Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Other Side of In-Between

 Disclaimer: I promise this will end on an UP note!

Throughout the month of November there has been a challenge in the online world of Facebook to post each day something for which to be thankful. Many friends posted daily and some posted a week's worth at a time. Although I am of a thankful mind on just about every day, I chose not to participate. Those who know me are not surprised of this, as I do not participate much in any FB games or chain mail. Let me be clear: I am thankful almost everyday. I love my life and wouldn't change it. Nor am I particularly morose or without thanks this time of year.

November is a difficult month for me. Six years years ago on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, my mother passed away. It was both a sad and thankful moment as she finally rested after 10 years of cancer. She celebrated her life throughout the illness and we celebrate her life today. Even still, it makes Thanksgiving a tough turkey to swallow.

As traditions go, Thanksgiving was a holiday like most. The family gathered for the big feast and hung out with each other. In earliest years we gathered at the Grandparents so that we could celebrate with the uncles, aunts, and cousins. Later we gathered at Mom's to celebrate with siblings who no longer lived at home. We also brought in our many strays - those for whom family had different meanings. Eventually though Thanksgiving became the one holiday we children relinquished to our spouses' families. Since we still gathered weekly for Sunday supper, Thanksgiving became less important to us than the bigger religious days. That last Thanksgiving was bittersweet. We gathered, laughed, ate, and celebrated. It was a good time.

For six years now Thanksgiving has come and gone without much fanfare. No, it hasn't been a sad affair, just more like any other family gathering. We show up, we visit, we eat and go home.There has been little "tradition" associated other than it being an extra family day. This year we decided to try something different. We went camping!

I've known many people who take off for the long weekend to camp or buggy in dunes. While it sounded fun, to me it would lack the whole family atmosphere of gathering for the holiday. Besides, we aren't dune buggy people. Regardless, this year the long weekend came with a whole week off from school for the boys and Nichole, and an extra day off for me. It was the perfect circumstance for a family vacation.

We trekked about two hours east towards Yuma, AZ. Just this side of the state line is a beautiful California State Park called Picacho SRA. It is near the dunes but far enough away; tucked into the Chocolate Mountains and Picacho Peak.  I'd never heard of it, despite the fact that it is a historical landmark where the large (2,500) mining town of Picacho once stood on the banks of the Colorado River.

Picacho is a beautiful secret. The desert is filled with volcanic stones, ash and quartz. In fact the hills have less dirt than rock. The rocks are polished by the elements to give a dark brown, or chocolate colored varnish, glittered with white and rose quartz. The campground is spacious with each site spread out for privacy. Fall is peak season - beginning with Thanksgiving weekend - and still our nearest camp neighbor was three sites away. The camp had plenty of residents, but was quiet and as peaceful as a night alone in the desert.

The near full moon rose midday and lit the clear sky nightly so that flashlights were only needed in the shadowed areas. In the wee morning hours after the moon set, billions of stars no longer viewed from city locations lit the sky almost as brightly. The boys were so tired I just couldn't wake them to look up, but I did make sure Nichole saw the stars. They reminded me of the years ago when our night sky was more about stars than streetlights.

We fished and each boy caught his first fish. What a great way to get the boys interested in fishing but to actually catch something! We caught 3 striped bass, 3 calico, and one bluegill. I didn't fish - no license - but it took both me and Nichole to manage the boys' lines and worms. Nichole even baited hooks while I rigged poles. Even funnier was watching her "hold" a fish and take the hooks out. Keep in mind though that these little guys weren't even big enough for a fish taco. Regardless, we cleaned and fried them up. Two bites for each of us except Austin.

Austin loves animals. Well, they all do. But Austin refused to eat the fish. After we questioned him a little, we saw something rare to him - compassion. Our little guy didn't like the fact that we'd killed the fish. Austin who seems to feel nothing for others, was near tears over this. In fact, the next day when we tried fishing again and caught only one... he insisted we let it go.

We hiked... and hiked. The first hike was supposed to be the historical trail to the mining camp. A misunderstanding with the ranger, and a park map not clearly marked - oh alright and me in the lead - took us in the opposite direction. We found an animal trail along a ridge that lead away from camp. It was a great trail with great views. We went as far as we dared with our snacks and two canteens. I bet it was about three miles or more and the hike took us about four hours. Along the way we were visited by the wild burros, descendants of the miners' burrow set free over 100 years ago. There was a family of four. Three adults and a yearling. The boys were fascinated at how the older burros circled the baby for protection, and at for how long the burros watched us as we carefully tread away to a different trail. After our snack lunch, we turned back toward camp - following various landmarks until we found the main road and moved to easier ground.

On our last day, after packing and before leaving, we decided to find the historical trail. It is a clearly marked trail with an even clearer trail-head, and completely in the opposite direction of where we started the day before. I let the boys lead this time.  In some ways the trail was easier, but it went up and down and involved a little more scrambling. It was well worth it. This is the trail with all the park history. We hiked volcanic fields of rock, visited the old jail - a cave with bars, and found remnants of mining mills, rail cars and other scatter of 100 years before.With our second four-hour hike behind us, we piled into the air-conditioned truck and headed for home.

What has this to do with Thanksgiving? Well, our Thanksgiving feast of Turkey, potatoes, corn-on-the-cob, and pumpkin pie, was cooked in and eaten by the campfire. We put the turkey in a dutch oven and cooked it in the fire on hot rocks, wrapped potatoes in foil and threw them into the fire, wet our corn and threw it in as well. Everything was delicious! Okay, we didn't put the potatoes on soon enough so they were not cooked and therefore not eaten. But everything else was. We brought a store-bought pumpkin pie and whipped cream for dessert in the desert and topped it off with hot cider and roasted marshmallows.

The Picacho campground is definitely a "go back again" camp. We will visit another time and hike a few more trails. Maybe even canoe a little on the river. Who knows?  We have agreed that our small branch of the larger family has its own new tradition. We plan to camp over Thanksgiving next year and for as many years as we can. We may go back to Picacho, or we may try new places each year. The details need to be worked out. But what I take away from this Thanksgiving, is that I've reached the other-side of in-between.


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Blog Post from: The Cat is Speaking: The Suitcase

 This was a timely and interesting blog entry to one of the sites I read. I believe it warrants re-posting.

The Cat is Speaking: The Suitcase: Life is like a suitcase...full of rocks. Yes. Picture an old, worn out Suitcase, full of rocks. Picture a child, trying to carry it. He's ...

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Things I Take for Granted

Last week I injured my wrist badly enough to require surgery. I'd love to share the details, but my father reads this and I must protect his poor tummy. So long story short, I cut my wrist and damaged the medial nerve. The medial nerve controls the thumb, index finger, and half the middle finger. I have no feeling in my thumb and index finger and I am currently sporting a cast. To say the least, I am not comfortable.

The hospital trip was interesting if not a bit humorous. In triage every time I said "I cut my wrist" the inevitable question that followed was "on purpose?" Nichole and I both lost count of how many times I was asked to repeat the details. Each new attendant in ER, or later in my room, had to ask. It is procedure, I know, but being aware of why they asked so many times gave me the giggles...well maybe that was the morphine.

I was whisked into surgery at the crack of dawn, six hours ahead of schedule. I don't remember being transferred to the table, but at some point I was aware of crying and telling them how much it hurt. I was also aware the nurse several times loudly ordered me to "breathe" or "Maria! Maria! remember to breathe!" No one said I'd actually stopped breathing in such to be problematic, but since I have no reference to time I couldn't say.

Surgery is past and I am back at work - full time; half as productive. In the course of a week I have compiled a list of things I take for granted.

In the category of life skills:
  • opening doors while holding a cup of coffee
  • showering in general, shampooing specifically
  • drying off sufficiently to dress
  • buttoning my jeans
  • pulling up my jeans
  • tying shoes
  • removing wrappers
  • cutting my food
  • buttering my bread
In the category of work and school
  • typing fluidly
  • stapling a neat stack
  • paperclips
  • rubberbands
  • cutting
  • separating continuous feed orders
  • holding phone while writing
There are many more inconveniences both at home and at work. But that is the key...they are simply inconveniences. Once the cast is off there will be a host of new issues to deal with. Some will be issues like the ones above, but with a twist. I will inevitably try to hold something and not feel it. I will have learn to test temperatures before grabbing and such. But the beauty of it all is that I will learn.

What have I learned is that I'm not an artist. No matter how hard I try, I have no skills to that end. I cannot draw or paint and I most certainly can't carve without injury. Instead, I can write; and with exception of writers cramp and creative blocks, I can do so safely.

And I can hug! Thanks for that reminder Jen.

Friday, July 27, 2012

TSP: Jen McConnell's Open, Unguarded Moments

TSP: Jen McConnell's Open, Unguarded Moments: In the 13th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Jen McConnell, author of  Welcome, Anybody  (P...

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Little Boy Lost

When I started writing I envisioned a page where my more creative work would be displayed. What once was a venue for my essays and stories has now become a spiritual and emotional outlet. As it turned out, I am a “mommy blogger.” I suppose in my most self-serving ideal, it will someday be read and used by my children. It will be a memoir of sorts, used to understand the parts of Mom that remained cryptic to their young minds.

Last night I made Nathan cry. Not because I was angry or mean, but because I wanted to prepare him for a coming loss. Nathan is our sensitive one. He empathic-ally takes on the stresses and emotions of others, whether he knows them or not. We struggle to teach him a balance between guarding his self and holding an open heart. The last thing we want for him is hurt, and the next to last we want is for him to withdraw to the inside.

This is where parenting gets tough. Nichole and I have been debating whether or not to euthanize our dog Jasmine. Jazz is 11 years old, which is close to average for a Dachshund. She was once a vibrant able watchdog who gave us two beautiful litters. She loves unconditionally and is only slightly spiteful (as Dachshunds are prone to be) when left at home.

Lately though Jazz has been more miserable than happy. Her allergy to fleas and summer pollen has her biting, scratching and rubbing until she is nearly bald. Two months ago she was in such condition that someone reported us to the ASPCA for “mistreating” her. Of course this was unfounded as soon as the uniformed officers saw that she is well cared for, just old and crusty. I could go through the whole list, from small tumors to cataracts and deafness, but the point is not to justify our plans.

What has come of this debate is “how do we tell the kids?” They all take loss especially hard. Nathan still cries over the loss of JuJube, the hamster. He is saddened every time he remembers Tonka. Nathan gets sad just missing Dakota, Kaitlin’s dog. But we had Tonka and Jasmine before the boys. They have grown up with her. She is their dog, whether or not they choose to play with her.

Nichole and I talked about when to take Jazz to the vet. I talked with friends about how to handle telling the boys. My fear is that if we tell them we are “taking her to be put to sleep” they will only hear “I’m taking her to be killed.” The consensus is to begin preparing the boys by stressing up her age and infirmities; to talk openly that she might die soon.

The plan is, or was to do this while Nichole and the boys are away on vacation; to just have her “die” while they are gone. But I can already hear the cries “we didn’t even get to say goodbye” as they mourn. It will almost be too much to add that Kaitlin, the baby, and her dog are moving to Wyoming. The boys are already losing them. Wouldn’t it be cruel to take away the family pet?

Last night Nathan asked me “how come” Jasmine gets confused at the door and forgets to go out. I thought to myself that this was the perfect opening. I could talk about what happens when dogs age. I could talk about the fact that she is blind, almost deaf and hurts. I was lame.

I did mention some of those things and then I went on to tell him “I’m afraid she might die soon.” Nathan froze in his tracks, literally stopped all movement and began crying. My almost eight year old was reduced to toddler hood as I picked him up and rocked him for half an hour. He cried and told me “I hope it doesn’t happen while we’re gone.” That was his first hope, then he hoped it wouldn’t happen when they get back either. For that matter, he hoped it wouldn’t happen before they leave.

I didn’t know what to say. All I could do was hold my little boy and listen as he mourned his lost pets: Tonka, JuJube, and Faith. I could only listen as he mourned the pending loss of Jasmine. Nathan feels everything so deeply. How in the world can I balance his heart against Jasmine’s life? There is no way now that I can do this while they are gone. I can only pray for God to take the decision off my shoulders. It’s just not time.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Fat Man's Misery; Child's Delight

Fat Man’s Misery; Child’s Delight
                                      Maria T. Groschup-Black

There are many things about the way I was raised that I want to share with my own kids. Unfortunately there are also many differences in the times between then and now. I grew up in a mostly stable household with both parents always present and usually available. We ate dinner at the table every night, said prayers over our food and ate it whether we liked it or not. I learned to swallow many meals without tasting them. Lima beans, string beans and peas all went down without touching the tongue or being chewed. We watched game shows in the evening and played board games or cards. Summer nights were spent playing outside until darkness met up with bedtime.

On warmer nights Dad would pile us all into the family car, drive to the bluffs at Carlsbad State Beach and walk down to the shoreline. There, we kids ran ahead in the sand to collect aluminum cans left behind by the daytime revelers while Mom and Dad strolled hand in hand. Sometimes Dad would pile us up for a drive to the local Baskin Robbins for an ice cream.  Each summer there was a vacation drive across the country, either north to my aunt’s home in Washington or east to my Nanny and Papa in Texas. It all sounds as sappy as it was. But these are the memories, and as I’ve learned from my own children, we want to remember the good times as if they were grand times.

One of the grand parts of my ideal family was that Dad ran the church youth group. Although we were too young to participate in youth group, whenever the church kids went somewhere cool, we got to tag along. There were annual trips to Disneyland, ice skating, beach parties and the hikes through Torrey Pines State Reserve.

Torrey Pines became a designated state park in the 1959, but its rich history runs as far back as early pre-colonial days when the aboriginal tribes inhabited the lands. In 1899 the city of San Diego designated the area as a city park and later granted the land to the state. The park is a scientist’s playground, no matter the range of study; from geology and paleontology, to marine biology and botany. Eight miles of trails wind through the park from the top of the bluffs down to the shore of Torrey Pines State Beach. From the beach you can see the layers of age in the cliffs, including fossil oyster beds billions of years old. You can view the fault lines so famous in California, and you can find living history in the tide pools hewn by the crashing shore. From the top of the trails you can find rich and diverse habitats that include the great and rare Torrey Pine, exclusive to the California shore.     
All of this science meant nothing to me as a child, and really no matter how much I want to teach my children, it means nothing to them. Rather it is the simple joy of stooping through an elfin forest (quietly so as to not disturb the elves), climbing a red butte, or finding shapes in the wind-blown trees that excites the kids. For me it was the trails themselves. My favorite, “Fat Man’s Misery” wound through a slot canyon. The name came from its tight crevices and narrow paths that eventually let out on the shore.

Fat Man’s Misery has long since been closed for safety. According to the rangers, none of whom ever had the pleasure, the trail became too unstable and costly to maintain. Unfortunate hikers found themselves stuck in the crevices and rescues were dangerous operations that used too many resources. But the trail’s closure does not take the magic away; it only enhances it as new areas are explored and shared with my own children.

I was determined to make the most of our hike and sought the advice of the ranger. “Which trails led to the beach and which one was the easiest path of return?” As it turned out, all of the trails were mild to moderate and each one had something different to offer. We started at the top; a trail-head lead to five different hikes that intersected at various points and inevitably led to the same outlet – the beach trail.
We hiked to the red butte. Although small, it offered fantastic views of the ocean and gave the boys a place to climb and explore without violating park rules. From the butte we followed a trail through an elfin forest to an area more desert in nature than coastal. The scrub was sparse and yucca plants thrived along with other succulents. 
Eventually we merged to the beach trail and headed down past a few wind caves. I was sure to point out where tube worms had drilled through the rock and where the walls held fossil remnants of ancient tree roots or perhaps (at least to my imagination) where fossil bones had once been. On the shore I pointed out the different layers of sand that comprised the ages of time and made sure they understood that the bottom layer filled with shells was a fossil bed.
 Shirts and shoes were shed and they immediately headed for the large flat rock in the surf line. The rock has a huge hole in the middle known as “the bathtub,” though I’d not recommend bathing there. One of the anemones had a six inch diameter! The boys learned hands on how anemones capture their prey, and had much fun looking at the tube worms and crabs in the tub.  Of course they had just as much fun splashing in the water, collecting rocks and searching for leftover grunion. Boys are fairly easy to entertain once you get them away from the television and computers.

The hike back up wasn’t hard at all and we veered off to a few more outcroppings and viewpoints. The last trail followed somewhat parallel to the slot canyon where remnants of Fat Man’s Misery could be seen. I regaled them with stories of Grandpa and how he had to struggle through the tight spots and how much fun I had at their age wandering through the canyon. Most of the trail is overgrown with sage and scrub now. Perhaps that is good. The growth will slow erosion and heal canyon. Perhaps in another few hundred years there will be another parent leading his kids through the slot canyon to the shore. Just maybe if we treasure today this gift God gave us yesterday, tomorrow it will delight and intrigue one more family.