Time Marches On

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I remember the day I met him.

The year was 1989.

One of my friends had her eye on a boy who was part of a new Agriculture-based fraternity trying to get established at New Mexico State University.

Since he was in charge of getting new members to pledge, my friend had volunteered herself…and me, to work their rush party. It was held on a Sunday afternoon in one of the meeting rooms at the Pan Am Center.

We were there to pour fruit punch into paper cups and socialize with the prospective pledges.

My friend demanded I come with her, and so I did. I poured punch, I spoke to a few of the guys I already knew from the Ag College, and I felt uncomfortable.

Then I had this moment where I could feel someone looking at me, so I turned to look back. Over in the corner, behind a couple other fellows, was this boy.

He was the sort of quintessential cowboy you might find on the front of a western novel.

His eyes met mine for a moment, then flicked away.

Those eyes, a color somewhere between blue and black and gray. The color of a late afternoon storm on a hot August day in New Mexico.

He wore his hat low, and he looked at me again from under the brim, eyes in shadow.

My heart stopped, then skipped eight or ten beats.

I looked away and had to will myself not to stare. He still looked at me.

One of those “moments” passed between us.

A little while later, my friend dragged me around the room. I was her wingman as she made chirrupy conversation with all who would listen. Without warning, I found myself face to face with those smoky eyes.

“Karen, this is Michael**,” my friend said, by way of introduction.

“Hi!” I said, fixing him with my most winning smile.

He nodded and touched the brim of his black hat with his hand.

Oh swoon.

“How are you?” I asked, trying to get something going.

“All right,” he replied in a way that I think Louis L’Amour might describe as “laconic.”

That was the extent of our first meeting. My pal quickly dragged me off. Michael was not the boy she had in her cross hairs, so we went across the room to chase that one down.

As it turned out, Michael was friends with a lot of people I knew, so over the years, I’d come to know him a bit more.

He always wore extraordinarily pressed shirts and jeans.

He wore a straw hat in summer, a black Stetson the rest of the year.

He always wore a carefully groomed handlebar mustache (or as they called it in the 70’s, a “Fu Manchu”).

He’d grown up on the family farm…pecans, cotton, green chiles.

He was studying biology with plans to become a veterinarian.

He always spoke in that slow quiet manner, and rarely had much to say.

Because of this, it became wickedly easy to tease him. He’d always have a comeback, something smart and funny, spoken in that slow, quiet manner.

I had a wild, unabashed crush on Michael.

Of course, the feeling wasn’t mutual. We did manage to become decent friends.

This past Thursday afternoon, after laying my friend to rest, I sat outside at a folding table in La Union, New Mexico. We were gathered there to have a reception in memory of our friend.

I sat with my best friend and we visited with a buddy of ours from way back.

A shadow passed over the ray of sun to my side, and a chair across the table from me was pulled out.

Michael himself sat down.

He looked at me with that same intensity, and said in that slow quiet way, “Now that looks like trouble.”

“Hey Michael,” I said and he smiled.

Those intense eyes looked at me from behind the lenses of his corrective glasses. When he smiled, crow’s feet crinkled at the corners. The dark hair of his handlebar mustache showed gray.

I sat back and looked at him. He looked at me.

I struggled for something to say, trying to get something going.

Something that might sum up the past fifteen years or so it’s been since we were last in the same place at the same time.

Something meaningful.

“Goddamn you have a lot of gray hair. What the hell happened?” I said.

“I had that put in,” he replied, smoothing back the hair at his temples. “It makes me look distinguished.”

He had that familiar wry look in his eye and I laughed.

My heart skipped a couple beats then found its footing.

“I’m glad I’m not as old as you,” I said. Then I inquired about his wife and kids.

I don’t suppose I have a crush on Michael anymore, but behind all the attributes that have taxed my forty-something year old friends (and me), he hasn’t changed a bit.

**Names have been changed to protect the innocent

There Is This Man I Know…

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It would be wrong to call him a cowboy. That implies something he’s not.

He is, in fact, a farmer. Chile, corn, cotton, alfalfa. He fretted the drought and smiled at rainy skies.

Except that time it rained so hard it washed away the seeds he’d just planted. That night, he fretted while the rain fell.

That’s unusual for a farmer.

He has a smile that could light up a room, the sky, the world.

He has the mind of a trickster, and his wry sense of humor is what drew me in.

Back then, he was a tall, slim drink of water.

His chest bore a long scar, a remnant from open heart surgery in childhood. It fixed a congenital problem. For a while, anyway.

That surgery colored his whole world. He was told he might not live past the age of twenty.

But he did. He lived. Oh, he was alive.

He took me out to dinner. We each ordered steaks at the truckstop diner in Vado, New Mexico.

It was far more romantic than it sounds.

He took me fishing and let me use his brand new rod and reel. I managed to irretrievably knot up the fishing line. He didn’t even get mad.

Because he is a gentleman.

He took me for long rides down bumpy dirt roads. I sat next to him in the cab of his pickup, holding on tight, grinning.

He has a confidence that is older than his years.

He and I had some fun then parted ways amiably. I still call him my friend. More than a friend. A dear friend. “One of us” from a loosely knit group of kids who made a family while running around Las Cruces, growing up and getting educated.

I haven’t seen him in years, but over the years I’d ask after him and sometimes he’d ask after me, too.

He’s got an amazing wife and three sons and the weight of responsibility for his family’s farm. A responsibility he stood up to each and every day.

Last week, he had surgery. That ol’ heart problem was giving him trouble again.

The surgery went well, but he got an infection at the hospital that he couldn’t quite fight off.

Sunday morning, my friend, my family, someone who showed me how to live passed away.

He was just 40.

I can’t stop being angry. It’s not fair. No one ever said life was going to be fair, but I don’t care. It’s not fair.

I’m not good at grief. I’ve lost a father. I lost my best friend from high school. I lost a grandmother who was very integral to my life.

You’d think all the practice would make me better at this.

I’m not good at this.

Sometimes it’s just easier to be angry.

It’s an acceptable stage of grief.

Continuing on a Theme…

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Perhaps fitting given my post from over the weekend, I read an article today in CNN with the title: “Homesickness isn’t really about ‘home’

Oh really?

The article is aimed at parents of new college students and tries to help worried folks get through it. For example, the article recommends that at the first sign of acute homesickness, parents might refrain from swooping and taking the kids back home.

I think that makes sense. The transition from home to college is a big one, and kids have to find their own way.

But because I’m me, and I’m here to talk about me, let’s see how this might or might not apply to my situation.

I recently had a profound bout of homesickness for New Mexico. (Refresh your memory here)

From the article: …”homesickness is defined as ‘distress and functional impairment caused by an actual or anticipated separation from home and attachment objects such as parents.'”

Um. I moved to the Bay Area thirteen years ago. This isn’t about a new or anticipated separation.

I left my folk’s home for college about twenty two years ago, so that’s not it either.

And to be honest, I’m not sure I can rightly call New Mexico home anymore. It’s where I was raised. It’s where I’m from. It’s who I am. But I have to say that where I live now is probably best defined as home.

“…it stems from our instinctive need for love, protection and security — feelings and qualities usually associated with home.”

Yeah. But here’s the weird thing, I have a happy home. I have an amazing husband and with him I feel loved and safe every day. I have up days and down days, but taken on the average, I’m pretty content with my life. So what’s up with that?

I also know that if I didn’t live in the Bay Area, I’d suffer a profound bout of homesickness for my Bay Area home. I’d miss the amazing art and culture and the family I have made here.

“‘Yet despite the way it’s coined, homesickness isn’t necessarily about home. And neither is it exactly an illness, experts said.'”

It’s not? Then how come I *long* to sit in the kitchen of my best friend’s home, deveining green chiles, cussing and discussing and laughing with her kids? I get a pain in the center of my chest so bad it’s sometimes hard to breathe.

If that’s not a sickness, I don’t know what is.

I’m a woman torn between my two homes. I am a New Mexican. I am part of the Bay Area. I’m both. Maybe I’m neither.

I’m still caught somewhere halfway in between. (Where would that be? Barstow? Cuz ain’t no way I’m calling Barstow home, let me tell you THAT right now.)

I guess I’m what one might call blessed. Blessed to know two distinct geographic regions of the country where I have family and love and kinship and all the things that make life worth living.

So I’m still going to call it homesickness, no disrespect to the authors of the study.

Then I’m going to recycle my not very sophisticated image because it’s the best visual representation I can manage to convey how I feel.

A bit sad

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I’m sad to have to convey that last night, just past 11:00, my little fish Frank passed along.

It seems he succumbed to an internal bacterial infection, which was hard to diagnose, and the antibiotics we put in the water weren’t enough or in time.

He was only my little fish for eight days, but he was a good fish and a member of our family.

Last evening at the grocery store, I ran into a longtime friend and when I confessed I was sad because I thought my fish would die, she said, “ah, no matter. Flush him and get another one.”

I appreciate that many folks would feel that way. It’s just a small thing, a $5.00 fish from the pet store.

And that’s fine. We all go about life our own way.

For me, I’m not ashamed to actually feel very sad and even cry a little for my fish, who had to struggle so much for life so much there at the end.

I knew when I bought him that he might not be 100% healthy. The Good Man and I agreed to foster him at home so he would either recover, or if he succumbed, he would do so in a big tank with humans around to protect him.

And so we did.

I pimped out a nice matchbox coffin for my friend and gave him a proper goodbye in the side garden of our house.

He was just a fish, but he was my fish, and he was well loved.

By the by, Margaret, the female betta who came home with us the same day as Frank is doing fine. She’s happy and does a little fish dance when we walk up to the tank. I never before thought I could find a fish cute, but I have to say, she’s an adorable little fish.

We all have to remember in our own way

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A tree stands in the median on I-25, north of Las Cruces, not quite to Radium Springs.

It’s a scrubby little tree, maybe a mesquite or a juniper. You know, the kind of hardy tree you see out there in the New Mexico desert. Something tenacious.

This particular tree stands out because it’s festooned with tinsel and garland.

It’s been that way for several years. I’ve seen it, driven past it several times, actually.

The first time I saw it, the time of year wasn’t much past Christmas, so I figured it was a leftover holiday decoration.

But when I saw it again a few years later, I realized it wasn’t just leftover holiday decorations, but something more serious. I knew it was a roadside shrine often found in our fair New Mexico.

The roadside shrine is a memorial located where someone has lost their life out there on the roads. It’s a pretty common sight in New Mexico.

It’s a tradition I grew up with and so it’s never occurred to me to question it. I find outside the borders of my homestate, it’s questioned. A lot.

Questions of taste and decency, actually. Whether it’s appropriate, or not, to put one’s grief so garishly on display.

See, I think we in our American culture have really weird and uptight ideas about death and dying. Ok, it’s probably because I grew up in the cultures of New Mexico that I feel that way.

But I’ve always really appreciated the Hispanic and Latino cultures celebrating and remembering their loved ones who have moved on. I appreciate the ability to show grief openly without remorse or embarrassment.

Dia de los Muertos offrendas and roadside shrines are simply the outward display of deeply held cultural beliefs. Beliefs such as that the dead have moved on to another world, but a world that is not so far away from our own.

A woman is comforted, perhaps, by knowing that her child, while not in her arms, is not that far away. While she remembers with a keening loss the child who was taken away, she can still bake bread and place sweets on an offrenda, and it helps her cope.

A mourning wife can drive to the spot where her husband met his end, and remember him. She refreshes the shiny bits of paper, and can feel her husband not so far away.

I think this is healthy, personally, and I don’t find it to be weird. I find it to be beautiful.

Those roadside shrines are called descansos. They aren’t just tacky plastic crosses and brightly shining tinsel. For the family that constructed the shrine, they are an essential part of the grieving process.

The garlanded tree located in I-25 highway median is a descanso to honor the memory of a child.

The shrine in the photo at the end of this post honors two kids who rolled their ATV by the irrigation banks on the Bosque in Los Lunas.

When someone you truly love dies, the grief never goes away. It tends to ebb and flow, welling up sometimes, overwhelming. Other times, the volume is turned down and you can almost, but not quite, forget.

I think we all have to find our own way of grieving.

No one can say who is right or wrong.

Source: Las Cruces Sun News