Monday, December 20, 2010

Always Home

I called my mom today just to say how pretty our Christmas tree is, oh, and BTW, when did we used to put up the tree all my growing-up years? I don't remember. A number of my friends have lost their moms in recent years, and my mom is 90, so I treasure every conversation.

Today we reminisced about her mom, who took childlike delight in presents. Even when she was in her nineties, we'd catch her crawling under the Christmas tree. She denied snooping at the packages. "I'm just picking up pine needles." My grandma loved Christmas and so made Christmas for me while she was alive that I used to sob (not tear up ~ break down in a three-tissue blubber) dreading the day when she'd no longer be with us. Now we've had 15 Christmases without Grandma. My mom said today she still misses talking with her mom.

 Another thing I appreciated about my grandmother, and these days about Mom, is that they're almost always home. If I get stuck in the middle of a recipe, I can find out when to thicken the orange sauce without missing a stroke with my wooden spoon. Mom is the original Google, and I don't have to wait for any computer to boot up ~ just one-touch speed-dial and she's there. Knowing Mom will answer the phone when I call to check on her and Dad is comforting. Being able to call her with a crossword puzzle question is a luxury I don't take for granted. Although I loved bounding around the corner of Grandma's apartment building for an impromptu visit, seeing her in the picture window, knowing in a few minutes we'd be having tea and cookies by that window, I think I did take her availability for granted, and I don't want to make that mistake with Mom.

One of many attributes I love about God is that He's always home when I call. Even better ~ I will never lose His being there, His compassionate, listening ear, His guiding voice, our shared history. He will always be home.

Monday, November 29, 2010

We Have Our Reasons

From an exhibit in the Frontier Trails Museum, we learned pioneers endured hardships crossing the western American wilderness for a surprising variety of reasons. Among the reasons to climb into a covered wagon on the 900-mile Santa Fe Trail or the 2,000-mile Oregon Trail were the following.
  • Not be left alone
  • Write a book
  • Avoid the law
  • Be an actress
  • Start a company
  • Build an empire
  • Have a honeymoon
  • Live as a slave
  • Gain religious freedom
  • Be a missionary to Native Americans
  • Go to war
  • Go fishing
  • Paint
  • Escape debts
  • Get free land
  • Trap and sell furs
Another pioneer account said, “Why not? I’ve lost everything else.”

Think of the stories behind each pioneer’s decision to go west. I wonder how many people knew the dangers that awaited them and took the risks anyway, and how many gloried in idealistic visions. My guess is that in the early 1800s, most pioneers were used to hard work and exposure to the elements; they probably didn’t think life on the trail would be easy. I know some underestimated the grueling terrain, however, because one artifact in the Trails Museum is a grandfather clock chucked trailside to lighten the load.

I wonder what group dynamics were like then, too. For safety, people traveled in organized wagon trains. Who was in command? Why was he chosen? What were his leadership skills? How did he make decisions and communicate them?

Not much has changed since pioneer days—at least inside people. We each have frontiers to cross, we need to manage expectations and cooperate with others to survive and thrive, and we all have our reasons.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Lord has done great things for us and we are filled with joy.  Psalm 126:3

I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.  ~G.K. Chesterton

For each new morning with its light,
For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food, for love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.  ~Thornton Wilder

Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.  ~William Arthur Ward

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Road Trip Reflections: Past Patterns

The week before Thanksgiving, we took a 1,200-mile road trip through Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and southern Illinois. Had a few musings …

In our room at one B&B, the wallpaper was the exact pattern my ex-husband and I had labored to put up in our dining room back in the 1970s. The pattern was sweet—small, alternating cornflower blue and rosy pink hearts in vertical stripes. In our B&B room now, the browned edges of each section were curled up at the seams. Beneath the jagged-cut bottom, I could see what looked like brown-and-yellow geometric-patterned linoleum beneath the heart wallpaper. Hmmm, I thought. Marriages separate at the seams, too, because older, not-properly-disposed-of past patterns clash with new romance.

Speaking of not-properly-disposed-of past patterns …

Leaving our B&B, we headed toward a little town we’d visited the day before, just north of the B&B. Or we thought we were headed there, anyway. Turns out, instead of heading north, I’d turned east. We went about 10 miles and our entire conversation reflected uneasiness:

·        That’s an unusual looking tower. What is it? A cell tower? I don’t remember that from yesterday.
·        Wow, get a load of that humongous American flag above that farm house. Did we see that yesterday?
·        Now there’s a junkyard for those antiques scavengers on TV. Look at that school bus for sale; its engine has been stripped. You know, if we’d passed that yesterday, surely I’d remember it today, wouldn’t I?
·        There’s another water tower on stilts—looks like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz. It says Tiffin on it; I don’t remember going through Tiffin yesterday, do you?
·        I thought that town was only about 3 miles north of the B&B; we’ve gone 10. Uh-oh, here’s a high school. I KNOW we didn’t pass that yesterday.

We turned around in the high school parking lot to head back, and you know what? The whole 10 miles backtracking, our conversation was marked by comfortable familiarity. Yup, there’s the Tiffin Tin Man. Oh, and the junked school bus. We eagerly spotted the huge flag. We anticipated the odd-looking tower.

These milestones were like old friends, making the wrong road feel right. I know some paths in my life feel familiar but do not lead to godly womanhood. To change then—to conform my mind to Christ’s, to travel from the woman I was to the woman God wants me to be—I cannot expect to feel comfortable seeing familiar sights, because sometimes comfort means I'm on the wrong road and not on a new faith adventure with God.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

One wheel or two?

To show His sense of humor ~ or maybe divine justice ~ God brought my niece and her unicycle to a family party Sunday. Why is this funny, or my just desserts? My talk at the women’s retreat used a unicycle metaphor throughout. What if the person you’re in relationship with won’t pedal his or her half of the tandem you’re supposed to be riding together? You learn to ride a unicycle!

I built a scriptural case for seeing your bondage to expectations that the other person pedal. Learning to ride a unicycle is—
  • wanting freedom from this bondage,
  • knowing Jesus is your only hope,
  • keeping your eyes on the Lord,
  • standing firm as the Lord fights for your deliverance
It’s a new habit, much like learning to ride a unicycle would be, I confidently proclaimed, though I had never tried this myself. (In my defense, I will say I spoke from experience in the figurative sense, the spiritual unicycle riding. And I interviewed a local guy who rides his unicycle 40 miles a day around here to get an idea of how he learned.)

Little did I know then that my niece has been proficient on the unicycle since 4th grade and that she’d treat us to a “performance” that even included tricks ~ and that we’d all get to try riding the confounded thing. Shall I just say, “Laughter ensued”? If I can upload the video some kind family member took of me, I’ll do so to share the laughs with you. And then I plan to keep my mouth shut about skills I clearly don’t possess.  

Monday, November 8, 2010

From Beach Walk to Woods Walk

Winter welcomed us home from Florida with daily foretastes of chills to come. Last week was not just parka-with-the-hood-up cold; it was parka-with-the-hood-cinched-tight-around-the-face cold. I found myself thinking:
  • I miss short sleeves and carefree bare feet and sea foam tickling my toes.
  • I miss walking in white, bubbly surf, under green bunches of sea grapes, beneath the surfboard painted with loggerhead turtles hanging above the door of Starbucks.

This week, however, our third(?) Indian summer elbowed winter out of the neighborhood, and I’m not missing Florida’s balmy breezes because we have our own. Besides, today a friend invited me to walk in a forest near her house. Well, her house is near my house, and I couldn’t even imagine what forest she was talking about. So off we trekked across bleached-yellow corn fields and tawny-grassed prairie paths to a stately grove of tall gray trees around a large, sparkling green pond. Although not a majestic sight, its simple beauty, its hiddenness, its stillness made any sound above a whisper seem irreverent. Then God must have thought, “Wait, if you like that scene, I’ll give you more.” A huge deer with antlers (and here, you can tell I’m not a guy because a guy would know the right name for this magnificent creature) emerged from the trees and stood staring at us. Then he trotted along another line of trees, crossed our path, and disappeared into dense underbrush. More hushed moments. I felt as if I’d been given an embarrassing array of gifts. I came home exhilarated and energized enough to clean up the summer garden and ready it to plant garlic and shallots.

Gradual Transitions

I like gradual transitions, and this fall is one. Roses and acorn squash at the same time. An April crocus crowned with snow is hopeful; a November rose rimmed with snow is downright depressing. This year I'm grateful for just enough frost to kill ragweed but not roses. Oh, and no snow on the roses or squash ~ yet.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Book Review: The Help

To answer Michelle's question about how I liked The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, here is the book review I posted on
[Spoiler Alert review] Funny, endearing, heart-rending. This book fully engaged me from start to finish. I loved Aibileen, liked Minnie, identified with Skeeter; and my heart ached for all three as they determined to tell the truth about racial prejudice at a time when doing so was dangerous. The Help is a modern To Kill a Mockingbird.

Seeing what colored maids of white families endured in the 1960s disturbed me. Seeing what whites did to blacks who crossed arbitrary, capriciously hateful lines made me sick to my stomach. Knowing I was alive but oblivious when all this went on, when I was old enough to be aware and care, sobered me. I appreciated how effectively this story of three brave women transported me to that historic time. This book also made me so grateful for progress in the racial equality arena.

Although The Help deals with a serious topic, the book is humorous, thanks to Aibileen's and Minnie's senses of humor and precious, precious candor. Author Stockett brilliantly portrays the three main characters, as well as the landed gentry.

My only disappointment was a weaker ending than I'd hoped for. That societal changes at the end of the book weren't more dramatic reflects conditions in the 1960s. It gratified me that the courage of Aibileen, Minnie, and Skeeter throughout the story generated even more courage in them, for their personal futures. I was rooting so hard for them, I guess I forgot that strength of hindsight cannot instantly overpower longstanding societywide hatred.

Among many things I liked about The Help ~ including the use of dialects and the three-points-of-view approach to telling a story about points of view ~ was the example of Aibileen's and Minnie's Christian church being truly the family of God. 

Some other book reviews I've written are at, in case you might like to read them. The general site is a good place to go for broad selection of book reviews. 

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Last Few Hours in Florida

Atlantic breakers swoosh rhythmically a few hundred yards from our door. We've walked this beach enough that I know these are surfboard-worthy waves crashing into an angled wall of sand. Although not lapping a lullaby, the foamy ebb and flow so relaxes us, using the word "crashing" seems oxymoronic. My husband has just finished fingering his newest shell collection, deciding which to take home. First, though, he chooses the shells that most resemble eyeballs and walks around with them ON his eyes. Ah, yes, the pull of the moon affects more than just tides. I have just closed the cover of The Help, the novel I relaxed with on this vacation.

One thing that has refreshed me has been the profusion of palm trees and flowers. Today we took some photos of some as we walked down to a river to watch the sun set.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Alzheimer's Association to the Rescue

The Alzheimer's Association must know that desperate dead ends happen at all hours, because they have a 24-hour hotline. I found myself calling it Tuesday night. Lamar, my hotline responder, listened to our situation and affirmed my suspicion that Dad has become depressed being around significantly lower-functioning people. Furthermore, he guessed Dad's despair might be worsened by a sense that this is what his family thinks he's like and/or this is where he's headed. Lamar urged "Get him out of there!!!" with three exclamation points in his voice. I called my mom immediately to reassure her she was doing the right thing to stop taking Dad to this particular day care center.

That still leaves us with the question of how to give Mom more respite from 24-hour caregiving. And again, it was the Alzheimer's Association to the rescue. Jessica from my state office of the AA called me the next day and promptly e-mailed me a list of other adult day care centers in nearby suburbs. Plus, the AA has other services that may help us.

Both Lamar and Jessica instructed that it's critical that family members ask good questions and tour a facility before taking a loved one there. We thought we had done that with the place Dad was going to, but what we didn't realize was how important the question, "How do you handle different levels of functioning?" is. Now we know.

When Mom picked Dad up from day care Tuesday, he exclaimed, "I'm out of prison!" Then she told him he would not have to go back there. Wednesday when I visited, Dad was more chipper than I've seen him for six weeks, interested in reading the paper, listening to his favorite music, conversing, making his signature puns. I've lost enough of my dad; I was so happy to have his sweet contentment and even optimism back.

I'm researching other options for my mom and am praying about whether to go there more often myself. I know people in my church were praying for me and my parents this week. I'm grateful for this, for God's tender compassion this week, and for the Alzheimer's Association, too. I pray for continued strength for my mom until we can find a new situation that Dad enjoys.

Monday, October 18, 2010

TinkerToy Tower

This is the promised continuation of my October 5 post about the elder care season of my life.

The short version of the story is that on October 1, I spent a day with Dad in day care. Later, when I shared observations with Mom, we realized that although Dad's perceptions don't always come across in the right words, he is expressing the true situation. Also, his brain synapses may no longer be fully firing, but his heartstrings flex, flutter, and flame as always. (Is this true for all people with Alzheimer's? I wonder.) Bottom line: this particular day care center, as high-quality as it is, will be death by depression for Dad at this stage. Sooner or later, we'll need to try another solution.

If you'd like more details of my day in adult day care, here's the long version of that story.

Dad dreads day care. Here's a typical airspace filler between the two green leather recliners in my parents' cozy den:

"When will I be sent to that place again?" Dad asks Mom.
"Tuesday," she gently answers.
"How many days till I have to go there again?" he asks a few minutes later.
"Today is Friday, so four more days." She adds with a teasing smile, "Are you that eager to go back?"
"No, I just want to know how many days I have to be free before I have to go back."

It breaks her heart. She's trying adult day care to give Dad some stimulating activity and social life and to give herself a much-needed break from 24-hour caregiving. So far, his major complaint is, "The people there are patients, and I don't want to be around patients." What exactly does that mean? We were soon to find out.

I supposed maybe it was difficult for Dad to converse with strangers. Because of the Alzheimer's, he might not have confidence to initiate conversation. Also, if Dad is indeed higher-functioning than the other "patients," perhaps he would find a sense of purpose in helping them do things. (He was a high school teacher, and I often tell him I couldn't have made it through high school without his help with my homework. He smiles aw-shucks, and I add, "It's the truth." He may be the most patient explainer I know, though my brother is a close second.) I volunteered to spend a day at Cherished Place with Dad to try to make this day care arrangement work, for both my Mom's and Dad's sakes. [Cherished Place is the real name of a fine, caring adult day care center, but I have changed the names of people we met.]

On Friday, October 1, my mom checked her two "kindergarteners" into school and left for a quiet day at home. Sporting standard-issue name tags, we found easy chairs at the back of the main room to watch a Wii Bowling activity. I am using the word "activity" loosely.
We sat between Bill, a glassy-eyed, mousy-haired, middle-aged man who smiled but seemed incapable of speech, and Caroline, a bright-eyed, golden-haired, middle-aged woman cradling a baby doll.

This main room was set up like a living room. Two rows of 10 green jungle-print upholstered wing-back chairs faced each other with about a 10-foot aisle down the center. A large flat-screen TV hung on the far wall. Twenty or so people sat vacantly staring and definitely not clapping whenever the staff cheerleader cheered the Wii bowler, “Yay, Lottie! Everyone clap for Lottie!” I gave Lottie a lot of credit. She may have been almost the only person in the room who could have balanced while swinging her arm in a bowling motion. I later tried a Wii tennis game and although I kept my balance, I missed almost every ball because I couldn’t coordinate in my brain when to press the front and back buttons of the remote. So Lottie may also have been the most mentally together person in that room!

My dad got up to go to the restroom, and a tall, man with a buzz-cut whizzed from God knows where into my dad’s chair. I politely explained my dad had been sitting there.
“That’s my chair,” Sal snarled.
“Well, my dad is coming right back from the washroom; he was sitting there.”
“It’s my seat. I like to sit there. Tell him to sit someplace else.”
Even adult day care centers have playground bullies! I got up to ask a staff person if my dad and I could work a jigsaw puzzle someplace else.

In a small room off the main living room, a.k.a. bowling alley, we spread out a 33-piece children’s jigsaw puzzle of a world map on a round table. Dad’s eyes brightened as he turned all the pieces face-up. The puzzle pieces had vibrant colors and a wooden thickness. Each continent and ocean contained images of its native animals and sea life. Sometimes Dad didn’t at first see that logically, a whale’s tail would go with a whale’s head. And I even wondered if he noticed that all Asia was deep green, so those pieces would all most likely go together. His best strategy was to see how shapes fit together. I am not sure I could have done that; I had to keep looking at the completed picture on the box top, which he hardly glanced at and didn’t seem to see its relationship to the scattered pieces. He had seemed genuinely eager for this activity and was very proud of his accomplishment. He wanted to leave his handiwork out on the table, so we did.

Together, we pushed the colorful world map to the opposite edge of the table, and Dad began turning up the mostly black-and-white pieces of a United States puzzle on the open table directly in front of him. I remembered my parents drilling us kids on state capitals and thought perhaps the capitals on this map would trigger my Dad’s memory of them. That proved untrue, however, although in this puzzle, Dad seemed to have two things going for him: his facility fitting shapes together and his reliable memory of where in the country the states fall.

When he and Mom work jigsaws on their dining table, Dad will sometimes comment, usually one of his trademark quips. For example, “You’re really good at ‘having fits.’” At Cherished Place, he was relatively silent. When someone wandered into our puzzle room from the bowling game, I’d introduce the person to Dad and make small talk, but Dad’s responses were minimal, and the person would amble on. One guy, Danny, came and stayed.

Danny wheeled into the puzzle room and maneuvered into a spot at the table on the other side of Dad. I cheerfully made the introductions, and Danny looked up and waving his hand toward the ceiling, offered, “I did the electrical work here. My father fixed cars. Sometimes he popped the dents out. Sometimes I did that too. My dad lives in Florida. He’s retired now.” I inquired if he meant he used to do the electrical work at Cherished Place. He said yes, looked up again and waved a limp hand at the ceiling. “I did the electrical work. My father fixed cars. Sometimes he popped the dents out. Sometimes I did that too. My dad lives in Florida. He’s retired now.”

My dad stated, “If you did electrical work, then you were an electrician.” Danny repeated his whole spiel, this time adding, “Accident. Brain injury. In a coma one two three four days. Four days in a coma. I didn’t expect that.” As he counted the days, he shook that number of fingers down toward the floor. When he finished the spiel, he hung his head, wagged it, and said, “It’s okay,” in the soothing, sing-song tone a dad might use with a toddler whose TinkerToy tower just collapsed. While talking, Danny placed puzzle pieces in their proper spots in the map as though he didn’t even have to think about it.

Meanwhile, Dad and I were struggling, I because this puzzle did not have a box with a picture on it, and Dad because some states did not fit where he thought they should go. Danny bailed us out by immediately grasping that Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and parts of Canada were inset in framed boxes in the puzzle’s corners instead of where they really are on the map. His hands moved swiftly to create these inset boxes, which Dad and I then placed in their proper corners. When Danny put together the Hawaiian islands, he tapped the pieces and announced, again counting on his fingers, “Hawaii. My honeymoon. One two three four five six seven eight nine days off work for my honeymoon.” 

How the subject of student drivers came up, I don’t remember. I proudly told Danny that Dad had been a driver training instructor of high school students. Danny explained that his daughter just got her driver’s license. We learned he has two teenage daughters and his wife works. “She types,” Danny explains rippling fingers in the air over an imaginary keyboard. “I used to bring it in. I did electrical work,” he says with the now-familiar hand brushing the air toward the light fixtures. And then his resigned head wag and “It’s okay” and sweet-spirited laugh. I allow myself to look more closely at Danny. His hair is graying, but his face is smooth. He’s probably 10 to 20 years younger than I. He goes home after each day in Cherished Place to a wife and two teenage daughters, who lost him one day in an accident. I hope they, too, have come to a place where they can say, “It’s okay” and laugh.

We finish unifying the United States just as cherished folks begin hobbling and wheeling into the dining room adjacent to the living room/bowling alley. Dad and I sit in molded plastic chairs at a round white table. We enjoy canned pears, then opt for delicious salmon and mashed potatoes with stewed tomatoes. Dessert is yummy-looking ice cream studded with Oreo chunks. Oooh, I think, Dad, a.k.a. Cookie Monster, a.k.a. Mr. Ice Cream, will love this. He refuses it. Indeed, he has eaten the meal in sullen silence.

Our table mates are two barely functioning men slouching in wheelchairs and a large, loud, able-bodied man in a white T-shirt. One of the quiet men sports a U.S. Navy WWII Veteran cap. Great potential for a conversational bridge since Dad is also a WWII Navy veteran, I think. But then I see that the man’s dull eyes gaze only at his plate. I watch him saw his mashed potatoes with the side of a spoon and shakily shovel a forkful between sagging lips. He holds his fork handlebar-style like an infant first learning to eat. It takes all his concentration to lower his bottom lip and aim the fork. I abandon the idea of engaging this man with my dad and turn to quiet man number two. Due to his severely slouched angle and poor hand control, most of his lunch sits in dribbles on his belly. Cherished Place has extra Depends adult diapers on washroom shelves; I wonder they don’t provide bibs. He doesn’t look up either, so I turn to the larger-than-life Butch to chat in conversation that could include my dad.

This does not work well, because Butch is the stereotypical Marine drill sergeant. Almost before we have finished our pears, Butch snatches our bowls and trots them into the kitchen. Then he stands, feet planted wide and fists on hips; facing the whole room, he bellows marching orders, “Five four three two one” and proceeds to clear fruit dishes off the nine or so other tables. When he sits back down, he explains to me, “It’s my job, ma’am.” Then he leans toward Dad and pops out a poem, which sounds like it might be a real, classic poem. I compliment him on memorizing it, and he snappily, smilingly brags, “I’ve got lots more of those.” Then he hops up again to face his audience.” This time he does a little clapping dance as he sings out, “Swing your partners round and round …” and promptly sits back down. I ask if he was a square dance caller or auctioneer before retiring. His withering glance made me think, “No, of course not, you really were a Marine drill sergeant.” My dad steadily shrinks back from conversation with Butch, and I’m beginning to, too. The topic of Bunco comes up, and I remember one of the staff telling me that even though my dad has never played it, he’d probably catch on quickly because it’s extremely simple and involves numbers, one of my dad’s strengths. I ask Butch if he might be able to show Dad and me how to play Bunco after lunch. Folding thick arms across his chest and looking sternly at me, he booms, “I teach all the games, ma’am.” Dad desperately looked at what he has recently begun calling “the arrows” on his watch. Then he and I pushed away from that table with equal enthusiasm.

The next planned activity was karaoke, so Dad and I hustled into the living room to grab some wing-back chairs in the main area. While waiting for the music guy to set up, we kicked a large beach ball back and forth with the awake occupants of chairs opposite us. Bernard, the man on the other side of Dad, said he had played soccer in Italy, so I tried the sports conversation angle, talking professional teams and leading to Dad’s tennis passion and trophies. Dad watched Bernard’s and my exchange as though it were a tennis game but said nothing. From the other side of Bernard, I heard, “I did the electrical work. My father fixed cars. Sometimes he popped the dents out. Sometimes I did that too. My dad lives in Florida. He’s retired now,” and then the TinkerToy-toned “It’s okay,” and I knew Danny had wheeled himself into our row of chairs to await regular Friday karaoke.

The weekly music guy was wonderful, but karaoke this was not, since only he sang. He couldn’t persuade anyone else to do so, even though the songs were old Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra hits they all would have known backward and forward in their heyday. Plus, the lyrics showed on the video screen. The music guy handled a heckling comment from playground bully Sal with more grace than I would have had. He called out, “I like you, Sal!” to a few chuckles from the peanut gallery.

Some people mouthed the words to “Mack the Knife” and “You Are My Sunshine.” Some tapped their sensibly shoed feet. The lady across from me smiled at me in a familiar way, but I couldn’t place her anywhere in my past. She dozed a bit, waking every so often to mouth lyrics, but when her bottom lip fell down, her bottom teeth stood up. Meanwhile, Caroline now had her baby doll on her shoulder. Her hand “burping” the doll and her knees gently bouncing to the beat, Caroline approached the music guy, then danced around him and eventually disappeared into a small side room, where I noticed other women sitting with dolls. One bounced a doll on her knees to the rhythm. One koochi-kooed a little stuffed monkey into the tummy of her doll. Music guy ended with a rousing “God Bless America,” which many people waved their hands to, but few sang the words.

Midafternoon, when I had to leave, Dad wanted to walk me to the door. In the quiet of the hallway, he asked when Jean (my mom) would be coming for him. I said in less than an hour. He wondered if she’d forgotten about him. I reassured him she would pick him up soon. I said I’d enjoyed my time with him. In truth, I wouldn’t have traded one moment of that golden day for any treasure of the world. His eyes teared, and he explained, “I just never envisioned myself living like this.” He pointed down the hall toward the living room, where the music guy was packing up his stereo and patting the shoulders of various cherished folks. “I just want to live at home with my family, and I don’t understand why I can’t.” I mentioned that Mom worries about him being home alone when she goes out to buy him food, and if he’s at Cherished Place, she doesn’t have to worry about him when she’s at the grocery store.” I can hardly believe I’m simplifying and shrouding the issues like this. This is my father. I’m his child. But his world has become as simple as a child’s.

I couldn’t bear to leave him there, so I took him back into the dining room, where I had noticed some seemingly higher-functioning people earlier. Introductions all around. One woman welcomed him and even noticed his shoelace was untied and knelt to tie it before I could. She reassured me he’d be all right with them. So I left Dad there with them. I was hopeful until I saw his shoulders sagging forward. Sigh. As I walked outside to my car, I passed a school bus just outside the Cherished Place entrance. It was painted navy blue with a brightly painted Noah’s ark and animal pairs, some sheep and other figures, including Jesus saying “Let the little children come to me.” Luke 18:16.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Cuppa Comfort

To find comfort and quiet and a scene change, I  follow the siren song of the green mythological mermaid logo sign hanging in a Starbucks window. Standing in line for my mocha, I'm grateful that the song of the moment is the soothing Handel's Water Music

A change of scenery this is; quiet and soothing it is not. The classical music is LOUD. Handel's violin bow is less a fairy's flitting wings and more an ogre screeching a warty elbow across the strings. The music is not a velvety curtain draping into gentle folds behind the stage of today's Starbucks play. It is a scratchy, vinyl tarp covering the cast, who must fight their way to the top of the tarp to deliver their lines. Also, the cast is large, filling all seats, waiting in lines, jostling shopping bags, cajoling small children ~ and seemingly, all yakking and yukking at once.

An armchair frees up just as I grab my cuppa comfort. Shrugging out of my baby blue fleece sweatshirt, I snuggle into the chair with my bible opened to Psalms in my lap. Chocolaty liquid warms my throat. Aaah. Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings. (Psalm 17:8)

I am pretty good at tuning out cacophony, so for a while, my only distractions are visual ~ black fringe shimmying on suede moc-style boots striding past, pale pink patent leather MaryJanes climbing on the next chair, tall tan wicker-sided wedge sandals waiting in line beneath a gray handkerchief-hemmed flannel cape. Black-and-white rectangles on tabletops flash LED spreadsheets and e-mail pages. I find myself admiring the cute barrista's pink-tipped punky hair. I want to dye my hair, too, only I'd probably choose aubergine all over. And soft curls, not sharp points.

I have come today bothered by too many recent all work-no play days. I can't even remember what I enjoy any more. I vacantly stare out the window at the empty side street with a river of colors flowing down the main street behind. A champagne bottle and rainbow-shaped CELEBRATE are painted in metallic gold on a shop window on the main drag. Across my empty, still, side street is an old building with a lovely arched window ~ bricked over ~ and a quaint verdigris lamppost with two signs affixed to it. One is black on white: ONE WAY, with an arrow pointing to the back of the second sign, white on red: WRONG WAY. It somehow seems fitting that just above my head out the window, a fire escape ladder hangs in midair, its black wrought-iron rectangles framing gray puffy cloud-pillows with blue-button tufts. 

Is that our choice in life? Be rescued from a burning building only to break a leg leaping from an escape ladder that ends 10 feet above the ground? How often do Starbucks barristas see tears on the cheeks of the characters in their theater? I wonder.

Donning my fleece hoodie again, I smile remembering Jimmy Fallon's "Thank you, tuna casserole, for being the sweatpants of food." As I pitch my mocha cup in the waste can, I am thankful someone somewhere sometime thought to blend chocolate with coffee. I intentionally walk under the fire escape to my parking spot. Climbing into the car, I see the bag of Jonagolds from this morning's farmers market, and I remember I'm the apple of God's eye. During my Starbucks visit, the mermaid, Handel, the fairy, the ogre, the barrista, all the laughing characters in today's play ~ and even God ~ did not lay out an LED spreadsheet of answers for me. But I feel comforted knowing God is faithful. He heard me, even above all the noise, and He comforts me.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Reality Check

I warm up, starting the treadmill at 2.5 mph, then 3, then 3.5, then leveling off at 4 mph for the next 45 minutes, until cooldown. Toward the end today, I'm feeling rather smug about my accomplishment, when into the gym bounces a ponytailed high school girl with no cellulite or wrinkles ~ anywhere. I can see this because she is wearing really short running shorts and a tight tank top. If I see tanned skin that smooth in a magazine, I take comfort knowing the photo has been retouched. But here is Missy in all her un-PhotoShopped, youthful glory. Thank God I wore heavy blue jeans today, so only I know what's jiggling. Next to her, I have a reality check: My little "pooch" is more a paunch, less a Tinkerbell poking its teensy black button nose out of Paris Hilton's Prada handbag, more an entire L.L. Bean canvas tote bulging with Twinkies.

In addition, my cheeks look like they've just been stung by whole hives of poisonous bees. Missy does not look at me with alarm, as most adults do when they see my aerobically puffed, red face. She's probably too young to worry about anything more than her next math quiz, let alone some old lady collapsing while simply walking. She smiles sweetly at me as she hops up on the next treadmill. When I hear a loud pound-pound-pound, I cannot help but glance at her machine's readout. She has begun her warm-up at 6 mph. Six miles per hour! In a few seconds, the pounding gets faster. Now she's at 7.5 mph!

I amuse myself by recalling once in a while in the past when I've increased my speed to 5 mph, it quickly became more of an arm exercise holding tight to the handles so the conveyor wouldn't shoot me off the back of the machine. After 30 or so seconds at 5 mph, just after one lung lodged in my throat and just before my arms got yanked out of my shoulder sockets, I'd slowed back down to 4 ~ still clinging to the handles though. Missy, however, is not holding on to anything. She runs at 7.5 mph with gay abandon, ponytail swinging to her strides.

Laughing at the contrast and I admit, at her wonderful freedom, which I too must once have had, though I no longer even believe photos of me as a smooth-skinned teen, I disembark the treadmill and turn it off. I ask her if she'd like me to reposition my big floor fan to blow on her. "You don't look like you need it," I add with admiration. She laughs and nods, yes, she'd like the fan. Leaving the gym, I wonder with some pleasure if perhaps she nodded because she was too winded to speak. :-)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

How Old Do I Feel?

At 89, Dad has lost much of his story to Alzheimer's. He lives in the moment, something usually only children are good at. At 90, Mom is Dad's sole caregiver. She carries the weight of past, present, and future ~ for both of them. Recently, to give herself a "day off" each week, Mom has taken Dad to an adult day care center. He greatly dislikes it there because he perceives other members as "patients," whom he doesn't fit in with.

Helping balance that tension will be a new challenge for my siblings and me, who want to help our parents stay in their home as long as possible. For the four of us kids, drawing nearer to our parents in this stage of their lives produces mixed emotions ~ joy in their companionship and love, sadness for their losses and difficulties, and our own progressive grief ~ another mixture of past, present, and future.

I thank the Lord for my parents' good health, but their situation is quite fragile, like watching America's Funniest Home Videos when a person's left foot is in one rowboat and his right foot is in another, and you just know the splits and a splash are coming. Both Mom and Dad dodder and tip, and if either lists to port or starboard a few degrees too far, it will be life-changing for all of us. And it won't be a funny video.

Often when I catch myself off-balance or forget what I ate for breakfast that morning, I see in my parents, myself 30 years from now. I think I've gotten slower than usual, too, just hanging around them. I know even a little elder care carries emotional weight, but it doesn't make sense that I myself would feel so much older. Yet I haven't been able to shake that feeling for more than a year.

... Until a few weeks ago when a retirement planning workshop presenter asked the audience if we felt younger than our age, our actual age, or older. Somehow, saying out loud that I have been feeling older than my age seemed to dissolve my emotional dowager's hump, and I became once again a reasonably healthy middle-aged woman walking tall with pep in my step. Just in time for the adventure of accompanying Dad to day care.

To be continued ...

Friday, October 1, 2010

How Did I Go Wrong? Let Me Count the Ways.

Just four ingredients, the chef had said when I'd asked for her recipe for the sweetest, purest, silkiest soup imaginable. White corn, onions, thyme, chicken broth. C'est tout. That's all.

When I spotted white corn at my farmers market the other day I plunked down three bucks for six ears, another buck for a leek, and headed home to pick thyme from my patio pot. That evening I made the executive decision to saute the leek in butter rather than oil. As the leek sizzled in the pot, I debated: garlic or no garlic? The pro argument was that I grew it in all its juicy garlickiness. The con argument was that it might detract from the sweetness of the corn. I added just one clove. Then the corn kernels and my favorite boxed chicken broth went into the pot. During the 45 or so minutes of simmering, I tasted and tweaked. It was savory, not sweet. I added honey. Then it was icky, not sweet. I added sugar. That was a bit better ~ acceptable. Deciding not to further mess with the taste, I whizzed the concoction around in the food processor to get it as silky as the sumptuously smooth creation I was attempting to emulate. But when I looked at my creation, all I could think was, "Baby just spit up her Pablum." To make it easier to stomach, I changed my impression to, "Grits, okay, it looks like lumpy grits." (I have no idea how grits are made; maybe that's what I'd accidentally made.)

How did I go wrong? Here are my best guesses; if you have others, please let me know.
Mistake #1 was the leek. I forgot the chef had said onions. I know leeks are mild and are often in soups, but I forgot my goal was sweet, not mild. Sweet onions would have been sweet. Du-uh.
Mistake #2 was the garlic. Again, I forgot the goal was sweet.
Mistake #3 was the honey. I love honey in, for instance, the applesauce I made the same evening, but it wasn't right for corn soup.
Mistake #4 was the sugar. I should have risked letting the corn's own sweetness shine through, although maybe it couldn't have gotten past the leek's and garlic's influences.
Mistake #5 was the food processor, but I don't know what machine to use to get a silky texture. I'm open to suggestions!

Say, would you like to come over for some applesauce?

Monday, September 27, 2010


Today about 30 white tents transform a puddly vacant lot into an art fair with live music. Hearing a bluesy version of "Proud Mary" from our house, we amble toward the tents in anticipation of a good time. And we do have a good time chatting with neighbors and artists and leafing through bins of matted photos of canyons and cardinals and watercolor castles and canals. Our favorite displays are oil paintings of bright, arched doorways flanked by radiant sunflowers and blue-shuttered windows bedecked with red geraniums. When all the tents are collapsed and carted away by vans that had surrounded the fair like covered wagons, all that remains of this vibrant scene is matted grass and several dozen decapitated mushrooms. Tomorrow, the art fair will be a memory. Ephemera ~ just like the art so lovingly created.

With the farmers market, it's the same. One moment, it's an event people come to from miles around. They come in cars vying for parking spots. They pull little red wagons toward white tents lining both sides of a city block. They clap to accordion music and laugh at face-painted, temporary-tattooed children hula-hooping. They tug the leashes of mutts lapping up spilt fresh-squeezed lemonade. They thump pumpkins and pinch eggplants. They half-husk cobs of corn to inspect the kernels and then line up to buy armloads of it. Farmers expound on July's heat and August's rains. Bakers tell of all the love they bake into their muffins and coffee cakes. The knife grinder warns to be careful with your newly sharpened scissors. The spice merchant explains when to use Greek oregano, as opposed to Mexican oregano, and what to cook with lavender. Five hours later, this buzz is silenced. The tents have vanished. Just one shopper remains with a bunch of orange zinnias in one hand and a bag of onions in the other, but when she finishes checking out the bookstore's window display, the sidewalk will once again be empty, save for some corn silks and smashed blueberries.

For centuries, soldiers have encamped near battlefields in tents. They cleaned their muskets in canvas lean-tos, they dressed their wounds there, wrote letters home, prayed there, waited there to fight. Today even airplane hangars in some military zones might be essentially tents. When the command comes to move, however, soldiers pack up all evidence and march on. Not even a dented tin cup is left behind.

In the early 1900s, big tents housed the Chautauqua circuit or the circus when they enlivened a town for a few days. Then the fabric big-tops folded, leaving only a song sheet fluttering against a hay bale, a cotton candy cone smeared with mud, and most likely a few forgotten piles of zebra poop. But that's all. No other signs of throngs or laughter or wide-eyed amazement.

On a summer Saturday night, we like awake, heads awkwardly dangling off the air mattress just to be able to gaze out the tent window up into the pines high above. Maybe we'll see the moon float or a bat dart between the branches. Our fellow campers still roast marshmallows over the smoldering campfire and hum along to a guitar's quiet strum. In the morning, bacon will sizzle, eggs scramble, and a rosy-cheeked someone will finish off the bag of Oreos from yesterday on his way to the water pump. Wet towels will be pulled off lines, tents and tarps folded and rolled, car trunks stuffed. And off we will go ~ heading home, leaving only ashes in the fire pit to show we enjoyed our camping weekend.

Tents signify temporary shelter during a special event. Since our everyday shelters are often brick or wood or stone or stucco, we may be fooled into thinking our lives are more permanent than art-fair or big-top tents. On our timetable, most of us do live longer than a weekend. But on God's eternity-timetable, we are no more permanent than a flower ~ or a tent ~ in a field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever. (Isaiah 40:8) And because our lives do pass quickly, why not engage with life as if it were the special event it is? It isn't the stodgy stone structure we leave occasionally to face challenges and enjoy artistic and natural beauty. It is the art fair; it is the farmers market, the campout, the battleground, the circus, the Chautauqua circuit.
Life is in the tent!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Born with No Backside

More musings from the treadmill. Well, hey, my brain has time to wander all over the place between desperate glances at the calorie readout.

Between 0 and 100 calories, I think about how glad I am I dragged myself to the gym today. A review of some of my lamest excuses for past laziness follows. Here's the stupidest: I don't want to make my derriere any smaller since I've never had much of one to begin with. (Never mind about la rotundite de la cinquantaine, the roundness of the fiftieth year, that has been ballooning in front of my derriere for a decade now.) Another dumb one: I don't want to push myself too much ~ what if I strain a muscle? And the classic: I don't feel like exercising.

Between 100 and 200 calories, I'm still glad I came, but I'm aware I'm in unfamiliar territory. Every twinge in my knees tempts me to quit. Every few minutes, I reach for my water bottle and towel. I think about stewardship of the one thing God gave me first ~ well, second, after a soul ~ my body, no backside and all. I am getting back to the basics. Each thump of my shoe and of my heart reminds me how far I've let those basics slide.

Between 200 and 300 calories, I am intentional about taking deep breaths. I've sustained a training heart rate for more than 40 minutes. Though I was panting earlier, now I'm breathing deeply, fully, taking more air into my lungs. I can feel my heart's capacity expanding. I think about Jabez's prayer in 1 Chronicles 4: Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain. I wonder what God's plan might be for my expanded heart. I hope better health. I hope stroke prevention. I hope larger love and life.

300 calories ~ whoopie, I'm outta here. Right now, I'm pretty pleased (glowing actually) with 300. But just as I stretched to reach this goal, I'll want to set a new goal soon.

Tomato Harvest Season

Baked tomato halves stuffed with sausage; baked tomato and zucchini slices topped with grated cheese; a huge pot of basil-infused tomato sauce studded with onions and garlic; salade nicoise kinda heavy on the tomatoes; ratatouille. Ah yes, one of my favorite seasons.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Jury Duty

Receiving my first jury summons in many years produced excitement and trepidation. On Day One, one-and-a-half hours of orientation intensifies both parts of this sense of adventure. On one hand, what if I have to answer an embarrassing personal question in the courtroom? What if a lawyer's line of questioning railroads me into giving an impression I don't believe to be true? What if I forget the instructions? On the other hand, what if I get to contribute to a fair verdict for someone? Wouldn't it be great to serve the only country in the world that gives its citizens the option to be tried by a jury of their peers? So I sit in a room with 350 other potential jurors waiting to be called.

It's a pleasant room with a band of windows to view clouds skittering across a blue sky and green trees bending in the wind. Just under the windows is a counter with 24 free Wi-Fi stations, all occupied by jurors' laptops. I sit behind all this electronic activity in one of the long rows of chairs with a book about George Washington. The guy in front of me studies a bunch of stapled pages entitled "Grading, Drainage, and Stormwater Management." A man down my row seems to be napping hunched over his lap. One girl at her computer stretches her arms upward; her charcoal-gray sweater sleeves cover her hands. When those hands then grab her long brown hair, their nails are neon coral; her fingers expertly twirl her hair into a bun. Another girl at a computer wears a black-and-white floral blouse that looks like flocked wallpaper. She rakes her fingers through shoulder-length, straight black hair. The room is mostly quiet except for occasional cell phone talkers whose conversations are identical: I'm stuck here on jury duty and hope I don't get picked.

The patriotic part of me feels sad that avoiding jury duty seems to be such a universal sentiment. What wimps we are, sitting here with our flip-flops and laptops during our air-conditioned, inspiring "jury duty boot camp," while soldiers serving our country brave sandstorms and suicide bombers. I think briefly how fortunate we are to be able to serve in this relatively risk-free way. Then I think about my fears again. I'm not quite to the point where I'd say I hope I don't get picked, but I can see it from here.

Wallpaper-Shirt rakes her hair out to the side three times in a row. Drainage Guy disappears for a while. After pushing my bangs out of my eyes at least 17 times, I put down my book and get up to stretch my legs in an aisle. Neon-Nailed Beautician loosely braids her tresses. Napper vigorously rubs the heels of both hands in his eyes, yawns, and stretches his legs and arms forward. More gently ringing phones, more eagerness to get out of here.

This scenario repeats in various forms for several hours. About noon, we are released for the day and as it turns out, for the the week. I am both relieved and disappointed.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

View from the Treadmill

Light rain puddles in the brick, gravel, and grass courtyard serving as playground for the school outside the gym window. Inside, my shoes rhythmically thump the treadmill facing outside. About 100 oh, maybe fourth- or fifth-graders burst from school doors for morning recess and scatter throughout the area. Most wear school-bus-yellow slickers, Facebook-logo-blue ponchos, or summery jackets. Some sport rubber galoshes, but most wear athletic shoes, some with glittery laces. I wish my childhood had included purple-flowered, pink galoshes. And why didn't Keds think up glittery laces back in the fifties?

One boy kicks a large blue ball into the gym window. Boom! (Thankfully, no glass breaks.) I don't think the kids can see inside, or maybe they just don't look. Certainly, however, they can see the window is glass. After one boom, the boy joins about half the kids for a massive soccer scramble on the grass beyond the courtyard.

In the closer, pebbled area, a weathered gray bench under a tree sees quite a bit of action. First, a small girl parachutes from the bench with her black-and-white-flowered umbrella open. Then a small boy ~ apparently not wanting to imitate Mary Poppins ~ jumps up and down on the bench while poking his open black umbrella into a tree branch above. His aim seems to be to knock down some dangling seed pods. The wind, however, turns parachute into bowl, and the boy futilely jabs the umbrella sideways in the air and jumps off the bench to try to fix it another way. Later, a very tall girl strides over to the bench, steps up on it, calmly reaches up and grabs a handful of seed pods, steps down, and tosses the twirlies to the wind.

Meanwhile, two very slender girls, walking with dainty ballerina steps under a doll-sized, pink, ruffled parasol, repeatedly circle the playground perimeter, as if on a track. Deep in animated conversation, they seem oblivious to surroundings.

My heart goes out to one sad-eyed girl gazing at the ground while lagging 10 paces behind two girls zigzagging around with a string between them. When the two girls stop, Lonely Girl stops right behind them but doesn't look up. They don't look at her. Then they move on. This scenario repeats so many times, I'm screaming from the treadmill, "Look at her! Smile at her!" (Thankfully, I'm alone in the gym.) One girl smiles at Lonely Girl and gives her the string. Then the three of them chase each other around, laughing. I can see that when one of the two girls chases, it's a light, breezy ha-ha-hearted game. But when it's Lonely Girl's turn to chase, despite her smile and flying
glittery shoestrings, it's a heavy-hearted hoping game.

A boy comes close to the gym window, positions his galoshes inside brick outlines, cranes his neck downward, and stares ~ for a long time. I am surprised he does this when he could splash in the puddle right next to him.

When the drizzle stops and umbrellas fold ~ except for the still-circling, ruffled, ballerina parasol ~ butterflies come out. Poncho-ed arms poke out to the sides, and kids fly, flapping yellow and blue wings. Swooping and soaring, they run willy-nilly, gleefully weaving among red, khaki, pink, and purple playmates. Next thing I know, several teachers have strung the rainbow into straight lines to file back into school.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Recovering from a Serious Error

For the third time in the few months since the Geek Squad installed my new hard drive because my computer did not recover from a serious error, today my computer "recovered from a serious error." The solution to this problem is to install the most current device driver, whatever that is. Despite being a technoweenie, I bravely decide today is the day to do this. I open the Microsoft Update window. Expecting the fresh breeze of a "Why, yes, Jane, here's the exact driver you need to install" message to waft in, I am disappointed to see the stifling "You have to update Internet Explorer" message slumped on the windowsill. Okay then.

I click Download. So far, so good. Internet Explorer 8 downloads. But it doesn't install, and I see no Install button. No matter. I'm sure IE7 will still work, so I open it. It doesn't. It tells me I need to install IE8. I see where to click for this, so I do and it does, except it won't work until I restart my computer. I fear having to find the Update page again but figure Google can find anything, so I close and restart.

A new, cheery, little red window tells me I have to update Adobe Flash Player. This is not on today's agenda, but hey, why not? I download and install. Now back to IE8. The search engine is now something called Bing. Cute name, but Google rocks, so I figure out how to use Google from this screen and find my Microsoft Update page again. Three updates that weren't there before are there now. I click to update and install. Of course a restart is required.

Back at the Update page, I search Hardware, Optional for the driver update, which is nowhere to be found. But there are nine software updates. I pick two that seem helpful, but who really knows? After each install, I of course restart the computer.

Finally, I give up on Updates and Google device drivers but find only advice I can't understand. Except one article mentions the Control Panel. Aha! The Control Panel has an Add Hardware icon. Yippee. Except it's blank. You have to have the hardware to add ~ which I don't. But while there, I see a Scanners and Cameras icon, which reminds me since my new hard drive was installed, I haven't been able to use my scanner or figure out how to reload whatever it needs to work. But this window offers a wizard. I love computer wizards. I was able to reinstall my scanning device and scan the photo I wanted. I didn't even have to restart the computer.

So it's two-and-a-half hours after I began looking for my current device driver, and I have not found it. But I have installed at least seven updates. I wonder if I can avoid another "serious error" by simply never turning off my computer from now till eternity. Upon turning off the computer ~ we both need a rest ... hang the serious errors ~ I see a message that I am not to turn off the computer, as it will be installing eight updates. Sheeesh. I walk away to recover from recovering.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Vacation: Wrap-Up

Now that I've unpacked, done laundry, changed back from travel purse to everyday purse, and written thank-you notes, my vacation is officially over. Well, writing this final vacation blog post and putting a photo album on Webshots and Facebook, and then it will be over. The photos will take me several more days, since I go back to work today.

A few miscellaneous notes on this vacation ~

  • a sparkling, flaming hurray! for Marriott properties
  • a sputtering, lukewarm okay for Thrifty car rental
  • many colorful, pyrotechnic oohs and aahs for the beauty and history of Virginia

Still haven't finis
hed reading the novel I took on vacation. Glad I traded reading time for visiting time though. Francoise and I did read Why Not, Lafayette?, the short book she bought me so that we could learn why Lafayette kept popping up in presidents' homes. Portraits, plaster busts, and anecdotes of Lafayette seemed to be everywhere, and now we know why.

Like Thomas Jefferson bringing France home with him in the form of ideas, architecture, horticulture, cuisine, I want to bring Virginia home with me. I'm sure going to try to replicate the Inn at Meander Plantation's sweet white corn soup. I'll make sandwiches by spreading basil pesto on on
e piece of bread and olive tapenade on the other, an idea borrowed from the Smithsonian's cafe. I'll try making my own mayonnaise; I don't have Cock and Bowl's recipe, but I have Julia Child's! Joan's pasta sauce and salad dressing are must-tries. Francoise's tomates farcies from her last dinner in our home will be delightful to repeat, especially when our garden tomatoes pop. I now have a stunning mug, made by Joan, to enjoy my tea in. And Google will be smokin' by the time I look up all the questions our presidential tours sparked. (Plus, I've added a few books to my wish list, family and friends!) Next spring, I'll be excited to plant flower and vegetable seeds I bought at Monticello and Montpelier.

Oh, and I still need to discard miscellaneous ticket stubs and notes, like the list of things I wanted to do with Francoise while she was in the Chicago area. We made it to the lively Grayslake farmers market and downtown Libertyville, and we took several pleasant walks and picked peas and beans ~ nothing postcard-worthy. We never made it to the Museum of Science and Industry or Chicago Theatre or outdoor concerts or Cantigny. Hope she'll visit Chicago again so that we can see and do more here. We toyed with the idea of going to a county fair but didn't make it to any of those either. Francoise's longest, heartiest laugh of the whole vacation came on the way to the airport yesterday when I consoled her about missing a county fair by assuring that next time she comes, we will milk a goat. Okay, so I guess that isn't on everyone else's dream list. ;-)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Vacation: Mount Vernon

To round out what we now call our "presidential tour," we visited George Washington's home, Mount Vernon.

People rocking in chairs on this pillared terrace have a spectacular Potomac panorama. And many guests did today ~ another hot one! Note the dove of peace weathervane.

The tree below dates from George Washington's father's day. It's a chestnut oak.

Vacation: Friday and Saturday

Flavorful frittata for breakfast at Meander Plantation, a short time gazing at the Blue Ridge Mountains and reading on the back veranda, and we were on our way north to Alexandria. More rolling hills, more battlefields, another Starbucks stop, and we were back at Joan and John's. The entire way, Madame GPS informed us she had lost satellite reception. When we pulled into the driveway, however, she announced we had reached our destination. Merci beaucoup!

Since our suitcases contained five days worth of sweaty clothes in plastic bags, first order of business was doing laundry. Then all four of us headed into Old Town Alexandria for a gourmet dinner at Vermilion. After Thursday night's feast at Meander, Francoise and I didn't think we could eat another big meal. Guess what ~ we chowed down again. I had peach gazpacho soup and tender chicken on a bed of tasty succotash.

Saturday morning we bought tomatoes and peaches at the Market Square farmers market (where vendors packed up and left about an hour and a half early due to inhospitable temps) and we visited Joan at her shop in the Torpedo Factory art center in Old Town Alexandria. We visited other artists' shops and galleries there, too, and did a few fun shops on King Street, ate a salmon and salad lunch at Chadwick's on the Potomac. Then we plodded along in the intense heat about eight blocks to see the house Robert E. Lee had grown up in, only to find it closed when we got there. At first, this walk was hot but picturesque, and we lingered to take photos of interesting architecture like this pink and aqua house. But then we began suffering from the heat and enjoyed nothing really. I was going to say about Friday, "We hit 100 degrees!" But on Saturday we hit 104 degrees, so hey, never mind about Friday.

We also made a short stop at the Inventors Hall of Fame by the U.S. Patent Office. The theme of the exhibits was food-related inventions and included the Jolly Green Giant, Julia Child, and the Planters Peanut man. Don't ask me anything about them though; my brain was too scrambled from the heat.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Vacation: Montpelier and Meander

On our drive down to Charlottesville Monday, Francoise noticed pillars on many structures. At first, red soil and large homes with fat round pillars reminded her of Tara from Gone with the Wind. Then we saw shacks with skinny square pillars. Tiny ranches had pillars on front porches. A trailer home had pillars; the Shell gas station convenience store had pillars. Only barns and silos seemed exempt from pillar frenzy. Francoise, who had already expressed an interest in seeing a plantation on this trip, now really wanted to tour a plantation. Monticello's plantation tour had disappointed her. And the best selection of plantation tours ~ down the James River south of Williamsburg ~ was just too far to go in one day. So our compromise was James Madison's Montpelier.

Not knowing much about James Madison, we took the house tour, which in
cluded stories of three generations of Madisons, as well as reports of archaeology discoveries at Montpelier. Because of hard economic times after Madison's death, his widow Dolley had to sell furniture and other household items. Also, during their lifetimes, when they were away from Montpelier, Dolley's ne'er-do-well son came and spirited off silverware and other valuables to sell for drink and gambling. The house, which has undergone a major recent restoration, is largely unfurnished. The search is on, however, for their furnishings, or at least what historians can determine might be similar to their furnishings.

I liked hearing about
clues in this search. For example, in restoring the house, archaeologists looked behind some walls. In one spot, they found a mouse nest with a scrap of paper handwritten by James Madison, a scrap of newspaper from his time, and a scrap of wallpaper. What a find! Outside the senior Madisons' wing of the house, archaeologists are now digging in hope of finding artifacts from the slave quarters and stables.
James Madison (junior, the fourth U.S. president) himself was not the commanding figure that Jefferson was. His enemies said he was about five-foot-two, his friends said five-foot-four, and he certainly was shorter than Dolley, which is why one never sees images of them standing side by side. Jefferson was six-foot-two-and-a-half in an age when height averaged five-foot-five or so. Often, Madison is considered to be just an echo of Jefferson. But he was an intellect in his own right. By age 14, he had read every one of his father's 600 books. His own library later numbered in the thousands of books. He was multilingual and studied governments of every kind of many countries as he was penning our Bill of Rights in order that the United States might learn from history. And although Madison was influenced by his good friend Thomas Jefferson, he made decisions, for example in the architecture of Montpelier, independent of Jefferson's advice.

Dolley Madison is famous for her hospitality. Because of the 24-foot-deep ice cellar Madison kept, Dolley and her kitchen slaves were even able to make ice cream for their parties of 90 on the lawn or 25 overnight guests (yikes!). Our guide said one flavor she served her guests was oyster ice cream (yikes again).

Our next stop was just to be our last night's lodging, but it turned out to be the plantation of Francoise's dreams. Although not a working plantation, it had the requisite pillars and gardens and horses. Anyway, she w
as pretty excited to see the Inn at Meander Plantation, which made me glad since we hadn't gotten down to the James River.

The Inn, established in 1727, was the first plantation settled in Madison County. Its mossy brick pathways, narrow wooden staircases, and slanted doorways and floors whispered its age. The plantation's first owner and Thomas Jefferson's father surveyed and drew the first map of Virginia. Current owners Suzie Blanchard and Suzanne Thomas give cooking classes and operate a gourmet restaurant in addition to the bed and breakfast. As I wandered the property and
admired vigorous vegetable and herb gardens, my mouth watered. I was pretty sure this lovely produce would end up in my dinner.

Sure enough, for dinner, I had heirloom tomatoes, kalamata olives, basil, and mozzarella cheese so fresh, I was sure the water buffalo it came from must be under our table. Second course: local white corn soup, which Suzie told me has four (count 'em, four) ingredients, corn, onions, thyme, and chicken broth. The white corn must have been very fresh and very sweet! Intermezzo: lemon sorbet. Third course: roasted quail with cinnamon sweet potatoes and roasted asparagus. Fourth course: chocolate espresso pot de creme with chocolate-covered strawberry. I'd like to describe the purity of these flavors, but words fail me.