Sunflowers

CindyConnor
Cindy & Connor

Cindy Louise Santana Guinn died yesterday morning. Around the Compound, we are all numb with shock. She was one of the younger kids in her family, and her brothers and sisters, nieces are devastated as is her twelve-year-old son, Connor.

An ambulance took her to the hospital Wednesday morning and, two days later, she was gone. She left in just about the way she did everything–in a hurry.

On Monday, she mowed and trimmed the lawn, then worked on some soaker hoses and pulled some weeds, bee-bopping around the yard as usual.

Normally, Neil, our permanent houseguest, would cook her breakfast downstairs in The Cellar and she’d chow down bacon or sausage, eggs, and biscuits a little before 9 o’clock, swigging down a huge glass of orange juice. She always wanted mustard on her sausage or bacon biscuit unless there was a tomato involved. Then she wanted mayonnaise. “You gotta have that mayo the minute you say tomato, she told me.

Monday, I was down with aching legs, and Neil was gone to a job in Lawrenceburg, so she didn’t get breakfast. About noon, I texted her.

We didn’t go through our standard ritual for finding each other outside. I’d usually yell “Cindy Lou” and she’d reply “Where are you?” until we saw each other somewhere on the grounds.

I texted, “Hey, I bet you’re hungry. You want a bowl of leftover chicken and dressing?”

“Oh yea,” she answered, “leav on sid porch.”

So I did. A few minutes later, I saw her skip up the ramp and go back down eating. She could put away some food.

Neil cooked her the last breakfast she had here. Neil and Cindy were a funny thing together. They loved each other. Every once in a while Cindy would slap Neil on the butt and then say, “But you’re just not my type.” He’d often help her fix a lawnmower or truck or something else at her sister Cathy’s, where Cindy also lived with Lee, Cathy’s wife, and Brenda, a friend. (It’s a big house.)

The last time Cindy called Neil for help, a big snakes had wound itself into a tree trunk. Lee was mowing the front yard, saw it, and drove on. All these women were scared of snakes. Lee had assembled a scraper on a pole. Neil and Oliver, Neil’s teenage son who was here at the time, used the snake pole to lift it out of the tree and then herd it across the street so it could climb somebody else’s tree. Neil says a large audience of neighbors gathered to witness the event.

Last July, Cindy and I were pulling weeds, as usual, in the lower garden close to the ravine. She was on the side closest to our big ditch where a birdbath has been sinking. She said she thought she’d move the birdbath and attempt to fill in the low place. I said okay and she started toward the spot, turned around, and crossed fifteen feet of yard with three steps, climbed a curly willow tree, and hung onto a branch. I wish I’d snapped a photo, but I was on the ground laughing too hard to get up. I knew she’d just seen a snake.

She was down the tree just about as quickly as she’d gone up, and described a “big black snake, I mean half a foot around and four feet long” stretched out along the base of the birdbath. She shivered a little and went back to her project. The snake had taken a high-speed exit to the ravine and Cindy was happy. I was still laughing.

 

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Dina with Cindy in Florida.

We didn’t hug or get close, hadn’t for months, but she had vacationed in Florida a couple weeks ago and was now extra-distancing. She was a big hugger, as were her brothers and sisters. She always visited Grandma until Covid took over the land. Sometimes she brought presents. We missed the hugs.

Cindy was a fixture around The Compound for at least seven years. She tended our lawn and gardens once a week. Sometimes she helped move stuff. She painted and wallpapered my studio. She’d jump on a ladder and change a lightbulb or clean a fan. She shampooed carpets and upholstery a couple times. One year, she volunteered to clean the windows because, you see, she’d mixed up the “most awesome” cleaner. I don’t know what the mixture was exactly, but the windows sparkled.

A graphics designer in the past, Cindy felt a special calling to run her own lawn and garden business. She might have weighed 100 pounds, but she was tough as nails. She said she owed that to her Puerto Rican DNA.

Family was everything to the Santana kids.

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Dad and Step-Mom visit with Dina, Cindy, Cathy, and David

They’d lost a sister, two brothers, and their mother. Maybe those losses made them cling even tighter. Then Cathy’s son died a year ago. That was really tough. Now this one.

 

I don’t know how we’ll memorialize Cindy, but right now the huge patch of wildflowers, zinnias, marigolds, cosmos, and sunflowers pay homage. Cindy and I decided on planting a “pollinator garden” a couple years ago, so we just let the grasses and whatever grow up in that patch, bloom, and feed birds, bees, and butterflies–and whoever else shows up to eat. She made me buy lots of sunflower seeds.2020-06-22 08.25.06 (1)

 

That patch will go to seed this fall. I’ll collect and sow them next spring. The volunteers and self-seeders will grow again. I’ve got some sunflower seeds and someone in my online gardening group said to go ahead and plant them.

Dave and I wanted to send food to the house last night. I finally settled on Publix fried chicken and all the sides, but when I got to the deli, the clerk said they’d have to fry some more. I didn’t want to wait, so I rounded up a boneless ham, potato salad, baked beans, green salad, rolls, and two pies.

The sun was going down when I pulled into the driveway. The sunflowers–the Alaska Mammoths, American Giants, wild ones, and all the rest–cast long shadows in the cloudy sunset, every head bowed in sorrow.

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Happy Birthday, Mrs. Grillo!

I have this card (or maybe I had this card) that says something like, “Roses are red, Violets are blue, I’ll always be…[open the card] younger than you!” I can’t find it.BirthdaycardJ

Mrs. Grillo and I became forever friends in seventh grade, some fifty-six years ago. My family had only been in California six months, living in Mill Valley where my dad was a seminary student. We moved to Pittsburg when Dad was called as Pastor of Temple Baptist Church.

It was the start of the second semester at Hillview Jr. High. When the gym teacher said “Raise your hand if you do not yet have a locker,” I replied something to the effect of, “My locker has done been possessed.” My Southern accent combined with the funny way I said it inspired a great roar of laughter from every girl in the room, including the teacher.

I didn’t mind. I had been miserable at the Mill Valley school where I started seventh grade. When the kids laughed at me there, I knew they laughed at me, my hillbilly-ness, my inferiority. I knew this because one of the teachers told me. But that first day at Hillview was very different. It was as if I made them laugh and that was great! Maura Jean Snyder laughed, too, and she’s laughed at me ever since. Lots of times, she’s cried with me.

By the time we hit Pittsburg High School, we were the ultimate teenyboppers. We adopted nicknames. She was Ja, with one of those long vowel lines over the a, I was Dee. We were wild about the Beatles, our fashion choices inspired by the British Invasion. We sewed military-style wool jackets. Mine was camel, hers was grey. We loved Motown and soul, handed to us on a platter in the diversity of our town. We could jerk and we could twine. We wore wheat-colored jeans and short-sleeved sweatshirts out of class, the dress code for young women denying pants of any kind in school. Except for dance days, and then a female person could wear pants and huge plastic hair rollers. I never caught on to the hair-roller thing.

When my father graduated from seminary and accepted an appointment with the Home Mission Board to Lewistown, Montana, I stayed with Ja’s family to complete my senior year.

We danced. Jean was much better than I, a seasoned champion roller-skater. Really. She was a U.S. champ. I danced anyway. Ja and I choreographed a mournful dance to a Barbra Streisand song about loss wearing wide-legged jumpsuits we made ourselves. Hers was olive green, mine was a burnt orange. When senior awards were handed out, she got one for Best Dancer, I got one for Most Improved. My boyfriend asked me, “Does that mean you were the worst in the class at the beginning?”

We went to San Jose State together. The second year, I went to Montana to stay with my folks for a year, and Ja pledged a sorority. The third year, Ja came to live with my family in Montana and I went to the University of Montana at Missoula. Ja rode herd on the Wong boys, my three little foster brothers. She loved it.

The fourth year, we didn’t go to any school. We married best friends. Her wedding was at the end of March, mine mid-May. She decided we should enroll in dance classes at a local studio. Ja and her husband became godparents to our first son Jade.  We moved to a farm in Norene, Tennessee when Jade was eleven months old. A year later, we went home to Montana for a visit. I was pregnant with John.

Ja and her husband, godparents again, came to Tennessee for the baptism when John was about five months old. Ja and I loved the visit, particularly the times when she and I could be alone with each other, two old friends catching up but not finding much to catch up on. After all, we had the U.S. Mail. We played cards after Jade went to bed, John sitting in Ja’s lap propped between the table and her middle.

She had previously told me that it didn’t look like she would have children. After seeing her easy rapport with Baby John at the card table, I bet her $5 that she would be pregnant in the next six months. Or maybe I bet her she would have a baby within the next year. I don’t really know which it was, although I’m sure she does. Just a few months later, I received an envelope from Montana. The only thing inside was a $5 bill.

There’s so much more–too much more, too many pages. A couple of girlfriends accumulate a lot of stories over fifty-six years. We divorced the best friends, went back to college (she graduated, I didn’t), worked hard (she became a math teacher–and then a math coach!), mourned losses, put kids through school, remarried, got grandbabies, and one day years and years after that first meeting in gym class, realized that we could not just call ourselves best friends.

We had begun to feel when things were going wrong with each another. We fret over each other’s husbands, kids, and grandkids. We research each other’s illnesses. We cry for each other when something’s not right. We give advice, solicited or not. We easily take or reject said advice. We whoop it up when joy arrives. We visit each other across the country whenever we can. There is never a day that either of us don’t think about the other.

Somewhere along the way, we became sisters.

I have called Mrs. Grillo very early every birthday morning. I’ve only missed a few, always for good reason. I missed yesterday. There was a good reason. I remembered at 7:00 Central Time. Years ago, I gave up the 5:00 A.M. call. It was just too early. Yesterday, I decided I would call at 9:00 o’clock, which would be 7:00 o’clock in the Santa Cruz hills of California. But then all hell broke loose, which is fairly routine around these parts, and I was caught up in the fray with my mind diverted.

Mrs. Grillo, the day event went more downhill, so to speak, or I guess Dave went downhill as he fell into the ravine. After the neighbor and I fished his bloody self out, I took him directly to the ER. He’s fine, no worries. He got stitches where he face-planted a stump, and he’s a tad sore all over.

I’ll be on Message+ or the phone later to tell you the rest of the story. I’ll make that happen before this day is over. It may actually come in another blog post.

I love you, Sis, and hope you had good stuff at Little Italy–Is that the name of that restaurant? No, I think it might be Little Napoli. Now I know you had some cold bubbly, and I toasted you with some Jack and Coke. Did you feel it?BDcard

 

All Is Well

Audrey scooped Breyer’s Vanilla Bean and generously dusted it with Hawaiian Pink sea salt. “Watch,” she said. “I just want you to see how much salt you need to use.” Then she finished with a generous pour of peppery Kiler Ridge Gregg’s Reserve olive oil and placed our desserts in front of us. Olive oil. Really. On ice cream. All I could say was, “Oh, wow. Oh, wow.” I’m still marveling.
We are in California for what turns out to be our bi-annual visit with the Grillos. These old friends come our way one year, we go theirs the next, and in either Tennessee or California, one of us plans road trips and events for nearly a week of days. In the West, we’ve headed out to Hearst Castle, Mendocino, and Napa Valley and, in between, gone for plays, music, wine, and art, and the frequent runs to San Francisco, Monterey, and high school reunions. Down South, we visited the Biltmore, Rowan Oak, and the Grand Ole Opry. There’s always something to do in Nashville for entertainment or sightseeing: the Country Music Hall of Fame, Cheekwood, the Schermerhorn, or the Nash Trash Tour. We also eat. A lot.
We arrived on Election Day, planning ahead to either celebrate wildly or drink our sorrow. We did neither, although three of us did stay awake long enough to hear the President’s speech. Mrs. Grillo (Ja, superbly playing the role of Cruise Director) reminded us to rest up for our next day’s trip to Kiler Ridge, a family olive farm on the top of the hills above the coastline.
The California central coast has the perfect Mediterranean climate and chalky soil for wine grapes—and for Italian olive trees. It was pretty much perfect weather for us, too. There was a slight breeze but the sun was warm. Hummingbirds dove in and out of tall blooming sage and lantana. We inhaled the clear air and oscillated around the circular panorama of mile after mile, hill after hill of olive trees and grapevines.
It was harvest day and the frantoio operated with great roars, whines, and poundings on a big batch of olives from a neighboring farm. Gregg explained the crushing, grinding, and separation process and we sampled the fresh oils. The tasting room was closed to the public as is usual during a harvest but since we had made reservations months ago, Audrey and somebody’s nona cooked lunch for us: a fresh salad, succulent Linguica sausages, and thin pasta, all featuring one of the oils from the shelf.
We sat at the big farm table at Audrey’s invitation and she sat out the plates of fresh greens. It was in that moment that I remembered times I love the most; spongy moments with friends or family when we soak up the often-overlooked assurance that everything is good, that all is right in God’s world and ours. More frequently, those brief breezes of warmth waft over us, unacknowledged, as the busy-ness of living and caretaking insulate us from the contentment that would drift down to warm and soothe if we were but receptive.
Our friends tell us who we are. J became my best friend in seventh grade, my touchstone for all but the first few years of my life. We figure this year is our fiftieth friendship anniversary. At some point that neither of us knows, we lost the opportunity to choose to be friends; we became “just us, just there, just together”—family, I suppose. It was natural that the Alex we embraced in high school would take an easy place in our friendship and Dave would be loved just for himself, after the initial admission by association.
J and I are just alike and we are completely different, the way sisters are often described. She is dark-headed and so slight; I am blonde and quite round. She is oriented toward rules and order; I often fly by the butt of my bloomers. I think of her as the quiet to my boisterousness, the fragile to my hardiness. But then I consider the underlying similarities, for underneath the blonde my roots are dark. And while I may seem to prefer a broad view, there is a level of routine and predictability that I need in order to breathe. Turn us loose on the Beatles or Motown and we can both raise the roof; set us down on a park bench in autumn and we are happily silent together. I can remember times when she was an indestructible buoy for my wounded, drowning soul and named my very self so that I could once again claim my bearings.
Yesterday, there occurred another moment of precious being. A half dozen friends from high school and Facebook met the four of us for what Alex described as a “four-hour lunch”. He exaggerated; it wasn’t nearly four hours. It was long enough to find ourselves, together, after all these years—and yet it was not even a blip of the time I could have basked in that sunshine of memories, laughing, jokes, teasing, affirmation. All of these wonderful women have carried gifts through the last forty-five years that we saw in each other in high school: ability, tenacity, warmth, acceptance, appreciation, beauty, and fun.
We checked in on our families; husbands—present and ex, children—some just over surgery or illness, grandchildren—there for us to spoil (yes!), and friends we wished for. We resurrected memories; who kissed who when, whose history class was it, where exactly we each went in the first few years after high school. We’ve kept up well on Facebook. I am grateful for social media but there are things we haven’t said online so seeing each other was my cake’s favorite frosting—salted caramel or anything with cream cheese.
I told Cynthia how envious I was of her, when we were on the yearbook staff, of her perfect tan that she got watering the yard. She brought me a bracelet of many colors that she made. Linda C. and I love to cook; she told me how much fun she had making my pulled pork recipe for a bunch in the Coast Guard. Linda G. and I cannot remember a class we had together but who cares. I remember loving the way her hair flipped. Cathie got the real story of how that fabulous kiss happened in the production of Guys and Dolls; she also re-trained us in the Queen Mum wave. (Her son is the mayor of Dublin, CA.) Joyce is coming to Tennessee to visit, I’m sure, and I told her how much I enjoy the pictures of her grandchildren. Rosemarie rode her bike to the restaurant and she loves me even though I’ve always been “mericani” to her “extreme Sicilian”.
And there were the words we didn’t say in person, either, but thoughts and feelings that wrapped us together around our trusted history—whatever pieces we can call up, our admiration for each other—unspoken now as it was in teenage days, and our love and appreciation for where each of us has been and how we fit this puzzle of life currently laid out on the table.
At Pittsburg High School, I sometimes struggled with acceptance. I was not Italian enough, too simultaneously smart and silly, less popular than I wanted to be, and, a lot of times lonelier than I should have been. But, yesterday, I was me and each of us was “just us”, woven into fabric as tightly as Italian linen, transparent as the restaurant’s window letting in too much sun, and as comfortable as an old pair of sweatpants I almost wore to the gathering. If Ja had not asked, “Hey, aren’t you going to change your pants?” I would have sported pulled polyester grey-with-white-stripe half-hemmed almost-pajamas with the silver-studded batwing red sweater.
So once again, in the moment somewhere around the end of the first hour, I knew who I was because they told me. We told each other, and all was well.
The saying of the mystic Julian of Norwich comes to me, “…All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”. Julian claimed it to be said to her by God Himself. This November, with friends in central California, I believe her.