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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Rediscovering Her Roots

I adopted my daughter from Russia the day after her 11th birthday. At age 22, she has now lived half her life with me in America. Although she can understand some Russian, her ability to speak her native language is quite limited.

Because she was older when she was placed in an orphanage, she has memories of life with her birth family, including siblings, cousins, aunts and grandparents. She also has many questions. I once asked whether she wanted to search for her birth parents (there are groups that work with investigators in Russia to search for birth families), but she wasn't interested.

Then last year she said she would like to do a birth family search. So I contacted a woman with a good record of finding birth families in Russia, in conjunction with a man 'on the ground' in Russia. We provided the requested information, my daughter wrote a letter to her birth mother, and the search began. Through the efforts of the brother of the director of the last orphanage in which she stayed (he is a police officer), we were able to get the address of the birth father. But no trace of the birth mother was found. She had moved and nobody knew where she was. The investigator in Russia also gathered some information about the birth father, who reportedly was still in and out of jail. But the search for the birth mother hit a dead end. 

Then a few weeks ago, my daughter was watching an episode of 'Millionaire Matchmaker.' The matchmaker herself was adopted and did a search for her birth mother. That prompted my daughter to start her own search, beginning with Facebook. And amazingly, she found her! The name, city and birth date all matched. My daughter used an online translating program to write a brief note in Russian, and a couple of days later, she got a response.

She and her birth mother have chatted via Facebook nearly every day since then, although the 12-hour time difference makes contact difficult. The birth mother speaks no English, but my daughter's online translator helps the communication. 

My daughter is finally getting answers to some long-held questions about her past, updates on various family members (several of which have died of heart disease, which apparently runs in the family) and at least a partial explanation of a variety of things her parents did that resulted in my daughter being placed in an orphanage. She also has learned that one of her great-grandparents was Polish.

The birth mother, according to my daughter, refers to me as my daughter's mom, so she is not attempting to reclaim that role. My daughter refers to her birth mother by her name; she calls me 'Mom." My daughter is showing great maturity in handling this sudden and uncomfortable situation. When the birth mother asked whether my daughter hates her, my daughter's response was that no, she doesn't hate her. After years of therapy and the act of growing up, she forgives her birth mother but will not forget what she did. 

I also have become Facebook friends with the birth mother. We chat via Facebook on occasion, but mostly about our dogs. But my daughter shares with me her conversations with her birth mother, at one point asking whether her talking to her birth mother upset me. It doesn't upset me at all. I am happy she is getting answers to her questions and that my daughter hopes to become friends with the woman who gave birth to her. My daughter's love and loyalty are with me. I just don't want her to be hurt again. Birth mother has said she doesn't want to lose my daughter again. The birth father has had little to say, and my daughter has shown little interest in communicating with him. This is a situation that will take considerable time to play out.

So this year is ending with a new beginning for several people on both sides of the globe. I hope my daughter and her birth mother find comfort in their budding friendship. It also has prompted my daughter and me to work on improving our skills in Russian, so we can better communicate with someone who appears to have finally got her life together and wants to get to know the daughter she rejected years ago.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Picture the World

Here's a bit of an unusual blog post: a photo from everywhere I visited in 2015.

January found me hiking on New Zealand's beautiful South Island, where sheep outnumber people! It was here that I discovered that despite my allergy to wool, I can wear merino wool with no problems. I also took my first helicopter ride, which flew over and then landed on Fox Glacier. I even got to walk around on the glacier for a few minutes.


In February, I got to visit one of my most special places, Yellowstone National Park. Some 4,000 bison call the park home. This herd is the only remaining herd of pure bison in the country. Other herds have been 'contaminated' with cattle genes. Bison are joined by a large herd of several thousand elk, as well as moose, pronghorn and mule deer. A variety of predators, including grizzly and black bears, wolves, coyotes, fox and cougars, help keep the prey populations in balance.

In March, I enjoyed a trip to Israel, including Jerusalem's Old City, the Western Wall, the Mount of Olives, Masada, Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee, and the Dead Sea. We also made a half-day trip to Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity, now under the control of the Palestinian Authority. And we visited the place on the Jordan River where John the Baptist baptized Jesus, according to legend.

From Israel we drove to Jordan, where we visited the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Jerash, the capital city, Amman, and for me the highlight of the trip, Petra. And as in Israel, we visited countless ancient Roman cities, which continue to be wonders of engineering and construction some 2,000 years after they were built..

I wrapped up this trip with my second visit to Turkey, this time visiting parts of this large nation I had not seen during my first trip. One of the places we visited was an Australian cemetery, with markers for some of the ANZAC troops killed in the battle of Gallipoli. Many of the bodies were not recovered, but each soldier has a marker in the cemetery, just one of several in the area. Nearby was a cemetery for soldiers of the Ottoman Empire who had died in battle.

Lion track
In May I went on safari in Botswana, a country rich in wildlife. There is nothing like being awakened by the trumpet of an elephant just yards from my tent in the middle of the night! I got to watch elephants swim and learned a bit about tracking elephants and lions by following their tracks in the dust. I also got to watch cheetahs, lions, African wild dogs and leopard, and saw an amazing variety of beautiful birds.

From Botswana, I journeyed to Zimbabwe and Zambia to view the spectacular Victoria Falls. The falls are so huge they can be viewed from both countries. It was an interesting sight to watch a herd of wart hogs grazing on the lawn outside my hotel in Zimbabwe. In Zambia, I spent one night in a fabulous hotel reachable only by boat.

Then it was on to Spain to hike part of the ancient pilgrimage route known as the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James). This was the most moving of all the trips I have taken. We didn't hike/walk the entire Camino, of course, just 50 or so miles of the highlights. I think I'm too old to walk the entire route, which takes just more than a month and entails sleeping in hostels on a space-available basis, but this was an amazing experience.

August found me visiting Yosemite National Park for a week of hiking and a day in San Francisco. It's a beautiful park full of magnificent, soaring granite cliffs, including the famous Half Dome and El Capitan. And of course it was a thrill to see the thousand-year-old giant sequoias. Can you find me in the photo?

In September I flew to Chicago to visit family and take a quick road trip with my sister to revisit places from our childhood, visit the graves of relatives and reconnect with our cousin and her family.

I was back in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks for a photography trip in late
The Grand Tetons from Oxbow Bend, Wyoming
September. The aspens were at their peak of color, the park wasn't terribly crowded, and the weather was cold at night yet pleasant during the day. We watched a grizzly bear foraging for food before beginning its winter hibernation, as well as a black bear and her cub, wolves and moose, plus trumpeter swans.

Sub-adult male  bears sparring near Hudson Bay.

The year's travels wrapped up in late October with a trip to Churchill, in far northern Canada, to view and photograph polar bears as they awaited the freezing of Hudson Bay and the beginning of the feeding season. The bears hadn't eaten for some 7 months!. Polar bears are amazing creatures, supremely adapted to live on the frozen tundra and ice.

This has been an amazing year for travel, with trips to many new places and a return to Turkey, a country with a centuries-old history. I have some outstanding trips scheduled for 2016, including a tiger photography trip to India, safari in South Africa, hiking in Ireland, photography trips to the canyons of the American Southwest and Costa Rica, and a trip to hang out with elephant researchers in Kenya.

2016 is shaping up to be a great year for travel!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Simple Pleasures

Today is Christmas Eve, but I can't tell by looking at my house.

The only decorating I did this year was to hang a fresh pine wreath on the front door. And I bought that only to help out a local animal rescue that was selling them. There is no Christmas tree, no ornaments or lights, no Christmas-themed things hanging on the walls or sitting out. I just don't have the spirit to decorate this year. And for the second year in a row, I didn't send Christmas cards, and my holiday baking hasn't happened yet.

But I am content. As I sit in my office reading a book, my three dogs are sleeping contentedly on the floor nearby. My third dog, Benny, isn't officially mine yet, as the paperwork making his adopting final hasn't been mailed to me. But he is mine nonetheless.

Outside, the day is grey, with threats of rain or snow. But I was able to walk the dogs and finish my exercise. I have listened to most of my 40-50 Christmas CDs. I got to spend time with my daughter at the beautiful River of Lights at the Albuquerque botanical gardens. Each year, the gardens are transformed into a wonderland filled with wire sculptures covered with some 2 millions lights. 

My house is warm and secure. I have donated money to some of my favorite charities, and several bags of food to the big food bank. My daughter is happy in her new career and engaged to a great guy. I have lots of food in the pantry and freezer. I got to travel to many amazing places this year, and my travel schedule for 2016 is already filled with adventures to foreign lands. My life is good.

It is these simple pleasures that have become most important, not the endless search for 'the perfect gift' or fighting the hordes at the mall to buy things for people who need nothing and whom I seldom see. Nothing brings me more pleasure than traveling someplace I have never visited, or visiting Yellowstone National Park to watch wolves and bison. My favorite place to be is in nature, hiking, taking photographs or just observing. Fighting hordes of people in a mall isn't something I am willing to do. A walk along the river, a hike in a beautiful national park or getting up early to photograph an amazing sunrise -- these are the things that fill my heart with joy.

So on this Christmas Eve 2015, I wish you tidings of joy, peace, contentment and pleasure in the simple things.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Dear Daughter

Dear Daughter,

December holds so many important dates for us. Today, you are 22 years old. December 21 is the date I went to court in western Siberia and appeared before a judge to get approval to adopt you. December 28 is the day you landed in America to begin your new life. How far we have come since then!

When you arrived in your new home, you spoke no English, and I sometimes struggled to find the right Russian words to communicate with you. I remember sitting at the kitchen table looking up the Russian words for 'numerator' and 'denominator' as I tried to explain fractions to you.

Shopping for pretty new shoes. .

We went through many very difficult times together, you because of your abandonment, trust and reactive attachment issues and ADHD, I because I was totally unprepared to deal with a child with so many issues. But we muddled through together. I learned a great deal about the issues adopted kids often bring with them. And you, although you resisted going to therapy for a long time, eventually embraced the help that was offered to you. Through it all, as hard as you tried to hurt me and push me away, I never gave up on you, although I came close a couple of times. 

You graduated from high school and remained adrift for a couple of years, working a succession of fast-food jobs. Then you found a job as a server and did great at that. And then you decided you needed to prepare for a job that would serve you in the years to come, and that wasn't in the fast food business. So you went to cosmetology school, where you struggled until you transferred to a school more in tune with you. You got an externship at a local salon, you passed your state boards and got your license, and your externship became a real full-time job. After dating a succession of losers, you found a great guy and you recently got engaged. 

Just a few days ago, you reconnected with your birth mother on Facebook. Communicating with her in your native language, which you haven't used in several years, is a challenge, but you are 'talking' to her online. You have forgiven her for the things she did and for rejecting you, but you will never forget. And that is a huge step in healing emotionally. Because not forgiving someone hurts you, not the person who hurt you. I hope you get answers to the questions you have carried with you for so many years. And I love the fact that you are willing to share your conversations with me.

I am so incredibly proud of you, of everything you have overcome and of the kind, compassionate, successful young lady you are. I may not have given birth to you, but I definitely am your mother. And you are my daughter, for now and for always.

Happy 22nd birthday!



Thursday, December 17, 2015

Welcome Home, Benny!

My fifth golden retriever died from a brain tumor in April 2014. Since then, I have realized how much I miss having one of these wonderful dogs in my life.

Unfortunately, goldens are very rare in New Mexico. I know I could drive to California or Tennessee and adopt a dog from one of the rescues from which I got previous goldens, but that would mean a long road trip with my two little dogs for a 'meet and greet.' So I started looking locally.

The local animal control listed an adult male golden, so I paid him a visit, only to learn that he isn't a golden at all, but a Labrador retriever. The shelter in Santa Fe had a golden mix that looked a lot like a golden, but before I could get there, he was adopted. I found a little golden/corgi mix at a local rescue group, but he was adopted before I could complete the home visit. Friends of the family had talked about rehoming their golden, but decided they couldn't part with her. So I resigned myself to having to drive to Tennessee or California next year to find my new golden family member.

Then I got a phone call from the foster mom of the golden/corgi, telling me that he was available for adoption. She brought him to meet my dogs, which were uncharacteristically accepting of him. She completed my home visit, but she said the dog was scheduled to meet another family two days later. She would report her findings about the two home visits, and another woman would make the final decision. So I waited. And a  few days later, I got the call -- the other potential adopters had changed their minds, and the little dog (named Bailey) was mine if I wanted him. Arrangements were made for a 2-week trial period to make sure he was a good fit with my family.

Since I already have a dog named Bailey, I started calling the newcomer Benny. He fit into the family very quickly and smoothly. True, he has some rough edges we need to work on, such as staying off the furniture, not jumping on people, doors, etc., and not pulling when we go for a walk. But those are fixable things. After just a couple of days, I knew that Benny was here to stay, although the final adoption paperwork has yet to be completed.

This little guy, who looks much like a golden retriever with his long, red coat in the body of a corgi, has been through so many changes lately. So it's understandable that he remains somewhat uncertain. But his playful side is showing itself, with back yard zoomies and chomp fights with me when I sit on the floor.

I bought a no-pull harness for Benny and had it sized at the wonderful local pet food shop where I bought it. Benny is quickly learning his new name and 'sit,' but we are still working on staying off the furniture. He likes to sleep under my bed at night rather than on the soft blanket I put on the floor for him. And that's fine. Perhaps he will feel safer sleeping on the blanket as he realizes he is home for good.

I can't think of a better Christmas gift for either of us. Welcome home, Benny!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Stress-Free Christmas

It's less than two weeks before Christmas, and I am feeling no stress.

Why? I'm sending no Christmas cards. I have done no decorating aside from hanging a fresh pine wreath on the front door (I bought it as part of a fundraiser for a local animal rescue group). I am not putting up a Christmas tree despite having some lovely ornaments collected over the years. I have done almost no shopping (I made a quick trip to one store and got a couple of things for my daughter), and I plan to do a bare minimum of baking, and only because I really like the cookies and this is the only time of year I make them.

I have started to work my way through my collection of 40 to 50 CDs of Christmas music, but that's it as far as 'celebrating' the holiday goes.

It's actually very liberating not to be caught up in the traditional holiday madness. I'm not wracking my brain trying to think of something to mail to relatives I seldom see and who don't really need anything. I haven't sent cards since 2013, and I haven't heard that anybody missed receiving a card from me. Since I am retired, I have nowhere to take extra fudge (my recipe makes 3 pounds) and cookies, and I'm not supposed to eat a lot of sweets. I don't enjoy going to the mall any time of year, and I particularly avoid it during the holiday madness.

Sure, I still wish people a Merry Christmas, and I enjoy listening to my CDs. But I much prefer avoiding the pushing crowds, the long lines at the post office and the stress of trying to figure out what to mail to people I seldom see. I do enjoy buying things for people when I have an inspired idea or see something I think they would like. But I hate feeling obligated to buy something for somebody just because they bought something for me or because we 'always' send things to each other.

I have donated several bags of food to the local food bank, I volunteered my photography skills to a local animal rescue group, and my daughter is coming over this week to make cookies for her salon's cookie exchange. We plan to go to Santa Fe together and next week, we plan to go together to the annual Festival of Lights. I am looking at the snow-dusted mountains from my window. And I am in the process of adopting a new dog who needs love and stability in his life.

That is how I am celebrating Christmas this year. 

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Photos with Santa Claws

I recently was asked to be the photographer at an 'animal photos with Santa Claws' fundraiser for a cat rescue group. Now, I'm not a cat person, and in fact I am allergic to cats. But I have a friend who volunteers with this group, and I served as photographer for a St. Patrick's Day photo shoot for the same group earlier this year. Besides, I don't do much volunteer work any more, so I agreed to be the substitute photographer.

Photographing animals is always challenging, but the dogs and cats (and three ferrets) who came to the event were generally well behaved. One cat was not happy, and loudly expressed his displeasure with a series of loud growls. The three ferrets were squirmy and wriggly, but their human 'mom and dad' kept them under control. And some were less than happy about having to wear antlers or hats. The hardest to photograph was a solid black cat that glowered at anybody nearby and growled loudly. His black fur made him a difficult subject to capture. Animals ranged from a huge great Dane (in the photo with Santa) to a tiny, 12-week-old Chihuahua puppy and a very active, and strong, 18-month old bull terrier.

My Facebook news feed is usually filled with stories of animal abuse, so it was really nice to spend time with people who truly love and care for their animals.

I  am glad I was able to help out with this event, which raised much-needed funds for the rescue. And I hope the people who attended enjoy the photos of their animals with Santa Claws.

I love you, Santa.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

My Favorite Place

I have been fortunate to travel to many wonderful places around the world the past couple of years. Yet the only place that brings tears to my eyes and a longing to my heart when I read about it or watch a video is right here in the United States.

That very special places is Yellowstone National Park, founded as America's very first national park in 1872. I first visited Yellowstone in 2013 on a January trip with the National Geographic Society. Most of the focus was on the park's many thermal features, such as geysers, mud pots and other hot-water attractions. And of course, watching the magnificent bison in the snow was an amazing experience. Yellowstone in winter is truly a magical place. Gone are the massive crowds that clog the roads during the summer. All but a couple of roads are closed, and access is limited to those participating in organized snow machine tours or group tours that travel in the park's famous Bombardier machines, with skis on the front and treads on the back.

I returned to the park twice in 2014 on wolf-watching trips, and I was hooked. Although wolves are typically reclusive and stay well away from people, I was fortunate enough to see a few of these amazing animals. Despite two more trips in search of wolves in 2015, I have not been able to get any really good pictures of them. They are simply too elusive, particularly given the large groups of people that gather whenever word of a wolf sighting spreads through the park.

Even so, I love going to Yellowstone. I won't go during the summer months, as there are simply too many people. And as much as I hate cold weather, the winter months are by far the best for spotting wolves. I have been lucky enough to watch the Lamar Canyon family
trotting across the snow at sunset as my group stop atop a nearby hill. I got to see a couple of members of a wolf family no more than 100 yards away one morning. And getting to hear a group of wolves howling to one another is an amazing experience.

A lone bull bison plods through deep snow up a hill.
I also enjoy photographing the bison that call Yellowstone home. I love seeing them sweep the snow with their massive heads to reach the scant grass below, or watching them lie down near thermal features in search of warmth (although they are built to easily handled the incredible cold of Yellowstone). Nothing says Yellowstone in winter like a bull bison covered in frost.

A red fox pounces on a mouse or vole with uncanny accuracy.
I have watched a grizzly bear foraging for food in preparation for a long winter hibernation, and a few minutes later watched a mama black bear and her cub dash up a hill. Elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, coyotes, moose, red fox, mule deer and mountain goats are other species that call Yellowstone home.
Yellowstone symbolizes the wildness, and wilderness, that we have lost in so much of the country. It has thousands of thermal features and countless water falls. It is the best place in the world for wolf-watching. It is home to the last wild herd of bison, untainted by cross-breeding with domestic cattle. It has some 10,000 thermal features.  

I have visited six countries in Africa and I have been in awe at the magnificent animals that live there. But my heart always returns to Yellowstone. I wish I could live there year-round, but the winters are just too harsh for me.

Yellowstone is the place where, if my final wishes are followed, my ashes will be scattered in the Lamar Valley. Then I will spend eternity with the magnificent wolves of the Lamar Valley.
The Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Ginger Snaps

I have really scaled back on my holiday baking the past few years. I don't need to eat a lot of cookies, and since I'm retired, I can't share the goodies with people at work. So I cut back on the variety of cookies and most years, eliminated the fudge I always made for Christmas. 

But today I made some ginger snap cookies, something I haven't done in decades.

As I mixed the dough, I remembered that my dad always liked ginger snaps. Then I remembered that my grandmother, who has been gone more than 25 years, also liked this kind of cookie. So what was it that prompted me to make a cookie that I haven't had in decades? And I wasn't even sure I liked ginger snaps. I am not a fan of ginger tea or ginger anything. But something caused me to buy a package of ginger snap mix. Why now? 

I used one of my mother's old mixing bowls to mix the cookie dough. So making some cookies reminded me of both of my parents and of my paternal grandmother. She was an excellent cook until dementia took that skill away from her, and I am certain she never used a store-bought mix to make her cookies. 

I also remembered the delicious butterscotch cookies my mother used to make, and how I loved eating the uncooked dough. I do remember making butterscotch cookies after college, but that's something I haven't done for decades as well. I bet I can find my mother's hand-written recipe on an index card, along with some other favorite recipes she gave me. I also inherited some of her old cook books. It's fascinating to read the original recipes that call for lard and other things we health-conscious Americans no longer use.

And yes, I do like ginger snaps. But better than the cookies are the warm memories making them brought to the surface.