Monday, August 18, 2014

Summertime, and the Living's Easy; or, Reflections on Summer 2014

School starts for teachers on Wednesday, next Monday for students. Part of the beauty of teaching is you don't really have to keep up with the day of the week, the time, etc all summer long. (And forget the date---I somehow missed that it was August until a week had passed).

Reality has set in that I will have to set an alarm clock (the same one that's been flashing constantly since a power outage---a regular occurrence---sometime before I got back on August 9).

Instead of moaning about the loss of an overall great vacation, I will dwell on some of the best parts:
Chasing Wabbits (or almost-tame bunnies):
Hung out with this little guy
who lives in my parents' neighborhood.

Family reunion time!
Went to a family reunion to see 1st, 2nd, and 3rd cousins and my aunt/uncle. Loved seeing my cousin who was a teacher/librarian with DoDDS many years ago. She was stationed in the Philippines and Germany. It was nice to be around someone in the teaching world who speaks the same language of RAT, LQA, COLA, etc etc. 

Watched kids grow up before my very eyes. A year in the life of a child is huge---my two nieces have grown so much, especially the youngest who was only a year old last summer. But my niece and nephew in Texas have grown tremendously in two years. So did our little friend Carolina. 
Caught lots of frogs.
Don't have frogs in GTMO---
only poisonous cane toads. 

Played Barbies with my oldest niece. I want to copyright the name "Crazy Hair Barbie" now, because she is my alter-ego.

Saw childhood friends. Made my heart very, very happy. The lengths they go to in order to see me is, well, quite humbling. 

Slept late in my childhood bedroom.

Went shopping with my grandmother. She can still outlast me any day. 

Look closely-those are beans!
Visited a dentist. This doesn't seem like an event, until you know that he was a student in my very first high school class, back in Hattiesburg High School when I was a student teacher. I'd like to say I taught him everything he knows, but unfortunately, I didn't teach him much (except Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie).

Got lots of dirt under my nails.  
Had great luck with the Louisiana Purple Hulled Beans in my parents' garden, so much so, my mom declared, "We have enough to feed Coxey's Army!" then gasped, "Who is Coxey?" That's one of the many rich Grannyisms we all find ourselves spouting from time-to-time. We didn't have much success with blueberries, but at $5 a half pint here in GTMO, the small handful for free was a treat. 

We ate snow cones. 
Lots of them. Why can't we have those here in GTMO?

Experienced New Orleans with my youngest. 
The places---St. Louis Cathedral, the Quarter, the French Market, a streetcar through the Garden District.
The food---muffulettas at Central Grocery, beignets and café au lait at Café du Monde, and dessert at the Camellia Grill.
The people---met up with my childhood friend Beth whose been a New Orleans girl long enough to call it home, and shared laughs with the Camellia Grill waiter who grew up in Meridian (and really hated it). The Quarter is the best place for people watching, and New Orleans never disappoints.
St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans
Last time I was in New Orleans, I was in early stages of a pregnancy with Cletus the Fetus (now, thankfully, named something a little more respectable) and couldn't deal with the plethora of smells that is Bourbon Street. This time was more pleasant. My life-long love for New Orleans started at my first visit I remember, when I was about the same age as my son (8). He looked up at the beautiful old buildings as we drove through the Quarter and exclaimed, "This is nice place! I'd like to live here!" (my first thought as a kid) and then---"Uh, do you think there is a lot of crime here?" (not a thought I would have had at his age---I just laughed. I don't want to deter a boy's dreams).

Got lost on my college campus and home for several years, thanks to a tornado that took out some landmarks, and renovations before and afterwards that changed the face of USM. That being said---it looks really great now. 

Went back to school---Monticello High School---now Lawrence County High. Had a great tour with one of my follow Red Devils, Silas, who is a few years ahead of me, and loved seeing the new additions, the updated building, and the bandhall---it smelled the same! Band geeks forever!! 

Country roads, take me home---looking out the windshield near Utica, MS.
Yes, that's a guy on a horse. In the highway. Seriously. 

I am going back to my first love, teaching English, this school year. Instead of being split between 2 campuses, I am going to be at the high school full time, teaching English (all levels---yes, 9, 10, 11, and 12. That's what happens when you work in a tiny school).

So now I need advice---should I keep the url the same, or does anyone even read it ( I'm still a librarian, I'm just taking a small break. Suggestions are welcome. Please leave them in the comment section below! :) 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Traveling Close to Home; or, Chasing Ghosts in Natchez

"The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page." ----St. Augustine

Funny thing happened---I saw this quote online several months back and thought I'd have to use it at some time in my blog. Then a couple of dear GTMO friends left for Asia---we've spent countless hours eating and drinking and laughing these past 2 years---and one of them gave us this beautiful collage/painting that she made. I am so happy to have it as a reminder of these crazy 2 years with new friends and to remind me of why I chose this crazy life. 

We can't travel more than a few miles within the confines of our gated community here, but I also have to stop and think, wow, I'm living in the Caribbean. My kids have experiences you can't get anywhere in the United States. And one day, our time will come and we will have the opportunity to see more of the world.

This summer I spent some quality time in Mississippi seeing places there I have never seen.  I had one friend tell me that he thinks he is too old to travel and see the world, but there is so much of the United States to see, you can spend a lifetime there and never get bored.

Which brings me to Natchez.

I am a horrible Mississippian because I have never done the Spring Pilgrimage of beautiful antebellum homes in Natchez or seen some of its famous landmarks. I finally took time to go, and as an added bonus, I spent the day with my youngest son and my lovely friend Janis, whom I haven't seen in over 10 years. Janis was my across the street neighbor during the college Semester That Changed Everything in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and she's the sort of friend who easily fills in our 10+ year conversation gap with funny and interesting stories. Within a few minutes of meeting at the Welcome Center, we were off and running, chasing ghosts in Natchez.

We first stopped for lunch at Mammy's Cupboard, a restaurant that you, well, just have to see to believe.

Mammy used to be African American, which is so politically incorrect today (and so stereotypical Southern when it was built in the 1940s), but now she is sort of racially ambiguous. Maybe she's Native American. Maybe she's just a white girl with a nice tan. Either way, she's a landmark and the pie is awesome. And now my youngest can tell everyone that he ate under a lady's skirt while in Natchez.

Then we went on to Longwood Estate.

Longwood was built by a wealthy cotton planter in the 1860s and is the largest octagonal home in the US.

During the course of the home being built, the Civil War broke out, the planter lost millions of dollars worth of crops, and ultimately, only the basement of the home was completed.

We walked around the finished basement and then stared in awe at the unfinished top five floors. All that potential, built with Northern carpenters and with money earned in an agricultural society driven by slavery. The house epitomizes the good and bad of the Old South (beauty, cruelty) and I really enjoyed the tour, despite the bittersweetness of someone's broken dreams as public spectacle. It was well worth the trip and an architectural marvel, unfinished and all. 

But the highlight of my day was the cemeteries.

I seriously love old cemeteries.

I love beautiful old tombstones---it's a lost art, the ornately carved headstone. I love epitaphs. I love the stories they tell (or even more interesting---the stories you must infer).

I love the National Cemetery in Natchez with its uniformity, and graves from every conflict since the Civil War. We stumbled upon the fresh grave of a WWII veteran buried that very morning. My ancestors lived on the grounds of the cemetery in a house that is still standing today. My great great grandfather Charles was born in Germany, immigrated to the US at 12, served in the U.S. Army, and eventually became the superintendent of this cemetery and zigzagged across the country (including Texas), working at other National Cemeteries, as well. He is buried at the National Cemetery in San Antonio.

National Cemetery in Natchez, Mississippi
His daughter, my great grandmother Mabel, married a man named Philip who at one time, worked at the City Cemetery, and they raised children---including a daughter who would become my grandmother----in a house between the 2 cemeteries. It is still standing today. I love thinking that my grandmother once bounded up those steps to her home, or sat on that porch with her siblings.

The Weiss house in Natchez, and my grandmother's childhood home.

I love the City cemetery with its tombs that tell stories. There is the Turning Angel (any fans of author/Natchez native Greg Iles will recognize this one), a somber angel built in remembrance of several young women who died in an explosion. Legend is the statue's face turns and follows you if you shine lights on it at night.

There is also the grave of Florence Ford, a 10 year old who was so deathly afraid of storms, her parents had steps built leading to an underground shelter with glass between the shelter and coffin. Her mother would sit in the shelter during storms to keep her dead daughter company until the weather blew over. 

I know summer wasn't spent touring Europe or Asia or even Mexico, but it was relaxing and I love the connection between past and present generations. The fact that my son was along for the ride made it that much better. As I walked amongst the tombstones of two cemeteries that span over 150 years, I couldn't help but think how incredible it was that three generations of my family had lived so close to each place, and during all these years, each of the six generations has spent time walking around these same tombstones. My son was fascinated by all those things I love about cemeteries, too, and I hope one day he will bring a seventh generation of our family to enjoy this beautiful and sacred place.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

You Can(t) Go Home Again (Texas version); or, Au revoir, les Texans

Ah, vacation. There are relaxing vacations. You know the sort---books on the beach, sleeping late every morning, eating whatever, whenever you want.

Then there is the "travel vacation," where you attempt to visit every family member, friend, and favorite spot in one or more locations during a tight schedule.

This summer brought my Renewal Agreement Travel (RAT), which is our free trip back to our Home of Record (HOR). Our trip to Texas fell more into the 2nd category than the first.

The adage "you can't go home again" is a theme in countless songs and poems. It's the wistful end to a movie. It's the bittersweet epiphany of a novel.

Before we left to go back to our HOR, we heard this from several GTMO friends, too.

"It's your first trip back to Texas in two years?" 
"Yes, yes it is." 
(tsk tsk) "Well, you know what they say." 
"Who? What?" 
"You can't go home again." 

And to all of you who like to tell me, "I told you so"---it is true. 

Texas---my "home of record"---was never home to me. I wasn't born there. I had only visited it a handful of times before moving there in 2002. My great-great grandfather is buried in San Antonio, yet in ten years of living there,  I never made the two hour trip to see his grave. He got to Texas for work and eventually died there, but it wasn't really home for him, either. His life work (managing national cemeteries) took him all over the country, and I think I inherited his peripatetic nature.

As much as I tried in 10 years, I don't connect with stories of cowboys and the Mexican War and the homesteaders and the outlaws. I learned to appreciate Keeping Austin Weird, although it has nothing on Olympia, Washington, or Portland, Oregon (but good try!). I love the town of Georgetown with its marvelous town square and beautiful, historical buildings, and Texans truly warrant the positive reputation for being friendly, outgoing, and gracious. 

I have a son who is a Texan by birth, but left after six years. My oldest lived in Texas more years than his birth state, yet he is just as likely to tell you he's from Washington than there.  Maybe he has the same identity problem I have---just because you live somewhere for a long time does not mean it's home. 
Welcome to Texas, y'all! ABIA
This doesn't mean that I didn't hope to feel like I was back where I belonged when we finally returned after two years. I really wanted to have that connection to place that comes with "home."  As the plane taxied into the Austin airport, I thought about how I would feel seeing our home we sold while living in Cuba. Would I get choked up? Would I cry? Would I feel a profound homesickness? 

I finally mustered up enough courage to drive by---alone, as I wanted the moment to myself---and I felt, well, nothing. Zip, nada. The house was purchased by investors and flipped. It's now mid-century modern style, which isn't my thing. Parking in front of what had been our home,  I didn't feel the expected emotional tug on my heartstrings. I didn't want to ring the doorbell and tell the owners that "this used to be my house!" or take pictures. Instead, it is someone else's house, someone else's home. 

It felt good to let go and not have that attachment. 

I felt the same way about the few favorite food places we got to visit. I've missed Tex-Mex food and Texas BBQ terribly. I envisioned myself eating pounds of brisket, migas tacos, my favorite Jägerschnitzel from Walburg, and enough homemade tortilla chips to feed a small army. 

In my mind, every meal was going to be an "event," a homecoming of sorts or celebration of what we've missed. 

Instead, it was just food. In many cases, we just didn't have enough time to go where we wanted.
Texas' perfect food: the Breakfast Taco.
Make mine a Migas from El Charrito in Georgetown, Texas
Many places are smaller and quainter than I remembered about our town; others are much more beautiful than I remembered.

When you build up a time and place in your mind for two years, your imagination sometimes runs out of control. You always imagine perfect weather and everyone you encounter along the way will be accommodating, kind, and thoughtful. There is never out of control traffic. People you want to see will not be out of town on vacation. It's easy to plan around what you want to do.  You aren't bleeding money for meals and rental cars.

Reality is much less glamorous.

Texas will always be my core set of friends who helped us for ten years. It's the friends who dropped everything and rushed to entertain our second grader as he waited for his baby brother to enter the world. It's the friends who offered to babysit so we could have "date night." It's the colleagues who became family, and we shared everything---marriages and divorces, childbirth and miscarriages, the joys and heartbreaks of raising kids. I attended their weddings, cried when they lost parents and grandparents, celebrated birthdays and anniversaries, and helped them move into new houses.

I am sorry I didn't get to see some of my friends who made Texas a wonderful temporary home, but because they are who they are---more family than friends in many cases----they understood that I needed to say goodbye and move on down the road after a week and a half. There are times that you just need to close one chapter so you can continue. This trip made it crystal clear that Texas is not my home. 

Texas is in the rear-view mirror, and will probably remain there much longer until my next visit. There was some bittersweetness, some joys over how some things have changed, frustrations over others, and I felt some closure on unfinished business (such as the house) at the time of our hasty departure when we suddenly picked up roots and moved to Cuba .

Welcome to Mississippi: MS River Bridge in Vicksburg

Now that I am back in Mississippi, I am finally relaxed and experiencing a real vacation from fast-paced life. I may have to drive 20 miles or more from my parents' small town to find things that were readily available in Texas, but I also find that island life in GTMO has taught me to be more patient (and to realize that food and shopping aren't the most important things in life---or in a vacation).