Sunday, May 25, 2014

Michigan Charm

I have at least a couple of friends out there who will think these two words are mutually exclusive. My own husband will say the same thing, perhaps, and that’s where he grew up. And I’ll have to say – because of all this bias, it took me several years (since 2010) to realize that yeah, there is so a Michigan charm, and a big, deep, profound one at that.

I still remember having dinner in Greensboro, NC with my friend M. She is from Ohio and she would die if she ever found out that I mentioned her name in a blog about Michigan. But she was telling me about the Ohio people, their charm and depth: blue collar, hard working, family oriented, solid, simple values. No muss, no fuss, just real American blood. Years later, I see this in Michigan (sorry, M.!).

I am not sure what it is, really – could be the rolling hills, the majestic oaks, the farms intertwined with city homes in Kalamazoo, the British charm of South Haven, on the shores of Lake Michigan, the dedicated, strong, unaltered Christian faith of people I know there, the huge rivers, the dewy meadows littered with red barns like birthday cakes with happy sprinkles. Not sure what it is, but there is a slow, quiet, laisez faire about Michigan that I can’t quite capture in words.

This fallen tree in Big Rapids, MI is testimony of how old these hills are. It was almost as thick as the house behind it. 

Farmland somewhere between Grand and Big Rapids, MI
Maybe it’s the fact that when I visit, my mother in law takes us to her favorite, 30 year old diners. She knows the story of every waitress and of every owner. They are all nice, quiet people, making a living as a waitress, for many, many years. Putting their kids through school and funding their husband’s businesses with their tip money. They have an empty, dead end gaze, but a twinkle of hope that they are doing the right thing in the world. A sense of purpose that eludes some of American folk everywhere else.

When I was a kid, dreaming about making it in America, I, too, dreamed, that I would have a waiting job in a diner, just a small cash flow, that would allow me to have a small place of my own, that I can call “home”. Not much. No luxury. I wanted to work my bones off, to see that cash at the end of the day. To get to meet those people now, in Michigan, it’s close to my heart, in so many ways. And that’s just the difference: everywhere else, kids in college wait tables. But in Michigan, at least in diners and restaurants with a story (like Clementine’s in South Heaven), people make careers out of this job. That’s a rarity and a lost piece of Americana, in a way … And they’re proud of it: they know every customer’s story, and they are willing to share their own, too, over waiting for the bill to be paid and the tip to come. You know, for “an up North” state, there is a friendliness about Michigan people that I cannot explain. They are, especially, in smaller towns, patient and know so many stories – if only you’d have the time to listen.

Maybe it’s the fact that not every other town in America has a 24 hour, 7 day a week family owned doughnut shop, like Kalamazoo has that makes it special. Maybe it’s the fact that every family restaurant has a coat hanger for winter clothes that speaks about the promise of tough winters, when people tumble in from the cold blizzards for a warm fireplace and a hot pot of soup that makes it cozy to me. 

The sign on the marquee for Sweetwater's Donut Mill, in Kalamazoo, MI against a typically gray Michigan sky.  A family owned, 24/7 donut shop that makes ginormous donuts - so large that they are enough to scare a sumo wrestler. And I am not kidding.

 Maybe it’s the fact that in every shopping center there is a corner bakery with homemade, crooked, cheesily decorated cakes, which look like a five year old would have made them – but delicious nonetheless. 

Chocolate cake at Rykse's, a 27 year old family owned restaurant and bakery, decorated with lilac blooms, for the spring

Food in Michigan is rich and scrumptious. I feel like I gain 100 pounds every time I visit. I guess something has to keep them warm on those long winters, and it’s the layers of fat they need for survival!

Maybe it's the charm of all its small, little towns, all loaded with history and stories untold - like Paw Paw, Gobles, Plainwell and Rockford, just to name a few on the South Western end. You know  the layout all too well:  one Main Street, the "main drag", that has all the important "joints" strung together, the grocery store, ice cream shop, beauty parlor, town library, funeral home, city pub and the rest of the town lies about, clustered around it, like a beehive.You've walked for 20 minutes, you've seen it all. But it all clusters such drama and ages of lives ...

The old mill turned restaurant in the city of Rockford, MI

Maybe it’s the Michigan pride, in cars, technology in general, pride in coming back from the ashes and making it big once again, like Detroit still hopes to, one day … that makes its charm. Maybe it’s all of these things, or maybe I am off the wall nuts. Not sure.

But Michigan speaks to me. There is a warm, welcome feeling when I go visit. Not enough to call it home (not after seeing Lake Michigan completely frozen over two winters in a row), but enough to call it a place in my heart. 

The Muskegon River, in Big Rapids, MI - awesome and rapid, as the name portrays it, lined by large oak trees and willows. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

My Mother

In over 9 years of keeping this blog, I have not yet written about my mother.
That’s probably because she makes it so hard to be talked about.

As much as I normally don’t give a rip about what people think about my actions, my mom has always been that one person in my life that I’m trying really hard not to disappoint. She comes across as so perfect and so mistake free that is so hard to please. She speaks in one liners and she always has the last word. She defies definition and despite her succinct style in everything, she is so hard to summarize in one post.

These are just some things that describe her and that I have learned from her, over the years:

1.    My mom is terrified of writing a birthday card, but she will explain in minute detail the organic chemistry that happens between the ingredients when she bakes a cake, fries an egg or makes sour cream from fresh milk! She will do complicated math with no pen and paper, she will figure out a complicated piece of electronic, but cannot match her skirt to her shirt!  
2.    Always make a fresh pot of coffee right after you climb out of bed, every morning. A house enwrapped in the smell of coffee will forever remind me of her.
3.    Whatever you do, whatever choices you make, your parents will always and forever support you. Never be afraid to come back home! There is no shame in coming back home. Always accept defeat with dignity and come back where you’re loved to recharge.
4.    Outside your priest and your doctor, your parents are the only people that you should never lie to. If you lie to them, they won’t know how to help you. And no matter how old you are, and how far you’ll go, you’ll need their help, their ear, and their shoulder.
5.    Don’t ever be afraid to try anything! Everything is created by the people, for the people. You are just as good if not better than everyone else. Folks who are less smart than you have done this, so you can succeed in attempting anything others have tried as well. Just give it a shot!
6.    Don’t ever be afraid to speak your mind. Never go to bed with thoughts you’re afraid to utter. What’s in your head should match what’s coming out of your mouth. If you have a thought, you should speak it up. Every time. Any time. Just be yourself. My mom is the only person I know that never tells a lie.
7.    The only thing that separates you from your boss is their title. Not their education, smarts, or ability. You’re their equal in everything else!
8.    Bad words or curses? Let them out! Don’t keep them inside, or you’ll get cancer!
9.    Don’t judge your parents! Love them for who they are – they did the best they could and they will never judge you. They love you unconditionally, so it’s only fair that you return the favor.  
10. Be grateful for what you have and never covet what others have. Life is never a competition. Everyone achieves as much as they allow themselves to dream of. Those are their dreams, not yours. Make your own. And don’t stretch more than your blanket allows.
11. Own your actions. No excuses. Even when it hurts, be truthful and honest. It’s the fastest way to peace of mind.
12. Read. Read. Read. You’ll never make intelligent conversation otherwise, and life is conversation.
13. No matter how tired or busy you are, always make time to clean your house thoroughly, wash your windows, your rugs and your curtains at least twice a year: before Easter and before Christmas. At least!
14. My mom is the greatest multi-tasker I know. All at one time, she will stir something in some pot on the stove, cross-stitch and solve a crossword puzzle, while watching a movie and actually following the plot, all while smoking a cigarette and pouring a drink. In her mind, you should never sit still while you’re awake. Find something to do or else your luck would be stagnant. She tires me just to watch her!
15. Always make time to do your nails! True ladies wear white nail polish and white underwear.

For everyone who knows my mom, they know she is extremely serious. It’s hard to make her laugh, or even crack a shy smile. She’s had a hard life, before she met dad, and she never got over it, in some way.

Today, on (American) Mother’s Day, everyone posts beautiful pictures of their mothers on social media. My favorite picture with/ of my mom is the one below. I am probably a year and a half or two, and I am slapping her across the face, as she pulls away. My dad captured the moment. I think the reason I love this picture is because I should have gotten in trouble for slapping her! But she is laughing and holding me so tight. This picture is the most perfect connotation of my relationship with her: even when I am in trouble, she is happy to have me, and she supports me and loves me and, in the end, forgives me, too. And deep down inside, despite her seriousness, I know she is having a good time. Deep down, in there, somewhere.

My mission in life has ever been to make her smile. This is one of the very few moments when I succeeded. 

Mom and me, cca 1976

Friday, May 09, 2014

Older and None the Wiser

“Hey my next thirty years I’m gonna have some fun
Try to forget about all the crazy things I’ve done
Maybe now I’ve conquered all my adolescent fears
And I’ll do it better in my next thirty years” (Tim McGraw)

Just around the time I turned 30, I was really depressed. So, one of my older than me friends told me, at that time that “the 30’s are great. I met the love of my life in my 30’s, I got a real job and I started making real money in my 30’s. You’ll love your 30’s. Trust me”. I was dubious, then, but …she turned out to be right on all accounts.

I could have had the same reaction last month, when I entered  the last year of my 30’s, but it just so happened that Anne Lamott had something ready for me to sooth my apprehension about my advancing age – a blog right before turning 59.

What an eye opener and inspiration!

I am happy, or embarrassed, to report, that at 39 I don’t feel that old. I remember when my mom was 39 and that seemed old! And that’s another question: how are you supposed to feel when you grow old? You’ve been renting the same body for whatever long the time has been since your birth – and you have no “outside looking in” perception of what it looks like. I feel like not much changed for me, ever since I can remember.

I feel as short as when I was 4. I feel as awkward as when my grandma used to put my pig tails in huge silk bows. I feel as ugly as ever, with a big nose and coarse hair, unruly teeth in this sea of beautiful teeth Americans. I still think I have ugly legs and, as my dad points, “complicated hair”.

I behave like a complete child and spoiled brat when I want to, and I am as cold as the most frigid broad you ever meet, when I want to, as well. I still have the “stare” – whatever that is – to put one in their place with no words. Yeah, I still take myself way too seriously! Way, way so … All these moods are anything but “old and wise” – trust me.

I don’t do all the “right” things, wise, old people should do: I am not any smarter about taking care of my skin or not eating fried eggs on a weekend. I still hate icecream and chocolate, and I still love loads of mashed potatoes just the same, and I don’t take any vitamins nor my calcium and vitamin D. I am a timed bomb, you see!

I am still as paranoid as ever of people letting my cats out and them getting killed by cars! I also check the doors about 10 times before I go to bed, and I buy smelly plug-ins but I hate when they’re too strong … So I unplug them right away.

I still hate lies and liars and drunkards. And I absolutely abhor mornings! As much as I love my husband or my family, they all know to wear bullet proof vests around me at 7 AM.

I love cats and still feel that my arms are better suited for kittens than babies. I have no wisdom about how babies are born or should be raised. Really. I have opinions. Not wisdom.

I will say that not only I don’t find bad boys attractive anymore, I just have no patience for them. And I will tell them that to their faces, too. That’s the thing, I guess, with age, you’re not afraid to call the things what they are anymore. “No regrets and spit it out” summarizes me nowadays.

If given the choice of a bigger, better, more glamorous career and a short trip to the top of a mountain where I can shoot some beautiful vistas, I’d always choose the latter. Smoke of real wood in the piney crisp air of the foothills still messes with my brain, just like in my teen years.

I still love airports but I miss home more when I am away in hotels. I still like to see new places but I like coming back home, more. If my 20’s and 30’s were years of infinite quests, I think the 40’s will be the years of infinite quests for home.

When I was 6, they told me I won’t see my 20’s. Like in a good game of poker, I said “I’ll double that”. And as many times in my life, I was (almost) right, God willing. I have been living dreams and for that I am speechlessly grateful – I keep waiting, nervously, for the bubble to burst and for the lamp to stop fulfilling the wishes.

I have been lucky beyond belief and blessed beyond compare! I don’t wish anymore for much, other than for health to enjoy the good that’s given to me, and strength to handle the bad. With what I know now, I would make the same exact choices, including the “mistakes”, that I have made in the past, because they were all incredible lessons and priceless pieces of advice.

I am still learning new things everyday: after 16 years of America, I just had French toast for the first time the other day. And I still have not seen Mount Rushmore nor Yosemite. Los Angeles nor Venice Beach. I hope there is time.

16 years later, after a weird, strange, crazy, sometimes sick, American journey, I would still jump on a plane with no map, nor destination and go somewhere to start life over, if the trip promises a great reward “should things align”. As you can tell, 39 years don’t teach you much!

I have no friend who’d tell me what my 40’s would bring, but following  Anne’s example, looking back at what I have become and who I am now, things should not be that scary in the new chapter. All I can say is, just like the song says, “Lord have mercy on my next thirty years”. And with that, one foot in front of the other …