Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Giving Thanks

Last Thursday my husband and I spent a lovely Thanksgiving evening with friends, my first Thanksgiving in 46 years, as it is not a holiday here in Chile. But we planned our trip to California to include Thanksgiving, and it was special. The hostess prepared the traditional meal: turkey, stuffing (my favorite), homemade cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, green beans and pumpkin pie. We went around the table giving thanks. The hostess gave thanks for her successful kidney transplant (as did her husband), my husband thanked our host and hostess and I gave thanks for all the friends who had welcomed us into their homes over the past weeks.

I truly feel blessed with my California friends: the high school classmates who attended my book launch, former university classmates, relatively new friends who welcomed us once more into their home in my hometown, and my oldest, dearest lifelong friend.

Blessings abounded: strolls along beaches of Monterey Bay, visited by arcing dolphins and cruising whales; views of downtown San Francisco’s sparkling Christmas decorations in the rainy dusk, my unexpected first Black Friday shopping excursion, a nostalgic stroll across the UC Berkeley campus, meeting the Ethiopian woman who bought my book for her 15 year-old son who “loves to read”, savoring the clam chowder at Nick’s Cove.

Life brings both blessings and tragedies. For the second consecutive year my hometown was enveloped with heavy smoke from wildfires to the north while I was there. Lives were lost; homes destroyed. When will we learn that nature is way older and wiser than humanity and live accordingly?
Thanksgiving lessons learned.

Monday, October 29, 2018


I’m excited and nervous! In 10 days my second book, “Notes from the Bottom of the World: A Life in Chile,” will be launched out into the world. The book is a collection of personal essays, exploring topics that inspired me – from Patagonian travels, to aging, to the writing craft.  I’ll be traveling to the San Francisco Bay Area with my husband to present my book at several venues: Book Passage, the San Francisco Commonwealth Club, the Belmont and Oakland libraries.

Sometimes in the middle of the night I ask myself: why do I want to do this – stand in front of a group or a crowd or a handful of people and bare my essays, my soul to them? What was I thinking? I calm myself by reminding myself that my deepest hope is that some can relate to what I say or have written. The hours of writing, editing, rewriting will be worth it if my words ring true for just one person.

If I were to go back 15 years, I never imagined I’d be doing this. Yes, after I retired, I joined an English-speaking writing group and began work on my first memoir, published ten years later. Now I wonder what I’d be doing with my retirement days if I didn’t have writing. Of course, there’s reading, gardening, exercising and traveling, but writing is my creative outlet and greatest satisfaction.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Supermarket Serendipity

Wednesday morning in the bakery section of the supermarket. After a few brief seconds, I realized I’d grabbed someone else’s shopping cart. I turned back and saw an elderly gentleman (my age, maybe?) asking a shopper if she’d taken his cart. I went up to him and explained I was the culprit and returned his cart.
He looked very relieved and explained he was worried about a package that was in a shopping bag. He held up a small gift-wrapped package.
“What is it? I asked.
“It’s a book written by my father. I want to give it to a foreign visitor.”
My writer’s antennae immediately went into high alert. “Did you buy it here?” I asked.
“No, I had it at home. Just had it wrapped here.”
“What’s the name of the book?”
Aldea Blanca. White Town. My father was born in a small town and later immigrated to Chile Chico in the Chilean Patagonia by Lake General Carrera.”
“Oh, I know where that is,” I said.
“My father wrote about the two towns, where he was born and grew up in Syria and the town in Chile where he made a new life. He was very grateful to Chile for the opportunities here. He raised his four children in Chile Chico and made certain we had a good education.”
“I’m also a foreigner,” I said, “and have written two books about my life in Chile.”
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“The United States.”
We both moved on to our shopping. But then I stopped and turned back to him, pulling out my cell phone.
“What was your father’s name? Where can I find the book?” I noted down the name in my cell phone.
He said I might find the book in a university bookstore, that it wasn’t a big seller. I thanked him and headed towards the yoghurt aisle.
Later I saw him in the vegetable section, buying one avocado.

Back home, curiosity drove me to Google. I looked up his father's story. He arrived in Chile in 1914 and moved to remote Chile Chico in Patagonia in 1933. There he became an active member of the community, helping to create an airplane landing field with shovel and pick, creating a public library in the living room of his home and opening the town's first pharmacy. One of his sons became a pharmacist, but I don't know if he was the gentleman in the supermarket.
What a wonderful encounter with history.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Puppy Love

Roly-poly, snuggle buns. Irresistible. Yet, it hasn’t been easy finding homes for the eight rescue puppies and their mom. My son and his girlfriend, Laura, took them in 10 weeks ago and have cared for them, fed them, cleaned up their poop, had them vaccinated and dewormed.

                Laura and I took three of the puppies to the international school where I used to teach, invited by the Save the Strays Club in the high school. It was Spirit Week and we headed to the soccer field where the students were competing in games. As soon as some kids spotted the puppies, they rushed over to us. “Oh! Puppies!” They all wanted to pet, cuddle and snap photos of the puppies. “They’re looking for homes,” we told them. Their responses were all variations of:  “Oh, I wish I could, but we already have two dogs.” Or “My mom won’t let me.”
We walked to the other end of the field where there were some parents and teachers. More kids gathered around us and the puppies. A mom and a teacher showed interest, but nothing definite. After two hours in the hot sun and being passed around, the puppies looked as though they had enough. To reach our car, we had to walk the length of the school campus. We felt like two Pied Pipers, kids following us and the puppies, wanting to cuddle them.
Needless to say, the puppies fell into a deep sleep on the trip home, where their mommy dog was overjoyed to see them. We wondered: do dogs miss their puppies when they’re taken away?
This has been a country beleaguered by stray dogs. The congress just passed a badly-needed responsible pet owner law requiring owners to have a microchip implanted and leash their dogs while outside. The law also promotes educational programs promoting responsible pet ownership, but a change in mentality is a long way off.
In the park I often see posters with photos of lost neighborhood dogs with pleas to call the distraught owner’s phone number. Over a dozen websites exist here in the city to attempt to meet the needs of lost dogs and strays.
Caring for the puppies and their mom has been a time-consuming job for my son and Laura, but the satisfactions are have been great. The puppies follow them everywhere, wanting to be cuddled and offer love and loyalty in return.
But it’s time for each of them to go to a loving home.

Monday, August 6, 2018


My winter days here are in a lull as I wait for the exciting upcoming event on November 6th – the publication of my second book, Notes from the Bottom of the World: A Life in Chile. With time on my hands, I’ve begun research for an idea for a third book, a historical novel based loosely on the life of my great-aunt Anne. I’ve never attempted writing a novel before and have no idea if I’ll succeed, but the research has me addicted. Like a detective, I follow the clues on the family tree my mother created: names, birth dates and some places in Scotland.
            Genealogy websites abound. Through Scotlands’People, I’ve found birth and death dates, cause of death and towns of origin. By piecing together the puzzle parts, I discovered the answer to why my grandmother and her two sisters emmigrated to the United States while in their twenties. Their mother died of pneumonia at the age of 37 when her youngest child, my great-Aunt Ida, was two years-old, and their father died 12 years later at the age of 54. Another sister, Helen, died as a child. I've been unable to find the cause of her death.
Locating information is a challenge, involving trying different spellings and dates. Even with the information I know to be exact, some searches are unsuccessful, like the date my great aunts arrived in the U.S. and the ship on which they travelled. I’ve tried passenger lists from arrivals in both New York and San Francisco between 1900 and 1910, the approximate date my mother wrote down, with no luck. I feel elated when a search reveals new information and terribly frustrated when the message “No results were found” appears on my computer screen.
I have my great-aunt’s photo albums, but sadly, few of the photos are labeled and they seem to be glued with cement. One photo I love shows the three sisters and their brother, Jack, who remains a family mystery. Hearsay has it that he emmigrated to Australia, but his sisters lost contact with him.

 I learned that the name of their house in Kilsyth, Scotland was Hood-End (I’m guessing that houses had names rather than numbers), that their housekeeper was Agnes, and that my great grandfather was a mineral borer. Viewing census records and death certificates takes me there; family members come alive. Imagining their lives occupies a good part of my thoughts these days.
Maybe I’m on the road to that novel.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Circus is in Town

Caramel popcorn. Pink cotton candy. I can’t remember when I last tasted those kids’ favorites. I bite into the sickening sweet cotton candy and wonder what it is I’m putting into my system. My 4 year-old grandson sitting next to me shoves wads of cotton candy into his mouth with his fingers. His 10 year-old sister is intent on digging into the box of caramelized popcorn and then passes it to me. I pull out a handful. And then another handful.

We’re at the circus. The schools are on winter vacation and I’ve invited the two youngest of my four grandchildren to the circus. The Flying Farfans. Based on the advertisements, I have high hopes for this circus. My son says he remembers me taking him to the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Baily Circus at the Oakland Coliseum. “But they don’t exist anymore, do they?”
In the car on our way to the circus, the youngest asks, “Will there be clowns?”
“Oh, I’m sure there’ll be clowns,” I say, “But no elephants, lions or dogs like there used to be.”
“They were mean with the animals, so they’re not allowed in the circus anymore,” says his wise older sister.
We enter the large red and yellow striped tent and take our seats in the gallery section. The popcorn and cotton candy are about gone by the time the show begins. Music blares out from vibrating speakers just beside us. Dance routines. Juggling acts (they need more practice). Prancing clowns (not nearly as funny as I remember them). A young boy performs balancing acts. An elegantly- costumed woman walks about the center ring on top of a large ball. Impressive, as was the act of two young men striding inside two large metal rings that revolve in the air.

The grandkids watch wide-eyed the grand finale, the trapeze act. Their heads tilted high, they follow two acrobats soaring through the air from opposing swings, meeting midway and connecting with their hands. Several times one misses his connection and drops into the net. These must be the Flying Farfans.
As I watch, my mind wanders. Who are these circus performers? I try to imagine the kinds of lives they lead, traveling from place to place. Based on movies I’ve seen featuring circus people, I imagine them living in shabby trailers, mending their worn costumes. Today the main women performers appear to be middle-aged, though they are fit and smile throughout their acts. Is that smile just for us? The boy juggler looks to be about fifteen. I wonder where they are from. The announcer informs us that some performers are from Ecuador. The clown who greets us at the entrance is clearly Chilean.
Back home, I do some research. The Farfans are several generations of family trapeze artists. The original trapeze act was featured at the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey Circus years ago. This performance today strikes me as hybrid, modified continuation of the family tradition, incorporating Latin American artists, and that over the years has struggled to live up to the fame of the original Farfans.

At home the kids talk nonstop about all the wonders they’d seen.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Fourteenth of July

To most people, the date refers to Bastille Day, but for me it has a very different, personal significance. Forty-six years ago today I arrived in Santiago, Chile, to be with my then boyfriend, Santiago, now my husband.  And I’m still here. That day I never imagined that I’d be spending almost my entire adult life here, more years that I lived in the States. I was just living the moment.

Yesterday I chatted with an American friend here, who also hadn’t expected to be living over two decades in Chile. I threw out this question to her: what is the difference between an expat and an immigrant? Why are we considered “expats?” Is it because we are light-skinned and speak English? Is it due to our reasons for coming here (not fleeing violence or hardships)?

Most of us “expats” feel like we’ve lost something and feel an ever-present nostalgia within. But to come to terms we also know the importance of identifying and appreciating what we’ve gained: new perspectives, different cultural values, thinking and expressing oneself in a different language. Over the years I’ve come to realize that a sense of place, this place, has grown within me. As I traveled north and south, I learned to identify local birds and their songs, and flowers and trees and their fragrances, unique to the varying landscapes. I miss the rich natural world of my California home, but have learned the importance of bonding with this Chilean landscape where I find myself. Big city living does not make this easy. I must work at it: appreciating the light and shadows on the slopes and peaks of the Andes, planting shrubs and trees pleasing to bees in my garden, scattering crumbs for the birds, noticing the fall colors and the purple glow emanating from flowering jacarandas in spring.

jacaranda tree

My Scottish great-uncle, Robert, immigrated to Chile with his wife, Elizabeth, in the 1800’s to settle in Valparaiso. I wonder what her “expat-immigrant” life was like. What means did she use to adapt? After several years, our youngest son recently returned to Chile with his American girlfriend. A repeat act. This globalized world will make her adaptation experience different from mine or Elizabeth’s. Yet she is still far from her family and must adjust to speaking and understanding a new language, perhaps the greatest difficulties of all, true whether you’re an expat or an immigrant anywhere in this world.