Tuesday, November 27, 2007

At the Foot of the Ngong Hills

One night, I walk into my mother’s room to let her know I’ve arrived safely. She’s lying in bed under the covers, with the cat on her chest. She’s picking on her cuticles and crying.

“Mom” I say “are you OK?”

“Ugh” she responds, trying to breathe. “I’m O.K. It’s just that this movie is so, so sad”.

I turn to look at the television screen, and see words and a movie title.

“Mom” I tell her, “it hasn’t even started”.

“I know” she says, sobbing now. “But I’ve already seen it”.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Ever so often, maybe once every two years since I turned seven, my mother would come down to my room, hand me a sealed, embossed envelope, and say - not without striking a brief note of casual drama - “please keep this in a safe place”.

Written across the envelope, usually typed, was something along the lines of “Instructions for the disposal of my body at the time of my death, delivered to my daughter Alexandra” and the date.

Inside, it would contain specific instructions on what to do with her remains.

Through the years, I got a total of ten or twelve envelopes. Each one had a different, brand new set of requests, which would, like a Will, effectively cancel out the previous one (throw the others out, was the dictum.)

Certain themes within were always the same. She wanted to be cremated. She wanted my brother and I to take her ashes and scatter them around the places that she loved. The only variation was the location.

The first envelope requested her ashes be scattered in Greece. She loved Mistra, but also Santorini, her favorite island. She fell in love with Turkey. Her favorite place was Konya, but also the archaeological sites, like Sagalassos and Aphrodesias. She fell in love with Petra in Jordan, with Angkor in Cambodia, with Luang Prabang in Laos. The deserted atolls in French Polynesia. East Africa. She fell in love with Syria. She loved Palmyra, Apamea, Aleppo and castles like Krak des Chevaliers. She loved the sites out on the Euphrates, like Mari and Doura Europos. She fell in love with Peru, especially the gigantic adobe temples on the North Coast and the ruins of Chan Chan near Trujillo.

She always sustained that her true intention all along was to make absolutely certain we traveled even after she died.

At one point, she realized that having us ramble across the Globe, going from, for example, Tibet to Persepolis to Samarkand with an urn full of ashes wasn’t very practical. She then switched to the Ajusco, a beautiful wooded area less than 30 minutes from our house.

If she gave us a letter requesting that her remains be sprinkled within the confines of the city we grew up in, then the letters had nothing to do with her making sure we continued to travel. So, why did she do it?

I always understood that this scattering of ashes business had nothing to do with death. It was her way of not leaving. Other people visit a place they love and think, “I have to come back”. Her feeling was “Coming back won’t be enough. I want this place to be mine, all mine, forever”. Scattering ashes was more associated with “This place belongs to me” than with “I think I’m going to die”.

It was only recently that I asked her if she even remembered these letters. She was mildly irritated. “Dushka” she sighs. “I told you to just throw those letters out”.

“So” I say “you do remember that there were letters?”

“Yes,” She concedes (which is good, since I still have them). “But I think we'll ignore the subject of my ashes until further notice.”

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Losing Joy

Joy was the dog of my life. She was a mutt, maybe part bull terrier; absolutely beautiful, lion colored, with a strong white chest and white snout. She used to sit at my feet while I wrote or did my homework, and would sneak her way into the bed - under the covers, with her head on the pillow - whenever I let her. When I didn't, she'd lie outside my window, with her face against mine on the opposite side of the glass pane.

My mom and I (and whoever wanted to join in) used to take Joy on walks to the Ajusco, a wooded area near where we lived in Mexico City. Seeing that dog run filled by heart. She'd get crazy with joy (hence the name), and was impossible to tire.

One day, as we were walking along our usual trail, Joy heard a cowbell in the distance and took off. She ran until we couldn't see her anymore. This despite the fact we called her, whistled at her, clapped our hands at her, screamed at her, and tried to run after her.

We lost her.

We looked for her for eight hours, calling her name until we were hoarse. We walked up and down every hill, every mountain, followed every path. At one point, my mom finally said out loud what I knew to be inevitable.

"We have to go."

She looked to see how I would react, and then added "It's getting dark, and we have no food, no water and no flashlights."

Then, to make me feel better "We'll come back tomorrow."

I turned around towards the parking lot and cried. I got in the car and cried. (I want to cry now, more than 10 years later.) I cried all the way home. I drank a tall glass of water, turned down dinner, and took a hot shower. My mom came down to my room. "We'll get up early,” she said "and we'll get back there and we'll find her".

"Mom" I said. "We'll never find her. We looked everywhere today. She's gone, mom."

I got no sleep that night. I tossed, and all night Joy's new friend Cool cried. Not the weak whimper of the restless puppy that he was, but desperate, heart wrenching howls of a grown wolf in agony. Long, drawn out "aoooooo, aooooo" pierced the night. You have never heard an animal so upset. We worried Joy’s disappearance would kill him. (I worried it would kill me.)

As soon as the sun came up, we met up in the garage. We got into the car without saying a word. I felt sick. I knew she'd starve, or that someone would hurt her. Even in the best of circumstances, she’d be so confused - who else would give her the kind of a life we gave her?

Meanwhile, my mom was really chatty. She had a plan. She had thought about it all night. I was only half listening.

"We have to think like a dog,” she was saying. "Think like a dog. Think. Like. A. Dog. If you were a dog, where would you go? I think we'll find her in our picnic place. It's a spot she associates with food, and she'll be hungry".

Gone, I was thinking. Gone, gone, gone.

We trudged up through the hills, hollering her name. I looked down ravines, imagining finding her body. How can a domesticated, good-natured, big-hearted honey eyed dog survive a whole night of freezing temperatures, lost in the wild? How can Joy, who likes to sleep with her head on a pillow, for goodness sakes -

That's when I heard the soft, rattling sound of her leash.

I looked ahead. And saw her. And screaming her name – startling her - ran towards her. She looked at me. Our eyes locked. Mine said "OH MY GOD ARE YOU ALRIGHT OH MY GOD OH MY GOD?" Hers said "Oh, wassup?"

She wasn't panting, or dirty, or matted, or skinnier, or bloody, or in any way showing she had just survived a terrifying night. She was like "Whatever. That was kind of fun. Anyone got anything to drink around here?"

I hugged her thick neck, and scratched her belly, and took in the woodsy smell of her paws. I ruffled her head, held back her ears, and kissed her cool, wet nose. Without turning, she rolled her eyes and turned them towards my mom with a look that said "Jeez. What's gotten into her?"

I could barely see through my tears. I dried my eyes and nose with my sleeves, and made an effort to compose myself. Hugged her again. Leashed her. Checked the collar to make sure she wouldn't get away again. Stood up and looked around, squinting at the light.

We were at our picnic place.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Mists and mellow fruitfulness

I promised my mother that in observation of her birthday I’d post mom stories throughout November. However, I need to briefly interrupt this series to ask a question.

Let me back up.

Autumn is my favorite season of the year.

To be completely honest, I fall for the charms of all four seasons. Spring, with its flirtatious colors and the first hint of longer days. Summer, seductive with its broad display of produce and extra vacation time, and winter, with its cozy clothes and generous sprinkling of holiday cheer.

What I’m saying is it’s possible I’ve said in earlier blog entries that another season is my favorite. If so, chalk it up to my fickle nature and disregard it. It’s all about autumn.

To begin with, I love that autumn is earthy. I love fall foliage. I love that it starts to rain. It’s the perfect time to prepare a cup of tea, take a blanket into the living room and read stretched out on the sofa in front of the fireplace.

I love that instead of flowers I use pumpkins as decorations around the house. I love that this is the time of year where I buy a big wreath I use as centerpiece on my living room table.

This season, more than any other, reminds me that I’m a member of the animal kingdom. I get an irrepressible urge to gather and store food for the winter. This means I shop for vegetables, chop them and make industrial amounts of soup, which I then freeze and use in the months ahead.

Unfortunately, it also means this is the time I get the hungriest. There is so much food around, and my body seems to want to prepare itself for the brutal, harsh months ahead (forgetting that I’m in Northern California and that I spend most of the week indoors.)

So my question is, is it me, or does autumn make you eat more?