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You Will Arrive

Screen Shot 2018-05-31 at 8.00.02 AMTwo friends, Husband, and I recently traveled to Italy, and it’s the people I most remember. Especially those who shared their calm Italian demeanor.

We booked train tickets from Vincenza to Florence with an 11-minute transfer in Padova. Four people, four rolling suitcases, four shoulder bags to get off and on trains. European trains run on time and doors stay open very few minutes for passengers to deboard and board. The worse that could happen was we’d miss our train and catch one later, but we were determined to make this connection.

When I boarded in Vincenza I spotted a train attendant, who could’ve been Captain Kangaroo, fifty pounds lighter. Wearing a blue uniform, like a college band uniform, he walked toward me. Although I knew the seats closest to the door weren’t ours, I sat down. When Mr. Attendant came near, I said, “Please stay here. We need help.”

Mr. Attendant smiled and watched husband and our friend lift heavy suitcases onto overhead storage shelves. As we four travelers settled into seats facing each other (like a restaurant booth), Mr. Attendant stood silent.

“We’re going to Florence and change trains in Padova and we only have 11 minutes and we need help,” I said. Mr. Attendant ducked his chin and raised his hands, a calming gesture.

He saw my train ticket and said, “You’ll be fine. Now, stay here, but on the next train it will be crowded so locate your ticketed seats.” We nodded.

“Can you tell us which platform we’ll arrive on in Padova? Which platform we’ll leave on? How to get from one to the other?” Our questions flowed, and Mr. Attendant simply smiled.

After we leaned back in our seats, he said, “At Padova, you arrive on platform 1. It is quite simple to get to platform 5 to board for Florence.” Simple if you know where you’re going, I thought, but like Husband and our friends I sat quietly.

Mr. Attendant continued, “Get off this train and go this way.” He extended his arm and pointed. “Walk to the lift and it’ll get you where you need to be in two minutes. Go down to first floor. Only one floor.” He stopped and looked at each of us.

“Off the lift, walk briskly one minute, this direction.” He pointed. Looking at us two women seated side-by-side, he said, “Seated as you are, walk left.” Looking at the men, “Your right, as you sit.”

“Now, on the lift. Up one floor to platform 5. You have time.” I exhaled. “Next train, you are in car 6. Take your assigned seats. Relax. First stop is Bologna. Second is Florence. You will arrive.”

We did a quick review. Arrive platform 1. One floor down. Walk this way (we all pointed.) One floor up, Platform 5. Car 6. Mr. Attendant nodded, smiled, and said, “You will arrive.”

And we did. We arrived on platform 5 and waited three minutes for our train. I still tell myself stay calm and relax like Mr. Attendant.

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Sturgeons, Butterflies, Skittles, and Potties

“Here’s Cookeville and here’s Chattanooga where the aquarium is,” I said, pointing to a map to show Elaine as she, Husband, and I travelled in our van. “Remember what we’ll see there?”

Elaine, age 6, cocked her head. “Lemur. Fish.” Together, we had looked at the Tennessee Aquarium website. “Jellyfish. Otters! And Pop will buy me candy!” My Grand opened her eyes and mouth wide. “When can I have Skittles?” Elaine asked.

“After you eat a good lunch,” Husband said.

“Ah. When’s lunch? Where’ll we eat?”

“The aquarium has two buildings. We’ll walk through one, then eat lunch at a restaurant,” I explained.

“So after lunch, Pop will buy me Skittles?” Husband nodded.

Before exploring the Ocean Journey exhibits, I suggested a bathroom stop. “Do they have flush potties?” Elaine asked. She meant automatic flush toilets, which frighten her and many young children. Upon seeing an automatic flush potty, Elaine decided to only wash her hands.

Elaine bounced through the aquarium. Lemurs crouched high on tree branches. Sea rays glided through water inside a petting tank. Elaine watched as I put my fingers under water. “Hold your fingers straight. The sea ray feels smooth and cool,” I said.

Elaine shook her head, “No thanks. Is it time for lunch?”

In the butterfly room, hundreds of butterflies live in a perfect ecosystem. Elaine slowly turned her head, seeming to study her surroundings. Seeing a butterfly land on a boy’s hand, she moved beside a bush where butterflies fluttered. She stretched her arm, holding her hand under leaves.

Still and silent, she waited until a tiger butterfly lit. “Elaine, look toward me. I’ll take your picture,” I whispered. She lifted her eyes, didn’t move or smile. The butterfly stayed on her hand several minutes while she stood statue still. It flew and she said, “What’s next?”

Elaine led us past huge tanks of ocean life. She briefly watched scuba divers feeding sharks and was mesmerized by penguins diving into water and swimming.

As we walked to the restaurant, Elaine asked two questions. “Do they have flush potties? After lunch, I get Skittles, right?”

Before eating the Skittles Husband poured into her hand, Elaine grouped them by color. Again, she refused a bathroom stop.

In the River Journey exhibits, huge sturgeons circled a petting pool. Elaine held two fingers underwater. For fifteen minutes, she stroked every sturgeon that came close.

Husband doled out Skittles all afternoon and I convinced Elaine I could hold my hand over the motion sensor on a potty. Unfortunately, the toilet flushed before she got out of the bathroom stall.

At Elaine’s home, I handed Daughter a list of twenty-one animals Elaine had dictated that she saw and she said otters were her favorite. “And Gran, where’s the rest of my Skittles?” Elaine asked. I gave them to Daughter. “And guess what, Mom? I’m not afraid of flush potties anymore.”

High fives all around for a fun aquarium trip. For otters. Sturgeons. Butterflies. Skittles. And overcoming the fear of automatic flush potties.

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Go and Learn

Most Americans know about Paul Revere’s midnight ride to warn residents that the British were coming, but few remember William Dawes. Both Revere and Dawes, members of the patriotic Sons of Liberty, were sent on horseback from Boston to Lexington and Concord on April 18, 1775. While visiting Boston recently, my college girlfriends and I heard the story three times. By a tour guide and a waiter. And after a man sitting close by in a restaurant talked about several Boston landmarks, he asked, “Do you know about William Dawes?” I smiled and nodded. “And you know Samuel Prescott, right?” I frowned. He wanted to set the story straight.

Revere and Dawes rode different directions from Boston and met at a house in Lexington where Samuel Adams and John Hancock were staying. After telling Adams and Hancock to leave Lexington, Revere and Dawes rode on and hooked up with Dr. Samuel Prescott, who they recognized as a High Son of Liberty.

Just a few miles from Lexington, the three were stopped by British patrol. Dawes escaped quickly. The British herded Revere and Prescott into a meadow and Prescott also got away. Revere was held, questioned, and eventually released, but his horse was confiscated. So while Revere walked back to Lexington, Dawes continued the ride, but it was Prescott who first reached Concord to warn citizens of a British invasion.

Dawes was sent from Boston as a midnight rider, too. But they didn’t really leave at midnight and Prescott got to Concord first, I learned. And all these years, my knowledge of April 1775, was based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, Paul Revere’s Ride, written in 1860.

Bostonians are proud of their town, its history and are helpful to tourists. While visiting Boston, my friends and I were offered assistance three times during a short walk. After seeing us study a map, a woman walked a half a block to guide us to our destination. As we stood waiting to cross a street, I pointed toward a building. A man said, “Can I answer any questions for you?” I asked about the tall tower in the distance, and he briefly explained the history of old Custom House, Boston’s first skyscraper.

A bike rider stopped beside us at the next intersection and greeted us, “Welcome to Boston. Hope your day’s going well. Can I help with directions?” We said that we’d just arrived that day and he was the third person to offer help in ten minutes. Unlike other places we’ve visited.

“We’re proud of our town,” he said. “We aren’t like other big cities. There’s a lot of history here. I think of visitors as guests in our house and we want everyone to feel welcomed and comfortable. We want people to like Boston and learn what’s here. Hope you have a good week.”

We girlfriends had a great visit with each other and saw many Boston sights, but the strongest impression was the people. People eager to share to share their town, their home.

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Travel. New Experiences. Family.

“So, Gran, what are ya’ going to write about this week?” Lou, age 10, asked.

“You mean for the paper?” I said.

“Yeah.”

“Hmmm. I’m not sure. Do you have any ideas?”

“Well, yeah. About our trip!” My Grand raised her eyebrows and tilted her head, emphasizing that surely this week’s topic would be her trip with Husband and me to visit Son and family. Lou’s uncle, aunt, and three young cousins, ages 5, 3, and 1, who live 1300 miles away.

“How about you write this week’s column?” I said.

“Gran, I wrote one for you. The one about the big yellow duck, remember? You do this one.”

Weeks after returning home, Lou is still reveling in the experience of flying and being the big cousin whom little cousins wanted to sit beside at the supper table. Of being the first of her family to spend the night at her uncle’s and aunt’s home. (Her dad and brother visited, but not overnight.) Watched a St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Traipsed a rocky path and skipped rocks in a branch of the Poudre River and kept a smooth egg-shaped rock for a souvenir.   Spotted a herd of mule deer at Rocky Mountain National Park. Coached cousins turning backward somersaults. Read bedtime stories and kissed goodnight. Ate a bakery chocolate chip, cream-filled, cookie sandwich. Pretended to gobble one-year old cousin’s meal of plastic carrots and fried eggs.

Last week, Lou looked at me with a somber, serious expression. “Gran, thanks for taking me.” Those five heartfelt simple words brought tears to my eyes. She appreciated. She had fun. She recognized an once-in-a-lifetime gift. Never again would boarding an airplane and flying be the experience it was this first time. Never would visiting her uncle and aunt and cousins be as exciting. And, next time, the snowcapped Rocky Mountains won’t look so tall, so huge.

I’d be lying if I said that taking Lou to visit Son and family was fun just for her. I loved it. Even the ninety-nine million questions she asked before and during. Is security (at the airport) scary? What does it feel like when the plane starts? Is it loud? When will we get there? What will we do there?

When she sensed that she was reaching her question limit as we flew over Missouri, she suggested a game of hangman. (I would guess her message by naming letters to replace blank lines, much like Wheel of Fortune.) Her messages were questions. What time will I have to go to bed? What will we eat for breakfast? Will Dean (her 5 year-old cousin) have to go to school?

Lou made me laugh. She wiggled her 65-pound body into her airplane seat and declared, “I’m squished!” She sat with eyes glued to the airplane window. “Look! Those little, tiny things are cars.” “Can you see that? Another plane! Right there.” “So that’s what the top of clouds look like.”

Travel. New experiences. Family. Yes, Lou, that’s a column.

 

From Our House to Son’s

screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-6-17-54-amWhen Son said, “This is the house our children will grow up in,” it was time to take him all his stuff. Son moved away from home more that twenty years ago. Went off to college and then moved into a 900 square foot house when he took his first real job. He married, he and Daughter-in-Law had three children, and they moved three times. And everything collected and saved from Son’s birth through college years has been safely stored at Husband’s and my house.

Now, Son’s family has settled into their forever home. So Husband and I started gathering stuff and making plans to drive 1295 miles to deliver treasures. We’d take the back seats out of my van and fill it full.

Would Son want everything that has been saved? Some things were going for sure: a cedar chest and a toy chest and toddler-size rocking chair that my dad made for him many years ago. High school yearbooks and a letter jacket. College fraternity scrapbooks. All the picture albums with his name on the spine. A purple and gold basketball from Tennessee Tech basketball camp. Quilts that he and his family had chosen from those my granny made.

I was surprised when we opened Son’s cedar chest. Forgotten treasures lay inside. A never used quilt, pillowcases cross-stitched by another great-grandmother, three stuffed Benjis – one so loved that its fur was flattened and matted. A cookbook, including Husband’s grandmother’s recipes, published by her Home Demonstration Club. Small treasures from his grandparents’ homes. Things that Son chose when he was young. A vintage white chicken candy dish. A small wooden black bear with a note tied to it. My mom had written, “Papa and I got this when we went to the Smokies for our honeymoon in 1939.” Would these things mean anything to Son at this stage of his life?

Then there was a pile of questionable stuff. Should we take a leather belt with a big western buckle? A guitar that Son strummed for a few weeks when he was 14 and bored and snow storms closed school for a month? Cassette tapes? A blanket he bought at a flea market when he went to camp one summer? A collection of twenty-year-old Sports Illustrated magazines? Rifles – the 22 he learned to shoot as his grandfather stood over his shoulder? A Civil War rifle passed down through generations? His first B B gun? A Santa Claus cookie jar? And so much more.

Son and I talked using Face Time. I held my phone camera in front of items. Yes, the belt. Yes, the guitar. “Does it still play?” he asked. No, cassette tapes. Yes, to everything else, including all three Benjis. “Unless you don’t have room and I’ll get some stuff another time.” There’d be room. Husband and I were determined.

Daughter-in-Law’s parents brought treasures. Her great-grandmother’s desk with fragile curved legs and a mirror and jars of her grandmother’s homemade blackberry jelly.

Loading the van was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that didn’t fit. Husband measured and wrapped and taped. We wedged and padded and filled every possible space. After three hours, we declared that everything would travel securely and not rattle during our journey. Husband drove around the block just to make sure.

How would Son and Daughter-in-Law and their three young children react when they see all this stuff? Stuff that’s theirs. Mostly stuff that has been in the house where Son grew up.

Stranded in the Everglades

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 8.32.42 AM“It’s not a big problem. It’s okay. The starter just went out,” said Johnny, the tour guide. Because the airboat’s starter went out, the tour boat I was on was stranded in the Everglades National Park on a cool January morning.

Johnny picked up his two-way radio. “I’ll call the office. They’ll send another boat to get you and bring a starter so I can fix this one. It’s a five-minute repair.” The other three paying passengers and I assured Johnny that we weren’t on tight schedules and in no hurry to get back to dock.

“Johnny to headquarters,” Johnny repeated over and over into his radio. We heard conversations between other employees, but obviously no one heard Johnny. Using my cell phone, I snapped pictures of the mangrove trees. “Looks like my radio is out, too, and my phone is charging at the office. Can I use yours?” our tour guide asked.

Johnny punched numbers. No answer. “Ah, gees. They aren’t answering. This is the employees’ line – not the public one. I bet they see your number and think it’s a wrong number. I don’t know any other numbers. I’ll keep trying. Surely, they’ll answer. ”

We passengers chuckled. “So do you have paddles?” I asked. Johnny shook his head. “How far are we from the office dock?” About three miles by water.

Finally, on the fifth call, someone answered. “They’re sending a new starter,” Johnny said. “I’ll switch it out and take you back.”

Johnny had guided the airboat slowly through the Everglades canals, and later he explained why he sped up and did a couple of 360s in pond-size water. “When I went faster, one of you gave a thumbs up and nobody grabbed the seat bars. When it’s too cold for wildlife, going fast makes this tour more interesting.” The airboat swerved quickly through narrow canals shaded by mangrove canopies, until we came into open water and Johnny turned off the motor.

“This is called the Honey Hole,” Johnny had said. “It’s a good place to stop and talk about the Everglades. You’re in the middle of a mangrove forest. Mangroves lose their leaves a few at a time. Those yellow leaves are called sacrificial leaves. You can see the bottom here – it’s only about six inches deep – the water is clear because not many leaves fall in the middle of the pond.” Acid from decomposed leaves turns the water dark.

Sacrificial mangrove leaves drop and decay in the swamp to provide food for insects that are part of the food chain leading to alligators. The leaves are thick and waxy, like those of mountain laurels in the Smokey Mountains, and only about two inches long and the branches are thin and crooked, like a huge shrub. Native Americans called a mangrove a walking tree. Like curved legs, the tangled roots, some above water, anchor the trees in the swampy peat soil.

Stranded in the Everglades when the sun is shining and the temperature is 60 – a great way to spend an hour on a winter morning. No mosquitoes or alligators. Too cold for both. No danger of drowning. Silence in the middle of a mangrove swamp. The smell of unspoiled nature and the rich aroma of peat. One lone white ibis egret flew overhead. A fish, probably a gar, splashed.

Johnny was right. He changed out the starter and drove back to dock. Speeding and swerving all the way. And, if anyone needs it, I have the employees’ number for Captain Jack’s Airboats in Everglade City, Florida.

Ogham Stones

DSC03966The tour bus sped along a narrow paved road in Ireland. John, the bus driver, manhandled the long 40-passenger bus as if it were a Volkswagen beetle. Over bumps, around curves. I hoped there wouldn’t be a vehicle from the opposite direction. The road, with no marked lines, was as narrow as the country roads I learned to drive on in Pickett County.

I leaned close to the Gordon, the tour guide, and asked, “Is there a reason we’re travelling on this back road?” Gordon didn’t understand. I tried again. “Why are we on this narrow road? Isn’t there a better road to get wherever we’re going?”

“Oh, yeah, but we’re driving by some Ogham (OH-ehm) stones,” Gordon said. I frowned. “They were used to communicate before Christianity. It’s markings on rocks that were stuck in the ground.” And with a simple explanation, I was hooked. “We’ll stop, but not get off the bus,” he said. I stared out the bus window and watched Ireland fields of green flash by. Herds of cattle. Flocks of sheep.

Finally, John slowed the bus and announced, “Ogham stones on the right. Get your cameras ready! One of the best collections of Oghams in this part (the southwest) of Ireland.” Six stones, the tallest about eight feet tall; the shortest, three feet. Twelve to twenty-four inches wide. With short carved lines around the perimeter. No letters I recognized. Just lines along the sides and the top of stones, which looked like tombstones. Lines like a Tennessee black bear scratches into the bark of an oak tree.

“So what do those lines say?” I asked. Neither John nor Gordon, both well-educated Irishmen, knew. “Probably someone’s name or maybe directions to somewhere,” Gordon suggested. “The writing usually started at the bottom left side and went across the top and down the right side.” Left to right – like we write.

Those stone tablets had been positioned in the ground close to the road for people, such as my twenty-one American travelling companions and me, to see. Located on private property near the Gap of Dunloe close to Killarney, these stones show the earliest form of Irish writing by the Celts and date back to third century AD. Because they were originally the roof of an underground passage that collapsed at the end of the last century, they were protected from exposure and are well preserved. (http://www.destinationkillarney.ie/dunloe-ogham-stones)

Those letters, formed only with straight lines, were carved centuries ago. Each of the twenty main letters of the Ogham alphabet, used for about 500 years, was also the name of a tree. The letters consist of one to five perpendicular or angled strokes, meeting or crossing a centerline. The number, position, and direction of the lines identify the consonants and vowels, and the vowels can also be written as dots. The origin of the Ogham alphabet isn’t known; it may have been adapted from sign language.

Seeing the Ogham Stones was a three-minute stop on a weeklong Ireland tour. They impressed me as much as the miles and miles of rock fences dividing pastures, flocks of Blackface Mountain sheep, the 700 foot high Cliffs of Mohr, Calla Lily gardens in tropical Ring of Kerry, and even Blarney Castle.

Here was a written language used by early Irish people. Simple lines carved on standing stones. If John hadn’t driven the long way around on the back roads, I wouldn’t have learned about the Ogham alphabet. And my trip to Ireland wouldn’t have been complete.