I should title this post “Travels with Grace.”
Six weeks ago, I made the decision to move to Tucson for a job. Four weeks ago, my dad died. Less than three weeks ago, I drove the 2,067.8 miles to Tucson in my ten- year old car with my fifteen-year-old cat in a marathon three days.
Somewhere in the middle of all of that, I flew to Albuquerque where my family gathered to wrap my dad in love and comfort. It was as good as one could hope at the end of a life well lived. We got the new great grandson there in time to be snuggled by my dad.
Losing my dad has been the hardest transition in my life. I loudly proclaim he was my true North Star, always there to guide me, my champion and hero, and the best father figure a girl could hope for. In my heart, I still feel his steady faith in me, and I practice daily to attain his compassion and care for everything (except mosquitos and yellow jackets). I’m a work in progress on those eight-legged things, but so was my dad.
In a fog of grief, I flew back to Charlotte where I did a hard re-set to finish packing, got my Truck Tetris guys to load a sixteen-foot PODS with all my worldly goods, and finished cleaning out my beloved house with the help of a few friends.
I got in the car on a Tuesday morning to drive to Arizona. I was crying too hard to leave my driveway for at least fifteen minutes, but leave I did, without really having the time to say a proper goodbye to so many treasured friends. I tried very hard not to look in the rearview mirror as my neighborhood receded behind me, but I failed and decided to let the view follow behind like a vapor trail as reassurance I could always come back.
I blew kisses to many friends along the way all the way down I-85 to Atlanta and entered the dark hours of Alabama and Mississippi. The less said the better about that part of my trip. Someone turned out the lights in Alabama, and it was wet and miserable for my one night in Mississippi.
I drove from Meridian, Mississippi, to Abilene, Texas, on my second day. You might want to look at a map to grasp the distance. I can’t or I will have a mental breakdown of some sort.
When I finally merged due west onto I-20, I felt like the move was real. I saw my first possum on the half shell (armadillo) at exit 100 in Mississippi. I rapidly left the densely forested east behind but chased the bright and fresh greens of spring all the way across the Deep South. I think I stayed just enough ahead of the pine pollen to gloat a bit this year. I had my first deep accounting of grief for my dad when I crossed the mighty Mississippi River heading into Louisiana. I grew up a child of endless travel and road trips, and I recounted the many, many times I crossed that river with my family. For my dad, the Mississippi was a sort of talisman, a symbol of the greatness of America, a legend of so many stories we both loved. I honored him with a moment of silence as I crossed the river, and something shifted hard in my psyche. The work of accepting all of the massive changes going on in my life settled deep into my empty nooks and crannies in a sort of handshake with grief, and I felt like maybe, just maybe, I would survive.
Getting all of the way around Dallas and Fort Worth was my last jaw-clenching stress test of the drive, and it was down to hard, raw, tenacity to survive the last 90 miles to Abilene for my second night on the road. I was rewarded with a stunning sunset that I chased all of the way to my pillow for the night.
In the middle of my thirteen- and fourteen-hour days on the road, I realized the true lesson in all of this was the manner with which Miss Grace Olive Trogdon took it all in stride. Grace is something like 112 in cat years.
In 2001, I adopted two adult rescue Manx cats. Jackson “The Jumping Jack Flash” Trogdon left us two years ago. All these years later, I discovered that my timid and skittish crazy-girl-cat is actually an intrepid traveler! Looking for help from my skilled pet communicator, I scheduled a phone call to attempt to prepare Grace for this huge transition.
According to Betty (the pet communicator), Grace found the idea of all of this to be a big adventure and all that mattered was that we were together and we had Jack’s ashes with us. You can laugh and be skeptical about this whole Dr. Doolittle thing, but I can report that Grace was a changed feline. She willingly went into her lidded laundry basket in Charlotte and rode beside me for three long days, spent two nights exploring and purring in strange motel rooms, and acted as if it really was all a Big Fun Adventure. She even consented to wear a collar for the first time in her life with a blingy pink heart with her name and my cell number in case there was some disaster along the way. The collar and heart now reside on my bedside table and are referred to as “The Royal Jewels.”
The only negative reaction on the whole trip was when we stopped at the Texas Welcome Center. Grace was having a bit of a stretch outside of her basket while I was eating some yogurt. A woman with platinum blonde BIG TEXAS HAIR was walking toward us, and Grace looked out the window, got big owl eyes, backed up against me, and then dove for her basket. It was some REALLY big hair!
The last day on the road was a bit of a blur. West Texas was intensely lonesome, windy, and very chilly. The desert landscape was stunning with a sweep of spring blooms in patches of purples, sage greens, blues and yellows in broad brush stokes stretched out as far as the eye could see. I saw my first wind farms outside of Abilene and snorted at the juxtaposition of inactive oilrigs beside the huge wind turbines. Merging from I-20 onto I-10 was the beginning of the slow steady climb to higher altitudes. I was rocked and blocked by the big-rigs flying along this stretch of open America. I crested long uphill climbs at 80 miles an hour that tested my little car and coasted down the endless bump-da-bumps of cement interstate in the middle of nowhere. I thought I would never make it to El Paso, and when I did, I wished I would never have to see it again.
I called my mom when I crossed the New Mexico state line to say I was in the same time zone and state and making headway. I was so glad to see Texas in my rearview mirror! At the first New Mexico rest stop, I brewed a cup of coffee and had a nice encounter with a bright-eyed inquisitive roadrunner, but no wily coyotes.
(You didn’t think I would drink sub-standard coffee on this trip, did you?)
Dealing with Border Patrol at a traffic stop was jarring to say the least. Huge metal shelters have been erected beside the interstate, and all traffic is routed over into long lines to go through a checkpoint where Border Patrol Officers look in and around your car and drug dogs sniff the perimeter of your car. Gahh. Welcome to life near the frenzy of hate for “illegals” and drug traffic.
Our last rest stop was about 90 miles from Tucson in Texas Canyon, Arizona. Grace popped her head out of her basket to look around before the last leg of our drive. She was done with the leg stretching and impatient to get on with it! It was a long up and down through canyons flanked by serious mountain ranges, but we managed to pull into Tucson before true sunset. I was greeted inside with a cheerful pot of daffodils and a bottle of wine on the counter. Home-sweet-temporary-home!
Grace and I have been perched in these temporary quarters in Tucson for eighteen days. Over Easter weekend, we traveled another hard nine hours each way to be with my mom and sister. Daddy would have been 85 on April 4th, and I wanted to be with my family. Once again Grace helped me survive a hard ride there and back and offered some love and comfort to all of us while we visited my mom in Albuquerque.
The job is intense and time consuming and a wee bit intimidating. I sell tile and stone to people who trust me to help them make major design decisions that they then have to live with. No pressure there! But it is just like selling antique Oriental rugs, and I did that for nearly fifteen years of my life and had a pretty high success rate. Honestly, the difficulty is in the work-flow of paper work. Each tile vendor has a different calculation, some have shipping fees, some have a requirement that you pat your head and rub your belly…kidding, but it is A LOT TO LEARN. Now, let me really sum up my work situation: I’m working with SERENA. What is not to love?
Next weekend, I move into the house I have rented. It is perched in a community on the side of a Mesa overlooking the mountains north of Tucson. I’m close to work, there is room to breathe, and I can’t wait to sleep in my own bed again.
The weekend after that, I am back in Albuquerque to attend the memorial services for my dad. There will be a full Masonic funeral with Military Color Guard and a piper. I will cry a lot. I mean, who doesn’t cry when bagpipes are played at a funeral? We have an additional service and reception on Sunday, and I will try not to cry at all as I plan to honor the amazing human that was my dad. I want to make sure people laugh and celebrate because he was that sort of person.
Because this is actually a food blog, I’m including a recipe that I made earlier this week. I bought some ground lamb when I went to the Rillito market for the first time, and I needed to use up the veggies that were still in the fridge.
I know this was a long post, but it has been several weeks since I have had time to write all of this down. Grace is curled up in my lap purring. She wanted me to be sure to end this with her following words of wisdom:
“Never underestimate your ability to handle change and never ever believe you are too old to find yourself some Big Interesting Adventures.”
I am a bit dazzled by her scrappy Wagons-Ho cattitude!
- For the meatballs:
- 1 pound ground lamb
- 1 Tbsp. olive oil
- ½ large yellow onion, diced fine
- 6 ounces white mushrooms, diced fine
- 4 cloves garlic, minced very fine
- 2 Tbsp. fresh mint leaves, chopped fine
- 2 Tbsp. fresh basil leaves, chopped fine
- 2 tsp. kosher salt, divided
- 1 tsp. ground black pepper
- Grilled Vegetables:
- ½ yellow onion
- 3 zucchini squash
- 3 yellow squash
- 2 red bell peppers
- 2 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1 tsp. kosher salt
- 1 tsp. ground black pepper
- 4 cloves finely diced fresh garlic
- 1 tsp. dried oregano
- 1 tsp. dried thyme
- 1 tsp. dried basil
- Lemon-herb dressing
- Juice of ½ lemon
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 tsp. kosher salt
- 6 fresh mint leaves, torn into pieces
- 6 fresh basil leaves, torn into pieces
- cook according to your package directions.
- In a hot sauté pan over medium low heat, sauté the finely diced onion in the olive oil until it starts to wilt, stirring often to prevent browning. When the onions are softened, add the finely diced mushrooms and 1 tsp. salt. Stir occasionally until all of the moisture has evaporated. Add all of the chopped garlic and stir until well combined then scrape out of the pan into a large mixing bowl and set aside to cool.
- Cook the quinoa according to your package directions. I use chicken stock and a little bit of butter and salt in mine. Allow this to simmer while you to move on to the next steps.
- Meanwhile, cut the vegetables into bite-size chunks and add them to a bowl big enough to accommodate tossing with the oil and seasonings. Drizzle with all of the oil, sprinkle with the salt, pepper, diced garlic and dried herbs. Toss well with your hands and leave them to marinate. Heat the grill and a grill basket for at least 10 minutes before you are ready to cook the vegetables.
- Spray a 9 x 13 baking dish with spray release or coat well with olive oil.
- Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
- When the onion, mushroom, and garlic mixture is cool, add the ground lamb to the bowl. Mix gently but thoroughly with your hands, sprinkle with the remaining 1 tsp. kosher salt and the ground black pepper and combine. Add the chopped fresh herbs and mix in gently. Roll into ½ inch round balls and line them up in the 9 x 13 dish.
- Place in the hot oven and cook for 20 minutes. Do not overcook the lamb!!!
- Grill the vegetables 15 to 20 minutes until they are softened and starting to show black grill marks. A grilling wok or grill basket makes this much easier.
- While the meatballs are cooking and the veggies are grilling, make the dressing.
- Add the lemon juice, olive oil, salt and freshly torn herbs to a jar with a tight fitting lid. Screw the lid on and shake really well. Taste to see if you need more salt or oil; it should be tangy but not twangy sharp.
- To serve, place some quinoa in the bottom of a large pasta bowl. Add the grilled vegetables and then the lamb meatballs. Drizzle with the lemon herb dressing and serve.