El Meson

When I was a child I would sometimes accompany my mother to a part of Houston known as the “village” near Rice University and the Texas Medical Center. Back then a Weingarten’s grocery store was the center of the area but it was surrounded by a number of family owned shops that fascinated me. One in particular was a toy store with a thriving doll hospital. I thought the whole area was quite lovely and I dreamed of one day living nearby and walking to the bustling shopping area to get whatever I needed. 

Over time the grocery store faded away and Rice Village became more of a mecca for dining and shopping in unique little stores. We often drove there to visit a train shop for supplies when my husband was creating a model railroad landscape in our garage. Mostly though we met his parents at what would become one of our all time favorite restaurants, El Meson. The Cuban food there was extraordinary and we each had our favorite dishes almost always accompanied by black beans, rice and fried green plantains. 

As our family grew we continued to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, graduations and special occasion at El Meson. For years there was a particular waiter who provided us with world class service. He was elegantly dignified and a master of his craft. The food of course was always incredible as well and we revelled in the many memories that we had created there. 

When my mother-in-law died it did not feel the same for a very long time. We realized that the joy of a particular place more often lies in the people who accompany us there. Eventually, however, we missed the Palomilla, Solomillo and other favorites. We finally returned to a less familiar place with a slightly different vibe than we had remembered. Our usual waiter was gone and without him and my mother-in-law there would always be something wonderful missing but the food was still quite good and before long we had resurrected our family gatherings there. 

The last time we ate at El Meson, or attempted to eat there, was on my father-in-law’s birthday. We had planned a big family bash for him but just as everyone arrived a storm blew in. As we were being seated we heard a big boom and all of the power went out in the entire area. We waited for a bit in the hopes that it would be a momentary interruption but it soon became apparent that it would be hours before the needed repairs were completed. We had to leave because the cooks were unable to operate in the kitchen. 

We planned to return at another time but life took members of the family in many different directions and then came COVID 19. We have not been inside any restaurant since the beginning of last March and somehow just getting take out from El Meson loses far too much in the translation. It is in the shared delight and the memories of good times there that the restaurant is at its best. The joy and the laughter are the spices that make the food exceptional. Without them it feels as though something is missing and that something is people. 

I long for the time when family gatherings in favorite places will once again become a normal way of life. I hope that most of us will be able to join one another in a wonderful celebration at El Meson. I like to imagine my father-in-law at the head of the table regaling us with his stories and jokes while we sip on our wine or Dos Equis or iced tea. The whole room will be animated by the love at our table as we remember all of the times when we felt so blessed and happy. We’ll no doubt end our soiree with flan and coffee, a sweet tradition that I can almost taste just thinking about it. 

I sometimes worry that El Meson will drastically change or even go away. It is a small business run by a family for decades now. I’m not even sure that it is still in the hands of the same people or that the cooks know how to prepare the standard recipes anymore. So much has changed so quickly while we attempt to eliminate COVID 19. Places that we assumed would always be the same are struggling to survive. I hope that El Meson does not become a sad statistic in the virus saga. 

I’m a student of history. I understand the evolution of the world around us. There are upheavals and things change. It is quite rare for time to stand still even in the guise of a restaurant. Even without a pandemic it is unlikely that anything will stay exactly the same. I just want at least one more gathering of my little clan at El Meson that is as close to the old times as possible. Perhaps with a few more vaccinations and a bit of good luck we might have a triumphant return in the summer or fall. 

I can see the quirky artwork on the walls. I can hear the classic Spanish music. I feel the starched white napkin covering my lap. I wait expectantly for all of the members of our party to arrive. I get a little catch in my heart as I see them through the big glass window. I know that for the next few hours time will stop and worries will vanish. We will celebrate family and all the while we will know that my mother-in-law is smiling down at us. All will be well at El Meson.   

Doing My Part

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I have to admit to being a bit of a hypocrite when it comes to saving our planet from the effects of climate change. I know there are concrete things that I might do and I am all in for some of them and rather lazy about the rest. I suppose that if I really believe in the cause, which I do, it’s time for me to change some of my habits.

There was a time when I had a huge yard with enough room to create a fabulous compost heap. Never a potato skin nor eggshell went unused or thrown into a garbage bag. I religiously collected the dregs of my fruits and vegetables and sometimes even made broth before tossing them onto the mound of dirt hidden behind my garage. The soil that I created there was like black gold. It was filled with earthworms and filtered through my fingers with a richness that promised a magnificent harvest of whatever I wanted to grow. I tilled up a large section of the yard and planted tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, peppers, onions and strawberries which provided me with fresh vegetables from May to August every single year. I reveled in both the idea and the results of my back to nature project. 

The garage at my old home was rather astounding as well. In addition to having space for two cars it easily held a work area for my husband and housed our washer and dryer until we remodeled and brought them inside. I had a nice clothesline that I often used for drying clothes on sunny days, saving just a bit more electricity than my dryer would have used. It was all rather delightful. Inside that same garage I collected tin cans and paper and all sorts of recyclable items. I was a veritable pioneer woman.

For a time I used cloth bags when I went to the grocery store and turned the thermostat for my air conditioner up to the high seventies in the summer and then adjusted my heat to the high sixties in the winter. I was rather devoted to the task of doing my part to be less of a destroyer of the world around us and then somehow I became lazy, less enthusiastic, a real piker. 

I moved to a new home in 2005. The HOA would not allow me to have a clothesline in my yard. There was no place to build a compost heap and when I investigated compost bins they seems a bit too expensive and labor intensive. I experienced hormonal changes and hot flashes that were so intense that I had to fudge a bit on my pledge not to use so much air conditioning. I found myself forgetting to put my cloth bags into my car when I made trips to the store and my efforts at growing vegetables all failed in the lousy soil of my backyard. I found myself giving up on the effort save for agreeing to give my personal car away and share a car with my husband. Otherwise I became one of those people who believes that we must all make a concerted effort to heal our planet without actually doing as much as I might. 

The past year has forced me to pay attention to nature’s cries once again. I have been isolated at home for the most part and after I run of tasks to perform I read more about happenings across the globe and in my own backyard. I watched a series of devastating hurricanes roll across the Gulf of Mexico during the summer and held my breath each time a new storm formed and threatened my own part of Texas. I saw that hurricanes are creating ever more destruction and doing so more frequently.

In the fall I visited Colorado in what I called a human contact free adventure. I enjoyed drives and walks through Rocky Mountain National Park even as I saw the drought conditions that had changed the landscape. Not long after my departure many of the very places that I had visited were engulfed in flames as wildfires threatened towns and neighborhoods. Once again I realized that our general lack of effort to listen to the cries of the wild have resulted in havoc.

Then this past winter came something I had never before seen in my life. An unusual winter storm locked most of my state into what might have been a frozen wonderland had it not knocked out power and left millions literally freezing in the dark. I like many experienced temperatures in my home so frigid that I had to a wear coat, hat and gloves while sitting in my living room. I was fortunate to have a gas stove and gas fireplace along with a small generator that kept my refrigerator running and provided me a a few light in the evening. Nonetheless it was a somewhat frightening time because it convinced me that we can no longer ignore the damage that we humans are doing to the earth. If we do not begin to act with great intent the destruction that we have already wrought will no doubt only become worse.

I vow to do better. I would do well to return to my old ways and to do even more than I did back then. I need to think about my actions and their impact on the world. I do believe that we all have to begin making sacrifices and heed the warnings of those who tell us that our time is running out. I would hate to see the way of life in the city that I so love becoming one crisis after another caused by floods, hurricanes, and winter storms. We have to begin to work together or we will bear the pain alone. It’s way past time for doing everything we can to stop the tide of damage that we have wrought. It has to become a top priority or surely the future will be difficult for us all. I promise to do my part.

Our Ongoing Mess

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I often think of my grandmother Ulrich coming to America on a small steamship all alone. She was such a quiet shy woman that it is difficult for me to imagine how frightening the trip may have been for her. I suppose that knowing that my grandfather was waiting for her at the end of the journey gave her the courage to leave behind the life that she had known in the Slovakian region of Austria Hungary. 

I ask myself what convinced Grandma and Grandpa Ulrich to take such a huge risk in coming to an unknown land. Things surely must have been terrible for them at home or they would not have been so daring. They would never again see their families nor the places where they had once lived. Theirs was a fresh start in a place that promised them an opportunity to improve their lot. Back then they were not restricted by quotas or any particular immigration rules. They were welcomed for the labor that they might provide in a rapidly growing nation. All they had to do was pass a medical exam upon arrival to be certain that they were not bringing disease with them. 

Once they were here nobody really followed up on where they were or what they were doing. My grandfather rapidly applied for citizenship and became naturalized within a few years of landing in Galveston. I don’t think my grandmother ever bothered to complete the process. I suspect that she saw less need to do so than her husband who would always be the main breadwinner in the family. 

They eventually purchased a small plot of land just east of downtown Houston and built a small home there where they raised four boys and four girls. Life was not easy but my grandfather often declared that it was far better than what it might have been in the old country. Like many new immigrants to this country they were often treated with taunts and suspicion. Their language and appearance was different and therefore considered inferior by some. They worked hard to overcome their hardships and by the time those of us who were their grandchildren came along nobody would have known that we had a rather recent immigrant history. 

Things have changed markedly since the days when all one needed to do is show up at a port of entry to find a place in the United States. Over time stricter and stricter immigration laws made it more and more difficult for people like my grandmother and grandfather to earn the opportunity to live and work here. Nonetheless the same desire for a better life without fear or poverty or a restrictive government continues to fuel the flow of humans attempting to enter our country by any means whether legal or not. The process that was once so easy for my grandparents has become a gooey mess.

Our approach in the past few decades has been an attempt to create easy solutions for problems that are incredibly complex. The result is that we ignore the realities of immigration problems year after year, allowing them to only become more difficult. Simply erecting a wall is not a permanent fix any more than becoming lax about enforcing current rules. For the most part nobody has done a good job of reforming our badly broken system. We are simply not serious about working together to find workable long term solutions. Instead we argue about who, how and what should comprise a system for immigration but never get past the shouting match. All the while we end up either being too draconian or too lax in our treatment of people who are not that different from my grandmother and grandfather.

Perhaps our worst situation involves the young people who were brought here as children and have never known any place but the United States but who are technically illegal immigrants. We can’t even agree on some form of amnesty and pathway to citizenship for them. Meanwhile situations in many parts Central and South America are so horrific that people are willing to risk everything to find a way of becoming part of our country. Walls and restrictions and rules only work so much when people are desperate.

Both former President Trump and now President Biden reacted to immigration issues too quickly upon taking office. President Trump made sweeping changes within weeks of his inauguration that were ill considered and perhaps even illegal. President Biden has done much the same in an ill fated effort to bring a more humane face to our immigration policies. Both sets of executive orders created chaos rather than solutions mainly because they were based on the idea that we can fix the problems easily and without sacrifices from each differing points of view or consideration of what rules we are willing to actually enforce. 

The last time we had sweeping immigration reform was during the Reagan era. That was well over thirty years ago. Since that time nobody has wanted to do anything beyond quick cosmetic fixes. It is long past time for our lawmakers to set aside politics and actually work together to create a reasonable solution for a problem that will continue to plague us until we become serious about how best to approach it. Unless we as citizens demand that our elected officials quit bickering and grandstanding there will be not good answers and we will continue to throw both money and resources to the wind. So far nothing has proven to be the answer. Now it is time to find one. Surely we have enough intelligence and compassion to figure it out. If not, then expect the difficulties to continue no matter who holds office.  

The Changing of the Clocks

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I always thought that the story of The Princess and the Pea was rather silly but I have to admit that I share some of the quirks of the little gal who stars in that tale. It does not take much to make me uncomfortable when I sleep. I’ve always had a bit of insomnia that comes and goes depending on what’s happening in my world but a sure way of blocking my slumber is to play with the natural timing of things. In other words, when a decree forces me to spring forward or fall back it will be weeks before my body finally adjusts to the sudden change. I will spend many nights tossing and turning and staring at the clock. Then I’ll be tired all day long as I attempt to come to grips with the new reality. 

I am a standard time gal. Everything about it works best for me. The first tiny rays of morning come peeking through my window around five thirty each morning and by six thirty the sun has risen as I watch the children in my neighborhood boarding the buses that take them to school. I am filled with almost boundless energy all day long and the sun goes down just long enough, even when days grow longer, for my body and mind to believe that it is time to rest at about eleven at night. I sleep well and don’t really need alarms to arise. It is a glorious time of year for me and then without fail comes the brutality of daylight savings time.

Springing forward not only feels like robbery of an hour of one day each year but it forces me to be totally out of sync for most of the months of the year. I can’t convince my mind or my body to relax enough to sleep until three or four in the morning. No matter how much exercise I do during the day or how dark I make my bedroom the plague of insomnia overtakes me and when I do finally fall asleep I am restlessly visited by strange dreams. I am usually awakened by the sound of the school bus which in my mind should be coming when the sun shines but instead is creeping along in the dark to meet children who look as sleep deprived as I am. On some days I am so exhausted from my nights of tossing and turning that I sleep in far longer than I wish, making my day seem shorter than it should and usually resulting in a headache.

Certainly I cannot be alone in my total dislike for the insanity of changing our clocks twice each year. Aside from the ensuing tiredness with which I must deal for many weeks there is the matter of adjusting all of our timepieces. Not everything works like an Apple watch to happily save us the effort of having to turn dials and punch buttons just to be on track. It is quite annoying to having to repeat the process over and over again. In some cases it has even resulted in damaging a particular clock as I remove it from the wall or flip it over to turn the dials. It is maddeningly irritating because there seems to be no rhyme or reason for doing this just because somebody decided that we needed more sunlight part of the year but might do without it during another time. 

Some states like Arizona rebelled long ago and decided not to participate in the biannual folly. Lawmakers introduce bills now and again that would either keep us perennially on standard or daylight saving time. Somehow nothing seems to come of those efforts and so we continue to wash, rinse, repeat so to speak. If I had my way it would be standard time all of the time which seems to be more in tune with our daily rotation on our axis. I think children should be able to walk or ride to school in daylight but if everyone insists on having sun filled nights I’m okay with that as well. I just want one way of doing things with no changes ever again. 

I find it amusing that we have people rebelling over wearing masks in public places but few openly complain about clock changing. If there is one right that is quite important to me it is the ability to sleep peacefully and clock gymnastics take away that freedom twice each year. I’ll wear a mask all day everyday rather than deal with insomnia. The mask is uncomfortable. Not being able to sleep is unbearable. I demand my right to keep my clock just as it was. I’ll see you an hour later or if you choose an hour sooner but please don’t make me change and change again to appease some silly rule. Where are the protesters when we really need them for something important?

I suspect that I sound a bit whiny and there will be those who tell me to just deal with the situation like everyone else does. Still, I really think that there are more who think like me than are apparent. Most of us are of a mind to just go along to get along and so for years and years we continue with the process even though we despise it. No doubt we are too tired to spend energy fighting time changes and when we finally adjust we keep going to catch up on the hours we have lost. Thus the hated cycle continues.

There is a great deal of talk of needing a bit more unity in the halls of government. Perhaps a great beginning to a more bipartisan nation would be to agree to live with one or the other mode of time and then never change it again. I wonder if it’s possible for us to find common ground on what should be a no brainer. Somehow I fear that we might end up in the kind of deadlock that makes us unable to really solve any kind of problem on matter how small, but I can only hope that someone will have the common sense to finally release us from the continual changing of the clocks.

The Anatomy of Friendship

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About a year ago I felt compelled to call a friend whom I have known since the summer before I began second grade. We met on the day my family moved across the street from her family. We both hid shyly behind our mothers while they introduced themselves. Our friendship officially began when our moms pushed us toward each other and commanded us to go play. I followed Linda as she gave me a tour of the neighborhood and provided me with a brief biography of the people in each house. With each step that we took we became more comfortable with one another and by the time we had completed the circle we were chattering away. I suppose that Linda is officially the person who has been my friend for the longest time.

Our paths went in different directions over the years but somehow over the course of almost seven decades we always found our way back to each other and to the same easy conversations that started our journey together so long ago. We have laughed and cried through happy and sorrowful times but at the center of our relationship is a sense of trust, a kind of loyalty that overcomes distance and differences of opinion. At heart we are still the two little girls who love one another no matter what. 

I have had many good friends and a number of acquaintances in my lifetime. Fun and laughter have certainly been important components of these relationships but in the final analysis the glue that holds us together is our commitment to one another. The good times are the beginning of a great friendship but when we are able to weather the difficult moments the ties that bind us become ever stronger. The difference between an acquaintance and a friend lies in our ability to depend on someone in all times. That person who is willing to accept us and love us at our very worst is the truest of friends and in many ways transcends the gap of DNA and becomes family in our minds. 

I suppose that one of the truest tests of friendship lies in its endurance over time. We often become busy with the demands of life and seemingly drift apart. How we react when we do manage to come back together defines the level and strength of our relationship. There are some people with whom we feel free to bare our souls without fear. Such is the trust that we have in them. We know that even when our beliefs do not overlap we agree to disagree because nothing is more important than the love we have for each other. 

My friend Nancy is like that for me. Like Linda we often have long times during which we lose communication but when we do find our way back it is as though only five minutes have passed since our last reunion. We have an almost spiritual understanding and closeness that knows no limits. We can open our hearts confident that our honesty will be treasured and never abused. Being together even just by phone is as comfortable as it was when we were giddy high school girls and hopeful college students looking into a future which often turned out differently than what we had imagined.

There are also those ever faithful friends who are at our sides from decade to decade over the course of time. There is Monica whom I met on the school playground when we were six years old and declared that we were sisters when we were grown and raising our families. There is another Linda who is the definition of faithfulness and goodness. I had once admired her from afar and when she and I began to really get to know each other in college I learned that her beauty was far more than physical. Year after year our love only deepens as we share the milestones of being human. There is Cappy who married into my world and stayed even as the situation changed. Wherever she is and whatever her circumstances she is ever faithful.

There are people that we meet at work with whom we first share a common purpose but who we learn are much more than just colleagues. Even after we part ways in our careers we stay in touch, do things together and care deeply. Some of them are part of a kind of unofficial sorority like Chrystal, Aimee, Sharon, Trica, Mili, Jenny, Adriana, Maggie. We find joy in being together and solace in sharing our woes. We hold hands and call and text and support. We are an army of compassionate and caring women. 

Sometimes we are lucky to number the children of other women as friends who become like our own offspring as well. My door is always open to Lisa and Traci no matter the hour of the day or night and I know in my heart that they will reciprocate if ever I need a safe place to be. They are as much members of my family as those with blood ties.

Perhaps the loveliest of friendships are those that evolve in our twilight years. Finding someone who just gets us is so wonderful and Carol is my person for that. We lived entire lifetimes before we really discovered one another even though we knew of each other from our childhoods but now our togetherness feels perfectly matched as though we were meant for all time to be friends. The same kind of evolution has occurred with Dee and Stephanie and Kathy and Bree people from my past whom it did not know well enough to realize that we are indeed kindred spirits.

There are angels that enter our lives as well, very special people who seem to sense our very needs and moods from afar. They almost always appear just when we need them most. Zerin Sahai is my spiritual sister, a women who lives in faraway India but always hears my cries for help even when I do not realize I have been uttering them. She seems to know exactly when I need to laugh or complain or just hear a loving voice. Our relationship is magical.

I think we all know that deep friendships are treasures and never defined only by laughter, fun, good times. The test for our relationships lies in walking through fire together, being a shoulder to cry on or an ear just to listen. I am blessed to know all of these lovely women who have strolled with me in the most important moments of my life and continue to support me even when I am not so easy to be around. As my mother often mused friends accept each other warts and all. Friends are honestly our anchors during a storm.