Nancy Merrill is sponsoring a photo challenged entitled Nostalgia. Here is my take on the matter:
I think the year was around 1952. We were gathered for a play put on by the two cowgirls at the top of this photo. Susan, the tallest girl and also the older sister of one of the cowgirls, doesn’t look overly enthusiastic about being there. I was the little blonde girl overacting in the second row and the sister of the other cowgirl. I was their “mystery personality.” Anyone who guessed who I was (The Sunbeam Bread Girl) got a prize. They put on a few of these productions and I always thought they were wonderful. The year before, my mystery personality had been Bonnie Braids (of Dick Tracy fame.) When they called out, “Who knows who the mystery personality is?” Bobby Lathrop yelled out, “That’s Judy Dykstra!!!” and I cried. Ah, nostalgia
The prompt word for the weekly photo challenge was “Nostalgia.’
All of these photos were taken on Prince Edward Island, Canada.
My 1000th Blog Post !!!!
When I made my first blog entry on NaPoWriMo, taking the big step to commit to one posting a poem a day for 30 days, it seemed like a task I might not be able to complete. I made the pledge to myself nonetheless, perhaps knowing my own nature and my dislike of not fulfilling obligations. I made it, sometimes in the nick of time. I think one posting was made at 65 seconds before midnight, thanks to a power outage and earlier obligations which kept me from posting first thing in the morning, as I usually did.
My days during that first month of daily postings went pretty much as they go now: 8:30, let the dogs out and see if the prompt was posted yet. 9:30–last possible moment to feed the dogs without Frida going into an apoplexy of barks. By noon, my poem was usually written and posted, but sometimes the internet went out. Sometimes workmen came. Sometimes the electricity went off. Other than these mitigating circumstances outside of myself, posting was always first priority. This was my first ever picture posted on my blog, on September 12, 2012. This fountain of a Mayan woman is long deceased, having been knocked into the pool by a visiting workman, repaired and repainted, then again knocked in by either my gardener or dog–a different report according to who was speaking. This time, she was unrepairable, so parts of her reside separately in different parts of my garden.I didn’t post any more pictures until March, 2013. This is one of the pictures I posted then that I used for the cover of my book, Lessons from A Grief Diary–which was initially my purpose in starting a blog, but after my initial posts and a few replies by readers and friends, my posts were few and far between until April, when I participated in my first NaPoWriMo. After that month of posting a poem a day, I made almost no posts again until April of 2014 when I again participated in NaPoWriMo. It was at the end of that 30 day period that I decided to just keep going by doing the WordPress daily prompt, initially posting every day, then gradually adding photo prompts and occasional challenge prompts from viewers, up until the present day, when my record total number of posts per day reached 9 one day this past week.
I had no idea I had made that many until I read it on my stats page. I was sure they were wrong, but they weren’t. So it is official. I am obsessed by blogging. Not only writing them but reading them and conversing with other bloggers. I love that I am in daily communication with interesting bloggers from India, Nigeria, Australia, the States, Canada and other points all over the world. Iceland. Greenland, Mongolia, Kenya and Indonesia. Too many more to name. I know what is going on with women’s rights in India and Journalist’s rights in Saudi Arabia. I know that this week a Nigerian king cannot be buried because the man who has been raised from birth to accompany him to the grave (and by this euphemism, I mean to be buried alive with him, as in the style of Egyptian pharaohs) has run away!
I know that a good blogging friend’s beloved dog has passed away but I also know intimate details of the most important dolls in her life. I know that my friend Judy King, who lives here in Mexico, had a Tiny Tears doll, as did I and I know the worries of a sixteen year old girl, a friend again looking for employment, the sadness of a twinless twin. I have met nomads, travelers, photographers, introverts, shut-ins, journalists, and those fighting bravely for the security and safety of their transgendered friends. It is incredible how the world has opened up for me in the nearly two years I have been seriously blogging.
A friend told me very early in my blogging life that she didn’t get it. To her it just looked like an exercise in ego to be posting a blog each day. I don’t think she’s ever looked at my blog. Nor has another close friend who likes all of my books but who says she “Doesn’t do blogs!” Other friends read and comment, knowing that even though a message isn’t sent exclusively for them and to them that it can still be personal and interesting and true.
In blogging we expand our circle–like a group telephone conversation on Skype or a support group or interest group. Blogging is the corner bar minus the drinks, the pot party where no one inhales, the slumber party not limited exclusively to girls. Very rapidly, it has become one of the most important parts of my life. What I wake up for. Where I go when I need advice or I’m feeling blue.
Some blogging friends have moved through my life and disappeared. Most of them are mothers with a lot else to do, so I understand. But others have come to take their place and I am constantly surprised by what it is that they respond to. A recent posting with pictures of my favorite dolls of the past, posted exclusively for a friend who collects dolls, drew interest from men and from Judy King, whom I mentioned earlier–a journalist friend who wrote pages in my comments section–a wonderful story of her favorite doll that I hope she develops into a story some day.
Every day when I force myself to leave my house and go back out into the physical world, I meet people who, when they hear my name, say, “Oh yes. I read your blog!” People I did not know in my own small community as well as surrounding towns have become supporters, occasionally noting on Facebook or in my comments section that they are daily readers of my blog. I’ve heard from kids I went to high school with, college friends I haven’t seen in 50 years–even one old boyfriend of my sister’s (when she was 12) whom I had never even met when we both lived back in South Dakota.
I have reconnected with my favorite cousin’s wife and daughter, my high school principal’s ex-wife, who it seems was a friend of my older sisters in high school and who was there when those pictures of me and my friends in Johannsen’s dam were taken. She and my sister were the ones who had driven us to the dam to swim! And, in a remarkable coincidence, I’ve heard from Douglas Johannsen, whose uncle owned the dam!
Long story short, I’m not accepting the charge that I am writing a blog purely out of ego. Yes, in writing it I am recording a life, but I am also making one. And what a big big life it has turned out to be!
Thanks to all my funny, smart, loyal, dedicated, varied, weird, uncategorizable blogging friends. I wish I could send you all a piece of cake or glass to lift. Instead, I send you a slice of my life because you have sent to me so many slices of yours, and they were delicious!!!
And so, on to the next 1000!!!!
# (Today’s prompt is to pledge allegiance to what you believe in, so I pledge allegiance to the United World of Blogging!)
A week ago, I drove to the Santa Cruz, CA area to visit old friends. It has been fourteen years since I left there to move to Mexico, and when I spent the night with my friends Linda and Steve, they invited my other good friends Dan (pictured above) and Laurie to come for dinner. When we fell to comparing our present physical ills, as old farts like us are prone to do, I admitted that over the past year I have experienced a number of anxiety attacks when I go to bed, mainly centered around fears that I will soon stop being able to breathe. When I told Dan about these attacks, he said that he, too, had been having them for a long time but that he’d found a cure–that cure being Bob’s rope. The story goes like this.
About twenty years before, Dan and Laurie had decided to drive down to Baja and asked my husband Bob and me to accompany them. We took two cars because they had to come back before us as Laurie didn’t want to leave her elderly aunt for too long. Dan said he had felt terrible anxiety before the trip. What if their car broke down? With no big towns in Baja, what would they do? Nonetheless, we went, and on our second day of driving, we fell behind them a mile or two. We were nearing the crest of a big hill when we suddenly saw a big engine part lying in the road. We swerved around it and as we passed over the summit, we spied Dan and Laurie’s car down below at the bottom of the hill. We thought they were waiting for us to catch up, but then saw Dan get out of the car and wave us down.
Part of the engine had fallen out of their van! We went back to pick it up and discovered that it was the universal joint or some part of the engine that contained the universal joint, which is a vital part of the engine, or so I was told. Dan was sputtering a bit, but Bob just went to the back of our Blazer and pulled out this colossal hemp rope…maybe twenty feet long and about two or three inches thick. This he tied to our trailer hitch and to the chassis of Dan and Laurie’s van. We then towed them about 20 miles until we found a tiny “town” consisting of a small gas station. We pulled in and Dan, who knew more Spanish than we did at the time, (we knew none) asked the station man where the next garage might be. There were a sum total of three little houses in the town that we could see, and the man pointed to one across the road and said we should go see Jose.
Jose had about 5 old cars parked in his yard and when he inspected the part we’d retrieved from the center of the road, he said he’d see what he could do. He scrounged around in the various cars and came up with a part which he promptly dropped in the dirt, at which point all the bearings dropped out onto the ground, rolling every which way and burying themselves under powdery dirt and sparse grass clumps. He laboriously scavenged, picking bearings out and cleaning them off on his shirt before dropping them into wherever bearings go. He worked for a half hour or so–maybe longer.
This part of the story I didn’t witness as Laurie and I were across the street in the shade of the service station eating the best tamales I’ve ever had in my life. We’d purchased them from a little woman who had a stand by the side of the road. They were incredible in that every single bite tasted different from every other bite. She had put everything into them: pork, pineapple, cheese, mild chilis. Each bite was a totally new tamale experience and the masa was moist and light and wonderful. I was thinking that it was worth Dan’s U-joint just to get to eat these tamales! We thought we should buy some for Dan and Bob, but as time wore on, we ended up eating theirs as well. Only so much can be expected of girls marooned in the heat with only the shade of a forlorn little gas station for comfort.
At any rate, I’m sure we bought more tamales for the male members of our expedition and eventually, they drove up in Dan’s van. As they (probably) ate their tamales, Dan spoke in wonder of the fact that Jose had somehow been able to gerrymander the part from the pieces of the different cars–none of which were vans or even the make of his van. And, when he asked how much he owed them, they said, “Oh, 150 pesos!!!” This at the time was about $15. He said he would have paid more but alas, that happened to be all the cash he had on him and I’d spent all our money on tamales and gas.
So it was that we went on to a few more days’ adventures before they headed north again and we continued to Mulege and points south, took the ferry over to Guaymas on the mainland of Mexico and drove up the coast and back home. Later, Dan reported to us that he’d stopped by to see Jose on the way back up to California and left him with a couple of cases of beer and a bit more money, which he felt he had certainly earned, even though he had not commanded a higher price.
A happy Dan drove his van home and for 6 months it performed perfectly; but he started worrying about it and thinking it was bound to eventually give him problems, so he went to the authorized garage of whatever make his van was and had them order the correct U-joint and install it. Afterwards, he had had nothing but trouble with the van and they ended up trading it in. He admitted then that he never should have meddled with the perfection of Jose’s repair job.
Now, he said, every time he felt anxiety, he thought of Bob’s rope and it would calm his fears and remind him that things worked out because they had to and that there was really nothing to be so anxious about that it kept him from doing what he wanted to do. When Bob died and I moved to Mexico, I asked them what they would like to have from our house to remember us by and Dan quickly requested the rope! He’s had it ever since. They now split their time between their house in Boulder Creek, CA and a house near the southern tip of Baja and every trip they’ve taken down, they have carried that rope in the trunk of their car. Dan still suffers night anxiety attacks as I do but he said when he does he thinks of Bob’s rope coiled in the trunk of his car and that calms him.
That is the story of Bob’s rope–how it came to have such importance in Dan’s life and how it has come to have a potential for comfort in my life as well.
Laurie seems to have life whipped.
The Prompt: Tell us about a journey you have taken, either physically or emotionally.
The Prompt: The Language of Things—You have to write a message to someone dear to you, telling that person how much he/she means to you. However — instead of words, you can only use 5-10 objects to convey your emotions. Which objects do you choose, and what do they mean?
First of all, I have to say that this is my all-time-favorite prompt, so kudos to its creator. It is original, thought-provoking and fun.
Older sisters are our teachers, our critics, our cruelest enemies and our best friends. When we were younger, my sister was no exception. With age, however, some of these roles have fallen away. The others I often take for granted even though I know they are still there.
This year I will be, as I have been for most years in my life, far away from my four-year-older sister, Patti, for Christmas. Betty, my 11-year-older sister, unfortunately started to leave us four years ago and now lives in a world we are not a part of. Both Patti and I fear the same thing happening to us and we’ve made some Thelma and Louise pacts to that end. Hopefully, we’ll never have to use them and will fade peacefully away in our dreams when we are well over 100.
If this sounds excessive, you are right. I am a glutton for life and probably part of the reason is the capacity for play taught to me by my sister, who was always my most imaginative playmate. Even when I’m sad, I love living and want for life to go on for as long as possible, so long as I remain relatively pain-free and retain my mind, my sense of humor and my girlish good figure. One of these things does not belong. You can probably guess which one.
Since I live in Mexico and my sister will be in her home near Phoenix this year, we have sent gifts early. Mine sits on top of the armoire in my beach rental in its blue wrapping bag with curly ribbon. I have added a pelican feather and gaudy ribbon streamers. Since I’ve chosen to spend this Christmas far from friends and other relatives, it is my only gift and I am hoarding its mystery until the last possible minute. Perhaps I’ll open it at 11:55 P.M. on December 25! I’m sure my sister has not opened hers, either.
A usual tradition in our family was to do Christmas stockings to which we all contributed. (Well, except for my dad, who instead donated the cash we all used to purchase our stocking stuffers.) With that in mind and feeling sentimental, I’d like to assemble an imaginary Christmas stocking for my sister to open right now—as soon as she sees this. It’s a not such a large stocking, but as in all things imaginary, anything is possible; so I’m sure all the gifts will fit.
I need to start at the top, with the lightest most crushable items, and so the first gift she will find sticking out of the top of the stocking will be something flat, rolled into a cylinder before wrapping. When she rips off the paper in her usual unceremonial fashion, she will know exactly why I have given it to her.
It is a folder of Debra Paget paper dolls with snub-nosed scissors taped to the front to encourage her to actually cut them out. I have visions of them decorating her tree for the remainder of its life this year, or even better, my sister on her stomach on the living room rug, cutting them out while she listens to “Our Miss Brooks” or “The Shadow” on the radio, then assembles the material for a paper doll house: Kleenex box beds and sofas, tuna can tables covered in tissue tablecloths. Since she taught me these imaginary games, she’ll figure out the rest. Then I want her to imagine me there playing with her. She can be Debra Paget. I’ll be anyone she wants me to be, as was the norm way back then when we constructed our first paper worlds.
The next box she pulls from the stocking will be long, narrow and flattish. It will weigh practically nothing. There will be instructions on the front to open it more carefully than usual, for it is fragile. When she folds back the paper, she’ll find a box of the old aluminum tinsel—the extra long and extra skinny type that only she knew how to put on perfectly. It was an art, this distribution of tinsel on the tree. One had to be sure to spread it out evenly in bunches of only three or four strands. For maximum beauty, it had to be hung on the ends of branches so it hung just to the top of the next branch without lapping over. In our house, it was never thrown! I am absolutely sure that now, as then, Patti and I are the only ones with patience enough to do the job right, so she will have to do it for both of us.
I’m sure that what the next gift is will be obvious. It is a Christmas tradition started by my mother, who would tuck a small box of Russell Stover Chocolates in each stocking. At times, she would succumb to temptation and all of the boxes would be empty as she generously absorbed all of their calories herself. I am making one small change in tradition and tucking in a box of See’s Chocolates in lieu of Mother’s poor taste in chocolate. Helen Grace would be even better, if I knew where to buy them.
The next box is small and may have slid a bit further down in the stocking when the others were removed, so I’ve attached a streamer that extends well out of the top of the sock. Pull the streamer and the little box will pop out. Inside is a key. Looks like the key to a car. Actually, it is the key to a little tan Scout whose top can be taken off to make it a convertible. Here are the instructions I’ve written for Patti and wrapped around the key:
—There is room for the driver (that’s you) and one more friend in front. (That’s me.) I am sitting there in honor of friends no longer able to: Patty Peck, Diane Looby, Mary Jo Kuckleberg. I think Karen Bossart is so slim that she could also squeeze in front with us. In the back, along the side benches and on the floor, if you really pack them in, there is room for at least eight others and I have written them all to be expecting your call. Billy Francis, Clarence Rea, Mick Penticoff and Bobby Brost are all must-rides. Since the male friends of your youth have outlasted most of your female friends, Billy and C.J. and Mick can bring their wives to sit in for Patty, Diane and Mary Jo. If my buddy Rita North were going to be in Arizona for Christmas (she isn’t) she could tag along as both of us always longed to do—and sometimes we were actually asked! Jim, I don’t think a Scout is your style, but be a sport and ride along in the back with the guys! You’ll discover formerly undiscovered levels of fun bumping along in this replica of Patti’s and my first wheels. And there is always room for one more in the back of a Scout!
The next gift is merely an envelope. Inside are two tickets to Africa. The accompanying note reads:
—To complete our journey that was once curtailed by a revolution and shooting that sent you off to bravely face the rest of the trip alone. It’s about time we tried it again, hopefully with happier endings. Since then, you’ve been back so many times that you can probably pick the agenda better than I could, so it’s an open ticket. You fill in the blanks.
So, we’ve finally come to the bottom of the stocking, but anyone who has plunged into the depths of a Christmas stocking knows there is always something left in the stocking’s toe. In this case it is a small but substantial box wrapped in rich gold paper with a shiny silver cord. Inside is a slide with a large diamond set in gold. Although I know that gold and diamonds are no longer my sister’s “style,” this one is a wonderful modern design with an emerald-cut stone set in a flat gold setting. It is this gift that I’ve chosen to show her worth to me and for that, nothing but the best will do!
Merry Christmas to all. Especially to that sister who has been there for me every single time and who need never worry again about being mean to me in our youth. That, too, is what older sisters are meant to do. It gets us ready for the world, which will not always be paper dolls and U’ing main in a Scout chock full of friends.
Update Dec. 14, 2017: I’m very curious about why, three years after I posted this story about Agustin on my blog, I’ve suddenly had over 200 viewings of it in one day. If you’re reading this, would you please add a comment to tell me how you came to do so? Thanks, and thanks for viewing it!
The Prompt: Second-Hand Stories—What’s the best story someone else has recently told you (in person, preferably)? Share it with us, and feel free to embellish — that’s how good stories become great, after all.
I have been told many stories by Agustin, and some day I will share them with you, but I think they’ll have more power if you know more about the man, so today I want to tell you about him.
A number of years ago, a popular situation comedy in the U.S. was “Cheers,” a story about a Boston pub that became a home away from home for its regulars. Some of the lyrics from its enormously popular theme song were:
Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot. . . .
You wanna go where people know people are all the same,
You wanna go where everybody knows your name.
In San Juan Cosalá, Mexico, a pueblo of 6,000 on Lake Chapala, about an hour’s drive away from Guadalajara, that place is Agustin Vazquez’s restaurant, Viva Mexico. It is a warm, art-filled social center for the community that in my opinion also happens to serve the best food lakeside. Here as in the rest of his life, Agustin functions as half scholar, half artist, surveying other restaurants, cookbooks, websites and even literature such as Like Water for Chocolate for recipes that will enable him to bring to life again Mexico’s rich culinary history.
Quail in rose petal sauce is one such recipe which joins other special menu offerings such as fish fillets cooked in banana leaves with fresh herbs, chiles en nogada, pork shank, and ribs simmered in Agustin’s homemade sauce. Other traditional favorites are pozole (a rich pork and hominy stew) and molcajetes (beef, chicken or shrimp with sweet green peppers, onions, panela and other cheeses with a red or green sauce, cooked in a traditional stone receptacle). My favorite is a molcajete of chicken breast cooked in green sauce. Mmmmmmm. No one I’ve ever recommended it to has been disappointed, and I recommend it to everyone I see who is about to order.
More artistry is displayed in the presentation. Vegetables are fanned in flower shapes, organic lettuce supports the freshest tomato slices, and the entire plate becomes an artistic pleasure that makes one pause a moment to survey the plate before succumbing to the wonderful odors that presage delightful tastes and textures to be experienced.
A lifelong local resident who has his community and its people in his heart, Agustin is so busy that it is hard to imagine how he fits all of his obligations into one day, for his creation of one of the most popular restaurants in the area is just one small part of his life. He also helps to direct a charitable food operation that now feeds 100 families in his home village, personally purchasing the food and for years, delivering it to each family once a week. (Now the families come to receive their weekly ration from a new region of his restaurant that serves as a storage space and dispensa for Operation Feed.) Since he joined the program a few years ago, his skill in bargaining has allowed them to double the number of families who are helped by the program. He does not allow them to reimburse him for his gas or his time.
I first met Agustin in 2002 when I became involved with a group of local Mexican artists. Agustin, who at the time was working as a real estate agent and contractor, had long been their patrón (sponsor) and so when I approached them about helping to stage a children’s art experience where they would paint pictures on the theme of cleaning up the lakeside and their village, Agustin immediately became a major supporter of the project, helping to buy backpacks and school supplies for the prizes. When we staged a fundraising concert to send a young opera singer to the U.S., Agustin fed us all afterwards in what was then his Aunt Lupita’s pozole restaurant. At the time, it was dirt-floored, the simple kitchen was open to the air and parts of the restaurant were without a ceiling.
Now, ten years later, Agustin has added a beautiful stone floor, screened in the kitchen, added ceiling fans, colorful tablecloths and equipale chairs, purchased all new appliances and kitchen equipment, new bathrooms and a bar where local artists continue to meet most nights. If they are a bit short of money to pay for meals, it is fairly certain that they’ll be served a meal anyway. The walls reflect his support of local artists. Floor to ceiling on all sides, they are covered with their framed paintings, except for the east wall, which is entirely covered by a mural by Isidro Xilonzochitl. It depicts San Juan Cosalá as it was hundreds of years ago. “These guys—these artists and writers and musicians—have to be supported,” Agustin told me recently, “They are part of our community, as you, who live here also, are part of it.”
That statement forms the crux of the magic of a place like Agustin’s. It really is the place that binds us all—Mexican and expats—together. This first started to happen on September 12 of 2007, when weeks of rain were followed by a tromba (waterspout) that dumped water into the hills above the Raquet Club and the town, causing a tremendous downrush of water that brought boulders, dirt and everything in its path down the mountainside and into the town. Walls, buildings and roads gave way to the avalanche of water and rock, leaving much of the town devastated.
Agustin, who had recently purchased his aunt’s restaurant, stepped immediately into the fray, feeding the thousand or so displaced residents and relief workers three meals a day. Originally paying for the food out of his own pocket, he was eventually given food and aid by other residents, both Anglo and Mexican; and this is how the Mexican and Anglo communities were given a chance to mingle and get to know each other on a more intimate level. When I volunteered, Agustin first gave me a broom to sweep the dirt floor. By the end of the week, I was stirring huge pots of beef and waiting on tables as his restaurant filled three times a day.
The work was exhausting as Agustin and eventually, 25 volunteers, most of them family members, worked to provide three meals a day. By the end of ten days, this amounted to over 3,000 meals! By the time he had persuaded local politicians to take over this task, in addition to losing out on almost two weeks of income, Agustin was so in debt for supplies he had bought out of his own pocket that for two months, he questioned his ability to reopen the restaurant. Most of his knives, forks and salt and pepper shakers had been thoughtlessly carried away with carry-out meals. Teary-eyed, Agustin told me about local neighbors, poor themselves, who heard of his plight and offered him hands full of change to try to help, but in the end, he was still $75,000 pesos in debt.
With three sons and a wife to support, Agustin could not afford to take more of a break than was absolutely necessary, so mustering his courage, he somehow found the means to again open the restaurant which four years later has become the heart of the community.
What factors go together to create these great qualities of entrepreneurism, courage, generosity and artistic sensibility in a man? Knowing a bit more about Agustin’s history might give us a clue. When he was born in San Juan Cosalá in 1966, the midwife told Agustin’s mother that this child was different and special, that he would bring luck to his family and all around him. When I asked Agustin what quality the midwife had noticed, he did not know, but later when we talked again, I asked him if he had been born with a caul over his head, as this is the traditional sign world-wide that a child is destined to greater things. When I described what this meant, Agustin nodded his head in agreement. This is how the midwife had described it, but he had never known the term for it.
When Agustin was born, his father went to the United States to find work to support his family. At that time, Agustin was the fourth child but the first son born into a family that would eventually grow to five brothers, five sisters. Agustin himself began work at the age of six, cutting firewood or helping his grandpa with his fisherman’s nets after school. “My mother, she always pushed us to go to school,” said Agustin. “She could not read or write herself, but she was always encouraging me to look for another way to live. ‘I don’t want you to be like me,’ she said. Now I say the same thing to my sons.”
“I was a troublemaker in secondaria,” Agustin confessed to me, “because I always questioned the priest, wanting to know more.” Agustin credits Padre Adalberto Macias with changing the town through education. “He didn’t want me there, though, because all those questions were a disruption,” admits Agustin. Ironically, Agustin is now the man who drives to the Abastos (wholesale market) in Guadalajara each month to procure food and deliver it to Casa de Ninos y Jovenes, the residential school for disadvantaged youth run by Padre Adalberto.
In July of 1978, at the age of twelve, Agustin went north to the U.S. for the first time. His father put him in school in Lompoc, California for three or four months, but as one of only four Mexicans in the school, he was not treated well and he begged to be sent back to Mexico. Sadly, although he did manage to complete secondaria (tenth grade), there was no money to send him to preparatorio. Instead, at the age of 14, he quit school to blast rock at the Piedra Barrenada, the stone cliff north of the fish restaurants on the carretera (highway) east of San Juan Cosalá. “On Saturday and Sunday, I worked as a waiter,” Agustin told me.
“I worked many jobs. I cut chayote plants and corn with my family. For one year I was a carpenter with my cousin. When a company came to export chayote to the United States, they made me manager at the age of 15, even though I was the youngest. I don’t know why. Next, I was a waiter at the balneario (hot mineral water spa) until I went to the states with my brother in 1984.”
It was his mother who had intended to go north to find his father, whom they had not seen for three years. She had heard rumors that he was very ill and living in Tijuana, but how could she leave with so many children to cook for, she asked, and begged him to go in her place. He lived for one month in the streets of Tijuana, looking for his father. When he found him, his father was in a hospital, having just undergone surgery. Once he recovered, they had no money to return home, so they went to the U.S. where this time, Agustin worked in the fields with his father for one year. “Cities on the borderline are horrible,” he told me. “They are so sad. Many people from different countries with no money to leave. So sad.” After one year of working in the states, he came back to Mexico to work in construction.
He went back one more time to the States, to get his ailing father so he could die in Mexico. When his father died in 1989, as the oldest son, Agustin inherited responsibility for the family he had been helping to support for most of his life. “My father was a generous man,” Agustin told me, “who would give his shirt if people liked it. When I was a young boy, my uncle, who remained in San Juan, had a pool hall. It was a long time before I knew that my father had given him the pool tables, and that the nets my grandfather used as a fisherman were actually my father’s nets. He was a nice man, my father, but he had to go to the states to support his family. He went to the states when I was born and worked there until I was twenty years old, when he came home to die.”
In 1990, Agustin married Antonia, a local beauty queen. “I saw her at a dance,” he said, and chuckled guiltily as he added, “She was with my friend, but when I saw her, I just had to ask her to dance, and so I took her away from him. My mother didn’t want me to get married, wanted me to wait. I was already feeding ten people in my family, but I wanted to get married, and so I did.
I was intrigued over how a young man with a wife and ten other dependents was ever able to become the self-educated, well-read community-minded restaurateur that Agustin is. “How did you ever manage to get where you are today?” I asked, and Agustin, a natural-born storyteller, pulled up a chair to the table where I sat over my molcajete and resumed his tale.
“I got a job at a restaurant in Ajijic that was run by a couple from San Francisco. They had three restaurants: in Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta and here. The woman was very tough, but nice, and I learned a lot from her. For one thing, I learned to focus. Four people together couldn’t compare to her chopping. While I was there, they taught me how to cook and to flambé. They helped me to be in contact with people. First I replaced the chief of waiters when he was gone, and after that I was the replacement for the bartender, waiter and cook. At that place I learned everything, but after one year, I had to quit. The cold and hot probably hurt my hands, because I started to get their kind of bones–the kind that grow (arthritis.)”
“When I went to apply for a job at Mama Chuy (a resort hotel near San Juan Cosalá) my wife was pregnant with our first son. I had to have a job, so I feigned experience. When they asked me if I knew English, I said yes. When they asked me how old I was, I said 28 or 29, but I was really 23. Everything they asked me, I said I knew how to do—except for maintaining the pools. ‘No, I said, but I can learn.’ When they asked me how much I wanted to be paid, I said, ‘Whatever you want to pay me,’ and I was hired on probation.”
“I worked there for five years and learned to speak English. I learned a lot at Mama Chuy’s. My first day, a guy from Massachusetts who was a guest there asked me if I wanted to learn English. When I said okay, he told me to be there tomorrow at six. That first day, he gave me the book Aztec by Gary Jennings and told me to read 20 or 30 pages. It was in Spanish, and that night I told my wife that for me it was an insult for him to give me this kind of book. But my wife told me to do what he told me.”
“When I saw him the next day, he asked if I had read the book and I said yes, but when he questioned me, he knew I hadn’t. Then he explained why he gave me the book. ‘The first thing you have to know is who you are,’ he said, ‘This book will teach you your own history.’ That was when I learned that you should never say ‘can’t.’ What you want, you have to go for. From that man, I learned everyday English. All the people at Mama Chuy helped me. In the five years I was there, I learned so many things. That man was a snowbird who came back every year and he taught me so many things. We became good friends. He 88 years old now…and in the states with Alzheimer’s.”
“During this time and afterwards, I taught English to 400 to 500 people from San Juan: gardeners, maids, taxi drivers, and students. This made me feel okay. I taught them for free or for one peso per class to buy diapers for my sons. Afterwards, I went to one or two schools to teach as well.
In the years to come, Agustin expanded his already extensive resume. First he became a contractor. “The best guys in town work for me,” he told me. “Just 5 guys. I don’t need more. They have worked for me for 18 years, whenever I need them.” When I asked him how he obtained his contracting experience, he admitted that here, too, he was self-educated. “I knew it in my dreams how to do it,” he confided. I was reminded of my recent trip to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio near Scottsdale, Arizona, where I had discovered that the same was true of Wright, who never had any formal architectural training.
“Trains pass by on a regular basis and I jumped on every one to see where it would take me.” said Agustin, referring to his ability to seize any available chance to self-educate. “The train, it doesn’t stop. You have to jump, run a little bit and get into the train.”
Other years were spent as a real estate broker. When he first was hired to work at Laguna Real Estate, he had no car, so he bought one. It was very hard, he said, because most of the customers were American and Canadian, so they preferred to work with the American and Canadian agents. He took classes in English, which were hard—a different level of English than he had learned formerly. In the first week, he sold a house, but received no commission.
For the next six or seven months, he sold no other houses and was ready to quit. The owner of the agency persuaded him to finish out the week. He made many phone calls, and ended up selling $2 million dollars US in two weeks. He worked there for five years, then changed agencies to work with another Mexican broker. “We took the leftovers,” he said, “the houses that didn’t cost so much, that the other brokers didn’t want; and we ended up doing six to seven closings a month.”
“If someone comes and offers me something, I will learn. Life is simple. We complicate our lives by wanting to have our own way. Like a bull. If you let him go, you can follow where he wants to go and it is easy to hold onto the bull. But if you pull, it’s not easy.”
When I asked him what his goals are for his sons, he answered, “Goals. I know my son’s life is not my life. I know it is his life. My first son is almost finished with University and will be an agricultural engineer, the second is in technical school to be a pilot and will be safe. The third (who quit school last year to support his girlfriend and baby, but who intends to go back to school next year) needs a push. This restaurant is for me, not necessarily for them. They need to find their own way. The people who work for me, I always try to help them as well.”
“What is left in life for you?” I ask him, and he answers, “Travel. If I had only myself to worry about, I would travel. People who travel live twice in their minds. Instead, I read, for people who read travel in their minds. Outside of his three trips to the U.S., what traveling he has done is in Mexico—every state except Chihuahua, Veracruz or Chiapas.
I know from an American friend who has had much advice from Agustin about what books to read, that Agustin is widely and well-read. When I ask him his favorite authors, he says, “I’d have many of those. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Octavio Paz, Juan Rulfo? Why not?”
When Ninos y Jovenes asked him to take over the purchasing of food and supplies for their residence school for disadvantaged children, his answer was yes, and he added this monthly task to his weekly trips to Guadalajara to buy food for Operation Feed. When Earl Smithburg, the former director of Operation Feed, died, Agustin provided the buses to transport people to his funeral.
When I asked him to drive me into some of the areas worst hit by the tromba for a follow-up story two years later, the answer was yes. When I asked his construction company to repair my roof, the answer was yes, and I don’t believe I ever received a final bill. I’ve asked about this countless times, and he never quite remembers what the amount is that I owe him.
He has amazing skills: carpenter, mason, real estate broker, resort manager, construction design, construction manager, restaurateur and chef. In addition to this, he is an outstanding family man, father, neighbor and friend. It came as no surprise to me at all that when I asked him if he’d ever had his IQ tested that he said yes. With prodding, I got him to confess that his IQ was 144—genius level.
In closing, I’d like to quote just a few of the statements that people made when I asked them their impressions of Agustin:
“Agustin consistently puts his personal needs behind the needs of others. He always thinks of others first when making decisions that will impact those around him.”
“Agustin recommended this incredible reading list for me. He is a self-taught scholar. He was a big reason why I stayed in Mexico. He has a heart that includes absolutely everyone.”
“He is the most unselfish man you will ever meet. He will give of himself by whatever means he has without thinking about the personal sacrifices that giving will cause.”
“He is a very trusting individual. If you pledge trust in return, you will enjoy a level of personal friendship that is truly without borders.”
“He is probably one of the last breeds of good old Mexican folk who grabs on to the land and to the culture of a bleeding patria (native land).”
“Humble and slow like an old dog who has been left the hard task of looking out to all those who depend on him and think of him as the ultimate guardian.”
“An absolute perfect host. He greets each person in his restaurant. If he is cooking at the time, he will wait until you are eating or afterwards, and then come up to your table, stand and talk for awhile, or if it’s a slow night, pull up a chair and talk to you.
“Multi-talented, really smart, Renaissance man. Genuinely cares about people. No haughtiness or pretense.”
“He has gotten to where he is by being absolutely nonpolitical. Everything he does, he does out of the goodness of his own heart, without a thought of his own gain. The help he furnished during the landslide was not for political reasons or anything other than that’s the kind of guy he is.”
“Agustin is an artist at work. He goes to the food sellers and warehouses for the charities he buys food for and he beats them down so badly on the prices that they aren’t making a whole lot of money.”
Energetic, generous, personable, devoted father, teacher, philanthropist, self-taught pillar of his family and community, a man with a heart of gold who goes out of his way to help others, Agustin Vasquez Calvario is a living testament to the truth that one person can make a difference.
(Viva Mexico is located two blocks west of the San Juan Cosalá Plaza at Porfirio Diaz #92. Call 387-761-1058 for directions or reservations.)
Judy’s note: This article was written a few years ago for an online magazine that is no more. In the years since then, Agustin has created a huge gourmet kitchen and doubled the size of his restaurant. The same artist who painted the mural inside has covered the outside of the restaurant with a huge mural that depicts the inside of the restaurant with every table filled with Agustin’s regular customers depicted. I’m at a table in the front row with my best friends around me. Sadly, I am the only one who still lives in Mexico.
Agustin has had many health challenges that have forced him to slow down and allow others to share some of the responsibilities he has always assumed. Although he has more helpers, new projects continue. He teaches English to Mexican adults and children, a children’s chorus now meets in the new half of his restaurant that only opens on weekends. A children’s orchestra has been started with instruments provided by solicitation of locals supportive of Agustin’s continuing schemes to give the youth of San Juan Cosala something to do more interesting than drugs and alcohol.
Twice a year, clothes are handed out here to the pueblo’s poorest and every week, food is dispensed to the 100 poorest families. Meat, vegetables and fruit have been added to the rations which formerly included only dry foodstuffs and oil. Things change and change as things do, but one thing that never changes is that Viva Mexico remains the heart of the community: both expat and Mexican.
Changes continue as the real Agustin, customers and friends all seem to be supervising the installation of new pavers that replace the former cobblestones of the road leading from the plaza to Viva Mexico.
UPDATE NOV. 29, 2016: We celebrated Agustin’s 50th birthday at Viva Mexico last night. See the story and photos in a new post HERE.
Dia de los Muertos, 2014
This is this year’s minimalist altar for my departed: husband Bob, Mother Pat and Father Ben. I wasn’t going to do one. Then Yolanda (my housekeeper) told me about a friend who didn’t make a Dia de los Muertos altar for her mother who had recently died. This friend then went to see the elaborate offerings of her brothers and sisters, so she brought a rather poor specimen of a pumpkin and told them they could put that on her mother’s grave. That night she had a dream of walking through the graveyard. Every other grave was elaborately decorated with flowers and sweetly-scented candles and favorite foods of the departed: water, whiskey, tequila. When she got to her mother’s grave, there was no light and there were no offerings—only the one poor pumpkin. As she walked by, people shook their heads, and she left in shame. When she woke up, she went to her mother’s grave and took her fresh water, a candle, sweets, and all of the things her mother loved.
It worked. I assembled an altar. Yolanda looked at it and told another story about how the water and candle help to create a breeze that brings the scent of the favorite foods to the departed. I quickly added a candle and a small glass of water with an ice cube—as Bob did hate a lukewarm Coke! When the ice cube melted, I added a small red heart to take its place. If you look closely, you can see it in the bottom of the glass.
It was my mother’s tradition to tuck a small box of Russell Stover candy into each of our Xmas stockings. One Xmas, we opened them to find only wrappers in each one. Over the course of the weeks before Xmas, our mother had opened each one, unable to resist eating the chocolates. So precedent decreed that I eat hers. You’ll see the empty papers littering the space around the box. (Yolanda, ever-respectful of tradition, helped by eating one piece.)
Although my father raised black Angus and Hereford cattle, this is Mexico, after all, so I think he’d forgive the long horns. A donut and a 10 peso piece complete his offerings. Last year I put a small glass of milk with cornbread crushed in it—his favorite cocktail. But this year the ants have taken over our part of Mexico, so I didn’t dare.
When my father died forty years ago, it was in Arizona, where my parents had been spending their winters for the past ten years. They maintained houses in two places, returning to South Dakota for the summers. But after my father died, my mother never again entered that house in the town where I’d grown up.
Our family had scattered like fall leaves by then—my mother to Arizona, one sister to Iowa, another to Wyoming. Both the youngest and the only unmarried one, I had fallen the furthest from the family tree. I had just returned from Africa, and so it fell to me to drive to South Dakota to pack up the house and to decide which pieces of our old life I might choose to build my new life upon and to dispose of the rest.
My father’s accumulations were not ones to fill a house. There were whole barns and fields of him, but none that needed to be dealt with. All had been sold before and so what was to be sorted out was the house. In that house, the drapes and furniture and cushions and cupboards were mainly the remnants of my mother’s life: clothes and nicknacks, pots and pans, spice racks full of those limited flavors known to the family of my youth—salt and pepper and spices necessary for recipes no more exotic than pumpkin pies, sage dressings and beef stews.
Packing up my father was as easy as putting the few work clothes he’d left in South Dakota into boxes and driving them to the dump. It had been years since I had had the pleasure of throwing laden paper bags from the dirt road above over the heaps of garbage below to see how far down they would sail, but I resisted that impulse this one last run to the dump, instead placing the bags full of my father’s work clothes neatly at the top for scavengers to find—the Sioux, or the large families for whom the small-town dump was an open-air Goodwill Store.
It was ten years after my father’s death before my mother ever returned again to South Dakota. By then, that house, rented out for years, had blown away in a tornado. Only the basement, bulldozed over and filled with dirt, contained the leftovers of our lives: the dolls, books, school papers and trophies. I’d left those private things stacked away on shelves—things too valuable to throw away, yet not valuable enough to carry away to our new lives. I’ve been told that people from the town scavenged there, my friend from high school taking my books for her own children, my mother’s friend destroying the private papers. My brother-in-law had taken the safe away years before.
But last year, when I went to clear out my oldest sister’s attic in Minnesota, I found the dolls I thought had been buried long ago–their hair tangled and their dresses torn—as though they had been played with by generations of little girls. Not the neat perfection of how we’d kept them ourselves, lined up on the headboard bookcases of our beds —but hair braided, cheeks streaked with rouge, eyes loose in their sockets, dresses mismatched and torn. Cisette’s bride dress stetched to fit over Jan’s curves. My sister’s doll’s bridesmaid dress on my doll.
It felt a blasphemy to me. First, that my oldest sister would take her younger sisters’ dolls without telling us. Her own dolls neatly preserved on shelves in her attic guest bedroom, ours had been jammed into boxes with their legs sticking out the top. And in her garbage can were the metal sides of my childhood dollhouse, imprinted with curtains and rugs and windows, pried apart like a perfect symbol of my childhood.
Being cast aside as leftovers twice is enough for even inanimate objects. Saved from my sister’s garbage and cut in half, the walls of my childhood fit exactly into an extra suitcase borrowed from a friend for the long trip back to Mexico, where I now live. I’ll figure out a new life for them as room décor or the backgrounds of colossal collages that will include the dolls I’m also taking back with me.
Mexico is the place where lots of us have come to reclaim ourselves and live again. So it is with objects, too. Leftovers and hand-me-downs have a value beyond their price tags. It is all those lives and memories that have soaked up into them. In a way, we are all hand-me-downs. It’s up to us to decide our value, depending upon the meaning that we choose to impart both to our new lives and these old objects. Leftovers make the most delicious meals, sometimes, and in Mexico, we know just how to spice them up.
The prompt: Hand-Me-Downs—Clothes and toys, recipes and jokes, advice and prejudice: we all have to handle all sorts of hand-me-downs every day. Tell us about some of the meaningful hand-me-downs in your life.
Unfortunate hairstyles of the past
I don’t remember, as a child, ever really thinking about what it would be like to be an adult in terms of where I would live or what I would choose as a profession. I do remember, however, two things I worried about.
First of all, I worried about what instrument I would play in the school band. I had two sisters, one eleven years older and the other four years older, who both played saxophone. As a matter of fact, there being 7 years difference in their ages, they both played the same saxophone! When I entered the sixth grade and was old enough to play in the starter band, I knew two things. #1: I had to play in the band because both of them had done so. #2: I had to find a way to be unique in doing exactly what they had done, and so I had to find a different instrument. This resolve was strengthened by the fact that my sister Patti was still using the “family saxophone.” As long as I was being different, I decided to stretch my uniqueness as far as it would go. No one in either the starter or the regular band had ever played a flute. It was exotic and not very heavy to carry. I would play a flute!!! Or rather, I would attempt to play a flute.
I faked it for two years, blowing energetically into the little hole as we sat in the band loft at games or marched along behind the regular band, practicing for parades or football games; but I never really developed much of a tone and my memory of which note was which was limited. It was really easy, though, to carry that little case about as large as a large pencil case the two blocks to the auditorium where our band practice occurred. My band instructor could not afford to be picky as there were only 200 students in the entire school system—grade school and high school combined—so every warm body available was required to flesh out the physical body of the band. If a few were miming, so be it. As long as they could stay in step for the marching band and didn’t play any really loud false notes, who would ever know?
When my sister left for college, she left the sax behind; and when I headed out for my first band practice as a high school freshman, I left that dread flute behind as I took sax in hand to continue the family tradition. I was not a whole lot better at it, but found something held between the lips and teeth was a lot easier than something held sideways and blown across and although the sax was heavier, it was held in a much more sustainable position than the flute, which was an exercise in arm isometrics as I held it aloft!!
The second worry I had about growing up was how I would wear my hair. I would lie awake nights worrying about what hairstyle I would adopt when I could no longer sport the sausage curls my mother formed around her finger each morning. Shirley Temple, who had already grown to adulthood, needed to be replaced! My hair was too long, however, to duplicate Shirley’s bouncy little curls. It hung in fat tubes down beside my cheeks, offsetting my tight little bangs curled up each night in pink rubber curlers. For some reason, both my mom and I thought this made me look real good, and I am not exaggerating when I admit that there were nights when I’d lie in bed, tears streaming down my cheeks, worrying about what I would do when I grew up and could no longer wear curls!!
So now you know why I dropped the saxophone as soon as I graduated high school and why I had to move to Mexico to escape the shame of all those years when I allowed my mother to shape my esthetic sense of hair. I haven’t owned a curler of any type for 20 years. That saxophone was handed on to the next generation of my family and its mouthpiece, at least, met its demise when it snapped in two as my niece tried to grip it with the fourth pair of teeth in three decades. With a new mouthpiece, it survived four more years—hopefully this time with someone with more talent than I. I know not where it ended up. Probably in some second hand store or donated to some child who couldn’t afford an instrument. I hope it wound up with some talented individual who could restore its pride in itself.
Now that I have been an adult for many many years, I have conquered most of its demands. I have found many hairstyles, only a few of them more ridiculous than sausage curls (see my college picture above as an illustration of this fact) and attempted only one additional instrument, the guitar. Having played only solo or in duet with a college friend who tried to mold me into Joan Baez but failed, I did learn about seven chords and learned to adapt a whole succession of seventies songs to fit into those seven chords. I played for sing-alongs with the kids I counseled at summer camp and for groups of little neighbors around the world, who would come to my house on Saturday mornings to sing silly songs. And I have that guitar to this day. But I haven’t played it for years and harbor no illusions about my prowess. It is there for visiting friends who want to play for me and as a big, cumbersome, hard-to-store reminder that I can choose my own failures as surely as my own successes.
I am an adult like other adults—growing more childish year-by-year, but in my regression toward soft food and adult diapers, I will never sink so low as to repeat some mistakes of my youth. Never ever more sausage curls or flutes held aloft like punishment. And never again will I try to be different just to be different. “The Far Side” has shown that this is nothing that really needs to be aimed for. We all grow odd enough just following the path of nature, thereby furnishing the humor for all the generations that follow us.
The Prompt: As a kid, you must have imagined what it was like to be an adult. Now that you’re a grownup (or becoming one), how far off was your idea of adult life?
P.S. Thirty years after high school, when I was doing an art show in Oregon, a man walked by my display and then did an about-face and came back and said, “You’re Judy Dykstra, aren’t you?” I admitted the fact and asked him how he knew me. He said he was 5 years behind me in school in the small South Dakota town where I grew up. He was a country boy and since we’d never been in school together, I didn’t recognize him but did recognize the family name.
“How in the world did you even know what I looked like, let alone recognize me thirty years later?” I asked.
“Well, a bunch of us used to collect in the the school library and look at old annuals,” he said. “I recognize you from your high school picture.” Suddenly, it all came clear.
“You used to look at them to laugh at all the funny hairstyles, didn’t you?” Sheepishly, he laughed and admitted it. I had hit the nail (or the girl?) right on the head!!!!