Monday, January 30, 2012


I don’t know why, but lately I’ve spent a good bit of down time  remembering the vacations I’ve taken in my life.  I have been lucky in this regard.  My mother and father believed in travel and vacations, and we went away for a few weeks every Summer when I was a kid.  As an adult, I’ve done a good bit of traveling, most of it with Beni and the kids.  The memories from these times away make me happy.  I want to record just a few of these memories.

In 1963, my mother, brother, Great Aunt Alice, Great Uncle Charlie, and I went to Dallas to visit Aunt Alice’s sister, also my Great Aunt, Sister Saint Anthony.  From Dallas, we went to Boulder Colorado, to spend two weeks with mt mother’s sister, my godmother and aunt, Marie, and her husband, John.  

The best memory I have of that trip (and it’s filled with many memories of fun and awe) is of the time when we first got to Boulder when Marie and John still had to work and the rest of us stayed at their home during the day.  Each day, we would set up the card table on the lawn and play pinochle all day out under the Rockies.  The weather was perfect, the company was fun, and all of us laughed and played ruthlessly.  Aunt Alice and Uncle Charlie were great pinochle players, and I learned a lot from them during those beautiful Colorado days.

In 1976, I spent the month of August with friends, including Beni, traveling all over California.  In Southern California, we stayed with the family of one of our friends.  In Northern California, we camped out or stayed with a friend’s brother and his family in Santa Rosa.  It was my first visit to California.  I remember so many good things from that month.  We visited Tijuana and were careful to get our liquids from fresh fruit sold by vendors in the streets.  We visited the beautiful mountain town of Solvang, originally a Danish settlement, where we saw fields full of tulips and shared a huge tray of pastries in one of the many pastry shops.  We drove and walked through San Francisco, eating a great meal at a small Chinese–frequented restaurant in Chinatown.

We saw Yosemite, and camped out in Tuolumne Meadows, a wonderful beautiful place.  The night we spent at Tuolumne Meadows, everyone planned to sleep in the back of our van because it was expected to drop below freezing.  Beni wouldn’t hear of it.  She talked me in to joining her sleeping under the stars, wrapped up in cotton sheets inside our sleeping bags.  I slept like a log, as did Beni.  Our other three friends hardly slept a wink in the back of the van.  Although they were in sleeping bags, they hadn’t counted on the metal of the van’s frame absorbing and magnifying the cold.  While Beni and I went to have a delicious eggs–and–pancake breakfast at the small café that then was at Tuolumne Meadows, the others groused and cursed one another and were miserable together.  

I had my first experience of Disneyland on this trip.  I had wanted to visit Disneyland since it was built in the mid-1950's, and I had watched its development on TV’s the Wonderful World of Disney.   One of the best days of my life was that day at the Magic Kingdom.  Beni and I closed the park down, dancing to Cab Calloway and his orchestra who were playing there that night.

In 1992, Beni and I drove with our four daughters across country.  We spent some time at a friend’s condo in Vail, Colorado, and then headed up through Yellowstone to a more Northern route into California.  We took the kids from the Oregon border down the coast to San Pedro, where we stayed with John and Hilda Resich, godparents to our daughter, Becky.  

Most memorable to me on that trip was something I did to try to stop the kids’ bitching about all the driving we had to do.  In a used book shop, I came across a copy of Agatha Christie’s mystery, Ten Little Indians, meaning to read it myself.  It occurred to me, once we were again on the road and subjected to constant complaints, that the kids might get interested in the book.  I read the entire novel aloud to them as we traveled through California.  At night, I would especially enjoy reading to them as we drove through the dark.  The novel has a ditty that runs through it as a theme and as an outline of the deaths Ms. Christie invents for her characters, The kids quickly memorized the ditty, and whenever it would some up in the novel, they all would recite it together, waiting for the next death to occur.  All our kids are great readers, and I flatter myself that this experience contributed to their love of books

In 2004, on a whim, Beni and I flew to Denver and spent a week in a rented car exploring New Mexico, a place Beni had always wanted to see, but which held little interest for me.  We spent the week in Taos, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque.  I fell in love with the place.  In a perfect world, I’d be living there now.
We visited the Pueblo in Taos, and saw a pueblo structure built around 1100 CE.  I had no idea there was such a sophisticated society in North America at that time.  Our guide, a young Pueblo woman, told us about the history of the Pueblo, including the natives’ version of what my beloved Franciscans had done there in the 1700's.  Her lecture changed my understanding of what the friars did in the Southwest.  I loved Santa Fe, where Franciscan emblems from my boyhood can be seen everywhere.  One night in Santa Fe, starving and knowing nothing of the local restaurants, we happened into a place called the High Noon Saloon, where we had one of the most elegant dinners we have had in our lives.  We were there by coincidence when Albuquerque had its annual hot air balloon festival.  We were treated to the sight of balloons high above us all over the city.  It was breathtaking.

In 2005, having come into some money from a real estate deal, all six of us, plus Annie’s boyfriend, went on a Mediterranean cruise, starting and ending in Barcelona.  What a time that was!  The kids were out of their teens by this time, and we traveled as adults.  The sights of Avignon, Marseilles, Nice, Rome, and Naples were amazing things to share with the kids.  We saw the newly–elected Pope Benedict XVI at his out–door Wednesday audience.  We saw the ruins of Pompeii and had pizza in Naples.  We had a long, leisurely, very French lunch at an outdoor café in Avignon, surrounded by old and new buildings and the charm of Provence.  My favorite day on the ship was the last day spent entirely on board ship as we sailed back to Barcelona from Naples.  Sarah, Annie, Annie’s boyfriend, and I spent the afternoon playing a cut–throat card game, Spite and Malice, on the balcony of Beni’s and my room.  The weather was perfect, the games were hard–fought, and we saw a baby whale and its mother swim right below our balcony in the beautiful Mediterranean water. The best time of all was the first day after our arrival in Barcelona after flying to Spain.  We had real sangria on the Ramblas, we had tapas for dinner at a restaurant right on the Mediterranean, and we walked through this city of Gaudi.  When Beni and I went to bed at a reasonable hour, the kids went to a club near our hotel about which they have vowed to tell us nothing.

These are some of the best memories I have.  I have enjoyed every keystroke spent putting them down here.  What times they were!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Growing Old Among the Redwoods

My mother at age 90

My godmother and aunt, Marie, died at age 80 of pancreatic cancer.  I’ve been thinking about her a lot since I came down last week with my second attack of pancreatitis (the first was five years ago this March).  While I’m happy to say that my pancreas is cancer–free — only, apparently, “sensitive” and “irritable” like its owner — I’m beginning to wonder if some pancreatic malady eventually will do me in.

In the meantime, I have this more immediate matter to think about:

My Mom is 94.  She comes from a family of long-lived German/Irish peasant stock.  92, 98, 103.5: her family’s life–spans sound more like temperature readings than ages.  When Mom and her 87–year–old cousin and their friends get together, they say of Marie, “Oh Marie — she only lived to 80.”  They don’t even have the decency to add the adverb “relatively” to their comment.

On my father’s side of the family, things aren’t quite as optimistic, although my father’s sole sister lived to 96, and my father’s grandfather, a man of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, fathered his 19th child — with his fourth wife, aged 23 — when he was 91.

All this family history to live up to!!!  Oy veh!!!

Having just turned 65, I look at these family statistics with awe.  It takes effort and courage to get old.  It has taken me some effort and some courage to get to be 65.  To progress farther, it seems to me, is going to take every bit of energy I can muster.

When I was in the hospital — the hospital where my daughter, Sarah, is a nurse on the staff of the CICU — I was harangued daily by the doctors and nurses because of my horrible physical condition and my “lethal” smoking habit.  They were sure, when I was admitted, that I was a very sick old geezer.  I honestly believed they were disappointed to discover that — my sensitive and irritable pancreas aside — I am a fairly healthy old fart.  My doctor, as he gave me discharge instructions, had to say that I recovered from this attack with the speed of a 30–year–old, and that he was amazed at the general health of my “systems.”

Which brings me back to my mother and her family.

I have been obsessed, in the week I’ve been home, with the responsibility of good genes.  I feel as though I owe it to my long-lived forbears to reform my life, lose 100 pounds, train again for the half–marathon (walking only — I believe runners are nuts), and, of course, give up my filthy cigarette habit.  I owe these things to the genes they have given me, and to their collective blessed memory.

But. . .  But. . . But. . .

All that will take work, discipline, pain, suffering, and humiliation!!!  I am retired, for God’s sake!!!  Why can’t my body just do its thing, whatever that may be, and let me the hell alone?

As my mother and her family have shown me, it doesn’t work that way.  My mother hasn’t lived a day since the age of 10 when she wasn’t trying to “lose a few pounds.”  She has always eaten well but small portions.  Her 90–something second husband, now deceased, used to love to eat all kinds of good and rich foods, and he did eat them, although it took him an hour to eat 2 scrambled eggs, 3 strips of bacon, and 2 slices of (whole wheat, of course) toast.  He chewed everything for several minutes, and from time to time would put down his fork or spoon and just sit there.  He was a great guy and I loved him, but his eating habits made me stir–crazy!  All my mother’s 70, 80, and 90–year old friends exercise religiously.  My mother has lunch 3 days a week with “the girls,” aged women whom she met over the past 30 years at the gym now called “Shapes.”  My mother and most of her friends smoked when they were younger — they cam of age in the 30's and 40's.  All of them have long since given up the habit.

In other words, they all work hard to stay fit and healthy.  Regular medical and dental check–ups, constant awareness of opportunities to walk rather than drive, understanding of the latest in nutrition for “seniors” — these are the characteristics that have brought them all into an age that, to me, seems impossible.

The moral of my story: I have work to do!!!  I just hope it doesn’t kill me!