Wednesday, November 30, 2011


When you fall in love, and I mean really in love, you want to know everything about the person.  The first thing you want to connect to is their family. 

I met my husband’s family after I heard the stories.  Stephen was born first, with Mario close behind, followed by Anthony.    Their father, Chev, left a year after Anthony was born, more or less, to pursue a career on Broadway.  My ever-capable, ever-strong Cynthia (my mother-in-law) had the task of raising  three boys to herself.  Cynthia became a computer programmer for UC Berkeley (a new concept and a new occupation at the time), and after school, the three boys were left to themselves, getting into childhood mischief, as is to be expected. 

It wasn’t until their step-father came into the picture that all of this changed.   Cynthia decided to marry again, mainly to import a father-figure into the picture.  She chose a strong German man named Al Warias.  His authority and strictness had mixed results:  it caused the eldest (Stephen) to rebel and the younger two (Mario and Anthony) to become pretty disciplined.  Stephen joined Chev in New York City shortly after said rebellion, and was pretty much non-existent in the younger two boys’ lives.

 Al died of cancer in 1970 (when Mario was 16), and Cynthia was left alone again, raising two young men instead of boys.  Mario and Anthony were the quintessential teen brothers:  fighting, playing, sharing Lucky Charms, and competing  for their Mom’s attention.   

The two were the same in many ways yet worlds apart in others.  Mario was tall and thin; Anthony was shorter and muscular.  They both were athletic: Mario a free-style wrestler and Anthony, a running back in football.  They excelled in school, attracted girls and stayed away from the newly-emerging drugs. 

Competitive beyond understanding, they were each other’s benchmarks until Anthony was injured playing football. 

Because of his speed and great strength, Anthony annihilated the enemy on the field.  During his very first game, after wiping out the offensive line of the opposing team,  their less-than-scrupulous coach instructed one of his players to “take out the knees” of the hot-dog running back.  Anthony went from normal to disabled in one play.  He never returned to the field and took six months before he could walk properly – all while he was in high school.  For the rest of his life, Anthony had knee problems. 

As with most things, the subject wasn’t talked about too much between brothers.  Mario moved on to college and became a champion wrestler (which scholar-shipped him through University) and married Cathy, his first wife, an All-American blonde girl next door.  Anthony dated her sister, but eventually met (and married) an athletic fellow-student named Shirley. 

For me, the time of young families being built was reduced to snapshots and I was left to fill in the details:  Anthony and Shirley, Mario and Cathy around a table with Cynthia.   Anthony and Shirley in New York City, smiling with each other.   Anthony and Shirley holding their new son, Evan.  Mario and Cathy holding baby David.  Anthony and Shirley with Renee; Cathy with David and Joe.  Cathy with David.   Mario with his police dog, Dux.    Cathy with David and Joe.  Being the outsider who came later, I knew the stories: Mario, caught up in his career (and other things), left Cathy and the boys.  Anthony and Shirley moved to the border of California, where Anthony became a US Border Patrol Officer.   Mario (also a Peace Officer) patrolled the Central Coast, and then moved to the Northern San Joaquin valley, where we met. 

Here is where we fell in love.  Here is where I met his mother (who loved me), his cousin (like his sister), and even his father (Chev, still a Broadway actor) and his “step-mother” (Alice, a Broadway actor, herself).  I got to know his sons, David and Joe,and fell in love with them as well.  He met Vince, and unconsciously treated him as his own blood, not just mine.  It was much later that I met Anthony... and only then that I felt unstable and insecure.

Evan and Renee, Anthony's kids
with Baskin and Robin, Bassetts
Anthony had stayed married to Shirley, and was raising his kids with her, as well as two Bassett Hounds.  He was the All-American father and husband and seemed a little disappointed with Mario, who had left Cathy and his boys.  Mario, by the time I met Anthony, was sharing custody with his ex-wife, and now dating me: a much younger girl with a child of her own.  

Anthony didn’t bother much to connect with me, probably thinking I was another blip on the girlfriend screen.  The day I met him, I had popped over to Mario’s place with Vince during the early morning hours.  Anthony was scheduled to leave mid-day. 

While Mario made breakfast for all of us, he tried to involve us in mutually inclusive conversation.  Anthony seemed uninterested, and after awhile of talking only with Mario, he went to sit in the living room. 
I wasn’t going to fall for the silent treatment, and decided to follow him.

“I heard you can burp the alphabet,” I said spontaneously, bringing up an old, manly, brotherly subject.    I heard Mario laugh in the kitchen. 

“Yeah?” Anthony answered, nonchalantly.  “That   was a long time ago.”  I couldn’t tell if he was amused. 
“Are you out of practice?” I smiled, not letting it drop. 

“Mario, what have you told this girl about me?” Anthony yelled at his brother in the kitchen. 

“Breakfast!” Mario yelled back. 
At Cynthia's Retirement Party
(about the time I met Anthony)

As I plated some scrambled eggs, I heard Anthony over my shoulder: “A B C D E F G...” all in a low, continuous burp.  I almost wet my pants laughing.  Mario laughed as well, and as I looked up, Anthony watched me with a wry smile and a foreign, questioning look on his face. 

Since then, I have seen that look many, many times.

For some reason, Anthony’s dead-pan comedy was the funniest thing I ever heard.  Combined with that, I am not shy to laugh.  I am kind of known for it.  It comes out in a loud burst and continues with waves of high-and-low pitched guffawing.  Once in a crowded elevator in San Francisco, Anthony remarked on a poster of breakfast that was strategically placed to make someone’s mouth water.  Since we had just eaten a heavy dinner, it looked sickening.    Anthony agreed , “Just what I feel like right about now:  Breakfast!”  It hit me so funny and I started to laugh.  Most people in the elevator were startled.  I could hear Anthony apologizing to all of them as I guffawed my way out at the next floor. 

Anthony, Shirley, Janet and Mario 1999
The last time I saw Anthony’s questioning look was last October, during a visit to Arizona when we stayed with Anthony and Shirley.  I was playing Rock Star with his now fully grown son Evan and was severely bringing his score down, laughing at my own incompetence on the fake guitar.  I looked up to see Anthony watching us from the kitchen, that same questioning look on his face.  He always wondered what I thought was so funny. 

Yesterday, our email contained a different picture of him: frail, jaundiced and thin.  The picture was taken from a hospital bed, dying in a way unthinkable for such a strong man.  Shirley had sent it, from her phone, given to us at Mario’s request.  His desire to see his brother was understandable: it was hard to comprehend such a severe change in such a short amount of time.  

“I have non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” Anthony had told us in June, over the phone, from the hospital.  I instantly burst into tears.  What else??  What else could happen to Anthony?  It had been a hard, hard year for our family, and a hard few years for Anthony.   We were removed from everything, doing our work here in South Africa. 

Anthony never did well with my tears, but quietly let me get composed.  Mario listened, over my shoulder, in stunned shock. 

“What’s the prognosis? When did you find out?”  I asked. 

Anthony explained.  He had been experiencing strange pain and finally went to the doctor.  The doctor ran some tests, and came up with this: a raging Non-Hodgkin’ its advanced stages.  Very aggressive.  Those words hung, like icicles in the air: very aggressive. 

The doctor asked Anthony why he had waited so long before coming in.

 “He asked me how I could take the pain....” Anthony told us. 

The doctor didn’t know that Anthony knew pain like he knew how to breathe.  His life of pain began with the football injury, and then came the quad accident while working for the Border Patrol.  Then the assorted other injuries.  He was the King of Pain, living with it, like a ghost, ever since I knew him. 

When we hung up the phone, I burst into deeper tears.  Anthony had told us he wouldn’t be “traditionally treating” it.  The cancer was only semi-responsive to traditional cancer treatments and both Mario and Anthony had seen Al, Cynthia and finally Chev die of cancer and its treatments up close.  Because of its aggression, and its dubious results, Anthony’s choice of treatment was more holistic and resigned to the inevitable, which would come sooner, rather than later.

“I have to go out there,” Mario said, after the call. 

I stuttered in my thoughts... We had such a limited budget.  In full-time ministry, there are so many variables.  Our set income is only Mario’s pension, and that is barely enough on most days.  Still, we knew that God would find a way. 

As soon as he found out Mario was coming out, he said a telling thing to Mario: “Let’s have beer and cigars.”

Anthony didn’t smoke or drink.  He and Mario used to do this in their early college days, for a reckless departure from their schedules.  Since those days, both men became solid. They shared a deep faith in God that bound them together.  They lived on opposite ends of the world, but held very similar beliefs.  Asking Mario to a beer and cigar party meant something deeper:  “Let’s have fun, just us, as brothers.”
Anthony, smirking at the camera, with Renee

Mario visited and took a gazillion pictures.  The pictures were the same old Anthony.  Blonde, wry smile, tough-as-nails.  From the visit, one video is very dear to my heart.  It is of the infamous cigar and beer party on Anthony’s back porch.  Anthony and Mario are smoking cigars with Anthony’s new son-in-law, Joshua.  Renee (now 25, and married to him) was filming her father and her uncle trying to teach young Josh (also a non-smoker) how to blow the perfect “O” from a cigar puff. 

In it, the exchange of Anthony being funny and Mario being the big brother are reduced in two minutes: this time involving Josh (who is relatively silent) and Buster, their beloved Boxer.  It is a reduction of who they are, at their most relaxed.

It was taken less than six months ago.  Less than six months before today.  In that short amount of time, the lymphoma has altered my brother-in-law's body with the bleakness that we first heard of it: very aggressive non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma taking him out at the knees.  

Now I am typing from my counter in our cottage here in Johannesburg.  I am in my morning bathrobe.  I look up at the clock and see that is 1:30 in the morning in Arizona. 

Now, my beloved sister-in-law waits at his bedside and talks to him, knowing he can hear much better than communicate.  Now, my niece is working, even though she is expecting her first child in March.  Now my nephew might be sleeping... might be with Shirley.  He has the unfortunate assignment of being strong for everyone. 

Now we are here.

So far removed from the world where Anthony is....

To see the youtube of the "Cigar O's" click here

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


A group of literate farmers forced out of their country chose the Dutch before the American Dream.  They sailed away in an overpriced charter: a leaky boat laden with curses.   Half of them died their first year and it looked like the rest would suffer the same fate.  It wasn't until two Native American men who had no reason to trust the white man in their own land,  saved their lives.  They celebrated the first successful harvest with wine, eels and stewed plums.  

Thanksgiving is among the MOST misunderstood of the holidays.  In knowing documented truths, we are able to see beauty among the traditions that have grown their own appendages and heads. 

On all accounts, the first Thanksgiving happened in Plymouth Plantation, or near about...a three-day celebration that defies our concept of the history.  Compare what you've learned to the most reliable information I've collected over the years: served up to Elementary kids as a feast of knowledge. 

“Pilgrim” means “seeker of Religious Freedom” and America wasn’t their first choice for Utopia. 

In the winter of 1607 a band of people , literate farmers,  refused to be intimidated  by  the King of England, James I.  Since they knew the Bible, they saw the abusive powers of the church and decided to separate from the Church of England.   

They called themselves Separatists, and faced criminal prosecution if King James, found out.  Since he had forbidden any other churches to form or to worship British soil, these separatists  fled to Holland (Leyden) and set up a colony of just themselves where they could worship God in freedom.  

There were hardships: They were in a sea port city of Leyden had only jobs for the business owners or traders.  They were simple farmers.  Their children – who before were only influenced by the English society, were greatly seduced by the Dutch freedoms and language, and in their parents’ eyes, fell vulnerable to the “things of the world, above the things of heaven”.      

They soon decided to travel to distant America (remember, still a British colony) and farm there, in a secure, safe and utopic society to belong only to them. 

THE MAYFLOWER wasn’t the only ship – but the other one leaked. 

In 1620 the first group of the separatists left Leyden for London to sail off (hopefully) for the New World in America.  They chartered two boats: the grand Speedwell and a smaller Mayflower to hold 120 passengers.  The Speedwell, however was a little to “heavily masted” as early journals say, and it had to be abandoned because it had a leak.  They took the smaller Mayflower, and took 102 passengers, setting sail on September 16, 1620.

Halfway on the journey, The Mayflower herself began to leak, and the leaders made a  decision to sail toward America rather than turn around.   

While on board, the leaders of the Separatists began to draft a constitution of sorts, a one-page document that our founding fathers used as a model for the Constitution.  It was called The Mayflower Compact
After 65 days of sailing, the highlands of Cape Cod were spotted by a crew member, and the Pilgrims gave thanks to God for allowing them to see the New World.   Quite a few of them were sick with scurvy. 

Plymouth Rock isn’t where the Pilgrims landed. 

The famous rock we all were taught the Pilgrims valiantly stepped upon and entered the new world isn’t even mentioned in the early journals of the Pilgrims, in the Mayflower Compact or in the historical “Mourt’s Relation”, the most reliable source of the journey and early years. 

In fact, the Pilgrims first “landed” the ship (set anchor) at modern day Provincetown on November 21, 1620.  When they set anchor, a ceremonial reading of the Mayflower Compact was read and nearly everyone signed it.  Even women.

 Years later (as in 1741) a town records keeper in Plymouth loudly opposed a dock being built on the site near Plymouth plantation (which the Pilgrims eventually sailed into).  He pointed out a block of marble that his father had sworn was the very spot that the Pilgrims landed.  This “Plymouth Rock” was homage as a landmark and a National Park now is there. 
Pretty, but not truth. 

The first home of the Pilgrim was The Mayflower. 
While the men built up the plantation they dreamed about, they had to keep returning to the Mayflower to sleep.  The weather was cold and the work was exhausting.  Every tree that built up the homes has to be chopped down – and a common house to store supplies had to be erected before any private home was finished.   

By mid-January the common-house was completed, and the little village began to take shape. The "Great Sickness" raged through the winter months. Half of the colonists would soon be dead. Even the crew of the Mayflower was not spared. Nearly half of her crew would not survive to make the return trip to England in the spring. 

The only hope was the native people, who had every reason to be suspicious of strangers.  In years previous, they had brought guns, the plague and food only for themselves.  They had also kidnapped some of them and taken them back to England. 

Still, a few who had returned to their people knew how to make “the white words” and offered to see if the new, desparate strangers may need help.  In their journals, the pilgrims all say that they were near death and without hope until a man named Samoset came.

Samoset and Squanto were  keys to the Pilgrims surviving their first winter.

When the Pilgrims met them in 1620, the Wampanoag (“the People” in Algonquin)  were competent farmers, fishers, hunters and gatherers.  Even so, they had no plans of befriending the whites.  Too much of the death that they had recently suffered was at the hands of white men.

A man named Samoset (who was not chief, but rather a returning slave who spoke English) walked boldly into the plantation crying out, "Welcome! Welcome, Englishmen!"

He introduced himself to the shocked Pilgrims in English as Samoset, an Abnaki Indian from Maine, who had been kidnapped by explorers and taken to England, only to be dropped off in Algonquin country two years later.  
 He had been visiting the Wampanoags for the past eight months, but he intended to return to his own people within a short time.

Since he was the first Native with whom the Pilgrims had spoken since they arrived in New England, they questioned him for some time, learning from him that the Patuxets, who formerly owned the land on which they had built their settlement, had all died four years before from the plague.

He told them that the Massasoit (chief), Great Sachem of the Wampanoags, was then staying  nearby and he would be happy to introduce them.  The Pilgrims were leery, but desparate. 

Samoset  returned a few days later, this time accompanied by Squanto who amazed the Pilgrims with his almost flawless command of English. He told them that the Massasoit, intended to come to Plymouth later in the day.   Ashort time later the Great Sachem did appear at the top of a nearby hill, attended by 60 of his men – a gesture that showed he was a higher being.- and that he knew they were there.  The Pilgrims were in lonely country now...and could feel it. 

Squanto, like Samoset, was a rescued slave.  He unpacked his story to the Pilgrims in the same was Samoset did.  He  was a Pawtuxet Indian who was captured in 1614 by English seamen and taken to Spain where he was sold as a slave. From there, he  escaped to England, where he lived for several years and learned to speak English.  Upon returning the year before, Squanto found most of his people of his tribe had died of disease. He joined the Wampanoag who were living near Plymouth.

It was Squanto who would teach the Pilgrims how to find herring  fish, and to use it as a fertilizer when planting corn, pumpkins and beans. This was especially important to the Pilgrims because the seeds they had brought with them from England did not do well in the New England soil. Squanto also showed them how to find clams and eels in the rivers and how to hunt for deer, bears and turkeys. The children also learned where to find nuts and berries of all kinds.  Which ones were poisonous, which ones were okay to eat.

Cod, eel and gambling.  The First Thanksgiving, 1621
The first celebration of life and harvest was in 1621 in November.   William Bradford, the Governor of the Plantation wrote in his “history”:
"They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwelling against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength, and had all things in good plenty; for as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All summer there was no want. And now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first, but afterward decreased by degrees. And besides water fowl, there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, and now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion.--And thus they found the Lord to be with them in all their ways, and to bless their out-goings and in-comings..."

There was no invitation issued.  The feast was a mutual idea of both tribes, at peace with one another.  For three days the Pilgrims and their Indian guests gorged themselves on venison, roast duck, goose and turkey, clams and other shell-fish,  eels, corn bread, leeks and water-cress and other "sallet herbes," (the coarse spelling of the Pilgrim English).  For dessert there were stewed  wild plums and dried berries, all washed down with wine made of the wild grape.

This meant the preparation of unusually large quantities of food, some of it unfamiliar. Only four of their married women had survived, and only five teenage girls, three of those being the sole survivors of their families. I used to complain about the ladies being asked to wash dishes while our men watched football!!   For the women who prepared the feast for a three day event (to say nothing of the clean-up) under brutal conditions, these women set a standard for celebration that Martha Stewart couldn’t touch.

One of the lesser spoken about pieces of the celebration were the contests:  running, jumping,  and wrestling. There were also exchanges of games and a new ball game “kick” was played.  The Wampanoag told elaborate stories,  performed in dance and song.   Miles Standish , not to be outdone, challenged his troops to a military review:  marksmanship, drills, marching.   In the end, there was a small game of muskets vs.  bows and arrows.  In the end, the party was called for snow...and everyone went home. 

Thus they elaborately celebrated the prospect of abundance until their next harvest.

Peace doesn’t last if people forget the price of war. 

The peace that was so desparately needed for the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag to work together eventually eroded.  Another plague (the small pox epidemic of 1633-34) swept away thousands of Algonquins and made more land available.

Only between fifteen to eighteen thousand Native People still survived in all of New England. New England was receiving thousands of  new arrivals, eager to start claiming and clearing their own piece of America.  They all had no idea (like the Pilgrims) how important peace between the peoples were. 

 Land transfer was not a simple matter.  Simple Colonial law guarded the rights of the natives, and demanded an amicable transfer.  This made it "hard" for the new settlers, who decided to "bypass" colonial law.  

 In 1675, a full-scale war erupted between the increasing number of colonists and the Indians. Now known as King Phillip's War, after the name of the Massasoit's son, who was then chief, the clash lasted eleven years and caused great destruction on both sides... but that is another story.

Why we should celebrate:

The day is given to us to remember working together, making room in your heart for other beliefs and cultures and to share land – and ultimately THANK God (a belief held by Wampanoag and Pilgrims).   We can grow something, eat what we grow and share...and stop to remember that we should be thankful, even in the midst of death, disease and hard work. 

A day that I remember my whole life as being turkey and stuffing  and spending with family, I value this holiday.  Here,  it is 1000 degrees outside (and I’m exaggerating).  So eat roasted turkey for me...and a slice of pumpkin pie.


Dear Natalie,

I guess I’m in denial that you’re leaving.  You really want to move to Cape Town??

When I left you yesterday I waited in my car, waiting to cry (I didn’t want to start driving and face a downpour...from the inside).  Even though you’re “just” my personal trainer, I wanted to tell you how much you’ve meant to me... and hope you can listen without interrupting. 

When I first saw you at Planet Fitness, I thought “I want that girl to be my trainer!  She looks mean!!”  And fit... there was that.  My  weight was at an all-time high and osteoporosis ran in my family.  I knew I’d have to add weights to my workout.  I knew it. 

So, when you first made an appointment with me I was a little intimidated.  You turned out to be no-nonsense and made me write down everything I ate.  I remember you hated me eating popcorn and’s those “P” foods that get me in trouble!

Little by little I lost weight...and we got to know each other.  You had a soft heart, after all, and I was convinced you’d be ready for the Gospel.  After all, why be physically fit and not Spiritually directed?? May as well be fat...

So, when I shared my story with you and shared how much I lived for and loved God, I expected you to be inspired...or more inspired than you were.  I felt if I only told you the right way to Jesus you would find Him, and let Him into your heart. 

So, between sweating and lifting and fielding cell phone calls, I shared more and more about my God, my reason for living, with you.  I think you finally made the bet with me because you were tired of me hounding you....

Our bet was that I would go on your stringent, awful diet for ten days (no coffee or red wine) and that if I did it without cheating you would come to church.  I was determined to do it!!

I remember losing three kg’s and 9 cm’s on my waist and I was happier that YOU WERE COMING TO CHURCH!!!  You came, and like it.  In my mind, though, I knew you were fulfilling your obligation to me as I was to you...and you were as likely to keep coming as I was to keep eating that way. 

Through the years (it’s been 3 years) we shared our desires for our lives with each other.  You watched my weight go up and down.  I saw you shaking your head at me more than once. 

“Jan, if you only did what I’d tell you to do, you’d be happy!”  Remember how much you said this to me?? I used to answer you: “Duh, Natalie!! If you only did what I told you to do, YOU’D be happy!”  You chased my physical person around, I chased your spiritual one.

We became friends... a most unusual relationship for Personal Trainer and client, especially since I liked calling you my Nazi. 

So, Nats, as I say goodbye to you, I can tell you that I know you will be a successful personal trainer.  You will be a success at anything you challenge yourself to do.  The thing I want to ask of you is that you will give Jesus a real chance at your heart.  He is the one who created you, who loves you deeply and knows you better than anyone ever could. 

After all, I’d like to see you in heaven.  There I’ll have a perfect body.

Kind of like yours!


Monday, November 21, 2011


The night before we got married: December 28, 1987.
I was 25.  

This year, Mario and I will be married for 24 years.  During this year, I will reach the point where I have been married to Mario longer than I have been not married to Mario in my life.  

Sometimes folks ask me how I knew I was in love and what it was that convinced me that Mario was the one I should marry.  The question is usually asked by people who genuinely want to know if there was a time of actual realization when I knew this was “my person”...the person that was “the one”.   After all, with marriage’s success rate (not impressive) in this world, how was I to know if we “would work”?

I know the answers I am supposed to give: “Love is a verb. A commitment.  A decision, based on a real desire to make it work with someone.”   These are answers of highly successful couples.

 After all, a covenant commitment to someone else (the word covenant  comes from an ancient Hebrew word:  bris or brit)  used to involve the shedding of blood to show the most committed devotion.   The central idea behind the word is that God made an agreement with all humans.  He challenged us to do as He did, making certain promises and commitments.  The agreement, like a marriage, is based on a mutual love.

This is the answer I know is right. my heart, I know the moment when I knew that I would marry Mario.  It is the same moment I knew I would surrender to him.  It was a moment that showed me that I would be given supernatural power to love him with everything I had inside of me.  This moment, which took me completely by surprise, was the moment of our first hug. 

When I got to know Mario he was my boss.  I worked for him as a park aid (see how I don’t capitalize my job title?? It was that insignificant) and he was the park’s Supervising Ranger (capitalized).  I was a single mother of a young son, a baby who gave me new purpose and a life worth living.  Even though my life was filled with love, I found myself single and penniless and in need of a job.  Living with my parents, I quickly realized I was cliché, and I knew I’d have to get serious about building a future. 

I took the only job I could find: my old one, working at a nearby State Park.  The new supervising Ranger (Mario) was known for being a cop, rather than a conservationist – Rangers were either one or the other, and I preferred the latter. 

I was amazed at Mario’s ability to manage crucial things: he didn’t care much if people liked him or not.  He was more concerned about following the letter of the law.  In my eyes, Mario was kind of a classic cop type, complete with mirrored sunglasses and big moustache.   

Even so, Mario was a good boss, and appreciated my work ethic, as well as my predicament.  He was also a single father, only two years separated from his ex-wife and two small sons.  

As with most situations, Mario was exposed to my personal life and I was to his.  He seemed to have a great deal of female interests, all well-educated and successful women who would call with titles attached to their names.  They didn’t seem like a gaggle of swooning females, but it was obvious he had interest in them and vice-a-verse. 

Much later, Mario told me that he was under the impression that I had quite a large following myself.  Since I am genuinely friendly (a positive for a park employee)  park visitors (mostly young men about to ride their dirt bikes) would always ask me out.   Mario saw me as young and pretty and flirtatious.  He hadn’t been exposed to many girls who were friendly without a hidden agenda. Being friendly at work was good, but at the end of the day, the only man in my life was my year-old son. 

It was during my first months working for Mario, I had a very strange dream. 

In it, I dreamed I was getting married, and in my beautiful gown, and behind a veil, I walked down the aisle of a church holding my father’s arm.  Behind the veil, I could see my husband waiting for me, and when I got to the front of the church, he lifted it.  There was Mario.  I woke up quickly.  I was a little grossed out: this was my boss!  Also, he was so OLD!!  Both things were insurmountable and I wondered how I could have dreamed such a thing.

At work, I was embarrassed.  I felt like he knew what I had dreamed.  I started to wonder why I would allow my brain to dream this.   Mario moved, normally about the office, while I tried to type and look away.  In a few days I was over the embarrassment of my dream, and went back to functioning as I always did.

On June 12, 1987, my ex-boyfriend (the father of my baby) called me at work.  He sounded gentle and sweet.  He asked to see the baby, tomorrow, even offering to come and pick him up if I couldn’t bring him.  I was angry.  It was so typical of him, asking the day before he wanted something, as if I had no life or plans.  I coldly told him it would be impossible.

“If you want to see the baby,” I said , “why don’t you give me a little more notice?  Maybe a week’s notice so that I can make arrangements.”  I tried to sound collected, but he had a way of rattling me.  Instead of arguing, he said he would give me more notice in the future and then he hang up. 

I immediately felt guilty.  While I had complained that my ex didn’t know how to ask me for visitation (or anything, for that matter), nicely, he had just done so, and received my cold “no” without argument or objection.  In about ten minutes it dawned on me that the next day was his birthday.  THAT’S why he wanted our son to be there.  THAT’s why he only asked the day before...because I didn’t offer.  WHY?  Because I FORGOT!!  Why did I forget??  Because I was a lousy, disorganized, heartless human being. 

I went into Mario’s office to tell him what just happened.  He was gone.  His residence, a few yards away, was lit up with life.  After work, I went over to ask his advice.  These work  conversations were becoming more and more frequent.  He was the single parent I turned to for advice, and I trusted him.  

When he answered the door he looked surprised.  I was surprised also, seeing Mario in civilian clothes (a t-shirt and jeans) and with his dog.  I quickly went into the reason I was there: the phone call, the details... he decided to ask me inside. 

I sat down on his couch and told him the whole story, and he listened intently.  I felt very guilty, not just for forgetting my ex’s birthday, but for leaving him, and with a baby.  I knew it was the right thing to do, but – I asked Mario – what would he do in a situation like this?

Mario looked at me intently. 

“I will ALWAYS remember November 5th,” He said, finally.  “That’s my ex-wife’s birthday.”

“Now I feel worse...”

“No,” he smiled, realizing it had a reverse impact.  “The mother of my children is very important to THEM,” he said.  “You have to mark your calendar and make a habit of reminding your son.  Remind him to call his father, remind him that his father is special because he had him.”

I couldn’t help tearing up.  It was good advice, but I had already blown it.  “Should I let him go see his dad tomorrow?” I asked. 

“I don’t know,” Mario said, finally.  “What is your main objection to letting him go?” 

I started to explain my reasoning, and Mario gave me his perspective.  The conversation  broadened quickly and became something deeper.  We began sharing hopes and dreams for our children and ourselves.   We shared about our pasts our hopes for the future.  I admired a genuineness and solidity in him.  He admired the fire in my heart and how I instinctively loved people. 

It was then he said:  “I know everyone at work can tell how we feel about each other.”



I could see he was still talking...but I couldn’t tell what he was saying.  Did he just say that he knew everyone at work can tell how we feel about each other??  FEEL about EACH OTHER??  Do I have feelings for him?

I respect him.  He’s a great boss.  He’s good looking.  I even married him in my dream.... 

Does he have feelings for me??  What the HELL does this mean??? 

I was perplexed and dumb until I heard a LOUD knock on the door. 

Mario stopped talking and answered it.  It was a park visitor (one who had asked me out before).  He looked at Mario, then at me, then said:

“You better get back down to work!! All hell’s breaking loose!”

Mario switched into the work-mode that was so familiar.  “I’ll get changed.  You wait in the truck and you’ll have to dispatch.”  With that, he flew down the hall and shut his door.  He came out minutes later, looking like a cop again, buckling his gun belt.

We raced into the park, where we saw a scuffle happening between some folks, including one of the rangers.  Mario was already on the radio, and within five minutes, he had arrested someone. I still remember the truck racing, the dust surrounding us and me running into the office to do dispatch.  In a few minutes, everything was calm again. 

While two rangers (Mario and someone else) took the suspect to jail and another ranger shut down the park,  I sat ready to dispatch, should anything be needed or go wrong.  It was quiet....

My head was returning to the conversation between Mario and me.  It probably wouldn’t ever be resolved.

Mario (nine years my senior and my boss) had at least three girlfriends.  I had no desire to be one in four.  Mario may have meant that he admired or respected me.  I didn’t know why I was so hung up on this...

It hit me. 

I was hung up on what Mario said because I knew what I wanted.  I wanted a wonderful, faithful husband: one that I could share my life and heart with, like my dad did with my mom.  I wanted a father for my son who would love him and be there for him.  One who understood the balance of his biological father being in the picture.  I wanted a husband, not a boyfriend.  I wanted a solid, steady, dependable man – not a boy

I wanted someone just like Mario.

I wanted Mario.


Mario had the dispatcher from the jail call the park, telling me that “Your officers have just booked the suspect and are returning home.  The Chief officer has asked if you would stay until they return.” I agreed.

When they came back, there was the obligatory tale of how the suspect was detained, chatted on the way to jail and booked... then we shut the office down.  As the other officer was leaving, Mario asked me quietly if I’d like to finish our discussion. 

I did. 

We went to his place again, where he offered me leftover chicken and rice.  We ate, talked and he shared a bit more of his heart.  I asked what he meant by him “having feelings” for me... and he answered. 

“I like you,” he began.  “I think you’re amazing.  I like how you are with your son and with my kids.  I like the way you work.  I like the way you are with other people....” he went on.  I couldn’t believe how much he was admitting to.  It is so nice to be be seen as someone with loads of potential.

But...I stopped him. 

“Mario,” I said, almost apologetically.  “I think you’re amazing, too.  You’ve probably heard that I am a desperate single mom and I’m just looking for a husband and a father for my son.  Whoever says this is right.  I’m looking for just that, and if that’s not you, then tell me now.  I’d rather you hurt me now than later.”

Mario looked at me carefully and smiled.  “Janet, that’s not me right now.  It may not be me anytime soon.  I’m not ready to make that commitment to anyone right now.  I want to be truthful, and so I have to say... let’s just be friends.”

I smiled back.  Inside I was disappointed.  In my heart, I had hoped for another answer.  Still, because of the openness of my question- the ultimatum, if you will- I was happy for a clear direction.

“I’m glad to be friends with you,” I answered.  “I need your wisdom.” 

Mario stood up and walked me outside to my car.  We chatted about the next day 
when we would see each other and be friends...

“Can I have a hug?” he asked, walking toward me.  “Hugs are cool between friends, right?”

It didn’t sound like a good idea. I felt vulnerable and soft... but he was walking toward me.  I laughed and received him just before getting into my car. 

What happened next was indescribable...but I’ll try.  Mario’s arms went around me and my arms went around him.  As we embraced, I fit perfectly into his chest, and my face cradled into his neck.  He smelled like soap, and I loved him instantly.  It was like heaven opened and angels descended and harp music began to play.  I was home in his arms, and I felt ever fear and grief and happiness he had ever felt.  I felt like a little girl who was rescued from drowning. 

The hug lasted for about five minutes.

When we eventually let go of each other we just looked at each other...and I knew.

“Yeah, hugs are cool.” Mario said, and I thought" "Yeah!! It was good for him, too!!"    

Us Today

So...our covenant has survived the depression, the boredom, the hideous selfishness in both of us.  Death, anguish, addiction,  blended families, poverty, debt, and opposing forces who have tried hard to separate us.
Love is a decision.  It is a verb.  It is a covenant.      

But if it weren’t for that hug, we could have missed how perfect we are for each other.  

Thursday, November 17, 2011


“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it.  Alice Walker

The Valley Road we live on is the gateway to the North of Johannesburg.  On a clear day you can see the skyline of Johannesburg Central, with its Vodacom Tower and the Carlton building. In another direction you can see Sandton, the banking district of Joburg, the place where the money from diamond, oil and precious metal mining is filtered through and establishes Africa on the world market. 

It is the green hills of Northriding that has been our home for the last four and a half years.  Nestled in between two main streets and near malls and shopping centers, Northriding is a haven for horses and people who own them.   Our cottage is in horse property central – in a subdivision called Northriding Equestrian Estates. 

Before you start seeing me as an elegant equestrienne sitting upright on an English saddle, think again.  We are the blessed friends of a couple who own a sprawling property where the husband raises geese and champion pigeons - happily installed in remote coops on the property.   We are literally surrounded by sprawling properties and dirt roads.  Electric fences are meant to keep intruders out and iron gates are how we access our property. 

The white geese aren't so nice....

Each day I take our dogs for a walk, and drink in the beautiful scenery. 

November is the time when all of the jacaranda trees are in bloom, and will soon be bare of their magnificent purple flowers.  The time of year coincides with the year-end exams, since South African schools run from January to December (with lots of breaks).  Just  a stone ’s throws north of us,  in Pretoria, the enormous number of Jacaranda trees planted as street trees and in parks and gardens carry a certain magic. At the University of Pretoria there is an unwritten superstition that if a flower from the Jacaranda tree drops on your head, you will pass all your exams.   My friend, Portia has a saying: “If you wait until the jacaranda bloom is falling off the tree to study, it’s too late.”  I agree with her. 

It all sounds so beautiful, doesn’t it?

It’s easy to miss...and I often grow callous, seeing the blessing of all of the beauty as ordinary and commonplace in my life.  I have gone from appointment to appointment and not seen one single tree, on some days. 

It was such a day last Monday when I was driving in to the subdivision and was stopped by a strange sight.  The trees that line the iron-gated Valley Road were all in full bloom, like ballerinas welcoming me into a tranquil world of beauty. 
I stopped and looked. 

I remembered Alice Walker and her book, The Color Purple.  It is full of such memorable quotes, but mostly the one I listed above.  In its pages, , Celie, the narrator, is a poor, uneducated, fourteen year-old black girl living in rural Georgia (she reminds me of a township girl). Celie starts writing letters to God, seeking understanding of all of the miseries of life- her life.  She doesn’t understand why she is not loved or appreciated until much later – during a visit from her husband’s mistress, who tells her a secret: she is loved.  God, the mistress explains, has created purple – the color of both joy and misery, like life. 

I thought of being beautiful.  I once was, and now I am losing my bloom, as they say.  I thought of misery and poverty and not being known...of Celie’s cries of the everyone in us.  I thought of life and its simple beauties and how much I am loved and cherished.  I thought of misery and heartache and rape and first-hand and second-hand experience with all of these things... and I thanked God. 

For the misery, the pain, the joy, the love and the hardship and laughter and happiness and friendships and family and heartbreak of missing all of these things... I am truly thankful. 

And I drove in....

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us — don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

I love Emily Dickinson, but never had her heart.  I’m somebody, and the cry of my heart is “Know Me!!  I’m somebody special!!”  It is in me like a personality, like a big lollipop or Easter Egg, waiting to be found.  It is the perfume that follows me everywhere I go . 

Lately, I have noticed that it is the distracting thing in my relationship with my Father, my Savior...the voice of His Holy Spirit that knows me beyond what I can be known here on earth and who has greater things for me than the things I can imagine for myself.

This morning, as I bounded out of bed to check email, I found Mario at the computer, looking at a web page from Abiding Life Ministries, International.  He turned to me and said “Mike Wells died”.  In my early fog, it took a few seconds to connect the dots. 

Mike (we know about 100 Mikes) Wells (Mike Wells, got it...southern drawl and Holy Spirit) died (Impossible. He was our age).  Hearing turned into “Are you sure?” but I could see over his shoulder...the news that astounded me. 

Mike Wells was one of the first Christian lecturers we ever met.  Thank God. 

I know many people who are exposed to the ministry of superstar Christians... with ministries that are named after them and run by them and tout their own personal philosophies with a little of Jesus mixed in. 
Abiding Life Ministries was different. 

Mike was a short man who spoke like he was on his porch in Texas... and he made us laugh.  He did a conference at our church in Arnold, a little one in the mountains of California that many people said was full of messed up people. 

The conference was about the Holy Spirit and listening to God’s voice.  Abiding in Christ because He is our life – was something I had heard in my spirit the first day I decided to believe and let Him in to fill up my life.  As many notes as I took, I knew I couldn’t remember... so we bought cassette tapes with the same teaching on them.  The tapes were called “Living the Abiding Life” and we gave them away the month before we moved to Africa. 

Mike wrote a book called “Sidetracked in the Wilderness” which seemed like a strange book for a new Christian to read, but I did.  We gave it away several times and had to keep ordering more.  “Problems, God’s Presence and Prayer” was another one he wrote, and we kept ordering more as they made their way out of our front door. 

Mike was married to Betty, a woman of incredible strength who supported the ministry in more than words.  She saw Mike travel the world as He took the message of a beautiful and simple salvation in Jesus all over the world.  Every year we’d get a long letter with our Christmas card from them asking us how things are going with us here in Africa, how our kids we were porch friends shooting the breeze. 

This year, an email (with a request for more material) to Betty was returned almost immediately.  “Guess what?” she wrote, “Mike is in Pretoria! She gave us the details and where he would be speaking...and we abandoned our schedule to go see him. 

We got there early, a Dutch Reformed Church we’d probably never set foot in, since it was so “not our cup of tea”...but Mike was there, and we knew he’d be Mike.  After the hymn we sung in Afrikaans, he was introduced and went up to the podium to speak.  There he was, his own southern drawl we heard all the time (now on cd) but he had grey hair. 

Same message, same abiding.  “There is nothing that the nearness of Christ cannot heal....”   He had just come back from an African trip and spoke a bit about that.  His real message was that Jesus is near, the Holy Spirit in us and our Father makes us who we are....

Afterward we waited for an admiring crowd to dissipate to greet our friend.  He smiled broadly, hugged us and said “Betty said you might show up here!”

Today, I read that he passed quietly in his sleep on a trip to Costa Rica, there to preach and build relationship with the guys there.  All I could think of was Betty... how did they get his body back home?  What if that happens to us?  Life is so fragile....

As I voiced my concerns to Mario, he was so calm.  “When I go, I want to go doing what God has for me to do.  I know where Mike is now.”  So matter of fact...

On the ALMI website this morning (, I read carefully, seeing that Mike’s body came home to the USA for burial, where friends lowered it into a simple grave with surrounding mountains and clear weather.  A video of his memorial ...and his last letter to his friend, Dr. Alex Matthew in India:

“I see why God put you in my life to be an influence and to steer me in the right direction.  I remember being 16 and buying an old truck from the farmer next to us.  It was so old that when I pulled it, by tractor, from his barn, the barn caved in.  I made that truck like new.  The old man was really happy.  I had it for years and nearly wore it out.  Then I sold it to a young fellow that rebuilt it like new and took it to Canada.  I think of that in the context of abiding.  You were given an old message and made it relevant to me.  I will pass it on, as an old message, to someone younger to make new for their generation. You have been blessed and God has put the message, through you, into others.  It is up to them to make it “new” for their generation.

It is interesting that at 60 I can’t be motivated. I was invited to speak to 2,000 pastors (more of that later).  I just said, “OK.” That was it.  I have done little things as though they were big things (I have done three full conferences for only one person), therefore, God has allowed me to do big things as though they are little. I am not motivated by being someone. I, like you have taught me, only care about Him and what He is saying. I was offered to be on television with a “famous” American evangelist and I said, “No, I like what I do in villages.” Brother, there is the tree of good and evil and we are not to eat from it. Therefore, I cannot say that what I have done in my Christian life was good or bad, a success or failure, productive or not, expansive or not, or that people were trained or not. Eating from the tree of life has freed me from such thinking.

I only want Him.

Their last Christmas card is on our refrigerator still, their smiling faces remind me of how fragile our life here is.  

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Mario with Dux
In our former lives, my husband used to be a cop.  He trained his partner (a German police dog, Dux), with such distinguished effort that they won the gold medal in the California Police Olympics.  Dux and Mario’s team would be called out to find suspects at large, and to sniff out hiding offenders.   They were a team, partners to the core. 

 By the time we married, Dux was a normal part of our lives, but now with arthritis and hip dysplasia (a common concern in aging German Shepherds).  He was our pet instead of a part of the force.  For Dux’s retirement from the force, Mario had a portrait taken that was framed and hung in his office.
Shortly after retirement, Dux had to be put to sleep.  It was like losing a family member for Mario, and he swore to never again bond with another dog. 

Three years later, I took the kids for pony rides at a local park and saw Tasha, a half-Malamute, half-pitbull mix that was on display near the pony rides as a cooperative effort with the SPCA.  The kids fell in love with her and so did I.  Problem was, so did a few other families.  It looked as if Tasha’s adoption day would happen that day and we would miss our chance.  The kids whined all the way home, begging me to bring Mario back, in order that Tasha could work her charm on him... and we did.  A week later we brought her home after we passed the adoption screening.

Vince with Tasha
Tasha was more than a dog- she was part of our family for 14 years, growing with us and our kids.  In 1999 she began to show signs of the same hip dysplasia that Dux did, and Mario took her to the vet to prevent the inevitable.  The vet honestly told us that the humane thing was to put her to sleep and spare her from the possibility of a painful end.  We didn’t.

A year later, Tasha was using only three legs and couldn’t make it up the stairs.  When Mario took her to the vet for her final visit, we hardly slept the night before, Mario especially.   My tough-as-nails husband  took her in, said goodbye, and cried all day, vacuuming up any remnant of her memory.  Our daughter came home from school, took one look at her dad and wailed in grief, knowing that he had made the decision.   The rest of the day she spent holed up in her room, crying.  I sat in shocked grief, playing solitaire on the computer, deaf to the wailing family around me.

For eight years we were dogless, as Mario swore that the grief of losing another dog would most likely kill him.  We moved to Africa, and began our lives here, so filled with activity and friendships that we hardly noticed that we had no pets for the first time in our lives. 

Slowly, the feeling of homesickness set in.  After the honeymoon period of full-time ministry wore off, I desperately missed my family.   While we communicated by phone, our physical touch and closeness was gone, and on most days, I pined for our grown children and their kids.  I would watch TV and feel so lonely, even though I was married to the most wonderful friend I ever could hope for.  I felt like a part of me was dying.

Zuzu ben Dog Breath
One day, while shopping at the local thrift store for a lamp, I decided to see what else they had.  Since the local thrift store just happened to be at the SPCA, “what else they had” was a kennel full of rescued dogs.  In the kennel I saw a smaller version of Tasha.

As soon as I passed the cage, we saw each other.  She ran up to the gate, looking at me as if she recognized me.  I looked at her in the same way.  Instead to the larger breed, this one was a small one: the description said simply “ Xuxia -Min Pin X J/R”.  The attendant told me that her name was Xuxia, (ZOO-zee-yuh) andhad been left by her family who moved overseas and was  a cross between a Jack Russell Terrier and a Miniature Pinscher. 

I had no respect for Jack Russells- every single one I met had been a high and mighty, unfriendly yapping little thing.  This one seemed dominated by the other breed – the miniature pinscher.  I went home and read about both breeds.  I found out that the  Jack Russell among  the dogs with the highest amount of intelligence and the most territorial – hence my previous perception of them.  The Miniature Pinscher was originally bred to chase out vermin, but was enormously playful. 

I went back to see her the next day. 

Xuxia recognized me immediately and was impatient for me to open the door (the rules were you were not allowed to touch the dogs).  I asked her (out loud) if she wanted to go home with me.  It was the wrong thing to do.  She squealed and danced and barked...and I began to cry. 

I came home to ask Mario about it.  He looked at me sideways, and said “Absolutely not.”
I began a sentence I thought I never would: “I need a companion.  This dog needs us...will you please just go look at her?”  I showed him my research on the breeds, I asked for his grace to accept another one into our lives.

After three or four days, he caved.

Who's tougher???

The following week (after passing another adoption screening) we brought her home and named her “Zuzu” – the name of George Bailey’s youngest daughter in “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

She was everything I wanted in a dog.  A neurotic, possessive, skittish ball of joy who, I admit, had a yapping bark and was extremely territorial.  In addition, she sniffed out every mole on our property, dug it up and shook the life out of it.  She took long, beautiful walks with me and curled up next to me during my reading time, or TV time. 

Still, she yearned for more. 

When we bought her a squeaking toy that looked like a hot dog, she licked its face and lay on top of it.  When we took it away, she barked until we gave it back.  The vet said she had probably had a litter of pups that had been given away too early – we agreed.  He suggested getting another dog.

We began visiting the same SPCA to shop for a companion for our neurotic Zuzu.  With all of the compatibility tests we did Zuzu saw each dog as a threat to her relationship with us.  We finally decided to adopt a puppy (something we had never done).  

The puppy we adopted from down the road, our car mechanic had two min pin mixes who had a litter.  Mario chose the tan one and we brought her home a week later.  The puppy was a nameless, almost faceless delight who came home barely larger than my hand.  Zuzu took to her  in about a week, and then claimed as her own.  She would become angry when we held her, but taught her everything she knew:  how to heel, how to catch, how to bark at threats...and the killing of moles seemed to come naturally.  We named the puppy Peaches.

Today I came home from the gym and the little schnitzels were waiting for me to walk them, even though it is about 1000 degrees outside.  As I hooked their leashes into their collars, they yapped with such utter excitement that it made me laugh.  Such idiot dogs...

Such beautiful, joyful, loving, life-saving idiots.