When brothers become good friends

My son and I surveyed the stacks of clean clothes on his bed. Did he have everything he needed for his second year in college? And what about his guitar propped against the wall? Should he bring that along too? We bantered back and forth about packing details and I tried to imagine what it was going to be like for my son to move into his first apartment off campus this year.

Then Miguel suddenly turned to me with a bigger question. “When can TJ come visit me?,” he said, referring to his 16-year-old brother. “I don’t want to wait until his spring break or anything. That’s too far.”

This wasn’t a question I was fully expecting. But I was thrilled to know that Miguel wanted to spend time with TJ. It makes sense. This past summer my boys bonded in a way they never have before. It wasn’t something I planned or anticipated.

“I challenge you to a game to 21.” It’s one of the more frequent statements I heard this summer. Thus would start a long night of ping-pong games that would easily last until 2 or 3 am. I made sure to close my window before going to sleep so the tap tap of the balls of the balls didn’t wake me up. And this would be after a day of playing online games and perfecting various grilled cheese sandwich recipes for lunch.

It wasn’t always this way. Although my kids did a lot together when they were little, they developed different interests as they got older. Miguel likes cooking, exploring new places and golf. TJ is a gamer with a cohort of online friends across the country. By the time Miguel got to high school and TJ was in middle school, they rarely did activities together. It’s not that they didn’t get along; they just lived in separate worlds much of the time. I was sad they didn’t do more together.

All of that changed this summer. In June we took a family trip to Guatemala and the last hotel we stayed at had a ping-pong table. The boys enjoyed seeing the sights –ancient Mayan pyramids and beautiful jungles–but what they really liked was the ping-pong every night at the hotel. The day after we got back from our trip, they drove over to grandma and grandpa’s house, loaded up their old table in a friend’s van, and set it up on our patio.

“Isn’t it great we’re so evenly matched,” TJ said to me after a few weeks of playing.

“The only problem is that our friends can’t keep up,” Miguel said.

In hindsight, I now realize my boys’ relationship didn’t change overnight. It began to shift last year, when Miguel was away for his freshman year in New York. The boys spoke frequently on Facetime, mostly talking about the latest music and videos, which had always been Miguel’s domain. Then Miguel began to take an interest in TJ’s online gaming world and joined his chat forum, where he got to know TJ’s friends.

For spring break TJ and I visited New York and the boys appreciated each others’ special qualities.

“TJ is so funny. He made all my friends laugh,” Miguel reported after TJ had spent the night in his dorm room.

The next day we were walking down Fifth Avenue and I commented that it could be fun to take a double-decker tour bus around the city.

“We don’t need to do that,” TJ said. “Miguel is an expert New York City guide.”

Those moments made my heart swell. I relished the fact that my boys saw the positive sides of one another.

Ironically, if it had been up to me, I may have quashed my boys’ bonding this summer. Early on I was worried they both had too much unstructured time and several times I suggested they both do more “productive” activities. At one point I asked them if they had any goals.

“No, I don’t have any goals,” said Miguel. “I just want to spend time with friends and TJ. I’ll get an internship next summer.”

“I agree,” said TJ.

I didn’t give up so easily though. I schemed with my husband about how he could hire them to do some office work at his accounting firm. This kept them busy for a week or two but then they finished the projects and it was back to hanging out at home. (Miguel did have a catering job, but it was mostly on weekends.)

Fortunately I decided to back off and their relationship deepened even more. At midnight one night between ping-pong games, Miguel invited TJ on a road trip with a friend. The plan was to leave at 6 am the next morning and drive to a national park five hours away. Uncharacteristically, TJ readily agreed, leaving his computer behind for several days. They camped, tried mountain biking for the first time and floated in inner tubes down a river. After years of planning family vacations together, I was glad to see the boys could execute a wonderful vacation by themselves.

I’m not sure where my boys’ relationship will go next. They have so much to face still in life—college, relationships, careers. If they are like my brother and I, they will bond just as much or more over the low points than the high points. I’m just glad they have reached a solid point of friendship that has blossomed despite the distance and their differences. It gives me solace to know they are taking a genuine interest in one another and can support each other in the years ahead.

A family reunion in Guatemala

Seven days, 21 people, a small farming village in the highlands of Guatemala. It sounds like a mission trip, a service project or maybe some kind of trendy eco-tourism. As I reflect more on my recent travels to Guatemala however, the description that best fits the trip is family reunion. Although we did come with a few projects in mind, our stay in tiny Panyebar was remarkable mostly for the relationships we formed and renewed. There, among the lush fields of coffee beans and corn, we saw what can happen when you cultivate friendships over a long period of time.

Our first taste of friendship came when our two microbuses pulled up to the edge of town Monday morning. Suddenly a group of several dozen students filled the streets. Some were playing instruments and others were holding banners that read “Welcome brothers from California” in English, Spanish and Quiche, their native language. We got out of our buses and greeted the students, then marched behind them up the hill all the way to the school. There, on the school basketball court, they had planned a welcome ceremony for us complete with a traditional Guatemalan dance, a flag ceremony, songs and homemade gifts. A new charismatic young teacher, Abel, served as the master of ceremonies, narrating all the events on a portable PA system. His booming voice could be heard throughout the village.

We haven’t always received such an extravagant welcome in Panyebar. The first time my family went there, in 2008, we arrived with no fanfare at all. At that point, our group’s work in the village was rather new. We had just begun supporting the village’s new middle school a few years before. When our buses pulled up that year, I remember getting out and seeing just a few little kids hanging around. We climbed up the stairs to the school office and I met a teacher. I tried to talk with her a bit in my basic Spanish and sensed she was reluctant to engage. Was this a personality issue or was she unsure of our intentions and hesitant to open up to me?

That year we accomplished a significant project (building a bathroom for the school) and the villagers did warm up to us, but I did not establish a strong personal connection with anyone.

Fast-forward to this year again, and the landscape looks much different. In the intervening nine years various members of our group (officially a 501(c)(3) called Mayan Partners) have traveled to Panyebar many times. One year a couple from our group lived in the village for five months. As an organization we’ve gotten to know the personalities, quirks and lives of the people. Most of our resources have gone to the middle school, funding the teachers’ salaries. For the most part, the school has been a success. Whereas in the past very few kids went onto high school (for which students need to move to another city), now many kids go to high school and some even to college. This is significant in a place where most adults have only a second- or third-grade education.

Still, despite the improvements in education, the village lacks employment opportunities and most people make only a couple of dollars a day. A few years ago I got involved with a project to sell handmade Christmas ornaments in the U.S. as a way to help women supplement their income. For two years I worked with a woman named Flory, the daughter-in-law of a pastor in town. Then this year I added a second group made up of women who work at a preschool. One of my goals in traveling to Panyebar this year was to meet these women face to face and get to know them. I wasn’t sure how this would go. Would it be like the teacher I met nine years ago who was hesitant to share? Would our conversation feel natural or forced? And what had happened to Flory? For some reason she had not returned my e-mails for the past six months.

After our lovely welcome ceremony full of singing and dancing on Monday morning, I made my way down a little dirt path, through a cornfield, to the town preschool. I was eager to meet the teachers and see the 125 ornaments they had been working on for the past several months. I had the names of the women but really didn’t know much about them.

Like most of the buildings in Panyebar, the preschool is made of cinderblocks, wood slats and a sheet metal roof. It’s not modern in any way, though through donations from individuals and groups like World Vision, it has a surprising number of resources, like books and chairs and tables for the 55 kids who attend. Along one wall are small toothbrushes hanging from nails. The teachers try to cultivate good hygiene, which is a challenge in a place where most people never see a dentist and lose many of their permanent teeth by the time they are adults.

When I finally stepped into the preschool, several people from our group had already arrived ahead of me. They told me that the women had been eagerly asking about me. “Where is Allison?” they said. I entered the building and was surrounded by six women, all shorter than me, wearing traditional Guatemalan blouses and skirts. I met Rosario, who I had been e-mailing, as well as Juana, Dolores, Maria, Aracely and Dominga. They greeted me with big smiles and hugs. They had been working very hard on the ornaments and were so grateful for my help in giving them work and taking an interest in their crafts. It’s possible I had met some of these women nine years before, but this time, with our shared connection over their work, it was like meeting family. They seemed open, friendly and loving.

After our meeting, I announced to them that I’d brought crafts for their students. I had prepared the crafts as a measure of goodwill between us, not knowing they’d receive me so generously. Looking back, I didn’t really need to prepare the crafts to create good feelings, but it did provide a way for me and others in our group to get to know the preschoolers. They are a sweet bunch of kids who, like kids everywhere, love to draw, play and learn.

That day, after the craft session, and after most of the preschoolers had left, the teachers and I sat in the tiny little kid chairs and talked. They offered me a fresh mango, cut into long strips. I told them about my family and my life in California. So much time went by that they got worried I would miss the bus back down the mountain. But that’s OK, they joked, we would love for you to stay here tonight!

Then, one of the women’s daughters, a teenager named Lucia, offered to carry the duffel bag of ornaments back to the school where I would be catching the bus. She treated them like a precious possession. They represented hours of dedicated work. Along the way, Lucia told me the story of how she had been ill much of the past year but now, thanks to her family’s prayers, she had recovered. She promised to invite me to her house later that week.

It was a promising start to our week with the people of Panyebar. I’ll write more in my next post about tracking down Flory, who had made Christmas ornaments for two years but then stopped answering my e-mails. I’ll also try to distill a few other experiences from our “family reunion” in Panyebar.


 

Journey to the edge of the earth

We stood on a small precipice of brittle rock, surrounded by pools of orange, bubbling lava. The smell of sulphur hung in the air. My husband looked alarmed. My kids looked fearful. “I’ve made a terrible mistake,” I thought. “I’ve put my family’s life in jeopardy. Why hadn’t I researched this? We are going to die on the side of this volcano.” I was shaking.

The trip to the volcano had seemed like just another tourist attraction when we read the brochure. It had a large photo of a volcano with billowing smoke and a description that explained that shuttles left early every morning for a day-long trip to the famous Volcan Pacaya. We had been to Hawaii and imagined the experience would be similar. There, tourists can view the smoke and active lava fields of Kilauea from a safe distance. Hand rails prevent anyone from stepping anywhere near the lava flows. Guatemala, however, does not seem to share the same safety concerns.

The morning had started out predictably. Just as the brochure said, a van pulled up to our hotel at 6 am. My husband, my two sons, ages 8 and 11, and I squeezed into the van along with a dozen other tourists. We soon left the comfortable colonial town where we were staying and turned onto curvy mountainous roads. The air was stuffy and I prayed I wouldn’t get sick on the hour and a half journey. Upon arriving in the small town at the base of the volcano, we were greeted by local residents selling trinkets and snacks. We bought a few drinks and followed our guide to a path at the edge of town. Soon we began climbing up a steep mountain path. Tall trees and vegetation grew along the sides of the path. Tourists on horseback occasionally passed us. “Why didn’t we take horses?” one of my kids grumbled. “How much longer?” We stopped a few times to rest and I wondered if the climb was too much for my eight-year-old. We were all perspiring as the sun climbed steadily in the sky. At one point our guide mysteriously broke off a few small branches of a tree and stuck them in his backpack.

Eventually, after more than an hour of climbing, we left the dense vegetation and saw a barren black slope up ahead. We walked to the slope and our guide explained that this was hardened lava from a flow about a month ago. He stepped onto the black rock, a little uneven in places, and signaled for us to follow. We walked a little farther. This lava was fresh three weeks ago, he said. The ground was brittle and some of it had dried in strange ways, leaving crevices. At one point my foot slipped and I fell a good foot into a hole. The rock cut my leg and I was bleeding a little. But I was just happy I hadn’t stepped onto running lava.

Against my judgement and not wanting to appear weak, I followed our group and the guide farther into the lava field. Our guide had obviously staked out the route and knew just where to led us over rock that had hardened sufficiently. Finally, he stopped and proudly told us we were on a lava bed that was only a week old. By this point, we were on a high precipice, looking down at fresh lava running by us. The guide laughed and pulled out the branches he had broken off earlier He stuck them in the hot lava and stirred them around. Suddenly his hat blew off and, shocked, we watched as he jumped down, inches from the lava, to retrieve it. At that point, I had lost trust in our guide and couldn’t wait to get back to solid land. My family seemed to concur as they looked back at me with wide eyes.

The trip to the volcano was by no means our reason for coming to Guatemala. We had come two weeks earlier with the goal of helping build a bathroom for a school in a rural village in the Western Highlands above Lake Attitlan. We had spent 10 days in the village, meeting the local families, playing with the kids, and falling in love with the beauty of the country. At various times those ten days I had experienced a few second thoughts, much as I did up on the volcano. I worried that my kids might fall into the large hole next to the construction site, I worried about our dangerous bus rides up and down the mountain to the village each day, and I worried we might all get food sickness. I had calmed all my worries, however, with the thought that these were risks I was willing to take in order to show my kids the world. They would be forever changed by seeing and meeting people so different from themselves. Indeed, the kids did learn a lot and our time in the village ended well. The worst thing that happened was a few mosquito bites. Now, though, with only a few days left, we decided to do more touristy activities, like the volcano.

As it turned out, getting off the volcano was nerve-wracking. As we turned to leave for solid ground, another group of about 15 tourists began picking their way across the lava field toward us. Since there was only a narrow section of hardened lava to cross on, we had to squeeze by them, hoping not to slip into a crevice like I had on the way out. When we finally reached dirt and trees I felt relief pour over me. We practically skipped down the mountain back to the van. I hadn’t planned on this adventure when we signed up to build a bathroom, but it gave us a story we could eventually laugh about for years to come. We all agreed we would love to come back to build another bathroom, but we would never climb another volcano.

***

Now, 9 years later, we are ready to embark on another trip to Guatemala. We are going back to the same village where we built the bathroom. On the one hand, we know this village and its people. On the other hand, we aren’t sure what awaits us. There is talk about building a fence along the basketball court so kids don’t plummet six feet off the side into the field below. In addition, we’ll be playing a lot with the kids, trading English, Spanish and Quiche expressions. My son hopes to film a documentary and I hope to build relationships with a group of women who make Christmas ornaments we sell here in the U.S. We are ready to take in the beauty of a country rich in many things we don’t have here in the U.S., especially time. We are eager to slow down, learn, listen and share our lives with our Guatemalan friends.  

 

 

An ode to donuts–and Grandma

“It’s national donut day,” my son announced to me this morning as he was scrolling through his phone.

“We should call Grammy,” I said. “She’s the donut queen.”

For years my mom has made donuts from scratch, and before that her mom made donuts. We love them. In fact, when I was growing up donuts were the number one demand we had for my grandma whenever she came to visit from South Dakota. We wouldn’t even let her unpack her suitcases before she had spent a few hours in the kitchen making donuts. (My mom was prepared with all the ingredients.) There’s nothing quite like a hot, sugary donut, straight out of the deep fryer.

Making donuts is a production involving a team of cooks. My mom begins early in the morning, mixing the buttermilk dough. The dough needs to sit in the refrigerator for two hours. Then she sets up a staging area and assigns me and my kids a task. One of us gets the task of rolling out the sticky dough and cutting out pieces with a donut cutter, a round aluminum ring with a hole in the center. Another one of us drops the dough rings into a deep fryer filled with oil. Someone else will monitor the cooking donuts and flip them so they evenly brown in the oil, then remove them and place them on paper towels. Finally, one of us finishes the task by rolling the cooked donuts in a mixture of sugar and cinnamon and placing our finished product in my mom’s gigantic lime green circa 1970 Tupperware container. About this time my dad will wander in, ready to taste-test the results.

After a few too many donuts, washed down with milk, we all feel a little ill but quite satisfied. The only thing that has been harder on my stomach was the time a friend and I made onion rings in high school. My friend, who was from Georgia, had received a large box of sweet Vidalia onions in the mail, and we cooked the whole thing–then ate far too many.

Today some people talk about “slow” food, the production of traditional food using local ingredients. My mom and grandma were doing this kind of thing long before there was a word for it, with an emphasis on the slow and a focus on sweet. Around the holidays, my grandma made her own candies, everything from peanut brittle to “hooch,” a caramely, buttery candy I’ve never seen anyone else make. She and my grandpa especially prided themselves on their popcorn balls. This was a slightly dangerous affair involving mixing fresh-popped popcorn with caramel and shaping this hot, gooey mixture into a ball. Once finished they would deliver their treats to local nursing homes. For my wedding my grandma spent days making hundreds of creamy fondant mints in pretty blue, violet and pink shades. She carted them all out on the plane and between that project and making my wedding quilt, she was exhausted—a rare state for my indefatigable grandma.

My mom has kept many slow food traditions alive and, just like a good haiku poem, they serve to mark the passing of nature’s seasons. A fresh strawberry pie means its springtime. Blackberry jam is late August. Cinnamon rolls are Christmas morning. Along the way, I’ve gotten involved and so have my kids. When the kids were younger, we used to worry about having an accident with the 400-degree oil for the donuts. Amazingly, no one has ever been burned. On the other hand, we’ve been scratched up badly picking blackberries. And once, I almost started a fire with my parents’ old electric ice cream maker—the kind you put rock salt into. I had brought it to my son’s kindergarten class to make ice cream with the kids and possibly because of its age, it began to smoke. It was churning away and smoke filled the whole classroom. I turned it off and we ate mushy ice cream. Fortunately the kids didn’t care.

Today slow food and especially donuts are trendy. There are all kinds of fancy donuts with special fillings and flavors. I’ve even seen bacon donuts—bleech! My grandma’s donuts are basic, just a plain, tender dough rolled in cinnamon and sugar. I don’t know where she got the recipe. She grew up on a farm, the daughter of German immigrants. I doubt she learned it there, though it’s possible. What she did learn, though, was not to be afraid of big projects. She could do just about anything involving food or crafts. Wallpaper a room? No problem. Make Venetian blinds? Easy. Organize a church tea for 100 women. Fun! She passed on that intrepid spirit to my mother and a little bit to me. I think she’d be very pleased that in 2017 we are still making her donuts. 

What I want for Christmas

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When I was a child, the month of December seemed to pass so slowly. I would count the days until Christmas and it seemed to take forever. I couldn’t wait until Christmas morning when my brother and I would get up early, rush to the Christmas tree and tear open the presents. What special gifts would be waiting there? In the picture above I am wearing overalls I got for Christmas when I was 10. I really wanted those overalls. I was serious about the overalls. I wore them every day for two weeks straight, right into January. It’s like that with kids and their favorite gifts.

These days the Christmas season rushes by. Thanksgiving is over and suddenly it’s Christmas season. Time to buy a tree. Time to decorate the house. Time to buy gifts. As an adult, there doesn’t seem to be time to fit in all the errands, shopping and preparations. In the background linger all the voices that tell you what you should be doing. Maybe this is the year you should write your Christmas letter early (if at all) or this is the year you should put up those Christmas lights languishing in the basement. So many shoulds can take the joy right out of the holiday. It’s a challenge to quiet the shoulds and live in the present moment.

That Christmas when I was 10 I had my first “boyfriend.” He was a cute strawberry blonde with freckles. A few weeks before Christmas break he gave my best friend a little folded up piece of paper for me. It said, “Will you go steady? Mike” Only a few of the cool kids were going steady so I was flattered. I wrote “yes” below the question and sent it back to him. I hardly knew him and we didn’t talk after our note exchange. Then Christmas break came and I forgot about him until one day he arrived at my door with a gift. I was so embarrassed when my mother told me there was a boy to see me that I refused to come to the door. He left the gift with my mother. I later opened the gift and it was a set of Snoopy stationery. I loved it and kept it for many years, unused in a drawer. After Christmas break I returned to school and saw Mike again. I don’t remember whether I thanked him for the gift, but I must have, considering I was always taught to thank people. One day a few weeks later it was rainy and we had to stay inside for lunch. The kids were restless. Pretty soon some of the kids decided to play truth or dare. To my horror, they dared Mike to kiss me. Not only did I not want to kiss Mike, I hated being the center of attention. Instinctively I ran under a table and hid. Everyone laughed. That was the end of our going steady.

With the small boyfriend drama behind me I could turn to my interests at the time, which included dressing up my miniature Schnauzer in old baby clothes and playing superballs with my friend Kim. I still have the album of photos I made of my dog in various outfits. I don’t have the shoebox of brightly colored superballs, but I trust some other kid somewhere is having fun with those. Kids generally have such simple interests and I take that as a lesson today. Yes, I do have adult responsibilities, but I can still savor simple things. In fact, in light of my responsibilities and the shoulds, I need to savor simple things. Simple things today can mean adding a little egg nog to my morning coffee or writing a little extra in my journal. At the top of my Christmas list is a “frother,” so I can froth milk to make foam for my coffee. Next is a new leather moleskin journal and some nice pencils. Simple pleasures to enjoy the moment.

Of course, what I really want for Christmas these days will not come as a present under the tree. It’s what most of us want—a happy family, good health, fulfilling projects—and perhaps a dash of adventure. One of my most memorable recent Christmases contained almost all of that in a comical way. All four of us, my husband and two sons, had driven out to Salt Lake City, Utah a few days after Christmas to celebrate the holidays with my brother and his family. We had a great time sitting around talking, watching movies and sledding on a nearby hill. The snow-covered Utah mountains were beautiful and a nice change of scenery from the Bay Area. For reasons I don’t remember, we left on New Year’s Eve to make the l2-hour drive back to Berkeley. We passed through the frozen Salt Flats and then crossed the desolate Utah/Nevada border where you can drive 50 to 100 miles without seeing a town. Just after speeding by Winnemucca, Nevada, the halfway point of our trip, our car began to making sputtering noises and losing power. Panicked, we pulled off to the side of the road and called AAA. Fortunately we were just miles outside of Winnemucca and a driver came fairly quickly. We were towed back to town and found out that our car’s timing belt had broken. The bad news was that, since this was a holiday, they wouldn’t be able to get the part for our car until January 2. We were effectively stuck in Winnemucca for three days! A little dejected, we checked into the Winnemucca Hotel, which boasted its own small casino and restaurant. We drove our loaner car around the town (which took about 2 minutes) and cheered a little when we saw there was actually a movie theater (playing the Muppet Movie) and a Basque restaurant. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all. As it turned out, we spent a very happy couple of days in Winnemucca. Besides our outing to the movie theater and Basque restaurant, we sat in our little hotel room watching bad TV shows, writing thank you notes on Winnemucca postcards and reading and rereading “Of Mice and Men,” which my son had in his backpack. It seemed that time had stopped.

I don’t know exactly what Christmas will bring this year but as long as I have loved ones near I expect it will be good. I just hope time will slow down enough to enjoy all the right moments.

PostScript: Last summer we stayed at the Winnemucca Hotel for a night on our way to a family reunion in Colorado. We reminisced about being stuck there a few years back. There was no time for a movie or a Basque meal but I have a feeling we’ll be back again.