Losing Esther: An Inadequate Tribute

Esther Marie Isaacson

Esther Marie Isaacson

This past weekend, my husband and I traveled to Lompoc, California to attend a memorial service for one of the best women I have ever known, Esther Isaacson.

Esther was the wife of a cattle rancher, Baine Isaacson, and she worked hard all her life. She had a grip like a stevedore from all the physical work she did—forking hay off trucks for cows, digging her garden, putting in fence posts, etc. She and her husband raised three boys on their ranch, called El Chorro, “The Stream.” She had simple tastes. Her clothes were usually blue and white, she wore blue tennies most of the time, and sometimes she sported a little silk scarf at her throat. She didn’t care much about possessions, and for the last 15 years or so of her life, she tried to give them all away. The only things she collected were bells. She had jingle bells, cowbells, reindeer bells, every sort of bells. They hung on the little patio outside the front door and in her tiny breakfast nook, strung on leather straps and woven belts. Getting in and out of the nook always occasioned a good jingle or two.

Esther was my refuge. My first memory of her was when I was six years old, visiting the ranch with my family for the first time. She and Baine radiated kindness, caring and love. She sent me out to play on the ranch with her youngest son, Bob, who was perhaps eight or nine at the time. Bob was as sunny, sweet and kind as his parents. He showed me the boys’ clubhouse—a signal honor—and we caught frogs in the creek, climbed the hills, and chased the cows. One of the best days of my little life.

When I was older and my heart was broken, I came to Esther and she took me in. She never asked questions, just let me stay with her in her ranch house on the hill. I roamed all day on the ranch and in the evening helped her cook. We shopped, sat by the fire, washed dishes, and played cards while I struggled with my aching heart and damaged self-esteem. Her acceptance, quiet presence and love sustained me, and I returned to my life with a renewed sense of strength and self-respect. In truth, I have never been the same since. (My epiphany also had a lot to do with a certain coyote that lived on the ranch, but that is a different story.)

Esther Marie Ibbetson was born in 1912 in Solvang, California. Solvang was founded as a “colony” for Danish ex-patriots, a town where they could speak their own language and teach Danish to their children, eat Danish foods, sing Danish songs, folkdance, and perpetuate their culture. In the earlier days, there were no cars and few roads. Her father was a carpenter, but they lived in a one-room house with a canvas slung down the middle to separate the living quarters from his office. Esther said it was a case of the cobbler’s children—her father was so busy with other people’s houses he had no time to work on his own. However, she noted that houses were often built by the community for newcomers, and the expenses were worked out later.

My mother and Esther traveled a lot together after Baine died. They went to Mexico, Greece, Spain, New Zealand, Guatemala, Fiji, Australia, and many other places, and came home giggling together like schoolgirls. Losing my mother was a great blow to Esther, who often mentioned her with longing for their free-roaming travels.

I won’t say that Esther was amazingly progressive for a woman of her generation, because she was just amazingly progressive, period. She was not religious at all. She loved the land, and practiced her own brand of recycling and conservation long before it became mainstream. She was one of the few girls in her community who went to college, and she married late (for the era) because she didn’t want to stop working. She deplored prejudice, ideology and narrow thinking, and read and thought deeply her entire life.

Esther loved wildflowers—including weeds—and she loved her garden of native plants. She called it her “moon garden,” because it didn’t resemble a typical garden. (A casual visitor might think it was “just” weeds.) She thought planting invasive exotics like English ivy was deplorable when we had so many lovely, drought-resistant plants native to California. Walking on the ranch with her was always a lesson in the local flora and fauna—there was nothing about the land she loved so much that she did not know.

She was 102 years old when she died, and she was more than ready. She lost her husband, her youngest son, two daughters-in-law and many friends before she died herself. She told my sister that “Getting old is so boring!” and my husband (sometime during her 90’s) that “No one should have to live this long.” She didn’t die of any illness. Her heart was fine, and so was her blood pressure and pulse. She just wound down like an old clock and stopped ticking.

So I am not sad for Esther, who was prepared and ready for death. I am sad for myself, because this kind, loving, multifaceted woman is gone from me. The world has lost a treasure, but I know that every human being she touched is the better for that contact. I only hope to carry forward that gift in my own life to give to others.

Goodbye, Esther. I will always love you dearly. Thank you for your kindness and love. Thank you for offering my heart a safe place in this dangerous world.

* * * *

My thanks to the many people who spoke at Esther’s memorial for reminding me of many things I might otherwise have forgotten. Special thanks to Sally Isaacson for putting together and editing Esther’s notes about her childhood and making them available to us.

Things I Will Miss (or Not) about Spain

Marquis de Riscal winery, designed by Frank Gehry

Marquis de Riscal winery, designed by Frank Gehry

Things I Will Miss:

The food. You can get delicious food almost everywhere in Spain, often for little money. It’s heavy on fat, so it tends to be rich and satisfying. Even little holes in the wall offer yummy stuff, freshly prepared. Before I move on, I have to mention a very special restaurant, La Tertulia, in Barcelona. We ate there on the recommendation of our hotel, and it was only a short walk away. We ate outside in a charming patio. By this time, we were getting tired of meat and ordered several dishes of vegetables. All were simply delicious–and so was the menu. I took a few shots of it to treasure, as the English translations of the Spanish descriptions were adorable:

  • Mejillones con ajo y perejil al vino turbio: “Mussels, garlic & parsley to the turbid wine”
  • Paellas: “Cooked by 30% with sea water broth with healthy clams & truly sea”
  • Caldereta de arroz con bogavante: “Lobster soggy”
  • Costillar de Iberico a baja temperatura con grasa de barbacoa: “Iberian ribs low temperature with greasy smoky barbecue”

We ordered some Spanish brandy after the meal. The waiter poured us two enormous servings. There was a finger or so of brandy left in the bottle, so he shrugged and told us to finish it off, leaving the bottle on the table. Tipping is not common in Spain, but this guy got a nice one.

The people. Almost everyone we encountered was helpful and friendly–sometimes extraordinarily so. They worked hard to understand my execrable Spanish. Complete strangers rushed to help if we were having difficulties. Lovely people.

The art and architecture. Spain appears to be a country that values art, and it shows. Although I have traveled to many countries and toured many beautiful buildings, I don’t think I have ever been as gobstopped by architectural beauty before–especially the Alhambra, La Mesquita, the Guggenheim, and La Sagrada Familia. I do not expect to see anything, ever, that surpasses La Sagrada Familia.

Western light, La Sagrada Familia

Western light, La Sagrada Familia

The wine. As with the food, you can get good wine very cheaply everywhere. Pay a couple more Euros, and you can get GREAT wines.

What I Will Not Miss:

The food. Yes, I know I said I would miss it, but there is a downside. There’s jamon in everything, just about. I know Spain is famous for its jamon, and there are pig’s hindquarters hanging in every restaurant, but I can take it or leave it. When it comes to cured meats (except for bacon, and then it has to be cooked crisp), I can pretty much leave it. Spanish food is very meat-oriented, so if you are eating in restaurants all the time, you might not wind up with enough vegetables in your diet. I once received a platter containing a quarter of an entire lamb that boasted a single asparagus stalk. Also, the food is high-fat, which is delicious at first, but I became rather sated with it. Despite the reputation for tapas being small dishes, even when I ordered medio raciones (half portions), sometimes we received huge platters and basins of food that put American restaurants to shame for serving size. Just too much food.

jamon

Smoking. More people smoke in Spain than in my native California (though I cannot speak for other parts of the U.S.). Being former smokers, Tom and I loathe the smell–I think it’s something your brain does to help you stay clean. People no longer smoke inside restaurants, but they can smoke in the outdoor eating areas. Nothing ruins a pleasant meal in the open air more than cigaret smoke. And the ground everywhere is littered with butts. Gross.

The Weird Reservation Thing: Several times when Tom and I arrived at a more or less upscale restaurant without reservations, we were turned away–even though there were plenty of available tables. In one case, there was not another soul in the entire restaurant. I don’t get it.

That’s all she wrote, folks! I appreciate all the “Likes” and comments I’ve gotten on my trip blog. It’s back to work on the next novel, and I’ll try to think of something interesting to say soon.

Scrambling To Get It All In: The Last Day

Our last day in Spain finally arrived. We decided to get some breakfast and head down to La Rambla, a long mall that leads down to the harbor. Traffic goes by on either side of a pedestrian mall, with booths and kiosks in the middle and shops on either side of the traffic lanes (where shops are usually located, actually). We were warned that this was a prime area for pickpockets. so we were on the alert.

There were tons of people walking la Rambla. Most of the kiosks were selling the same old stuff we had seen everywhere else in Spain–cheap “Flamenco” shawls, a Spanish dancer doll (the exact same one in every city), t-shirts–augmented by Barcelona-specific stuff like Gaudi-inspired plates and keychains. Then we came to the open-air market, La Boqueria. This was a feast for the senses, and if we had not already had breakfast, we would have bought something delicious here. The stalls were piled high with fresh fish and shellfish; eggs of all kinds, from emu to ostrich to quail; the obligatory stalls with pig haunches hanging and cured meats on display; every sort of nut you could imagine; dried and fresh chilis; sweets; exotic fruits; piles of tripe, lambs’ heads, kidneys and other offal meats; spices, teas and coffees. it was overwhelming and beautiful.

Dried chilis

Dried chilis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Offal meats

Offal meats

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shellfish

Shellfish

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every sort of egg

Every sort of egg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seafood

Seafood

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After this feast for the eyes, we continued down La Rambla, stopping just before the harbor to photograph the living statues. There was Don Quixote, a person dressed like a Salvador Dali painting, a Remington cowboy statue (probably the most boring, despite his dramatic pose), a demon (entertaining), a “bronze statue” of Galileo, and several more.

An entertaining demon

An entertaining demon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dali lady. Not sure the person inside the costume was actually a lady, but no matter.

Dali lady

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By that time it was hot, and we were reasonably near the Barcelona Aquarium, so we went there for a few hours. For people whose local fish museum is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Barcelona Aquarium cannot measure up, but I did see some interesting fish I hadn’t seen before. Unfortunately, labeling was kind of random. You’d see a label above one tank, with no sign of the supposed denizen, then see the same fish in another tank that had no such fish identified as being there. Nonetheless, it was a pleasant couple of hours out of the heat. I do think someone tried to pick my purse in the aquarium. I was waiting in line to buy mineral water and carelessly left the zipper open, displaying credit cards and cash. I saw a hand creep across the ledge in front of me, heading toward my purse. As soon as I clocked the hand, it suddenly became very interested in the surface of the ledge, which had nothing on it but crumbs. I zipped the bag.

Seahorses in Barcelona Aquarium

Seahorses in Barcelona Aquarium

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This iguana had such a pleasant expression that I just had to photograph him. Or her.

This iguana had such a pleasant expression that I just had to photograph him. Or her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don't know what this fish is due to random labeling, but I liked it.

I don’t know what this fish is due to random labeling, but I liked it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the afternoon, we went to Parc Guel. Gaudi had a house there (designed by someone else), and he designed a beautiful installation in the park that would look very familiar had we actually gone in. We already had tickets to see his house and we wandered around the free area of the park, which is also very Gaudi-esque, but not the iconic installation everybody was lined up to pay for. When we went through his house, I was astonished to find out that despite the over-the-top ornateness and whimsy of his work, Gaudi lived a very austere and simple life. His furnishings were simple and sparse. He cared nothing for clothes or material things for himself. A remarkable contrast.

The area of Parc Guel we did not go in, showing more of Gaudi's amazing work.

The area of Parc Guel we did not go in, showing more of Gaudi’s amazing work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kids playing with giant bubbles in Parc Guel

Kids playing with giant bubbles in Parc Guel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gaudi's house in Parc Guel

Gaudi’s house in Parc Guel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tom standing under a Gaudi-designed bridge in Parc Guel

Tom standing under a Gaudi-designed bridge in Parc Guel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We left without paying to go into the most interesting part of the park, which I kind of regret.

We had an early dinner at a boring restaurant where a large group of people (maybe 100 or so) were playing Scrabble (in Catalan? At least they’d have a ready use for all those X’s!), and so to bed.

Adios, Spain. We had a wonderful time!

More soon about a menu that made me laugh and things I will miss/not miss so much about Spain.

Inside the Light: La Sagrada Familia

Tom and I arrived home safely after a very long travel day. After decompressing a little (we went to see “the Book of Mormon” on our first night back), I now feel ready to tackle the inside of La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi’s masterpiece in Barcelona. As it happens, this post is a lot shorter than I thought it would be because–embarrassingly, for a writer–words failed me.

While the exterior is amazing, intricate and fascinating, the inside is simply indescribable. I can’t imagine why none of the art history courses I took ever showed a photo of the interior. I’m not going to provide the statistics on how big it is, because the numbers could not possibly begin to inform as to the size, scope and vastness of this space.

The east side of the nave has stained glass windows in blues and greens, while the west side windows are in oranges, yellows and reds. We were there in the afternoon, so the light was pouring through the west windows. The stained glass is laid in abstract patterns, not representational images, but the effect of the light was magical. It lit the cathedral in a way that cannot be described with words, and the photos don’t do it justice. The light is both ethereal and dynamic, with an energy that is alive and uplifting. I would like to see the east side in the morning to experience the effect of the light streaming through the cool-colored windows.

Light from the west windows, La Sagrada Familia

Light from the west windows, La Sagrada Familia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interior, lit by west windows, La Sagrada Familia

Interior, lit by west windows, La Sagrada Familia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Standing o the west side of the nave, looking east, La Sagrada Familia

Standing on the west side of the nave, looking east, La Sagrada Familia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Western light, La Sagrada Familia

Western light, La Sagrada Familia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stairs to the choir loft near the sanctuary, La Sagrada Familia

Stairs to the choir loft near the sanctuary, La Sagrada Familia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even the organ pipes are transformed by the light

Even the organ pipes are transformed by the light

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While the stonework and other elements are amazing and  impressive, for me, the experience was all about the light. I have lots of other photos, and I’d be glad to post them if anyone is interested, but I don’t think I can really say much more about it. The interior of La Sagrada Familia is a miracle of light that so encompassed and raised my spirit that the other details became unimportant. Finis.