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!

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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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A Life Measured by the Soul- A Tribute to Jeffrey Lane Graber

The album was filled with glossy 4×6 photos. Photos of the red rose-bush tall against the wood fence; an upward shot of the aging basketball goal framed in Kansas blue sky, one single white cloud in the backdrop; a robin perched on the edge of the stone bird bath; a cardinal balancing among the branches of the juniper; a mug shot of Puggie, the gray muzzled pug dog. I never before realized the beauty of your backyard, the color, the life contained within its fences of wood, chain link, and evergreens. Later, I went home and sat on the back porch and gazed upon the everyday wonders of my own backyard. It was if I was seeing the green of the grass, the yellow of my mother’s daffodils, and the uneven gray of the patio for the first time.

My cousin Jeff was born with neurofibromatosis, an incurable disease which affects the development and growth of nerve cell tissue. The disease causes the growth of benign or malignant tumors, especially near the brain and spinal cord, as well as skin abnormalities and disfigurement. As a kid, I didn’t know the name of the disease, I just knew it limited Jeff, kept him from going with us to Joyland Amusement Park or to movies at Crest Theater. The disease attacked the right side of his face, rearing its ugliness when he was just a toddler, causing large, benign tumors to stretch and deform his appearance. Born in 1955, the medical field was still learning about the disease, working to understand its manifestations, and attempting to help patients live with the disease. His future was uncertain. We were told he might not live as long as the rest of us, his cousins. The disease was a mystery. The disease was selfish, keeping Jeff to itself. It was the first thing I remember ever hating.

As one of the cousins, Jeff was no different from the rest of us. We celebrated birthdays, read comics, and shot hoops for hours on the dirt court in his backyard or the makeshift goal at the farm. It was at the farm he experienced the most freedom. He helped bait hooks as we all fished, sitting along the old wood bridge, sneakered feet dangling a few feet above the creek. He swam with us in the large above ground pool, went on hikes with us through the pastures, spun us younger cousins on the tire swing, and played ping-pong in the damp basement of the old farm house. On the Fourth of July, we tossed firecrackers, lit smoke bombs, and waved sparklers. I’m certain he instigated the whole “let’s take the Black Cats and blow up cow pies.”

Like the majority of us, he even graduated from North High School, although he earned his degree while being tutored at home, having been pulled from the public schools when he was twelve. When my aunt and uncle sold the farm, Jeff’s outings became fewer and fewer, secluded to the house just a block from my own. Older than a handful of the cousins, Jeff became the family babysitter, but he was more like a teacher. He educated us on music, movies, and sports. He fed us Red Baron pizzas topped with his own special ingredients and the creamiest macaroni and cheese; served us cold Cokes in coffee mugs with tiny ceramic frogs hidden in the depths, and played board games with us seated around the kitchen island. He would tell us jokes, be stern with us when needed or threaten us with “tickle time” if we misbehaved. He taught us to appreciate the soundtracks to movies, corrected our song lyrics (no, it’s not elected boobs, it’s electric boots) and inherently provided the simplest of life’s lessons.

And as we grew up together, we transitioned from the babysitter and the babysat, to best friends and best cousins. We replaced Monopoly and Sorry with hours of Music Trivia and sipped our first German beers while sitting around that same kitchen island, eating Big Cheese pizza. We talked about books, cocooned in juniper trees on the front porch while listening to Casey Kasem’s Top 40 Countdown. The first time I heard Cheap Trick, I was sitting on the floor in front of his stereo, passing the album and liner notes back and forth, Jeff schooling me on the talents of Rick Nielsen and Tom Petersson. My sister may have sparked my love of music, but Jeff provided the kindling to ensure the flame burnt bright and long. He was one of the first in the family to own a stereo that allowed you to record albums to cassettes and he spent hours creating the perfect mix tapes, introducing me to Elton John and Led Zeppelin.

I often thought, and still do, that Jeff would’ve been an incredible radio disc jockey because he listened to every nuance of an album, read Rolling Stone magazine front to back, and was passionate about passing along his newfound knowledge, summarizing articles, and introducing the cousins to new music. It would have been a perfect job for him. And when MTV launched onto the music scene, my younger brother and I watched many a World Premiere with him, including Pat Benatar, Sting, and Van Halen. He would rate the videos, as we watched them over and over, Jeff always recording them to make sure we didn’t miss a thing. He loved those early days of MTV, especially the concerts. And in 1985, when the Young Ones crossed the pond, we watched many an episode at the Graber’s abode hysterical over the antics of Vivian, Rick and Mike. Jeff’s impression of Neal, his favorite, was spot on.

But, as the cousins grew older and became more involved in sports or school activities, and friends, our time spent with Jeff decreased. We grew socially, fell in love, went to college, moved away, married, and had children. Jeff stayed his course. He began babysitting the next generation. Later, he became the Commissioner for our family fantasy football league, keeping track of stats by hand, waiting for our phone calls to verify our standings, reprimanding us if we called too early before he’d had a chance to update scores following Monday Night Football. He would answer the phone, ‘The Commish, here.” Even after our family league disbanded, he remained the Commish, to me. But, the disease remained relentless, tightening its grip, and soon visits to his home became limited by his immediate family. Now living across town from one another, we kept in touch by phone, instant messenger, and later, Facebook. His birthday became the only day I would see him and the visits were brief, but he was never far from my mind. A song, a movie, a pug dog meme, and every Shocker game I thought of Jeff.

Neurofibromatosis is the disease, but it is not Jeff. It is easy to look upon his life from the outside and feel sadness and pity for a life so contained, but for us who knew and loved Jeff, his life was inspiring and profound, especially for us, his cousins. I know I speak for all of my cousins when I say that knowing and loving Jeff transformed our lives and embedded within our souls the gifts of compassion, empathy, and unconditional love. As children, we did not see the tumors, only Jeff, and at times, it was easy to forget about the disease until that moment when we would think or say aloud, “we should all go to the drive in,” or “let’s go to the game, this weekend.” It was then we hated the disease, as it stood between us and Jeff, separating us, pushing us away. Jeff was intrinsic to our development, educating us in so many ways, but for me especially, he taught me to realize and appreciate what I had in my own backyard. Jeff helped to recognize the beauty of that within our own fences, to look inside our windows and not just outside or beyond. So often, we look over the fence and long for what is not ours, while what is most important is sitting next to us on the porch swing, laughing with us at the kitchen table, and holding our hand.

The Kansas wind blew loud and strong the day we took turns sprinkling soft Kansas dirt over the small box in the ground which held the earthly remains of Jeff. It seemed at times we might topple over and roll comically down the hill of Calvary Cemetery, one last prank by our cousin whose bag of tricks included “tickle time” and “the Cucuy.” I could almost hear his boisterous laughter over the wind and afternoon traffic on Kellogg. Jeff would’ve celebrated his 60th birthday on December 18, defying the age expectancy given to him by his doctors so long ago. As we drove away from the cemetery, I thought of Jeff and his life, his world filled with movies, National Geographic magazines, the roar of the crowd through the speakers of his radio, and music, lots of music, and the love of cousins. It was then I understood the strength and forcefulness of the wind that sad day. Jeff is free. Free to see the sunset over places he learned about between the pages of those magazines. Free to gaze upon the ocean waves. See his beloved Yankees. Hear the roar of Shocker Nation in Koch Arena.

Forever a part of our lives, our souls, the intrinsic make up of our being, but free. Finally, free.

Thank you, Commish.

“If I could reach from pole to pole Or grasp the ocean with a span, I would be measured by the soul; The mind’s the standard of the man.”

– (adaptation) Isaac Watts- False Greatness

Final 40s- Onward and Ageward

On Valentine’s Day, I celebrated my 49th birthday. It was a wonderful day with a soup/sweets and wine tasting at Grace Hill Winery; a stop at an antique shop in Newton, Kansas; Boulevard Chocolate Ale at my favorite local bar, The Anchor; a purchase of thick cut pork chops and gouda cheese from another local favorite, The Douglas Avenue Chop Shop; home in time to watch my beloved Shockers beat Illinois State and followed by a delicious dinner cooked by my husband. We ended the day on the couch, wrapped in blankets, a fire in the fireplace, with the company of Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline, Robert DeNiro and Michael Douglas in Last Vegas.

We picked the movie because we were in the mood for a light comedy. No heavy acting, no ponderous script, just easy to follow, slightly predictable, with a few belly laughs. Plus, how can you go wrong with those gentlemen? The irony of our choice did not hit me until I began writing this post. It was weeks ago I’d decided to write about my approach to aging and the final act of my 40s, so I found it interesting I’d chosen a movie about four characters facing their mortality, including depression that accompanies the physical limitations of aging, the frustration of family who treat you like an invalid, the loneliness of losing a spouse, and denial, usually due to fear. As I’ve heard many a time, getting old is not for sissies.

And yet, I’m not afraid of growing old. True, the physical limitations seem to be the greatest difficulty, and while I try to take care of the only body I will ever be blessed, sometimes the healthiest of individuals have to come to terms with a body that can no longer support the youthful spirit within. Aging is something we all share in common, no matter skin color, political party, religious belief, sexual orientation, etc.; we all are growing older, day by day, year by year.

So, how do we deal with the inevitable? As a woman, the pressures of aging gracefully are apparent in every magazine, television commercial, cosmetic counter, drugstore aisle, movie screen, and talk show. Women are not supposed to age without a legitimate fight, a kicking and screaming brawl with every wrinkle, worry line, sagging jowl, gray hair, midriff bulge, and hot flash. Societal expectations have made aging taboo for women.

It seems exhausting to always be on guard, ready to pounce and take action against nature. Plus, women who do not allow themselves to naturally age not only seem physically obscure, they appear mentally strained. How can you possibly allow yourself to enjoy life when constantly worried about your physical appearance, unable to listen to those around you because your inner voice is prompting you to check your face in every mirror? There is too much in life to experience and appreciate, so why spend it worrying about aging. Life is to be lived, which you cannot do if you are bargaining or battling, all of the time. This is why I try to look at each decade of my life a little differently.

Believe it or not, I’m looking forward to 50. For me, my 50th birthday will be a badge of honor, a landmark in life. I believe our fifties are the verve of life. In our twenties, we experience a capricious approach to life, or as I called them, my impulsive twenties. But, when I reached 30, I felt a roar, the roar of womanhood. It was the decade of my thirties I found my voice and found my way. I met my husband, returned to college to earn my bachelor’s degree and left a fourteen-year job in dentistry to begin a career at Wichita State University. No longer impulsive, I discovered a path and while I may have treaded a little lightly in the beginning, by the end of my thirties, I was running full speed into my forties.

The year I turned 40, I obtained my master’s degree, published a few short stories, and was promoted in my position. While I consider myself a late bloomer, the decade of my forties has been one of accomplishment, as I’ve worked toward success in my chosen fields. But, more importantly, the roots I planted have strengthened within my family and community, something I could not have fathomed in my twenties when I was meandering through Illinois, selling shoes, singing in a rock band, and staying out all night.

I believe the forties for women is a time of accomplishment and not because we feel we’re running out of time, but because we allow ourselves to recognize our true successes, which then inspires us to do more, be more. And these accomplishments can be at home, at work, and at play. We also truly recognize our failures for what they are: lessons. We learn from those mistakes and find they no longer send us impulsively down dark or strange alleyways. We’ve set those initial stones in the dirt and made the choice to walk our chosen path. And so, we walk. No longer afraid of stumbling or twisting an ankle now and then, we can prepare ourselves to powerwalk right into our fifties, should we desire to do so.

Verve: great energy and enthusiasm; the spirit and enthusiasm animating artistic composition or performance. Vivacity.

Our fifties are the spirit and enthusiasm of a performance that is a life well-lived. When I reach 50, I want to spend that entire decade knowing, “she lives with verve.” By the time we reach our fifties, our inhibitions and fears should be miniscule. We’ve reached the milestone. We’ve earned this decade and how best to reward ourselves than to live a life of confidence, inspiration, dignity, and to continue to aspire.

I admit, I have a few quirky bullet points in relation to turning 50 and they are as follows:

When I turn 50…

  • I want to be able to serve a signature cocktail, preferably the perfect dirty martini
  • I want to wear hats on a daily basis, from obscenely colorful to the dutifully dull
  • While I think I have a signature color, I want to go all in and fill my wardrobe with clothing and accessories in orange…wait, yellow…or…well, I have a year to decide
  • I want to go to France, specifically Paris. I have a story behind my desire, which I will share another day
  • I want to be fluent in another language
  • I want to attempt a trifecta of Chicago sports in one weekend, be it Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks or Cubs, Bulls, Blackhawks
  • I will publish the rest of my short stories, maybe my novel
  • I’ll consider quitting my day job to work at a local coffeehouse and write full-time
  • I will refuse to give up beef because life isn’t worth living without a cheeseburger
  • I will continue my affair with beer because it has gotten me thus far, so why quit now
  • I will continue to say Hell No to plastic surgery (again, another day, another post)
  • I want to continue know and accept who I am at any given time

The last one is a carryover from previous decades. Most days I feel I know who I am, where I am going, and am confident in my path, but some days I question and wonder, and that’s a good thing. It means I’m aware and willing to grow.

Possibly, I view growing older differently than most women because I’ve had incredible women in my life. I’ve been gifted with a mother who has never placed importance on being pretty, only taking care of what you’ve been gifted. She is strong, forceful, incredibly brave, and extremely loyal. Her life has not been easy and yet, she grows more beautiful with age. My sister is also an inspiration. As a young girl, I was curious and somewhat jealous of her breathtaking beauty, but as I grew older I realized it was not just her physical attributes that caused many to take pause, but her almost childlike love and appreciation of others. And as she has reached her own milestones, she ages with a quiet grace, her focus on family, and the laughter-filled moments she spends with her good friends.

There have been many others, from the vivacity of Helen Knudtson to the ageless hearts and souls of many of my aunts and cousins; these women have been the lionesses in my life. They have taught me to be independent, yet know when to work well in a pride. By example, they’ve instilled loyalty, strength, the importance of family, and taught me to put on the face of bravery, even when I knew I wasn’t so brave.

Sure, they’ve all had their moments, cursed their aging knees, damned those graying hairs, swore through the hot flashes, and admitted, “I’m no spring chicken,” but they’ve followed those minute observations with a shot of tequila or a glass of defiance. That is how I will age, with dignity, an occasional whine or wine, complete acceptance, and a lot of attitude.

I have the next twelve months to say goodbye to my 40s. They’ve been incredibly good to me and I will miss them, but I am looking forward to wearing the top hat of my fifties and continuing to roar with my pride as I prepare for the peace of my 60s. Oh, what a wonderful path we’ve all been given, because in truth, who wants to go backwards?  Onward and ageward.

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Blood Circle – A Tribute to My Best Friends

I am often envious of those whose friendships have endured since childhood, even high school. My brother is a prime example, as his circle of buddies has remained intact through the years. From the relationships he began in little league and junior golf to junior high and even as a high school transfer, his group of guys, while somewhat scattered between Arizona and Kansas City, has endured college, relocations, marriages, children, even death. And throughout this legacy of friendship, I have benefitted greatly in adopting (and being adopted) by a team of little brothers, whom I love.

But, what my brother has is rare, I believe. Maybe it is my innate independence or possibly, I’m not as wonderful a friend as I believe myself to be that results in my circle not being so intact, if there is a circle at all. Oh, I have friends, people whom I love and care about and worry over. Maybe we don’t see one another very often, once a month, every four to six months, once a year, but they are never far from my mind. And, should they call in need, I would leave work or hurry into the darkness of night to provide assistance or comfort.

Or maybe, it’s because as a child, I didn’t need best friends because I had my cousins. In a family of 48 first cousins, I was always surrounded by relatives my age or close to my age, especially my mother’s family. My mother and her siblings lived within blocks of one another, except for one family in California, so that Wedgewood Street, Waco, Market, Somerset and Manhattan, even Martinson (which was across town), became extensions of my childhood home. We walked to school together, shared birthday cakes, hunted Easter eggs, fished along the banks of creeks at the farm, rode bicycles, took up entire rows at movie theaters, huddled in basements during tornados, stayed up all night during sleepovers, babysat one another, became roommates, took trips, sang and danced at concerts, and eventually, stood stiffly in rented tuxedos or scratchy new dresses during weddings.

When I was younger, I was always surprised or found it odd that others didn’t spend much time with their cousins. Some didn’t even know their cousins, let alone go swimming with them. I cannot imagine a life without my cousins. Even now, as I type, I’m picturing my life, from childhood to present, sans relatives and all I can imagine is boredom and bleakness. As I sort through the photos of my childhood birthdays, if I were to erase the cousins sitting at the kitchen table waiting for me to blow out the candles, well, that would leave me, my little brother, my sister, and in a few photos, one child from my school whose name escapes me.

Maybe I would have had more traditional friends, maybe not. In our family, being blood means putting up with one another’s eccentricities and imperfections, which we may not understand, but we endure or ignore for the love of family. Others outside the blood circle would probably not be so patient or kind. One thing I know for certain is that I would be a different person. All of my cousins have provided a piece to the puzzle.

Each February, I am more aware and appreciative of my family, since we celebrate seven or more (remember, there are a lot of us and sometimes I forget) birthdays this month. February brings to memory piñatas and games, and later, themed parties and lots of beer at a small house in Riverside. Ours is a circle made different only by the means in which it is held intact, by time, by memory, by blood.

“An ounce of blood is worth more than a pound of friendship.” –Spanish proverb

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MVP-Revisited

Today is my father’s 82nd birthday. In honor of this great man, a re-posting of MVP from 2010. Happy birthday, dad. –

Yesterday was my father’s birthday. He turned 78. There is so much I can say about my dad, he has been the true constant in my life. Yes, he instilled my love of sports, but more than that, he taught me to work hard, appreciate the results, be kind to everyone, place God and family first. And all by example. He is the quiet, gentle lead-by-example hero in my life. I consider myself more than lucky, more than blessed.

This is one of my favorite pictures of my father:

This is from his 1954-55 season with one of the city league teams. I’m not sure if it’s the church league, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, or the Naismith league with the VFW. But I love this picture. My dad was a player. He has a mustard-colored scrapbook filled with black and whites like this one, newspaper clippings, self-written or typed notecards with the team stats. He also has a shelf in the basement filled with trophies. They used to sit on the television console, then were moved to a long table in the living room. I used to glide my fingers across the shiny miniature basketball players, trace the engravings of his name, his team. There was even an ivory and gold trophy I swore was bigger than me, three-tiered and decorated with golden wreaths. I loved these trophies. They were a part of my father. A piece of him I only knew of. Never witnessed. Because by the time I was old enough to walk, he had retired from the game, except for the occasional pick-up game.

While many wouldn’t consider my father’s basketball career a success, in my eyes and the eyes of my siblings, there was no other player more successful than my father. And while I never got to see him play, I knew this by the stories my mother and older sister shared. The stories his friends shared. Their eyes would light up when they talked about my dad on the court. “Your dad could play…best hook shot I ever saw…greatest assist man…so smooth, he was down the court before you realized it…unselfish…cool.”

The first time I met local football icon, Linwood Sexton, a huge grin spread across his face as he commenced to tell me that if my father had been given the opportunity to play high school ball and come to WU, his jersey would be hanging in those rafters at Levitt Arena (now, Koch arena). “Your dad was the best basketball player I’d ever seen.” And he would know. As coach of the basketball team for St. Peter Claver, Sexton coached against my dad.

I remember gazing up at those jerseys, Littleton, Stallworth, and I wondered…what if. What if my dad had been given the opportunity? But life for a poor Mexican kid from Lyons, Kansas didn’t come with too many opportunities. Especially when my grandfather was killed in a grain elevator accident when my father was only twelve, leaving he and his seven siblings to care for their mother. They moved to Wichita to be closer to family. And those who were old enough to work, found jobs. My grandmother spoke little English and her husband’s death burdened her with an unshakable depression. The children took over the family. So at twelve, my father walked two miles to what was then Crestview Country Club near the University of Wichita, where he caddied for seventy-five cents for 18 holes. His first job. And it was there he fell in love with golf. And it was in Wichita he began to play basketball.

That’s him, second from the left. Not much of a team, but my dad loved playing. And he continued to play, even after he dropped out of high school to work full time he found city leagues, church leagues, and later the Mexican-American league. He just had to play.

One of the newspaper clippings from 1951, the Naismith league season, reads: “…with four minutes remaining, Oscar Castro, high-jumping VFW key man, dumped in two quick baskets to give VFW a 44-39 lead…”  My father averaged 9 points that season. Other clippings praise his coolness on the free throw line or how he made 5 of 6 shots in the waning minutes of a game. The clippings are many. The photos are fading. But the memories are alive every time someone recalls seeing my father play.

I once asked him if he wished things had been different. If he’d been able to play at North High and at WSU. Did he wish he could change his path. And he simply answered, no. No hesitation, no thought, no regrets. Just, no. And in that simple answer I truly understood my father. And this recognition brought to mind a quote, “Each one of us will one day be judged by our standard of life-not by our standard of living; by our measure of giving-not by our measure of wealth; by our simple goodness-not by our seeming greatness.”

Because my father is more than “the greatest basketball player ever seen,” more than those now dust-ridden trophies in the basement, those yellowed clippings. He is respected for his honesty, his integrity, his kindness, his love of family. And for that, he is more than a most valuable player.

So last night, I decided if I couldn’t get my father’s jersey in the rafters at Koch, I could at least get his name in lights.

Even if for a brief moment. He was surprised. He said it made his day, that and the Shockers won their conference opener 91-57 (first conference opener win of Marshall’s WSU career). It was a good birthday. And when he asked for copies of the pictures, I knew they would find a place  in those few remaining pages of his scrapbook. A continuation of his success in life. And I couldn’t be more honored.

O, Christmas Tree

Last year, my parents announced they would no longer be putting up a tree at Christmas. Both in their 80s, handing down the ornaments from the attic and dragging the tree from the basement had become too much. I was saddened by the news.

Since I was a baby, there has been a Christmas tree gracing the front window of my parent’s home. My first Christmas photo, adorned in a red dress and sitting awkwardly in a carrier, the small, live evergreen peeks from behind me, it’s large, multicolored lights stealing the show.

Throughout my childhood our trees were purchased from the Knights of Columbus tree lot at either St. Patrick Catholic Church or St. Jude. Although I do recall standing in front of the Otasco one cold evening with my mother ordering my father, “No, not that one. Hold up the one next to it. No, the other one.”

And my father, always expertly and slowing spinning the tree, asking, “Does it look straight? Are there any bare spots?” I thought my father profoundly smart for bringing his work gloves so we didn’t have to wait on the KOC men or young boys to show us the trees, putting us in charge of discovering the perfect tree.

Then, roped or bungeed to the car, we’d drive home to only discover a gaping hole at the top or lower half of the tree, “just face that side to the wall,” or the trunk had a slight crook which would lead to my father taking the tree to the back yard and sawing off a good inch or two. Somehow, the tree that looked so majestically tall under the generator lights of the parking lot always seemed a little short and dumpy once squeezed into the tree stand and partially lit by the table lamps in the living room.

But, I loved our trees. Short, tall, fat, skinny, full, or skimpy. Once decorated, I always enjoyed gazing upon the tree with the lights off, especially on Christmas morning. I recall a Christmas when my brother and I awoke at dawn and we tiptoed into the living room. I flipped the light switch and immediately the room filled with an amber glow, flushing the cheeks of my little brother as he eyed the packages beneath. Once he’d taken stock of the wrapped gifts from Santa, he rushed off to awaken my parents. I just stood in the living room, alone with the tree and that soft light and while I didn’t understand it at the time, I felt an aching in my chest and thought I might begin to cry. Now, looking back, I understand and am familiar with that emotion, the hope and anticipation, the joy and belief in Christmas spirit.

So, not seeing the tree standing in the window as I pulled into their driveway during Christmas was unimaginable to me. I even offered to come over and set up the tree for them, but they were insistent it was time to retire the old artificial tree. A few days before Christmas, I joined my parents for lunch and took photos of the tree, including a few of the handmade ornaments courtesy of me and my siblings. I walked around the tree, touching the ornaments from my childhood as if to hold those Christmas memories once more in my hand. When dad took down the tree shortly after Christmas, I figured the photos would have to serve as a reminder of the Christmas spirit that was.

This year, the week following Thanksgiving, I asked my mom if she would consider a small tabletop tree to set up in the living room, one big enough to hold her favorite and cherished ornaments. I’d decided I could convince them to put up a smaller version of the family tree, one they could easily cover and hide, fully decorated, in the closet until the following year. I offered to buy one I’d seen at Target.

“No, mija. You don’t need to buy a tree for us. Your dad, well, he’s decided to go ahead and put up the tree, again.”

“What? Really?”

“Yes, he says it’s not time, especially with the little grandkids. They need a tree when they come for Christmas.”

I agreed. I need the tree, too. Still.

On this Christmas Eve, we’ll join my parents for an early Mass, indulge in posolė, and exchange small gifts while seated around the tree. I understand time with the old Christmas tree is limited, just as I recognize each Christmas spent with my parents is precious. Until that time when we are only able gather beneath the branches of Christmas memories and fill the room with the amber glow of Christmases past, I will immerse myself in each moment, each Christmas, and all that is familiar which brings hope, anticipation, and joy to my soul.

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A Grateful Heart

Thanksgiving 2014 is in the books, as they say. It was a quiet day, spent with my husband and parents. Call me crazy, but I somewhat missed having too many people in an already crowded and warm kitchen, precariously stacked dirty dishes, having to place dibs on one of the bathrooms, and the beautiful din of voices drowning out my carefully selected music playlist. But, when family is spread through the Midwest and in the furthest southeast corner and almost the furthest southwest corner, one expects a few quiet, thoughtful and quickly cleaned up Thanksgiving meals.

We enjoyed our time, yesterday. Brad and I cooked most of the meal, with mom providing her always requested stuffing, sweet potatoes, and even one of her jello-whipped-cream desserts (which she provides each year, insisting it’s because one of us kids requested, but none has). We watched football, snacked, I showed them the most current photos of family via Facebook (it’s during those moments I’m thankful for that social media monster), prayed thoughtfully, ate peacefully, then sat in the living room sipping wine and talked about Thanksgivings gone past. After pie and coffee, my parents went home, leaving us to sit by the fireplace, finish the wine, and watch a movie. I felt very serene when I fell into bed.

So, this morning, as I forgo the smoke and mirrors of Black Friday, opting instead to lounge in my plaid pajamas, sip coffee from the Spice Merchant and prepare my Christmas décor plan of attack, I’ve decided to continue the serenity of yesterday and thank those who fill my heart with gratitude.

  • My Parents: I am blessed with such amazingly, good-hearted, hardworking, parents. I’ve said it a million times, but a million doesn’t seem enough. They have given me such a strong foundation on which to grow as a woman.
  • My siblings: My sister and brother are my best friends. My life would be so empty without them. They are my comfort, my heroes, my partners in crime, and all that is good within me is due to growing up with the two of them.
  • My husband: I was sixteen when I announced I was never getting married or having children, but when one meets the person who is meant to share your life, well…things change. He provides me with the essentials to a life well lived. He makes me laugh on a daily basis, something he promised to do on our wedding day. He gives me such strength, more than he possibly knows or understands, as I want to be a better woman because of him.
  • My nieces and nephews: My sisters three kids, who are no longer kids but incredible adults and my brothers little ones who are just beginning the journey. They provide such a light in my life. I’ve had the honor of sharing the early years with my sister’s children and while I had to watch them grow up from afar, they’ve made me so proud. And now, there’s a great-nephew added to the mix. Joy. While Andrea is no longer with us, she remains a constant in my life. As for my brothers little ones, they make my heart soar with their innocence and the mysteries of their futures. They give me hope and excite me with the prospect of their lives.
  • My stepsons: Remember that whole “never having children” proclamation? I’ve had the privilege of sharing in the raising of my husband’s sons and known the immeasurable love of three young boys. I’ve watched them grow into young men and raise families of their own. I don’t think they’ll ever realize how thankful I am to them for providing me with the blissfulness of a mother’s heart, something I thought I would never own. They changed me and all for the better.
  • My mother-in-law: She is emotional, forceful, strong, intelligent, passionate, witty, and inspiring. I know many women who despise or “put up with” their mother-in-laws, but I can honestly say I won the lottery with mine. What a blessing she is to have in my life. Everyone should have a Betty.
  • Being born into a Mexican heritage: And no, not just because of the food. I’m proud of my heritage and while it has brought hardship to my parents and a few of my other family members, it has also brought such richness. My mother’s family, indigenous to Mexico, and my father’s family from Mexico and Santander, Spain, provide history and a sense of belonging. While my parents did not continue all of the traditions, I’m grateful for pinatas, the smell of Mexican sweet bread on a Saturday morning, the singing voices of my aunts and uncles, my mother’s memorized recipes, Mexican Independence celebrations in the streets of Newton, the cadence and warmth of a language I never learned to speak, and family. Lots and lots of family.
  • Which segues into cousins: I have forty-eight first cousins and have no idea how many second, third…at this point, who’s counting. I was fortunate to grow up with many of my cousins. Together, we blew out the candles on homemade birthday cakes, opened Christmas gifts on Christmas Eve, cowered in basements during tornados, walked to school, played hide and seek, went sledding down the small hills along the river on snowy Thanksgivings, attended concerts, took road trips, cheered together during NCAA tournaments, and passed down those same occasions to the next generation. I’m always stunned to learn of people who don’t know their cousins or haven’t seen their cousins in years. My life would be so different without my cousins and it is a life I do not want to ever know.

Family. It is family that completes my life. While there are many things I am grateful, I know that none can match my love of family. Sure, at times they drive me crazy, but that’s what makes family so worthwhile. With family, especially mine, there is unconditional support, unconditional passion, and unconditional love, mixed with a lot of laughter, some acceptable nosiness, a little forgiveness, and just the right amount of foolishness.

George Santayana once said, “The family is one of nature’s masterpieces.” I am truly grateful for the family artistry that is mine.

November 17

Today, she would’ve been 36 years old. I remember standing outside the hospital nursery, searching for my niece. Through the glass I could see her tiny red cheeks and black hair. So small, so precious, and yet, so daunting.

I was twelve years old when she was born and I could only imagine her life filled with  birthday cakes and birthday parties. I couldn’t wait to hold her, to touch her toes, feel her finger wrapped around mine. My life was changed. I never imagined my life without her.

She has been gone since Christmas Eve 2007. It sounds cliché to those who have never lost someone they love, especially a child, but there is not a day I don’t think about her. Some days, I can smell her, feel her. And, on her birthday I close my eyes and imagine her tiny hand in mine, growing from that of a scratchy-nailed toddler to the long, slender touch of a young woman.

On this day, my heart is heavy with grief, but it is not the weight of my own grief, it is the weight of a family’s grief. At times, the heaviness is so much I have to sit down for fear of toppling over. But, it is at those times I feel her taking the weight, holding it in her hands. I imagine her moving through a crowd of people, possibly downtown Chicago. She is just out of reach, but I watch the jostling of her worn backpack, her fuchsia-streaked hair. She turns, smiles and lifts her hands to the sky and our grief explodes like fireworks over Navy Pier, warming our faces.

We move forward without her, because she is there to help us, encourage us, remind us, shield us from our pain. Happy Birthday, sweet Andrea.

Remember me

Remember Me:
To the living, I am gone.
To the sorrowful, I will never return.
To the angry, I was cheated,
But to the happy, I am at peace,
And to the faithful, I have never left.
I cannot be seen, but I can be heard.
So as you stand upon a shore, gazing at a beautiful sea – remember me.
As you look in awe at a mighty forest and its grand majesty – remember me.
As you look upon a flower and admire its simplicity – remember me.
Remember me in your heart, your thoughts, your memories of the times we loved,
the times we cried, the times we fought, the times we laughed.
For if you always think of me, I will never be gone.

Margaret Mead, American writer and poet (1901 – 1978)

 

Day #29 of Wild and Exciting Little Things: Sport Texting

My family loves sports. It’s what we do, what we know, and what we love. My parents are big sports fans, so of course, my sister, brother and I continue to carry the torch.

But, with my brother in Kansas City and my sister in Illinois, I miss watching games with them. Thank goodness for texting. I can watch a game knowing my siblings are watching the game and that I will be receiving their reactions to said game.

Some examples of our sport texting:

– OMG. Did you see that play?

-YES!!!

-Yeah, yeah!

-Are you wearing your lucky shirt

-I just burned my new shirt

-I just burned my brackets

-I might throw up

-Moooose!!

-Da Bears!

-Stupid Bears

-Da Bulls!

-Can you believe this?

-How was that a foul?

-Since when is that a strike?

-Shit.

-CHIEFS

-Ugh. I quit.

-That. Was. Amazing.

-I can’t stop smiling.

-Go Shox!

-SHOCKERS!!

-I heart Fred (Van Vleet)

-Are you still awake?

-Who needs sleep!

-Did you see that??!!

-Who are these announcers?

-Mom just called. They saw it too!

-Dad just called to check on me. I’m still pissed.

-OMG, everyone is texting me!!

-Just opened a beer

-Whew

-Sigh

-Cheers

-Gnite

-Nite

-Love you

Simple, brief, filled with capitalized letters and exclamation points, but I love receiving and sending them. I can’t watch a game without them. And by “them,” I mean my sister and brother. But, if I can’t sit at a table with them at The Other Place in Overland Park, or The Foundry in Naperville, or in the living room of my parents home, then texting is the next best thing. With each buzz of my phone, I know they are watching with me, cheering with me, cursing with me, laughing with me, and sulking with me. But, most importantly, they get it. Only a sports fan can truly understand another sports fan

I’m so grateful my sports-loving parents raised sports-loving kids.