Once upon a time.

For my fortieth birthday 40 years ago my then-significant other, now husband Peter, surprised me with a trip to England. He’d planned the trip in minute detail. All I had to do was get a passport and bring my own spending money. A lifelong Anglophile, it was a dream come true.

This year, for my eightieth birthday, daughters Carolynn and Leslie planned a special weekend in Washington, D.C.  Granddaughter Samantha, who lives there, was tour guide, arrangement-maker, Uber-getter, personal chauffeur and laugh-inspirer. The three of them planned everything perfectly. All I had to do was pack my bag. I wasn’t even allowed to spend my spending money for anything!

From Friday check-in at a pretty boutique hotel to check-out Sunday afternoon the weekend was perfection. While my daughters got the room keys at the desk, I made friends with a miniature golden doodle named Bronx on the opposite side of the lobby. Suddenly, Look at our mom. She’s eighty today! echoed across the marble clad lobby. My raised left eyebrow didn’t shush them, but they are now 57 and 55. My evil eye hasn’t worked in years.

Our room, indeed the entire hotel, was sleek, sophisticated and so comfortable. I felt like a princess sleeping in a bed so soft. The bathroom mirror even seemed to have similar properties to Snow White’s magic one. Such luxury was a far cry from the motels we stayed in years ago where we shared towels and took our own soap.

Our early dinner, at the Kennedy Center’s Rooftop Restaurant, prior to seeing the New York City Ballet, was golden. No, really, I swear, the light was liquid gold infused with pink. Helped that Carolynn and Leslie, unbeknownst to each other, both wore shocking pink. They glowed. Our waiter, a sweet little man with an eastern European accent, took special care of me, probably cued by Samantha. Not only did we get an extra bottle of champagne, but he brought me a chocolate confection with a candle.

The curtain-up lights were blinking as we dashed through the crowds to the Opera House and our third row orchestra seats. The performance was an eclectic program that featured music from Bernstein to Chopin to Kanye West and Jay-Z. I loved “The Night” danced to Chopin. Though I am a traditionalist balletomane, I shocked myself, my daughters and granddaughter when I actually enjoyed “The Runaway,” featuring the two rappers’ music!

Saturday morning during a walking tour of the D.C. neighborhood near our hotel, we ogled beautifully refurbished old houses, strolled quickly across Meridian Park, then zipped off to a tasting and tour at the Guinness brewery in Halethorpe, Maryland.

Nearly ten years ago, I developed a taste for Guinness when Peter and I were in Dingle, Ireland. Samantha, who loves Guinness too, organized the trip to the brewery. That creamy delight, stored and poured the way it should be, was the perfect accompaniment to my brunch entree, avocado toast with a poached egg. Carolynn enjoyed the same entree, but with a tiny glass of Guinness Garnet, an experimental brew.

That evening the four of us, plus four of Sam’s good friends,Lydia, Clare, Hannah and Bridget, met for an earthy Ethiopian meal in Georgetown. Carolynn and I opted not to join the others for after dinner drinks at a nearby wine bar. It was already after eight, nearly my bedtime!

A cherry blossom pink Sunday.  After brunch and books at one of my favorite places in the D.C. area, Kramerbooks & Afterwords, we “Ubered” to the National Mall to bask in warm pinkness. The cherry blossoms did not disappoint, nor did seeing the Martin Luther King monument for the first time or one of our favorites, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial,again. Goosebump-making! We were four among thousands enjoying the perfect April spring day.

That once-upon-a-time fairy tale April weekend had a happily ever after vibe. Turning 80 wasn’t so bad after all.

Thanks to Carolynn and Samantha for the photos. For a woman who has always taken hundreds of photos on trips, I was too agog, and possibly too old, to take many on this adventure. Thanks, too, to grandson Miah who called, as he’s done for years, to sing “Tommy Turtle” to me. Maybe you’d need to be there, but he makes my day.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

How cold is it when the hot tub freezes?

Below the window and down the hill, the river was a silvery ribbon threading between steep banks of dormant rhododendrons on one side and stands of tulip poplar, oak, hickory, sycamore and wispy pines on the other. Frozen wintery beauty without snowy highlights.

A Friday afternoon at one of my favorite places to be, just be. The river.

Oh, there’d been hiccups for the four of us — Leslie, Martin, Peter, me — in our attempt to get an early start to the weekend. A weekend, I should add, that will go down in weather history as one of the most frigid ever in this country, especially in the southeastern states.

The results of the extreme cold for us began when Martin discovered that their furnace at home had stopped working on that 7° morning. And my quick quarter-hour to set up medical appointments went to 90 minutes because the facility had suffered burst pipes, plus many staff hadn’t made it to work. At the river getaway, a mouse rampage forced sweeping, vacuuming, scrubbing and trapping detail even before the wood stove began to pump out enough heat to warm the little house above the 40° thermostat setting…all before Peter and I arrived.

Order restored, the absolute bliss of sitting snug by the fire with books to read, cards to play, puzzles to work, movies to watch, and football and ice skating to enjoy on TV, was a joy. What could be better than going to sleep blanketed by stars outside the window beside my bed, and tucked under a covers striped with a brilliant moonbeam in the middle of the night?

As she always does, Leslie launched herself into the weekend in the kitchen with a pot of tomato soup and toasted sandwiches for lunch, followed by lentil soup and salad for supper, vegetable soup for Saturday lunch, and our customary New Year’s stuffed cabbage good luck dinner that night.

Few people share my enthusiasm for winter’s cold. I’ve always been the odd one out in a roomful of warmth-seekers. Admittedly, the wood stove’s comfort and Martin’s determined stoking, made the weekend cozy. All part of a package that would have been better if we were snowed in.

How cold was it last weekend? Cold enough for icicles to form on the leaky wood-fired, wood-clad hot tub, and cold enough to freeze my new mattress topper that spent the previous night in the back of my car. Laid in sun coming in the dining room windows, I managed to thaw it before bedtime.

That evening, the loft’s railing was the perfect place to warm my pajamas in the air rising from below. Sweet dreams? Ah, yes.

Right in my own backyard.

The adventures husband Peter and I used to have are part of my memories and photo albums. His increasingly confused state — dementia has gained on him — keeps us home now. He has no memories of our trips, nor do my pictures help him remember. Last fall, for the first three days of an eight day visit to daughter Carolynn and husband Bill, Peter didn’t know where he was. We’d lived in that same little village for seventeen years.
* * *

Daffodil in snow.

The first week of this month, Carolynn and her friend Robin traveled to us with inflexible determination to give me a special week “in my own backyard.” The bumper sticker on Carolynn’s new car said “Rescue Mom.”

Before the two left upstate New York early on a snowy Saturday morning, they’d issued orders for me to list anything they could do to help with during their week. Not wanting to look a gift-horse in the mouth, I did start a list, but lost it amongst the clutter in my office. I really wanted to just enjoy them, not put them to work on the pesky tasks that had piled up. That idea didn’t fly.

They arrived  Saturday evening. Sunday was family brunch, cards, and dinner out, but Monday they were all about the chores. Granddaughter Samantha was in town, so they appointed her secretary to their two-woman crew. And then they set to work.

Coincidentally, Leslie provided work shirts for the family crew. From left, Carolynn, Sam, me, Leslie.

They fixed nearly all the meals, grocery shopped, baked bread, cookies, muffins; organized files, cookbooks, kitchen cupboards, and my office; surprised me with muffins at breakfast on my birthday, and planned a birthday feast. (Leslie, around as much as she was able during her busiest time of the year, reminded them about my requirement for tin roof sundaes instead of cake.) Since Sam likes a clean car, I suggested she clean mine. She did,

Twice they shoved me out of the house, once to get a pedicure, once, a massage. I didn’t protest too much.

They gardened and washed windows, we shopped and played cards, watched movies and read, they made multiples of sock bunnies and we fit in “Beauty and the Beast” their final evening.

All in all, that week was a “trip” anyway I look at it. And I’ve got the pictures to prove it.

Over the week the list expanded to two pages. By the end, everything was crossed off, even ‘bake chocolate chip cookies’ that Sam added for herself.

Fluffle of sock bunnies.

 

Appaws! Appaws!

To my mind, there’s no better place to watch a fun little movie than on our couch, and no popcorn better than what I make myself.

While browsing Netflix offerings one evening I settled on “Family Movies.” Husband Peter laughed at me when I clicked on “Pup Star,” the July 2016 AirBud release. But, added to the comforts of home and my own special popcorn, when he saw that one of the stars, Charlie, was a ringer for our Nobby, well, there was no doubt home was the best place to be.

Oh sure, “Pup Star” is geared to children. True, the plot is a rather predictable And, yes, maybe the name of English bulldog judge Simon Growl is a bit too clever, but we childish oldsters really enjoyed the movie. Oddly, Nobby lay down in front of the television when he heard Tiny sing “Wherever you are.”  He seemed to enjoy watching the talented canines, and he thumped his tail enthusiastically. He loves to sing too, but he’s not in their class.  Those dogs could sing and their fancy four-legged footwork was fantastic.

What’s not to love about a movie in which “butt” is the naughtiest word in the film, a sinister dognapper is as scary as it gets, and the only hint of lovin’ is  the tender glances between rocker Charlie and country singer Emily Rose?

Dare I say, those 92 minutes were just plain fun unleashed?

 

High on adjectives!

At the end of the 1950’s, most girls my age swooned over Elvis Presley. I was goggly-eyed over Pat Boone. “Love me tender” versus “Speedy Gonzales.” The popular girls were cheerleaders and majorettes. I played string bass in the orchestra.

Woodstock? Beatles? I scoffed throughout that era. The very idea. I came to love the Beatles, though I never could have endured Woodstock. All that mud! Yech.

Years before we knew each other, my husband went to see Bette Midler in concert. I saw Neil Diamond. Neither of those events were anything like a recent Friday night in our little town.

Roget doesn’t have enough adjectives in his thesaurus to describe the evening: loud, steamy, laugh-filled, hilarious, sweet, joyous, sultry, ribald, brilliant. sparkling, cacophonous, delirious, silly, energetic, sweaty, boisterous, entertaining, and crazy were the words I jotted down.

screen-shot-2016-10-19-at-9-48-23-amNearly twenty years ago, daughter Leslie gave Peter a Squirrel Nut Zippers “Perennial Favorites” CD. He loved it. Even stuffy ol’ me got into it. I turned into a teeny-bopper fifty years too late. Leslie loved SNZ too, but she was a mere thirty-something at the time. This year, as her October birthday approached, I saw that SNZippers were coming to town. Did she and Martin want to go?

Yes they did.

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Squirrel Nut Zippers reborn and on tour!

There we four were, orchestra seats, eight rows back, and there they were, blasting the theater with frolicsome, earsplitting, eyeball-popping, sweat-streaming musical madness.

Many from the audience crammed in front of the stage, dancing, hopping, jiving, singing. It was ninety-plus minutes of laugh-inducing, foot-stomping, hand-clapping hilarity. My tapping foot wanted to dance, but the rest of me played possum.

When I was as young as most of the crowd, I would have sniffed at the music and the antics. But all these decades later, I got the groove…if that’s how one would say it.

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Rock on, Grandma.

 

Any place we go is some place.

When I began writing this blog three years ago I planned to write about our travels and other topics that could fit, however loosely, under the heading wherever you go, there you are.  The scope of that plan has narrowed as if I were looking through the wrong end of  my binoculars. What used to be limited only by our wallets, is now limited because going anywhere at all is an upset to my husband’s worsening dementia.

Nowadays, going to the grocery with me, a meal at a favorite restaurant, a movie at the Lyric, a walk through a different neighborhood, are “trips.” I tell Peter, any place we go is some place!

Travel these days is so difficult that I don’t mind. Peter would like to go like we once did, but knows it wouldn’t be the same. So I show him photos and remind him of the funny things that happened on our travels, our final trip for instance. We headed southwest to the Canyons, with a piggybacked week at Yellowstone.

Yes, there was a big scare, but also events worth remembering and laughing about.

I had to be helped in and out of the vans we traveled in because of my bum knee. Hiking was painful, bone grating on bone. Plus, I huffed and puffed like the magic dragon. I’d trudge a few yards on a trail, then rest. So much for telling our guide that I was conditioned and could hike several miles easily. There were only five in our group and I was the drag, the lead weight, the anchor scraping bottom.

After we got home, I saw the doctor for a follow-up to a stress test I’d had earlier. He asked where we’d been. I told him and said that between my aching knee and my breathlessness I wasn’t able to hike like I used to. “Why didn’t you tell me where you were going?” he asked. “That altitude is tough for anyone not used to it. I could’ve given you something to help.”

“It never occurred to me to call,” I said. “I’m in good shape, except for my knee, and we’ve hiked a lot over the years…”

“But I could have prescribed something  — Cialis probably— so you wouldn’t have a problem…”

“Um-m, excuse me, but why would that have helped me?” 

He explained that the med reduces pulmonary artery pressure at high altitudes, and thus increases ability to exercise in low oxygen conditions.

Oh how we’ve laughed over what might’ve “cured” my breathlessness.

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.”

 

Grandma can tell you where to go.

A map and sometimes step-by-step directions are all I ever need to get where I’m going. I don’t need to know where I am on the globe, nor to listen to an uppity woman tell me which way to turn. Generally, once I’ve been someplace I can find my way there again if I need to. Incessant yakking from the bowels of my dashboard confuses me.

We were just going to Lowe’s, for heavens sakes. My car could drive there by itself. But, as I backed out, the harridan ordered, “Go right one block. GO RIGHT ONE BLOCK.” I could hear echoes of my mother calling long ago, “Judith Ellen, come home, come home right now!

I went the way I needed to go. “Recalculating,” cranky-voice said. She was frowning, I know.

“Might be fun to go wherever she says,” I said to my husband.

“How does she know where we’re going?” he asked. He didn’t know himself anymore, he just goes along for the ride.

“She doesn’t know! I didn’t even turn the darned thing on,” I grumbled. “And I don’t need her to tell me anyway.” I continued south and at every intersection she yelled, “Turn back now.” When I didn’t obey, she recalculated very grudgingly.

The  tirade continued until we got to Lowe’s, then she shut up. Not another peep, not then, nor on the way home. I’ll bet she forgot to sprinkle a trail of bread crumbs and couldn’t find the way herself.

I laughed the next morning when I saw this “Speed Bump” strip in The Roanoke Times. That’s my kind of message, homey and welcoming! There’s probably a rhubarb pie cooling on the windowsill.

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Oh ho, oops, apologies are in order. Karen Jacobson isn’t a harridan at all, in fact she’s very talented and funny. Watch this: https://au.tv.yahoo.com/sunrise/video/watch/24209607/the-voice-of-siri-and-gps/#page2

 

Thanks to Dave Cloverly for permission to use his 4/10/16 strip
Thanks also to au.tv.yahoo Sunrise.

 

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.