A sweet, sad good bye

It has been a week since I arrived in Vancouver. I’ve spent all my time with my brothers and sisters… reminiscing about the past, catching up on current happenings and planning future get-togethers. Our Uncle Lewis would be so happy to know that his last act on this earth was bringing us all together. He knew how important it is for families to stay in touch.

Lewis’ parents came from two different cultures. Trained as a geologist in The Netherlands, “Joep” met his American bride in San Francisco when Royal Dutch Shell sent him and his brother to the USA. They were commissioned to survey the company’s mid-continental oil holdings.

Lewis and his mother in 1917
Lewis and his mother in 1917

After their marriage, my grandparents traveled from one oil town to another; Uncle Lewis was actually born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1917. And with a child to care for, Granny put her foot down. “I refuse to raise my son like a nomad,” she told Granddad. They took up fruit growing in southern California, and there, Uncle Lewis met his precocious cousin, Gisèle. Apparently she dangled him over an irrigation canal to convince him he should do a favor for her!

John, Lewis, Missy and Bill van der Gracht Edmonton, Canada, 190
John, Lewis, Missy and Bill van der Gracht Edmonton, Canada, 1930

My father John, and my Auntie Missy were born in California, but the family moved to Canada in the early 1930s where his father conducted the first comprehensive study of, what is now known as, the Alberta tar sands. The fourth child of the family, Uncle Bill was born in Edmonton, and the family  stayed there through the Depression. Hard times for all…  but at the end of the 1930s, they moved to Vancouver.

Both Uncle Lewis and Dad signed up with the Canadian army in 1939 and were sent overseas for the duration of World War II; Dad on the Continent and his brother in England. There Uncle Lewis met his wife, my Auntie Chris. After the war, she moved to Vancouver with him and their infant daughter, my cousin Pat.

The van der Gracht family in 1954
The van der Gracht family in 1954

He and Auntie Chris bought acreage in Lulu Island, a part of Vancouver now known as Richmond. Although busy with the establishment of the city’s first credit union, my uncle’s true love was gardening. He planted every vegetable and flower known to man. My aunt raised chickens and geese. I can remember being chased by one that had escaped from its pen… Auntie Chris heard my screams and ran after us. She grabbed the squawking bird by the neck and swung it in the air… I couldn’t eat dinner that night, after I heard Uncle Lewis chuckle and say, “You sure cooked his goose…”

Uncle Lewis and my dad also loved camping in the summer, and in winter too! I remember my little brothers and me… freezing in the tent… while the two outdoorsmen encouraged us to venture out and enjoy Winter Wonderland.

Uncle Lewis and Auntie Chris were my godparents and gifted me with many a religious icon, including a statue of Mother Mary that scared me senseless when I woke up and saw it glowing in the dark. I thought maybe I was having a vision, like Bernadette or the children of Fatima!

My favorite present ever was a fuzzy pink chenille rug I received from them on my 6th birthday. I felt like a princess when my toes felt its softness first thing every morning.

Just part of our extended vdG family
Part of our extended vdG family

In my early 20s I worked for an airline, and Uncle Lewis insisted on driving me to my 5 am check-ins… “You have to be on time,” he’d say, “They might need you to fly the plane!”

After our father died, Uncle Lewis was a substitute father to me and my siblings. He was always generous with his time, his home and sage advice.

12 Lewis and Chris in 2004Auntie Chris died in 2005 and he missed her terribly. “I feel cold sleeping alone after more than sixty warm and cozy years,” he said.

On May 16th, my uncle joined her and their son, Tony, who died before he reached his first birthday.

“If there’s a Heaven, I bet they’re having a big party up there tonight,” I told Jorge, “My grandparents, parents, Aunt Gisèle, Auntie Missy will welcome him with loving arms.”

But I shall miss Lewis Theodore van der Gracht. He was an absolutely wonderful man… loved by literally thousands of people… who could leave this world with a better rep’ than that?

Uncle Lewis and me in 2011
Uncle Lewis and me in 2011

Where is Joanna?

I am in Vancouver of all places! Last Tuesday, an email from my sister told of our Uncle Lewis’ passing. He was 98 and a finer gentleman never lived.

“You have missed a lot of funerals, weddings and other family events,” said Jorge, “You should attend this one!”

I felt so grateful for his understanding, and I quickly got in gear. I found myself in the friendly skies the very next day.

I will write more about my time here in a day or two… This is a full family day for me, but I would like to share something I read on one of my favorite writers’ blogs this morning. Nathan Bransford is a former literary agent who keeps his fingers on the keyboard. He has written several books, and like mine, his are available on Amazon.

I have written before about this “Catch 22” situation… here’s an excerpt of what Nathan has to say:

Read a book you love and want to let the author know how much you enjoyed their work?

Do it publicly. Write a review…

when writers hear directly from readers via email – yes, absolutely, those notes are deeply appreciated, but I’ve heard more than one writer say they are tempted to shout from the mountaintops, “PLEASE SAY THAT ON AMAZON.” …

You can read Nathan’s full post: here

Hopefully readers everywhere will hear the message and give us some feedback on the social media sites. It is so important.


How does you garden grow?

On Mother’s Day I took pictures in my garden… I don’t know the scientific names of all the plants, but I love their shapes and the way they light up in the sun.

A window to the sky
A window to the sky
The green wall
The green wall
Rosa Mexicana
Rosa Mexicana
A fig for you
A fig for you
Crown of Thorns
Crown of Thorns
Oo - la - la Lily
Oo – la – la Lily
Desert Rose
Desert Rose
Maggie's Orchid
Maggie’s Orchid
Feathered Orchid
Feathered Orchid
Beach Orchid
Beach Orchid


Try it on for Size

If you are around me for more than five minutes, you’ll learn that I am a writer. I am always happy talking about my works in progress, the memoir class I facilitate, this blog and the books I have published. Writing is a big part of my life.

Not everyone realizes that it is a relatively new creative pursuit for me. I only began to take it seriously in 2007. Prior to that I’d spent thirty years as a mom, teacher, cook, chauffeur, shopper, etc, etc…

I did not always dream of becoming a writer; when I was young I wanted to be an artist. I loved painting, and I told my father that I planned to apply to art school.

“No daughter of mine is going to die in some garret!” he thundered in reply.

You see, his own father had been a talented artist but he never made much money from selling his paintings. Dad did not want to see me meet the same fate.

So I quit. After high school I put away my brushes and oils. And that was it, until my son Carlos gave me an easel for Christmas in 2009. Attached to one of the legs I found a note:

Mom I think it’s time for you to take this up again…

It surprised me that even though I had not drawn in more than thirty years, I could still render a bit. I have not worked constantly at my drawing and painting, but over the past six years, I have improved little by little. As I did in my high school art class, I like to copy the masters. If you don’t have a model, art books are an option.

But I also like to add my own touches… I do this with recipes too. I like to improvise! Maybe one day I will discover my own “style”.

Once a week, Manuel Ontiveros, my art teacher, comes to my studio at TTT. He is a wonderful painter himself and has helped me regain a lot of the skills I lost during my three paintless decades

Today I finished a painting based on Claude Monet’s, Palazzo da Mula. I enjoyed working on this piece so much. The colors and the light make me feel peaceful and relaxed.

I don’t think we should listen when people say it isn’t possible to be creative and active as we age. If you think you’d like to write, paint, play the piano or whatever… why don’t you give yourself a gift, and try it on for size.

It doesn’t matter if you think your results are marvelous or mediocre, if you enjoy what you are learning and creating, it’s all good. MAY 12 2015 3

“Cinco de Mayo” and “Mei Vijfde”

In Mexico we’ve had the day off to commemorate Cinco de Mayo. Outside of the country, this “holiday” is often confused with Día de la Independencia on September 16.

Actually, victory of the Mexican army over the French forces on May 5, 1862 is the event that is remembered on Cinco de Mayo, (May 5th)

5 de Mayo: the Battle of Puebla
5 de Mayo: the Battle of Puebla

After the Mexican-American war ended, the country was so impoverished that President Benito Juaréz ordered a moratorium on the payment of international debt. In response, a well-armed French fleet attacked the port of Veracruz, driving President Juárez and his government into retreat. On May 5th, near Puebla, at the Mexican forts of Loreto and Guadalupe, 6,000 French soldiers engaged the much smaller and poorly equipped Mexican army of 2,000. Yet the Mexicans managed to decisively defeat the French, who at the time were considered “the premier army in the world.”

The victory significantly boosted the morale of the Mexican army and the Mexican people at large. Unfortunately for Mexico, the French rebounded and more devastating violence ensued. The sense of pride did not last for long.

The same date, May 5th , or Mei Vijfde, as it is called in The Netherlands commemorates a different struggle. During World War II, the Dutch were occupied by the Nazis. The final year was particularly brutal. Food, fuel and other basic necessities had become so scarce by 1945 that more than 20,000 people died of starvation.

The Allied troops entered the country early in 1945, and slogged their way towards Amsterdam. They formally liberated the city on May 5th, and the jubilant population came out in droves to greet them.

The Canadian army liberates Amsterdam
The Canadian army liberates Amsterdam

My father, John was one of those Canadian soldiers, and his cousin. Gisèle was one of the captive Dutch citizens. Until the end of the war, she hid her Jewish friends in a tiny apartment on the Herengracht, one of the main canals in Amsterdam. She risked everything to feed and protect them. Had they been found, they all would have been killed.

When Dad discovered his cousin and her friends, he took them food. She never forgot that.

In fact, the nation never forgot the Canadians’ actions during WW II. As a gesture of their appreciation, every year the Dutch monarchy sends thousands of tulip bulbs to Canada. They have been planted everywhere, and after seventy years, the tulips have multiplied. From north to south and east to west, Canada’s countryside is blanketed by the Dutch flowers.

Dutch tulips line Canada's parks and rodaways
Dutch tulips line Canada’s parks and roadways

I often reflect what a shame it is that peace has not gained such a firm foothold on our poor planet.

Writing and Intercultural Living…


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