Opinion: My return trip to Illinois this winter healed my soul. Reliving old memories is magic.
Castañeda is the community opinion writer for the Union-Tribune of San Diego and lives in Chula Vista. Do you have a lifelong friend? Tell him about him on Twitter at @presspasslc.
Often, during the pandemic halt, it was old photos and videos that made me smile. I saw the people and places that mattered most to me, thinking about the difference between our lives and what really matters now.
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So after sending out seven (yes, seven!) Sympathy cards to friends who had lost their parents this year, I decided to take a vacation in early December and see mine in Illinois. Normally, I wait until the summer months to visit them in order to avoid freezing winters. But I just felt like there were conversations to be had and I wanted to be close.
I went there alone this time, without my husband and my children. My goal was to spend quality time with my mother, Anna Marie, who had just turned 81, and my father, Ignacio, now 82 and a COVID-19 survivor.
While I was there I also made a point of contacting my lifelong best friend, Traci Rose (Lardner). We met in first grade at Mozart Elementary School in downtown Chicago. We took his adult daughters, Sophia and Angelina, to the neighborhood where we grew up and visited them. We talked about the fun times, buying candy and playing kickball in the school yard until we heard our mothers screaming from the kitchen window for us to come home. We stopped to take photos outside our old apartments, hoping the residents wouldn’t come out and think we were doing no good.
I spent another precious day with one of my other dearest friends in high school, Heidi Santana Silva. She is one of the few people I knew at the time who still lived in the neighborhood. We laughed and cried over the good old days and chatted all night long about our lives as mothers, wives and sisters before and after the pandemic. It was a real healing for my soul.
We even had a last minute mini-meetup with other friends from my time at Kelvyn Park High School. I have long been friends on Facebook with Oscar Zepeda Herrera and Robin Poremba-Scanlon, but it has been almost 30 years since we last saw each other. High school can be a mixed bag for many, I understand. But I choose to remember the good times. And we did that that night.
That same week, on a whim, I invited my father to take a three hour drive with me back to my alma mater, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It had been at least 15 years since I had been to campus, and it looked so different. It brought back so many wonderful memories to me. I met the new principal, Dr Mariana Ortega, at La Casa Cultural Latina, where I spent much of my time as an undergraduate student, and she hosted a lunch where I had the opportunity to meet current students. The time travel was magical.
My dad and I chatted in the car about my college days and his long career on the downtown Chicago Greyhound bus lines. I learned so much about the people he worked with and how he ended up there in the first place.
During this week, I also visited cousins whom I had never met. I saw my dear Uncle Victor, who at 93 is now the patriarch of our family, having lost two siblings to COVID-19 last year.
I visited other cousins like Barb, Lola and Tina Gallardo and Michelle Marquez, whom I had not seen for over 30 years. Imagine that. The last time I saw Michelle, it was a teenage girl who had come to Chicago to see the Monkees in concert. I must have been about seven years old, and I’ve never forgotten it.
It was a memorable week, filled with so many emotions for me. On the flight back to San Diego, I leafed through the photos on my phone, my throat tied. I was happy to have been able to tell my loved ones in person how much they meant to me.
My message for the new year is: don’t wait for mañana. Hold your loved ones against you. Write this card or letter. Take these interviews to learn about your family history. Make that phone call. And if you’re vaccinated, consider taking this trip to surround yourself with the people who matter most.