Our travels began anew for Melanie’s 50th college reunion at Vassar. En route, we stopped in Utica, New York for a two-day visit with Frances Wolfson, the widow of Chancellor Emeritus Lester Wolfson of Indiana University South Bend. And what a splendid visit it was! Frances was waiting for our arrival with grand cheer. At ninety-three, she is still an elegant and gracious lady. A few days earlier, she had telephoned to warn us that she was not her usual self. Obviously, still mourning her recently deceased husband and dear friend, she was feeling listless and out of sorts. She thought perhaps we might want to reconsider our visit. Not a chance! From the beginning of our Vassar planning, we had been looking forward to spending time with her.
Frances characterized our two-day visit as good medicine for her. After an afternoon of good conversation and hors d’oeuvres in the afternoon in her lovely Acacia Village apartment, we went out to dinner at a neighborhood Italian restaurant, Dominique’s Chesterfield. The large clientele on a Tuesday evening was a sure sign that this restaurant is a local favorite. And we were not disappointed; the food was delicious.
The next day we had a late breakfast before getting a veritable historical tour of Utica from Frances as we made our way to the local shopping center to buy a pair of white pants for Melanie and an all-weather jacket for me as a buffer to the unexpected chilly weather. We skipped lunch and made our way to the local museum, the Munson William Proctor Art Institute, for the opening of their summer film series to see Norman with Richard Gere. The movie’s complicated plot of a wheeling and dealing fixer, expertly played by Richard Gere, has a bounty of intrigue and surprises. It definitely merits a second viewing. I missed key components of the plot. And even with my hearing aids, some of dialogue escaped me.
But what is most remarkable about this little museum are the artistic treasures we discovered – tableaux by O’Keefe, Picasso, Feininger, Dali, Glackens, Leger, Mondrian and sculptures by Arp and Barlach. Granted these pieces may not be as important and as numerous as you might find at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Louvre, but to the novice art lover that I am, I was amazed to find such artists in this local museum.
Although we did not have time to explore extensively (and learn more about) the collection, I believe I assume correctly that many of these works came from the estates of generations of Alfred Munson’s families, Helen Elizabeth Munson Williams and Thomas Proctor. Certainly, we will re-visit the museum on our return trip to see Frances.
Before dinner, we took time in the cool afternoon for a pleasant nap. Later, choosing where to dine required discussion among us. Apparently, Utica is a gourmand’s dream as it is home to several good restaurants. We narrowed our choices to a Bosnian and Italian restaurant, and finally settled on Ventura’s, a highly respected restaurant among the locals, and one of Frances’ favorites, specializing in Old World Italian cuisine. As if anticipating our arrival, one of the waiters was already at the door to greet us and helped Frances mount the three stairs into the restaurant. The dinner, impeccably presented and prepared, was delicious. Prior to our leaving, Mr. Ventura, came to our table to greet us and to chat with Frances. The intimate exchange between him and Frances was a sure sign that she is a frequent patron, well-known by the wait staff. Our meal finished, Mr. Ventura escorted Frances to the door, helping her descend the stairs and making sure that she was settled safely in the car that we parked, at his request, on the sidewalk just in front of the steps.
On our way to her apartment, Frances once again thanked us for our visit and repeated what good medicine we were for her. Whatever anxieties or trepidations she may have had about her health, about aging or being alone without a spouse, she now felt revitalized physically and emotionally renewed. That may be so! But she gave us a wonderful gift in return, two happy days in her company.
Now back to the subject of this blog. On our recent road trip to the Southwest, we visited the Georgia O’Keefe museum in Santa Fe, walked in O’Keefe’s footsteps at Ghost Ranch, toured her home in Abiquiu and saw breathtaking views of landscape depicted in her paintings. We learned about her strength, her resilience, her independence, her love of nature, her views of humanity. And perhaps, what was more striking for us was Georgia’s exuberance about life — the simplicity of being in the moment. Georgia’s studio and her home extended into exterior spaces; from her window she had expansive views of nature, She lived simply; when not painting she tended her ample gardens. Simplicity in living was her modus operandi. Her home was neat and modest with sparse but functional furnishings.
Similarly, Frances has a depth of character and regal demeanor that reveal an interior strength, resilience and grace. Her telling of Utica’s historical trivia gave us glimpses into her former civic and social engagement with the city. And like Georgia’s, her apartment overlooks a picturesque panorama. Adding to its charm, are works of art by artist friends and her talented artistic children. These two women, whose lives overlapped for a number of years, shared/share an uncommon love of the aesthetic and a joy of the human spirit. Each was/is a grand lady!
Humans are not the only species on earth, we just act like it.
Chief Joseph, Nez Percé Tribe
C’est beau! C’est magnifique! C’est grandiose! C’est immense! These exclamations by MariThé mirror the expressive joys of children opening presents on Christmas Day. As we traversed the Southwest, our friends, MariThé and Christian, marveled at the varied scenery, from the lush green terrains east of the Mississippi to the parched earth of the desert. Their appreciation heightened our enjoyment of the breathtaking beauty of the Southwest landscapes. Until their arrival, their images of the Southwest had been gleaned through Westerns. As we rode along the vast plains, we could envision the cowboys on their broncos, bandanas in the wind, rounding up herds in a cloud of dust, the cries of giddy-up and yippy-yi-yay echoing in the distance.
For them, and for us I suppose, the Grand Canyon was the definitive marker of this vast and distinctive region, the likes of which cannot be found east of the Mississippi. Like many tourists getting their first close-up glimpse of the Grand Canyon, we took a two-hour train ride to the South Rim. Before boarding, we were entertained by a Wild West show that was an amusing caricature of the rough cowboy life. Aboard the train, were tourists from England, Germany, France , India and, of course, Americans from across the States. En route to the Grand Canyon, we were entertained by a cowboy violinist; on the return by a humorous singer of folk music from the sixties.
The South Rim offered expansive views of the Canyon and I had trepidations about looking over the barriers. But I did and glimpsed the magnitude of the Canyon’s grandeur. Unlike some, I did not venture out to stand on any of the boulders. There are limits to my new courage! On my next visit to the Grand Canyon, I would like to be more adventuresome and hike in the valley below, perhaps even climbing to the rim.
That would give me a different perspective of the Canyon’s unparalleled grandeur. I got a taste of it back in the late eighties, as a Kellogg Fellow, during a rafting trip along the Colorado River with my other Class VIII Fellows.
Before visiting the national parks in Utah, we stopped at the Hoover Dam on our way for an overnight visit with our son, Paul, and daughter-in-law, Katie. Paul, who has developed an interest in cooking, grilled a sumptuous feast of steak, chicken, vegetables along with a green salad and a rich, cheesy pasta dish. Earlier that day, on the Strip, MariThé and Christian were thrilled to see the Eiffel Tower, a bit of the Strip’s tacky character. We were all disappointed that we did not get an Elvis sighting, but there were the occasional scantily clad young women who lured tourists for group pictures. After a short walk, we sat on the veranda of one of the bars lining the Strip and had an expensive Happy Hour beer at $7.00.
The next day, we headed to St. George, Utah, where we spent two lovely days at the home of our friends, Bob and Pat Kill, who had already left for their summer and fall stay in South Bend. St. George was our base for visits to Zion and Bryce. From the extraordinary beauty of these imposing landscapes, and the others we were yet to see, Utah rivals New Mexico as a land of enchantment. Even the rainy day at Zion did not dampen our enthusiasm. Strangely, the walk in a steady rain between majestic rock formations along a fast moving river seemed to heighten our sense of wonderment. Interestingly, we were greeted by a squirrel perched on a long boulder who did not seem to mind the attention from passersby.
From Zion we went on to Bryce, and as Bob Kill alerted us, Bryce was unusual. Called “Poetry in Stone,” Bryce opens up to wide panoramic vistas. Its geologic formations create interesting shapes and soft pink tones. What Bob referred to as unusual were the plethora of sculpted statuesque rock shapes, commonly named hoodoos. They owe their peculiar shape to erosion caused by melting snow and ice that seeps into the rock, and once the water re-freezes, expands forming cracks. The name itself evokes something eerie, but as we stood at seven thousand feet of altitude peering in the distance, these shapes captured strength and grace.
In all we spent five days touring Utah’s national parks. At Zion and Bryce we used the shuttle, stopping at interesting places for short hikes. At the other parks, particularly at Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches, we were able to explore the environs more easily on foot. When I asked MariThé what was her favorite park, she refused to choose, opting instead to embrace each one equally. My favorite was Capitol Reef because of its deep rich reddish hues that seem to envelop the entire landscape. Light seemed to gently caress the stately rock formations, changing in intensity as the day progressed from morning to mid-afternoon.
What is remarkable about Utah’s national parks is their distinctive character. No one is alike; each has its charm. Canyonlands is as different from Capitol Reef as Bryce is to Arches. Canyonlands is broad and immense, Arches more contained atop a grand mesa. And it is Arches, with its many arched openings in rocks, that is the most marketed and ubiquitous image of Utah’s national parks. Our only disappointment there was the road construction that prevented us from seeing some of the spectacular sites we’ve read about or seen pictures of.
Although there is diversity of landscapes and geologic formations in the national parks we visited, there is one constant, the admonition not to veer off the defined paths for fear of destroying the natural vegetation and soil sediments. Yet, often we saw footprints on forbidden terrain. So shameful that these sacred spaces were violated! As we traveled through the parks, placards strategically placed gave us insights into the scenery we were observing and educated us about the interconnectedness of the global ecosystem. Air pollution across the oceans can cause harm to the fragile ecosystems in the parks. What happens in Peoria affects the fragile environs of the parks.
Another indication of the broad reach of the global community was our encounters of people from all over the world. Besides meeting many European and Asian travelers like ourselves, Melanie happened upon a woman in Capitol Reef about twenty years younger than she, who was born in the same Massachusetts town and who graduated from the same high school in Auburn. Now that’s serendipity!
From Arches, we began our trek back to the Midwest, but not before visiting Indiana-transplanted-to-Wyoming-friends, Bob and Carol Mathia, who have a cottage in Estes Park, Colorado. There we spent two relaxing days. Melanie and Carol played Scrabble. MariThé was enthralled by the elk on the golf course behind their home. And we all took a leisurely stroll in the Rockies. We would have loved to explore more but several paths and roads were closed from a recent snowstorm. The chilly temperature and snow at the high altitudes were startling contrasts to the warmer clime and earth tone colors of the Southwest.
For MariThé and Christian, this journey is one that they will long remember – 5,900 miles total. It may not be the complete travels of Toqueville, but it was nevertheless, amazing! And it was for us as well!
When I got to New Mexico, that was mine. As soon as I saw it, that was my country. Georgia O’Keeffe
There is a sacredness of eternal space and time in the landscapes of New Mexico. Its broad blue sky, vast terrain, rugged mountains of reddish tints mixed with layers of grey and white are awe-inspiring. No wonder Georgia O’Keeffe was so enamored of this seductive landscape! We spent two magnificent days walking in her steps at Ghost Ranch. The massive open spaces around it provided unlimited subjects for her paintings. Walking as she did, admiring the landscape awash in color, we observed the scenery she so deftly interpreted on her canvases.
She was not a realist, nor did she want to be. Rather her paintings are personal interpretations of the images before her. She wanted to paint as no one had before. In that sense, her style is typically American.
We also visited O’Keeffe’s home and studio in Abiquiu, an old Spanish adobe a few miles southwest of Ghost Ranch. There we got a glimpse into the simplicity and order of her life. Atop a hill that offered expansive views of the natural surroundings, the old home with its seven thousand square feet took three years to renovate. Like Georgia O’Keeffe, we too were seduced by the beauty of the limitless panorama. Although,our visit was short, we got a good feeling of why this place was so special to her. We’d like to come back and stay a week, basking in the tranquility and grander of Ghost Ranch and its environs.
Once our visit to Abiquiu was done, we headed to Mesa Verde in Arizona. About a mile and a half north of Ghost Ranch, the passenger rear tire of our minivan blew to shreds. Melanie was driving and safely steered the vehicle to the shoulder. We immediately called AAA. We learned that we did not have a spare when a tow truck stopped to help us before AAA arrived. Imagine our surprise and dismay! Here we are on a two lane highway, far away from any town, stuck on a desert road with no spare tire. We called AAA again and informed them that we did not have a spare as earlier reported. When the truck arrived, he was willing to tow us to a garage in a town forty-seven miles away, except he could only take two passengers with him. By then it was pouring rain. We finally persuaded him to take Melanie and MariThé back to Ghost Ranch and then return for Christian and me. We bought a tire, returned to Ghost Ranch to pick up MariThé and Melanie and began anew our journey to Mesa Verde.
About an hour before reaching Mesa Verde, we ran into a tremendous hail storm that made visibility difficult and driving through the accumulation of two inches of hail on the ground treacherous. We almost stopped but decided not to because we wanted to reach Mesa Verde before the restaurant closed at 9:30 pm. But that was not the end of our driving difficulties. When we reached Mesa Verde, there was a heavy fog as we climbed in altitude along the remote and tortuous hairpin turns in the dark. We were so happy to arrive safely, we treated ourselves to cocktails before dinner and a good bottle of wine to accompany our meal. We were giddy at dinner, laughing about our day’s misfortunes.
The next day we visited the pre-historic Indian cliff dwelling sites on the Mesa Verde. At the Balcony House, we had to first descend a staircase along the cliff and then after a few yards climb a thirty-foot ladder to reach the dwelling. With my fear of heights, descending the staircase was difficult enough, but I was hesitant to climb the ladder. I also learned that this would be the first of three ladders to climb. So with Melanie’s encouragement, I faced my fears and climbed the ladder. It was an agonizingly slow climb. Thankfully, Melanie climbed beside me, reminding me to keep my eyes forward and not to look down. When I made it to the top ledge, I was overwhelmed with pride. It’s something I thought I could never do. Several people in our group, including the Park Ranger, applauded my success in facing my fear. So this side note is for my friend, Randy Isaacson, who knows my fear of heights — I did it ! If I hadn’t, I would have missed getting a glimpse of how these pre-historic people lived.
Once we left Mesa Verde, we headed to Gallup, New Mexico. Throughout the day there were episodes of pounding rain which made driving difficult. What struck me most as we traversed the large territory that the United States Government ceded to the Indians as the Navajo reservation was the starkness of the parched landscape. The dominant color of the dry land was a dusky red. Along the remote highway we saw strings of trailer settlements and shanty towns. I kept wondering how do these Native People survive in such a desolate place? How are they employed and by whom? From what source does their water and electricity come? What, if any, modern day amenities are available to them? One of the most enduring images I have of our traverse across the Navajo reservation is of the trains of the Santa Fe railroad speeding rapidly across the barren desert, its cars filled with the commercial and industrial advances of the modern world in stark contrast to the poverty of the communities it was passing through. What was most remarkable about this barren, flat, dusky landscape were the massive rock formations that appear to erupt suddenly. They stood majestically tall and broad, isolated and alone every few miles, bearing names like Shiprock and Window Rock depending upon their formations.
As we sped across the reservation, my thoughts were centered on the injustices perpetrated on the Native People since the first European settlers. My mind raced through the events of the forced migration of the Native People and the Trail of Tears. And even today the sacred land of the Dakotas will be besmirched by an oil pipeline. When we stopped for gas, a copy of the Navajo Times caught my attention. In it was an article written by a young Navajo college student about her Navajo identity and her journey to full acceptance of self that deeply moved me. Her story is one that resonates with many minorities living in America.
Once we reached Gallup, New Mexico, we took a one day jaunt to discover Canyon de Chelly with its magnificent scenery. The majestic formations of the rocks swathed in a reddish color, blazed from every direction and held us captive in awe and admiration. We saw the canyon from above at several points in the road.
We would have loved to have taken a jeep tour within the bowels of the canyon. Perhaps, the next time. Imagine the powerful and turbulent forces of nature that shaped these rocks into their current tranquil state. Even the most hardened disbeliever can be moved into a meditative state.
We continued our journey along the Petrified Forest, a reminder of nature’s destructive force millennia ago. What remains now are clusters of petrified wood spread across a vast landscape. The archeologist, John Muir, is one of the pioneering researchers to help preserve this area. The landscape, empty of color, still had a mesmerizing effect, particularly at the thought of what had been.
From the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert, we were to visit friends from South Bend who now live in Wickenburg, Arizona before heading to visit Paul, my son, and daughter-in-law, Katie in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, a few days before our scheduled visit we received a phone call from Mary indicating that her oldest son had just passed away suddenly with a heart attack. Our prayers are with the Filberts during this sad period in their lives. At Mary’s suggestion we called other friends from South Bend, John and Martha Borkowski who allowed us to stay in their timeshare in Sedona. So here we are in this beautiful settting, an oasis in the mountains encased by the desert clime of Arizona. Our first night here was a simple meal of salad, wine and cheese. The next day, Christian and MariThé went off to explore the natural surroundings while Melanie and I profited from a tranquil afternoon and morning on the patio that extends into a shaded garden with fragrant aromas of the flowering bushes . Adding to the charm was a fresh, gentle breeze. After two weeks of traveling by car, this was a welcome respite. The evening before we departed we had a delicious meal at Judi’s, a restaurant recommended by the Borkowskis.
From Sedona, we traveled to the Grand Cayon, the mother of all the great National Parks. For our friends from France, the Grand Canyon, was the pièce de résistance, and the primary reason for their southwest tour. Their reactions will be detailed in the next blog, Enchanted Landscapes II.
Last spring in southern France, over wine and conversation with our French friends , we all decided to do a road trip together to the American southwest. For them it would be a new way to discover America outside of the big cities like New York, Chicago or Miami. In the months that followed, we began our planning, and with the help of our AAA travel agent we had a well-organized trip that would take us through St. Louis toward Utah and the national monuments. Along the way, we would visit friends and family in Missouri, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Colorado. Initially, we were to be five, but,unfortunately, because of health issues, one of our friends, Martine, from whom we rent when we stay in southern France, could not make the trip. But Christian and MariThé did, and after spending a couple of days in Chicago, they joined us at our home for a week exploring Michiana. Of course, one of the places we took them was to Shipshewana to see the Amish. They were fascinated, as I continue to be, by the Amish way of living. Their adherence to a life unencumbered by materialism and technological advances of the modern world is laudable.
Our southwest journey began with a visit to the Cahokia Mounds, a pre-historic Native American site that began to fade well before Columbus’ exploration of the “New World.” We explored St. Louis, but heavy rains limited exploring the city on foot. We had to bypass the botanical gardens, but a break in the weather did allow us to walk through Laclede’s Landing and the park at the Arch. The swollen Mississippi and the debris caused by the storm prevented us from traveling on paddleboat down the river. Looking at the Arch in front of the court house, we thought that the Dred Scott Street sign was an eerie reminder of a dark chapter in American history. In 1857, the Supreme Court denied citizenship to blacks. The street with the Arch as a backdrop hung in stark contrast to the hope of future generations that the Arch and its magnificent splendor symbolized.
Every time I am in St. Louis, I visit my old neighborhood in the Central West End. I don’t know what draws me there. Happy memories are overshadowed by personal pain. Perhaps, it’s the seduction of its quiet, shaded streets of stately three-story brick homes. I lived at 4728 Westminster Street, just off Euclid Street with its array of shops, restaurants, art galleries and antique stores. The neighborhood has a uniquely European flavor. When I moved there in the summer of 1989, the area had already begun gentrification; my home built in 1904, had recently been refurbished. The rain that was threatening at Cahokia Mounds met us with a vengeance in St. Louis. Visibility was so low that for a few minutes I had to pull off the road. Later in the evening, when the rain subsided, we had dinner at Llewelyn’s, the Irish pub on McPherson Street just around the corner from my old house. Their sweet potato fries were always a big hit with my sons, AJ and Paul.
The next evening we had a tri-lingual dinner in English, Spanish and French with our dear friends, Pablo and Patricia at their beautiful home. Pablo was the World Languages Chair at Saint Louis University when I was the Academic Vice President. As it is whenever we are with Pablo, his colorful stories kept us laughing.
On Sunday I attended Mass in Hyde Park at Holy Trinity, a gothic style church with tall stone pillars reminiscent of European churches. It was perhaps the smallest Sunday service I’ve ever attended in a Catholic church. All of the thirty congregants including the priest were over fifty. But what the church lacked in attendance was overshadowed by its abundance of friendliness. Stranger that I was, several people greeted me merrily, welcoming me to the service. Just before Mass ended I was asked to introduce myself. I could not leave easily after Mass as several people, including the celebrant, wanted to know more about me. The celebrant, a man who appeared to be in his late 70s , was the most talkative , revealing his enthusiasm for biking and giving a detailed accounting of how at 1 am in Breaux Bridge, LA as he was biking he encountered a priest walking. He expressed his surprise at seeing him walking so late at night only to receive the priest’s retort that he too was amazed to see another priest biking so late at night.
The next morning, bidding farewell to Pablo and Patricia, we headed to the Southwest. Finally, after many years of listening to the velvet voice of Nat King Cole singing about the iconic Route 66, there I was on May 1, 2017, rolling along Route 66 in a rented mini-van with Melanie and our friends from Southern France, MariThé and Christian. As Cole sang the litany of cities and towns along the route from Chicago to L. A., we breezed past small and large farms, and cruised slowly through worn, forgotten towns. On one stretch of the two-lane Route 66 highway in Missouri, a parade of vintage Corvettes zoomed toward us. I imagined days of a by-gone era when caravans of cars rolled along long stretches of Route 66, its occupants dreaming of a better future in the West and others, whom fate blessed with more fortune, seeking lazy days on the beaches of Santa Monica. As we made our way through Joplin, MO on Langston Hughes Avenue, a mural on the side of a brick building caught our attention. We stopped for a closer look and marveled at the bright colors depicting contrasting images of pastoral scenes juxtaposed with an image of the Harlem Renaissance poet, Gwendolyn Brooks.
The thrill of being on Route 66 was so great that I now have it listed in my Happiness File (Bucket List) to drive the entire length from Chicago to L. A., all 2,448 miles of it. But before I do, I must read John Steinbeck’s epic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, about the mass exodus to the west of Oklahoma farmers escaping the dust bowl. Though it was the major hub for travelers to California in its heyday, it is now a chain of disconnected highway that at large intervals overlaps with Interstates 44 and 40. But for those unadulterated remaining fragments, the open road coupled with slow drives through mall towns would be a wonderful way to experience slices of an American past .
Until then, I am content to have this opportunity to experience what it was then like stopping at the original, but non-functioning, Lucile’s gas station, and eating in a replica of a 1950s diner. In Elk City, Oklahoma, the National Museum of Route 66 gave us further insights into life along this iconic highway.
Now that we’re in Santa Fe, one of our favorite places to visit, we’re enjoying our time in a beautiful and spacious Adobe-style house about twenty minutes from Santa Fe’s center.
As we arrived, a road runner darted across the property. During the next three days we were hoping to see him again, but to no avail. This elegant home was a welcome retreat from the window shopping along the plaza and gallery hopping. Highlights included introducing our friends to Georgia O’Keeffe’s art at the small museum dedicated to her early work and to the Basilica of St. Francis. We had scrumptious Mexican food at Tune-Up Café, a simple, rugged local place that we’ve enjoyed on previous visits, and at La Choza, new to us and recommended by a friend from South Bend, and at Café Pasqual, where we’ve also dined before. But mostly we’ve enjoyed the evenings sitting on the terrace over cheese and wine, watching the colorful sunsets of red, yellow and orange descend behind the distant mountains.
Before beginning our trek northward to Taos, we visited the student exhibition of seniors from the New Mexico School for the Arts in the Santa Fe Community Center. Initially, we had thought we were going to an exhibition of painting by senior citizens, but to our surprise we saw a display of art that, in my view, was equal, or superior, to any student art exhibition at a university.
When we first arrived in Santa Fe, we saw several posters around town promoting what we thought would be an exhibition at the International Museum of Folk Art. So, as we proceeded out of town, we stopped there only to find out it was a sale of folk art. By the time we arrived, there were hundreds of cars in the parking lots. The event opened at 10:00 am and we arrived at 10:30 am. What we did not realize until then is that this is an annual event that draws people from all over the country. Needless to say, by 10:30 am many of the best pieces had already been sold, but we did manage to buy a beautiful beaded belt and an Indian ceremonial mask. We learned that much of the art that is sold is bequeathed to the museum by collectors and that the museum then sells the pieces that are not kept in its permanent collection. The quality of pieces for sale warrants a return trip, but in the future we’ll arrive before 10:00 am.
From the moment we began to see the changing landscape west of Elk City, OK, from a verdant green to the more dusty ruggedness typical of the Southwest, we began to see spectacular panoramic vistas. Each landscape being the most beautiful until we saw the next eye-catching scenery. Seeing this southwestern terrain through the eyes of our French friends was a totally new experience. Their exclamations of awe and wonderment gave us a deeper appreciation for the beauty of this land. Their connections to this territory is through the western movies with cowboys galloping across the plain. As we rolled along, my mind was centered on the Native People who roamed this land, and who almost came to extinction.
The rich culture of the indigenous people is as apparent in the Taos Pueblo as at Cahokia Mounds. Unlike at Cahokia, there are still Native People living the traditional ways in this UNESCO designated historic site. Our guide was a young tribal woman who related the tribe’s history. She told of the conquest by the Spanish who brought the Catholic faith to the tribe using force to make the Indians build the church. Today the tribe practices both the Catholic faith and its indigenous religion. A nursing student, our guide expressed her intention to return to the tribe and work among her people. Once the tour was finished, we were free to visit the pueblo and the small shops where the Naive People sold their crafts. MariThé bought jewelry, and Alfred bought Melanie a leather pouch with beading signifying the stepped architecture of the pueblo and the colors of the rainbow representing good luck. What we enjoyed most was talking to the vendors. One young potter talked to us about his horse hair pottery; and another elderly gentlemen with beautiful dark tones to his skin, and an expressive face bemoaned how he missed President Obama. At another shop, the vendor told Melanie that he joined the Navy because he wanted to see the world, and he related to her the different places he had been. There is a genuine warmth and kindness among the Pueblo people. For Melanie and me, this was our second visit to the Taos Pueblo. Each time we feel intensely the sacredness of place and the unwavering spirituality of the Pueblo Indians that has continued throughout generations from pre-historic time to the present.
I gave no special thought to my 70th birthday, but as it neared, Melanie asked if I wanted to do something special. That question caught me off guard because I did not think that entering my eight decade warranted any special consideration. But the more it crossed my mind, the more I thought about doing something out of the ordinary like going to Martinique or to Quebec. It’s been many years since I visited either place, Martinique as a young assistant professor on a scholarship from the French government and Quebec as an undergraduate student in an intensive summer language program at McGill University in Montreal. So the time seemed ripe to return. Paralysis and indifference prevented me from looking into travel details. But Melanie persisted in her inquiries about what I wanted to do. Frankly, I had no answer. My elder son, AJ also thought the day warranted special attention. Finally, it occurred to me that spending my 70th birthday with my 91 year old mother would be ideal. She would be happy to see me as would my siblings. Luckily, I found two airline tickets at half the cost of what they were two days earlier. So off we went to New Orleans. My two sons and their families came from D. C. and Las Vegas to be with us, a very special treat indeed.
And what a happy occasion it was! On Palm Sunday, the day before my actual birthday (April 10), my siblings and Melanie arranged a huge party of about forty people – sons, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, grand nieces and nephews, cousins and friends. As typical of any New Orleans festivity, where the good times roll, there was plenty to eat — delicious crawfish bisque and gumbo prepared by my younger cousin Sherrie whose cooking rivals that of her mother, and sundry other dishes of baked macaroni and cheese, ham, turkey, jambalaya, mixed vegetables. green and potato salads. The tasty birthday cake from Haydel’s Bakery decorated in Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold, had my name in the middle and Rhaoul’s and KT’s in each of the top corners. Rhaoul, who falls short by four days of being one year younger than I, celebrated his birthday on April 6 and KT’s, my daughter-in-law, on April 8. Call it a family affair! By the end of the day I was full of mirth, merriment, and a very full stomach.
On this Bacchanal note, a visit to New Orleans would not be complete without dining in a city known for its culinary pleasures. During our week-long visit we ate po-boys at the iconic Parkway Bakery and Tavern with my son, Paul, and, daughter-in-law, Katie, had dinner at Cava’s with brother, Warmoth and sister-in-law, Laurie, and dinner at Muriel’s, just off Jackson Square with good friends and former Xavier colleagues, Tom and Judith Bonner and Ann and Johnny Barron. And at my mother’s, Teresita and I enjoyed a mound of crawfish.
As I get older, I realize more and more the importance of family and friends. I’ve not always kept in touch as often as I should or would have liked. It’s not out of neglect or even laziness, it’s just that life has many detours that lead to new adventures. Because time is fleeting, it’s more important for me now to maintain those relationships with family and dear ole friends. I was particularly gratified to spend time with my mother, who at ninety-one is in relatively good health, but showing signs of aging. As I sat on the sofa near her we laughed at tales of my youth repeated many times, and in the telling of them new twists and embellishments were added. I imagine it is this way in many families.
God only knows how much longer my mother will be with us. My siblings and I are fortunate to still have her involved in our lives. Our mother is a deeply religious woman whose morning and night prayers are pleas to heaven to watch over her family. As my mother says, she begins with Alfred, his wife, his children and grandchildren, repeating this pattern down the birth order of siblings. In my estimation, she is a saint. She is and has been a blessing. To be with her, to hold her hand and to give her hugs and kisses was the best present a seventy-year old could ever want. Thank you Teresita for the loving care you provide for our mother.
Unlike jazz great Benny Goodman, we’re not stompin’ at the Savoy, we’re stomping in D.C. with two of the prettiest girls in town, our granddaughters, Michelle and Juliette. The latter, the latest arrival of our four grandchildren, was born in mid-October just two weeks after the birth of our third grandchild, Theron, who joined his big brother, Eliot, in Portland, Oregon. In less than a month’s time we doubled our riches.
After our travels to Las Vegas and Portland over the Christmas holidays, we finally made it to D.C. where unexpectedly we’re having cold winds and sporadic snow. But Juliette’s smiles and Michelle’s laughter make us impervious to the outside chill. Their joy also helps push back the angst we’re experiencing from the fiasco out of the White House. Our days are filled with little conversations about cartoon characters, building blocks, dolls and little people chitchat. It’s heartwarming to see how big sister fawns over little sister. She kisses her from head to toe. Sibling rivalry, I’m sure will come later. Juliette communicates with radiant smiles and soft babbling while Michelle expressively speaks in full sentences that grandparents don’t always grasp and that need a parental interpretation. The joy of being a grandparent is being more free (and able) to notice and marvel at the remarkable changes in each child’s development, changes you did not readily appreciate in your own children as they grew because you were so overwhelmed in adjusting to parenthood.
When we speak in French to Juliette her fixated eyes twinkle in wonderment as it does when her Senegalese nanny does the same. If Juliette is our Francophone granddaughter, (at least for the time being) Michelle is our Hispanophone granddaughter. She already has the gift of two languages because of her Spanish-language daycare. Since our last visit in September her language skills have advanced in both English and Spanish. Saturday afternoon we took a stroll to the park as Michelle rode in her little red wagon.
At the park, Michelle loved best the swings and the sliding board, particularly climbing, then sliding, gleefully with her legs in the air.
A bond is developing between the sisters. Michelle loves her little sister and Juliette’s eyes focus attentively when Michelle speaks to her. As with any siblings, there will be differences between them. Each will develop her own tastes, preferences and interests. But except for the occasional attention grabber by the older sister, the two enjoy each other. Michelle is very relational but at Juliette’s age her facial expressions were more serious, even intense, Juliette’s softer with more frequent smiles.
Grandchildren are addictive. Their unconditional love, their spontaneous laughter, the awe in their glances, even the occasional temper outburst, are all endearing. Well, perhaps not the latter. Luckily, it’s the parents’ job to calm the waters, so to speak. We would love to live nearer to see them more often, but with grandkids on both coasts (and newlyweds, Paul and Katie, will have kids one day), living centrally in the Midwest is ideal for now. Portland is easily accessible by air, although we’ve driven a couple of times. D. C. is very accessible by car, plane or train. And even though we’ve extended our visit this time, the days seemed to pass by too rapidly. Alas, we depart tomorrow, but not before spending an afternoon and evening with Melanie’s high school friend, Faith and her husband, Skip, who live in Northern Virginia.
AJ and Nashida live in an interesting neighborhood in the Northwest section that is slowly being re-gentrified. Their backyard is a stone’s throw from Rock Creek Park, billed as an oasis in the city. Their neighborhood was home to upperclass blacks during the thirties through the fifties. Duke Ellington grew up here. Their home is sandwiched between 14th and 16th Streets. Fourteenth Street is a veritable United Nations with its potpourri of restaurants and shops representing East Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and Latin America. We’ve gone twice to Le Caprice, a French eatery for authentic croissants, flaky on the outside yet buttery on the inside. There we met Naomi, the cashier, from Bénin. A connoisseur of Indian cuisine, AJ frequents a little hole in the wall just around the corner from his home. Because we needed to mail some important documents we walked about two miles along 14th Street to the post office and then lunched at The Matchbox on the other side of the street. Our server there was Sarah from Ethiopia. It is not uncommon to hear several languages walking along 14th. Sixteenth Street is lined with churches and embassies. One of the nation’s oldest Unitarian churches, All Souls, where former presidents attended, is located on this street. When we visit D. C. we alternate attending service there and at the city’s oldest black Catholic Church, St. Augustine.
Now before I end this blog, I’d like the reader to decide if Juliette favors her Papi. I can’t get anyone to agree. AJ gives a lukewarm acknowledgement that she does. Yes, her eyes are rounder, but her head and the lower part of her face, particularly when she smiles, resemble me. So here are two pictures side by side.
At the very least, both babies are cute. I’m sure you can agree to that!
It’s Christmas Eve on a raw, chilly day in Portland. Since our arrival a few days ago, we’ve gotten acquainted with two-and-half month old Theron. We’re enjoying being with him and his big brother Eliot. Reliving the glow of parenting without the daily responsibilities of nourishing and disciplining is arguably the most joyous state in grand-parenting. In its place is the freedom to play, to laugh, to act silly and romp like a child. With the nearly four-year old Eliot, we’ve been having grand conversations, marveling at his advanced vocabulary, listening to his stories, admiring his skill in the matching game and simply being childlike with him in the games he likes to play. This morning we took a walk wth him, his papa and little brother as he rode his balance bike. Ah! Cuddling with Theron is a heavenly gift.
What bountiful joy there is in his smile and wide eyes as he listens intently to Melanie and me, especially when we speak French. We enjoy hearing his contented gurgling. There’s music to his soft cries, but that opinion may not be shared by his sleep-deprived parents. On the floor, he swims in place, legs flailing wildly. By the time we see him again in the summer, those legs will be pushing him across the floor.
As I write this, Eliot and his Mamie are making Christmas ornaments for the tree. He enjoys learning new things. Inquisitive and quick to learn, he was fascinated by Melanie’s reading to him from a Heifer International magazine about milk other than cow’s — yak, goat, sheep, water buffalo, camel. And, like many kids his age, he loves to draw. His artistry is on display on the corner walls of the dining room. And, like his Mamie, he loves books, especially those about trucks. This afternoon we will decorate the Christmas tree, and later, like many others across the globe, we’ll retire for the evening in anticipation of St. Nick’s arrival and, for Christians, the heralding of the newborn, Jesus.
At the children’s Christmas Eve Mass, the priest asked the kids what gift would they like to give the world. The first child to respond, said”peace;”another shouted “love,” and the last gleefully chimed “hope.” Hope captures the true meaning of Christmas that is manifested in the unadulterated innocence of children. Our special Christmas gift is the sharing of love with Eliot and Theron.
Christmas morning as expected was full of excitement! Too early for Theron, but Eliot’s joy in unwrapping gifts was contagious. The simplest of gifts elicited squeals of pleasure! Stickers were as equally appreciated as the Lego car. In addition to the gifts around the tree was the treasure hunt for hidden presents, the clues of discovery embedded in several rhymed verses of Melanie’s imagination. It’s a decades old Smith family tradition begun by her father. And what may well become another Smith tradition is the Christmas dinner of Thai food created by Chef Ethan. Earlier today, as we exchanged Christmas greetings with the Guillaume Family in D. C., we learned of another non-traditional meal, red beans and rice with roast, prepared by Chef Alfred that may as well become another tradition.
The day after Christmas festivities, Melanie and I gave Ethan and Nicole a respite from parenting. In the early afternoon, Melanie and I took the kids for a long walk with stops at the library, where I spent considerable time in the children’s corner reading to Eliot, and at Jack-in-the Box for a french fry treat. During our walk Eliot stopped several times to examine more closely a leaf, a stone or some other object with his magnifying glass. Each time he marveled at a new discovery.
Our brief visit ends tomorrow with a return to the bitter cold that awaits us in South Bend. Our next travel adventure is in January to D.C. to meet our new grand-daughter, Juliette, and her big sister, Michelle.