Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Latest from Rafael Loreno

Even though the highs remain in the mid-80s, the sun is getting higher in the sky and beating more fiercely. Remember, the altitude at the ranch is about 7,000 feet and San Miguel is quite a bit closer to the equator than most of the U.S.

So Félix's hats have been getting gradually larger and wider and this week reached maximum rim span (we hope), with this number: The Rafael Loreno "Flying Saucer" model, with a distinctive upturned rim on the right side and braided details throughout. About four bucks for the locals but for you gringos, eh, we'll give it to your for fifteen, two for thirty-five.

On tourists waiting at the Cancun airport for the flight home this type of hat looks ridiculous.

But on Félix, a real Mexican, hmm, it looks ridiculous too especially since he's pretty short. When the wind blows he reminds me of the Flying Nun.

He doesn't care.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The weight of things and people past

Contrary to all the advice to leave most of our belongings behind when we moved to Mexico, a semi-trailer nearly full of furniture, books, kitchen utensils and china, garden tools, pictures and unidentified "stuff" followed us down here. It wasn't even an act of conscious hoarding: Stew and I became so frustrated and enraged trying to pick through thirty-five years' worth of accumulated things that we finally told the movers to just pack and ship whatever was left.

We outta here. We skedaddled out of Chicago in our 2003 VW Passat station wagon with junk packed everywhere including a roof carrier, and with an old dog and two meowing cats, to start a new phase of our lives in Mexico. One of the cats, Paco, is still with us and occasionally lets out disconsolate howls at night as if he's never quite recovered from the experience.

Seven years after that, just as we'd been warned, a good eighty percent of the stuff we brought down is gone, given away, sold, tossed. Yet some awaits final disposition in sealed boxes.

Svend Hammer, a furniture-maker of some renown
 in Stavanger, Norway,
who was Stew's
 great-grandfather. Stew's middle name is Svend.
So during the past couple of weeks we've launched a final offensive to pare down what we have left. Some of the decommissioning has been easy, especially books we never read and some that we did but shouldn't have bothered with. The only exempt genres were gardening and photography. A number of books about Jesus and spirituality—forgive me Jesus—didn't make the cut though family Bibles and paperbacks about Buddhism and meditation stayed. Novels we thought were particularly enjoyable, by Graham Greene, Jhumpa Lahiri and others, are still on our bookshelf.

But just like when we attempted to pick through our belongings in Chicago, the selection process accelerated and became less discriminating as we realized how much junk still chokes our lives. Impatience peppered with a bit of anger reappeared.

Then we waded into boxes of family pictures and memorabilia and the noisy tossing of junk suddenly slowed to a solemn pace, mired in a swamp of sentimentality, memories and frequent pauses. We reverently caressed the ancient family pictures and newspaper clippings, some featuring Stew's great-grandparents in Norway in the late 1800s, as if they were priceless icons.

There are shots of relatives with patriarchal beards or waxed handlebar mustaches. Or bulky women so corseted into shape they look as if they're about to asphyxiate. Most of these people we never met, or have long since died. And entre nous, some of those we knew we didn't particularly like even when they were around.

So why is it so difficult to toss that family stuff and instead we continue to burrow through it, talk about it and re-stuff it in envelopes to postpone a final reckoning? Why and for whom are we saving all this stuff? At which point does one let go of the past?

Indeed, so far none of this family memorabilia has made that fateful leap from our hands into the trash can.

We thought we had a computer-age solution and started to scan all the pictures and place the digitized facsimiles in e-books. That would facilitate review—and maybe some oohing and aahing by remaining family members and a few curious strangers—but that idea is really too facile, a cop-out.

A book of souvenir postcards of Stavanger. Photos by Jakob Dreyer.

Postcard showing Stavanger's Boknafjord

How can an ancient book of postcards from Stavanger, Norway, where Stew's paternal relatives came from—a memento so fragile and frayed that we had placed it in a plastic bag—be replaced by a digitized image on a computer screen?

Or the corny, handwritten poems my paternal granddad Emilio used to give me on my birthday? Their value is not in reading the words on a monitor—he was no Robert Frost—but in my being able to hold the yellowing, blue-lined pages and almost feel the sentiments expressed through his meticulous, fountain-pen calligraphy, with no cross-outs or erasures. He must have loved me a lot to go through all that work every year, yet I remember very little about him or even what he looked like. (I saw a picture, though, and I recognize his jowls in the mirror as I get older.)

Scanning and digitizing in fact has compounded the problem: Reducing all these images to an e-book is a lot of work that so far has not reduced the amount of physical stuff cramming one of our closets.

The dilemma continues. These are not objets d'art of any intrinsic artistic, decorative or pecuniary value. We're talking photos of unremarkable people in goofy bathing suits by the shore of a Midwestern lake, not Impressionist masterpieces of Parisian picnickers one would hang on the wall to wait for their resale value to multiply.

There are no heirs to whom we could bequeath these supposed heirlooms, assuming they would even be interested in accepting them. We remember the final garage sale at the home of Stew's father in Marshfield, Wisc. before that gentle old man, who had lost his marbles and could no longer be trusted to live alone, was moved to a nursing home. It was not a scene awash in sentiment, but of folks foraging through the modest remains of the Hammer household, haggling over the price of one tchotchke or another. No one expressed any interest in the boxes of family pictures, which is how they ended up in Stew's hands and eventually in our house in Mexico.

Perhaps all this memento-gathering is just one more attempt to beat the rap of one's own mortality by pretending that someone, years from now, will care or take interest in our own passage just as we respectfully preserved the images of predecessors we didn't even know. Hey, we're important, we say. Lookee here, we didn't really die. We still live, albeit in shoe-boxes filled with photographs in or in a fancy e-book of digitized images buried in a shelf.

But the enterprise of preserving memories need not be that gloomy or cynical. During the forty-two years Stew and I have been together we have kept taking pictures, of each other, of places we visited, of the homes we laboriously remodeled, of our endless parade of cats and dogs. Even before our relationship received legal recognition last year, or explicit recognition from our relatives along the way, the photos kept coming, recording the highlights of our life. If we didn't record our own relationship, who would?

There are hundreds, probably thousands of photos. That's what happens when someone in a family pretends to be a photographer but is incapable of tossing any of his work.

Just yesterday Stew discovered a box of color slides which was as much of a surprise as finding a mummy under the bed. The slide projector, a Bell & Howell relic that weighs about five pounds is a sure candidate for the trash.

But the pictures are definitely worth sorting through, curating in some way and preserving in a collection of e-books. They will mean a lot to us as we celebrate our life together. I'm sure we'll go back and review them time and again as more years go by.

If anyone who comes after us wants to look through them and giggle at our bell-bottom pants, our aboriginal haircuts and hubcap-size eyeglasses, good for them. We will have done them the favor of neatly placing the images in e-books. At least they won't be burdened by boxes of otherwise meaningless photographs.

Still pending is the question of what we will do with the photos and relics left by our forebears. For now, they remain in bulging envelopes awaiting the completion of the tedious process of editing, scanning and placing them carefully and respectfully in the e-book taking shape inside my computer.

We'll see.


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Roaring good news from Mother Nature

Although the beginning of the rainy season is still a good six weeks away, late last night we had an auspicious preview: A roaring wham-boom-bang of a thunder and lightning storm like I hadn't seen or heard for a long time, followed by about forty minutes of very heavy rain. Thunderstorms in the countryside are particularly showy because there's not much light or noise to distract you from the spectacle.

The crashes of thunder and flashes of lightning behind some hills a couple of kilometers from the bedroom window made it look a bit like an aerial bombardment. Shrapnel-like rain pelted the glass on the skylights and added to the dramatic effect. We got an especially good look at the storm as we went around the house opening doors and calling our cat Fifo, who'd gone for a bit of nighttime prowling. Bad idea that was—for Fifo.

Guaranteed: The best peas ever
If last night's show presages an early start to the rainy season, so much the better. Despite dire weather reports from elsewhere—extreme heat or cold, droughts or floods, caused by climate changes or just serendipity—the winter, spring and start-up of summer here have been nearly perfect. Temperatures never dipped below freezing during December and January and during the day they reliably climbed into the high seventies or eighties. Our summer so far hasn't been particularly hot.

The result is an almost astonishing bumper crop from our vegetable gardens. Except for a couple of laggards everything seems to be in overdrive: Two plants each from six different kinds of tomatoes, most already loaded with fruit; four or five types of chiles; onions, garlic and shallots (the latter not too enthusiastic) and squash. That plus the usual varieties of chard, kale, lettuce and other greens, and beets and radishes, which Félix has growing in almost perfect succession cycles—when one bunch is used up another one is ready to replace it.

Happy mix: Chard, lettuce, tomatoes plus
nasturtiums in the hanging basket. 
Especially pleasing were a crop of green peas and haricots verts, the thin green beans, which I planted on a lark. The peas materialized though I'd forgotten that someone actually has to sit and shell the pods to get at the peas. Who knew. That would be me. Still, it's worth it. Peas picked just a few hours before and sauteed in butter will give you a new perspective on peas.

Even a volunteer pomegranate plant that sprouted by the side of the garage is setting flower. I don't know where it came from, except two other pomegranates we planted on purpose have done nothing.

Part of the success must be attributed too to three years of composting and amendments that have turned our soil in the vegetable beds into the rich organic humus that TV gardening celebrities like to run through their fingers through while oohing and aahing. The drip irrigation system also has helped maintain the plants evenly humid.
Onions with the irrigation hose at their feet.

We've planted six rhubarb plants on the notion that I had rhubarb and strawberry pie during a visit to a monastery eons ago and remember it being very tasty. The little plantlets are doing well under protective cloches made from plastic two-liter water bottles I've collected.

There are a few duds but not many. The apricot tree flowered late but merrily but failed to produce any fruit. No one I've asked seems to know what the problem could be. Still, unless something happens we should have several dozen peaches ready to eat by the end of the summer. Cucumber plants are growing but so far no flowers. The three olive trees remain olive-less.

As for Fifo the cat, he's been sleeping for ten hours after he rushed inside this morning. Don't think he's going out tonight.

A row of garlic next to the asparagus. We harvested
 about ten asparagus spears this year but
 we should get many more next year. 
Against the odds, this volunteer pomegranate
 is getting ready to set fruit. 

After two bad years, a peachy future now.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Up my very tangled family tree

When I visited Cuba in 1998 to cover the visit of Pope John Paul II for the Chicago Tribune I stumbled onto a few surprising branches of my family tree, including relatives I'd heard about but had never met and who appeared to be loyal and highly placed apparatchiks. They lived quite comfortably in an upscale Havana neighborhood that had been called Miramar before the Castro brothers revolutionary cavalcade rolled into town in 1959 and changed it to Playa, and along with that the number of provinces in Cuba, from six to fifteen, not to mention the lives of all six million people on the island.

A second surprise was my discovery of an Afro-Cuban trail of relatives, also last-named Lanier, who welcomed me warmly if somewhat cautiously, and whose members included a gorgeous light-skinned second cousin named Caridad. They lived in a far poorer quadrant of Havana and did not seem nearly as enthused about the country's revolutionary convulsions as my cousins in Miramar.

These two clans did not seem to know each other, or so they said, though the Afro-Cubans did mention something about my grandfather and something-or-other, that, hmm, we don't quite seem to recall. The story of that encounter is at:

Since that trip my family has tree sprouted several more intriguing branches, including a cousin who lives in Kiev and whose grandson, Maxim, was shot in the leg during the recent street demonstrations; another cousin who ended up in Odessa, a Ukrainian port on the Black Sea, before seeking asylum in Japan and moving to Florida; plus a likely explanation of my puzzling Afro-Cuban connection that involves an uncle who was thirteen pounds at birth.

Cubanicity Central: Miami's Little Havana.
Indeed, a trip to Miami a month ago that began as a family obligation turned into a yakking fest during which my cousin, her husband and my aunt filled in quite a few blank boxes in my family tree. They also welcomed my husband Stewart with the usual you're-one-of-us-even-if-you-can't-understand-a-word-we're-saying enthusiasm and fed him accordingly. He'd gained five pounds by the time we returned to Mexico.

For Cuban-Americans regular pilgrimages to Miami are much like Muslims going to Mecca or Jews to Israel, a cultural obligation, a re-calibration of one's ethnic GPS. We visit relatives and talk incessantly—and very loudly—and speculate for the millionth time when that bearded motherfucker in Cuba is finally going to die and leave the rest of us be. On a visit to Little Havana, its Cubanicity now somewhat watered down by an influx of Central Americans, one listens to music, sips a couple of tiny cups of coffee and searches for a genuine Cuban Sandwich that I assure you doesn't look or taste anything like the version served in Mexico.

This time in Florida another thing became very clear to me: God bless America and my good fortune to have landed in the U.S. during the chaotic Cuban diaspora of the sixties and seventies, instead of one the fraternal socialist republics behind the Iron Curtain, as was the case with two of my cousins.

My cousin Roberto, six or seven years older than me, left Cuba in 1961, a year before I came to the U.S. at age fourteen.  He went to Ukraine on a scholarship to study metallurgical engineering, married a local girl and that was that. We spoke on the phone in 2005 when his life seemed to fluctuate between gray and grim: Trying to survive on anemic government pension, his life complicated by the economic chaos in the Ukraine following the final collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1991. He is now in his 70s, suffering from severe depression and trying to earn extra cash by giving private Spanish lessons.

Roberto and his wife Sveta have one daughter, Tatyana, a dark-blonde with a fizzy personality that makes up for her uncertain command of English. Her training in biology led to an academic exchange visit to an American university in 2005, when she was in her thirties, and during her stay she visited Stew and me in Chicago and my other relatives in Miami.

My second cousin Tatyana in Chicago. 
Tatyana Stefanovska's only son Maxim was among the recent protesters in Kiev's Independence Square and got shot in a leg. Tatyana's last email a month ago sounded like a tragic mix of heady patriotic hopefulness about Ukraine's democratic future and gloom about the political and economic mayhem in Kiev and much of Ukraine. I have written her again but have not received a reply.

Another cousin named Gustavo went to study naval engineering in Odessa, on the Black Sea, in 1975. While on a port call to Tokyo during his third year of schooling he broke away from his classmates and asked for asylum at the U.S. embassy. The story goes that he threatened to jump out a window unless his request was granted, a sign of his desperation or of his mind beginning to come unglued. Dates, places and other specifics after that are blurry.

He ended up in Florida, lived with some family friends but then vanished until 2003, when we finally tracked him down to a small courtyard motel in Miami Beach that had been converted into a halfway house. Stew and I were the first to meet him and his beloved dog Chance, which had followed him home one day during a walk on the beach.

Our encounter at his tiny, seemingly hermetically sealed studio apartment was nothing if not disconcerting. It was neat but jammed with furniture and boxes and a metal filing cabinets full of pills of various sorts, mostly prescribed by an alternative medicine practitioner from India whom Gustavo described as his primary caretaker. Gustavo talked about feeling perpetually exhausted, his sleep cycles reversed from night to day, which may have explained the darkened windows.

Gustavo and his dear mutt, Chance.
At a lunch at a nearby diner, Gustavo's world became even more conflicted. The conversation, all in English, would drift from periods of lucidity—he was clearly very smart and well educated—to paranoid musings about Castro agents who wanted to bring him back to Cuba.

Nevertheless a rapprochement with the family followed, including with this parents, sister, brother-in-law and nephews, and he even attended my dad's ninetieth birthday in 2004. That truce didn't last and Gustavo returned to his self-imposed isolation and wouldn't speak to anyone in the family.

Around this time his beloved Chance, which seemed to anchor his life as much as his newly found family, was killed by a car. I've wondered if that might have accelerated his descent into paranoid schizophrenia. We do know he died the following year from an apparently suicidal drug overdose. Police found his body in his apartment after he'd been dead for several days.

Gustavo's story made me think that the tragedy of mental illness ultimately is the inability to make rational decisions about one's health. Had he received proper psychiatric treatment Gustavo might have beaten back the visions that tormented him. Instead he chose homeopathic treatments and other quackery and there's no way anyone could have prevented that. He wouldn't talk to me or return phone calls.

The latest trip to Florida cleared up another curiosity I had never fully understood: The Pauline conversion of the relatives I had met in Havana in 1998 during the Pope's visit and whom I perceived to be stalwart and prosperous Communists. A scant two years after my visit they turned up in Miami with their two teenage sons, ready to join the exiles Castro refers to as "worms." My uncle and aunt joined them a year later.

My uncle Alejo, along with entire Lanier family except my father, was in fact closely allied with the regime. Alejo held a high-level position at the Institute for Agrarian Reform, an important cog in the Communist machinery during the early days of the revolution charged with confiscating and re-purposing millions of acres of farmland throughout the island.

That early affiliation with the government proved potent enough to get Alejo and his wife the luxe home in Miramar, one of hundreds abandoned by wealthy families who had fled to the U.S. during the 1960s. A government official just gave my uncle a jailer-size key ring and a list of addresses and said: "Pick one."

Despite their apparent comfort and ideological correctness my cousins already had started planning their move to Miami not long after the catastrophic implosion of the Cuban economy in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the billions in yearly subsidies it provided to the island vanished almost overnight.

It's an undeniable testimonial to Castro—his genius for either leadership or repression—that he managed to keep his tottering regime together during that time. A good deal of his success might have stemmed from his knack from branding. He didn't declare a national catastrophe or emergency but instead labeled it a "Special Period." Madison Avenue and its armies of professional bullshitters couldn't have come up with a more felicitous euphemism.

Mention the Special Period to any Cuban who lived through it, though, and the conversation is likely to pause as they take a breath. It was a horror when even the most basic foodstuff became unavailable and blackouts a daily occurrence.

What made it worse was that during the preceding decade, and thanks to Soviet subsidies and give-away trade deals, the Cuban economy had improved markedly and store shelves gradually filled up with some consumer goods. The jolt of the Special Period was like going from the Renaissance back to the Dark Ages without the benefit of a transitional century or two.

My cousin Olguita along with her husband Pablo, both university graduates, recall plucking fruit from the trees on the Miramar property and trying to sell them on the streets or exchange them for something of value.

Worried that their two sons had no future in the island, they started applying for the entry visas awarded by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana—the de facto American embassy in Cuba—through a lottery system. They applied in 1994 and 1996 until their number came up in 1998. Just to be sure they also hatched some far-fetched Plan B to emigrate to Italy and Canada or even marry a foreign national to get out on their passport.

They survived the Special Period and the years afterward by renting rooms to tourists, mostly from Italy, a profitable business particularly for owners of fancy homes. When I visited Cuba in 1998 their escape plans in fact had already hatched and their revolutionary fervor when I visited, I'm afraid, was nothing more than a charade. One thing you learn to survive in a Communist society is to keep your mouth shut.

They came to the U.S. in 2000 and plunged into the job market with the fury of Dobermans going after a T-bone: Pablito, then in his 50s, hauling drywall for a construction company, my cousin Olguita selling real estate and even delivering home-cooked meals. Their two sons went to high school and college. Today one is a chemical engineer working for Exxon in Houston and who recently received an M.B.A. The other is a pharmacist for Walgreens in Miami.

Here, let us pause to sing a couple of bars of "God Bless America!" or at least read a few lines from Shakespeare's "All's Well that Ends Well."

Then there's the matter of my black relatives and where they came from. Olguita cleared up that question too, though she didn't know there was a child involved. It seems that delivering my uncle Alejo vaginally—he was a thirteen-pound baby—was so physically traumatic for my grandma Digna that she could no longer have marital relations with my grandpa Emilio. So she granted him a dispensation from his vow of marital fidelity and set him free to fulfill his "manly needs" with other women. That's a magnanimous wife if there ever was one.

Emilio accepted the offer with some gusto, took up with a black woman and they had a daughter—the mother of the beautiful woman I had met during my trip in 1998. Olguita didn't know there was a child involved who had taken the Lanier last name.

Next time I must follow up on that thread plus do some digging too about my mother's side of the family tree. A month ago, Magdalena García, a dear friend from Chicago sent me a list of Sephardic-Jewish last names compiled by the Spanish Inquisition during its apogee during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when persecution of Jews was the rage, even those who supposedly had converted to Catholicism. The latter were often called marranos or "pigs" and were suspected of remaining closeted Jews.

The list of Sephardic last names is at

My mother's family name—Quiñones—appears on the list

Wait, am I part Jewish too?

At this point in my genealogical investigations I'm left not knowing whether to exclaim "Mazel Tov!" or "Oi vey!"


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Tale of a nervous Good Samaritan

How are your abuelitos doing I asked Félix last week. His grandparents have been on my mind ever since Stew and I brought them a Christmas despensa, a holiday shopping bag of groceries containing flour for tortillas, corn husks for tamales, cooking oil, sugar and other Mexican staples that we supplemented with a couple of packages of Oreo cookies.

No one seems to know the age of the abuelitos, an excusable lapse in the Mexican countryside. Once we took Félix' father to the emergency room for a leg injury and during the registration neither Félix nor the two brothers who came along knew their own father's precise age.

Grande in Mexican Spanish can mean "old" and muy grande makes you something like "older than lint" and often that's about as close as you're going to get to a exact age.

Felix' grandparents should qualify for muy grandes even though the ravages of a hard rural life in Mexico can make you look far older than you are. They could be no more than late seventies. They were born short and the weight of however many years has stooped them to less than five feet tall. Their skin is a dark cinnamon, encrusted with the dust that swirls constantly around San Miguel during the long dry season. Deep, crisscrossing lines long ago wiped off any youth from their faces though a certain joy still glimmers in their eyes and their toothless smiles as if to assure visitors, "Hey, don't worry; we're old but not dead yet."

Indeed they are most friendly and welcoming. I noticed that Félix greets grandma grandly by bowing and kissing her hand and I do the same: The gallantry sends the old lady into little fits of giggling.

Yet despite their genuine and unselfconscious warmth, the penury—make that the misery—of their lives makes me deeply uncomfortable. After a bit of mindless niceties something sends me back to the car, to run away.

At church this Sunday the story of the Good Samaritan made me think that as much as Stew and I try to help some of the poor people around our ranch—particularly Félix and his convoluted family circle—our hit-and-run generosity may be a bit hollow. We want to help but not quite get involved or know too much.

Last Friday we visited the grandparents again, after Félix told me his grandpa had poked himself in the eye with a twig while scrounging for firewood to cook. The eye was red, tearing and swollen but the old man didn't want anything to do with doctors or hospitals, a common reaction by elders who fear that hospitals are too close to cemeteries. Grandpa just kept rubbing his eye and making it worse, Felix said.

So during a trip to town Friday afternoon we bought some antibiotic eye drops for the old guy.

We found him and his wife having dinner in their home, a one-room shanty constructed out of pieces of corrugated tin, plywood and what-have-you, surrounded by a junk field scattered around a rusted stove. Inside, a pot of beans rested on a wood fire as these two figures sat around an upside-down plastic, five-gallon bucket that served as dining table. And this was it. Dinner was served or so it seemed.

They got up to greet me and I nervously stammered through the directions for the eye drops and how to best apply them, using Félix' right eye to demonstrate. And then I fled. Stew didn't even step out of our shiny 2013 Ford Escape.

Félix once told me how mildly amazed, or perhaps amused, was his family, particularly his parents, at our willingness to attend baptisms, weddings and other family occasions; the celebratory dinners afterward; take pictures and otherwise to convivir with folks that most Mexican employers would regard as faceless workers.

Convivir, a word I had not heard too often can mean to "coexist," as political rivals might, or to share your life with someone else's. Con means "with" and vivir "to live."

Perhaps that is what I should try to do next time I visit Félix' abuelitos: sit down, talk to them—so how was your day today?—and not let my inexplicable fear, revulsion or whatever irrational emotion send me running back to the car.

After all, most old folk appreciate the courtesy of a visit—that someone takes an interest—as much as anything you can bring them. Maybe I a can take their picture, a rare treat, among the older generation who may never had had their photo taken.

As for the abuelito's condition, as of yesterday Félix reported the eye is getting better though this pig-headed geezer still doesn't want anything to do with doctors or hospitals.


The inspiration came from a member of our church, Antonette, an effervescent, tiny Filipino woman who every Wednesday and mostly at her expense sets up a table in front of at San Miguel's main church and hands out meals to elderly indigent folks, no questions asked.