Wednesday, May 30, 2018


Scarlett Star -- Last month 

Today I was trying to tell Scarlett, my granddaughter, a knock-knock joke. 

Me:                       Knock-knock.
Scarlett:               Who’s there?
Me:                       Interrupting Cow
Scarlett:               (smiles mischievously) Um…no.  You can’t come in.

I laughed pretty loud, and Scarlett laughed at me laughing.  “Grandma,” she said, exaggerating her own laughter.  “We’re having so much fun!”

Laughing is fun and we know this.  My grandkids love laughing; they even invent reasons to do it—and Scarlett is no exception.  She loves playing barbies with me and pretending one breaks their leg just so we call over Doc McStuffins, who will save the day.  Doc McStuffins is huge, compared to Scarlett’s Barbies.  Sometimes she makes her walk over to them like the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man, which makes both of us laugh.  Scarlett loves making me laugh.  She loves being good at this.

Scarlett Star Rodriguez was born in New Mexico four years ago today, in a birthing room perched on the top floor of the hospital.  After a long labor, Rikki delivered Scarlett, who was promptly weighed, measured, and handed over to her father, Vince (my son) as Rikki recovered.  Scarlett relaxed into his arms and after a few minutes with her, he let me hold her myself.  This scene will be with me forever—it was a perfect, peaceful time after a long, tumultuous labor.

Scarlett was finally here.

The birth of a child is always a little unpredictable, but soon things became normal and Vince and Rikki brought her home to meet Bruno, the family dog, accepted her as his baby. 

Scarlett was the first child to be born after Mario and I returned from South Africa, and we rejoiced that we were so close.  Even though the family still lived miles away in New Mexico, I was grateful to be back in the USA, only two time zones away from a phone call—a simple plane ride from here to there.  Still, Scarlett’s birth magnified the desire for all of us to be closer.  It also exposed an interesting fact: California was Vince’s home, but New Mexico was Rikki’s. 

Where would Scarlett find her home?  The answer was, as it is for all children, that Scarlett’s home was with her parents.  No matter where they chose to live, Scarlett’s most important connection would be with her mother and father during her formative years.  

By the time Scarlett turned one, anyone could see she was a secure and happy baby.  Vince and Rikki eventually decided to move “back” to California, and so we are very close now.  After a getting-to-know-you period, Scarlett started socializing with us regularly.  She became more and more accepting of us, and each step was a miracle. 

Today Scarlett Star turns FOUR!  She has grown into a delightful, friendly, joy-filled girl who we love being around.  Every other week, for a Friday trip to Chico, Scarlett accompanies me to see her cousins and Auntie Alicia.  These days are especially beautiful, since the building of strong family connections is so important.  She also loves her extended family, running to her cousins at family gatherings and clinging to them with glee.  "There's my cousin," she says, pointing at a picture on our refrigerator.  "That's my family."

Yesterday I asked Scarlett what she wanted for her birthday.  She thought awhile and then she said, “Well, I’ll tell you what I want, but Mommie said I could have it if I am a very good goy-al.” I smiled at this and waited with great anticipation.  She came closer and whispered her heart’s desire: “I want a can of soda all to myself!” 

Remember when the idea of a can of soda was magical?  When your toys were real and the world was a safe place filled with endless possibilities to have fun?  That’s how old Scarlett is today—the magical age of four. 

Happy Birthday, Scarlett Star!  You are an amazing goy-al.

Monday, May 28, 2018


December 9, 1985 - April 28, 2007

Every year on Memorial Day, I remember one soldier—his name was Jay-D Ornsby-Adkins.  He was handsome, funny, compassionate, kind to strangers, and enlisted in the US Army.  I think of him to remember what Memorial Day is all about—to honor the soldiers and sailors who have paid the ultimate price while serving their country in the armed services.  Jay-D was  born on December 9, 1985 and was killed in Iraq on April 28, 2007, making him only twenty-one years old when he died.

The reason I know of Jay-D in the first place is because of Morgan, a girl who has been Alicia’s best friend since high school.  It was not long after I met her that I found out her brother was killed in action. 

It has made me see this holiday, Memorial Day, much differently.

Jay-D’s mother, Robyn, is a beautiful woman who now bears the dubious distinction of being a Gold-Star Mom.  “I have a hair salon,” she once told me, “and every year I ask people if they know what Memorial Day is.  Only one or two will know exactly what the holiday is for—only a few know who we are remembering.” 

She’s not exaggerating.  According to a recent Gallup poll, only 28% of Americans know that Memorial Day is specifically to honor those who died in war.  Veteran’s Day is to honor those who served—Memorial Day is to honor those who have died in battle.

These fallen soldiers leave behind families.  These families are given a folded flag and a thank you from the U.S. Government.  We, as a nation, also grieve on this day, with them.  We remember them as more than bodies on a field—we remember the people that they were. 

“My Jay-D was born a mischievous little monkey,” Robyn told me, laughing.  “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 grew up dearly loved, an active boy who loved to play.  He was fearless and mighty, never running from any fight.  “He wouldn’t tolerate anyone bullying him,” Robyn told me.  “He’d give them a good fight, for sure.”  Robyn stopped to explain how hard it was to teach Jay-D the delicate balance of sticking up for himself and having self-control.  As soon as she felt he learned this lesson, he started sticking up for others. 

“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 laughed.  “When he got home, I asked him why he would fight other people’s battles, and he answered me straight: ‘Well, it just didn’t seem right!’”

Jay-D's anti-bullying campaign  was in place long before any even existed. “At a time when it was not cool for anyone to help the Down Syndrome kid in school, he did.  He would defend an underdog, stand up for the new kids, and even helped others when no one else would.”  

The boy who fought for the rights of others also learned how to express his own tender interior.  “He taught himself how to play guitar, he loved ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ which he played very well.”

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

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

Through tears, Robyn told me about the day her son was killed:  “It was actually supposed to be his day off.  He wasn’t supposed to work that day, but his team 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-- and killed three of the four soldiers in Jay-D’s Hummer.  The enemy was fired upon by the surviving convoy, but their deaths did not bring justice.  War really is hell.

Robyn was able to bury Jay-D’s remains in Sunset View Cemetary, a place in Jackson.  “It is a beautiful and peaceful place.” 

Today, the Ornsby’s usually celebrate Jay-D’s memory with friends and close family.  One year she decorated a wine barrel and burned a special candle, signifying how the light of love will always burn bright in her heart.  She will take delight in having her grandson close by, a little boy named after his Uncle Jay-D. 

Robyn's Jay-D (1985)      and        Morgan's Jay-D (2015)

For Memorial Day, please take a deep breath and remember a fallen hero.  Think of Jay-D, his heart of gold, and his Gold Star Mom, Robyn.  Remember his sister, Morgan, who honors her family and her brother's memory every day of her life.  

Resolve to be part of the minority of Americans that remember what this day really is all about.  “I see the advertisements for the Auto Malls, the shopping centers, and the grocery stores,” Robyn told me once.  “All of them say ‘Memorial Day Sale!’  I wonder if they will honor any fallen Veterans there? I think not.  It’s all a money-making opportunity to them.”

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

I will grieve with the families who have lost loved ones on Memorial Day.

The Gang at Kynan's Birthday Party
LtoR: Harmony, Alannah, Scarlett, Alicia,
Alannah, Kynan, Baby Raimey, Morgan and Jay-D (in socks)

Morgan, Alicia, and Alannah—the Three Musketeers from high school were together the other day for Kynan’s birthday. There in the mix was Morgan’s oldest son, a beautiful blue-eyed boy named Jay-D, who bears a striking resemblance to his uncle. 


Sunday, May 27, 2018


Abuela and Harvey

Yesterday Mario asked me how old Harvey was going to be today.  He was sure it had been two years since he was born in Seattle.

“Harvey and Scarlett are one year apart,” I answered, smiling.  “Which means Harvey will be turning three this year.”

At first Mario insisted that it had not been three years, but soon sighed and shook his head.  “I can’t believe it’s been three years.  Three years since that week.”

Before Vows--May 26, 2015

Mario is referring to the week of Harvey’s birth—one where we decided to go to Seattle and see Joe and Ariel, who were due to have the new baby at any moment.  The day after we arrived in Seattle, we followed Joe and Ariel to downtown Seattle, where they made their long-term relationship official and tied the knot at a cute little place called “The Shotgun Chapel.”

The following day, Harvey arrived.

It was a beautiful morning and the sun was shining–-I can remember it as clear as the Seattle sky was that day: rare and brilliant.  Without fuss or noise, Harvey Locke Rodriguez was born at home, entering the world with unusual contentment.   

Harvey Locke, 10 minutes old.

The trips from California to Washington were not as frequesnt as we’d like, so we saw Harvey grow up mostly through pictures.  At Christmas, we all met in Kansas City (at David and Lennae’s house) and reconnected.  I was amazed at how much Harvey had grown—a smiling baby with confidence and energy to rival his brother, Asher.  Trips back and forth to Seattle gave us snapshots of his life, but each time we shared the same joy—Harvey loves us and we love him.  Harvey has so much energy!  Harvey is the mischievous, playful, happy grandson!  Harvey is the beloved, the mighty, the beautiful.
Mario and Joe--exhausted from playing with Harvey!

Last year, Joe and Ariel relocated to Kansas City again, making them closer to David’s family, a nice distance for grandparents who have to fly to see grandchildren –and the kids, too (wink, wink).  At Christmas we visited them in their new house and Harvey spent the whole time in motion—the only time he really stopped was when he was sleeping.  I had to take extra vitamins just to feel normal. 

Earlier this year, Joe and Ariel had their third child, Theodore, making Harvey a BIG BROTHER!!  I know it all sounds cliché,but once you start having Grandchildren, time goes by even faster!

Theodore, Mama, Harvey

I am typing this in the half-light of the early morning, thanking God for our Harvey.  I love how he loves life and runs into it without fear.  His face is filled with mischief and he’s always cooking up a plan to do something a little naughty—but funny.  Born in a place of contentment, raised in a place of safety, and growing with joy and affection from all sides, I can wish only one more thing: God’s amazing grace all over him and his family.  I also wish for a chance to see him soon!

Three Generations 2017

Happy Birthday, Harvey!  You are like sunshine to our lives!

Monday, May 21, 2018


Dad at Easter - April 2018

Today my father has another birthday.  Even though he is in his eighties, his health is fairly good, and he enjoys his life.  At this writing he and my Mom are on a mini-vacation, where they are planning on kicking up their heels and eating good food.  Instead of staying home and quietly celebrating his birthday, he’ll be seeking out new adventures with the love of his life. 

I love my father.  He’s fun, funny, reads a lot, and listens when you talk to him. He understands the power of a good movie, a good joke, a good friendship, and a good wine.  Many of you know my Dad as Deacon Ryan, an office he held in the Catholic Church for years, until he recently retired.  Yet, after so many years living a public life, I am pretty sure that most people still don’t know all the secret wonderful things that make my Dad special. 

I decided to do a mini-trivia game about Dad—even if you don’t know him, see if you can score 100% on this:

1:  Jack’s favorite sport is:
               a.  Baseball
               b.  Hockey
               c.  Basketball
               d.  Football (American football)
               e.  All of the above, as long as the teams are from Boston.

Answer:  A.  As much as he enjoys all sports, my Dad loves baseball the most—he can remember stats and averages of his favorite players for years on end.  He makes friends with random strangers if they can hold their own talking about baseball.  Some of you fell for “e” because you have seen his devotion to the teams from his home city of Boston—especially his beloved Red Sox.  Growing up in our house, I believed in my heart that sports teams from Boston were “just better” than all the rest, simply because they came from Boston.  I also believed that God hated the New York Yankees – and their owners.   

2:  Before he goes to bed each night, he and Jennie have a routine of:
               a.   Setting out their clothes that they will wear the next day
               b.   Saying vespers (evening prayers and scripture reading)
               c.    Watching the Tonight Show
               d.    Having a piece of candy and brushing their teeth.

Answer: B.  Not only do my parents have the same routine every night, they invite me to join their prayer time if I am traveling with them.  These prayers are sacred and the routine reminds me that their life has been a series of many purposeful, steady decisions.  

3.    True or false:  My father is known as “Deacon Ryan” to many of his friends, but the title is an honorary one.  He was asked to help St. Bernard’s Catholic Church with their ever-increasing pastoral demands, and since he was going to be a priest before he met my mother, he decided to become a Deacon instead.

Answer: FALSE!  My Dad was ordained as a Catholic Deacon, a permanent minister of the Church, in 1981 after he and my Mom discerned that calling in his life. It involved schooling at the level of a graduate program, and a commitment that involved the input of his wife, family, program directors, and especially the leaders of our home church, St. Bernard’s.  He met many inspiring friends, teachers and mentors along the way and served the church community tirelessly. After years of participating in this vocation, he retired after 35 years.  He still visits the sick and ministers where he is needed.  The calling is still in his heart. 

My parents with me at my graduation - December 2017

4.   There is always room in my father’s schedule for:
               a.    Organizing newspaper clippings
               b.    walking his dog
               c.    shopping for bargains
               d.    cleaning his glasses with q-tips

Answer:  C.  The joy of finding a good deal, of not paying full price for something that he needs, is nearly immeasurable for my Dad.  I have seen him take great delight in cutting out coupons or watching the sale ads, lighting up like Moses when he finds my Mom’s favorite cereal or a good frozen pizza on sale.   Scoring a bargain, especially when someone near him has paid twice as much for the same thing, proves that my Dad is still the bargain hunter he always has been!

5.   The surprising technological joy in my Dad’s life is:
               a.   his iPod
               b.   his Fitbit
               c.    his gaming keyboard
               d.   his e-reader

Answer: D.  Since hardcover books line the walls of the Ryan house, I was surprised that my father found a new slice of tech-heaven in an e-reader, something I never thought he'd embrace.  Although I love my kindle, especially during travel, my Dad surpasses my kindle yearly activity in a month!  He reads primarily on a screen, rather than on the page, like I do.  Dad has learned to love the convenience--and bargains--that are found with his e-reader. 

And so, that's just a sampling of the trivial things people never think to ask. How did you do?  Post your results here! I hope you learned a little bit about my Dad, who is still surprising—even at 84! 

Happy Birthday, Dad!!  I love you!


Monday, May 7, 2018

Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo Dancers
(Public Domain Image)

I used to teach elementary school, which colors the way I see most holidays.  In the classroom, my favorite thing to say was: "Let me tell you something the other teachers won't tell you."  It made the students pay attention, as if they were in on a secret.  In a way they were, because our history is full of secret truths.
Cinco de Mayo is a holiday I like to talk about, since it has been so misunderstood over the years.  It has also been a holiday that has deeply affected my heart, forcing me to make peace with my own culturally mixed heritage- my mestiza identity.  
 This starts with my childhood in Tracy, California. 
I grew up with a Mexican mother, Juana, who had her name "American-ized" to Jennie when she was entering school.  I never sensed any conflict in this, and there was not much discussion about how she felt when it happened.  She grew up happy, eventually becoming a secretary for the U.S. Government. My Irish-Catholic father, Jack Ryan, blew into the little cow-town of Tracy from Boston and met my mother, where sparks flew and wedding vows were soon exchanged.  So, Jack and Jennie had five stunning little kids, all completely clueless of how the rest of the world can be.  I inherited the Irish soulfulness from my father, and a beautiful Mexican heritage from my mother.  
In grade school, all of my friends were Mexican.  The first boy I ever loved--with all of my fourth-grade heart--was Mexican.  As I grew, my friends became more white and so did I.  Soon, my heritage was lost inside a myriad of activities: band, guitar, track, writing, speech and debate.
In high school, a few days before Tracy's famous Cinco de Mayo parade (if you've never been to a Cinco de Mayo parade, you are missing a true slice of Americana) I found out, via the Tracy Press, that my sister Shari's friend, Melissa, had been crowned Tracy's Cinco de Mayo queen.  She would preside over the parade as she rode on a convertible surrounded by festive color and flowers.  I was livid...what the hell!  She was like me, an English-speaking girl from an English-speaking family. What right did she have to be Cinco de Mayo queen?  Now she would be adored--like our Lady of Guadalupe--a real Mexican girl.  
I threw the paper down and got ready for school.   What did I care about a stupid Mexican parade anyway?  But as I got my makeup on, tears welled up in my eyes.  It was the first time I felt conflicted about my heritage, and part of me felt orphaned. Besides my perpetually tanned skin and my straight black hair, how much did I show my Mexican heritage?  
In the carpool on the way home, Melissa's reign was the subject of conversation.  
"Did you see that Melissa is going to be Cinco de Mayo Queen?" one of my friends said.  "She definitely was the prettiest one of all the girls who were running."
Everyone agreed, all of us knowing that Cinco de Mayo queens were ornamental--no speeches required or talent exhibited--just sit there and be a beautiful real Mexican-American girl.
"Hey, Janet," one of my other friends said, "Why didn't you run for Cinco de Mayo queen?" He meant it as a compliment, really.  He didn't know how much the whole thing bothered me.  
"I don't have enough Cinco in my Mayo."  I replied flatly.  Everyone thought that was funny, even Mom laughed.  
Even in my attempt at humor, I recognized a strange, misplaced identity.  I didn't know how to do it: be a real Mexican-American.  At my school,  most of the kids I saw as real Mexican kids were Spanish-speaking.  Some were migrants who got free lunches because their parents were working the fields.  They kept to themselves and didn't really seek out my friendship. Real Mexican guys wore cowboy hats and drove trucks--the vatos drove low riders. I could count my real Mexican friends on one hand.  This disparity was killing me.  
In the United States, Cinco de Mayo has become a Hispanic Pride Day, where all of the real cowboys get out fancy black suits, big sombreros, and carry Mexican flags as they ride atop horses . All the pretty Mexican girl dancers wore over-sized skirts and made hypnotic circles with them while they danced.  
When I researched the history of Cinco de Mayo, I understood why it was a holiday worth celebrating--why it was the one that Mexican-Americans claimed as their own. 
In 1862, Mexico's recent civil war had caused a national monetary crisis and Mexico was forced to suspend paying the interest on European loans they had taken.  Several European countries had  interests there - France, Spain and Great Britain. The three countries, decided to unite and force the new Mexican Government (led by Benito Juárez ) to pay back the money it owed to them. By the end of the year, European ships occupied Veracruz, Mexico's largest port.  While Great Britain and Spain were there only to negotiate repayment of loans in full, the French Army, under Napoleon III's French orders, took to the land and pursued the Mexican army, hoping to defeat them and make them surrender to Mexico to France.
After several skirmishes with the French, on May 5 in Puebla, a large city between Mexico City and Veracruz, that the French officially underestimated the spirit and the power of the Mexican army and were defeated, badly.  The "superior" French army retreated, losing almost five hundred soldiers while the Mexican army only lost eighty-three. Benito Juárez declared the victory at Puebla significant for Mexico and deemed Cinco de Mayo a national holiday. 
News of the Mexican victory spread to the western US, where Mexican gold miners in northern California were so overjoyed at the news they celebrated by firing guns and singing patriotic songs. Thus, the first Cinco de Mayo party was born.
The Mexican Army's great show of strength on Cinco de Mayo didn't end the war with the French--neither did it scare off their creditors.  It took a lot of time, and many years of battle, for the world to realize that Mexico was not going to stop fighting until they had genuine independence.  After the American Civil War was over, President Johnson, in order to protect American interests, sent the US Army to the Mexican border, in order to show our official support.  It wasn't until 1866, when the French decided to withdraw ("This isn't a surrender, Mexico, we just miss home!") and Mexico was un-officially sovereign.  
Cinco de Mayo Battle in 1862
(Image: Public Domain)

I love strength and beauty of the Mexicans--my ancestors--who are generally underestimated, even now.  The real story of Cinco de Mayo  has a moral: never underestimate the Mexicans!  We are a people who will do more with their hearts than most people can do with their heads.  
As an adult, I have tried to reconnect with this side of my heritage, which is done all year-round. I am currently writing and reading more Spanish than I ever have in my whole life.  Speaking it involves great bravery--I am still so nervous as the words of my heart come out of my mouth.  Español es la lengua de mi corazón...
Yet, it is in the kitchen of my house is where I really become Mexican.  It all started when I learned the secrets of a good enchilada sauce from my grandma, who taught me how to cook all the Mexican staples.  I connect with my heritage when I make masa and roll tortillas, assemble tamales and chop onions.  When I eat menudo, I am Mexican.  
On Cinco de Mayo, I wear a colorful Mexican dress and ribbons in my hair.  I don't have to be the Cinco de Mayo Queen to know I am a real Mexican-American, I already am.