Lunch with a Stranger

2016-06 Pic v2 (1)Alice sat on a bench, against a wall, under the shade of the tree to her right, and the tree to her left, and the trees lining the wall behind her. She opened her lunch bag to pull out a tuna sandwich she had packed the night before. It was her routine action of her routine day of her routine life.

She took a bite of the sandwich then raised her head to watch people strolling on the wide, brick sidewalk. As she started to focus on a man dressed in khaki pants and a casual shirt, Alice found him looking at her. They both jerked their heads away and looked in different directions. Alice’s face flushed red in embarrassment. After daring to look back again, she saw the man had continued walking and was fading into the distance. Alice sighed. Cautiously resuming her people-watching, she finished lunch without further incident and went back to work.

Feeling confident that she would not see the man again, Alice sat on her usual bench the next day. She took a bite of her sandwich. The man did not appear. She glanced about as she chewed then swallowed. As she raised the sandwich for a second bite, the man came into view. Their eyes locked upon each other. Alice thought it would be foolish to turn away again, so she smiled politely. He smiled, nodded and continued his walk. She finished her lunch then returned to work.

Over the weekend, thoughts about the lunch encounters interrupted the normally methodical execution of her chores. The dreamy way she kept feeling, however, would quickly be displaced by self-reproach for getting distracted from the tasks at hand. So on Monday when Alice saw the man coming in the distance, her heart rate jumped and her palms felt wet. “Get ahold of yourself,” she chided. “Quit acting like a schoolgirl. You need only smile politely.” And that’s what she did. He smiled, nodded his head and kept walking.

For a month, weather permitting, this became part of the daily routine for Alice: lunch, smile, smile, nod. The complacent structure of her life fell back into balance, until the day the stranger did not show up. “Odd,” thought Alice. “Oh, he’s probably just taking the day off from work.”

One day turned into three and Alice found that she missed the man whose habits seemed as fastidious as her own. A week went by, then two, causing Alice to worry and hope he was okay.

On Wednesday of the third week, Alice sat on her bench and heard a strange sound. Clump then a footstep. Clump then step. Clump then step. Alice turned, looking for the sound, and saw the man walking much slower than his usual pace. A cast on his left foot made the reason clear. Alice’s emotions swirled as she felt both happy to see him and concerned over what happened to his foot. Fear quickly took over as the man left the brick walkway and made his way toward her.

“Hello,” he said after stopping a few feet in front of Alice. He looked more timid and shy than she imagined of him from afar.

“Hello,” she said as her mouth went dry.

“This is only my third day with this walking cast and I think this is as far as I should go.” He cleared his throat. “Do you mind if I share your bench for lunch?”

“Please do,” she said smiling politely.

He smiled, nodded, and joined her on the bench.

Time to Smell the Flowers, and Other Summer Fun

DoggieLimoCustomersThis is my last blog for a couple of months. My wife Maureen and I just bought a new car and we’ve decided to put it to good use this summer. That, and a garden that is fast becoming a handful.

I said “grow little garden, grow,” and it is! Now, other than the tomatoes, all the veggies and flowers are doing exceptionally well. Too well. We now have fresh cut flowers in the living room, dining room, kitchen, front hall, our bedroom and our bathroom as well as the downstairs bathroom… and a yard-full of budding replacements just dying to get in! We’ve run out of vases and are now using canning jars. Our little compost box will be full by July at this rate, but that’s not the half of it.

We decided to build a new deck so we can better enjoy the back yard gardens. Our 12×12 deck is fifty years old, so it’s time. We’re replacing it with a 16×30 version that will run along the back of the house and allow us to watch television from the deck. You, too, would quickly rationalize the cost if you saw all the hummingbirds, robins, blue jays, finches, blackbirds, and cardinals fighting for the flowers and accompanying bird feeders. Endless entertainment. The new deck will also allow us more room for still more potted flowers, which means a bigger compost. Still all good.

Here’s where it starts to get expensive. The builders are going to trash the back yard with their equipment and with stacks of lumber and supplies during the seven-to-ten days it will take to complete. All the grass will grow back, so… But they have to remove part of the fence to get to the back yard, and that means our dogs will have to remain inside. For ten days. Not good. So we decided it would be a great time to visit distant friends and relatives; we can take the dogs!

Now you see why we needed a new car. SUV’s were quickly ruled out; too high off the ground. The Dodge Grand Caravan was the only new car low enough that our two old mutts could hop right in without the need of steps or a ramp. That is, once we removed the center row of seats and turned it into a doggie limo.

I had no idea a garden could cost so much.

Have a wonderful summer, all!







ChautauquaWhat do you think of when you hear the name Chautauqua, Chautauqua, New York?

The first thing I thought of was an Indian Tribe. Was I wrong! Wikipedia says, Chautauqua was an adult education movement in the United States, highly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. …The Chautauqua brought entertainment and culture for the whole community, with speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers and specialists of the day. Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was quoted as saying that Chautauqua is “the most American thing in America.”

I first became interested in the Chautauqua Lectures when I was driving home from work in Chicago. I’d tune in to Public Radio and frequently the announcer would say they were “live at Chautauqua”, carrying a speech by someone well known in their field. I felt very fortunate to be able to listen in! So when I read that Road Scholar was offering weeklong trips there, I knew we had to go.

Today Road Scholar, an educational travel organization for anyone 50 and over, offers weeklong trips to Chautauqua. They are filled with lectures on various interesting topics from 9:00 to 12:00 each morning. The speakers are interesting and well prepared.

The afternoons are for yoga, nature walks, relaxing or exploring on your own.

After dinner there’s live entertainment. One night we heard a singing group, another night it was a jazz trio and the last night was a musical performance by a one-man orchestra!

My husband and I went for the week starting May 15.

I’m not sure what was more enjoyable: The lectures, the Athenaeum Hotel where we stayed or the town of Chautauqua itself.

We stayed at the Athenaeum Hotel, a few yards from Chautauqua Lake. The view was lovely. The hotel had been built in the 1880s and modernized. It had large front and side porches with rocking chairs for reading and chatting and tables for eating outside or playing cards.

This is the view from our room, #22.

After this experience, I agree with Theodore Roosevelt, Chautauqua is “the most American thing in America.”







Coffee Shop Chronicles, Father’s Day edition: Saying goodbye

FullSizeRender (3)Starbucks

Rt. 40, Delaware

April 2006

Last week, I hugged Roomie down in Maryland, and that’s when it hit me: I’m saying goodbye.

I almost cried.

I’m moving soon, so it’s time for those farewells, that talking to the people I should’ve been talking to all along. My Grande Java Chip Frappuccino turns into a venti with extra ice added. More room to cry in my proverbial cup of coffee, if I did such a thing.

It was a wonderful chat, in a Starbucks of all places. We discussed families. Her boy is having some of those young child sensitivities, including separation anxiety. I totally get that today.

Her second baby is due in August, and she thinks she’s having a girl. Will a family of my own be in the future?  We laughed about keeping kids occupied with a video or DVD for an hour. Years ago, we never would. Now, that’s an hour well spent!

I lamented our distance to come. She said, “We’ll always be friends,” casual as if saying the rain has stopped outside.

Then she drove away. When I arrived, the parking space next to my car was empty, so she had parked there. An hour later, when I left, her spot was still empty.

Coffee shops should be places to say hello, welcome people with hugs and squeals, or at least a handshake. I’m here in my usual spot drinking my usual drink, missing my familiar places already. I’ve taken them for granted.

Looking out the window into the dark night, my car’s in her usual place, headlights facing towards this store. Too many nights like this, I sat in that car, talking to Dad on the phone about his frustration that Mom wasn’t getting better and she didn’t seem to be trying. We talked and I stared into Starbucks, feeling empty even though there were lights inside. I willed the night to go away so I could forget him, Mom, and my own heartbreak.

Dad’s been gone for one year and three months. I miss those talks. They weren’t all bad. We compared notes every week about which one of us saved the most money with our grocery store coupons that week. It was a pretty even matchup. We talked about my job, his bus rides and talking to the regulars there, Pittsburgh sports and how terrible my high school teams were playing, and always the weather.

Dad would be tickled that I’m moving to Detroit, the place where he and Mom honeymooned. They toured the Ford manufacturing line, and that’s all I ever knew about it.

I wish I could ask him now. I’m curious about what else they did.

As if a higher power is watching over me, a little girl and daddy walk out of the Red Robin next door. Pink shirt, jeans faded, red balloon. Leftovers, two boxes of Styrofoam. Dad’s in long sleeves, maroon, and tan pants. He buckles her in the backseat, a minivan with silver doors and auto close. He puts the food on the front passenger seat. They back out now–how charming, how happy and content. Unlike a family of four just moments ago: the mom yelled at one girl while dad takes another girl in the restaurant.

What a shame.  A wasted opportunity.  I’d never take that for granted.  My throat closes up at the thought.

I can’t take this. I need to write. My journal is filled so far with my newspaper article transcripts, notes about the houses we’ve already looked at in Michigan, reactions from my coworkers at my announcement and, funny this, a list of the four closest Starbucks to the area we’re looking at moving to. Now I add to that:

“At K’s parents’ house, I couldn’t find my School Days book. Did I take it to Delaware already?  Worry, worry. An hour ago, found it. Looked through it, found Krista-TN stuff, letters Dad wrote me. Read one, his familiar print, all caps. A Penn State item taped in the letter. Weather report. Shows he videotaped for me. Mom and Star Trek group news. I missed Dad and I cried. I talked to him, to no one, about how I miss sharing this Detroit move news with him. I have to believe he knows, but I miss hearing his voice, his thoughts on it all. Cried more. Then had the strength to go into our Home Theater room and watch my wedding video. Father-in-law took it, used to think that was distracting from our ceremony. I am so blessed to have those images. Dad smiling. A smile! A cough. His large glasses, his cane. And somehow, that comforted me. I still cried.”

Gotta stop here. I’m about to cry again. Time to go out to my car and cry into my cup of Frappuccino. Time to say goodbye to this night.

Driving Detroit with Dad

michigan graphic“Dad would like you to drive the van,” my mom says to me. “It’s easier for him to get in and out of it.”

Despite my dad’s notoriously poor behavior as a passenger, I immediately respond, “Sure, I’ll drive.” Then I conjure an image of how the rest of my family will react when they find out that I’ve pulled the short straw. Relieved, they will celebrate by high-fiving one another and cheering, “Woo-hoo! Kelly has to drive!”

Soon thereafter, on a sunny and warm spring morning, I arrive as promised at my parents’ house, where Mom and Dad have been waiting with my sister and brothers. Waiting is the most popular item on the day’s agenda. It starts with the family waiting for me. It is to continue downtown at Henry Ford Hospital where we will stew for eight hours and hope that dad gets to come home with us after his surgery.

Dad sits up front beside me. Everyone else piles into the seats behind us, and we begin our trek to the hospital.

“Your dad likes to be early.” Mom doesn’t have to remind us of that. We know it. Dad is a morning person, and he’s never late.

When my siblings and I were children and living at home, we had Saturday mornings to look forward to Dad waking us up. He would step into our rooms while we slept and begin a loud phonetic rendition of the bugle call, “Reveille.” Then he’d sing these words in the same cadence:

It’s time to get up!

It’s time to get up!

It’s time to get up in the morning!

It’s time to get up!

It’s time to get up!

It’s time to get up in the day!

Dear Ol’ Dad had borrowed that morning routine from his camping days with the Air National Guard from 1954-1962. Other young men were being called up by the United States Army to serve in far-away places. Dad thought that by enrolling in the Guard, he had a better chance of staying close to home and finishing his six-year-long apprenticeship to become a printer. All worked out even better than he had planned. About half-way through his eight years of service, he met my mom, who had come to vacation in Michigan.

Dad enjoyed getting up at the crack of dawn and I think he wanted his family to like—or at least embrace—mornings too. Whenever we took a road trip, we’d rise before daybreak. The sky was dark; the air was crisp and chilly. There was no time to waste. Other people weren’t around to tie up the freeways. We had at least three hours to get ahead of everyone else.

On the morning drive to the hospital, I am reminded of how hard it must be for Dad to have to relinquish control of the steering wheel. He’s used to being the one behind the wheel. He drives everywhere he and Mom go, and sometimes he even drives me where I need to go.

Practically every year, Dad takes me to the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice where I complete my annual stint of jury duty. He spoils me. I don’t have to go into downtown Detroit alone, find a parking space, and walk by myself to the courthouse.

“I’ll drive you,” he insists.

Mom comes along and the two wait for me to get a break or to be excused for the day. They wile away their time at Greek Town Casino and then the three of us get lunch. Our little arrangement is something pleasant that I think we all look forward to.

Today, however, I experience familiar and familial pressure as I drive downtown. I go an acceptable five miles over the speed limit. Dad gruffly says, “Slow down!” Moments later, when I drive at the posted speed limit, Dad suggests that I could “go a little faster.” All the time, he foresees potential problems with traffic and warns, “Watch out!” “Take it easy!” “Give ‘em a little more room.”

I force myself to relax, despite the tension everyone in the van is feeling. There’s a hush that comes over us. No one wants to distract me from focusing on Dad’s instructions.

“The road coming up has a big pothole. It’s just past the light. See it?”

When I was sixteen, I had my first car accident—which wasn’t my fault. My dad didn’t seem mad at all. During college, when I had a second car accident which was my fault, he again showed only concern for whether or not I was alright.

I’m sure he’s not remembering these things that happened decades ago. He treats my brothers and sister the same when they drive. He just likes to be the one in charge and taking care of everyone else.

Having worked as a printer for The Detroit Free Press for over forty years, Dad knows the city’s history, the parks, the office buildings, the old stadiums, the bars and hang-outs, and most importantly, the back ways into town. He skillfully directs me down streets and through neighborhoods that I wouldn’t be comfortable in if I were by myself.

Dad explains that the humming bridge over the Rouge River needs to have water poured onto it to cool it down when it gets hot. He says that when he was a little boy, the Army responded to race riots by camping out in Clarke Parke. Later, more race wars took place in the 1960s, and the National Guard came to keep order but they didn’t have ammunition in their guns. Army paratroopers came in next and shot a bunch of people.

We drive east on Fort Street from downriver and pass by desolate Woodmere Cemetery, where several generations of my ancestors are buried. It has been over twenty years since we visited. Back then, a recorded voice was blasted over a loud speaker to tell women not to stop at the gravesites alone. Today, I wish I could forego this drive to the hospital and take a detour inside the wrought iron, gated yard in order to kneel beside my grandparents’ graves and reminisce.

I would rather not have to face the fact that my dad has bladder cancer. I don’t want him to have to undergo surgery, to be poked and prodded, to be in pain and discomfort.

Dad seems to calm the more he talks about places that he’s passed thousands of times. We see the old, abandoned Greyhound Bus station and turn at the corner of 14th Street. A block down at West Lafayette is Green Dot Stables. Dad tells us, like he had many times before, that the guy who opened it used to be a harness racing jockey. Dad doesn’t seem to notice the graffiti and burned-out buildings along our route. Unlike him, my brothers and sister are squirming in their seats because they would have rather taken the freeway. Doesn’t Dad realize that I-75 would be faster?

I’m not nervous about driving through poor parts of town with my family, mostly because my dad is sitting right beside me. Despite the fact that he’s turning eighty this year, I still believe he’ll keep us safe, no matter what.

It occurs to me that my father is behaving like an imperfect tour guide. I consider his insider’s knowledge of Detroit, his familiarity with the roads, and his ability to tell great stories. I set aside the fact that Dad has little to no patience when behind the wheel of a car, and I get a crazy idea. I blurt out, “You should be an Uber driver!”

Laughter erupts in the van. I sneak a peek at my dad and can tell that, for a brief moment, he isn’t thinking about cancer, pain, and surgical complications. He’s not worried or stressed. He’s simply smiling in response to my ludicrous suggestion.

That moment was worth waiting for.