An honest take on life and parenthood

Why I Never Celebrated Father’s Day with My Dad

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My father in his 20’s

I didn’t grow up celebrating Father’s Day in any meaningful way. I didn’t love or even like my stepfather, so I have no memories of the holiday as a child.

Memories of my own father were dim at best, since I had last seen him when I was four or five.

My American mom rarely spoke of him. When she did, she either teased me about looking just like him, or pointed out something awful he or his mother had done, which justified getting the hell out of her marriage and Mexico, where she was married and where my sister and I were born.


My mother at eighteen, the year before she married my father

I wrote my college essay about those distant memories of my father, and questions about my identity and where I fit into American society. Not long after I sent in my acceptance to Yale, I told my mom I wanted to meet my father again.

Resigned to the inevitable, my mother broke her long silence and reopened contact with my father and his family.

In the beginning of August 1989, a few weeks before I started my freshman year of college, my father arrived in the Philadelphia International Airport. My mother, sister, and I stood at the gate, waiting with bated breath to meet this man who had flitted like a shadow across our lives.

As my father walked down the arrival ramp, I studied him. His skin was brown, and his black hair was thinning, hairline receding. His nose was aquiline, a masculine version of my own. He walked with a rolling gait with his shoulders slightly hunched, walking as a shy or introverted person might, both of which he was. He was neither tall nor short, though I remembered him with the graceful build of a slim matador. He spoke English with a heavy accent, and his voice was deeper than I expected.

“Hola, Queenie,” he greeted me, using the nickname he had bestowed on me when I was a tiny child, making my stomach flip flop unexpectedly.

Over the next fifteen years, we attempted to rebuild a relationship that had been destroyed by the ravages of time and resentment and international immigration law. It was a messy seesaw, particularly as I tried to navigate the loyalties to the mother who raised me, and my intense desire to know my father and understand who I was.

My father and I would become alternately frustrated and angry as we struggled to understand each other, yet we kept trying. He took me to visit and experience some of the most remarkable places in Mexico, including the pyramids of Teotihuacan, the Museum of Anthropology, the Basilica of the Virgen of Guadalupe, the magnificent Zocalo of Mexico City, the poetic island of Janitzio with Patzcuaro on the mainland, and the beautiful colonial cities of Guanajuato, Morelia, Queretaro, Taxco, and San Miguel de Allende, to name a few.

He took me to Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta, where I ate fresh seafood and ripe mangos dusted with chile and salt on a stick, and drank icy coconut water straight out of the fruit.  My father did his best to introduce me to the cultural and culinary treasures of a country that was my birthright, and it transformed me.

In spite of his best attempts to put on a good show, my father was not well. He never had been. Unable to work in a traditional profession as his younger siblings did, he lived simply and subsisted on a small income from my abuelita. His hoarding and alcoholism and bouts of severe depression created physical and emotional walls that were difficult, if not impossible, to surmount.

By my early 30’s, I had come to accept that he would not and could not be the kind of father I had always dreamed of. With that realization came a sense of peace. I went to visit after Christmas one year, and several aunts and uncles and cousins gathered at my Aunt Lupita’s house one evening to break the traditional rosca de reyes bread and see who found the tiny plastic toy baby Jesus inside. (The person who finds the baby is on the hook to host a tamale party the following month).

After enjoying bread and Mexican hot chocolate, everyone quietly disappeared. My father and I sat companionably at Aunt Lupita’s hearth, a crackling fire warming the cool January air. He smoked a cigarette as I sat in a chair next to him as we gazed into the flames. We didn’t talk, nor did we feel the need to.

A few months later, I called my abuelita’s house and my Uncle Tito answered the phone. He told me that my father had Stage 4 cancer of the bladder and bones. The news had surprised the entire family.

Stunned, I packed up my apartment in NYC, threw my belongings into storage, and flew to Mexico. I vowed that he would not be alone when he died. Two weeks later, I was there when he took his last breath, white curtains fluttering in the cool breeze of the Mexican night as his spirit flew to freedom. He was 61.

Now, all these years later, I sometimes catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and see my father glancing back at me. I draw my breath and laugh a little.

I never celebrated Father’s Day with my dad, but somehow, it doesn’t matter anymore.


My father as a boy with my Uncle Tito, Aunt Ana Rosa, and Aunt Lupita. He’s the little guy on the right in the fedora.


Maldonado family portrait. My dad is seated,the second on the left.


My father holding me when I was four days old.


Goodnight, Sweet Prince


I’m anything BUT funky and freaky, but let me tell you – I loved Prince.

When he died two weeks ago, I could not accept his passing for two entire days. It seemed so impossible. He was Prince! The Purple One was ever present, always would be.

His music and presence indelibly marked my formative years and some of my most important friendships. Prince was an eternally youthful, endlessly creative artist who didn’t give a rat’s ass what people thought of him. He mesmerized me.

I am embarrassed to admit that I never went to see him in concert because I thought he would be around forever. I ran in nerd packs and I was not a big concert goer. In the back of my mind, I thought that there was plenty of time to see him live one day.

The regret is KILLING me.

All I can do now is binge on his music, his videos as they come to light, pictures, old interviews, and articles.

Writing is my other coping mechanism, so here we are.


I take four things away from Prince’s passing.

  • Go see your favorite artists perform. If you love an artist, go see them in concert. It doesn’t matter if they are still huge stars or not. Live performances by truly talented artists trump video and the in-person experience cannot be replicated. If you are a geek like me, I encourage you to bust out of your dorkdom for a night so that you do not live with salty regret later.


  • Exercise quiet good. We now know that Prince gave to many organizations and people with little to no fanfare. He frequently gave anonymously or instructed the organizations to avoid publicizing his philanthropy. I started practicing this philosophy last year, and I enjoy the sweet secrecy of it. It’s a good feeling, and I remind myself of it on days I feel low.


  • Be yourself. Prince defied labels and boxes. We could each see some of ourselves in him, even if none of us resembled him at all. He was also far from perfect. He was vain, he could be eccentric and temperamental, and he could be a jerk sometimes. But he was unapologetically himself – impossible to categorize, impossible to forget. And what a sense of humor! We loved him in spite of, or maybe even because, he was so very human.


  • Use your talents. Prince was a musical genius, a modern Mozart with spectacular dance moves, huge stage presence, and incredible fashion sense. While the rest of us mortals were not blessed with the range or depth of his almost supernatural talents, we each have something of value to share with the world. He considered some of his work better than others, but it did not stop him from making music or venturing into uncharted waters with varying degrees of success. Even when he was successful, he continued taking risks and growing artistically. He squeezed every last drop out of his talents. So should you. So should I.

With that, my friends, I leave you. I am off to enjoy more of his incredible music, as I attempt to get used to a world without him.

Peace and be wild.


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A sweet surprise from Grand Central Station


Lexington Passage. Credit: Google images

The day before Valentine’s Day, I stopped by the Jo Malone shop in the Lexington Passage at Grand Central Station. The elegant glass box of a store is small, as all of the stores in the corridor are.

I could not pass up the chance to browse at my leisure without a tiny curious Pooh or impatient husband at my side, so in I went.

Jo Malone is a scent lover’s paradise. The exquisite fragrances are neatly displayed and easily accessible. A topper with a black fabric bow accompanies each bottle, so you can check out each one without spraying it.

I shamelessly sniffed all of the fragrances there and pined for a few of them. I asked the young clerk, “Is business good for Valentine’s Day?” She told me it had been slower than she expected.

I continued my browsing, looking at the candles and bath oils and other lovely items perfectly arranged on the shelves.

While I browsed, a well-heeled woman asked for a sample of Wood Sage and Sea Salt from the clerk. She tucked it into her expensive purse, and left, presumably for the Upper East Side.

I observed the exchange, thinking, “Hmm. You can request a sample? Interesting.”

A short time later, the clerk offered a cologne sample to me, even though I never requested one. But hey, I love Jo Malone and I was not going to turn down her offer. The products are expensive, so I have not ever splurged on them.

When I arrived back to my hotel that night, I found the tiny box, and discovered that she actually gave me TWO samples! Dark Amber and Ginger Lily, and Peony and Blush Suede. Both were beautiful fragrances that I loved. She was clearly paying attention to my fussing.

So to the attentive clerk at Jo Malone, thank you so much. You totally made my day. I hope karma brings you a delightful surprise of your own this week.

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Jo Malone products. Credit: Google Images



And Now We Are Six


The Pooh appeared in this world six years ago, fat snowflakes heralding her arrival in the evening darkness.

After I gave a final push, Dr. Heinzel announced, “It’s a girl!”, which caught me by surprise. I had been expecting a boy.

The nurses weighed and cleaned her, wrapped her in that universal white blanket with blue and pink stripes, and brought her to me.

I took one look at her smushed face, red and puffy from my 22-hour labor, and fell hopelessly in love.

Fast forward to today.

Once again, fat snowflakes are falling outside my window, but we are home this time, together on a snow day.


The Pooh’s days of infancy are far behind her. The baby chub and delectable tiny toes are gone, replaced by skinny legs and long golden brown hair.

She sees herself as separate from me now. She is her own little person, with perpetually warm hands and a fierce heart and a sharp wit.

Today she is six. Six years away from birth, six years away from twelve and tweendom.

I will enjoy this day, this sixth birthday, and I will think about the night she arrived, and the days after, and each birthday since.

Because each birthday is a celebration for mommies too.

Happy birthday, Pooh.



Of Monday morning meltdowns and do-overs

20151230_120654Have you ever had one of those mornings with your child when you start the day off fighting about simple things?

The Pooh and I started off that way on Monday morning.

I woke her up at 7 am as I always do, got her dressed, gave her breakfast, and let her watch Sofia the First on Disney Junior.

I packed her lunch, fed Callie the cat and Baby Fish IV, and warmed up the car.

When I approached her to brush her teeth, wash her face, and go to the bathroom before leaving for school, she had not touched her breakfast. She even had the gall to ask for another episode on TV and more time to eat.

Unsympathetic, I refused more TV and informed her that she would have to eat her breakfast in the car on the way to school.

We started arguing, since then she refused to brush her teeth. Breakfast after brushing would taste funny, you see.

After considerable arguing, yelling, and crying, we ended up leaving the house, late for school.

I buckled her into her car seat, but she had not washed her face, brushed her teeth, or gone to the potty. Her hair was barely out of bird’s nest stage.

My only victory was the homemade zucchini bread in her hand, which she ate on the way. I was sure her teacher would think I was the worst mother ever, but I was done fighting and just wanted to get on with the day.

As I left her in her kindergarten classroom, she had joined the circle for her morning meeting. I caught her eye and blew her a kiss. She nodded and gave me a smile.

I wanted her to know that in spite of our earlier battle, I still loved her.


I did not enjoy my own childhood. It was an anxious, stressful existence and I always felt decades older than my true age. I also did not gravitate naturally towards little kids and babies, and had little idea of how to interact with them.

When I learned that I would become a parent, I was excited but apprehensive. Would I be a good mom? How could I make sure that my little one would be as healthy as possible, not just physically, but emotionally and psychologically? Could I teach her to be more resilient than I was?

So when the Pooh arrived, I fell in love with her instantly, but I had no idea how to be a mother. I figured it out on the fly, and now I know that everyone else does too.


As I have gone through different stages with her, I have found a surprise benefit to parenting: a do-over.

The Pooh gives me a chance to do childhood over again.

The playing, the dancing, the learning of emotional ropes.

The laughing, the silliness, and the discovery of places and people and books.

The flouncing, the giggles, and the grappling with questions, some big, some minute and endless.

I am 44 and she is nearly six, and there are times that I don’t want to play in the ocean or go sledding or play dolls. But I do, and we have so much fun that I wonder why I hesitated in the first place.


Sometimes she asks me questions that I cannot answer.  I confess my ignorance, and I see a flash of disappointment in her bright brown eyes.

The Pooh is strong willed and persistent and logical, and while it is – ahem – challenging to parent her at times, I refuse to steamroll her for the sake of having a docile, obedient child.

I want her to be able to stand her ground and think for herself, instead of going along to get along as I have for so much of my life.

And in the meantime, I work to teach her flexibility and empathy for others, and which important lines cannot be crossed.

As we battle and laugh and play and talk, I see the world through the eyes of a little girl again, and I can’t help but wonder what kind of woman she will grow up to be.




As we approach the Pooh’s sixth year on the planet, I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude towards her. Yes, parenting is tons of work, with highlights and lowlights and tedium and fun, all rolled into one little person and years that telescope into one another.

But as I mother the Pooh, I have learned what it is to also mother myself.

Thanks to her, I’ve had the chance to hit the reset button on childhood.

And what a beautiful childhood it is.


Recipe: Pan de muerto (for bread machine)

If you know sweet bread from Mexico, you are familiar with pan de muerto, the special bread that is made only around the time of the Day of the Dead in early November.  This buttery, orange-scented bread is reminiscent of brioche, and tastes wonderful with a cup of Mexican hot chocolate.

For two years running now, I have made pan de muerto at home for the Pooh’s class and for friends. I always intend to publish the recipe and my method here on my blog. But in both years, I let it slip. Ah, good intentions…

I’ve decided that I will publish it here and now in January regardless, and repost it again in late October and early November. If I don’t do it now, I might not get to it again. Besides, why not?

The first time I made this bread, I used Fany Gerson’s recipe for pan de muerto on Fine I liked it because the recipe was straightforward and most closely resembled the bread that is made in my birthplace, Celaya, in the beautiful state of Guanajuato.

Fany’s wonderful recipe, along with a demonstration slide show for making the bread manually, can be found here:

The first year, I followed her recipe exactly. The second year, in a flash of lazy inspiration, I decided to use a bread machine.

I adapted the recipe slightly and ended up with fabulous results. (Why didn’t I use the machine last year? Mensa.) This past year, I was churning out loaves of pan de muerto so fast that my kitchen started to resemble a pop up panaderia.

Without further ado, here you go, bread fiends:

Pan de Muerto  (Bread Machine method)

Bread Ingredients:

  • ½ cup whole milk
  • 5 ½ tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
  • Freshly grated orange zest from 1/3 of a navel orange
  • 1 Tablespoon of orange blossom water
  • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 3 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour or bread flour
  • 1 ¾ teaspoon (or one standard packet) active dry yeast


  • ½ stick of butter (4 tablespoons)
  • ¼ cup granulated white sugar

Oven: 350 degrees Farenheit


  1. As your first layer, place these liquid ingredients in the bottom of your bread machine baking pan: milk, butter, orange zest, orange blossom water, eggs 20151124_085046
  2. As your second layer, add the sugar and salt
  3. For the third layer, add the all-purpose flour or bread flour (all-purpose flour will work just fine) 20151124_085137
  4. As your fourth and final layer, sprinkle yeast all over the top 20151124_085159
  5. Set your bread machine for the white bread setting for a two-pound loaf. Turn on the machine and let the machine knead the dough and let it rise twice. (This process takes about 2 hours with my machine.) 20151124_101222
  6. Be careful. If you can set the machine for rising only, do so. Keep an eye on it otherwise.
  7. REMOVE DOUGH BEFORE IT STARTS TO BAKE IN THE MACHINE. Time to create the round loaves! 20151124_124909
  8. Grease a cookie sheet and take out plastic wrap and a clean kitchen towel to prepare for the last rise of the bread.
  9. Remove a lemon-sized ball of dough and set it aside.20151124_125009
  10. Divide the remaining dough in two.
  11. Form a round with each half, and place the rounds of dough on the greased cookie sheet. 20151124_125130
  12. Take the lemon-sized ball of dough, and pull off a piece the size of a large marble. Divide it in two and set aside. Take the remaining dough and cut it into six small pieces, which you will make into long ropes about 5 inches long each, representing bones.
  13. Place three pieces of rope onto the top of each loaf, crisscrossing them to result in six arms. 20151124_125757
  14. Pick up the last piece of dough and divide it in two. Form each into a small ball and place in the middle of each loaf, right at the intersection of the ropes. This represents a skull. 20151124_125844
  15. Cover the bread with plastic wrap, and then a clean towel. Place in a warm spot to rise for 30-45 minutes.20151124_130042
  16. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Farenheit.
  17. After 30-45 minutes, check your loaves. They should be nice and puffy. 20151124_133643
  18. Put the loaves in the oven and set your timer for 20 minutes. Make sure there is room in the oven for the bread to rise again, as it will swell during baking.
  19. Enjoy the delicious smell while it is baking – and keep an eye on it!
  20. Remove the bread from the oven. It should be golden brown. 20151124_135757
  21. As soon as you can handle a hot loaf, take a stick of butter and smear it over the top of the first loaf, including all crevices. 20151124_140129
  22. Immediately sprinkle sugar on top while the bread is warm and the butter is glistening. 20151124_140324
  23. Let it cool on wire racks.
  24. Enjoy! 20151124_143609
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Jellylegs: Fear of Rejection

Rejection. No one likes it. I will be the first to put my hand up and admit it.

When I started this blog a few years ago, I started it because I wanted to write and not be rejected.

My professional writer friends are probably rolling their eyes and laughing out loud right now, but there it is.

Every artist knows that rejection is part of the creative life, whether you are a writer, painter, actor, sculptor, film maker, or scores of other things.

I’m not sure why rejection is/was my Kryptonite (I’d have to do some deep psychological digging for that), but  I do know that I did not have the coping skills, self-esteem, or courage to face it, so I conveniently avoided it.

Instead, I wove a cocoon around myself.

I took the easy way out, creating my own blog, which allowed me to write and publish what I pleased, when I pleased.

It was a start, but it was safe and self-indulgent.

Did I want to see my name out there in a real publication? Of course! I dreamed of it, but talked myself out of submitting a thousand times over, always telling myself that my work was not good enough.

Other than a few submissions (and I can count those on one hand), all of which were rejected, I made zero progress. We’re talking about a time frame of 10-12 years.

It was easier to maintain the fantasy of writing than actually going out there and getting rejected regularly, as every professional writer does.

Now, for the second piece of the puzzle: my fear of rejection is also hampered by my perfectionism.

I tell myself that my work has to be absolutely perfect before I can send it to anyone.


Credit: Google images

Here’s the thing: any creative knows that a piece of work is rarely perfect, nor is it ever really done. You just have to call it at some point. You could work on it forever, and you always see the flaws or places where it needs to be shored up. Perfectionism is the perfect companion to a fear of rejection.

This dynamic duo will keep you safe, but it will also keep you small.

Over the course of the last twenty-plus years as I have struggled with feeling and anticipating the horrible emotional tsunami that is rejection, I have done a lot of other work to build my self confidence and self esteem. I have also slowly taught myself coping skills around the situations that cause me anxiety, stress, and self-doubt. (Translation: I have spent countless hours and moola on therapists and self-help books.)

I’m not sure when the tide changed for me, but at the end of 2015, I decided that I had enough.

No more whimpering in the corner. No more hand-wringing. No more excuses.

I resolved that I would no longer build castles in the air. Even if I built a hut on the ground when I actually wanted Versailles or Buckingham Palace, the hut made of sticks with a thatch roof was going to be a start, because it would be real.

So, my friends, 2016 is the year that I resolve to break out of my fear of rejection.

My work will never be perfect, but it will be as good as I can make it. If it is rejected, then so be it. It’s not personal. I know that now (finally!) at some essential level, and it is reassuring.

Shortly after verbalizing and writing down this desire to subject myself to rejection, I sent off my very first query to a children’s book agent on January 5. I put my best foot forward, followed all of the directions, and sent my strongest work.

The lead up and immediate aftermath to the query were tough. My head was pounding and my stomach felt queasy. But after an hour, those feelings wore off.

A dose of Advil helped, too.

I wrote about the experience and posted it to Facebook.

The outpouring of support and love from my people was nothing short of INCREDIBLE.

Turns out they have more faith in me than I ever realized or knew. The messages of support were like a giant, virtual hug and round of applause from around the country and around the world.

Who knew?!

So if for nothing else, I have to try. I have to believe in myself as much as everyone else does.

By the way, the agent rejected my query and manuscript in less than 24 hours.

You know what astonished me the most? For the first time ever, the rejection didn’t bother me. Not one bit.

So here is to the coming year: to creativity, to vulnerability, to doing your best work, and to putting yourself out there, even when you’re scared witless.

If I can do it, so can you. Now go get’em.

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The Polar Express at Edaville USA

Note: In exchange for an unbiased review of the Polar Express train and amusement park at Edaville USA, I received two free tickets for the train and admission to the park.


The Polar Express by Rhode Islander Chris Van Allsburg is one of the most magical Christmas books I have ever read.

Naturally, when I had the chance to review a Polar Express train ride at a Massachusetts amusement park, I jumped at the opportunity.

Last Tuesday, December 14, I picked up the Pooh from school, changed her into her pajamas (with layers underneath), and drove an hour from Providence to Edaville USA in Carver, MA.

Pajamas, you ask? If you remember, the kids in the Polar Express all ride the train to the North Pole wearing their pajamas, so the folks at Edaville encourage everyone, particularly the kids, to wear theirs to replicate the experience. So I added layers under the Pooh’s jammies, and made sure she had other winter gear with her, since the majority of the park is experienced outdoors.

The Pooh and I arrived at Edaville at sunset, and there was no fee to park in the open lot, which was nice. We walked to the ticket gate, where we picked up our passes for the Polar Express, which included admission to the entire park.


We walked past a lovely old carousel with a gorgeous Wurlitzer organ playing the music for the ride, and decided to save it for our way out, as the Pooh was pulling on my hand in her eagerness to see the rest.


We followed a walkway around a lake, and were delighted by the Christmas lights we saw everywhere – hanging in the trees, decorating the grounds, and greeting us across the water. We could hear the whistle of the steam train in the distance, and the Pooh jumped up and down with excitement as we kept walking towards the main area.


There, we found rides galore, as well as the train depot, a two story building with bumper cars and rides and an arcade inside, a cafeteria style restaurant, snack kiosks, and a candy store.

At the train depot, we arrived at 4:45 pm for the 5:00 pm train and presented our tickets. In exchange, the Pooh received a large yellow Polar Express ticket, which I held for her. As we boarded the train, we waved to the bearded conductor outside. We ended up in the first car, right behind the engine.

Each car was simple, clean, and heated, with long wooden benches lining on each side. Large windows allowed everyone to see the Christmas lights outside, regardless of age or size.


Once we were all settled, the train left the station for the North Pole.

We all received hot chocolate and a chocolate chip cookie. The hot chocolate was welcome on the cold night. We were served by a white coated attendant with a tall white chef cap, who was very kind and attentive to the kids and parents.

As our trip to the North Pole rolled along, the attendant took out a large copy of the Polar Express. The intercom came on and a voice started to recite the text of the book as the attendant walked through the car, showing the pages as they were read.

After a while, we arrived at the North Pole, where we saw a tall tower with a red light at the top. The train stopped. The train car door opened and Santa himself boarded!

Since we were in the first car behind the engine, he greeted our car first.

Everyone was delighted. He welcomed all of us to the North Pole, and then took out a sleigh bell. He held it up and proclaimed, “The first gift of Christmas!”


He then went down the car, greeting each child and family, and took pictures with anyone who asked. He gave a sleigh bell to each child. He was warm and fun, a right jolly good elf.


The train started to move again, and Santa left our car and continued down the train to greet families in other cars. We admired all of the Christmas lights out of the windows as we rolled along. There was a brief stop, and then the train continued along so we could see more lights, eventually returning us back to our normal world and the park.

The entire ride took about 50 minutes, and everyone was smiling as we disembarked.

“What did you think?” I asked the Pooh, my train loving, Santa loving, Christmas loving girl.

“It was SO MUCH FUN!” she exclaimed, and rang her sleigh bell for emphasis. So there you have it.


Fortunately, it was still early in the evening, not even 6 pm, so we had time to explore the rest of the park after our train ride.

The Pooh absolutely loved the Polar Express and Edaville USA, and we’ll be going back.

Special thanks to Nicky Estrella of Rhody Bloggers for facilitating our visit. You can find her on Instagram @weplayyouplay, on Twitter at @weplayyouplay, and as a blogger at

Thank you as well to Jill Godley of Edaville USA, who arranged for our complimentary tickets in exchange for this review.


Visiting Edaville USA

For more information and tickets please visit

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Day of the Dead 2015


The Pooh and I in front of the Pre-K Day of the Dead altar in 2014

I am American-raised but Mexican born, so whenever I have the chance, I share Mexican culture with the Pooh. When she entered Pre-K last year, I approached her teachers about teaching a lesson about el Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, one of my favorite Mexican holidays. Fortunately, her teachers were more than happy to cooperate.

Day of the Dead is celebrated over November 1st and 2nd every year in Mexico, in conjunction with All Souls Day and All Saints Day.

This is no coincidence. The Day of the Dead combines the traditions of the Aztecs, Maya, and other pre-Hispanic people with Catholic traditions. Native people saw death as part of the process of life, and believed that dead people moved on to a different world, similar to the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians. They honored the dead and believed that they visited the world of the living on certain days of the year. For the Aztecs, it was around August, the ninth month of the Aztec calendar.

When the Spanish priests arrived, they tried to convert the people to Catholicism and introduced the practice of visiting graves and cemeteries, as well as the observance of All Souls Day and All Saints Day in November. Meanwhile, Italian missionaries brought sugar art to the New World, which was adopted as a less expensive way to adorn churches. European Catholics and pre-Hispanic people combined their traditions to create the Day of the Dead as we know it.

Today, the Day of the Dead is celebrated in central and southern Mexico over two nights, when people believe that the spirits of loved ones come back to earth and enjoy time with the living along, with favorite foods and drinks. Temporary altars, or ofrendas, are built in many homes, and families go to cemeteries to decorate graves with candles, marigolds, and mementos, eating there and talking with the dead.

November 1 celebrates infants and children who have died, and November 2 honors adults. It is a happy, colorful holiday, filled with jokes and funny images of skeletons dancing, playing, working, and causing mischief. While the holiday does have its sentimental side (we all miss the people who have gone before us), it is a wonderful way to remember and celebrate the people who are no longer with us.

This year marked the second year in a row that I taught the Pooh and her classmates about the Day of the Dead. I worked with her Spanish teacher, Sra. Lupe Vivier, to create a plan to introduce the holiday to the little ones.

Both years, we divided the lesson into two parts over two weeks.

Lesson 1: During this lesson, I donned a beautiful Mexican dress or blouse, explained the holiday to the kids, and read a picture book. Both years, Sr. Vivier and I chose Conchita and Rosita, by Eric Gonzalez and Erich Haeger, of Muertoons fame. This rhyming book features the story of twin sisters, one alive and one dead, and their journeys to be reunited on the Day of the Dead. It is long for typical four and five year olds, so I paraphrased, but if your child has a longer attention span, you can read the entire book to them.


We also showed the kids a video. In pre-K, Sra. Vivier showed them a video of dancing skeletons, which made them laugh and reinforced the idea that Day of the Dead was not a scary holiday. In Kindergarten, she showed them a lovely short cartoon film, called simply Dia de los Muertos. This short cartoon from Whoo Kazoo (link at end of post) is an award-winning, wordless three minute film that conveys the idea of the holiday in all of its festiveness, along with the tinge of longing that always accompanies it. Finally, we made some crafts with the kids, including easy calavera (skull) masks and tissue paper flowers.

In between the first and second lessons, Sra. Vivier and I constructed a Day of the Dead altar in the classroom, complete with pictures, a Virgin of Guadalupe candle, marigolds, salt, incense, skeletons, masks, colorful Mexican textiles, papel picado (colorful block cut tissue paper), and even a sugar skull.

Lesson 2: We started this lesson by pointing out the altar to the kids. We explained that you put items on the altar to honor your ancestors and your pets who have died, and that you placed their favorite foods, drinks, and toys there for their enjoyment when they returned to visit.


To illustrate the point and to keep it light for the kids, I had the Pooh place a picture of her beloved cat, Zeezu, on the altar. Zeezu died two years ago. Then, another child placed a can of Friskies Poultry Platter, Zeezu’s favorite food, next to the picture. Finally, another child placed a mouse toy next to the cat food. With that, it clicked, and the kids understood both the holiday and the intention behind the altar.


Finally, as a special treat, I made and brought Mexican hot chocolate and pan de muerto (bread of the dead) to class for the kids to sample.


What is pan de muerto? It is special bread made in Mexican bakeries for a short period of time once a year. It is a sweet, buttery, orange-scented bread, reminiscent of brioche, and tastes wonderful alone or with a cup of Mexican hot chocolate.


Mexican hot chocolate is spiced with cinnamon and vanilla. It traditionally comes in round tablets and is cooked on the stove with hot milk and frothed with a special wooden tool called a molinillo. Fortunately, many American grocery stores now stock Mexican hot chocolate in powdered form, which you can mix into a cup of hot milk. Abuelita and Ibarra are two popular brands, and here you see Abuelita.


The kids loved the bread and hot chocolate, and came back for several more helpings of bread, which pleased me immensely.

The Pooh was so inspired this year that we came home and constructed an altar to Zeezu in her bedroom, which you can see here.


In closing, I’d like to share a lovely Aztec poem about death that I discovered this year as I prepared for the Pooh’s class. While I did not share it with the kids, I will share it with you. I will close this post with it. Here it is:

“It is perhaps true

One lives on earth.

But not forever on earth,

Just a little while here.

Although it is jade,

It breaks.

Although it is gold,

It breaks.

Although it is

Quetzal feathers,

It tears.

Not forever on earth,

Just a little while here.”

-Nahuatl poem


Day of the Dead (El Dia de los Muertos) short film on YouTube by Whoo Kazoo, 2013

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Picture Day with the Pooh

Do you remember picture day at school when you were a kid? I don’t, but my sister remembers a classmate’s mom, Mrs. Licciardello, who volunteered to help every year, plastic comb at the ready.

Ye old picture package

Ye old picture package

Second grade me

Second grade me

The Pooh’s school had picture day in mid-September, and I was tapped to be a parent volunteer for it.

I didn’t exactly jump out of my seat for the privilege. I agreed more so out of obligation than enthusiasm. Parents are expected to volunteer at school regularly, and I figured I might as well pony up early.

On the morning of picture day, I dressed the Pooh in a classic dress from Hartstrings and pulled her hair back into a fuchsia bow. I poured coffee into a travel mug to survive the morning and off we went.

The Pooh's Kindergarten picture day outfit

The Pooh’s Kindergarten picture day outfit

After dropping the Pooh off at her kindergarten classroom, I found the big room they were using for a studio. I paired off with Jen, a kind photographer with dark rimmed glasses.  We would work together until 12:30 pm, photographing the youngest children in the school, from nursery up to fifth grade.

The four year olds in Pre-K arrived first and took a group picture. The children then formed two lines, and I soon found the first kid in front of me. Jen coached me on how to position him for the best picture. I told him to hop up onto the small stepladder we were using for a stool and fastened the lower button on his polo shirt. He smiled for the camera, showing his tiny teeth.

That was all it took for me to suddenly understand Mrs. Licciardello. I was totally smitten.

Jen and I soon had a rhythm going as a two person team. I’d tell the kids how to angle their bodies, while straightening collars, taming cowlicks, and pushing long hair aside to better see a little face.

As I seated and directed each little one, I’d think, “This is someone’s baby,” and “I wonder who this child will grow up to be?” In some cases, I knew the child, and couldn’t help but smile at a resemblance to a mom or dad.

After we finished photographing Pre-K, we moved on to the three year olds in Nursery. The little ones were so innocent, and so sweet. They were slightly rumpled with silky flyaway hair and they tended to scrunch up their faces for the camera.  Matilda could not sit still and fidgeted with her bright pink and yellow flowered dress, a likely hand-me down from her older sister. Connor’s ears stuck out, and I had to straighten his clip on bow-tie and make sure that khaki colored jacket didn’t show the pen mark on the pocket. John’s hair just would not behave and I finally gave up.

As I seated Georgiana, a tiny three year old in a black ruffled skirt and exquisite white top, I laughed to myself. Her delicate appearance would never tell you that she loved to accompany her daddy on handyman projects around the house, and that she was fascinated by power tools and machinery.

And the day continued.

My first grade picture

My first grade picture

First grader Samir wore a blue jacket and crisp white shirt and glasses, but no matter how we tried to get a good picture, all of them ended up with either a glare off of his glasses or a silly Seussian smile that covered his teeth. Charlie dressed and acted like a boy with jeans and a plaid oxford shirt, with long golden hair pulled back in a ponytail, but I later found out Charlie was a girl. Second grader John, a boy with owlish glasses, a checked oxford, and a smart tie, looked like the history professor he might become one day.

Annie wanted her long hair to show down the front of her shoulders, and Scarlett wanted to make sure her necklace and earrings showed. There was a freckled little boy who could barely muster a smile, and I wondered why he was so sad.

Sophie wore a beautiful white dress with a big lavender and blue chiffon bow at her waist, and pink patent leather ballet flats.

Fourth grader Laila pushed her glasses back on her face and looked a little self-conscious as she posed, reminding me of myself at the same age. There was the fifth grade boy who looked like a European prince, lanky and graceful, straight hair falling in his clear blue eyes.

Another fifth grader, Jonathan, clambered up onto the stepladder and told me that his dad didn’t like last year’s pictures. The background was blue, and Jonathan’s shirt was blue, so Jonathan ended up looked like a floating head in his school picture. I laughed at his story as his teacher rolled her eyes.  I mentally noted that Jonathan was wearing a blue shirt this year again. Fortunately, the background was grey.

There were shy kids and confident kids, hambones and self-conscious kids. There was the one who thought he could put his fingers up in the peace sign for his picture (um, no).

Third or fourth grade me

Third or fourth grade me

Kindergarten was the last class to arrive that morning, and in came Pooh with her classmates. She made me feel like a celebrity as she pointed me out to her little friends, blowing me kisses and throwing me hugs.

Her classmate, Gabriel, was first in my line, but he insisted that his name was Pizza, which is how I proceeded to address him. Come on, I know how to follow instructions.

The Pooh was one of the last kids to have her picture taken, and I was able to position her in front of the photographer and straighten her bow. She kept smiling a goofy smile, channeling Samir, I suppose. The photographer offered to show me the pictures she had taken in case I wasn’t happy, but I waved her away.

When she finished her shoot, I gave the Pooh a smooch and sent her back to her teacher, and thanked Jen for the opportunity to work with her as I left.

And yes, I’ll be volunteering for picture day next year. I can’t wait.

The Pooh's Pre-K school picture from last year...because I don't have this year's picture yet

The Pooh’s Pre-K school picture from last year…because I don’t have this year’s picture yet


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