Sunday, September 27, 2020

Harmony

 


Harmony Janet-Suzanne Vosburg was born on this day 11 years ago, to my only daughter, Alicia. Her birth came after  a long and complicated labor, and for the first minutes of her life, Harmony didn't breathe without help. In the delivery room, I vacillated between praying for my daughter in bed, and the unresponsive baby with terminal meconium on the lighted bassinet, surrounded by doctors and nurses.



In the end, Harmony got better, and so did Alicia. It was a time of miracles. That night, I battled sleep as I held her against my chest. Her beautiful rosy face reassured me she was a healthy baby and the worst was behind us. 

Today Harmony is one of my favorite people in the whole world. I listen as she sings, watch her as she reads, and often play games in her space-themed room with planets hanging from her bunk bed. This year has sucked for everyone, but I think 2020 has affected children the most.



"I can't see my friends," Harmony says. "Schools are closed." 

Both she and her sister, Alannah, are among the scores of children who have taken distance learning as part of their new routine. Homework used to be something they did without friends around, and now it's school. TV School. As an educator, I know the stakes are higher for children than anyone else. Nevertheless, Harmony remains positive. She loves going out with her family, and really appreciates more time at home with her mom. 



Every Friday, without fail, I travel to Chico to see Harmony, her sister, Alannah, and their mother, my daughter, Alicia. Lately, we've been bound by for social distancing and travel that the rest of the country has dealt with, COVID19 restrictions in place. The days once spent finding the most exciting destinations, restaurants, books, or science experiments are now very limited. We invent our own fun inside. This year, Harmony has introduced me to Percy Jackson, the Olympians, the art of "Let's Dance" and all its fineries, jigsaw puzzles, and different kinds of music I would have never listened to. This week, I found out she's a Zelda fan--even blowing out her candles with a Zelda sword in hand! 

Beyond her beautiful mind, Harmony has a heart of gold. She loves her family, and rarely complains about things. I can't imagine my life without her. 

Happy birthday, Harmony! I know you have some idea how much I love you...but I wish you could see my heart! Even that would surprise you!

Grandma.



Saturday, August 8, 2020

Alannah

 

Alannah and Alicia--three days after birth

For her birthday, I told Alannah the miraculous story of her birth. She and her sister, Harmony, were sitting at the kitchen table, eating chicken strips, grapes, salad and sandwiches—a birthday fun party with their cousin, Scarlett, and her baby sister, Violet. As Violet munched a chicken strip on my lap, I revisited the “being born story”—Alannah’s name for the story of August 8, 2011 told her over lunch

“We were all a little worried,” I said. “Harmony was born two years earlier, and she didn’t breathe for the first seven minutes of her life. With Mama’s type-1 diabetes, childbirth is complicated and her new doctor wanted to be very careful.”

The story brought back a flood of memories: Mario and I were living in South Africa at the time. We regularly SKYPE called Alicia, and at the beginning of July, she informed us that her doctor moved up the due date. When the baby positioned herself in place, the August 10th due date would be more like August 1st. I changed my flights and came to the United States early—arriving in late July for a two week stay.  Mario stayed home—because at the time, a round-trip airfare was about a thousand dollars (unless you changed it, and then it was more) and we were (for lack of a better description) missionaries living very simply.

Three Generations--Me, Alicia and Harmony, one week before delivery


“Mama and Daddy let me come to the last doctor appointment, so I met the doctor,” I told the girls, as they ate lunch. “I was worried that I had a flight out of San Francisco on August tenth, and he told me he couldn’t guarantee that the baby would be born by then.”

 “I was born on the eighth,” Alannah said. “So there!”

We laughed. “What he really said,” I whispered, causing all of the girls to lean forward and listen. “Is this: ‘I can’t do anything about your travel schedule.’”

“WHAT?” Alannah said, indignant. “What did you say?”

“I promised Mama I wouldn’t say anything, so I looked at him like this....” I put on my glare-face and all the girls laughed.

“The mom face,” Harmony said. “Moms do that face.”

“When you were born,” I said to Alannah. “Mama was weak and took a long time to recover. I had to leave Chico the day after you were born.”

I’m silent, thinking of the hellish separation we had for seven years. I had to leave my daughter, who had just had a baby—and it was no one’s “fault”—it was our lives back then.

Alannah broke the silence. “What did I look like?” she asked.


“You were the fattest baby I’d ever seen,” I said. We all laughed. “You were so fat! You came out and cried, and we were all so happy! You were so healthy!”

Today, reliving that story still makes me remember the emotional pain of separation. As much as I loved our life in South Africa, it was so hard to be separated from family. In reality, we’re family people, and the hardest ones to say goodbye to was the grandchildren.

Alicia, Alannah, and me--just before I said goodbye.
August 2011


Today, I can see them on any given day—maybe just by Zoom, Skype, or facetime, but still—we’re here. This is one of the greatest blessings of my life.

***

Today, Alannah is nine years old. She's curious, talented, and loves to learn about so many things.  Science is fascinating, cooking is fun, but art is where she excels. She loves to put on plays, watch ballet, and she's wonderful at singing.  She paints, draws, and writes poetry. Like her sister, she loves reading and being read aloud to.

Lately, she's been really getting into American Girl dolls, and she treasures her collection. She also loves to dress up in costumes. Her birthday party was a flurry of American Girl dolls and costumes, one after another!




To say that Alannah is a joy is an understatement. She is love personified, and expects almost nothing from everyone. She enjoys people, loves her friends and family, and loves laughing. She is the beautiful, adorable granddaughter I treasure. I am so grateful she’s geographically closer to me. I need her in my life!

Alannah, me, Scarlett and Violet selfie


Happy Birthday, Alannah! You are the best, most imaginative nine-year-old this world has ever seen!

I love you!

Grandma



Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Alicia



Seven years ago, one summer night in Johannesburg, I was packing up my jewelry box, and sorting through what I was going to keep or give away. We were scheduled to put everything in a moving container the following day, one that would meet us in Sacramento in two months. I found my bauble bracelet at the bottom, a string of large green beads, the color of a Granny Smith apple. I kept the bracelet because Alicia gave it to me the year we left the USA, on Mother’s Day.

“This is how I see you,” she said. “And I got an employee’s discount.” We laughed together about this. It was on sale at Claire’s, where she worked, so an employee discount made this a great deal.  

At first, I didn’t like the bracelet, maybe because it bothered me that Alicia, my only daughter, saw me as an apple-green-colored-bauble-wearing woman. Did I snap my gum and wear pants that were too tight, as well? In fairness, I probably would have bought my only daughter a gold necklace with a locket on the end, where she could put tiny pictures and keep them by her heart. I would have loved to receive that kind of present at her age, but I know now the gift would not be her at all.


Alicia, as a daughter is a gift from God. When she was born, she represented the union I had with Mario—a beautiful baby girl we loved and treasured. She was genuinely the most beautiful baby girl, and easy to have around. As she grew, she clung to me, especially when she was sick. She learned to color inside the lines, identify the alphabet, read, write, do long division, and put puzzles together, all at our kitchen table. She cooked meals that were beautiful, including lasagna that tasted better than an Italian restaurant. She learned how to play the piano and sing harmonies. In her teens, she fell in and out of love. She made friends with the wrong people, and then the best people I had ever met. She had a habit of accidentally breaking my heart; she had a habit of breaking my heart on purpose. She was a magnet for friends, and traveled everywhere with her own posse. By the time we moved to South Africa, she was independent, headstrong, and vibrantly filled with every kind of life.

Even with all of her magnetic beauty, Alicia and I often struggled to feel understood by each other. I saw Alicia as a beautiful, wild unicorn, glittering but unreachable. I was the mother she ran from. I wanted a close relationship, one where she came to me for advice. Once she reached adulthood, I longed to have the friendship I had with my own mother, or at least our version of it. I wanted us to have deep conversations over coffee, or to join a book club together.

In actuality, Alicia and I were good with each other until something set us off. Both of us had so many hidden trip wires, so many unresolved issues, and we often fought more than either of us wanted. When it was time to build relationship and friendship, there were always plenty of friends around, and events they attended together. I was admittedly jealous of the fact that her friends were the ones who she would seek out first for advice, direction, and comfort—especially during heartbreak. I yearned to be needed this way.

After years of ups and downs, I stopped trying to convince my daughter how our relationship should be and started listening to her more, without offering advice. It was clear she didn’t want advice from me—she just wanted...me. About seven years ago, I made a conscious decision to take better care of my own physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Alicia and I started relating to each other as adults—still mother and daughter, but adults—and maintained open communication. If I showed up, loved her and was proud of her, that was enough for Alicia. It was easy to do, especially after she became a mother. She easily interacted with her children in a way that made them feel confident and loved. She was warm, affectionate, organized, and nurturing.


Soon, I started to see what the rest of the world saw: Alicia has genuinely one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever known. She’s able to do so many things. Clearly organized and gifted, she started her own business—something I didn’t know the first thing about—and earned a reputation as a conscientious, energetic, motivated, and well-liked business owner. When the Camp Fire hit Paradise, Alicia shared her house with several displaced friends, and volunteered her cleaning services to the Benevolent Elks in Chico—who later contracted her company. She’s a strong member of her community and family.

I look at this synopsis, a five-minute read that I wrote to sum up the most complicated, intricate relationship that any woman can have: one between mother and daughter. Alicia is thirty-two years old today, and I can still feel the warmth of her head on my shoulder when she was an infant. In our mother-daughter dance, we’ve always tried to connect, even if we miss a beat or two. Through the years, with our history of ups and downs, we’ve reached a place where we know each other’s rhythms.  

So, that summer night in Johannesburg, when I was packing up my things, I held the apple-green-baubled bracelet in my hands and thought of Alicia. I knew that soon (very, very soon) I would move back to California be near my baby who gave this to me. I never, ever considered throwing the bracelet away, because it came from my only daughter—the girl who sees me in bright colors.

I love you, Alicia. You are truly my treasured only daughter. Thank you for being you.  


Tuesday, June 23, 2020

proper

"Your Proper Name" is the result of an exercise, led by Tommy Pico at the June 2020 residency for Antioch MFA. We read different trade magazines and harvested a word bank to be used to create a new poem. The crazy results were intoxicating. Here's mine: 



The brain is a splendid instrument

with a lilac tail that winds around

a kale clock, stopping in places to say

your proper name and drip ancestor

fury. Come a little bit closer

and help me look for the stash

of boxtops in the kitchen drawer.

It’s been so long since I saved

anything at all.

 

Coming home to you, the hearty

love which glows and shoots

this intensity, this fetch, which

blossoms on plumb wine. Your

proper name won’t matter, only

your desire to be eaten, your

crisp yet soft texture, the light

that stretches from one part

of you to the other—the JOY of you—

where I’ve craved salt and fat.


Sunday, May 24, 2020

Memorial

R.I.P. PFC JAY-D ORNSBY ADKINS
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,” Robyn said. “He would defend an underdog, stand up for the new kids, and even helped others when no one else would.” The same guy who fought 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.” 

Jay-D in his dress Uniform


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 someone was waiting: 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 Cemetery, a place in Jackson.  “It is a beautiful and peaceful place.” 

Every Memorial Day, Jay-D’s  family usually celebrate his memory with friends and close family. One year, Robyn decorated a wine barrel and burned a special candle, signifying how the light of love will always burn bright in her heart. She takes special 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 at least ONE fallen hero. If your family has not lost a human being in war, remember 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 any chance she gets.  

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.  Today, 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. 

R.I.P. PFC JAY-D ORNSBY ADKINS

Monday, April 6, 2020

palms








For the quarantine, my parents (who are devoutly Catholic) found out that their church has decided not to distribute palms on Palm Sunday. They heard this news with sadness, and appeared to be more disappointed than they have been with any piece of news surrounding the Coronavirus or the shelter-in-place edict. To them, these palms mean a lot. 



They look like nothing: a single, dried out palm branch from a lowly palm tree. The only difference was that these palms had been blessed and given to the people by a priest. Things that were blessed by a priest were important in our house. My parents used to tuck their palms behind one of the many wooden and pewter crucifixes in our house. I grew up looking at dried out palm leaves behind crucifixes. I knew these would be replaced in a year by another one that looked just like it.

I used to joke that we were more Catholic than the Pope.

***
Palm Sunday kicks off the most sacred week of the year for Christians. We call it Holy Week. Like Easter, the feast day of Palm Sunday moves around, based on the Liturgical calendar and the Jewish feast of Passover, because those two events are related, like cousins. 

On Palm Sunday, Jesus started his journey to the holy city of Jerusalem on a donkey colt, one that his disciples retrieved for him—an event that had been prophesied by the Old Testament prophet, Zechariah. A crowd of ordinary people went out to greet him, while he was still on the road approaching the gates of the city, waving fallen branches of palms and shouting in celebration for his triumphant entry. Some people lined the road with palm branches, like a carpet, laid down for a king.



There was so much noise and celebration, that some of the religious leaders in the crowd said to Him, “Teacher, rebuke Your disciples!” Jesus only answered: “If they remain silent, the very stones will cry out.”

I always liked that Jesus said this. Even as a child, I knew this day, this event, was a huge, big deal. What I didn’t understand was that as soon as he saw Jerusalem, he wept. He talked to it, like a father and said things that I never fully understood as a child: "If you had only known today what would bring you peace! But now it is hidden, so you cannot see it. The time will come when enemy armies will build a wall to surround you and close you in on every side. They will level you to the ground and kill your people. One stone will not be left on top of another, because you didn't recognize the time when God came to help you."

Less than a week later, Jesus would leave Jerusalem, but this time, he’d be carrying a cross to a hill, just outside of the city. He’d be scarred, beaten and barely alive, wearing a crown of thorns around his head—mocking his alleged kingship.

We human beings are fickle people who have the power to crucify our heroes on any given day.

***

In the Catholic Church, Palm Sunday is celebrated by the blessing and distribution of palm branches, representing the palm branches the crowd scattered in front of Christ as he rode into Jerusalem. Some people use them as bookmarks in their Bibles or prayer books. Some of these palms are later surrendered to the church, ceremonially burned, and the ashes kept (and blessed) to make ashes for Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.

On Ash Wednesday, a Catholic person will kneel down in front of a celebrant (Priest) and receive the ashes on their forehead. The priest will say: “Remember, thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.”

It’s a sobering reminder.
***


Because of the COVID19, most churches aren’t meeting until further notice, determined to break the cycle of infection to its people. Most of us agree that the human body isn’t above infection—even athletic youths are reminded of this on Ash Wednesday.

I no longer go to the Catholic Church, but I’ve always missed the celebration of the liturgical calendar and the  deep traditions that bring its members together. It’s the calendar that remind us to number our days, to remember we’re mortal, to understand the limitations of our body as opposed to the greatness of God.

This year (like any other year) I don’t need palms to remind me of my faith in Christ, or remind me what he did for humankind this week so many years ago. My parents, however, treasure their palms, so for them, I grieve.

***
This virus will end, and this season will come to a halt as quickly as it began. Because we are human beings, we disagree when and how this will happen. In truth, the way and truth are found in a person for me, and today I remember Him.

Our Holy Week ends with us declaring “He is risen!” and whoever hears this, calls back, “He is risen, indeed!”

He is risen, indeed. Those beautiful words...



Sunday, April 5, 2020

pens









Today, a box of pens came in the mail--stick pens, nothing special--and there are no excuses for not writing. There is now plenty of pens and plenty of paper, and there always was, I just have to put one to the other. On the side of the pen is this inscription: "mightier than the sword..." I got this whole box for three dollars and fifty cents, instead of the normal price of seven dollars for the box of fifty. They were on sale as "misprint pens," misprinted for a customer who wanted something else. I am buying someone else's mistake. Someone else's disappointment. They work just fine.

"Come on, pens," I say to them. "Let's write! One person's misprint is another person's bargain."
They love me for this.

And we begin a beautiful relationship.


True story. I wrote this poem with one of those pens!

Friday, April 3, 2020

ancestors

Carved
elaborate order from start to finish,
twenty-three noses, P'urhepechan
slopes, interrupted by hills before
finishing in royal flares where
nostrils trumpet greatness.

You show yourselves able to endure
and never leave us; faces carved
and breathing the same twenty-three
collective atoms that I do.

Your blood is in my blood,
your mother is my mother,
the same twenty-three
chromosomes shared,
invisible threads, stretched tight
across life and death~too tender
to move and too strong to break.
And yet...
when people ask me
what I am, I've never
ever told them
I am you.

Days unfolded, twenty-three
white roses bloom in our garden,
robots mow our lawns,
pipes bring water from
deep inside twenty-three
underground wells. We live
on borrowed soil, in a land
prone to drought. Its face,
once barren, now with lawns
exploding dandelion stalks.


All of you who walked
before me, please
do not turn your noses,
do not be ashamed,
do not think I've forgotten.
We assumed this culture
assigned to us
from glossy magazines.
It came with everything:
a place to sit,
a place to stand,
a language to speak,
a way to live.

Marie Antoinette, from her foreign
land, journeyed to France at twenty-three.
Her carriage was met by twenty-three
members of its monarchy, who made
Marie strip down to nothing
before she entered France.
"You are in our country now,"
her captors told her.
Twenty three years
later, she lost her head for sins
of ancestors she never met.


Monday, March 30, 2020

measure

"Measure" is a poem about my true love, Mario.

At the Cairo Hospital...looking at my true love.

February is the show month, when
some couples choose to measure love:
“He took me to that waterfront 
restaurant with candle-light and violins!
He gave me long stemmed roses! 
 A two-carat diamond!"
 He knelt when he proposed! 
We made love in front of a roaring fire...
Measures of love, compared and pitted,
spurred talons sharpened,
greased feathers glittering.
I don't want to play. 

My true love doesn't like waterfront restaurants,
not after a messy incident, when
I ordered Maine lobster at market price.
He doesn't do diamonds, not after seeing the mines.
He gives me potted, living roses,
and says he's "not gonna fall for that
overpriced crap that'll be dead in a week"
and means it.
His idea of a roaring fire
is at the end of a good cigar.
But, he puts the seat down,
replaces light bulbs,
and has strong arms. 

These arms once supported me,
all of my weight, as I
tried to act normal, plodding
up stairs in Cairo—uneven stone steps,
in front of the hospital—littered
with candy wrappers. Women in
black-wool hijabs looked up at me,
their eyes begging me not to touch
them, their hands tucked beneath
their dresses, not outstretched
(too afraid? too wise? did they think I was cursed?)
leaning away from my shadow
as we passed.
Those arms around me, he pulled my
weight up so my feet
would be lighter. The women, with
those expressions made me believe
I was dying.

Weak from blood loss, no fluid
would stay, no water in my eyes
or my body. It took all the strength
in me to hold on to my true love,
whose arms were around me, supporting me.
The primal scent of perspiration,
his one hand clasped over mine, holding me up.
So many stone steps between us and
the surgeon and we had to stop twice
and when I cried the women hid
their faces. We had to (could we?) stop
the bleeding. 


He kept whispering: “A few more steps, just
a few more steps…” And it was one up, and
two up and neither one of us had ever
been there. He whispered, "Just a few more..."
I pleaded to stop and lie down. He shook
his head and didn't feel sorry for me, and the
hospital was there, at the end of the steps,
just like he said it would be.

My measure of romance will always be this.
The strength of his arms and his whispers.
When the self is a weak, bleeding, staggering
thing, and the world is a bleak place with
long, stony paths, all uneven, he steadies me.
Even more, he believes I can do it and tells me,
and I get there with him, one step at a time.
He knows my pain and walks beside me
anyway.

On steps like these,
too weak and bloodless to stop crying,
with nothing left to give, he asks for nothing
and expects nothing. He never leaves.
That is the measure of my true love’s heart.