Monday, May 30, 2011

Local Parade Honors National Holiday

Sylvania joined cities and towns across America in celebrating Memorial Day 2011 with a grand parade. Marching bands, antique cars, city officials, police and fire trucks, soldiers, sailors, and vets, and social services were represented. They marched right by our house with great fanfare – a front row seat on Robin’s front porch on Main Street Ohio.

In Ukraine, Memorial Day is 9 May, a commemoration of the end of World War II. The devastation there was brutal, the consequences dire and long-lasting. May 9 is a moving tribute to the end of the European theater of a war that saw over 20 million killed, so hard to imagine, and the land, farms, industrial sites, and great cities destroyed. At war’s end, the Nazis were overcome, but the Soviets marched into the vacuum. Ukraine endured a loss of independence and identity, its people terrorized for almost five more decades. Ukraine is just now getting on its feet, a difficult, sometimes painful transition to more self-determination. Peace Corps Volunteers bear witness to this transition and to the daily life and bravery of the Ukrainian people. May 9 remains a touchstone, a day when all Ukrainians are united in memory.

Here in the US we commemorate those who have served our country in the armed services, in foreign wars, in “good” wars and in some not so worthy. There was a time during the Vietnam war when my opposition to it overshadowed the sacrifice of the young people, average age 19 years old, who died in the jungles of a strange land. Lieutenant Dan, in Forrest Gump, played brilliantly by Gary Sinese, embodies the pain and triumphs of returning vets. We treated the returning soldiers badly, a shameful chapter in our history. The Vietnam War Memorial set the record straight, put the war’s soldiers, its victims, in perspective, made us confront a difficult past, helped us remember.

Memorial Day in America encompasses all the monuments and memories ever created for those who fought and gave their lives. It reminds us as well that peace is the hardest challenge, and the greatest gift, of all.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Loren's KIA: A Fateful Road Trip

Loren and me with his new KIA, 2001; West Virginia mountains and wild flowers; Elissa on the phone; me saying goodbye to the KIA (below right) but not to the happy memories surrounding it.

My brother Loren’s cranberry red ’98 KIA died on 22 May, the very day Loren died exactly one year ago, and also at the same time of day, about 2:30 pm. A one-year anniversary coincidence?

The KIA didn’t make it from Tallahassee to Toledo, our destination.

It had sat in my sister Andy’s driveway for two years, awaiting my return from the Peace Corps in Ukraine so my daughter Elissa and I could drive it up to Ohio. It was to be her car. Elissa flew down and met me in St. Pete and we drove up to Tallahassee together in a rental car, oblivious to the difficulties we were to confront on this road trip home.

Loren didn’t make it to his destination on 22 May 2010, the end of a difficult hike along the Aucilla river in northern Florida. Loren's car didn't make it to its destination either, a year later.

I was beside myself. Loren and I had bought that car together 10 years ago, at a Saturn dealership in St. Pete (photo above). It was his pride and joy.

After great visits in St. Petersburg and Tallahassee and a lovely stop in Charlotte, NC to visit cousins, here we were in the mountain town of..."What's the name of it again?" Elissa kept asking...Princeton, honey, Princeton, West Virginia. The car refused to go up and down the mountains. After a mighty struggle ("what the heck?"), Elissa wisely decided to stop. "Mom, we're getting off the road." We came to a precarious and sloppy stop, barely, in a hot Walmart’s parking lot, surrounded by the beauty of the Blue Ridge mountains, sweating it out, with a dying car.

Five hours later, and lots of diagnosing and fixin’ by Danny (recommended by Walmart's Oil Change and Tires shop), we watched the car die a slow, painful death. Nothing worked; no matter what Danny did (new fuel pump, new spark plugs, cleaning and wiping) it only got worse, and worse. The car grew noiser, hotter, sicker; it muttered and sputtered and refused to move forward. Elissa and I, on a road trip from hell, far from our destination, without transportation, aware my movers were coming the next day, had no choice. We had to have it towed to the nearest motel, a Best Western, where we spent the night, pondering. No option there.

Next morning Elissa, an angel, made dozens of phone calls to see if towing the KIA to Toledo was an option. She did it for me, because her mom was teary-eyed and maudlin, struggling to keep a positive attitude. Elissa was kind and patient. She understood my emotional attachment to that car, to anything that once belonged to Loren. I couldn't let it go.

Everyone we talked to, including car experts in Tallahassee, West Virginia, and Toledo, said it sounded like the car had probably blown a head gasket, needed a new engine (very expensive), and was not worth fixing, or towing. It was over 10 years old and had over 102,000 miles on it. It had served Loren well. It was worn out.

The guy from AAA who towed it (thank God for Elissa’s membership), Oakley was his name, offered me $200 for it. "For the scrap heap," he added, making it sound even more forlorn and wretched, a death knell.

I sat on that offer over night, tossing and turning on it. But the options grew slim and dim, like the car itself. Elissa found out that towing was expensive and difficult: a 14-foot U-Haul truck that would cost over $800 and get 10 miles to the gallon, costing us more than the car was worth, simply as a compromise so I could hang onto it and not send it to the scrap heap of West Virginia. Okay. I see. Maybe it WAS better to bury it in the mountains? Let it go.

“Loren would like to have the car die in the mountains,” my sister said. Elissa agreed. Calls went back and forth like this. The timing was just too incredible. It was meant to be. Something magical and mysterious was touching us, something cosmic and spiritual. It was Loren speaking to us, they thought. The car was meant to go, everyone assured me. Loren wanted it in the mountains.

I had a hard time of it, succumbing to voices they heard but I didn't; there was no way we could get the car to Toledo by driving (impossible) or by towing (which proved ridiculously cumbersome and expensive). We called Oakley and said he could have it. I couldn't stay in Princeton, WVA, hugging that car forever. We had to get back to Sylvania and meet my movers, rescheduled for the next day. Something practical as well as magical motivated us.

We finally (many more calls later) rented a truck from Enterprise, the ONLY rental dealer available in Princeton, who informed us that's all they had left, no cars, and also that they would charge a “drop-off” fee of $300 in Toledo, because we were only going one-way. Good Lord! No way. I won't even go into the challenges required to rent this truck, including "proof of residency."

Thus Elissa began another series of calls, which continued almost non-stop until we got to Charleston, W. VA, where in fatigue and desperation we backtracked to the Charleston airport (suggested and aided by the AAA lady in Toledo), so we could rent a real car from Hertz, get rid of the Enterprise rental truck and avoid that drop-off fee.

I forgot to say that each time we changed cars, we had to pack and unpack the huge load of stuff I had left in Tallahassee two years ago, which my sister had piled in the KIA, happy to be rid of it. Lots of loading and unloading, of physical as well as emotional baggage.

Elissa and I made it home, a day late and a dollar short. I had said goodbye to my life in St. Petersburg, to Florida, to my sister, to cousins in North Carolina, and to my brother’s KIA. It was an emotional road trip.

We kept telling ourselves it could be worse. That was our mantra.We came up with worst-case scenarios that comforted us, among them the tragic tornadoes in Missouri.

Somewhere over the West VA/Ohio line, John Denver's “Country Roads” came on the radio. Unbelievable! Our song. The song of the KIA, and Loren, of our road trip. Elissa turned it up.

"Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River.... Country roads, take me home, to the place, I belong, West Virginia, mountain mama, take me home, country roads."

We sang along, belted it out, off and on all the way to Toledo, even through a great thunderstorm in Michigan that was loaded with tornado potential. We stopped under bridges when rain fell too hard, prayed and sang, and avoided asking each other how much longer we had to go.

We were blown away, but not by a tornado. We felt blessed to make it home safe and sound around midnight on a stormy Monday night. Loren and his KIA were re-united in the mountains, and we were back home to remember it, forever.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

In Florida: Scattered Heart

Old Banyon tree and downtown St. Pete; orange hibiscus; St. Pete scenes; Sandie's apartment building, friends and neighbors, and Old North East neighborhood.

My dad is buried in Rochester, New York, my mom in Tallahassee, Florida These are the two poles of our family life. These are the two places that were “family homes” because our parents lived there. My brother has joined them, maybe in both places or maybe somewhere in between. I hope they are together.

I’m back in Florida now, a post-Peace Corps visit. It’s great to be back in this Land of Sunshine, on beautiful Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, in thriving downtown St. Petersburg, enjoying the new Dali museum on the waterfront, the old banyon trees, the boats in the harbor, the new shops and restaurants, the palms and radiant flowers, the heavenly gardenias, pure white, bold and fragrant.

It’s great to be sharing time with friends Sandie and Christopher, who helped publish Loren’s autobiography. Sandie and Christopher were good friends to Loren, welcomed him into their lives, adored him, loved discussing every topic with him, saw the goodness in him. I will never forget that. Nor will Loren.

It was a tough decision to move away from St. Petersburg. The decision grew slowly in my mind while serving in Ukraine. I wanted to be closer to my children and grandchildren, and that meant moving to Sylvania, Ohio. It’s a good decision, and my kids and grandkids are as thrilled about it as I am.

Today the movers came, very early, and got my furniture out of storage. It took 3 hours to get it all in the truck. A bunch of old stuff. It's on the way up to Sylvania, Ohio. I have said hello and goodbye to friends. My daughter Elissa is flying down to St. Pete tonight to help me drive up to Tallahassee (another 5 hour trip) to collect the stuff I left with my sister, along with my brother's old '99 red KIA. We're taking a road trip together, with a stop in Charlotte, NC to visit my mom's 95-year-old sister and cousins Roz and family.

And so, you see, my heart is in many different places, geographically scattered. I will miss St. Pete, like I miss Ukraine. I guess you could call it the blessings and challenges of modernity, and of change and adventure. Goodbye Florida, hello Ohio.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Loren and Loyalty

Loren was loyal (sometimes to a fault) to anyone who befriended him. He was loyal to his friends, and also to his beliefs, his books, his causes, to the Florida Trail Association, to his very favorite nature preserve, where he communed with nature, the hummingbirds and its founder, even after it treated him harshly, to his 1999 KIA, and to his sports teams.

I’m thinking of Loren and loyalty now because the Miami Heat are in the NBA basketball semi-finals. Loren was loyal to Florida, and so he rooted for its sports teams. He preferred the Orlando Magic, but a Florida team usually got his vote in playoff games, even the Heat! When I lived in St. Petersburg he and I cheered on the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team. We both liked Tropicana Field, even though some people hate the covered ballpark. I took my grandkids to the games whenever they were in town visiting me.

Miami may not get to the NBA final championship games, but Loren would remain loyal. There's always next year, or maybe the Magic will get there! He felt like this about the Syracuse university basketball team, in his beloved state of New York (the whole state, not just the city he would remind us!). He never wavered in his loyalties. Well, sometimes he had more than one favorite, but there was a constancy there too.

Loyalty was a hallmark of Loren’s remarkable journey.

Fate, however, did not return the favor. Maybe one day I’ll sit on his memorial bench on a Florida trail he loved, and forgive the fates. I don't feel like it now. Maybe I’ll get to the point where I can hit fate out of the ballpark, and bring Loren home. Make a three-pointer at the final buzzer of a tied championship game, and give Loren the victory over the fates that he deserves.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bittersweet Farms

My daughter Elissa and I took some of the grandkids, Kyle and Josh, and her nephews, Dom and Aiden, to Bittersweet Farms. It’s a residential and support program for autistic adults and adolescents. It was founded over twenty years ago by my close friend BettyeRuth Kay, a pioneer in the treatment of autism and related disorders. She died early after a valiant battle with breast cancer; her strong spirit lives on.

Bittersweet Farms is in Waterville, Ohio, about half an hour from Toledo, out past the airport and into the Ohio countryside. What a beautiful time of year to take a day trip. White and pink crabapple, cherry trees, weeping willow, magnolia, forsythia, bright orange quinze, deep redbuds, and tulips are in full bloom, and the forests are turning green. It’s like driving through a Norman Rockwell painting of small town America.

We took a quick tour of the farm, where residents and day clients plant vegetables, flowers and herbs. We bought a few pretty flower pots overflowing with the results of their labors. We admired the art work done by residents, like the colorful mural in the photo collage above. We met Vicki, the executive director, and some residents. We had lunch and enjoyed the grounds, which include a greenhouse and several new buildings. The kids picked dandelions for their moms. We breathed in the fresh air, and calmed our spirits, a challenge with four lively kids running hither and thither like rabbits.

I also left one of Loren’s books, An Asperger Journey, with Vicki. I told her a little bit about it, the story of how my brother grew up without diagnosis or intervention, struggling on his own, with the aide of our mom, to understand and survive. A courageous journey to selfhood. Vicki understood; she said she looked forward to reading the autobiography. She said she would probably want a few more to sell in their gift shop. That would be great, and I would have another reason to return to Bittersweet Farms, and help Loren spread the word.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Mom's Day Filled with Love

It was the best Mother’s Day! My daughters Elissa and Michelle were here, in my pysanky-painted little apartment, along with their children, Michelle’s partner Mike Adams, little Chase growing well in his mom’s tummy, and Julia’s son, my great-grandson, Philip. We had a great brunch of quiches prepared by Michelle, coffee by Elissa, fruit, coffee cake and cookies, and pretty flowers and plants from my firstborn grandchild, Julia. Four moms together. We exchanged gifts and enjoyed each other’s company. Elissa and Michelle got me a GPS navigation software for my car (can’t wait to get it going), aware of my being geographically challenged. I also got Sylvania gift items and homemade cards (always the best, so sweet, filled with loving messages) and little gifts from my grandchildren. Michelle gave me a funny card (On the cover: “Do you remember when I was the perfect child?” Open the card: “Neither do I!”). Alli modeled her prom dress for us, very beautiful. The boys filled the house with playfulness and nonstop activity.

My grandchildren are growing up fast, and I’m here to watch it happen. The sun shone brightly in Sylvania, and we thanked God for our blessings. And I, remembering my dear mom, and my dad and Loren, also thanked the goddess for bringing harmony and joy to our family on earth, and a mother’s day filled with love.

A Mother's Day Dream

yahoo photo by scenicreflections.

Elissa’s apartment is small and cozy, and it’s only one block down the street from mine. One block! She just had her apartment
painted, too, a nice lemon yellow, with a rich dark blue trim on the doorways. It looks great. It’s loaded with her favorite furniture, art objects, paintings, and books. I helped her unload some boxes and was thrilled to see she has some of Loren’s books, some of his favorites. It brought tears to my eyes, just holding them. And oh yes, she has lots of toys, stuffed animals, and books for her grandson, my great-grandson, Philip. One day he'll read Loren's books.

The neat thing is how close we are, including geographically. It’s been a long time since

I’ve been so near to her and to my daughter Michelle, who’s only a 10 minute car ride away, at most. When my grandkids Alli and Josh are at their dad’s, they are within walking distance to my place and to their Aunt Elissa’s. We are all in Sylvania!

This is the closest we've been since I moved away from Toledo in 1985, 26 years ago, to take a job in the Washington, DC area. I never thought I’d be moving back this way. I lived in Washington for almost 20 years, and loved my Dupont Circle neighborhood. My last home was in St. Petersburg, Florida. I loved the weather, the tropical flowers and palms, the nearness to the Bay (Tampa Bay) and the ocean (the Gulf of Mexico), and the downtown location of my condo.

When I left for Ukraine, I thought I’d go back there, back to the Land of Sunshine. But then, during my time in Starobelsk, I changed my mind. It seeped into my consciousness that I had options. I made the decision to move up North. Perhaps part of it was re-acclimating to the four seasons of my childhood and young adulthood, re-discovering the joys of the changing seasons and the fact that I could survive the winter. Mostly it was to be nearer to my family.

My daughters and I have all "grown, evolved and changed," as my brother Loren would put it. Family conflicts are mostly resolved. We know no one can disturb our serenity unless we let them. We take responsibility for our own lives, our own decisions. The boundaries are clearer. If there's a conflict, we can deal with it. Mostly our attitudes are positive and upbeat.

It’s a Mother's Day dream. It's the time I always prayed would come before I crossed over life's border. I think the most important thing is that I have changed, so that I could help make this happen. I'm still working on it, "letting go and letting God," one day at a time, but it's easier.

It's the best Mother's Day gift ever, and we will share the joy at my place this year. Amazing grace! Happy Mother's Day!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Super Suds

We washed our clothes by hand in Ukraine, like everyone else I knew. It was rare that Luba used her washing machine. Too costly, unnecessary. We used large buckets and tubs in the bathtub, sudsing and rinsing several times, reusing the water as much as possible, bending over the tub, scrubbing away. We hung them on the clothes line outside, a fixture in every Starobelsk yard. The clothes always went out to dry, year-round, in all seasons, even in snow and rain. In winter the clothes froze on the line, like cardboard mannequins. We unstuck them and carried them inside to dry, looking as if we might be setting up a display in the storefront window of a women's clothing shop.

I got used to it. Both Luba and Natalia, my next host mom, loved smelling their laundry as they carefully folded it. “Ah, nice and fresh!” It was a ritual.

I thought about it today because I went to the laundromat, Super Suds, for the first time, to wash my clothes, three large loads, at $3 a piece. I’m thinking about getting a (used) washer and dryer for the basement of my apartment house, but I keep putting it off. After two hours at the laundromat, I’m thinking about it again. The appliances would have to go in the back of a dark, dank, damp cellar. Very unappealing, even a bit scary.

So I am still thinking about it. And remembering that it wasn’t so bad to do it all by hand.
On the other hand, I’m back in America now, where time and convenience are top priorities. The pace of life is different. We have many choices, so many options. In this transition zone, I’m finding the best thing to do is nothing. Just wait before making a decision. So I'll continue to ponder the need for modern conveniences, until the next time I HAVE to go to Super Suds.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Many Springs

Collages: Washington, DC; Sylvania; Starobelsk springs.

I am having three springs this year. The first was in Washington, DC. I was there in April, and watched the forsythia, magnolia and cherry trees bloom, and the daffodils along Rock Creek Parkway and around the Capitol and Union Station. I watched DC turn lime green.

The second is here in Sylvania, Ohio, my new hometown near Toledo. It's further north, so spring's way behind DC. At least a month, I’d say. It’s coming slowly, the trees and bushes
greening and flowering in slow motion. It’s been unusually rainy and chilly, I’m told, so spring is slowing down, but it is not stopping. Now the flowering white crabapples are at their peak along Sylvania roads and in downtown gardens, and so are the daffodils and tulips, some brightness against gray skies and drizzle. How lucky to have a second spring!

My third spring is unfolding in my mind, in Starobelsk. I remember Luba in her garden, the beautiful flowering apricot trees in her yard, and along the path to town, and then the tulips, lilacs, and iris. Not many daffodils. Mostly white, pink, and lavender, the air fragrant with lilacs in profusion. The Starobelsk spring is more like that in Toledo than in Washington. After a long, cold, icy winter, the change of seasons is as welcomed as a first grandchild, and embraced just as warmly.

Actually in the realm of remembering, I can add a 4th spring: the subtle change in seasons of St. Petersburg, Florida, my hometown before leaving for Ukraine. It’s not a huge change, it doesn’t come after a long, hard winter, with a bang. In central Florida, it’s when the Live Oak start shedding, the bouganvilla are at their brightest, and people are picking gardenias. No tulips, daffodils or lilacs. But enormous tropical flowers, nothing subtle about them. Bold and bright as can be.

So that’s a fourth spring, or a fourth kind of spring. It's nothing like the other three, however, because there's nothing like spring after winter, rebirth after a cold sleep. To experience and to imagine. To have many springs at one time, in one year. To have many springs in one's life. Can't be beat!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Spring Miracle

Philip's tulips (right) and collage (below): Our neighbor Amanda's garden; flowering white crabapple in front of J&G's restaurant, across from Elissa's apartment.

“We put them in water and they perked up!”

My daughter Elissa was talking about the tulips her grandson Philip had picked the night before (photo right).

After dinner at J&G's Restaurant, we walked over to neighbor Amanda's house to see her garden, resplendent in bright tulips and daffodils, flowering crabapple trees and forsythia bushes, and buds of many varieties pushing through the ground, responding to a few warm days, bursting or about to burst. Amanda told Philip he could pick some tulips, the ones in the back yard, not in front of the house.

Philip was thrilled. Amanda helped him pick a large red tulip, another red one, a yellow one, and a small orange tulip, the baby among the tulip family. He walked home to his Gran-E’s around the corner, where he was spending the night, proudly carrying his flowers. Counting them naming the colors. He held them as we did errands. Such simple pleasure.

“We need to put your flowers in water,” Gran E said as the day ended and night fell. "No, I don’t want to,” Philip said, clinging to his wilting but still lovely tulips.

Somehow Gran E prevailed. The miracle of flowers responding to love happened overnight. When Philip awoke in the morning, his tulips had flourished, perked up, all gently opening, glowing like sunflowers on the Ukrainian steppes. Elissa told me that Philip smiled and exclaimed when he saw them. Jumped for joy!

Funny thing, but I had dreamt about it during the night. In my dream, Elissa told Philip that a miracle would happen if he put the flowers in water. They would brighten and open up and be even more beautiful. Watch them, she said to him in the dream.

I awoke hoping Philip had indeed witnessed such a miracle. Just then Elissa called and told me about it. And he had, and we were glad.

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