How do you celebrate a big birthday in late October? “Keep it simple,” Frank said. With that, an unexpected invitation set our course. “Why don’t you celebrate your birthday with us here on Shelter Island?” Karla, who was on the phone with Frank, is the partner of Frank’s oldest friend, Jim. They (Jim and Frank) have known each other since second grade at the Lab School, University of Chicago. “Your grandson and his fiancée, who live in Manhattan, are welcome to join us and spend the night,” Karla added. When Frank mentioned the invite, sparks flashed in my brain. I thought of friends and relatives who call Manhattan home. We hadn’t seen them since the pandemic. In Sunday’s NYT, I’d just read about the Manet/Degas exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and who knew what surprises the Museum of Modern Art might hold.
A lush multi-colored carpet of leaves covered our Santa Fe patio when we flew east to New York to celebrate Frank’s 92nd birthday. Landing at La Guardia, we snagged a yellow cab to East 66 th Street where we hunkered down in my author goddaughter Gitty Daneshvari's condo for three nights before catching the Hampton Jitney to Shelter Island. (She’s sold over 5 million copies of her 3-book School of Fear series, ages 9-12 years, worldwide!)
The weather couldn’t have been better: sunny skies, crisp cool air, blooming white and fuchsia cyclamen beneath tall trees. Late one morning, fueled by chocolate croissants and cups of cappuccino, we walked to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) where Unsupervised, a huge floor-to-ceiling digital artwork erupted before our eyes. What would a machine dream of after seeing the collection of the Museum of Modern Art? The artist, Refik Anadol, used Artificial Intelligence to interpret and transform more than 200 years of art in MoMA. Other works that caught my eye: The Lovers by René Magritte and Henri Matisse’s famous and beloved Dance (I).
Unsupervised, a digital artwork by Refik Anatolia
Evening highlight: a heart-warming visit with my sister- and brother-in-law, Kerry and Dick Bessey, plus a bonus: margaritas made by Dick with fresh-squeezed lime and sublime tequila, the best margarita(s) I’ve ever tasted. (Know that in New Mexico, I’ve tasted a lot of margaritas!)
Wednesday morning we met my college classmate Alice Harper for a tasty brunch of baked eggs at Le Pain Quotidien before trekking together to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Alice, who volunteers at the museum, had offered to give us a private tour of the Manet/Degas exhibition when the museum is closed (on Wednesdays) to the public. Entering via a special entrance, we followed Alice through security and into an elevator that took us to the exhibition floor. Stepping out of the elevator, I was struck by the feeling that I had magically landed in a great, grand mansion filled with art. The stillness was deafening; the absence of
crowds jostling for viewing position, palpable.
Approaching the exhibition, we walked through a hall filled with sculptures by Rodin. The Hand of God in white marble took my breath away as did Rodin’s erotic Eternal Spring. Alice led us to a painting by Manet outside the featured exhibition: Mademoiselle V . . . in the Costume of an Espada. Depicting a matador, Manet’s female model flourishes a non-matador pink cape. Well into the exhibition, I discovered the same model in Manet’s The Spanish Singer and again, in his famed Le dejeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia. I was mystified by Degas’s painting of Monsieur and Madame Manet until I read that for reasons unknown, Manet slashed the right-hand side of the canvas showing his wife’s profile. That part of the canvas is empty, covered with what appears to be brown paper.
The Hampton Jitney dropped us in Greenport where we caught a ten-minute ferry ride to Shelter Island. Near the eastern end of Long Island and accessible only by ferry. Shelter Island boasts a non-summer population of some 3,000 (15,000 during the summer). Compared with the sometimes frenetic energy of Manhattan, Shelter Island is an unspoiled gem of tranquility. Vast parts of the island are protected wetlands. In fact, The Nature Conservancy owns at least a third of the island to be protected in its wild state.
Frank’s longtime friend, Jim Webster, a retired medical doctor who specialized in internal medicine and geriatrics while affiliated with Northwestern University Medical School and Northwestern Memorial Hospital, celebrated his 92nd birthday a few weeks before Frank’s. Seeing Frank and Jim together, I marveled that these two are just a few years short of being one century old! They are accomplished, each with a unique history and a generous heart. When I married Frank twelve years ago, I didn’t think of him as old. And I still don’t. I admit that too often I take his good health for granted but when we decided to marry, Frank promised that he would play golf until he was a hundred!
Saturday morning found us shopping at the local organic farm market for another birthday dinner , this one with grandson William. That afternoon, when William arrived with his fiancée Laynie, Jim offered William the key to Ruby and off we (Frank, William, Laynie and I) went, driving from one end of the island to the other. Racing along the roadway, William came to a sudden stop. In front of us, moving ever so slowly, was a large snapping turtle. We got out of the car and, stopping traffic, persuaded the turtle to turn around and head back into the swamp grass from which he’d come. The next day Frank and I flew back to New Mexico, having notched another significant birthday in Frank’s run toward 100.
Last month (August 23), authors, book designers and illustrators, publishers and avid readers gathered for the annual New Mexico Book Association’s Summer Gala. Thrilled by our record attendance (70) and energized by our program, I served as emcee, sharing the mic with Co-President Miguel De La Cruz and other members of the board.
On the portal of Las Campanas in Santa Fe, acclaimed guitarist and singer Nacha Mendez performed for NMBA members and friends. Mendez, voted Best Female Vocalist in Santa Fe in 2009 and 2010, received the New Mexico Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.
Weaving stories about being a robber gang’s lookout, stumbling upon a nine-bedroom house of his dreams that he would one day own, and taking teenagers from east LA into the hallowed library of Stanford University, Baca shared significant parts of his life and writing with Gala attendees.
Looking for lunch, we were directed to a filling station for fish and chips. Without beer on the menu, we kept walking until we found a Gallery-Café that served beer but no food. Heeding the gallery manager’s suggestion, we checked out a nearby food truck specializing in –you guessed it – fish & chips. Carrying our baskets of food, we returned to the gallery. With cans of cold beer in hand, we plunked ourselves down at a table in the midst of photographs and paintings by Icelandic artists. Regrettably, my iPhone battery had run down so I have no photos of our afternoon exploration of Seydisfjordur.
Early the morning of July 4th, we were docked in Husavik where we were met with rain and bone-chilling winds. Because my Whales and Puffins excursion had been cancelled, I thought I might join Frank on his “Hidden Gems of the North” excursion but it was booked solid with a waiting list. So, I boarded a bus to the Husavik Geothermal Sea Baths. For nearly two hours, my head whipped by unrelenting winds, I submerged the rest of myself in the warm (100 degrees Fahrenheit) mineral-rich waters of multiple infinity pools along the edge of a cliff. On a clear day one might have taken in breathtaking views of Skjalfandi Bay below us or spotted a passing whaling boat, maybe even a whale, but visibility was almost non-existent beyond the rim of the pools. Winds lifted the waters of an adjacent waterfall up into the thermal baths. My face felt as though it was being pummeled by hundreds of tiny ice spikes. I returned to the ship in time to meet Frank for lunch before he left for his excursion in the rain.
On the morning of Wednesday, July 5th, we were docked in Akureyri where we disembarked for an eight-hour excursion. Our guide, Juli, humorously entertained our minivan of fifteen while he drove us through idyllic green pastures midst dark volcanic rock. Our destination was Iceland’s fourth largest body of water, Lake Myvatn, known as the lake of black flies. Fortunately, we didn’t see any except in an iPhone photo of Juli’s face covered with flies. Known as “midges,” they usually appear in mid-June in such amazing numbers that they block out views of nearby scenic mountains.
En route we stopped at breathtaking Godafoss Waterfall (Waterfall of the Gods). The story goes that in 998 AD, Thorgeir, a Viking priest pressured by Norway to give up his heathen beliefs, threw his pagan idols into the waters to symbolize that Iceland would embrace Christianity. These beautiful falls, in the shape of a horseshoe 98 feet wide, were a fractional reminder of Iguazu Falls in Brazil, an elongated horseshoe that extends for nearly two miles.
Not far from Lake Myvatn, we stopped to check out Skutustadagigar pseudocraters that were formed 2300 years ago. Walking through the bizarre and often grotesque formations, I couldn’t resist taking photos of those that reminded me of humans. At a stop for lunch, we ate, at Juli’s suggestion, dark brown bread slathered in butter, topped by smoked trout – delicious! Afterwards Juli drove us to Námafjall, an area of swirling geothermal activity that smells of sulfur and features smoking fumaroles and boiling mud. From a distance it looked like a vast desert or a burned out Serengeti.
On Friday, July 7th, we boarded a bus in Isafjordur to ascend 2100 feet to the top of Bolafjall Mountain. Along the way we went through the eleven-mile-long Mt. Oshlid tunnel. It took a while as oncoming traffic had the right of way, forcing us into numerous turnouts. From the mountain top we had spectacular panoramic views – miles of remote, unspoiled nature and home to arctic foxes (the only land mammal native to Iceland) but we saw not one fox nor, when we looked out to sea, did we glimpse the coast of Greenland. At departure time, four in our group were missing. Our guide became increasingly concerned, fearing someone might have fallen off the mountain. Eventually, the missing were found.
On Saturday, July 8th, we docked in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. It was not my first time in Reykjavik. Years ago, I flew Icelandic Air to and from Europe, and a fuel stop in Reykjavik was a must. However, not once on those flights did I ever get off the plane. And now because we had signed up for a five-hour excursion outside the city, I wondered whether we would see anything of Reykjavik. Our guide, so very different from the guides we’d had all along, shared little information about himself, Icelandic ways or the moss-covered lavascapes we were seeing. Our destination was Reykjanes GeoPark, a UNESCO Global Geopark. Our first stop was Lake Kleifarvatn, a 318-foot deep crater lake with a beach of black sand, far different from tree-lined Crater Lake in southwestern Oregon, which is much deeper and bluer.
After returning to the ship, we decided to try to see something of the city. A port shuttle delivered us to city center, too late for the on-off bus tour. So, we walked to a pedestrian-filled street lined with shops, including a crowded book store, and took in the scene: more people than we’d seen all week – young people, many with tattoos. At Frank’s behest, we checked out some impressive architecture on our walk back to catch the port shuttle. The lecturer aboard ship had mentioned several of the buildings we stopped to admire. We had hoped we to eat dinner in Reykjavik our last night together with Susie but the logistics proved daunting. We ended up eating together on the ship after which we rushed to pack and get our bags outside our staterooms for pickup by 11 p.m. Throwing dirty clothes into suitcases, we zipped ‘em closed within minutes of the pickup deadline.
In the morning, we flew to Amsterdam, missing a volcanic eruption near Reykjavik by four hours.
Miscellaneous memories and impressions of Iceland:
Under an overcast sky in late June, we left The Hendrick’s Hotel in an Uber and headed for the Port of Amsterdam to board the Azamara Journey that would take us to Iceland. Without the aggravating Covid protocols we had endured when traveling in Europe a year-an-a-half earlier, check-in was easy. Frank’s stepsister Susie and I signed up for a massage on each of the two days we knew we’d be at sea with no ports of call.
Exploring a small museum in Scalloway, we discovered a display that chronicles the heroic “Shetland Bus” missions into Nazi-occupied Norway during WWII. Initially, a group of small fishing boats disguised as working fishing boats were armed with light machine guns concealed in oil drums placed on deck to carry out missions on the Norwegian coast. Several fishing boats were lost before the fleet was augmented by three well-armed submarine chasers.
At the end of our tour we learned that our guide, Margaret Anderson, is the author of children’s books. From one of her books, she stood up in the front of the bus and read a poem, captivating us with her wonderful Scottish brogue.
That night we enjoyed a late dinner aboard ship and compared notes with Susie who had opted for a different excursion. After the previous evening of vodka tonics, I opted for a pre-dinner Aperol spritzer and a glass of wine with dinner. We caught the last of the ship’s late-evening entertainer, singer Grace Clancy, and headed for bed.
Speaking of mountains, we made our way past the highest mountain in the Faroe Islands, Slaettaratindur (2,890 ft.), via multiple hairpin turns on a narrow two-way road before we arrived in the town of Gjógv. Walking through the town, we saw no one. I could only think that in this cold, wet weather, only crazy, curious tourists were out and about. Sod-roofed houses were a common sight. “In the Shetland Islands,” we were told, “they don’t mow the roofs but in the Faroe Islands, we do.” We stopped at a local guesthouse for a snack. Under dark wooden rafters, a long wooden table displayed trays of yummy eclairs and pots of hot coffee and tea but not one local did I see.
Interspersing passages from my memoir with narrative, I concluded with the scene when I boarded the plane in Albuquerque to fly back to Reston, Virginia, to find John, who has become seriously ill, in the aisle, unable to get out of a narrow wheelchair into his first-class seat. When the flight attendant, incensed because he has not been able to load the plane because John is in the aisle, barks, “Lady, I suggest you and your husband take another flight.” I respond with, “We have to go to Dulles. We’re not getting off this plane!”
The questions and discussion that followed my reading were straight-forward. I was asked if I were writing my story now, would I change it in any way. I said that I might have been more reflective, more critical of myself for not delving into John’s diagnosis to better understand it. I see now that John didn’t level with me about its seriousness. At the same time, I feel that understand why he could not.
My second memoir is another slice of my life, when I was in my 20s and 30s. It was triggered by my opening a trunk filled with letters, journals and memories much like ghosts that had haunted me for a long time.
In this city of canals and labyrinthian streets, we had a terrible time trying to get Uber or a taxi on a Sunday afternoon. After crossing a couple of canals, we walked into the five-star Grand Hotel where staff generously offered to order a taxi for us. We arrived at the Van Gogh Museum within minutes of our reservation. Susie had secured our museum reservations online before leaving home.
For lovers of Van Gogh, The Van Gogh Museum is a visual and, with earphones, auditory treat. I learned that troubled Van Gogh was prolific for just ten years (1880-1890) before he shot himself in the chest and died. In the Rijksmuseum, we hung out on the second floor, enjoying works by Rembrandt and a couple of Vermeers. Regrettably, the big Vermeer exhibition, which brought together 28 works, the largest-ever assemblage of luminous masterpieces by this 17th century Dutch painter, closed a few weeks before our arrival despite Frank’s email pleading for an extension of the show.
After The Hendrick’s Hotel introduced us to The Hendrick’s gin and tonic, we ordered this drink with every dinner in Amsterdam. We enjoyed a superb dinner at the Fish Bar and another at Hemelse Modder near our hotel. I especially enjoyed the parsley or other veggie mousse with fig preserve and crema, quail stuffed with butternut squash and a chocolate mousse dessert. Our only disappointing meal was rijsttafel (rice table): dozens of shareable dishes ranging from mild to spicy served with rice. Our table was covered with dishes of indistinguishable condiments surrounding larger dishes of curried lamb, beef and chicken. My taste buds longed for what, at home, I call rijsttafel: curried rice served with assorted condiments that include coconut, chopped peanuts, golden raisins and chutney.
Alongside the canal across from the Anne Frank House is where we stopped for lunch our last day in Amsterdam. Frank had the most delicious ham and melted Swiss cheese sandwich (panini style) and I ordered deep-fried goat cheese (looked like chicken nuggets) with honey.
At the Anne Frank House, where we met Susie, we were invited in 45 minutes ahead of our scheduled 5 p.m. reservation. Frank’s daughter Maggie, who has a special connection with the Anne Frank House, secured the reservation. On the tour we wore audio phones, triggered by numbers posted in each room. Quotations from Anne’s diary, which I purchased (I read it long ago but can’t find it in my library), and her father Otto, were very moving. During the tour of the house, we proceeded up two flights of stairs but not into the attic. The museum was filled with historical context – before, during and after WWII with emphasis on Jews and the persecution they endured beginning in 1932. Anne was born in Frankfurt, which her family left for Amsterdam when she was about 5 years old. To be so very close to where they hid for two years took my breath away – no flushing of the single toilet in daytime because it would have been heard in the warehouse below. No talking, only whispering. Somebody ratted them out mere weeks before allied troops arrived. Of the family taken to prison, only Otto survived. He died in 1979! After reading Anne’s diary, he commented: “I’m convinced that no parent really knows his child.”
In early March,after checking into our hotel, we made a beeline for the General Aviation Airport, known for “the best food in Sedona, Arizona,” we’d been told. The dining room was packed and booked for at least another hour. “But we can serve you at the bar,” the bright-faced greeter said. Minutes later, a woman joined us at the bar, taking the empty seat next to me, and we started chatting. I told her about the Tucson Festival of Books I’d just attended on the UA campus where the New Mexico Book Association sponsored a booth to sell NMBA member books. Hearing I was an author, Lydia asked me about my memoir, Banged-Up Heart. “I want to read your book,” she said, adding, “I have a book club. If I can persuade the members to read your book, would you come back to Sedona to discuss it with us?” “I’d make every effort,” I said.
The upshot? In May, the Sedona book club (six women) came to Santa Fe to talk with me. Although they rented a house through VRBO and suggested meeting there, I countered with an invitation to our house. While the one husband and Frank played bocce ball, the club and I sat on the portal discussing my book. (They had written questions!) They wanted to see John’s photographs mentioned in my memoir and the wild hares (wooden) that I purchased, a pivotal turning point for me in my story. They brought a passel of gifts, including a bottle of La Crema Chardonnay and a generous gift certificate to El Farol where they’d eaten the night before. Both the wine and El Farol figure in my memoir. I was deeply touched by the Sedona book club. When I relate this story to friends, I’m often met with stunned silence.
We returned home on November 9 th from our big (nearly a month) and, largely,
wonderful trip to Spain, Italy and France to celebrate Frank’s 90 th . We spent two weeks in Spain,
first in Madrid with my goddaughter Gitty Daneshvari and her family where we visited the Prado
and a wonderful modern art gallery, Reina Sofia, for a long look at Picasso’s Guernica.
From Madrid we took a train to Cordoba then rented a car and Frank drove us to
Granada, Ronda (an enchanting white city straddling a huge gash in a mountain carved out by a
river and home to the oldest “active” bull ring in Spain), and Seville. BTW, Ernest Hemmingway
visited Ronda and actor/director Orson Wells is buried there. I’m in love with Spain – the
friendly people, the stunning Moorish architecture in southern Spain and the pace of life. To top
it off, more than 90% of Spaniards eligible to be vaccinated against Covid are! And they wear
My nephew Sean in Houston asked about castles. We saw plenty of them. Most were, at
one time, fortresses in prime locations. We were reminded, more than once, of a time when
Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together peacefully, enriching each other’s culture.
From Seville, we flew to Rome to meet Frank’s family (there were 14 of us) and
celebrate his birthday before boarding a small-ish ship for a coastal cruise that took us to Livoro
(Lucca & Florence), Nice, Marseille and Barcelona. Covid made the trip difficult from start to
finish – lots of tests and documents for each country that couldn’t be completed until 48 hours
prior to arrival. Because my suitcase didn’t make the flight to Rome, I ended up, after weari!!ng
Frank’s underwear for two days, with a new wardrobe : ) After everyone had deemed my
suitcase GONE, it appeared at our Air BnB just before we boarded the ship. I was delighted!
Heeding proclamations by New Mexico’s Governor, Michele Lujan Grisham, I’m pretty well hunkered down with occasional breaks for desert-air walks in our ‘hood or pick-up of groceries ordered online, supplemented by an unexpected visit to Walgreens for an RX where I found dishwasher Finish packets and disinfectant for toilets. “It doesn’t matter what it says,” Frank said, when I pointed out reference to “toilets.” “Disinfectant is disinfectant.” On these pick-up ventures, we’re masked and gloved. Our nearest neighbor offered to get whatever she could find at Costco in Albuquerque: paper towels : ) I’m spending a lot more time in the kitchen, a decided change from our habit of going out a couple of nights a week. For my birthday on April 3, we ordered take-out from Sassella, a wonderful downtown restaurant – delish.
Tomorrow was supposed to be the Santa Fe Symphony’s Annual Spring Gala, a major fundraiser, at the beautiful Eldorado Hotel & Spa: Lumière, A Night on Bourbon Street. One of the decorative elements? Masks! Because of the virus, lots of performance cancellations. The Board took up a collection for the musicians, many of whom under the best of circumstances are financially strapped, but they’ll need more.
Meanwhile, Frank has a bone-on-bone hip issue but until elective surgery is back, he’s toughing it out. Thanks to Zoom, we’re not totally isolated. I take Balance and Yoga classes twice a week – not nearly as gratifying as in-person but I’m grateful to be able to do his without having to leave home. And Frank, as president of the Santa Fe Symphony, is able to hold regular Board meetings. This should be an opportunity for me to write but for many days I was so consumed with awful news that I couldn’t quiet myself mentally or emotionally to do much of anything. On the plus side, I’ve been in touch with nephews in Houston and cousins in Washington and Oregon.
I subscribed to StoryWorth for Frank who’s really taken to it. He receives or makes up one question a week, e.g., What do you remember about your grandparents? Your first boss? You email your responses, including scanned photos, to StoryWorth and after a year or so, you’ll have a book that may interest your children and theirs. I learned about StoryWorth from Maxine Neely Davenport, a marvelous local author (mysteries and sort stories) with a lifetime of accomplishment (went to law school at age 40 and climbed twenty-six 14,000-foot high mountains), who died after suffering severe injuries in a car crash just before the virus hit Santa Fe.
We’ve been invited to a virtual cocktail party this evening. Think I’ll put on a pair of earrings to dress up my jeans, grungy top and comfy slippers. BTW, we’ve become addicted to the daily New York Times Spelling Bee that we play on our iPhones. Don’t like to stop ‘til we’ve attained Genius, which can lead to near-sleepless nights.
A few good things about being quarantined at home per Frank with a few additions by me:
I'm Shirley Melis. You may know me as Shirley M. Nagelschmidt, Shirley M. Bessey and now, Shirley M. Hirsch. Each reflects a particular phase of my life. Banged-Up Heart is a slice of my life's journey and in telling my story, I'm giving voice to my long silent "M" by reclaiming my maiden name, Shirley Melis.