Monday, June 27, 2011

A Tribute to an Older Brother

Today, I visited the gravesite of my oldest brother, Steve.  He was 18 months older than I.  He died in his sleep, unexpectedly, 8 months ago.

We've been waiting for his marker to be put in place, and finally today it was there.  I cried as I knelt in front of it and talked to Steve.  I was surprised at my emotions as I sat at the grave.

It's a rather nondescript little cemetery.  It's been there a long time, but it's not very big and not very well tended.  I had never heard of it before Steve, in discussing his burial plans very coincidentally 3 months before his death (a foreshadowing?), said he wanted to be buried there.  It's near the church he attended. He said he "knew some of the guys there."  He wanted to be among friends.

Its rundown nature and lack of activity whenever I am there leads me to believe the cemetery is filled with a lot of people like my brother ... those in this world without a lot of money or power. Those who might have made their way through life "by the skin of their teeth" as my dad would say. 

Steve was what you might call a "poor soul."  He had stuttered his whole life and, as a result, was teased unmercifully by classmates and neighbor kids.  It was what the schools today call "bullying," but 50 years ago nothing was done about it, even in Catholic school.  If you weren't big enough or strong enough to defend yourself, you just got beat up.  And you picked yourself up and went on.

In grade school, Steve had a neighborhood paper route and was one of the most conscientious "paperboys" ever.  When Steve was given a job, he did it and he didn't quit until it was done.  One day, on the route, a neighbor kid who had previously had the route and lost it for poor service, accosted Steve and beat him up. Steve came home beaten and bloodied, but not until after he had delivered all of his papers.

Steve wasn't the brightest kid when it came to school, but he was a genius on the subject of Franklin D. Roosevelt, World War II and Queen Victoria.  He didn't have a lot of social graces and didn't quite understand the art of "small talk" in a social setting.  In recent years, as I started hearing about Asperger's Syndrome (see , I wondered if that wasn't a diagnosis that might have been assigned to him had it been identified when he was a young child.   Medicine and science hadn't reached the sophisticated heights of today.  Back then, if you were "different," you just lived with it, and so did all of your family.

When we were in high school, I have to admit I was embarrassed by Steve's behavior and his appearance.  I didn't think he was very cute.  He wore really thick glasses and had red hair ... how much worse can it get for a girl to have a brother like that?  He was clumsy when he walked, and he stuttered. We went to our parish teen nights, and I would quickly find my group of friends and not pay a lot of attention to Steve the rest of the night. I know I didn't see him on the dance floor very much.  And, yet, he had a sense of rightness about himself. He talked to some of the girls at those youth nights, and even got up the nerve to invite my best friend to Prom one year. I had forgotten all about that until she reminded me of it as his funeral. She was very proud that she was the only girl who had ever gone to Prom with Steve.  I thanked her for that memory and for the appreciation it showed for a side of my brother I didn't know.

Steve didn't have much. He didn't even graduate from high school. He was one class shy of the requirements.  He went to an all-boys Catholic school and he had to perform student service to pay the tuition. My parents felt it was important for us to get a Catholic education, but it sometimes fell to us to provide the means.  Steve swept floors and cleaned toilets at the high school he attended. He did it after school, when he should have been getting help with the English class that he was failing.  But he didn't say anything to anyone .. not to my parents, not to his teachers, not to me.  He just kept the commitment he had made to sweep the floors and clean the toilets.  And he kept going to class every day.  And when the night of graduation came, he wasn't allowed to be on stage.  My parents were told of it several days before graduation ... too late to do anything about it.  He never went back to get that final credit or the diploma.  I don't think he knew where to begin to do something like that.  And I was so busy with my own life, I never asked him if I could help.  Shame on me.

Steve had a number of jobs in his lifetime.  None of them were at a professional level, but all of them involved honest work.  He drove a truck for a lumber yard, he was a janitor at a Catholic grade school (that student service "on-the-job-training" paid off) and then he pumped gas at a gas station for about 40 years.  Steve "retired" when he was 60.  He didn't have a 401(k) or a pension .. he didn't even have very much money in the bank.  The gas station where he was employed had gotten computers to replace the old fashioned cash register.  It was beyond his desire (or ability) to learn how to operate it. He wasn't worried about how he would live or what would happen if he got sick.  He just trusted that life would somehow happen, as it always had.

So he became a "retiree" and filled his days driving to the gas station to visit friends and looking after my mom, moving with her from the family home, to an independent Senior apartment building and then to his own apartment 3 years ago when Mom went into an assisted living facility.  That, I think, was the highlight of Steve's life.  He was living on his own.  He was making it.  Not well by some standards .. but by his own standards, he was living like a prince.

Steve never married.  He lived with my parents his entire life.  Did he long to have his own home, a wife and children?  I think so. But he never complained about his lot in life. When he died, the church was filled with people.  We were in awe.  This man, whom some would call a hermit, and others might call a social misfit, was known and loved by more people than we could imagine.  They came to pay tribute to him.  We were moved to tears with the knowledge that his life had been fuller than we had ever imagined.  And he had just lived that life, never feeling the need to tell anyone about it.

I thought of all of this as I sat at Steve's grave today.  I told him I loved him and I hoped he was hobnobbing with FDR and Queen Victoria! Then I cried and told him how sorry I was that I hadn't been a better sister ... that I hadn't given him more of myself and more of my time over the years.  He had loved coming to our house and participating in family gatherings, but we didn't ever invite just him, alone. I'm sure I worried about what we would talk about if it was just him and us!  How selfish.  Not having any children of his own, he was awkward around kids, but he loved my grandchildren and was eager to hold them in his clumsy way.  Unfortunately, as they grew out of infancy, they were often unsure and scared of this somewhat tongue-tied, strange great uncle and would quickly wiggle out of his arms. He would just look after them and not ask why.  He was always happy to talk to me when I called, but I didn't call him often.  Once a year, he would telephone me ... on my birthday.  He would call me "old girl" and kid me that I was catching up with him in age.  He would have loved it that I'm now retired, proving, indeed, that I am an "old girl."  He was a great older brother .. he was a great brother, period.

I miss his voice.  I miss his teasing.  I miss him.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Out of Retirement

I retired 56 days ago.  And on Thursday of this coming week, I'm returning to work!
Some people are meant to be retired ... others aren't.  You know the ones I mean. You read about them in the paper and see them on "60 Minutes."  They're 90 years old and still pushing the broom around the clothing factory that they started working at when they were 14.  I’m working to determine which group I fall into (I've never been partial to pushing brooms.)
I'm not going back to full time work, and I'm not going back to my old job.  I've been asked to come back as a contractor - you know "the temp."  I'll be assisting the same law department I worked in for 13 1/2 years, working on various projects, picking my own days and hours.  Not bad, huh?
Most of our friends are retired.  I was one of the last to "hang it up" and got a lot of flak from all the retired friends about "finally" seeing the light and realizing that there was more to life than just working.  They even gave me a hard time the first few weeks because I was getting up "too early."  Apparently, there's an art to retirement ... and hanging out in bed, rolling over and catching a few more minutes under the sheets is all part of it. I was breaking those rules by getting up when I woke up (gasp)!
My retirement decision was helped along by a number of things:  the sudden, unexpected death of my oldest brother (18 months my senior) and both of my in-laws (within 16 days of each other); a 50-year old colleague's brain tumor; my husband's prostate cancer diagnosis; and the offering of an early retirement package from my company to all employees over 60 (ouch!).   So while I loved my job and the people I worked with, I did get the message that maybe there was a little more out there to round out life.
I've had 2 months of not working outside the home.  My laundry is all caught up ... toilets sparkle ... I've golfed a couple of extra times ... I've run to the library and the store on a whim ... I've learned what a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser is (amazing!) ... I've spent time visiting and assisting my 92-year old mother ... I've attended a few of the grandkids' baseball games .. I've cooked more in the last 2 months than I have in the last 2 years ... I've taken a great 2-week roadtrip with my husband to the southeastern part of the country ... I've even weeded the garden!  That's a lot to have accomplished in the last 56 days.  And it's been great.  So, why, you might ask, am I going back to work?
I'm not totally sure.  It sounded like a good idea when I agreed to consider it as I was walking out the door 56 days ago.  "Call me" I said airily.  And they did.

Basically, I think I need to use my brain a bit more than I have in the last 60 days. Obviously, we use our brains in everything we do, but I know those brain cells can find answers to questions a bit more complicated than "how should I fix the chicken tonight?"
My calendar is already pencilled in with dates I made when I assumed I was going to be retired full-time. And I know I won't give those plans up (volunteering at the library; golf; assistance to my oldest daughter when our grandson, Danny, has surgery July 11; casino trips, etc.), so I'm already seeing the tension between exercising my brain and exercising my playful side. My husband and I are talking about a trip to Wisconsin's Door County later this summer; we've said yes to a few days in Chicago in August to attend a "return-to-health" celebration honoring my brother, Patrick; and are considering a trip to California to celebrate 46 years of marriage in October.  And NO WAY will I get up at 5:00 a.m. again, as I did for the last 13 years.  That was one of the MAIN reasons why retirement sounded so good when I started considering it.
We’ll see how it goes ... I’m looking forward to returning to the office environment where I’m so comfortable .. to congenial colleagues  ... to a company with a mission I truly believe in.  But I also realize I will not be returning to what is “my” job ... I will be “the temp.” Fortunately, I know a lot of people, so at least I won't have to face the worst part of the day for all temps ... eating lunch alone while looking as if that was my plan all along!
I also know that I will be just like the kids in school on the first nice day that I'm caught working. Look for my face pressed against the glass of the window overlooking 694.  I'll be the one thinking about the golf course or even the weeds in the garden ... and wondering if I should have had myself committed for saying yes to this.
I may have made the official decision to retire last February, but I’m pretty sure I’m now going to have to make my real decision. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Little Mysteries ... Big Gifts

For the last two days, every time I have been in my car, I could hear a “rattle” that has been driving me crazy.  Now, usually, as my husband will attest, rattles don’t bother me.  I’ve been known to just turn the radio up a little louder when I hear a noise in the car.  That way, when Ed asks, “How long has the car been making this noise,” I can honestly say “I haven’t heard any noise.”  (This avoids the “accusation” stage of the situation .... you know, the “What did you do to the car to cause it to make this noise?” phase.)

So, for me to admit that a “rattle” has been driving me crazy means it really must be quite annoying .. and quite a mystery as to where it is coming from.  
The rattle sounded like something small shifting and rubbing against vinyl or metal ... typical materials that are on the inside of a car.  It wasn’t an engine noise or an “under the car” thunk that we sometimes hear (not that I’ve ever heard that, Ed).  It was definitely inside the car.  It would most often occur when I turned a corner or started or stopped a bit quickly (honestly, Ed, I only did that once or twice!) 
Having just returned from our two-week roadtrip, I assumed that we had left some small coins (tollways around Chicago, you know) in the bin on the center console, or I had forgotten to remove my ballpoint pen from the small holder on the passenger door where I would put it and my newspaper (New York Times crossword puzzles kept me occupied much of the trip).  There were a myriad of possibilities.
Each time I heard the noise , I would go into sleuth mode, fancying myself a fairly astute “ferreter-outer” of noises!  I checked out the obvious (no coins in the center console bin and no pencil in the door holder) so moved on to a more indepth investigation.  First I removed  the pen from the tray in the center console and held it tightly in my hand, only to hear the noise when I came to a redlight.  Okay, that’s not it.  Maybe it’s that small plastic box of dental piks in the center console (well, you have to have SOMETHING to do while you sit at a redlight).  Again, I removed the plastic box from the center console, went around a corner, and, voila!  The noise was still there.
I keep my keys on a long ribbon lanyard that is held together with a plastic connector.  The lanyard hangs down almost to the floor when I’m driving and I thought the connector might be rubbing against the vinyl of the dashboard column. I removed the lanyard and drove with just the keys themselves in the ignition.  For a while, all was quiet.  I was congratulating myself on fine detective work, when, a few minutes later, I had to brake quickly (honestly, Honey, the guy in front of me turned really unexpectedly) and there it was ... the rattle.
About the time I decided this was a two-person project and I would have to bring Dr. Watson (aka Ed) into the sleuthing with me, I stopped at a redlight and heard the rattle.  For the first time, I realized the sound was coming from BEHIND me.  I turned and looked and saw the center drink caddy in the back seat was lowered.  You know the thing I’m talking about ... when it’s in “up” position, it just looks like part of the back seat, but when it is lowered, it has two holes to set cans into.  Then I remembered that my grandson, Nathan, had been riding back there 2 days before and had lowered the caddy.  I reached into one of the caddy drink holders and found ..... one, lonely Hot Tamale!
It came back to me ... along with his pop, Nathan had a box of Hot Tamales.
I called my daughter to share the “funny” with her.  My granddaughter, Emily, answered the phone and, since Michele wasn’t home, I told her the story.  I didn’t realize that Nathan had gotten on the phone and was also listening.  As I finished telling Emily what I had found, I heard Nathan say something.  I asked him to repeat himself and he said, “Yeah, Grandma, that was for you.”  
Then I remembered.  The two of them had been in the car with me that day, Nathan with his Hot Tamales and Emily with Milk Duds.  Emily had offered me some Milk Duds and I said, “Sure, but only one.  I’m not very hungry.”  
From the backseat, Nathan had asked if I wanted a Hot Tamale.  I said, “Sure, I’d love one, but not until I finish the Milk Dud.”  We reached our next stop and got out without any more being said about the candy.  From that stop, the kids got into their mom’s car, and we went our separate ways.  But Nathan had kept his end of the bargain ... he had carefully placed one Hot Tamale in the drink caddy for me to have “when I finished the Milk Dud.”  
My mystery was solved ... it turned out to be not an annoying rattle, but, rather, a gift of love from my grandson.
Thanks, Naters.  You’re the best.  
P.S.  After I finished talking to you and Emily, I promptly ate the Hot Tamale.  It was the best, too!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Camping vs Golfing

Wednesday is "golf" day for me ... it has been for about 17 years.  I'm an avid golfer, not a good golfer.  That used to mean that you would find me on the golf course regardless of the weather.  When I first started golfing, I thought there wouldn't be enough good golf days in my lifetime so I golfed regardless of the weather ... if it was league night I was out there in snow, rain, cold, wind, etc.  I remember one golf game when a friend and I wore her golf club head covers as mittens to keep our hands warm.  Why, you ask, would we have come back the next week?  Golf addiction is the only answer I can give.

Now that I've golfed for many years, I know that there are beautiful days out there and I don't have to waste my time on "bad" nights.  Today, I had to question if I had really learned that lesson.  

I had a tee time with friends at 3:07 p.m ... the temperature was about 63 degrees and it was cloudy, but no wind (that's important when justifying golfer's idiotic behavior sometimes). In another time and place, I would have said, "You have to be kidding!"  But since I've been on the road for 2 weeks and have missed 5 scheduled golf dates during that time, I was intent on golfing today regardless. 

We got in 9 good holes ... well, okay, they weren't good score-wise, but I got them in.  2 good friends and I spent as much time talking as we did hitting the ball, so I shouldn't be surprised that my score was less than ideal.  A 3rd friend joined us as we "made the turn," (golf talk for having finished the first 9 holes and moving on to golf the next 9).   We got about halfway down the 10th fairway before the gray clouds started spitting rain on us (what a surprise!).  With the rain we've had this spring, we should all have moss between our toes.  Actually, the rain was a really good excuse for us to quit golfing and go into the clubhouse to visit ...  something we had been doing  all along, which might explain my score!

I had spent the earlier part of the day with my youngest daughter, Michele, and her two children. We went shopping for rugs for the camper she and her husband just purchased yesterday. The camper is a 31-foot, pull behind which is beautiful and is like a house on wheels. She and her husband and two children spent last night sleeping in it in their driveway ...  and the kids are planning on doing that again tonight.  

Michele is excited about the camper, and the pride and happiness on her face reminds me of how I felt when she was about 7 and we got a pop-up tent camper.  I was as excited about that camper as she is about this one.  There is something about camping that is like playing house ... you buy a miniature broom to keep it clean; there is a miniature refrigerator for food storage; the whole family crowds around a miniature table for meals, etc.  You sit around the campfire with friends cooking "miniature meals" (see foil dinners recipe below) and solve the problems of the world.  The kids are free to roam the campgrounds and explore the area in an unsupervised manner that you would never allow "in the city."  Camping feels like a return to a safer, more "small town" type of life. Seeing the excitement on her face and hearing it in the voices of her two children made me happy to be part of this experience in their life.  

Shopping with them was fun, and made me realize that I've moved on to a different phase in my life.  I loved camping and the relaxed feeling that came with it, but my children were young and we camped with other families with young children, with whom we shared similar goals ... time with family; the feeling of "playing hooky" away from real life; teaching the kids how to be independent and carefree, yet responsible for "chores" around the campsite at the same time.  Were I to camp today, would I still share those objectives, or would I be wondering if I could sneak away for a game of golf with the "old folks" to be followed by "downtime" reading a good book or "catching up" with each other on the latest gossip.  Come to think about it .. there's not that much difference between then and now ... I just don't have any little kids that I'm responsible for teaching life's lessons to at the same time.  Life is good.  It continues on the same continuum regardless of what age we are.  

Foil Dinners:

Use heavy-duty aluminum foil, place shiny side in, spray with non-stick spray to prevent sticking. (This is what current campers do .. when we camped, they hadn't even invented non-stick spray yet!) 

Create foil packets by using a large piece of aluminum foil.  Place a raw hamburger patty in middle of the foil.  Slice peeled, raw potatoes, onions, and carrots on top of the hamburger patty.  Add salt and pepper. Fold sides of foil up, creasing foil at edge of food. Keeping edges together, make a 1/2”- 1” fold and crease. Fold 2-3 times – leaving enough room in packet for food expansion and steaming during cooking. Smooth ends flat, and fold under the food packet.  You can actually put this into the fire embers and cook for 30-45 minutes or until potatoes are tender and cooked through.  This smells as good as it tastes!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Back in the Saddle

No new pictures to share ... no "rain" stories ... no fun in the sun or toads on the roads .... borrrring .... so just a note to say we're home and returning to normal.

Ed cut the grass as soon as we arrived home yesterday ... I did laundry.  

Today I visited my Mom in her Assisted Living apartment.  During the two weeks we were gone, different members of the family were spending considerable amounts of time with her to help her through some confusion she was experiencing.  She seems to have turned the corner and is now complaining about being treated like a 3 year old, so we are leaving her "on her own" to see how she does.  It's difficult to have an elderly parent who so desperately wants to be independent, but isn't strong enough physically to care for herself any longer.  We try to stay in the background as much as possible when we are there, and she will let you know if you get in her face too much.  

She was happy to see me since I had been gone for two weeks.  We caught up on the news.  I shared our trip highlights with her and then she went to have her nails done, excusing herself by saying "I did ask this woman if she could do my nails, so I really should go." I was happy to see her engaging in daily activities again, so I took that as the signal for me to depart.  

Right now I'm on my deck admiring the lush green trees and grass that are our back yard. It is a beautiful view, marred only by an occasional squirrel trying to get into the bird feeder.  I'll have to get Michele out here with her pellet gun. She relishes the target practice. Ed has put in a few vegetable plants, including a hybrid tomato plant that really took off while we were gone.  I'll have to keep watch to see if a young boy tries to climb it since it looks as if it could reach the sky at the rate it's growing. So far, no young boy and no tomatoes, but a good number of yellow flowers.

Tonight I'll go to Cam's baseball game.  His team hasn't had a very good season so they are winding down and I haven't made it to a game yet.  With 4 grandkids playing traveling ball and my own social schedule so demanding (can you say "Diva"?), it's tough to get to even one game for each of them.  I want to see him play before they are finished for the season.  He's quite a good player (when he isn't decorating Christmas cookies), so I'm hoping he has a good game, although I know the kids feel the extra pressure when there are "guests" in the house!

Did you ever wonder if vegetarians eat animal crackers?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Homeward Bound

Old age sets in quickly.  So when 9:30 p.m. crept around last night and I hadn't posted an entry in my blog yet, I decided it was "too late" and I'd do it today. It wasn't that many years ago, was it, that 9:30 was the time we were just getting started partying?

Yesterday, we drove from Memphis to Naperville, Illinois, on the beginning leg of our trip home.  Memphis to Naperville is about an 8 hour drive and one that again brought us ... dare I say it ... torrential rain. I know the entire nation has been experiencing an extremely wet spring and early summer, so I shouldn't be surprised.  But on 4 separate days in the last 2 weeks, we have driven through major rainstorms to get to our destination.

We stopped to eat breakfast right before the downpour started (we could see it coming, but we HAD to eat!).  After dashing to the car from the restaurant, my husband was soaking wet and cold.  Fortunately, I had one of those homemade fleece blankets handy .. I don't leave home without one!  Check it out on my husband's lap .. also note the little light to the right of his right knee .. that means the seat heater is on!  This is June 18 for heaven's sake! 

My brother has lived in Naperville for 12 years and we don't get to see him that often, so had planned our itinerary through that route in order to visit and have dinner with him, his wife, daughter and his daughter's significant other. My brother, who is the youngest of my 4 brothers, is 10 years younger than I.  He was 7 when I left home.  We don't know each other as well as siblings might who are closer in age.  Add to that the fact that I am the 2nd of 10 and he is the 7th, and there's even more reason that we don't feel totally connected - there were a whole bunch of kids in between us that he could buddy up with .. and what the heck did I have in common with a brother so much younger than I?

Last summer, while my husband I were on vacation in Ireland, this same brother had a very serious cardiac event. He spent more than a month in the hospital and we weren't sure that he was going to survive.  It resulted in my realizing, thousands of miles away, how important he was to me .. and it resulted in his determining, months later, to live life to the fullest in the time he/we have left.  This does not come across as a morbid philosophy, but rather a refreshingly frank look at life as it is ... he is going to enjoy every minute he has with each of us as we cross his path. We can learn so much from our younger siblings if we let them teach us ... he is a salesman, not a teacher, but he was my teacher last night as he talked with great honesty about what he sees as his life path at this moment.  I found myself looking at him and thinking how relaxed and fit he looked despite what he's been through, appreciating his good looks and great sense of humor, and realizing how much I love him and how I wish we lived closer. Naperville is 8 hours from where I live.  While it's not within "dropping in" distance, I'm going to try to "drop in" more often, via phone calls and email if not in person.

Dinner was at Hugo's Frog Bar and Fish House in Naperville.  I understand the fish part (I had king crab-stuffed shrimp), but don't know what the Frog Bar is all about - should have asked.  The crusty French bread and appetizers beforehand were delicious, especially the calamari, not usually one of my favorites.  If you're in that area, check it out. 

We left Naperville early this morning for the trek home - oh, and did I mention we hit a bit of rain today also? I have to admit the Wisconsin drive wasn't much more exciting than the Illinois drive ... the most exciting part of the trip was viewing all of the old "Collector" cars that were heading east on 90/94 as we drove west.  At first, we assumed there was a car show in Wisconsin Dells to which the cars were heading, but it could have been a car show at the State Fair Grounds in St. Paul that the cars were coming FROM. We didn't start counting cars until we realized we had probably passed 100 or so.  They were all colors and shapes and by the time we got off the Interstate, we had seen probably 150 of them.  My husband enjoyed identifying the years and models .. especially every "50s" Chevy that passed.  We had Sirius XM radio playing the 50's station while we were driving, so it all seemed to fit together.

We had hoped to eat lunch at the Norske Nook in Osseo, Wisconsin, but when we arrived we discovered it was Lake Marthe days and the entire downtown was blocked off for their parade and carnival.  So we turned around and had lunch at Moe's Diner (almost world famous) which was enjoying the overflow crowd from the Norske Nook, resulting in some pretty slow service, but passable food.  Since Moe's Diner looks like something right out of the 50s, it was a perfect ending to a 2-week roadtrip the focus of which was a 50 year class reunion for the class of 1961 from St. Justin's High School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Crossing the river from Wisconsin into Minnesota and knowing we were "almost home," felt so good.  It's Father's Day and our 3 daughters had all called or emailed Happy Father's Day wishes to their dad while we were traveling today.  One had promised to stop in after we arrived and she did, complete with steaks, homemade baked beans and sugar pea pods for our dinner!  There wasn't any better food served at any restaurant in the last 2 weeks .. because this was delivered with love.  2 weeks on the road is a long time.  Pulling into our driveway at about 4:00 p.m. today was wonderful.  Dorothy was right .. there is no place like home.  And the best part of the whole trip, since I'm now retired .. I don't have to go to work tomorrow!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Tour de Memphis

I was 12 years old and in 6th grade when I first heard about Elvis Presley. Someone in my class brought one of his records to school (Hound Dog? Jailhouse Rock?) and we dragged the portable record player out to the school yard during recess and played the 45 rpm, danced to it, and even swooned a little ... although we really had no idea who this guy was or why everyone was so excited about him.  My teacher, Mrs. Rambow, told us we couldn't bring the record in again.  A challenge!  I knew immediately this was someone I would want to know more about.

It took me 55 years to learn more about him and today was that day.  We toured Graceland where he lived and Sun Records where he recorded his first song, and the Rock and Soul Museum where his story is integrated with those of Carl Perkins, Rufus Thomas, Ann Peebles, Jimmie Rodgers (the ORIGINAL, not the "Honeycomb" guy of the 60's) and other musicians of the early Rock 'N Roll/Blues years.  

Graceland is much smaller ... and much tackier ... than we had imagined. Elvis was either color-blind or just plain had bad taste, but any way you look at it, shag carpeting or pleated fabric on the ceiling probably doesn't qualify as "neutral decor" in the eyes of any Realtor.  However, we saw a house that was built and decorated by a man who really wanted to please his family and those around him whom he loved.  The furnishings, the costumes, the cars, the airplanes, the descriptions of what he did for his family and friends all add up to a man who started with nothing, and amassed so much in his lifetime that he didn't know what to do with it .. except to try to gather more. 

Elvis is buried on the grounds of Graceland, along with his mother and father.  I left hoping that he has finally found some peace; however, with all of the millions of people that tramp through his estate every year I wonder if he wouldn't rather be back in his hometown of Tupelo. Rest in peace, Elvis. You were part of my youth and I am happy I visited you.   

This is the very microphone Elvis used
While I loved the Graceland tour, Ed really enjoyed the Sun Records tour.  It is amazing to see  the small building in which so much history has been made. It is still used today as a recording studio and, for a few short minutes, I even dreamed I might make it big as a recording star!  There isn't much to the building. It is a very unassuming small brick structure in a rather shabby part of town.  Actually, much of Memphis is shabby and, if it weren't for Elvis, you wonder what else might draw people down here. 

Dinner tonight was at the legendary BB King's.  Ed loves BB (we've seen him live in concert 3 times) and we thought it fitting to patronize his restaurant before we departed Memphis. The ribs were fabulous. Unfortunately, the entertainment wasn't. BB wasn't on stage of course, but we do wish it would have at least been someone who could sing! We've heard some really good Blues singers while we were here, but this young man wasn't one of them. We'll have to settle for listening to BB on the iPOD as we head north tomorrow.

The weather has been extremely hot both days we have been here, so we are happy to be heading north. We will spend tomorrow night in Naperville, Illinois, meeting our nephew, Charlie, for the first time, having dinner with my brother, sister-in-law, niece and her significant other, before beginning our trip home on Sunday ... at which time, our first postretirement trip will become just a memory.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Beale Street and BB

Memphis ...  Beale Street and BB King ... we did it all ... and loved every minute of it.

Today, we traveled from Knoxville to Memphis in beautiful sunny weather.  Tennessee is a gorgeous state.  We did take a 16 mile detour off I40-W. We never did find the restaurant that was supposed to be 8.5 miles off the interstate ... and wasn't ...  but it was worth it, since the drive was spectacular ... green lush countryside everywhere we looked. Our poor GPS lady was repeatedly "recalculating," but we continued to ignore her!  We ended up at a restaurant that served fried baloney sandwiches .. only in Tennessee. Ed was in hog heaven!

We reached Memphis about 3:30.  Our hotel was right across the street from the Fed Ex Forum and around the corner from Beale Street.  After changing into shorts and tank tops (it was 97 degrees here), we headed for Mecca ... Beale Street.

First stop: BB King's ... for a quick drink ... only to learn the music didn't start until 6 or so.  So on to Silky's O'Sullivan Bar ... only in Memphis can you find a "Blues bar" with an Irish theme ... check out Ed's glass.

There was live music at Silky's, but sitting outside in the patio in 97 degree weather got old in a hurry. We left there and were lured into King's Palace Cafe for Happy Hour in the air conditioned bar. We had a delightful bartender who had no front teeth ... top or bottom.  I understood about 50% of what he said.  Ed claimed to understand 75%.  He was a nice man, but wiped his nose with the side of his hand and then put a lime into Ed's vodka tonic. Sorry, Ed. I should have told you sooner!

About 5:30, the live music started with David Bowen singing and playing guitar.  He was really good, so were faced with a dilemma. What to do since Ed's dream was to eat at BB King's House of Blues and listen to music there.  Not wanting to betray BB, we skipped across the street to his establishment, only to find a couple of young white men playing rock.  Say what?  We were in Memphis .... where were the Blues???  We left (sorry, BB) and headed back to King's Palace and spent the next 2 hours listening to David play and sing wonderful blues music ... Eric Clapton, Marvin Gaye, BB King, the Temptations, etc. We are even bringing home an autographed copy of David's CD ... at $15, quite a deal I'm sure. The night was everything Ed had hoped it would be .. and more.  At one point, Ed left (I thought he went to the bathroom).  When he came back, he told me he had gone outside and tried to get people to come inside.  Ever the huckster!  Hey, BECOTS ... a trip to Beale Street might be just the ticket for the next Convention!

It's amazing how many bars there are on Beale Street ... all with music ... and alcohol of course.  I wonder how many other talented musicians there were that we missed ... somehow, we didn't feel deprived.

A little bit of rain chased away the street acrobats and some spectators, but it did bring out the folks in their weird rain outfits. Where DID those people find them? Do they sell those outfits at the street bars? People watching ... doesn't get much better. It was a fabulous night.  We love Memphis .. and especially Beale Street.  

Tomorrow ... Graceland and Elvis!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

On the Road to Knoxville with Big Eddie

Our few idyllic days in North Carolina drew to an end this morning when we found ourselves sitting on the patio at Joe and Mary Jane's house enjoying a beautiful, cool, sunny morning reminiscing one last time about the 57 years that Joe and my husband have known each other and the resulting 45+ years that Mary Jane and I have been friends as a result of Ed and Joe's friendship.

Neither Joe nor Ed remember how they met .. just that they were neighbor boys who lived a block apart, were the same age (but a year apart in school) and went to different schools, yet formed a lifelong bond of friendship.  Whenever weather permitted, they played sandlot baseball or basketball together from sunup to sundown.  They ate meals at each other's houses ... considered each other's mother their "second mom" ... challenged other local kids to pickup ball games, were in each other's wedding one month apart 45 + years ago, and had eldest daughters born 3 days apart.  There were lots of laughs as they reminisced about the homemade basketball hoop they built up at the local school yard that no school official took down until years later; the song they planned to write that would result in their making it big ... if only either one of them could sing; the slide guitar that Joe learned how to play in 4th grade (not exactly a rock 'n roll instrument!);  and, of course, the hours and hours of ball they played in the neighborhood schoolyard, making their own rules (anything hit off the first floor school windows was a single, second floor was a double, etc.); and finally ending with my husband telling Joe, "I've never said this to you before, buddy, but I love you."  It was a touching moment that was capped off this morning when, as we left, Joe said, "Ed, I love you too."  Mary Jane and I were already tearing up.  That iced it for us.  We left with promises to visit more often ... words we always say.  I hope we follow up on them more regularly.

After a short drive around the neighborhood, we were on our way headed for our overnight stay in Knoxville, TN.  We took the short drive around the neighborhood because we were already lost, having turned the wrong way out of the driveway without realizing it.  We double backed, hoping if the neighbors or Joe and Mary Jane saw us, they would just think we were taking a last look at their lovely surroundings.  Early into our drive, the car on the road in front of us seemed to be an omen of some sort ... don't you love personalized license plates?

Our trip went fairly smoothly (she says with tongue in cheek).  North Carolina is a beautiful state.  Green and lush with trees and vinecovered wooded areas along the highways.  As we approached Asheville, NC, I remembered Shiela, a friend of ours, recommending that we stop at the Biltmore Estate if we had the opportunity.  It's on Shiela's bucket list, so I knew it had to be worth a stop (she's got a fine sense of the spectacular).  We pulled in at 2:30 and I went in to buy tickets.  Ed gave me $20 - we figured that would be plenty! LOL. Anybody know anything about the Vanderbilts?  George Washington Vanderbilt built the Biltmore Estate and the Vanderbilts were the seventh wealthiest family in history.  

The ticket docent asked me how long we had.  I told him we were heading to Knoxville, but could probably spare an hour or two.  He smiled at me gently and said, "You need 3-5 hours to go through the house .. 8 if you want to do the entire estate!"  I asked how much tickets were and he said "$59 each until 11 p.m. tonight but they're good all day today and tomorrow."  I think he thought he was giving me a deal.  

I told him my husband was in the car and that I'd go check if we had 3-5 hours .. I hoped he didn't see the $20 folded into my palm as I turned and left the building. 

As we pulled out of the Biltmore Estate grounds, I remarked that we could at least tell Shiela that we did make the stop ... no sense in letting her know we never saw anything more than the ticket booth!  By the way, we weren't the only ones turning around and leaving.

Shortly after that stop, Ed asked me if I would mind driving for a while.  We switched places and I played the role of the good wife ... "Of course, I don't mind, Honey.  You've been driving for 1500+ miles already.  Have a nice nap."  And off we went.  Little did I know what lay ahead.

About 10 minutes after I started driving .. just as we entered the Smokey Mountain range of I40 West, it started to rain.  I wasn't too alarmed but I wouldn't have been surprised to see animals passing me by .. two of everything .... and a funny little guy with a long white beard pulling a boat behind his camper with a license plate reading "AnimalsRUs."  Just sayin'.

It rained and blew and rained and blew for the next 2 1/2 hours.  It was as dark out as if it were night, and the road was winding up and down the mountain similar to the children's game of Chutes and Ladders. There are 4 conditions under which I don't like to drive: rain, night, mountain roads, and over bridges.  I had 3 out of the 4 conditions going  .... and there was Ed reclining in the passenger seat next to me, probably being lulled by the sound of the rain on the roof of the car.  

Shortly before we arrived in Knoxville, he awoke and casually observed, "Oh, it's raining again."  We may not see 46 years of marriage.

When we arrived at the hotel, we were happy to find a hotel garage for guests .. even though the roof was leaking!  We dropped our luggage in our room and headed out immediately for some good BBQ at Calhoun's by the River.  We ate and were back in our room by 6:30 p.m.,  in our pj's (well I am!) watching the Stanley Cup Finals and listening to a thunderstorm.   I'm hopeful the system will pass before we depart for Memphis tomorrow, but at this point, I'm hoping we don't have to find Mr. Noah and use him as our guide down the road.

Oh, and shortly before we arrived in Knoxville, I had to drive on a bridge over the river. BINGO!  4 for 4!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Pinehurst NC - Above Par

Beautiful day of golf at Pinehurst Golf Course No. 1.  I'm sure Payne Stewart didn't play it very well his first time either!  While I shot a 115, and would have liked a 105, I'll take it for my first time.  It was 70 degrees when we teed off - 80 when we finished with fairly low humidity and a nice breeze.  The Crepe Myrtles are in bloom and they are beautiful.  Remind me of lilac trees back home.  And where in the heck did that name come from?

Unfortunately, Ed was unable to golf since a flareup of cellulitis in his hands last Friday prevented him from gripping a club without blood pouring from the cuts on his hands. So that just means we have to come back. It didn't stop him from buying a really snazzy looking Payne Stuart golf hat and wearing it around the course.  

A "drink" in the clubhouse (actually called the 91st hole here at Pinehurst) was the perfect end to the day.  Our friends drank iced tea and I drank a glass of wine, but Ed decided two double vodka tonics would make up for his not being able to golf today (we did feel sorry for him!).  Imagine the shock when the $46 bill came ... $28.30 for his two double vodka tonics.  Never again will I take crap from him about the cost of a glass of Merlot!  He has moved into the realm of "expensive date."

We are going to an early dinner tonight at Bonefish, a local restaurant that is a favorite of our hosts. I'm hoping it isn't descriptive of any of the fish that we might order there.  

We head out mid morning tomorrow for Knoxville, TN, for the next leg of our trip.  Our destination is Memphis where we plan to visit BB King's House of Blues on Beale Street and then tour Graceland.  Traveling for this length of time is a challenge.  Fortunately, there have been laundry facilities first in Pgh at Ed's sister's house and now at our friends' house here in Pinehurst, NC, so we're both still wearing clean underwear.  

Toodle-oo from Pinehurst.  We'll report in tomorrow night from Knoxville, Tennessee, once known as the Underwear Capital of the World (hopefully all clean - are you noticing a theme here?)

Monday, June 13, 2011

North Carolina ... hot and humid

We left Pittsburgh on Friday and headed to the reunion at Seven Springs, Pennsylvania. Had a wonderful reunion .. Ed enjoyed every minute of it.  4 of the nuns from Ed's school made an appearance.  87-year old, Sister Matthew, did the driving .. she's a hoot and was an absolute delight ... 27 classmates attended along with spouses, for a lovely turnout.

More about the reunion on a later posting.

We left Pittsburgh on Sunday and headed to North Carolina.  Drove 6 hours through driving rain in Virginia.  At times we couldn't even see the road in front of us.  Today, we toured Pinehurst, a beautiful little town, and the golfcourse.  Stopped at a farmer's market where we got fabulously juicy, local peaches, blueberries, tomatoes and green beans.  Lunch on the patio of a little Greek restaurant ended with the waitress having an asthma attack and us ministering to her ... that amounted to Ed telling her to sit down and take deep breaths in through her nose and out through her mouth.  We alerted a local real estate employee to the fact that the woman was alone in the restaurant for another hour and went on our way after she insisted she was fine.

A loaf of bread from the local market and a salad will accompany steaks on the grill at the home of our good friends tonight.  Golf tomorrow on one of the Pinehurst golf courses. Ed bought a Payne Stewart hat today at the Pinehurst Pro Shop, but, somehow, I don't think that's going to help my game.  Life is warm here ... houses are beautiful ... retirement is good.  

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A Time of Reverie

My husband and I have the house to ourselves today ... the house that was his childhood home and that will become his sister's home at the end of the month.  It it very warm outside and so we are inside where the air conditioning leads us to believe that it is a beautiful, June day outside .. not the 92 degrees with high humidity that it really is.

I am lying on the couch reading .. a book I had to go buy since I forgot to pack the one I was reading at home and feel totally lost if I travel without a book.  On every trip, there's always one thing each of us forgets.  This time, Ed forgot his toothbrush and toothpaste.  My "forgetfulness" was less critical.

As I look at the living room around me and the little changes that have already been made since his parents died in March, the 46 years I have known this house as "Mom and Dad's" run through my mind like I am watching a movie.  The flood of memories reminds me of how quickly life changes. While 46 years doesn't seem quick prospectively .. it certainly does in retrospect.  Today, the furniture, drapes, carpeting and knickknacks that fill the living room are all different than they were 46 years ago.  The mint green carpeting matches the mint green drapes and is picked up in the mint green stripes of the couch and chair fabric.  The carpeting 46 years ago was beige ... and I vividly remember dropping a cigarette ash and burning a hole in that carpet on one of my first visits here .... amazing that I was allowed into the family after that.  I also remember being too "green" myself to admit doing it. I furtively tried to clean it up and never mentioned it during that weekend visit.  My mother-in-law, bless her soul, never mentioned it either.  I haven't thought about that event in years and wonder now if my father-in-law, who was also a smoker, took the fall for me.  That wouldn't surprise me.

There is a large decorative vase of flowers where the dining room table used to be.  The table sat in a small "nook" off the living room and on the Sundays we came to visit  (first from Virginia when we lived there and, later, from Minnesota where we settled to raise our family) Mom would invite Grandma and Pappy over to share a delicious meal (no one makes gravy like Mom did) and we would all crowd around that table and enjoy "family."  

The dining room table is no longer in the living room nook because it now resides in the "new" dining room, a room that was my sister-in-law's bedroom when she was growing up. As was fairly common in the 50s and 60s, my in-laws converted the bedroom into a more utilitarian space for all to enjoy once their 3 kids were grown and gone.  How different things are now with the boomerang generation of kids. Bedrooms remain bedrooms "just in case."

Today, in this house, we no longer have to leave the kitchen and walk through the living room in order to reach the bathroom and bedrooms.  We now "cut through" the "new" dining room, a verbal symbolism since there was an archway cut into the kitchen wall. How very convenient; just cut a hole in the wall and life becomes easier.  I'm happy that the "cutting through" of the wall didn't cut away all of the memories little girls had of that bedroom ... both the little girl who grew up in that bedroom and my little girls.

When they were younger, our daughters used to come from Minnesota to visit their grandparents here in Pittsburgh and they stayed in that "bedroom cum dining room" on those visits.  My oldest daughter still refers to the "new" dining room as "her bedroom." Thank goodness childhood memories can't be retrofitted as easily as a room can.

Many of the neighbors and relatives who visited this home when I first met this family are long gone.  Grandma and Pappy used to come for Sunday dinner.  They made me feel so welcome and loved, as if we had known each other forever.  Grandma would talk often about people I didn't know; relatives I had not yet met I supposed.  I would later learn they were characters who populated her favorite soap opera.  She would be relaying the latest day's episode to her daughter, my mother-in-law. Grandma talked about them as if they were all real to her, as, indeed, they were, since they were her "everyday companions."  Her husband, Pappy, was very hard of hearing, and would sit on the couch with a sweet smile on his face, not contributing much to the conversation, but always looking as if he were enjoying himself.  We later learned that, periodically, his deafness would miraculously disappear.  Those would be the times when he was interested in what was being talked about in the room.  The deafness would suspiciously reappear when Grandma would advise him to "put on your sweater .. you're cold" or "don't eat that .. it doesn't agree with you." Those two dear people have been gone for many, many years, but, as I look around this living room, I can still see both of them sitting here as if they had just come to visit.  

Life goes so fast.  We learn that only after someone we love has been taken from us. This trip is resurrecting many wonderful memories for me .. and ringing a small alarm to remind me to soak in all that is around me.  

We will leave here on Friday and head to my husband's 50th class reunion.  I went to school in a different state, so I won't know many people. But I plan to really "look" at these people who will occupy a small space in my life this coming weekend, but who had a major place in my husband's life 50+ years ago.  I know Ed and I will probably compare notes later and comment on how much older than we they all looked  .. is that not the standard reaction when we see people from our past?  Especially our high school past? But I hope we also talk about the role they all played in my husband's life.  Each one of them contributed something to his formation.  They all are owed a silent thank you from me for helping make him the man he is.  I hope I remember to say that to a few of them if I get the chance.

Enjoy your day and soak in your surroundings.


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Destination: Pittsburgh

Our first postretirement trip began Sunday, June 5.  We left our home with our little Kia Sorrento packed to capacity (2 people for 2 weeks in 5 different locations requires a lot of "gear"), our iPODS loaded with our favorite music, a Hershey's Skor Bar (for Himself), a Snickers Almond Bar (for her) and a cooler of water and Diet Coke, looking at 901 miles of road between us and Pittsburgh.

Our first day was uneventful, other than counting roadkill (see paragraph below).  Ed is still suffering through some aftereffects from prostate cancer surgery and he was worried about having to make "rest" stops every 35 minutes or so, but he managed to last 1 1/2 to 2 hours between stops.  Since that coincided with how often I needed to stop, it worked out perfectly.

We discovered pretty quickly that Wisconsin is the home of "dead deer on the road." True to their new governor's plan to cut back on services, their highway department apparently doesn't bother picking dead animals up once they are hit, so they ranged in color from a lovely tan to a deep brownish black, depending on how long they had been lying on the side of the road. Made for a "colorful" drive.

By the end of the day we had tallied 12 dead deer, 4 live ones and one dead cat!  There were a good number of "partials" as well.  Sorry to report, we didn't take the time to do a closer inspection so are unable to identify what the partials had been when they were whole!  Don't we have an interesting life ... counting dead animals!  By golly, I sure can see why people love this retirement stuff!

We spent Sunday night at the Inn of St. Mary on the campus of St. Mary's College in South Bend Indiana.  Lovely setting and nice hotel.  Ate dinner at the Fiddler's Hearth in downtown South Bend.  If you visit South Bend, you can skip Fiddler's Hearth.  We were hopeful it would feature good Irish food and some interesting beers.  It had neither.  Ed had soggy fish and chips, and I had the Ploughman's Platter (bread and cheese) and both the bread and the cheese were filled with "green things" ... and it wasn't mold.  Those of you who know me know that green things in food and I aren't a good match ... I call it "Gucci food" and avoid it at all costs.  To make up for the lack of good food or interesting beer, the restaurant's location featured a prime view of all of the South Bend motorcycles! There isn't much happening in downtown South Bend on a Sunday evening, but there certainly are a lot of bikers taking advantage of the deserted streets.  

On the road early Monday morning.  Headed for Cleveland before going on to Pittsburgh.  We started with a visit with Ed's cousins, the Caseys, stopping first at their gift shop, "Casey's Irish Imports," where we picked up a few lovely items.  Then  it was on to Tom and Veronica Casey's house for lunch.  Tom Casey's dad was the brother of Ed's Grandma, Molly (Casey) Kelly and was the youngest of the 8 Casey siblings.  We had brought a photo album from our trip to Ireland last August to share.  

Tom especially enjoyed seeing pictures of the old Casey homestead where his dad and his Aunt Molly (Ed's grandma) lived as children.  There is not much left of the homestead .. it is rather in shambles as you can see in this picture.  But you get a flavor of what life was like in Ireland back then.  Very difficult.  Understandable why so many fled the poverty and came to America. 

Ed, Tom and Kathleen
Tom and Veronica's youngest daughter, Kathleen, was our gracious chauffeur to and from her parents' home and joined us for lunch.  The Irish are so delightful and this family was no different.  I left feeling as if I had known them forever, even though I had just met them.  Not only were they gracious and hospitable, but, we were the lucky recipients of a loaf of Veronica's homemade raisin bread when we left, an absolutely delectable treat.  

We were happy to see the Pittsburgh skyline as we arrived.  It is truly a beautiful city and has come a long way from the days of smog and the smell of steel that Ed remembers from his years as a sailor hitching a ride home on the Pennsylvania turnpike while on leave from his duties in Washington DC.  He used to say his nose told him at least 40 minutes before he arrived that they were approaching Pittsburgh.

We arrived at Ed's parents' former home at about 6 p.m.   His sister, Kathy, is buying the home and her two sons are currently living in it.  Kathy will move in later in the month.  It was fun to see how they're making it their own, without losing Mom and Dad's touches.  It was a little bittersweet "coming home" to the house they built 50+ years ago and not finding them waiting at the front door for us.  But we are happy the house is staying in the family and know it will be well loved and cared for.  Already cookies have been baked here, a refurbished arcade game finally resides in the aptly named "game room," and the 3-season porch will soon become a 4-season sunroom ... all signs that the house is still a home and is adapting to the new family living here.

Shortly after we arrived, Ed's sister handed me an envelope addressed to me in Dad's handwriting.  In it, a clipping he had cut out of the local newspaper in March, shortly before he died.  For years, we have mailed newspaper articles to each other that we believed the other would enjoy.  I always got the better end of the deal, as he chose wonderful articles and columns from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.  My source, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, has pretty boring columnists and opinion pages (at least in my opinion) so I always looked forward to a great read when the bulky envelopes would arrive.  I will treasure the gift of this one last article that came to me 2 1/2 months after his death.  Thanks, Dad.

We are here for a few days of rest now before heading to Ed's 50th Class reunion.  More to follow.