Tag Archives: Oaxaca

Oaxaca!

14 Dec

It’s wonderful when you stumble upon a lovely and interesting travel blog; it’s even more wonderful when you discover that the blog author has featured your very own novel about a particular location that’s very close to your heart: Oaxaca! A shout out to Shelley, who included my novel, LOST IN OAXACA in her terrific blog about traveling in Oaxaca. You can check it out here: https://clairesitchyfeet.com/dest/north-america/mexico/oaxaca-city-guide/

I sincerely hope that very soon we will all be able to travel once again. If you decide that Oaxaca is your future destination, this blog will give you to lowdown on everything–where to stay, eat, and all the incredible sites to visit!

And bring along a copy of LOST IN OAXACA to read on the plane! https://www.amazon.com/Lost-Oaxaca-Jessica-Winters-Mireles/dp/1631528807/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=lost+in+oaxaca&

Not Done Yet

22 Jul

 

img_2247From the time I won an essay contest in second grade, I dreamed of becoming a writer. I wasted a lot of years doing everything but writing, mainly because I was such an expert at avoidance and self-doubt. Sometimes, though, we are fortunate enough to hit bottom at some point in our lives, and this sends us into the direction we were always meant to go. I had that experience in my mid-forties, where I was subsequently able to wriggle out of my rusty chains of insecurity and actually start writing. And after many years of back-breaking (butt-numbing) hard work, I actually completed an honest-to-god novel. Then I even got the damn thing published.

Yay! Good for me! I should feel excited, accomplished, and proud, right?

Um, no. I don’t feel any of those things. I mostly feel sad. And guilty. Self-promoting one’s novel is never an easy task, but doing it in the midst of a devastating pandemic and one of the greatest social uprisings in our country, feels overly self-serving (even though isn’t that the point of marketing?)

But like many other writers out there trying to drum up some hype for their newly published books, I’m asking myself, how much is too much? Should I stop trying to draw attention to myself when the country is falling apart? When folks are worried about putting food on the table, getting evicted from their homes, or being pepper-sprayed (or worse) while protesting, they’re probably not going to be excited about seeing another Instagram/Facebook post of a copy of LOST IN OAXACA placed artfully next to a sweating glass of iced tea while I tout it as the next great summer read.

I get it. There are so many more important things to talk about right now. But I’ve been at this for such a long time—I’m just not ready to give up on it yet. Especially when a fricking virus cancelled my book-signing party.

I know this novel doesn’t define me—it’s only a fraction of who I am. But it is meaningful, because it’s a direct result of a major shift that took place in my own life. And I still feel the need to honor that, even if it means still talking about the book. And while I’ll try my best not to over-share, I’m not ready to shut up about LOST IN OAXACA just yet. So if you see that pretty blue book cover in your social media feed yet again, just grin and bear it—and feel free to scroll on by.

Then again, maybe you’re looking for a fun literary escape?

Have I got the perfect book for you.

 

If you’re interested in hearing more about LOST IN OAXACA, check out my recent guest spot on the NEW BOOKS NETWORK podcast.

https://player.fm/series/new-books-in-literature-2421420/jessica-winters-mireles-lost-in-oaxaca-she-writes-press-2020

Long Overdue

16 Jan

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If not for my college roommate and dear friend, Kay, my novel, Lost in Oaxaca, would have never been written. Kay and I have been close friends since seventh grade, when nine twelve year-old girls from different elementary schools merged together and formed a friendship that is still going strong almost fifty years later.

You can read about us here if you like:

https://allegronontanto.wordpress.com/2011/12/18/my-girls/

Kay was the one who always did everything first. She cut her hair before it was a thing, rocking a Dorothy Hamill haircut like nobody’s business. She wore espadrilles before there were popular. She painted her bedroom walls a dark chocolate brown, listened to depressing Barry Manilow songs, and wrote deep thoughts down in a leather-bound journal. I borrowed her clothes, hoping that some of her specialness would rub off on me. It didn’t take.

Kay was (and still is) an incredible actress and singer, and she decided to apply to the theater department at USC. I quickly followed her lead and applied to the music school. I know I got in on my own merit, but being the anxious and insecure teenager I was at the time, I don’t think I would have taken the initiative to apply to USC without her doing it first. We were both accepted, and the following fall, we headed off to LA together.

We were too cool to live in the dorms. Somehow, we managed to rent an adorable two bedroom apartment in Santa Monica that had hardwood floors, crown molding, and magically, a sliver of an ocean view out the upstairs window. We drank cheap wine, watched SNL reruns and dreamed of becoming famous. We acquired a cat and named her Cressida. During the summer before our senior year, Kay got a job waitressing at an upscale hamburger restaurant on Wilshire. And because I followed her everywhere, I got a job there, too.

At that restaurant, I fell in love with one of the line cooks responsible for making all those fancy, gourmet hamburgers. He was an indigenous Zapotec man from Oaxaca, Mexico, and not only was he handsome, he was kind. Two years later, I married him. For our honeymoon, we traveled to his hometown in Oaxaca, Mexico. There, the seed for my novel, Lost in Oaxaca was planted. Being the late bloomer that I am, that little seed took an awful long time to germinate. But this coming spring (April 21 to be exact) it’s going to blossom into something pretty big and beautiful.

Jessica Winters Mireles

After thirty-five years, it’s long overdue, but thank you, Kay, for letting me follow you all those years ago, so that I could eventually learn to find my own way.

 

The Pacification

19 Apr

 

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My son, Nino is graduating from University of California Santa Barbara this coming June. He is an art major who specializes in printmaking. This week he’s having a solo art show at UCSB’s Glass Box Gallery entitled “The Pacification” which explores his relationship with his father. Since many of you won’t be able to attend, I thought I’d share some of his work on my blog.

I’m so proud of Nino for following his passion. He started U.C.S.B. as an Economics/Accounting Major and I knew this was not the path he should have chosen. Luckily, he realized that creating art is what makes him happy and changed his major. In July he’ll be off to live in Oaxaca for sixth months where he will continue to study printmaking.

Here is the explanation behind this show and some examples of his work:

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The artist, Nino Mireles

Our Home Away from Home

28 Jul

oax 16Our family just returned from a two-week vacation in Oaxaca, Mexcio. We had a wonderful time lounging on the beach, eating the most delicious food, visiting with family and traveling up to my husband’s isolated hometown in the mountains.

Much of the novel I’m writing (which I swear to you is almost finished!) takes place in Oaxaca so it was wonderful to travel there and research even more ideas and descriptions for the book. It is truly a magical place.

The Oaxacan people are some of the most interesting, kind and generous people in the world. Someday, we hope to build a vacation home there. Ah, it’s good to have dreams…

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This is the main church in Yalalag, my husband’s hometown.

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While we were in Yalalag, we attended a wedding. This is the bride, Melina who is wearing the traditional wedding outfit of Yalalag.

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I thought this was interesting because the little girl is tied to the back of her mother with a traditional Mexicanl “rebozo” and yet the little girls is wearing sparkly gold shoes instead of huaraches.

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This is an old photograph hanging in the municipal building in Yalalag. It was taken in 1936 and shows a family standing in front of their home wearing traditional clothing. Not much has changed in 75 years (except that the town now has internet!)

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You can’t go to Oaxaca without eating Mole Negro. Delicioso!

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A painting of La Virgencita in one of the churches.

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Oaxacan chocolate is to die for!

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The fresh produce in the marketplace smells wonderful!

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I don’t think I’ve ever seen any building painted this shade of cobalt blue before!

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Dried chilies for sale in the marketplace.

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My absolute favorite Oaxacan treat: Rose flavored sorbet!

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Another stunning doorway in downtown Oaxaca.

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The inside of the Church of Santo Domingo. Awe-inspiring.

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One of the many meals served over the course of the weekend for the wedding. First the men would all sit down and be served by the women, and then the women would sit and be served by the men.

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 description of my novel, Lost in Oaxaca:

Once a promising young concert pianist, Camille Childs retreated to her mother’s Santa Barbara estate after an injury to her hand destroyed her hopes for a musical career. She now leads a solitary life teaching piano, and she has a star student: Graciela, the daughter of her mother’s Mexican housekeeper. Camille has been grooming the young Graciela for the career that she herself lost out on, and now Graciela, newly turned eighteen, has just won the grand prize in a piano competition, which means she gets to perform with the LA Philharmonic. Camille is ecstatic; if she can’t play herself, at least as Graciela’s teacher, she will finally get the recognition she deserves.

But there are only two weeks left before the concert, and Graciela has disappeared—gone back to her family’s village in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. Desperate to bring Graciela back in time for the concert, Camille goes after her, but on the way there, a bus accident leaves her without any of her possessions. Alone and unable to speak the language, Camille is befriended by Alejandro, a Zapotec man who lives in LA but is from the same village as Graciela. Despite a contentious first meeting, Alejandro helps Camille navigate the rugged terrain and unfamiliar culture of Oaxaca, allowing her the opportunity to view the world in a different light—and perhaps find love in the process.

 

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.

Remembering Grandpa

20 Oct

muertos 4The other day, my eight year-old daughter, Isa said something that stuck with me: “Mommy,” she said, “Isn’t it sad that I’m not used to saying the word Grandpa?”

It’s very sad, indeed. Isa has never had a grandfather, as René’s father and my father both died before she was born. My father has been gone for almost thirty years now and it seems as if I think of him more often as I grow older myself. It’s become a regular occurrence that his memory comes to me when I’m reading or writing and I don’t know the meaning of a particular word. I think to myself, Oh, if only Dad were here—I could ask him—because when I was a young girl, every single time I needed to know what a word meant, he always knew.

My dad still shows up in my dreams sometimes. I’m the first to admit that because of his alcoholism, I’ve carried the weight of a heavy resentment toward him for many years. But now in my dreams, I’m no longer the victimized and martyred little girl as I used to be. I’m just a daughter who’s over the moon to see her daddy again. And as if I’m still half his height, I stretch my arms up high to hug him, the soft cotton material of his Brooks Brothers button up shirt brushing against my skin. I bury my face into his neck, the scent of nicotine and Old Spice coming off of him like a stale and comforting perfume. I always ask him the same question: “Where have you been all this time?”

Lately, I think of my dad every time I walk through the living room. It’s that time of year again when we set up our altar for Dia de los Muertos—Day of the Dead, and his photograph is the focal point of our altar. He’s surrounded by skulls, candles, marigolds, pan de muerto, and most importantly, by the smiling faces of other relatives and friends who have also left this earth.

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I think he would be surprised by the number of faces placed next to his: his two younger brothers; his granddaughter, Gillian; the many faces of Isa’s young friends who’ve all died from cancer. He might be a little bit pleased that on this altar he’s still the patriarch—the grandpa watching over them all—a part of something that we who are still here on this earth have yet to understand.

It feels good to remember that in more ways than not, my dad was a decent man. He was flawed, as I am, but he did the best he knew how to do, just as I’m doing the best I know how to do. And despite his imperfections as a father, he must have done a few things right along the way.

After all, I turned out pretty good.

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The Other Direction

12 Jul

cancun sunriseAs I approach my fifty-first birthday, it crossed my mind that I’m now heading in that “other” direction—you know, the one where we picture ourselves at the top of the mountain, standing tall and strong, basking in the knowledge that we finally got there. And then we think: Well, that’s it then. I made it. From here on out, it’s just slip-sliding all the way back down to the bottom.

I understand that this is a ridiculous notion on my part because for me, life has really just begun at the halfway mark. This past year has been the best year of my life, and just keeps getting better all the time. I’m happier than I ever was at age thirty-five, or twenty-one, or even sixteen. I’ve finally let go of the notion that I have to prove to the world that I’m good enough, and I’ve got to say it’s quite liberating! I finally like being me.

The very best part of aging is that I’m wise enough to realize that we’re all basically the same. It turns out that the woman sitting next to me at the dinner party (whom I used to worry was smarter, funnier and better dressed than I was) was actually thinking the same things about me (well, maybe not the better dressed part.) It’s just a fact that no matter how much money each of us has in our checking account, or what type of car we drive, or where our children attend college (or don’t), inside our minds and hearts we are often scared and vulnerable and too terrified to admit it. Now that I get this about people, I just love them so much more.

The other good thing about heading in that other direction is that I value my moments so much more now. It used to be that washing the dishes and folding the laundry took precedence over getting down on the living room rug to play with my young children. I live five minutes from the beach, but it used to be that I wouldn’t swim in the ocean because my body was too fat or my skin too fair. I didn’t want to get sunburned or track sand into the house or have to be bothered with cleaning the tar from my feet. I’ll go to the beach when the house is clean, or after the grocery shopping, or when I lose twenty pounds….

I had it all wrong. In my attempt to try to control my environment I denied myself the little pleasures in life. I see now that I only wasted precious time! How did I not notice the whisper of a cool evening breeze after a sultry day, or the fresh scent of sheets just pulled from the dryer? Why did I worry so much about how many calories were in that slice of peach pie that I didn’t take the time to savor the sweetness of each delicious bite?

church in Oaxaca

A few weeks ago I returned from a trip with my family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and I can truly say that it was the best vacation of my life. It’s not that I hadn’t been to Mexico before—over the years we’ve been several times to visit my husband’s family. But it used to be that after only a week there, I was more than ready to come home. There were too many bugs, or it was too humid, or the poverty made me uncomfortable. I had a whole list of excuses for not wanting to be there.

hammockThis time though, I allowed myself to just let go and find the beauty in every moment. I didn’t worry about getting sick from the water, or getting stranded in the mountains on the way to my husband’s village. I put on a bathing suit, slathered on the sunscreen, and even though my thighs jiggled and I was the whitest person on the beach, I didn’t care! I visited ruins, went snorkeling with my kids, and ate fried bananas while swinging in a hammock. I walked the cobblestoned streets of downtown Oaxaca City with my husband’s family and spoke a ton of Spanish. I ate mole negro and handmade tortillas every chance I got and I spent more money than I should have. I thoroughly enjoyed my husband and my children. I laughed more often than not.under the umbrella

I lived.

 

So it may very well be true that I’m now headed down the mountain in that other direction— the very one I spent so many years trying to climb up, but hey—I’m just fine with that—going down is so much more fun. And I’m kind of tired after all those years of struggling.

Besides, it’s always so much easier going back down, and the view is spectacular.view of Yalalag

Burning Up

18 Oct

Yesterday there was a huge plume of smoke coming from the mountains in front of my house. It’s that dry time of year when the parched hills have again erupted in flames, but that’s about the only thing around here that’s been on fire. I may be sweaty, tired and hot–but I’m certainly not on fire.  I’m completely unmotivated, and I need a change. It’s October, for goodness sake, and summer should be long gone. The days are supposed to be crisp and refreshing by now, and this eighty-plus degree weather around here has done nothing except remind me that California is indeed a desert.

Not only has the sweltering heat increased the fire danger, I also think it’s affected my ability to write. Lately, all of my interesting ideas have simply evaporated.  My brain feels as mushy as a ripe peach that’s been left in a hot car with the windows rolled up—there’s a good chance that it may explode into a sticky, fermented mess at any moment.

Each morning I sit at the computer and brood over what to write, yet I’m as dry as a sandy creek bed.  Even though I wake up energized with unqualified intention to get something written down, the few sentences I do manage to write are unimaginative. Nothing is flowing. I finally get to the point where complete despair sets in and I want to give up. Why bother? I tell myself. Then I start to avoid writing entirely.

I’m at expert when it comes to avoiding writing: I read. I clean. I do laundry. I work. I’m very good at pretending to be busy with the little details of my life. This week, I avoided writing by spending time pouring over cookbooks and turned out several fabulous meals for my family using the slow cooker. My husband was in was in total heaven as I recreated the dishes of his childhood in Oaxaca: Caldo de arrez, Pollo en mole verde, and Abondigas soup. He was happy, the kids were happy, and so was I–at least for a few days, but now I find I’m already bored with this whole cooking thing.

It’s such a conundrum. When I’m not writing, I’m often unhappy because I miss it.  When I am writing, I’m often unhappy because I feel that it’s not up to par.

Savory Albondigas (Meatball soup)

It’s difficult for me to let go of the idea that I always have to be so productive with my writing. The fundamental urge to prove myself is as stifling as the hot winds that fanned the flames on the mountain yesterday. I should just give myself a break for once and not force the process; I need to learn to let it just happen when it’s supposed to happen. As I tell the kids: The soup will be ready when it’s ready.

Like that dry chaparral on the hillsides, I must wait for the perfect conditions to be present; only then it will be my turn to explode into a burst of energy and motivation.  When the time is right, the words will again flow out of me like wildfire and there will be no stopping me.

And if that doesn’t happen, I can always take up knitting.

(By the way, the fire is finally out, and the forecast this weekend is for cooler temperatures, so you may very well be hearing from me again soon…)

Cafe con Leche

25 Jun

My husband leaves me every year—sometimes twice. He packs his bag, kisses me and our children goodbye and heads back to Mexico to see his other family—the one I stole him away from over twenty five years ago.

When he first leaves me, I breathe a sigh of relief because I am free. I can stay up late watching television with the volume on high. I can spend hours on Facebook without him complaining how I’m ridiculously addicted to social media. I can sleep in late and skip breakfast and eat grilled cheese sandwiches and pickles everyday for lunch. I can bake scones and give them away so as not to eat any (okay, I eat some.) I can work in my garden for hours knowing that no one is going to call out to me and ask me to do something or go somewhere. I can send my youngest daughter over to play at a neighbor’s house and then I can savor my aloneness like a hot Grande Decaf Mocha (one and a half pumps of chocolate, extra whip) with a morning bun on the side, and no one gives me a look that says: Should you really be eating that?

For about three days my new sense of freedom makes me as giddy and excited as a teenager whose parents have left for the weekend. I make plans to clean out closets, scrub baseboards, and organize my messy life into neat little plastic containers. I drool over the stack of books on my nightstand and ponder which one I’m going to read first. I make detailed lists and compose emails and decide to use every hour—no—every minute, to accomplish what I’ve mapped out to do.

And then something strange happens. I end up sitting on the couch doing nothing. My stress level has gone all the way down to zero but for some reason I’m not happy.

I miss my husband.

My problem is that I really like to spend time with my husband. Or at least I do in reasonable quantities. Even though he readily admits to me that he’s high maintenance and difficult at times, his sense of humor, his generosity, and his ability to love is unparalleled. I’ve discovered that I like to hang out with people who have these qualities, even if they drive me nuts at times.

Not only that, he makes me laugh. I cannot stay mad at him for longer than fifteen minutes because he always tries to hug me and kiss me and cajole me out of my snit by teasing me until I finally have to cover my mouth to stifle my laughter. No matter what hurtful things we’ve just said to each other (and both of us are expert button pushers), the moment I crack that smile, he knows that everything is instantly forgiven. Trust me—I’ve tried in vain to hold on to that hot, delicious anger—it’s virtually impossible with Rene.

On June fourth we celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. As money has been a bit tight this year (join the club, right?) we didn’t make plans to go away to spend a weekend in wine country or take a short cruise to Baja. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting anything anyway—we’ve always been sort of casual about giving each other presents.

But he surprised me the morning of our anniversary by playing hooky from work and bringing me peach colored roses (he actually remembered that peach was the color of our wedding flowers) and then he took me out to a fancy restaurant on State Street to eat French toast with fresh berries and whipped cream.

He held my hand and kissed me, just like he did during our first date, which involved the two of us making out passionately in a seedy movie theatre somewhere in downtown Los Angeles while a Chuck Norris film (dubbed in Spanish) blasted out at an unusually high volume.

In that dark theatre, Rene kissed me liked I’d never been kissed before, so completely paralyzing my body that I literally melted into the squeaky seat and could not move.  I barely heard the screaming  children who ran up and down the aisles throwing popcorn and crying out for their mothers.

Rene and I met at an upscale gourmet hamburger joint in Santa Monica (I guarantee you, there was such a thing in the 80’s) where he was a cook and I was a waitress.  He spoke mostly Spanish and I spoke mostly English. He was a dark-skinned Zapotec Indian from the mountains of Oaxaca whose first language was an indigenous dialect, and who at eight years old, was sent away to work as a houseboy in the home of a rich family in the city. I grew up a semi-privileged white girl from Santa Barbara, California, who had her own room and her own car (it was a beat-up 67 Oldsmobile, aka the Tuna Boat, but a car, nonetheless) and whose parents paid for weekly piano lessons.

Rene worked tirelessly for years, often sending his entire paycheck to his parents in Mexico so that they and his nine siblings could have a real roof over their heads, one that wasn’t made from scraps of discarded wood and corrugated aluminum. While I was finishing up my undergraduate degree in piano performance from a prestigious Los Angeles music school, he was riding the bus for an hour each way to attend ESL classes so that he could to learn English and begin his education. Seven years later, when he was thirty-one years old, he received his master’s degree in Education. At that time, I was seven months pregnant with our third child.

My husband and I are like night and day—we’re café con leche. We come from dissimilar cultures and we don’t like the same music. We’ve had some difficult times in our marriage; the most arduous being the time our youngest daughter was diagnosed with leukemia when she was two. But through some kind of consecrated grace, we pulled together instead of pulling apart, and we endured. Yes, we still fight a lot, and yes, we say mean things to each other at times. Yet we also say “I love you” every single day, no matter what.

And most importantly, we laugh a lot.

I didn’t plan to fall in love with Rene after only dating him for three weeks, after which he told me he was leaving me to go back to Mexico and didn’t know when he would be back. I was heartbroken and had no idea if I’d ever see him again, but somehow I knew he was the one, and that whatever happened was meant to be.

Together in 1985. The hairstyle proves it.

He came back four months later.

I was twenty-three when he left me for the first time. He’s been leaving me without fail ever since. This time around, he’s only been gone a little over two weeks. Last night he called, the connection scratchy and faint, and told me he missed me and the kids and he was coming home early. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to wait too long this time.

Still together after twenty five years of marriage.