La Vida Mexico

…At The Inn At San Pancho

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What Happened….Stage Five (Part One)

The memoir, having no beginning, middle or end, is a mash up. You could argue that this confusion is not the writer’s fault, but a matter of the memoir taking itself too seriously. Such convolutions! You would think the memoirist a famous politician or actor or artist and not just a 70 year old woman who has occasionally been well known for short periods of time. This “memoir” is more vine than book, winding around itself in complex knots, sprouting a jungle of unnecessary offshoots, and suffocating its root system on the way toward a small patch of sunlight which, after two years of steady work, remains too distant to make any difference.

Sadly, as is so often the case with poorly organized memoirs, the problem is more easily diagnosed than solved. For starters there are too many stories, the majority of them incomplete and vaguely mysterious, while the remaining lot, though able to manage a loose connection with one another, are incapable of becoming part of a greater whole. Where is the team work, the sensitivity necessary for a finely wrought lifework?  Your problem (Mom: “You never finish anything!”) is a lack of discipline. Things get a little tough and off you go. No sticktoittiveness. Your memoir has unsecured borders, unwanted refugees arrive daily and your overburdened infrastructure cannot support them.   

Case in point:  A story you thought you had forgotten.  Here it comes! It is a sad remembrance but it arrives with color and form and clarity.  You marvel at the workings of the human mind, your mind, and how it was able to misplace a story as vivid and pure as the vase of lilies on the kitchen table. Thrilled for this unbidden piece of your life, you record it in one short rush. It is entirely willing, pouring itself onto the page like hot oil over pasta. You can taste this story; others will too. You know this to be true because you know the best stories are universal. The best stories let you cry.

But the story about this story of a little girl’s death ends as sadly as the little girl’s life. There is no home for it in the memoir; no paragraph, no page, will accept it. Already crowded with old friends and neighbors and husbands and family feuds and births and deaths and weddings and court rooms and odd vacations and coincidences which could not possibly have happened unless the world is quite different than anyone has imagined, this memoir cannot squeeze in Karen’s short happy-sad strawberry blonde life. 


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What Happened…Stage Four

You come to believe that Mexico is The Problem and if you are to recover, you must abandon it at once. Realizing you are a loaf of bread too thinly sliced, a dear friend offers to manage the inn while you take some time off.  For the next two years you move in and out of your sons’ lives, falling in love you’re your grandchildren and your daughters in law and the two sons who you come to know in ways you never had before. Your sons and their wives are taking care of you – giving you the space you need to find out… but find out what?  A way forward, is all you can come up with — a way beyond marriage and Mexico and the inn, a way to live out the last third of your life after The Last Great Adventure did not work out as planned.

 You visit friends on Cape Cod and the Berkshires and Boston. You begin writing a memoir and, needing solitude to write, you travel to Cornwall and later Ireland. You pay for inexpensive winter rentals in Taos and Nantucket. In November and April of 2009 and 10, you return to Mexico where your friend and her husband are doing a fine job of taking care of the inn. Wherever you are, you read books on breakdowns and depressions and divorce and co-dependency. Self-help books on how to be a Happy Senior suggest you reinvent yourself by doing things you have always wanted to do but never attempted before. They tell you to take tennis lessons, buy a set of watercolors, learn a second language. At some point, you realize the books are suggesting you do exactly what you have already done– change your life from the outside in.

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What Happened…Stage Three

A year later, Build Mexico proves too much, and the three of you agree it was a brilliant plan but really, were’t we supposed to be retired? Forget the airport runs. Forget holding up handmade signs with your guests’ names on them. The Inn is all you can handle. You are in what your friend Joan calls “The Breakdown Lane”  — a far and unexpected cry from The Last Great Adventure.   Call it a breakdown, call it a bottom, call it whatever you like. You are done. The inn is up and running but you are down and out.

 Once proud of your survivor skills, now all you can do is wonder at your carelessness. What were you thinking when you launched into the this new life full of strangers and seemingly insurmountable challenges.  Your marriage has ended, your coffers are empty, your parents and your beloved Sally The Beagle are dead and you have been diagnosed with “The Disease of Our Times.”    

 Your depression, unlike William Styron’s, does not incapacitate you. You are not that kind of depressed. Not for you the comfort of being glued to your bed in a stained bathrobe with the covers over your head and the TV droning in the background.  Your depression is bolder, more colorful. Your depression is characterized by constant movement. You never sit, you never cry, you never stop being afraid. Your sons and their families visit you in Mexico. You want everything to be perfect. Your biggest worry is that they will suspect you are a red hot mess. You revert to overdrive, whisking plates off before the kids have finished eating — why do they take so long to eat — and refuse all efforts to help. You will prove you are fine, if not to yourself, to your boys, your daughters-in-laws and you grandchildrenl.

“Mom,” your youngest son says one morning, “you’re getting just like grandma.” Nothing this wonderful son can tell you can stop you smack in the middle of spraying for dengue-carrying mosquitoes swirling around your grandchildren’s heads like the threat of becoming like your mother. “What do you mean?” you ask, pausing for a second, but not daring to take your eyes off the mosquitoes. “Frantic,” he says, “You’re acting crazy.” 

It’s Thanksgiving, 2009. You realize he’s right.

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What Happened….Stage Two


The Inn is successful. You are running it as if you were born to be an innkeeper.  Because you are alone, because your husband has taken what he thinks is his rightful due, you are also very worried about money. Well, truthfully, you have spent your whole life worrying about money. You were told by a friend a few years back that the definition of insanity is the fear of not getting what you want, and losing what you have.  Based on this, you know yourself to be crazy.

Of course, crazy does not slow you down. Crazy spurs you on.  In addition to managing the inn, you are offering an airport pickup service to your guests and have teamed up with a couple of friends in a new consultation business.  Because the three of you have built your own houses in San Pancho, you reason you can, with Beto’s assistance, build everyone else’s as well.  Hence the name – Build Mexico – which came to you in the shower and is so good – or so the three of you think – that if the business fails, you can recoup any losses by selling the name!

Building houses and dreams seems a natural fit for you and your ego knows no bounds. You readjust architectural plans, landscape gardens (yes, you who killed spider plants and fields of wildflowers), advise on land rights and bank trusts and staffing. You give guided tours of the pueblo to inn guests, weaving survival tales of lost love and paradise found. You crawl through the jungle and up the sides of mountains, the sun drilling a hole through the middle of your skull, telling the faithful Beto where your client’s pool should go and how large their closets need to be.

You are spinning plates like an old hand and so far none of them have bashed you in the head.  You are ducking and weaving and paying your bills. You partner Tory is encouraging. She advises you not to worry which is like telling Helen Keller she can be a trapeze artist.  She promises she will always be there for you. This comfort from a friend who has put a lot of money into your dream makes you weepy sometimes. But you are mostly scared out of your mind. Without planning it you, a lover of solitude, have never lived alone. Perhaps, it is this, this living alone for the first time in your life, and not Mexico, that will turn out to be The Last Great Adventure.

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What Happened…Stage One

You lived through it. Yes, you did, but you are ragged, oddly dizzy all the time, nauseous, severely depressed. “I cannot help you,” the doctor in Puerto Vallarta says, having tested your blood and urine and cleaned out the plastic trash basket beside his desk which you had thrown up in on your first visit. Speechless at a doctor admitting he cannot help you, you ask, “What? What is it?” The handsome doctor shakes his head, covers your hand with his and pronounces, “You have the disease of our times, Senora.” Cancer, you think, everyone has cancer, cancer has to be the disease of our times. Or heart, the heart, my heart, the lousy failing family-heart which has knocked off practically every one of your ancestors. But before you can say arrhythmia, the handsome doctor sighs sadly and continues, “Loneliness. You are lonely, Senora. You have no husband, you are alone in Mexico, you are growing old.”

 Now, really, you think, this is too much. Growing Old? You are in the new 50s, for God’s sake. Lonely? You? Miss Party Insurance herself, Lonely? Miss I built a house in Mexico, Miss Survivor, Miss I love living alone, Miss I am living the dream? Lonely? You don’t need no stupid Ativan, you say, waving away the prescription. You are fine. 

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What It Was Like — Stage Five

 Stage Five:

In setting out for one last great adventure you neglected to acknowledge how many adventures turn out badly. Things go wrong, terribly wrong. Climbers fall off mountains inches from the summit, frozen bodies drift around the Pole like rafts.  Your adventure paled in comparison: sell everything, move to Mexico, convince your husband who seems dazed by the preparations that running an inn is no more difficult than selling shoes, and that paradise will solve your problems. In 12-step programs your plan is known as “pulling a geographic.” Burn those bridges, head south, get out of Dodge. It is not referred to as an adventure. As you wrote the script for your 60s and 70s and 80s – each decade magically converted into the new 50, 60s and 70s – you emphasized the steady income the inn would provide, the lazy days in hammocks reading Proust, flawless Spanish after a quickie emersion course, happy pets, romance.

 In the end your husband caved. He hated his job, hated working in general, and had only one condition: a 54 inch flat screen TV with a satellite hookup.

 “Of course,” you agreed. It was the least you could do.

You have yet to come through on that or any other promise. You are running out of money from the sale of your house and your parents’ inheritance. At your urging, your husband takes a job selling time share in Puerto Vallarta. It is not like selling shoes or running an inn. It is basically the worst job in the world. It is the Glengarry Glen Ross of Mexico.

 When you were 22 you went to a shrink. Dr. Ventnor had a reputation for treating terrified women stuck in horrible marriages. Not everyone in the 60s was dropping acid and running naked through mud puddles in Woodstock. In fact, many of them, like you, were discovering that their favorite television programs were fairy tales. You could buy a pair of capris, but that did not make you Mary Tyler Moore. At the end of your first 50-minute session, Dr. Ventnor leaned across his desk which was littered with wads of wet Kleenex, and in complete awe said, “My God, Eileen, you live in a complete fantasy world.”

Sitting in your plastic Corona chair watching the flat blue line of the horizon from your veranda, you thought again as you often have over the last four decades about Dr. Ventnor’s diagnosis. Call it a dream, an adventure, a geographic – call it dumb, hasty, thoughtless – Call it anything you want, but in the end your decision to move to Mexico was born and nurtured in the fantasy world Dr. Ventnor had perceived in his little office on a suburban street on Long Island. Since then you had been in and out of various fantasy worlds, many of them unpleasant. But this one, you know as you watch the sunset fade into deep gloaming – this one might be your undoing. 

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What It Was Like — Stage Four

 Self- pity of the “I can’t take it anymore” variety has swallowed you whole. You cannot breathe easily. There are multiple To Do lists, and even as you check items off, more are added – call locksmith, find housekeeper, fire Gardener, Cassie’s birthday, ant poison, fertilizer, Money! You are full of questions. What is this? When? How much? Why? You are Sisyphus, you are Job, you are going to die carrying the rock up the frigging hill.

One morning you wake to the sound of a bulldozer in the backyard. You throw on a house dress. Yes, a house dress like the ones your Nana wore. This country, this construction, this marriage, has fattened you up considerably – so much so, in fact, that you hired an obese, cranky seamstress in La Penita to make six identical A-line Nana-ish dresses in six different colors:  yellow, green, baby blue, orange, turquoise and a wheezy shade of teal. You call them your Rainbow Collection, and are pleased to have narrowed down your options in at least one area of your unraveling life.

 “Que es esto?” you ask your contractor Beto — a rough, sexy, compact guy who looks like Charles Bronson, speaks no English and is building your house as if it was his dream.

  “La alberca, Senora.”

 “Alberca? Alberca?”

 He nods.

 “Que es alberca?”

 Beto makes swimming motions with his arms.

 “The pool? La piscina es la  alberca?”

 “Si, senora.”

 “Pero, quiero alla…la alberca…” you say, waving your arms toward the front of the unfinished house and promising yourself Spanish lessons when this part of your life ends.

 “No, Senora. Aqui.” You are standing very close to Beto, who is not a handsome man, who is short, and who is determined to do things the right way – his way. He has large pores, thick hair and you can see in his 50ish body the soccer player he once was before an injury took him out of the game. You are shocked at finding yourself attracted to him, to anyone. Your life has become a tunnel with you at one end and the completed inn at the other. You can control nothing – not Beto, not the location of the pool, not the time you get up in the morning.  Nothing. Your marriage is as broken as your Spanish, your dreams a distant whimsy, and your heart? Mexico is eating your heart.

Standing beside the revving bulldozer, screaming bad Spanish at Beto, you reach a decision. You needn’t tell him  where to put the pool or the windows or the closets or the sinks or the frigging washer and dryer. Take his list of supplies, nod your head, and if you can manage a smile now and then, smile at Beto – because he knows. You have turned a corner. You have handed over the controls to a man you only  recently met, a former soccer player, a man of vision, a man you can trust to do the best job he can do. Beto doesn’t need your help. He doesn’t even want it. Beto, you realize, is the embodiment of a man who, as the saying goes, knows his own mind. And so, you let him build your house, believing that however much your dream of this Last Great Adventure comes true, Beto at the least will be a part of it.