The Dickster

Photo DicksterHad she missed the bus? I stood outside the movie theater with a view of the bus stop, waiting for JC* and watching the buses go by. She knew the stops and times by heart, so it was unlike her to have made a mistake. My thoughts were disturbed by the nagging horn of a new, shiny, black car parked right in front of me and as the passenger window automatically rolled down, I was surprised to see a smiling JC inside.

Astonished, I approached the car as she happily said “…This is Richard, He was kind enough to give me a lift…” I must admit, I liked him as soon as I saw him. It wasn’t just because he was trim and tan, with a well-coifed head of white hair. There was something about him that reminded me of my dad; he exuded an inner confidence, a swagger about him. I’m sure that JC had noticed it too.

I said a quick hello as she jumped out of the car and they said their goodbyes. After our usual greeting of a kiss on each cheek, she assumed we were going straight into the theater. “…Oh, no…“, I said. “…There is no way I can watch a movie for two hours without the quick version of what just happened…”

She smiled coyly as we found a place to chat. Last night, she had attended a Cinco de Mayo Dance with a friend of hers. Richard had asked her to dance and after a few dances in a row, stated assertively that he was taking her to dinner Saturday night. Always the savvy New Yorker, she declined politely, not comfortable going on an outing with a complete stranger.

After much conversation, Richard’s son intervened. He had invited his dad to the dance in the hopes he might meet someone and wound up to be the one who finally brokered the deal:  JC would choose the restaurant and Richard would meet her there.

After a few more dances, exchanging contact information and making their final plans, JC assumed she would not see Richard again until Saturday, so was surprised when her doorman said he was in her lobby the next afternoon. The giant bouquet of roses hid his smiling face and the light kiss on the cheek surprised her. She explained that she was on her way out and he offered to drive her to the movies.

From then on, her life was a constant soiree of cocktails and dinners at lovely restaurants, movie dates, afternoons at the race track, all commencing with a dozen roses. Just as I had done so many times in the past when I had a date, she would model her outfits for me and together we would choose just the right accessories.

It was Mr. Wiz* who brought us both back to reality. He had a devotion to my mom and always felt very protective of her, especially since my dad’s passing. The first evening that we double dated, he hardly spoke and I could see that he was taking it all in. The next day, he announced to me bluntly “… There is something about Richard that I do not like. He’s a con man…” Mr. Wiz was too good a judge of character for me to dismiss his opinion. And after all, what did we really know about Richard?

Fortunately, at the same time, JC was starting to have her doubts. As much as she wanted the fairytale to continue, she was too clever not to notice the red flags that slowly would begin to wave right in front of her eyes. Richard mentioned how he missed home cooking and hinted that dinners at home (her home) would be much more romantic. He suggested that if she purchased the racing channel, they could watch the horse races cozily at home (her home). He would allude to the fact that living together (in her home) would be the ultimate happy ending.

Some people are born with a certain magnetism and allure and create illusions that can carry them through an entire lifetime. Richard was one of these people. Seeing that his demonstrative performances were not working on JC, he set the stage for his reality. Yes, he did live in that condo in that affluent town, but he was only renting a bedroom from a millennial that constantly traveled. Yes, he was a crossing guard, but he did it for the salary and not to volunteer. Yes, it was his car, but it was leased and he could just about make the payments. And yes, Saturday nights, he did look like he had stepped out of a Polo Ralph Lauren ad, but that was his only dress outfit and he carefully took care of it.

Richard was perplexed. Why was his usual strategy not working this time? Little did he know that his scheme’s demise occurred when he casually mentioned that JC would have to share her closet with him when he moved in. No one gets between JC and her closet. If life were a chess game, his one last aggressive move of a one week deadline to make a decision was checkmated on the spot by JC’s response: she was not looking for a roommate.

And so, marked the departure of the Dickster, my nickname for the handsome hustler who chose the wrong woman to dance with on Cinco de Mayo.

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Camino, the Dog and the Girl

Photo Camino Dog

I wondered why she needed a service dog, but it’s not something you ask someone. On the Camino, dogs were a novelty. He was the star of the show, receiving so much attention. Head down and the ever-present cigarette between her fingers, she remained out of the spotlight, answering every question about him with as few words as possible. She was petite and cute, but there was a toughness about her that told you that this was someone you did not want to mess with. When she did look up, I noticed that she seldom smiled and her eyes were devoid of any sparkle. They were hauntingly dark and piercing, as if they held secrets that were not discussed in polite company.

We seemed to be on a similar pace and ran into each other almost daily. I made sure that I greeted her every day with a smile and a quick “Hola” or “Buenos Dias” so as not to interfere with her solitude. While others around her were sometimes talking and laughing together, she and her dog always walked alone. He was her best friend and the way they interacted brought a tear to my eye.

One morning, I noticed that the dog was walking right next to an older woman, rather than his master. Out of character for the girl, she asked the older woman if she was feeling all right. Without too much explanation, she briefly mentioned that her dog was able to sense low blood sugar in humans through his sense of smell. The woman brushed it off, thanked her and continued on.

When I saw her the next morning, I asked about the older woman after my usual morning greeting. I was surprised that she actually seemed to want to respond and spoke with more emotion in her voice than I had ever heard before. Luckily, the woman was staying at the same albergue (hostel) as she and her dog. As soon as the older woman sat down on her bed, she passed out. Realizing that the dog’s diagnosis was correct, the girl was able to get help for her immediately and, by dinner time, the woman was feeling better. Another example of how the Camino provides.

Our relationship reverted back to my daily one word acknowledgments until one evening the following week. I was sitting outside at a café, enjoying a glass of red wine and she asked if she could join me. Startled, I agreed and hoped that we would not suffer those long pauses of discomfort when conversation does not come naturally.

I can’t recall what actually happened next. I may have commented about the day’s terrain, but all I remember is that she started to speak. And when she did, the words came like an avalanche; spilling out of her so rapidly. It was as if they had filled her up, swelled to capacity and finally exploded. She hardly seemed to breathe as she told a captivating story of her life: the military, a college education, promotions, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an honorable discharge, her service dog, the Camino.

I was lost in her words, my mind racing to keep up with her story. It took all I had in me to not interrupt. I had so many questions, but this was her moment. What if digging deeper put her over the edge?

When she abruptly stopped speaking and took a deep breath, we just looked at each other for a moment. She looked different; her posture seemed less rigid, her expression was softer. I was unsure of what to say, but when the jovial group of pilgrims that I was to meet there joined us, she hurriedly said her goodbyes and she and her dog left.

A few days went by and I wondered why I had not run into her. I was glad to see her the following day, smiled and gave my usual greeting, but she did not smile back. “…I have to leave…” was all she said in a flat tone. She explained that the pads of her dog’s feet were scraped and bleeding and he couldn’t walk anymore. She had tried ointments, but nothing had worked. She knew he would stand by her side regardless and just keep going, but this was the right thing to do. She was confident they would return next year and pick up where they had left off.

She then put one finger on my arm and whispered “…Thank you, my friend…” I returned the one finger touch and replied softly “…Buen Camino…” It was the first thing that came to mind, but I meant it in the bigger sense. I had so much more I wanted to say, but at that particular moment, words did not seem appropriate. For her that small gesture of intimacy was at the same level as the “Heimlich Hugs” that my Spanish grandmother was famous for and I knew I would always cherish the fact that she chose me to share it with.

She and her dog were gone the next day. Unlike others you might meet and connect with along the Camino, we did not exchange contact information. I thought about her a lot. I wondered why I had been chosen to be the one to interact with her. In this brief relationship, who was the student and who was the teacher? Just as in the military, I questioned if the Camino was breaking me down and rebuilding me from the bottom up in order to make me a better person.

For days, I would hear pilgrims say out loud “…Hey, where’s the dog?..” and I would answer that they went home, each time hoping to myself that they would find a place in the world to call home and that that there would be another arm for her to put her one finger on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Touched by an Artist’s Power and Purpose  

Photo Jenn Hassin

She was not what I expected. The pretty young woman that stood before us in the art gallery smiled demurely, as she was introduced. It was when she began to speak about her art and her life that I became captivated. There was a power that came from her words. Jenn Hassin spoke with an authority that is usually honed through age and experience.

Hers was a life filled with clashes of the presumed and the unexpected: not the childhood one would hope for, a family friend turned mentor, a stint in the military, a college degree in studio art, a divorce, a single mom, a second marriage, another child and a happy, supportive extended family made up of an ex-husband and his parents. Her personality celebrated a dichotomy of military precision and artistic creativeness. This helped to explain how she single handedly was able to get her work, Letters of Sacrifice, exhibited at the Pentagon.

Kintsugi: that was the philosophy that this exhibit was based on. Jenn went on to explain that the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold dusted lacquer treats breakage and repair as a part of the object’s history. Rather than disguising the damage, it works to make it more beautiful.

Jenn’s art installation entitled Embrace the Damage took over the entire wall. As Jen explained, “…The wall of current newspapers from the U.S. and around the world are folded and assembled in a chaotic, yet systematic manner. They represent my personal feelings regarding the overwhelming nature of our current sociopolitical climate. The woven gold braid meandering through it signifies the crack in society and the beauty and strength that can and will prevail for having gone through our current tensions…”

The second part of the installation, Listen and Repair, was interactive. According to Jenn, “…One of the biggest problems we face today is that we do not listen to one another. This offers the opportunity to cut and then mend a tablecloth together; to commune with one another. A gold thread will be used to mend the tablecloth, creating a seam and a border that both divides and connects. I encourage those who participate to converse with one another. You will be sitting on garments and blankets from around the world; talk to one another about culture or about what is going on around the world. Connect or debate, but above all, hear one another. The outcome of the work when the exhibit ends is to create an image of what listening looks like…”

As she spoke, everything took on a new perspective. Jenn, so youthful, became the wise old sage. Her art, subtle in its tone, transformed itself into a powerful and intense message.

Jenn Hassin’s art is a rich composite of the atypical experiences that have shaped her life. Along with the hands of the many volunteer veterans that have touched so many of her works and helped her to bring her messages to life, so will you be deeply touched.

Isabel

Photo Isabel

She was born with just right balance of moxie and elegance, which served her well throughout the years. As a little girl in the orphanage, she was always the one chosen to be dressed up in a pinafore with a big bow in her hair and displayed to the wealthy families who came to view the children for possible adoption. Even thought she would curtsy and smile just as she was taught, the little boys were always the first choice. It was Columbia, South America after all and the year was 1908.

It wasn’t a terrible life. The nuns were kind enough and even though they were too busy to pay individual attention to all their charges on a daily basis, they treated Isabel with a certain reverence. In her quiet, confident way, she seemed to stand out from the others and they sensed this. Mother Superior would always pat her on the head as she walked by and whisper “Eres una estrella brillante” (“You are a shining star”). Isabel treasured those words and would remember them for the rest of her life.

She had little choice where she was to go once she outgrew the orphanage. Mother Superior took special care to make sure that her placement fit her distinctive personality. She had her assigned to a positon as a maid in the home of a wealthy Spanish family who just happened to have a son close to her age. The rest would take care of itself, she surmised, as she smiled to herself and made the sign of the cross.

While Isabel felt fortunate to live with such luxury around her and absorbed the refinement and  gentility into her nature, the years were passing by and she had a gnawing feeling that there was more to life. While the family was kind to her, and their son, Manolo, was noticeably infatuated with her, once he left for college, she felt it was also time for her to move on.

She had saved up enough money for a one-way ticket by ship to New York and set her plan in motion. Jobs did not come easy then, but with much determination, she found herself reporting to work at the National Biscuit Company a week later. Convinced that her factory job of sorting and packing cookies would be short term, she did so with that same style and grace that she was now becoming known for.

She met Florence on her very first day of work. Both strong-minded and full of dreams, they soon became best friends. Together, they made up for their lack of formal education with their uncanny ability to charm their way in (or out) of any situation. They would pool their money and smile coyly as they greeted the owner of the fabric store and then ask for a discount. Isabel would design the dresses that Florence would sew. Now, they felt confident enough to attend a dance at one of the big New York clubs or take in a movie together. They held hands as they had their hair cut off into a bob, the flapper style that was considered a bit rebellious.

Isabel had originally chosen New York for two reasons: it’s allure and the fact that Manolo was attending college there. It did not take long for him to respond in person to the note, scented with her perfume that she hand-delivered to the school office. They married as soon as he graduated and settled on Long Island, a suburban area of New York City. Hers was a charmed life in a beautiful home with a loving, successful husband.

She remained best friends with Florence her entire life, which is where I come in. Florence was my grandmother and that is how I got to know Titi Isabel (an affectionate term for aunt, in Spanish). Neither my parents nor my grandparents would dare make any decorating or fashion decisions without consulting her first. She was our very own Latin Coco Chanel.

I was used to the fact that my family did not allow sleepovers with minor exceptions; Titi Isabel and Manolo being one of them. As the oldest child in a household with a toddler and an infant, I was delighted to be invited to spend the weekend in such a sophisticated, adult world. Our scrambled eggs were prepared with just a dash of white wine. For lunch, we’d dine on buttered chicken sandwiches served on Pepperidge Farms bread (rather than the big loaf of no-name, sale white bread we’d have at home). Titi Isabel and I would dress together for our outings to New York City “Eres una estrella brillante” she would whisper to me as she’d dab some of her perfume behind my ear.

It was when Titi Isabel died that I was finally able to get my grandmother to divulge the name of her perfume. Just like her past, she wished to keep her scent a secret, hoping it would fade away with time. Likening her choice of fragrance to her elegant nature, my hunt, for the elusive product that now had a name, started at the most prestigious department stores. Bergdorf Goodman, Henri Bendel; my search continued as I told myself that, in this instance, money was no object.

I cannot say that I was disappointed when I paid the cashier at Walgreens for the largest bottle of that perfume that I could find. It seemed a testament to a life well lived, made up of the top and the bottom, the good and the bad, the happy and the sad. One woman’s choices made with an inherent confidence that could elevate nothing into something all because of who she was.

I dab that perfume behind my ears every day with a smile, hoping its bouquet will give me a whiff of who I might become if I let myself unfold just a bit more elegantly and mysteriously.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Farrah Before Farrah  

Photo Farah

I feel as if I knew Farrah Fawcett, even though we’ve never met.

Never needing an excuse to visit Austin’s Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum, we were quick to RSVP for two recent free events. After enjoying cocktails and hors d’ oeuvres on the patio and a walk around the gardens, we visited a new exhibit entitled “Mentoring a Muse: Farrah Fawcett and Charles Umlauf”, which included works by both Farrah and Umlauf, along with an informative lecture. We returned to the patio a month later, but this time we were treated to a presentation entitled “Friends of Farrah”, at which her nephew and her childhood friends, the “amigas” (Spanish for female friends), shared memories and personal stories with us.

Farrah, a Texas girl from Corpus Christi, attended college at the University of Texas at Austin and studied art. It was there that she met Charles Umlauf, the professor and mentor that she shared a lifelong friendship with. Her artistic talent, while incredibly impressive, was something that most never knew about. Overshadowed by her beauty, the only freshman to be named one of the “ten most beautiful coeds on campus”, she was soon discovered by a Hollywood agent and left before graduation.

She rose to international fame when the photo of her posing in a red swimsuit became the best selling poster in history. And, who can forget the TV show Charlie’s Angels? In 1996, she was named one of the top fifty greatest TV stars of all time. Four Emmy award nominations and six Golden Globe nominations later, Farrah was still the same soft spoken, sweet girl from Texas that her small circle of friends and family knew and loved.

Farrah’s “amigas” told stories of accompanying her into a venue, their amazement at the total silence that would ensue and Farah’s nonchalant way of making everyone comfortable. Scripts were always piled high on her bedroom floor, her phone was constantly ringing and she spoke of experiencing a constant emotional tug between being famous and longing for anonymity (especially when there was strife in her personal life).

Farrah remained a sculptor all her life. She and Umlauf seem to share a secret language, both becoming the other’s muse. With him, she was able to express the part of herself that she kept hidden from the world. Was Farrah’s deep connection to Umlauf the justification of her artistic side and her decision of a road not taken?

One of the “amigas” told the story that when Farrah was diagnosed with Cancer and lost her hair (she passed away at age 62), she visited her and couldn’t help but think “…Wow, if she doesn’t have the most beautifully shaped head!..”. The “amiga” tearfully told the audience that there was nothing the beautiful Farrah would have wanted more than to be honored for her art. At that moment, the lights flickered, the microphone squealed, the audience gasped and I knew she was there with us.

 

Like Mother Like Daughter: The Art of the Zeal

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

New year’s eve, 2010: It was when she put his hat on to start her song that his jaw dropped. That was the night her old family friend professed his undying love for her and proposed marriage (she politely declined). That was the night that I knew *JC could still “knock ‘em dead.”

Nothing could squelch her spunk. When her parents divorced, the independent little girl would cheerfully bloom wherever she was planted; whether it was with her eccentric aunt or her doting grandmother. Her childhood stories always entertain: riding on the running board of her dad’s car, collecting eggs from the chickens, playing cowboys and Indians with the three dogs, trying every one of the 24 ice cream flavors at Thompkins.

The night she met the handsome Latin from Manhattan (my dad), they had both decided to go out alone for a change, bored with the same old places their friends would usually dance. They both headed to Roseland, a top club of the day. She had inherited her moxie from her mom, whose advice she would remember when heading home back to New Jersey late at night: always walk near the street, not the buildings.

Their dance lasted 53 years, unfortunately interrupted by his cancer. In between, she rode the ups and downs of all his dreams and schemes as if on a bucking bronco, holding on and never willing to let go. At 5 feet 6 inches tall, my dad made up for his stature by living life large, always cognizant of his humble beginnings. Four children later and with a construction company of his own, our lives were still filled with the spontaneity of their youth; food and music always seemed to evolve into a party.

She remembered everything he had told her. His business acumen had rubbed off on JC and she was much more savvy than she was given credit for. This would come in handy as she maneuvered through life without him.

I can’t remember when she wasn’t the yin to my yang. Even though we were both born under the sign of Cancer, our personalities differ. It’s a symbiotic bond: I keep her organized and on track and she helps me loosen up and go with the flow. She always sees the glass as half full. I do too, but… Is it the proper glass to serve in? Is it clean? Do we have enough for company?

JC has put up with a lot from me through the years, softening the hard edges of my Type A personality, as only a mother can do. I can honestly say that if it weren’t for her, I would not be the person I am today. My style (If you’ve got it, flaunt it), my sense of humor (when you are feeling down, sing “Who Put the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder”) and my medical knowledge (drink water backward to get rid of the hiccups) are all thanks to JC.

How does she do it? I still am learning from her every day. There is something about living with a curiosity for life, with a spirit that renders you ageless, with that “…Fiddle Dee Dee, I’ll think about it tomorrow…” attitude that Scarlet O’Hara had in “Gone with the Wind,” with a continual excitement over even the smallest aspects in life that are contagious.

Helping each other steer through any obstacles, “JC and Me” is a force to reckon with. We have been known to outwit an unsuspecting opponent in zany situations (a la “I Love Lucy”). What would Lucy have been without Ethel? What would I be without JC?

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

 

 

 

 

Duende

Photo Duende

A chimpanzee and flamenco dance lessons; that’s all I wanted when I was 12 years old. The pet never materialized, but many years later the flamenco lessons did. It was *JC that found the classes through the Chicago Park District. At a cost of $25 for six sessions on a Saturday morning, it was hard to decline. We excitedly signed up together.

First things first; this called for some shopping. It went without saying that for us to do our best, we had to look the part. It took some time to choose just the right flamenco shoes, flared long skirt and fitted top. We tried them on over and over again and had fun twirling around and breaking them in.

The class was held in the guest house behind an old mansion that the Park District now owned. Arriving early, I had time to explore. The stone structure was now one big room, with only a narrow path and some boulders separating it from Lake Michigan. I didn’t realize then how inspiring it would be to dance while watching the water “dance” outside along with us.

I must admit, I was a bit taken aback when Señora walked into the class that first day. She was older than I had expected with a soft body and a lined face. Her hair was pulled back into a tight bun and her shoes looked as if they had accompanied her on many a dance floor. But, as she walked up to each of us, asked our name and gave us a welcome hug, I noticed her black eyes. They were piercing, bright, twinkling. There was something special about her. Then, without saying a word, she played a CD, started dancing and we were transfixed. At that moment, her body changed. Her posture was straight, her hand movements so elegant, her feet moving so quickly and precisely and her dark eyes sparkling.

As she explained the class format, we focused on her every word. A combination of Spanish, Spanglish and English, it required concentration. We would be learning four Sevillanas. These are festival dances with simple choreography; easy to master for practice and training. Or were they? The class was made up of women, all ages, shapes and sizes. Initially, we all were so intent on clumping through the steps that we forgot to use any hand movements at all. I wondered how week after week Señora had the patience to watch this clumsy group assault the classic beauty of the art form that she had dedicated her life to

What the class lacked in structure, it made up for in entertainment value. Señora would stop abruptly at any time and start regaling us with a story from her colorful past. Sometimes, she’d carefully pass around a creased, yellowed article featuring her and her husband; a handsome young couple; carefree and excited for where life would lead them. From these snippets, we were able to piece together her life story.

Growing up in Spain, she had learned flamenco at an early age and had excelled at it. She had caught the eye of a young man in her village, a bit older than she, who convinced her parents that she should join him and his musicians and go on tour. From then on, she lived and breathed flamenco. After performing all over Europe, they immigrated to the U.S. and danced in Las Vegas, getting to know all the big stars of the time and living large. Señora’s husband was not a businessman, so when his health deteriorated and he ultimately died, she was left with nothing but her memories.

Each Saturday, we’d arrive early to class and stay late, hoping for another story or anecdote, so were disappointed when a stern, young woman was waiting for us this particular morning. She told us her mother was not well and she would be taking over the class. Based on her demeanor, we could tell that she wanted to be anywhere but there. We tried asking questions, but she stoically answered as little as possible.

Nothing was the same. I gave up hope that I would ever speak to Señora again, until I noticed that the young woman was on her cellphone one day and politely asked if it was Señora. If so, could I please speak with her? I was so happy to hear the combination of languages that I could now magically decipher. I asked about her health and told her how much she was missed. I asked if we could come visit her, but she said it wouldn’t be a good idea.

I didn’t know if I would ever get the chance to speak with her again and didn’t want to hang up. I was looking for something from this woman who sparkled, who had lived through the ups and downs of her life with such vivacity, such robustness. “What is your secret?,” I asked. She seemed to know exactly what I was referring to and responded with one word. “Duende,” she said softly.

This Spanish term refers to a magical spirit and was traditionally used in flamenco music or other art forms to refer to the mystical or powerful force given off by a performer to draw in the audience. Nowadays, the word also refers to one’s unspoken charm or allure; that certain something that captivates. Yes, this one word encapsulated Señora and duende seemed to be the Latin version of moxie.

I thought of Señora often, especially Saturday mornings, and how I never wanted to forget her influence on me. She may very well have been my inspiration for starting this blog and a way of remembering that we need to package all we were born with into one powerful fireball and use it as the spark to live the very best life we can live.

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.