finding peace

We arrived in Phnom Penh in late July. It began as one of the softest landings we’ve had. The trans-Pacific flight was predictably brutal but our excitement overshadowed all of that. We went to temporary housing for ten days, happy to have an immediate internet connection and access to two refreshing swimming pools. The Bushbaby had recently hit her stride back in the States with cannonballs and independent swimming and she was eager to continue in this 90 degree heat.

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Things went smoothly as we moved into our beautiful home in a great, walkable neighborhood, a ten minute tuk tuk ride from the embassy in one direction, 10 minutes to Colette’s school in the other. All of our household things met us at our new place the day we moved in, having traveled from Chile back in March. Snakes’ new truck had even made it here unscathed. I was amazed at our good fortune.

13920213_10153543233431710_5492241385250318703_oI snapped some quick “before” shots so I could do my favorite presto-change-o blog post to welcome you all into our new home once I got things sorted. We were humming along, Snakes adjusting to his new position, me and the Bushbaby unpacking and organizing things. I felt like we had finally shaken the wicked jet lag which had taken nearly two weeks!

And then….

I received an urgent text from my sister to call her immediately. Aw, I thought, her 12 year old family dog, a sweet old lady, weimy-mix had been up and down with health issues recently and I feared the worst. I signed in to skype and dialed her up, ready to listen to dog stories and offer comfort to my niece and nephew. But I was wrong. It was our mom. And she was dead.

This all happened a month ago, and now as I glance at the date- I realize it’s to the day. Nothing can ever prepare you for this. My mom was healthy. I HAD JUST SEEN HER. She was turning 70 in October. She was vibrant and creative and strong and funny. She was the lady you wanted to have a glass of wine with and brainstorm about everything, if you could only stop laughing long enough to jot some things down. She was my best friend. She was so many people’s best friend.

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Snakes got out of bed and onto the phone with his boss. We are given an allowance from the State Department for one bereavement ticket. The cost for my family to fly the next day to Michigan from Cambodia is something I’d rather not discuss, but I couldn’t understand the idea of doing this alone. I desperately needed those two with me for the 23 hour flight back home. This is why we have credit cards, right?

My sister and her family had gotten in a day before us from Colorado and started with the funeral arrangements. I admired her so greatly for finding the strength to discuss embalming and select appropriate casket-wear. I still couldn’t understand what it meant that our mom was dead. I stumbled through her house, running into her everywhere. Tripping over her shoes in the hallway, picking up her jacket that kept falling from it’s hook when I walked by. I looked at the tomatoes arranged on the windowsill in her kitchen and wondered if she’d bought them. I ate one whole. I put all of her clothes on, step-sistered my size tens into her size eights and wrapped myself up in her scarves. I slathered myself with her expensive face creams. I searched her lipsticks for a kiss she may have left behind. I replayed one of the many many many messages I have from her on my phone. “Hi Dollface! It’s your mommy!….”

Snakes took the kids out to movies, breakfasts, Lake Michigan and anywhere else in a 30 mile radius that seemed remotely like fun. My sister and I pressed on the best that we could. She went to the florist to commission a big tangle of wildflowers to be draped across her casket. Absolutely NO carnations!! Stop on the roadside for Queen Anne’s lace if you have to. She dropped the clothes at the funeral home. She touched up the electric yellow fingernail polish that had chipped from my mom’s nails. She met my mom’s hairstylist and dear friend who had offered to style her hair one last time. I wish I could say she was beautiful, but there is no beauty in the unexpected death of your mother.

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I spent my time organizing an after service luncheon in my mom’s garden. A neighbor had generously offered to have it catered, but for any of you that know me or have been following my blog- you know I couldn’t sit by while ham buns happened. Not while I was still drawing breath. I resolved to honor my mom in the only way I knew, throw a party. I hadn’t slept in days and the jet lag had me running on fumes. About the only thing I was capable of was chopping and whisking.

Snakes did a pulled pork. I threw together a tangy dijon potato and green bean salad, broccoli slaw, a giant pile of crudite with my mom’s famous blue cheese dressing. I juiced bags of citrus for carafes of grapefruit-forward margaritas. Girlfriends from Detroit brought lemon bars, a rhubarb blueberry pistachio crisp, coconut corn muffins with pineapple butter and chocolate chip cookies. When I tired in the kitchen, I went outside to string up these bamboo fans I’d found in one of the markets in Phnom Penh the day before we’d left.

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Everyone came back here after the funeral service. We played Loretta Lynn and BB King and Lucinda Williams. We drank margs, toasted to my beautiful mommy and watched her grandkids chase each other through her yard. This should’ve been her 70th birthday party. I kept imagining it was. That any minute she’d walk around the monster rose of sharon bush and squeal with laughter. I’d hand her a drink and give her a huge squeeze. She’d marvel at the Willy Wonka “lollipops” hanging from the trees, wheels already turning on how she’d fashion them into an elaborate mural on her dining room wall. I’d kiss her on both cheeks and look into the smiling eyes that are my own. I’d tell her what an incredible lady she is, how greatly I admire and love her. How much she inspires me every single day. All of these people would. All of these people who’s lives she’s touched, here in her backyard. What fun!!  All of these people eager to line up, raise their glass and share a laugh.

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I don’t know how to begin to handle this grief and this loss I feel.  It’s a dark cloud that follows me everywhere and I know once I slow down it is going to consume me. I keep moving forward. I know I can’t outrun it and I will eventually need to turn around, brace myself and step into it with as much grace as I can muster.

pai natal

suits of many colorsIt’s so much easier to let these holidays slip past without a mention than it is to blow it out all festive and sparkly in this African heat. Though now that we have a bushbaby the former’s not much of an option and I suppose I’d better get used to that. Last year was pretty dull and depressing. No Santa and very little community cheer. It felt like people had their blinders on, only counting down days until departure. This past year our mission has exploded with arriving families. I think the last number I heard was that there are over 50 kids here. When we arrived there were 9, and that’s including my pregnant belly. Kids have a way of forcing our best foot forward. I find myself wanting to make things more and more special for all these little cuties.IMG_0089Last week I invited a couple of girls over to help make cookies. Snakes’ only Christmas request was for an unending supply of kiffles. I’ve made 3 batches now. Each batch makes over 100 cookies. I still have some in the freezer to roll, fill, crimp and bake. After all these years of blogging, it’s the kiffle post that drives the most traffic over, especially this time of year. I get emails from people who grew up in the Allentown-Bethlehem, PA area telling me about their love and nostalgia for kiffles. I love it that memories of a town and season would be linked so strongly to this bite-sized, jam-filled pastry. (An updated kiffle post is on the horizon.)

practicing "hohohos"So with the kitchen wafting sweet buttery jammy perfection, the mood was set. Since there was no Santa last year, Snakes decided to take matters into his own hands and order a suit.  He consulted an actor friend who advised he should loosen and drop his jaw when “HoHoHo”-ing. His big debut came when he accompanied the Marines to drop off their collection of toys for a local orphanage.

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The kids were thrilled, everyone chanting “PAI NATAL!!!! PAI NATAL!!!! PAI NATAL!!!!” as he walked by, scrambling to reach out for a high-five or a hug from Santa. We were undeniably off to a better season this year than last.

On Christmas Eve night, Santa visited embassy homes, dropping off toys and highlighting “naughty and nice” moments from the past year- which parents had fueled him with ahead of time. A friend, dressed in a silky emerald green dress, joined him as his elf and driver. I stayed home, tucking in the Bushbaby and putting the final touches on dinner with the help of Santa’s elf’s husband. (Wait, who?) When they returned, joined by another couple, we ate and drank into the wee hours on this festive and sparkly night before Christmas.IMG_0469IMG_0505Hope you had a cozy and memorable time, surrounded by family and friends. Remembering always to make the best of your situation, whatever and wherever that might be.  Much love and good cheer to you all! IMG_0166

back up to speed

Friends! Family! We’re here!! Much has happened in the time since I last checked in. In fact the growing list of “blog posts I’d like to pen” has been slowly overwhelming me to the point of paralysis. I’ve decided to just do a big flashy whirlwind and later if I feel inspired enough to dedicate an entire post to any one of these subjects I can do so. But for now I just want to hop back on this train and chug forward.

Back in August, our sweet Bushbaby had her first birthday! It was a mellow affair with just the three of us. I made this 3 layer cake with lemon curd between the layers and lemon mousse frosting. Whoa. Did that just make your salivary glands spring to life? Did mine. It was incredibly special and really delicious. The cake topper was one from when Snakes was a kid. Each year it has another little animal with a candle in his car to add to the train. God bless that nostalgic MIL of mine! I’m so glad that she hung onto it.

We FINALLY had the opportunity to take a little walking tour of the old colonial ruins in downtown Luanda. I could have spent the entire day wandering through the crumbly buildings. Our RSO has always advised that we do not explore the city unless in a large group nor should we take our cameras along as the police are known to confiscate them. I took the risk of a few pictures, but I really needed more time than was allowed. Also people on the street do not like having their photo taken. 

A while back, I’d learned through some Chevron friends that just off the coast of Luanda is the migratory path of a massive pod of dolphins and a group of humpback (I think) whales.  Despite the fact that the embassy allegedly has a boat (as reported in post reports back at FSI), there were no organized trips planned. When Snakes asked about the mystery boat, he was told that it was too unfit for use. I was pretty bummed. I thought it would be such a shame to be SO close to this potentially amazing experience (especially when amazing experiences are in short supply) and not be able to make it happen. However! As luck would have it, one of the other moms at my playgroup sent me a last minute email saying that a couple who was scheduled to join them for an outing had cancelled and they now had space for two more. A friend agreed to come by and spend the afternoon with the Bushbaby and we set off for an afternoon on the water. It was magnificent. Great to get out of the city for a few hours, an interesting perspective on Luanda and the bay AND we actually spent a few hours following along side a group of whales. Of course pictures never do justice to these sorts of things. To hear their breath spraying through the surface was awesome. I know this post may lead one to believe that our schedules have been bursting at their seams with action and adventure, but as I’ve illustrated in the past the reality of life here is entirely different. Most days I am inside with little to do besides chase the love bug to and fro. And to be honest, there’s a fair amount of lazing about.

After she goes down for the evening I begin knitting like a fiend. Currently between projects, I am awaiting a yarn shipment from the states. I finished a couple of projects recently, my very first “garments”. The following picture speaks for itself and the bottom is of a lattice topped shell when it was nearly finished. It turned out beautifully and was in solid rotation on our recent trip. Confidence is slowly building to attempt more complex patterns, just in time for our move to a more varied climate! (20 more weeks, people!!!)

Speaking of that recent trip where I wore my cute new sweater with pride, this one decidedly merits its very own blog post. More to come on the beauty and grace of Portugal!

letter to the bushbabe

 

 

Sweet little CoCoMax, in that second you arrived one year ago everything changed forever. Our very own bushbaby, born in sunny Johannesburg, South Africa in the wee hours of the morning. My already messy heart burst wide open. I wanted to be better, do better and make everything better for you. I wanted to finally make good on all the promises I’ve made to myself over the decades. I want to lead by example.You made me a mom and for this I am always grateful. I think it’s my favorite thing about myself now, being your mama. I always knew I’d love it, but had no concept of how much. Every single day there is something else, something new. On the best days, it’s life affirming; on the worst, a valuable reminder to breathe deeply and recognize sleep deprivation as the monster it is. Lately, I watch you crossing the room with your new little rolling cart filled with your favorite books and remote controls, falling down, frustrated but getting back up over and over and over again. My strength is renewed as your dedication and perseverance flow over back to me..Our bushbaby, you have such a good natured goofball personality. We are blessed beyond measure to have such an easy going and healthy little critter such as yourself. Happy first birthday Colette! You are loved so very much by so very many.

 

there and back again

After a grumpy week of confused late night adjustments, I believe we have all recovered from our jet lagging travels. My wits are just now starting to return. I wanted to write while I was back in the states, but quite frankly, there was just too much to catch up with. The Bushbaby and I began our journey in mid-March with a 3 week visit with my sister and her family. I can’t imagine a softer landing. The french doors from the guest room opened to a generous Colorado sky and the snowy mountains beyond. America the beautiful, dressed in her modest and rugged heartland finery.

The air was cool and clean, a nearly consistent and perfect forecast in the mid-60s, low 70s. Daily walks through her foot-hilly neighborhood flushed our cheeks pink and challenged my low-lander lungs and muscles. I snuggled my little african bundle tightly into the stroller and marveled (AGAIN) over the things I’ve taken for granted in my life. Trash bins and public parks with cute little baby swings, countless places to just WALK. My God, how simple and lovely this life can be.

After 3 weeks of spicy baby salad greens, sweet cousin kisses & squeezes, rich creamy lattes and plenty of retail therapy, we said our teary goodbyes and flew into Michigan to reunite with Snakes and visit with the rest of my family in the Grand Rapids area. Since it was the Bushbaby’s inaugural visit, my dad took a few days off work to spend some time getting to know his newest granddaughter. He also arranged a SERIOUS pinball fix for us one evening at the home of one of his pinball buddies. Honestly, this guy had no fewer than 20 different machines, all in mint condition. I strapped Colette on with a forward facing Bjorn and played, uninterrupted, for about an hour. It is our greatest regret that we never bought a machine before coming to Luanda. It would have been money very well spent.

Many visits with family, friends in Detroit, a couple of old favorite food haunts, and the week flew by. We spent the final week in Bethlehem, PA with Snakes’ family. My MIL had arranged a big brunchy party for everyone to come and meet the Bushbabe that weekend we arrived. Though exhausting, it was a great way to pack A LOT of visiting into just a few hours. That week we managed to squeeze in a date (!), more shopping and visiting and a family photo shoot. Even though we promised ourselves to have a relaxing R & R, I wonder if it’s really possible. There is always something more to do, see and EAT.

As the week came to a close and our flight time loomed large, I could feel my anxiety building. Life is SO easy in the states. The ideas of “seeing the world” and “experiencing other cultures” (and learning so so so much about ourselves in the process) remain enticing. But when the lilac bushes are bursting at their seams, begging me to pick an armload and press my whole face into them and we’re stuck inside rearranging, weighing our luggage, organizing our stash of broccoli, asparagus, cheeses and miso paste, the reality of this life hits me. It’s incredibly hard work. Living so far from family, friends and the ease of familiarity.

I can’t think too much about what I’m missing now that we’re back, it’s a dangerously slippery slope. I need to find that little space where I am simply grateful for each and every thing. I need to take that “little space” and work on making it much bigger. I need to make sure I force myself out of the house every day. I need to find time for my studio. One year over. One year left. It’s getting better all the time.

holidays

The holidays have come and gone. The embassy was operating with a skeleton crew as most people were taking advantage of this sleepy holiday time to get out of dodge. Unfortunately this group did not include yours truly. We stuck around, fantasizing about where we might be next year this time.

The lost pouch came through on the last possible day before the holiday weekend, a minor Christmas miracle since it contained all of the packages from our families. I will have to encourage them to ship holiday goodies mid-October next year. Snakes spoiled me with gifts galore from the duty free airport shopping on his way back to Luanda. He also found a beautiful bracelet for me at an artists’ collective in Rio, a magnificent city indeed. If it is on our bid list, he insists we need to consider it very seriously as an option for our next post. I’m hoping we have the opportunity to return for another temporary assignment before our tour here is up.

One minor bummer (which in the grand scheme of things is no biggie) was that there’s no Santa in Luanda! As friends filled my facebook feed with smiling, scowling and sobbing pictures of their kids on Santa’s lap, I realized that we wouldn’t be getting one done for The Bushbaby. Like I said, not the end of the world, but it just made me a little sad. The season wasn’t punctuated with many festive events at all. Ever the problem solver, my guy leapt into action buying not only a Santa suit but a gorilla one as well. He reasoned that  it’s one thing to be without a Santa when you need one but sorry is the man who finds himself unable to deliver when the call goes out for a gorilla at the party. Extreme hijinx like this, my friends, are why I love that man.

We hosted a Christmas Day brunch at our place. Later in the afternoon we went for a family stroll through the neighborhood. (A friend was along and took the pictures.) There were crowds of kids clamoring to pet the mastiff. I’ve never seen such appreciation for the gentle breed as I’ve seen here on the streets of Luanda. Curiously the muddog wasn’t given the rockstar reception. I suppose he’s more of an acquired, refined taste.

On Monday we joined some friends for a trip to a beach here in the city. It was off the coast of the Ilha, which is a little peninsula with a few restaurants and clubs, one of the nicer places in the city. It was the Bushbaby’s first trip to the ocean. I elected not to dip her toes in after I eyed the sneakers, plastic bags and debris rolling in with each wave. We spent a little time cooling off at the embassy pool instead.

New Years Eve we celebrated our third anniversary by preparing a nice dinner for ourselves after The Bushbaby was asleep. A poached egg topped green salad with gorgonzola, drizzled with balsamic glaze, roasted duck a l’orange with Christmas limas sauteed with garlic and collards. For dessert I made a peach buckle with the (surprisingly) gorgeous fresh peaches from Samtrex (the South African grocer). My romantic(?) lover surprised me with “A Year of Beans” from Rancho Gordo. I’ve been ordering from these guys for a few years now and am always impressed by their selection and quality. If you’re a fan of the humble bean and her countless varieties, it’s a nice little treat that ships well through the pouch.

Thank you all so much for your words of encouragement and love this past year. Finding out I was pregnant, moving here, solo med-evac to Johannesburg, having a BABY…whew. Sounds crazy, but at times your comments and feedback are my lifeline. It makes me feel like maybe I’m not so alone and some days that makes all the difference in the world. I wish you all a New Year filled with the people and things that make your heart sing and the comforting knowledge that we are all in this together. Summed up nicely by a quote from one of my favorites in The Bushbaby’s library, All The World: “Peace and hope and love and trust, All the world is all of us.”

settling in and missing out

Back in Luanda for a week now and as predicted things are much better with a bushbaby in tow and a less bionic sense of smell. Snakes was able to take this past week off to help us get situated and to spend time together as a family. My reunion with Banjo was beautiful. Slow motion, we ran to one another with our arms out and tails wagging, “never tear us apart” playing in the back ground of my demented mind. He had become progressively more crotchety in the last month, maybe losing faith that I’d return. I’m pleased to report he’s back to his well-behaved self. No big reaction from either dog toward the baby. After a couple of sniffs they both lost interest. I suppose they’ll revisit that once she starts flinging food. (Banjo and the baby’s toys are a different story…)

The last few weeks have been action packed. My mom came for a 10 day visit during our last couple of weeks in Johannesburg. It was a blessing to have the extra help, but mostly I’m grateful for the memories of her swaying and singing soft lullabies to her newest grandbaby. Skype is great and all, but there’s nothing like the smell and the pure snuggliness of a new little love dumpling. I’m so glad they had the chance to meet each other before that phase is over. After Colette was lulled to sleep we’d sip wine and work on sewing projects, laughing and catching up in the way that phone calls never allow. We managed to hand-stitch a little dress in a few evening’s time. (pictured above and below)

Oddly, when we joined the foreign service it never dawned on me how difficult it might be to be so completely isolated from family. Especially at times like these. I think we get so caught up in the “glamor” (wait…what??) and excitement of it all. Wow. My husband is a diplomat. Excuse me while I go try on cocktail dresses and cluck around the house trying to figure out high heels and red lipstick. It never once crossed my mind that I’d miss my mommy. Or that I’d have a little one who would only get to know her extended family through one big blitzy visit (if that) each year. How well will she know her grandparents? Her cousins? Her adoring aunties? There’s only so much the pixelated and delayed skype conversations and the strange, pseudo “connection” of facebook are capable of. Among the thousands of things I’ve taken for granted before moving here is the ability to see my family at will. It didn’t happen nearly as much as it should have. Hindsight’s a bitch.

Beyond my postpartum introspection and ruminations on the nature of family, it’s been phenomenal being back home and all together. As you may recall our huge shipment of household stuff arrived a week before I left back in July. Although we managed to unpack and somewhat organize the bulk of it, I didn’t have time to really stare into the spaces and sort out the proper homes for everything until now. I rearranged the entire living room, incorporating my Johannesburg treasures as I went. I’ll have to do some “before-after” shots, as promised. Oh! and Snakes hired a housekeeper! With two big dogs and a dusty city on our doorstep it is a incredible blessing to have her here 3 days each week. With a buff of the floor and a pass of the iron, she’s wasted no time in reminding me that housekeeping is not my strongest suit. I may actually have time to get back into my studio sooner than I thought!