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Posts Tagged ‘Texas’

celebrating Pop

live love Texas sign

My grandfather turned 85 last month. If you asked him about it, he’d likely shrug it off as no big deal – but the rest of us disagree. So we’d been secretly planning a surprise party, spearheaded by my Aunt Cat, for months. (The hardest part was letting my grandmother, whom we all call Neno, in on the secret. She said it was stressful to keep it quiet!)

I flew down to San Antonio (my grandparents live about an hour away), and various family members came in from across Texas and Arizona. I hadn’t seen many of these folks in years, nor been to my grandparents’ spacious house, with its saltillo-tiled floors and stuccoed walls hung with Pop’s original paintings. (He worked in tool design for many years, and is a talented artist and woodworker.) They built this house themselves when they retired to Texas, twenty years ago, and stepping inside felt like coming home.

My parents and I surprised Pop at lunchtime on Friday (thereby pre-empting the surprise party, but Aunt Cat swore it was okay). I was grateful for that extra time around their kitchen table, just the five of us. Neno pulled out a box of beautiful handmade baby clothes (some hers, some Pop’s, some that her kids – my mom and her siblings – had worn). We exclaimed over the embroidery and tiny, meticulous stitches.

neno baby clothes

Later, we ate burgers and watched the birds out the back windows, trading stories and laughing. My sister and her family arrived that night, and it was a gift to hug her and play Uno with my nephews, and trade running tips with my brother-in-law (he’s training for a half marathon).

ryder harrison uno

The party on Saturday was total happy chaos – all of us weaving around one another in the kitchen, making corn casserole and pouring drinks and finding space for the pork ribs, chopped brisket and three huge cheese/fruit/veggie platters. There were two layer cakes, and tiny cups of Blue Bell ice cream, and lots of hugging, and even a surprise guest…

Pop is a huge John Wayne fan (so is Neno), and my aunt and uncle had schemed to have him show up for the party. None of the rest of us knew that was coming, and we were all highly entertained.

I may live in New England now, but I am a Texas girl to my core, and I needed that brief, nourishing time with four generations of my family. I was so happy to chat with my aunts and catch up with my cousins and especially to hug my sweet Neno.

Until next time, Texas. It was good to be back.

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lost-in-stacks-strand

Starting with a Labor Day weekend jaunt to NYC, here’s what I have been reading:

The Accidental Beauty Queen, Teri Wilson
Anne put this one in her Summer Reading Guide and I flew through it on the train to NYC. Charlotte gets tapped to impersonate her identical twin, Ginny, in a beauty pageant, much to both their chagrin. I loved the nods to Harry Potter (Charlotte is a fan), the way both women had their preconceived notions tested, and the insights about family. So much fun.

Here if You Need Me, Kate Braestrup
When her husband died, Braestrup took up his dream of becoming a minister, and found herself serving as a chaplain for the Maine Warden Service. This thoughtful, often wry memoir is a glimpse into that world, and into her family life. Engaging, though I wanted more, somehow. Found recently at More Than Words.

We Walked the Sky, Lisa Fiedler
Calliope VanDrexel is following in her grandmother’s footsteps as a tightrope walker. But when her mother gets a new job at an animal sanctuary, Callie has to leave the circus and she’s not happy about it. This dual-narrative YA novel tells both Callie’s story and that of her grandmother, Victoria (in the 1960s). I enjoyed both narratives (though Callie drove me nuts), and the circus setting is so fun.

The Right Sort of Man, Allison Montclair
As London recovers from World War II, Gwen Bainbridge, widowed and bored, and Iris Sparks, a snarky former intelligence agent, join forces to launch the Right Sort Marriage Bureau. But when one of their clients is murdered, presumably by another one, the women jump into an investigation to clear his name (and theirs). I love plucky amateur sleuths, especially British ones, and this story was great fun, especially the witty dialogue. First in a new series; found at the Strand.

The Book of Lost Saints, Daniel José Older
Marisol disappeared during the Cuban Revolution, lost to her family and the world. Half a century later, her spirit visits her nephew, Ramon, a hospital worker by day/DJ by night in New Jersey. Haunted by dreams that are really Marisol’s memories, Ramon starts digging into his family’s messy history. I love Older’s Shadowshaper YA series. This novel (for adults) is a gritty, sometimes bleak, often wisecracking look at cubano family ties and the ways past actions reverberate down through the generations. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 5).

Bluebird, Bluebird, Attica Locke
Temporarily in limbo in both his job and his marriage, Texas Ranger Darren Mathews drives up to tiny Lark, Texas, to investigate two murders: a local white girl and a black man who was passing through. This well-crafted mystery explores the layers of race, love and conflicting loyalties in East Texas. (Darren is black, raised by two uncles: a Texas Ranger and a lawyer.) I loved the true-to-life portraits of locals and the exploration of exile and the pull of home.

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Ross Gay
I loved Gay’s essay collection, The Book of Delights, and my friend Kate sent me this book of his poetry. The poems are – as one of the blurbs says – “bold and wild and weird.” Family, love, racial politics, music, grief, and the orchard Gay works in and loves – they’re all here.

This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession, Cameron Dezen Hammon
After converting to Christianity as a young woman, Hammon moved to Houston with her then-boyfriend and became a worship minister. This memoir traces her struggle to reconcile the gender politics of evangelical churches with her own craving for love and past scars. Thoughtful, though a bit vague at times; some of her frustrations definitely reflected my own. We need more stories like these. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 22).

Death and Love Among the Cheetahs, Rhys Bowen
Lady Georgiana Rannoch is finally married, and she and her Irish husband, Darcy, head to Kenya for an extended honeymoon. But instead of paradise, they find complicated sexual politics, theft and murder. I love Georgie and her adventures, but I’d hoped for a slightly more peaceful honeymoon for her!

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

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book water glass lunch Somali food

A Walking Life: Reclaiming Our Health and Our Freedom, One Step at a Time, Antonia Malchik
Walking is a fundamentally human activity. But worldwide, humans – especially those living in cities – are losing the access and ability to walk. Malchik delves into the dangers of a non-walking life and explores the social, political, physical and spiritual implications of reclaiming walking. Well-researched and engaging – and as a walker/runner, of course I loved it. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 7).

The Precious One, Marisa de los Santos
I adore de los Santos’ novels, and I loved diving back into this one: the story of Taisy and Willow, estranged half sisters who gradually, grudgingly become friends in spite of their (shared) tyrannical father. So much wisdom here about love and family and courage.

When the Men Were Gone, Marjorie Herrera Lewis
This was a total impulse buy at B&N: an engaging novel about a female high school football coach in Brownwood, Texas, during WWII. I grew up not far from (and went to college even closer to) Brownwood, and I spent many Friday nights in the stands with the marching band. I loved the story of Tylene Wilson and how she stepped up to coach the Brownwood Lions.

Brave, Not Perfect: Fear Less, Fail More, and Live Bolder, Reshma Saujani
Saujani is the founder of Girls Who Code (and an alumna of my former workplace, HKS). This book delves into the conditioning women receive to be perfect and pleasing, and how we can change that wiring to be brave. I loved – and related to – so much of what she wrote about. Worth reading and revisiting. (Found at the wonderful Book Catapult in San Diego.)

The Stationery Shop, Marjan Kamali
Tehran, 1953: Bahman and Roya, two teenagers who both frequent Mr. Fakhri’s stationery shop fall in love among the stacks, and plan to get married. But then Bahman disappears, and their lives take entirely different trajectories. Decades later, they cross paths again near Boston, and must unravel the truth of that long-ago missed meeting. Powerful and well written; Kamali’s descriptions of Persian food are mouthwatering and her characters are flawed and real. I loved (and reviewed) Kamali’s first novel, Together Tea, which is sweet and engaging, but this one is on another level. To review for Shelf Awareness (out June 18).

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: 2 Fuzzy, 2 Furious, Shannon Hale and Dean Hale
Doreen Green – aka Squirrel Girl – is back, trying to fight crime in the neighborhood and survive middle school. This second novel wasn’t as strong as the first, but I like Doreen and her friend Ana Sofia. The group texts with the Avengers are the best part.

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

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jer ryder legos Christmas tree

The middle of our Christmas journey is always just that: the middle.

By which I mean: it is messy and rich and full, crowded with some of my favorite holiday traditions and the constantly-in-motion bodies of my two nephews. We are already a little tired, having flown 1,700 miles and driven nearly another 400.

blue sky highway Texas

This year, the drive happened on Christmas Eve – blue sky, long straight highways, Sara Bareilles and Mumford on Spotify, boy-band holiday music when we started to go a little crazy. It ended with my dad greeting us at the door: “We have to leave for church in 45 minutes!”

There was a mad scramble to wrap the last few gifts, kneeling on the guest room floor surrounded by Scotch tape and scraps of wrapping paper. I barely had time to brush my hair before we piled into the car. J and I snapped a photo in front of the lobby Christmas tree before heading inside, hoping we could get a seat – the 4:00 service tends to be crowded.

k j Christmas tree church fbc

Somehow, in spite of the lead-up, I was able to relax then: to exhale into one of my favorite church services of the year. You can count on a few things at my parents’ church: glittering, glorious Christmas trees; Doris on the pipe organ; familiar faces from my childhood and teenage years; and all the verses of as many carols as possible.

candles Christmas Eve silent night fbc

This was Christmas: relishing the third verse of Joy to the World and holding hands with my mother as we lifted our candles during Silent Night. This was Christmas: listening to a string quartet, my husband’s tenor voice, the babbles and cries of so many babies.

This was Christmas: coming, perhaps, no closer to understanding how or why God came into our midst, but choosing to acknowledge and celebrate. We cannot explain, but we rejoice.

moms tree gifts

We headed back to my parents’ for a pre-gift-exchange smorgasbord: cheese and charcuterie, apple slices and carrot sticks, square pretzels topped with chocolate and mint M&Ms. My nephews, decked out in their Santa shirts, could hardly wait to get to the unwrapping, but first we snacked, and then we listened to my sister read the story that still moves me, every year. “For unto you is born this day.” Unto us a child is born, and nothing will ever be the same.

nephews unwrapping presents gifts Christmas

This was the year of the Legos: the boys are obsessed, and they received sets from multiple family members. (Their other favorite thing was a pair of tiny laser guns – a gift for my dad, who still loves to get toys at Christmas.) We had presents that night and stockings the next day, and there were chocolates and new socks, scarves and Starbucks cards and fancy tea (for me).

The weather – after a freak dust-and-rainstorm, complete with tumbleweeds – continued mild, and we spent two afternoons in my sister’s backyard playing football and baseball and climbing on the swing set. We grilled burgers and ribs and did full justice to all the traditional holiday sides (most of them potato-based). I went for a few solo runs in my parents’ neighborhood, looping through the familiar roads under (mostly) bare branches and blue sky.

sneakers rocks running west Texas

The hubs, fighting sinus trouble, won the Best Uncle Award for playing every kind of sport (and Lego) we could squeeze in. My brother-in-law showed off his model train, and more quietly, his grilling skills. I slipped out onto my sister’s front lawn to snap pictures of the sunsets. And the best, as always, was being together.

If you celebrated, I hope your holidays were lovely. Now: onward into 2019.

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cotton mural texas

The shape of our Christmas journey has changed a little over the past few years.

When we moved to Boston, J’s parents and sister were still living in the eastern suburbs of Dallas, where he grew up. My father-in-law talked for years about retiring to “the country,” but I secretly never believed they’d actually do it. Until one summer day in 2015 when they shocked us all by announcing they were moving to a tiny East Texas town we’d never heard of.

Now, instead of staying in the suburbs, we fly into DFW, pick up the rental car and drive east for about an hour, to a cluster of small towns set off the highways amid cotton fields, (mostly) defunct railroad tracks and a few smallish lakes.

lake ray Hubbard Texas

It’s still a relatively quick drive into Dallas, and we end up going in at least once while we’re there, to meet up with J’s high school choir friends and sing Christmas carols. My husband, the lifelong choir nerd, is not a fan of most pop Christmas music, but he loves – and so do I – the chance to sing a cappella arrangements of the classics.

girls caroling

It always takes us a few songs to warm up, and there’s always at least one carol we don’t quite hit (this year it was O Tannenbaum). But we find our way through the familiar sheet music, singing Hark the Herald and Joy to the World, O Come O Come Emmanuel and O Come All Ye Faithful (with at least the first verse in Latin). We always do multiple renditions of Jolly Old St. Nicholas and Jingle Bells, and this year, Kelly had a surprise for us: actual sheet music for the absurdly complex version of We Wish You a Merry Christmas. We wind up with a few non-Christmas classics: the alma mater (even I know all the words) and The Lord Bless You and Keep You.

The weather was mild this year: blue skies, brisk but not biting winds, and temps in the vicinity of 60 (!) degrees. J took advantage of the hotel’s fitness center, but I made several drives to the park we discovered last year, where, it turns out, I love to run.

park pond blue sky

At the front end of a 10-day trip filled with people, those long solo loops around the pond and the neighborhood saved my life, and helped settle me after a rough travel day.

We kept a few of the traditions we’ve established over the years: the caroling party, a trip to the local pie place to meet J’s aunt and cousins for lunch (and pie); the family gift exchange, where my niece, Annie, got more presents than all of us (also a tradition). And we tried a few new things: Korean barbecue with my sister-in-law, some Tempranillo at the local winery, my in-laws’ new church.

I struggle sometimes to savor our days in East Texas, because I’m already looking forward to what always comes after them: Christmas in my hometown with all the traditions I love, and a few crowded, love-filled days with friends in Abilene.

But this year, for whatever reason, I was (mostly) able to slow down and enjoy this first leg. I wanted to really notice the blue sky and the cotton fields and the sun-bleached buildings. I wanted to remember: there is real life out here, in this place. I wanted to pay attention.

We’re (slowly) finding our way into the new year over here. I hope you are too.

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ryder poppy cards

A couple of weeks ago, I hopped a plane to west Texas, leaving behind emails and work to-do lists for a different kind of busy. My older nephew, Ryder, was turning six, and I’d planned to head home for his birthday party and a t-ball game, plus some Mexican food and time with my sister and parents.

The family texts flew back and forth in the days before my trip: party plans, flight schedules, what to buy Ryder for his birthday (answer: Nerf guns and Uno).

But on the day before I left, my sister and dad both sent a different kind of text: bring a dress in case the funeral happens while you’re here.

Frank, a longtime family friend of ours, had gone into the hospital in mid-April. It caught us all by surprise: he was 56 and healthy, and we were all stunned by the infection that took over his body. We had expected a long recovery, perhaps weeks in the hospital. But I stared in disbelief at the early-morning text my sister sent with news of his death. I still don’t quite believe it’s real.

I slipped a dress and a black cardigan into my suitcase, alongside my red shorts, running gear, flip-flops and a stack of books for the plane. After a long flight to Dallas and an even longer layover, I finally landed amid thunderstorms on a Wednesday night.

The next few days, it seemed to me, contained all of life: board games and Tex-Mex lunches, t-ball and the funeral, church on Sunday morning. There was, of course, lots of playing with my nephews: climbing around on their backyard fort, shooting baskets in the driveway, playing with the new Nerf guns in the living room. Tears and laughter and chaos. Grief and love.

“Life’s full,” my coworker Janet is fond of saying, usually with a wry smile in response to some fresh crisis, or a week like this one: crowded and crossed with the glory and the pain of life, all at once.

This trip was certainly full, and at times I could barely keep up: watching Ryder and his teammates run through the dirt at the t-ball fields, pushing Harrison (my younger nephew) in the swing and filming them both running through the sprinkler with my dad. Hugging Kim and Abbye, Frank’s wife and daughter, on a Friday morning that felt otherwise so ordinary. Eating chips and queso at Rosa’s with my mom and sister, before making a Target run. Holding Harrison on my lap at lunchtime, and admiring his new big-boy bed. Talking work and vacations with my parents and brother-in-law. Sitting outside at my sister’s house after the boys were in bed.

I went for three solo runs through my parents’ neighborhood, admiring the ocotillo and oleander, breathing in the fresh air under the big sky. Afterward, I sipped tea and ate breakfast in my mother’s kitchen, flipping through the local paper, which included, unbelievably, Frank’s obituary. We sat in a side pew at the packed funeral on Saturday morning, surrounded by so many faces I know and love. This church is part of the architecture of my life, and these people – not only Frank and Kim but so many others – are part of my family. We wound up the funeral by singing “It Is Well with My Soul” through our tears, Doris playing the organ as she has for decades. The next morning, we spent most of the Sunday school hour sharing stories about Frank.

There’s no tidy way to wrap up such a post; it feels unfinished, like the weekend itself, like life. Kim and her grown kids are at the beginning of a long road of grief, and Ryder and Harrison are wrapping up the school year. I’m caught, as always, between missing the cozy world of my hometown and being fiercely proud of the life I’ve built in a different city, hundreds of miles away.

I flew back to Boston that Sunday night, grateful to get back to my own house and my husband, who had been at a conference in L.A. while I was in Texas. But I also believe I was exactly where I needed to be that weekend: stepping back into a town that isn’t my current address, but which will always be home. Cheering for Ryder and his buddies as they batted and ran. And standing with my community, in grief and in joy.

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sass harrison christmas fire truck

We are easing back into routine over here: wrapping up against frigid temps; shoveling snow; making lots of soup (and huevos); drinking tea and answering email. It felt so good to hit pause on the responsibilities of work and church for a while, but now we’re back to it, albeit not quite at full throttle yet.

I am – I think – recovered from our annual 10-day holiday odyssey across Texas, and I’ve been thinking about the gifts it brought: not only the wrapped presents under various trees and the time with our families and friends, but a few surprises that sneaked in under the radar, and reminded me that this is a season of joy, love and – yes – magic.

In no particular order, here are the unexpected gifts I savored this Christmas season:

  • A dozen homemade gingersnaps, hand-delivered by J’s sweet Aunt Joy when we met her for lunch.
  • Singing O Holy Night at Christmas Eve service. It’s ambitious for congregational singing, but the new music minister at my parents’ church urged us to attempt it, “with gusto!” So we did.
  • Three blue-sky morning runs through my parents’ neighborhood, past houses decked with Christmas decor, with the Jennys in my ears.
  • Running into a longtime friend at a new-to-us pizza place in Abilene, and discovering later that she’d paid for our lunch.
  • My nephews, snuggled up on either side of me and listening with (mostly) rapt attention as I read the Christmas story aloud.
  • Laughing with my brother-in-law on Christmas Day about homemade sourdough pretzels and the dough that wouldn’t rise. (They were still delicious!)
  • Cuddling with my sister on the couch that night as everyone traded stories and sipped wine.
  • Playing baseball in the driveway with my dad, my husband and my older nephew, Ryder.
  • A couple of sunsets so stunning that we all piled out of my sister’s living room and onto her front porch to gaze at them.

texas sunset sky december pump jack

  • Waking up with Do You Hear What I Hear? in my head the week before Christmas. We sang it every year when I was in youth choir, and it made me think of George.
  • The moment when my niece’s hair ties ended up in one of my (bald!) dad’s Christmas presents – my husband exclaimed, “That’s where those went!” and everyone burst out laughing.
  • Half an hour to myself in front of the Christmas tree one night, journaling and reading The Dark is Rising.
  • Coconut eggnog pie, with Blue Bell vanilla ice cream, as the denouement to a dinner with dear friends.
  • Picking up a novel I loved at the DFW airport bookstore.
  • Cracking up with J’s high school choir friends as we sang Christmas carols: “Johnny wants a pair of skates, Susie wants a shed…”
  • A wee girl named Genevieve Noelle, born to some of my best friends on Dec. 26. (We knew she was coming, of course, but we didn’t quite know when.)
  • The sentiment handwritten in my Aunt Cathy’s Christmas card: “And seriously, peace on earth.” (Hear, hear.)
  • Running straight into a few friends from high school at Christmas Eve service. I’ve been gone from my hometown a while, but it’s still and always where I’m from.
  • Singing hymns in the hallways of a hospice unit one night, with old friends.
  • A hilarious game of Scrabble with my in-laws.
  • The glass heirloom fruit bowls my Neno gave me.

There were plenty of gifts I was expecting this year: so much food and laughter at my parents’ house, time with beloved friends in Abilene, chips and salsa whenever we could squeeze them in. Those gifts were sweet and nourishing, and they filled me up. But these surprises have a magic all their own.

I hope your holidays included a few unexpected gifts, too.

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