Tuesday, May 14, 2019

the business trip

A few years ago, I happened to be traveling on business to Boston - the week prior to my Aunt Ann turning 90.   As luck would have it, the weekend following my meeting, my cousins had planned an epic surprise party for their mom.  Since I knew that several of my family members would be in attendance at the party - including Aunt Ann's sisters (my mother and Aunt Grace who would be flying north from South Carolina),  I thought it would be fun to bring Carolyn with me on the business trip.  While I was in meetings during the week; Carolyn could hang out with her Noni and Auntie, and the following weekend - we could all attend the party and surprise Aunt Ann.






It worked: Aunt Ann WAS surprised ...  and a tradition was born.


Later that year, when I was supporting projects in the Caribbean, I invited my mother and Aunt Grace to join me for a week in Puerto Rico.  This time, I brought Elizabeth with me on the trip. And while I was in meetings during the week; the three of them toured the island ... shopped, took surfing lessons, and drank out of coconuts.





Last year, I took William with me to New York City, and once again - my mother and Aunt Grace joined us.  Mom had on her bucket list to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge; and we did just that.  They also attended a show on Broadway, went to the top of the Empire State Building, ate lunch at Tavern on the Green, were serenaded while riding the subway, took a boat to the Statue of Liberty, rode a horse drawn carriage through Central Park, ate a genuine NYC pie, and picked out their favorite diner with the best coffee in the city, by the end of the week.








This year, it was finally Henry's turn.


(Saying a prayer before we board: it's a ritual...)


Last week, I had a business meeting in South Carolina.  Henry and I flew in the weekend prior, and were able to spend a few days with mom and Auntie, before the three of us drove down to Charleston for the week.   Unfortunately, Auntie wasn't able to join us on this trip - as she was preparing for a separate trip to Greece.


While we really missed Auntie, we had a wonderful time with my mom - and as is par for the course - while I was in meetings - Henry and Noni toured the local sites including the aquarium, Fort(s) Sumter and Moultrie, the USS Yorktown, pirate dungeons, and the historic downtown.  They would have also visited the first submarine, H.L. Hunley, but the exhibit was closed during the week, to which Henry said, "WHAT?! Well, Mom ... sounds like we have to come back when it's open!"






(Union artillery shells embedded in the walls of Fort Sumter...)



The crescent moon over a Palmetto, at Fort Moultrie (where, coincidentally, the theme of the crescent moon over the Palmetto on the state flag was first conceived).


After three days in Charleston, we drove north to Columbia, and while I was in more meetings - they toured the Riverbanks Zoo (where this video about gorillas avoiding the rain was filmed around the same time they were visiting!), and met bona fide southerners on the front lawn of the capital building, who were celebrating Confederate Memorial Day and remembering their ancestors.  All of us received quite the history lesson, and were appreciative that the CSA impersonators didn't once balk at Henry's Boston t-shirt.







Henry missed a week of school to join me on this venture - but it was time very well spent.  He arguably learned more about American History in a the span of five days, than he's learned in the past five months of school.  Most importantly, he was able to spend one-on-one time with his grandmother and create memories that will last a lifetime.


(He also had a great time playing with his cousins on the beautiful yards at Aunt Grace's ...)


Chances are, I'll be taking an international business trip to Europe or Australia at some point over the next year.  Carolyn is tickled to think it's her turn again - but Charlie has unequivocally told the children, it's now HIS turn - and he's already in the process of pulling together his wardrobe.


Yes.  I think he'll be a fine traveling companion, indeed.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

when neighbors become family

When we moved to Virginia in 2010, we bought a single-story brick house that was surrounded by trees, and had been owned by a 90-year old blind man.  

What I loved about the house from the first moment I saw it, was the location situated before a spectacular forest.   There was a huge circular driveway that intersected a cul-de-sac on one side, and a cul-de-sac on the other.  My vision was that our children would learn to ride their bicycles around this driveway, climb trees in this yard, and splash in the creek that cut through our backyard.  


Charlie's vision was that the 50-year old, all original applianced never once updated house, needed a TON of work, several trees cut down, and our children would have no one to play with since it appeared the average age of residents on our street was at least 75.  Sure, there had been rumors that there were children that lived in the house next door, but we never really saw them.

Soon after we moved in, while the triplets were off to school in kindergarten, and I was away at work - Charlie was in the front yard, surveying the monumental task of what needed to be done.   Across the street, one of the neighbors, a man who we would come to know as, Mr. Tom, had walked outside to check his mail.   Tom has since told me that he's always been a gruff kind of guy.  He'd lived a long and somewhat tough life, had dealt with cancer, and all kinds of issues that overtime, had put callouses on his heart.   But while Charlie was muttering to himself, "What the hell were we thinking buying this place...?" Our three-year-old Henry, dressed in boots and a superhero cape, walked across the cul-de-sac and introduced himself.


According to Tom, one minute he is minding his own business, looking in his mailbox, and the next minute he feels a little tug on his pant leg.  He looks down and sees a blue-eyed Henry who says, "HI! I'M HENWY.  WILL YOU PLAY WIF ME?!"  And in that moment,  Tom said his old heart completely melted in to his shoes and he felt weak in the knees.  In that very moment, Mr. Tom became our surrogate grandfather.

Tom, his wife, Sue, their disabled daughter, Dawn, and their great big black German Shepherd, Max, lived across the road from us.  Their kitchen window faced our front yard, and Tom who was a retired firefighter and paramedic, would sit at his kitchen table every day sipping coffee.  After meeting Henry, he started keeping a close eye on our children as they played in the front yard and he would tell me that watching our children run around and play gave his life more joy than we could ever imagine.


But in reality, Mr. Tom kept his eye on all of us. 

One day when I was at the office, and Charlie was trying to tackle some of the landscaping on his own, he dragged a ladder and his electric chainsaw out to the front yard.  Tom would tell me he was sitting in his usual perch, sipping coffee, with one eye on the paper - one eye on our yard - when he saw Charlie set up the ladder, climb to the top rung, and with one foot on the ladder - another foot on a tree branch, lift the chainsaw over his head and start cutting a branch ABOVE him.

Tom said the coffee nearly came out of his nose as he hastily put down the cup and newspaper, and dashed out of his yard and over to our house. Trotting across the yard he yelled, "Charlie!  Charlie!  Hang on there buddy, let's think about this! I don't want to be the one to call Jen at work and tell her she's a widow!" 

Years later, when Charlie and I decided to clear out leaves from the gutters on the back side of our house.  Because of the hill in our yard, the distance from the base of the ladder to the top of the gutters was quite large: I'd estimate at least 30 feet.  Charlie had bought an extension ladder, which we hauled out of the garage and set up against the back elevation.  To this day,  I'm not sure how in the world Tom knew what we were doing, because we were out of sight from his kitchen window .... but Charlie no sooner put one tentative foot on the ladder and Tom was next to me.

Tom knew that Charlie didn't like heights.  When Tom would regale us with stories of his days as a firefighter trainer - the drills where he would have to climb up and down the other side of a 50-foot ladder that was vertically straight - he would guffaw at my husband's reaction and pale complexion.  

On that day when he appeared out of thin air, Tom - who was 73 years old at the time - hustled to the top of our ladder, scooped out all the leaves, and hustled back down again while Charlie and I stood on the ground shaking.

When our children turned eight, it was Tom's recommendation that we contact his old friends at the fire department and request that they send a truck to the birthday party.  They sent two.  


And many a snow day, I would trek over to Tom's house with William in tow, so that the two of them could work together on affixing models.   Tom was an expert model maker, and had quite a collection of tanks - airplanes - and boats.  

Tom was born in Virginia and was a quintessential southern gentleman, and history buff through and through.  He could talk with you at great length about the Civil War and every battle that was fought, particularly those in Virginia.   He was also a veteran of the Navy, and an extremely proud card-carrying member of the NRA.  I'm not a big fan of guns, and Tom knew this.   Still, for years he wanted to take me to the local shooting range in Fairfax and make sure I knew how to defend myself.  He never left the house without his firearm, and would tell me how he sure hoped he never found himself in a situation where he needed to use it - but in the event something did happen ... he'd be ready.  "And you should be too, young lady," he'd sternly say.

Such a fixture in our lives was Tom, I cannot think of Virginia without thinking of him. Because during the five years we lived in Virginia, we had become his family; just as he had become ours. The day we moved, I will forever remember standing with him in the basement, looking over our children playing in the empty house.  Several neighbors had gathered to say goodbye, but as I looked at Tom - he had tears in his eyes.  He told me how much we had meant to him, how much he loved every one of us, and how terribly he would miss us all.    As I gave him a hug goodbye, I broke down in tears, too and told him that I would miss him, Most Of All.

It had only been a few weeks since I'd lost my own Dad, and Tom reminded me so much of him.  The Navy veteran, NRA card-carrying, devout Republican that he was.  From the blue eyes, and build, right down to the blue jeans and white t-shirt he often wore.   We didn't agree on everything - as families seldom do - but our friendship went so much deeper than politics.

Even after we moved, we kept in close touch.  He would send me emails, I would send him pictures of the kids.  William even called to interview him, and did a project on his military service for Veteran's Day.  Within a few months of us moving away from Virginia, Tom wrote to tell me that the cancer had returned.   Soon, our old neighbors were writing to me to let me know how desperately Tom missed our family, which would make my heart ache because we missed him, too.

IMG_5475 2

Last summer, we drove from Texas to Virginia to see Tom.  We didn't tell him that we were coming, because we weren't entirely sure of our schedule.  On the day that we arrived, I'd called to check in and see how he was doing.  While we were talking and he was lamenting that he missed us and would give anything to see our children playing outside his door again, we pulled in to his driveway - and in line of sight of his kitchen window, where we saw him perched with his coffee cup.  

The look of surprise on his face was indescribable perfection.  


While we were visiting, he gave our boys his very first .22-caliber rifles that he had bought when he was a young boy, playing around the fields of Virginia.   For a man like Tom, there is something incredibly special about his first gun....  and it speaks VOLUMES as to how much he adored our kids - that he'd want for them to have this token to remember him.


Earlier this week, Sue wrote to tell me that Tom was in hospice and would likely pass this week.   When I told our children, they were heart broken to think they were losing their fourth and final grandfather.  First Grampy. Then Jimbo. Then Papa Alex.

And now ... Mr. Tom.

The kids made a care package for Sue and Dawn, and we sent Tom a red, white and blue balloon arrangement that has been in his room all week.   We've been praying that his passage from this world to the next week would be as gentle as possible, and this morning, Sue wrote to tell me that God heard our prayers and he passed peacefully this morning.    Our children are grappling with two people that they love, dying in just four weeks time.  But as I told them, this is the reminder that life is fleeting.  There is birth and death. Hello and goodbye.  Instead of focusing on the sadness, let us instead focus on how lucky are we that we have had the opportunity to meet and love so many wonderful souls along the way.  They will always be with us.

It's also a beautiful reminder to reach out and talk with your neighbors. We never know when that connection may lead to a wonderful friendship like the one we shared with our beloved Mr. Tom.  

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Remembering Papa Alex

Today, we received heartbreaking news that Charlie's Dad, Alex, was killed in an automobile accident this morning.  Papa Alex would have turned 91 on March 17th.


Three weeks ago, today, Charlie had to travel to southern California for a business trip.  At the last minute, he decided that since he would be in the area - he would fly to Phoenix, instead of San Diego, so that he could enjoy a short visit with his Dad.  It's funny how things happen like that ... a little whisper in your ear that you need to create opportunities to make memories; and less than a month later, Charlie is so grateful that he seized that moment and made a detour to see his father.


During his brief visit, Charlie saw his Dad and Kathleen's new home which he had just recently, within the past two (?) months moved in to.  It is located in a retirement community, and Alex was so happy to be there, and very excited over the downsize to a simpler life.  Photographic evidence indicates that his library was stocked full, which was no surprise to me: Alex has always been one of the most well-read and articulate, comprehensively persuasive, all-around knowledgeable people I've ever known.  The majority of books in our extensive library, are predominantly from his overflow.


Father and son went out for lunch.  I'd happened to call Charlie while they were together, and was lamenting that three of our four children were home sick from school after having just tested positive for the flu.  I'm not recalling what in the course of our conversation gave rise to such amusement - but the last time I heard Alex's voice, it was filled with laughter and good cheer - as it always was.  

We're in shock at the moment.

Nothing quite prepares you for losing someone so suddenly.  While he had his share of illnesses and ailments, Alex was never really a sick man.  He was healthy and strong - and vibrant - and cheerful - and the very finest of gentlemen.  When Charlie lost his mother, and I lost my father - we were with them, by their bedsides.  We said our goodbyes and told them that we loved them.  We held their hands and grieved as they passed.  With Alex, even at nearly 91, it just seems surreal that he is gone.

He's gone? 

Last year, the entire family traveled to Santa Barbara to celebrate Alex and Kathleen's 25-year wedding anniversary - and Alex's 90th birthday.   It was a whirlwind weekend trip, but Charlie and his brothers - and Carolyn - went deep sea fishing with Alex, which is Alex's tradition for his big birthday celebrations.  (I'm now kicking myself that I cannot find the picture of Alex on the boat!)


(But this was the lunch, immediately after!)


That evening, after naps for everyone, all of Alex's grandchildren (and great-grandchild) gathered together for a wonderful celebration of his life.


It was a beautiful event.   We took pictures, and told stories.


And Charlie and his siblings each had an opportunity to get up and tell their father how much he meant to them.


The past few days, a cold front has hit Texas, with temperatures in the high 30's.  This afternoon, almost immediately after receiving the devastating news, we found ourselves at the Junior High School, where we had signed up to volunteer for the track and field meet.  Because Elizabeth is really in to track and field - she qualified for four separate events, that started at 3:30 PM and continued until 8:30 PM.  For five hours, our entire family stood in the cold, rooting on Elizabeth: who despite the sudden loss of her grandfather, still managed to earn medals - including one first place - in all four of her events.  In between each event she would run back to me and ask, "Is it true? Really? Did Papa Alex really pass away today? Am I dreaming? Please tell me I'm dreaming..." 

(My intent was to keep the news from her until after her meet.  But so much for the best laid plans.  How she knew is a separate issue that involves a cell phone and a homeschool student, who shall at the moment remain nameless.)

Tonight, when we returned from the track meet and the feeling returned to our extremities, we lit a candle and told Papa Alex stories.  I opened up my blog and yet again - am so grateful for this journal of memories.  Tonight, I'm especially grateful for this memory.

George Wellesley was such a good man.  When I think of how much he loved his first wife, Jeanne; and how much he loved his second wife, Kathleen.  How he raised such an amazing family - that yielded the best man I've ever known ... my husband, Charlie.   How he helped us cover rent with our first house while we were in graduate school, and how he attended all of our graduations.  How he traveled in to be with us, in our home, days after all four of our children were born.  How he flew in to visit us in San Diego and talk us OUT of buying an over-priced house when I had two year old triplets, and was nearly seven months pregnant with Henry.  How he flew in to visit with us in Virginia and Texas.  How he saved every single one of the business cards my husband ever had - from every one of his jobs.  How he could talk to you for hours about politics - or the Pythagorean theorem- or the colonization of Mars - and it was FUN.

True to the iconic legend of St. Patrick that shares his birthday, Alex is the embodiment of good luck and celebration.  While I suspect the shock we are now feeling will soon give way to grief, right now I'm just feeling so grateful for his life, and all that he accomplished.  I'm so grateful that my husband saw him three weeks ago, today, and created one last special memory with his father.  And I'm so grateful that he was never really sick a day in his life.


And yet.

And yet.  

I know we will miss him so much.