Personal

M is for Mahler

On the prowl at Uniqlo, hunting for great t-shirts on sale!

On the prowl at Uniqlo, hunting for great t-shirts on sale!

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At B&H Photo, waiting for our electronic toys to be delivered to the pickup desk from the bins overhead!

Poor Arnold off in the distance, having to lug my packages

Poor Arnold off in the distance, having to lug my packages

It was a whirlwind trip to New York, and a nice diversion from the waiting, waiting, waiting for our interminable visa and real estate messes to resolve themselves. So, well, why not opt for a little retail recreation while we remain on hold?  We stayed in my favorite hotel on the Upper West Side, where we’re near all Arnold’s favorite haunts (Zabar’s!) and within walking distance of Lincoln Center. The hotel folks are getting to know us and are willing to do nice things for us like receive mail order packages we have sent from various vendors who still just won’t send to Mexico. We ate a bunch of Chinese food and walked all over the city enjoying the warm weather and window shopping – well, some real shopping too. Channeled my inner Shirley (my late mother) and picked up two handbags and a great backpack for travel that I liked at good sale prices. We made a stop at Capezio for new leotards and tights for Rosa’s grandchildren so they have new things that fit them for their dance classes; absolutely essential (well, not so much) makeup items at Sephora – the usual materialist nonsense I am unfortunately prey to. Even Arnold succumbed to temptation and bought a few things for himself.

It turns out that Mother’s violin, the reason for the trip in the first place, will head off to London once again for another go-round with the experts; this time a different group of experts.  In an interesting turn of events, the very British young man we met with at Sotheby’s had a different take on the violin than the Christie’s folks. Probably not totally Italian, maybe mostly British. I somehow figured they would all draw more-or-less the same conclusions about it but there are diverse theories as to its possible origins and even its age. Alas, however, there seems to be general agreement (sorry, Mom) that it ain’t no Guarnerius, in spite of the label inside its f-hole (probably fake) but it IS quite old and of some interest not only because of its age but because of its sound. The dendrochronology study places the wood at about 1681, but of course no one can say exactly when the violin itself was actually MADE from the wood, nor who made it.

But it was of enough interest to the people who saw it so that they decided to take it back to London one more time for further study by still more experts and probable inclusion in a new auction to take place late in October. Now that we are in the middle of this violin escapade, the whole story of how they date these things and appraise them has become quite fascinating to us. In the course of our travels, we’ve had a chance to see a couple of REAL Guarnerius instruments worth a million dollars each – it is a bittersweet experience to see the real deal and realize that Mom’s flights of fancy about her fiddle were just that, flights of fancy. If we get anything reasonable for her violin we will consider ourselves fortunate, but however it happens, we are still basically determined to find a good home for it with an active musician. Sadly, it is still languishing in its case unplayed, though god knows it is racking up a lot of airline miles. However, on the plus side, the young man from Sotheby’s heard someone play it somewhere along the line and thought it had a really “sexy” sound, so that apart from the monetary value of these things, it is nice to know that there is at least some interest in their function as actual musical instruments.  We actually think we might try to head to London with my sister Wendy and be present at the auction if it really happens as scheduled; we suspect that it could be a really fascinating adventure and a great trip for the three of us. We’ll see how the mileage gods treat us when we try to get those elusive international plane tickets!

Back in Ajijic on the home front, the visa pesadilla (nightmare) continues unabated. We of course have heard nothing from Immigration about the status of our request for new visas, and we are hearing more and more of people who have been stalled in the system far longer than we have. No one who is selling a house here, for whatever reason – like us, just wanting to move into a different place, or others who are returning “home” to Canada or the States for some reason, wants to pay the enormous tax the Mexican government will charge you on sale of a home without one of these permanent visas. So of course everyone and their brother is lining up to get one and the delays seem to be longer instead of shorter.  People are getting paranoid about it…is it some sort of diabolical revenge for the horrid way Americans have treated Mexicans living up there?

Or at least it feels that way. Nevertheless we also need this visa to sell OUR house (whenever it sells, which of course could be years from now, but one never knows in real estate….), and the seller of the house we are purchasing needs it to avoid the taxes SHE would have to pay, and on up (or down) the food chain, the seller of the house she is in turn planning to buy also needs this visa. We all put our paperwork in, signed, sealed and delivered months ago, but none of us seem to be getting anywhere in the system. Or if we are, it is at a snail’s pace. Until everyone in the line gets their visa, no one can conclude their real estate transactions, so here we all sit, if not physically, then metaphorically, twiddling our thumbs. Everyone has heard or experienced different things about the delays; but the reality is that we are stuck in the mire of the impenetrable and inscrutable Mexican bureaucracy with nowhere really to turn; the most cynical of the impatient expats in the proverbial line with us lament that unlike the good old days, there isn’t even anyone to bribe any more because Mexico is trying to clean up its act. You feel like you are coming face to face with one of those gigantic La Venta carved stone heads they have on display at the Xalapa archaeological museum: impassive, unresponsive, and very ancient. Things have, whether we like it or not, always been this way here.

In our case, the delay doesn’t especially matter because there are very few buyers in town now and there have been hardly any showings of our house, so we aren’t panicked about that – but it has delayed our closing – and hence our taking possession – on the new house, for what will may be a few more weeks or months, but we really just don’t know. So it’s more limbo. We don’t really want to start packing up for the move too seriously because it’ll be just our luck that when we do there will be a further delay and there I will be frustrated because I’m unable to find my potato peeler – or something essential like that. So here we sit, ready to move forward, especially after all the trauma with my mother’s death, to begin our “next chapter” – but we can’t.

But we are trying to do what we can do at this end, which mostly means throwing stuff out or donating what we are pretty sure we can do without, to lighten up the load when moving day does finally roll around. Arnold has begun a major sweep through all his CDs and DVDs to try to eliminate everything he feels he can do without, or reorganize it so it can be easily unpacked and found at the other end. For the past week at least, every time I have walked into his office, he’s had Mahler on – since of course when you pull the CD off the shelf, if you haven’t heard it in a while you MUST listen to it. He’s made it through most of the symphonies and now to the songs, and a wonderful rendition of “Der Abschied” caught my attention when I went in to his office to tell him that dinner was ready.

I said, “More Mahler? It’s been a week of pure Mahler symphonies down here!” “Yes,” he said, “Well, I’m working my way through the alphabet and I’m kind of in the middle, at the M’s.” Sort of in the middle, I thought, and here we are still stuck, also in the middle of all these huge changes in our lives. Ye gods, such a frickin’ drag. We are both sick of the stallling, the e-mails and phone calls with the news of more delays, the uncertainty, by now. We were ready to pack up and move weeks and weeks ago. But the music is and was, of course, absolutely wonderful and in a weird way it has calmed me down. I have realized that I would actually quite happily listen to another several weeks of Mahler floating into the kitchen if I had to, so I decided that I need to be more Mexican about this whole situation and let my American impatience and need for precision and proactivity go. At least for now, I keep telling myself  “You know, relax, it’s just not that bad that we can’t move forward quite yet – we can stay here as long as we need to, this house hasn’t sold, no one is throwing us out into the street.” The rains have started up in earnest, it’s cool and nice out, the hills are green. Things may be stalled and we may be mightily irritated, but in fact, they could be far, far worse.

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.

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.

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.

A Fond Farewell?

Our house, a fond farewell?

Our house, a fond farewell?

In recent news, Arnold and I have decided to put our house on the market and uproot ourselves once again looking for a house that better suits the way we are living these days. It will surely be an adventure, and hard for me, who doesn’t do well with big uncertainties, to say the least.  I wish we had the money in hand to just buy whatever new place we fall in love with and sell ours later, in a leisurely fashion, but we don’t. And friends here who tried that gambit ended up not able to sell their original house and now have it rented out. They are enjoying being landlords and having the extra income but we – alas – will need every penny we can wring out from the sale of our present casa to propel us into the next one.  As our real estate market here is so tied to whatever is going on in the States, the market for sales is awful, and as you’d expect, the market for buyers is full of relative bargains. There are loads of absolutely beautiful places up for sale here so finding something that we will both love will be the least of our worries, I think, once we know how much we can get for this house and have an offer on it that looks reasonable so we can forge ahead.

The good news about living in Mexico is that with few exceptions there are no mortgages. Every sale is “all cash” which frees you from the stress of worrying about those horrid payments every month. Being free of debt in a house I never could have afforded back in the States was one of the things that I found attractive about the idea of retiring in Mexico. But propelling yourself out of one house and into another is in a way more crazy-making, because no matter what price you negotiate on both the sell side and the buy side, you still have to arrive at the notario’s office on the day of your closing with the requisite fistfuls of cash for the entire purchase wired to your seller’s account. So you dare not fall too much in love with any house that is more than what you can scrounge up in real money  – but on the other hand if you don’t go out and look you have no idea what is really, truly, out there for sale in your price range, so it is a little bit crazy-making, but  this is where we are right now. First step, get ours on the market and see what happens over the next few months. Our real estate agent is telling us – and we know she’s right – that right now, when all the snowbirds are in town till April – is a good time to be putting it up for sale. In spite of all the bad publicity about Mexico, there are at least a few buyers out there, apparently.

It will tear me up to leave this place when the final days here come, especially the garden, which I carved out of what was basically a cobblestone parking lot. It has become really beautiful, a sanctuary for birds and butterflies, with two fountains and dozens of flowers everywhere, plus we are growing all kinds of fun things – bananas, mangoes, papayas, limones, avocados, and all sorts of herbs and spices – all the bounty that a Mexican garden provides year-round as a matter of course. I am hoping that someone else will in turn fall in love with it on the spot and want to live here. But there is no doubt in my mind – nor Arnold’s, I suspect – that in many ways we have outgrown the house itself and need something with a different configuration. Short of remodeling this place, which doesn’t make economic sense as we have way more into it now than we’ll ever get out, given how the market has declined – to get the space and quiet we are looking for these days, we will have to move.

So this week the preparations have begun.  I called our trusty construction guy, Ricardo, last week, who has sent over three or four workers who are now crawling around painting, plastering, repairing, redoing the floors – the cosmetic stuff you know you should do when you are simply living in a house (but never get around to). Of course these repairs become imperative once you decide to put it on the market, and it has to be if not impeccable, then more presentable than what you just ignore most of the time before you make the decision to sell. It’s weird; we have even rearranged some furniture and reorganized things  “for showings” and realized that we should have made x change years ago because it looks so much better now. Why didn’t we do it before, why didn’t we see it before?

It is interesting how a stay in the hospital for surgery, heart procedure, whatever, can change your perspective on your life. In my case, my ailments were painful and inconvenient but not life-threatening; but Arnold’s heart adventures – plus the fact that he’s ten years older than I am to start with –  have made him more aware of the passage of time in recent months.  It seems like getting into, or approaching, your seventies can put your own mortality into sharper relief. Especially dealing, as we do every day, with the agonizingly slow departure of my mother, who will turn ninety in a few days, but has spent much of the last third of her life in an inexorable physical decline (much of which she could have fought against but didn’t) that has left her completely bedridden and unable even to talk these days. Thus we are both in a “if we are going to do things, we need to do  them NOW” kind of place, and dealing with the house, the inevitable addition of some of my parents ’ treasured Mexican furniture, and the changes in the way we are living these days, is inevitably pointing to moving rather than trying to patch something more accommodating together here.

Everyone is asking us – since our present house is two stories – and actually three, if you count the rooftop mirador where I take my morning coffee for a view of the mountains and the lake – if we’re downsizing and looking for something on one level. Typical of us, al contrario, the one house we both managed to fall in love with is three levels as well, with breathtaking views of the lake from high up on the mountainside. If we get serious about it we will have an elevator guy come from Guadalajara to look at it and tell us whether and how they could eventually put an elevator, or one of those chairs that move up and down stairs, into it. But we don’t want or need to anticipate being incapacitated just yet. Neither of us needs it now and we seem to be doing fine with the stairs in the house we have , so we can know it’s possible and leave it at that until or unless we need it down the line. Since my surgery, I have not been allowed to do the kind of exercise I was doing before, so the stairs actually are about my only exercise right now, for the next few weeks, at least. Arnold refuses to do the “look at a one story place” routine; we’ve always lived in two-story houses and I think for him it’s a kind of surrender. Anyway, pun intended, many steps before  we get to the rearrangement of x new house wherever it may be and whatever tweaking it might need.

We shall see!