Dark shadows brilliant weekend.

Gorgeous day. Bluest sky framed by towering trees. Piercing shafts of sunshine spotlight the mountain road. Inky shadows, breeze-tossed.

We swooped down the kinky hairpin curves. One black shadow moved from left to right. I goosed the gas, just enough I hoped, to get out of the way, yet not lose control. That big black bear surely would have sent us tailpipe over steering wheel. There are no guard rails there.

Heart attack-making few seconds, survived! The shadow bear swift-stepped behind our car, and dodged another.

Whose heart thumped loudest?

Otherwise the weekend was lovely. Autumn hinted at as leaves drifted onto the river like paint dripped from a brush. A lazy few days floating and swimming in water barely warm enough.

Five adults and four dogs spelled m-a-y-h-e-m at times. Our Nobby, usually a kindly soul, yaps incessantly in the river.  We think he doesn’t want anyone to get too far away, though goodness knows, he can’t, won’t, swim to the rescue.

A flotilla of inner tubed children giggled past, captained by two dads. “Is this the parking lot?” the oldest asked. “Another mile or so,” we say. Do we look like a parking lot, we think.

Then kayaks and canoe, young boys, a dad, and three unwilling dog-passengers paddled by. Tillie, the oldest of our canines, defended her right to that patch of river and followed them, yipping. She splashed through rocky shallows, swam where she could, and at last turned back, her job done.

A stunning butterfly shimmered and flitted around us. It landed on bare belly and arm, dog’s back and chair — Blue Morpho Menelaus. Its final fling at summer’s end?

In this getaway place I sleep deeper, longer, better. I sit and read and, in renewal of a favorite childhood pastime, color.

Our granddaughter blended her culinary skills with her mother’s and they produced a meal that mingled tastes perfect for a new September. And me? Gram’s heralded pie-making skill hit bottom. The. Worst. Pie. Ever. Gray puffs of smoke curled from the oven before we realized that, instead of turning the oven down to 350 degrees, I’d turned it up to 530 degrees! Apple pie, its sugary milk glaze burned, was unrecognizable. We ate it anyway.

There are no photos of the bear.

 

 

Right in my own backyard.

icecream

A group of friends gathered on a not-quite-so-sweltering day in July to chat and laugh and, not incidentally, eat homemade ice cream. It was an ice cream social in my own backyard.

This was not as far-reaching a destination as some adventures we’ve had. We’ve gone to events in Charlotte, NC, to the theater in Abingdon and Roanoke, we’ve lunched at nearly every restaurant around, we marched in July Fourth parades (we won the top prize once), but we’ve slowed down.

Age, not our fun-loving spirit, has applied brakes to all of us. We’ve experienced the pitfalls and heartaches that Life lays down like a thick layer of asphalt on a sweltering day. We’ve smothered beneath it, but we’ve dug out and gotten up again.

Co-hostess Joanne and I worried about our original plan for the group’s July outing. We’d wanted to have a picnic at Leslie and Martin’s river getaway. We fretted. Would the drive, the terrain, the threat of bug bites, and the distance (50 miles) from home be too daunting? Would anyone want to swim or go tubing, swing or play games?

I took a poll of the half of our 30 members who were here licking their spoons. Five, plus one likely “maybe,” would have gone on that outing. So, ice cream in my backyard was the better idea, as it turned out.

Close to home with second helpings.

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Color July happy.

The peacefulness, the quiet, the river running through all make “The River,” as we call it, one of my very favorite places. Our very small family all gathered there July Fourth weekend — Leslie and Martin, their Samantha and Jeremiah, Sam’s friend Hannah, Carolynn and Bill, Peter and me. Oh, and the dogs Tillie, Huckleberry, Gooseberry, and Nobby.

Such a special time for so many reasons. The holiday weekend was extended because Carolynn and Bill stayed through Friday, and that gave us extra time to do what we do best — eat, shop, talk, play cards, wade, swim, laugh, color, and, did I say, eat?

Color July watermelon red, homemade vanilla ice cream white, and blueberry pie blue. Then add peach pie gold, summer green salad, strawberry ice cream pink, and fresh corn yellow. Add in the grilled shades of beef tenderloin, Polish sausage, and beer butt chicken to picture our feasts.

Coloring July Fourth.

 

Kathie goes west.

In 2011, Peter and I did two back-to-back tours out west to see the Western canyons and Yellowstone. After that, his worsening dementia ended our far-flung trips. And that was the last time I was on an airplane.

But Los Angeles and the 2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists Conference was reason to fly away for a long weekend. I’d won a place in the blogs under 10o,0oo category contest.

Kathie sees the Pacific.

Kathie sees the ocean.

When I received the news, I was thrilled, but I didn’t see how I could go. I thought of dozens of reasons why not: air travel hassles, no fun without someone to go with, could I leave Peter…blah, blah, blah. My daughters, who have never taken my no’s for an answer, said one of them would stay with Peter while the other went with me. Then Leslie suggested I ask Kathie, a fellow writer, who she knew would be a perfect traveling companion. Kathie was delighted to be asked — she’d never been further west than Michigan! — and after some hiccups in her life, she was on board. And so was I.

The laughs began in Charlotte with time to kill between flights. While Kathie bought a Rolling Stone magazine with Prince on the cover, I bought Vanity Fair featuring The Queen. I told her my reading material trumped hers, even though I hated to use that T-word.

Elevator's 'earthquake' button.

Elevator earthquake’ button.

What a fantastic time. We laughed all the way to California, throughout the sessions, and home again. Two full days of the best conference either of us ever attended, two full days of travel. We laughed at the “earthquake button” in the elevator; a menu offering local protein Atlantic salmon; my security scan that made the TSA officer think I’d had a hip replaced in addition to my right knee…or did I, perhaps, have a bomb in my left pocket?

It was thrilling to rub elbows with so many Pulitzer prize winners, hear so many excellent speakers, including Leonard Pitts, and meet so many welcoming people. We felt right at home. Our kind of people.

We each had our share of personal excitement too. I already knew I’d placed as one of three finalists in the columnists “Blog under 100,000” category — I got second — but Kathie won a raffle that enabled her to pitch her screenplay to a Hollywood writer. He was interested in her project, and they’ve been in touch since. Not even a “my people will contact your people” hedging tactic — hooray for Kathie!

And, hoo-ray for Hol-ly-wood!

 

National Society of Newspaper Columnists 2016 contest winner,
online, blog, & monthly under 100,000 unique visitors category —
“Dementia isn’t funny…caregiver Judith Clarke looks for laughs every day.”

 

The week that hummed.

Baja Judy

Eight years ago and 3100 miles from home, I petted a baby gray whale. We were on a NatGeo photographers’ whale-watching trip off Baja California, Mexico. Of eight people in our Zodiac I was the only one who hadn’t  touched a whale, but just as we were about to return to ship, a mama whale nudged her baby up to me and held him there. It remains one of the biggest thrills of my life.

Last week I snuggled with a young alpaca — Trenton — sweet, gentle, soft, sweet-smelling Trenton.  He ranks right next to that little whale.

Trenton lives with sixty-some other alpacas about seven miles from our door. The visit to Poplar Hill Alpacas was just one event in Carolynn’s and friend Robin’s springtime visit to us. My eldest has loved alpacas for years. She has a folder bulging with information about them and a dream as high as the Peruvian Andes where they come from.

Owner Pat Fuller gave the five of us — Carolynn, Robin, Leslie, Peter, me — a tour that lasted nearly two hours. We went into the barn and paddocks with the animals, and she urged us to pet them. Cuddles were encouraged too as long as we held them firmly around their necks. The day was sunny and too warm for the fleece-coated ‘pacas, but they submitted to our clinging hugs willingly.

And they hummed, as alpacas do.

Another day we visited a stunning exhibit, Jennifer Carpenter’s “Colored Pencil in Bloom,” at the Peggy Hahn Pavilion in the VT Hort Gardens. Then we had an alfresco picnic under some pines.

Sunday, Leslie set a beautiful table and fixed a traditional English dinner — roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes and veg, trifle — to commemorate the “Downton Abbey” series finale.

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Robin bakes.

We had several meals out, plus Carolynn made creamy chicken soup one evening, and Robin’s favorite birthday meal another — colcannon, sausages, carrots in horseradish sauce, and lemon curd with cream for dessert). I was permitted to prepare lunches, and Robin demanded baking time to add to the supply of delights she brought to us — Irish soda bread, cheddar crisps, raspberry chocolate bars, mincemeat cookies, ginger snaps, marshmallows.

Every day was feast day all day long!

In addition to card games, our evening entertainment included the hilarious “Meet the Patels” on Netflix, and “Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot” at the cinema. We also went to “Lady in a Van” to see Maggie Smith as a homeless, wheelchair bound character. Instead we saw “45 Years” because I had the dates mixed up!  A grim movie, but I liked it. Carolynn, Robin and especially Peter glared when the credits rolled.

All in all, everything about the week was lovely. It proved you don’t have to leave home to have a good time. Well, except for Carolynn and Robin. They traveled 1192 miles round trip.

Now back in her routine, I know Carolynn is having alpaca dreams that will come true one day.

Gallery

Christmas comes once a year: October to December 25!

This gallery contains 8 photos.

I hate to admit that I’m just not into Christmas anymore. I took heart this year when a few major retailers decided against staying open on Thanksgiving. And, too, Black Friday was a bit of a flop.  That’s reason enough for Scrooges like me to celebrate. The last few years I’ve dragged my chains about decorating for Christmas. I’ve always […]

Easy writer.

He’s a handyman, a carpenter, a Jack-of-all-trades. I’ll call him John. He is also a writer and a motorcycle-riding trout fisherman. He drives an aging little red truck to his jobs.

John has a never-ending supply of tales. One is about some women he has worked for who were more than just a bit flirtatious. He has never known how to  handle that situation. “I’m a bit of an innocent,” he says. One  member of our writers’ group dubbed him “Handyman of Love.” He laughed uproariously with the rest of us.

He joined the group because he wanted to rub elbows with real writers and learn whatever he could about writing. After he submitted a story about a motorcycle ride there was no doubt that he’s got what it takes. To this day he insists he can’t write.

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©webart grab

Several members are married to men who aren’t very handy, so they hired John. Though my husband used to be able to fix just about anything, his skills are lost to escalating dementia. John has helped us out with tasks big and small over the past eighteen months.

Last summer, during an extremely hot spell, he painted our front door, the window shutters, the carport and installed new gutters along its edges. It was miserable weather for outside work on a brick house that radiates heat like a pizza oven.

The afternoon he finished he came around to the back where Leslie and I were sitting in the shade drinking iced coffee. He refused my offer of something cold. We chatted for a while, and John entertained us with his yarns while I punctuated with shouts that these were the stories he should write. He tries to hide behind the excuse that he doesn’t have a “voice.” I argue that his tales are his voice.

While we talked, he mopped his face and neck with a towel.  When he stood up to leave, he said he had to put a clean tee-shirt on. Leslie and I looked at each other. We had no idea why he said that, but he got up, unfurled a shirt he’d had in his lap, and pulled it on over the shirt he was wearing.

He explained. “I’ve got to have a hug before I leave, but who would hug a sweaty handyman?”

That’s a story, John!” I said, and hugged him back.

I figured he’d never write the story, so I did. Someone had to!

596 miles before we sleep.

From Tennessee to the Canadian border, Interstate 81 lays down most of its 854.9 miles in Virginia, 324.9 to be precise. Paralleling the Appalachian Mountains, I-81 follows along Indian and early settler trails. A pretty ride if you’re in the passenger seat, but if you’re the driver zooming along at five or ten or fifteen miles over the limit, you can’t take your eyes off the road .

In Pennsylvania, heavy truck traffic labors up the hills while cars play hopscotch at terrifying speeds. Accidents that tie up traffic for hours are a given, and the drive is bum-numbing for passenger and driver. Until last week, I was always the passenger; now I’m the driver. Peter helped me brake, gasped occasionally, and pointed out interesting sights that I didn’t dare glance at.

Frackville, in Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley, was our destination, 379 miles from home, an overnight on the way to daughter Carolynn and husband Bill. It’s 596 miles door-to-door. Our stop was planned, but the relentless rain that jammed traffic into bumper-hugs wasn’t on our itinerary. What should have taken five hours, took more than six.

Driving is the best way to get there. Air travel doesn’t take long if you pay for a direct flight, but add in the drive to an airport, hours-early check-in, another hour to their home, and car travel proves quicker and cheaper. Then, when we return in a car stuffed with a huge pumpkin, three mums, gallons of fresh cider, jars of home-canned delights, boxes of cookies, as well as shopping finds and our bags, there are no added fees to pay.

When we neared Frackville, the GPS insisted on “hard right turns.” Wrong. After two loops on and off I-81, I turned hard left and there we were. Cold rain and wind hurried us inside. The motel was terrific — Holiday Inn Express — and there was a super breakfast bar the next morning.

Three more hours on the road and Carolynn, Bill and the dogs were waiting with big smiles, enveloping hugs, and doggy kisses.

The week was packed tighter than our car on the return — gourmet meals, cards, dominoes, dog walks, laughter, talking…lots of talking…especially when Carolynn’s friend Robin was around.

Maple walnut.

My maple walnut yum!

I’d already decided to drive home with no overnight. It is all downhill. We did stop for lunch at Frackville’s Dutch Pantry, noteworthy for its diner history, and treated ourselves to homemade ice cream.

No more non-stop drives in my future, though. Unh uh. I was reeling when we arrived. After 596 miles, my pillow called and visions of the week danced through my dreams.

Summer’s last hurrah.

 

Today is Labor Day, summer’s last hurrah. For football lovers, it’s a day to be here, in our little burg.

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Hokie Bird & Brutus Buckeye.

The Ohio State Buckeyes are in town to try to avenge last season’s loss to the Virginia Tech Hokies. Not only is it the only game in town, it is, according to today’s Roanoke Times’ Andy Bitter, “…the most anticipated game in the history of Lane Stadium.”

As a native Ohioan who used to collect buckeyes on my way home from elementary school, there was a time when my adrenaline surged at the sound of the OSU fight song:

“Fight the team across the field
show them Ohio’s here,
set the earth reverberating
with a mighty cheer,
rah rah rah…”

I even remember the 1958 OSU/Michigan game when OSU won in the final seconds, 20-14. Thanksgiving break and I was home from college, Ohio University. I watched the game on t.v., screaming and hollering as if I were an OSU coed, as if I were in Columbus.

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Ohio Buckeye (Aesculus glabra), highly toxic when taken internally.

But, time passed, things changed. Now I live within sight and sound of Virginia Tech’s stadium. We can hear the roar of the crowd, see the glow of the lights, watch the fireworks.

Tailgating started before eight this morning. I passed some hearty-partiers on my morning walk. They may have had coffee for breakfast, but they were already having beer chasers. Cars with orange and maroon flags sailing have been rolling into town since yesterday. Grills are heating up, and there are likely turkey drumsticks on the menus, but not so roasted buckeyes, unless of course, they’re in the locker room after the game.

The only game OSU, the 2014 National Champions, lost last year was to VT, 35-21. Their coach has said they won’t really be national champs until they’ve beaten VT this year.

Yes, OSU has a bone to pick while they’re in town, and it’ll be a brutal match-up. OSU may have the national title and admittedly more depth, but VT has heart. I’ll be woo-hooing and “Hokie
hi-ing” from the comfort of my sofa, listening to my English husband grumble because “This isn’t football, this is a game for sissies who have to stop after every play to get further instruction…”  I’ll boo him and cheer my team until I lose my voice.

First thing this morning, I put my Virginia Tech tee-shirt on.  I’m ready. GO HOKIES! 

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Hokie Bird/Brutus Buckeye photo: Jim Stroup, 9/6/14
Buckeye photo: OSU College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
YouTube video: CFB Film Study, 2014 OSU/VT game.

Education, cultivation, imagination.

The only thing better than having tea and homemade peach muffins in a wisteria-covered pergola with daughter Leslie would have been to have tea and peach muffins with both daughters in that same pergola, but with the wisteria in bloom. Carolynn lives too far away for spur-o-moment outings.

Leslie and I visited the inventive, wildly imaginative “Simply Elemental” installation at the Hahn Horticulture Garden this week. It was fantastical.

Local artists used varied materials — mannequin parts, oil drums, fabrics and ribbons, glass, construction project remains, and rust —  to create the show. One goal that inspired the group was to demonstrate that art doesn’t have to be framed or permanent to be enjoyed.

We enjoyed.

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The “Best College Review” website recently featured the one hundred most beautiful college campuses in America. Virginia Tech, number 52, was characterized with a photo of the iconic Burruss Hall. Here’s an excerpt from the text:

The Peggy Lee Hahn Horticulture Garden is a stunning spot on [Virginia Tech’s] 2600 acre grounds, adding considerable natural beauty to the school’s main…campus. Maples and dwarf conifers grace the lush, almost six-acre cultivated space, as do eye-catching wisteria flowers and a fish-filled stream that is 200 feet long. …

We who live here already knew about the Garden’s “considerable beauty.” Now we know about its considerable sense of humor, too.

The installation will be in place through September 30.

We don’t play with a full deck.

Wherever a bevy of women of a certain age gather there’s sure to be laughter. A group of dames I consort with, thirty-three if we’re all present, has had some uproarious times over the fourteen years we’ve been together.

Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 8.52.52 AMA splinter group of us play canasta one Wednesday a month at O’Charley’s. This card-playing arm of the bunch has been “melding” for eight or ten years. Naturally, we’ve, um, matured and some, or maybe all, of us have become forgetful or addled or maybe even doolally.

Many can’t shuffle the cards any more thanks to arthritis and other problems, but we do have several battery-operated card-shufflers amongst us. They make the most annoying sound and seldom work properly. When we use them people in the adjacent bar look our way.

Everyone in our foursome this past Wednesday — AJ, JoJo, Leanne, me — forgot some rule: deal thirteen cards or eleven? is an eight worth five or ten? what’s wrong with two wild cards and two naturals in one meld?

Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 11.15.24 AMOur silly mistakes kept us laughing, but then we veered to a discussion about memory loss. Because my husband has dementia I’m considered the “expert.” Someone asked how you would know if forgetting was just old age or a sign of dementia?

I told them that counting backwards by sevens was a test Peter’s doctor always does. Several years ago, he could count backwards so quickly that she would stop him when he got to 51 saying “Well done, good enough.”

“Why I could never do that,” AJ huffed. JoJo agreed, and I knew I wouldn’t get below 93 without pencil and paper. Leanne, the best of us at numbers, started counting, and soon we all helped by “air writing” the figures. We laughed hysterically at ourselves, four women on the shady side of seventy who couldn’t do simple subtraction. We managed to count as far as 65. “We did pretty well, didn’t we?” Joanne said.

“Yeah, but it took all four of us to do it,” Leanne said.

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I love it when stars align, four-leaf clovers stand taller, and blog post ideas spring from unexpected sources. The bit of trivia below came from the widower of a dear friend who always had a joke and who I long ago dubbed the group’s “Raconteur Royale.”

Common entertainment [in the good ol’ days] included playing cards. However, there was a tax levied when purchasing playing cards…applicable [only] to the Ace of Spades. To avoid paying the tax, people would purchase 51 cards instead. Yet, since most games require 52 cards, these people were thought to be stupid or dumb because they weren’t ‘playing with a full deck.'”

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