Inside the Green Box

24 Oct Me and my brother, Chris on Christmas morning.

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When I was six years old, there was a package under the Christmas tree which I was absolutely sure was for me. It was wrapped in green and yellow striated tissue paper and had no ribbon or bow. Frugal and uninspired, my mother never made a fuss when wrapping presents, even making her own gift tags fashioned from white index cards—cutouts of Christmas trees with her looping handwriting in green marker indicating the recipient. For some reason though, this particular green box had no handmade tag.

My parents weren’t big believers in promoting the idea that Santa brought us presents on Christmas Eve—their 1970’s pseudo-hippie philosophy prevented them from propagating the Santa Claus myth, so our family never hung up stockings or read The Christmas Story. Gifts were bought and wrapped in colored tissue paper (no bow, of course) and kept high up on a shelf in their closet until the tree went up two weeks before Christmas. Why my mother couldn’t splurge on a traditional roll of Christmas paper or a bag of bows has always remained a mystery to me. Usually a few days before Christmas, the presents were placed under our fragrant, tinsel laden Douglas fir, giving my older brother, Chris and me ample time to ponder what was in each wondrous package and making it impossible for us to keep our tiny hands off the gifts.

With those same small hands we felt, tapped and shook each package with utter focus, but it was the green box that piqued our interest the most. For hours my brother and I discussed at length what was in the unmarked box—he insisted it was the Hot Wheels set for which he’d been begging for months—while I furiously argued it had to be a Crissy Doll for me.

Ah, the Crissy Doll. How I begged and pleaded with my parents for a Crissy Doll! With her dark eyes and lustrous red hair that literally grew out of a hole in the top of her head when you turned a knob on her back, I was certain I couldn’t be happy without her.

My new found obsession with Crissy had grown rampant after a distressing incident where my mother, frustrated with my hysterical crying every time she brushed my hair, had taken me to her hairdresser and had my own stringy locks hacked into a hideous pixie cut. Long hair was just becoming all the rage, and I was beyond devastated by my mother’s insensitive betrayal. I figured if I couldn’t have my own long hair to brush and style, then by God, I would have Crissy’s.

Me and my brother, Chris on Christmas morning.

My brother Chris and I showing off one of our gifts on Christmas morning. (Notice the pixie cut)

Christmas morning arrived with the usual fervor and excitement. My father, despite a raging hangover, cheerfully passed out a variety of presents to each of us which we dutifully tore open and tossed aside with casual indifference. To be honest, my brother and I only had eyes for that unmarked green box—the one my dad had purposely left until the very end.

He finally picked up the mystery package. “Now, who could this be for?” he said, expertly dangling a cigarette between his lips, the inch long ash threatening to fall to the ground at any second.

My brother and I both raised our hands, “Me, me!” we shouted in unison. My dad, grinning with holiday mischief, looked back and forth at the two of us before finally handing the box to my brother who managed to unwrap it in four seconds flat, revealing it was indeed a Hot Wheels set.

“Yippee!” he shouted, holding it in up in the air, “Thanks, Dad! It’s just what I wanted!”

My heart dropped. How could this be? That was supposed to be my Crissy Doll! Oh, the unfairness of it all. My lower lip jutted out and I could feel the hot tears stinging my eyes as I faced away from my parents and began to settle into the most monumental sulk I’d ever had in my short life. I decided I would never speak to any of them again, including my greedy, double-crossing brother.

A moment later, my mother put a gentle hand on my shorn head. “Jess, Honey,” she said, “I think I may have forgotten a present in my bedroom. Why don’t you go take a look behind my desk and see if there’s anything there.”

What was this? I leapt up and tore into their room with both hands holding up my loose pajama bottoms so they wouldn’t slip off my hips. There, behind my mother’s boxy black desk, I found an identical green tissue paper wrapped present—exactly the same shape and size as the one my brother had just opened. With a euphoric and somewhat sheepish grin on my face, I carried it out to the living room and set it on the rug.

“Well aren’t you going to open it?” my dad asked.

I knew what it was, but I wanted to savor the moment a little longer. I ran my hands along the smooth green paper and stuck my finger under the tape to loosen the flap. Slowly tearing the edge of the paper I saw a flash of red and no longer able to contain myself, I ripped off the paper and tore open the box. There she was in all her flaming glory—my beautiful Crissy Doll—wearing an orange dress and matching orange shoes, her shiny red hair luminescent in the glow of the Christmas tree lights.

Years later, my mother told me that I almost didn’t get a Crissy Doll that Christmas. She had waited too long to buy one, and by the time she got around to doing her Christmas shopping, they were all gone.

On Christmas Eve and she found herself desperately driving from store to store with no luck. Finally, in sheer desperation, she went into a Thrifty Drug Store around the corner from our house where the clerk told her he had one left but was saving it for a lady who was supposed to come in to pick it up. My mother saw her chance. She laid it on thick, telling him how sad and disappointed her little girl would be not to find a Crissy Doll under the tree the next day. It was already so late in the day—surely the woman wasn’t coming after all. She literally begged him to sell it to her—perhaps she even allowed the tears to wet her eyes. My guess is she offered him twenty bucks extra for the doll. Whatever she did, it worked, and my Christmas was magically complete.

I played with my Crissy Doll religiously every day for a month until one evening I decided to take her into the bath with me. With one dip into the hot water, her shiny, lustrous hair turned into a mass of red, tangled straw that could no longer be wound back into the hole in her head. Soon her dress and matching orange shoes were misplaced and poor Crissy became just another shoeless, naked doll shoved into the bottom of my toy box.

No matter, I had something else in mind. My birthday was coming up in a few months and it was time to start planting the seed in my mother’s brain.

“Mommy,” I said sweetly, carrying my empty cereal bowl to the sink one morning, “Have you ever heard of an Easy Bake Oven?”

 

Dying Twice

20 Oct

dd13I’ve written about Dia de los Muertos many times before in my blog, but today I’m just going to share a photo gallery of our Day of the Dead altar. Last night, when we gathered around the altar and lit the candles, my husband Rene said something that resonated with me and made me realize why setting up the altar each year is such a meaningful tradition. He talked about how all of us really die twice–once when our body physically dies, and then a second time when we are forgotten by others. That is why we arrange the altar and put out the photographs of those we’ve loved and lost–so we don’t let them die twice.

Our complete altar all lit up at night.

Our complete altar all lit up at night.

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My dad, Joseph Winters with his granddaughter, Gillian Winters in front of him.

My dad, Joseph Winters with his granddaughter, Gillian Winters in front of him.

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My grandmother, Martha.

My grandmother, Martha.

My Literary Addiction

26 Sep

nancy_drewIn the past two weeks alone, I’ve read three complete novels. You’re probably wondering how I can find the time to read that much with close to fifty piano students, three kids still at home, a household to run, and a novel to write, but you see—a drug addict will always find her fix. And that’s what reading is to me—a fix, an escape, a downright cheap and easy way to flee my often complex reality.

I remember when I unearthed my deep love of books—or more aptly, my love of escapism. I was in the in the fifth grade, and although I had always loved reading a variety of books and authors, I hadn’t yet become obsessed with reading until I discovered The Nancy Drew Mysteries by Carolyn Keene on the shelf at the public library. I was instantly hooked. I fell in love with Nancy because she was everything I thought I wasn’t—pretty, self assured, smart and independent. She drove around in her little “roadster” solving mysteries with the help of her two close girlfriends and a father who loved and encouraged her. It was easy to lose myself in that idyllic utopia that had eluded me in my own life.

My fifth grade teacher soon became concerned that I was limiting my literary horizons by reading only Nancy Drew Mysteries. Mr. Robinson, whom our fifth grade class had fittingly nicknamed “Robin Red Beard,” because of his scraggly red beard, was a balding, pale-skinned hippie who wore earth shoes and faded Levis and although he had a booming voice, he was a gentle giant. He took me aside one day and gently suggested it was time to branch out and read other genres. He then handed me a copy of “The Witch of Blackbird Pond” by Elizabeth George Speare. At first I resisted. Give up my beloved Nancy Drew for a book about a witch in the 1600’s? I think not!

But because I wanted to please my beloved Mr. Robinson, I began to read it, and you can probably figure out the rest of the story. That was the end of Nancy for the time being and the opening up of a whole newsounder literary world for me which included books like “Summer of the Swans,” by Betsy Byers, “The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” by E.L. Konigsberg, and “Sounder” by William H. Armstrong. I’m not sure if he even realized it, but Mr. Robinson had given me the key to the candy store.

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A few years later when I was in junior high, I secretly rekindled my love affair with Nancy Drew until one embarrassing day at the public library when the man helping me check out my tall stack of mysteries narrowed his eyes at me.

“Aren’t you a little old for these?” he teased.

I was mortified. “They’re for my little sister,” I said, stammering. I don’t even have a sister.

Sure they are,” he said with a knowing smile.

I was so humiliated that when I got outside the library I dumped the whole lot into the big metal book return box and didn’t pick up a Nancy Drew mystery until many years later when my two oldest girls were in elementary school. One Christmas I bought a box set of her mysteries as a present for them and I was so excited to watch them fall in love with Nancy that I couldn’t wait to see their excited faces on Christmas morning.

“Nancy Drew?” Leah said with a scowl after tearing open the box. “Ewwww, Mom! I hate Nancy Drew—she’s so old fashioned!”

My heart sank. It turned out that neither girl was interested in reading my beloved Nancy. The entire box set ended up on the shelf, untouched and unread until years later when I finally donated them to the same library where I began my love affair with her over forty years ago.

You win some and you lose some, I guess. My daughters’ Nancy Drew turned out to be Harry Potter and that’s just fine. It doesn’t matter what they read, as long as they read.

Thank goodness there are some addictions in life that are good for you.

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Three Years of Literary Bliss

5 Sep

photo (35)Three years ago today, I published my first blog post. To be honest, it was a momentous experience for me as it was my first real step in believing that I could actually refer to myself a writer. Since that decision to expose myself literally to the world (yes, pun intended) I’ve grown and changed quite a bit as a writer.

When I first began blogging, I would spend three to four days working on a post, revising, amending, altering, and rearranging the words until there was no possible editing left to do (or so I thought.) My posts were usually WAY too long and often focused on the many deep thoughts I felt I needed to share with the world about my angst-ridden childhood or my skewed sense of self-worth. Whew—it was heavy stuff, and in retrospect I believe I owe you all a very big thank you for slogging through it and then being kind enough to leave me a comment.

These days, I don’t post nearly as often as I did three years ago. My latest posts are much shorter in length (you’re welcome) or maybe they’re just photographs. As I spend the bulk of my free time working on my novel, I usually don’t have the energy or time to write weekly posts and it’s almost a miracle if I publish once a month.

I get advice from other writers that it’s important to keep at the blogging. You’ve got to get your name out there! Build up that fan base! Get that mailing list organized! That way, if my novel is ever published—wait—I take that back—WHEN my novel is published, I’ll be able to market it more efficiently.

GAH! That’s the hard part—I hate that idea of posting just to get “out there.” I’m told that with all the changes taking place in publishing these days, authors have to really work hard to get their novels recognized, but the idea of self-marketing somehow rubs me the wrong way.  And I don’t want to post just for the sake of posting—I want to share only when I have something really interesting to write about.trailing vines

Today, what I think is interesting and what I choose to write about is that it’s my three year blogging anniversary and I’ve come a long way since I started. I’ve met some very interesting people along this journey and I hope to meet many more. Thank you all for reading, for commenting, for supporting and for following me.

And just so you know, each and every one of your names will be listed on the acknowledgement page WHEN my novel is published.

Cody will also have his name listed as he keeps my feet warm while I write.

Cody will also have his name listed as he keeps my feet warm while I write.

Seeing Spots

21 Aug

dal 5I thought maybe my followers were a little tired of all the colorful flower photos, so here’s something in black and white.

And don’t even try to tell me you don’t think these guys are the cutest things ever…

 

 

 

Newborns

Newborns

Still little enough to fit into a laundry basket...

Still little enough to fit into a laundry basket…

About to go on their first road trip...

About to go on their first road trip…

Not sure about this whole thing...

Not sure about this whole thing…

Feels like prison.

Feels like prison.

Don't make me go!

Don’t make me go!

 

 

August Light

9 Aug

aug 9 14 1It’s a lovely August evening and I just couldn’t resist taking some photographs of the garden. Ever so slightly the light is beginning to change, signaling that the end of summer is approaching.

But all is well. Summer always comes around again.

Enjoy the burst of color!

 

 

 

 

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Proof of Summer

30 Jul

jul 30 3Today is the last day of July which means there’s less than one month of summer left.

Why is it that now that I’m an adult, summer moves by at warp speed? I remember when I was a child, those long days of  June, July and August stretched out like a road with no end. I could go off and do whatever I wanted as long as I was home by dinnertime. School never started until after Labor Day.

I remember how all the neighborhood kids and I would ride our bikes to the beach and on the way home the sand in our bathing suits would scratch at our bodies like sandpaper. When we finally got home, sleepy from playing all day in the waves and cranky because we only packed a baloney sandwich on white bread and an apple for lunch, we would fight over who got to rinse off with the hose first because the water was warm for only a few seconds.

I remember how we cleaned the tar from our feet with a rag soaked in gasoline poured from an old metal can which turned our fingers orange from the rusty cap. I remember how our shoulders would be tender and pink from sunburn; how we would come home with more freckles across our noses than we had when we left that morning.

I remember how good my mother’s homemade meatloaf and mashed potatoes tasted and that I would even eat all my peas because I was so ravenous. I remember the sweet creaminess of a real vanilla ice cream cone after dinner. I remember hearing the crickets chirp while playing hide and seek in the street until the porch light went on and I was called in for the night.

Summer may be different for me now, but it’s still summer. I may play in the garden instead of in the waves. I may stay out of the sun now.  But it’s still summer, and it’s still magical.  And everywhere I look there are signs that it’s here for a little while longer.

Here’s my proof.

Isa's unmade bed.

Isa’s unmade bed.

The summer garden.

The summer garden.

A new litter of puppies.

A new litter of puppies.

A book so good you can't put it down.

A book so good you can’t put it down.

The color purple.

The color purple.

A good nap.

A good nap.

I hope you enjoy the rest of your lazy days of summer.

 

Done Dabbling

26 Jul

writing studyA few years back, someone asked me if I thought I’d ever write a novel some day. My first reaction was to laugh. At that time, I had just recently delved back into writing after a twenty-five year hiatus of not writing a single word (actually, hiatus sounds like I was once a prolific writer—I wasn’t—the best word to describe my attempts at writing in college would be that I “dabbled.”)  Sure, writing short essays and a blog post now and then was feasible—but a novel? I couldn’t even fathom writing something that extensive.

I’m not ashamed to admit that my childhood dream was always to become a writer—I thought about it incessantly for years. I loved books so much—the smell of them; the texture of the paper between my fingertips; the way the words jumped out at me from the page; how I could easily lose myself in a story and experience someone’s life other than my own even if it was just for a short time. The library was my home away from home.

Being somewhat of an introvert, the solitary life of a writer has always appealed to me. As a young girl I created this elaborate fantasy in which I envisioned myself writing my literary masterpiece while tucked away in a cozy study with soft lighting and wall to wall bookshelves. While sitting quiet and alone at an antique desk, I would sip hot tea with honey while a blazing fire crackled in the fireplace. When I needed inspiration, I would glance up and look out through the French Doors onto my picturesque English garden where my flowers somehow managed to bloom year round. Oh—I almost forgot—in my fantasy there was always a gentle rain falling outside.english garden

That perfect fantasy never really got off the ground—with a husband, four kids, four dogs and my mother, I’m never alone. I don’t have French Doors, I live in Southern California where it rarely rains and it’s usually too hot outside to light a fire in the fireplace. I prefer Starbucks coffee to hot tea and rarely go to the library anymore because I always forget to return the books and before I know it I’ve racked up over fifty dollars worth of late fees. I read most of my books on my Kindle and I don’t have an antique desk.  I do my best writing while sitting on the couch.

But get this: I’m thirty-three chapters and almost 70,000 words into my first novel. BAM!  That’s right—I am fifty two years old and for the first time in my life I’m doing what I always dreamed of doing—I am writing a novel.

Now, who knows? My novel may very well turn out to be trite, sentimental and cliché, but then again, it might turn out to be a really great read with a real plot and interesting and lovable characters. We’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, I’m carving out a little time every day in my busy schedule to sit down on my couch and get a paragraph or two written down, which more often than not gets deleted the following day (I mean, who in their right mind would write such crap?) No matter—one good sentence at a time and somehow the job gets done. And I’m having the time of my life.

Who needs fire, tea and rain to write a book? Not me.

This girl is done dabbling.

 

If  you’re interested, here’s the synopsis of my novel (still untitled)

After a devastating accident permanently injured the fingers of her right hand and ended her promising career as a concert pianist, thirty-six year old Camille Childs has lived a sheltered and lonely existence teaching piano lessons out of the guest house behind her mother’s lavish Santa Barbara estate. After ten years of teaching piano to Graciela, the very talented daughter of the Mexican housekeeper, Camille finally has the opportunity to validate her teaching expertise after Graciela wins a prestigious piano competition and is about to be presented in her own solo debut recital. Not only will this recital help launch Graciela’s own career as a concert pianist, but it will also help Camille build her reputation as a master teacher and bring her the recognition and acclaim she feels she deserves.

Three weeks before the grand debut recital, Graciela suddenly disappears and Camille learns that she has left the country for her mother’s isolated village in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. Against the wishes of her own controlling and alcoholic mother, Camille travels alone to Oaxaca to search for Graciela and bring her back home in time for the concert. There, during a monsoonal thunderstorm, Camille almost loses her life in a terrible bus accident, but at the last minute is saved by Alejandro, a handsome indigenous Zapotec originally from the same village as Graciela.

Despite a contentious first meeting with the spoiled and self-centered Camille, Alejandro befriends her and helps her navigate the mountainous terrain and unfamiliar culture of the Zapotec town of Yalálag, Oaxaca. With Alejandro’s help, Camille embarks on a journey of self-discovery that will change how she views the world as well as herself.

Villa Hidalgo Yalalag, Oaxaca. This is where much of the novel takes place.

Villa Hidalgo Yalalag, Oaxaca. This is where much of the novel takes place.

Signs

7 Jul

june 5 flowers 8The other morning I was in a deep funk. I hadn’t slept well because I drank a cup of coffee around eight o’clock the night before thinking it was decaf. Big mistake. I’m sure at one point or another everyone has experienced that horrible feeling when you’re lying in bed and your body is tingling and your brain won’t stop analyzing and nitpicking. I didn’t fall asleep until almost dawn.

I woke up exhausted, crabby and shrewish, just to name a few—although I’ve no doubt my family could come up with an enhanced list of unpleasant adjectives that would better illustrate my mood at the time. I yelled at my daughter, glared at my husband and worked myself into a hot mess of resentment and dissatisfaction. Good Lord—I figured I’d better get out of the house before I killed someone. I quickly pulled on my tennis shoes and went for a walk.

For a couple of miles I wallowed in my rage and discontent—everything sucked, nothing was fair and nobody cared. The grievances whirled and foamed in my head until they formed stiff peaks.

Then I ran into an old childhood friend who was visiting her parents for the holiday weekend. Over the past few years she’s been dealing with some serious, life-threatening health issues. I immediately felt ashamed. Here I was, grumbling over nothing, when she had to worry about staying alive. I took a deep breath and decided to change my thinking.

I began to feel a little better on the way back home, finally taking notice of the beautiful summer morning that spread out before me like an overflowing smorgasbord of color. I passed a house with a jumbled yard full of trailing vines, flowering pots and whimsical garden ornaments. And right there in the front yard was this sign:

be grateful

“Whoa,” I thought, stopping in my tracks. The universe had given me a sign. Literally.

Always be Grateful. Such a simple concept, yet one we often have the most trouble understanding.

At that moment I decided to spend more time finding things to be grateful about—to appreciate what I would normally  take for granted. I’ve documented a few of them to remind us that those small, insignificant things are what make our lives meaningful.

From now on, I’m going to pay attention to the signs.

My husband, Rene and daughter,  Isa holding hands while watching a World Cup Soccer match. The blanket covering Rene's legs looks like a smiling face.

A Sign of LOVE. My husband, Rene and daughter, Isa holding hands while watching a World Cup Soccer match. The blanket covering Rene’s legs looks like a smiling face.

Out of the blue, my dear friends Michele and Julie invited me to a Joan Baez/Indigo Girls concert as an early birthday present. It was magical.

A Sign of FRIENDSHIP. Out of the blue, my dear friends Michele and Julie invited me to a Joan Baez/Indigo Girls concert as an early birthday present. It was magical.

A print my son, Nino made in one of his art classes. Profound words.

A Sign of PROFUNDITY. A print my son, Nino made in one of his art classes. I will choose wisely.

My daughter, Isa and my nephew J.J. hanging out on the couch. J.J. would not be here if his older sister Gillian had lived. Isa would not be here if she hadn't survived her leukemia. Take nothing for granted.

A Sign of MIRACLES. My daughter, Isa and my nephew J.J. hanging out on the couch. J.J. would not be here if his older sister Gillian had not died. Isa would not be here if she hadn’t survived her leukemia. Take nothing for granted.

A Sign of detailed complexity. The sun shining on the bench outside my music studio.

A Sign of complexity. The sun shining on the bench outside my music studio.

A sign of continuously changing beauty.

A Sign of BEAUTY. The garden is a constant source of changing beauty.

Now it’s your turn to look for YOUR signs.

Hope

5 Jun

june 5 flowers 8It’s the last day of school for my daughter, Isa and that means summer is officially here. Even with the drought here in Santa Barbara, the flowers are spectacular this year.

Every day when I walk out the front door I’m greeted by a glorious blanket of color that wraps me up in joy even when my heart is heavy. There’s been so much sadness in our community since the shootings that took place in Isla Vista on May 23. There is still so much healing that needs to take place.

Despite this tragedy, I still believe that beauty always finds its way into our lives and somehow continues to blossom even when the conditions are unfavorable.

I choose to believe in the goodness of all people. I pray  for change. I watch for growth. And I hope for love.

And it’s all right there in the garden to remind me every single day.

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