The Pied Piper of Port Huron

Craig normally worked on Saturdays, but today Becky was away, and with the kids home on summer break he decided to make other plans. He sipped his orange juice and picked up the newspaper. He glanced at the headlines, then the sports. He checked the obits “to make sure he wasn’t there,” and then turned to the classifieds. He took a pen from his shirt pocket and started circling. 

When the kids walked to the kitchen table rubbing their eyes and pouring their cereal, Craig stood up and poured four small glasses of orange juice. As they were munching on Raisin Bran, Craig told them that when they got dressed, they’d be going for a drive. The kids quietly nodded their agreement. Only the youngest had the nerve and foolishness to ask where they were going. To which Craig replied, “You’ll find out when you’re dressed.” 

As promised, after breakfast the kids piled into Craig’s work truck—a red banged-up Ford 150. All of the kids would have fit in the cab because they were still young, but the two oldest kids jumped into the bed of the truck. Craig allowed it as long as they sat down; he turned the key in the ignition. 

Craig looked at the first address he had circled in the classified section, then backed the truck down the driveway. The kids did not ask where they were going, but chatted amongst themselves or looked out the window. They pulled up in an unfamiliar driveway and Craig opened the door. The kids knew to stay in the truck. Kids always stayed in the car when the parents went to do their tasks. Kids would stay in the car at the A & P while the mom went in to get groceries, and make faces at other kids staying in other cars in the A & P parking lot. Only one time did the middle daughter remember her mom letting her get out of the car, and that was when the mom had to take something to Mrs. Nivens’ house, and Mrs. Nivens was a talker! So, that day, mom told the middle daughter she could come to the door as a way to cut the conversation short. That is why, parked in this strange driveway, the kids didn’t even ask their dad if they could get out of the truck; they just peered out of the windows looking for clues to the mystery. 

The kids watched as Craig walked around back of the stranger’s house,  and a few minutes later return with a wooden cage and a squeaky animal inside. Craig set the cage in the bed of the truck and started the ignition. Instead of heading toward home, Craig steered the truck in the other direction. Minutes later he pulled into another driveway and walked out of that house with another cage and this time two squeaky animals inside. When they did eventually head home, the kids all gleefully unloaded cage after cage and a dozen guinea pigs. The middle daughter later would study a library book about the different breeds of guinea pigs, and then she would carefully document each animal on an index card, listing name, lineage, breed, and description. The day that they got the guinea pigs, Craig built a large pen for them in the garage, and when they learned that males of the breed got aggressive with other males, Craig built a more elaborate cage system with separate sections and doors that latched. All of the kids collaborated and came up with clever names for the pets. That became the summer of the guinea pigs, with the kids playing with them in the yard where the grass grew long down by the river. 

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That was my recollection of the summer of the guinea pigs in the house that Dad/Craig built for us on Black River in Port Huron, Michigan. On my walk this morning before work, I tried to shake off the lingering awfulness of a bad dream that I had about Dad’s death and funeral. I recalled my therapist’s suggestion to substitute bad memories with ordinary good memories, and so I thought about how dad consistently thought up glorious things for the kids to do, completely equipped us, and then left us alone to make our own memories. Our childhood had memories of sailing and visiting cousins and racquetball and riding bikes. And pets such as guinea pigs and chickens. And trick-or-treating and eating candy glutinously with Dad. Another thought came to mind this morning: Where was Mom that Saturday? The mom whose main job and main joy was being mom to us four kids. I wonder whether she was visiting her father in jail? That thought took my breath away, and I had to put my hands on my knees and wait a moment to process. The thought of Dad once again protecting the innocence of his children by circling every single “free guinea pig to a good home” ad in the paper, and never, ever letting us know where our grandpa was, or where our mom was that day. He shielded us from the ugliness of some adults and equipped us with happy childhood play. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I knew that my grandpa had been arrested and served time. My biggest worry that summer was an inflamed foot on Moptop, the black and white long haired female guinea pig. I had loaded her up in the basket of my bike and pedaled to the veterinarian office–being ten years old and ignorant to the knowledge of calling ahead or making appointments. Moptop had a sore foot, and I had seen a sign that said “veterinarian,” so that was where I needed to take her. The vet gave me some ointment for Moptop and sent me on my way. I was given a smile in lieu of an invoice. Thank you Dad and Mom for the legacy of childish worries, and not adult worries, being all that I had to deal with when I was a child. 

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Ruth

Have you ever met a perfect lady? A woman who is gentle and kind, and who laughs sweetly? Who chuckles at her husband’s jokes, and wears absolutely gorgeous shoes and accessories? Who is a watercolor artist, and has sold some of her pieces? Who is humble and kind in all of her comments? Who is gracious in every circumstance?

That is who I will be saying goodbye to tomorrow. I will sit in the church pew and cry along with her husband and children and grandchildren. And my children will take off from work and sit in the pews and cry. This earth is a little bit sadder without Ruth here.

I knew that this day would come, but I certainly do not want to face it.

She came to my son’s high school football game when he was a sophomore. As she walked through the door of my house, she told me which player that we were to look out for during the game because she had read his stats in the newspaper. She told me later that she knew very little about football, and that when she was a high school cheer leader, she knew even less about the sport. Ruth’s words were reserved and concise. She spoke quietly, and you always leaned in to what she said because it was always, always good to hear.

When her husband hired my children to do yard work and light repairs around his house, she made him give them a break and she fed them cookies that she had baked, along with a cold glass of milk.

When she and her husband came to my house for dinner and I looked in horror at my rice, which had bugs in it, then looked at her in mortification, she calmly said that when they lived in the Philippines, she had to pick the bugs out of her grains before she cooked them.

When I popped by their house a few weeks ago to express my anxiety/angst over something that was bothering me, she nodded empathetically and told me that she had had a similar experience with her children. Never an unkind word from Ruth; she listened and then gave her astute thoughts.

She was an elementary school art teacher who fell in love with a man who rode a motorcycle and later became principal. And later we all fell in love with her.

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photo by Quino Al

Puerto Rico, the Next Day

Thursday 12-28-17

After breakfast, we heard the mayor of Cayey, Rolando Vasalez, speak. We had been told that because of Mr. Vasalez’s high efficiency in preparing for the storm, he had attracted national and FEMA attention. We were impressed with how humble he is, and James, the director of Group International (the mission organization) is very impressed with what the efficient way that he had addressed the disaster.

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Rolando Vasalez

We got a tour of the downstairs of the stadium, where National Guard troops were serving to keep the peace and oversee distribution of foods. We also saw the board that details the progress of repair and restoration of water and electricity. Today is day 100 after Maria. Cayey, has 25% electricity in its homes, and not everyone has water.

 

Hover on these pictures to see the captions. 

We were told that we would be working in the district of Vegas. That’s right: Las Vegas. We caravanned to the community center there. James had told us that if we were following him, and if he ran a red light, to follow him, that he would pay the ticket. He said that here in Puerto Rico at an intersection the most aggressive person has the right of way. The driver on Team Ocala, Ed, learned to drive like a Puerto Rican very soon.

We met at the Community Center at Las Vegas. Behind the community center was a covered basketball court and a handful of people gathered around an outlet, charging their cell phones. Another little girl rode her bike with training wheels around. Amy, the coordinator of Group International did a double take when she saw a certain man on the court. She said it was Guillarmo, who she had been trying to reach for a while. Guillarmo’s wife is the president of this neighborhood, Las Vegas. Guillarmo came over and addressed our group and explained that in Puerto Rico, many people have trouble getting assistance from FEMA because they may or may not have title to their property, since often property gets passed from father to son without any sort of formal surveying/deed writing.

I’m not sure how this happened, but soon after that, some of our team was following Guillarmo’s wife, Rosita, in her car to her street. Some of the team cleared debris from the yard of a school and others went to her house. That team spent two days clearing debris from their house and stripping the walls, ceiling, and floor, then treating the black mold. Guillarmo stood in his house, obviously moved and emotional about the help that he was receiving. He said several times that he didn’t expect to have this work done on his house until April or May. He and his family have been living with his father.

Guillarmo

Rosita is the artist; Guillarmo is the landscape artist. Their home is so beautiful!

Friday

The next day, some of us finished Guillarmo and Rosita’s house, and others went to Chuco’s house; he lived in the lower part of a formerly two-story house. The second story was blown down the mountainside, and now water leaked into his home. The crew scraped the damaged paint off the walls & ceiling, treated it for black mold, and tarped the “roof”—the floor of the second story—to keep out the rain.

 

 

Back at the stadium, filthy us drove the 15 minutes back. The ladies had first turn in the showers, and the men got their turn from 5:00 to 6:00.

Darlene fed us well, and then tried to host a movie night, but couldn’t get the movie to play, so we ate popcorn & chips and played pool.

Saturday

We heard that Team New Jersey was working on Awilda’s family’s home—Awilda is the other lady in the kitchen at our stadium home. That home had been badly damaged by a mudslide, and the grandpa’s chicken coop had been nearly destroyed. That team cleaned up the debris of what used to be the chicken coop, and others on that team re-stucco’d the damaged wall. At dinner that night,

                                            Hover on the pictures for the captions. 

Team New Jersey told us what a mess that place was—so muddy and so much work left to do. So we were told that they needed another team to help them the next day. And Team Ocala was to be the ones to go. But first, Awilda’s family wanted to feed us. Not only Team New Jersey and Team Ocala, but the entire team of 30 people.

Sunday

We were told what to expect at the church that we were going to be visiting. Music like Miami Sound Machine, and a sermon that would be in both Spanish and English.

 

So we all piled into cars and had a fantastic traditional Puerto Rican holiday meal—rice & beans, bbq pork, chicken, cabbage and carrot salad, and coquito to drink. Coquito is homemade rum/moonshine with fresh coconut milk. In a word: delicious!

Puerto Rico visit 2017

Wednesday 12-27-17

I hopped in the car to drive to Ocala to meet the others, then hop on a plane in Orlando; by the afternoon we were in San Juan. There were five of us from Team Ocala: me, Marc (Mr. Handsome from Perspectives class), Ed, Misty, and Megan, a college student. From the plane, we saw the beautiful Carribbean islands.

In San Juan, James and his daughter Amy, who run the Puerto Rico Group International effort, met us at the airport, gave Ed a ride to the car rental place, and then Ed came back with our rental mini van. We were told that the 24 mile drive to Cayey would take us at least an hour. The GPS told us that there was a traffic jam on the highway, so we took an alternate route. That was intense! Curvy, narrow roads up steep inclines, and then the same going down the other side. The roads were narrow and unmarked. We realized later that the storm had knocked down road signs. Some of the other groups who stayed on the main road didn’t get to home base for 3 hours.

The stadium that we would be living in is called Estadio Pedro Montanez. The stadium’s namesake is the Tim Tebow of Puerto Rico, except that he was a boxer in the days when pictures were black and white. His hometown is Cayey (prounounced CAY—rhymes with “sky” AY—rhymes with “day”), which is where we lived, in this city of 48,000 in the Central Mountain range. 

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Estadio Pedro Montanez, a.k.a. Home Sweet Home. The purple flag reads: Recovery Center

On the first floor of the baseball stadium, the ladies were shown our accommodations: the home team’s locker room, complete with large lockers, urinals, toilets, a communal shower, and a manager’s office. A young man walked in and greeted us—he looked about 19 years old. Luckily,  Jessica from Denver speaks Spanish and so she could communicate with him. She had a very long conversation with him, and learned that he—Arnoldo—lost his home to Maria, and he has been living in the manager’s office here in the locker room; he is a 911 dispatcher, and he was very accommodating with giving us privacy.

Flash forward two days. Arnoldo watched as we did yoga stretches before work in the morning, including downward facing dog, and took a few pictures and made comments. Jessica later told me that his comments were boyish and innocent, maybe even naive. Flash forward to one evening, when we stayed up late and had a movie/popcorn/pool game party. Arnoldo lost all his inhibitions and acted about as silly as my own sons. But he was still kind and innocent with his comments and jokes.

After we settled in and set up our air mattresses and cots in the locker room, we met on the 3rd floor of the stadium in the VIP Sports Bar for supper and a meeting. Of course the Sports Bar is closed, as is the entire stadium, since it suffered damage in Maria , although it is safe for us. We met the cooks: Darlene, who speaks both Spanish and Philly-accented English, Awilda, and Angel. They fed us well with chicken, rice & beans, and chicken soup that reminded Isabel from Texas of her Dominican grandmother’s cooking.

 

Misty

Misty at dinner. That’s Angel beside the table. 

 

 

At the meeting, James told us that we would be meeting the mayor of Cayey in the morning, and that he had set up his office downstairs here in the stadium. We were also told that we would get our work assignments in the morning.

In all, there were 28 people who came from all over the country, and one American family who is living in Morocco in north Africa.

Chicagooo!

Chicago Report

Way back in February 2017

At Happy Hour, Connie (originally from Nuremberg) and Hana (from Chicago, visiting Florida for a couple of weeks), Tan, Kaylen and I started talking about Germany and Christmas Markets and Chicago. Kaylen, who Dreams Large, said: ‘Why don’t we go to Chicago in December! We can get cheap airline tickets, and spend just a weekend!’ We all caught her excitement.

Dec 1, 2017

Kaylen and I met Connie at her apartment at 5:am to drive to the airport.
Hopped on the plane and landed at O’Hare Airport in the afternoon. We all packed VERY light because the airline threatened to charge us money if our carry-ons were larger than a mailing envelope. We all agreed it was really great to not be lugging around heavy bags. From the airport, we bought train tickets at a vending machine and hopped right on for a 45 minute train ride directly from inside O’Hare to our hotel! The address of our hotel was 11 South LaSalle Street, which tells you that it was very close to the center of the city. In fact, we were walking distance from the Miracle Mile.

Since none of us had eaten a real meal that day, we decided to walk right to the Christmas Market for a bratwurst. We also had Gluhwein, which Connie exclaimed with a happy sigh “tasted like the real Nuremberg Gluhwein”. The market looked so much like the Nuremberg Christmas Market, with the real names of stalls that I remember seeing when I lived there. They sold Christmas ornaments and knitted scarves and sweaters, pretzels, brats, cookies, cinnamon nuts. All of the prices were very high, so I resisted the temptation to buy any. The market was about 40 stalls crowded into Daley Plaza, beneath the Picasso sculpture.

 

 

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Kaylen wanted to go to the top of the Willis Tower (the tower formerly known as Sears). We walked to the tower and took the elevator up 108 floors to the top of the tallest building in the western hemisphere. Connie stayed downstairs in the lobby. We stood behind an Amish family for our turn to stand on the glass window/floor. Kaylen happily sat down on it and I took her picture. I couldn’t go by myself, so she held my hand as we stood on it together.

 

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My smile is fake; hers is real

That’s not a fancy floor under our feet; it’s clear glass. Mine is a fake smile; I was scared.

We were pretty tired after that, so we walked back to the hotel to relax. We were all amazed at the beauty and largeness of the buildings. One day, I might come back and take an architectural tour of the city because the buildings are really great. I sketched the half-dozen that were visible from our hotel room on the 21st floor.

December 2

Hana met us at breakfast. We were so excited to see her! Tan, who is part of our Happy Hour group, was not able to make it to Chicago. We are all bummed and we miss her; she made us promise to keep her updated on what we were doing.

First stop was the Harold Washington Library: A massive building with beautiful architecture, lots of art inside, and also books! Hana told us that she sometimes checks out passes to the art museum or the science museum at the library! We explored the art on every single floor, and the garden on the top floor. Then we discovered a space that is free to members (printing costs $1.00) of a 3D print room. The librarian there—a 20ish man—told us about the kind of stuff that people make. The coolest was a medical student who used CT scans of a patient to make a model of the patient’s skull for the doctor who was to do surgery. The doctor was able to examine the child’s skull before surgery.

 

 

Harold Washington was Chicago’s first black mayor. He was elected in 1983, and beat Richard M. Daley, son of Richard J. Daley. He also beat the incumbent, Jane Byrne in that election.

 

Next stop: the Holiday Train! We all had wanted to ride the el (elevated train), which we’d seen running around the city, so Hana found out when the Holiday car was to be. We walked to a stop near the library, and there it came! A regular car on the el, decorated with tinsel and lights, ads inside for North Pole doll makers, and elves giving out candy! We even saw Santa! The elve’s names were Shuga and Jinx. There were lots of children on that train sucking on candy canes. What a blast.

It was getting close to lunch time, so we headed to Giordanos for pizza. We stood in a line to put our names on the list for seating. We were told it would be 1 1/2 hour wait; Kaylen gave her number so they could text us when our table was ready, and we walked across the street to Nandos, a South African restaurant. Hana said she used to eat at Nandos when she lived in England. We quipped that it was first lunch, or Elevenses like the Hobbit. I ordered mashed peas with mint and hot sauce. Kaylen: roasted Brussels sprouts. Hana: wings. Connie: ??? Wouldn’t you know it? Our pizza table was ready before our appetizers came! So Kaylen held our table at the pizza place while we packed up our Elevenses.

We walked a bit downtown. We were all amazed at the beauty of the city and of the friendliness of every single person we spoke with. We walked along the Magnificent Mile (named after the fire wiped out 75% of the city and the mayor wished to rebuild it to look and be financially strong). We saw one building — the water tower/water treatment facility—that didn’t burn in the fire in 1871. We walked to Millennium Park and took pictures of and in the Bean (see below). Then took the train to the John Hancock building and had drinks in the Signature Room at the top. Connie agreed to go to the top since she didn’t have to sit near the window. The view was amazing!

Connie, Kaylen, Hana, Kathy
We hugged Hana good-bye at the train; she headed home and we headed to the hotel.

December 3

Connie had made plans to meet her cousin who lives in Chicago for breakfast, so Kaylen and I went to church. We took uber there. The church—Fourth Presbyterian—was lovely! It was a lovely cathedral. The congregation was small and mixed; the pastor was a Texas lady. We walked the 1 1/2 miles back to the hotel, but first we walked to Lake Michigan at my request because this is the only Great Lake I hadn’t yet seen. I’ve seen all the other four up close.

The train took us back to the airport. The airplane took us to Orlando. Connie drove us back to Gainesville. Actually, Kaylen stayed an extra day in Orlando with her parents.
The End.

Cloud Gate (The Bean)

New Year’s Resolution: Fail

When you hear mine, you’re probably going to say the same thing my sister said: “That’s a terrible idea…….oh, wait a minute. It’s a good idea!”

I am here to tell you that today, February 12, I am still at it; my resolution is still active. Here’s my New Year’s Resolution: I plan to fail at 50 things this year. That idea was born out of my fear of failure. I live in fear. Not fear of getting mugged, or getting in a car wreck, or getting fired; oh no, no, no. Fear of looking foolish. Fear of being awkward. Fear of that look on someone’s face that says: ‘You are not making sense, and you are kind of strange.’ And me having to explain myself, or backpedal, or shrink to invisibility.

Late last year, I stood on a figurative fence. No, I was not standing on the fence, I was peeking under it. On one side stood my self, unhappily single, lonely many many evenings, tired from working too hard, painfully shy. On the other side of that fence stood what I want to be: graceful, at-ease, full of energy, and unlonesome. Enter my plan. Voil-a. Stepping into the uncomfortable is the death of fear. I will deliberately fail at things, and they will no longer be scary, and I while I might not be graceful or at ease, those things that I face will no longer be behemoths. I have begun my list of failures; so far, it looks like this:

  • 1. Invite the kids over for dinner. NO FAIL. THEY CAME.
  • 1. Attempt to message estranged daughter and get a response from her. FAIL.
  • 2. Invite friends to my house every Friday for happy hour. NO FAIL. THEY CAME AND ENJOYED THEMSELVES!
  • 2. Feel awkward by going to a newish church. NO FAIL.
  • 2. Make connection with daughter by text. FAIL.
  • 3. Meet a nice Christian man online. FAIL.

So really, I’m only on #3. I might not make it to 50 this year. Here is a groovy side-effect: when I contemplate going to dance class, or walking into church late rather than staying home, or some other intimidating thing, I tell myself that if it doesn’t work out, I can write it on my list! It moves my thing from inaction to manifest! Yippee!

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Is there a God?

Yesterday, once again, God showed me and my buddy that He loves us and cares for us in a pretty normal way. I wasn’t shocked because I am a kept woman—-He loves me all the time! He keeps me well-fed and well-loved. Sparkles wasn’t shocked, either; just pleased and delighted.

Sparkles and I got together for a fun day.  The last time we saw each other was when our kids were little and underfoot. Yesterday, we talked about our sons’ wives. It’s been that long since we’ve talked face to face. We planned to get together and giggle and soak up some rays, but beyond that we had not much of a plan. So I got up plenty early (I couldn’t sleep anyway!) and drove to her hotel where she and her husband were staying for a conference.

Being crunchy, I wondered vaguely how in the world we were going to find someplace to eat. God had that all mapped out for us in advance, so we meandered beach-ward and giggled and I mostly got us to our destination. I don’t think either of us noticed my wrong turns and our long way to get there, because of the loud volume of our giggling and talking.

By the way: we didn’t do a speck of reminiscing. We have this type of rare friendship: even though we hadn’t seen each other since the 1990’s, we have been talking online & text, and when we saw each other, we just kind of picked up the thread of our conversation that started last decade! We did do a bit of reflecting, but no maudlin reminiscing.

cocoa

So here’s the God part: on our trek beach-ward, the lady from the quilt shop in Orlando told us about a quilt shop near our destination of Cocoa Beach. We giggled and gabbled all the way along the highway, and I spotted the quilt shop in Cocoa. Since I overshot my mark, I found a little nondescript plaza to turn around in. As is my habit, I most usually overshoot my mark and have to make a U-turn. Because my riding-shotgun gal was in the middle of a story, she didn’t notice the shop.  That’s okay. It’s my pattern: I get there on the second shot. Usually. Well, as I turned the car around, I spotted a little diner called, “The Garden Place” and under that, it said, “Organic.” Voila! It was as if God said: “Your table is ready for you. I’ve been expecting you.”

Worried about finding a place with good food to eat? No problem, says my God. Worried about anything else? I’ve got that, too, He says. So we ate an incredible salad, piled high with tuna and hummus and fresh greens & sprouts. The cook, who looked like my mom except she wore a hair net, brought our salads to the table.

Sparkles was surprised that we could find such a place. I was mildly surprised, but not really. I’m telling you: God cares for me in ordinary ways. He’s so cool! So we ate and lingered a very long time. Then we crossed the street and lingered in the quilt shop for a very long time and chatted with other ladies who were lingering over fabrics. We oohed-and ahhed over the quilts there, and got inspired for our next project. Mine: a modern quilt of slate and chartreuse. Hers: a modern jungle print called Ebb and Flow. Perfect souvenir for a trip to Florida, and perfect allusion to our lives, don’t you think?

Our chattering continued as we found the beach. It’s a pretty large target, taking up the entire coast of Florida, swooping down one side and all the way up the other,  so I knew eventually we’d hit it. There was an island blocking our way, but we crossed that. And the conversation continued. We didn’t agree on every point;  Sparkles told me she can’t really relate to me being happily divorced. (More on that in another post on another day.) That’s okay; I couldn’t really relate to every single facet of her musings.

Our conversation will continue online and by phone. And in fact, we can’t seem to quit talking. She texted me as I pulled out of her hotel after dropping her off, and I had to hurry to pull over to see what she said. Her text read: “Best Day Ever.”

I can’t agree more.