Monday, May 16, 2016

There Is A Serpent In My Garden

There Is A Serpent In My Garden
            I live in a garden in paradise. I have met the Snake. He is big. He is bad. He is beautiful. And if I eat of the apple from this Snake, I shall surely die.  And that is where the similarities to the Other Garden Story end.

            My garden is lush with bougainvillea, night-blooming jasmine, hundreds of lilies, a coffee bush, palms, grapefruit, lime, oranges, mango, avocado, ferns, geraniums, ivies, philodendron, and a hundred plants I cannot name.

            My wee brick casita sits smack in the middle of my garden. The perimeter walls are taken up with large arched windows, defined by decorative wrought iron. Whether inside or outside, I am in the garden.  

A brick wall surrounds my garden. The entrance gate is not guarded by angels with flaming swords and I don’t need to go to the fig tree for materials to make my clothing. I am the only human in my garden which I share with two (Could be two-hundred; they all look alike.) rabbits, a family of squirrels, numerous iguanas, uncountable varieties of lizards. And the neighbor’s cats. Nothing comes two by two. But that’s a different story.

And the Snake.

Along toward evening I strolled around my patio, checking newly-potted plants, puffed with contentment and satisfaction and, yes, pride, at the order and beauty I was creating out of the jumble-jungle untamed mess I began working with two months ago. I turned the corner to admire my new steps to my terraced back yard and almost stepped on Him.

Him. (I name all creatures, critters and inanimate objects in my garden; thus I named this snake “Him”.) Large red bands alternating with smaller yellow and black bands, mostly black head. Coral snake.

Fear. Boy, Howdy. Let me tell you, I could have flown under my own power, my body was so full of adrenalin. All I could think was “I’ve got to kill it.” When I returned with my big shovel, Him was still sprawled out, the picture of relaxation. 

I stood a moment wondering where Him was most vulnerable. Him finally noticed me and began to curl and slink. I plunged the shovel blade mid-section and nailed Him to the ground, trying my best to cut Him in half.

Him is tough. I wiggled the shovel and Him squirmed out from under my blade and slid beneath the brick planter wall. Him probably escaped with no more than a bruise.

I thought I’d better alert my neighbors. A bite from a coral snake will paralyze one’s breathing apparatus. They don’t bite humans often (small consolation) but they are killers.

Ariel said, “That’s probably the only coral snake you’ll ever see. She is shy.”


Josue said, “I’m scared of snakes. Be careful. Wear shoes in the garden. She probably ran away and hid.”


Leo said, “I’m scared of snakes. Very dangerous. You are brave lady to try to kill her.”


Without consulting one another, far as I know, they named me “The Snake Lady.”

This morning I bought a pair of rubber garden boots, ugly and thick, probably made from recycled tires, tough. I’m not leaving the house without my trusty boots.

Did you know snakes are protected under Mexican law? The coral snake has few natural predators. Roosters. Not for me, thank you. Large dogs. Well, no, I don’t want a dog. Iguanas.

 Iguanas love cilantro. I’m ripping out my entire geranium bed and planting cilantro. Cilantro spreads like a vicious weed. I’ll have a whole herd of iguanas, happily munching cilantro treats, keeping the coral snakes, especially Him, out of my garden.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

May 12, 2016

Those Things We Think We Need

Those Things We Think We Need
             At last, I have a working sink in the house. No more carting all food preparation items plus dishes before and after meals out to the outdoor sink on the patio. Josue has finished my kitchen cabinets.

            I’m no stranger to roughing it. Back in the early Sixties, when I was newly married and it seemed romantic, I had no sink. Running water meant I carried buckets from the well out by the stock tank and poured it into the water bucket on the wash stand (cold) and the copper boiler on the wood stove (hot).

            With no romance in my life these days, I fully appreciate my new cabinets with a sink hooked up to hot and cold running water. Thank you, Josue. Glory and Amen.

            Somehow I lodged into my brain that I needed a dish drainer, you know, to stack my plate and cup and knife and fork to dry after I washed them in my newly functional sink. I’ll tell you more about my sink later. Meanwhile, I wanted a dish drainer and went on the search.

            Lani and I drove into town to a tienda that stocks a lot of plastic kitchen items, sort of a mini-Mexican Target, kitchen aisle. They had drainers all right. The plastic kind. I don’t like the plastic kind. I wanted a wire drainer—wire coated with plastic. The wide plastic drainers get dirty quickly and are hard to clean, in my opinion. I live in dusty farm country. You know what that is like. And I wanted what I wanted. You may know what that is like!

            “Miercoles.” The clerk said they would have them in Wednesday. No problem. I’m patient.

            Thursday Ariel stopped by to see if I needed anything in town. He said he’d check to see if my dish drainer had arrived. No such luck.

            Friday Leo took me to town to buy a new stove. On the way we passed a different tienda which I knew had a small array of kitchen plastics, Voila! On the top shelf, there sat a wire dish drainer, a two tiered affair, like an ocean liner, coated in red plastic. I like color. The price was displayed. (Often there are no prices displayed in the tiendas. Then one gets to haggle. Sometimes I haggle even when the price is marked. Sometimes it works.) The all-plastic drainers were 60 pesos. The red yacht of dish drainers was nearly 400 pesos.

            I stood three or four minutes in contemplation, enough minutes to have an “ah-ha” moment. I visualized my sink, a lovely large stainless sink with attached drain board on one side.

Sondra, what are you thinking? You have a built-in drainer. Sure enough, you can’t stack your plates upright to dry. But if you add a dish drainer to the drain board, an admittedly nice touch, you can’t swing your kitchen window open. Is this Gucci drainer a necessity?

            “I’m not paying 400 pesos for a dish drainer I don’t need. Let’s go look at stoves.”

            Now, I liked my old stove. I didn’t want a new stove. The burners worked great. But, sadly, I “needed” a new stove unless I wanted to never bake anything other than pottery.

            At the furniture/appliance store, I carefully examined each stove, all six models. One style had an electronic starter and oven light. And the price was right. $3,071.00. That is about $170 USD. The store delivered it, Leo hooked it up, I baked bread. I’m a happy woman.

            What I want to know is why I so easily confused my “wants” with my “needs”? When I pared down my life to be in Mexico, I gave up every electric kitchen appliance known to cooks. Except for a food processer, a nicety, which I seldom bother to use; after all, I’m generally cooking for one. Oh, let me not forget the coffee grinder, a necessity, which I use every day.

            If my food processer broke down, I wouldn’t bother to replace it. But my coffee grinder is a different matter. Maybe I should start the search for a hand grinder, like our grandparents used in the olden romantic days. I might need one.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door 

April 28, 2016  

Trolling Through the Plaza Friday Night

Trolling Through the Plaza Friday Night
                        Last Friday the Casa de Cultura sponsored a Folklorico performance for the Etzatlan community. A stage dominated one corner of the square, with rows of folding chairs for the audience.  Dance troups, some local, some from surrounding towns, others who had traveled great distances, performed traditional dances.    

            Ah, the regalia. Miles of calico and satin, skirts and flounces, blouses and scarves. Herds of cowhides stitched into vests and pants and boots. The men handsome in elegant sombreros. The women’s natural grace enhanced with flowers in their hair, lacy fans for flirting; all part of the dance.        
            The Plaza is adjacent to the Cathedral. Generally, after evening Mass, the Plaza fills with families out to enjoy the evening. Around the perimeter of the tree-lined Plaza, vendors, some with permanent stands, some more mobile, sell tacos, tamales, gorditos, fruit drinks and soda, candy, trinkets, toys and such traditional Mexican fare as pizza.

            The Folklorico groups danced on stage until quite late, for me, though not so late for Mexican people. Once the crew dismantled the stage, loaded the chairs and sound and light systems, the real dance began.

            Boys strolled in groups one direction while girls walked the circle counter-wise. Each young person is hyper-vigilant, while pretending to ignore the opposite sex, aware of every glance, every nuance of body language. Like birds in the tree branches outside my windows, the youngsters performed an elaborate mating dance, precursor to choosing partners.

            Grandmothers and grandfathers, subtle chaperones, sat on the white iron-work benches flanking the “boulevard”, gossiping, doing needlework or whittling, while keeping a wary eye on the young people. Couples committed to one another walked the circle with ease, comfortably holding hands, possibly planning their futures. The very young, once they were fed, played tag and other games around the feet of the strollers.  

            Lani and I sat on one of the white benches, munched churros hot out of the fat, licked our fingers clean of cinnamon-sugar, and watched people walk by. For a few moments I felt nostalgia for something we in our culture never had, a yearning for I knew not what.

            Cruising Main Street on Saturday night in our day was just not the same thing. Crawl up the street five or six blocks, turn around before the railroad crossing, putt-putt down the street and turn again before the road turned off into the countryside. I suppose cruising served a purpose, a primping and showing, fluffing feathers, for those who had cars. Mostly boys.

            Not dances in the high school gym, not exactly courting. Girls lined one wall, boys the other. It took less courage for King Arthur’s Knights to slay a dragon, than for a boy to walk the hundred empty miles across the basketball court to risk rejection by the maiden fair.

            Football games were too cold. Basketball games might have been a way for girls to meet guys except that basketball tended to heated rivalry. A Harlem girl wouldn’t dare talk with a hated Chinook boy. Ewww, Ick.

            Difficult as it was, we still managed to hook up, with or without the watchful eyes of parents.

            But I gotta tell you, we missed a lot. A girl can learn worlds about a guy while watching him saunter a few circles around the square.   
Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

May 5, 2016

Hacking Back My Jungle, One Plant At A Time

Hacking Back My Jungle, One Plant At A Time
            I walked around my coffee bush, checking out the blossoms and emerging beans. Actually, although I lust after it, the bush belongs to the neighboring property, now sitting empty. It doesn’t sooth me that this towering bush is dead ahead in my line of vision when I sit at my keyboard, looking out my window at my lilies and geraniums, my view framed by the bougainvillea on my left and the grapefruit on my right, orange trees in the distance.

            About three weeks ago when branches loaded with red beans began turning black, I got excited. What fun to roast coffee beans in my oven. I turned to that mute coffee-bean expert, Google, and discovered I needed green beans for that deep dark full flavor I desire. Roasting, not nature, turns the beans the lovely dark black and brings out the flavor. And, of course, there was not a green bean to be found. So I put my coffee bean project on hold.

            While in Mazatlan last week, I ate breakfast at Looney Beans, my favorite coffee house at the Cerritos beach. My delightful young server showed me a handful of the green coffee beans, ready for the roaster. Now I know what size and color to pick.

While I don’t own the coffee bush, I have use of it for now and plan to plant my own before the rains come. I suppose it would be unethical when prospective buyers show up to talk to them about the infestation of scorpions and rats, a veritable plague. Yeah, I thought so.

            Meanwhile, in my own back yard, to the consternation of Iggy, my personal iguana who lives in my drain pipe, every day I prune back or take out a small portion of the jungle growth.

            The couple who sold me my wee casita wanted privacy. Hence, the jungle. I believe nothing was ever pruned in the twenty-eight years they lived here. I felt like I was in jail. This Montana girl needs open spaces.

I have twenty-to-thirty feet high night jasmine. Bougainvillea the size of cottonwood trees. Birds of every description have lovingly (or not) dropped seeds of amapa, also called primavera, a tree that holds up the sky. I love the purple umbrella which amapa unfurls in the spring. Several of these giants grow outside my brick wall perimeter. I’ve removed dozens from the inside, young sprouts of every length; some required a saw.

            With Leo’s strong-arm help, once we removed the underbrush, dead branches from past years, unwanted trees, and a plethora of weeds, a thousand lilies turned their heads to the sun. Tiny flowers emerged, ready to take their place in the garden, no longer bullied into cowering in the corners.

            Ah, but revealing hidden beauty has consequences. I’ve destroyed one habitat in order to create another.

You think I joke about scorpions. Were that only true! In the last hour one scuttled across my kitchen floor, one challenged me on my doorstep. Stomped them dead, I did. Grabbed the vile scorpion poison and sprayed the perimeter.

            Scorpions scare me. Scorpions, like most things, come in several varieties. The one that stung me the first month I lived in Mazatlan and sent me to the hospital was the size of my cupped hand and coal black. In The dominant scorpion in Etzatlan is the size of a silver dollar, yellow-green in color, and much less visible and more poisonous. Makes me almost nostalgic for the black variety.

            But I’m used to spotting danger. Back on the ranch, I wasn’t the champion rattlesnake finder for nothing.

            Lizards, did I mention lizards? Green lizards, gray lizards, lizards yellowish with a red stripe, all of which drag behind them a tail twice as long as their bodies. Two lizards scurry about my geranium bed outside my window. A squirrel flitted through the flowers and found the lizards of no consequence. I glanced across the yard at Iggy and he seemed to yawn and wink. Well, that’s what it looked like to me.

            Lizards and iguanas, while startling and ugly, aren’t dangerous, at least as far as I know. Except for Iggy, they are more afraid of me than I am of them.

            Meanwhile, a bunny rabbit is climbing a red-berried branch of “my” coffee bush. I don’t mind if the little thief is harvesting the berries I can’t use but she better leave alone the white flowers and tiny, tender green beans. I have plans!

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

April 21, 2016

Just When I Wanted To Forget

Just When I Wanted To Forget
            Some days, despite all the good things in my life, I wake up and would rather crawl back into bed and pull the quilt over my head. Pity party is another word for the feeling. Party, well, yes, party. I woke up with an ugly thought, “Today is my birthday.”

Seventy-one seems a number without much pizzazz. Seventy or seventy-five or one hundred—now those numbers have class. Milestone numbers. My number seems rather in-betweeny. How old are you? Mumbley mumble.

Then Teresa walked over and turned my party upside down. “I’d like you to drive to the border with me. I don’t want to go through Mexico by myself. I’ll fly you back from Phoenix. Once I’m in the States, I can drive alone from there.”

Last week I contemplated all the “elves” in my life, my helpers. This week I got to be one. Here’s what happened.

A few days ago Teresa’s husband flew back to Portland to see his doctor. He planned to see his doc, get medicine, fly back and eventually drive home with Teresa and the two dogs.

Not good news. The man has a tumor on his liver and a blood clot between his liver and his heart. Not good news at all. Sure took care of my pity party. “When do you want to leave?”

Next morning we drove from Etzatlan to Mazatlan. After lunch at Cerritos, we searched out the hotel Teresa had booked on the Malecon. While she was checking in, I called my friend and pulmonia driver, Carlos. “What time do you work today, Carlos?” “Sondra, what are you doing in Mazatlan? I start at three.” “Perfect.”

I arranged for Carlos to take us, dogs included, on a pulmonia tour of Mazatlan, a special surprise treat for Teresa, who, traveling with dogs, had not planned to see the city beyond the hotel room.

By coincidence, if you believe in coincidence, Carlos’ partner, who was scheduled to drive the afternoon shift, had asked to trade. That simple change made our afternoon tour possible.

We had an excellent two hour tour, saw historic sites, the shrimp boat marina, the tuna fleet, the ferry dock, the Plazuela Machado, the Cathedral, the Mercado. We saw it all. We had fun. The dogs loved it. A good time was had by all.

Imagine how good I felt. It pleasured me to show off my favorite city. I spent two hours with one of my favorite friends. Seventy-one? Ha—what’s in a number.

The second day of our journey consisted of pit stops and road construction. With two women and two dogs, a pit stop takes sixteen times as long as a stop for one woman. Scientific researched fact. Road construction is same whenever you go. Despite delays we made it to Hermosillo at darkfall.

Ha! Immediately inside the skirts of town we found a HOTEL, bright lights and huge sign, high modern building, strangely with no windows. After circling the block twice we found the entrance, wound through a tunnel-like passage, only to see “murals” on the entry walls that told us with certainty this was not the “hotel” in which we wanted to stay. We scooted out, post haste.

Drove, drove, drove, until I said, “Pull into Costco. You walk the dogs and I’ll look helpless.” Sure enough, a woman who lives near the hotel district rescued us and led us to the Holiday Inn. Bless strangers and good beds.

Our final road trip day we crossed the border at Nogales and made it to Phoenix without incident, though we were starved. We stopped at the first fast food emporium and shoveled down a burger and fries. Within minutes we realized how spoiled we are in Mexico with our abundance of fresh and unprocessed foods.

In the morning Theresa, a woman I hardly knew a week ago, and her dogs, will head to Oregon and I’ll fly to Guadalaraja. We have cemented a solid friendship, the best birthday gift for me.  
But I’m telling you, next year, I’m positively absolutely no compromise not having a birthday party, pity party, or any party. I’m keeping my head low, mum’s the word. Knitting. Maybe I’ll take up knitting. Or cross stitch. Or tatting.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

April 14, 2016

Life Amongst the Elves In Etzatlan

            Life Amongst the Elves In Etzatlan
            I’ve always liked the story of the shoemaker and the elves. In the evening, before he retired, the old shoemaker cut the leather and prepared his work bench to stitch the shoes in the morning. In the night the elves came to the shop of the good shoemaker and stitched the shoes, the most beautiful shoes.

            When I had my shop in Poulsbo, Washington, often I cut fabric for the following day. Each morning I entered with eyes of hope. The elves never came.

Here in Etzatlan, Leo is my chief elf. I inherited Leo from Joe and Yvonne, former owners of my casita. Leo is caretaker for several casitas on the rancho. Leo is twenty-six or twenty-seven. He began working at the rancho with his uncle when he was twelve. Leo has an university education and could teach school or have a “real job” but he prefers work among the plants and trees.

Yesterday I went with Lani, a neighbor elfess, to the vivero in Ahualuco, the next town south of us. I bought herbs and flowers, not that my yard needs more. But there is a sad little neglected plot in back, shaded in the morning, sunny in the afternoon.

When Lani drove to my gate, Josue, my neighbor across the way, who is building my kitchen cabinetry in his evening hours, in true elf fashion bounded out to carry my plants to my patio, where they could await my desires.

            Nights are cold here, which is great for sleeping, with windows open and me snuggled beneath my down comforter. Until the sun warms the day, mornings are chilly. I shower, dress, grab a sweater, brew my coffee, and sit on my patio in the emerging light and warmth. By the time I finish coffee, I fling my sweater over a chair and I have my plan for the day, knowing full well plans are made for permutations. Take this morning, for example.

I asked Leo if we had a shovel. “Yes, we have a shovel.”

“Oh, good,” I said, knowing I might never have to use the shovel. Leo continued pruning the hibiscus and night jasmine, shrubs heading for tree-dom.

I split a variegated ivy into a couple pots destined for shady places. Then I carted my herbs and flowers as well as a batch of mother-in-law’s-tongue given me by Ariel, another elf who looks after me, to that scruffy plot in back. I set the pots on the ground where I figured they would look good, then went in the house.

Sure enough, an hour later I heard sounds of “scritch, scritch”. Leo hacked away at the dry soil, preparing it for my flowers.

One of the hardest things for me to do, blame my upbringing, is to ask for help. I cannot explain how I landed in a place where the people around me simply look out for me. I hardly express a wish before Lani hauls me to town or Ariel sends over a bucket of paint or, well, here’s another example.

My brick-walled back yard consists of a grassy area bordered by prima vera, palms, bougainvillea, a thousand amaryllis, night jasmine and things, tall and small, I cannot identify. One of the mystery trees wears ferny branches which just days ago burst into bloom with hanging red bottle-brushes. I asked Leo, who can identify most of the greenery, “What is that?” He looked at it thoughtfully for a long moment, “A tree.”

My long-range back-yard plan is to forget the grass, create rockeries, install three or four citrus trees, a mango and a coffee bush. Pathways with benches for sitting in contemplation will separate the areas. A plan, emphasis on “long-range”.

This morning I mentioned to Leo that I wanted to create a rockery in that dry patch near the wall. There I’ll plant the cactus which now live in pots by the front door, along with other rock-garden beauties. I know that in three or four days Leo will back his pick-up through the gate and unload a pile of rock and a few bags of dirt. Poco y poco. Little by little.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

April 7, 2016

A Little Paint Covers A Multitude of Sins

                A Little Paint Covers A Multitude of Sins
            Years ago a builder said to me, “Paint covers a multitude of sins.” I didn’t need convincing. When I was a senior in high school, mere days before graduation and marriage, I rescued and painted a small wooden dresser.

 I don’t know how many years it had sat neglected in our farm dump, that place through the woods and near the river where we discarded very little. I think it might have come from the labor house, used only during sugar beet and potato harvest.

            Nor do I remember what made me notice it, half-buried in trash as it must have been. I remember shoring it up with a few screws. Once I had stabilized the framework and attached wooden thread spools for drawer pulls, I drove to Coast-to-Coast for a quart of paint and slapped on several coats. Voila! I had transformed junk into a serviceable piece of furniture.  

            Today I am painting a butcher block island I rescued from an abandoned casita. (Not much changes in my life!) The wood is dry as old dry bones lying out in the prairie sun. The wood soaked up the first coat and the color. 

            Meanwhile Leo is cleaning junk of ages out of the storage bodega. Sergio is in the main bodega trying to figure out why my washing machine leaves clothes sopping wet eight times out of ten. The incessant pounding in my bathroom is Charley, attempting to fix my shower which at first worked intermittingly, but the last five days, not at all.

In the recesses of my mind I hear “ka-ching, ka-ching”. Paint will not cover those sins. I’ve a feeling a fat bundle of pesos will be demanded.

The second painting on my island leaves a hint of promise of color. Two coats will not finish the job.

My washing machine is still a mystery. I considered asking Sergio to marry me but he is a good twenty years younger and probably has a lovely wife and doting grandchildren.

In my shower the entire pipe system and fixtures need to be replaced. Charlie is hacking and grinding away with gigantic frightening tools. If you have a mind-picture of a stereotypical plumber, that is Charlie. He might make a wonderful husband—for my oldest granddaughter.

Leo pats me on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. Go visit Lani. It not be too expensive.”

“Easy for you to say, Leo.”

With the third coat of paint, my kitchen island glows soft and buttery, golden. Another dabbing ought to finish that job.

Sergio disappeared with part of my washing machine.

Charley will be back to finish manana. Or he won’t. Manana covers a multitude of days. But he promised me a shower tonight—after I clean muck and guck from the bathroom.

One job has led to three. Charley says I need a new tinaco, the water storage tank that sits atop the roof on every house in Mexico. Then when finally all the pipes are hooked up, after Charley’s work is finished, Leo’s uncle will come replace the tile that had to be torn out.

Another decision for me—do I replace the whole wall or pick something and be satisfied with patchwork?

Where is Sergio?

Paint doesn’t cover every sin. If I had just a little more confidence in the power of paint, I’d wear make-up and dye my hair. Now that would be a major renovation!

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

March 31, 2016

Starting Over One More Time

            Starting Over One More Time
            “I need a wife,” Ellie wrote. I grinned. I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve been a single Mom and then later on, simply single, that I said those same words. We women keep an on-going conversation, email obliterating the separation of miles, borders and even an ocean.

            It means a lot to us that we know one another’s hard times, strengths and weaknesses, joys and sorrows. Sometimes a person simply likes for another to acknowledge that they see you; they know what you’re going through. It’s almost as good as a person holding your hand.

            I’ve been reading a compilation of oral history of several Montana pioneer women, women born in the latter 1800’s and early 1900’s. They could be our grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and even mothers.

            Fortunate or unfortunate, who can judge, many of us can look back on the tail-end of similar experiences. Most of my early years we never had running water or indoor plumbing. When I got married in 1963, fresh from graduating high-school, I lived in a primitive house constructed by shoving three small storage sheds together and tacking on a roof. I learned to cook on a wood stove. The facility was down the path out back.

I carried water from the yard pump for the cattle into the house in pails. We had a washstand on which to set the bucket of drinking water, a dipper hanging handy from which everyone drank. Oh, I know. We never thought a thing of it.

Wash day was a nightmare of lugging water, heating it in boilers on the wood stove, pouring into tubs, scrubbing and rinsing. Then I carried the dirty water out to dump over the hill after the work clothes were washed. But I did it.

We had electricity. I know neighbors who didn’t have that luxury.

            My father-in-law was a true skin-flint. We lived on $125.00 a month salary and deer meat. This was 1963 to 1967, enlightened times.

When I had saved enough to buy paint, I proudly invited my neighbor Doris over to see the results, her first visit to my home. It took me looking back years later to understand the look on her face. My friends didn’t judge me but family tongues certainly wagged.

            My experiences don’t compare to those of the true pioneer women. Mine were just a taste. We had so much more.

            Certainly I never thought I’d be starting over, making a new life, a kind of pioneering. But here I am, on the edge of a farm village in the foothills of the mountains in central Mexico. I thought my quiet little life in my quiet little apartment in Mazatlan was it, the rest of my days.

            Suddenly I am working with a local craftsman, designing kitchen cabinets to suit my needs. Or pruning in my overgrown jungle of a yard. I don’t know the names of many of my plants but I know they will benefit from a severe “haircut”. Or shopping in the local tiendas for paint or lighting or tiles.

            What I do know is this move has given me a surprising infusion of energy. I’m slower than I used to be. I’m patient. But inside me perks a bubbling cauldron of new life.

            My friends eagerly await news of on-going progress. They “hold my hands” through the dips and troughs. I’m not alone. Lovely young neighbors watch out for me. Leo comes several days a week to help me with chores and gardening. For today, I don’t feel like I “need a wife”.

            Hummingbirds and gold finches gather nectar from grapefruit blossoms outside the window where I sit at my keyboard. Canaries nest near-by, perhaps in the Leticia draping over my brick wall, where I watch them flit in the morning sunshine. Often scent of orange blossoms nearly overwhelms me. I had my eye on the coffee bush in back but it is too late this year. Next year I’ll know how to recognize when the beans are ready to harvest.

            Excuse me, please. I need to pluck a couple avocados to make guacamole for dinner with Lani and Ariel, Jody and Theresa.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

March 24, 2016

Those Evil Twins, Despond and Despair

Those Evil Twins, Despond and Despair
            When I first visited Lani in Etzatlan, she made me welcome, but came close to threats, bribery and mayhem to convince me I should move to her town. Well, Heckle and Jeckle, I had been in Mazatlan only three months. I loved Mazatlan.

            Many trips from coast to mountains later, I caved to wishes, friendships, economics and knavery and bought a beautiful little casita which needs love. No surprise there for what I paid. The house is sound, all the services in good repair. My pleasure lies in making creative cosmetic changes.

            Meanwhile, in Mazatlan I faced the job of sorting and packing. It’s a dirty job made dirtier by wrapping my precious objects in El Debate newspaper. El Debate is liberal with ink.  My fingernails someday will outgrow the black scimitar outlining each fingertip, which no soap will obliterate.

            In five days I packed, but not without sleepless nights and the help of those evil twins, Despond and Despair, who insisted on questioning my every move. One perched on each corner at the foot of my bed, like vultures. “Are you sure you are doing the right thing?” (It’s too late to think about that now.) “You’re getting old to be gallivanting around the country, aren’t you?” (I’m the same age I’d be if I never left the rocking chair, you silly fools.) Then the idiots argued over whether dishes should go in cardboard boxes or wooden crates. (They weren’t the ones packing and hefting.) So went my nights.

Never-the-less, bleary-eyed and limping, I finished, hobbled three blocks up the street to see Sergio, my neighbor who owns a moving service. “When you have a truck ready, Sergio, I’m ready.”
            “Let me check with dispatch and I’ll call you,” he replied. I figured I’d have at least three or four days of leisurely reading, resting and recuperating. I needed time out.

            Bear with me now. I’m trying to make sense of the next two days.

            Nobody makes fun of “Mexican Time” more than the Mexican people. Manana might mean tomorrow or next week or some elusive future day.

            An hour later Sergio called, “Manana.” In my confusion of mixed languages, I heard that the truck would be at my door to load up at midnight the following day. Didn’t make sense, but not much about my life does.

            Carlos picked me up at 9 a.m. next morning to cancel my phone/internet. You have to be there in person. Heaven help if you died.  

Sergio phoned before we left the Telmex office. “The truck will be at your house to load in an hour.” Wait! It’s hardly mid-morning. Hurried back to my casa where I pointed to what got loaded and what stayed. Three strong men cleared my apartment in an hour.

            I called Carlos for more help. “Take me to buy a bus ticket, por favor.” By habit I started to purchase a round trip ticket. Carlos reminded me I was traveling one-way, a moment of sadness.

            The world is full of fools who mouth such platitudes as “some things are meant to be” or “when you’re on the right track (whatever that means), the details simply fall into place”.

            It’s pretty to think that way. I’m from eastern Montana. My life has been defined by good old-fashioned virtues of struggle and survival.  So I’m having trouble making sense of all this.

            At least, I optimistically speculated, I’ll have a few days to rest up before my furniture and boxes arrive. 

            Leo and Ariel met me at the bus. “Hurry. Sergio called. The truck rolled through Tepic an hour ago. It will arrive about the same time we get home.”

            What happened to Mexican Time? I want to know.

            I’ll tell you what, though, those evil twins, Despond and Despair, haven’t shown their ugly faces.

And I’m beginning to be frightened of making a wish. I didn’t want to move my king mattress. No sooner had the thought formed than I sold the mattress. I wanted a small dining table and chairs that didn’t take up “eye space”. I turned a corner and stumbled onto a wrought iron set that’s perfect. Little things like that seem big at the moment.

I used to dream of having an east-facing house. I’m sitting on my patio, basking in the morning sun, watching yellow/orange birds flitting through stunning blue trumpet-shaped blooms. Behind me, a mountain of boxes is piled helter-skelter.

            I’m in Mexico. I’ll unpack manana.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

March 17, 2016  

Waiting For The Bus

Waiting For The Bus
            “Just think,” my cousin Nancie said, “We are re-creating out lives.”

            I pondered her statement. I decided creation is a vastly over-rated and messy business.

            Take a piece of graph paper. Beginning on the bottom left-hand corner, draw an arrow straight toward the upper right-hand corner. Label this page, “What I planned.”

            Take a second sheet of graph paper. Begin your arrow at the same bottom left-hand corner. No straight line this time. Squiggle and curve it in all directions. Label this page, “What happened.”

            In the background (it’s not Muzak!) the gods, the saints and the angels double over with laughter at my attempt to make sense of my life. Finally, I laugh along with the crowd. If you should see an occasional tear squeak through, well, yes, that too.

            Frankly, I was perfectly contented with my quiet, contemplative, monkish life. Peaceful. Untroubled. Routine. Predictable. Regular. Ordinary. Boring.

            No, no, no! Scratch that last word! I didn’t write that last word! My fingers did it without my input. Contented, I tell you, contented. I figured a couple more years of living in Mazatlan and then I’d move into the Little Rockie’s Home at the Senior Center. Peaceful. Untroubled. Routine. You get the picture.

            I have no idea how I ended up where I am today. I’m a firm believer that everything, and I mean everything, in my life today is a result of a decision I have made. I’m unable to backtrack to this day. It’s not important. I am where I am.

            Where I am today is standing with one foot in a mess of boxes, newspaper for wrapping, and complete chaos in my Mazatlan apartment and my other foot in my relatively empty shell of a house in Etzatlan. What do I keep? What do I throw out? What do I give away?

            Last week I spent two days with garbage bags and trash cans, emptying my new casita, shelves, drawers and cupboards, of the debris of the former owner’s lives. I kept three glasses and two cups. Everything else went to the landfill, twenty-eight years of their accumulated odds and ends. I’ve yet to clean the place, a monumental job when I return with my own odds and ends.

            I hear a familiar voice at my door. “When do you leave for your new home?”

            “I don’t know. I’ll finish packing. And I want to leave the apartment clean. I’m waiting for a third moving bid. I’m sure I’ll go sometime in the next week or two or three,” I say standing in my kitchen with open cupboards, a cluttered counter, full garbage bags on the floor, my hands black with printer’s ink. “I’m dependent on the mover’s schedule.”

            “You are so lucky. You get to create a new life,” my friend said, parroting my cousin.

            I looked down at my dirty hands. My truth is that I am excited and terrified, in fluctuating measures. For reasons I cannot fathom, I seem to have a new lease on life. For today my monkish life is on hold. Who knows what tomorrow might bring my way.

            I wake in the night and mentally pack, re-pack and unpack. Or I design the new wardrobe Josue will build for me. Last night, in my mind, I dug scraggly English roses from the west flower bed (Roses don’t flourish here.) and planted rosemary, oregano, mint and basil. Sleep is vastly overrated, I tell myself in the morning, with my third steaming cup of coffee.

            Meanwhile during the day, I continue to sort and pack, taking my time. In Mexico, in keeping with local custom, I have all the time in the world. After all, I’m waiting for an unscheduled bus.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

March 10. 2016

Quirks and Vagaries of Life and Family

Quirks and Vagaries of Life and Family
            When I was a child growing up in Indiana, I  loved Christmas for one reason. The mailman delivered the annual box of clothes sent by Aunt Ann, practically new hand-me-downs from cousin Nancie, a year older.

            Back then my grandma made most of our clothes. Back then, home sewn dresses were not “cool”. I lived for Nancie’s clothes. Attitudes are vastly different today. There is a world of difference between “homemade” and “Hand Crafted”.

            Each year Grandma sent me off to school with three new dresses, made in the same style her own girls wore during the Great Gray Depression. Nancie’s clothes saved me from the shame of being on par with the girl who only wore two dresses all year. Girls notice those things.

            Consequently, though I didn’t know Nancie, she was one of my favorite cousins. After all, I wore her next to my heart.

            Shortly before Christmas, Miss Naomi, our second-grade teacher, in a timely manner, taught us to write “thank you” letters, and “friendly” letters. I was hooked on writing.

Aunts Ann and Lucille lived in Port Angeles, Washington, Aunt Joanne in Indianapolis. Aunts Lucille and Joanne had no children. They sent me puzzles or games, books, soft woolen scarves and mittens.  

            After Christmas, I dutifully wrote and mailed “thank you” letters to all my aunts. Each responded. I wrote back, thus setting in motion years inked missives of connection. When my dad uprooted us and plunked us down in the middle of Montana, I added a roster of Indiana cousins and classmates to my voluminous letter writing.

            By the time I was in sixth grade, I had grown taller than cousin Nancie and the generous boxes of clothing no longer made the postal trek across the mountains. I continued writing letters to my Port Angeles aunts. I’ve no idea why, but Nancie and I never corresponded. Sometime in my late twenties, early thirties, my life took a tumble, and I abandoned letters to family and friends in favor of midnight scrawls of maudlin poetry which I had sense enough to keep to myself and destroy later. 

            Years later, I moved to Washington State. Aunt Lucille had died and I had lost touch with Aunt Ann. When Aunt Joanne flew in to Seattle, she and I drove to Mount Vernon where Aunt Ann now lived. We spent a delightful afternoon getting re-acquainted. One topic of conversation, of great importance to me, was our letters.  

            At Aunt Ann’s funeral, I finally met my cousin Nancie. Because of our early vague but distinctly real connections, I felt like I’d found a friend I had lost years ago. Since then, we meet at every opportunity. We even drove cross-country on a road trip to visit remaining Indiana family.

            Three years ago Nancie introduced me to Lani. In turn, Lani introduced me to Etzatlan, a farm/ranch village near Guadalajara. I, in turn, introduced Kathy and Richard, long-time Canadian friends, to Nancie and Pat, Lani and Ariel.

            In a quirk of life that has us still pinching ourselves, within a short three weeks, Nancie and Pat, Kathy and Richard and singular-unit-I, each bought homes in Etzatlan. Now we’re neighbors.

            Miss Naomi taught me well. She said, when writing, to act as if I’m sitting across the table from you, having tea. I don’t know that those were her exact words but that is how I took them to heart.

Dear Aunt Ann,

See what has happened in my life, all because I wrote a “thank you” letter when I was seven.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

March 3, 2016

All I Want To Be Is A Simple Wooden Canoe

All I Want To Be Is A Simple Wooden Canoe
                Silly childhood ditties often carry substantial wisdom.  Consider “Row, row, row your boat”. On second thought, I’ll come back to that in a moment.

                First I announced that I bought a finely maintained old-Mexican style casita in the little village of Etzatlan. Next thing you know, Kathy and Richard from Victoria, BC made inquiries about a neighboring casita. Then Crin, Kathy’s sister, began asking questions, eliciting more interest in a possible retirement in Etzatlan, a town with zero ex-pats.

Er, more like maybe seven of us total once my cousin and her husband and I take possession of our new homes. Etzatlan is a simple farm/ranch village like where I grew up, minus English language, not a tourist destination. I keep banging people over the head with that reminder.

                Kathy said, “Isn’t this exciting. You go first and be the ice-breaker for us.”

                “Kathy, I am tired of being an ice-breaker. All my life I am an ice-breaker. All I ever wanted is to be a simple canoe.” She doesn’t understand.

                “Row, row, row your boat.” The wisdom is to row one’s own boat, not your spouse’s or sister’s or your best friend’s boat. Your boat. Keep your oars in your own boat, thank you very much. That’s a full time job.

                One morning I told another friend about my pending move. “Wow. Sounds like you’re having quite the exciting adventure.” Translation: Are you out of your mind? Have you lost your last wing-nut? Are you crazy?” This person, a self-appointed Mazatlan gazette, could hardly wait to bust out my door and spread the news.

                “Gently down the stream.” Gently, without bursting blood vessels or breaking a sweat. Down the stream, go with the flow, stay with the current, move in the direction indicated. Don’t fight life. We are not spawning salmon.

                Two nights ago I overheard my neighbor telling his friends from Edmonton about my plans. “Wow,” one man said. “She is one gutsy woman!”  (Truth: I am a coward.)

                That same night Dorothy said to me, “You won’t be here next year when we come. What will we do? You are the only normal person we know in Mazatlan.” (Normal???)

                “Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,” how else can one take those comments?  Laugh? Cry? Run and hide? If many think I am crazy and Dorothy thinks I am normal, well, let’s just let the conclusion to that line of thought slide right into the stream of life and chuckle.

                “Life is but a dream.” Some days I have no interpretation. Some days I feel like I am living an impossible dream. Other days I think it means we don’t need to burden our day with a heavy spirit. In other words, I haven’t a clue.

                I say to my daughter, who knows me well, “So, two weeks ago I awake singing to myself Donna Fargo’s ’I’m the happiest girl in the whole USA.’ Next day, I own a house.  

“This morning I wake up with Jo Stafford’s ‘Take me in your arms and never let me go, (with lots of ba-ba-ba-booms) and ending with come a little closer, make love to me.’ running through my head, start to finish, the whole thing, in her voice, like radio.

                “Dee Dee, do you think I should be afraid?”

                “Be afraid. Very afraid.”

                A very small canoe, simple, unobtrusive, natural, cedar. Bobbing gently down a lazy southern stream, a shallow river, one that never freezes, never floods, overhung with willows and Spanish moss.  Fishing pole in hand, worm on the hook, umbrella overhead. Iced tea and sandwich. Unnoticed.  Is that too much to ask?

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door

February 25, 2016