My List of Grateful

This morning, while drinking coffee and bemoaning the coverage of the Thanksgiving Day parade (more floats, less guests!), I decided to fill one sheet of paper with what and whom I am most grateful. I could have filled more sheets, but since I need to getting prepping on that turkey, I limited myself to one.

My List of Grateful

  • My husband and friend, who loves me, puts up with me, protects me, and will lift me to the winds to fly, if needed- all unconditionally.
  • The greatest parents, ever. Who showed me what it means to love, to be patient, to be kind to others, and the importance of family. Oh, and sports.
  • My sister and brother, truly my best friends. The ones I miss the most, the ones I want to share everything, the ones I text throughout a sporting event and share photos of newly discovered beers. For our shared support, encouragement and belief in one another and for….well, everything
  • My family, especially my cousins. For our shared laughter, our shared memories, our shared adventures and shared love. I can’t imagine my life without all of my crazy cousins.
  • My nieces and nephews, part I (Andi, Holly and Jeff) and part II (Jaxon and Lexi), for allowing me to love you with the heart of a mother, for spoiling you, for watching you grow and become incredible adults (part I) and for allowing me a second chance, to watch you grow and rejoice in the fact I get to do it all over again (part II).
  • My sons- the Olmsted boys. For allowing me to be your second mother and forgiving me when I dropped the mom ball, at times. For filling my heart with love and joy and just when I didn’t think there was any more room, for bringing seven grandchildren within the blessed walls of my heart.
  • My friends- old and new (and future). For your love, loyalty, laughter, tears, hugs, and understanding. I could go on and on.
  • The women in my life, for those here and now and those who graced my life and have gone too soon. You are my reason, you are my hope, and you are my mosaic.
  • My job and the jobs before my ten-year stint with WSU. For providing me opportunities for growth, for learning, and to be able to enjoy this life and provide for others.
  • The love, companionship and memories of an old dog and the love, youthful reminders, and future memories of a new pup.
  • Music. All music.
  • Sports and how it weaves a magical thread of joy (and sometimes misery) throughout the lives of my family and friends.
  • My hometown, Wichita- the beloved ICT. For changing throughout the years, for being open to change, for providing us with community and the brave spirit of local entrepreneurs. The local breweries, the Coaster’s bicycle club, the incredible musicians, the talented artists, the continually changing landscape of this city…thank you.
  • Changing seasons. For the new beginnings of spring, the childlike abandonment of summer, the slowing down and appreciation of fall, and the soul-searching, rejuvenation of winter
  • Life. There are many who will never know this experience and many whose experience was too short. It is difficult, but worth the journey. How fortunate we are to be gifted this thing called life.
  • Thanksgiving Day. The day that inspires us to take the time to be grateful.

I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving and a long list of grateful!

A Holiday from Social Media

My favorite time of year is upon us. I rejoice the first day of fall, knowing long, hot days are at an end and the leaves will begin to turn to gold before covering the ground, the first earth blanket before the snows. And, my favorite trilogy of holidays approaches with autumn equinox: Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. My soul is rejuvenated with the hint of winter in the air, Irish coffees around the fire pit, and the anticipation of putting up the Christmas tree.

Last year, this season was not kind or rejuvenating, but filled with emptiness and sorrow with the loss of Jeff and Angie. It was difficult to embrace my favorite time of year with a heart laden in grief. This year, as I celebrated autumn equinox with a good wine, I contemplated my approach. My very being ached for a return to the normal, but I knew then that with the anxieties of the upcoming election and the charged atmosphere of social media, finding my norm was going to be difficult.

I am heartbroken by the results of the election, and let me reiterate it has naught to do with my candidate losing. It is the realization we as a community have been living blindly in our assumptions that hate in its many forms had been reduced to a tiny monster we could sweep away under a rug of social progress. Despite the fact we’ve been privy to its ugliness more and more through social media comments and posts, as well as the unrest in our communities, the shootings, and the media spewing; while we were celebrating our victories, the monster was feeding upon our trustfulness and waiting to pull the rug out from under us.

Throughout all of this, the one thing that has disturbed me the most is social media. I engaged in social media, specifically Facebook, to stay in touch with my niece and nephew in Illinois. To be able to “see” them on a daily basis, to watch their life path, to let them know I was watching. This form of contact helped ease the guilt and sadness of not being able to visit more often. And as I became engaged, soon I was searching for all of my relatives out-of-state or even across the city, as our daily lives prevented us from those cherished family gatherings of our childhood.

But the place I turn to feel connected has become disconnected. It, too, is feeding the monster. Like a shot of whiskey or a case of beer, the internet has become our modern-day “liquid courage.” There have always been those individuals whose inner demons appear whenever they have too much to drink or sadly, just a little drink. As soon as the alcohol warms their bloodstream, they blurt their feelings, no matter how dark or hurtful, and for some their demons take shape in physical harm. A little booze and these individuals want to fight the world, or at least the world in their immediate proximity, and especially those who do not share in their beliefs or those whom they fear. The computer age has brought about this new form of liquid courage, or “keyboard courage.” Individuals now feel empowered to shout their views at others whose beliefs are not in line with theirs, cyberbully, and engage in hurtfulness against complete strangers all the while hidden behind their new drug of choice, be it laptop, PC, tablet or phone. It’s easy to throw cyber punches and be downright offensive within the confines of your home or office, miles away from the individual(s) whom you are attacking. An alcoholic beverage is no longer needed nor the excuse of not being able to handle your liquor, just sign in and punch away.

I try to be very thoughtful in my postings on social media, yet I know I am not innocent in this online bickering. I’m sure I have stated a view or shared a post which offended or hurt others, as it has become too easy to be drawn into the fight. And to me, there is nothing more embarrassing or distressing than a “comments brawl” where individuals flail wildly in the comments area of their own postings or, even more distressing, by invading the post of another. And with the recent unveiling of our continued social disparities and the inability of many to be respectful of one another, Facebook has become its own little demon, egging on the madness as if determined to convince us that we are all monsters.

So, I’m taking a holiday from the crazy. At the close of Thanksgiving Day, I am taking a reprieve from all social media. I’m going to enjoy the Christmas season “old school.” I’m going to read Dickens, buy gifts, sip wine in the glow of our tree and if there is a party or event, you’ll need to contact me by phone or one of those rare methods from long ago, as in the paper invitation sent by mail. I’m not going to stress myself in multiple directions by promising to attend every Facebook event invitation and I’m not going to damper the Christmas spirit by stumbling upon one of those keyboard courage rants or lose faith in mankind just by reading the headline of a fake news story.

This holiday, I’m going to engage by disengaging. And, if the climate has changed by January 1, or I feel a pull to catch up with the happenings of my family and friends, I may return but with a shortened friend list and possibly on a part time basis. Who knows, I may not ever return and that would be more than okay. I find it of interest to become one of those elusive individuals who are not on Facebook, who don’t tweet and have no idea what a snap chat implies. They are a mysterious people and quite likely, much healthier than the rest of us.

So, the countdown begins. Only four more days until Social Media Holiday begins. For those who follow me on Facebook and Twitter, I hope you’ll look for me here, afloat the calming waters of Mermaid of the Plains. With less time spent reviewing status updates and announcing check-ins, my goal is to write and share here. And, I encourage you to join me in this holiday break. Let’s truly return to a season of hope, love, and respect for one another. We are all in this together and we are all we got. As a great woman once wrote, “we are more alike my friends, than we are unalike.”

We need to remember this, now more than ever.

The Girl Who Came to Stay: The Story of Eleanor Rigby

Five months. She’s been gone five months. And yet, I look for her each time the garage door rises, expecting to see that big, beautiful head and oversized tail wagging in greeting. There are moments I smell her as I step over the threshold, her earthy, sometimes humidity ridden, doggy smell. Still, sitting beneath our lantern therapy tree in the backyard, her tree, the one we planted when she was just a puppy, I swear I see her out of the corner of my eye. A quick flash of black; although in the last few years, there was nothing quick or flash-like in her movements. Even now, as I finally have the strength to write this, I watch her from across the room, tucked inside a black velvet bag encased in a red, wooden box. Our beloved companion of fifteen years, sits upon a shelf next to a photo of her as a gangly puppy, and a copy of The Art of Racing in the Rain. Our Eleanor Rigby, the half chocolate lab/half golden retriever who came to stay.

For those who’ve never experienced the true companionship and love of a dog, my heart grieves for you. Theirs is a love like no other. No judgement, no doubt, no lessening, no change. If anything, their love grows bolder, stronger, more forgiving, and more transcendent. I truly believe no human can offer or compare to the love given by a dog. Yes, the love by a dog. They love hard and fast and filled with forgiveness. And, if you are able to recognize, appreciate and reciprocate that love…well, this blog post is for you. And if you’ve not opened your heart to experience this love, this blog post is especially for you.

Eleanor Rigby. Yes, it is obvious she was named for the Beatles song. It was the song playing on the radio the evening we drove her from the farm in Colwich, Kansas to our home in Wichita. We knew, at that moment, her name would be Eleanor Rigby and we would call her Rigby. She cried all the way home, a heartbreaking cry for her siblings and parents and familiar surroundings. It broke our hearts and made us wonder, more than once, if we should turn around and return her to the farm; but, after all, she’d chosen us. Waddle-ran her way over to us and landed at our feet, what would become her familiar grin stealing our hearts and causing us to jelly into oohs and ahhs and baby-talk, her tail frenzy-wagging against us.

In a blink of an eye she grew from an awkward, stubby pup into a long, gangly pup who tormented us with her destruction: first the insulation from walls of the garage, various shoes, the rails of the deck porch, newly planted tulip bulbs which she dug up the next morning and presented to us at the back door; and our favorite story to share, the time she ate the cable box right off the house. Yes, the cable box, which then resulted in two expensive visits by Cox Cable. The first visit was to replace the box and place it higher up on the house and replace the chewed cables. The second visit was to reinforce those cables after she spent the next morning digging them all up and chewing right through them one more time for good measure. And all of this during the final snow and sleet of March.

But, once she retired from her one-puppy destruction crew, Rigby settled into a dog of such laid-backness and love, I often wondered if she carried the soul of an old hippy within. All who met her loved her and she was a neighborhood favorite. A dog of immense vocabulary and smarts, she never left her front yard even when tempted by a neighborhood cat or stranger, as if she knew that the world beyond her yard held nothing as golden as where she ate her meals, laid her head, dug her holes, and contained her people.

We loved her from the moment she entered her home and with a love that continued to blossom and grow as large and full as her tree in the backyard. Our constant companion, she went on camping trips with us, went swimming at Lake Afton, attended the Kansas Humane Society’s Woofstock, even took trips to Kansas City with stops at the Starbucks in Emporia. But, our favorite time was relaxing on the deck or patio with her. She knew as soon as she heard the first strains of music from the outdoor speakers that we would be hanging out. The three of us, rehashing the day or the week, sharing a snack, and unwinding within the cocoon of trusted company. She usually lay close to our feet, watching us, listening or snoozing, getting up to receive those much appreciated scratches behind the ears and long caresses of her head.

She also provided one-on-one therapy. My husband took her for walks in which she knew these bouts of exercise were more for her beloved Brad than for her. She became his confidante when I could not ease his stress or doubt. The time they spent sitting beneath her tree, he laying the worries of his world at her feet and she, head on his knee, listening, nuzzling, and wagging were some of the most genuine moments of love I’ve ever been privy to. And I loved her even more for each one. She provided an easing of the soul to the man we both loved.

And, she did the same for me. She knew, from the moment I walked through the door , if I needed more than her usual exuberant greeting. The gentle nudging of her nose against my leg, the long look as if to say, “What happened, today. You know you can tell me.” So, that by the time Brad arrived home, she’d carried my worries with her out to the yard and buried them right next to her favorite toy (something she did often, as we think she liked the surprise of unearthing the toy a week or so later). No, she never unearthed those worries. She was exceptional at releasing your sadness and frustration either through the seismic movement of her tail or burying as fodder for the earthworms deep into the dark, dampness of the earth.

For fourteen and a half years, she was part of our family, a central character. I know you’ve heard it often, how dogs become family. It’s true. She was one of us. She even had her own blog for a year, 8 Days a Week with Eleanor. Our confidante, our cheerleader, the one who never gave up on us, who never settled, who gave us her undivided attention, and who loved us fully. She was the best of us. I know in my heart, no human will ever match the unconditional love Eleanor Rigby provided our family.

As life grew long and she grew weary, her body beginning to slow and stiffen from arthritis, her inner pup would still emerge, if just for a fleeting moment, until her tired hind legs would remind her they could no longer carry her bounce. She was twelve and a half when she determined she could no longer climb the deck stairs, so we created the space beneath her tree. The lantern therapy tree was for all three of us, a place she could still join us and be with her people. At age thirteen, she determined she could no longer climb the stairs leading to the upper floor of our split level home and lived the rest of her days in the lower level, lounging on her orthopedic pillow between us and the television so she could watch us and we watch her. She had her bad days, when her legs would give out and she would tumble to the floor, not feel the step beneath her and fall the few steps to the lower level, or struggle and heave to move her body from the pillow. And through it all, we steeled ourselves against the inevitable. She would leave us, either on our own, or God help us, we would know to make the decision for her. We tried to talk about it, but hated the conversation, our despair pouring out in the guise of anger at one another for even saying aloud that Rigby was nearing the end of her days. Our days.

The week leading up to her final weekend with us, she surprised us by climbing the stairs to the upper level on Easter morning. I found her in the middle of the kitchen floor, her favorite place to be, the kitchen speed bump ever present especially when we were trying to cook. We were shocked to find her there and she even seemed surprised. Later in the week, she stood at the bottom of those tall, deck stairs and gazed upward, as if remembering those days when she would speed down those steps to chase a squirrel from the yard. For a moment, we thought she might try to climb them, but she slowly backed up, her aged and milky eyes looking up at us as if to say, remember? We spent the following Friday under her tree together, listening to music, talking and she getting her usual scratches behind the ears. Looking back, had we known it was her final Friday with us under her tree, we might have held her head in our hands and caressed those still puppy-soft ears a little longer.

Sunday morning, we knew. She did not want to be in the house, struggling to move herself around the yard, searching for a certain place. She refused to eat, to drink. We prayed for a miracle, shed tears, gave her space and waited. When evening drew nigh, we decided she would not pass from this earth outside, but near us. We created a bed for her and ourselves in the lower level and stayed with her as she labored through the night. At sunrise, I made the phone call to the vet, barely able to speak the words.

Eleanor Rigby took her final breath surrounded by her two favorite people, and the man in the funny pajamas, Dr. Oehmke, who took such good care of her during her short life. And as Dr. Oehmke and the crying vet tech left us alone with her, giving us as much time as we wanted to weep over her now quiet form, I marveled at the peace descended upon Rigby. It was in that moment, the realization of what she’d endured for us for two years hit home and now, she lay fully relaxed, fully at peace, that big head cradled in the lap of my husband whose sobs resounded in the room, along with my own. The hardest choice we made that morning, was leaving her, knowing we would never see her physical form, scratch behind those ears, and the home we would return would be different, changed.

Five months. Even now, as I write this, the tears flow free and long, dampening my sweatshirt. Still, when asked about her, my eyes burn with her memory and spill out in single tears down my cheek. The same with my husband. And we are not embarrassed, nor ashamed. We have known the best of friendship and are blessed to have been loved so completely for almost fifteen years. We were given a gift we will not soon discard or forget. Eleanor Rigby, truly the girl who came to stay.

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Living the Life Virtues

The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you have formed.  Most of us would say that the eulogy virtues are more important than the resume virtues, but I confess that for long stretches of my life I’ve spent more time thinking about the latter than the former…most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop profound character.

                                                                 – from The Road to Character by David Brooks

 As I sat listening to the incredible testimony of a life most certainly well-lived, a life spent bringing new life into this world and ensuring lives would continue, I was soul-stirred. Yet, I could not help but feel intense sadness that not only had this life ended too soon, but life’s virtues, those essences of our character that encourage others to speak so eloquently at our funerals, are not recognized as such in our everyday lives. I was surprised to learn there were so many things I did not know about the man whom we were saying goodbye. So humble, so private and reserved, his accomplishments and successes were not Facebook statuses “liked” by hundreds, but kept close to him and minimized by an intense resolve to do right by his talents. I wondered how many others in the room were unaware of the many honorable deeds done in such a short amount of time upon this earth. And I wondered if he truly knew how many lives he’d changed, motivated, and engrained with those same principles he lived by: care for your patients, but learn to balance work and family, as both are a priority; and do what is right. All this led by quiet example.

Do we think of this in our daily lives? Do we resolve to do right by our talents? It’s easy to get caught up in the external visage of what is deemed success. The resume virtues are easily seen, quickly recognized and rewarded with corner offices and elaborate titles or lauded at banquets with plated dinners and gilded plaques. But, eulogy virtues can be harder to see, hidden from eyes used to looking for the familiar skeleton of success and not open to the heart and soul of character.

Yes, there are those around us whose eulogy virtues are boldly apparent, not waiting to be extolled at pulpits and graveside. The funny thing is, these individuals are often embarrassed upon hearing such accolades and accept such testimony with deep humility. Theirs is not a life lived to receive pats upon the back or desktop trophies. They devote themselves to others, to family and friends. As mentors, caregivers, and teachers of life, they are the first offerors of hands and shoulders. Most live a life in the quiet shadow of their virtues; their lives more than a social media status and extending well beyond a minimum number of characters.

I am not disparaging success, as we all want to reach our goals and cross those finish lines, but I’m always more interested in the story behind the success. The hard work, the humble beginnings and equally humble ends, the silent heroes—those are the stories I want to hear, to witness. Those are the stories I hope to emulate. No one will remember nor care what was listed on our resumes, nor will anyone wipe away the dust from those forgotten trophies and read them aloud upon our passing. Will we spend our lives hoarding material successes under the guise of status or will we spend it in quiet resolve, doing right by ones talents in lifting up those around us. I am no Mother Teresa, nor will I ever be, but I hope when my time is done, I will be remembered for my character and how I lived this single life gifted to me.

Knowing and Acting

I’ve come to the realization that being an adult means knowing when something isn’t right for you and acting upon that knowledge by making a decision to change or stop whatever the something might be; even if it means feeling as if you failed, even for a moment, or having to explain multiple times the reason behind your decision. When I was younger, still learning about who I was, where I wanted to be, I often “powered through” situations simply because I was afraid to feel like or appear as a failure. Often, I continued to stumble the path because I thought having to explain my decision might take more effort or be worse than the situation itself. I became good at convincing myself that if I just went with it, things might possibly get better and if it didn’t, well, it surely couldn’t be that bad. Looking back, there were more than a handful of times I wish I’d been strong enough to act because some of the outcomes were bad, a few I carried with me, my own albatross, for many years.

Now, I know it’s okay to realize when something isn’t right and to not power through, especially knowing to continue will not be good for me. When something isn’t working or doubt begins to seep in, there is no way to strong-arm it into being what you hoped or imagined.

I left my writer’s retreat earlier than planned and yet, I’m not disappointed in myself. In just a few days, I learned a lot about who I am as a person and where I am as a writer. I’m thankful to the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow to allow me this experience and what has turned out to be a most valuable lesson. When I know in my heart and head a situation isn’t working, I do have the strength to stop and act without hesitation and feel good about my choice.

When I first prepared for my retreat, I worried if I still had it within me to write. I worried I would not be able to put words on a page, to bring life to the characters running around or still hiding in my head, to again become excited and passionate about a project. In my first 24-48 hours locked away in my suite, I found I can still write and am still excited about the process, I’d just forgotten. Somehow, I’d let life and everyday excuses get in the way, so much so that I tricked myself into believing I no longer carried the passion. It is still here and evident in the 3000 new words I created, plus the rewriting of the synopsis for my novel. Those first few days caused a spark among the embers, and more. As I read what I have written, I see a difference in my writing, a confidence, a maturity. Maybe I’m in a better place to understand what it is that I want to write. And it seems all I needed was a few days alone with my research, laptop, and playlist of Lila Downs to remind me.

Some may see this as a failure, some may say I’ve wasted an opportunity, but I disagree. I needed this venture to remind myself of where I am and what I need to create. Yes, I need time to myself, uninterrupted, and to be better disciplined in the craft, but I also need to open myself up to what it is that makes my heart beat faster and allow myself to weep upon the page. These few days reworking my synopsis, reviewing my research, and adding new fresh pages has done wonders for my writer’s soul. And I know it will not end now that I have returned home, secured a spot at our rarely used dining table and continued to add 1,000-1,500 words a day since I returned. This may have been the shortest writer’s residency in the history of Dairy Hollow, but I’m okay with that. I’m home. And, I’m writing.

 

Day #1: Better Late Than Never

I have arrived. Of course, I was an hour and a half later than I expected, as I missed a turn and drove almost an hour out of my way, but for those who know of my inability to comprehend directions, this should come as no surprise. None.

I barely had time to put away my belongings and arrange my writing desk before I walked over to the main house for the kick-off to Fleur Delicious event. Dairy Hollow hosted a fundraiser complete with French wine, local wine, local cheeses, and French pastries. While enjoyable, I felt a little overwhelmed as everyone knew one another and were engaged in conversations and boisterous laughter. But, everyone was incredibly friendly and I was introduced to guests as one of the “writer’s in residence” which gave me pause. It’s been a very long time since I’ve been introduced as a writer. A very long time.

I left the event early in order to snap photos of the colony and head over to #505, which houses four of the other writer’s suites. Only one other writer was present at dinner, which consisted of a lovely vegetable quiche, fresh salad, and baked potato. A writer of non-fiction, her company was perfect for a quiet dinner. She is also a veteran of the colony so was able to give me a few tips.

Now, I am settled in my suite, which is much more than I expected (photos, tomorrow) and I am waiting for the newness of it all to fade and the reality of undisturbed writing to take hold. I’m nervous about it. What if my characters didn’t make the trip? What if I can’t write. I decided to ease into the evening with this post and to look over one of my older journals. Interestingly, the first thing I read was a post dated April 17, 2009. It was when I took my mother to Kansas City to see Sandra Cisneros, the author of The House on Mango Street. Cisneros is one of my favorite authors and an inspiration. That evening, especially when mom and I met her and had our photo taken with her, was very special.

So special, I’d written in my journal something she’d said at the reading, “We (the Latino community) need to write our stories, tell the stories of our communities. These stories need to be told by the people who love their communities. Because if we don’t, someone from the outside will try, someone from the outside who thinks they’re looking in.”

I believe the muse has arrived, too. Just in time.

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At Long Last, a Writing Adventure Awaits

A few years ago, a colleague suggested I look into a writing residency. While my intentions are good, it is difficult to follow through on writing each day, especially with long work hours, family, and that pesky social calendar. A residency or retreat offers a writer space and lots of time to get lost in their work. A friend actually finished the rough draft of her first novel, which she published a year later.

So, during the winter break I decided to do a little research.  In 2013, my husband and I spent an extended weekend in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. We stayed in The Treehouses and fell in love with this open and creative community. While sightseeing, we discovered The Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow tucked among the trees. I made a mental note and it was the first one on my list of residencies to research. I applied and on January 25, I received notification I was accepted on a subsidized residency.

Originally awarded for a week in August, I was contacted by the director when a slot opened in July, which works best for my day job schedule. I leave for Eureka Springs on July 5th. One week until my writing adventure begins. I’m acting like a kid counting down to camp, making lists of what I will pack, what I will need to stock the kitchen in my suite, creating a Writing Residency Playlist, making more lists, and counting down “how many sleeps” until I head to Arkansas.

I hope to blog about my residency, as well as my time in Eureka Springs. My goal is to complete a rough draft of my novel. I’ll be armed with a synopsis, the first three chapters and a whole lot of research and journal notes, plus a very special packet given to me by my Aunt Graciela. This packet contains a history of my paternal grandparents, including notes from my grandfather’s diary, the inspiration for my future novel.

Just me, my laptop, that packet of treasure, and  a private suite tucked into the splendid hills of Eureka Springs. I love a journey. Looks like this next one begins at The Writers Colony of Dairy Hollow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Course of a Life

Each morning, as I sit for the light to change at 21st and Oliver, I cannot help but stare at what was once Braeburn Golf Course. Once a significant aspect of the campus of Wichita State University, orange construction cones now contain the high mounds and deep hollows of dirt, sparse trees, and the steel skeletons of what will soon be Innovation Campus. And while change and vision is exciting, the loss of this golf course resonates within my family, especially my father. It has nothing to do with sport and everything to do with opportunity and hope. On October 31, 2014, I met my father on the grounds of Braeburn to take photos of the course as he played his final round. I then wrote the following piece, in hopes of capturing that single moment tied to a long and unexpected history and the relationship between a game, some land, and a bunch of boys from the North End.

As is custom with my father and his golf buddies, their tee time was scheduled for 7:30 am. I’d just pulled into the parking lot when he called to tell me they were being delayed for possibly an hour. It was October 31, 2014 and Old Man Winter had decided to provide us with a preview. North winds buffeted my car as I pulled on my heavy winter gloves and wondered how I was going to manage a camera. I was meeting my father near the practice green tucked between two buildings on the campus of Wichita State University. Braeburn Golf Course would be permanently closing on November 3 to pave the way for an Innovation Campus, and my father and his troupe were scheduled for one final round.

My father was waiting just under the green awnings of the brick clubhouse, his tan and navy striped beanie crooked upon his head. We hugged and headed inside for Styrofoam cups of black coffee poured from the ever-present and stained coffee pot. I looked around at the black and white photos of championship golf teams, the now almost-barren pro shop, its racks like silver leafless trees. I stared out the large windows onto the golf course, for the first time noticing the unusual quiet. It felt less like a clubhouse and more like the visitation room at Old Mission Mortuary, located just north of campus.

“You want to take some pictures of the course before the guys get here?” my dad asked, gesturing toward the east entrance.

“Sure,” I said, setting my coffee atop one of the aged concession area tables to remove my gloves. Beneath the cloudy glass tabletops were old maps of the course from the early 1990s. Originally Crestview Country Club, Wichita State purchased the property in 1967 and in 1993, the WSU Golf Course was renamed Braeburn.

We walked in silence through the door and stood facing the pitching green, the sun peeking through the old trees that had weathered the straight line winds of Kansas, but would not withstand the vision of an ambitious university president. I took a few photos and stood sentry with my father, who was gazing along the path leading to the driving range.

“Right here, this is where the old clubhouse used to sit. Or, close to this spot. We’d line up and wait for our assignments or for the regulars to choose a caddy.”

I aim the camera in the direction he is pointing, trying to envision the old clubhouse. I’ve heard my father’s stories from his days as a caddy, at least a hundred times, but never before had I been standing on these hallowed grounds.

“A few of the regulars always picked me, like this really nice couple, the McMasters. I think that was their name. They were really good golfers. Taught me a lot about the game. They were good to me, even paid me a little extra,” my father says, his breath visible in the October air.

We stand for a bit longer before he heads toward the putting green. As I turn to follow him, I notice a sign taped to the glass near the east door, “Come Play Braeburn One Last Time.” I walk briskly to catch up to my father. He has left his monogrammed golf bag standing next to the green. Large and black with his USGA membership tag from 2008-2009 still zip-tied to his golf pushcart, it seems to be patiently waiting his return. My father pulls his putter gently from the bag and pauses. Again, he gazes toward the morning shadows where the old clubhouse used to stand. It seems as if he is listening for something. I push my own cable knit cap away from my right ear and listen, too.

“None of us caddies were allowed in the clubhouse, you know. But, whenever I earned an extra nickel or dime, I’d head to the back screen door to the kitchen where I could buy a pop and a bag of peanuts. I used to dump the peanuts into the bottle, making the pop all fizzy and salty. It was my favorite.” He takes a sip of his lukewarm coffee before setting it gently on the cold ground next to his bag. “We’d hang out back and wait for one another. You usually knew when a caddy was finished by the slam of that screen door.”

He grabs a few golf balls from his bag and begins to strategically place them on the green. He continues, “I don’t know if I told you, but Father Giles was one of the reasons I started caddying. He used to play with Frank Hedrick, who worked at Beech Aircraft. Later, he became their president. He and Father Giles always chose me as their caddy.”

I watch my father practice his putting, oblivious to the biting wind. This was the first time I’d heard he’d caddied for Frank Hedrick, who was president of Beech Aircraft from 1968-1982, which meant my father worked at Beech during Mr. Hedrick’s presidency. I bet Mr. Hedrick never knew one of his favorite caddies became one of his best assembly workers.

My father sinks a putt from four feet, then moves over to his next placed ball and easily putts out from almost seven feet. I recall the stories about the McMasters couple and how when they learned he walked to and from the golf course, almost four miles one way, they insisted on picking him up and taking him home on the days he caddied for them. The first time they drove him home, he was nervous about them finding out he lived “on the north end.” But, as he’d told me, “they didn’t blink an eye. But, I shouldn’t have been worried, because where else would a bunch of Mexican caddies live.”

I try to ignore the tingling in my fingers as I take photos of my father, a few of his bag, and the spot where the ghost of the clubhouse shimmers between the shadows of the buildings and trees. As my father continues to practice, I try to imagine what it was like being an eleven-year-old boy caddying for seventy-five cents for eighteen holes, especially a Mexican boy who’d recently lost his father in a train accident at a salt plant in Lyons, Kansas.

Oscar Castro moved to Wichita, Kansas in 1943, following the tragic death of his father. One of seven children, he wanted to help out his mother, who was devastated by the loss of her husband and fearful of what the future held for her and her children. Father Giles told him about caddying at what was then Crestview Country Club golf course, so my father walked the 3.7 miles and stood outside the clubhouse, hoping to be picked. The first time he showed up to caddy, the pro sent him home because my father was barefoot. My father saved his only pair of shoes for school or church, not wanting to ruin them. The pro was surprised when my father returned an hour later, his shoes shined and laces tightened.

But, my father was not alone, as the majority of caddies were Mexican American kids from his neighborhood, the north side of Wichita where the early Mexican immigrants gravitated for jobs with the railroad and meat packing plants. It also helped that the assistant pro at Crestview Country Club was Mario Renteria, whose influence encouraged the young boys to caddy. It was good money, but it was an even greater experience for these kids whose futures were as long and solemn as those train horn blasts along 21st and Broadway, their lives in sync with the shift changes at Cudahy Meat Packing Plant. Caddying changed my father’s life.

My father approaches me, “Did I ever tell you that Father Giles used to excuse me from school to caddy for him and Hedrick?”

“I guess it was easy since you were attending his Catholic school,” I say.

“Yeah, I guess so,” he answers, “It never bothered me since I figured if it was a sin, he could forgive me.”

We laugh, my father smiling for the first time that morning.

“Dad, was it on Monday the caddies were allowed to play?” I ask, knowing it was but wanting to hear him tell me, again.

“Yes, we really looked forward to Monday,” he answers, leaning on his club. “Mario would let us use the mismatched and worn clubs, and some practice balls. We’d go out and do our best by mimicking the golfers or coaching one another on the tips we learned. I learned a lot from my golfers, they showed me how to grip, how to follow the ball,” my dad begins to laugh. “We were awful in the beginning, but after a while, I don’t know, we just loved to play. We had fun and it was something different, something so different.”

My father and his friends would play together for more than forty years; forming a group they called Los Patos, or The Ducks. Depending on which golfer you ask, the stories vary on how they came up with the name. A few say it came from wading through water hazards to scavenge for shanked golf balls. Others say it came from their code name for those golfers who were cheapskates and didn’t pay their caddies well. Pato was a code name, as in “don’t get stuck with the pato, he’ll just lay an egg.”

However they decided upon the name, these men from hardworking backgrounds met every Sunday at one of the public golf courses where they picked teams, placed bets, heckled one another, and cheered the longest drive or putt. After bets were paid, they drank cold Budweiser fished from Coleman coolers, while seated under the shade of the trees in the parking lot.

They organized their own Mexican American golf tournament, which was held during the month of September on the Saturday closest to September 16, Mexican Independence Day. For 35 years, the tournament brought together these men and their families, creating generations of Mexican golfers from across the state of Kansas. Being invited to play with the Patos became a rite of passage for their sons and grandsons. I remember how proud and excited my brother was when he was asked to play, the honor bestowed upon him at the age of thirteen.

“They’re finally here,” my dad says, motioning toward the parking lot. Four of my dad’s  golf companions are heading toward the clubhouse. As dad and I leave the green to follow them, I realize how small his golf group has become over the years. Many of the original Patos have died, while others have lost the mobility or strength to play. My father, at age 82, is one of the last of the caddies who still plays on a weekly basis. He hits balls at the driving range and practices putting three to four times per week, which is why he was still “hitting his age” in his late seventies.

Inside the clubhouse, Marion, Joe, and two others are paying their fees and grabbing cups of coffee. Only one of the golfers remembers me, which is not surprising since daughters were a rarity on the golf course with the Patos.

“I can’t believe we’re playing in this cold,” says Marion, “Loco, I tell you.”

“I can’t believe it’s the last time on Braeburn,” my father answers. They all nod and fall silent.

The silence remains until we head back to the practice green. There are two groups in front of them to preparing to tee off, but no one seems to be in a hurry this morning. Golfers linger in the entry of the clubhouse and along the cart path. The five of them putt around, catching up on the latest news regarding ailments of fellow Patos or the deaths of folks from the north end. I take photos of them, watching how familiar they are with one another on the green and I recall the one and only Patos golf tournament I attended.

It was 2001, the year of their 30th tournament and they needed someone to take photos of each group. A few of the Patos were in poor health, some already unable to walk the eighteen holes. I remember one of them saying, “We need some pictures before half of us are dead.” The mist was heavy upon the fairways that morning as I took photo after photo, listening to their stories. In each group was a patriarch or original Pato joined by his son or sons, son-in-law, or nephew. In one group, there were three generations of Mendoza men. One of my father’s favorite photos is the one I took of him, my brother John, my uncle Otis, and my father’s best friend, Ray, walking down the fairway into the gray mist. I remember watching them and thinking how this group of men was forever bound, not only by the circumstances of their lives and heritage, but by a game long identified with white males. As young men, they were not allowed to sit at the local drugstore counter, or even inside the clubhouse to order a soda, and yet, they walked those same fairways, stood upon manicured greens, and fell in love with a game never intended for the sons of Mexican immigrants.

“Let’s go,” says my dad. When we get to the tee box, I group them together for a photo. Their smiles are wistful and again, the silence descends. I watch them tee off, momentarily forgetting about my camera. My father is the last one to drive down the fairway. He outdrives them all. Marion and Joe buzz down the path in a golf cart, while my father slips his driver into its cover before walking with the others. He turns to me and waves, the smile of an eleven-year-old boy wide across my father’s face. As he pushes his cart and begins his final round on Braeburn, the sun fully breaks through the trees and I fight the urge to follow him. I raise my camera and take my last photos before letting him go to say goodbye to those ghosts, to walk this ground so entrenched in the hearts of these men, and maybe buy a Pepsi and a bag of peanuts for the road. From behind, the sound of voices and clinking of golf clubs reminds me another group is preparing to tee off. I tuck the camera in my coat pocket and head toward the parking lot. When I reach my car, I stop to see if I can catch my father in the distance, but he and his Patos are no longer visible. I realize I am standing, waiting, possibly to hear the slamming of a screen door and in that moment, somewhere on 21st and Broadway, a train whistle sounds, long and solemn.

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Thanksgiving…in March

Every day since the first of the year, I open Pandora and listen to George Winston radio. And almost every time, the first song to play is Thanksgiving from his album, December. I usually only listen to George from November to January, his piano playing reminiscent of frost on fallen leaves, the hush of snow, sleigh bells, and evenings spent by the glow of a Christmas tree.

But, not this year. It is early March and still I find myself spending time with George while sitting at my desk at work, in my car on the drive home, or like now, reading or writing in the dimness of the day. Tomorrow is March 9 and spring is just a few weeks away, and yet, here I sit listening to Night, Part One: Snow. At this very moment, I am longing for snows that will not come and staring toward the spot near the large window where the Christmas tree stood sentry just a few months ago.

This past holiday season seemed vague and disjointed, at best. The moments of childlike anticipation and joyful weariness were few, the majority of time spent carrying the weight of a sorrowful heart. It was like reading a story with an unrealistic plot set against the backdrop of the holidays and told by an author unsure of his or her own voice. Some of the characters were familiar, even some of the settings, and there were a handful of chapters so beautiful it was hard to imagine them tucked between such chaos. But, I couldn’t stay focused and found myself rereading passages, as if I was afraid I’d missed something between the lines and pages, all the while wishing I could just get to the end.

Maybe that is why I find myself spending time with George. For someone who loves the holidays and looks forward to the shortening of the days, the headiness and pace from Halloween to New Years, and the wearing of Christmas like a coat of metallic colors, possibly I feel cheated. Christmas always weighs upon me like a down comforter, providing warmth and a sense of security. Instead, I feel as if I spent October through January barely covered by a short cotton sheet and no matter how tight I curled myself up, hugging my knees to my chest, my feet and head were always exposed, the cold air seeping through the thin threads.

So, I listen to George in hopes of recapturing a bit of what went amiss. And now that the initial guilt has somewhat worn off and I’m less embarrassed by my obsession with Holly and the Ivy at this time of year, I find myself filled with bliss when I hear those first refrains of Some Children See Him. I don’t know if I will still be listening to December come the 100-degree days of July, but for now, George and I will continue our post-holiday venture. Like one of Dickens’ ghosts, George will bring to mind many a holiday past and I will swear there is a faint scent of pine in the air, all the while my Christmas heart will heal with the budding of the daffodils. Come October, I hope George will be waiting, like the old friend that he is, to drop in during the holidays. And like a dear friend, he won’t mention our time spent well into pints of Guinness and colored eggs and how it took me until the rains of May to read the final chapter and finally close the book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

50 for 50: A Year Celebrated in Music

On February 14th, I will celebrate 50 years upon this planet. It is amazing to think I have spent 50 years breathing, walking, eating, experiencing, enjoying, laughing, crying, and loving this life. 50. I cannot even begin to explain how excited I am to begin a new decade. If my 50s are anything close to what my 40s were, it’s going to be one hell of a ride. I am not one to deny my age, as I believe growing older is to gain experience and with experience comes wisdom. My plan is to be brilliant by the time I reach the grave. Each year we celebrate the day of our birth, is one to cherish and embrace. I’ve earned this 50th year. I have fought hard for it, army crawling through my twenties, tiptoeing through my thirties, finally high-stepping through my forties, and hopefully, boot-walking into my fifties.

Everyone has asked how I plan to celebrate the “big 5-0.” A party? No. I put the kibosh on a party more than a year ago. Parties are fun for those invited, but for the honoree parties are work. Honorees spend so much time mingling and ensuring everyone is greeted and thanked that soon the big day is over and all that’s left is a half-sipped lukewarm beer, a dry piece of cake someone wrapped in a napkin ‘to save for you,’ gifts you explicitly asked not to bring, and the realization you hardly danced or sang, never truly celebrated. No thank you.

A trip? Yes…well, maybe. Last year, I began planning a trip for my 50th, but scratched out Paris, Key West, and New Orleans when I realized each of those destinations would be packed with Valentine’s Day lovers and hungover Mardi Gras revelers. Then, I couldn’t decide between a cabin in the mountains or a resort on a beach. When I began to exhibit signs of stress at the mere mention of my 50th birthday plans, I realized a trip and all of its planning was not the route I needed to take. Plus, since it is my 50th year upon this earth and not my 50th day, why not celebrate for an entire year. But, how?

History of Concerts II

This photo is just a sampling of keepsakes I affectionately call my “history of concerts.” I believe my first concert was, now don’t laugh, the Osmond Brothers. But, since no one in my family will own up to taking me, as I was only eight or nine years old, I’ll defer to my first self-purchased concert ticket: Foreigner at Henry Levitt Arena with opening act, Bryan Adams. I was sixteen. From that moment, I was smitten, not with Foreigner or Adams, but with live shows.

I don’t know the exact number of concerts I’ve attended, as I’ve never counted my ticket stubs (yes, I’ve kept them all), but it has to be a couple of hundred or more. Concerts have included: Foreigner, Journey, Rush, Def Leppard (with a two-armed drummer), Van Halen (with DLR and with Sammy), Pat Benatar, Bon Jovi, Cheap Trick, John Mellencamp when he was John Mellencamp and one year as John Cougar, Metallica (with Cliff Burton), Ozzy (with Jake E. Lee), W.A.S.P (that was a memorable show with Stormtroopers of Death and Slayer at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago), Dio, Duran Duran, U2 in Chicago during their Joshua Tree tour and later, Arrowhead Stadium during their Achtung Baby tour, The Rolling Stones, Alice in Chains (with and without Layne), Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, the Grateful Dead (including Jerry’s final show), The Wallflowers, The Police, The Cult, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, James Brown, Luciano Pavarotti, The Black Crowes, Counting Crows, Elton John…and on and on.

From this history was born the idea of attending 50 shows during my 50th year, or “50 for 50.” My plan is to see 50 live shows: big name, up and coming, old school, new school, big venues, intimate venues, and local. I’ll have my photo taken in front of every marquee with its allotted number. My hope is to have others join me for some of these shows; after all, some of the best concerts I’ve attended were with the people I love the most.

I have a few tickets already in hand and will be kicking off 50 for 50 tonight with Arlo Guthrie at The Orpheum. My husband gave me an early birthday gift, so we’ll be heading to Kansas City to see Black Sabbath on February 17 and less than a month later, Robert Plant at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In April, The Who and I will celebrate 50 years in KC. That’s four artists off my Concert Bucket List.

Music has always been such a big part of my life: dancing with my parents to Little Joe or Vicente Fernandez; sleeping with my Beatles Help album; listening to Barry White on my sister’s eight track player; picking out 45s at David’s Department Store; sitting for hours listening to a new album while reading the liner notes; creating mix tapes of my favorite bands; and saving my hard earned money to attend concerts.

No jumping out of a plane or base jumping for me. I want to welcome 50 with dancing and singing and the kind of euphoria that can only come from a live show. I hope you’ll join me and if you are unable, please offer up some suggestions. I’m always open to hearing and seeing artists who are new, at least to me. So, here we go…

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