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. )

 

Fear Is A Four Letter Word

There are two times during the day when I don’t worry.

When I don’t fear for my own mortality, or the mortality of my loved ones. When I don’t worry that I will lose all my money and the only food I will have are the oranges growing in my backyard.  A litany of worries leaves me two times a day.

The first time is when I step outside our home – standing alone on the front lawn – and I take that first glorious deep breath of fresh air. I feel alive again and not afraid.  I feel safe for the first time in the day.  Until I see a person walking down our sidewalk heading towards our home and I start to tense up.  

Humans are the enemy in our world right now.  

Well, no that’s not entirely true.  Humans aren’t the real  enemy:  the coronavirus is the enemy. Humans are the vehicles that the virus hitches a ride on to get to the next human.  Without us, the virus dies, so to stop the spread we have to stop human connection: no reaching out to one another, no touching, no hugging, no people to populate our lives.

But humans need other humans.  

Research has shown that babies who aren’t touched or picked up stop growing, and if they aren’t ever hugged or held they eventually die.  That’s how important human touch is to us.  And now, we’re being asked to eliminate it from our lives. We’ve been sent to our rooms and told to isolate, separate from one another.  Those of us who are lucky enough to have a spouse, a roommate, or some children in our homes, overlook our current fear of intimacy and somehow find safety with the one(s) we’re locked up with.  

But even that we can’t be sure of.  

We’re not connected by the hip – before this quarantine we didn’t all go to the same places or have contact with the same people before we closed our door to the world.  In the beginning of our quarantine, we sweat that out, praying that we didn’t bring the virus home with us, as we sit and wait in dreadful anticipation: Will I get sick? Will my family get sick because of me?  And if sickness followed us inside of our home, how will we care for each other when caring involves connection and touch, and touching is no longer allowed?  We toughed it out during those anxious first couple of weeks and when we didn’t get sick we started to feel a little safer; bored, even.  At least the threat was outside our doorstep now and not within.  We settled in and tried to adjust.

Until it was time when we had to leave the house again.

We needed food, we needed supplies, medicine, toilet paper; we needed M&Ms or more importantly, alcohol.  We’re not the only ones; the rest of the world needed it too. We had to go back outside again and that meant more people, more human connection.  How could we navigate this new outside-our-door world and still stay away from people?  Figuring this out is what stresses us, exhausts us, pisses us off, makes us grumpy or depressed or filled with a hunger that no amount of Doritos, Reese’s peanut butter cups, or Dove bars can satisfy.  It doesn’t take one glass of wine or even two to deal with life now.  We’re at the leave- the-bottle-and-get-the-next-one-ready stage.

And this forced isolation has only just started.

We see one month end and learn that we will be indoors for the next month, too.  April looms long in front of us, and we hear of events being canceled all the way through June.  How will we do this?  Will we get used to it?  Will it start to feel easier?  Will we ever stop missing each other, and the human connection, that needed human touch that we all seem to live for?

The second time in my day when my worries slip away happens at bedtime. When I shower again to wash the day off of me, when I gargle with Listerine in the hopes of killing whatever germs or viruses might be thinking of settling there.  When I wash my hands for the hundredth time, and put bandaids on the tiny cuts on my skin from washing so much.  When I put on my hand lotion, knowing I won’t have to wash them again for eight hours, and I crawl into bed, finally done with my day.  Now, at last, I can rest.

Until tomorrow.

(How are you filling your days and what are you using to help you connect with loved ones who you can’t see in person?  Is the quarantine getting harder or easier for you with each passing day?)

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Wake Me When This Is Over

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(Some people bake when they’re stressed. I write. I’m going to do that here, partly to vent, but also to connect with people.  Since we can’t step out from our homes to be with one another we can at least keep connecting on another level, by reaching out with words and shared experiences.  Please feel free to do that in this space.  I don’t have anywhere else to go, so I’m here and would love to hear from you and know how you’re doing.  I’ll start…)

An agoraphobic is a person who’s afraid to leave the house.

Nowadays, that doesn’t sound unreasonable.

But before it was fashionable to lock ourselves away like some Rapunsel in her tower, I struggled with agoraphobia for years.  It wasn’t a picnic, trust me.  It’s taken a long time for me to feel a little more comfortable in the world.

And now, this craziness called Coronavirus.

Such a cruel cosmic joke!

Except I’m not laughing and neither is anyone else.  Well, on certain days we do look for a way to laugh and manage to find something on Facebook: “Tomorrow I’m visiting Puerto Backyardia. Los Living Room is getting boring.”

It’s been 18 days?  No, 19?  Who can keep track of the calendar when there’s nothing on your calendar except “Stay Home!”

Everything in life has changed – seemingly over night.  

FLASHBACK to January 1st when I began to check flights to France. 

At  Christmastime our family sat around discussing my birthday (a big one)  in June. “We have to do something special to celebrate it, Mom,” our daughter said.  She suggested  a family trip to Paris and the Basque country, where my grandmother was born, and where our family still owns 23 acres and a crumbling 200-year-old stone house.  My children have never seen the little village, St. Etienne de Baigorry, where their great-grandmother was born and lived until she came to America at the age of 14.  The Basque country and her people are part of their lineage and I eagerly jump at the idea of introducing them to Euskal Herria.

Mananea House & Barn

The House of Magnanea in St. Etienne de Baigorry

A trip to France for seven people is not going to be cheap and that concerns me.  Eager to have everyone come along and not wanting to break my kids’ bank accounts I decide to break my own. I check the flights (and the prices) and feel faint.  It’s going to be a lot of money.  But my portfolio has done well over the last two years, so I decide to take the risk and book seven seats on Air France to Paris at the end of June.

I let my kids know with phone calls.

“There’s a virus in China,” my son tells me.  

I’m not worried.

“That’s China, Josh and it’s a million miles away.  They’ll knock it out.”

“I don’t know, Mom.  It’s spreading fast and they’re starting to lock up areas.”

Lock up?  What’s that?  I’ve never heard of such a thing.  

I will learn about that later.

“Well, that’s China. I’m not worried,” I tell him.

I make hotel reservations. Paris.  Biarritz (pre-paid to save money). An Air B&B in the Basque country.  I look into train reservations.  I’m about to book two cars for rental. 

“That thing is spreading, Mom. It’s in Italy,”  my son tells me.

Italy?

“We’re not going to Italy,” I tell my son. Am I in denial, or what? No, I’m just an American who feels invincible because well, I’m an American.  We’re protected from all those nasty things happening outside our shores, aren’t we?  And, I’m privileged. Middle class. Not poor. Flush with credit cards. My life is good. I trust the world I live in.  I believe in governments and healthcare systems (because I’m covered by insurance) and I’m a believer that those in charge will protect me and my family.  I don’t live in Italy. I’m not going to Italy.  I’m a safe American and so is my family.

February comes and I’m starting to see more news about this virus.  I see Italians being shut away in their homes.  But I see them singing and it makes me feel safe.  How bad can it be if the Italians are singing?

Then, the numbers come out about people dying.

And the numbers are growing.

So too are the news stories about how this thing is spreading.

I start reading up on travel insurance.

I always buy travel insurance for our trips, but this time I put it off because frankly, it’s not cheap to cover seven people on a family trip.  Now, I seriously start figuring out the costs for some kind of travel insurance (cancel for any reason?), and yes, they’re high, but I’m contemplating buying some, just in case.

And then, this article comes out in the Wall Street Journal: travel insurance doesn’t cover this virus. You get it, you own it. The whole cost for the insurance is on you and it really doesn’t pay you anything back if the virus stops you from traveling. 

That gives me pause.

What happens if the virus hits France and one of us gets sick?  Will travel insurance pay for that?  To keep us in France until we’re better?  I start reading every article I can find about insurance – trying to get an answer as to whether I should insure this trip or not.

And while I am researching it hits.

That terror that seemed so far away hits us. Hits here in the U.S. Washington State first, and California soon after. NYC is getting hit hard and the virus is spreading rapidly.

The market starts to tank.  There goes the money for the trip that has no insurance. The news is on fire and in the middle of this crisis-in-the-making another hits our family:  My mother-in-law dies. 

Nanny with Stokely

Gloria Levien (Nanny)

She was 94 and it was expected, but this pandemic was never expected, and it especially wasn’t expected to be growing so quickly.  Nanny has been living in a nursing home and she’s been on hospice for months.  The last few weeks she’s been bedridden and not really eating.  My husband’s been visiting her every day, and now on March 11th she passes away and the nursing home is locked up to visitors.  

And then, there’s the funeral: it’s scheduled in New York City.

 We’re Flying to NYC In The Middle Of A Pandemic?!

Nanny was a life-long New Yorker; the last thing she wanted to do was to move to a small town in California.  But a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and a son and daughter-in-law living three thousand miles from New York City, where she was living by herself at the time, made the move a necessity.  She fought it for about six months, and then, as the Alzheimer’s progressed, she settled into her new life.  The nursing home became her resort, and she enjoyed being pampered by the staff.  Meals were taken care of, activities were around every corner, friendly caregivers were there when she needed them, and there was a lovely dining room with a classy menu and a waitstaff dressed in uniforms. With such a devastating illness, my mother-in-law was lucky enough to live in a beautiful and loving environment.  She lived there for almost seven years and when she passed away her caregivers cried and said how much they loved her, that she always had a smile on her face, and she said “I love you!” to all the staff every time she saw them.

But now it was time for Nanny to return to NYC, to the city she loved so dearly. 

The funeral was all spelled out in her will:  funeral services were to take place at one of the most well-known mortuaries in the country, and burial would be in a family plot that dated back to the early 1900s, when Nanny’s family first arrived in the city watched over by Lady Liberty.  The plan was all set: We would have to fly to New York City.

And then, the virus hit the Big Apple.

While Nanny’s funeral is being planned, everything else in NYC is being cancelled.  

Music events. Live theater. Weddings. Bar Mitzvahs.  The numbers keep going up higher, the infection keeps spreading, gatherings of people in large groups are being re-scheduled, dropped from calendars, postponed.

But what about funerals?

Loved ones need to be mourned. Need to be buried. Family and friends need the comfort of each other, hugs and kisses, laughter and tears shared as we grieve together.  That human connection has always been imporatant when people say goodbye to a loved one. It’s part of our humanity.  But that humanity is at odds with fear today.  Our need to comfort and be comforted is in conflict with our need for self-preservation and survival.

Nanny picked a heck of a time to pass away.

And to be buried in New York. 

New York is a hotbed for coronavirus infections right now.  The number of dead are just starting to rise.  Hotels ands restaurants are still open, but over the last few days Broadway has shut down completely.  There’s not enough medical equipment – ventilators and masks – for the medical personnel and the hospitals are filling up too quickly.  There is fear everywhere you look, increasing by the hour.

The family talks about how to handle the funeral, but the plans have been made in advance, and no one seems to want to admit that this is not the best time to travel to New York City.  We try to find some levity to all of this – searching for something amusing to get our mind off the big question: whether to go to NYC or not.  We say that his is so appropriate for Nanny – many times whenever she travelled there were problems: a military coup in Panama, a typhoon in Southeast Asia while she sat in an airplane on the tarmac waiting to take off, traveling to China when the students were rioting in Tiannamen Square.  And now, a pandemic in her own hometown of NYC.  

We watch Cuomo on television, and tune into the news 24/7 to see if it’s safe to travel.  Flights are being shut down internationally, but domestic flights still are available.  Should we book?  Do we even have a choice?  What if they quarantine in NYC?  What if everything goes on lockdown?  Each day we seem to be creeping perilously closer to the edge of the cliff. And frankly, it’s terrifying.

I’m a recovering agoraphobic, so I don’t need a reason to stay home.  Staying home is my normal go-to position.  But this time I have family responsibilities – I’m a mom whose kids have just lost their grandmother.  I’m a wife whose husband has just lost his mother.  I don’t have room in this equation to call the shots or make decisions for everyone.  I have to suck it up and go with whatever choice everyone else is making.

Hell no, I don’t.

It takes one long sleepless night before the day I’m supposed to buy family plane tickets for me to finally speak up.  My agoraphobia (once tamed, I thought) now reappears.

“I can’t do this,” I tell my husband. “It doesn’t feel safe.”

We talk. My husband understands. I don’t want him to go, either. Or the kids to go.  It doesn’t feel safe, he says, but he’s not sure what we can do.  The plans are set.  We talk some more. Cookie, our friend talks with him.  There has to be another way. “What if you get stranded in New York, in quarantine, and you have to pay for all those hotel rooms for the family to stay  in NYC? That’s thousands and thousands of dollars.”

She’s right.

My husband calls the mortuary, calls his brother, the family talks, and the decision is made.

The funeral will be televised.

What seemed so new to us for Nanny’s funeral on March 20th has now become a way of life for all of us.  ZOOM enters our world and we seem to be stuck with it for the immediate future.

None of us know how to run the damn software, but Frank E. Campbell’s Funeral Home, one of New York City’s finest, handles the entire event seamlessly.  People from all over the country – family members and friends – are able to attend through the magic of one videographer and his camera, and a link that is emailed out to everyone.

The eulogies are spoken.  The Rabbi says the prayers.  Photos of Nanny and her life fill the screen.  It was a beautiful service. And yet, we the mourners watch from a distance.  Separated by this unseen stranger that cruelly keeps us hidden in our homes and away from each other. One moment in the day, however, serves to finally connect us – at the graveyard, as the Rabbi speaks the Prayer for the Dead in Hebrew, the celebrant says the names of each family member and drops a single rose into the grave with every name spoken.  Those who are connected to Nanny, now finally are connected together in this last gesture of love and honor.

And New York City now shelters-in-place.

Wake me when this is over.

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This Is For You, Taff

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I never had a big brother, but Richard Annis (aka Taff), took that role in my life.  I met Taff when I was a teenager, and we acted together for many years, from our Santa Barbara days at Dolores Catholic School Community Theater (when everyone called him “Taffy”), to the three small theaters we helped build in Hollywood.  Well, he helped build them – I just watched, while he grumbled about me just watching and not working. 

When I dropped out of UCLA at 19 and I was panicked because I had never worked before, he was responsible for helping me get an interview and eventual job as a tour guide at Universal Studios. I watched as he went from Housekeeping as a street sweeper to playing Frankenstein for the Tours, to becoming a tour guide, Director of Tour Guides, all the way up to management of Tour Operations. Twenty-three years he worked for Universal Studios, and in Hollywood years that’s a lifetime.

In between our early Universal Tours work, we acted at night, seven nights a week, doing repertory theater in Hollywood, and I saw Taff living the dream of every actor: he signed with an agent, he was hired for a commercial; he was finally able to join S.A.G; he was cast in television shows; he worked with Jimmy Stewart and Peter Falk. His star was rising.  And then one day he forgot to check his messages and he missed the BIG call for the BIG job. A lead in a series. When that happened, and the producers refused to re-schedule, he realized that a business that treated people like they were supposed to be heart surgeons, on call 24/7, wasn’t for him.  “The hell with this!” he said, or words to that affect that probably began with an “F.” That’s when he traded in the greasepaint for a suit and took that management job at Universal.  

Jimmy Stewart with Taff

             (Richard Annis guest starring with Jimmy Stewart on The Jimmy Stewart Show)

And he never acted again.  

When the studio politics got too much for him in management, he bought a screening room, raced his cars on the weekend, met the love of his life, Christine, and finally, traded in Hollywood for a one-way ticket to Mount Dora, a small town in Florida, where he bought a tea room and never looked back.

He moved away and I stayed in Hollywood.  

And I missed him like hell.

There was so much goodness in Taff, but he liked to keep that hidden away a lot of the time, tossing off one-liners so you’d keep your distance. He liked to tease, and he could cut you down with a slow look or a quick word. I was a little bit afraid of him, but he was always the first person I’d call when I needed help. He was that big brother I never had. When my car broke down or that night when it was stolen, Taff was who I called, and he pissed-and-moaned and shook his head, letting me know how much I had messed up or how much I was putting him out.  When I had too much to drink at a party and he saw me leaving with a guy I barely knew, Taff was the one to step in and tell Mr. Romeo to take a hike, saving me from more than just a morning hangover. When I had a Peeping Tom at two-in-the-morning, Taff was who I called. He came over (bitching about it) to check and make sure everything was ok.  After he searched my backyard with a flashlight and a bat he told me no one was there, but he saw how frightened I still was and as he headed out my front door, he snarled, “All right, get in the car!”  I spent the night on Taff’s couch, feeling safer knowing he was there in the other room.

After my car accident, when my agoraphobia kicked in, I was hired to write a screenplay about the Black Rodeo in Houston, Texas.  Unfortunately, the studio wanted to send me to Houston to do research, a journey I knew I couldn’t do. I was terrified of flying, or doing any kind of traveling, and in fact, I had even stopped driving. I didn’t want to leave my house, at all. I told Taff that I was probably going to have to turn down this very lucrative and career-building job.  Without hesitation he said to me, “Rent me a Cadillac and I’ll drive you to Houston.”

So I rented Taff a Cadillac.

Wearing his ten-gallon cowboy hat and his best Iowa boots, Taff sat behind the wheel of this great big brand new Hertz Cadillac, and the two of us took a road trip to Houston, driving non-stop from L.A. so I wouldn’t miss my first meeting with the producer on Monday.  

It took 26 hours.

We only stopped for gas and food.

Three hours from Houston Taff started to yawn, and rolled down his window for fresh air.  He started to sigh deeply, and then, slapped himself hard in the face, trying desperately to keep awake. I thought for sure he might drop dead behind the wheel. He was a big man and I thought maybe his heart would give out.

“Are you ok?!” I asked in a panic, afraid he’d pass out and I’d somehow be stranded in the middle of East Butt, Texas, too terrified to drive myself to civilization. “Do you want to stop?” I asked.

“No!” he bellowed. “I need fuel! Got to eat!”

We pulled over to the next truck stop to get him fed, and after he ate he was ready to hit the road again.  We made it safely the rest of the way to Houston with a few hours to spare before my meeting.

That was Taff.

Taff

                                          (Richard “Taff” Annis)  

He was fearless.  A mountain of a man with the gentlest of hearts. A heart that finally gave out on September 29, 2019.

I miss him like hell.

That’s what it’s like when you lose a big brother.

Taff was never a man who was philosophical or waxed poetic.  But there was something he said to me once, and I never forgot it.  As a matter of fact, I used it in a play I wrote, in Pizza Man.  He said it to me in the early 1970s, long before the phrase ended up on coffee mugs or t-shirts.  We were struggling actors at the time, commiserating about how tough it was in Hollywood.  Well, I was the one complaining; Taff was just listening.  Big brother, that he was.  He was building a set at the time, and I was supposed to be painting; but instead, I was doing my down-in-one soliloquy about the difficulty and unfairness of show business.  When I had finished my rant, Taff paused a moment before hammering the next nail.  “Life’s a bitch,” he said. “And then, you die.”

At the time, that pretty much summed it all up. 

Until we changed our lives and things got a helluva lot better.

Christine came along, and Mount Dora, the Windsor Rose Tea Room, The Highland Street Cafe, and all of his wonderful Scottish Terriers; and life changed for the better. I think what Taff would tell me now would be different than what he told me back in the 70s.  He’d say, “Dar, I was wrong. Life can be very sweet.”  

And he’d be smiling, with all his wisdom. 

Just like a big brother.

Taff & Our Family Mount Dora(Taff in Mount Dora with our family: Philip, Josh, and Katie.  And an anonymous  turtle.)

Getting to Know Howard

I didn’t know my mother’s father.  

It’s always been hard to call him what he was to me: grandfather.  I guess that’s because I never really knew him – Howard Joseph Graham died nine years before I was born. He was always just a memory – my mother’s memory, and she didn’t share that memory with us a lot.

I knew how he died – a fall from scaffolding while painting the downtown Los Angeles Greyhound bus station at night.  Mom had just had dinner with him, with her brother, mother, and her Uncle Jody, who was on the same job with her father.  The accident must have happened soon in their shift because it seemed as though they had just said goodbye and headed downtown from Highland Park before there was a knock at the door, and Uncle Jody was back, in tears with the news.  Why they were painting at night, I never asked, so I guess I will never know that answer – my mother took that with her when she passed away a year ago today at the age of 93.  

Mom and I had a lot of years to talk about Howard Graham, and I guess I could have asked her that question, about why he was painting at night, in the dark, but she was always a little quiet about him, teary-eyed at his mention, with a catch in her throat if she did share a little bit here and there.  I knew not to ask her too many questions, because it made her sad, and now today I’m left with no answers and so many whys.

Here is everything I know about Howard Joseph Graham:

He liked to drink San Miguel beer and smoke cigarettes. When my mother had earaches (and she had a lot of them) he would blow smoke into her ear, and the warmth would comfort her.  Other times, he could be strict, and if Mom and her brother didn’t clean the dishes properly, and Howard came home from a night out and found them not to his liking, he’d wake up his two kids and make them clean the dishes all over again, no matter how late it was. Howard was a house painter. The family was poor – my mother used to have to spray pieces of cardboard black and slip them into her shoes to cover up the holes at the bottom of her soles so she could walk to her Catholic School, even in the rain.  She grew up during the Depression and maybe that’s why Howard was out of work so much. I don’t know much more about the man except he couldn’t eat mayonnaise – it made him sick just as it does me.  He was Irish, proud of being a Graham, and that his mother was a Quinn, his grandmother a Cassidy.  His Irish roots must have meant the world to him because they did to Mom.  There was no happier day for her than St. Patrick’s when she would dress up all in green, send Irish-themed Hallmark cards to all of our family, with her signature, “Molly Malone.” Irish music played non-stop on our stereo while the scent of corned beef boiling on the stove filled our house.  Mom’s love for all-things-Irish was so strong I always wondered if Howard was from Ireland.

“Canada,” my Mom said. “He was born in Kingston, Ontario.”

More than those few facts she never told me.

There are photographs, of course, but only a few. This is the one I like the most:

Howie in 1928 Crop

He’s laying in the sand at one of the beaches near Los Angeles.  There’s something sad and brooding about him, introspective; it’s not the kind of look you might expect to see someone wearing who’s at the beach.  It makes me think he might have been creative – like me, a brooder, always thinking, and I find a commonality there in this photo of a stranger who was my grandfather.  Maybe he was a painter, not just of houses and businesses, maybe he was a real artist. My grandmother used to paint, I have some of her watercolors. She’s the woman in this other photo with Howard – Ursula Maloney Graham. Also Irish.

Howie & Plenty

Howard looks like a famous movie director, or screenwriter, with his aviator sunglasses and open vest.  But he’s still not smiling. There’s an uncertainty lurking there – about his future, maybe?  Or is he just a man lost in an alien country, not yet a citizen, an immigrant, a foreigner in a strange place he now has to call his home.

Susan Orlean writes in The Library Book, “…the sum of life is ultimately nothing; that we experience joy and disappointment and aches and delights and loss, make our little mark on the world, and then we vanish, and the mark is erased, and it is as if we never existed.”  

I read this passage in Orlean’s book the other night and it made me think of Howard Joseph Graham.  I underlined it because it hit me me so hard, such a bleak interpretation of what it means to be alive.  With no memories of my grandfather, how can I be sure that he ever made his “mark on the world”? Seemingly, he was an ordinary man, and how do those of us who live ordinary lives make any mark at all? And what exactly does it mean to make “our mark?”

If we’re lucky, maybe that mark means our children. They get to live on, and they take us with them, whether they like it or not.  You can’t fight DNA – in the line of an eyebrow, or the curve of lips, the color of our eyes, the shape of our body, or whether we can tolerate mayonnaise or not.  The memories of all those who lived before us are a part of us, ingrained somewhere deep inside or revealing themselves there on our face, even if we don’t recognize it; and those from the past, whether we have memories of them or not, become the future.  The future we will never see, except in our dreams, or if we’re lucky, in the faces of our grandchildren.

I know very little about who Howard Joseph Graham was, or who he wanted to be, but I still wonder. I still have questions. I still search. I’m curious and I want to learn more.  And maybe that curiosity and wanting to find answers is what my grandfather left me.

That’s his mark on the world.

 

 

 

 

Sometimes Words Aren’t Enough

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I never finished college that first time after high school.

I was in too big of a hurry to start my adventures in the world. So I quit in the middle of my sophomore year at UCLA and started my life.

Years later I returned. Married, with a career on the wane, and two kids now grown and off on their own adventures, I became the oldest coed in all my classes. Everyone thought I was the professor and they stopped being nice to me when they found out that I wasn’t.  It was hard work and I started to question what the hell I was doing there. I had been in no hurry to go back, but I wanted to get a degree. I always felt a little bit less than all those college grads I kept meeting in my life. I thought that going back and finishing something that I had started might make me feel more confident, more sure of the knowledge that I’d already accumulated along the way. I never thought I’d learn anything new. I was an old dog incapable of learning new tricks.

But I was wrong.

I took a class in 2008 and learned some things I guess they forgot to teach me as I was growing up. It was unsettling, as learning some truths can always be. Santa Claus? The Easter Bunny?  Sometimes the myths we’re taught as kids aren’t meant for adulthood.

The particular myth I was learning about there in that lecture hall in 2008 unsettled me and made me question so many other truths I had been taught along the way. We had to write a paper, and I struggled with what to write.  Sometimes words just aren’t enough – film can do it better.  So instead of writing an essay, I made this little film, “American Dreams.”

I wish I could say that ten years later this film has lost its meaning.

But it hasn’t.

In many ways it’s more meaningful now than ever before.

And it saddens me to write that.

 

Lockdown

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(The following is a true story…)

The teacher thought this was a drill, but it wasn’t.

The P.A. blared out: “Stay in the classroom, and lock the doors. This is not a drill.”

Caught in the Computer Lab with a class of thirty high school students. They have no food, no drinks, and they will stay here from 10 am to 3:30 pm. Five and a half hours of hell, and the sound of a circling helicopter above them. Streets outside are closed up, and the hallways are crawling with the swat team.

The first couple of hours the only information known is a man is on campus with a gun. Only later the details will be learned from a computer in the library—A group of boys had a confrontation across the street, and it spilled out over to the campus. To the upper level senior parking lot. One of the teenage boys is spotted with a gun, and a call to the police was made.

Ushered by a security guard through a supply room and into the stacks of the library, the teacher instructs his students, “No talking, no talking!” The class stays quiet because to hear students inside might prompt a gunman to rush the room. This is how the drill goes, and this is real now, so the rules are followed. Keep them quiet; keep them calm. Bored students empty the shelves, and use the stacks to lie down for hours of just waiting. No need for books; this is their education for the day.

Stay away from the windows and doors in case they rush into the room with bullets flying. This is what the teachers have been taught; this is what the students are told.

One student after three hours passes out after an epileptic seizure. They call the office and several members of the swat team come in, using their walkie-talkies to call for an ambulance. “I have to go with her; she’s my student.” The teacher is told to stay there, and it’s the one time during this entire siege when his eyes fill with tears, “That’s my student—I’m responsible for her.”

There are no bathrooms in the library. There are 100 students and five teachers. The boys can use a wastepaper basket, but for the girls? One of the women teachers puts on music so people won’t hear as the girls use another wastepaper basket. Other students use Ziploc bags.

Kids are seated at tables with their arms behind their heads as swat team members come in and question them. There’s a special ed student who always looks slack-jawed because he’s on meds. The police take notice of him and start to question him. They don’t like his answers, and start to take him away, “He’s special ed,” the teacher tells them. “He’s on meds.” They take him away anyway.

Three boys appear at the door immediately after the lockdown—they have been left outside in the hallway, and say they weren’t in class because their teacher let them out early. Do you let them in, or keep them outside? What decision do you make as a teacher? It’s your judgment, and yours only. Bring them into the safety of the classroom, or leave them outside to fend for themselves. Not knowing if they are innocent or not, whether leaving them outside condemns them, or brings them inside to condemn the others.

One of the girl students is pregnant and needs water. The boy who sits next to her in class is the father—The teacher didn’t even know they were dating. Not until today.

There is one bottle of water rationed among the students — kids drink from little cups, several students to a cup. This after an early morning faculty meeting about the importance of cleanliness and the swine flu pandemic.

One student asks in a hushed and timid voice, “If they rush in here, will you die for us?”

They don’t tell you how to answer something like this when you’re student teaching. But this is what it means to be a teacher now. These are the questions you somehow must answer.

This is part of the job.

Paradise Lost

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The houses are still ringed by Christmas lights.

And we’re two weeks into January.

It’s past Christmas – beyond the promise of the new year or the first sweet bite of King’s Cake. But we can’t let go of wanting to feel good again. To feel joy. To feel hope. To feel safe. To be in control of our lives.

Each day we awaken and say to ourselves, “Today will be a better day.” The fear is behind us, we tell each other. Now, we can get on with our lives. We share stories, while we still wipe the grit from our eyes and cough. We sweep the driveways and water down the gardens.

Still wearing our masks.

And we pray for rain.

The fire isn’t out yet, but it’s moved further away. Only the ash is still here – threatening us in unseen ways.

We come down with colds and fill the ER with our flus and bronchitis.

We flip the switches and look to the Christmas lights to make ourselves feel better.

We try not to think of the fire that threatened us, that stopped our lives and put us in this post-apocalyptic daze.

Quickly, it had started – blown alive by some monster wind.

All we could do was watch from a distance as it devoured our neighbor’s lives – all the homes and businesses – scorching the earth south of us. We shook our heads at the disbelief of the quickness of the devastation. At how fast that fire hungrily took home after home while sparing others equally there in its path. We crossed ourselves and said our prayers that it hadn’t happened above us – in our own mountains that watch over our towns.

Carpinteria. Summerland. Montecito. Santa Barbara. Goleta.

We felt we had been spared.

Until the smoke came.

The wind had changed and blown harder, pushing that fire – dancing the flames across the land as it remembered us from the scorched history of our past.

Jesusita. Gap. Coyote. Zaca Mesa. Whittier. Painted Cave.

So many flames, some with names no longer remembered. Each one we battled and fled from in terror. This one threatened to be even bigger as it turned directions and now headed our way.

We watched it move closer – speeding towards us. We hunkered down with our masks, packed up our cars, and took flight while the wind and the flames swirled around us.

The firefighters, always the heroes, stayed in our place. Fought the good fight. And when the winds took pity on us and slowed, the heroes pushed the fire away from us, from the towns laying so vulnerable there in the path to the ocean that the fire so desired.

The battle was won.

We took a deep breath and returned. Spent from running away, with pets and belongings, exhausted from calming frightened children that were crowded into cars; with our lives in suitcases and boxes, we came back to our homes. We had stayed with relatives. Moved to hotels. Bunkered down with friends. We had slept in shelters. We had gotten out. And now, coming back, we tried to reach for normal again. We celebrated the holidays with our sore throats and air purifiers humming in the background.

And we kept those Christmas lights still burning on our homes.

While the fire burned too – higher above us now – in the forest beyond the crest.

We bowed our heads and prayed for rain.

“We need rain!” “Hope it rains before the next winds!” said the Facebook posts in all of our Timelines. “Please, God, let the rains finally come and end the fire!” We cursed the drought and the winds and we knew the answer to finding normal again would be in the winter rains.

Long overdue.

And when we heard they were coming it raised us up with hope.

For a moment.

Until we heard caution in voices that were meant to calm, warning us, telling us to beware.

Fear takes a toll on you when life is full of uncertainty. And your fate is tied to the fickleness of the wind. Quickly, hope can change, and you’re not ready for it.

Within a day there were knocks on our doors again, the cell phone texts awakened us in the thick of night: “Evacuate! Evacuate!”

None of it seemed real.

A mist had started to fall on us that day – so soft and fine – sweetening the air again. All day it had misted – merely a drizzle. Nothing to fear. We welcomed it.

But the messages blared from the tv and social media: “Get out!” “Make plans to get out!”

It didn’t ring true. It didn’t seem possible. With so much beauty returning to our world – the sun was out and the air was just starting to fill with the scent of normal again. We had taken off our masks, unpacked the cars, settled down the children and the pets, and started to live the routine of our lives again. We had our world back once more – a world filled with beauty, an enchanted forest that kept us there, privileged to walk and live within it.

It’s easy to overlook Paradise sometimes. To take it for granted. With bills and work and worries filling our heads and clouding our eyes. But the fire had reminded us. We had been threatened and humbled by the threat, but now it was gone, and the rain, so gently falling, would finally put an end to that threat. We would be free to live in Paradise once again, knowing just how lucky we all were to be there.

To have survived.

So when they warned us and told us to be ready, it didn’t make sense. Our heads were still filled with that post-apocalyptic daze. It was hard to chase it away – the malaise wrapped around us, slowed us down, took away the swiftness of our feet, silenced our questioning. Our lives had been unpacked and safely tucked away. How could they tell us now to get out?

The rain was not the fire.

We couldn’t fear it. We couldn’t see it like the flames in the distance, or sniff its destruction in the air. We couldn’t taste the smoke as it choked us. We couldn’t see the danger. There was only the soft touch of a drizzle. A rain so gentle it only comforted us. The rain was here and it would save us. And save our Paradise too.

We were too tired, too spent to listen, to pack up again, to run away.

And so we stayed.

Not knowing the apocalypse we thought we had survived was only yet to come.

And our reclaimed Paradise would soon be lost.

(Our family is safe, but others have paid the ultimate price simply for living where we live.  If you’d like to help victims of the Thomas Fire and the Montecito Mudlside here is a list of organizations who you can contact:  Disaster Relief Organizations

 

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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.  

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Everyday People Doing Good Every Day

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(This is part of a series I’m starting here on the blog and I’m calling it, “Everyday People Doing Good Every Day.” There are a lot of folks feeling many different feelings right now.  This isn’t an easy time for many of us. But every now and then someone sends me something special or tells me a story that makes me feel good again. It helps me remember how much goodness there is around us, and when I see this goodness I’ll post it here to share with everyone. Hopefully, it’ll inspire us to do good things ourselves in whatever ways we can to enrich our world.)

Daniel F. Craviotto Jr. is an orthopedic surgeon.

He’s also my cousin and a very good man.

I don’t just say that because he’s my cousin. You can ask anyone in Santa Barbara who knows him and I’m sure you’ll hear the same.

I don’t get emails at midnight from my cousin Dan. So last night when my phone “dinged” at a little after 12, and I saw there was an email from him, I figured it was important. The guy has been getting up at 4 each morning to handle extra patients, and I hoped everything was okay.  Here is Dan’s email…

“He’s 95 now and still has that smile. I’ve known him for 20 years.  Operated on him twice. And always the same question: How’s Charlie?  You see he’s forgotten that my Uncle Charlie passed away quite a few years ago, but he still remembers him. They played basketball together in the 1930s and 1940s at the Rec Center on Carrillo Street.  It is when he asks how Charlie’s doing when I remember that my Uncle shared the story of how his good friend was sent away to a Japanese Internment Camp during WW II.  Uncle Charlie said he was a helluva nice guy and even at 95, even now I can see that.  Humble, soft spoken and always smiling.  My uncle, who served in WW II, took a flesh wound and saw his platoon decimated in the Battle of the Bulge, always said, “It’s the shits what they did to our Japanese Americans, putting them in internment camps.” So my uncle’s friend – in spite of all the memories that he’s lost because of age – still remembers Charlie.  And for the first time today I tell him, “You know my uncle shared these stories with me about you.  About your family and the internment and how it wasn’t fair.  How you were such a good friend to him and how they carted you off.”And this man, with tears rolling down his eyes, but still with a smile on his face, just looked at me and said, “What were we to do?”  He reached his hand out and shook mine, told me he missed Charlie and my father, Danny, and he thanked me for taking care of him. What a sweet man.  Dignified. Full of grace. Always a kind word. I love that guy.”

Dad always felt badly that he couldn’t do anything to help his friend or his family.  “They lost everything,” Dad told us. “Their business, their house, their friendships.” In fact, Dad was the only friend who went to the train station to say goodbye to the whole family as they were being transported to the camps. No one else wanted anything to do with the family – a family that had lived in Santa Barbara for many years.

When Dad showed up at the train station, it meant the world to his friend. He gave him a gift, something he’d made at school:  a set of black ceramic coffee mugs. They were a parting gift of thanks to a good friend.

We never used those cups growing up; they were always hidden away. I think they were a reminder to my father of something terrible, something beyond understanding, a time that made him feel helpless.

One of those cups sits prominently on my desk.

I keep it there to honor the man who made it. And the friend who didn’t follow the crowd, but who still remained a friend.

Maybe my father couldn’t have done more.

But at least he did something.

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