Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What happened to the blog?

I know, I know. I haven't written anything for ages....or at least for as long as I've been back in the States.

Some of you who have made transitions abroad and then had to un-transition may have run into the same thing: once you're no longer a foreigner and you're back in your "normal" environment - and in my case, once I'm unemployed and not traveling someplace exciting ever few weeks - what's left to write about? Where are the cultural observations, the daily struggles and mishaps, the minor triumphs and the travel adventures?

I've tossed around a few ideas with reverse culture shock, but the truth is, it's not that bad and it's not all that exciting. Other than complaining about Austrian supermarkets for a couple years and now realizing just how much more I prefer the Austrian grocery shopping experience to the American one, there's not much else that really reverse shocks me. No, it wasn't weird to stop speaking German. (Sorry, Austria, it's the truth.) Yes, I feel right at home. No, I don't really miss Austria. (Which is to say, I don't have that active longing for a place.) It's been a pretty painless process.

Since I'm still in transition, there's really not all that much that inspires me to write - though I really want to get back into the habit of writing. (This blog, my novel, more emails...I'm not picky.) I've got a couple of ideas floating around in my head, but we'll see if they make it to the printed page.

I just wanted to give you the heads up that I'm still here, but on hold. Of course if you have any brilliant ideas that you think I should write about, I welcome them. Until's probably best if you don't hold your breath.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Giving Thanks

Now that I'm back in the States, life in Austria already seems so far away. The life I led there for the past couple years was certainly a unique phase full of excitement and opportunity. When I learned that I wouldn't be able to stay in the country, I started to appreciate the little things all around me as though I only had a week left to live. Consequently, I spent most of the last couple weeks walking around in a state of perpetual thankfulness and warm fuzzies. On the train from Graz up to Vienna on my way to the airport, I finally compiled a list -- a list of all the things I could think of that I was thankful for. (This also makes it a list of things I like about Austria. I could call this list "Things I Like About Austria," or I can call it...)

I'm thankful...

  • for a city that's safe at night
  • for a city that's safe during the day
  • for a fantastic church home
  • for a rich national history
  • for accessible and affordable operas
  • for affordable housing
  • for an abundance of castles
  • for an orderly and cheap laundry system in my apartment building
  • for Austrian school and office supplies -- so much cooler!
  • for balls (i.e. dancing balls, like Cinderella went to a ball)
  • for bike paths
  • for cheap but good wine and beer
  • for cheap sparkling mineral water
  • for cheap, convenient and reliable train travel within Austria
  • for cheap/easy/convenient opportunities to travel within Europe
  • for church bells that ring at 7 am, 12 pm, 3 pm, and 7 pm
  • for consistently good coffee
  • for cute, quaint villages
  • for dialect and its accompanying amusements, puzzles and challenges
  • for everyone who helped me and/or made phone calls to figure out all the bureaucratic visa stuff
  • for everything pumpkin out of Styria: pumpkin seed oil, pumpkin cream soup, pumpkin bread, etc.
  • for exclusively Austrian Sturm, Glühwein, Christmas markets, and Buschenschanks
  • for ex-pats
  • for friends
  • for good bread and cheese
  • for good health insurance and no referrals
  • for good places to run and bike
  • for having 38 public holidays
  • for having the Mur river running though town
  • for hospitality
  • for how Austrians will really pull through for you
  • for incredible scenery
  • for kebabs
  • for Labello
  • for lackadaisical passport control officials
  • for living in a bike-friendly city
  • for meeting so many cool people from all over the world
  • for my connections
  • for my fellow foreigners
  • for old European streets, houses, and architecture in general; especially how this everyday cityscape stayed fresh and new for me
  • for reliable public transportation
  • for skiing and Austrian-style sledding
  • for so much free/leisure time
  • for sturdy toilet paper and tissues
  • for the abundance and coexistence of kitsch, history, and design
  • for the Austrians who adopted me and introduced me to Austrian life and culture
  • for the comfortable pace and quality of life
  • for the coziness of Graz
  • for the insanely cheap price of a chunk of fresh mozzarella
  • for the lack of cockroaches, poison ivy, and poisonous spiders and snakes
  • for the ubiquitous ice cream stands in the summer
  • for traditional clothing and accordion music
  • for tram and bus drivers who will stop the vehicle and wait for you if they see you running to catch a ride
  • for wearing slippers at home or as a guest in someone's home
  • for wonderful roommates and a flexible landlady
  • that Austria takes care of its people
  • that dogs are so well-behaved here and are allowed to go everywhere
  • that even in Austria I can be BFF with my bank teller(s)
  • that Graz was the Cultural Capital of Europe in 2003 and therefore has lots of spiffy new buildings and such
  • that having a car is so unnecessary
  • that having a real Christmas tree with real candles is the only tree most of them have ever known
  • that I can leave my bike simply standing and loosely locked anywhere in the city and it will still be there when I come back
  • that I can understand German on the phone
  • that I can walk in to the doctor's office without an appointment and actually be seen
  • that I could live in the same apartment for over 2 years -- longer than any other apartment I've ever had
  • that I had so many visitors in the past couple years!
  • that I lived for 2 years without a deadbolt and it never bothered me
  • that I'm no longer pre-judged on the basis of my president
  • that it is so easy to split the bill in a restaurant
  • that my room doesn't face a street
  • that nearly everything you ever use is recycled
  • that people have stopped introducing me as, "This is Rebecca. She's American."
  • that receiving phone calls is free on your mobile phone
  • that Styria has it all -- mountains, hills, vineyards, thermal baths…
  • that tax is included in all your purchases and tipping is practically nonexistent
  • that the country is very stable and doesn't have any severe political or international problems
  • that there are so many old people who are out and about
  • that there are very few Americans in comparison with other Austrian cities
  • that there are very few tourists in comparison with the other Austrian cities

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Sound of Music

(c) Grazer Oper

One of the reasons I love living in Graz is because I have so many opportunities available to me that I wouldn't have [time or money for] back home. And one of last year's biggest highlights was my subscription for season's tickets to the Graz Opera House (Grazer Oper). So when I saw the program for this year's opera season with The Sound of Music prominently listed, I knew I would have to make it a priority to go to the opera at least one last time before leaving Graz.

Last night I had the perfect offer: a visiting friend had connections with a sound technician and could get us into a box seat for free! We'd be sitting right up next to the stage under a hot spotlight, but who can complain when this arrangement so perfectly fits our budget! As we entered through the backstage area and snaked in and out of an underground maze of corridors before climbing a series of staircases to get to our loge, I was literally bouncing with anticipation. We were shown into our own private box, a little awkwardly situated directly to the right of the stage, but great seats if we snuggled up together in the corner and leaned in. As a connoisseur of the film, The Sound of Music, I wasn't too worried that this production was being staged in German -- I knew practically the whole thing by heart, so none of the story would be lost on me.

Or so I thought.

*****DISCLAIMER: The rest of this entry contains spoilers. If you have any intention of seeing this production, please do not read any further until after you've seen the musical.*****

(c) Grazer Oper

Let me just start by saying that I was willing to make concessions for this musical. Clearly, it is difficult to adapt a three-hour movie into a three-hour stage production. There are certain limitations of the stage that may affect how the plot is played out or how the story moves forward. But I was unprepared for the arbitrary meddling that essentially stripped the story and the characters of any depth, intrigue, or suspense.

You see, The Sound of Music is not just about the music -- and I'm afraid this is where the Grazer Oper goes wrong. From the beginning of the performance it is clear that this production's strength is in the music, but it's a shame that this comes at the expense of the rest of the story. While last year's musical productions of
My Fair Lady and West Side Story proved Graz is capable of staging a good musical but lacks non-operatic singers, this year's musical production of The Sound of Music is a perfect fit for these opera house voices. Sieglinde Feldhofer as Maria does an admirable job of capturing the essence of Julie Andrews' voice, admittedly a hard act to follow. Likewise, the nuns in the abbey consistently perform well as a supporting chorus and in a select few songs of their own. The children are perfectly cast for cuteness and talent, and Boris Pfeifer as Captain von Trapp is more pleasant on the ears than his orginal counterpart, Christopher Plummer. But when the cast of the show isn't singing, there is, sadly, nothing to propel the production along.

For reasons I cannot rationalize, the German staging of The Sound of Music has chosen to remove or change critical details of the story, crippling many of the scenes that, in the movie, are so powerful. It seems that any of the characters in the film who are coniving or treacherous are made over in the musical to be normal, redeemable characters...and where is the intrigue in that?

We know, for instance, that the butler, Franz, is a Nazi sympathizer in the Graz production -- it's mentioned, once. But in the musical production, it is not Franz who betrays the family as they attempt to flee during the night; rather, the authorities just happen to show up two days before the musical festival and knock on the door, informing Captain von Trapp that he is to report to duty immediately. And here it is Maria who convinces the Nazi officials to wait a couple days until they can have their farewell performance at the theater. For reasons unknown, Franz's betrayal of the family -- an inside job, thus very dramatic -- is taken out.

Similarly, the influence of the Baroness is played down and she is given absolutely no personality at all. She returns to the estate with Captain von Trapp because, as we're led to believe, she loves him. Not only does she love the Captain von Trapp, but she loves the children, too -- there's no talk of marrying Georg for his money or sending the kids off to boarding school once she's the Captain's wife -- and indeed it is she who arranges for the children to sing "So Long, Farewell" to the guests at the ball. And perhaps the most insulting affront to the story is when the Baroness' character is stripped of her jealosy and manipulation of Maria. Instead of the Baroness cattily confronting Maria about the way the Captain looked at her at the ball, it is instead Brigitta, the daughter, who innocently tells Maria that of course her father is in love with her and has been for a long time. Not only is this confession unconvincing from what we've seen of the Captain and Maria so far, but the Baroness' character simply becomes redundant at this point.

Sadly, the von Trapp children suffer from the same one-dimensionality as the Baroness. When Maria arrives at the von Trapp household, she is immediately welcomed into the family by the children, who are on their best behavior from day one. We're told by Frau Schmidt, the housekeeper, that the last governess left abruptly because she'd had enough; however, this admission is largely incongruous with the way the children treat Fräulein Maria. Nary a prank is played upon the poor woman, and we lose the sense that Maria has really bonded with the children.

Despite all of this, the von Trapp family of the musical somehow makes it to the Salzburg Music Festival and manages to come off as a convincing, fearful family, singing together as if for the last time. Since so much of the plot is a letdown until this point, I was thrilled when the von Trapp family takes the stage, and Nazi soldiers stream through the doors of the opera, posting themselves on alert throughout the audience. The Commandant himself takes a box seat near the front of the stage to watch the performance, and all of this audience interaction started to win me over again. Indeed, when the von Trapp family is called back on stage to receive their award and is then discovered missing, the soldiers run out from the seating area, and a spotlight sweeps the audience in pursuit of the escapees. The tension builds, and by the time the family takes refuge in the abbey, the audience knows that the big escape is near. Then Rolf enters the abbey. In the biggest disappointment of the whole production, Rolf spots Liesl, stops in his tracks, and then -- robbing the production of the biggest moment in the movie's climax -- calls out, "They're not here, either!" Thus, the family escapes. Without the big chase. Without the suspense. Without much difficulty at all, it seems. The Reverend Mother simply appears and tells the von Trapps that their best bet is to escape over the mountains, to which the Captain replies in the schmalziest line of the entire production, "I always had the feeling that the mountains were our friends." Then we watch as the family von Trapp ascends into the Alps, presumably with the same faulty geography as the film, over the border of Salzburg and into Switzerland.

As I said, it's the music that carries this production, not the plot. Yet even the musical score isn't off-limits in the German adaption. For reasons I still cannot understand, Maria breaks into a round of "My Favorite Things" when she's being chastised by the Reverend Mother at the beginning of the show for singing in the hills and arriving late back at the abbey. As if that wasn't enough to digest, Maria chooses to sing "The Lonely Goatherd" when the von Trapp children run into her room on the first night, frightened of the thunderstorm. "I Have Confidence" is conspicuously missing from the score, although two new and extraneous songs materialize between Max and the Baroness -- one of which cautions Captain von Trapp to be more politically moderate.
For the most part though, there was a filter between the music and my brain, taking in the German lyrics and processing them into English before they reached my mind. Taking this into account, I was admittedly listening to an alternative version of the musical...but with all of these modifications, who can blame me? However, what the characters lacked in expression and depth, the conductor made up for in his own enthusiastic performance. Watching him was nearly as entertaining as watching the performers on stage, and he did an excellent job bringing this classic score alive.

The Sound of Music in the Grazer Oper is best taken with a grain of salt. Since most Austrians have never actually seen the film version of The Sound of Music, they'll probably leave happy, having enjoyed the good music and the kitschy portrayal of pre-war Austria for a fun night out on the town.
And, let's be fair here, it's The Sound of Music, so it's a Must-See, regardless. But for purists such as myself, it's probably best to just stick to the film.

(c) Grazer Oper

Monday, September 21, 2009


A few days before I came back to the States, I said goodbye to a friend of mine (whom I tend to see every couple months or so) at a party. We did the European cheek kissy kissy thing, and I told him, “Goodbye—see you in October!”
He stepped back and looked at me with a slightly perplexed expression. “October?” he said. “Why October?”
“Because I’m going home on Friday,” I told him, “and I won’t be back till mid-October.”
“But this is your home,” he said.
I hesitated. “You’re right,” I admitted. “This is my home. See you in October.” I saw him out the door and then walked back into the room with the party. But something was different. It was as if this friend had just articulated a concept I’ve been wavering about for the past couple years. But coming from him—someone I’m not all that close to and don’t see on an über-regular basis—it finally sunk in. Austria is my home.

For the past two years, I’ve been living in a state of limbo. Since I knew my position as a Fulbright TA was only temporary, I’ve always had the feeling in the back of my mind that this arrangement wasn’t going to last. Consequently, I allowed Graz to become my new home, but with certain boundaries in place. I wouldn’t spend money on a bike because I knew I’d have to leave it one day. (Actually, I waited until I inherited a bike for free. Now I wish I’d had one way sooner.) I didn’t put that much effort into going out and making new friends, because I wanted to cultivate the friendships I already had—why pursue mediocre friendships when you know the good ones you already have will turn long-distance again anyway? (Rather, I made some great new friendships but let most of them come to me.) Occasionally I would look around my room and groan, thinking of what a pain it would be to one day get all this stuff home. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve loved my life in Austria and have been able to connect here in a really deep way—but it changes things when you know that your days are numbered.

So in spite of myself, I let Graz become more of a home than I’d anticipated. It wasn’t until this friend from the party, whom I see on only a sporadic basis, pointed this out that I really realized this. He’s right. No wonder I want to stay in Austria a bit longer.

And the thing about making your home in another country is, well, that that’s where you feel at home. There are many things that I really love about Austria, but there are just as many things that I dislike and complain about. Yet despite all of this, it’s the place I now feel connected to, for better or worse.

So there’s nothing like going through U.S. border control after a long absence to make you feel like you don’t belong anymore. I found myself waiting in the shorter line—the one full of American citizens and permanent residents who don’t need to get their fingerprints taken or take eye scans or offer up their firstborn child just to come be a tourist in this great and wonderful land—and feeling completely out of place. The miniature American flags hanging from every officer’s counter as well as from the walls and the ceiling feel so out of place coming from a country whose expressions of patriotism are siphoned into the form of regional pride because open national pride, as history has indicated, can sometimes be a dangerous thing. And it started here, in the line for border control, that I once again found myself surrounded by American English. It should have felt natural, like coming home. (Since, after all, I was.) But instead, there was some tug inside me, urging, “Distance yourself. Don’t open your mouth. Don’t reveal yourself as one of them!” It was this same inner urge that prompted me to unintentionally act foreign in other ways—to assume that confused, lost look of one who doesn’t understand their surroundings, to ask for directions in shockingly misconstructed sentences, or to say “Excuse me!” in the wrong language when accidentally bumping into someone. And to come back for the first time in a year after a two-year stint abroad, even the things I love most about my country—like its diversity—can at first seem out of place when you see people of every size, shape, and color speaking in a perfect American accent.

But not all of the re-entry process is weird. It was clear before I even left the airport that I was in a country full of friendly people again, where strangers talk to other strangers, where questions are answered with a smile, and where someone can make a joke in a crowded elevator and not come across as a crazy person. It’s refreshing that someone might start a conversation with me because we’re both waiting in the same line at the store, or that the doorman to some fancy Central Park West apartment building can wish me a good morning and tell me my hair looks great as I hurry by with a friend. I love that I can call a customer service hotline and hang up feeling like I just made a new best friend, and I get warm fuzzies to be in a culture where people greet each other and say goodbye with hugs.

Yet there’s still the nagging feeling when I look around that somehow I just don’t belong. And in all fairness, part of this is probably due to some residual cultural snobbery in me—though whether it favors the U.S. or Austria depends on the day. But despite the differences and the impressions of reverse culture shock I’ve experienced in the past few days, there’s a disconnect between me and my country that runs just a little deeper. This is the disconnect of realizing you’ve already made a new home for yourself and it's far beyond this bustling city block or suburban strip mall. And even if this current home changes, as it’s very likely to do in the near future, I realize that I’ll just set up a new home again. Despite myself.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Quintessential Rome

I just got back from a weekend trip to Rome with a friend. ...Sounds so indulgently European, doesn't it?!

It was my first time back to Rome since 2004, when I went for a week with friends during my exchange year. Since we only had three full days in Rome this time, and since we'd seen the major attractions last time, we wanted our short time in the Eternal City to be leisurely and enjoyable.

We recently read Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert for our book club in Graz. In the first section of the book, the author spends several months in Rome pursuing pleasure, which -- for her -- means immersing herself in the indulgent Italian cuisine and the rich Italian language. This seemed reasonable enough to us, so we decided to put this Roman philosophy into effect for our short stay. As other tourists were rushing about in their cargo shorts and sneakers to see the Colosseum and the Vatican before closing, we snaked our way through cobblestone streets and picturesque back alleys in our cute summer dresses, ordering the occassional cappuccino freddo, neutralizing the intense Mediterranean sun with gelato at regular intervals, and pausing for pasta and wine as necessary.

With only a couple hours left in Rome before taking the night train back to Austria, we found a corner table at a trattoria on the edge of a sleepy piazza between the Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon and sat there watching the world go by over a bottle of wine. The two elderly Roman gentlemen with espresso and a newspaper at the neighboring table ackowledged us with a smile as we sat down, and later, when we attempted to ask them in broken Italian if they could take our picture, they answered, ", bella!" More pseudo-Italian and warm smiles were exchanged as we tried to thank them. A while later when the gentlemen got up to leave, they offered us their hands with a "Ciao!" as they passed by our table. My companion offered up her own hand first to shake, and as the man took her hand in his own, he shook it twice, then gave it a squeeze, dropping it to give her a gentle rub on the shoulder. Far from being sleazy, when he took my own hand in his and gently squeezed it and rubbed it with a "Ciao!" it was as if the communication barrier had melted and he was communicating so clearly by touch: "We acknowledge that you are here with your wine and your piazza, and we approve. You are enjoying the essence of a Roman afternoon, and as old Italian men who value pleasure and beauty and a Mediterranean enjoyment of life, we salute you."

I wanted to share this quintessential Roman afternoon with's much too wonderful an experience to keep to ourselves.

The first video focuses on the pleasure and lets the world go by. The second video watches the world go by without forgetting the pleasure. In their own way, each are distinctly their own experience, yet the same I decided to give you both. Indulge. Enjoy.

Quintessential Rome, Take 1

Quintessential Rome, Take 2

Monday, August 31, 2009

Reflections of an Expat

It is really strange to wrap my mind around the fact that I've been living in Austria now for as long as I was in New York. But just as I never lost part of the tourist in me while I was living in the Big Apple (...after 2 years in the city, I still found myself looking up...), there are things about Austria that I find perpetually fresh and new. While I've grown accustomed to these differences and no longer take much notice of them, I still have moments where the juxtaposition of my home culture against my adopted culture sets my mind reeling. Sometimes it just blows my mind that all of this is normal

I live in a country where steeples are more common than smokestacks. Where villages look like villages. Where you actually use the word "villages."

I live in a country where I see vineyards and farms on my way to work. Where the Alps are a fact of life rather than a novelty. Where castles are so common that when I see one, I say, "Oh, there's another castle."

I live in a country where the speed limits are higher, if only for the metric system, and where 40 degrees is a really hot day. And while my clothing size has quadrupled, my weight is down by half.

I live in a country where I have to walk up a flight of stairs to get to the first floor, and my clock strikes 00:00. Where a chunk of fresh mozerella the size of my fist costs less than a dollar, but a gallon of low-grade gasoline costs $5.60.

I live in a country where I no longer think of a 400-year-old building as very old, and where I don't think twice about seeing a man in leather shorts and a feathered cap out on the streets.

I live in a country where seeing a sedan with a trunk that sticks out past the rearview window is cause for a double take, and where seeing an SUV is cause to stare.

I live in a country where spotting a celebrity feels like an intelligentia sighting, since there are so few of them.

I live in a country where I think nothing of throwing faux-English words into my everyday vocabulary--where I use my Handy to make a phone call or use a Beamer for a Power Point presentation. I live in a country where the present progressive occassionally trips me up too, and where I occassionally find even myself "making" a photo.

And I live in a country where carrots really should be eaten with oil.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


My paternal grandmother, Margaret Brooke Earle, passed away on August 3, 2009.

Although being so far away from home is particularly difficult at a time like this, I know that my grandmother supported my adventurous spirit and would have wanted me to keep traveling the world, collecting the stories that will one day be passed on, like her stories, to the next generations. And so to a woman who has inspired me, molded me, and loved me with the indulgence that only a grandparent can bestow, I’d like to dedicate these pages in loving memory.

Grandmom grew up in the small town of Front Royal (or, as she used to call it, “Front Roll”), nestled into the Shenandoah Valley of the Appalachian Mountains in northwestern Virginia. Despite her small town upbringing, she did the unthinkable for a single young woman of her generation and first left home to study art in college, then later left Virginia to see the big wide world. She moved to New York—something that would come much harder to me nearly 60 years later—and lied about her age to become a stewardess for American Airlines when air travel was still young. Back then, being a stewardess was nearly as glamorous as being a movie star—and only the young, beautiful, single girls were chosen for this prestigious job. She moved to Hollywood, California, where she lived in a house with the other young stewardesses among the stars…and she had any number of great stories about these young, crazy, independent years. After the war, she returned home to Front Royal, where she married her childhood friend and sweetheart, an Air Force pilot named A.B. Honts. The next few years saw the young couple moving around with the Air Force and the arrival of my dad, uncle and aunt. But in the early 1950s while test piloting a B-52 bomber, my grandfather died when the plane malfunctioned and crashed. Not long after, my grandmother remarried to a longtime friend, also from Front Royal—my Granddad, Samuel Earle. Until the children were grown and gone, Grandmom and Granddad continued to move around the U.S. and the world, even living for a time in such places as Peru, Morocco, and the Philippines. Though my grandparents moved back to their hometown later in life, my grandmother never lost that adventurous spirit that drove her to leave home as a young woman and see the world.

I was fortunate to grow up near Richmond, Virginia, close enough to visit my grandparents regularly. My grandmother was therefore a constant presence in my life, and I believe much of my artistic tendencies and wanderlust were fostered by her own skill as an artist and by stories of her journeys. Wandering through her old Victorian home was like a visit to a museum where you could see and touch the relics of times gone by—the walls were draped with decades of her oil paintings, and all around the house were the decorations and trinkets she’d picked up from her travels across the globe. When nobody was looking I’d sneak over to her paintings and touch the canvas—an indulgence I was forbidden in the art museums she took me to—and I’d fantasize about which of these landscapes, still lives and portraits I might one day hang in my own home. Likewise, it was hard to resist running my fingers over the Moroccan doll or tooting out piercing notes on the Peruvian rock whistle carved in the shape of an animal. I’d stare at the Chinese silk screen at formal dinners in the dining room and trace the patterns of the oriental rugs with my toes. In hindsight, as an adult, it’s pretty easy to see that I soaked all that in and followed in her footsteps.

The older I got, the closer I became to Grandmom. As I matured, so did the nature of her stories; as I accomplished more, the more she encouraged me to go on; the more time we shared, the more we developed our shtick and inside stories. We shared something special—she was my confidant, my mentor, my sidekick, and my role model.

One of my earliest memories is playing tennis with my grandparents on the courts at Randolph Macon Academy in Front Royal. Both of my grandparents were avid tennis players, and I even went up to Front Royal the summer after 4th grade for tennis camp. Every day, my grandmother took me to the sports club for a morning of tennis (a sport which I never really mastered the necessary hand-eye coordination to play), every afternoon she’d take me for a chocolate malt at the local classic 1950s diner, The Royal Dairy, and every evening I’d catch fireflies out on the lawn. That was also the summer that I got a really bad case of poison ivy by walking on the brick wall next to the fence separating her yard from the neighbor’s yard. I knew better—my parents and grandparents always told me to watch out for the poison ivy there—but I did it anyway. …And I learned that I have a severe reaction to poison ivy the hard way. I can remember spreading the ointment all over my body (since the skin all over my body pretty much looked like a giraffe’s pattern at that point), and Grandmom doing her best to distract me with oil pastels and a sketchbook.

Thanksgiving dinners with my grandparents were classic. This was the only time of year that the whole extended family was together, and it was always a loud, loving full house. My grandmother would often stay up until 2 in the morning the night before Thanksgiving, preparing as much food as possible in advance; then she’d already be in the kitchen when I came down for breakfast, still preparing the most amazing meals of my childhood, aside from the tomato aspic, which was dreaded by all of the grandchildren. Good, Southern table manners were enforced, and we were constantly reminded how good we had it—that in my grandparents’ day, children were seen and not heard. No one was allowed to take the first bite until my grandmother—the hostess—took the first bite…and after a long Thanksgiving prayer, waiting for this moment wasn’t easy. After I’d graduated from the children’s table to the adults’ table, I still had to be on full alert—an elbow on the table could lead to a painful flick from Grandmom, the sting of which was always surprising coming from such a petite woman. However, Grandmom still allowed a few things at the table that wouldn’t have been allowed at home—only at her house was I allowed to sprinkle sugar on my breakfast cereal!

My grandmother was also an avid skier, and she surprised us all by going skiing with my family in Breckenridge at the age of 75. I was in high school at the time, and I remember imploring my parents to talk to her and convince her not to go. But at the end of the day, my grandmother had skied a day of perfect runs, and I was the one who took all the spills. She could be quite stubborn and tenacious, and I believe that kept her going for a long time.

In recent years, Grandmom lost her independence and her health. But through it all, she was still the same, sparking woman—part Lucy Ricardo, part Grace Kelly—the clown, the charmer, and the belle of the ball. Our visits were filled with incontrollable laughter, plenty of Jitterbug, and her beloved treat, a margarita.

When my sister had first started dating her husband, I was hanging out with my aunt, uncle and grandmother in Connecticut. My aunt and uncle posed one serious question after another about my brother-in-law’s character and his intentions, while my grandmother listened in silence. After a few minutes, Grandmom spoke up. “But what I really want to know is”—all eyes were turned to the matriarch of the family, expecting a grain of wisdom from her many years—“…Does he like margaritas?” We laughed so hard we couldn’t breathe.

The last thing my Grandmother wanted was a margarita. I couldn’t help but laugh when I heard this—in full Grandmom style, she still had her charm and wit about her to the end. Grandmom is going to be dearly missed by those she left behind. But someday I’ll see her again—and when I look for her in Heaven, I’ll find her, in a new and perfect heavenly body, perhaps with a margarita in her hand.

Grandmom and Uncle Craig cutting the rug at my sister's wedding reception.

After a family outing to the park: Uncle Craig and Aunt Gale, Grandmom, Lilia, Mohammed, and the kids

Grandmom, Aunt Susie, and Uncle Clint

Grandmom and me in Connecticut