Sunday, May 24, 2015


Jay-D Ornsby
December 9, 1985 - April 28, 2007

Today I spoke with a Gold Star Mom – a mother who has lost a son in the service of our country.  She’s not just any mother, she’s the mom of my daughter Alicia’s long time best friend, Morgan: Robyn Ornsby.

Like any Gold Star Mom, Memorial Day is not just another national holiday- it’s a time to grieve the child they have lost in protecting the United States.  It is the one day that they are joined in their grief by all of us, as we stop our lives and remember the fallen soldiers that made life in America possible for the rest of us.

“Ever since I lost my boy I have battled with why people don’t celebrate this holiday,” Robyn told me.  “I have a hair salon and if I ask a group of fifty people what Memorial Day is, only one or two will know exactly who we are remembering.”  She’s not exaggerating; according to the most recent Gallup poll, only a fraction of Americans know what Memorial Day is.  Specifically, 28% answer the question exactly right by saying the day exists to honor those who died in war. 

Those who have died in war leave behind families – they remember the veterans as more than just soldiers.

Jay-D - Two Days Old

“My Jay-D was born a mischievous little monkey,” Robyn laughed.  “Honestly, he was a little character who found joy in challenging me!”  Her laughter faded and she sighed, “I would give anything to have him here challenging me now.”

Jay-D was born on December 9, 1985 and seemed to be all boy through and through right away.  “He was mighty and tough, and he wouldn’t tolerate anyone bullying him.  He’d give them a good fight.”  Robyn was always trying to teach the delicate balance of sticking up for oneself and self-control, especially when Jay-D started sticking up for his friends in the same manner.  

“I would get a call from the principal's office, and they'd tell me that Jay-D was in there for fighting a boy who was bullying someone else,” Robyn told me.  “When he got home, I asked him why he would fight other people’s battles, and he answered me straight: ‘Well, it just didn’t seem right!’”

Jay-D seemed drawn to help the disadvantaged, from the underdogs at school to the handicapped.  “At a time when it was not cool for him to help the Down Syndrome kids in school, he would.  We were at the movies once and a man in a wheelchair was trying to gain access and the other teens were just watching.  It was Jay-D who stood up and helped the man open the door and find his way down the aisles.  He was just like that, always helping someone.”

The boy who fought other people’s battles grew to have his own tender interior.  “He taught himself how to play guitar, he loved ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ which he played very well.”

After high school, Jay-D chose to enlist in the US Army, since career opportunities seemed more promising after finishing school.  “Jay-D wanted to get his life started,” Robyn said.  “He knew that if he enlisted he would be able to earn money for college and get other opportunities.”  

At twenty years old, he was enlisted, sworn in and enrolled in boot camp.  It was there that he became a soldier.  “Once boot camp was over,” Robyn told me.  “Everything changed.  He was very focused on fighting for his country.  Shortly after, he was deployed to Bagdad, Iraq, where he served as a tanker gunner.  While the main gun is what most people think of when it comes to tanks, Jay D was part of the crew that operated the machine guns mounted outside. 

With a heavy heart, Robyn told me about the day her son was killed.  “It was actually supposed to be his day off.  He wasn’t supposed to work that day, but they needed him.  He agreed to go, not only because he was part of a team, but also he could apply that day to his next leave.”  Instead of their usual tank, the team took a Hummer as part of a convoy and made their way through the streets.  On the side of the road, waiting, was the enemy.  As soon as the company’s Hummer was in range, the enemy exploded an IED – an Improvised Explosive Device.

It was a massive tragedy.  Of the four soldiers in Jay-D’s Hummer, three were killed.  The enemy was fired upon by the surviving convoy and killed, but their deaths do not satisfy.  War, as they say, is hell.

“I was able to bury Jay-D in Sunset View, a cemetery in Jackson,” Robyn said, after she composed herself.  “It is a beautiful and peaceful place.”  Tomorrow, for the holiday, the Ornsby’s will host a BBQ and celebrate Jay-D’s memory with friends.  “I have a decorated wine barrel here, and I will burn a candle for my son all day.”

For Memorial Day, this Gold Star Mom has a cherished wish: that Americans would stop and remember what this day really is all about.  “I see the advertisements for the Auto Malls, the shopping centers, and the grocery stores.  All of them say “Memorial Day Sale!”  I wonder if they will honor any fallen Veterans there; I think they won’t.  It’s all a money-making opportunity then.”

Morgan and her baby, Jay-D
(named after his Uncle)
I think about Jay-D a lot.  His sister (my daughter’s bestie) has a young son he will never meet.  He’s a beautiful bundle of joy – named Jay-D.

“I love little Jay-D!” Robyn says, her voice lifting with excitement.  “Morgan shares him with me and I watch him every Monday!” 

Everyone who has lost a person close to them know the painful reality that life goes on.  While it does, it helps to grieve with others.  On Monday, we all grieve together.  I will grieve with the Ornsby’s for their son; I will grieve for all who fell in battle.

Our soldiers are more than men and women in uniform. They are someone's baby, someone's spouse, someone's uncle or aunt.  I will grieve the fallen; I will celebrate the freedom that I have inherited because of them.  

That’s what Memorial Day is.

(Uncle) Jay-D December 1985          Baby Jay-D   May 2015

Thursday, May 21, 2015


Mom and Dad at their 50th Wedding Anniversary Party

“Personally, I have always had a predilection for boys, and have at times reflected that the strong sex reaches its highest point of lovableness at the age of twelve to seventeen – to get it back, in a second flowering, at the age of seventy to ninety.” ~ Isak Dinesen

My father celebrates his eighty first birthday today.  

He and my mother still live in the house where I was raised, a large ranch style on nearly an acre of land.  Even so, he maintains the gardens, keeps a koi pond, and does most of the repairs himself.  He also knows the value of a dollar, clips coupons and chases deals all over town.  A retired Catholic deacon, he still manages to visit the sick to pray for them.  He and my mother take their lunch each day in front of a college course DVD; they  are thrilled by the joy of learning. 

I am constantly reminded that I have great parents, not only from others, but my own memories.  For a brief period in my life I wasn’t so sure.  I was entirely convinced that God had placed me in the hands of people who didn’t understand me and were far too strict.  

As time passed, all of my angst fell away as I realized that my parents were simply people; and they really loved me, even through my rough periods of rebellion. 

My father never went away; he was always there.  I have grown to love him for who he is, but especially because he has sweetened with age.  Without the pressures of career, men tend to sweeten; they stop living for others and start enjoying life.  That’s how my father is now: he genuinely enjoys life. 

With all the challenges of family, I am happy for all we’ve gone through.  It hasn’t been easy, but I am grateful for each challenge we have been though.  I am also grateful for God, who is our common denominator, even though I am no longer Catholic. 

Happy Birthday, Dad.  Some things really do get better with age; I’m happy that applies to both of us.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015


Fellow English 300 Students - they gave me permission to blog!!

I woke up this morning, looked around for my dogs, finally finding them in the office with my husband.

"I bet you don't know what you're going to do today," Mario said, smiling coyly at me.  The last few weeks I have spent buried under books at my computer - now I was finished with the semester.

"I have a lot to do," I said, but then realized that was balderdash.  I felt lighter and freer- maybe my "stuff to do" wasn't so important.  After all, I had to walk the dogs, go to the organic grocer's, blog, write, edit... and then.  And then.

Yesterday I took two finals.  The most ominous was the one I took at 12:45 - my honors history class.  This class, my absolute favorite this semester, was taught by Rudy Pearson - an encyclopedic professor with a lecturing gift and a tendency to grade particularly tough. I came armed with a "blue book" (yes, those are still used) and two fine-point Bic ball-pens. We were asked to write two essays using "key terms, great detail and impact" of four topics.  Thank God I had studied two of the topics he assigned.  I labored through the test, and even though I consider myself an able writer, I wondered if it was enough for an A.  With Pearson, it was doubtful.  I would have to be taking dictation from our dense History textbook - and even then, he would mark it with "...and what is the impact?"

I stumbled over myself as I handed my blue book in.  How do you say goodbye to a Professor?  How do you thank him for impacting your life?  I felt the same nervousness saying goodbye to Dr. J, and somehow I managed to voice appreciation.  I am terrible with goodbyes and always manage to fudge them up.

I went home, breathing a little melancholy.  Did I do my best?  Yes.  Was it enough for an A?  I don't know.

After lunch, I returned to campus to take my English 300 final.  I walked up to Davies Hall and saw my fellow students talking on the bench.  The same melancholy flooded me - would I ever walk up to this grouping again?

"What are you guys doing here?" I asked them, smiling.  "Can I take your picture?"

They grouped together and smiled.  "Thanks! Can I blog about this?"

There was a collective grumbling, then a "no, no..." before I realized they were joking.  "Give me five bucks and the answer will be yes!" Shasta said.  She and I had kind of bonded this semester and we spoke about the summer term and what classes we were taking.

We migrated toward the classroom and set our minds to the next exam.

It occurred to me that students mark their lives according to semesters - different from the rest of the world.  In each semester, there are assignments, attainable goals, hellos, goodbyes, laughs, tears and attendance.  It is an efficient encapsulation of life: God teaches us to number our days - students do.

After I took my last final I walked it up to Professor Strawn and thanked him.

"You know," I said, bordering on tears. "You really helped me this semester and I want to thank you."

He smiled for the first time in the semester.  "You're welcome."

So here I am.  All done with my first semester.  I am fighting back tears as I write this.  I went back to school after a thirty two year absence and what I found was challenge - relationships - learning.  All my favorite things.

Now I'm off to the organic grocer's to get oranges.  My dogs' tails are wagging because they know I'm taking them.  

Thursday, May 14, 2015


This week is known on campus as “finals week”, where students are tested on what they have taken away from the semester of the classes that they took.  I’ve always heard about finals – in fact, I did take part in them when I was at school the first time, but I never really studied – studying was for people who really cared about their grades.

I was born with a fine mind and most people liked telling me so – I liked hearing it.  The drawback of this is that I never really thought I would have to try hard at retaining knowledge.  

Now is different.  

I put a lot of effort into studying, which consists mostly of reading (this surprises a lot of people).  Chapters in the texts are assigned, along with required books, extra articles, and peer reviewed journals.  If you are faithful to read what you are supposed to read and write what you are supposed to write – and show up to class - you will do well.

This week is the week where it all comes together.  Professors see how much we have put into the class based on how we do in the all-important final examination.

Today I took a test in Political Science, which is one of my honors courses.  Our professor, Dr. Jeydel (we all call her Dr. J), spaced our tests strategically through the semester so we would have exams that assessed our retention of the subject matter equally – four tests over the 12 weeks. 

I’ve grown to love this class, although I am far from a political science aficionado.  Being an honors course, it is populated by honors students, all whose minds are sharp and fast.  I realized I knew far less about my country’s government than I thought I did.  During the semester, we discussed the different facets of our government – the first successful federal system in the world.  I found myself politically opposed to others, but our arguments were always civil and I never felt like anyone was trying to push their political agenda.  I will miss everything about this class – it has been truly a growing experience.

Today was our last test and as a celebration, a few of us went out to The Federalist.  This restaurant, in midtown Sacramento, is named for the political scientists that blended a strong central government while retaining state’s rights to govern.  Without federalists, we would not have the republic of the United States – so we thought it was appropriate. 

While we were in line to buy drinks, I saw a T-shirt hanging up that said “I prefer dangerous freedom to peaceful slavery” and pointed it out to my professor. 

“Isn’t that terrible?” she remarked.  “That’s not even a Federalist sentiment.  Maybe I should tell him.”

The guy behind the corner knew how to fill up the mason jars with beer really well, but he didn’t know what Dr. J was talking about when she told him the restaurant’s flair wasn’t in keeping with Federalist doctrine. 

The quote, I later found out, was from Thomas Jefferson, who also quoted an ancient Latin phrase  “Malo periculosam, libertatem quam quietam servitutem” (it has also been translated as, "I prefer the tumult of liberty to the quiet of servitude”).

“No, I didn’t know that,” he said, smiling wryly.  I could tell he was amused at her passion.

“Yeah, you might want to change that,” Dr. J was smiling, but I knew it mattered to her.

We sat down and ordered salads.  We all talked about what we were going to do over the summer, what our plans were to continue our education, what we liked about the semester… and eventually we decided to take a picture together.

I asked a guy who was quietly drinking with his wife to take a picture of us – and it came out a little blurry, but I didn’t care.  I was also slouching, but I guess that doesn’t matter either.

What matters, as you look at these people, is that they were the welcoming party that made me feel like I was part of things after a thirty two year absence from higher education.  They made me feel like I was part of them, which I will appreciate forever.   You might also see a diverse group of folk that together make our nation great. 

That’s my Honors Poli-Sci class.  

Sunday, May 10, 2015


Today I don’t want to write a blog about what I think motherhood is; I want to show you.

This is my Mom. 
She had five kids and stayed home with us and made our house a home.   She cooked meals for us and made sure we knew how to make our mark in this world.  My Mom was a woman whose life and work centered around our home; in my first year of college she went to work at a law office.  It was the first job she had outside the home - and she worked there for nearly ten years. 

This is Me.
I am a Mom.  I had two biological children and two step-children.  I have spent many nights staring at my ceiling, praying for my kids and asking God to make sure they are safe and healthy.  I pray that their kids are safe and healthy.  My refrigerator is filled with pictures of them, ranging in ages and activities.  I love them so much my heart hurts.

I always thought that my own mother was a natural – everything came easy for her.  Motherhood for me was stressful- I always wished I was more like her.  It got me wondering if my own daughter felt the same way....

This is my daughter.
She is now a Mom, so I have come full circle.  This week I interviewed her about motherhood.  What she said surprised me. 

“A Mother’s love is complicated.  Being a Mom is selfless; our lives are based around the needs of our children.  I got a new perspective after I had two children, when I realized how physically and emotionally draining being a Mom was.  In the early years, kids are just learning to express themselves and their emotions get all twisted up inside them.  It’s hard for us to put ourselves in their shoes, but we need to.   
I always wondered if my Mom had to deal with me in the way I have to deal with my own children.  Everyone handles things differently….”

This is my Mom, me and My daughter.
We have an immense amount of love and respect for each other.  The life of a mother is stressful, but it is a job we clearly wanted and it's wonderful and worth it all. 

Happy Mother’s Day. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Cinco de Mayo

Photo Credit

My years spent as an elementary teacher usually colors the way I see most holidays.  In the classroom, my favorite thing to do was to say "Let me tell you something that the other teachers won't tell you..."  It made the students pay attention, and made them feel that they were in on a secret: the secret truth that is history.

 I love bringing light to things that I find interesting... Cinco de Mayo is one of them.  My post can be a little deeper, if you are seeking history.  But what I am about to tell you is how this holiday has affected my heart, and how awkward it was to grow up Hispanic in a farming town in the 70's and 80's.  

 It starts with my my childhood in Tracy, California. 

I grew up with a Mexican-American mother, Juana, who had her name "American-ized" to Jennie as a small girl.  I never sensed any conflict in this, and there was never a discussion of when it happened.  My father was of Irish descent, and came from Boston - his name is Jack.  So, Jack and Jennie had five stunning little kids, all delightfully beautiful -  not "too white".  

I was not Irish only, but I had the Irish pride.  I was not Mexican only, but I had the Mexican coloring.  No one told me that if I ever left American soil and moved to Africa, I would be known as "the American" and no one would ask about my ethnic heritage.  

In high school, a few days before the Cinco de Mayo parade in town (if you've never been to one, you are missing a true slice of Americana) I found out in the Tracy Press that Melissa, my sister Shari's friend, had been voted Cinco de Mayo queen - the queen of the parade that would be held in town.  She’d get to ride on a convertible surrounded by color and flowers.  I was livid...what a faker!  She was like me, pretty damn white; not a "real" Hispanic.  What right did she have to call herself a Cinco de Mayo queen?  Now she would be paraded in front of the whole town and worshiped, along with our Lady of Guadalupe, like she was a real Mexican girl.  

I threw the paper down, angered by the irony.  As I  got ready for school, I questioned my own schizophrenic reaction.   Why did I care about a stupid Mexican parade anyway?  It was then I realized that part of me felt orphaned.  Deep down inside, I was the faker.  I had an Irish surname, that identified me as a proud Irish girl; I also had brown eyes and a perpetual tan that was the envy of my friends.  How much did I celebrate my own Mexican-American heritage?  

In the carpool on the way home, Melissa's reign was the subject of conversation.  

"Did you see that Melissa is going to be Cinco de Mayo Queen?" one of my friends said.  "She definitely was the prettiest one of all the girls who were running."

Everyone agreed, and said even her picture in the paper was gorgeous.  Cinco de Mayo queens are not known for making speeches, just looking good.  

"Hey, Janet," one of my other friends said, "Why didn't you run for Cinco de Mayo queen?" He meant it as a compliment, really.  He didn't know how much the whole thing bothered me.  

"I don't have enough Cinco in my Mayo."  I replied flatly.  Everyone thought that was funny, even my mom laughed.  

The thing that bothered me was that I didn't know how to do it - be a Mexican-American.  After all, Cinco de Mayo, while celebrated in Puebla like a bomb, is not such a popular holiday in the rest of Mexico.  In the States, it had turned into a Hispanic Pride Day where all of the real cowboys of California got out their black suits and big sombreros and rode atop horses carrying Mexican flags.  It was when the pretty Mexican girls dressed up in big skirts and made hypnotic circles with them while they danced.  

That one day was the day for Hispanic pride; all the other days of the year didn’t seem so nice for the Mexican kids, so I never admitted to being one of them.  After all, many of them were poor and got free lunches because their parents were working the fields.  Many spoke Spanish before they spoke English and drove low riders or shiny big cars that had air horns.  I could count my real Mexican friends on one hand, and my personal hypocrisy was starting to wear on me.  

 In reality, I got in touch with my Mexican heritage in the kitchen.  La cocina is where every Hispanic woman becomes  a real Mexican.  It started in high school when I worked out my half-Hispanic chica that lay dormant in me.  I learned the secrets of a good enchilada sauce from my grandma.  I made masa with her and rolled tortillas next to her; mine came out "like maps" my grandma said.  

Eventually, after the challenge of the teen years, I became less shallow, and less consumed with myself.  I began to read quite a bit and what I found out that the history of Cinco de Mayo helped me.  After all, the holiday had to be about more than how to make the perfect margarita, right?  

As a Californian, I can honestly say that I never struggled to learn how to celebrate and drink margaritas... that came naturally.  

I have struggled to be a good representation to the Mexican-American side of my family who have gone before me and given me their love and hearts and their faith.  I still seek out the truth, strength, and beauty of my people, who are generally underestimated, still.

 In my kitchen, I am Mexican. In South Africa, where I was known as a white American lady, I cooked tamales with a killer sauce that made me cry and miss my family.  It was then I knew I carried a lot of them with me.

Happy Cinco de Mayo –

Let me tell you something that the other teachers won't tell you..."  It made the students pay attention, and made them feel that they were in on a secret: the secret truth that is history.
– here’s the REAL STORY!!

In 1862, Mexico was huge, but the army was not as advanced in Military strategy as the Europeans who had interests there - France, Spain and Great Britain. The three countries, decided to unite and force an uppity Mexico to pay back the money it owed to them, its foreign investors. By the end of the year, Spanish ships from Cuba sat at Veracruz, Mexico's largest port, joined soon after by ships from France and Britain, in a not-so-subtle threat to Mexican sovereignty.

After several skirmishes with the French, on May 5 in Puebla, a large city between Mexico City and Veracruz, that the French officially underestimated the spirit and the power of the Mexican army and were defeated, badly.  The Battle of Puebla, while a great show of strength, didn't end the war.  It took a lot of other battles, and slowly the world took notice that Mexico was more than what they thought it was.  President Johnson, in order to protect American interests, sent the US Army to the border to show our official support, and in 1866 the French withdrawl (not exactly an official surrender) spoke volumes to the world.  Mexcio was un-officially sovereign.  

 News of the Mexican victory spread to the western US when Mexican gold miners in northern California were so overjoyed at their compatriots’ success that they celebrated by firing guns and singing patriotic songs. Thus, Cinco de Mayo, the party, was born.

Monday, May 4, 2015


Today, in my hand –
I held something beautiful.
It melted into my flesh
And tasted sweet.
I felt the rush of thunder
Like sugar-frosted methadone
And unwavering rabbits
Blue against my temples.
The taste was more than beauty-
More than safety
More than honey
The words were a symphony

Of light.