Seeing God with the windows down and Mariah Carey on the car radio

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I’ll tell you my story about the time I saw God. But first, let me tell you about Women’s Night.

I have an extraordinary aunt, Tilde, my father’s sister. She and her great friend Dawn, who is as much a part of our family as any blood relative, used to host a dinner for the women of the family at Christmas every year.

Ours is a big family. There are easily more than 20 women just in the same town. They called the dinner Women’s Night.

Women’s Night was designed as a break from the frenzy of the holidays, without husbands or fathers or sons. The only purpose was to bond with one another and have fun, like a sleepover without the pillow fights or the sleeping and with way better food.

It was part therapy session and part holiday celebration. After dinner we would sit around a circle and they would invite us to share something about our lives and ourselves.

Usually we were given an assignment in advance. Each year the challenge was different. “Tell us about your happiest memory from childhood.” “What’s the bravest thing you ever did?” “What new thing did you learn about yourself this year?”

The walls we all build around ourselves and the secrets we keep, even from those closest to us, would dissolve on this one night each year. It was scary and hard. It was often hilarious. I don’t think I ever left a Women’s Night without having cried…a lot…and laughed even more. We connected in a way that is rare and beautiful, even magical.

It was their gift to us.

So back to that time I saw God. One year, at Women’s Night we were asked to recount a moment from any time in our lives when we felt the presence of God. (You know, nothing too heavy.)

For me, choosing the moment was easy. I remembered it because as it was happening, I actually thought, “God is here right now. He wants to play and laugh and make his presence known. And so he is.”

Here’s the story I recounted.

I had just picked up my twins from their last day of preschool before Christmas break. They were still high from the holiday party, the gift exchange and all the sweets when Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” came on the car radio.

“Turn it up mommy!” Hannah squealed. “Put the windows down mommy!” We had a habit of rolling down the windows and turning up the radio when a great song came on. It was our little bit of wildness.

Their school was located in the heart of our idyllic little downtown in Winter Park, Florida, a place so perfect it looks like it was conjured up from a dream.

With Mariah blaring and while stopped at a traffic light, Hannah yelled “Merry Christmas!” to a construction worker. He turned, smiled at her and shouted it back. And then another guy working alongside him did the same.

Squealing with delight, she shouted “Merry Christmas!” to an older lady walking her dog who looked up, waved and shouted back “Merry Christmas!” Peels of laughter rang out from the back seat.

“Hello there!” she yelled and waved to anyone within earshot. “Hello!” they responded, returning her bright smile.

I just want you for my own. More than you could ever know. Make my dreams come true…all I want for Christmas…

“Merry Christmas!” she shouted to a jogger and then to a guy riding a bike. Then to a group of men. Each one caught by surprise, turned to us, smiled and shouted back “Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas Mr. Postman!” she yelled as we turned into our neighborhood. Jake just giggled and whooped, delighting in his sister’s uninhibited joy. There we were, our own Christmas carol, dashing through streets laughing all the way. It was magical. Spontaneous. Real. Wondrous.

Baby all I want for Christmas is you…

By the time we pulled onto our street, I had tears in my eyes.

I looked in the review mirror at the face of pure joy…my wonderful girl, who in that moment felt nothing but unabashed love for everything and everyone…with the wind blowing her hair…the music filling the car…connecting with complete strangers in sheer happiness for a single perfect moment and then another and another.

I remember thinking that God simply decided to dissolve the walls and the secrets…and fully show his face on that beautiful day through that beautiful girl.

Merry Christmas.

December 24, 2016

My Big Baby

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(My goofball making me “prom pose” with him.)

Almost every morning when I drop off my kids at school, my 16-year old son says, “Bye mom. I love you.”

Sometimes this big kid even says, “Bye mommy.” I don’t dare tell him how much I love it for fear he’ll get self conscious and stop.

When he was younger he’d call out to me from around the house with a nonsensical “mommy, my-my, moo-moo, meemee!” It made me laugh so of course, it was ceaseless. Boys are like that. If they get a girl to laugh…be ready for a repeat performance.

He still tries to get my attention with a booming rant of “Mom. Mom. Mom. Mama. Mom. Mommy. Mom. Mama. Mom” when I’m standing right in front of him.

When you decide to have a child, you of course imagine cute babies and adorable toddlers. You generally know that they grow up to become actual people. But here’s the thing. You should yearn to have a teenage son.

Teenage sons are just long, lanky toddlers with deep voices and body odor.

He’s affectionate in the same way he was as a little boy. But now it’s a text from school after a chemistry test or when he learns the Yankees will retire Derek Jeter’s number.

He sneaks up behind me while I’m cooking and lifts me off the ground or hugs me and tackles me onto the couch to tickle me.

When I’m anxious about something like his taking the car, he teases me (in an exaggerated Spanish accent for some reason.) “Jes mom, I’m going to get into an asseedent yust driving to eschool fife minutes awaay.”

A few days ago, he told me that a girl he took out on a date texted him that she just wants to be friends. “How does that make you feel?” I asked. “I’m cool. I don’t really care.” And he doesn’t.

He’s easygoing and naturally happy. But he will care someday. He will fall in love and all that affection and closeness will shift to her, as it should.

But for now he’s my guy. My big baby. And I will savor every single moment. I know it is fleeting and I don’t take a moment for granted.

Fidel’s ashes.

img_7273(My parents at Varadero Beach in Cuba in the 1940s, blissfully unaware of the upheaval just ahead.)

My parents were ordinary, middle class people. Not wealthy. Not part of any one percent.

Castro’s death opened wounds I didn’t even know were there. It left me with a wistfulness I share with maybe millions of others. We are the children of the revolution, either looking in from the outside…or looking out from the inside.

We inherited the betrayal of a whole generation. To us, Cuba lived in our parents’ stories. A mysterious, elegant beautiful dream that turned into a nightmare.

For exiles and maybe Cubans living on the island, Castro’s death was supposed to revive that dream somehow, liberate us, begin to restore something sacred that was stolen.

But of course it doesn’t. It can’t. Fidel’s ashes travel across the island in an orchestrated funeral march. But they also float across the Florida Straits, mingling with the dust of so many long abandoned dreams of “next year in Cuba.”

My mom died five years ago. My dad has dementia. I’m exactly the same age as the aging Cuban revolution.

In death as in life, it’s infuriating how many people praise Castro or excuse him. President Obama called him “controversial” as if there’s a way to see tens of thousands of deaths, dehumanizing poverty, stolen property, decimated cities, fractured families and fear as anything but tragic. Oh right, literacy is ostensibly at 98 percent.

American slavery lasted hundreds of years. But no one today thinks slavery had any redeeming qualities or calls it “controversial.” No one praises the free healthcare that slaves received or argues plantation owners “loved” their slaves.

Fidel Castro was really one of the world’s last 19th century-style slave owners. No ships needed. His plantation was an entire island.

It’s easy to imagine how fear, starvation, executions, indoctrination and relentless oppression can make anyone a compliant slave, one that mourns the death of his master.

My parents took the Underground Railroad of the day–a Pan Am flight out in 1959. But many others risked and lost their lives to escape in boats or makeshift rafts…and still do.

It’s why I can’t be a tourist there. It would be like going to a picnic on a Southern plantation in 1830 and marveling at all those happy workers in the fields. “Bless their hearts. Look! They’re singing!” I personally can’t do it.

If you want to go dance salsa and drink a mojito in Havana, go ahead. I can’t yet. Not while Cubans are forbidden to leave. Forbidden to speak out against the system or its leaders.

Not while Cubans are unable to own their own property, monitored everywhere, even in their homes. Unable to sell the products of their own making. Unable to read news from the outside world. Unable to buy milk or meat or toilet paper because it’s rationed, plentiful only for tourists.

Cuba’s economy in 1954 was roughly equal to Italy’s at that time. Today it is half of what it was more than 60 years ago. Think about the repression necessary to keep people that hungry and desperate for more than half a century.

If you go there, have fun. Take pictures of the decay and stagnation and of the Cuban people whose spirit is so difficult to extinguish. But please understand it remains a prison for people who deserve better and have no way out.

I thank my parents that I’m an American.

I thank America that I can share my anti-Trump opinions on Facebook without fear of getting arrested come January.

I thank God my greatest worries are as trivial as they are…as they seemed to be for my parents on that day long ago on Varadero Beach.