Sunday, June 18, 2017

Mario


My new favorite picture of Mario -- June 2017


On Sunday, our house was swarming with honeybees.  They started to swarm on Thursday, outside the front door, along the ledge of our entryway.  Each day the swarm increased until today, where, as if to celebrate Mario’s birthday tomorrow, they are swarming outside and inside of our garage.  Not wanting to use pesticides, we called a local bee keeper who promised to pick them up tomorrow evening.

“You know we’ll be at communitas tomorrow,” Mario said, right after I told him.  We were in the kitchen, where I had just finished making chicken enchiladas and a cake for his birthday.

“Are we going?” I asked.  “I mean, tomorrow is your birthday!  We’re supposed to have a birthday dinner together.  We just got this new dog.  Now the beekeepers are coming…”

“I know,” Mario sighed, stretching his arms, “I just don’t want to miss communitas.” 

Communitas is a gathering of our friends, kind of a Bible study.  Together we decided to read the Bible all the way through in one year, using a structured and disciplined approach. We meet on Monday evenings to get together and discuss.  Communitas is a Latin noun, loosely translated to mean “a community of equals, friends who are experiencing liminality together.”  I love these friends…but really? 

As I sit here, writing Mario’s birthday blog, I realize that this is an example of Mario being steady and focused, even in the midst of chaos.

The night before we wed - 1987

When I met Mario, 31 years ago, this was one of the first things that impressed me.  He was steady and strong—calm under pressure.  This was a rare quality in a young man; it still is.  When we became Christians, Mario’s focus became even clearer.  Each decision he made is now measured by what will bring him closer to Christ.

Tonight’s conversation about bees, our new dog, enchiladas and birthday cake illustrate how normal people can sometimes feel overwhelmed by their lives.  In my world, I’d rather retreat, lay a nice table, provide a delicious blessing for Mario, and wave goodbye to that pesky swarm of bees.  But that probably won’t be the thing that that Mario wants to do tomorrow night for his birthday.   Mario will want to go to communitas because we’ll focus on God with our friends –and God is who makes Mario strong and steady.

Today is Mario’s 63rd birthday.  I cannot believe that he is 63.  Something must be wrong; time is spinning out of control.  Usually I blog about what a hunk my husband is and how I can’t believe he married me.  Tonight, I write about a piece of our lives, and the One who Mario looks to in order to keep his path straight.  Imagine living with someone who thinks like this—and then make him a hunk.  

That’s how cool my life is.










Joe

At Mario's for dinner - 1986


The first time I met Joe he was wearing a green-striped shirt and following David, his elder brother, into his father’s office.  He looked over the counter and smiled at me.  His father, Mario, was my boss who I would marry...eventually. 

“Boys,” Mario said in a voice reserved for his children.  “This is our new Park Aid, Janet.  She’s brand new so don’t bother her.  She’s still trying to learn how to type.” Mario thought he was funny.  So did the boys.

Instead of “not bothering me” the boys walked over to my desk.  David was tanned with brown hair and brown eyes; Joe was blonde, with glowing blue eyes.  They both looked at me when the spoke—even though David did most of the talking. 

“We just got here from Kansas,” David said.

“That’s where our Mom lives,” Joe said, dreamily.  He had just turned six;  David was seven, but quickly told me that he would soon be eight. 

I liked them immediately.  They were filled with wonder and questions.  They wanted to use my new electric typewriter.  They told me they had just ridden a horse the day before and Joe actually fell off.
“But I got up and got back on,” he said, proud of himself.  Years later, Joe would become quite an accomplished horse rider—a cowboy, if you will.  Both boys would learn to break and care for horses with great skill.  Both boys would become so woven into my life that I would refer to them as “my sons.” But that evening, I didn’t see any of this coming.  

I went to Mario’s house for dinner that night (more at the invitation of the boys than of him) and got to observe their family dynamics a bit more.  Both boys basked in the glow of their father’s attention.  At some point, I picked up a book and started reading to them.  It was beautiful and magical.  I read four or five books that evening before I excused myself and went home.

“Why are you leaving?” Joe asked me as I packed up my purse. 

“I have a baby,” I answered above their father.  (Mario was laughing, saying: “Because she doesn’t live here!”)

“A girl baby or a boy baby?” Joe asked.

“A boy.  His name is Vince.”

“Can you go get him and bring him back here?”

I looked up at Mario who was smiling. 

“No, honey,” I said.  “I’m going to go home and give him a bath and put him to bed.”

I left that night and did exactly what I intended to do--I went home, gave Vince a bath and put him to bed.  I didn't get any ideas about marrying Mario (my boss) or becoming a step-mother to his children--those came later.  
David (hogging the scope) and Joe at the observation deck of the Empire State building.
Notice the Twin Towers in the back?

David gave me lots of chances to get close to him; Joe took a while longer to accept me.  He was careful and watchful.  On a trip to New York City, David agreed to hold my hand when we crossed the street or walked crowded sidewalks.  Joe permitted me to hold his wrist.   David shared his heart and mind with me; Joe watched me closely.


Two years later, Mario and I married.  We all lived in one smallish house and welcomed baby Alicia soon afterwards.  We became what psychologists were calling “a blended family” –a trend that was becoming more and more common.


Eventually Joe and I became closer, mainly because he could see that I was someone who wasn’t going away.  As he grew, I saw that Joe’s heart was the most like his father’s: steady, mighty, tender.
Years past and Joe is now a man with a family of his own.  

Joe, Ariel, Asher and Harvey Christmas 2015

Two years ago, Joe married Ariel, his long-time girlfriend.  Ariel came with a young son named Asher, about the same age that Vince was when Mario and I married.  They had Harvey one day after they tied the knot—a perfect little son that looks just like Joe—who looks like Mario. 

When I see Joe today, he glows with the same, careful light that he exhibited as a boy.  He loves being a father to Asher and Harvey; he loves being a husband to Ariel.  To watch a son being the leader of his family is precious and inspiring.  Joe seems to have been reborn with fatherhood and the occupation makes him glow.

March 2017 --Three Generations: Mario, Joe and Harvey

Today is his birthday –Father’s Day.  I watch Joe now as he used to watch me; I see him alive and sparkling in full bloom.  A husband, a father and the proud pappy of a new baby, Harvey.  As a man, he has come into his own.

Over the years, I have amassed thousands of memories and thousands of words to describe Joe, but the way I usually describe him to strangers is that he is like Mario.  He’s intelligent without being arrogant, kind to strangers, loves his family, and thinks he is funnier than he really is.  He is tender and strong.  He thinks before he acts, is a great team member, and make decisions cautiously and carefully.  I am so proud of him.

Happy Birthday, Joe!  I think you know this, but I love you very much.  Your steady love and understanding has been greater than I could have ever hoped for.


 To me, this is proof that God has a greater plan than any of us can ever see.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Asher


My favorite picture of Asher and Mario


Over Easter vacation I learned how to make Pokémon card booster packs, simple packages of paper-wrapped Pokémon cards, decorated with pictures of the magical creatures that populate the Pokémon world.  My teacher was my grandson, Asher, the step-son of my own step-son, Joe.  Asher taught me how to fold the white sheets of paper around the cards he would give me, and then glue them together.  I also learned to draw Asher’s favorites to scale, but not without some helpful advice from my grandson who watched me. 

“It’s important that you show his webbed feet,” he told me as I drew.  “Do you see that color?  That’s a mutation that is important.  It makes him powerful.”  Asher is an expert on the assembly of these packs, he knows which ones to put in a single 10-card pack.  He also is an expert on how they should be drawn—which made me nervous as I was trying my hardest to draw the strange little creatures. 

“How’s this, Asher?” I asked him, holding forth my pencil drawing. 

Asher examined it carefully.  Then he pronounced his verdict: “I’ll take it.”

“I’ll take it” became my favorite catch-phrase of our Easter vacation.   Asher’s life is pretty sweet because he is grateful for the simple things that come his way. “I’ll take it” meant that he was happy with my effort, even if the finished product was not perfect.  He thinks like this about most things, and I marvel at this part of his personality.  Asher is happy enough to hold the paper packs for a while –and then open it.  This starts the whole process over again.

Today Asher is six years old.  For some reason, he seems older to me.  Ever since he was a toddler, I called Asher the “little man” –a nickname I gave him because of his serious persona.

Asher last Christmas--right before bed

When I met Asher, he was eighteen months old.  He was already speaking in complete sentences, although he did not speak them to me.  He was wary of strangers because his whole world seemed to be wrapped up in his mother, Ariel, my daughter-in-law Lennae’s sister.  Ariel and Asher occupied one room of David and Lennae’s house, so when we would visit our kids and grandchildren, we would see Ariel and Asher.

The same was true with everyone who visited, including our son, Joe.  Joe visited David and Lennae enough times to become rather close with Ariel.  It wasn’t long before I noticed the attraction between them.  When Joe and Ariel started dating, I wondered about how it would go over with the small, territorial little man in Ariel’s life.  After a brief warming up period, Joe and Asher got used to one another and began a relationship that looked like father and son.  A little while later, Harvey was born and the family blended quite nicely.

When you see Joe and Asher together, you see a unique closeness in their relationship, one that reminds me of how things are between Mario and Vince.  WhenMario and I started dating, Vince was 18 months old; when we married, Vince was two and a half.

The blessing of a blended family is that everyone in it has a heart that makes room for each other.  While not always ideal, the children learn that they have parents on all sides.  When it’s working properly, the child feels loved on all sides.  While not ideal, the blended family has a special beauty, with  members that can adapt to newcomers easier.  Ours is such a family, where we are scattered and different, but we all love each other.  Asher helps me remember that life is pretty sweet –if we make it that way. 


Happy Birthday, Asher!!  You are truly a beautiful little man and I am so grateful that I am part of your family!!  Blessings and love today and always!  Abuela.

Learning to draw Pokemon --Spring 2017

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Joanne


Joanne at the ranch --her favorie place when we were younger


Joanne Griffith Amaral was one of my besties in high school.  We shared a locker all those years, remaining friends through a lot of ups and downs.   Years later, she and I had children at the same time.  The relationships  with the kids' fathers did not work out, but the kids saved our lives.  When I returned home to Tracy, Joanne and I reconnected.  We went shopping together (for them), shared mothering tips, and babysitting services.  Years later, when we both lived in suburban domiciles, we reconnected again.  While Mario and I lived in Africa, Joanne and I kept in touch.  Joanne had many ups and downs in her life but loved her career as a nurse.  We both shared intimate secrets about the secret parts of our hearts, just like we did when we were fourteen. 

That was Joanne- my touchstone friend.  Last week –out of the blue—I saw on Facebook that Joanne was sick.  Janet Langley (another friend from high school, and Joanne’s long-time bestie) messaged me that Joanne was in the hospital  with sepsis.  I was in shock…and promised to pray.  The next day I was walking around, praying a lot, but remembering Joanne and who she is to me.  She was a friend to a lot of people.

Everyone has a Joanne story. 

I have several, but the one I will tell you here is a bit dark and (quite frankly) one I think twice about sharing publicly.  When we were very young, about fifteen, Joanne and I were at “the ranch”—her Grandpa and Grandma’s house—when we decided to get drunk together.  We opened a fifth of Jack Daniels (I don’t remember how we got it, but we got it) and drank it all in one afternoon, with me drinking the lion’s share.  Later that night, Joanne held my head as I hurled into her grandma’s toilet, swearing that I would never drink again. 

You all know that promise—many of you made it before.  Like most of you, I lived to drink another day.  It wasn’t until adulthood that I remembered that story, when I was in counselling, sorting through a truckload of emotionally messy baggage.  At one point, I said to my counselor, “It’s like you’re holding my head as I throw up in a toilet!”

Then I remembered Joanne. 

The day we decided to get drunk was an emotionally messy day for me as well.  My boyfriend had just broken up with me, and Joanne’s boyfriend never really was there for her anyway.  We decided that our guys weren’t worth crying about and could go to hell as we drowned our sorrows.  Up until the throwing up part, we were having a really good time.  Joanne was my friend who was there for me during many emotionally messy times.  She was the calming presence in my turbulent teen years.  She was a true friend.  I told my counselor this story, and she smiled.  “We all need those friends who hold our heads over the toilet as we puke our guts out, both literally and figuratively.”

A few days after that counseling appointment, Mario and I saw a stranded female motorist as we exited the freeway.  Her car must have broken down as she pulled over.  We stopped, since she was alone and her hood was up. 

“You approach her,” Mario (ever the cop) told me.  “If she sees me approaching her she may get scared.”

I got out of the passenger side door and walked over to her on the grassy part of the off-ramp.  The motorist got out of the car, seeing me approach.  I heard her say, “Janet?”

It was Joanne.  We hugged, completely in awe about such a strange "coincidence."  After we recovered, Mario and I drove Joanne to a nearby garage and arranged for a tow.  While she waited to rent a car, I told her all about my recent counseling and how I told my counselor the story about us partying at the ranch.

“Oh, Janet,” Joanne said, smiling. “You were so wasted!  I was afraid you were going to die.  You kept saying ‘Just let me sleep!  Jst let me sleep!’ but I said, ‘If I let you sleep you’re going to die.’”
After this side-of-the-road “coincidence” Joanne and I kept in touch.  

Joanne and her friend, Joyce Cunningham--Nursing was so important to her!!

She struggled with many things, but loved her life.  She was flawed, but was genuinely beautiful and grace-filled.  She absolutely loved her children…and those of us with adult children know all the challenges that are attached there.  But most of all, Joanne loved her grandchildren—they made her young again. 


Joanne as a grandma.  Her oldest grandchild is now a teenager!!

When I heard that Joanne had contracted sepsis, I knew exactly what that meant.  I had seen many people die of sepsis in the third world.  It kills people fast—it’s ruthless.  I thanked God we lived in America, where the care is exceptional and doctors usually catch it before it gets out of control.  But this case was a particularly terrible strand that was relentless.  

As hard as the doctors worked, as hard as Joanne fought, and as hard as we all prayed, Joanne left this world in the wee hours of Wednesday morning.  Her beautiful mother and children left behind, devastated. 

Janet Langley and I texted each other (like the fourteen-year-old girls we felt like) on Wednesday morning.  She stayed home from work; I went to school, unable to sit still.  This can’t be happening. I kept thinking.  Joanne was one of those friends who was always there…she was always there.

These days I don’t drink anymore, I live one day at a time—and some of you know what I mean. The news of Joanne passing hit me hard--but I have to confront the pain rather than turn from it.   I am sad that the world lost such a person. I have no doubt that Joanne is in heaven now.  From the conversations we had, most of them pretty deep, I understood that Joanne's faith was in God alone.  She was not heavily religious, but I never met a more grace-filled person.  Never.


My beloved friend…without Joanne I would not be here.  Literally. 

One of Joanne's favorite pictures, with the love-of-her-life, Kevin (KSJ)

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Zuzu


Zuzu--the morning after she came home with me.


The story of Zuzu is one of a rescue.

Mario and I had been in South Africa for three years, but we had a sudden change in ministry.  We went from being a couple who travelled all over sub-Saharan Africa to one who worked in a local church.  We travelled less, but were just as involved in ministry.  The change triggered a longing in me to go home—or at least to feel at home in South Africa. 

“Can we get a dog?”  I asked Mario.   

“Tell you what,” he told me, “we’ll get one when we become permanent residents.”  

Mario had said no on more than one occasion to a dog –we were in a foreign country, we still were travelling, we were not yet permanent residents…  The truth of the matter was that we had applied for permanent residency a year earlier.  The application was still not processed; I felt it never would be.   

I went to the SPCA thrift store in Northriding (just outside of Johannesburg) to look for a good, standing lamp.  They had none, but on my way to the car, I could hear barking….and I went in just to see the dogs.   I walked through the aisles of adoptable dogs, maybe because I was looking for a friendly face; maybe because I liked to torture myself. 

I passed the kennel where a small dog was sitting in the sun, I saw her face and she saw mine.  I can’t explain the unusual connection I felt with this dog –she wasn’t even the kind of dog I normally liked.  She looked like a Chihuahua, with large brown eyes.   I looked at her name on the outside of the kennel: XUXIA/Miniature Pinscher. 

I knelt down to be next to her.  She put her little paws up on the grate and I stroked her fur through the bars.  After about five minutes of just sitting together, I got up and left…but not without asking about her.

“She’s going to go fast,” the SPCA lady told me.  “Min-pins are a popular breed.”

I went home and researched Min Pins–miniature pinschers.  “Assertive and proud, athletic and agile, the Miniature Pinschers act like they are the biggest dogs on the block, and are often called ‘King of the Toys’.” 

Of course I said nothing to Mario….

The next day I went back to the SPCA just to see her cute face.  The next day I went back again, just to be near her, but this time she looked at me like, “What are you doing?  Adopt me!”

I went home and confessed everything to Mario.  “Please, babe… I really want a dog.”

He relented.  “Alright, go back and if she’s still there, you can adopt her.”

The first day I brought her home she slept in my lap, groggy from being spayed.  She slept next to me as I sat on the sofa.  Mario and I renamed her “Zuzu” –which sounds like Xuxia, but had a little American George Bailey in there. 


Every morning Zuzu went on a walk with me.  In the evening when all our work was done, we came home to her cute little face and she acted like I was her favorite person in the world.  Mario pretended not to like her, but he wasn’t fooling anyone.

As much as we learned about Minpins, we had much more to learn.  First, they are not loner dogs—they like to pack. 

“She has social needs,” a fellow owner told us.  “She needs friends!”

We took Zuzu outside to play with all the dogs on the property, but she was kind of bossy and didn’t make friends.  She was territorial and hilariously jealous.  She nipped at the heels of the bigger dogs, who stayed away from her afterwards.  We decided to adopt another dog who she got along with better, but after several failed compatibility tests with other peaceful dogs at the SPCA, we decided to get a puppy for Zuzu to call her own. 

Zuzu ignoring the new puppy - Peaches


The Puppy’s name was Peaches, but Zuzu ignored her for the first week.  Finally, they became friends.  Zuzu and Peaches –they were our four-legged kids in South Africa that made us feel like we were home.  Zuzu had a supernaturally brilliant mind; she knew the difference between right and wrong, good and bad.  She hunted moles and rats on the property and eventually became friends with every dog on the property. 

Peaches, by comparison, was not the sharpest tool in the shed.  She followed Zuzu everywhere and seemed to have a great time prancing around, doing whatever Zuzu did.

When it was time for us to leave South Africa, the dogs came with us.  They were professionally moved by a company who packed them up in wooden travel crates and shipped home to friends in Kansas City.  They offered to keep them until we could buy a house and make a home.  It took us three months before we saw them again.

I remember the day I was reunited with the dogs.  It is as clear in my mind as the days I was reunited with family.  Zuzu could not control her yelps of excitement—and I admit…neither could I. 


The dogs moved three times with us –the last of which was at the house we live in now.  They seemed to be good with moving; they learned to adapt in many different situations.  

Moody and sweet, bossy and tender, nervous and often constipated--Zuzu was definitely my dog.




It wasn’t until Sunday that we realized something was wrong.  She was staggering around and falling down.  She had no energy.  She threw up a good deal and when we took her to the vet they looked at her gums and told us, “This is a very sick dog.”

I looked down at her and she looked at me, and as always we connected.  Those eyes were the eyes of my most faithful companion through a myriad of changes, the eyes of a beautiful little dog who had been with me no matter what.  Those were the eyes of a dog I loved with my whole heart.

One last photograph (the vet suggested this...even though we knew what was coming)

In two short hours, our lives changed.  We were forced to make fast decisions--after the vet showed us test results of an especially aggressive, fast-moving auto-immune disease.  We decided to put her to sleep, since it was more humane that watching her suffer.  We decided to cremate her body, instead of bury her in the backyard.  We decided to leave her bed behind when it was all over, unable to look at it without Zuzu in it.

I type this in tears, unable to really articulate how much this dog impacted my life.  I also realize that most of you know what I am talking about—that dogs are more than pets.  They sometimes really are our best friends.

We animal lovers like to call it rescuing—especially when we adopt a dog or cat from an animal shelter.  “This dog is a rescue,” we say proudly.  But the story of Zuzu is all in the beauty of how she rescued me.  She literally pulled me out of a depression, and made me feel like I was home in a foreign country.  Every day she was alive, she made me feel like the best mother in the whole world.  She brought joy, play, exercise, silliness, awareness, and love into our lives—and kept it there.


We will miss her far more than words can ever say.  

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Scarlett


Scarlett Star on Sunday

Last Saturday Scarlett and I walked to Brooktree Park, near our house.  On the way we held hands, and she asked me if I was afraid. 

“Of what?” I asked her, smiling.

“Are you scared of a skeleton?”  (Imagine this word coming out of the mouth of an adorable three-year-old)

I couldn’t help laughing.  I laughed so hard that she laughed with me.  “Grandma, you’re so funny!”

We got to the playground and she began climbing everything—she climbs like an Olympic athlete.  You would never guess that the baby born to our son Vince and our daughter-in-law, Rikki, ever struggled with anything in her whole life. 

In truth, Scarlett Star entered the world after a particularly turbulent labor (I was there through it all and cannot forget the images of her trying to be born).  She was born in Farmington, New Mexico three years ago today—the first grandchild to be born after Mario and I returned from Africa.  After her mother delivered her, Scarlett was placed under lamps to help her recover from jaundice.  She was watched and monitored for three extra days in the hospital, and finally got to come home. 

I remember those days because I secretly worried that Scarlett’s rough beginning might be indicative of coming struggles she might have with her health. 

“It’s not our job to worry,” Mario would tell me. “It’s our job to pray for her.  We can be fearless because God is faithful!”

Scarlett --7 months  old

God has been faithful with Scarlett – she has flourished, growing into a cool kind of warrior princess, fearless and filled with life.  She loves reading, drawing, playing with Legos, and most of all, climbing everything that looks like fun—even stuff  that she is not supposed to climb.



Today this girl turns three!! Where did the years go? I wonder how many years I will have in the beautiful wonder of her magical childhood…

Every Saturday, Mario and I babysit her while her parents go out.  Usually, we go to the park or someplace where she can run.  She hurls sticks across fields and I imagine her one day throwing a javelin.  She leaps over clumps of grass, and I see her running the hurdles.  Last Saturday, when we went to the park together, she ascended a steel ladder on the playground, meant to be ascended  by older kids.  She made it look so easy, even as I stood beneath her with that grandmotherly look on my face…

It was only then that I realized why she asked me why I was scared.  I use a silly ploy (sometimes) to get Scarlett to hold my hand: I tell her I’m scared to walk alone.


An independent little girl, Scarlett wants to run ahead in most things.  She charges into many situations with fearless abandon, just like many kids do.  The flip-side of this fearless personality is that she is tender and sensitive, especially thoughtful of those around her.   


I guess that’s why I tried this to motivate Scarlett, asking her to hold my hand—by telling her that I am scared to walk alone.  

Maybe I shouldn’t tell her  "Hold my hand because I'm scared!"   I can rest in the thought that God is faithful with her!  Happy birthday, dear Scarlett -- we miss you but we'll see you later!!

Grandma

Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial



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

I know only one Gold Star Mom – a title given to a woman who has lost a son in the service of our country.  Her name is Robyn Ornsby, the mom of my daughter Alicia’s long time bestie, Morgan.



Memorial Day is not just another national holiday  for a Gold Star Mom—it’s a time to grieve a child they lost for the rest of us.  In service to the United States, soldiers in the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force obey without question—imagine that for a moment.  They obey without the luxury of saying, “Nah, not for me…not this time.”  Sometimes in the line of duty, they are killed by the enemy.  Memorial Day is the day that Americans hang their flag and say, “We remember you died for us –for our freedom.

“Ever since I lost my son I have battled with why people don’t celebrate this holiday,” Robyn once 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 a recent Gallup poll, only a fraction of Americans know what Memorial Day is.  Specifically, 28% of us answer the question correctly: this day exists to honor those who died in war.

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

Jay-D --Two Days old

“My Jay-D was born a mischievous little monkey,” Robyn told me when I interviewed her about this holiday.  “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.  He wouldn’t tolerate anyone bullying him.  He’d give them a good fight.”  As any mom would, Robyn tried to teach the delicate balance of sticking up for yourself and having self-control.  This was especially hard to teach when Jay-D fought 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 would ask him ‘Why are you now fighting other people’s battles?’ He answered me straight,  ‘Well, it just isn’t 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 kids 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 were scarce without college.  “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, Jay-D enlisted, was sworn in, and scheduled to go to boot camp. 

“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 Baghdad, 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.

Robyn told me about the day that Jay-D 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 bring justice.  There are cruel realities in life, and war 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.”  Every year the Ornsby’s do something special to celebrate the day.  One year, Robyn had a BBQ, decorated a wine barrel and burned a candle for her 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.”


I think about Jay-D a lot.  His sister, Morgan (my daughter’s bestie) has a beautiful (gorgeous!) young son – named Jay-D—that will never meet his Uncle. 

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

Jay-D Ornsby on the left --  and Morgan's Jay-D on the right 
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 Ornsbys 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.  Today I will grieve the fallen; I will celebrate every freedom I have inherited and they have defended. 

That’s what Memorial Day is.





Saturday, May 27, 2017

Harvey



When someone says his name, “Harvey,” the first thing I think of is his smile. 

It is light.  Half-mischief, half-contentment.  Curious and fearless. 

Harvey’s smile tells the world that he is going to be alright.  Only one person I have ever known has had that same smile—his father, Joe. 

Harvey’s story begins with the Seattle breeze in unexpected calm.  He was born one day after his parents, Joe and Ariel were married.  A home birth, Ariel was surrounded by a team of midwives attending to her, including Joe’s sister, Seantel. 

“She’s close, but it’s hard to say how long this will take,” Seantel told us, as soon as Mario and I arrived. “Can you go get snacks?”

Seantel explained that the midwives had been working all day without food and would be hungry after the task of delivering a baby was over.  As we would fawn and coo over the new life, the midwives would chart and be administrative at the kitchen table—surrounded by healthful snacky foods.

Mario and I headed to Safeway, holding each other’s hands tightly in nervous anticipation.  We bought drinks, cheese trays, chips, and dip.  When we were driving back to the apartment, we talked about the challenge of another long-distance grandchild.  At least I did.

“Seattle is a long way,” I told him.  “I wish they could be in California.”

“It’s not so bad,” Mario said.  “It’s a heck of a lot closer than Africa.  At least we’ll see him more than we would have if we still lived there.”  Mario is an optimist—or a realist.  Both mindsets have a way of being fine in the moment.

We got to the apartment in time for Ariel’s transition.  We met Cathy in the living room and silently prayed for the upcoming delivery.  I was in awe of the smooth, careful breathing I heard coming from the next room.  The Midwives’ voices were louder than Ariel’s soft cries that would bring Harvey into the world.  Ariel sounded nothing like I did in labor; her cries were gentle remarks about the inconvenience of pain. 
Harvey --10 minutes old


Eventually, the sounds of a baby coming into the world came.  I stood in the doorway with the audio of my phone turned on.  Eventually, I heard the sounds of a baby, a soft cry that became a loud one.  Harvey was here!!  I held the phone up, with tears in my eyes.  No one, no matter how gifted with words, can prepare you for the incredible brilliance of a new life coming into the world.

We left two days later, after holding Harvey and sharing him with his family who wanted him all to themselves.

We saw him the following Christmas, already playful and engaging to those around him. 

Joe and Harvey --his first Christmas


It wasn’t until this year when we really got to know him.  We visited earlier this year and spent real time with the boys –and Joe and Ariel.  Visiting with them was heavenly, getting to do the normal grand-parenting things we can easily take for granted.  



We got to play Legos with Harvey, chase him around an indoor play area, eat with him, sing with him…and hold him close.  He has a beautiful combination of innocence and mischief in his spirit, so like his father that I broke out laughing sometimes. 

Oh, yeah...I just threw that!

My favorite picture of Harvey is one where he is sitting at his Lego table, looking over his shoulder at me.  His mother, Ariel, looks on smiling.  In the corner (and this is what is easy to miss) is a red Lego.  Oh, yeah…he threw it! It makes me laugh to remember this…laugh and cry at the same time.

Today marks TWO years since he was born.  Happy Birthday, Harvey.  You remind me of your father—but you are your own man.  Don’t ever wipe that smile off your face!! We love you more than you could ever know.


Grandpa and Abuela

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Dad


Four Generations - Thanksgiving 2016

It is said that young daughters believe that the authority of the whole world rests in their fathers. Growing up, this was doubly true for me.  My father, Jack Ryan to his friends, Jackie to his mother, and John G. to strangers, was a man that I saw live a life filled with authority.  He was a manager at work, a deacon at our church, and a strong member of our local community.

My mother, a type B, traditional, Catholic woman of Mexican descent enjoyed the safety and steadiness of my father’s structure.  She would later tell me that her father was the same--patriarchal and strong.  To me, my father's rules were old fashioned and rigid.  Dad was from a different world, I reasoned, a generation that was fading away as mine was taking shape.  Instead of trying to be the perfect daughter, I challenged every boundary that my parents lay down.  I was bold, sneaky, and filled with the classic deceptive attributes of a rebellious teenager.  When I was twenty-three, I realized I was wrong. 



Big time.

It is impossible to entertain any thought of my father without thinking of how he endured these young adult years.  He was strong, unwavering.  He never budged.  

At twenty-five I married Mario, my beautiful mercy straight from God.  I couldn’t believe he loved me—but he did.  As our kids grew, I saw him be a father in very similar ways.  This is what makes me smile now.  The attributes I absolutely challenged growing up are the ones I considered to be golden to our family.  These strengths made the men in my life lead their families in an upside-down world.


When Mario and I moved to Africa, we began a life of being full-time ministry.  During this time, my father was a great source of wisdom to us.  He charged us not to neglect our own spiritual lives for the sake of ministry—because he knew how easy it was to get lost in the work.  When it was time for us to come home, he made it clear that he thought it was a good decision.  His counsel over the years has been unequaled.

Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), the author of Out of Africa, once said about the male species: “Man reaches the highest point of lovableness at 12 to 17 — to get it back, in a second flowering, at the age of 70 to 90.”  Today my father is 83—and I agree that he is in his second flowering of loveableness. 

Today my Dad is reflective, wise, and easy to talk to.  He beta-reads most of my writing, which I ask him to do because he is such an avid reader.  He is also unafraid to tell me when my work could be better.  Oh, the nerve!

Happy Birthday, Dad.  You cannot imagine how grateful I am for you.  You are one of the greatest heroes in our life –and I get to be your daughter.  I love you!



Dad surrounded by family

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Vince

Vince's first fish - Lake Alpine, CA 1991



Vince was born in 1985 and this is 2017.

That means that my first born is now 32 – which doesn’t make sense.  I know it sounds cliché, but it went by in a flash.  Just yesterday mastered the Etch-a-Sketch.  He learned to read and write before he was supposed to.  He learned how to ride a bike in the backyard at Arnold.  We took trips to Great America and Disneyland; took family vacations to Hawaii and Washington D.C.  He collected baseball cards, rocks, and Legos.  He played sports and work at a movie theater. 

He moved out suddenly; we moved to Africa.  And then – he was gone.

It was like losing an astronaut in deep space when Vince moved out- in Africa I prayed constantly for him.  Once we reestablished contact, we asked him to consider spending some time with us in the RSA -and he did.  It was the beginning of the relationship we have now.

Vince arrives in South Africa - 2008


It is one of the greatest graces of God when your adult children choose to have relationship with you. When I pray, I thank God for the kids he gave us.  I thank God we have grown and changed together.  I watch them in a certain kind of wonder, thankful that they can do all the things they do.

Vince has recently changed professions—no longer is he in the oil fields of New Mexico.  He lives in Sacramento again and works as a plumbing apprentice.  

Vince under a house - earlier this year (2017)


He works very hard every day and still comes home to play hard with his daughter, Scarlett. As I do homework I can hear her shrieking with delight upstairs, as her Dad plays with her.  

Every Saturday night Vince and Rikki go out and Mario and I get to have Scarlett.  Tonight we made a birthday cake together.

“Who is this cake for?”  I asked her, almost rhetorically. 

“MY Daddy,” Scarlett said, hitting her chest with her hand.  “MY Daddy!”  

“YOUR Daddy is MY son,” I said, smiling. Scarlett gave me a look that always makes me laugh.  She is possessive of her parents, and doesn’t like me to hug either one or talk about them like they are any relation to me.   Scarlett shook her head. 

“MY Daddy, and that’s Daddy’s cake!”

After I put it in the oven, I marveled at the beauty of life.  Not only do I get to write about my son growing up, I am also writing about his daughter growing up in front of me, as well. 



God is so good.

Happy Birthday, Vince.  You grew up fast, but you became a man who I am glad to know.  I love you!


Mom.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Mom

A recent family gathering at Casa de Rodriguez
(Mom in white turtleneck behind Dad)

The story of my mother, Jennie Ryan, is surrounded by family.  She is the fifth out of seven children, born to Ignacio and Juana Gonzalez, my Grandpa and Grandma.  She grew up on a farm and some of her earliest memories involve feeding lambs from a baby bottle with her twin sisters, Emily and Molly.

What I don't know about my mother, what she never talks about, is what it was like learning English in the immersion of school, speaking a foreign language under the pressure of learning how to read and write.  I don't really know how they made it through the winters when my grandfather, a farm worker, was not working so much.  I don't know how it  was for her to grow up in a small town that was predominantly white during a time when racism was not called racism --it was just the way things were.

The reason I don't know much about these things is that my Mom doesn't like to "dwell on negative things"--even when it pertains to her own personal history.  What she loves to tell us is stories of being our small town's Tomato Queen, riding like a princess on an elephant through the main streets. Stories of meeting our father, Jack, who blew into Tracy like her knight on a white horse, swept her off her feet and married her in the Catholic Church that we were all baptized in.

Mom dwells on beauty.  She loves finding the good, is optimistic to a fault, and believes in counting her blessings.  Her life has not been easy, but you would never know this by talking to her.


Four Generations

...plus Scarlett

The power of my Mother is the strong belief in goodness.  She believes in the power of love, the power of forgiveness, the purpose in living a life for God, and the underlying truth that the only thing we can control about life is the way we react to it.

Today my mother turns 80.

I just typed that--and I can't believe it.  I think of my mother as perpetually 45, sweeping the floor, curling her hair, listening to classical music, making breakfast, watering her garden, going to Mass, lighting the candles on the table, reading the latest Michener.  All of these memories kind of blend together to create one large memory of her being there for me, woven into my life in ways that are completely beautiful.

Because, at her very core, my Mom is beautiful.



Auntie Molly, Auntie Emmy, Mom

Happy Birthday, Mom!  You make 80 look like 45 -- which I know can't be right, because I'm 53, right?  Or am I fifty four?  What am I, Mom?  Tell me!

Happy Birthday!

Monday, March 6, 2017

Lauren

My favorite picture of me and Lauren
Thank you to Hannah Joy Photography


Lauren Caroline is our son David's third child, a daughter that  moves with speed and energy that makes me wish to be young again.

This past summer I went to see them before the fall semester began.  Cathy and David's kids picked me up, but only one wanted to get in the selfie I wanted to take with all of us - Lauren.



While Lili and Callen hid in the back seat, Lauren was still the effervescent grandchild I remembered her to to be.  We planned out what we would do while we were there and did it all --on the first day.  We jump-roped, played clapping games, drew pictures, and went shopping.  The rest of the visit I just tried to keep up with her, and basked in the beauty of her seven-year-old excitement. 


I have always loved Lauren for being the baby of her family.  She grew up well-protected and learned confidence from her two older siblings.  She also learned how to wear their hand-me-downs, play with their toys once they were finished with them, and wait her turn for every new thing.  The baby of the family usually is the most patient, out of default rather than choice.  

 Lauren is trusting, hopeful, and filled with gigantic expectations of life.  Since she is the baby of the family, all of the love trickles down to her and she is consequently very loving herself.  


Today, Lauren turns eight.  

I still remember the day she was born – at home in a hot tub (my daughter in law had all her babies in the tub).  David and Lennae had two small girls already and I openly wondered about the addition of that third child.  Most young mothers can tell you that the third child is officially juggling .  I worried that the kids (David and Lennae) might be overwhelmed… with so much work.  There was little I could offer to help –we were living in South Africa.


We were living in Johannesburg when Lauren was born; she changed everything.  We had said goodbye to our family and moved halfway across the world.  I wasn’t sure how to process the birth of one of our granddaughters from such a distance.  Getting the pictures via email filled me with admiration, love and emptiness.  As much as we wanted to be there--to at least hold her-- it was not possible.

David and Lilli hold Lauren, only two days old.  

By the time we moved back Lauren was four years old and she barely knew us.  Grateful for her parents, who built toward us, we began the business of reconnecting.  Only one problem – we lived in Cali and the kids lived in Kansas.  We visited Kansas and spent good, purposeful time “giving the kids their rest” and selfishly kidnapping the girls to take them to fun places that we could remember later  as shared experiences.  Whenever we are together, Lauren wants to listen to my stories – she tells me some of her own.  She loves play of any kind and always invites me to be part of her world – a sparkling, glittery wonderland. 

One of Lauren's selfies, taken in 2015

As I type this, Mario is there with her.  He gets to play in her supercharged universe as I shirk homework to celebrate Lauren in words.   Happy Birthday, Lauren.  As you do grow up, may you take all of this family love with you and bless the world as you have blessed our lives.  You are the sparkles in the air, young lady.