Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Trials of the Traveler’s. . .

Part 1

The third year that I lived in Italy my best friend and I decided to take a trip. We had been in Italy long enough that we figured our Italian was good enough to strike out on our own. We planned a 4 day trip to Pisa, Florence, Venice and then back to Vicenza.

We boarded the train at 5:15 am on Wednesday morning, two semi-zombies too tired to be really excited yet. As the train started on its southward journey, it was quiet at that time, but with each stop, more and more people boarded the train. Italian trains other than the locale (pronounced low-call-e) have compartments that you sit in as opposed to open seating. Each compartment will hold about 8 people comfortably and it was always fun to see who your compartment mates would be.

In Padua 4 women joined us in the compartment. I believe they were sisters and a mother and were going to Rome. We spoke a little bit with them, telling them about our trip and what we hoped to see. Conversation lagged a little bit and they talked quietly amongst themselves, casting curious glances at us. Finally, the one who seemed to be the youngest of the group asked us if we watched Dynasty and Dallas! They were fans of the shows and wanted us to give them the scoops! Unfortunately we didn’t know a thing, but we chatted good-naturedly for awhile longer until the train got to Bologna, where we changed trains for Florence (to Italians it is Firenza) and finally to Livorno, Italy, about 30 miles west of Pisa.

Livorno, Italy

It was mid March, and the weather in Vicenza was pretty mild. Where we lived in Italy was pretty temperate as a whole, although our first Christmas there we got
a small amount of snow, which hadn’t happened for about 10 years. There were a few palm trees there which were funny to see the snow on. So when we left Vicenza, the weather had been clear and balmy. When we got off the train in Pisa, close to 300 miles southwest of Vicenza it was cold and blustery and raining! No, we hadn’t thought to bring umbrellas, we were lucky to have jackets.

We were planning to stay at Camp Darby, which was supposedly right outside of Livorno. It was actually about 20 miles. You had to have a car to get there. We had no car.
So we ended up staying in Livorno after schlepping around for 2 hours in the cold, blustery rain. We wanted to see Livorno as it was on the Mediterranean Sea and pretty historical. We found a small hotel and collapsed there. But the room was cold—in Italy, depending on where you lived, heat was only allowed for so many hours per day. For instance in Vicenza, the city we lived in, we were allowed heat for 12 hours a day, at a temperature of 60 degrees between October 15 and March 1. Since Livorno was farther south, we knew it was futile to even ask.

We went out to grab a sandwich for dinner and then went back to the hotel room and buried ourselves under blankets and shivered the night away. But, just like in fairy tales, the next morning was perfect; sunshine and blue skies. We checked out of the hotel and found a little cafĂ© and had breakfast, and then still carrying our bags around with us, we caught a bus to the Mediterranean Sea, which was a lovely blue. We walked along the sea wall and watched the tiniest little waves that either of us had ever seen sweep ashore. I took a whole role of film just trying to catch a good one and never succeeded. And it didn’t smell like the ocean either. I finally went down some steps and actually tasted the water (dumb I know) and it didn’t taste like an ocean either, not salty at all. But still we loved it, and enjoyed the time immensely.

We took a bus to the train station and caught a train to Pisa. About half way or so there we saw Camp Darby. If we had only been paying attention on the trip past it to Livorno, we would have saved ourselves a whole lot of trouble, that’s for sure!

We were so excited when we got to Pisa! The leaning tower was beckoning to us and we could hardly wait. We caught a bus headed in the right direction, (again schlepping our bags with us) and rode around the city. At one point we could actually see the tower off to the west of us and knew that as the bus looped around, we would be there soon.

The tower was bigger than we expected and it really, really leaned. If you go up and stand on the side where it leans towards you and look straight up, it is difficult to not feel a slight sense of vertigo, since the tower seems to be leaning drastically from that angle. We didn’t climb the roughly 1,100 step to the top as we did have our bags, but it was an awesome experience just to be there.

We had some good fortune about mid afternoon. We met an American girl, K, who was a college student in Florence. Her mother was visiting her and they were enjoying Pisa that day as we were. The day was turning out to be spectacular, with the bluest sky imaginable, sunny and warm. As we chatted with her, she asked where we were heading next and we told her to Florence. She told us she knew somewhere we could stay, so on the afternoon locale train, we left Pisa behind us and headed to Florence, the city of flowers.

We got our first real view of Florence as the locale train snaked through the hills above Florence from the west. The view was spectacular. It was early evening and the sun was behind us, casting a rosy glow on the city, and the river Arno in the distance with its bridges was an alluring sight. Farther to the east mountains ringed the city, green and verdant, with red-tiled buildings everywhere we looked.

At the train station we followed our guide and went out to the bus stops, to catch the number 7 bus to the Piazza SS Annunziata where the Hotel Panorama Michelangelo was located. What was wonderful about this location is that it was across the square from the Accedemia Galleria, where the original statue of David was located.

It was around 6 in the evening and space on the busses was at a premium. Carrying the large duffle bags we had with us made it even more difficult, but we all managed to squeeze onto the right bus. It wasn’t too far our friend told us, so everyone stick together she said which was easier said than done.

The Italian transportation system cannot be beat, whether you are on a train or a bus. The price is right and people actually use it, daily. Italians are not shy about using it either, remaining good-natured amidst all the jostling and maneuvering that it takes to get on the bus, find a place to stand, then actually get to the door when it’s time for your stop. Which I wasn’t quick enough to do.

My 3 friends made it off and before I could get to the door, it folded itself closed and the bus jumped forward. I remember looking at my best friends face as the bus pulled away. Her face paled as sheer panic washed over it. I couldn’t even have told you the name of the hotel at that point, or the piazza where it was located, and we hadn’t made any kind of contingency plans for something like this.

I smiled and waved and started thinking, Ok you have to remember where this bus goes next so you can follow the route back!

An older Italian gentleman watched what happened and immediately started pushing me towards the exit door.

“Dal senso lasci la donna passare,” he said, telling them to let me get to the door.

“Scusilo che sono spiacente,” I said as I made my way to the exit door, apologizing to everyone I bumped into with either myself or the bag.

As the bus prepared to make its next stop, the man was furiously giving me directions. “Vada diritto per 2 blocchi quindi giri a sinestra,” he told me, indicating with his hand to go straight back along the street, then turn left 2 blocks from where the bus was now.

“Grazie, mille grazie,” I told him as I made it out the door. In true Italian fashion, the bus passengers started cheering and waving and pointing down the street. I waved back and gave them my biggest smile as I headed off down the street.

When I got to the place where I needed to turn left, K was coming down the street in my direction to meet me. Even though I felt pretty confident about finding my way back, I was relieved to see her. We walked back the rest of the way chatting and laughing about how my friend had gotten so panicked about the whole thing.

We met up with the others and after lots of hugs made our way around the corner to the piazza and the very welcome site of our hotel. Nothing ever looked more inviting.

But our adventure in Florence was only beginning!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Cat Who Didn’t Know He Was A Cat. . .

He was born on April 12, 1967, a yellow tabby that I immediately fell in love with. All in all it was a banner day for me. I had my first period, and I got to go to my very first concert, The Monkees! But the best thing of all was that Tiger was born. His mom was Sweet Pea, named for the song by Tommy Roe, Sweet Pea. . . c’mon Sweet Pea, c’mon and dance with me. . .

From the start Tiger was different. The other kittens were long-haired and silky with large gold eyes. Tiger was short-haired and had green eyes. And I swear he could smile.

When the other kittens went out to new homes Tiger was left behind. Mom and dad said that it was because he was so ugly that no one wanted him, but I always suspected that they knew how much I loved him and kept him for me. In fact my dad would always call him the “worthless yellow fur piece” when any one was around, but you could hear him sometimes saying to Tiger “how’s my Tiger cat?”, but we always pretended not to hear that.

Sweet Pea was a great mom and tried so hard to teach Tiger all the things he needed, but Tiger just never seemed to get it. He didn’t like tuna or fish or milk, but he really enjoyed popcorn. When Sweet Pea tried to teach him how to walk along the top of the fence, like any good cat, he could never do it. He never got more than a couple of steps before he fell off. She tried to teach him repeatedly how to climb our Poplar trees by running him up one. But the problem was, once he made it up the tree, he couldn’t get back down. He would perch precariously up in the tree, mewling frantically as our Kansas wind made the tree sway and bend. I would have to go and get the ladder and rescue him. When he was close to a year old this pattern was still continuing. I’m not sure who was more upset, my mom watching me climb the ladder or Sweet Pea, who with ears laid back in a look of seeming disgust watched also. Once I had him down, she would turn her back and start licking and grooming herself which I’m sure was her way of showing him that she was mad!

Years later after Sweet Pea was gone, another female cat came to live with us. Her name was Tasha and she was a natural born huntress. If it moved, she could catch it and kill it, and she would often bring little gifts for us, just to let us know she loved us. When she would bring these gifts to Tiger and lay them in front of him for his approval, he would lay his ears flat and back up, away from whatever small creature was being presented to him. Truly you could tell he was disgusted by it, but you had to wonder after awhile if Tasha realized that and kept bringing him gifts just to annoy him.

I think back to those days and to my kitty who I loved so much. He loved to lie on his back upside down on my legs and have me rub his belly. He would purr and get that stupid “Tiger” grin on his face. He lived to be 19 years old and finally died peacefully in his sleep. He rests now in my parents back yard.

Yeah, he didn’t really know he was a cat. I’m not sure what he thought he was, but I know it wasn’t a cat!

Friday, September 22, 2006

My Mom Left Her Heart In San Francisco, But I Left Mine In Venice. . .

I was in kindergarten and first grade when we lived in Delhi, California. My dad worked at Boeing in Wichita, Kansas and our family took a 2 year field trip to California so my dad could work at Castle Air Force base in Atwater California.

There were a lot of great things about that time. My mom was excited because her sister and family lived in Delhi, and this was a wonderful opportunity for her to be with her sister and for me to get to know my cousins.

I loved California. The San Joachim valley climate was pretty mild, in fact our first year there I worried endlessly over how Santa could land his sleigh without snow. Mom told me that Santa was prepared for things like that and also had wheels for the sleigh. Whew! I was relieved to hear that!

They grew a lot of grapes out there in the mild climate and peaches and almonds, which the locals called am-mons. I loved to go to the orchards and pick the fresh peaches, huge and sweet and when you took a bite, juice ran wildly unchecked down your arm, leaving a sticky trail of nectar.

We wandered the state of California quite a bit, often going to Yosemite Park to the east of us and Monterey or Carmel to the west. But it was the trips to San Francisco that my mom loved the most.

Whether we were riding the cable cars or eating at Fisherman’s Wharf, sipping tea in the Japanese Tea Gardens or watching the Chinese New Years parade, there was always something exciting happening there. Oh the thrill I felt the first time we drove down Lombard Street, other wise known as the street of Roses. It’s a twisty-turny street that s curves down a block in San Francisco, houses and roses lining the way. We went for the first time in June and it was like a painting full of riotous colors, flowers of every kind imaginable everywhere you looked.

My favorite thing to do there was go to the Chinese New Years parade. It was bright and colorful, long Chinese dragons twisting and dancing down the streets with smoke billowing out of their heads, running and rushing at the crowd to scare them, but all in good fun. They tossed candy and Chinese fortunes to everyone. The first year we were there my mom bought me a pair of Chinese silk pajamas. The top was turquoise with black piping around the neckline and the bottoms were black. Turquoise was mom’s favorite color and this was one of the rich turquoises’, deep and intense. It was in a Chinese restaurant there that I saw a picture of a naked woman for the first time. They kept telling me not to stare, but it seemed pretty funny to me.

Mom seemed to love it all and every minute there was precious to her. The last visit there before we came back to Kansas was hard. I remember her crying as we drove over the Oakland Bay Bridge on our way back to Delhi. I didn’t understand then why she cried, but years later as I left Venice for the last time, I did. I got it. Those were places where we not only took a piece of with us; we left a bit of ourselves there; our youth, our ideals and memories dear to our hearts. After that, there was never a time that she heard that famous song, I Left My Heart in San Francisco that she didn’t cry.

Sadly, mom died in 1979 and I never really asked her exactly what about the city she loved so much, but I believe that to her it was a magical place. She and my dad were still young, experiencing life in ways that they never had before, seeing places and things that made impressions on them, on our family forever. I felt the same about Venice.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Boo Bear. . .

It was my dad that started calling her that when she was about 18 months old. It wasn’t because of the musical Winnie the Pooh that was her constant companion (which unfortunately met a terrible death when she was 4, but that is another story!), it was because she would get so excited when Yogi Bear was on TV and Boo Boo Bear made her giggle and clap her hands together and exclaim “boo boo. . .”

It was infectious to watch her and I couldn’t help but laugh when she did this. How enchanting she was at that age. Full of questions and life, her compact little body in motion constantly. She wasn’t really talking well at that age, but the few things she could say, she said a lot!

She was watching Yogi Bear late one afternoon, in the very inattentive way of an 18 month old child, but when Boo Boo Bear came on, she was all attention. Dad was there for dinner and saw this. When it was time for dinner, we picked her up to put her into the high chair and she immediately started crying Boo Boo. My dad was laughing and said to her, “we’re going to call you Boo Boo” and she just looked at him with her big grey-blue eyes, tears slowly leaking from the corners and said “Boo Boo . . .”.

The tears quickly went away as they often are for a hungry child, but the name stuck. For years she has been our Boo Bear. We don’t call her that too often anymore, maybe just sometimes when we want to yank her chain.

What is it about the childhood nicknames we hated? My dad called me “Snookie” or “Snooks” and I loathed it. I suppose it could be worse, but it drove me crazy. Maybe it’s because we don’t have any control over it, we didn’t pick the name ourselves? Who knows? But even though I hated that name back then, every so often my dad will call me Snooks now, and it melts my heart. I wish he could be around forever to call me that. . .

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Ladies and Gentlemen, May I Present The Beatles. . .

I remember that night so well. It was February 9, 1964 and we were living in Delhi, California. I was in kindergarten, involved with all the typical pursuits of a six year old. Little did I know that life would change after that night, not so much for me, but for most of the world because they were getting ready to go along on a very memorable ride.

Even in February our California evenings were pretty mild. Although it was dark out, we were still hanging around outside that evening, riding our bikes and laughing at the neighborhood dog who loved to chase tumbleweeds. It was small town USA, a delight for any kid. This was before the days when parents had to worry about something bad happening to their kids like kidnapping or molestation. We lived on Jennifer Court and ran wild and free playing Red Rover and jacks and chasing each other around playing tag.

“Hey kids! Do you want to come in and see something really funny?” my mom yelled out to us from the front door our house.

We were somewhat hesitant to end our play time, but decided it would be worth it to see something funny. Five of us ran into the house to the family room to see something that did indeed seem funny to us; four guys with long hair singing. When I see pictures of that performance now I laugh at myself for even thinking that their hair was long, but back then it really was.

They were singing Till There Was You, and as I watched, something incredible was happening to me, to most of the US as a matter of fact since an estimated 73 million people were watching. We had missed the first song they sang, All My Loving, but they actually sang 5 songs that night. By the time they sang I Wanna Hold Your Hand I knew I loved them. I just felt the music flow through me. It made me want to dance and laugh and as my friends and I sat there watching, that is exactly what we did!

The next few weeks the Beatles appeared again on the show, and we waited excitedly for them each time. In some ways it is sad for me to equate this as such a memorable time like when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, or when John F. Kennedy was shot, but it probably impacted as many people as those events did. I can’t think of another time that a single event changed so much for the US and really even the world, until September 11, 2001.

I’m glad I can remember. . .

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

She Was A Klutz, But We Loved Her Anyway. . .

My mom was accident prone, to say the least. Some of the weirdest things happened to her, which as a kid I thought was really cool. Now, as an adult I shudder at some of them and wonder how on earth they happened to begin with.

Some of them she was just flat lucky to have come out of relatively okay, like the time she was reaching for the basket of french fries and stuck her hand into the hot pan of oil. She didn’t realize what she had done immediately, in fact wiped her hand off on a towel before it occurred to her what she had did. She had a lot of redness, some blisters and one spot of third degree burns, but it certainly could have been a lot worse.

There were so many things like that over my childhood years, funny, and sometimes so totally unbelievable like the time we had to take her to the emergency room to get stitches in her toe. It started out as a normal day like any other. . .

I had a friend stay overnight. We were in 5th grade and in love with the Monkees, specifically Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz. We had been up late the night before, listening to our Monkee records, over and over, and well, over again. In the wee hours of the morning my so very patient mom finally told us that if she heard “Hey hey we’re the Monkees” one more time she would personally break the album into hundreds of little pieces. We knew of course she wouldn’t do anything of the kind; her impatience was good-natured and long-suffering.

She was such a good mom, the neighborhood mom. All my friends hung out at my house. I don’t ever remember her showing exasperation or irritation at having a half dozen or more kids hanging out in her basement or back yard, trooping into the house for drinks or bathroom breaks. She had 8 miscarriages over the years, I was the only child that my parents ever had, and my mom should have had a dozen.

The morning started out pretty normal really, we had Rice Krispies and bananas for breakfast, childishly taking delight in over-sugaring our cereal and stirring it all together in the bowl, the sweet granules of sugar taking a long time to dissolve in the cold milk. Ahh, the lovely sound of Rice Krispies going snap, crackle and pop in the bowl then smacking them down in the bowl with your spoon to saturate them with the sugary milk.

Somehow a crispy little bit escaped onto the floor undetected. A Rice Krispie on its own, while very crunchy is still pretty soft when stepped on and will disintegrate into dust. But, a Rice Krispie that has been bathed in sugary milk, dropped on the floor and left to dry becomes a veritable weapon. The sugar forms a hard lacquer-like coating over the rice, which surprisingly becomes very sharp and durable, almost like a burr. And it can really slice your toe!

We had to take mom to the ER that day. She got 4 stitches. Honest!

Monday, September 18, 2006

Every Family Has A Clown. . .

At two, my youngest grandson is exuberantly full of life, all uproarious giggles that can’t help but make you laugh, no matter what is going on. Although he doesn’t yet understand the word “charm”, he embodies it in practically everything he does.

Brown-haired and blue-eyed, some day he will surely break hearts. But right now the only thing he is concerned with is what is happening next.

Since his 3 older brothers are now in school, that leaves only him and his mom at home. He seems to think she is now his exclusively and is enjoying this tremendously.

Every emotion that crosses his heart is written plainly on his face. Whether it is anger when he doesn’t get his way or shyness when he first sees someone, he gives it his all. But the looks I love the best are the ones that project his natural curiosity and ebullient joy at life.

“What are you doing there?” I ask him as I see him peeking around the corner of the loveseat trying to see if I’m paying any attention at all to him.

He looks up over the arm of the loveseat, only his eyes visible. Beautiful blue and sparkling with. . . hmm, something.

“Come over here and see grandma,” I say to him. He ducks his head down and I hear muffled giggles, then his head pops up again, far enough now that I see his round, pink cheeks and laughing mouth.

“Come here” I say again, this time laughing myself. His giggles are definitely contagious and as he pops his head back up again the giggles turn into squeals.

“You are a funny boy,” I declare to him, which seems to make him laugh all the more.

I turn away from him for a minute to see what he’ll do. Out of the corner of my eye I see him pop up yet again and stop and look for a moment trying to figure out if he has lost his audience.

“Hey,” he calls out, “hey!”

I continue to look at the TV and the other 3 boys who are coloring at the table in the dining room.

“HEY,” he exclaims, this time louder and one small chubby hand pats up and down on the arm of the loveseat.

I look at him this time and the room lights up with the splendor of his smile. Perfect little white teeth in a pink mouth are grinning infectiously at me, head cocked to one side, he heads over to me. He reaches up and puckers his lips for a kiss.

I’m totally beguiled. . .

Friday, September 15, 2006

Part of the Village. . .

I knew that she was my “sister of the soul” almost immediately; that feeling of comfort, familiarity and “rightness” about her. My soul reached out immediately to hers and we became fast friends that have lasted now for almost 13 years. She is my sister from another mother, family of another blood that makes these kinds of connections even stronger.

I have learned so much from her on the pagan path of my life, but I’ve also learned about myself, who I am and what I’m about. She has challenged me on about every level I live on. That’s what a sister of the soul does you know. They aren’t there to just say nice things, they are there to sometimes tell you the really hard things, the things that impact you in ways you would rather avoid and that make you face reality and some of the places that you hope to never visit again.

I have also shared some of the best times of my life with her (she knows what times I’m talking about!). Many of those times I can’t write about, but let’s just say that they involved starry nights and adventure. They are forever written in my heart with indelible ink and will always bring me joy. . . and laughter. The kind that makes you laugh so hard tears stream from you eyes and make your sides hurt Silly, probably even a little stupid were those times, but they were the best.

One of the aspects of her I love the most is her role of mother. Her daughter is 12 now, a beautiful young woman who seems to blossom a bit more every time I see her. Mama bear is fiercely protective of her cub, which is as it should be and which necessity made her be.

Those were the times I helped her through, the dark days and months that slipped slowly and painfully into years of devastation, when you are challenged by things you can’t really conceive of before they happen. I never really saw her falter during those times. Slip a little occasionally maybe, but she always picked herself up and went back to her path, getting though those tough times and school with very little help. I admired her patience and the deftness with which she handled everyday life as a single parent, the thought and care she put into her parenting.

But she did have a village with her, around her. Aunties stepped in when needed, sometimes comforting her and sometimes the little one. Our roles varied as the circumstances dictated, but we always shared in the joy of watching the little one grow and learn new things. When she took her first steps I felt as proud as her mama did!

Recently my friend Moonchild ran into mama bear and her daughter and called me after the encounter. She told me how beautiful my friends daughter is, what a wonderful spirit she has and how much power emanates from her. And it’s true, someday the young one will be very powerful, and she luckily has the best mother in the world to help her channel that power into positive endeavors.

When Moonchild told me these things about the young one, I found myself sort of puffing up with pride. I laughingly realized how much I was taking credit for this wonderful young woman and how silly that was. But then again, I AM part of the village. . .

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Escape Club. . .

I call us the Escape Club. We got that name from our desire to escape from the office once a week or so for lunch. Off to exciting adventures that make the whole day worthwhile. OK—so it’s actually a little Mexican restaurant near us. Sharing thoughts over chips and salsa. Sometimes happy, sometimes just grumbles about the day we are having. Sixty blessed little minutes away from our desks, the phones that constantly ring and all the other things that interfere with our hectic days in even more hectic lives.

It’s not so much that we hate our jobs. Actually, I love my job and I don’t think the others mind theirs too much. Well, M does, but it’s not the work itself. We work in an office of eighteen people. People that we like, who work well with us and generally make our days and jobs much easier. Sometimes just a smile makes all the difference.

Sometimes it takes more than that. Sometimes it takes the Escape Club.

There are four of us now. But in the beginning, there were only two. N and I. We started here about the same time. Two new kids on the block, we struck up a friendship that has lasted a long time. She impressed me from the first. It was so easy to share confidences with her and we just seemed to compliment one another’s ideas. Sometimes we would laugh so hard I didn’t think I would ever stop. She was so determined to prove herself, in her job and in life in general. But there was also a look of apprehension that shadowed her eyes. We have all been there, coming from a place that we don’t want to remember very much. She and I both are refugees of our pasts. Fortunate survivors resolutely determined to make the best of things; yet still looking over our shoulders for what might come next.

Of course, when M came along we got to know her too. She appeared to be the quintessential independent and together woman. I admired her from the start. When we would talk, I was fascinated by her intelligence, by the interesting things she had to share. At that time there were very few signs of the underlying sensitivity and emotions that are so much a part of her and just a hint of vulnerability that makes you love her even more. We started sharing rides to work and I learned quickly how compassionate a person she is. But there is a bit of a fighter in her too, which makes her so much fun.

When L came into our office circle we were happy to have another buddy to share life and the office mini-dramas with. But what an enigma she was! The person I believed her to be when she first came here has very little to do with who she really is. She came to us after losing her mother and being stuck in a terrible job, so of course was a little wary of us. She was very bright and friendly (which she still is) but there was certainly a lot of reservation there. But bit-by-bit her personality came through. Kind of like peeling an onion; so many layers… the Golden Key Honor Society student working hard to get a degree, the dedicated Democrat with undeniably strong convictions, sharp-witted and funny and underneath it all, very caring. (But don’t tell anyone!)

These three wonderful women are so important in my life. Each one of us is a survivor and fighter in our own unique way. We have survived broken marriages and dreams, kids, financial hardships and jobs from hell. We each fought these trials in our own ways, but we got through them. We are all different in our outlooks, thoughts, ideas and the very way we approach our lives and yet we overlap a bit at the seams. Sort of like Neapolitan ice cream; separate flavors, each one distinct and so much better when blended together. How do we do it, make sense of our friendship, and more importantly why?

We do it because so seldom in this crazy world do you find people who make you happy just to be with, whom you can cry with, laugh with and trust. I am fortunate to have found three others who are just a little bit crazy like me.

I had lots of friends growing up, yet surprisingly few of those friendships stood the test of time. Maybe we just all grew up—but I think it is more than that, more than just the fact that we went our separate ways and grew apart. I am not the same person that went to school with those friends. Very few of them would recognize the person that I am today. I hope that I am more conscious of the world around me, that I make a difference.

We do change and evolve as human beings, a continuous process of transformation, which keeps us mentally healthy and maybe sane. So maybe that’s why the Escape Club is so great and works so well. Each one of us adds her own unique personality and attributes to the pot. It’s a sure bet that at least one of us can empathize with whatever situation we are dealing with. Whether the situation calls for a friendly shoulder to cry on, someone to share our joy or even a little magic, we are in it together.

All for one and one for all? No, it’s much more complicated than that. Each one of us carries a bit of the others around with us. Thousands of miles will eventually separate us, but we will never really be apart.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Comfort and Cuddles. . .

My oldest grandson is 8. He is a grandma’s boy, lucky for me. Even at the grand age of 8 he still loves to come to grandma’s house, whether for a short visit or to spend the night. And he still loves to cuddle. Not all the time mind you, but often enough that it comforts me a great deal.

He is a special child. Well, all four of them are special, but he is more so than the others. Not that he is loved or cherished more, or my favorite, but that he is literally special. He may not be able to fully cope with the demands of this world as the others will. He only sees the good in people, and doesn’t yet recognize the bad things that people are capable of.

From the time he was just a toddler, he would walk up to someone and raise his arms and want to be picked up. It didn’t matter who they were, old or young, familiar or not, he just wanted to be held. Every face was the face of a friend. Trustingly he would look up at them never knowing what harm they could do. Every person has an equal opportunity with him. Stranger danger is a concept he just doesn’t get.

In his experience, people are good. No one has hurt him, so he doesn’t understand that someone could. Yes, we all tell him that someone could, his parents, grandparents, and teachers. But he knows, deep down in his loving heart that we must be wrong.

How do we teach him this lesson without something devastating him, hurting him in some known or unknown way? How do we teach someone who walks a different path than the rest of the world to be wary of the dangers that he can’t even see or perceive?

Monday, September 11, 2006

Romeo and Juliette, the Italian Version. . .

In Italy, we were stationed at Caserma Ederle in Vicenza. Vicenza sits about half-way between Venice (Venezia) and Verona, a city made famous by the story of Romeo and Juliette. On the top of a sizable hill situated between Verona and Vicenza the castles of Romeo and Juliette and a chapel sit. When I first heard about the site I was excited and quite anxious to visit.

I went with a friend one beautiful afternoon in March. He had been there before and knew his way. The hill(actually a foothill to the Alps) is large and you could see it from quite a distance

I enjoyed the day a great deal and the next afternoon I excitedly told my Italian neighbor about the visit. I offended her, without intending to by telling her how amusing I found it that they had castles and it was all only a story. Trust me, to an Italian, Romeo and Juliette ARE real, Shakespeare may have told the story, but he didn’t make it up! They take it very seriously. In Verona, you can even see Juliette’s grave!

One lovely day a year or so later, my girlfriend and I had lunch and decided to take a drive. I told her about the castles and we decided to pay them a visit as she had never been. It’s easy spotting the hill and castles from the distance, but as the afternoon proved, not so easy to actually get to!

So off we set, not a care in the world. The afternoon was sunny and warm and I was with my best friend. Life couldn’t get much better. Except maybe if we could actually get to the castles.

We found the hill easily, but couldn’t find the road to go up the hill. So we stopped at a little trattoria (kind of like a small family owned cafe) to ask for directions. Of course, we couldn’t very well ask for questions and not buy anything, so we had a glass of wine. Our Italian by that time was pretty good, and we felt confident that we could get there and took off again.

15 minutes later we realized how foolish we had been. It seemed we were just circling the damn hill, but not finding the road. So we spotted another little trattoria and stopped in, buying the obligatory glass of wine. The wine was wonderful and we thought the day was getting so much grander! Surely the sun was shining directly on us, so happy were we.

Until we started out again and another 10 minutes didn’t get us any closer. It was one small hill for goodness sake, how hard could it be to find the road? We tried one little road after another, each one twisting around and usually taking us right back where we had started. At times you can look at all those lovely little roundabout roads and circle roads in Italy as charming and quaint. Not this time!

It had been over an hour since we got to the area of the hill and while we could look up and see the castles, we were not a single inch closer to being up there. It was even more frustrating because we could actually see the road snaking up the side of the hill, playing hide and seek with the grape arbors on the side of the hill.

We decided to give up the search and our annoyance led us to one last little trattoria for a final glass of wine before we headed home. Ok, we didn’t really need any more wine, but keep in mind that in Italy, the glasses in these little bars and trattorias are really very small, about the size of a small juice glass usually, so it wasn’t like we were downing a big glass of wine like you get here in the states.

This little place had some tables outside and so we grabbed our glasses and took them outside to enjoy the view of the elusive hill and castles. So close and yet it might as well have been a hundred miles away!

We sit there laughing and chatting and wondering what other afternoon pursuit we could find, and I was looking around at the appealing neighborhood we were visiting. Life in Italian neighborhoods is hard to describe. Italians are extremely industrious folk, always busy and yet the pace of life seems so much slower. Even at that time of the afternoon, reposo, the Italian equivalent of siesta, there was lots of activity going on. Most businesses (shops, gas stations, stores) close from around noon until 3:00 or so. But people were still busy, just in a less hurried way, sweeping the sidewalks in front of their houses or businesses, hanging clothes on lines on their balconies, chatting to one another. It was a wonderful place to be, taking it all in.

The trattoria sat on another of the roundabout streets, so instead of looking across a straight street, you were looking at a big circle, with homes and businesses around the perimeter. Several streets intercepted the circle in what seemed odd places, but what the heck did I know? Streets there were often small and twisty and many times looked more like drive ways than streets.

I was looking at one such drive that had some kind of flowering vine covering the iron fencing on either side of it. The flowers were varied purples and were gorgeous, creeping wildly and without restraint over the fence. That’s when I saw it—a sign that said: Romeo and Guilietta’s Castelli and had an arrow pointing up the drive that obviously wasn’t a drive at all, but a street!

And so of course we made the drive up to the top of the hill. Guilietta’s (Juliette’s) castle is very run down, with whole sections of the wall crumbling away, but that kind of made it more interesting. Romeo’s castle had part of it turned into a tavernna (bar) and had a TV antenna on top of it. Modern times obviously caught up with the Montagues. The chapel was somewhere in-between the two castles and was interesting to visit. All in all, it was an awesome day and as we sat up on top of the hill and looked down toward Vicenza, we fell just a little more in love with that wonderful city!

Friday, September 08, 2006

Life’s Unexpected Twists. . .

The city girl from Kansas and the country girl from California met in 1984 in Italy of all places. Both of our husbands were in the U.S. Army and that was our duty post for the next 3 years.

We arrived in Italy on the same plane that September day. It was beautiful and warm in Aviano, Italy, right on the southern edge of the mountains. My family had been traveling for 24 hours by the time we got there and my husband had to literally drag me up off the tarmac, which I wanted to kiss in thanks for us finally arriving!

There were 3 other families that stayed in the Hotel Ellen for close to 2 months, waiting housing. We all became each others families during the tour, and we were thankful for the friendships.

One girl and I hit it off really well. I had lived in California for a couple of years as a child and told her about that.

“Where did you live?” she asked me.

“OH, you wouldn’t ever have heard of the town. It was tiny, called Delhi, in the San Joachim valley.” No one had ever heard of it before.

“I’m from Ceres, a couple of towns over!” she excitedly told me.

In the San Joachim valley, a network of small towns bump up against one another along highway 99, from Modesto to Merced. The fact that for the first time ever I had met someone who actually not only knew where Delhi was, but also came from that same small valley was miraculous. That began our bond and it grew steadily stronger over the years.

At times we laugh about the fact that she grew up on the farm out there, and was involved in things like FFA (Future Farmers of America) and raising pigs and such. She would talk about how much better pork was when you grew it yourself!

That always made me shudder. I KNOW that they kill animals for us to eat, but I don’t really want to meet them first. How she laughs at me about that, the city girl from Kansas. Here in Wichita, when I want to see pigs or cows, I go to the zoo!

Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

History Repeats Itself. . .

When I was 15 I got the bright idea to see what it was like to stay out all night. My best friend and I decided that we were old enough and wanted to try our wings, after all, everyone else was doing it!

We made a deal to meet our boyfriends at the place where they worked on a Friday night after of all things, a church hayrack ride. We had all the ducks lined up in a row, her parents thought she was staying at my house, and mine thought I was staying at hers.

Our plan was perfect! Or so we thought. . .

None of us had driver’s licenses or cars, so when the restaurant where the guys worked closed at 11:00, we were on our own, footloose and fancy free! No parents to tell us what to do or what we could or could not do. It was November, about the middle of the month. No snow or anything, but cold enough that it was pretty miserable to just be out walking around with no place to go. We hung out until midnight at the local arcade room playing pool and pinball, which was a lot of fun, but it also took most of the spending money we had. And when they closed, again, we were back on the street. This was 1972, so there really weren’t many places that were open that late or all night like now. We stood around under a street light, trying to be cool and pretend like the evening was going exactly as planned. We were cool. . . well, actually we were cold!

Our only choice was to keep moving, but where to move to next? Without a car, even energetic 15 year old kids get tired. By about 2:00 am, not only were we tired and bored but to make things worse, we were hungry! And did I mention it was COLD! (We later found out that it was 39 degrees that night)

Around 3:00 am we found a Mr. Donut shop that was open all night! Salvation! we decided and made our way into the shop as quickly as our frozen feet could carry us. We didn’t have enough money for hot chocolate and donuts, but we could afford the donuts, and decided that we could just eat them very, very slowly. But another terrifying thought was beginning to occur to us.

My friend lived about 5 miles away and then it was another 3 to my house. How on earth were we going to get home come morning?

The answer came much more quickly than we expected, and unfortunately for us, in a way we totally were NOT prepared for.

At 3:30, my boyfriend looked up and saw his mom pull up outside. “Shit” he yelled, “it’s my mom!”

We all groaned because that could only mean she was bringing trouble. I hadn’t met his mom yet, as we had only been “going together” for a couple of weeks or so. She looked mean. Okay, well, mostly just tired, maybe a little frightened, and a whole lot of pissed off!

She stormed into the Mr. Donut shop like a conqueror taking a village. The counter person (who didn’t have a clue about the situation) faced her and greeted her cheerfully and asked what she would like. She just made a bee-line for where we were sitting, at the counter in the back side of the shop.

We wanted very badly to just pretend we didn’t see her or that she couldn’t see us, but of course we knew that wasn’t going to happen. The mighty cloak of invisibility failed us!

My friend was the first one of us in the direct line of fire from the dragon that was bearing down on us. Mrs. B pointed her finger at my friend and said “Are you Hope? Your dad is looking for you!”

Oh God, worse than we could have imagined. My friend just looked at me and I stammered “No, I’m Hope” and watched as Mrs. B turned her focus onto me. Her gaze was steely, and I felt like I didn’t really measure up to whatever she had previously thought about me. Maybe that was good? Probably not. . .

“C’mon” she said and headed out the door. The four of us looked at one another, all of us dead ducks caught squarely in the trap. No where to go except out to Mrs. B’s car to face the music. We got in, all four of us crowding into the back seat, and it was impossible to tell who was shaking the hardest. Mrs. B didn’t say a word on the way back to her house, which, unfortunately for us was only a mile or so away.

As she pulled into their driveway, we spotted my friends’ dad’s car. She just looked at me and burst into tears. “Great” I thought, “she’s going to fall into a million little pieces and leave me hanging out there all alone.”

My boyfriend stood there looking at me for a moment, and then impulsively (and bravely I thought) hugged me before following his mom into the house. My friends’ boyfriend looked around and didn’t see anyone or anything familiar looking for him and took off at a run. Mrs. B didn’t seem to notice. About that time our dad’s came out of the house and we wordlessly followed them and got in the car, both of us dragging our tired and cold feet, heads down, knowing that we were heading for the firing squad.

Her dad started the car and we started for home. Neither dad was saying a word and frankly, I wasn’t going to offer anything. Silence, that was how I was going to play this one. My friend had been sitting there in the back seat of the car crying, not loudly, but silent tears running down her face, glistening each time we passed a street lamp. Finally, in this tight, squeaky little-girl voice, she said “Daddy, are you mad at me?”

Oh My God I thought. I slid a little lower in the seat, waiting for it to hit the fan. I knew better than to try to talk to my dad yet. Unh unh. . . I was waiting until I got home and my mom would be there before I opened my mouth!

But in the meantime, her dad got started, and didn’t seem likely to wind down any time soon. “. . . I am more that mad, I am disappointed. . .” and so on. I tried desperately to just melt into the seat and hope MY dad didn’t start in.

Not that what her dad was saying wasn’t all true, which unfortunately I didn’t really realize until years later.

We finally got to my house and dad said thanks to Mr. D and we went in. I suddenly wished it had been a longer ride. I’m sure I looked like something the cat dragged in and feeling as if I was about to face the Spanish Inquisition to boot.

My mom was setting there in the living room, calmly working on a picture puzzle which was almost done. I remembered when I had left early in the evening she was just beginning it. Not a good sign. . .

I sat down on our sofa at my dad’s command. My parents looked at each other and I really couldn’t interpret those looks. Finally, after an eon had passed my mom said, “ok, tell us why you did this?”

Wow, not what I was expecting. I mean, she sounded almost reasonable. This can’t be good.

I gave them all the pat answers, which I believed at that time anyway, were the truth, such as all my friends were doing it, etc. and they asked all the parent kind of questions such as what did I learn, etc.. And then the final question came, unexpectedly.

“Are you ever going to do it again?” They waited, but not for long.

“No way” I said, and boy did I mean that!

“Why?” they wanted to know.

“I’d have to be stupid to do that again. It was cold, there was no place to go, we were hungry, tired and bored!”

At that point mom and dad looked at one another and for a moment or two, it was as if time was standing still. First dad broke, then mom. Broke into wild laughter. They laughed so hard tears ran down their faces, all the while I sat there, stunned, silent and thinking, oh my God, I’ve finally done it—pushed them over the edge and they’ve lost it.

I definitely didn’t get what I deserved that night. They said they figured I had had such a miserable experience and had learned a harder lesson than they could ever teach me. No grounding, but I had to go in front of the church and apologize as it had been the church bus that had dropped us off at the restaurant.

I’ll never forget that night, then or 30 years later in my life.

It was 5:00 am in the morning in August. There was a loud knocking on the front door. My husband had been activated for Desert Storm and it was only my daughter and I at home. The dog was barking furiously and as I rushed down the hall, trying to pull my robe on and get it fastened, the pounding continued and I heard a voice saying “This is the Wichita police m’am. Please open the door, we have your daughter”.

Sigh. . .

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Best Dying Scene I’ve Ever Seen. . .

He is so dramatic, his performances compelling and intriguing. My second grandson, I swear he’ll be an actor! He has his facial expressions polished to perfection, whether displaying humor, or sadness; they are displayed for your amusement.

And it is so hard not to laugh!

“Where are you going?” I ask as I see him heading out the door, obviously trying to sneak out unnoticed. Hmmm, I think. His shoulders are protectively hunched forward as he stops and looks over his shoulder at me. “What do you have there?”

Smooth turn here as he coordinates the move by twisting his arm around to his back while talking animatedly to me.

“Have, grandma?” he says with a truly angelic look on his face. “I don’t have nothing, see. . .” he offers, holding out his hand. An obviously empty hand is being proffered out towards me for inspection. “I’m just going out to play with my brothers, I really miss playing with them” he says, his beautiful blue eyes open wide and innocent, slowly blinking their long dark lashes at me.

“What’s in your other hand there bubbie?” I ask, trying so hard to NOT laugh, especially since I didn’t have a clue what was clutched in his other grubby little hand!

“Other hand?” he states, as he smoothly slides the right hand around his back and brings the left out to show me that it is empty. There is more movement going on behind his back, his small body twisting and gyrating as the movement behind his back continues.

Ahh! He feels he has accomplished what ever he was trying to do, his face now reflects achievement and his smile is a mile wide. Hmmm, I think again!

“Why don’t you come over and give grandma a hug before you go out to play with your brothers?” I ask him.

Panic. His expressive little face reflects a half dozen or so scenarios that are going through his brain. His face grows pale, and then reddens dramatically as he takes a couple of hesitant steps towards me.

We can hear the sounds of laughter from the front yard as two of his brothers are chasing one another around. His parents are outside talking to a neighbor in the cool shade of the evening. His brand new baby brother is sleeping peacefully in the living room. He darts longing eyes towards the laughter outside and then decides to just get it over with. He rushes up to me and throws his arms around my neck quickly and then just as quickly pulls away. He starts to turn around and stops dead in his tracks, looking at me with those huge eyes again.

“What’s the matter bubbie?” I ask him, trying so hard not to laugh at his predicament.

“No-nothing grandma” he stammers. But by this point he knows he’s caught. He can’t very well back up all the way to the door, and he can’t turn around. It’s amazing watching him mentally debate what he needs to do.

He sighs, a big, huge loud and lengthy sigh and reaches behind his back and pulls out a water gun, ready to aim and shoot at his brothers.

“Ahh,” I say, trying to sound stern, but failing completely. “Were you going to go out there and shoot your brothers?” I ask him, laughing out loud now, no longer able to keep it under control. I hold out my hand for the gun. The house rules are that if one has a gun, the others do too. Sort of equal opportunity shooting here, that’s our motto!

He hands me the gun, not at all sure what I’ll do. I notice that it’s only half full. “What happened to the rest of the water?” I question.

He sheepishly turns around at the point and shows me his back side. The gun had leaked down his pants, leaving a wet trail down his jeans.

At that point I totally loose it. I’m laughing so hard that tears are running down my face and my sides are hurting. He starts to laugh too at that point realizing that by this time, I’m not going to punish him.

I point the gun at him and pull the trigger and a small stream of water spurts out of the gun and hits him square in the chest, soaking his tee shirt. “I just think your front side should match your back side” I tell him, laughing all the more at his look of astonishment. Grandma shot him with his water gun! Then the performance began, obviously meant to be memorable.

He slapped his hand over the wet spot and groaned loudly. Then the other hand flew up to cover the first one as the groans turned into moans. He took a couple of staggering steps backwards, clutched his chest tighter, then stumbled forward. Down onto one knee he went, looking up at me with pitiful, mischievous eyes.

“Ohhh,” he moaned, “I’m dying grandma!” as he fell forward onto the floor. But he wasn’t done yet. His body turned slowly over onto his back, with exaggerated pain and agony. His legs and arms started jerking and his body twitching and convulsing hysterically until finally all was still. . . . Almost! One final contortion and he lay there, dead! Except for the giggles. . .