My Pandemic Perfect Birthday

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Last Thanksgiving my daughter suggested we do something big for my really big birthday that was coming up in June.  I won’t tell you how big of a birthday it was going to be, let’s just say it wasn’t my 21st.

My daughter loves to travel so she suggested we all go to France to celebrate in the small village where my grandmother was born – St. Etienne de Baigorry.  Located in the Pyrenees mountains at the border between France and Spain, Baigorry is a Basque town and a very special place for all of my extended Craviotto family.  Here’s Baigorry:

saint-etienne-baigorry-27603_w1000

After my grandmother – “Nanie” –  passed away in 1972, my grandfather – “Bobby” – decided that he wanted to take all of his grandchildren to France to show them where his wife, Jenny Ocafrain, had been born.  There were six grandchildren – I was the oldest at twenty-three and my cousin Eileen was the youngest at eleven.  Here’s a picture of Bobby and Eileen as we waited for the train in Bayonne:

Eileen and Bobbie

My brother Jim and our three cousins, Dan, John, and Cathleen, were in their teens.  Oh and my grandfather was 82.  The seven of us traveled for twenty-three days and nights across Europe and we spent a whole week in Baigorry, staying in the small inn that our great uncle had helped finance with the money he had made as a sheepherder in the Paso Robles area of California.  Here’s a photo of my sheepherder uncle, Uncle Jean (“Uncle Johnny” to us kids).

UncleJohnny

That trip was an amazing adventure (I might do a post about it one of these days) because we all fell in love with Baigorry.  Since that first trip, all of us have gone back – as a matter of fact, our family still owns 23 acres of land there and the 250-year-old stone house where my grandmother was born still stands on the land where our neighbor now pastures his sheep.  Every Basque house has a family name and this is ours,  the House of Magnanea:

Mananea House & Barn

My children are the only ones in our extended family who haven’t visited Baigorry, and so this year on June 25th all seven of us were going to fly into Paris and then take the train to Bayonne where we would rent two cars and drive into the beautiful Pyrenees to experience Pays Basque and Baigorry.

And then, the pandemic hit.

Not being able to go to Baigorry made me want to go there even more.  I started to think about all of the things I would miss by not being there: the beauty of the land, the delicious wines, the lovely flowers, the food, the people…The more I thought about it, the more items I added to my list and then, I got an idea.  Maybe I could recreate Baigorry and the French Basque experience for the day:  right there in my own home in California.

I turned to the internet for help: I entered “French Wine” into Google Search and Voilá! Wines.com appeared with its long list of French wines available for delivery.  I entered “French cheeses” into Google Search and Voilá! Fromages.com appeared with its variety of authentic French cheeses, many of them from the Pyrenees, delivered directly from France.  The more I kept searching on Google the more items I found that reminded me of Baigorry and traveling through France.  I could definitely create a French/Basque experience in my home:  the sights, the tastes, the smells, (French cheeses can be stinky!).  But the part of traveling to France I would miss the most, that I couldn’t order over the internet, would be the time spent with my family – with my son Josh and his wife Simone, and our four-year-old grandson Stokely, and our daughter Katie and our son-in-law Jason.  The experiences we would have shared in-person in France is what we would have valued the most from our trip. The challenge now would be how to have the same kind of experiences together while we physically had to stay apart.  But maybe there was a way – if we could be creative – to share our French experiences as a family – virtually – as we drank the same wines, ate the same cheeses, macarons, croissants…

I spent the whole month of June ordering three of everything – wines, cheeses, French tablecloths, Spanish cured ham, black cherry preserves from a little village twenty minutes from Baigorry…and hoping that everything arrived on time and in one piece.  There were a few glitches along the way: smashed macarons sent to the wrong city, frozen croissants that defrosted along the way and ended up in a large blob of dough.  Thank Goodness the wines all arrived safely!  We worked around any mistakes that happened and ordered locally for replacement items.  And on June 28th – my really BIG birthday – all three of our families gathered in front of our Facebook Portals and enjoyed a virtual French Basque pintxo (hors d’oeuvres) party.

I am still smiling.

Here are some pictures and a couple of little videos.

 

Dars 70th #3

(I hope that all of you are finding ways to stay connected with family and close friends as we navigate the challenges of these pandemic days.  You don’t necessarily have to be in the same space with another person to feel close, to feel connected.  Humans have been blessed with an imagination and through our imagination anything is possible.  Consider it your own personal virtual reality.  It can take you many places, beyond your home, beyond the restrictions we’re all feeling right now. Stay well. Be safe. Be creative. )

 

Welcome to Californio!

It’s here and ready to be read!

I’m proud to finally be able to say: You can order a paperback of Californio through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or pre-order the e-book (available August 2nd) for Kindle or Nook.

Californio ebook cover REV

If you live in the Santa Barbara area, or you’re planning to visit Santa Barbara’s Old Spanish Days Fiesta (August 2 – 6), Californio is the perfect book to enrich your Fiesta experience.  You can find Californio at Chaucer’s Bookstore on Upper State Street, the Book Den, and Santa Barbara Presidio’s Gift Shop.

If you have a favorite bookstore in your own town you want to support, just give them the title, Californio by Darlene Craviotto, and ask them to order you a copy.

If you’re a member of a book club and would love to use Californio as one of your books, please contact me here at my blog for special wholesale pricing, and a guide for discussing the novel and California’s First Pioneers.

Thank you to all of you who have come to this blog, read my posts, and given me the confidence and courage to always write what my heart wants me to write. I would never have written this novel if not for the feedback, the kind words, and the connection that I’ve found here at this blog. I hope you enjoy Californio because I felt while I was writing it that we were all taking this journey together.  A writer always works in solitude, but is never really alone.  Our readers are always at our side, peeking over our shoulders and guiding us along. 

Thanks for always being there.  

#2 Signature

An American Latte

Old typewriter

“Hi! Can I take your order?!”

The barista was young – with more spring in his voice than ever was in my step. I really doubted that he shaved. Or even knew how.

“I’ll have a decaf latte,” I placed my order.

And then, feeling brave.

“Double shot of vanilla,” I added. And not the sugar-free.

“And your name?” he asked, poising the black marker at the top of the paper cup.

“Darlene,” I said, and then quickly added, not willing to risk another “Darling” scribbled on my order. “D-A-R…”

“I know that name!” he said proudly. And then, finished spelling it aloud as I did, “…L…E…N…E.”

Maybe he did know how to shave.

He took my stare of amazement as a challenge and explained.

“I have a cousin named Darlene,” he told me, with a victorious smile. “She’s 65.”

65? Really?! Who dragged age into this conversation? Of course, my grey hair sneaking out the sides of my son’s old baseball cap might have been a hint or two. Do I politely nod and let the subject drop? Not willing to “date” myself? Or do I keep the ball rolling, possibly revealing my own age?

Gulp.

Aw hell, I took the plunge.

“Your cousin’s probably named after “Darlene” from the Mickey Mouse Club. A lot of us with that name were named after her. So when you see a “Darlene,” we’re usually from around that same period of time.”

“It’s such a great name!!!” he said, scrawling the name on my cup.

I smiled. It wasn’t so bad admitting my age range. I mean, I’m sure he could tell I wasn’t twenty. Even though I must admit that in my heart I am still twenty, especially when a cute young man (guy? dude?) like this takes the time to even talk to me. And when they actually look you in the eyes and smile, well, there’s no difference now at 60-something and when I was really twenty. So yeah, I looked him in the eyes and I smiled my most fetching smile.

“I really love that name of “Darlene,” he murmured, softly. “It reminds me of Old America.”

Ohhh – Kay.

I must admit this made me pause.

I wasn’t aware there was an “Old America,” but I guess there is.

And I’m it.

I’m one of the Baby Boomers who was filled with idealism, hope, and promise. There were a lot of us, and we helped stop a war and impeach a President; we spoke out against injustice, worked for diversity and equity, and stepped up, when it was our time, to do our jobs, raise our families, and run the country. We didn’t always find our way; we might have stumbled trying to do so much, but we tried. And we believed that if we worked together – all of us, Americans – we could make anything better.

Old America.

That’s what the barista called it. Called those of us who grew up with the Mickey Mouse Club and the new medium of television, long hair and the belief that love would bring us peace. And he said “Old America” with respect. He said it with longing. He said it like someone sitting on the edge of adulthood, looking back at that time of innocence when all questions were answered. When we felt safe and sure about the future, and we hoped our children and grandchildren felt the same way.  He said it like he missed that Old America.

I know what he means.

I miss it too.

When Was Your First Time?

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The first time is something we don’t ever forget.

We may not talk about it with anyone, but it changes us. There’s a loss of innocence, and we carry that with us forever. We keep it secretly to ourselves, never willing to bring it out of the darkness or to share it at all.

But it’s time to be bold and talk about it — about that very first time.

The first time you tasted sexism.

It’s tough right now to be a woman.  You can’t turn on the television or scroll through social media without hearing words that aren’t just words to us, but for many are triggers that make us feel ill, alienated,  and hurting. Misogyny. Sexual assault. Rape culture. We’re learning ad nauseam the dirty details about lines being crossed and bodies being shamed, by word and by deed. Everything we’re talking about has to do with that “ism” that many of us don’t like to use.  We talk about Racism. Anti-Semitism. Ageism, even. But Sexism makes us pause and think twice.

When I was growing up as a little girl, I heard a lot of comments about females. And none of them were good. Women were bad drivers, scatter-brained, gossipers, irrational, overly-emotional, not to be trusted, and they only were interested in spending their husband’s money. With a gender description such as this, it’s amazing that I ever wanted to grow up to be a woman. 

Was it sexism? 

You bet it was. 

But did I know it at the time, or feel it was wrong?  Not really.  That’s how I was raised, and everything I heard in my family was also what I was seeing in movies and television. Like background music in an elevator or a dentist office, you get used to it after awhile and pretty soon you just tune it out. But there was one time I couldn’t tune it out. There was a moment in my life when something was said that made me hear in a new way, made me feel something deep inside, and changed me forever. 

It was the first time I truly understood the ugliness of sexism.

I was pregnant with my first child, and there are no words to describe the joy I felt as I carried a new life inside of me. With every movement within my womb, I felt a newfound pride at being a woman and being able to give life. My husband’s uncle called us one night to congratulate us — I was seven months pregnant, and nervous as hell.  He was a dear man, this uncle, generous and charming, and I loved him.  He was thrilled to hear we were going to be parents and offered us a bit of wisdom.

“You know it’s going to be a boy, don’t you? Our family only has boys,” he told me. 

“And if it’s a girl?” I asked in all innocence. 

He laughed at that thought, and then added, “Well, you know what they do in China?  They kill girls.” 

He laughed again and I felt ill.   

The conversation went on, and I just listened. 

Sickened. 

Not just by his cruel comment, but by my sudden silence. I didn’t have a voice to answer him.  Or to confront him for what he had said. I knew it was racist, but I had a hard time telling myself it was sexist.

I spent most of the night quietly thinking about what this favorite uncle had said to me.   How could I speak up to this when I didn’t fully understand the pain I was experiencing as a woman?  This wasn’t the first time I’d heard something bad said about being female in this world. Why couldn’t I just forget it, and move on? This man was a loving person, and someone I had always respected. He didn’t really mean the comment, I was sure.  So why not just forgive him? But by morning I couldn’t find it in my heart to let this moment go by. 

I spoke to my husband about it, and he laughed and said, “Oh, he was just kidding.” 

Somehow that wasn’t enough. 

“You’re Jewish,” I reminded him. “What if we replaced the word “girl” with “Jew?”  How would you feel?” 

It’s the only time in my life I’ve seen my husband truly speechless.  He understood.  He felt the pain that I’d felt for being treated as less, as inferior, as something without value.  This was the first time sexism became more than just a word in the dictionary. I felt it for the first time. 

But not for the last.

I have a theory about all those nasty, hateful terms with “ism” in them.  When we don’t talk about them, they linger. If we just let them happen, or ignore them, they don’t go away.  How can we find an answer, if we’re unwilling to talk about it with each other? 

There’s a conversation going on right now in our country and for the first time it has captured the attention of television cameras, radio microphones, and every bit of cyberspace of social media.  I know it hurts to keep hearing ugly words, and witnessing hateful attitudes we’ve spent our lifetimes as women experiencing.  But as painful as this might be right now, it’s the only way for this “ism” to get better. 

So that all the little girls to come never have to go through what we’ve gone through.

And all the little boys will never be burdened by such hatred.

Hello? Can You All Still Hear Me…?

It’s been three years since I’ve regularly posted here.

I’ll be honest with you — I’m not sure I remember how to do this.

I just finished writing 99,000 words, locked in the 1700s with characters who speak another language, live in another culture, and who are traveling on horses and mules 1500 miles to the promise land of California. I’ve just lived this amazing adventure, and I’m not sure how to come back here to my blog.

I’m having a hard time returning to the 21st Century.

But do you blame me?

This 21st Century isn’t easy to live in. There’s lead in the drinking water in Michigan. People are getting shot every day. There are hurricanes and Zika-bearing mosquitos in Florida, wild fires and earthquake warnings in California, 24 hour coverage of the nastiest political race that I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime…and when I try to look away, to seek some solace in the words of my fellow 21st Century travelers on Facebook, Twitter, and in the blogs, I find sarcasm, snark, and insults. Sometimes even threats. It’s hard to stay positive with everything going on in the modern world around us. Harder still for a recovering agoraphobic to want to step out there into the middle of it all.

Some days I ask myself: Why aren’t there more agoraphobics in this 21st Century? After all, there’s nothing you can’t order online and have it delivered to your home. There’s no reason to go to the grocery store, the mall, the movie theater, or anywhere you need to purchase goods or content as long as you have the internet to do your shopping for you. There’s telecommuting for work, online courses for school and college, religious services, and dating. What’s the reason to ever step outside of our homes? To go out in the middle of such heartache and angst? Shouldn’t we all be hiding underneath our covers, cowering with fear and disgust? What pushes us out there every day? What gives us the faith to keep looking for the good in our world?

While writing this, I asked myself those questions. What makes me go out my front door every day, when I could stay warm and protected inside my house, with my imagination keeping me company, and without risking some unknown danger lurking outside?

The answer came easily – I didn’t have to look far.

Brown eyes.

These brown eyes…

stokely-headshot

This is my grandson, Stokely.

He was born in April, at the same hospital where my own son was born. It wasn’t planned that way – it was just one of those sweet quirks of Fate that make you smile and say, “Awwwww.”

If I stay hidden in my world, I will never have the chance to experience Stokely’s world. What I see when I look into those deep brown eyes are what make me forget about all the bad things that go bump in the night. This crazy-at-times 21st Century is his century too. Together, we have to navigate it. He knows no other century, no other world, and this crazy-by-my-terms 21st century is where he will be the most comfortable. Where I hope we can always make him feel comfortable. And above everything else—safe.

I’m working on that.

And that’s what gets me out the front door. Every. single. day.

What gets you out of your front door?

After Three Long Years…!

felipephotopr-2jpg

Name:  Californio

Born: August 30, 2016

Weight: 99,000 words

Height: 8 1/2″ x 11″

Length of Labor:  Three years

The baby needs to be cleaned up, bathed, swaddled and nursed before he can go out into the world. But when he’s ready, you will be the first to meet him.

—The proud Momma

Today Was Kind Of Special For Us

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Today was the day the Craviotto family walked through our 100 year old Shop to look at all of the tools, scrolls, machinery, and memorabilia, deciding what items to keep and what to sell.

It’s time to say good-bye to Craviotto Brothers Ironworks.

634 Anacapa (50's)3

The business has been a part of the Santa Barbara landscape for almost 100 years, but now it’s time for its corrugated iron doors to close forever. A “Going Out of Business” sale will take place April 25 at what our family has lovingly called “The Shop” ever since three generations have worked there.

It was started by this man, Erasmo John Craviotto.

EJ:Workers copy

E.J. Craviotto bought the land in 1914, but when WWI called his name and he went off to Europe to fight, he left the Shop in the capable hands of his brother, Fred Craviotto.

FA:Saddleshop

That’s when the Shop was named Craviotto Brothers.

When E.J. came back from war, his brother moved on, and E.J. ran the business until 1958 when his two sons, Charlie and Danny Craviotto, took over.

CCC:DFC 2 EDIT

When most people think of Craviotto Brothers nowadays they think of these two brothers. You almost never saw one without the other. They used to finish each other’s sentences, and sometimes they didn’t even need to finish them to understand what the other one was saying. They went everywhere together, did everything together – work, play, and vacations. You could see them at lunch time, sitting in the open doorway of the Shop, eating their sack lunches, watching the girls walk by, and commenting on the world for thirty minutes a day at noon. Some of us called them the unofficial mayors of Anacapa Street. Danny used to say, “I couldn’t have picked a better brother, a better friend or a better business partner.” Charlie never said the same thing because he didn’t have to – his brother said it for him. They were as close as any two brothers could ever be except for twins.

YoungCharlie&Danny

Danny, on the left, and Charlie, on the right.

Two Brothers

Charlie, on the left, and Danny, on the right.

Charlie passed away in 2004 and Danny followed after him in 2011.

But the Shop still remained.

Craviotto Brothers

Now, it’s time for the Shop to go.

Today, Danny’s widow, Carmen, and the children and grandchildren of Charlie and Danny, walked through the shop and had to do an impossible task – We had to choose the artifacts of 100 years of hard work that our individual families will keep, while allowing the rest to be sold to the public.

While we did this, two pigeons (two, not one, or three, or any other inappropriate number) flew into the Shop and perched in the rafters high overhead, watching us as we worked. And there sat those two pigeons for the whole day, just watching us pick through all the artifacts from a business that was started in 1914, passed off from the father of those two boys, who groomed and grew the family business into a Santa Barbara tradition, a tradition that saw three generations of workers trained there, learning not only how to be iron workers, but also how to be Craviotto men. And here’s the thing: It was two pigeons, not two sparrows, or two Jay birds, or two hummingbirds. Two pigeons.

Danny Craviotto used to raise and race homing pigeons, with his pigeon coop in the backyard of his ma and pa’s house over on San Andres Street.

Uncle Danny with Pigeon

That’s Uncle Danny and me with one of his pigeons. He really loved those birds, and he especially loved that he could take them anywhere, release them, and let them fly high into the sky, flying far away.

But they always came home.

I never see a pigeon without thinking of my uncle, and it always gives me a sense of comfort to know that a pigeon will always recognize his home and know how to get back there when he’s ready.

Today, we looked up at those two pigeons sitting high up in the rafters of the Shop and we smiled at them.  We also shed a few tears just seeing them there. Here’s a photo my cousin, Dan, took with his phone.

2 pigeons

We were all in agreement that Charlie, the big brother, was on the left – looking puffed up and wanting to take on the world, while Danny, the younger, was on the right, still at his side, always the loyal brother.

Sometimes life just makes you shake your head and say, “Wow!”

Just Because I Haven’t Written Doesn’t Mean I Don’t Care

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I miss you.

Every one of you.

If you’ve ever left a comment here, or somehow let me know you’ve been reading my blog, whether reaching out to me by email, Facebook,or Twitter: I think of you when I sit here all alone and write.

Or at least try to write.

That’s what I’ve been doing for over a year now – writing a novel.  This is where I’ve been writing it…

Stowe Grove Redwoods

That’s the view from my office – from a picnic table in the middle of a redwood grove.

I’ve never been an outdoors-type writer – I prefer the comfort of a computer screen and indoor plumbing. Hot cups of tea, and an occasional nap in an armchair. But I’m writing outdoors now because the story I’m working on is an outdoor adventure – about the first Californio families who traveled over a thousand miles on mules and horseback to start their lives in a place called Nueva California. Somehow being outdoors makes me feel a little bit closer to these people who I’ve just recently met on the page.

It’s not easy to write a novel.

Not.at.all.

Fiction writing makes writing screenplays seem like finger painting in kindergarten. The average screenplay uses 15,000 to 20,000 words to say what it needs to say. I’ve written 52,000 and I’m maybe halfway done. Adult fiction can run from 75,000 to 100,000 words, so I’m guessing mine will come in long. But I’m a wicked editor and I love to use my red pen, so (unlike dieting) I have no problem slimming down my words.

In the meantime though, while I’m still in the throes of a first draft, I try not to edit or I’ll slow myself down. In fact, on those days when my persnickety internal editor is working overtime, I find it hard to write at all. I sit there in the middle of those beautiful trees and wonder why I’m even doing this. Why am I struggling with this story when it would be so much easier to not be writing at all?

That’s when I think of you.

Some of you have photos to your names or avatars, and those cross my mind. Others are only email addresses, but my imagination pictures you there beyond the .com. When I’m stuck and searching for a way to continue, for a reason why I should keep going and not give up, you come to me in my thoughts, and I think about you some day reading this story. And remembering that makes quitting this novel not an option at all.

The joy of writing comes from sharing. From connecting with another human being. That’s why I wrote screenplays. That’s why every time one of my screenplays became a film, on the big screen or small,  I was sharing, connecting with other people. The words had found their purpose. That’s why I started this blog, and why I miss coming here more often. You keep me writing. You keep me battling with that pesky editor, keep me focused when the squirrels are scrambling in the overhead branches, and the people are walking their dogs past this strange woman scribbling on legal pads and mumbling to herself. You keep me going forward. Knowing that you are here is what keeps me on this path, taking this journey and finishing this story.

That’s why I’m writing this today.

To let you know how much I miss you.

And I can’t wait to share this story with you.

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An Agoraphobic’s Guide to Hollywood

Viva La, Y’all!

(It’s that time of year again, and if you didn’t read this before, here’s what all the Viva Las!!! are all about…)

It’s Fiesta again in Santa Barbara, and if you don’t know about our fair city’s yearly celebration, let me fill you in:  It’s a five-day-all-you-can-drink non-stop party with sombreros.  There’s a parade (filled with horses), lots of alcohol (mostly tequila and cervesa (beer), but hey, in a pinch even Baily’s Irish Cream will do) and so much Spanish-style dancing in colorful costumes you’ll think you wandered on to the set of “Zorro.”

Today’s Fiesta, also called “Old Spanish Days,” was originally started by the local Poole-Verhelle Dancers in 1922.  Dancing for personal enjoyment and community entertainment eventually evolved into big tourist business known as La Fiesta.  Here’s a photo of that original group:

Fiesta-1923

My grandfather is supposed to be somewhere in that photo.  But for the life of me, I don’t see him anywhere – maybe he was behind the camera taking the picture.  You can see him (and my grandmother) in this photo below, all dressed up in their finest.

Bobbie & nanie Fiesta

And going back one more generation – before Fiesta became commercialized and was simply a helluva great fandango – here’s my great-grandfather.

Great-grandfather fiesta

If you’re a certain type of local, however, Fiesta time in Santa Barbara is when you abandon the town to the tourists and take off to Hawaii.  My dad and uncle always took ten days off on the dates when Fiesta would fall.  They had their own business – an ironworks/welding shop – and they’d hurry like hell to finish up their jobs, sometimes working right up to the night before Fiesta Pequena at the Mission kicked off that year’s big party.  How they managed to get all of their work done in time for their getaway was always a Fiesta miracle, and involved long hours of work, much yelling, swearing, and both brothers threatening each other with martyrdom: “I’m not going on vacation!!!” “NO, I’m not going!!!” Although their parents’ generation had started Fiesta, the two brothers hated that time of the year in their hometown. Maybe this photo had something to do with it:

Dad Fiesta

That must have been the one and only time the brothers dressed up in costumes.  Too bad because they were awfully cute hombrecitos.

In spite of the dislike the two brothers had for Old Spanish Days craziness, the love for Fiesta still beats strongly in the younger generation.  My kids always stop their own lives to return like spawning salmon to their hometown, and the sweet sounds of mariachis, and cascarones crunching against people’s heads.  If you don’t know what a cascarone is, come to Santa Barbara this weekend and we’ll show you.

Not me, of course.

I’m getting the hell out of here before the tourists take over.

(If you enjoyed reading this post and you’d like to read more by Darlene Craviotto…) 

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(Available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and iTunes iBooks Store)

Some Say the R-Word, I Say Rock Star

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girl  in  grunge interiorI had a cousin named Wayne who everybody called Waynie.

No one ever referred to him as anything other than my cousin, but it was obvious that Waynie wasn’t like the rest of us.  For one thing, he didn’t dress like everybody else. Nothing seemed to match; he wore very thick lensed glasses, high-waisted pants, heavy-soled shoes; his speech was a little slurred; and I remember he was in Mr. Alvino’s “special” class in high school.

“Special Education,” my mother had explained softly, with great solemnity

I also remember Waynie smiled a lot.

He just seemed so nice.  Friendly and easy-going.  Sweet is the only word I know to describe Waynie. And even though he was older than us by at least fifteen years Waynie seemed boy-like, more like us kids in elementary school than someone who was in their 20s and already out in the world.

No one ever gave us a diagnosis of why Waynie was different; we were just told that something happened to him when he was a baby, and it affected his brain, and he was never like the rest of us after that.

Waynie was just different.

He lived with our elderly Aunt Irene in her guest house in the backyard, and he held down a little job “making things” for a “handicapped organization.”  That’s how it was explained to us.  I can’t ever remember anyone ever using the “R-Word” when they talked about Waynie.

I didn’t hear the “R-Word” until I started going to school.  And then, I’d hear it being kicked around the playground with as much ease as a dodge ball making its rounds around the blacktop.  It was the “go-to” word whenever one of us made a mistake, didn’t measure up, or just did something that fell short of what everyone else was doing, or what everyone else wanted us to be doing.

It was the worst kind of insult.

That was years ago, of course, and the world has changed since then.  But maybe not so much on the blacktops and playgrounds of the world.  The R-Word is still thrown around; I catch it at times being tossed off by one kid to another. I don’t know these kids that are using it, so I keep quiet.  And maybe that’s wrong.  Maybe that’s why the R-Word still has some life in it.  Maybe next time I hear it I should say something, and risk being called the B-Word.

I don’t often think about Waynie but he popped into my mind the other night when we were visiting a loved one at an assisted living home. The facility is filled with people on walkers or in wheelchairs, along with those who have Alzheimer’s or dementia.  The campus is absolutely beautiful – looking more like a resort than anything else. The people who live here are able to afford the steep monthly bill for such beauty, and I guess you can say, in many ways, they’re lucky.  But still, there’s a sadness here for families who come to visit, and so, dinners are oftentimes just for the residents after families have made their obligatory weekend visit and then, gratefully fled back to their own lives and their own purposes in the world. The residents dine only with themselves: table after table filled with grey-haired and stooped-over remnants of their former selves.

When we visit here, it’s hard not to be sad.

Until I look around the room and see Kyle.

The wait staff here is made up of young people – most of them high school students or recent graduates.  My husband is a teacher, and some of these young workers were  students in his English classes.  Kyle was one of those students in a class that was filled with second-language-learners, at-risk kids, and six Special Ed teens, Kyle being one of the six.  These are the kids who aren’t the easiest to reach.  A population of students that most teachers would rather not see sitting at a desk in their classroom.

But these kids, including Kyle, did just fine.

It’s hard not to think that doing just fine comes with its own rewards, confidence being one of them.  That’s what Kyle brings to the dining room of this fancy assisted living facility,  with it’s padded high-back chairs, linen-covered tables, cozy fireplace, and piped-in soft melodies of the 50s. Kyle is front and center the grand master-of-ceremony of an evening to remember.

With a smile that lights up the room just because he’s in it.

Tall and proud, sporting a tiny Clark Gable moustache, he welcomes each resident as they enter and leads them majestically to their table.  At times, offering a lady his arm – like Fred Astaire to Ginger Rodgers.  It doesn’t matter who they are or how they look, whether with an aide, a walker, or shuffling alone by themselves, Kyle is there for them.  Helping them to their seat, adding an extra chair or taking one away, making sure the water glasses are filled, the menus are in place.  And all of this is done with such charm and care. With a hello and a how are you tonight?  And when they answer he listens.

Even if the answer is lost and rambling.

Kyle listens, and nods, and smiles the most amazing of smiles.  He makes a little joke, and maybe sometimes, on a good night, they even laugh.  He knows which ones are restless and which ones are cranky.  And he gives each and every one of them whatever they need.  Patience when their mind wanders, and respect when they’re frustrated and lashing out.  He is there for them in many ways  that families are afraid to be.  He accepts each one for who they are – right now – not for who they used to be.  Kyle is fine with each and every one of them for this moment in time, this moment only.  He’s truly amazing to watch as he works the room with his charm.

Kyle’s a Rock Star.

And that’s the only R-Word that fits.