Archive for the Mi Familia Category

Moving forward

Posted in Mi Familia with tags , , on October 29, 2011 by redswandiaries

On Monday, appropriately Halloween, I begin a new position. For six years I have worked for the WSU Foundation, five of those years working with families and memorials at WSU. My job was humbling and incredible, but difficult. I cried with strangers over the phone and at their kitchen tables. Through those tears we became friends as I worked hard to follow through on my promise to honor their loved one and to ensure they would not be forgotten, whether through a named scholarship or a paver in the Plaza of Heroines, or simply within the recesses of my already broken heart.

I never professed to know their personal pain, only understand as each of us grieves separately and differently. I still feel I was placed in that position for a reason, having taken the job and just five months later losing my niece, Andrea. You cannot know what it is to grieve for a mother, father, sister, brother, child until you have experienced such loss. And as I helped these families through their grieving process, they helped me.

Which is why the hardest part about leaving my position is I feel I’m losing Andi all over again. I’m afraid I won’t share her story as much, now that I will not have others who will understand the story. I’m afraid most of all of forgetting. I know I will never forget her or the pain my family carries, but I can’t help but fear that others will.

It took me a few days to recognize this emotion, this strange nagging in my soul. I’m extremely excited about my new job,  a little nervous, but so looking forward to its challenges and my new co-workers. But, part of me has been hesitant, and while I knew it was not about leaving the Foundation, I knew it had something to do with leaving those families who had relied on me during one of the darkest moments of their lives.

A week or so ago, Dr. Jim Rhatigan, former dean of students and my personal cheerleader, loaned me a cassette tape of a sermon by Dr. Robert Meyer of the University Congregational Church. He told me to listen and truly understand what it is that I carry, what it is that I know. I waited until the day following my last official day with the Foundation and this is what I learned.

Dr. Meyer explained what changes in a person who mourns and how they are blessed by this change. “Some new depth in yourself, some richer knowledge of how priceless love and life are, so that from that day forward your life will bless others lives in ways it could not have done before.”

I’m not leaving Andi behind. I will continue to take her with me wherever I go and she and I will continue to cry with others, hold hands through tears, and be the needed strength of those who feel they cannot go on, as well as laugh with those who never thought they’d laugh again, and smile because we know such sorrow because we once knew such joy.

Blessed are they who  mourn, for they shall be comforted.


Mi madre, mi reina

Posted in Mi Familia with tags , , on May 7, 2011 by redswandiaries

Martha Andrea Vasquez Castro. My mother, mi madre. My queen.

My mother would not consider herself a queen, not ever. I’m not so sure my mother considers herself strong, the foundation of her family, our family, the rock, but she is.

Hers is the advice we seek, the ear we bend, the hand we hold, the shoulder we cry, the back we know will carry us, the tongue we know will set us straight.

As a child, I feared my mother, but not because I knew if I messed up she would be the first to inform me and the first to swat my butt; or the tales she told to scare me into good behavior, like “if you stick your tongue out at me, when you die your tongue will stick out of your grave and everyone will know what a bad girl you were, sticking your tongue out at your own mother.”

I feared her because she ruled, in the sense she was the queen of her domain, her family, and how would I ever aspire to that level. Impossible. I was a skinny little girl with glasses and unruly hair who hid behind books bigger than me and felt sick to her stomach when she was the center of attention.

 I would never be the woman with the too-red hands who fed everyone who entered her home, even if they weren’t hungry because magically, just stepping into her kitchen set their stomachs to growling. I would never be the woman whose siblings continued to seek for advice or to vent or to gossip or just to be in her presence because she was as familiar to them as their own skin, their own breath, their own beating hearts. I would never be the woman who cared unconditionally for her husband and children, as if her very life depended on it, sacrificing her time, her energy so they could go out into the world and live, and love, and conquer.

As a teenager I fought her strength. I denied the traits I’d inherited, pretended I was not my mother’s daughter, while unknowingly becoming more and more just like her.

As a young woman, I accepted my mother as friend, as mentor, and for the first time noticed she and I have the very same hands. Not one day goes by I don’t look down at my hands poised over a keyboard, grasping a dish towel, reaching out to a friend, folded in prayer and see her.

But I’ve come to understand I’ve inherited the best of both of my parents. I’m proud I am unafraid of voicing my opinion, of caring for my family. I’m not ashamed I put my family first, lose sleep worrying over them, unflinchingly bear their burdens.

I no longer see the skinny little girl with glasses when I look in the mirror. I see my mother’s daughter. And I am thankful. Thankful to the woman who quit school to take care of her father and siblings; who visited her mother in the Wichita Sanitarium/Tuberculosis Hospital, sometimes just through a screened window, clutching the hands of her siblings; who brought into this world a lifeless son, our brother we never knew, and unselfishly asked for him to be donated to science so no other mother would bear such pain; whose dream of a big family settled on the shoulders of just three, whom she said over and over “were enough, more than enough;” who learned how to drive after my father lost his job, even though she was nervous, so she could get a job; who stayed up late waiting for her children to come home, never sleeping until she heard the front door open and shut and continues to do so, even though they are adults and just visiting; who never missed Mass; who cried when I graduated from college; who faltered for the first time when she buried her granddaughter.

She is this and more. My mother is homemade tortillas hot off the placa; the sweetness of Mexican chocolate; the quick pinch on the leg during Mass; the warning smack on the head with a hairbrush ( I said, sit still); light pats on the back after a bad dream; the scent of baby powder, Ivory soap, and Aquanet; the famous frown in all those black and white photos; the firm hand on the top of my head as she blesses me; the best cook, no, the only cook in the world; the one person I have to call every day just to hear her voice.

I tease her that when she dies, which will be never, I’m going to insist her epitaph be “I should’ve order that,” because it never fails, when we go out to dinner she always likes what someone else at the table has ordered. And while this might be true regarding her appetite or ordering skills, I know it isn’t true in life. Not that she didn’t have every right to want another life considering all she’s been through, but that is not the woman I know, I feared, I admire and adore.  She lives the life given to her and she lives it with greatness.

My mother, my queen.

Happy Mother’s Day.

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Best Loved

Posted in Mi Familia with tags , , , on January 17, 2011 by redswandiaries

When my sister married in 1976, our already burgeoning family became a little more so. Not that we were complaining. Our family is always growing, always extending, even today. But in 1976, we opened our hearts to the Hopkins family: Allen and Audrey, Mark (my sister’s husband), Lee (Mark’s brother), as well as Aunt Jean, Uncle Bob, Gail, Susie, Bobby…well, the rest of the Illinois clan. Over the years we have shared laughter, told stories, sipped many a cup of coffee and savored slices of pie, watched many a Cubs game, attended just as many pool parties, toasted a few warm beers on Lake Geneva, played hundreds of games of Uno, and did our best to comfort in times of sorrow.

Allen and Audrey were most endearing to me, especially as a gangly, shy and awkward teen. I’d spent my childhood with my nose in a book, actually many books, and while I was only aware of my physical inadequacies (too tall, too skinny, too nearsighted), Mr. and Mrs. Hopkins seemed more aware of the young lady within.

Audrey was always gentle, yet a little stern, as if to instill a little Illinois toughness in this weak Kansas bird. She introduced me to coffee, sugar spoons, china cups and half-and-half, and  pies from Baker’s Square, and the definitive Illinois accent. She was classic.

Sensing the writer hidden within the self-conscious, Allen bought me my first book of poetry. The Best Loved Poems of the American People. 648 pages filled with the words of Browning, Byron, Shelley, Kipling, Wordsworth and more. Scribbled in the margins of the index are penciled notes by a young woman I’d almost forgotten. The penciled stars and checkmarks, question marks and exclamation points a personal code to categorize greatness, emotion, questioning or amazement. And looking through the index now, I’m amazed at how a poem I found so remarkable at the age of twelve, still touched me deeply when I was an undergrad in Albert Goldbarth’s poetry class. The poem is Wordsworth’s “Daffodils.”

All those poems, all those words, and yet the ones I memorized first were the ones handwritten on the first page: “To Natalie: Sweet, sensitive and talented; I hope you enjoy this book.” -Allen.

Audrey and Allen moved to Florida in 1984, just one year before I made the trek to become a Chicagoan.  Too soon our relationship became a note jotted in a Christmas card, a quick hello over the phone,  the viewing of photos taken during my sister and brother-in-law’s frequent trips to take the kids to visit. And too soon, Allen was gone. He died in 1995. And just last week, Audrey passed away.

As my brother-in-law made his way to Florida, I searched the bookshelves for that book of poetry. It had been a few years since I’d cracked the binding, attempted to decode the code, ran my fingers across Allen’s beautiful writing. While geography may have limited our conversations or stymied new memories, the impression they made on an anxious young girl trying to find her own was unforgettable.

And now, I’d like to think they are with Andrea and keeping a close eye on us all. Always aware. “And then my heart with pleasure fills, and dances with the daffodils.”

In honor of Allen and Audrey, I’d like to post a poem written by Allen in 1967. This same poem is matted and framed and hanging in Mark and Shirley’s bedroom, so with Mark’s permission I end with the words of Leonard Allen Hopkins:

What Kind of Man are You?

I am not the kind of man who speaks for the sake of being heard

like a caged parrot or a chirping bird.

I do not speak for comment’s sake about pretty flowers or the trees

with as much consequence as a passing breeze.

My voice does not soften in retreat nor do I withdraw in self-defense

just because I fear a consequence.

False actions do not pressure me to silence those thoughts that should be known

just because I stand alone.

I do not bend to hypocrisy nor become part of a masquerade

because of pretentious flattery made.

I do not bow to saintly praises or retreat when pressures beckon

so that I might pass someones inspection.

I judge my fellows by what I know them to be and not by what someone said to me.

My heart and hand I freely lend to any man that needs a friend.

Perhaps I’ll not be judged renowned nor measured for success

but I’m my own more, no less.

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Giving Thanks

Posted in Mi Familia with tags , , on November 27, 2010 by redswandiaries

For the first time in three years I am looking forward to this holiday season. The past three years have been tough, especially during the holidays. It began in November of 2007 with my husband losing his job, then Andrea passed away that same year on Christmas Eve, and each season following has been weighted in fear and sadness.

I’m not sure what sparked the change this year, except it was intiated by my mother’s good news. Her lymph nodes were benign. No cancer. The breast cancer contained. Following her excited phone call with the much anticipated news, I didn’t cry, but I could feel my heart swell and overflow with a gratefulness I’d forgotten.

And so this Thanksgiving morning, my heart abounds with thankfulness. And I remembered a quote I’d read some time ago:

“We tend to forget that happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting something we don’t have, but rather of recognizine and appreciating what we do have.”

Sometimes it takes a crisis to remind us what is most important, even when we think we’ve known it all along. And for me, the most important blessing in my life is family. When it comes to family, my cup overflows.

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Classic Girl

Posted in Mi Familia with tags , , on November 17, 2010 by redswandiaries

There is not one day that goes by she doesn’t slip through my mind. Quiet. Soft. I hear her voice. Her laugh. Some days her presence is gentle. A reminder. “I’m here.” A brush against the arm or cheek.

Other days, she is heavy and warm, like a blanket around my shoulders. A hug that won’t end.

And some days I find myself searching for her. Whispering into the wind. Knowing she’s there, but unable to feel her. See her. Hear her. Anxious for that moment when she reassures me she is okay. It’s okay.

But it isn’t okay.

She would’ve celebrated her 32nd birthday today. And what tumbles through my mind is mixed-up and unpredictable: she weighed 7 pounds 11 oz. 7-11. Like the convenience store. Her favorite color was black. She loved cats. Lots of cats. We used to shop at Yesterday’s Disc when she came to town to visit, buying old CDs and jamming them into the car stereo as soon as we reached the parking lot-DeeLite, The Cure, Jane’s Addiction. She disliked the sun and once when we all went to Cheney lake, she sat under a scrawny tree, her hippie-skirt tucked under her Doc Martens, and sipped a soda. An eccentric, young figure surrounded by sun-worshipping, half-naked water revelers. And she danced to Classic Girl at her wedding.

I’ve learned to comfort others by explaining they will never be whole, not ever. Why lie? That time does not heal all wounds. Not this wound. That you  live differently. You learn to live with the hole in your heart. You make it through each day thankful for those moments, those brushes, those hugs of memories the brain and soul and heart will never let go.

Happy birthday, Andrea.

Such a classic girl.

Welcome, little man

Posted in Mi Familia with tags , , on September 6, 2010 by redswandiaries

I intended to post every day leading up to the kick-off of the new NFL season, but a little thing like food poisoning got in the way. I’d always thought there were few things in this world to make me want to take my own life, but I discovered Saturday evening that a lovely bout of food poisoning is at the top of the list. It’s a good thing we do not own any firearms. Although, I doubt I’d had the strength to lift the gun. Anyway, I’m better. But don’t think I’ll be ordering any chicken wings in the near future.

And while I fully intended to get back on the NFL track, an incredible miracle happened at 3:50 am. This little man was born.

This is Lucas Michael Petrasek. My great-nephew. My beautiful niece, and god-daughter, Holly, delivered the little dude after 16 hours of labor. And while I’m not one to gush over babies, when I received the photo by text at 4:00 am, I began to cry. I’m not sure why. Possibly the beauty of this birth on, ironically, Labor Day. Perhaps the fact that Holly was told it would be very hard for her to conceive (I guess she showed them). Or mostly because this family, my sister’s family, has endured such heartbreak over the past 4 years that this tiny baby, this little beginning, was much needed. With Lucas, comes hope.

I realize that’s a heavy burden to place on a 7lb 10 oz. baby. Hope. But he is. He is our future. A first child. A first grandchild. A first nephew. A first great-nephew. A first great-grandchild.

And I admit I’m having a hard time with the realization that this little girl who is my god-daughter, the  spiky-haired toddler I held in my arms, the child I helped nurse when she had the chickenpox, the little girl so independent at such a young age with a clear mind of her own is now a mother.

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It truly is in these moments that all is right in the world. Welcome, Lucas.

Inspiration in a packet

Posted in Mi Familia with tags , , , on July 8, 2010 by redswandiaries

While shopping around my collection of short stories, exercising my patience, and basically finding a normal groove to life after graduate school, I’ve found little inspiration in my writing. I toyed with two ideas, one being a book about a father and son based on one of the characters repeated throughout my collection. The second was a venture into the world of monster novels. No vampires or werewolves, but based on the traditional plot structure of Stoker’s Dracula, complete with monster weaknesses and magic weapons. I compiled research for the latter, but couldn’t write. The results: the father/son book has an intro., the monster novel has two chapters.

Then, I bought Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna. This was a book I’d been wanting for a while. I brought it home, poured a glass of wine, and sat in my favorite reading spot on the deck. One chapter in, I stopped. A name of a character in the book kept haunting me. Salome. I knew the name. It was familiar. I remembered. My Aunt Graciela had given me a packet in October. Actually, she gave one packet to most of her nieces and nephews. The packet’s contained photocopies of old pictures of my father’s family, the Castro family. Included are pages and pages of a family tree, and information regarding our family history compiled by my aunt through letters, diaries, and stories. The letters and stories belonged to my grandfather, Francisco, or Pancho. The stories came from various living relatives.

Salome. At first I thought Salome was the name of a grandmother, but Salome Tejeda was actually my grandfather’s grandfather. My great-great-grandfather. Salome means Peace. After reading the first few pages, I decided to keep reading. I’d forgotten about the packet. Soon I was lost in the story of how my grandparents met, the incredible obstacles they faced in Mexico and when they arrived in the US. Their love of music, of stories, and my grandfather’s poetry filled my heart. And yet, my only memory is of a  small, white-haired woman, Grandma Dominga, who spoke only Spanish, who caressed my cheek with a firm but gentle hand. We never had a conversation. Oh, what I would ask her now.

I would ask her about the time she sewed a perfect colonial woman’s dress, whitened her hair with flour and attended the local Halloween dance in Lyons, KS. I would ask her about her beautiful garden, or what it was like to be the only woman who knew how to drive a car. I would ask her about her grandfather from Santander, Spain. And how she carried the burden of losing her father in the Mexican Revolution, or the love of her life, my grandfather, in a terrible accident at the grain elevator, and later, her youngest child in a car accident.

And I would ask to see the poems written by my grandfather. Poems he wrote for my grandmother and mailed weekly to Mexico, while  he worked in Kansas, saving money to ask for her hand. I would ask him to teach me to play the piano and the words to all the old folk songs he knew and loved.

This is the story I need to tell. Theirs is the history I want to share. And while I am inspired and, as a friend described, radiating with the desire to write this story, I’m also a little sad. Sad that I never knew my grandparents. Until now.

I know they will be looking over my shoulder as I begin this journey, and I’ll be glad for their company. I hope I am able to share their story, just as Grandma Dominga shared stories while sitting on her front porch, the neighbors her audience, while Grandpa Francisco smiled. The Sun of Mexico has begun to rise.