Friday, 25 February 2011

Long long road

I am on my seventh day in the United States of America, land of my birth.  It is an exciting and exhilarating and very very exhausting place, America.

I think it is not only the ambitious pace, the odd eating habits, and the harrowing winter weather -- and my habit of lumping some of life´s more unpleasant duties into each of my visits. (this one included a professional conference, as well as visits to the dentist and the Department of Motor Vehicles). I think the main factor, for me, is genetic.

My family lives here. 
Families are messy, emotional, demanding things. You don´t know how much you love them until they are threatened. And as you know if you´ve read this blog recently, my mother´s health took a bad turn in the past month. I flew back to the old stomping grounds to stand by while she recovered from an abdominal surgery, and the lab results that came after.

It started out exciting and star-studded, at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. While there I spent quality time with my great friend Kathy, my daughter Libby and her Intended, and several old friends sent my way by the Camino. I also met an awesome Franz Klein painting, la Infanta Christina de España (a princess), and a Hollywood movie star (Martin Sheen)... all of them up close. I met an ambassador, an importer of Spanish jamones, and some fascinating college professors, too. I invited them all over to visit, and some of them may well show up in Moratinos in coming months, part of a new intercollegiate pilgrimage study program. (probably not the painting, nor the princess. Nor the star. But you just never know.)

Maybe the best part of the whole trip, though, was driving a little rental car from Washington DC up to Pittsburgh, over the Allegheny mountains on an ancient highway on a Tuesday morning. I turned up the radio, and enjoyed it more than I have enjoyed the radio in a very long time -- starting out with National Public Radio´s deep and wide coverage of revolutions in the Middle East, then fading into the rural stretches of Maryland with country boys singing of fishin´ buddies and pickup trucks and Mama´s Hungry Eyes, then Eminem snarling "Mama, I Didn´t Mean to Hurt You," shifting into preachers calling me to a life of "the joy of holiness," hair-bands howling out how they Sold their Soul for Rock and Roll. Finally, up over Breezewood and onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike I found the jazz station from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, playing old Ella Fitzgerald "Got You Under My Skin" with a weird rhumba tom-tom syncopation. George Benson. Cedar Walton... then a shift up the dial for some Decemberists, Death Cab, and finally Train and Lady Gaga and the Top 40. By the time I rolled up at Mom´s house the NPR news cycle started up again.

The snow in mom´s yard is almost knee-deep. The house was fragrant, my sister Beth had brought over a big pot of beef vegetable soup.

Mom was her funny old self, walking slow, thinner and smaller than I ever remember seeing her, terribly pale. But smiling radiantly. Her hug felt the same, that beautiful Same that is Mom. I did not cry, at least not on the outside.

And so I stayed with her. I cleaned the bathroom, swept the floors, folded laundry, filled up the bird-feeders out in the snow. I learned about the sickness she´s up against, but I didn´t look at the big cut down her belly. I learned that my sister Beth is not only handling all of mom´s paperwork, she is now taking care of that horrific surgical wound, too -- arriving after 8 each morning to change the dressing. (I have known Beth my entire life, and the older I get, the more I have to admire her. I could never ever do that kind of heavy-duty nursing. No way. Not even for mom.) 

I visited my grandfather, who at 94 years old looks more spry and healthy than my mom does at 72. I visited my sister Beth, my nephew Joey, my Aunt Esther and cousin Barbara and cousin Pete ... all the people who make this place my home town.
And this morning, me and Beth took mom to the big cancer hospital in Pittsburgh for the Last Word.

The tumors are not invasive, not even really cancer, the handsome young oncologist said. Someday Mom  may need more surgery, or some chemotherapy, but not anytime soon. Her bloodstream and vital organs are not compromised. They will check her every six months for signs of cancer, but so far, so good. She is going to be alright.

Mom and Beth smiled politely and thanked him.
I went out into the hallway and sobbed til my nose bled.

The snow is melting, rain is coming down hard, the rivers are rising. It´s almost March.
It´s time to get the heck outta here. Time to go to my own Home.
I drive back down to Washington Saturday morning with the radio blasting, and I will fly out over the Atlantic overnight. God willing, I will be back home at The Peaceable on Sunday afternoon.  (I know you come here to read about Moratinos, not Pittsburgh.)

Once there I will scratch my dogs and pass around the goodies I bought for everyone. And I will go to bed and sleep. I will sleep for days and days, because I will finally be able to rest again.

My mom is alive still. The earth is tipping back onto its axis. Life can go on, at least for a while.

Thank God thank God thank God.

Monday, 14 February 2011


The little brick church was very cold inside, as Spanish churches tend to be. And while Don Santiago sang out the Mass, the weak winter sun coming in the windows darkened down. The scanty lightbulbs above the altar shone more and more yellow. The candles brightened and shivered -- the wind roared down the bell tower. 

Sometime between the Sanctus and the Padre Nuestro, winter swaggered back in from the west.

After church we scuttled across the plaza and into the little meeting room in the ayuntamiento and gathered  close around the butane heater. Esteban slid open the lid on the bar cooler. Out came the grape juice and refrescos for the ladies, and the  white wine, the red, and the eponymous Vermut for the men. Sunday, after noon, after Mass...Vermouth. It is what is done here.

It is what we did. Around the table we sat. José took a calendar down from the wall, and on it -- month by month, with remembrances called out from everyone present -- he scrawled everyone´s name, on everyone´s respective birthday. In January we celebrated Raquel´s birthday, and this month, Patrick´s. Today it was Milagro´s turn. In March there´s only one, in April, several. We´ll be in the depths of Lent, but what the hell. We´re gonna have a good old party then, when spring is here, when the rye in the fields is ankle-deep.

En Mayo hay pocos cumpleaños. En Junio? Ningunio.

The wind tossed rain like gravel against the windows. Inside we marched through the calendar, through the year, remembering birthdays and births. Which inevitably led us to aging, and funerals, and deaths -- a primary topic of Vermut conversation. Which of us was born on the day of whose funeral, whose Abuela lived to be 93, whose Tio is still is alive at 96, still sharp. A "mere youth" from Sahagun, aged 78, died last week when a wall collapsed and buried him under tons of roof tiles. In Terradillos, the town next door, another man is ailing unto death -- the brother of Eutichio (or some wonderful name like that -- here we have Agapitas, Hilarios, Heliodoros, even!)  


But it wasn´t all death and dying. There´s news, too: Pepe, "the dueño of Terradillos," this week cut down the little forest out along the carretera and sold the timber to an outfit in Segovia. We´ll hear no cuckoos there this spring.

Paddy told about Harry, our sweet new galgo dog, adopted from the giant dog-pound in Medina del Campo -- part of a great wave of refugee hunting dogs dumped recently outside a shelter in Seville. (He howls with an elegant southern accent, I think. When the neighborhood dog chorus tunes up at 2 a.m. He yodels bulerias, saetas like a Flamenco star at a Holy Week procession.

The nascent character of Roque, a puppy sired by Esteban´s randy mutt Toby, out of Florín´s lapdog Amora and destined for Eduardo´s yard, was analyzed. Eduardo lives alone in a big house across from the church door. His last dog, also called Roque, (known by us as "Pants Dog,") was a vicious brute who attacked Tim one morning out in the plaza. Tim won, but Roque bit Eduardo in the melee. And when later on the dog bit Eduardo again, well... no more Roque. This new pup will be sweeter, calmer, and much smaller. So it was decreed.

The Vermut is becoming a Sunday routine, a healthy, friendly hour out of the week. Everyone is invited, but not everyone attends. Not everyone approves, I think -- but those absent are not discussed. Still, among the people gathered in the ayuntamiento, Moratinos life is recounted, celebrated, cemented. 

The rain fell, the wind howled, the pilgrims stomped past outside, hunched inside their ponchos. Inside we were toasty-warm, from the stove, the merry company, and the Vermut.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

It´s Christmas After All

photo Laura Collins: The Metropolitan, Madrid
 Madrid was knockout. Our hotel room was right across the street from an architectural landmark, the Metropolitan building. To the left is a photo of the Metropolitan. Yes, even in February, the sky is really that blue! The thermometer on the bus stop outside our balcony read 19 degrees Celsius (66 degrees Fahrenheit) on Saturday afternoon. The rest of the world is buried in snow. I am grateful.

We had a nice weekend, stayed at a fine hotel at a very reasonable price. We hiked around a good bit, had a visit with Candy, an old expat friend from New Orleans and Detroit  (author of a Madrid guidebook!) and Paddy befriended a galgo at a restaurant terrazo in the Plaza Cervantes. We  discussed our restaurant options at great length, but ended up eating forgettable Indian and Mexican meals... we were staying in a neighborhood unfamiliar to us. Had we been in our usual Madrid digs (Lavapies/Anton Martin) we´d have done much better, but hey. As Paddy likes to say, year-round, when we overspend: "It is Christmas, after all." (This may be the title of my autobiography.)
It was a worrisome weekend, what with my home football team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, being in the Superbowl on Sunday night, and Patrick turning 70 years old on Monday, and my mother in the hospital with an unknown prognosis. Only time would work us through these mortal coils, so that is why we decided to pursue the plans already in motion.  

It was the right thing to do. My sister Beth, always the one to Get Things Done, kept me updated on Mom. And in the fullness of time we learned Mom has a strange and rare condition called pseudomyxoma, which isn´t quite cancer, but isn´t such a great thing to have... but Mom is not on the Fast Track to Heaven, at least not anytime really soon. And I will admit, when I got the news (in the Starbucks on Calle Atocha at 9 a.m. Monday) I found the nearest church and I got right down on my knees right up front and cried like a baby saying Thank You God Almighty. (In Spain, in the cities, the churches are open for this kind of business. How cool is that? The guy cleaning the windows came over and handed me a tissue and patted me on the back.)

And thank you friends, who pray so almighty strong. You already in December proved you can turn gray Galician winter into soft blue-sky April, just by saying "please." So please, don´t stop.

My mother went home from hospital on Monday. Once she mends from the big surgery the doctors will start a round of chemotherapy, to kill whatever might still be inside there. She has good health insurance. She is in Pittsburgh, an excellent place to be if you need a doctor. And she is on first-name terms with God Himself. She is a lot more cool about all this than I am. She makes me look like the weenie I am, all my Buddhism and faith and pilgrim-ism notwithstanding. I am eternally grateful for her. (I am well aware that someday, something will take her out. She is in her 70´s. Death happens to everybody. I just want a chance to get used to the idea, before it happens to her. )

Paddy and I came back yesterday on the morning train. Christina the nun had gone, and another pilg had arrived -- Oliver, a hospitalero from Germany. Like many pilgs, Oliver loves to talk, mostly about Oliver. He speaks many languages, he cooks very well (he made us a lovely simple dinner), when I went to bed at 8:30 or so he was still going at it. I slept for 12 hours straight. We had been up til 4 a.m. the night before, watching the Steelers crash and burn in the big game... Oh well. It is not always easy or cheap, keeping the faith -- especially from a time zone six hours ahead. But we watched the game, with a lively group of Steelers fans around us, and with Adam and Marta, too -- two Madrid-based musicians who´ve been part of the guitar scene here for the past two years. Another nice visit. We are not alone out here.

And so back we are in Moratinos. We have not seen a lot of local action yet -- only Esteban the Mayor, stopping his car to ask us how Mom is, how Madrid was (he is a blog reader too).  The weather continues beautiful. The garlic is sprouting, the saffron, the struggling grass seeds in the Somme out back... it cannot last, but it is a beautiful break. I am very grateful. I dried the laundry outside today, on the clothesline. I turned the compost, and turned over the earth in the new garden beds.

Tomorrow we go to Palencia, to see about replacing Paddy´s stolen Resident Alien card. Then we will head southwest to Medina del Campo, to a place called Scooby. Where we will, hopefully, meet the next member of the Peaceable Crew... Scooby is a dog pound that specializes in abandoned greyhounds. They sent us an email on Friday, begging for help. Hare-hunting season is just ending, and Evil People all over the country are dumping their less-than-stellar hunting dogs at Scooby´s doorstep. 160 dogs in the past two weeks... can we take at least one?   (there are other ways to contribute!)

And this evening, after sundown, Lulu stood in the patio and cried with loneliness. Maybe we can find a  galgo who is more people-friendly, energetic enough to give Lulu a good run every morning, and maybe give her a bit more confidence around humans, a creature of her own kind to help keep the barn warm at night. (Lulu, our greyhound, is neurotically shy, an outcome of an abusive background.)

Four dogs is a lot of dogs. But somehow this seems right. It is downright exciting, really... A galgo, a gift from the campo, for people of the campo.
I will let you know soon how grateful I feel.

Saturday, 5 February 2011


I feel like I disappeared off the earth for a while.

I am not sure what became of the last week or so. A pile of things have been achieved in that time, though: little Rosie Dog has been "fixed;" Tino the Electrician showed up and repaired all the electrical things that were not working (and installed a LOUD doorbell that sounds just like the one that launched us from biology  to algebra class, back in eighth grade). Both our computers are running extremely slowly and we don´t know why. It snowed one night, and the rest of the days were sunny and bright. We clipped the hens´ wings, after watching how-to videos on YouTube, so now they cannot fly over the fence and ravage every living green shoot of the back yard. (We also learned on YouTube how to hypnotize chickens. This information could be devestating if it fell into the wrong hands, but we´ll probably try it soon if things don´t liven up. It is eerie, twisted somehow. It just ain´t natural.)

The fields are lime-green. A mendicant nun from Finland has been staying with us since Monday. Tomorrow me and Paddy will go to Madrid on the train. There we will see in his 70th year at an Irish pub on Plaza Cibeles, watching the Steelers win the Superbowl.  

And, well... that is about it.
My mother is very sick in a hospital in Pittsburgh. I had planned to go to the USA in a couple of weeks, but only to Washington, DC, only for a couple of days. It looks like I will have to extend that trip... I love my mom terribly. The thought of seeing her so sick, along with the prospect of rental cars and February interstate driving, and figuring out the plane tickets (yadda yadda yadda) it all makes me want to, well...

Disappear off the earth for a while.

So if you don´t see me around here, that is where I am.

Still, many miles away to the west, Neptune shines bright. The Big Dipper is almost touching the horizon. The tiniest sliver of new moon is up there, too, skimming low along the southern sky.  
God is in his heaven.
The world keeps turning.   
I am going to be OK.