Happy Valentines, Mama & Papa

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I  am writing today about my father-in-law, Efigenio Raul Mustelier, who died on February 14. I want to acknowledge his life and honor him. Writing about him and his life is perhaps the best way I know now to recognize his humanity, and provide him witness.  Sadly, in writing about his life, I realized there was so much about him I didn’t know. Papa was more than the facts of his life, as we all are, but part of respect is getting the facts right when we can. I asked David, my husband and his son, a lot of questions; there were a few he was not able to answer, or least couldn’t be sure.

Efigenio (pronounced ‘Eh-fee-heh-neo’ and more commonly called “Efi”) was born in 1922 near Manzanillo, Cuba on December 11, 1922. His parents, Miguel and Clara Mustelier, had 8 children (and a 9th, the eldest, a half-sister); Efi was the youngest boy, and elder to one sister. Miguel was a landholder, and involved in agricultural endeavors – sugar and cattle – and was reputed to be a tough father. The family worked hard but was economically comfortable.

From a young age, Efi dreamed of going to college and becoming a doctor. He met the love of his life, Angela Dionysia Ferrandiz (known as Gela, pronounced Heh-lah), a first-generation Spanish-Cuban woman, in Manzanillo the year before he left for college and medical school. Most of the 10-year relationship leading to their marriage was long distance. Efi attended medical school in Havana and in 1950 went to New Jersey for his internship, followed by Chicago for his residency in obstetrics and gynecology.

In 1952, his brother-in-law Manuel (Manolo) Remon Sr., came to visit Efi in Chicago where Efi gave Manolo his power of attorney. Manolo returned to Havana where in the office of an attorney, he completed Gela’s marriage to Efi by proxy. She left that same day to fly to New York. Efi took the train from Chicago and they stayed at the Hotel Pennsylvania across the street from the “Penn Central” train station. The picture above is of the two of them on their first night as newlyweds, celebrating with friends and family in Brooklyn.

Efi and Gela returned to Chicago by train.  Around this time, Efi was drafted into the US Army due to the Korean War (he was a Cuban citizen but also a US Resident).  Ten months later, their first son Raul was born in Chicago. Efi loved the United States and was very proud of being in the US Army, and made it his career. Their family grew as they moved from station to station during his 24 year career, and Efi and Gela evolved into Mama and Papa, which is what I knew them as, and what many people called them.

Papa’s first assignment was in Munich, Germany, where Miriam was born. They went next to Camp Leroy Johnson in New Orleans, where both David and then, two-and-a-half years later, Roy was born.  Their first tour – there would be three – at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, the headquarters for the Army Medical Service Corps, came next. They spent time at Fort Irwin (near Death Valley) before going back to Germany (Darmstadt) this time. Then came Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma, followed by the second tour in San Antonio. The San Antonio tour included a year in Vietnam, obviously without family, where Papa along with his duties as a hospital commander, became popular for delivering babies for some wives of high ranking South Vietnamese army officers. Fitzsimmons Army Medical Hospital in Aurora, Colorado came next, followed by Fort Ord in Monterey, California (where Roy would meet his future wife Kristen Swanson many years later). The family then returned to San Antonio, where Papa completed his final tour with the Army and retired.

Mama and Papa, growing older, moved from San Antonio to Austin to be closer to Miriam (the “boys” were scattered: Raul lived in Seattle, David lived in San Francisco, and Roy in DC). They built an in-law extension on the house so Miriam could live there and help them.

Papa loved food and wine. One of David’s most formative memories is of his father taking over the kitchen on Sundays to prepare a large family meal. All of the Musteliers have an extraordinary appreciation for flavors, and fresh ingredients, and well prepared foods; they are amazing and creative cooks, and most of them also love wine.

I first met Mama & Papa in Tuscany, Italy in 2003. I had just become engaged to David, and so was included in the family trip to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. In fact, I met the whole family for the first time when David and I walked into the living room of the large refurbished farmhouse we rented. From there, the whole group took day trips to surrounding towns, and enjoyed meals outside under the trellises. We ate and drank wine, and lined the empty bottles against the terrace wall, honoring them as “soldati caduti” (fallen soldiers). Mama and Papa were welcoming and lovely to me in my first entree to the Mustelier family, perhaps in spite of being occasionally overwhelmed by the enthusiams of their adult children and their spouses.

Papa was garrulous and outgoing, and loved to tell his stories. In his later years, he charmed the Costco food sample purveyors, and chatted up anyone within earshot on his outings to the grocery store. Not surprisingly, for being a Cuban of his generation and a Colonel in the Army, Papa could be tough on his kids, especially as they came into their own adulthood and engaged their fierce intelligence. All said, Papa was extremely sentimental: he loved his family, and was very proud of his children.

Mama died in 2011, and Papa missed her terribly these last 6 years. They had been married just short of 59 years.

Papa had just turned 94 when he was diagnosed with stomach cancer in late 2016, but he was otherwise extremely healthy and hale. He was expected to recover from the surgery to remove the tumor, but his digestive system never really worked again. A friend of mine said at the time: “Efi is full of surprises, and he has surprised people most of his life.” Still, after some time in the ICU and on a ventilator, and a week of trying to recover from both, Papa died on February 14.

Our thought was that Mama had come to get Papa to celebrate their love on Valentine’s Day. We think their eldest son, Raul, who died in 2008, made the reservations and ordered the wine.

David and I will leave God’s Pocket next Tuesday for a few days to join his siblings, extended family and friends for Papa’s funeral. He will be buried on March 2, with full military honors, at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.

Love,
Susan

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Splitting Wood and Other Second Chances

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I successfully split two fat logs into stove-size firewood this afternoon. This is no small accomplishment for me. Last year, when I recognized the daily “nut” of firewood that the wood stove required of us in order to keep the house (and us) warm, I gave it a try so David, my husband, wouldn’t have to do it all. However, first, I was afraid of the axe. I had been warned to watch my swing so that the axe didn’t miss the log and hit my shin instead. Second, I didn’t leverage my body in the swing because see Number One. Third, the log didn’t break into pieces with one of my whacks like it does in the movies, so I assumed that I must be doing it wrong. Two whacks and I was done.

Today, with the possibility that David might go off island for family health reasons, we both decided it was time to give it another go. What I learned was that firewood doesn’t magically split, especially if the wood is wet or damp, and if the log is fat. Splitting wood is about dropping the axe with momentum – which is where the power comes from – on the wood until it cracks. That can require any number of swings, creating tiny fissures in the wood. Eventually, the log will have several cracks, and a whack or two later, it will split like it does in show business.

So many lovely lessons in this afternoon’s work. And maybe life gives you a “do over” now and again when you’ve been a doofus. Or more kindly put: when you weren’t yet ready for the experience in front of you.

We’ve hiked more in our few weeks here this year than we did the entire time last year. And I’ve allowed myself to be more adventurous, stepping in to my qualms and realizing they make excellent company when you bring them along rather than arguing with them. We attempted a hike the other day to the highest point on the island, Meeson Cone, which requires scrambling up and back down several steep hills, over and under fallen trees and including a few spots with rope assists. It was mostly fine, if a little sketchy in a few spots, and I realized how much I was enjoying the experience. It’s like I was remembering that I love to move and I love adventure. I felt more right about being out than I had before we left the house, qualms gently placed in the backpack along with the water and emergency radio.

The biggest “second chance” so far has been our trip into Port Hardy. Last year we had wanted to take the hour long boat ride to town, David for adventure and me for a few supplies (okay, the truth is that we were out of bourbon and chocolate). But we never made it as the weather didn’t cooperate and water looked too lumpy. Oh, and I was afraid and very resistant. Last Tuesday, we braved the very cold, clear air and flat waters, and took the skiff into Port Hardy without incident. We saw a pod of dolphin in the distance about halfway there, but it was otherwise uneventful.

Once in Port Hardy, we enjoyed lattes at the little upscale coffee shop-book store near the Canadian Coast Guard pier where we tied up. I bought Liz Gilbert’s “Big Magic – Creative Living without Fear” which I’d been wanting to read. We ran some errands for our hosts, Bill and Annie, and then shopped at the Save-On for groceries. A few hours later, we loaded up the skiff, and headed back to God’s Pocket. As we neared the islands, we saw a large otter, which dove under as we neared, and a seal pup with large eyes which didn’t, clearly inexperienced with motor boats.

Last year, when we saw wolves on the shore of Harlequin Bay (on the backside of our island) and I hopped online to do wolf research, I found PacificWild and fell in love with the organization’s work and website. I became an admirer of the Executive Director, Ian McAllister, for his leadership and work trying to protect the habitat and wildlife of the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia, for his photography and his books. Several weeks later, our hosts returned to God’s Pocket to begin preparations for the 2016 season, bringing with them two dive scouts and the cook. Overwhelmed by the sudden influx of people after five weeks of quiet with David, I snuck out to our room after dinner.  What I missed that night, a year ago, was a visit by Ian McAllister of PacificWild with the catamaran Habitat, along with a friend Paul Nicklen, a National Geographic photographer.

Apparently, I got a do over here, too. Yesterday afternoon, we had a lovely and rare visit. The Habitat docked at God’s Pocket and Ian McAllister and his team of three came up for a visit. He was in the area diving and filming underwater for his Imax film; one of his crew, Tim, was the caretaker here at God’s Pocket after the season ended last year until Christmas. We offered tea and chatted for a while before they went out, with David, for a dive just outside the Bay.

I got to tell Ian that I needed a “fan freak” moment about his work, his books and photography (I have one of his wolf pictures hanging in our guest bedroom/my office in our condo). (Click here for the gallery of gorgeous wildlife photos, videos, and documentaries.) He blushed a few times, but once I got that out of the way, I told him I was “done fussing” and we resumed our more relaxed chat. They came back up after their dive and dinner, and he gifted me a book of poems and photos, “The Wild In You,” that he collaborated on with a Canadian poet, Linda Crozier.  And as he left, he invited David and me to visit them on Denny Island, where he and his family make their home, and where PacificWild has its organizational base in the Great Bear Rainforest. We had made a new friend: in my book, that’s not a do over, that’s a do better!

For the last few days, we’ve had snow on the ground, and intermittent snow fall. Big floofy flakes have been swirling over the water and the deck, and resting gently to welcome more. Our coterie of birds and animals leave tracks in the snow and carry on with their routine not seeming to mind. I am filled with wonder, and gratitude.

Love,
Susan

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