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Late summer/early fall is one of my favorite times of the year in Central New York.

Late summer/early fall is one of my favorite times of the year in Central New York.

We received the less-than-optimal news yesterday that Andry will need surgery on his knee. Apparently he had a fracture without realizing it, and now there’s a piece of his kneecap floating around wreaking havoc.

The patient.

The patient.

Or something like that, anyway. When it comes to all things medical, I’m even worse at it in Spanish than I am in English. Which is really saying something.

I hate seeing my love in pain, and with my own surgery still fresh in my mind, I’m nervous for him. Even though I have to believe he will be in good hands, and that once he’s all healed up he’ll no longer be in the debilitating pain he’s in right now. So, positive thoughts!

It’s not just the fact that Andry’s hurting that has me down. To put it frankly, the timing of it stinks. Because it means we’ll have to put off the long-awaited trip/delayed honeymoon we were planning for this fall. I know, in the scheme of things, the trip is inconsequential in comparison to surgery. It’s just that we were both really excited for what would have been Andry’s first trip to the US and an opportunity for him to meet more of the crazy cast of characters in my life – family and otherwise.

What I was looking forward to most, though, was the chance to show him where I grew up. To introduce him to the 152-acres that raised me as much as my parents did, and to the house where I grew up. Because I truly was bringing him home.

A picture perfect summer day in Chenango County.

A picture perfect summer day in Chenango County.

We’ll get there eventually, I know. But I’m still disappointed. I’ve been getting a bit nostalgic for those familiar rolling hills of late, as another gorgeous Central New York summer passes by without me there to experience it first hand.

It reminded me of a poem I wrote while living in Western Colorado. It was an anniversary present for my parents. But in the writing of it, I realized where my heart truly was. And it wasn’t in that junction between the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains and the High Plains Desert. I moved back to Chenango County less than a year later.

I’m not in the same situation today. I absolutely love my life in the Dominican Republic. But that doesn’t mean a part of me doesn’t miss Home.

 


 

 

HOME

 

I miss

the scent of the fields in summer,

newly cut hay

and tiny wild strawberries

baking in the sun.

 

I miss

the wild iris

blooming

in the high grass of the pasture.

The forty-watt glow of lightning bugs

dancing at dusk.

 

I miss

fingers of rain

tapping me to sleep

on the panes of glass above my head,

the silence of night

broken

by an unexpected storm.

 

I miss

the spearmint taste

of water from the spring.

The roar of water

rushing in the creek.

 

I miss

spider webs

glistening

with heavy morning dew

on lilacs

long grown from bushes into trees.

 

I miss

the cool stillness of the woods

soft pine needles

cushioning my feet,

near the Indian well.

The snort of a buck

startled from the brush.

 

I miss

the scarred trunks of shagbark hickory

standing tall at the tree line,

flanked by walls of stone picked

from a hundred years of fresh-plowed fields.

 

I miss

sitting on the stone patio

with the long shadows of late afternoon,

cup of tea in hand.

I miss Home.

© 2007 Melissa Stagnaro

This is Home.

This is Home.

The Mango Queen

Bowl of Mangoes

Mangoes are, without a doubt, one of my favorite things about living in the Dominican Republic. The worst mango here is a zillion times better than the cream of the over-priced, under-ripe crop you’re playing top dollar for back in the states. I mean absolutely no disrespect by this. But seriously, you’re missing out.

Mangoes the size of your head, people! They exist!

Mangoes the size of your head exist, people!

The Dominican Republic is Mango Nirvana. They come in all shapes, sizes and varieties – even some the size of your head! And each has its own subtly different flavor. But they have one thing in common: they are so freaking delicious I could swoon. Swoon, I tell you.

I had my first mango ‘moment’ a little over a year ago, on what would have been my third trip to the DR in less than six months. I watched Andry bite into the top and then peel it by hand with a few deft moves. When he handed it to me, I wasn’t sure what to do. I kept looking for a knife. And barring that, a drop cloth. Because oh my goodness, the juice! I may have politely declined, but it smelled so incredibly good. So I did the only thing I could do – I bit right in. It was…life changing. As if the stars and moon aligned, and angels began to sing.

I felt my knees go week as the juice made tracks down my arms.

Not my finest hour. But what can I say? The mangoes here are THAT good.

Not my finest hour. But what can I say? The mangoes here are THAT good.

To know me is to know that I absolutely hate to be sticky. I’ve been a compulsive handwasher most of my life. But for the first time in my life, I didn’t care. I hardly noticed as Andry lead me to the sink. I may have whined when he took the inexpertly cleaned pit out of my sticky hand, but he quickly replaced it with another piece of delicious fruit.

I’m not sure how many I ate standing there at the sink that night. I lost track at 10.

Sure, it took me an hour to floss afterward, but that was a small price to pay for such deliciousness.

I am hardly the only one mango obsessed. This entire country is! Workers pause in the middle of their labors to enjoy one or twenty. Who needs to eat a meal when you have Mother Nature providing. On more than one occasion, Andry has actually stopped the car to pick one up out of the road. (Initially I scoffed at this practice, but now I don’t complain. As long as he shares.)

Yes, that is my husband. (For the record, we did have permission to steal these particular mangoes.)

Yes, that is my husband. (For the record, we did have permission to steal these particular mangoes.)

Mango thievery is an art passed down from one generation to the next. It requires strength, skill and, if you don’t have the owner’s permission, speed and stealth. I’ve seen people climb trees, throw rocks and use poles or sticks all to get their hot little hands on this beautiful fruit.

There is one thief in particular who is unrivaled in tenacity and persistence. That’s the Mango Queen herself: Frederica.

As in, Frederica, our dog.

I know what you’re thinking. I didn’t believe it at first either. But let me tell you, Frederica is obsessed with mangoes.

It started as a bit of a lark on our part. She would come sniffing around when one of us was eating a mango, so we’d toss her a piece of the peel or the pit if it still had some meat on it. But soon I couldn’t even eat a mango in the privacy of my own kitchen without her bouncing back and form between the kitchen window and the back door, eager for her share of the bounty.

If I eat one while I’m out, she goes crazy. I swear she can smell it on me.

Freddy and Armando, the brothers who take care of our property, are kind enough to keep us in mangoes from a tree on one of the other properties they care for. When they realized Frederica was a fan, too, they started feeding her growing addiction by giving her the overripe and damaged fruit. Which, by the way, she would sometimes eat WHOLE.

They find her obsession entertaining. Highly entertaining. But then, they weren’t picking up the you-know-what. (I would like to state for the record that while I can find, err, evidence, of her mango consumption she shows absolutely no ill effects despite the quantity of fruit she consumes.)

The Mango Thief. Doesn't she look guilty?

The Mango Thief. Doesn’t she look guilty?

I was amused, too, until I realized that the quantity of mangoes Frederica was consuming was greater than what the brothers provided. The aforementioned tree was no longer producing, yet there were a growing number of fresh ‘kills’ in the yard on a daily basis.

Seriously, the side yard looks like a mango cemetery.

That’s when rumors of a mango thief reached my ears. You can imagine my shock, horror and, ok, maybe a little pride, when I realized Frederica was to blame.

She has discovered not one, but THREE different ways out of the yard, specifically to feed her mango addiction. As the season winds to an end, she’s going further and further afield to find them.

Thankfully, the whole neighborhood seems to find it entertaining. And I can understand why. I mean, who ever heard of a dog addicted to mangoes?

Now, if only I could train her to share…

Frederica isn't the only one who likes to keep the mangoes for herself. Even my own mother won't share!

Frederica isn’t the only one who likes to keep the mangoes for herself. Even my own mother won’t share!

Counting My Blessings

I took this photo over a year ago off my favorite spot on the beach to hunt sea glass. A year later, and we're living in the house, behind which this was taken.

The Universe moves in mysterious ways: I took this photo over a year ago off my favorite spot on the beach to hunt sea glass. A year later, we’re living in the house, behind which this was taken and I walk this beach every day.

When I sat down to write this morning, I wasn’t feeling all sunshine and happiness. In fact, I was as close to my breaking point as I’ve been in what feels like a long time. (Even though, in reality, it was probably only a week.)

I’m not going to go into the gory details. We all have challenges in our lives and I don’t need to bore you with mine.

Suffice it to say that, as I started pushing my pen across the page, I felt…overwhelmed…by just about everything. But I can’t let it get to me. I’ve come too far in my journey for that.

Shenanigans at our friend Kerri's wedding. Katie - stunning in red - with our friend Maureen on the left and yours truly kicking up her heels...

Shenanigans at our friend Kerri’s wedding. Katie – stunning in red – with our friend Maureen on the left and yours truly kicking up her heels…

Even if I was feeling inclined to wallow, I can’t. Because my friend Katie arrives in a few short hours. That alone makes today a GREAT day. The next week is going to be filled with belly laughs, high adventure and, per her decree, plenty of ‘frolicking’. I’m excited to introduce her to my life, the love of my life and this beautiful country and culture that I’ve adopted as my own. I’ll be doing both her and I a disservice if I don’t throw off this funk. So I hereby promise not to let anything put a damper on the next seven days.

I know exactly what I need: to change my perspective. Instead of dwelling on those negative thoughts – itemizing what I don’t have and what I haven’t yet achieved or accomplished – I need to count my blessings. Celebrate what I DO have. Because those blessings are numerous and bountiful. Too numerous to even count, really.

Here I sit, under the gnarled branches of a massive sea grape tree, not twenty yards from the Atlantic Ocean, listening to the symphony of the waves crashing on the reef and on the shore like an old school round. As I watch, the harbor pilot guides a giant cargo ship through the narrow channel into the Puerto Plata harbor with practiced ease.

It’s going to be hot today, already close to 90 at 9 a.m. But from where I sit, there is such a beautiful breeze that it feels fresh and cool. There’s a dog at my feet that adores me so much that she’s curled up here even though she has a whole yard to play in. I can already taste the perfectly ripe flesh of the avocados that Freddy has promised to bring me this afternoon.

Home sweet (borrowed) home.

Home sweet (borrowed) home.

Freddy, in case you’re wondering, is basically my new best friend. Partially because he keeps me in mangoes and bananas and whatever other fruit happens to be in season, but also because he and his brother take care of this oceanfront property where the love of my life and I are lucky enough to be housesitting.  It is home for us in a way no other house has been for me, other than the 150-year old farmhouse where I grew up. I know it will only be temporary, as the owner has it up for sale, but we will enjoy it as long as we can. The fact that we’re here at all, makes me have to pinch myself. Because I dreamed about living here the first time I walked by – on my first trip here to the Dominican Republic last January.

Funny, isn’t it, how the Universe has a way of granting wishes we don’t even realize we’ve made.

I am blessed to be able to do what I love – CREATE! When I allow myself the luxury, anyway. Even here – far from the trappings of my former corporate existence – I find myself being stingy with my inner artist. I convince myself I have other obligations that must come first. But do they really? And I am forever finding excuses why I can’t sit down and write or create when that’s exactly what every fiber of my being is straining to do.

The why behind this is complex, but I’m working on it. Well, working on working it out and getting past its arbitrary barrier, anyway.

Fear is a big part of it. Fear of taking that first blind step off the cliff – even though the Universe has already made it abundantly clear it’s here to help me fly. I just have to take that first step.

There is also fear of failure. For some reason, it feels safer to let a dream be just that – a dream that we never really try for. Because in pursuing it, we take a risk. That risk is seeing a cherished dream crash and burn. So, rather than risk that failure, we never try. Of course, following this course of action (or, more precisely, inaction) we sabotage any chance of success.

If we can get past the fear, there’s still doubt to contend with. For me, that leads to second-guessing the Universe. Not quite able to believe my good fortune in being here and living this life, I question whether I deserve it. No matter how much positive reinforcement I receive!

But I’m working through all of that. Really, I am. I have started to listen closely for the messages the Universe sends, and then I do my best to follow its instructions. They always lead me in the right direction. The challenge is in both hearing through the other noise out there, and being willing to accept the good that comes my way. I work hard, too, to keep up my end of the bargain. For every step I take in the right direction, the Universe rewards me ten-fold.

So, yes. I could sit here and wallow in self-doubt, self-depreciation, self-pity and fear. But I won’t. Because I BELIEVE – in myself AND the Universe. I choose to embrace the positive. When I do, positive things happen. The Universe is generous like that.

Even now, when I’m experiencing a crisis of personal faith, I will keep positive. I’ll listen for the Universe to guide me, but at the same time keep putting one foot in front of the other. The Universe likes momentum.

I’ll fill one more page, line by line and word by word. I’ll reach out to one more contact. Never forgetting, always appreciating, the blessings I have already been shown. And always ready to receive whatever good the universe decides to send my way.

Because I BELIEVE…

…in myself.

…in this path that I’m on.

…in the power of the Unverse to help me dream big.

…in the ability of the Universe to make wishes – whispered in my dreams and carried away on the night breeze – come true.

Yes, I BELIEVE.

As I type these last words, rain drops have started to fall. For some, that may not be a good sign. But here, where it has been close to three months since we’ve had rain, every single drop is a blessing.

For me, it’s yet another sign that the Universe is listening.

Maybe I should have told Katie to pack an umbrella…

Mother Nature's Blessings: A gift from my friend Julie Gates.

Mother Nature’s Blessings: Photo credit to my friend Julie Gates.

Lean on Me: Thoughts on friendship, sisterhood, and the loss of a parent.

Me and my bestie atop Mount Isabel de Torres, Puerto Plata.

Me and my bestie atop Mount Isabel de Torres, Puerto Plata.

My best friend lost her dad yesterday. It was sudden and unexpected, and tragic as only losing a parent can be. She is left hurting so badly. And here I am a more than a thousand miles and an ocean away, totally helpless to do anything about it.

I never had the privilege of meeting Julie’s dad, the infamous ‘Duff’ Cook. I have heard a lot of stories, though. He was something of a legend in the town where he lived, and at the factory where he worked as a welder for many years. He must have been one heck of a guy, if his daughter is any indication.

There’s no one quite like Jules, as I like to call her. While I haven’t known her my whole life, I feel as though I have. Our friendship, forged in both good times and bad, has transformed into something so much more. We have long since crossed the line from friend to family.

Our families – the real ones – have followed our lead.

Jules was the one I called late on a Friday afternoon in early January 2012. I had just found out my father was being sent home from the hospital and being placed in hospice care. It was…devastating…to hear this news. But I had to switch into action mode, because the house needed to be prepared both for his arrival and that of the hospital bed. Jules met me there, and helped me do the heavy lifting – both physically and mentally.

Jules was also the one there with me, walking laps in the hospital, when I had my own health scare a few months later.

She’s the one who not-so-subtly tells me when I’m working myself to death, or when I’m doing – or have done — something stupid. That said, she’s remarkably supportive of some of my riskier moves. She was one of the first I told that I was trying my hand at writing fiction. And she’s been surrogate daughter to my mother in so many ways since I skipped off to the Caribbean.

Jules is the one who cried when I told her I was getting married. Not that she wasn’t happy for me, she was just worried she wouldn’t be there for the occasion. She was, though. Even though she had to move heaven and earth to do it. (Not to mention the fact her son is about to graduate from high school and she has major back surgery coming up.)

See what I mean about the bouquet! Perfect!

See what I mean about the bouquet! Perfect!

Jules was my therapist when the strain of planning a wedding in a month started to get to me, not to mention a co-conspirator in planning the bachelorette bash. When the time came, she sent me down the aisle with a perfect bouquet (fashioned from purloined frangipani blooms). She played photographer, too, capturing all of the precious moments and memories of our special day.

How did I repay all of this when I learned of her father’s death?

Well, I’d like to say I found words that were the perfect blend of wisdom and sentiment. Something that would both sooth her pain, and let her know it’s ok to feel how she’s feeling. That she’ll get through this. That even though it may not seem like it in this moment, she will. Because I know she will. But you have to take it one day, one hour – sometimes one minute – at a time.

But did I say that? No. In the face of the raw emotion that she shared, I said none of those things. Not even close.

Instead, I blathered on about okra. Yes, OKRA.

I think it’s safe to say I’m out of the running for friend of the year.

Oh, Jules. Can you forgive me? What I really want to tell her is that I love you and your family, and I’m so, so sorry about your dad. I wish more than anything that I could be there to help you get through this day, and the next, and the next…just as you was there for me.

I will, of course, be there. But not in person, and I know it’s just not the same.

You will get through this, because you’re one of the strongest people I know. And even though there are a thousand miles or so, plus an ocean, between us, I AM here for you.

Whatever you need, Jules, you can always lean on me.

Sending strength, love, prayers and positive healing thoughts from my heart to yours. You, Lyndon, Jesse, Jaret, my other brother Dennis and all of Duff’s family and friends are in my thoughts and prayers.

xo

M

 

 

This is (Almost) 40: Counting down to the big 4-0

This is me, scheming. I hope you're ready for me, 40!

This is me, scheming. I hope you’re ready for me, 40!

In roughly two weeks, I’m going to be 40. I know, I know… I don’t look a day over 39, right? Believe me, I find it just as hard to believe as you. I mean, didn’t I turn 30 like 30 minutes ago? How did an entire decade fly by since I was last crying in my cups about having a milestone birthday!

The good news, I suppose, is that I don’t FEEL old. Not that 40 is old. Maybe at one point in my life, I thought otherwise. But believe me, I’ve revised my opinion on that matter significantly in recent years. I now consider 80 to be middle age. So by that standard, I have plenty of good years left.

Many of my good friends have gone before me, over this invisible wall into our 40’s. They’ve done it with style, grace and, in some cases, copious amounts of alcohol. I’m hoping to more sneak over the line while no one is looking.

My 30’s were, in all honesty, a mixed bag. Some of it really sucked. Like losing my dad. But there were some great times, too. Like taking my mom to Ireland for the first time.

I’m going out with a bang, though. I mean, I do get points for moving to the Caribbean, finding and marrying my soul mate AND writing 2.5 novels (even if they are still in first drafts) – all in my 39th year, right?

The problem isn’t so much leaving my 30’s behind. It’s figuring out how to top them in my 40’s. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been feeling restless. Like there’s a big question mark over my head. I keep asking myself, “What’s next?”

The view from my 'desk chair', aka the hammock. Definitely not complaining...

The view from my ‘desk chair’, aka the hammock. Definitely not complaining…

I don’t know the answer to that, nor am I even sure why I’m asking the question in the first place. Not to brag or anything, but I have a pretty awesome life. I mean, I just married the man of my dreams. I live in one of the most beautiful, culturally intoxicating places on Earth. I spend my days writing, which I love. My ‘office’ is a patio roughly 20 yards away from the Atlantic Ocean and my ‘desk chair’ is a hammock. So, really, I can’t complain. I’m not complaining.

I just… I think I’m ready for some new challenges. What that entails, I’m not quite sure yet. I do know that it’s going to involve starting a new blog about my adventures here in the Dominican Republic, and launching my own business. I’m still working out the details on both of those undertakings, as well as 38 other goals I’m going to set for myself. Because, yes, as corny as it sounds, there will be 40.

So stay tuned. Because there will be no 39-and-holding for this girl.

Here’s to turning the big 4-0!

But first, you’ll have to excuse me. I only have a couple of more weeks of my 30’s to enjoy. I plan to make every second count.

Not to brag, but this is the view from my 'office'. See, really! I'm not complaining.

Not to brag, but this is the view from my ‘office’. See, really! I’m not complaining.

My Dominican Adventure continues…with a trip to the hospital

IMG_6445

“I’m going to Sosua tomorrow,” my friend Elena announced, explaining that a mutual friend was having a minor surgical procedure at Centro Medico. “Do you want to come along for the ride?”

My breath caught for a moment.

“Love to,” came my somewhat strangled reply.

To myself, I thought: Touché, Universe. Touché.

Just that morning, I had laid in bed agonizing over making the trip to the private medical clinic. On one hand, I knew I needed to get in to see a doctor. But on the other, I was scared as hell.

Let me rewind for just a minute. Two and a half years ago, a few short months after my father passed away after a prolonged battle with cancer, I had my own health scare. A scare that was made infinitely scarier by a primary care who was all too eager to jump to conclusions, not to mention unprofessional in her delivery of her doomsday diagnosis.

(As in she told me I had a mass that she presumed was ovarian cancer and pronounced that I would obviously need a hysterectomy. Oh, and while she was telling this to me me – an unmarried woman in her late thirties with no children sitting alone in a sterile exam room – she had the audacity to cry.

The only good thing she did was refer me to a highly respected specialist who assured me that I did NOT in fact have ovarian cancer. Nor did I need a hysterectomy.

What I did have was endometriosis. A nasty case of it, to be sure. And I did need major surgery. (Not to mention a new primary care.)

I have a pretty gruesome scar that, along with my lack of ab definition, has ruined my chances of ever becoming a swimsuit model.

But that scar is nothing compared to the emotional damage wrought by the whole experience. It left me skittish around the medical profession as a whole, not to mention in a constant state of angst over whether I can/will/want to have children someday.

So given all that, you can imagine my distress when I noticed something out of the ordinary on the left side of abdomen. It started out small. A hard lump that felt like I was smuggling around an overfilled water balloon. While it didn’t hurt per se, there was definitely discomfort. And I had a couple of awkward conversations because, well, it was starting to look like a had a bun in the oven.

Ok. So now you’re caught up. That morning, after a sleepless night, I was lying in bed agonizing over this issue, which, incidentally, I named Bob. (No offense to the Bobs I know. But I needed to give it a name, and that was the first thing that came to mind.)

I knew I couldn’t ignore Bob, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t scared to death to acknowledge his existence to the world and an as-yet unidentified health care professional in a clinic in a foreign country. I don’t know how long I would have put it off without the timely intervention of the Universe. I’d like to think I wouldn’t have waited too much longer, but… it was better this way. Somehow, knowing that I wasn’t the primary reason for the trip made it easier. After all, I was just going there to make an appointment. I wasn’t going to actually see anyone that day.

Or so I thought.

After seeing our friend into the hands of the surgeon who would be performing her procedure, Elena escorted me toward the front desk. My palms were starting to sweat even before a woman appeared in our path, asking if we needed help.

Elena, ever helpful, pointed at me.

At which point I promptly forgot every word of Spanish I’ve painstakingly learned over the past year.

In the ugliest broken Spanglish imaginable, I somehow communicated the fact that I wanted to make an appointment with a gynecologist.

She asked me if I had insurance. I said yes, pulling the card out of my wallet and placing it and my passport in her proffered hand.

“Looks like you’ll get to see someone right away,” Elena said with much more enthusiasm than I felt about this latest development.

As I settled myself into a seat in the waiting area, I was anxious but also relieved. Not to mention in absolute awe. It would have taken me weeks to get an appointment with a gynecologist in the U.S., and that was IF they were accepting new patients. A walk in? Never!

Not ten minutes later, I was in the doctor’s office. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw him. He was over 6 feet tall and his name was Fred (well, Freddy). Another sign, I though.

The consultation didn’t last long. We discussed my symptoms as well as my medical history. After a cursory exam, he wrote an order for a sonogram. Which I had across the hall about 15 minutes later, performed by a very pleasant female doctor.

The verdict? A giant cyst on one of my ovaries.

Lots of women have cysts, but that’s not really the important part here. Did you notice the use of the plural? Yep, that’s right! I have two ovaries! I realize that’s completely normal, but you’ll remember that I was under the impression one had been removed.

I sat there in stunned silence for a moment as my new best friend shared this surprising development. All the anxiety and angst that I’ve been carrying around for close to three years… evaporated.

Yes, I’ll need surgery to remove the cyst. In fact, I’m going in this morning for the procedure. Am I nervous? Sure. The fact that I’m having this done in another country doesn’t even factor in. I’d be nervous having this – or any procedure – anywhere. (Hospitals in general make me queasy.) But I feel pretty good going into this. The staff at Centro Medico are a class act, and I feel confident in their very professional hands.

I’ve held myself together pretty well through this whirlwind. It has, after all, been barely a week since my first trip to Sosua, and I’m having surgery today.

I’ll admit I did have a little crying jag yesterday, though. It was after I read an email from my Aunt Kathleen. She’s mobilized the troops, so to speak. The email read like a field report. Franciscan sisters in four countries are praying for me, my names been added to several prayer lists and a mass is being said for me today at St. Joseph’s Hospital Chapel in Tampa.

And this on top of the outpouring of support I’ve received from my friends and family both here in the Dominican Republic and back in the U.S.

I ask you: how can a girl not be overwhelmed when there is so much love and so many prayers and positive intentions flowing through the universe for her?

I am truly blessed to have such a network of love and support. I know when I go into surgery today, I won’t be going in alone.

Thank you, all of you. I truly am the luckiest girl in all the world.

And now I’m off to Sosua. I wish I could say it was nice knowing you, Bob, but…

Unexpected Detours: A tale of flight delays, tropical escapes and chance encounters

 

The 5 Gringas: Mumsy, Jules, Kathie, Nona y yo.

Mumsy, Jules, Kathie, Nona and yours truly atop Mount Isabel during our 2014 Dominican adventure. I can assure you, a good time was had by all.

At barely 5 a.m. on the morning of January 9, 2014, I found myself staring bleary eyed at the departures board at Syracuse Airport. I was queued up with my four traveling companions – Mumsy, Jules, Kathie and Nona – and what felt like half of Central New York. We were at the tail end of one of last winter’s (then infamous, now long-forgotten) storms, and were well aware that some 12,000 flights had been canceled in the preceding days. The weather had finally cleared, though, and every flight listed was showing on time.

The five of us were bound for the Dominican Republic, and I for one could already taste the rum cocktails we’d be sipping on the beach by early afternoon.

A murmur moved up the line, intruding on my reverie. My friend Kathie, a little ahead of us, caught my eye and gestured to that same departure board I’d been staring at. Somehow, while I’d been daydreaming of sun and sand, the status of our flight had changed from ‘on time’ to ‘delayed’. I groaned, drawing the attention of my mother.

“We’re going to miss our connection,” I told her, leaving her to watch the bags as I wound my way to Kathie’s side.

The next hour was a blur. The airline’s counter person – no doubt eyeing the lengthy line of groggy would-be passengers behind us – insisted that she couldn’t help rebook us. We’d need to go through the group reservation line, she said. (Despite that there were only 5 of us.)

Too bad the first two numbers she gave us to call weren’t in service. The third was actually a chat line. (I kid you not.) And when, on the fourth try, we succeeded in getting the right number – we learned that the group reservation call center didn’t even open until 8 a.m. It wasn’t yet 6.

You can imagine how pleased we were at that.

Kathie made one more trip to the poor, frazzled woman behind the counter and miracle of miracles we ended up with a number that actually worked AND connected us to a human being. After jumping through the usual electronic hoops ,anyway.

For the next 45 minutes, the woman on the other end of the line was my best friend. Time seemed to stand still as she worked through a thousand different possible flight permutations in an effort to get the 5 of us ladies to our tropical destination. We were a model of flexibility, offering to fly out of another airport or fly into another one in the Dominican Republic. (We were headed to Puerto Plata, but we could make Santiago work if need be.)

We asked about other airlines, but she said wanted to exhaust all of their own possibilities first.

As the minutes ticked by, the options grew progressively worse, not better. And it was starting looking as though any cocktails we had in the foreseeable future would be imbibed in the bar of an airport (or airport hotel) rather than on a beach. Because the way she was talking, it would be DAYS before we made it to the DR.

It all went even further down hill when we were handed off yet again, this time to a supervisor. He was most definitely NOT my best friend. In fact, his first suggestion was that we fly to Newark and then wait THREE DAYS for a flight to Puerto Plata. This was the best option, he explained, unless we were willing to drive to Newark in three days time. The latter was certainly more appealing, because no offense to Neward, but spending the first part of our vacation there wasn’t exactly what we had in mind.

We asked again about options with other airlines, but all we received were a few vague promises that he’d follow up ‘later’. I could tell, though, by the finality in his voice as he signed off that there would be no further follow up on their end.

If we wanted a better option, it would be up to us to make it happen.

Before making our final exit from our home-away-from-home in the airline terminal, Kathie and I took a walk to the Delta counter.

What happened next was, in my opinion, a sure sign that there is a higher power in the universe. Because not only was there a flight to DR leaving that night, but there was space for us on it.

The catch, because there is always a catch, was that it leaving from JFK, not Syracuse, and landing in Santiago, not Puerto Plata. But we could work with that. Because it was definitely better than three days in Newark. Or waiting three days for the long-anticipated getaway for that matter.

As the incredibly helpful Delta representative worked with our original carrier to sort out the flight arrangements, I started working out the other details. Like changing our rental car reservation, reaching out to the Farrell network to find a home for our vehicle that didn’t involve paying $30 a day in a lot at JFK, etc.

Kathie sprung into action as well, since with our new, radically altered itinerary her friend Elena could no longer meet us. Elena, ever helpful, arranged for a taxi to meet us in Santiago. (Because, let’s face it, there wasn’t a chance that the accumulated luggage of five women was going to fit in one rental car. Oh, and there was the small matter of not being one hundred percent sure of the directions…)

The airport terminal was all but deserted by the time we had it all sorted. We were in a bit of a daze as we reboarded the shuttle to take us back to the airport hotel to retrieve our vehicle.

This is "the beach" we were trying to get to: Playa Costambar.

This is “the beach” we were trying to get to: Playa Costambar.

Now that the first – and arguably the biggest – obstacle had been overcome, my adrenaline was kicking in. There were still a host of challenges standing between us and the beach. Like getting a refund on the long-term parking we’d prepaid for at the airport hotel. And re-loading the aforementioned luggage into the car without the help of Jules’ very handy husband Lyndon to oversee the process. Not to mention the four-hour or so drive to JFK; the construction related traffic we’d invariably hit along the way; and coordinating the hand off of our keys to my awesome Uncle Tim.

But failure wasn’t an option. Come hell, high water or further interference from the travel gods, we were getting to that beach.

There was too much adrenaline in my system for me to relax on the plane. In fact, I didn’t start to breathe easy until we received the keys to our rental car in Santiago and the smiling cab driver and the off-duty cop riding shotgun with him started loading our luggage.

It was 2 a.m. at that point. We still had an hour or so drive to reach our final destination  on the North Coast. I might not get to sink my toes into the sand for a few more hours, but I was ok with that. Because my Dominican adventure had begun.

When I woke up the next morning and laid eyes on my surroundings for the first time – the palm trees, tropical foliage, the ocean, just all of it –the trials and tribulations of travel didn’t matter. Because on some level, I think I already knew this was where I was supposed to be.

Yes, Andry is that off-duty cop that met us at the airport. We met again in mid-March, when the Delta agent came to Costambar. See what I mean about unexpected detours?

Yes, Andry is that off-duty cop that met us at the airport. We met again in mid-March, when the Delta agent came to Costambar. See what I mean about unexpected detours?

A year has gone by since that hectic day. It feels like a lifetime ago. So much has changed in the intervening 12 months. I now wake up every morning to that beautiful tropical vista I fell in love with on that very first day. The customer service agent from Syracuse who helped make our dream of a tropical escape come true has since come down and had her own Dominican adventure, and a wonderful friendship has been formed. Elena is now my friend as well as Kathie’s. Kathie and her husband Mike have added an addition to that beautiful house I stayed in during my first stay (and a couple of subsequent visits, as well). They’ll be arriving in a few days to spend a whole month here. I can’t wait. (And yes, they do still rent it out when they’re not here. You can check them out on Facebook at Oceanfront Rental Dominican Republic.) The cab driver, José, has also become a trusted friend. And that off-duty cop? Well… That’s a story for a different day.

Who knows if any of that would have happened if our travel plans hadn’t been turned inside out that day. Sometimes it’s the unexpected detours that makes all the difference. That one point in time sets off a chain reaction, putting us in unexpected places, meeting unexpected people and it can make all the difference in the world.

It certainly has made all the difference in mine.

 

Feliz Año Nuevo: Here’s to a healthy, happy and prosperous New Year!

That beautiful tropical vista I was talking about, at sunrise.

That beautiful tropical vista I was talking about, at sunrise.

When I drew back the curtains this morning, I couldn’t help but smile. Before me was a tropical vista that just doesn’t get old. Palm fronds swaying with the breeze against a backdrop of blue sky and even bluer ocean. Yes, 2015 is going to be a great year. I can feel it already.

Not that 2014 wasn’t pretty darn fabulous. It was, in so many unexpected ways, quite possibly the best one yet.

I’m not saying it was entirely without ups and downs. It had its trials and tribulations, I assure you. But these days I choose to live a positive life. And to do so, you can’t dwell on the negatives. They’ll consume you if you let them.

The defining moment for me happened a month or so ago. It was right after Thanksgiving and I was missing my family like crazy. I could feel the old doubts and fears creeping back. Past failures, would-haves, should-haves and a list of to-do list items I’ve so far left ‘un-checked’ started swirling in my head. I was dangerously close to feeling sorry for myself. But this vista before me – the same one that helped me greet 2015 and that is before now as I write – helped me pull myself back from the abyss.

That day, I started to take stock of the past year. And much to my own surprise, I found I had a lot more items to add in the ‘accomplishments’ column than I initially thought. 2014 has been a very busy year. Busier than I remembered, even.

The love of my life, on one of our many adventures.

The love of my life, on one of our many adventures.

See, I learned a new language. (Spanish, of course. And while I’m far from fluent, I can communicate better every day.) I not only discovered paradise in the Dominican Republic, I moved there. I met the love of my life. I watched my nephew walk down the aisle with the love of his life. I helped celebrate my Aunt Kathleen’s 60th Jubilee. Finally, after carrying the book around for more than a decade, I worked my way through The Artist’s Way – healing and awakening my creativity every step of the way. I picked up a paintbrush again after a very, very long hiatus. I wrote a few poems. I went kayaking for the first time. I ‘hoed’ out the accumulated detritus of (most of) my past lives. I started freelancing again (and might even have some income to show for it in 2015). I dragged my mother first to the Dominican Republic and then to Ireland, the latter of which was fulfilling a lifelong dream for her. I started this blog (although I continue to be negligent in posting). I even lost 20 pounds.

Well, before I went home for the holidays, anyway.

And, after years of telling myself I couldn’t, I started writing fiction. And I have two (really horrific) first drafts to show for it.

The fact that they are utter shite is beside the point, really. I learned so much in the process. And I proved to myself that I could do it. That, along with the fact that it was more fun than I ever imagined, made my little experiment a roaring success. And I can’t wait to do it all over again. Novel #3 is burning a hole in my head as we speak, eager to spill out on the page.

So, yes, that’s on the to-do list for 2015. As is taking up a hatchet in one hand and a scalpel in the other to have a go at its predecessors, who are currently aging like a fine wine. I make absolutely no promises that either will ever see the light of day, mind you. But it will be good practice for my future experiments in fiction. Because now that I’ve started, I have no intention of stopping.

So, yes, 2014 was a very good year. I’ve had so many adventures. I’ve explored. Made new friends. Learned anew how to forgive, to heal, to fully appreciate life. There have been challenges along with the triumphs, but the laughter has far outweighed the tears for the first time in a very long time.

Every day I am filled with gratitude and more of a sense of prosperity than a fat paycheck ever provided. And every day, I count my blessings.

As I look ahead at 2015, I don’t just think it will be filled with unlimited possibilities. I know it will. Because I’m no longer afraid to live life to the fullest. No longer afraid to take a few risks. No longer afraid to imagine the life I want for myself – nor afraid to actually live it. I know that when I take that leap of faith, my wings are strong enough to carry me over the abyss of fear and self-doubt.

I’m very familiar with that abyss. After all, I lived in it for years. Believe me, I have no desire to ever, ever go back.

What’s changed? Me. I’m not the same person I was a year ago, when I looked ahead at 2014 with trepidation and fear, unsure what my next step would be. In the last 12 months, I healed, I learned, I loved…and for the first time in a very long time – maybe ever – I am truly living and loving life.

The best part? I’m just getting started.

I hope you’re ready, 2015. Because I know I am.

Here’s to a healthy, happy and prosperous New Year!

Feliz Año Nuevo, amigos!

Happy Birthday, Mumsy!

Mumsy and I in the Walled Garden at Powerscourt Estate, Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow, Ireland. July 2014

Mumsy and I in the Walled Garden at Powerscourt Estate, Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow, Ireland. July 2014

“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” – Sir Isaac Newton

I am a lucky, lucky girl. I know I say that all the time, but it’s true. I am blessed in so many ways. Especially when it comes to the people in my life. Friends, family, former colleagues – they have all made my life richer and more beautiful just by being there. Offering a kind word, lending an ear, giving a helping hand, being there when it mattered most.

They are my “giants”, as Isaac Newton would have called them. And all I have seen, done and accomplished in my life, is as a direct result of standing on their shoulders.

There is one giant, though, who has shaped my life more than any other. By standing on her shoulders, I have seen furthest of all. Which is really saying something since, according to the New York State Department of Motor Vehicle, she stands at (a very respectable!) five feet and one-half inch.

Her presence, though, is much taller. In fact, some people have mistaken her for 5’6”. And she doesn’t wear heels.

I am speaking, of course, of my mother. Eileen Bridget Farrell Stagnaro. A.K.A.

Eileen, Ei, Farrell, Aunt Eileen, Grandma Eileen, Gram, Mrs. Stagnaro, Mrs. S, Mom Stags, Weenie Peppers…and the list goes on.

But to me she is Mumsy.

It all started one bleak morning in the Evening Sun newsroom. Our early morning deadline was looming and my editor, Jeff Genung, was no doubt breathing down my neck for my column. I intended to type ‘my mom’, but in my haste my cold, tired fingers tapped out ‘Mumsy’ instead.

And just like that, a legend was born.

At first, my mother rolled her eyes when I used her new moniker in print. But it caught on quickly. The next thing I knew, other people were calling her Mumsy, as well. At some point in the last six years or so, she stopped fighting it. And it was a true moment of triumph for me when I noticed she was signing her emails ‘Mumsy.’

I’m glad she’s embraced it. Because it really is perfect. There are millions of moms out there, but only one Mumsy.

I am who I am because of her. And I’m not talking about my very existence on this planet, which of course she had a lot to do with. Nor am I talking about my love of old musicals, addiction to romance novels or my ability to make a mean apple pie. All of which can definitely be laid at her doorstep, along with a thousand of my best (and worst!) traits.

Mumsy with her first great-grandchild, Harper Lee Franklin.

Mumsy with her first great-grandchild, Harper Lee Franklin.

No single person, other than perhaps my father, has had such a hand in shaping me as a person. And she did it by example. Because there are few people out there who are as kind, compassionate and giving as my mother. She is also the strongest person I know. Not to mention fierce in the best possible ways.

It is from her that I get my sense of adventure, my grit, my compassion, my desire to heal every wound (well, the emotional ones anyway. I don’t do well with actual wounds), as well as the aforementioned ability to bake pies. She’s also the reason I sob at sad movies, but I won’t hold that against her.

Through her actions, she has always given me something to live up to. Because I hope that some day I have half her strength, poise and purpose.

People often tell me that I look like my dad, but it is when people tell me I look like my mom that I am most touched. (And once they’ve said it, they’re automatically added to my most favorite people list. I’m looking at you, Diane Troxell and Mary Ann DeMellier!)

Like any mother and daughter, we’ve had our share of strife over the years. But there is no woman I love and respect as much as my mom. We have weathered a lot of storms together, and there is no one I’d rather have at my side in moments of challenge or triumph.

She is my biggest fan. My staunchest supporter. My protector. My rock. My ally. My moral compass. The voice in my head that spurs me on in my moments of doubt. My best friend. She is all of those things and so much more. She has taught me so much, but perhaps most importantly how to love – and be loved -unconditionally. I am and always will be proud and truly grateful that she is my mother.

I am truly blessed to be her daughter.

I love you, Mumsy. Happy Birthday.

Happy Birthday, Mumsy! (A toast from our trip to the Dominican Republic in January 2014.)

Happy Birthday, Mumsy! (A toast from our (first) trip to the Dominican Republic in January 2014.)

Snow Daze: A tale of freezing temperatures, heated mattress pads and karma. (Oh, and nuns.)

A beautiful walk in my winter wonderland. (In case you were wondering, at the time this picture was taken it was 82 degrees in Puerto Plata. Just saying'...)

A beautiful walk in my winter wonderland. (In case you were wondering, at the time this picture was taken it was 82 degrees in Puerto Plata. Just saying’…)

Not everyone has a nun in the family, but I do. My extended family affectionately calls her Aunt Sister due to the fact that she is (a) my aunt and (b) a sister – as in Franciscan Sister of Allegheny. But to me, she’s Aunt Kathleen.

A native New Yorker like the rest of the family, Aunt Kathleen has been stationed in St. Petersburg, Florida for the last thirty years or so. Where the tropical climate has thinned her blood to the point where any drop in temperature below eighty necessitates multiple layers of flannel and fleece.

Her semi-annual visits to the Stagnaro homestead always took place in the warmest months of the year. And who could blame her. Of course, here in Central New York it’s not uncommon for the temps to dip down to the 50’s (or lower) even in the middle of summer. As a result, when we were complaining about the heat wave, she’d be bundling up in all available layers. Then adding a blanket or two to for extra warmth.

Having grown up in Central New York, I found this hilarious. And I often poked fun at my dear Aunt for being ‘soft.’ After all, when you’re from the Frigid North, you don’t think it’s truly cold until it’s at least 20 below zero. (Fahrenheit.)

Now, of course, I regret that supercilious behavior. Especially since it’s come back to bite me in the buttinski.

A buttinski that is currently FREEZING, I might add.

Because as we all know, Karma is a bitch.

Of course, it’s my own fault. No one forced me to return to the Frigid North during one of the coldest months of the year – after spending most of 2014 in the Caribbean. I came up with that brilliant idea all on my own.

Who wouldn't brave freezing temperatures to spend Christmas with this lovely lady?

Who wouldn’t brave freezing temperatures to spend Christmas with this lovely lady?

When I told my friends in the Dominican Republic that I was heading north for three weeks to spend the Christmas holiday with Mumsy, they laughed. Then they laughed some more. When they finally came up for air, they suggested I reschedule my trip to late August.

They meant well, I knew. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t consider it for thirty seconds or so. But I already had my heart set on spending Christmas with Mumsy, not to mention her birthday which is on the 21st. I wasn’t about to let a little personal discomfort get in the way of that. Besides, I was FROM the Frigid North after all. It would take more than barely freezing temperatures to get me down.

If I had listened closely, I might have heard Karma laughing.

I started questioning my decision shortly after landing at JFK. My connection to Syracuse was delayed. And then delayed again. To make it worse, there was a draft by the gate that had my teeth chattering and I felt woefully underdressed for December in my jeans and light sweater.

I was distracted from the siren’s call of the overpriced I LOVE NEW YORK sweatshirts in the gate-side gift shop by a group of middle-aged tourists who sat next to me.

They were wearing shorts.

That’s when I realized it wasn’t quite as cold as I thought. Not the low teen’s as I had imagined, but rather a mild 45 degrees. Which didn’t bode well for the rest of my trip.

The weather channel was going on and on about Winter Storm Damon, the Nor’easter bearing down on the East Coast and I was convinced I was going to get stranded either at JFK or at the Syracuse airport. But the Travel Gods were smiling on me, and I guess they trump Karma once in awhile. Because at 11 p.m., only an hour and a half after I was originally supposed to arrive, my friend Mo was picking me up at the curb in Syracuse.

Mo is pretty awesome. Not only did she brave the freezing rain to come get me, but she also had the foresight to bring a warm coat, crank up the heat in her car AND turn on the seat warmer in the advance of my arrival.

Due to the late hour, we headed back to her place in Mexico. (Which, for those of you unfamiliar with New York State, is on Lake Ontario. And therefore, slightly colder than its namesake waaaaay to the south.) Bless her heart, she even had the heated mattress pad pre-heating in her guest room.

The plan was that she’d take me home in the morning, but Karma – under the guise of Winter Storm Damon – hit over night.

By mid-morning, a sizeable stretch of I-81 was closed. Once I heard that, I knew I didn’t have a chance of getting home that day. So, despite the fact that there was only about six inches on the ground outside of Mo’s cozy little cottage on the Little Salmon River, we resigned ourselves to being snowed in.

This is how Central New York says "Welcome Home." Did I mention it was 82 in Puerto Plata that day?

This is how Central New York says “Welcome Home.” Did I mention it was 82 in Puerto Plata that day?

Which wasn’t exactly a hardship. At least not for me. I can’t vouch for Mo, who had to play hostess for an extra day. And what a hostess she was! When the subject of food came up, there was no scrabbling to throw together a meal from canned goods. Mo simply dug into her freezer and the next thing I knew we were dining on bacon-wrapped filet and Cajun shrimp, paired with excellent red wine. With cheesecake for dessert.

I woke the next day to find snow still falling, but I-81 had been reopened so it was time to go home. Thanks to my little sojourn at Mo’s – and the storm – I was ready. After all, the frigid temperatures and cold wind are a lot easier to take when the world looks like someone has given a snow globe a good shake.

And when I finally walked in the door Thursday afternoon – roughly 48 hours after leaving the Dominican Republic — the warmth of my mother’s greeting made it all worth it.

The early Christmas present she had waiting for me didn’t hurt either: a heated mattress pad of my very own.

As I type this, it’s about 50 degrees colder outside than I’ve become accustomed to. But that’s okay. Because the world outside my frost-covered window looks like a winter wonderland and my mother’s jazzy holiday music is floating up the stairs.

I’m taking it in from where I sit, on my bed, tapping away on my laptop – all bundled up in one of my favorite Champion sweatshirts (circa 1995) with slipper socks on my feet and a fleece throw tucked in around me. And the heated mattress pad cranked up to its highest setting.

Do you think that maybe, just maybe, I can talk Mumsy into a Caribbean Christmas next year?

I find a little Dominican hot chocolate with a splash of kahlua is almost as effective as that heated mattress pad for keeping the cold at bay...

I find a little Dominican hot chocolate with a splash of kahlua is almost as effective as that heated mattress pad for keeping the cold at bay…