Castañeda is the community opinion editor at The San Diego Union-Tribune, and lives in Chula Vista. Have a lifelong friend? Tell her about it on Twitter at @presspasslc.
Oftentimes during the pandemic shutdown, it was old photos and videos that brought a smile to my face. I would see the people and places that meant the most to me, thinking about how different our lives have become and what really matters now.
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So, after sending 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 so I can avoid the bone-chilling winters. But I just felt like there were conversations to be had, and I wanted to be close.
I went alone this time, without my husband or children. My goal was to spend quality time with my mother, Anna Marie, just turned 81, and my father, Ignacio, now 82 and a COVID-19 survivor.
While I was there, I also made it a point to reach out to my lifelong best friend, Traci Rose (Lardner). We met in first grade at Mozart Elementary School in inner-city Chicago. We took her grown daughters, Sophia and Angelina, to the neighborhood where we grew up, and toured them around. We talked about the fun times, buying penny candy and playing kickball in the schoolyard until we heard our mothers screaming from the kitchen window for us to come home. We stopped to take photos in front of our old apartments, hoping the residents would not come out and think we were up to no good.
I spent another treasured day with one of my other dearest friends from high school, Heidi Santana Silva. She’s one of the few people I know from those days who still lives in the neighborhood. We laughed and cried about old times and chatted all night about our lives as mothers, wives and sisters pre- and post-pandemic. It was true healing for my soul.
We even had a last-minute mini get-together with some other friends from my days at Kelvyn Park High School. I’ve long been Facebook friends with Oscar Zepeda Herrera and Robin Poremba-Scanlon, but it’s been nearly 30 years since we had actually seen each other. High school can be a mixed bag for many, I get that. But I choose to remember the great times. And we did that night.
That same week, on a whim, I invited my dad to take a three-hour drive with me back to my alma mater, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. It had been at least 15 years since I’d been to campus, and it looked so different. It brought back so many wonderful memories. I met the new director, Dr. Mariana Ortega, at La Casa Cultural Latina, where I spent so much of my time as an undergrad, and she arranged a lunch where I had an opportunity to meet current students. The trip back in time was magic.
My dad and I chatted in the car about my college days and his long career at Greyhound bus lines in Downtown Chicago. I learned so much about the people he worked with and how he landed there in the first place.
During that week, I also visited some cousins I had never met. I saw my dear Uncle Victor, who at 93 is now the patriarch of our family, after he lost two siblings to COVID-19 last year.
I visited with other cousins like Barb, Lola and Tina Gallardo, and Michelle Marquez, whom I had not seen in over 30 years. Imagine that. The last time I saw Michelle, she was a teenager who had come to Chicago to see The Monkees in concert. I must have been seven or so, and I never forgot that.
It was a memorable week, filled with so much emotion for me. On the plane ride home to San Diego, I flipped through the photos on my phone, with a lump in my throat. I was happy that I was able to tell my loved ones in person how much they meant to me.
My message for the new year is this: Don’t wait for mañana. Hold your loved ones close. Write that card or letter. Do those interviews to get your family’s history. Make that phone call. And if you are vaccinated, consider taking that trip to surround yourself with the people who matter most.