Sunday, June 18, 2017


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.


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


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 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--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.