I Celebrate the Wonders of the Day

A prayer of sorts.
I open my eyes to the fresh wonders of another day.
I inhale the quiet.
I whisper “hi” to the barely moving morning.
I lift my face to greet the sol  and smile.
Lightly ribbed leaves pirouette in the wind. They show off with blinks and winks of brilliance. The trees they belong to have names I haven’t yet learned. Still, I give thanks for their gifts of shade. Their gentle sway reminds me the earth continues to breathe.
On the line, clothespins stand at attention. Two well-worn tea-towels, left to hold sway throughout the night, are ready to return to kitchen duty.
The buzz of early rising bees indicates the winged workers are already on the job.
Just over the cracked and spackled brick wall that separates us from the neighbor, roosters crow for show. Free-range and free-spirited, they announce daybreak any time they choose.
I move from back door to front. I open the door and stand just outside, with freshly brewed café con leche in hand. My garden thrives with roses, lavender, geraniums, lilies, aloe and others without names. And with so much color. Another wonder.
Movement just outside our gate. Matted orphaned dogs shake their heads, scratch their ears and, without hurry, stretch their legs then move into the street for another hit-or-miss day.
Six-thirty on the dot we enter the street as well. David and I, each with a leashed dog in hand, accompany Katherine to her bus.
We pass dozens of pint-sized uniformed children, wearing backpacks, toting projects, and clutching hands with their pajama-clad mamas. Our part of town is casual dress so no one bats an eye.
Down Calle Gran Columbia, we pass the Parquedero de Jesus. I smile. Jesus went homeless and only had one coat. Yet in Cuenca he has a parking lot.
Right next door, Iglesias Sangre de Jesus, a Sister brings a flowering plant as a fragrant offering. She enters through the massive, hand-carved church doors. The priest nods and smiles. Devout grandmothers cross themselves as they move to their pews for daily prayers. Outside, taxi drivers and passers-by make the sign of the cross as well, a visible reminder that many here acknowledge that a greater force is at work in the world.
Our morning walks set Katherine free to speak her mind. She talks of the boy she likes, who may or may not like her, and what she plans to do about it. She questions the existence of God one day and ponders the Big Bang theory the next.
I hold my tongue. I listen to the wonder of my growing child. The forming of her own ideas. The shaping of her quick mind. The working out of who she wants to be and what she believes.
I celebrate the many small and amazing wonders in each day.

Z: It’s All about Mary/ #a-to-z challenge/ Zee End

We’ve reached zee end of my April posts on Mary Scott Gash Thornton.

For those who have read the daily blogs, thank you, thank you, thank you.  Your responses have made me smile, tear up and thank God for having people in my life like Mary and like you.

Even if you’ve just read one or two, I thank you, too.

For me this exercise has brought back so many wonderful memories of people, places and things that, though centered on Mary, have enriched my life immensely.

Much more can be said about this short, round, rosy-cheeked woman. She had a heart the size of Greenland and brought music and laughter to the lives of so many.

Mary continues to teach  me.  When she was alive and mothering me, I tended not to listen a lot.  Examining her life over the past 30 days I have seen more clearly who she was and what she has meant to me. And to others.

My spirits have improved over the past four weeks. I do believe I’ve fussed less at David, groused fewer times at Katherine, felt less angst, sang more, cried less (except for those of remembrance and love) and generally behaved like a better human being.

Mary continues to have her influence on my life.

My prayer is that one day my daughter will have a fraction of the good things to say or write or remember about me.

Mama will never be remembered in history. Her passing left no mark on our times. But her well-lived life, her laughing spirit, her music-filled days have enriched mine immensely.

Mary Scott Gash Thornton — a woman of exceptional talent, a quiet person who was loud and clear about what she believed and whom she loved, a mom who made every one of her children feel like the most loved person in the world and a wife who loved her husband until her last breath.

I wish you could have known her.  But I suppose by now you do, at least a little.

Thank you again for being with me for the A-to-Z Challenge…It’s All about Mary.


H: #a-to-z challenge/It’s All about Mary/ Holidays

Home for the holidays.

It sure wasn’t like the pictures you find posted on Pinterest or featured in Better Homes & Gardens. We were more a straggly Charlie Brown Christmas tree with a table full of food and tons of laughter.

Living on a tight budget meant the Thornton family didn’t spend a lot of money on Christmas. For many years we didn’t even buy a tree. Dad brought home a tree from Greenfield High School where he worked as a teacher, guidance counselor and temporary principal. Dad hauled the tree home after school closed for the holidays and we’d make it our own.

Me, with no patience, would glob strands of tinsel on the tree after we had wrapped the limbs in strands of brightly-colored bulbs.

c1a21f9aeb72b3f30a894abfe85a15f3I’d turn off the lights, stand back and squint to determine if and where more tinsel was needed. There was always need for more. Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder.


Our trees were like this, but uglier and with fewer toys

We had some pretty ugly trees but I didn’t realize it at the time.  And when aluminum trees arrived on the scene and dad conceded to purchase one, I was thrilled to replace tinsel with even more lights.


Mama was hands off to tree decorating, at least when I was at home. She left that task to Dad and the kids. She focused instead on practicing for the church cantata and preparing the children’s Christmas program.

Every Saturday during the month of December, had choir practice at the church.  Our choir, though small, sang loud and with great enthusiasm. Mom’s accompaniment drowned out any flat notes.

If I remember right, the cantata was on Sunday morning and the kid’s Christmas program was the Sunday night nearest the 25th of December. Mrs. Mears took charge of the centerpiece in front of the church.  She used a lot of tin cans–large coffee cans –which she painted gold or silver. The arrangements would contain something colorful and reflect the season.  Red and green (of course) for Christmas. For Thanksgiving, her motif might be seed-covered tin cans surrounded by ears of corn. The rest of the year fresh flowers from her amazing garden would fill up the front.

The children’s Christmas program followed the same format for decades. The youth group performed a song song or two. The little kids (and a few reluctant teens) acted out the birth of Jesus, complete with bathrobes and turbans made of bath towels or lengths of shiny fabric. Then Dad would wind up the evening with a short homily and prayer.

That was when the festivities began.

Everyone in attendance received a cardboard boxes stuffed full of hard Christmas candy. Families exchanged gifts and everyone saw to it that no one left empty handed.  The small sanctuary felt alive with laughter, conversation, children’s squeals and music. The world felt safe and warm and happy on those Sunday evenings.

I don’t know what my siblings had as their responsibilities at Christmas, but mine was to set up a little village on top of the organ speaker.

Angel hair served as the base. I would spread it out to form a cloud-like foundation and then, very  carefully I would place our treasured angels and elves, cardboard churches and other figurines just so.  I thought it was beautiful. Magical.  Again I would squint my eyes and look through my lashes at the scene.  Magical.  My villages appeared every Christmas until I left for college.

The highlight in our family was the meal, not the gifts. For many years, our Christmas dinner took place at Grandma Thornton’s house. She and her maiden sister, Effe, lived together a few blocks from our house.  Dad’s sisters and brother would arrive from Indianapolis and St. Louis and the commotion began. Cousins running wildly everywhere. The women moved to the kitchen to help Grandma and Aunt Effe dish up the traditional meal. The men grabbed the rockers and easy chairs and waited patiently until the food was served.  The high point of Christmas dinner at Grandma’s was her money pudding. In honesty, not my favorite dessert, but each serving held a monetary surprise!

Ask anyone who was there at any Christmas and they’ll remember the anticipation of biting into or digging around for the money.


Grandma’s famous money pudding.  She topped each piece with a butter/sugar hard sauce (no alcohol, of course).  Any bite could uncover a nickel, a dime or– the grand prize — a quarter.

Once Dot and Aunt Effe grew too old to host the clan, the party moved across town to our house. Mom held court in the kitchen with help from Grandma and the aunts. My sisters joined in because it was too fun not be to in the kitchen. Occasionally my brothers took part, too.  Kids ran in and out. Hot rolls came out of the oven. Someone mashed the potatoes. Dad always carved the meat, be it turkey, ham, roast beef or all three, until one of the boys decided it was time to take over.


Our frosted name plates disappeared at some point. Names were written and then erased for the next big meal.

I had the task of assigning seats. Mom handed me her frosted glass name plates and I determined who would set where. I felt very important.

Gift giving was not a big thing in our family.  I remember being disappointment most Christmas mornings at the dearth of gifts for me…the that soon faded. Everything else about Christmas day was fantastic!

My childhood memories of Christmas are rich in love, company, laughter, food and warmth.

Mom’s idea of a gift exchange was to go around the house and select things she loved that she thought someone else would appreciate. She’d stack her items to be wrapped on the dining room table and I would get to work wrapping. While I created bows and filled out name takes, she’s play Christmas songs on the piano. Or make a pot of tea.  Or sit and talk with me while I used up the tubes of wrapping paper and rolls of tape.

My daughter, an only child, knows little of a house full of loud, laughing people at Christmastime.  Our tradition is quieter, smaller and more focused on gifts.  I feel I’m doing her an injustice. We have been creating our own traditions, yes. But she knows nothing of the noise, the craziness of 18 or 20 people having to share one bathroom over Christmas vacation. She hasn’t helped put up tables in every room to accommodate a growing guest list. She has never spent long afternoons around a cluttered table with her mom and sisters, aunts and friends  talking, laughing and even shedding a few tears.  She hasn’t seen Dad and the brothers-in-law and uncles dozing in the front room or quietly playing games of chess until they hear the call to come back to the table for supper. Katherine hasn’t played so hard with her cousins that she collapses onto the floor in the glass-enclosed front porch and gives in to sleep. Nor has Katherine gathered with her tribe in the front room to close out the day with favorite songs and special performances by great uncles with booming voices.








C: It’s All About Mary/ Counting My Blessings

Growing up with Mary as a mother meant that music was central to my life. Our days as a family usually often began with her playing one or two hymns.


The Thornton family well long I came to live with them. Mom delivered 11 children in all. I was #10.

She wasn’t much of a morning person. If she had her druthers she’d sleep until 9 or 10, I’m sure. Her favorite times of day were late at night when the family had gone to bed. But dad, as a guidance counselor at the high school, was up and out the door early during the week. On the weekends, he was the preacher, so definitely no late mornings then.


Mary dutifully rose and cooked breakfast for her husband and children. We ate together most mornings. Unless I was bleeding or upchucking, no excuse was good enough to miss breakfast or family prayers.  School bells could ring and I’d be tardy, but I could not miss devotions.

Once breakfast was finished, we migrated to mom’s music room for devotions. Two sets of oak sliding doors were used to close the room off when mom was giving piano lesson.  In the mornings, the doors were open and we found seats between and around mom’s grand piano and organ .

Family devotions consisted of (if time allowed) singing a hymn, reading two chapters of the Bible and praying for every person we knew by name — including missionaries all over the world, the people they witnessed to and then some.

When dad prayed for the family, mom remembered the missionaries. Bill and Alice Widbin somewhere Africa, Dorothy Clark in Nigeria, an orphanage in India with a little boy named Jothi.  I prayed for Jothi for decades. One day not long before mom died, I asked her whatever happened to Jothi.  She said he had grown up and was living near the orphanage. Despite his physical and mental challenges he was  doing well.  Good to know our prayers worked for him I said.  “Oh, Nancy, hush!” she said with a smile. She sometimes like my irreverence.  But not always.

She believed in the power of prayer. Dad did, too. They brought everything to God in prayer. And they brought us right there with them. We got down on our knees around the circle of chairs (I tried to get the softest one because I could catch a few more minutes of sleep).  Dad or mom started the prayers and we went one by one until all had thanked God for our many blessings or asked God for help with someone and something. The other parent would wrap up our time of thanksgiving and petitions.

I hated this time as a child.  As a teen, especially, I was so embarrassed when friends would spend the night and Dad and Mom would urge them to participate in the ceremony.  Nothing and noone kept Mary and Watson from spending time with the Lord in the morning.

Family worship wrapped up with the Lord’s Prayer. By the time we got to “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” I was up off my knees. By the “Amen”, I was out the door for school.

The middle part of prayers was reading the Bible.  We went front to back, Genesis 1:1 to the final verse of Revelations, two chapters a day, two verses at a time.  Starting with the youngest and going to the oldest. On the longer chapters, we could go around the circle three or four times. I have no idea how many times I’ve read the Bible through, Old and New Testaments, but I know I have countless verses committed to memory.  Even today, almost six decades after living at home, I can recall verses I read as a child.  I also firmly believe that we are all good readers because of these early days.  We learned to read at very young ages sitting together in the mornings sounding out words like Methuselah, Sennacherib and the pages and pages of Hebrew names in the Old Testament.

My favorite part of prayers, without a doubt, was when we had time to sing. Mom played her grand piano with such power and passion. She loved her God and she showed that love through her fingers on the keys, whether the melodies were hymn or classical pieces she had memorized.  As I write this I feel tears welling up inside. An ache for the woman who comforted me so often with her music. When I longed for something as only a teenage girl can long and it didn’t come to pass, when I had a broken heart, or when my feelings were hurt from someone at school.

Mama would sit me down in the easy chair next to the piano and she would play songs like “Great is Thy Faithfulness”, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, “Does Jesus Care?”

She played until my tears stopped.  And then we’d go and get a bite to eat.

Food and music.  It’s a theme you’ll see in Mary’s life.

For any faults she had (and yes, Mary Scott Gash Thornton had her fair share) she was a woman of intense love and faith, and my life continues to be blessed with the gifts she gave me every single day.


I regret that I have no recordings of mama playing.  Some may exist in the United States, in the homes of my sisters and brothers. But here in Ecuador, I have no access to them. Instead when I want to be with mama at the piano, I go to YouTube and plug in the name of a hymn that she would play.  The link below takes you to one of my favorites.

For friends reading who are not of the Christian faith or perhaps any faith at all, this may seem very foreign to you.  All I can say is I pray that you have a similar source of comfort and joy. Life feels easier with such a person.

My mother’s name was Mary.



365 days on Cuenca time

Our six-week road trip across the United States ended on February 28,2016 at Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. David, Katherine and I had criss-crossed the country, visiting family and friends from the California coast to Florida. We packed and repacked eight jumbo suitcases and three carry-ons, paid the hefty excess baggage fee and boarded Jet Blue for Quito, Ecuador. We disembarked at 11 pm to a fairly empty airport.We made our way through customs, hassle-free. Amid a crowd of eager drivers, we found our two assigned taxi drivers who took us to the Airport Suites where we spent two nights adjusting to the altitude and our new life.

Not-so-bright and early the second morning,  Patricio our driver arrived to transport us across the country to our new home, Cuenca. (The not-so-bright refers to the time, not our driver!)  We saw little of the volcanoes  we passed through the Avenue of the Volcanes as fog and rain obliterated most of the high peaks.

But what we did see was beautiful.

Deep greens, crystal clear streams and beautiful skies. Dairy cattle grazing precariously on high Andean slopes. Families tending crops squeezed onto steeply-pitched fields. Colorful hats and skirts popping against a crazy-quilt landscape. Pint-sized brown-skinned children walking alone, close to the highway, heading for school without a care in the world.

We pulled up in front of our new home at 5:00 pm (our new landlord said he’d wait no later than 5:30) and unloaded the truck. Carrying even one small bag up 13 steps had me winded. The altitude would take some adjusting for me. David and Katherine moved with apparent ease.

From that first day at our Air B&B rental next to the Tomebamba River,we have moved twice in this year.  Not unusual for expats who settle here. Someone said to expect to move 3-4 times before you find the place that totally suits you.  We’re lucky. I think we’ve found our casa after numero dos.

Learning to live without a car was difficult for me.  I missed jumping behind the wheel and taking off for who knows where. Katherine missed that too. I also longed for greasy Mexican food (my Atlanta friends know what I mean) and Crunchy  Peanut Butter. David missed–nothing.  He felt immediately at home and settled in without a moment of remorse.  His two female companions–not so much.


Katherine finds a seaside friend at Ayampe, Ecuador

Tears and despair have been frequent guests in our home here in Ecuador. Despite feeling we made the right move, I’ve questioned our decision because of Katherine’s unhappiness. But we were right.  Over the months, she has found her place, made some friends, created a space for herself and now calls Ecuador home.  She likes it…she really, really likes it. She’s shot up and thinned down. She’s developed into a young woman full of fun and ideas. She knows more spanish than she lets on. She has begun impersonating her old parents with amazing accuracy. Have I told you how much I love this daughter of ours?

We were planning to visit the US this summer but those plans have been postponed.  Maybe next spring. Or summer.  Time will tell. It feels too soon to return to the old home.

So what do I love about this place that has won our hearts?

Not in any order of importance, I love…

  • no constant bombardment of advertising and marketing of things to buy
  • family-oriented culture
  • constant spring-like weather–cool in the morning, sunny during the day, cool again in the evening
  • stress-free zone. i do not have to face the traffic (it’s horrible) nor do i have to make a commute. i have no work that must be done. some days it is fun to do nothing.
  • history around every corner
  • rivers running through the city, count them…four
  • rubbing shoulders with indigenous men and women who keep their native dress and customs in the 21st century and fit right in
  • the woman who started cleaning our house and who has become a dear friend that makes me laugh
  • gringo-frequented establishments that satisfy an occasional need for familiar foods and conversation
  • a culture of creativity and a cast of characters who make each and every day more interesting
  • hummingbirds of all sizes


  • gorgeous flowers that bloom in our front yard–no thanks to me
  • a day view from our bedroom window on a cloudy morning.


today is ending up the long weekend of Carnaval (not sure of the correct spelling as I’ve seen it so many ways).  unlike Rio or New Orleans, Cuenca celebrates not with parades but with spray foam, water balloons and string foam.  i haven’t gone out much. but Katherine has had a ball!  the city has been “at battle” for days. many people having the time of their lives. quite a few expats complaining about the unrest.  such is life. a good dose of a water gun and spray foam from a stranger isn’t such a bad way to celebrate.

all is well for the Thornton-Vander Plaats in Cuenca, Ecuador.  it’s been a good year. looking forward to many more. and remember friends and blog readers…our door is always open–except when string foam is being sprayed.


What makes me one the world’s richest people

A former co-worker, Anne, told me she woke up every morning to the sound of Martha 220px-martha_and_the_vandellas_1965and the Vandellas filling her home. Her parents would stack 45’s on their stereo and crank up the volume. Instead of an alarm clock, Anne and her sister would rise and shine to the beat of Heat Wave. They dressed, ate breakfast and scooted out the door to the Motown sounds of Nowhere to Run, Jimmy Mack, Dancing in the Street or any of the other hits from this favorite girls group of the 60s.

The Thornton household was a bit different. We woke to the sound of music, but the beat was different. We had hymns. Love Lifted Me or Crown Him with Many Crowns or Like a River Glorious or any other of the number one hits of the First Presbyterian Church Hymnal.

Despite the fact that most of our music was penned more than 100 years ago, I loved it. Never tired of it. Three decades later, I’d give anything to be able to wake up to those melodies each day.

mn42002ucmf_1_0013No pre-recorded music for us. We had the real thing. My mom, Mary Scott Gash Thornton, sat at her grand piano in the front music room and played her heart out.

She didn’t look like a piano virtuoso — not the tall, thin, long-fingered personage of Arthur Rubenstein or even the sophisticated presence of Victor Borge. She certainly wasn’t a rockstar.

Rather, mom was short, plain, plump and matronly and modestly dressed. Her braided bun seldom remained in place for long and, as the day progressed, we’d see more and more wisps of hair about her face. Her cheeks stayed rosy. Her eyes sparkled bright with a deep inner joy.

Mary also loved to laugh. That’s a delicious combination – a house filled with music and laughter.

Boy could she play. When she sat at our aging grand piano, music filled the room and lifted my spirits, slowed my tears and helped me smile, caused me to break out in song and fall in love with life. Heartbreaks mended more easily when she played. Joy seeped in as her notes flowed with such expression.

Mary Scott played the piano like few others could.

She was something of a child prodigy. Smart as that whip people are often compared to, Mary could carry on a conversation with nearly anyone about anything. She skipped two grades in school. At the age of eight she performed a concert in St. Louis for the purpose of raising funds for the WWI war effort.

She went away to college in Wheaton, Illinois but quit after one year. At age 20, she married tall, handsome Samuel Watson Thornton. They sailed to Japan within the first year to serve as missionaries. She gave up her music to be his wife and, soon after, mother to 10 children.

Who knows what Mary Scott Gash could have done with her music if she hadn’t chosen to change her marital status, name and country at age 21?

Dad realized what she sacrificed and as soon as he could, though it took a few years, he bought her a piano.

She played day and night. She offered her gift to the many churches they attended throughout the years. She taught lessons to hundreds of children and accompanied musicians in myriad concerts and performances. She provided her services free of charge, introducing many to classical music for the first time.

She played with passion and her audiences loved to listen.

One of my favorite childhood memories was standing under our mulberry tree at 707 Main Street in Greenfield, Illinois one summer evening and listening to her play.  This was in the 50s when air conditioning didn’t separate neighbors like it does today.

Our front door and large front window that faced Main Street were open as were the side windows next to the alley. Neighbors to the left and right of us, as well as a few across two-lane Rte. 67 sat on their lawns or gently rocked in their peeling porch swings, taking in the sounds of music from our home.

There in the shade, leaning against the rough bark of the mulberry tree and staining my hands with its fruit, I listened to mom and felt such pride in her. My life was rich and good and full.

Things would always be right.

But they weren’t of course.

Air conditioning came and the windows closed. I grew up and challenged just about everything mom and dad believed and said.

Tensions mounted, anger erupted, I went off to college and my parents moved to Japan. Four years passed without seeing one another. I graduated and eventually grew up. A career was established and I moved as needed to advance. I went my own way and tested their way of believing and living. I sought a faith and lifestyle that was my truly mine.

By the time mom died, when I was 35,she and I had moved from being family to being good friends. We were alike in many ways, although she was so much nicer at being her than I have been at being me.

In my growing up years, mom and I stayed up late to watch Ziegfield Follies extravaganzas and black & white musicals with Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire. Mom would later play the songs on the piano and we would sing.

She encouraged me to get along with dad when I was in my bitter, he-doesn’t-understand-or-accept-me stage but she didn’t push it.She’d only remind me, “He’s a good man, Nancy.”

And that he was.

Good and caring -– for his family and others. Generous I thought to a fault. Principled and consistent. Hard working and at the same time he enjoyed a day off as well as anyone. Samuel Watson loved his children and found immense joy in being with his offspring and their offspring.

He was devoted to mom and showed it. A quiet man who may have preferred to be alone, he went along with mom and opened their home to countless guests over the years.

Rev. S. W. Thornton lived out his very deep and real faith and he felt called to introduce others to it. It seems his passion got twisted up in a legalism of sort though he would deny it. He definitely held himself to higher standards than I believe God held him to.

Watson lived more with law than grace. He held his sons and daughters to that as well. And that was the tough part. The part I fought against. The part that kept me scrapping until way too late into my adult life.

Dad died on my 45th birthday, one week shy of his 91st year.  I wept of course, but the intense grieving that I experienced when mom died was absent.

Dad was ready to go. He longed to leave his weakening body and aching bones behind. He was eager to meet his maker. Mom had died, he had few friends around. My sister Elsie and her husband Vince provided him with a warm and laughter-filled home, overflowing with children and grandchildren, plenty of conversation, music and love. Despite that, he longed to be “released from his body.”

Parting is much easier when the one you love is ready and eager to move on.

By the time he left the constraints of this world, Dad and I were on a much better footing. I had experienced his graciousness. His loving, caring side. During one visit, not long after mom died, I broke down in tears and confessed that I was involved with a married man.

The stern pastor/father who at one time would have chastised or judged me only looked at me with tears in his eyes. “You will get hurt,” he said. He then went on to reveal to me a time in his life that he was tempted to get involved with a woman other than mom. He didn’t, he assured me. But he knew the temptation. His gentle, loving response wiped the board clean of any harsh feelings I had harbored against him.

This aging, lonely, wizened man with thinning snow white hair and clear blue eyes demonstrated tremendous tenderness to me at a time I was at my lowest.

He saw me as a daughter and a single woman in search of love, not someone who needed to be judged for bad conduct. My heart began to heal at his expression of love. I felt the grudges I had held against him since childhood melt away.

So mama’s wish that I knew dad as good came true.

They both were such gifts to me. I can’t imagine nor do I desire having any other family but them. My life was blessed beyond measure by so much that they taught me and gave me.

They demonstrated love for each other. Compassion for many. They welcomed thousands of people, from all walks of life, into our home. Bankers and medical students, homeless and derelicts, foreign students and the lonely of all ages sat side by side in the extended table and shared delicious home-cooked meals. They gave generously out of what little they had. They shared freely with what they had been given. And they gave the world music.  Dad provided the piano and a lifetime of support. Mom played her heart out .

I am among the richest in the world.



Garden of Peace: Jardin del Cajas


A number of weeks ago, I spent a lovely Sunday morning in the Jardin del Cajas. And if you haven’t yet been there, my friends, I encourage you to go. Pronto.

Our landlady, Margarita* had just returned from a six-week trip to see her daughter, ex-husband and friends in Germany. We informed her a few days before she arrived home that we planned to move at the first of November.

Our reunion was met with tears and bitter disappointment…on both sides. I have grown to dearly love this woman with a beautiful laugh and will miss her. She felt blindsided not only by our move but also the unanticipated departure of another tenant on a different piece of property.

“Everything seems so unstable,” she said.

She arrived home on Friday and asked me that Sunday morning if I wanted to go drive to church with her in the mountains. I didn’t hesitate.

Ten minutes later, we were headed out of Cuenca to the Cajas National Forest in her silver Hyundai.

The 20-kilometer drive  was breathtaking. To say the mountains were beautiful is an understatement. They seem to go on forever. They tower beside the road, poking their rocky heads through the clouds. Fields planted up the side of the mountains resemble a patch-work quilt. As we gained altitude, I spied giant vegetable gardens behind small adobe homes. Lettuce, cabbages and radishes were ripe for the picking. We’d find them later in the week at the local market.

We passed lush green areas continually watered by the gently flowing rio tomebama and any number of crystal-clear mountain streams. Black and white dairy cows managed to stay on all fours while they grazed on impossibly steep inclines. A few were tethered just an arm’s length from the road. I could almost pet them as we passed.  The cool air carried  a hint of eucalyptus and jasmine.

Along the way I saw red-cheeked children playing around and under the feet of parents busily  winding up weekend tasks about their homes. Laundry hung in the sun, on bushes, on the grass along the river banks. And the sun felt hot while the air grew cooler as we gained altitude. Brilliant white clouds contrasted beautifully with the bluest sky.

All was well in this beautiful world outside our car.  Inside, however, Margarita talked of fear and disappointment and shock.  I felt awful.

Her reaction to our move far exceeded that of an experienced landlord losing a tenant. I felt she was experiencing a mid-life crisis and our decision to relocate was the catalyst that set the crisis in motion.

She questioned what she’s done with her life, the decisions she’s made in the past few years. She misses her daughter who lives in Germany and she regrets the distance between them.  Her former husband and she have had time to rekindle a good relationship. Her parent’s health is failing. Her bakery business is, too. Her employee of 15 years will have to be let go. This time of her life is muy dificil.

We drive the 40-or-so minutes to the Jardin del Cajas (Garden of the Cajas). This is a bit of land off the main highway that leads to the coast. The Jardin has become a site of spiritual pilgrimage for thousands of people in the past few decades after an Ecuadorian teenager girl was visited by  the Virgin Mary on several occasions. The Catholic Church built a simple wooden church as a place for pilgrims to worship.

Margarita had told me nothing about our destination other than it was a quiet church. We arrived at a spot just after 11 am. We parked the car walked past a dozen or so booths,staffed by vendors of odds and ends. Freshly fried  empanadas. Ponchos, dolls and trinkets. We stopped at the stall of a man selling candles. Margarita bought 7 — five for her and two for me.

Just as the booths ended,  we walked across a small wooden bridge into a wide open area. Before us, a low, rustic chapel sat in the middle of a clearing.  To our immediate left, the 12 stations of the cross began, leading worshippers through a small strand of trees that circled the church. Further ahead and to the left, statues of Mary and other saints doted the landscape. Sheep grazed nearby. I noticed a family of llamas on the hillside.

Dozens of  people, families, couples, single men and women, walked the stony path ahead of us, many heading to the chapel, others to visit the icons and offer prayers.

We entered the church a few minutes after the service had begun. The rough wooden pews were full, so Margarita and I made our way to the front. At the left, she and I lit candles for our families and each other. We  took our seats along the side of the sanctuary.

The service was all in Spanish of course. I’m making progress in my studies, but I still missed much of the homily. However, I understood enough to know that the message was perfect for Margarita. We looked at each other, smiled and held hands. God was with us in that chapel in the mountains, in the priest’s words and in the songs of the congregation.

Afterwards, we walked the pebbled paths to visit the shrines. Margarita washed her hands and face with water from a spigot–the source of water that many had blessed before taking home with them.  I sat and watched. Prayed. Observed the beauty of nature that surrounded this quiet place. Gentle animals grazed nearby. Children ran in the open spaces. Elderly men and women sat on the benches and prayed. The sun shone over the mountains. Wind stirred the tall pines. Families walked together, some bringing picnics to share on this sacred place.

Margarita faced the statue of the Virgin Mary and said her prayers. I waited and prayed nearby. After about 20 minutes she nodded and we walked back past the church, across the bridge, past the vendors and to our car.

The drive back felt lighter. Brighter. More hopeful.

I visited a holy space that morning. The surroundings felt drenched in prayer. I imagine the hundreds of people that visited that day returned home, like me, with greater peace and hope.

In the past few weeks, David, Katherine and I have moved from Margarita’s home to a new place that suits us much better. It is half the rent and offers much more sunlight. We have been given a dog — to Katherine’s delight and David’s chagrin.  Most importantly, Margarita and I have been able to  work through some very tense moments with grace. Who pays for what, what needs to be replaced, how much one owes–the things that can destroy relationships–have been handled with grace and love.

Margarita and I shed tears, spoke harshly at times, but were able to apologize and get back to being friends.

I feel I could have easily lost my first friend in Ecuador but because of our visit that day to the Jardin del Cajas, I did not. Prayers were answered in ways she nor I could expect.  She found new renters within days.  We got a house that feels like home.

And I found a holy place to return to in the Cajas.

God is good.



*Our landlady’s name has been changed for privacy.


Llama family


A place of prayer


A holy place in the Andes


A peaceful setting


One of many mtn. streams