Saturday, January 9, 2016

Next Year Country—Next Year People

Next Year Country—Next Year People
            While I have great respect for the past, I am not one to yearn for olden days. Not for me the re-enactments of historical events. I’ve no desire to escape today’s trials through romanticizing the past. I’ll happily trade your retro calico bonnets, buffalo robes, corncob pipes, and bushy mustaches for my flush toilets, electric lights and a full set of teeth.

            As the New Year approached, my group of women with whom I graduated high school sent one another wishes. We ignored prosperity, health and happiness. Yet each and every one of us mentioned without dwelling on details, that 2015 had been a rugged year. Our common theme, we each in our own words declared, “Enough already. 2015 was a big dose to swallow. Let 2016 be a better year!”

            While I read my friends’ messages a picture from my memory flashed in vivid detail, a picture that to me illustrates the concept of “Next Year Country”, a concept familiar to all of us raised in contrary eastern Montana.

My Dad stood knee deep in rushing water in the sugar beet field north of our house, irrigating shovel in hand. He wore farmer overalls and a red-plaid flannel shirt though it was a hot day in August, protection from mosquitoes. He wore gray irrigation boots on his feet and a straw hat covered his head. His gloves and a pair of pliers stuck out of his back pocket. His neck craned back while he watched a covey of puffy white clouds swan across the open sky and disperse into nothingness. As the clouds disappeared the wind picked up dust from the gravel road to the east and scattered it in our faces.

Dad looked down at me. A look both grim and wry crossed his face and he shook his head, amused at his own perseverance for farming in such devilish country. I spent a lot of time out in the fields with my Dad that summer. I learned to watch for the clouds, the few, the disappointing. I knew it would not be a fat year.

I peg that summer as the time I learned to shake disappointment and turn a hopeful, if somewhat wishful, eye toward the rain clouds of next year. Surely we’d have a good crop next year. Surely.

Oh, I know we Montanans don’t have any monopoly on hard times. No person is immune from hardship. We might look around and see those who seem to live perfect lives, untouched by tragedy. Don’t believe your deceiving eyes. A person’s outsides don’t always reveal the sorrows and tears of the insides.

 Yet, our plains country more than most geographic areas, yields a hard life for a hardy people. This may sound like sentimental claptrap.

It is a personal prejudice of mine that next year country breeds next year people. We recognize them. It’s the way they shoulder into the task before them. Or it’s the way they scan the sky for a better day. Or it’s that glint of humor, the ability to laugh at oneself.

I don’t want to roll the clock back to any previous time, no way, no how. I just know next year is going to be a better year for you, for me. I feel it in my bones.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

January 7, 2016

Ready To Be Home

                                                Ready To Be Home
            Three weeks ago I left the sunny climes of Mexico for the frigid badlands of the Yellowstone River and Glendive, one of the strangest trips I’ve travelled.

            As the holiday season which ends the Old and precedes the New Year rolls around, I tend to introspection. Plunked down in the country where my ex-husband lived out his last years, here for his memorial service, made me even more so. Memories surfaced like snippets of film.

            When a couple have children, there is always a relationship. Then the grandchildren come along, another shared bond. To forestall an embarrassing moment, I asked my daughter to ask Harvey’s wife Pam where I should sit at the memorial. I sat with family. As Pam said, we are all family.

            At a time in my life when I was having a rough go, Harvey suggested Dee Dee live with them a while, the logic being there were two of them to control her (a logical illusion) and only one of me. Made sense. Dee went to high school in Bozeman. I had her for holidays. I got the best of that deal.

            As she will tell you herself, those years our daughter was a rebel. I’m sure Pam cried herself to sleep more than one night. Couldn’t have been all bad because Harvey and Pam ended up adopting five children.

            Right now my daughter is going through her own rough patch. It’s been one thing after another: health, car breakdowns, bills piling up, over-whelming hours at work. She had knee replacement surgery and then her father died. She seemed to me like a puppy lost in the clutter of living.

            I changed my return flight and stayed to pitch in where I could, to drive my daughter to physical therapy appointments, to be there for Christmas. You’d have to laugh to see us; me with my walking stick and she with her walker, a case of the halt leading the lame.

            Needless to say, my girl and I had good heart-to-heart talks. She might have been ready to kick me out a couple times when I cut too close to the bone.

            Maybe because we had the opportunity, Pam and I spent several hours together, our own heart-to-heart talks, a gift. Pam and I share a daughter.

            The day before I left Glendive I got a phone call from my son. Ben had been in jail, heroin related charges, for ten months. During that time he had applied for and was accepted into an intensive treatment program, recently instated in Washington. I knew he had been released December 20th.

            After searching my heart, I decided he had to want to contact me. Ten months of forced sobriety is good but the real test is what happens outside the walls. His phone call gave me hope. He lives in a treatment house for six months during which he has several kinds of therapy, AA meetings three times a day and four hours a day of group counseling.

            He spoke with both is sister and me. Of course, we compared notes. He took accountability for his actions, a real step forward. No excuses. His choices.

            So, my “holiday” in Montana was bittersweet, happy/sad. I carried worries like Santa’s pack. Finally I let them go. I didn’t cause it. I can’t control it. I can’t cure it. That goes for all the “its”.

            And I certainly can’t control my next-door neighbor, Frank.

            Firms in Mexico use a unique (to me) method of advertising. A team walks the street, one on each side, taping shiny colorful flyers on each door. It must work. Large chain stores use the method. Small family restaurants use it.

            Today I flew home to Mazatlan. When the cab pulled up to my house, my door was plastered with dozens of rectangles of color. It was the best and funniest welcome home I’ve ever experienced. Frank had gone collecting all over the neighborhood to decorate my door like a Christmas tree. If you need a special treat, a little extra cheer, I’ll send Frank by.

            Let’s live life as fully as we can. Feliz Ano Nuevo. Happy New Year.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

December 31, 2015

Friday, January 8, 2016

I Hope My Poinsettia Is Still Alive

            I Hope My Poinsettia Is Still Alive
            The day before I left Mexico I bought a poinsettia, my Christmas “bush”. I expected to celebrate Christmas in Mazatlan.

            I certainly never anticipated Christmas in Glendive, Montana. I certainly never expected to sleep so many nights at a hotel that I began to call it “home”. But when my daughter called for help, I took the next plane out of Mazatlan.

            I certainly never expected to shiver and quake with cold several times a day while waiting for my car heater to warm me enough for me to quit huddling into myself. Ah, Montana winter.

            All work and no play is not my way. My favorite dips into community fun have been the two Christmas Pageants, the Deer Creek School play and my family’s church presentation, starring, of course, my granddaughter. I am as delusional as all the other grandparents who think their precious little grandchild starred.

            The first Christmas event was a play having something to do with a Christmas road trip. All aboard “Uncle Nick’s” magic school bus—constructed of yellow cardboard. The cast included the entire country school of twenty students, kindergarten through eighth grade. They experienced Christmas festivities in Florida, California, New York City, New Orleans and Texas. Texas?

            Uncle Nick, of course, was Saint Nicholas, Santa Clause. At the beginning of the trip he was rather tall and thin and tugged at his chin hoping for whiskers. Somewhere along the road he morphed into a stout individual with a full set of glistening white facial fuzz which refused to stay in place. Being practical, he discarded the whiskers. I predict he will go far.

            My granddaughter as Carmen Miranda shed grapes from her straw hat and didn’t quite know what to do with her pink flamingo. Who would? With others she danced the fandango, a sort of jitterbug, sang the blues, kicked her heels with the “Rockettes” and danced the Texas Two-Step. Texas?

            The performance was dysfunctional beginning to end. I enjoyed every moment.

            But the absolute best Pageant was the traditional trip from the back of the church up the aisle to the manger in Bethlehem. Antoinette, draped in swatches of blue fabric and scarves, followed “Joseph” up the aisle to take her place as “Mary”, serenely seated by the baby in its crib.

            Next came three shepherds, identifiable by the crooks on their staffs. All the, er, men wore the requisite bathrobes and appropriate headgear. We all know the story.

            For some reason, the angels followed on the heels of the shepherds. I thought the angles preceded the shepherds. The order—or disorder—might have been caused by costume malfunctions. Angels have wings and halos and more drapery than a showroom.

            A couple little angels had difficulty dressing. I sat in the last pew so I was privy to a backstage drama.  In fact, one little angel-in-training refused her wings, refused to follow angelically to adore the Babe. She preferred her mother’s lap to stage and stardom.

            But the angel who stole the show was a mid-sized fireball, also sans wings. This reluctant angel stood in place throughout all the readings frowning. She seemed a tad rebellious for an angel. From time to time she made furious arm gestures, swishing her white robes while giving the entire congregation the stink eye. I predict a future in politics.

            Finally two kinds arrived, attired in bathrobes, crowned with foil. Two kings? One carried a flask of myrrh and the other a box of gold. There were lots of verses read, lots of songs sung. The king carrying the gold brought the box close to his face, opened the lid, and surreptitiously stuffed something into his mouth, more than once. Chocolate?

            My Christmas gifts included two pageants, below zero weather, snow, wind and family. This time next week I will be home in Mazatlan. I surely hope my poinsettia is alive.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

December 24, 2015

Up, Up And Away

                                                Up, Up And Away
            My daughter made arrangements to fly me to Montana so I could attend a family memorial last week. The previous week Dee Dee had undergone total knee replacement (it seems to run in the family).

            So blame her medications. Four airplanes? Count them: Mazatlan to Mexico City. Mexico City to Houston. Houston to Denver. Denver to Billings.

            Under the best circumstances modern air travel is no fun. A strait jacket might be more comfortable than the crowded airplane seats which effectively immobilize one.

            Nevertheless, I was fortunate to get a flight on such short notice. Within hours of my ticket confirmation and with a 4 a.m. start, I was yawning at the sleepy little airport in Mazatlan. Up, up and away, over the mountains to the huge Mexico City airport complex.

            Naturally I landed and departed a terminals at opposite ends of the airport. I think it is a flight law. I took a bus and a train, went through security again, to make my connection.

            At Houston I made it through customs, through baggage claim and through security the third time, onto a shuttle which deposited me at my departure gate. Oops—my plane was an hour and a half late due to a mechanical problem.

            That was not music to my ears. That meant I would miss my connection in Denver to Billings.  None of this would have been a big deal had not my emotional state made it so.I was on my way to a family funeral. Let’s just say I was lightly strung together.

            The nice man driving the shuttle cart stopped at a customer service booth to see if there was another flight I might take. He then whipped me down the concourse to a gate, seemed a mile away, where a flight was in final stages of boarding. I went to the counter and asked if I might make this flight. With a negative shake of her head, the attendant told me there were nineteen people on stand-by.

            My heart sank. I knew I’d never make it. So I hobbled down to the nearest restroom, then back to another customer service booth to ask for help to take me back to my original gate, while trying gamely to console myself to the reality of an overnight in Denver.

            Over the speaker I heard “Ashton”, my name. Oh, I thought, someone here is an Ashton. I scanned the crowd, recognized no familiar face. Lightly strung, remember.

            My name was called a second time. The third time I realized she might mean me. I almost ran across to the ticket counter, breathless, “My name is Ashton.”

            “Sondra Jean?” “Yes, that’s me.” “Do you want on this flight?” “Yes.” “You’re the last one to board. Seat 38-B.” I had mis-understood. That nice shuttle driver had put my name on stand-by. Barely strung together.

            38-B was the center seat in the last row, a row crammed into a space in which no adult human should have to pretzel his body. The nicest gentleman in the world saw the look of anguish on my face and gave me his aisle seat in 34. Unstrung. Who says there are no angels?

            In Denver I made my connection to Billings, knowing my luggage would spend the night in Denver. I figured getting me to Billings was more important. Luggage would follow. It did.

            Today my daughter bought my return ticket. In five minutes the pleasant customer service woman in India arranged an easy flight home, at civilized times of the day.

            “That was too easy.” “Aren’t they under contract to cause a trauma level of eight on a ten scale?” “She’ll probably lose her job.” “There will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.” “But then she’ll get a better job.” “After months of searching.” “Yes, customer service at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

December 17, 2015

The Inevitability Of Life

                                                The Inevitability Of Life
            This morning I sat waiting in the pulmonia outside the Mercado in Historico Old Town Mazatlan. The streets swarmed with carts, buses, autos, pedestrians, bicycles. I squinched my eyes and reduced the sights to kaleidoscopic colors, brilliant in the sun. I could smell meats on the grills across the street, guavas and oranges from the cart behind me. Shouts of vendors, of laughter; voices conversing in several languages filled my ears. Tears for no reason ran down my cheeks.

            I returned home, stowed my purchases and opened an email from my daughter. “Mom, I just want you to know I love you. Dad passed away about thirty minutes ago. He wasn’t in any pain. He went peacefully.” She ended with, “Dad is at peace now. I love you.”

            No, I have no psychic “gift”, if gift is what it is. Premonition, maybe. Harvey had returned to Glendive from the VA Hospital in Helena. He was in Hospice care. We knew he’d go soon. He was on my mind.

            Most folks on the High Line knew Harvey or had met him at one time or another in his life. He was a cowboy, a story-teller and an artist.

            He and I were married ten years, shared some good times, some rough patches. We had a son who didn’t live and our daughter, Dee Dee. She moved to Glendive to be near him his last years. When I read Dee’s note, I cried my second tears of the day.

            I don’t know much, I’m not wise, but I believe we never stop loving somebody who was once an important part of our life. We don’t turn feelings on and off like a faucet.  Despite our differences, most of which didn’t matter in the long run, a residual love lingered for that person with whom I had once fallen in love. My heart goes out to Harvey’s wife Pam, to the children they adopted and, of course, to our daughter, Dee Dee.

Dee Dee is not her real name but Harvey had Deborah Diane nick-named and on a horse before we ever left the hospital. “Old Indian trick,” he’d say.

            His last couple of years were not easy, were fraught with illness. I’m glad Harvey is at peace.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

December 10, 2015

Blowing In The Wind

                                                            Blowing In The Wind
            This morning a rainbow arched over Bird Island and plunged into the rocks at the southern edge, the most intense rainbow I’ve seen in years. I sat at the window-wall in our 21st floor suite at the resort and watched for half an hour, just watched the rainbow. Eventually the rainbow extended a perfect reflection onto the Pacific mirror, creating a three-quarter circle.

            Sandra, the current hurricane of our prolific Pacific series, huffed and puffed off the coast earlier this week. We in Mazatlan yawned with complacency. Every other storm, in this summer of hurricanes, landed either north or south or fizzled out mid-ocean. The long arm of Baja protects this part of the Mexican coast.

            Sandra romped through the numbers to a Category 4 Hurricane and back down again to a blow-hard tropical storm when she hit mainland, dead center at Mazatlan. She wasn’t supposed to do that, fickle woman.

            Kathy and I stockpiled water and kept our passports handy in case of an evacuation order but we were never in danger. A little wind, a fair rain, and Sandra fizzled into the hills. The worst effect for us two vacationing women was having no beach time. This is day five of no beach and the first day the resort has taken down the barriers denying guests beach access.

            The waters are dangerous with under-toads and extremely strong back wash. A handful of invincible young people, fueled with joy juice, venture into the foam, only to be whistled back to land by the life guards.

            Yesterday a school of large fish were feeding a few hundred yards off the beach. Today hundreds of manta rays roil the water in a frenzy, right up to the edge of the surf. We watch from above. Manta rays are huge, from five and a half to seven meters across. It is a rare treat to see one. This feast for our eyes is a direct result of the hurricane bringing deep water species into shore.

            On my first vacation in Mazatlan, Elias, a parasail beach vendor, dubbed me “Mexican Sandra”, given the Spanish pronunciation of my English-origin name. He said Sandra is a Spanish name. This bit only marginally relates to the hurricane, to explain that I felt like we shared both name and characteristics of being quick to action but easily gentled.

            Even at high tide the water separating the mainland and Bird Island is shallow. From above this morning the sea is tropical turquoise. The rocks I know to be there leave dark patches of shadow. In very low tides, the rocks are above water. We haven’t seen these rocks in three or four years.  Low tides have ventured elsewhere, maybe on holiday in India.

            Though sitting on the beach under the palapa is not an option, there is plenty to keep us entertained. This morning, along with sight-seeing the rainbow and manta rays, we watched runners in the Gran Maraton Pacifico, an annual event since 1999.  The Mazatlan race is now rated among the top ten in the world and is limited to twelve thousand contenders. It is joy to watch both athletes and ordinary runners, even people like you and me. The participants rolling wheel chairs, others shambling on crutches, blind runners led by companions, all bring tears to my eyes. We clap and shout encouragement from our vantage point on an overhead bridge.

            Tonight we returned from a jaunt to Cerritos Point where we selected a corvine fresh from the ocean. In half an hour our fish was plunked between us, tail hanging over the platter, on a bed of lettuce, surrounded by tomatoes, cucumber slices, limes and salsa, served with a pile of tortillas. It doesn’t get any better than this. We watched the sunset and returned home full, tired and covered with grit of sand and salt.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

December 3, 2015

True Confessions Amidst A Fiesta of Friends

                                                True Confessions Amidst A Fiesta of Friends
            When I was eleven, twelve, thirteen and fourteen I wanted to join a cloistered order of nuns. It was either a good thing or too bad that any order where I could have boarded for school and preparation was out of reach. By fifteen, latent puberty had taken over my mind and emotions. I was rather backward. In those days it meant something special if I said, “He looked at me.”

            In a modified way I got my wish when I moved to Mexico. I live in a small casita by myself. In the months when the snowbirds from the States have flown back home I go days without speaking a word of English. Or at least any word that is understood. My solitude is good. I enjoy my time of quiet, of reflection and introspection.

            Even though this is tourist time in Mazatlan and my snowbird friends are all perched in nearby nests, I still live in comparative solitude.

            Then all of a sudden Santa came early with a full bag of gifts. The first package I unwrapped included a week in a mountain village in Jalisco with my cousin and friends.

            When I got off the bus back in Mazatlan, Carolina stood on my doorstep. We had several days of visiting when . . .


            Kathy, Carolina’s sister and my long-time friend who first introduced me to Mexico, flew in for a visit. I quickly re-packed my bag and trundled off to the El Moro to have a two week holiday in the resort, six blocks down the street on the beach.

            Next week Lani and Ariel are in Mazatlan with a full schedule of social activities.

            All this company, unplanned, quickly planned or as a surprise to me. I like surprises. I pride myself on my flexibility. I love being with my friends.

            But, I must confess to a momentary twinge, just a smidge, mind you, of dismay that I would lose my quiet time. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning, with a difference. Beneath the tree were stacked gifts beyond belief and value: more than the book by Louisa Alcott I hankered after, more than the pink angora sweater set and the flannel bathrobe my Grandma made for me. It’s as if there were also piles of Gold and Silver and Frankincense and Myrrh. Know what I mean? I loved the book and the sweaters and the robe. But what do I do with the rest? It’s too much.

            That little twinge lasted as long as a pinprick. I quickly pulled myself together and said to myself, Hot dog! I’m gifted with Christmas, New Years and the 4th of July complete with bells and whistles. Woo-hoo! Let’s go!

            Being older has benefits—if we discount the other stuff. What people might think loses importance. Just the other afternoon I was sitting with a group of friends and started laughing. “Look,” I said. “My blouse is wrong side out.” I wore an African print, equally bright on either side, but really, the seams are frayed. I shrugged and never bothered to change.

            I admit I am not cruise material. Never one for fancy dress or bling. When other girls perfected make-up, I wanted to change my name to Sister Mary Benedict, remember?

            A benefit of spending weeks at the same resort year after year with Kathy is that we have a group of resort friends. Just this morning several women sat around the table on the beach discussing old boyfriends, past husbands and reunions. We agreed that no matter the looks, the changes, past and present experiences, old friends are treasured gifts.

            Today I pulled on my blouse front-to-back. We laughed. Who cares? Friends love me anyway.

            I just spotted a tee shirt on the beach with the words, “I’m Your Type” in a variety of fonts. I want that man’s shirt! Sister Mary Benedict, indeed!

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

November 25, 2015