with-shermanalexie

One evening the week before Thanksgiving, my husband and I were sprawled in our opposite corners of the couch, watching the evening news.

“Next week isn’t Thanksgiving, is it?” he asked.

“Nah,” I said.

But it was. And we had no plans.

He decided to try to book a table at a restaurant, but the only available option was if we wanted to have dinner at 2:30 in the afternoon. We didn’t.

And that was fine. Thanksgiving came too soon and we had no time or energy for it. We were drained from the last days of the presidential campaign, the election results, and the aftermath. Anyway, my husband asked, “Why do we even celebrate Thanksgiving? I mean, you know, genocide?”

In the midst of the election-related turmoil, my story collection Hola and Goodbye was released by Carolina Wren Press. It came out November 1, a week before Election Day. On November 2, I boarded a plane for Raleigh, North Carolina, courtesy of my publisher who had booked me for several events. I left my solidly blue state for a swing state whose Republican governor signed HB2 into law, banning local governments from passing anti-discrimination ordinances and requiring transgender people to use the public restrooms of their biological sex.

Everyone I met apologized for the politics of their state. Of course, these were book people, people for whom stories informed their worldview, expanded their experience, deepened meredith-college-studentstheir empathy. My story collection, which deals with an immigrant generation and subsequent native-born ones, was warmly embraced at the bookstore where I read, the conference where I sat on a panel, and by a group of Latina students at a women’s college.

At my hotel, I greeted the mostly Latino housekeeping staff in the hall each morning, and chatted with the Haitian, Russian, and Somali servers at breakfast. On my last day, Election Day, the African-American desk clerk grimly informed me that the hotel would be the site of the Republican Party election night gathering. As I sat in the lobby that afternoon waiting for my shuttle to the airport, I watched the preparations for the big night, which I was certain would be a disaster for the GOP. Because after all, how could a lying racist, sexist, tax-dodging, unscrupulous businessman with no knowledge or experience of civics or civility win the presidency?

As my Iraqi shuttle driver and I discussed the election and our hopes and fears, I imagined the hotel staff of immigrants and refugees, serving trays of hors d’oeuvres, refilling glasses, wiping up spills, collecting empty plates and stacking them in dishwashers – in other words, catering to and cleaning up after the people voting against their interests and livelihoods, and for a man whose campaign repeatedly insulted them.

I got my own brown body back to my blue state, but not before I checked early election returns while still in the air, which made the turbulence juddering the plane pale compared to the agitation in my ribcage. By the time I landed and got a cab, things were dire. My cab driver (an immigrant and a Muslim) and I were silent as we listened to NPR. When I got home, my husband and I could only exchange somber looks before going to bed.

My Seattle book launch at Elliott Bay Book Company was four days later. My energy was low, the base of my neck ached, and I had a sore throat, but it was my party, scheduled months in advance, and my sisters, brothers and cousins were coming from California, not to mention, as it turned out, one of my daughters and some high school classmates making surprise appearances.

I messaged Jacque Larrainzar whose band Secuencia Acústica was providing the music for jacque-and-drumthe reading. We had planned a traditional Mexican song, a couple of boleros and some salsa tunes. Please add a song of protest and unity, I said.

So she opened with El Pueblo Unido (Jamás Será Vencido), The people united will never be defeated.

Her powerful voice and the drumbeat lifted me and I hope it did others. I read three short excerpts from my story collection – one about an immigrant from Mexico whose slow acquisition of English isolates her even in her own home, another about a young girl whose dreams of starring in an MGM musical are dashed when she is told that Mexicans don’t become stars in Hollywood; and a third about a young woman who having never learned to speak Spanish, the language of her immigrant grandmother, goes to Mexico to search for a lost self. Each excerpt was followed by a song from Secuencia Acústica, including the popular bolero Sabor a Mi.

I felt immense good will, support, and community in that space where so many stories have been shared. Here’s a reviewer of Elliott Bay Books on Yelp (with typos removed) whose words captured my hopes for the evening:

Attended Donna Miscolta’s Hola and Goodbye: Una Familia in Stories book reading.  With a divided nation, Donna’s heartfelt reading about the 3 generations of this family with roots in Mexico and California, beautifully blended with Latin music of unity was well timed.

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The following weekend was filled with other book-related events so when Thanksgiving Day arrived and we had no dinner to go to or to cook, we gladly spent a quiet day biking, walking, reading, listening to music, and writing. We did venture out once in the car on that dreary rainy day and ended up at Whole Foods where I had a plateful of mashed potatoes, turkey and gravy, and Brussel sprouts. So a Thanksgiving meal after all, to celebrate not genocide but the things I’m thankful for – family, friends, a city and county whose leaders have pledged to retain its policies that protect immigrants, and a vibrant writing community.

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Photo by Allison Green

The month ends with beauty, joy, and hope. I was elated to be among the two dozen writers invited on Sherman Alexie’s Indies First Authors on a Bus to celebrate independent bookstores on Saturday, November 26. The bus traveled to three bookstores – Third Place Books in Seward Park, University Book Store, and Elliott Bay Book Company. Each place was festive with booksellers, writers, and readers. Each writer recommended a book to readers. Mine was Fire Girl: Essays on India, America, and the In-Between by Sayantani Dasgupta.

One of the striking things about this book is not just what a good storyteller Dasgupta is, but how well she listens to the stories of others to make discoveries about the world and about herself. This is, after all, the reason for stories.

Which is why I often reference this statement by the incomparable Sherman Alexie: “I firmly believe in the power of stories to change the world, and I firmly believe in the power of one story to change one life at a time.”

Let’s all keep reading.

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Congratulations to Patty Enrado, winner of Week 3 of the #UnaFamiliaInPhotos Twitter
contest!  Her photo of her, her father, her sister, her aunties, uncles, and manongs is captioned “Family get-togethers always involve pig roasting.” It’s a photo that conveys family ties, tradition, and celebration.  patty

The runner-up is Michelle Peñaloza who submitted a photo of her father, handsome and youthful, sitting on a bench with a congenial group of family or friends.

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Each will receive an Hola and Goodbye keepsake.

The names of the five winners and runners-up were written on slips of paper and tossed on the carpet in the foyer near the Carolina Wren Press table at the North Carolina Writers’ Network Conference in the Crabtree Marriott in Raleigh. The slip of paper landing nearest a designated line was declared the winner. It also happened to be the only slip of paper that didn’t land flat on the floor, but instead stood upright – a sign we took as an omen. Witnessing this event were Robin Miura, director of Carolina Wren Press, and Tammie Ward Rice, also with the press.

And the winner of a copy of HOLA AND GOODBYE is Michelle Peñaloza!

Thanks to everyone who entered and to those who have supported the book so far with your tweets, likes, and, most of all, your purchase of the book.

Congratulations to Jennifer Munro, the winner of Week 2 of the #UnaFamiliaInPhotos Twitter contest! Captioned with “I owe everything to my mom,” Jennifer’s entry is a lovely expression of family connection. It also happens to reflect the generational theme of Hola and Goodbye. Jennifer will receive an Hola and Goodbye keepsake and a chance to win a copy of the book. The final round of contest entries starts Tuesday, October 25. View contest guidelines.

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I share several things with my father, deceased now for twenty-three years. One is the daily crossword. My father did it each afternoon when he came home from work. That’s my habit too. Each evening I log in to the New York Times and do the crossword. I can check my stats page to see my solve rate, my current streak of solved puzzles, my total number of puzzles solved.

The best part, the cutest part, is when I complete the puzzle and the page plays a tune – a lively, congratulatory ditty. Catchy – the kind of thing that sticks in your head. If you were to ask me to hum it, I would utterly fail at reproducing it.

That’s something else I share with my father – the inability to carry a tune. This deficiency has seldom caused me too much grief or mortification simply because I accept my lack of a musical ear, am resigned to my flat voice, and never, ever sing.

Other things I can’t do: cartwheel, apply mascara or eyeliner, return a volleyball over the net.  All things I’m rarely called upon to do. Like singing.

When the poet Michelle Peñaloza invited me to participate in a literary event to celebrate the elders in the Filipino-American community in Seattle, I readily agreed. We would read short pieces that celebrated family. We would invite the elders to share their stories. There would be karaoke.

I think my brain skipped over that last part. Or I convinced myself it was optional, like relish at the condiment bar.

But eventually it became clear that each of the writers was expected to sing karaoke, which included me, the worst singer in the world.

In the weeks before the event I was too busy with other concerns to give much thought to the karaoke element of the program. But when the week arrived and I needed to decide which short piece I was going to read, I also realized there was no way in hell I was going to sing in front of a room full of people. A few days before the event, I emailed Michelle and asked for special dispensation. She kindly granted me a karaoke waiver, but asked that I not divulge the favor to the other writers who might also want to back out – a total karaoke mutiny had to be avoided.

When I arrived and mingled with the other writers prior to the start of the program, I deflected or dissembled when one or another asked what song I was going to sing.

“Not sure yet,” I said, offering a shrug of indecision.

“It’s a surprise,” I said, all mysterious and coy.

The piece I had decided to read was a short essay about my mother imparting to me a ring my father had given her. The essay recently appeared in Split Lip Magazine. It seemed appropriate to an occasion that that was celebrating elders, family, and community. It occurred to me that if I were to sing, that is, if I had the ability to sing anywhere close to in tune, I knew exactly which song I would’ve chosen. If.

bobAfter Bob Flor read a couple of poems from his new chapbook Alaskero Memories, he gamely warbled his way through “Fly Me to the Moon.” Then Michelle read some of her poetry and raised the bar with a hand-wringing, heart-clasping rendition of img_20161007_165421“Crazy.”

The audience was primed. The show was rolling.

I stepped to the stage. I read my essay about aging, mother-daughter awkwardness, and unexpressed love. Then it was time for me to exercise my special waiver.

“Instead of singing a song …” I began and was immediately met with groans of … what? Disappointment? Disapproval at not playing by the rules? There were emphatic thumbs down, vociferous protests.

“So fire me!” I exclaimed from the stage, my arms raised in capitulation. But the protests continued.

I raised my voice above the din and began anew. “Instead of singing a song,” I said, again, “I’m going to talk about one.”

That went over well. More noises of disapproval.

But I plunged ahead. I told about my mother’s favorite song. How she had requested that it be sung at her funeral, and that it was. I recited the first verse of the song about renewing memories and then the last verse about a yearny heart and regrets about roaming. I told them that even though this was my mother’s favorite song, she herself had never roamed. It was my father who had roamed from his home in the Philippines, arriving in San Diego where he met my mother just about the time that her favorite song was popular on the radio, in ballrooms, and on TV. I told them that when they were married at the courthouse, their one witness was one of my dad’s shipmates, Cres Miranda, also a Filipino. Over the years, my parents lost touch with Cres Miranda. But on the day of my mother’s funeral, eight-seven-year-old Cres appeared, having driven himself from Las Vegas to San Diego where he heard my mother’s favorite song sung for her.

I was a little choked up when I said that Cres Miranda’s gesture was a reflection of the Filipino spirit of family and community, but I managed to sputter an invitation to anyone from the audience who might know the song to come up and sing it.

After I stumbled back to my seat, my eyes welling, another one of the writers, Maria Batayola, stood up and said to the audience, “Come on, you all know it.” A chorus rose up, bloomed like a rose, and it seemed the whole room was singing “Sentimental Journey,” and it was downright beautiful. And that, too, was a reflection of the Filipino spirit of family and community.

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Thanks to those who entered photos in the #UnaFamiliaInPhotos contest on Twitter. A panel of three selected Lana Ayers  as the winner for her photo captioned “After dinner disgruntlement.” The runner-up is  Dizzy Freedom shown below with some of the other great entries. The winner and runner-up will receive an Hola and Goodbye keepsake and a chance to win a copy of the book. A new round of contest entries starts Monday, October 17. View contest guidelines.

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allison

gerie

marissa

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Hola and Goodbye is a collection of stories about three generations of a family. In anticipation of its November 1 release from Carolina Wren Press, I’m running a contest on Twitter and inviting Twitter users to post a family photo with a caption.

The photo above is of some friends of my grandfather, who was also a boxer. Below is the caption,  a line from “Ana’s Dance,” one of the stories in Hola and Goodbye.

“She came upon a small yard where several young men were engaged in various boxing exercises  – punching a bag or sparring with an invisible opponent.” #UnaFamiliaInPhotos

Enter this contest by sharing a photo on Twitter for a chance to win an Hola and Goodbye keepsake or a copy of Hola and Goodbye. Here are the contest rules:

rules-for-contest_keepsake

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When our first-born daughter was four, she asked me why she was the only one at her nat-5-yearspreschool who didn’t have a white mother.

I don’t exactly recall my answer to Natalie’s question, posed to me over twenty-five years ago. I’m sure I made some attempt at explaining that my heritage – Filipino and Mexican – made up part of who she was. The other part came from her dad, who is white. Our daughters have my dark eyes and dark hair, but Natalie has my husband’s skin tone and Ana has mine.

I was reminded of Natalie’s question recently at work when I helped organize and host the fourth in a series of literary readings intended to spark discussion of race and racism. I work for King County, which through its Equity and Social Justice Initiative encouraged employees to submit proposals that would help advance the goals of ESJ in or out of the workplace. The team I’m on was funded to produce four events as part of the ESJ training available to employees. The format consisted of two local poets presenting their work followed by a facilitated discussion on race and racism. Poets featured earlier this year were Quenton Baker and Casandra Lopez, Troy Osaki and Hamda Yusuf, and Anis Gisele and Shin Yu Pai.

In our last event, Kiana Davis and Djenanway Se-Gahon, two extremely poised and dandk2articulate young women, presented work that referenced a defining moment in childhood for them.

Kiana described how when she was four she wanted a doll, but could find none on the store shelf that looked like her. It made her believe that little brown girls were invisible. “We learn what’s beautiful and what’s ugly as we grow up,” she said.

When Djenanway was in kindergarten, her teacher singled her and two other children out for special attention by dandkasking the children with “melanin in their skin” to sit in the center of the carpet as a prelude to their celebration of Martin Luther King. Djenanway said that over the years she’s had to learn to dissociate the words different and discomfort because they had been so fused in that kindergarten moment.

When Natalie first observed that she was different from her peers for not having a white mother, I’m sure that I tried to respond in a way that assumed she was asking out of curiosity and not shame or discomfort. I wanted to set the tone for similar experiences she was bound to have in the future.

I knew my children’s experience would be different from mine. Where I grew up, I saw brown and black people in my neighborhood every day. Even so, I didn’t escape childhood without wishing I’d been born blonde and blue-eyed. As Kiana said, “We learn what’s beautiful and what’s ugly as we grow up.”

In elementary school, when Natalie’s friends realized that darker-skinned Ana was her sister, they wondered if Ana had been adopted. Another time, when a classmate of Natalie’s saw me, she asked Natalie if I was the family’s nanny. Such was the experience of these students when it came to people of color.

When my husband and I bought our house in North Seattle in 1984, only sixteen years had passed since the racial restrictive covenants in place in my neighborhood had finally been outlawed. Thirty years later, it’s still rare for me to see more than a few people of color where I live. Change takes time, especially if access to housing and other rights have been historically restricted through social institutions.

The ESJ Literary Project at work gives me hope that change does happen. Bringing writers of color into the workplace to share their stories has people listening, thinking, admitting confusion and discomfort, and asking questions. “What do I do?” asked an audience participant who confessed to feeling helpless.

Kiana and Djenanway offered these actions: Go to the Reparations website. Be an ally. To get started on the latter in Seattle, try going here.

Ferns

The Whiteley Center is a retreat for scholarly and creative activities at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories on San Juan Island. “It is a phrontistery – a space for study and thinking,” says the website. And it’s a space for writing, I would add, which I did plenty of during my recent week there with two members of my writing group, Allison Green and Jennifer Munro.

I was lucky to be was assigned a cottage near the water. It was the one that offered the most privacy. My view though the wall of windows consisted of trees, ferns, and the harbor. After my morning bike ride, it was easy to stay in my cottage until dinner. I had everything I needed. I could and did stay in my smelly workout clothes all day, showering just before dinner.

Table deskAt breakfast, I set up my laptop on the little dining table in front of the sweeping view. I slid open the glass door to the deck and I could hear insects buzz and birds call and anchored boats rock with the waves. I looked up often to see the ferry sail in and out of the harbor. Deer, ubiquitous but magical, ambled through the grass and ferns.

At lunchtime I made myself a salad and ate it on the deck. In the afternoons, I took my laptop onto the porch to sun myself while I worked. I took breaks to read. I had brought Sayantani Dasgupta’s wonderful book of essays Fire Girl and Jonathan Evison’s lively novel This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! There was often a brief nap in the afternoon. In the evenings, I switched on the fireplace and KPLU jazz.  Throughout the day I would pause in whatever I was doing and just contemplate my luck to be in that space and in the world.

Under these perfect circumstances, much can happen in a week at Whiteley.IMG_20160822_074827283_HDR

  • On my first morning of writing, a deer kept a watchful eye on me from the other side of the glass door.
  • I finished the first draft of a novel I had begun last October at Ragdale and made an annotated list of scenes to help me manage the still untidy plot.
  • I learned to identify by sound a red-breasted nuthatch. (Thank you, Jennifer Munro.)
  • I wrote the acknowledgements for my book of short stories coming out in November.
  • I finished an essay solicited by an online journal.

And because this phrontistery is a place for thinking, one morning I began to think of my mother, who died in June, and I made myself cry by navigating to YouTube and playing “Sentimental Journey,” my mother’s favorite song.

When I came home from Whiteley, in my semi-regular Sunday call with my sister in National City, I got the news that the spiritual counselor who was part of my mother’s home hospice team had died in early August, not even two months after my mother died. I probably spent a total of no more than an hour with Henry Rodriquez. As a long-lapsed Catholic, I tend to be detached but polite with church people. But Henry, which is how he introduced himself though I suppose the more proper address was Father, was so kind and unassuming and probably quite used to skeptics like me. Two years apart in age, we were soon chatting like old friends. He was born in the hospital where I volunteered as a candy striper when I was in high school. He’d been a priest at St. Jude, the church I’d been made to go to as a child. He went to Memorial Junior High, the same school my mother had attended.

My sister told him about my forthcoming book and handed him one of the promotional postcards lying around the house. Henry was genuinely delighted and expressed his eagerness to read the book when it was available. Before he left that morning, he gave a blessing to my mother as we stood around her bed. Several days later, when my mother passed, Henry was at the house within the hour to give a final blessing and to comfort our family, which he did with quiet grace. I hugged him hard before he left.

This is what I learned about Henry from his obituary, which appeared prominently in both the San Diego paper and the Los Angeles Times as well as other news outlets: He had a difficult adolescence and dropped out of junior high school for a life on the streets. After a few years, he began volunteering at Sharp Memorial Hospital as an orderly. Encouraged by the nurses, Henry earned his GED, after which the nurses helped pay his college expenses. Henry followed his bachelor’s degree with seminary training. He was ordained a priest in 1986. After graduate studies in Minnesota and Rome, he returned to southeast San Diego, where he became a beloved community figure though his work with the church and the community, and with the police department in his role as volunteer chaplain. And luckily for me and my family, he also became a hospice chaplain.

While I was at Whiteley, as I sat at my little table in that sweet cottage or on the deck outside blissed-out on the view and sun and sea breeze and wonderland deer, I think I knew those moments were not only to be savored. They were to be saved up – to absorb the unexpected punches that life throws one’s way every so often without fail.

So here’s some saved-up Whiteley magic. Rest in peace, Henry Rodriguez.Magic deer

I’ve written about the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference before here and here. I’m doing so again. I’ve attended the conference six out of the last eight years. Three of those years I enrolled in one of the full morning workshops – a daily, intensive two and a half hours of manuscript critique or generative writing. Three other years, including this one, I opted for the residency – a space to write, a meal plan, and the opportunity to attend faculty readings and craft lectures.

IMG_20160723_115728645I shared the week with terrific friends, made new friends, and grinded out a satisfying number of words on my current writing project – enough words and a plot to go with them to claim significant progress.

Because I spent a lot of time in my room writing (and obsessively checking the word tally in the corner of the screen to see how close I was to hitting my daily goal), I only went to a handful of the readings and lectures – an illuminating talk by Pam Houston on dialogue (two agendas fighting for control of a scene); a thoughtful and absorbing talk by Kwame Dawes on “history, poetry and contemporaneity”; a tantalizing preview of Helena Maria Viramontes’s new novel set in 1940s L.A., and a punch-in-the-gut essay by Debra Gwartney that riveted us to our seats until the end when we were on our feet.

Each afternoon, participants could choose from an array of hour-and-a-half workshops on various aspects of craft or the writing life.  Among them were Stories Within Stories (Shawn Vestal), How to Sharpen a Knife (Gary Copeland Lilley), Carnal Knowledge (Melissa Febos), and Who Are You Like in Your Writing Habits? (Susan Landgraf).

Jourdan Keith offered one called Trouble the Waters which was geared toward women, people of color, and LGBTQ writers whose relationship with the natural world and environmental issues is not reflected in the mainstream environmental movement. She invited us to consider the connections between our cultural history, personal life, and environmental concerns.

Among the workshops on the essay taught by Sayantani Dasgupta was Your Life in Parts: Writing the Segmented Essay which helped me discover the glimmerings of a piece I want to write about crossword puzzles, language, sibling love and rivalry, and the surprising things that connect us to our parents. (Sayantani opened the conference with a reading from her TWO (!) new books of essays.)

Aside from my writing and the occasional faculty lecture or reading, I indulged in some extracurriculars. Pie and Whiskey Night was one of them. Poet, essayist, and pie maker IMG_20160723_232010Kate Lebo, whose writing is as delicious as her pies, recruited writers from her afternoon class on writing personal essays about food. Together they created eight gorgeous fruit pies – cherry, peach, and blueberry lemon, to name a few. I had my heart set on the blackberry mint pie. Because I am often near the front of any food line, I was able to secure my desired and very delicious sliver (eight pies divided among 100 or so people meant sliver-sized servings).

I also spent time biking the hilly streets of the town, walking on the beach or in the woods, or just staring out my window at the piles of clouds in the morning that often gave way to blue skies in the afternoon and a sharp breeze in the early evening, not to mention the full moon shimmering on the waters of Admiralty Inlet.

Then there was the wildlife. Claudia Castro Luna stared down a snake on the trail; Catalina Cantu twice watched otters and naked people emerge from the surf; and Jourdan, who was camping in the woods, awoke to birds each morning. We all saw deer everywhere.

Again this year, the Tribal Canoe Journey landing coincided with the conference. The canoe journey is an inter-tribal gathering of Northwest indigenous nations. Each year, a different nation hosts other nations that journey from coastal communities of Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington with designated landings along the way. This year the Nisqually Tribe hosts the Paddle to Nisqually 2016. The trip can take up to a month.

The canoes landed at Fort Worden beach on the last full day of the conference. From my room on the bluff facing the water, I could hear the drumming and singing through the night. In the early morning, many of us watched the canoers depart for their next landing. It was a reminder that though we walked the beaches now, and attended craft lectures and readings in a historic fort in a seaport town known for its Victorian architecture, this land was once indigenous land and the canoe was the mode of transportation on its surrounding waters.IMG_20160724_060523540

Today is my birthday. I started it off by getting on an early flight back to Seattle after spending the last twelve days in National City, CA, where I grew up and where my mother began her dying on June 8. I arrived the next day when she was released from the hospital for home hospice care. I stayed in the house with my older sister. My two other sisters came by often from their homes several miles away. My brother drove down nearly every day from Orange County.

Over the next four and a half days, we fed her pudding when she wanted it, gave her juice and water first from a straw and later from a sippy cup, repositioned her in her bed every so often, and administered morphine as necessary. She was often talkative during the first few days – by turns nostalgic, scolding, and self-examining – but on the fourth evening, we knew she was nearing the end. All five of us were there to say goodbye. She lasted until the next afternoon. Three of us were at her side. We buried her yesterday next to our father.

During my week and a half stay, I often sat in the front yard, which had undergone multiple transformations over the years. When we first moved in, the house was new and the yard was bare. My father planted a lawn where we played catch and badminton. After my father died, my mother had the lawn dug up and replaced with a pattern of decorative rocks. She dotted the new landscape with containers of plants, a low-maintenance garden that needed no mowing. Soon a gazebo was added. Later, when the rocks threatened to topple my increasingly fragile mother as she watered her plants, the rocks were removed and the perimeter of the yard was bricked over. A polyhedron slab of cement was laid in the center and the gazebo reinstalled on top of it.

Over the years my mother had collected yard art, which she placed in every available space until ducks bumped up against squirrels, a puppy regarded the Virgin Mary, and gnomes intruded upon cherubs on a swing or one of the several St. Francis figures. Tropical birds hung from the gazebo, deer rested in the foliage, and a nearly life-size ceramic boy knelt with a frog in his hand. Not long ago, the boy was accidentally knocked to the ground by someone, breaking his arm in two pieces which still lie at his side. Maybe my mother found it too hard to part with the damaged boy, or maybe she didn’t have the energy to remove him. Or maybe his continued presence was an unconscious aesthetic choice.

As my mother was dying and in the days after, I often sat in the gazebo watching the life in the old neighborhood – the ice cream truck that played “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful” in the middle of June, the animal control officer trying to wrangle two strays, the picnickers in the park across the street whose boom boxes blasted for blocks.

I sat there in the company of my mother’s garden statues, dusty and faded, chipped or broken, and her plants – the geraniums, hibiscus, and bougainvillea blooming with fierce disregard for the hot sun and recent mild neglect. I confess I had not been an admirer of her garden accessories, thinking them a bit tacky and rather graceless.

Then I started taking pictures and what I saw made my heart twinge for my mother and this garden that was her creation and sanctuary. While my pictures don’t come anywhere near the photographs of William Eggleston, I understand what Eudora Welty said about his images of apparently ordinary and banal things of everyday life:

The extraordinary, compelling, honest, beautiful and unsparing photographs all have to do with the quality of our lives in the ongoing world: they succeed in showing us the grain of the present, like the cross-section of a tree… They focus on the mundane world. But no subject is fuller of implications than the mundane world!

Whatever my mother’s taste in yard art, it reflected her faith and compassion, her fondness for the whimsical, her reverence for the holy, her love of animals – all of these things and more, side by side, creating seemingly incongruous tableaux that upon closer inspection made all the sense in the world.

Today on my birthday, I traveled back to Seattle knowing that the next time I go to National City, my mother will not be there. But those garden statues she assembled like so many friends in her yard, now my sister’s yard, will still be there to welcome me.

Ducks and deer