Mexico

Violin Round II

Last October, we left my mother’s violin in the hands of the fine instrument curator at Christie’s in New York,  who sent it off, as he said he would, to have dendrochronology studies done on it by colleagues in London. The violin was duly shipped there and the studies done, with interesting news both pro and con in terms of its history and value.

The study of the wood of the violin – the dendrochronology process itself – is  fascinating, and it reveals some other interesting possible facts about the violin. They matched it to the wood grain samples in their databases and concluded that  it is definitely quite old, possibly even late seventeenth century. And as my family and others have known all along, it is apparently unequivocally NOT a 100%  Guarnerius. The label it has inside the f-hole  remains something of a mystery but the feeling from all the experts who looked at it is that it is not from the workshop of Guarnerius, but the wood is similar to that used by the Guarnerius atelier. Interesting, but bye-bye fantasies of selling Mom’s fiddle to Joshua Bell for gazillions of dollars. However, such is the state of classical music that I just read somewhere that Joshua was able to play in the New York subway for hours with no one recognizing him or, apparently, noticing that this cat was pretty bloody good for a street musician, so maybe that plan wouldn’t have worked after all. Plus we know he already has a perfectly reasonable Strad, maybe even several! Onward and upward, I guess.

We had left the violin with Christie’s as they had told us that their next fine instruments auction was planned for sometime in November, and they planned to put the violin up for sale in that auction, as they would have a better handle on its provenance by then with the dendrochronology studies having been completed. And someone seems to have gotten around to playing it during its New York-London sojourn,  because it had been noted along the way that it has a wonderful sound.  Since my feeling about  the whole escapade as been that it would be terrific to get the violin back  into the hands of someone who will actually play it and bring it back to life, this was good news. We figured we would plan a trip to New York to be present for the auction, as much for curiosity as anything else (and of course we did take a look at the Met opera schedule), but got on with our lives as we figured it was safe and sound till then in Christies’ vault, and kind of let sleeping violins lie.

However, a few weeks ago Arnold  received an unexpected call from the folks at Christie’s. The bad news: It now turns out that both they and Sotheby’s have apparently decided to get out of the fine instruments business, and the fall auction has been cancelled, and would we please come and get our violin out of their vault. The good news:  Two gentlemen from Sotheby’s in London, experienced fine instruments experts, had left the firm and started their own specialized auction house for fine instruments, and they were very much interested in seeing our violin. Could we possibly arrange to be in New York in late June when they would be visiting from London and bring the violin to them for examination? Presumably, if they liked it, they would pick it up from us and put into THEIR next auction in London, coming up in a few months. It took us a nanosecond to decide to do this – first of all, the violin is far better off with these folks than it is with us languishing — and enduring a house move — with us here in Mexico, and it gives us a great excuse to take care of some business and have a little fun (I of course need various and sundry indispensable items for the new house, important things like a new kitchen timer as mine just bit the dust) at the same time.

So off to Nueva York we go, and we’ll get back from there just a couple of weeks before when our closing on the new house is supposed to  take place. The violin will now embark, one expects, on its second trip to London while we manage only to get to New York for a few very busy days, and then race home to deal with more immediate domestic matters. We don’t seem to be able to get the “nip off to London” thing right (Violin 2, us zero) but I am grateful for whatever I can get at this point.

I Guess We Are Staying

I Guess We Are Staying....

I Guess We Are Staying….

The Mexican government has decided to change all us expats’ resident visas around, with a range of implications for the foreigners who are living here. As was the case before, now you’re either herded into the “tourist” group, or a permanent residents’ group.  As a “temporary” visitor, e.g. tourist, they give you a piece of paper called an FMM which gives you 180 days to hang out in Mexico, and you can bring your U.S. or Canadian plated vehicle in with you. You can legally then stay in the country for six months,  really touring around, living in your rented casita to finish writing your novel or whatever. But you have to leave Mexico when the six months (or ten days on the beach) are up. Alternatively, you’re a permanent resident, which opens a different can of worms. Before, there were different classes of resident visas all the way up to “inmigrado” which meant you figured you were here to stay and your next step past that, if you were interested, was naturalization, going for Mexican citizenship. That visa came with the ability to get working papers – essential for all those condo salespeople at the beaches and others living and legitimately working here.

But now they’re changing all of it, and people are none too happy about it because they are tightening up the rules that directly affect us – about driving foreign-plated cars, how much money you have to have to live here permanently as a retiree, and a couple of other important things. The financial requirements for residency used to be quite minimal, and it was one of the things that made it attractive for Americans who had only the most basic Social Security income to move down here. But under the new rules, everyone needs to demonstrate a stable income of about $2,100 a month. The lawyers are saying “don’t worry, they will probably grandfather in people who have been here for a while” but nonetheless, already some people are panicking that they’ll be thrown out anyway, and proactively planning to head back NOB (North of the Border).

The old Mexico hands are also saying “wait, wait, they will revise and clarify these laws, they’ll see that they are running off perfectly good folks who employ maids, gardeners, and pay VAT and other taxes – they will backtrack on this”…. but there is a lot of discussion about just going back up north instead of hunkering down and seeing what happens. Our feeling is that most of this talk comes from people who have never been too happy here; it gives people a good excuse to bail. But some lawyers believe that there will probably be some sort of credit or point system put into place, so that even absent the required income stream, if you own your own home, or have other investments, you’ll get your permanent visa income notwithstanding. However, as of now the new rules are the new rules and everyone is having to deal with them. There are lots of theories as to why this is being done…revenge for the U.S.’ horrible immigration policy? Trying to get a “better class” of person here with tighter regulations? (try to emigrate to Canada, New Zealand or Australia and see what THEY require!) – no one really knows, but all of us who are living here, for all intents permanently, are now being forced to deal with the new requirements.

The car situation is complicated too. Because cars are cheaper up north, many people have been down here for years with older foreign-plated vehicles with long-expired registrations from wherever they came from originally. It makes perfect sense to me that the Mexican government wants to have everyone who is living here as a permanent resident be driving – in our case – a Jalisco-plated car so they can track it if they need to. Amazingly enough, all car registrations in Mexico are on computers now. But as a practical matter they are now forcing those with U.S. plates to scurry back to the border to sell their vehicles and come back down and buy something here in Mexico that will have Mexican plates.

There seems to be a process by which you can “nationalize” a car with foreign plates IF and only IF it was made in a NAFTA country. Meaning they look at your VIN number and see where the car was manufactured. If it was made in Mexico, Canada or the U.S., you may be able to nationalize it – a big hassle, and the nationalization route quickly became rife with fakery and corruption so it was an expensive risk to take. People paid a lot of money to “consultants” who turned out to be scam artists when the hapless gringos discovered that their fancy new Mexican registrations and plates were entirely fake. We have friends who have a much-loved Subaru they’ve been driving around here for six years, but alas, it was built in Japan, so no nationalization is posible for them. They have to return the car to the border, have its importation tags cancelled and removed, and get rid of it. They are buying a new car down here, the legitimate way, from a dealer in Guadalajara.

All of it is a big pain in the neck. We’re fine in the car department; after the carjacking in 2007, I decided I didn’t want to drive around with foreign plates any more and our present car has had Jalisco plates since the day we bought it. Much easier and we are grateful now that we see so many people going crazy with all these new rules and regulations! So the car thing is a non-issue for us, but it turned out that  our old visas (called an FM-3) were destined to present us with some problems. Aside from the fact that they are being done away with, they were “sort of” permanent resident and “sort of” not. One of the bad things, we discovered, about our old FM3 visas was that if and when we sell our present house, we would have owed a huge amount in capital gains taxes to the Mexican government. The way around that is to become permanent residents under the new rules. Then you’re allowed to buy and sell a house once every five years without owing capital gains taxes on the sale. Some of the other visa classifications also had limits on how long you could be out of the country, and other weird rules we could just as well do without.

So Arnold and I, without even having any sort of conversation about it, called our attorney and said “we need to apply for those permanente visas, because our house is on the market and when it sells we would be liable for a lot of capital gains taxes!” We actually had the notario figure it out and it was scary how much we would have owed, in spite of the fact that we have actually not made a dime on this place. Actually, we have put a lot of money into remodeling it and updating the electrical, plumbing, etc. But with the collapse of the U.S. real estate market we had a collapse here too, so no one is making any money on the sale of their houses. A huge tax bill on top of that would not be what we had in mind.  We were told that to apply for the “change of condition” in our visas from FM3 to permanent, we had to submit six months worth of bank statements, proof of our income and investments, and tons of other stuff and it is taking about three months now to get these visas. It used to be that the little immigration office right here in Chapala could handle this, but now, once again, they’ve tightened things up and all the decisions about getting or not getting a visa are handled out of Mexico City. So you send in your request and you basically sit there and wait until you are summoned – in our case, to Guadalajara – to be fingerprinted and a couple of weeks after that your permanent resident card is ready for you to pick up – or so we are told.

Being a permanent resident is also, like the old inmigrado classification, one step below being a naturalized Mexican citizen. And unlike the old visas, which had to be renewed every year, these are permanent and at least right now, for the moment, they are saying once you have it, that’s it. No need to renew it annually or anything like that. Of course down the line they may realize they are giving up a nice income stream in fees or whatever and they may change the rules, but right now we are looking forward to getting the new permanent visas and being free to come and go as we please.

So we made an appointment with our attorney, went in to her office with the requisite piles of bank statements and such, paid to have an official translator translate them all into Spanish, then she submitted them a few weeks ago, and now we just wait. We’re figuring we might get them in August sometime, but ¿quien sabe? Walking back to the car we just looked at each other and said “Hmmm, I guess we’re staying here, yes?” “Yeah, Arnold said, well, we are buying our second house here, and we now have four cats and a dog (no New York co-op for us, even if we had the dough…); and we can’t figure out where we would move to that we could afford even if we DID want to leave here, so, well, I guess we are staying…”

And we went home and I fixed dinner.

The Dog Show

We had our first bit of tentative rain last night – it was just enough to tamp down the dust and break the cycle of heat and oppressive humidity, bringing in a gorgeous cool morning with bright sun and fluffy clouds. We are in the weird in-between period with the new house purchase where almost all the papers are signed, or at least enough of them are signed so that we are reasonably certain we have a deal.  However in typical “mañana” Mexican fashion, the real estate agent representing the seller has gone off to Spain on vacation for a month and a half, and our own agent (who is also a good friend) is off to Mexico City for a couple of days of business and pleasure, right in the middle of the wrapping-up of these house-purchase negotiations. With my American sensibility and knowing how insanely compulsive I used to be about my clients back in the old days, it is absolutely unfathomable to me that anyone would just leave with a purchase contract sort of hanging there in limbo and take off for six weeks, but I guess he figures we’ll still be here when he gets back, ditto the seller and the house itself, so what’s the big rush? It’s hard to relax about it but I think that is what the real estate gods are telling me to do at this point.

It’s going to be probably two months till we really do get in to the new house – too early to start packing things in earnest – why live in chaos? – but obviously we are done with any new projects here at our old house, so we are just finding things to amuse us locally and we’ll just bide our time till everything comes into sharper focus. Right now we aren’t sure exactly WHEN we will move, it’s all sort of blurry. It is hard for me to live with blurry, either physically or mentally (I just went nuts getting new glasses and contact lenses!) but that also seems to be the lesson of the day.

In the area of things we CAN do while we sit here in limbo, we have been on a campaign of finding new homes for things we no longer think we need or want – on Mother’s Day after seeing all the moms being feted in town Arnold impulsively threw open the doors of the armario (armoire) in his office and gave Rosa his old television set – she had been complaining that her next door neighbor had gone up on the roof and illegally stolen her cable signal by rewiring the cable to his TV; and she’d been paying for it for months now, thinking her tele was broken since there was no reception. The entire family had been bashing away on this poor television set, poking it, hitting it, fooling with its knobs and wiring, to try to get it to cooperate and show some sign of life, till they finally did destroy the TV and then when the mystery of why the cable wasn’t working was discovered, the poor thing was by then truly muerto.

Arnold of course has his heart set on something newer and fancier for the new house, so it all worked out. Rosa was thrilled, her whole family has TV now and a flat screen even! The little stand that holds the set upright had broken awhile back, but Carlos rigged up a new stand with some wood and screws and god knows what so it was good to go. Rosa said the old TV that had been wrongfully accused of not working was twenty years old anyway; she had purchased it when she was pregnant with Gaby who is now 22 or 23! Now Rosa is battling with the cable company to reimburse her for all the time she paid and paid and got no service, but she is resigned to the loss of her money as it turns out the neighbor’s kid works for the cable company and she suspects that’s how he knew how to rewire the roof connection to from hers to their TV in the first place. Could be Mexican paranoia but she might be right. Anyway her cable is working again now and the new TV is being venerated by everyone over at her house.

Meanwhile this afternoon we decided to check out the dog show they’ve been advertising. This was supposedly a dog show sanctioned by the Mexican equivalent of the American Kennel Club and since we are avid Westminster Dog Show watchers every February (luckily we have figured out a way to watch it down here) we love seeing all the dogs, so off we went to see what we could see.

Well, as Arnold wryly pointed out, Westminster it ain’t. But the handlers and judges were very serious about it all; they had set up a series of big tents where the judging took place sheltered from the blazing Mexican sun, and off to the sides were the grooming areas with all the dogs’ crates set up. There were plenty of us ex-pats there, along with the Mexicans, enjoying the afternoon’s activities. Just like dog shows everywhere, many of the dogs had fans – family and friends – who applauded their every move with great gusto. We stayed to watch some of the judging – mostly  bulldogs and the labradores – the labs. The men mostly wore suits and ties which is quite formal attire in Mexico; the dogs were like show dogs everywhere- some of them amazingly well behaved and “into it”;  a few who you could tell would much rather be chasing a ball somewhere. But all beautifully groomed and turned out.

As with so many things Mexican, they had their own stamp on it – everywhere there were children, picnics, babies, and grandparents. There were kids who were “junior handlers” just like they have in the States and doting parents showing them the ropes. People brought out coolers with all sorts of things to eat and as much as an excuse to see the different dogs, it provided a chance for yet another gathering with friends and family and scarfing down a few tacos. No alcohol allowed on the grounds though, so it was all rather civilized and – excuse the pun – well-bred.

Then we came home to discover that Pedro the pool guy had left the hose running to fill the fountain and forgotten about it and taken off; of course it had overflowed so there were huge puddles all over the garden. Arnold turned the hose off in disgust – a dumb waste of water. Then after dinner our neighbors started up their dreadful high-powered stereo again for some awful party; then on top of that, there is wedding up at the evento place – we know it’s a wedding because at one point the Mendelssohn wedding march came crackling over the loudspeakers and the sound carried down to our house easily, a block and a half. In self-defense, I have retreated to the comfort of Corelli aided by my ipod and excellent noise-cancelling headphones which block out most of the external din. As long as I can escape it, nowadays, it doesn’t make me as much of a nervous wreck as it used to. I am getting used to it, just in time for us to leave.

Dia de la Madre

We have come to the hot, dry, dusty season where we are all waiting for the rains to start in June. One can only hope the rains will come soon and be plentiful, as there has been no real rain since last September. The lake level is very low, our gardens are drying up, the hills are brown, and it’s gradually getting hotter here in the summers, exactly the same as pretty near everywhere else.

But nature does send us some positive indications. Every year the cicadas come out of the ground and for a month and a half make a terrific and unmistakable racket; the folklore around here is that the rainy season will start exactly six weeks after the first cicadas make their appearance. The expats around here call them “rainbirds”, actually, and that’s what they sound like when they get going… an introductory and quite loud “chuck-chuck-chuck-chuck-chuck” for a few seconds, followed by an ear-splitting whine. As the season wears on, there are more and more of them out there so it becomes pretty deafening at times, but most people are eager to hear the first ones, as harbingers of lush gardens and emerald hills, and a recovering lake, just a few weeks from now. One gets excited calls from friends….”I just heard one! I just heard one! The first rainbird!”

However, setting thoughts of the dusty streets aside, it’s Mother’s Day here – unlike the States where it floats every year, here it is fixed, May 10. The village is full of balloon and flower-sellers and moms walking around in their best finery carrying armloads of flowers with little kids trailing behind in regional dance costumes, communion dresses, or other special outfits. The schools always have the children prepare some kind of special Mother’s Day party and performance – a folk dance show, music recitals, little plays. Of course all of this gives every kid a chance to be in a costume and Mexicans love any kind costume or mask – any excuse to shape-shift into something historical, folkloric, mythical, religious. Everyone knocked off work early, half the town was closed up by 2 p.m. and now, in the late afternoon, people are are busy barbecuing, stereos at full blast, kids running around, with much merriment as you’d expect. I normally complain mightily about the blaring music right over our walls, but the folks across the street have a big fiesta going for their family and they’ve got Jorge Negrete or Antonio Aguilar or one of those great old singers on their stereo, volume cranked to the max, and I have to admit it’s actually really nice for a warm, beautiful spring evening. You can tell they’re getting more and more sloshed because they’re starting to sing along with the CD quite lustily. I ran into town for some groceries for the weekend; Wal-Mart was giving away free cake and every cart that came out of the store had at least one cake in it, and people were carrying out boxes with new blenders, pot and pan sets, and all sorts of other Mother’s Day gifts and regalia.

Mexican friends have asked me if I miss my mother on this dia festivo and of course the answer has to be terribly nuanced because I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun. On one level, the truth is “no, I really don’t” but the more accurate response is that sure I miss her, but I miss the Shirley several decades ago, before illness, depression and dementia took their horrible toll. It would have been so much fun to have had her as she was back then, to go house hunting with us in this latest relocation escapade. She would have so enjoyed seeing all these wonderful Mexican houses. And of course in her imagination she would have occupied herself with remodeling and decorating each and every one of them. It is really too bad that she wasn’t well enough to have had a home of her own here; it would have been a fantastic project for her. That missed boat along with a long list of other missed boats just fill me with sadness, I guess, but there’s no going back now; she’s gone, my dad is gone, and we are getting on with our lives.

Meanwhile, as luck would have it, in spite of not having sold our present house as we had hoped, we did find a new one we absolutely love and we seem to have purchased it! So my “leisurely” summer to lie around, relax in the pool and do my nails has now turned into having to pack this place up, move to the new house on or about July 1, get it up and running and start the process of settling in to a new home. The new place needs a fair amount of cosmetic work, which made it affordable – so we have some grungy times to live through with some construction and repairs to be done. But its bones are wonderful – a great “Mexican Contemporary” on a clean, quiet, charming block-long cul-de-sac street with nicer, larger homes, mostly inhabited by wealthier Mexicans and older, long-retired-here expats. After a couple of years there, having fixed up the things we want to fix up, it should be the perfect house for us; with any luck, we won’t have to move again.

To be completely frank about it, one of the biggest pluses will be getting away from the things that have driven us crazy about our present neighborhood. We have adjusted to it, but not all that happily, to be honest: the incessant barking of the roof dogs at night, rockets (which terrify pets), roosters at all hours (charming at first but there are zillions of them and contrary to popular belief, they DON’T only crow at dawn!) ear-splitting loud parties on the weekends, car alarms going off, constant noise from the highway, garbage in the street in front of our house after every weekends’ fiestas. This almost incessant racket will be greatly diminished, if an issue at all, in the  part of town we’re moving into.

When we first become expats, we didn’t want to live isolated in a gated upper-class fraccionamiento (subdivision) or in an expat community. As a newbie, many people want to live down among the people and all that. Well, we’ve done it for seven years now and while our working-class neighborhood has its charms – and it really does; there are parts of it we will definitely miss  – as aging Americans in a completely foreign culture, we are more willing to admit that we’re over it; at this stage of our lives we need something different for ourselves. You realize that you can love the country you’re in, and we have no plans to go back to the States, but after seven years here, we will be happy to be in a slightly classier (read cleaner, quieter) part of town. And the new house is a bit bigger and better suited to our needs now than this one is.

So that’s where we are. Since Arnold had his second stent put in a couple of weeks ago, we are both feeling “you know, life is short, we don’t have any kids to leave our estate to, let’s enjoy what we have and if moving into a different house is part of the plan, well, let’s just do it!” He’s fine, but his new identity as a permanent, “till death do us part” cardiac patient has been unsettling. His cardiologist is sure he has a long life ahead now that his plumbing is repaired, but the symptoms, especially back in Santa Fe at 7,000 feet, had him rattled (Conclusion: guess we aren’t moving back THERE). So my job will be to manage the house move as well as I can without letting either of us get too stressed about it. Fortunately we’re in Mexico where you can hire a couple of strong young people to move furniture and boxes around for you all the live-long-day and it is a fraction of what it would have cost in the Ancestral Homeland.

It’s fun to have something to be really excited about after all this sadness and loss; I am counting the weeks till we move on July 1. I definitely could use one of those glittering New York New Year’s Eve balls to drop the night of June 30 with the roar of a huge crowd counting down the seconds till the next phase of our lives really will begin.

Perseverance Furthers

I remember waaay back when I was in college there was a huge rage for the I Ching – my first husband, Bay Area music writer Jeff Kaliss, who is still a very dear friend, was then my boyfriend and he introduced me to the mysteries of the I Ching. He would toss the coins whenever the need to make some sort of decision confronted us. He got really good at it after a time, and I of course never figured out how to do it, being convinced it was all hokum and one was better off to just rely on good sense and one’s instincts to decide where to go next. I used to humor him by letting him toss the coins and drag out the tattered old gray-covered I Ching book and tell me what it was I was supposed to do, but it was more young girlfriend elevating young boyfriend’s ego than a genuine belief in what the spirits might be telling us to do. Nowadays, I would be much more inclined to take the coins’ messages seriously. Maybe I should even find a good used copy of the book; I can use all the guidance I can get these days, in fact.

I do remember one coin toss that resulted in the answer “Perseverance Furthers” and that keeps popping up in my head these days. Here we are, just waiting for the stars to finally align, or do whatever it is they do, so that we can get on with our lives and begin to shape this last third age, our own “tercer edad”. I am now officially an adult orphan, with both my infuriating, complicated, and much-loved parents forever gone. Now we are eager to get through the slogging of estate-settling paperwork and communication with attorneys, brokerages, insurance companies, realtors, and such as soon as we can, and just have some fun after all the years that both of us spent dealing with their maladies, their situation, their dwindling assets, their increasing need for care, the whole nine yards. But we can’t go there quite yet, we have to persevere, stick to the program, until we get untangled from all of it – which may still be quite a long time.

We are a little bit more optimistic, however, about our immediate future. We did see a house we both liked a lot at a good price, and we are both enthusiastic about putting a deal together with the owner if we can. Behind the Wizard-Of-Oz screen, the financial services bureaucracy is grinding away retitling accounts and sending lots of paperwork our way but the stream of forms to fill out is diminishing ever so slightly as we begin to see results, things set up now as ours that were theirs and required our unending explanations and proof that we had both their health care powers of attorney as my parents were completely incapacitated mentally for several years before their respective deaths. We still haven’t had more than a handful of showings of our house but we are ever-hopeful that we will still luck out and that one person for whom it’s the perfect place will emerge out of the gloom. And we’ll be able to make the big switch to a new house and a fresh start one of these days. I keep telling myself “hang in there, this period of adjustment and reorganization really cannot last forever”, and hope that I’m right, that it will turn out to be true.

STUCK

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The path to my parents’ guest house, Santa Fe

It is nice to be back home after almost two weeks in Santa Fe. But it was beyond depressing to be at my parents’ house which, now that it is rented out, is still their house but it isn’t their house any more. It sort of isn’t anyone’s house, the renters aren’t really renters, they are “home tenders” who are supposed to keep the house in tip-top condition for showings since it’s on the market. Well, there are no showings, the market for larger homes continues to be terrible, so it doesn’t matter.

It was fun to be back and see old friends, eat at some favorite old places and a couple of new nice ones, but the reality that faces us is that like so many people, my parents thought that leaving us their house would turn out to be a really nice inheritance, and as it turns out we can’t even sell the place for half its appraised value. You have to be honest about these things – we spent every cent they had on their care and they couldn’t have had any better care even if we’d installed them in the Georges V, at the end. But there really wasn’t anything left in their accounts, the house isn’t selling and we are reluctant to reduce its sale price even further (especially since in order to fix it up to be presentable for sale we had to spend a lot which we will have to repay). And so it goes.

Then we come back here; of course our house hasn’t sold either, so we are stuck. We see houses for sale that intrigue us and think how much fun it would be to be in one of those, then we realize that of course until this one sells we haven’t got the money to put into that one. Very few showings, because as is the case up north, there are very few buyers out there. Everyone says it’s better, it’s getting better, but we, at least, haven’t seen the effects of whatever improvement there is in our own case. The house looks great, people seem to like it, but – well, no sale. One tries to be optimistic but the whole project of finding a different house could realistically take a couple of years. I guess we just have to be really, really patient.

Arnold also had to have another stent put in. We told Dr. Briseño, his wonderful cardiologist, that we had to make this quick trip to Santa Fe to meet with our attorney and begin the depressingly final unwinding of my parents’ estate – what’s left of it – and tend to a bunch of repairs to their house. His response was “okay, but the second you get back here I want to see you in the hospital to see what’s causing your symptoms.” Being in Santa Fe at 7,000 feet didn’t help and Arnold basically went flying in to the Hospital Mexico-Americano to have a stent put in the second we got back home. He’s fine, but the whole trip and the few days before we could schedule the procedure were stressful for both of us.

So, you’d think that this would be a really nice time to just escape and have an adventure and run off to Paris or something. We actually have the mileage to do something crazy like that and no one could blame us, as we’ve spent the past decade, really, pretty much focused on parent care. But the Mexican government has decided to change all the visas around for foreigners, with new requirements, new required financial assets that must be documented, a pile of financial statements for the past six months, all translated by a certified translator into Spanish. And they decide whether or not you can stay, according to a bunch of complicated new formulas, none of which is all that clear as this legislation is relatively new and still being interpreted by lawyers and notarios all over the country, causing many who are in the lower income brackets to panic. Before our visas actually expired the other day, we had to turn a huge stack of papers, along with a hefty check and our old visa cards in to our attorney to have her navigate the whole “new visa” process for us. The confusion and varying interpretation of the labrynthine new immigration rules have meant that there is a backup of three months or so to get the new visas “en la mano” – in hand. So at least for this summer, whatever we do will have to be within the Mexican republic. Oh, we could get out all right, just with our American passports …. we just couldn’t come back home. There actually IS a workaround for it but I am just looking for an excuse to stay home for a couple of months and not do anything, so I am pretending that there is nothing that can be done, we’re stuck here for a couple of months, and what am I going to do with myself till we can head off somewhere?

House hunting is at a standstill, everything that needs to be done in Santa Fe is being handled, so I am returning to my exercise program and trying to disentangle myself from the mental seaweed left by years of putting everything connected with my parents and their care first, and myself, in most cases, last. It is much harder than I thought it would be and much of the time I still feel exhausted. I know, I know, I shouldn’t complain, but once in a while perhaps it is good to admit that one is completely fried by the goings-on of the past few months. Nothing a summer of lazing around won’t cure, I am sure.

Ghosts of Dinner Invitations Past

My mother has been gone now for just over a month; I am adjusting to life without her, and life is definitely going on.  Arnold and I are both dealing with mountains of paperwork, the closing of accounts and opening of new, retitled accounts, the various bureaucracies one has to deal with at a time like this, ending some things, starting new things. In retrospect, it is a good thing I was a financial adviser all those years; the required procedures and paperwork are all at least somewhat familiar. Looks like we will have to head back up to Santa Fe for a few days to have some meetings about the final closing down of my parents’ estate. Arnold thinks it’ll be weird to be back there, staying in the guest house on their property which is now inhabited by renters; but I’m actually looking forward to it.  Things do change, the old saw about one door closing so that another one can open was never truer than in our case just now. We are still numb from it all – not only the fact of her death but my father’s death and the two years leading up to her passing, and we cannot even begin to imagine what our lives might look like going forward, when hopefully things have shaken out somewhat.

So a trip “outta Dodge” will be a good idea for us, not only because we really do have to have these meetings, but it will be a break in the routine. We’ll see old friends, eat at some of our favorite old haunts, check out what’s new in town, and see what is gone – some much-loved old stores and restaurants have disappeared; gone out of business, victims of awful tourist economy up there. But friends tell us there are some new places to eat and shop and such in between our appointments. There has been absolutely zero activity on the sale of our house, so nobody is moving any time soon. No buyers, everyone still scared to move to Mexico, or having trouble selling whatever house they have to sell to purchase a new one; no nada. We might as well head up to Santa Fe, and have some sopaipillas and green chile stew!

One odd thing about my mother’s death is that while I haven’t had “visits” from her, I don’t think, like Maria has, touching me or communicating some kind of reassurance, I have lately remembered her phone calls to my office, or to our house in Santa Fe, over the years. She would always announce herself by saying, cheerily, “this is your mother calling”….and now several times since she died, I have heard her voice in my head – exactly as she used to sound when she was far younger and far healthier – identifying herself that way. I am wondering if it really IS my mother calling, and how I’m supposed to pick up the psychic phone, and what am I supposed to say? If she’s calling from The Other Side, she probably already knows I’m okay, and all that. In the old days, in this life, she would have been calling to invite us to join her and my dad for dinner, or some such thing. Unless it’s a rehash of Don Giovanni, THAT isn’t the reason for her call. The weird thing is, I never thought about her phone calls till she died and I began hearing her voice in my head. As a practical matter, she didn’t even call all that often. On top of which I’ve never seen, felt, heard, been around or encountered anything even remotely resembling a spirit or a ghost, so I’m at a loss to interpret any of it. Perhaps  something is going on but I am so hopeless at interpreting other-worldly phenomena that I have no clue what it might mean. Where is John Edward when I need him?

Q.E.P.D.

My impossibly compromised and frail mother finally died last Sunday. No matter how you try to soften it; she “passed away”, “made her transition”, “left us”, “crossed the rainbow bridge” (though I think that’s reserved for Wagnerian gods or pets) or whatever, the bottom line is that she died. And to tell the truth, her demise was horrible to watch. Thank god she was pretty much unconscious for the last twenty-four hours of her life for she was in pretty bad shape. The doctor examined her, and pronounced that she wasn’t going to last too much longer; her lungs were perforated from the emphysema, and everything else was starting to fail, too. She was, after all, 90, and had been in the process of dying slowly for at least eighteen months; and in failing health for a good ten years before that, so none of this came as a big surprise.

When it was becoming apparent that this was probably going to be it, (no more amusing revivals where after two comatose days she abruptly woke up in her hospital bed to ask for chocolate milk), Arnold and I felt that we should just stay there, with her, in her little room at the home, until the very end. Which is what we did. I will never know whether she knew I was there or not though I tried to comfort and reassure her through her last night. Although actually watching her die was heartbreaking, since there was nothing more anyone could do, perhaps when my own time comes having seen it will make me a little less frightened. At least now I sort of know the stages one goes through, from my dad’s death as well. Who knows, maybe it isn’t so final after all; now all these books are coming out even written by formerly disbelieving, atheistic, humanist scientists, that have gone through near-death experiences for one reason or another, and they’re starting to say “Gee, there really IS something out there, many people are reporting the same thing and now I’ve seen it for myself….”

Well, however the end comes or whatever follows it, I sat with her till hers came, dealt with the doctor and the funeral home and the people who run the convalescent home where she spent her last days, then came home and collapsed, exhausted emotionally and physically, into bed. A week later, I feel a little bit like an animal that has been down in a cave hibernating for years, and is just coming out into the bright sunlight, sort of blinking and stretching. It has been a long slog with poor Mother,  and both for her sake and mine I am very glad that it is over. 

Over the past couple of days I have been thinking I about what best to do to memorialize her, since at least for the moment, we don’t have plans yet finalized for a memorial service, although we are thinking about doing something for both my mother and father back in Los Angeles, the closest thing there is to a “homeland” for both of them. Even though Wendy and I had divided up all her jewelry a long time ago, I never felt comfortable wearing any of it while she was alive, even though there was obviously no way she was ever going to be getting dressed again. Yesterday one of her favorite silver chokers caught my eye in my jewelry box, and I glanced past it looking for something else of mine, as I always did, until I suddenly remembered that she was gone now. I figured “Well, it’s mine now, for better or worse, I’m gonna put it on and wear it.” Then I decided that to incorporate her things into mine, I would try to wear one piece of her jewelry every day for a month. Sort of like the cats, let the various pieces, mine and hers, all get used to each other in the drawers.

I made a couple of trips back to the home to empty out her room, and I was struck by how sad it was that my mom, who painstakingly remodeled and decorated several wonderful houses throughout her lifetime, was reduced to having just a pitiful handful of her things around her when she died. Just to make the room feel more like “her” place, Wendy and I brought over some of her Japanese prints, a couple of her tables and lamps, put some fine old Mexican textiles on the bed and dresser, and tried to make the place look a little less spartan. She did manage to barely whisper, on several occasions, that she really liked her room and was happy to have ended up there, which made us feel good. Having inherited her decorating genes, I know we did make the place look much nicer for her. But now the time had come to clear all that out and make way for the next poor ancianito who will spend his or her last days there; I brought all the stuff home in a couple of carloads and with some help from Rosa’s son-in-law, who has a pickup truck, and that was the end of that.

The next day I stopped by to see Maria, the wonderful lady who really took physical care of Mother, changing her diapers, feeding her chocolate milk with a spoon, pulverizing all her food because she could no longer swallow, turning and bathing her. I wanted to thank her and I gave her a photo of Mom as a beautiful younger woman, which I had promised her. We chatted for awhile and Maria said “You know, Señora, the strangest thing happened….I was down on my hands and knees cleaning in the bathroom after you left the other day, and I missed your mother so much that I was crying, But I felt this soft hand, almost a caress, running down my back to console me, and no one else was in the room…I just KNOW it was her”. I told her that I bet it probably was her, that I have read and heard about such things happening. “Maybe she was trying to tell you that she is okay now, that she is at peace”, I added. Maria thought that was true, that she was with my dad now, and all that. It helps a lot to be religious, I guess. But there might just be something to it, one cannot know from this perspective, maybe it will become evident from the top of the Rainbow Bridge when one arrives there.

In any event, with this chapter over, I am one step closer to my own death as I move up a notch into the slot of “probably-the-next-generation-to-start-dying-off” in my family but I also feel that in a weird way, now that I have indeed discharged my filial obligations to the best of my abilities, I’m about to be reborn somehow. The “Third Age”, tercer edad, the Mexicans call it. If I’m lucky, I’ll have another twenty years or maybe even a bit more, si dios quiere,  so I think my task over the next few weeks and months as I mourn my mother, however that turns out, is to think about what I want to do with the time I have left and then get busy doing it. Listening to a lot of Bach these days, ageless, timeless perfection. Tempus really does fugit.

Q.E.P.D

(Que En Paz Descanse)

Domestica

Just back from three days in Guadalajara, where we stayed in a delightful hotel and – since we had tickets to a performance by the Flamenco Ballet de Andalucia one evening (they were fabulous!), doctor’s appointments and some other errands to do, we decided to just hang out in town for a bit and have a little break from our normal routine.

In the colonia  where the doctor’s office is, there are a number of high-end decorating stores and showrooms. We had a quick bite in the very contemporary-looking restaurant of one of the nicest hospitals in Guadalajara (carpaccio with oil and balsamico for me, a grilled panino for Arnold, no tacos on the menu there!). Since, for a change, we had the time to explore the area, we set out on foot, wandering in and out of all sorts of places, astonished at the range of gorgeous faucets, hooks, towel bars, sinks and vanities from Europe, and so forth, that are now readily available here. Expensive, as would be the case anywhere, but available. A few years ago you could only look at cool design magazines and pine (or haul the kitchen faucet of your dreams back from the States in your luggage, which I actually did, to get the one I really wanted). But it appears that things are changing! Excellent news for the visually fussy señora who is already planning to remodel a kitchen in a new house she possibly hasn’t even seen yet. But, as I insist,  you can’t start researching these things too early.

Any of you out there who know me know that I am a pretty dedicated cook and love messing around in the kitchen.  In every house I’ve owned, even before I met and married Arnold, I remodeled whatever kitchen was there – taking after my mother, of course, who took the kitchens in all the houses my parents ever inhabited down to the studs and started over again – with great success. Given that role model, and also being a girl who never hesitated to take a mallet to a wall that begged to be knocked out,  I diligently saved my pennies until I could re-do each kitchen along the way. I would buy the very best appliances I could find, using them happily until I went on to the next house and repeated the scenario – each time with (naturally) upgrades to the latest hotsy-totsy thing I could afford. Along with my love of good coffee, I freely admit to being an appliance addict. In Mexico, of course, one has workers to do this stuff, you don’t have – thankfully – to do it yourself any longer, because it provides employment for people who desperately need it, so that lets you off the hook. Plus one is no longer in one’s thirties with the strength and energy to bash walls down on the weekends, alas.

Continuing the tradition in these more convenient circumstances, in our present house, we put in a Wolf cooktop when the kitchen was remodeled, and for me, at least, it is the best stove I’ve ever had. The houses we have been looking at all have perfectly reasonable Mexican stoves and I’ve been saying “Oh, if we buy this house, this stove will be just fine, I don’t need to spend all that extra money”….but Arnold, who knows me far better, says “Are you nuts? I don’t want to have to listen to you whimpering about missing your old stove. You KNOW you will want a new Wolf so let’s just plan on it wherever we move.” Truthfully, when he said that, from my end there was a huge sigh of relief.

So, one of the things I wanted to do while we had some free time to wander around in the city was to find and go to the new Subzero-Wolf showroom so I could see and play with the latest and greatest. A few years ago, when I put the present stove in, the only way to get a Wolf was to order it from the States via Monterrey and wait patiently a good two months or more till it arrived in its crate, presumably by burro freight. Now there is a beautiful showroom right in Guadalajara, where you can see all the new models, (plus a variety of Sub-Zero refrigerators and freezers, along with some other gorgeous-looking European brands)…and there are also similar showrooms in Puerto Vallarta, Monterrey, Mexico City, and a couple of other places.

They wholesale only, so you can’t buy the stoves directly from them, I discovered…so I asked the young man who helped us how you would actually go about GETTING one of these delivered and installed in provincial Ajijic. He replied rather nonchalantly, “We work with your kitchen designer….” Hmmmm…. I’ve never had a kitchen designer, but Arnold said “you know, maybe that would actually be helpful because now there is so much available here that we just don’t know about…you might get some good ideas from working with someone on your next kitchen project.”  He’s probably right about that, though I never would have thought of it myself.

Then it occurred to me that perhaps it didn’t come by burro express anymore, given the Wolf-man’s response, so I asked how long it took to actually get one nowadays, and he said “Well, if you order something more exotic, like the six-burner one with the griddle, radiant broiler and grill and the two ovens, they build it to order and it’s six to eight weeks. But if it’s something fairly simple, like the basic four or six-burner range or cooktop, we have it overnight.” Arnold’s comment was “Guess Mexico isn’t a third world country any more!”

Oh goody, I can hardly wait!

Happy Birthday, Mom

Prior to my surgical adventure, in full Princess mode, I had planned several weeks lying abed in frothy negligees being waited upon hand and foot by everyone around here, time to read stupid magazines, do my nails, feigning agonizing discomfort so I could string it out a bit longer. Well, as they say, not so much! I sort of HAD to call a halt to all that after a couple of days enjoying the obligatory painkillers, and get out of bed and resume my life. Oh well, next time.

The saga with my mother goes on and unfortunately it requires, to some extent, that I be on my feet and functioning. Both my parents – as my sister so aptly put it – somehow managed to be fifty years old until one day they woke up at 85 and were completely bewildered as to how to respond to what was happening to them both physically and mentally. We both theorize that because in both their cases – family members on the East coast had done all the “elder care” for their failing parents and in addition to those responsibilities, had seen the other members of the family age and die ‘up close and personal’.

Gradually, after my father’s passing, my mother’s world has shrunk from the beautiful houses she shared with him over the years, to a hospital bed in a convalescent home here in Ajijic, where she lies week in and week out, bedridden and blind, not even really able to speak any more. Her care is wonderful, the Mexican ladies who work there dote on the patients; she and her airy room, which has a sliding glass door opening on to a pretty garden, are kept immaculate. It’s as good as it could possibly be for her given that she is growing weaker month by month and losing what little she has left of her faculties. She’s not in any pain, though, and seems to be happy “wherever” she is mentally – and that is a blessing for all of us.

The only good thing you can say about me, Arnold and my sister having to deal with this situation ourselves is that we have learned a great deal about aging and planning for it, the hard way. After watching both their decline (and my father’s death) over the past ten or fifteen years, we are big into carpe diem these days, whatever that might mean to us at the moment. But it is terribly sad and it has just been, truthfully, a colossal burden for all of us. The taking apart of their much-loved house in Santa Fe was horrible; for years before he retreated into whatever shell he constructed for himself, my dad kept saying “one of these days we will have to move to a smaller place” but never could or would take any concrete steps to move in that direction.  So in spite of insisting  that he didn’t want to leave that enormous undertaking to the three of us, as a practical matter, as both of them faded away, there the house was, intact, staring us in the face.

We finally had to at least get them both out of Santa Fe, for a whole variety of reasons. I tell friends it was like some opera where conflict and confusion dominate the plot and then there’s an intermission where you mull over the fates of these characters, until whatever the final act’s resolution might be. In Rossini, those closing ensembles where everyone is completely at their wits’ end can be hilarious, but in our case it was no fun. We had the neurologist telling us my father had some form of dementia resulting from mini-strokes and a brain hematoma, and the worst possible thing for him would be to remove him from his familiar surroundings.

Then my mother’s doctors, seeing her suffer from (in addition to diabetes) COPD and emphysema, insisted that we needed to get her to a lower altitude than Santa Fe’s 7,000 feet, and someplace warmer for her crippling arthritis.  She was on oxygen 24/7, and the machine was cranked up to the highest output a home machine was capable of – next stop for more oxygen was in a hospital. My father retreated further into himself and only wanted to sleep on the couch all day, stopped listening to music, stopped reading, stopped talking for the most part. My father who spoke several languages, rather well.

We spent a couple of years going back and forth trying to figure out what on earth to do, during which they only declined further. We tried desperately to get them to think about coming to be nearer either me or my sister, but by then neither of them were capable of planning such a giant move, nor did either of them want to leave the house they loved. The financial stress on them and on us only made it worse. Finally, we got them down – with their two cats (now ours, see earlier posts) to Mexico “just for the winter” (they bought the ruse), where at the very least, they were a ten minute drive away from us and it was sunny pretty much all the time. We knew they were never going back to Santa Fe, but they didn’t. Indeed that winter, there was a major break in a gas distribution line somewhere in Texas, and much of New Mexico was without gas to heat their homes as the temperatures plummeted to below freezing and stayed there for several days. When the house caretaker finally made it up there, she found my dad’s piano in four inches of water because the pipes in the living room had frozen and burst. Meanwhile my parents, happily enough, were sitting in shirtsleeves on the terrace of the house we had rented for them, watching the hummingbirds zip around the little garden, and gazing out at the view of Lake Chapala below, glittering in the sun.

Once we got their new care arrangements in place, full of dread, the three of us trooped back up to Santa Fe to deal with the house and its contents.  I was not really surprised to discover that my parents indeed left the whole joint – including zillions of dollars of deferred maintenance- kind of frozen in place like Pompeii. There were dried-out toothbrushes by the sinks, clothes still in the laundry hampers, with more dead toothbrushes and the like scattered in all the bathrooms, and it went on from there.  Like so many “adult children” who find themselves in this situation, dealing with the house was de facto left to us because the house was big, crammed with two lifetimes’ worth of possessions, and as my parents aged and failed physically and mentally, they totally lost control of it.

It took a couple of months out of our lives to be up in Santa Fe working twelve hours a day to figure out what to do with every pillow, pan, item of clothing, piece of furniture, book, CD, DVD, music score, piece of art, along with the plethora of balls of string and rusty coffee cans every Depression-era senior citizen seems to save. Our wonderful friend Sylvia came to help, as did others, thankfully. We filled a couple of moving vans and Goodwill trucks, and closed the house up. Their house is STILL sitting on the market, price reduced ad absurdum, but still no one wants it because it is now such a white elephant. Very sad for us, who have wonderful memories of family dinners and parties in that wonderful spacious living and dining room.

Of course we are certain that if we do something impulsive to give ourselves a break from all of this, like try to nip off to Europe for a couple of weeks, that will be the moment she chooses to make her exit, and we’d have to turn around and come right back, so for several years now we haven’t gone anywhere terribly far, though we are (pun sort of intended) dying to. This week Arnold wants to go to Cordoba. Not happening right now, alas.

Now that Mother is pretty well settled in at the convalescent home, where, barring something really unforeseen, she will remain till the end, as things have stabilized, however, we are ever-so-cautiously asking ourselves what WE want to do next for ourselves. Thank god she is here in Mexico where things are so much more affordable and she could live on indefinitely and it won’t break the bank. Having of course inherited my mother’s love of buying, remodeling and decorating houses, in thinking about our future, my first impulse has been to start looking for a new and in all likelihood, a bigger house.  Some people never learn.

Well, since yesterday was her 90th birthday, Arnold and I brought her some flowers, and set the arrangement by her bed in the home. I’d asked the lady at the flower shop to pick bright colors she could see, so she put together some enormous orange and yellow lilies, and hot Mexican pink Gerbera daisies, one of her favorites.  A couple of people she knows also brought her flowers and those were by her bed too. But when we brought ours over, she didn’t open her eyes, didn’t even really try to talk. Maybe after we left she was able (or chose to) see them, but we couldn’t tell. We just said “Happy Birthday, Mom, you made it to 90!” To which there was no response whatsoever , not even the blink of an eye trying to open, and after sitting with her awhile in silence, she nodded off, so we came back home.