Monday, December 30, 2013

The country road we took yesterday through the towns of Abrante, El Vinculo, and Champa on our way to the Laguna Aculeo was a journey through Chilean rural culture:  white flags stuck on farmhouse fences announcing homemade bread; small almacenes advertising Coca Cola, local cheese and Omo detergent; hand painted signs at roadside fruit stands offering watermelons, tomatoes and mushrooms. On our way home, we stopped and bought a fragrant honeydew melon, a kilo of plump dark cherries and a jar of honey. What satisfaction to return to the city with fresh country products. We sat outside in the cool night air – the daytime temperature was in the 90’s – and ate crackers and cheese and our own apricots.
We have apricots up to our eyebrows, yet there is a certain pleasure harvesting our own fruit in this small city garden, especially biting into one just plucked from the tree. As nature writer John Elder claimed, it’s a seasonal activity like this that contributes to a sense of place. 
Late in the evening, we were entertained by Penny the puma. Our son tucked into his suitcase a National Geographic documentary DVD, featuring the pumas or mountain lions in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. He’d forged a strong bond with the Park while living and working there for two years, which motivated Mr. S. and I to travel to the bottom of the world several times to experience that mystical landscape. Penny was such a regal, and, eventually, trusting feline, allowing the photographer to film her expressive face, powerful body and hunting prowess. I wanted to reach out to pet her. A perfect fit of animal and habitat, each enhancing the other's beauty and wild nature.

Mr. S. and I were married 41 years ago today. We both forgot until later in the day when a friend called to wish us “Happy Anniversary”. Ooops. 

Saturday, December 28, 2013

 A visit to the Cementerio General of Santiago produced a mix of emotions. Surprise at the toll gate at the entrance. One thousand four hundred pesos (3 dollars) to drive in. Curiosity at the names on the tombs, old-fashioned first names like Zunilda and Berta and last names of mixed nationalities. Disgust at the stand offering candy bars and bags of potato chips for sale. Sadness at the concrete galleries of stacked columbarium niches, paint peeling, looking like public housing, poverty even after death. A chuckle at the niches sporting tiny, faded awnings.
We picked up the urn containing my mother-in-law’s ashes and carried it to the grave, where her husband and his five sisters are buried. Two workers pried open the heavy lid to the flat tomb. We all peered down into a deep dark concrete bunker. One worker climbed down iron steps encrusted in a wall and received the urn lowered down to him. Another worker then carried down a plastic bottle of water and a container of cement to seal the space containing the urn. A stray cocker spaniel lay on the grass watching the process. Mr. S. and his brother recalled those buried there and decided to have their names engraved on the lid. Mr. S announced he did not want to be cremated. I felt uncertain at the moment. I’d always thought I’d like my ashes to be dispersed partly in Marin County soil and the rest here in Chile. “Where?” my son asked. I’d often imagined a lush southern rainforest, but then I turned to Mr. S. and said, “Next to you, and I want my tombstone to read “Native of California”."

Leaving the cemetery, Mr. S. pointed out a grungy bar on the corner called “Quita Penas”, roughly translated: “Drown Your Sorrows”.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Our 103 year-old family matriarch chose the early hours of Christmas Eve to take leave of us to her place of peace. We felt she possibly planned her timing in order to have all the family – three generations of cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles -   together at Christmas. Her absence feels like a gaping hole. She was just always there. The atmosphere at the funeral service was of mixed emotions with several of her 22 great-grandchildren running and jumping around the coffin. One little girl was intrigued by a tassel of silk protruding from the top of the coffin, tugging at it in spite of her mother’s admonishing.
This morning a turtle dove wandered through our open kitchen door. When I entered, it flew up, startled, and flapped wildly against the window. I moved slowly towards it, cupped it in my hands and released it into the garden. I said to Mr. S., “Maybe that was a visit from your mother.” “Yeah,” he said, “she always liked our garden.”

My New Yorker son is here and together we went to the recycling center to unload the paper, plastic and bottle accumulation from the family dinner and gift exchange on Christmas Eve. Unbelievable – the tons of post-Christmas trash at the recycling center. There it was, live and direct, the results of our society’s massive consumer frenzy. A thought-provoking perspective on Christmas.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

This is the giving season, and our apricot tree is doing its part. The austral thrushes get first pick, having the advantage of flight. After a nibble or two, the fruit plops to the ground. First to reach the damaged fruit are the sow bugs. Then our tortoise Speedy cruises by and takes bites here and there in his rounds about the garden. Yet there are still plenty sweet, juicy apricots left for us. A true summer pleasure is to sink my teeth into a recently plucked damasco. Our tree is truly a Giving Tree.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Hugs are on my mind. Yesterday the grand-girls came to help decorate our Christmas tree. Artificial. I succumbed several years ago as every live, potted tree I bought over the years turned sad and spindly, and I couldn't keep it in a pot forever, so I’d end up guiltily euthanizing it. Tree lots are non-existent in Chile.
Back to grandchildren and hugs. We also made Christmas cookies and then they invented making lemonade on the back patio ("they" meaning the girls, not the cookies). Results: Lots of fun and laughs and VERY sticky surfaces inside and out.  But, well…..hugs. Children are made for squeezing!  I can’t resist those plump arms and legs, though they clearly let me know when enough is enough.
I spent this morning rubbing my mother-in-law’s hand (the one not connected to intravenous tubes), interspersed with hugs and forehead stroking. She is 103 years-old and stopped eating and drinking several days ago. I've never found it easy to hug or caress an older body. With my aging mother, I made a great step forward when I rubbed her swollen legs with body lotion. Now I lament that I didn't give her more hugs.
Maybe I’m trying to redeem myself with my mother-in-law. According to her children, she was not a physically affectionate mother, but in the past year she began seeking more contact. She’d rub my hands and lift her face for a kiss. Now I sit next to her deathbed and give her what I know she wants, though she can no longer express it. It has become easier for me. I hold her thin hand in gratitude for reminding me that we all need hugs and for showing me how to leave the living world with dignity.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The plop of apricots hitting the ground outside our bedroom French door was the first sound to interrupt my sleep. A pleasant way to start my day. But then…. a tremendous racket from our backyard birds, the austral thrushes (Chile’s robins) and the White- crested Elaenia . The clamor could mean only one thing – CAT. The squawking  grew louder. We've had several baby birds and parents feeding in our garden lately. I leaped out of  bed. Outside, I scanned for signs of a feline prowler, but found only a large pile of feathers on the grass. I felt sad. We feel responsible for the welfare of our garden frequenters. I know the cat was just doing what cats are wired to do. I wondered what robins feel when a baby or mate is lost.

Robin racket was immediately followed by the loud voices of the two men who practice boxing at 7 a.m. in a patio just over the wall from our garden and open bedroom French doors. They seem to be unaware they have neighbors.

This afternoon as I watered a few plants in the garden, I startled a robin….an injured robin. It was an adult and, in spite of missing a large portion of feathers on one wing, it was able to fly to another corner. Perhaps it will recover. Amazing it was able to fight off a cat larger than he or she.

A quick change of subject…I want to talk about tattoos. Two repairmen came yesterday, both heavily tattooed. I was particularly curious about a large face tattooed onto the forearm of the most muscular fellow. “That’s a cacique,” he said. “A Mapuche Indian chief.
“Which one?
“Colo-Colo.” On the backside of his arm he showed me a tall araucaria tree, native to the Mapuche territory. On his other arm he had a bar of music. “I’m a musician,” he said. “I sing and play the guitar and the bass.”

If I were to go for a tattoo, what would I choose? Maybe a sequoia. Or a woodpecker. Or a tarweed flower?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Election Day.  Presidential run-offs. Hubby and neighbor lady report light turn-out.  I think many figure: why vote when the outcome is completely predictable?

Yesterday two belated birthday cards arrived for me. Postmarked in the States on November 25th.  Twenty days to be delivered to my door. Perhaps they took a little side trip along the way. My son enlightened me. “No one uses postal services anymore. It’s either email or courier.” True, I seldom send cards or letters anymore. My yearly Christmas letter travels by email. No more writing out each card by hand, licking envelopes and stamps as the perspiration drips down my brow. The exceptions are cards sent to a few computer-less elderly ladies and goofy birthday cards to a few close friends. Give me humor any day rather than the flowery, sentimental Hallmark verses.

I do enjoy receiving cards though, delivered by Cristián my mailman, wearing his red cap. He stops his bike and rings the doorbell. We exchange a few friendly words and comment on the heat as he hands me a clutch of white envelopes and maybe a magazine. Within a span of two weeks he delivered the August, September, October and November issues of the one U.S. magazine I subscribe to. I said, “They must have all come in the same ship.” I was being kind. No doubt those magazines languished in some deep, dusty bin in a dark Chilean postal warehouse. The white envelopes are growing fewer and fewer as I’m given the option to receive the information by email and ‘save the trees’.

I read somewhere that the biggest tree-consumer is toilet paper. I have yet to locate toilet paper manufactured with recycled paper. I suspect that the one brand of grey-green toilet paper, known as “Confort” (someone’s idea of a joke?), available in Chile in the early ‘70’s, may have been recycled. It was a tad softer than newspaper.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Mr. S asked me what he could give me for Christmas. This question is an event in our house every December. It’s a dilemma for both of us because I haven’t a clue. I don’t need or want anything. I’d like to get rid of half of what I have. My motto for years has been “travel lightly” and, with the passing years, I’m more convinced that things are a burden.

But families accumulate stuff. The detritus of daily life.  Humanity’s flotsam and jetsam. I know. I’d be ashamed to show anyone our attic. When my mother moved out of the family home of almost 60 years, it took me three days just to go through the boxes of Christmas decorations, wrappings, cards, candles and napkins. I did save some of the ornaments and will put them on the tree next week….if I get around to putting up a tree. Not too motivated in this heat.

Last week I attended a Christmas choral concert at our church, along with my four sisters-in-law and a neighbor friend. I felt I might sprout wings listening to the music and their soaring voices, but afterwards, my companions were indignant that almost all the carols were sung in English. I agreed with them. In the mall it’s “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas”. What happened to the Spanish villancicos?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Check out my essay "Island Footprints" at this online magazine


A desert. The surface of my desk. A pancake.
A plate. A sheet of paper. A wall.
Chile con carne sin chiles.
Wonder Bread.
The smell of water in a glass and bean sprouts, too.
Old Monsignor McGarr’s Sunday sermons.
The word flat.
Tender new grass beneath a boot.
The ears of a mad cat.
What I feel when I don’t want to feel,
but great if it’s my tummy or a crepe.
The earth was flat…until it was round.

There is no flat in
rushing water
a beating heart
bee’s wings
a candle flame
a tear

a laugh.

This wee poem was the outcome of a Tuesday Word Prompt in my writing group, the Santiago Writers.
See our blog at:

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


 The apricots at the top of our tree are starting to blush – the color of a setting sun. We and our tortoise, Speedy Gonzalez, will soon be biting into their juicy sweetness. I worry about our apricot tree. It was in the garden when we bought our house over twenty-five years ago and has become very fragile. Last year several large branches crashed to the ground under the weight of the fruit. One of the two remaining main branches went dry. I called in an expert and began fertilizing the tree as instructed. Only time will tell.

Although ours is a small, walled city garden, it requires constant attention. My trees and plants are like my pets, living things for which I am responsible. I've begun fertilizing the old lemon tree which bears fruit year round. When the leaves on my California sequoia began turning brown, I panicked.  I could not lose my beloved redwood, my companion on this expat journey, and called in three experts. The first diagnosis: fungus. The second expert was unsure and called in a third. What a relief to learn that it was the common scales insect which had been transmitted by the infected ivy on the walls. I was happy to learn of the location of a supplier of non-toxic, organic pesticides. Our garden must be welcoming to bees, birds, butterflies and ladybugs. No poisons in MY garden! The sequoia is looking happier, waving its new green tips in the breeze.

In the opposite corner of our garden from the sequoia is an enormous avocado tree, grown from a pit planted by my youngest son decades ago. We just had it trimmed to make its fruit more accessible. From the trimmed branches alone we harvested one hundred beautiful avocados. It began bearing fruit some years ago as a result of an experiment. I’d always heard avocado trees need another one nearby. When it was flowering, my son and I brought some flowers from a neighbor’s tree. We rubbed the neighbor’s flowers against our tree’s blooms, as if they were kissing. The following year…viola!…avocados, big ones. Was it our experiment or a friendly bee? I should Google the information before I take the credit, but then I might spoil a good story.

Come to think of it, my sequoia and several more of my garden inhabitants possess good stories. I can envision a small book, “Stories from My Garden”.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

I'm going to step up on my soapbox today. I'd like to start a campaign (though a bit late now) against PINK, PLASTIC toys - well other colors, too. Everywhere one looks in toy departments you see PLASTIC. Don't people realize that it all ends up in the garbage sooner or later? Probably sooner. Without realizing it, I've been buying almost all gifts containing little or no plastic. I went to a Christmas bazaar yesterday with dozens of stands offering alternative gifts made from noble materials, cloth, wood and paper (hopefully recycled). I bought locally-made lavender sachets and natural hand and body creams. Offerings included potted herbs, natural soaps, all cotton baby clothes and homemade jams. I'm not the crafty type, eager to make my own gifts, but I do give Christmas cookies, homemade jams and occasionally a potted plant, offspring of one of my garden inhabitants.

Next week I'll have the three grand-girls over to help me decorate our Christmas tree. If I have the energy (reminder: it's almost summer in Chile and the days are HOT, not conducive to baking), we'll make cookies, too. Though they have their own tree at home, they love unwrapping the tissue paper from my collection of ornaments, many once belonging to their great grandparents. (Yes, I enjoy it, too - discovering the tiny glass bell that was a childhood favorite.)

Friday, December 6, 2013

Why is it we feel special on our birthdays? I woke up early yesterday and immediately thought: Hey! Today is my birthday! Birthday greetings throughout the day added to that special feeling. I started off the morning with my beloved writing group. Hubby, whom I'll call Mr. S, asked if the group would celebrate my day. No, I said, I don't publicize my birthday and the group has never celebrated birthdays. Hmmm. Maybe we should....

A friend from the writing group and I made plans to visit a plant nursery a ways out of town that carries native plants. I printed out a Google map and directions, which had us driving around in circles through an industrial area behind dozens of roaring trucks, asking directions in a gas station, from a man at a bus stop, from a hard-hatted worker, before we found the place. Coming home was a nightmare of intersecting intersections, underpasses and overpasses at peak commuter hour. Mr. S. was in a tizzy when I arrived home because I'd missed several long distance birthday phone calls. Dinner at our favorite restaurant with son, daughter-in-law and grand girls was the perfect finale of my day.

This morning at the verdulería, where I'd walked to buy parsley and cilantro, I overheard the vegetable lady and a client dressed in a maid's uniform discussing the likely winner in the upcoming run-off presidential election. Those two outspoken women let fly their dislike and distrust of the candidate's communist connections and proposed program. This surprised me. I would have expected them to support the candidate who claims to speak for the working class. Not being able to vote this time (as explained in previous blogs), I'm going to assume an observer's stance.

Speedy Gonzalez, our tortoise, sneaked into the house and visited me as I was writing on the computer. He also peed on the rug. Fortunately, his pee and excrement have no odor. I scolded him gently as I marched him back outside.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Going to the mall is very low on my list of preferred activities. But the month of December requires one or two mall visits. I went today with hopes of finding gifts for some of the nieces and nephews. Our 12-year-old god daughter revealed she'd like us to get her a bikini, also indicating at which store we were to buy it. Bikini bought, I headed to the toy department and checked off several more names on my list. Almost skipping in contentment, I left the store with two large bags of gift-wrapped presents.

I headed down the escalator to the bottom parking level,thankfully painted purple as a memory aide. Hard as it may be to believe, the malls here CHARGE for parking. I stood before the machine, inserted my ticket and the price popped up in a window. One thousand two hundred and fifty pesos or about three dollars. I scrounged in my wallet, pulling out the thousand peso bill, but found I only had small 10 peso coins that the machine wouldn't accept. Turning to the man behind me, I asked if he could change my small coins for a larger 100 peso coin. He stepped up and inserted the necessary money and refused to take my handful of coins in exchange. I thanked him profusely, while wondering if it was my grey hair again that gave me "preferential" treatment.

My contentment was complete when I arrived home without encountering any traffic jams. Small wonders on an ordinary day.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

All I could do was laugh this afternoon when my husband asked me how my morning went.

I went downtown again to the office of the Electoral Services. This time the office was open and -wow!- no line. I explained to a pleasant, mustachioed gentleman my predicament - that my ID number had been eliminated from their voter list and I'd been unable to vote. I reassured him several times that I'd voted in all previous elections. He was puzzled and went up several flights of stairs to consult with someone else. He returned smiling, and I thought: problem solved. But no. He directed me to the office of Foreign Affairs several blocks away to obtain a certificado.

At Foreign Affairs I was sent to the third floor and should ask for a "preferential" number for those over sixty. My grey hair does have its benefits. The line from the third floor office snaked down the stairwell to the second floor. I breezed into the office to encounter a mass of people, of every hue of skin color, all immigrants, some sitting, some standing in lines. My number was 114. The number up on the screen was 34. I stood there wondering which line to join, when I realized I didn't possess the patience to wait until number 114 came up. Back downstairs at the information desk, I was directed to the fifth floor. Only two people in front of me. I explained about the paper I needed and the reason. A plump, young girl searched on Internet and found that the PDI, the Policía de Investigaciones, had emitted a form stating that I'd left the country for over a year and, my status as permanent resident was expired. She explained that I must get the elusive certificado from the office of the PDI and bring it to her along with a letter from me requesting to correct my current status. She wrote down the address of the PDI four blocks further downtown.

I trudged the city blocks, thinking: Downtown is a different Chile. Teeming sidewalks;  vendors selling medals of the Virgin Mary, sunglasses, lottery tickets; newspaper kiosks; shops displaying children's clothes next to cocktail dresses. In that unfamiliar neighborhood, I felt like a tourist noticing the architecture of old buildings. At last, I reached the address given me for the PDI. Outside it's closed doors was a sign indicating they moved yesterday to a street totally unknown to me. The good news was that there was an empty taxi in front of me. Yes, he knew the new location.  Twenty minutes later, he delivered me to the PDI office. Inside a massive room sat hundreds more immigrants. My preferential number was called immediately.

Again I explained my dilemma to a young woman who seemed quite confused by my story. She checked on her computer, where she verified that, indeed, I had never left Chile for more than a year. I showed her my passport and my Chilean ID. She thought the confusion might have stemmed from the fact that my U.S. passport only lists one last name, whereas, my Chilean documents display two last names, my maiden name and my mother's, as is the custom here. Human error somewhere along the line in the entangled web of the "system".

I still won't be able to vote in the presidential run-offs next week. But my bigger worry is: what's to prevent this from happening again?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

I’ve been thinking more about the concepts of change and traditions in my city life and the importance of preserving and encouraging the humane and the personal. We don’t see the bread man anymore, but a few blocks away our hole-in-the-wall verdulería survives, attracting neighbors with fresh fruits and vegetables from the Mercado Central. Next door is a small dry cleaners, a beauty shop and, on the corner, the handy almacén where everything from dairy products to detergents can be found on its cramped shelves.

When a large company presented a plan to construct a mall in the neighborhood, I joined the neighborhood association’s campaign to put a stop to the mall. We knew it would change the character of our residential enclave, already surrounded by a concrete forest of towering apartment buildings. It would also put an end to the small shops. Our door-to-door, grass roots campaign prevailed over big money. In this fast-growing metropolis, dotted with construction cranes in every direction, those of us in older, established areas continue to raise our voices as to the importance of maintaining a sense of neighborhood.