, perhaps, in the summer.
I showed both cards to Rosa and said “can you contact these people and say that you’re interested in a party on December 23, and see if they’re available and how much they might charge? Rosa lit up when she saw the musicians’ card – “I know these guys, I have known them for years! They are right here in San Antonio and the leader is an old friend of mine! I’ll call them right away.” Mirella did basically the same thing. She noted that the taquiza guy (the fellow who has the come-to-your-house taco party service) lived just below us on Jesus Garcia and was also basically a neighbor. So the date was reserved, deposits made, and I came up with the guest list – which wasn’t all that hard. Mexican tradition dictates that when you have a fiesta of a certain size, you invite all your neighbors (ref. Quinceañera de Rubí for those of you who followed that whole recent Mexican adventure!) It totaled more than fifty people – I thought, well, let the games begin!
The taco folks then sent me a list of menu options (by WhatsApp, which is what Mexicans use nowadays to communicate) and I had to let them know what we wanted. They would provide a lady to make tortillas on the spot (yum) and then you picked seven fillings, which they would have available buffet-style in earthenware casseroles on a portable stove. We also had our choice of several “botanas”-appetizers – to be on the tables as guest arrived – chips and salsa, or other options. We could have had dessert too but of course we would opt for a cake (from my favorite local bakery). Of course, since Rosa and Mirella arranged it, it was going to be quite a bit less expensive than if I’d made all those calls myself. We decided to do it in the afternoon, comida style, from 3-6 pm rather than in the evening, because it would be dark and much colder by then. And those of us viejitos who like getting home before dark would have no problem.
Arrangements were made for a big outdoor party tent (virtually no chance of rain this time of year, but, still, mejor prevenir que lamentar (better safe than sorry). Five tables of about ten each, out on the lawn, under the tent. People would get up and wander over to the buffet and load up on tacos, and other fixins and the musicians would circulate and play at each table. All was set.
The day before the fiesta the toldo (tent) people would come and set up the tent and deliver the tables, linens, and chairs. I splurged and ordered some very cool looking plastic tableware and napkins from Amazon to be sent down from the States – I just didn’t want the basically awful and flimsy plastic cutlery we could find in the local supermarkets here. So the tables (my mother would have definitely approved) would be pretty.
The morning of the fiesta arrived – I put on a wonderful old antique huipil I had purchased years prior in Mexico City and threw on a favorite crystal necklace; took care of some last minute details, and then waited – and waited- and waited – with increasing gringo panic -for the food people to show up. They said they would be there an hour ahead to set things up and be ready. Well, a la mexicana, at 2:45 p.m. they were still nowhere to be found. I kept asking Mirella to call them, and they said they were on their way. Meanwhile, I was a nervous wreck when at literally ten minutes after the guests were supposed to begin arriving, they showed up, and in a blur of activity, they had everything ready amazingly quickly. I could only conclude that Mexicans do two things with some degree of organization and punctuality – the long-distance buses tend to run exactly on time, and parties seem to come together perhaps at the last minute, but everything magically was ready by the time the first guests actually came into the garden. I was standing out there forlornly looking at the area of lawn we had designated for the taco guy, who was nowhere to be found, when the musicians arrived, and came around the house looking for me, playing the traditional Mexican birthday song, Las Mañanitas as they walked in.
(If you would like to hear what Las Mañanitas actually sounds like, here is a nice version with Mariachi Vargas. This is a folk song, so of course there are lots of different variations, but I will bet that you recognize it when you hear it! )
The musicians then surrounded me singing, and everyone in the house who was scurrying around with last minute chores came out to the garden to join them. and I felt completely happy and very loved, and even stopped fretting about the food – which arrived about ninety seconds into my birthday serenade and all was well. Everyone, including me, was crying – a good sign for the soon-to-begin fiesta as the guests arrived shortly thereafter. Rosa had apparently hunted all over the place for a crown, which of course I duly put on.
The party itself was just wonderful – people ate, drank, visited, we had pitchers of margaritas, beer, great food, a beautiful cake (I swore I was going to eat at least a sliver of my own 70th birthday cake, carbohydrates be damned, which I did), and everyone said it was a completely memorable fiesta.
I had told Rosa, Mirella, and the rest of our “Mexican family” that they were to be guests, and I didn’t want to see any of them in the kitchen, we had waiters for that. And they obeyed! They danced and participated and the kids practiced their English a little bit with our gringo friends. A great time was had by all.
I woke up the next morning 70 years old and none the worse for wear. I’ve determined that to the extent I can I am going to really enjoy this year; a number of my friends who are already in their 70’s said “it’s the best decade ever” – and I can see how, given our very fortunate circumstances and the amazingly interesting (if complicated!) life we have forged for ourselves here, that might actually prove to be the case.
It’s been a long time, but once again, I am back – I decided that WordPress’ email advising me that they were going to charge my credit card for yet another year, and considering that I hardly wrote anything last year, I either had to bail on the blog altogether or try to get back to writing it to justify the ongoing expense. And some of my friends and family have said that they have missed it, so here I am with an update and hopefully some further commentaries as we close in on (May 6, 2017!) our actual tenth year anniversary living in Mexico.
This year has been fun, but hard in some ways, and even setting aside the political craziness back in the Ancestral Homeland, I am not sorry to see it be over with. We now have a beautiful, finished jacuzzi in our back yard and we are enjoying it whenever it’s warm enough to merit heating it up – but building it took eight months, and a bunch of dust, stress, and money, including the Monday-Saturday all-day-long invasion of a ton of workers digging and bashing around from 8 to 6 each day. We also completely redesigned the front entry to the house, with a high new wall, built by Rosa’s husband Jose Luis. It turned out beautifully but the disruption with construction both in back and in front of the house was a lot to deal with.
Then in other sorta bad news, it turned out that in the middle of all of that, Arnold needed three new stents put in, so off we went to the hospital in Guadalajara for an overnight visit and had to deal with that. Then shortly thereafter, I was diagnosed as diabetic and immediately put on medication – which didn’t last too long because I completely rebelled against it and decided I could manage it on my own with my diet. Probably this is a topic for its own separate blog post, it occurs to me now. We also had to put our beloved little Abyssinian kitty Rosie to sleep when she developed a fatal cancer, which she battled bravely until the very end. It was very difficult and we still miss her.
We continue to support Rosa’s daughter Sofia, now in her second year as a law student at ITESO, one of the best private universities in Mexico. She is doing brilliantly and absolutely loves being a college kid! She turns twenty on Thursday and we’ve planned a celebratory luncheon at a really pretty restaurant here in town (she picked it) for her and her family. The younger kids are doing well too – Nicol and America entering Secundaria (middle school) in the fall, and they are benefiting enormously from the much better quality of education available in an excellent and established Jesuit school. Carlos, the youngest, goes into fourth grade and he is also doing really well and adorable to boot.
Today being Christmas Day, the whole family came over for presents and comida – two days ago I had an enormous party to celebrate my 70th birthday (subject of a separate post, I promise!) so I was way too tired to actually fix food for everyone – we got some pizzas from Domino’s, which fortunately was open today, and called it a day. Every year the whole family – Rosa and Mirella – who clean my house, and Dani, who does a lot of the handyman tasks – comes over for presents – most of which are practical things and clothing for the kids, which they desperately need) – lunch, cookies, and margaritas on the terrace for the adults. I really enjoy having them sit down on the sofas out on the terrace, and I bring the margaritas out on a tray for THEM, for a change.
It should be crystal-clear looking out my second-story office window this weekend, but it’s hazy and my contacts sting a bit. The Colima volcano has been erupting on and off for the last few days and if the wind is in our direction, we get a bit of the the dust and ash here. Hopefully it’ll settle down and the sky will clear over the next few days, perhaps in time for New Year’s.
I’m back up to my old tricks remodeling our house – this time we decided, after much discussion, to add a jacuzzi to our lap pool. We know we’ll enjoy it and obviously guests and family will too. Right now, they are just digging an enormous hole out there, but when it’s done it’ll be great. We are “between” house guests right now and of course it is the dry season so it’s definitely the time for construction, and we have it going on both in front of the house and in the rear, so it’s a bit nuts around here these days, with two crews working at the same time. And in typical Mexican fashion, they arrive around 7:30 a.m., have a quick breakfast under a tree out there, and then are hard at work by 8.
There were two burglaries on our little “privada” a few months ago. It had to happen sometime. In the first, some garden tools were stolen from a neighbor’s cochera (garage) and in the second, the burglars apparently managed to get into the house – it’s a weekend house and the owners are rarely there – wandered around checking things out but for some strange reason didn’t take anything. Still, it made us stop and think that our front fence was sort of a joke for any determined ratero (thief) and we though we should build it up higher and make a solid rock wall with iron spikes on the top. I of course asked our architect for his opinion and he came up with a couple of really great ideas for redesigning the entryway and front garden, and then I began looking at the whole thing with fresh eyes, and now I am doing a bunch of things out there that will make it a lot nicer, in addition to giving us a much greater level of security and privacy.
Having the new wall go up just forced me to finally inaugurate my ceramics studio, which has been unpacked and waiting for my arrival in there for more than two years. I knew there was going to be a big, new, blank cement wall facing the street that just cried out for me to make our own address tile and some other elements that could be embedded into the cement around it. My plan was to have the tiles all done by the time the wall facing the street was ready to be cemented over — and that day was today. Of course it didn’t happen, too many things got in the way — for one thing I’ve had a horrible flu-like bug for a month and am just now coming back to normal. Then when I finally did get out there and get the long-dried-out clay ready to use and all the equipment functioning, we hit an unusual-for-us-here cold spell and the clay I had rolled out and cut has just refused, for at least a week, to dry. So I missed my deadline but rather than get too discouraged about it, I just told the guys to cement it with a half-inch less at the wall surface so we can loop back in a couple of weeks, install the tiles when they are done, and cement it all over then and finish it. I am working on the whole project every day and it will be done in a couple of weeks, I am sure. No real harm done but it would have been nice to have the pieces all ready to go up onto the wall today!
The good thing about the whole exercise is that it did, by hook or crook, finally get me back into ceramics. I have a great little studio now in back of our house – it is too small to house all my stuff but I’m figuring out how I can work with things spread out all over the place. The kiln is in the laundry, the slab roller and extruder are in the cochera, and all the glazing, painting/forming supplies and tools are in the studio itself. There’s a lot of running back and forth between “work areas”, but I figure the one thing I have learned is that – at least, the way I am wired – a studio that is too pretty and clean just doesn’t get used. In our old house, my studio became the guest casita whenever that had to happen. It was such a hassle to clean everything up in order to switch its purpose every few months as we had visitors, that I just stopped working completely after awhile. Now, it seems like it might be different with this crazy arrangement we have here. The guest room is its own separate thing and I don’t need that space for my work, so I have hope that now that I seem to be conquering whatever demons I had blocking me, maybe I will have better luck this time.
It is certainly harder to do my kind of ceramics here in Mexico than it was in the States, which is ironic since so much of my work is built upon and influenced by Mexican folk ceramics. But as a practical matter, the clay is different, the glazes are different, and a lot of the techniques I used back in the old days need to be modified here. But on the other hand I have found a distributor in Guadalajara of at least one kind of the glazes and underglazes I have used for years, and I’ve bought from him every now and then when we have gone into the city. The last time I was in there he said “you know, Señora, for the gas you have to buy to get here, and the time and stress of you coming into my shop, why don’t you just email me your orders, pay me by bank transfer, and I’ll ship your glazes out to you the next day?” I had filed this conversation in my mind at least a year ago, but this week I picked up the phone and called him and asked if he remembered me, the American lady who was trying to do ceramics in her home studio and needing materials. He said of course he remembered me, and what did I need, and he’d get an order together for me and ship it out right away.
I managed to haul myself into the bank in Ajijic to make the bank transfer this morning after I had emailed him my list, replacing dozens of bottles that were nearly empty, dried out, crystallized, and past reviving. So my new supply of glazes and underglazes should be here in a couple of days and now I am researching some new-to-me, at least, clays that are available here and which I can experiment with. Of course you can have things sent from the States, but it is horribly expensive and slow. Plus, one has to think that obviously Mexico is one of the world’s great ceramics centers, and someone or other here has to be selling clay, glazes, tools, whatever people need to do their work. So my job was just to get over my nostalgia for the way I worked back in Santa Fe and begin to figure out what might work here.
It’s been ironic that I’ve had so much trouble getting myself back into the ceramics part of my life, now that I theoretically have all the time in the world, being retired. When I was working my problem was trying to cram precious studio time into nights and weekends, but Santa Fe Clay and the big ceramics supplies store in Albuquerque had absolutely everything and anything I could have wanted. But such is life, I guess – anyway it is fun to be slowly figuring, or re-figuring this whole part of my life out. When the tiles are installed up on the wall I will take some pictures of them and then hopefully start all over again with a new batch of clay. I had forgotten how much fun it is, and hopefully I won’t forget again going forward.
We gathered old photos of them for everyone to peruse, setting them out on Wendy’s coffee table.
Well, I guess I am back to writing – true confessions, I just got too wrapped up in other things for awhile. But people seem to have missed my posts, as rare as they have been, so I have been convinced that I should sit back down at the computer and try to be little more prolific. I mean, let’s try to not have months and months go by without saying anything at all, I told myself. Even Arnold, who is the soul of discretion when it comes to urging me to do anything — I am eternally grateful that he never has hassled me about my weight, for example, no matter how much I was tormenting myself about it over the years – implied every so subtly, in about five well-chosen words, that he thought I might be well served (somehow) to get back to my blog.
Actually, a few significant things have happened – we did go up to Los Angeles for ten days, and scattered my parents’ ashes (Ava’s were scattered on Lake Chapala) back in April. We had a memorial service for both of them in under the big trees in Wendy’s back yard and we were surprised that well over thirty people remembered them enough to want to attend, even after a couple of years since their respective departures.
Wendy found a very nice, very Reform, rabbi to officiate so we actually sent them off – even if a bit late – with Kaddish and the 23rd Psalm and a few other ceremonial niceties in a quite lovely afternoon gathering, followed by an enormous feast procured from what everyone told us was the best Jewish deli in the San Fernando Valley. We figured the “nosh” part they would have loved, especially my dad. We ordered a platter of whitefish in his honor. Arnold made up a collection of music they both loved to be played – some Mahler, some Joshua Bell, and of course a pastiche of some of Dad’s music. But the rest of it — they were both so anti-religion, both so totally secular all their lives, that up till the end we had some misgivings about whether this was what they would have actually “wanted”. But Wendy wanted it and some of our older relatives found it very moving and appropriate. And Wendy still insists that our dad once confided to her that he wished he had had a bar mitzvah and certainly as he grew older – well, both of them, really – more Yiddish crept into their speech. Ultimately, being Jewish was certainly a big part of who they were, no matter how you slice it.
We had gone back and forth – for a couple of years, really – about where to scatter their ashes – here, in Lake Chapala or somewhere nearby? back in L.A.? Venice? We had always joked with Mother about scattering her ashes in the Beverly Hills Saks. But at the end of the day we decided that Mexico wasn’t right, a memorial park (even a nice Jewish one in the Valley somewhere) wasn’t right, the ocean or a forest somewhere wasn’t right either. Actually, other than gathering for cocktail-hour drinks around their pool in Encino they were the least outdoors-y people you would ever meet. Thus, for a long time, and maybe that was just adjusting to the finality of the whole thing, nothing seemed quite right, so they stayed in my bedroom closet in their nice Mexican urns on a high shelf for a couple of years while life went on and unconsciously, I suppose, we sorted it out in our minds. For Mom, hanging out in my closet with all my (and some of her) clothes and Ferragamo shoes seemed perfectly comfortable, at least for the time being. Dad probably would have wanted to be near her (though inevitably they would have hissed at each other and fought) so that part seemed all right as well, at least for the time being.
But we all felt we had to do something more with their ashes, and WHAT to do with them was always in the back of our minds. As horrible as it was, the thought of US dying with them still stashed in my closet was not something we wanted to contemplate. So we mulled it all over and invariably talked about it when the three of us were together, around their – now our – dining room table here at our house in Mexico.
At the end of this process we felt that Encino was, in a weird way, where they had perhaps been happiest – young and glamorous, with the replaced-every-few-years red Jaguars and the restored-every-few-years MG in the carport, and family outings to various restaurants and concerts at the L.A. Opera or the Philharmonic. So the Encino hills felt right and Wendy discovered that since much of the mountain range behind their old house has since been made into a state park, that you could actually drive up into the park and look out over the San Fernando Valley and have their old house pretty much directly below you. The trees had long grown up too tall to see the house itself, but we knew exactly where it was from various landmarks – the water tank on top of the hill at the end of the road, where we had often taken walks, their street itself, the neighboring houses and empty lots where both of us had hiked and wandered around as kids.
A few days before the memorial service we went over to the deli and asked to speak with the catering manager to put in our order. Of course he wasn’t in any way Jewish – he was a Mexican from Jalisco and before we even got down to talking about the food for the event we spent a half hour chattering away with him both in English and Spanish about Mexico and his life as an immigrant in Los Angeles, and how he had started as a dishwasher in the deli but now had worked his way up to being the catering manager. He knew more about Jewish food in his pinkie than I ever will. He so enjoyed meeting us that he sent us back to Wendy’s with (gratis) bags of rugulach and hamentaschen, apart from our catering order. We knew we were probably ordering way too much food but we figured we’d share it with everyone in doggie bags – they even gave us a stack of takeaway containers because “this always happens” – and in the spirit of Mom and Dad, we sort of didn’t care, we just wanted it to be a great spread reminiscent of their own great parties. One thing we knew for sure was that they both would have approved of a fiesta.
Early the morning of the memorial service Arnold, Wendy and I drove up to the park with a discreet bag containing both sets of ashes and we hiked up the main trail. Other people had similar-loo king bags, so we figured we were weren’t the only ones with this idea. It was very nice up there, actually, and since it was a Sunday, there were all sorts of folks walking around up there, riding bikes, hiking up or down the more difficult trails. Wendy carefully opened the bags and scattered their ashes – some together, some apart – on a promontory right where they would be overlooking their old, much loved, home on Gable Drive – with the valley spread out below them. It was a slightly foggy morning – but we knew there would be those clear days when you can see every detail even of the mountains ten miles across the Valley where Wendy lives now – and at night, of course, it is a carpet of glittering lights – très Hollywood – and on smog-free evenings, we used to enjoy that view all the time from our living room windows when we lived up there.
We all felt better that evening, after the last guest had gone. I guess there had indeed been some “closure”, and for Arnold and me, who never get deli food down here, the reception after the memorial service was a highlight. It was good to see so many friends and family members there. We tried hard to do whatever would have been appropriate and “what they would have wanted” but as we all know now, with 20-20 hindsight, they were increasingly incapable of dealing with even the most important details of their future lives as they aged. Having any kind of conversation about them about their inevitable ends proved to be impossible (though every once in a while, in financial planner mode, I would take a doomed stab at it), so we ultimately just had to wing it. We did the best we could. Que En Paz Descansen.