Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Year in Books, 2013

A couple years ago, Lisa over at Two Bears Farm got me hooked on this meme from The happily ever after blog. I've come to really enjoy wrapping up the year with this post, so here goes.

These are all based on the list books I read in 2013. (I didn't read nearly as much as usual, in part, because I wasn't in school either semester, nor did I have the urge to read as much as usual. I can't wait to do this list again in 2014, because I should be back into my reading groove by then, as well as getting back into grad school classes.)

Here's how you play along: answer the questions by using only the books you read in 2013. Fun, huh?! I think so!

1.  Describe yourself:  The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult
2.  How do you feel?  Out of Range by C.J. Box
3.  Describe where you currently live.  Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
4.  If you could go anywhere, where would you go?  In Plain Sight by C.J. Box
5.  Your favorite form of transportation?  Night Passage by Robert B. Parker
6.  Your best friend is: Spider Woman's Daughter by Anne Hillerman
7.  You and your friends are: Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
8.  What's the weather like?  Below Zero by C.J. Box
9.  What is life to you?  Trouble in Paradise by Robert B. Parker
10.  Favorite time of day?  Zero Hour by Clive Cussler
11.  Your Fear?  The Fifth Assassin by Brad Meltzer
12.  What is the best advice you have to give? Chocolat by Joanne Harris
13.  Thought for the day?  Merry Christmas, Alex Cross, by James Patterson
14.  How I would like to die: Ghost Sickness by Luis Alberto Urrea
15.  My soul's present condition:  Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
16. My family is: Force of Nature by C.J. Box

A view from the University of Iowa Main Library (a row of foreign language books). I took this pic in the spring of 2012 using the Instagram app on my iPhone.

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope 2014 brings you many blessings.

(And I'm planning on writing and blogging much more than I have in 2013.)

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Oma's Christmas Magic

The past couple weeks, and especially these last few days, I've been excitedly anticipating Christmas . . . with a pinch of sadness thrown in. See, it seemed like that usual gleam of magic the Advent and Christmas seasons bring was slightly tarnished without Oma's presence.

I'd hear a Christmas song on the radio, whether it was one of Oma's favorites, or perhaps an arrangement she would've loved . . . and I'd start missing her. And then I'd start thinking that Christmas just isn't the same without one's grandmother, especially since grandmothers seem to possess a bit of a magical aura about them by their very nature - mix that with the Christmas season (Santa, winter wonderlands, presents, hot cocoa, cookies . . . ), and, well . . . it just hasn't quite felt right this year.

But then the other night, it struck me. My grandfather's voice. (He passed away in 2008). It was as though he were telling me, "Just look around. Your grandmother's magic is there. Just look."

And what did I see?

(I've posted a similar pic of these lights before, in case you remember them.)

 Liv and I were driving into our neighborhood one evening after her violin lesson. And we drove past some of our favorite holiday lights.

Every time we pass these lights, Liv and I always exclaim, "The cactus, palm tree and 'bus'!!" The family that lives here usually puts up these lights yearly. One year they didn't, and we were SO disappointed! I always say that I love the cactus lights because it reminds me of the Southwest. Liv loves the palm tree and the "bus." It's actually an RV (but we call it a bus, LOL), and the lights around the two wheels move, so it looks like the wheels are turning.

Well, I thought to myself, Okay, so there's magic around. Momentarily smiling, but still not quite feeling it.

I guess I needed another reminder.

Here are Liv and Jock, during Jock's first time playing in the "deep" snow (he's a Corgi pup, so it's deep to him).

That helped, but again, it didn't last more than that afternoon.I guess I needed a little more help.

Okay, so how about Liv's colorful hat with the two pom poms?

Or the park at the center of our town? See the Christmas tree on the right? Or the lights on the trees on the left? It's pretty magical. Especially since they have a whole festival the first Saturday in December every year. They have carriage rides, hot cocoa, musicians playing Christmas carols, popcorn, a reindeer . . . 

And one of our favorite pizza places, Zoey's. Yep, that's a boat up there on the wall. It's always there, but just decorated according to the season (it usually has spider webs, fake bats, and a fake skeleton in October).  Now they've got great lights, stockings, a lit wreath, and a lit Christmas tree.

And tonight, Santa is on his way. While we wait, we had Christmas Eve dinner, just like we would've had in New Mexico - tamales (!!) along with tracking Santa's progress via NORAD's Santa tracker.

I'll sign off with a "Merry Christmas!" to you all, and one of those songs I heard on satellite radio that I'm sure Oma would've loved.

I heard this on satellite radio recently. It's called "Santanooga Choo Choo," performed by the Airmen of Note, one of the US Air Force's jazz bands. Oma absolutely adored listening to Glenn Miller's music (and music like his). So when I'd heard this specific song, especially since it was performed by an Air Force band, as I'm an Air Force veteran . . . well, I knew it must've been Oma's way of telling me to get in the Christmas mood! 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The "Second" 11th Anniversary

Andrew and I have two anniversaries every year. Back when we were planning on getting married, we were still in the Air Force. I was up for a new assignment in the next few months (due to report in September of 2002), but Andrew still had just under two years at the assignment he'd been in at the time.

Well, since we were planning our "church" wedding in a beautiful and extraordinary cathedral in Chicago (Holy Name, for those of you familiar with Chicago) for December 2002, what could we do about our differing assignment lengths? If we stuck with just the wedding in Chicago, we'd probably not be assigned together anytime in the near future. It would be hit or miss. Maybe we'd get an assignment together in the future, but more than likely, we'd be on vastly differing assignment schedules for the rest of our time in the military.

So what could we do? We had a justice of the peace ceremony in June 2002. It was the two of us and a few of the guys from Andrew's office acting as witnesses. Andrew even showed up in jeans and a t-shirt, if you can believe it! I was actually a little more "dressed up" in nice pants, a nice shirt, and a blazer.

After the ceremony (actually a few days later . . . once I headed back to Tucson, where I was stationed at the time),  we were then able to do the paperwork (showing the personnel department that we were married), and from there, we were able to get on the same assignment schedule. With a copy of our marriage license, the personnel center would be able to get us to the same base, and for the same time periods.

Voila! We both got an assignment (different units) at a base just outside of Boston, where we would report to in September 2002.

In the meantime, planning for the December 2002 church wedding was still going on.

What a party it was! Lots of family and friends attended. This was the ceremony with the dress, Andrew's dress uniform (the "Mess Dress" which is the Air Force equivalent of a tuxedo), and the cake, and the nice reception afterwards . . . there were lots of smiles and wonderful memories of that frosty, wintery day in Chicago, with the twinkling lights, Christmas decorations everywhere, and magic in the air . . .

 Oh, one memory I have to talk about - when my dad was walking me down the aisle, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. It was my Aunt Lily running down an outer aisle, my cousin Sylvia tagging along behind her. Next thing I saw, Aunt Lily was snapping pictures of me with her little point and shoot camera. Later, Sylvia said she was a bit embarrassed. I told her not to be, as I was sure the memory of Aunt Lily running down the other aisle to get a pic of me would be one of my favorite memories.

And, yes, I'm going to take this opportunity right now to share a bunch of pictures. 
(All photos in this post are by Brad Baskin.)

 I've got three of my good friends from Culver Girls Academy in attendance.

Here, Andrew is hamming it up for the camera. 

 My three bridesmaids and I pose for a picture. My mom ensured that the florist would have one of my favorite flowers, Stargazer Lilies, in the bouquets, along with roses. Since it was wintery, the florist also included some cool evergreen in them, too.

 Andrew and I pose with the groomsmen. Everyone is laughing because Andrew is pinching my backside just as the photographer took the pic. 

 And, of course, I have to include a pic with my grandparents. Oma laughed and smiled so much at the wedding. She was so happy that day (both of them were). It is such a lovely memory to think back on her smiling face. 

I just have to include this picture, too. This is how Oma smiled that whole day.

 What wedding post would be complete without a picture of a wedding cake?

So that's why we have two anniversaries. Today is the "second" 11th anniversary for us. Happy Anniversary to Andrew!

And to end the post, this is our "First Dance" song, called "You are my Home," by Chayanne and Vanessa Williams. It's from the movie, "Dance with Me."

P.S. Andrew was in the hallway as I listened to the song. I asked, "Do you know what this song is?" "I don't remember the name of the song. Don't worry, though. I remember what it was from!" LOL

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Toast to Oma on my Birthday

I've been meaning to sit down and write this post for the past couple days now, and something (laundry, dog training, violin lessons, or whatever) has always taken precedence. But I'm here now, so here it goes; let's see if I can put this into words. I'm sure there'll be a lot of words . . .

On November 4th, my grandmother passed away. So after quickly making plans and travel/lodging/rental car reservations, we arrived in El Paso, TX for the visitation and the funeral. (You can read my tribute to Oma here, the day of the funeral here, or some travel memories here.)

Well, the funeral ended up being on my birthday. What timing, right? It was such a sad, tearful way to spend a birthday, but as my youngest brother and I had discussed that day, it seemed like it was meant to be. It was like . . . well, it was like Oma was ensuring I had one more birthday "with" her in El Paso.

Because it was the day of my grandmother's funeral, I woke up, unsure if I wanted to be wished "Happy Birthday!" or sentiments such as "Hope you're doing something fun to celebrate today!" from family and friends (those friends who were unaware that the funeral was the same day). I was on edge from the start, knowing I would be participating in the funeral mass (I'd be reading the second reading) - I just wanted to get through the reading without crying or having a wavering voice (though that would've been understandable). I wanted a nice, strong, oratorical voice to celebrate Oma. 

While Livie, Andrew, and I were getting ready that morning, I'd mentioned something to the effect of, "Who knew this would be how I'd celebrate my birthday this year?" Andrew responded with, "Well, I want to tell you 'Happy Birthday!' but I'm not sure when would be a good time to say that."

I decided that it was an appropriate time (looking back, I think I really needed it then, so I'm glad he mentioned it), and thought that I would probably appreciate it even more later in the day once the funeral mass was over and we could have time to breathe. We were having a reception at a local hotel after the interment, and I knew that would probably be as good a time as any for birthday wishes.

All that morning, I was flip-flopping back and forth between being glad that friends (many of whom were oblivious to the day's events) were wishing me "Happy Birthday!" on Facebook, as the messages were a momentary pick-me-up under the circumstances, and irritated that not everyone had noticed my status update saying something about the funeral. 

There were a few, though, who knew just where I was and what I was doing, and offered words of support.

When we got to the church for the funeral, my great-aunt, María (the family calls her Naná) - Oma's sister - came up to me upon her arrival, and hugged me, telling me, "Happy Birthday, mija. I hope you celebrate later today. Go do something fun for yourself. Your grandmother would have wanted that." 

(Mija, by the way, is Spanish - it's actually a contraction of two words, mi hija, which literally translate to "my daughter" but are used as a term of endearment for a younger person in the family. Mija is pronounced kind of like "MEE-ha." My grandmother would say it to me, or my aunts who are of my grandmother's generation, and so forth. Mijo is the same, being a contraction of mi hijo, or "my son," and obviously used for males.)

When Naná told me that, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to go out to dinner with Livie and Andrew later that evening, and I knew just the place. I just had to get through the morning's events. 

When we walked into the church, I suddenly thought, though, that I didn't know how I was going to make it through the morning. Luckily, my cousin Bonnie was right next to me. I had seen her crying silently out of the corner of my eye. I knew then, that I couldn't bear to keep from crying much longer, so I grabbed her hand and held it tighter than I'd ever held anyone's hand before. At some point, I was sure that I was hurting her, and quietly apologized for the vise-like grip. She shook her head and said, "You're not hurting my hand. I need that support." 

She was doing the first reading, and told me later that she needed that hand squeeze just as much as I needed to squeeze her hand. I was so grateful for her calming presence. 

By the way, I did a great job of doing the second reading during the funeral mass. Livie mentioned something later about how calm I sounded, and that it seemed like I spoke in public like I was used to it, and was quite practiced at it - a clear voice ringing out so that everyone could hear.  It was probably the best compliment I'd received in some time. 

However, there was one point during the service - after my reading - when I glanced at my Mom and my Uncle Ralph. The "dam suddenly broke" and I couldn't help it - I started crying - you know that jagged, can't-catch-your-breath type. While Oma was my beloved grandmother, she was their mother. And that thought while looking at the two siblings triggered "the flood." My uncle's wife, my Aunt Gloria was hugging me, and it was such a warm, comforting hug, that I just had to keep crying, like I was meant to keep crying. I remember hearing her ask me, "Are you okay, mija?" and I all could do was whisper a faint, "Yes," and we let go of each other.

After  a couple minutes, I had to ask Livie to reach into her Abuelita's purse (my mom's purse), which was right next to us, wide open, showing a big packet of tissues. "Liv, get me some tissues from Abuelita's purse." 

"Can I just take them? Or should I ask her?" 

"Just take them. She understands."

And the next thing I knew, the service was over. It was both the longest service I'd had to be a part of, but also the quickest - suddenly it was over - though I think it was just about average, as far as a church service goes. 

The interment was quick, once we reached Ft. Bliss National Cemetery. And then off to the hotel for the reception. It was dawning on various family members that it was, in fact, my birthday, and were offering birthday wishes, and sympathy at the same time. It was definitely an odd meshing of "What are the chances?!" sentiments.  

Anyway, we spent a good amount of time at the reception, eating some hors d'oeuvres and visiting with family. And many were asking me what I was planning on doing for my birthday. I told them I wanted to take Andrew and Livie to the steakhouse near where my grandparents lived, the same place I'd eaten with them numerous times. 

One time, a number of years ago, right around my birthday, Andrew, Livie, and I were at my grandparents' for a long weekend (probably Veterans' Day, as that's the day before my birthday). My grandmother had given me birthday money so Andrew and I could eat a meal there. She specifically told me, "And make sure to get dessert, too!" My Uncle Hector was visiting that weekend, too, so he was the Official Livie Babysitter for those couple hours Andrew and I were at the restaurant.

So this steakhouse, The Great American Land & Cattle Company, was the place I wanted to eat that evening of my birthday, that one birthday that shared itself with my grandmother's funeral. 

This steakhouse is on Alabama Street, just past the intersection where we'd turn west onto my grandparents' (former) street. It is SO CLOSE to their former house, we could get there from my grandparents' within just a couple minutes.

 I took this pic Monday morning, the morning of the visitation, the day before the funeral.

I'd been to this restaurant a number of times with my grandparents when they were both still living. We often had the most delicious meals there. They had these Texas-style baked beans, that they call "Texas caviar." They are so delish. I can't think of a time where the meal wasn't prepared just right. 

I had even taken Andrew there once or twice when we visited my grandparents, but Livie had been too young when we were still living in the area. But now I had the chance to take her there, too. 

Here's the exterior of the restaurant. I couldn't get a shot of the whole exterior without getting that parked car, obviously. But I wanted to show that the whole side of the building has that cool mural painted on it. Definitely a West Texas theme, right? (You can click on the pic to get a somewhat bigger view of the pic.)

Well, the place was just like I'd remembered it. And we were fortunate enough to get a table with a spectacular view. 
This picture doesn't do it justice (I'd used my smart phone), but the view is beautiful, especially when the sun goes down. You see all these glittering lights of El Paso (not downtown, though) in the valley (the Franklin Mountains are behind us.)

We'd gotten there just as the sun was tucking itself behind the mountains. (You can see there's still some light in the pic of the restaurant's exterior.) Anyway, I had the filet mignon, medium. So good. Mmmm. Livie asked for the kid's cheeseburger. It was huge. She thought it was delish, by the way. And Andrew? Um, I think he had a sirloin?

We all looked out the window, watching the sky go through all those indescribable shades of blue from periwinkle to midnight blue. We reminisced about Oma, even making a toast. But just our being there, having a good time together, was probably enough to make Oma happy. 

I even ordered dessert, "because Oma would've wanted me to." Liv and I shared a massive slice of cheesecake with strawberries. We even clinked our forks together and said, "To Oma!"

On our way out, I had to snap a pic with my smart phone. Check out the view of the "western" chandelier as I head down the stairs: 
Yep, it's made from antlers! Cool, huh?!

Once we got out to the parking lot, it was dark. Liv and Andrew got into the car, while I walked to the edge of the lot, overlooking the twinkling city. 

I turned around and looked at the Franklin Mountains, "Oma's mountain," now only dark shadows of rock. 

I breathed in the cool night air. With each deep breath, I tried my best to retain it's unique "perfume" in my brain: a mixture of the desert landscape, the dry earth, sage, creosote, cottonwood trees. I had a distinct feeling that "this may be my last time in El Paso," but I hoped not. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply. There is something about the Southwest, about El Paso, that smells fragrant like no other place I've ever been. It definitely smells like home. It smells like the desert. I don't know how else to describe it. 

It just smells like home. Stark beauty.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Back to the Southwest Once More

Okay, I've been meaning to share a few more photos and stories about our trip back to the Southwest, but time keeps getting away from me.

Anyway, I had planned on having one full day to ourselves (just me, Liv, and Andrew) - Sunday - before having to tend to family obligations (the visitation at the funeral home was Monday November 11th, Veterans' Day, and my grandmother's funeral was on Tuesday November 12th, my birthday).

On our first full day back in the Southwest, that Sunday the 10th, we had headed to Alamogordo, NM, where Andrew and I had last been stationed while we were in the Air Force. (Check out the posts on our arrival in El Paso here, and our trip to White Sands.)

After we'd spend a considerable amount of time enjoying the beauty of White Sands National Monument, we'd decided to spend a bit of time in Alamogordo, itself.

Since we'd gotten to White Sands mid-morning and stayed for a few hours, we were ready to have lunch somewhere in Alamogordo. Andrew and I had been thinking of this little Mexican restaurant we'd enjoyed when we'd lived there. It's this place called Margo's Mexican Food on 1st Street, just off of White Sands Boulevard. I was really looking forward to an order of the chicken flautas, knowing that none in Iowa would hit the spot as well as the ones I could eat in Alamogordo or El Paso. Maybe it's just the location that makes them taste better? I dunno.

But Livie had other plans. Shs said that since we'd eaten Mexican food the night before, she wanted something different for lunch. So we went to Sonic. Yes, the fast food drive-in. She had never been at a drive-in where the car-hop - on roller skates - skates out with your order.

Sure, she had been with me to that very Sonic once in 2006 when she was a baby and Andrew and I were still in the Air Force. Andrew had been deployed at the time. Livie must've been around 5 months old. It was a Friday afternoon, and I'd had a long day at work. I was exhausted. On my way from my office to the on-base child care center to pick up Livie, I knew that I just wouldn't feel like making myself anything for dinner that night, once we got home. My choices (if I didn't cook myself something to eat) were cold cereal, or going through the drive-thru on my way home.

So the Sonic drive-thru it was, late that afternoon in '06. Livie was in her car seat that afternoon as I went through the drive thru. Technically, yes, she'd been to that exact Sonic before, but she hadn't pulled into a drive-in spot, ordered from the menu board, and had the car-hop roller skate out with our food.

And that's what we did that day after our White Sands visit. She thought it was so cool!

Anyway, after we'd eaten our lunch, we had a couple more quick stops to make before heading back to El Paso to have dinner with family.

First, we had to drive past our old house.

This is the view as we were driving down our old street. Yes, we got to see those mountains every single day. I loved that those mountains filled the view of my kitchen window. And the living room windows, and the master bedroom windows. If we went out to the back yard, those mountains were our whole view. (They're the Sacramento Mountains, by the way.)

 Here's our old house. From the front, it looks the same. Though, there is a new satellite dish (ours was on the back of the house). And a new tree in the front yard, which you can see on the very left of the picture. Oh, and those black sun shades on those windows on the left side of the pic.

After driving down our old street, we had one more stop before heading back to El Paso. 

See, there are a bunch of pistachio farms in the area. And one very, very large pistachio. Since Liv, Andrew, and I enjoy eating pistachios, we had to go.

Here she is with the giant pistachio!

This is at McGinn's Pistachio Tree Ranch. When we first got there, she acted as though she were irritated. She said, "But I thought it was going to be a real giant pistachio . . . one that I could eat!"

They did, however, have lots of pistachios and pistachio treats in the gift shop, ones that we could buy and she could actually eat. We ended up with a small bag of roasted, salted pistachios, and some pistachio brittle. (They also had some spicy pistachio brittle made with chiles, which I'd sampled. It was really tasty, but since I'd be the only one eating it, I decided not to buy any - I don't need to eat a whole bag of pistachio brittle all by myself - even if I spread out the eating over a few days, LOL.)

We then went down the road a little ways to another pistachio farm/gift shop called Heart of the Desert. Guess what they have in the picnic area at this place

Yep, it's a painted pony. This statue is called "Apple Oosa" for obvious reasons: it's an Appaloosa horse, but it has apples on it, too! Cute, huh?

I was glad for a whole day to ourselves as a family, where we had the chance to do something memorable before having to deal with the sad issue of my grandmother's funeral. 

Stay tuned . . . in a few days, I'll post about how we toasted my grandmother's memory the evening after her funeral.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Can't Get Enough White Sands!

I thought I'd share a few more of my favorite pics that I took when we were at White Sands National Monument on November 10th. (To quote Paul Harvey, if you want "the rest of the story," please click here.)

Most of these were taken with either my smart phone camera or my little point 'n' shoot digital camera.The two square pics were taken using the Instagram app on my iPhone.

You can click on each picture to get a somewhat larger view.

I loved the dark (almost a blue-grey) shadow in this picture against the whiteness of the sand. By the way, the yucca plant (all varieties) is part of the agave family. Agave azul is used in the production of tequila.

I love the way yuccas look. Since we were here in the fall, we had missed the prime "blooming" time of the yucca plant, hence the now dead flowers on the tall, spindly "stalks." 

It really looks snowy, doesn't it?

The low-lying area at the foot of this dune is called the "interdune" area. There are many of these areas in between the wind-swept sandy dunes. 

She likes yuccas, too. 

Made it to the top!

See the jagged peaks of those mountains mid-photo? Those are the Organ Mountains near Las Cruces, NM. (Click on the pic to get a bigger view.) They were named such because the jaggedness made the peaks look like the pipes of a musical organ. Oh, and this is another good example of what an interdune area looks like (where the now-brown foliage of the desert floor is).

The mountains in the background of this Instagram pic are the Sacramento Mountains, which provided a beautiful view from my back yard in Alamogordo, when we lived there. 

More yuccas (one of these days, I'll get back there to get pics of some yucca flowers in bloom!)

Another cool view!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Favorite White Sands Views

For those of you who've been following my blog for a while, you know that I love the Southwest. I love the food, the vistas, the climate (well, not necessarily the heat, but the dryness - the heat is never so bad when there's little perceptible humidity), the activities, the culture - and on and on.

It's been quite a while since I've been back "home" in the Southwest (my grandparents lived there nearly their whole lives, and my mom and uncles were born and raised there). And while it was a solemn occasion that called me back, we did have a couple good days to explore and remember our former home (we'd been stationed in the area during our Air Force years).

After a delicious dinner on Saturday night and a good night's sleep, we had a "free" day on Sunday. We ended up going to the Alamogordo, NM area, where White Sands National Monument is located.

Anyway, I'd like to share some of my favorite views from southern New Mexico - for this post, they'll be from White Sands National Monument.

Here we are, having just arrived at the visitor center. It had been about an hour and a half drive from the El Paso area. Luckily, we'd taken an iPad with us, so Liv had some entertainment on the drive there and back. It was a "chilly" day in the area; it had been in the 50s when we first arrived, hence the jacket.

She was really excited because the last time she'd been here, she was just about 1.5 years old. She didn't remember it, other than what she's seen in the photos I took that day. 

I'm adding this photo, because, well . . . just look at how cool the adobe building looks. Right? Plus, adobe buildings are always comfortably cool in the summer and comfortably warm in the chilly months.

When we first entered the Visitor Center, we'd overheard a dad (who was there with his son about Liv's age) ask the Park Ranger about getting a Junior Park Ranger booklet. I immediately began listening in.

Apparently, at many National Parks/Monuments, kids can get booklets that teach them about the park/monument they're visiting. Once completing the activities in the packet, they get to become a "Junior Park Ranger" at that particular park/monument, even being able to take a junior park ranger oath, getting either a patch or badge, and a certificate.

The White Sands booklet has different activities for different age levels. Liv's age range (5-7 years old, if I remember correctly) was designated by a lizard icon. She was responsible for completing each activity with the lizard icon next to it.

In the booklet, she was able to describe what she was expecting to see (desert plants, white sand, maybe some desert fauna), what mineral the sand crystals were made of (gypsum). She also got to complete a "scavenger hunt" list, where she got to check items off when she saw each item listed (like a yucca plant, a cottonwood tree, an interdune area, creature tracks, and so on), as well as having a spot to write a poem  about something she saw at White Sands, and sketch something she found while hiking. Pretty cool, huh?!

Here she is at the beginning (before we left the visitor center to experience the dunes), answering some questions about how the white sand dunes were formed, as well as answering some questions about local flora.

Here she is, filling out more of her booklet. I think this was the part where she had space to sketch something she found interesting (some buzzing bees pollinating a flowering plant - their buzzing was unexpectedly loud!).

Yep, it's definitely sand and not snow. She kept saying, "It looks so snowy!" Though, because of the various factors (the sun's rays bouncing off the whiteness, for one), she learned that the sand underneath the dry top layer was cool and somewhat damp.

She's observing a "pedestal." The plants at the top of the sand send their roots way, way down to get water, and to keep anchored (so they don't blow away or get "run over" by shifting dunes). The water gets soaked upward toward the plants, wetting the surrounding sand. Well, the wet sand surrounding the roots eventually hardens and forms these "pedestals" when the wind moves the surrounding dry sand around. Voila - after time, a pedestal has formed. Nature's cool, isn't she?

 She's trying to slide down the sand dune. When I was young and my grandparents lived in El Paso, we'd head up to White Sands with my cousins and some aunts and uncles, and we'd sled down the dunes with those disc sleds (then we'd have a picnic afterward - they had a designated picnic area that we hadn't visited on this trip). It was a blast.

I hadn't thought to get one of those sledding discs for Liv on our way to the dunes.

 She is posing with a couple yucca plants and the blue, blue New Mexico sky.

It's sun squint! The white sand is really reflective! And they were facing the sun so I didn't have to aim my camera phone directly into the sun.

And here she is with her Junior Ranger Certificate! She was really proud of having earned it. She was able to get a stamp on it indicating the date she earned it. (I have to go get a frame for it so I can hang it up somewhere.)

Since I have so many photos - and a lot to say about them - I'll split my favorite views and the accompanying commentary into a couple different posts. I'll try to get some of the remaining White Sands/Alamogordo pics, as well as some mountain and/or miscellaneous views in an additional post or two in the next couple days.

Friday, November 15, 2013

On Being Back "Home" in the Southwest

I have to admit that while we were back in El Paso, TX for a sad reason (my grandmother's funeral), the trip did have some highlights.

Since I found myself unexpectedly back home in the Southwest, I took advantage of some free time - Saturday afternoon after we'd checked into lodging on Ft. Bliss and most of the day on Sunday - when we'd had nothing planned.

Now, while almost all of Texas' massiveness is within the Central time zone, El Paso, at the westernmost tip, is in the Mountain time zone. So, of course, when we arrived, it was an hour earlier than we're used to in eastern Iowa (Central).

Needless to say, by the time we had arrived in El Paso, gotten our luggage (having been charged $25 per suitcase = $75 total!!), gotten our rental car, and checked into our quarters (on-post lodging, like a hotel, but cheaper than the "good" rates my family had gotten at the hotel near the airport), we were all quite hungry and ready for dinner.

 We'd just gotten off the plane. Liv was happy to be there.

 This is more or less the view we had from the parking lot. I love these mountains.

So, where would we go when in El Paso? Well, we went to a Mexican restaurant that my grandparents used to take me when I was younger. It's a local chain called Leo's. It's actually been a long, long time since I've been there. I think the last time I went, I'd gone with my grandparents ("Oma" and "Sir Rafa"), my uncle Hector, and a few other relatives.

Well, every time I go to this restaurant, I always get the chicken flautas, which are prepared like tacos (beef, chicken, or another filling inside a corn tortilla that's been fried), but instead of the typical "taco" shape, they're rolled up in the shape of flutes (hence the name flautas, which means "flutes" in Spanish). This dish always comes with refried beans and Spanish rice.

However, I was remembering the last time I'd been at this restaurant. My uncle Hector had ordered the chicken with mole sauce (often made with smoked chiles and chocolate). It's a really tasty Mexican dish. I enjoy it (and the last time I was there with my uncle, he'd let me have a bite of his - it was good!). But since we were in El Paso for a somber event, I needed some "comfort" food. What's my comfort food?

Yep, the chicken flautas. I had to get them. I wouldn't have been satisfied if I'd ordered the chicken with mole sauce (however good it may be), because my comfort food in El Paso (if not my grandmother's homemade tacos) has to be flautas

And I was not disappointed. They were delicious; they were as good as I'd remembered. I am still thinking about them. (They looked a lot better than they do in this picture.)

Liv had ordered a kid's special with one beef taco and one enchilada with green chile sauce. Her meal also came with the beans and rice. She devoured it.

 Not the greatest pic, but good enough (the sun had set and the lighting in the restaurant was a bit dim for the iPhone camera).

Andrew? I think he ordered a "create your own combo" with a taco, enchilada, and . . . hmm. Something else I just can't remember.

To top off this delicious meal? Always sopaipillas. They're these delicious pillows of fried dough, puffy and hot, served with honey. You tear off a small corner and pour in a bit of honey and coat the inside of the "pillow." So. Good.

This is a not-so-good pic of the delicious pillows known as sopaipillas. Mmmm. 

After we'd eaten, I'd been chatting with our server. I'd said that my grandparents had taken me to Leo's (I think one of the other locations) numerous times when I was younger. And I always loved the flautas and sopaipillas. We'd laughed when she agreed with me that I probably wouldn't have been satisfied if I'd ordered the chicken with mole, as my "go to" meal was always flautas. And I'd found out that the owner of the car dealership where I'd gotten my vehicle (there in El Paso) was a regular at this restaurant and he always ordered the same thing, every time! (Just like me!)

Anyway, after we'd finished eating, we realized we were all exhausted from traveling and having eaten a filling meal, and the thought of the stress of the days ahead. We immediately went back to on-post lodging, got ready for bed, and settled in for the night.

But before going to sleep, Liv had to do one last thing.

She had to read in bed. (She's borrowing my mini-reading light that clips onto a book.) She and I had gone to the bookstore the day before we'd left. I bought the two of us one book each for the trip. She picked Charlotte's Web.

 In the next day or two, I'll share another exciting adventure we had on this trip back to the Southwest.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Saying Goodbye to Oma

After receiving that most unpleasant of calls texts last week informing us of Oma's passing, we quickly began planning on getting back to El Paso, TX for her funeral.

On the one hand, it was an escape from the quotidian, which, I'm sure, is why Livie and I felt a little seed of excitement upon getting those e-mails confirming our air travel plans and our lodging confirmation.

We couldn't escape, though, the sad reason we were traveling in the first place: Oma's funeral.

We'd arrived in El Paso late in the afternoon on Saturday the 9th. The viewing was on Monday the 11th, and the funeral was on Tuesday the 12th.

The funeral seemed a bit harder than usual for me as it was on my birthday. What timing, right? (It couldn't have been helped, though.) However, my youngest brother and I had a brief discussion that it was almost like it was meant to be - one last birthday "together" in El Paso, if that makes any sense. There was a definite sense of saudade surrounding this trip, due to the circumstances, as well as having been a number of years since we'd been "home." 

The funeral was on a sunny, somewhat breezy Tuesday morning in El Paso, at St. Pius X church, on the corner of Geronimo and North Clark, where, I believe, I'd gone to services once or twice, long ago with my grandparents. It definitely looked familiar.

We'd intentionally picked out a pretty purple "party" dress for Liv, so she could "celebrate" the life and memory of her great-grandmother. They were so attached to each other, spending hours together talking and playing (meaning Liv played and Oma watched).

After the funeral, we headed to Ft. Bliss National Cemetary, where my grandfather (and Uncle Hector) are buried.

This is the plot which my grandmother now shares with my grandfather. The headstone is not there, temporarily, as the engraving for my grandmother is being added. Instead, the flowers from the funeral mark the location (along with a small informational tag at the head). 

I am so glad that the mountains near their former home are in the background overlooking the cemetery.

And, of course, I had to visit my uncle's spot. I hadn't been here, yet.

On Monday morning/early afternoon, a few hours before the viewing/Vigil (the "wake'), we drove past my grandparents' former house, since we had some time. It didn't feel right not driving past.

Plus, the last time Liv had been there, she had only been about one and a half years old, so she really didn't remember what it looked like, aside from having looked at photos. I wanted to make sure she'd remember it because she saw it in person.

The intersection: we had to turn off of Alabama onto Mountain Walk Drive. It's the only way to get to their house.

Driving west on Mountain Walk Drive, that old, familiar street.

And here's where they used to live. The main difference is that I noticed is that the ivy on the house's exterior has been removed. Oh, and the satellite dish.

It was a difficult reason for heading back "home" to the Southwest, but it also felt "right," if that makes sense. I've had such a longing or saudade for the Southwest, it was definitely a return "home," regardless of the circumstances. It was good (but sad), and necessary.

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