Tuesday, June 27, 2017


Descanso (plural descansos)
A memorial placed at the site of a violent, unexpected death, in memoriam. (From the Spanish)

While traveling to and from Prescott, AZ last weekend, we saw many descansos along the road. Today, we spotted another in Dana Point Harbor.

They reminded me of a women’s retreat my friend, Gail Warner, led many years ago.

She described how they are created to memorialize a life lost near where the shrine was erected. They often consist of a cross, flowers, candles, personal items of the person or family members. Sometimes families maintain these for years in memory of their loved ones.

She asked us to write down our own descansos—those incidents, people, or events which represented turning points in our lives. Our results were a revelation.

The first one I recalled was the death of my maternal grandfather. I was only twenty-six months old, yet I have vivid memories of that day: a sea of legs filling my grandmother’s living room, everyone crying and distracted. No one told me what was happening. (They thought I was too little.)
Finally, a neighbor took me to her house and rocked me until I fell asleep. It is the first time I ever recall having been rocked. Ever since, I have related the rocking motion to peace and safety. I’ve always had at least one rocking chair in my home.

My grandfather was the most important person in my life. He read to me every day before bedtime. I always clamored for “just one more,” and he often obliged.

I had a fifty-two word vocabulary at one year old, mostly because of him. He took me around the house and pointed out different objects: picture, radio, table, etc. We always finished in my grandparents’ room where he removed the cover form my grandmother’s powder box. “The Desert Song” played until he replaced the cover. Then he removed it again and handed it to me, but when I put it back, the music went on. He finally showed me the little wire. I became adept at placing the lid so the wire engaged and stopped the music.

Since my grandmother always kept her Coty face powder in the box, the memory of this experience is forever accompanied by its scent.

Several years ago, I gave the powder box to my cousin’s daughter to be passed on to her daughters along with the story of this memory.

The next major descanso in my life occurred five years later with the death of my father.

I went to school in the morning and returned to find lots of cars parked near my house and in the driveway. Again, I can easily recall every minute of the day: my aunts and neighbors packed into the living room, my paternal grandfather with his arm around my mother, who was crying. This seemed strange because they hated each other. (In fact, after Dad’s death, my grandfather all but disappeared from our lives.)

I learned several important life lessons from this one:

1.   Life is short and can end without warning.
2.    Often tell the ones you love that you love them because you may not get another chance.
3.    Life may become difficult, but you can survive.
4.    Losing a parent leaves a large hole in your life. No one else can ever fill it.

Marrying Larry was the next descanso, and this was a wonderful one. In addition to joining my life to the one I loved, I gained an amazing family. His parents embraced me as their own. My mother worked, and after Dad died, she withdrew emotionally. Larry’s mother became the person I could talk to and share my deepest thoughts and concerns with.

She and his dad modeled the kind of relationship I wanted in my marriage—and did so for sixty-seven years. I never doubted they loved each other deeply. Did they disagree? Sure. But we never saw their devotion to one another flag or waiver.

They modeled selfless caring for family and each other until they were separated by death. These are lessons I learned and practice to this day.

Likewise, the day our daughter, Kimberly, was born once again changed my life. I expected a passive baby who slept and cooed. Instead, Kim stayed awake nearly every hour of the day. I required sleep. She did not. (She still doesn’t.) I expected a placid child like her father and me. Nope. She was active and demanding. She wanted her own way and fought for it. Part of me admired this quality, but the mother part found it frustrating. (She got her stubbornness from my mother. At least, that’s my story.)

Somehow, we survived her growing-up years to become good friends. Today I love spending time with her. We laugh together and love to play. I truly miss her company since she moved to Texas, but I also look forward to visiting her or having her come home. She has enriched my life in ways I could not have imagined. We watched her sing with her high school choir in Manger Square in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve 1984. And last February, we watched her church choir accompany Michael W. Smith in Carnegie Hall. Peak life moments, and I thank her for providing them.

I could mention other decansos, but perhaps the most significant in recent years was the thirty-one months we lived in Osaka, building the Universal Studios Japan theme park.

We had lived in other states, but this was our first experience living outside the U.S. We were also among the oldest to relocate, and we were the first. The challenges of living in a culture so different from our own, where we knew few people and didn’t understand or speak the language, felt overwhelming.

In order to deal with the frustration, I began sending short essays back to our friends in California. By the end of our stay, my mailing list grew to about 150 people, and some of them forwarded the articles to others.

When we returned, friends urged us to put the experience into a book. After three years, and several complete rewrites, our first book, 31 Months in Japan: The Building of a Theme Park, was born. It began a whole new career for both of us.

What had begun as a frustrating and often difficult time, became the genesis of much of the joy we now experience.

So what are the major lessons these descansos have taught me?
1.     Life is full of surprises. Embrace them.
2.    The worst times of life can led to the best.
3.    People are most important in our lives.
4.    Things are just things.
5.    Everything can change in an instant.
6.    Life is short. Live every day fully.
7.    Trust that God has a plan and that everything will ultimately work out for the best—even though no sign of resolution may be apparent.
8.    Enjoy each and every day as if it might be your last, because it might be.
9.    Never fail to say, “I love you.”
10. Hug those you love often.

What are your descansos? What have you learned from them?

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