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.


Lisa @ Two Bears Farm said...

Well it sounds like it was a nice, beautiful tribute to Oma, and that you made the very best of a difficult situation on your birthday!

Michaele said...

I am so glad to hear that you experienced all these emotions and accepted them and just kept going. What a mix! Sounds like you followed your heart and Oma would be so proud.

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