Last week, I started taking a French class.
I’ve always wanted to learn French. A thousand years ago, I went to college in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I transferred there as a sophomore and didn’t have the option of preregistering for classes beforehand.
During the normal registration period, I signed up for the classes I needed. If one was unavailable, I had to start over and rebuild my schedule from scratch, trying to fit the classes together like a Tetris puzzle. I’d already done this twice, which meant running around the entire campus, from department to department, getting approval for admittance.
My son, Phillip, took this photo when he visited me in New York, back in 2009.
Today marks the first anniversary of his death. Over the past year, I’ve discovered many things about grief and about how awkward giving and receiving condolences can be.
People offer condolences and I reply, “Thank you.” People ask how I’m doing and I answer, “Fine.” Then, there’s that hush because…where do you go from there? Do I just carry on and start talking about the weather? A class I’m taking? My grandkids? Oops, I’ll never have any grandkids. So many taboo subjects now. Touchy, delicate subjects where there used to be none.
I popped into church today. Just stopped in, as I’ve often done over the past five years. I’m not catholic, but I like to sit and look at the statue of the Virgin Mary at the Basilica de la Merced in downtown Santiago.
It’s cool and peaceful inside, painted to resemble pink marble. There’s a center aisle and the pews are lined up on either side, in two sections. before and after the hanging pulpit.
Behind the altar, a statue of the Virgin Mary is set into a niche with a royal blue background. She’s wearing a flowing, white cape and a silver crown.
Right, it’s been a month since Phillip passed away. Four short weeks that feel like a lifetime. I’ve had lots of sympathy, condolences, notes, calls, offers of food, help, or companionship.
My friends, both Chilean and gringo, have rallied around, watched over me, and listened to my long-winded stories about Phillip, family, and everything in between. Mostly, I’ve just needed to talk about it. Whatever, “it” is. I am so grateful for their willing ears.
It’s been a strange time. I’ve had almost no energy. It’s slowly coming back, but very slowly. In a country where the party begins at 10pm, I’ve often been in bed, and asleep, by 9pm. I can’t make myself care about what I might be missing.
“After school, I was invited to go with the chorus to the annual Christmas concert at a nearby cathedral. Students from each of The Network’s schools participated. My kids were partnered with girls from the adjacent high school.
We left from school in a large van, zigging and zagging down narrow backstreets to arrive at the church just in time. In the 90-degree heat, my clothes clung to me as we hurried the kids inside to find our pews. I left summer temperatures behind as I stepped into the ancient church where it was blessedly cool. The air smelled of candles and furniture wax.
I sat with the mother of one of my students and kept an eye on them. In our chorus were eighteen girls and one lone boy. They were the only ones wearing their “every day” uniforms, the same tired, gray sweatsuits that they wore to school. Choir members from the other schools had on school uniforms, too, but they were cleaner, dressier, and more expensive. White shirts, navy pants for boys and white shirts with navy jumpers for girls. I had never seen my kids in any uniform except the sweatsuit and I wondered if my school might be the poorest in The Network.
Hearing commotion behind me, I turned around to find little girls pushing off one side and sliding to the opposite end of the polished pew. I gave them a look that included an arched eyebrow and they settled down again, giggling.
The concert began, only fifteen minutes late, with “It Came upon a Midnight Clear.” I recognized it from the melody, not the lyrics, since it was sung in Spanish. My kids were next. I’d never heard their song before, but it was beautiful with their young voices echoing strong in the vaulted cathedral. They accompanied the song by clapping their hands in flamenco-style rhythm as the youngest girl pinged on a triangle.
Out of the twenty or more songs that were sung, I only recognized five. The rest were traditional Chilean Christmas songs, unknown to me.
After the concert, we were dropped off back at school. It was later than usual when I boarded the Metro to go home. The train car was crowded and, at first, I didn’t notice the man who had followed me in…”
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Holidays, Happy Whatever-You-Celebrate or even if you don’t, Happy anyway.
‘Tis the season, so I was invited to a Christmas party last Saturday night. The invitation was for 6:00pm.
After living in Chile for almost four years, I sometimes forget that, in the US, it’s not okay to arrive at a dinner or a party really, really late. I was only running slightly late, about twenty minutes, but when I arrived, the party was in full swing. There were other stragglers who arrived after I had, but the majority of the guests had arrived on time.
Everyone brought a dish to share and the hosts had prepared food, too. The tables were groaning, heavy with ham, turkey, enchiladas, posole, vegetables, desserts. You name it, we had it.
Many of us did not already know each other. We got acquainted while nibbling appetizers. Then, around quarter to seven, one of the hosts announced that it was time to eat dinner. People began filling plates and finding places to sit where they could balance them on their knees.
About half an hour later, I began to notice something, an exodus. People who had finished eating started to leave the party. By 7:30, half the guests were out the door and, by eight o’clock when I left, there were only a few diehards still there. I was home by 8:30.
I had fun at the party, but when I told this story to my Spanish teacher Vivi, she was incredulous. ¿A las seis? Her eyes went wide when I told her the party had started at 6:00pm. They began to roll around when I told her that I was home by 8:30. I could read her thoughts. ¡Que fome!
First of all, in Chile, a party like this would never have started until at least 8:00, more likely 9:00 or 10:00. And even then, most people wouldn’t have shown up for another hour or so. They would not be ready to leave after only an hour and a half either. In fact, after an hour and a half, they might not have eaten yet and, even if they had, they would still linger long into the night.
After a Chilean party, the host might find their bed at 2:00 or 3:00 or 4:00am. Time well spent with family and long-time friends whom they had probably seen the week before.
Don’t ask which is my preference. With friends, all parties are fun, but if I had my druthers, I’d probably split the difference and have three- or four-hour parties. I wonder which country in the world does that.