This Time of Year

This time of year, I think of glass beads reflecting sprightly patterns on the wall. I think of Frank Sinatra on the record player, belting out “Fly Me to the Moon” one more time, while I relish the sweet aroma of bread pudding baking in the oven. Continue reading

My Mother’s Basket

Upstairs, in my daughter’s room, on the second shelf of her bookcase, there is a small, hexagon-shaped woven basket, with a red ribbon decoratively tied to the lid’s handle. I’m not sure how old it is, but it has been … Continue reading

Mother’s Day, A Double-Edged Sword

For me, Mother’s Day is a double-edged sword, as the joy of celebrating mothers is a bit lost on me.   I see others making plans with their moms, writing, Skyping or ringing them up the old-fashioned way–by phone. I see them taking their mothers out for brunch or dinner, and allowing them the much-needed time to put up their feet for a day and relax.  Ahh! Even my own, grown-up kids have sent me flowers and told me how much I mean to them.  My son, Josh, has finally proclaimed in a card that I am “The best mom around!”  Exclamation point and all. Which means, I am no longer just probably the best. Good news, indeed!

But here’s where the double-edged sword comes in: None of these things can I do for my own mother. I cannot make plans with her nor can I pick up the phone and call her. Not since she passed away 17 years ago.

For Mother's Day, my son has been honoring his abuela's memory by giving me a bouquet of tulips. Which means, he knows the way to his mother's heart.

And yet, I can think of tulips. For when I think of my mother, Mary, I think of tulips. These were her favorites, and every year she’d make me plant them with her in our garden. Using a trowel to carve out holes in the soil, I’d push the tulip bulbs deep into the earth. And all the time I’d be sneezing and wheezing, not realizing that the pollen and grass were giving me massive allergy attacks, and that the garden was no place for someone as allergic as I am to the outdoors. But I did it for my mother, who loved to see the flowers in full bloom.

Giving her joy was something I lived for.  One of my favorite things to do was to wait until she’d gone to bed, then sneak downstairs, into the kitchen and give it a good scrubbing. I’d mop the floor and wipe the counters. I’d organize the papers, mail, and magazines that she and the rest of us had accrued throughout the day, and had left scattered on counters, the kitchen table, you name it.  I’d stay awake until two in the morning to make sure the kitchen was perfectly gleaming for when she shuffled in early in the morning to prepare my father’s coffee.

There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for her. For Mother’s Day, I’d save my babysitting money to buy her cologne from Kresge’s, a blouse from Gertz Department Store, or a ceramic butter dish from Fortunoff’s, with a cow smiling from atop the lid. I’d bake Spritz cookies, the only cookies that I learned to bake in Home Economics class, and sprinkle them with sugar. Yes, I’d do anything for one of my mother’s smiles.

She was always so busy throughout the day, taking care of the needs of four kids and our father.  She wouldn’t sit down, except to watch The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on weeknights and Saturday Night Live on the weekends. Johnny Carson and Gilda Radner made her laugh. My memory of my mother is of her watching these shows with a large stack of newspapers at her side, the only time she got to read.  She’d look for stories of possible interest to her children, and she’d clip and mail them to us. During one year in college, I accumulated well over 100 clippings and I read each one. Human interest stories, articles about current events, celebrities, and hometown news. Long before the Internet, my mother’s clippings were my lifeline to the world beyond my university campus.

On vacation with my mother in Atlantic City, circa 1962.

I would do anything for my mother and yet I feel as though I took her for granted.  I assumed that she’d always be there for me when I needed her—to talk, to offer advice, to share her family stories on summer vacations, and to cook our favorite Venezuelan dishes.  But she’s gone now and I can never get back our time together. Gone with the wind, in a fleeting, blink of an eye.

Some of you will understand how I feel on this particular day. For everyone else, I hope you will take a moment, and please hug your mothers. Tell them how much you love them, not just today, but everyday.  You should know, you should really know,  just how lucky you are!

So, Happy Mother’s Day to all moms everywhere!  As for me, today I’m celebrating with my family, including my dear cousin, Roxanna, who has also lost her mother.

Dead Birds Tell No Tales

When it comes to the case of the birds falling from the sky on New Year’s Eve, I don’t care what they say. The mystery is not solved. I’ve been around the block at least 1.2 million times, so I should know.  Those birds that flew over Arkansas on December 31st, and plunged to their deaths, were not done in by fireworks. If you ask me, there was something bigger at work here.

Here’s why:  It strikes me as suspicious that these birds would fall to their deaths on account of fireworks.  Our nation is religious about its fireworks. We hold firework displays every Fourth of July, every New Year’s Eve and amusement parks like Disneyland and Sea World hold them just about every day.  So why now would these birds start succumbing to noisy fireworks?  If that was the case, then we’d see thousands of birds falling from the sky year round!  We’d become so used to it, that we wouldn’t even notice if a bird landed on our head.

If you ask me, what really did them in wasn’t anything of biblical proportions. Nor was it aliens. And certainly, it wasn’t life imitating art, as in the Arkansas birds taking a page from Alfred Hitchcock’s frightening film, The Birds, where crows nearly peck to death Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor. I doubt any of these birds even saw the film or read the script.  Nope.

In all likelihood, what got to them was flying over Arkansas. Face it, there’s nothing in Arkansas but mountains, valleys, thick forests and plains. Oh and something called the Ozarks. Plus, Arkansas has more caves than you can shake a stick at.  Which means lots of nighttime darkness, and no markers to let the birds know whether or not they’re heading in the right direction. No lights guiding their way through treacherous mountains and caves. And plenty of opportunities for getting into trouble. Get my drift?

So, I wonder whose bright idea it was to take the route through Arkansas.  I suppose it was the leader of the flock, assuming all flocks fly in a “V” formation, so that the very first bird is the leader and gets to map the route. I’m figuring it must have gone down something like this:

Bird #1: Hey, man, I know a shortcut.

Bird #2: Really? Because the last time you said that, we lost half our team when they got sucked into an airplane engine.

Bird #1: Trust me. This time I know what I’m doing. I gotta feeling tonight’s gonna be a good night.  It’s New Year’s Eve, so what can go wrong? All we have to do is fly across Arkansas, and we’ll cut 30 miles out of our 2,000 mile trek.

Bird #2: Arkansas? What’s that?

Bird #1: It’s only the best place to fly across because there’s nothing there! No city lights to blind us, no major airports with planes taking off. This time, it’ll be clear sailing all the way! I guarantee it.

And so they flew and the rest is history. Of course this doesn’t explain how all the birds died in Louisiana, Kentucky, Italy and Sweden.  Nor, why 40,000 crabs bit the dust in England and two million dead fish were found in Maryland. Perhaps we finally crossed over into The Twilight Zone, but don’t ask me. I can only solve one mystery at a time.

Next Up:  This is Chavez Country continues with Part Three, Family Reunion

Father Knew Best, Sometimes

My world in Queens, circa 1960, revolved around my mother. To me, she was the end all. The bee’s knees. The most beautiful mother who was always there for me. My father, on the other hand, was of a different ilk. He wasn’t around much and didn’t go with us on family outings to the city. But that’s probably because he was spending his time downtown, getting an education.

My father, Enrique

It seems that when he came to the United States, my father decided that if he was going to make a decent life for himself and for his family, he first needed to get a degree.  He enrolled at New York University and he must have been there day and night, attending classes and studying late in the library, because his presence in our lives was minuscule at best.

And when he was around, he would yell and throw fits about anything and everything which absolutely terrified me.  He also enjoyed a good scare.  Like when he crept up on me when I was by myself in the basement, sent there to fetch the laundry basket for my mother.  Pouncing, he began to make strangling motions around my neck.  I cried in horror, which made him keel over with crazed laughter. I was only five.

Yet, despite this, my father had his “Father Knows Best” moments. At least when he wasn’t in his hyper Latin machismo mode. Like when I was 18 and about to go on an interview for a summer job. I had applied to be a live-in nanny for the Pellicane family’s four children (three boys and a girl).  My father insisted that he come along for the interview so that he could meet the family with whom I might be spending the summer.  He poured on his Latin charm for Mrs. Pellicane, taking her hand gently in his, admiring her well appointed Manhasset home. A regular Desi Arnaz meets Ricardo Montalban. During the interview, he asked questions and offered anecdotal information about his daughter (“She’s shy,” “A picky eater,” “Very impatient.”). I sat meekly beside him, silently mortified, and willed myself to disappear into the furnishings of the Pellicane home. I wanted to forget this interview ever happened. But the next day, when Mrs. Pellicane offered me the job, she cited as the key reason the fact that my father cared enough about me to take part in the interview.

Over the years, my first inclination would be to seek out my mother when I needed advice. Not my father. I considered him bull-headed and demanding. Yet, he was always there in the background, trying to be as invaluable to me as my mother.  I resisted. That is, until my marriage began to fall apart.

My mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Confiding in her was out of the question. I needed to talk, to get her insight, but since that wasn’t going to happen, I found myself turning to my father. He was 81 years old now and didn’t seem so macho anymore. During this time, my parents had moved to Florida and my father was receiving regular kidney dialysis. His legs were swollen, his body drained and he was just plumb tired of living. But his mind was intact.

The first time I called to tell him the news about my marriage, as a reflex, I braced myself for a scolding. I expected angry outbursts. I expected accusations that it was my fault, that I could have done more.  I anticipated unequivocal fury.  In its place, I got empathy and love. He listened as I cried and poured out my story. He quietly listened and when I could cry no more, he told me what I needed to hear. That he loved me with all his heart and that I would be ok.

Suddenly, with my mother in her own world, my father was there for me in a way I’d never seen before. It was as if my mother’s pre-Alzheimer’s spirit had taken over his body and, in a surprising twist of fate, it was now my father listening to me and sharing his wisdom.  I knew he was in pain from the dialysis, but during our conversations, he never let on.  It was the closest we’d ever been.  My mother now in la-la land and my father a beacon of hope and compassion.  The world was upside down and the impossible had come true.

Within the year, we buried my mother.  A few months after that, my father.  Hot headed and super macho, my father transcended all that he was, in order to give me what was there all along: his love. And maybe he didn’t always know best, but in the moments I needed him, he came through.