Father’s Day 2024

Daddy and I, July 1965, in Lebanon, KY.

A particular image of my father has taken up residence in my mind recently. I see him sitting at our kitchen table in our house in Atlanta. He has a map open–a fold-up highway map, the kind we used to buy at gas stations and welcome centers–those old ones that today’s young adults have rarely seen. He has a pen in hand, and he’s cheerfully planning the route for an upcoming trip. The destination is likely to be one with which he’s very familiar. Probably it’s a town in central or eastern Kentucky, to visit family. Even near home, Daddy didn’t like to follow the same path twice. Mama said that was one reason she never learned her way around Atlanta. Daddy enjoyed driving, and he was good at it. He’d had considerable practice, as he’d been driving since he was twelve or so. He was born in 1929, and he learned on a Model T. I always knew that if I needed a ride somewhere–anywhere accessible by car–Daddy could, and would, gladly oblige.

Mama remembers how Daddy poured over such a map while my husband and I were on our way to New Jersey after our marriage in the fall of 1995. I was moving away, and this time, it seemed likely to be for good. Before, I’d always returned after a few years. H and I were in a packed U-Haul, with my little Rabbit convertible behind on a trailer. Because we left later in the day, we spent a night on the road in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. When I called home to report our safe arrival, Daddy quickly picked up the phone. He’d been worried about us. (He didn’t yet know that I’d perhaps married as capable and confident a driver as he.)

My husband and I with the moving van in Atlanta, November 1995.

“I’m so relieved to hear your voice!,” he exclaimed. “I think I drove every mile with you!”

Daddy was not a man who cried easily or often. But Mama said she remembers him shedding some tears that evening, as he worried over the map.

H with the van in Carlisle. The trailer for my small car was huge, and could easily have held a Cadillac. As H said, “We were long.”

On this Father’s Day, and every day, I’m grateful to be my father’s daughter. I know that wherever life takes me, no matter how treacherous the road, Daddy is there beside me, every mile.

My husband and my father in Atlanta, December 1996.

Somehow now the years have spun by like the numbers on the oven timer, and H and I are a married couple past middle age, with a daughter of our own. She’s twenty-five, a young career woman, living in another state. But it’s Maryland, and she’s still nearby. So far, we’re lucky that way. I know that she, too, counts herself fortunate to be her father’s daughter. She can be sure that her Dada, like her dear Papa, will be forever at her side, driving with her every mile.

For another post on my sweet Daddy, see here.

Low Bridge! (On the Eerie Canal)

Just about every time we cross the New York state line on our way to my husband’s boyhood home in Rochester, he starts singing some mishmash of the chorus of the old Eerie Canal song.

Loooooowwww bridge, everybody down. . .Low bridge. . .15 miles on the Eerie Canal!

I guess every fourth grader in New York learns about the Eerie Canal as they study state history. As well they should. It was a truly big deal. I was introduced to its significance on my first trip to the Albany area. I went home with my friend Mike to Clifton Park during winter break in grad school. It was mid-January in 1987, and the northeast was still a bit stunned after a blizzard that had dumped three feet of snow. The two things I remember most vividly about that long-ago excursion were these: the snow (so much snow), and the Eerie Canal.

Mike had been a fan of the canal since his elementary school days, and he wanted to make sure I grasped its importance. It was a marvel of engineering, he stressed, created under extremely demanding circumstances. Irish immigrants provided the bulk of the back-breakingly difficult, poorly paid labor. They toiled with little more than pick axes, shovels, plows and wheelbarrows, using the occasional ox or mule. A stump puller was designed to assist in tree clearing. The original Canal, forty feet wide and four feet deep, took eight years to build. It was completed in 1825, two years before the country’s first railroad was begun. The Canal links Lake Eerie with the Hudson River, and from there, in New York Harbor, meets the Atlantic Ocean. Flat-bottomed packet boats heavily laden with products like wheat, flour or lumber were pulled by mules along the towpath that bordered the waterway. (Their descendants are today’s gargantuan ocean-going container ships, like the one that recently destroyed the Key Bridge in Baltimore.) The Eerie Canal spurred the development of the Great Lakes region, as well as further westward expansion. It was an early driving force that turned New York into an economic superpower and helped earn it the nickname “Empire State.” It brought wealth to the towns it bordered, from Albany to Buffalo.

Railroads and highways gradually replaced the Canal as a trade route. These days it’s a busy recreational waterway. The mules are gone, but brightly painted packet boats, similar to the old canal boats, are often moored along the banks. These wide, low boats, which may be rented, are popular for touring. And on the Eerie Canalway Trail that runs along the water, it’s possible to cycle the entire three hundred sixty mile-length of the Canal.

The Canal still serves as a central focus of many villages in upstate New York. The colorful Union Street bridge in Spencerport, above, is just steps away from the center of town. A horn sounds when the bridge is about to be raised to allow a taller boat to pass under it. The Spencerport Depot and Canal Museum hosts displays about the Canal and its history, and serves as a welcome facility for boaters. Our nephews are often among those fishing from the banks of the Canal. It’s common to see kids bicycling along, carrying their lunches and fishing poles, as if they were emerging from a Norman Rockwell painting. Another unexpected sight to my citified eyes is that of vending machines selling live bait.

Old and new come together seamlessly and captivatingly in Eerie Canal towns.

The Canal and its towns are well worth a visit!

Spencerport, the Picturesque

Over the Memorial Day weekend, my husband and I drove up to New York state to visit his family in the Rochester area.

We watched our young nephews play hockey, of course, in a very cold, very old-school ice arena.

But there was time for me to indulge in a favorite activity, walking interesting historic neighborhoods. H’s sister and her family live in Spencerport, that picturesque Eerie Canal village bedecked with Hometown Heroes banners. A charming, pedestrian-friendly town, it’s filled with comfortable old homes and well-tended gardens. Spring had truly sprung, at last, in the Rochester area. Lawns were lush, trees were leafy, and flowers were flourishing in the bright sunshine. After a brisk morning walk with my sister-in-law, I retraced our footsteps so I could linger and take many photos.

Spencerport may win the prize for the greatest number of Little Free Libraries per square mile. Their repeated presence is one expression of the town’s gracious, welcoming attitude.

Another is the multitude of cute rock critters peeking out from their dwelling places, to be discovered if one pays attention.

We missed the lilacs, for which the area is famous, but rhododendron, irises and peonies were near their peak.

It’s a town of lovely old churches. Above, from top to bottom, are the First Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church.

Above, just a few of the village’s cheery old homes.

The stately edifice above, on South Union Street in the heart of town, next to the old Masonic Temple, now houses professional offices. Because of its Neo-Classical appearance, typical of bank buildings on the main streets of American small towns, I had assumed it was built as a bank. But its facade originally belonged to a grand home at 25 State Street, in what is now downtown Rochester. The house was demolished in 1923, and the bank, fronted by the saved facade, was erected two years later. Spencerport’s central district retains a variety of businesses that serve practical needs. In addition to a grocery store (with a handy parking lot), it has quite a few thriving restaurants, as well as a dog-friendly brewery which we’ve enjoyed, in the past, with our family and Kiko.

The town is dotted with verdant pockets of greenery, and two swift-running creeks wind through yards and between homes.

And then, further enhancing the town’s quaint aspect and running through its midst, there’s the Eerie Canal itself, to be discussed in an upcoming post.

For an earlier post on Spencerport, see here.

May, the Magnificent

Of all the warm-weather months, May is to me the most beautiful here in our little pocket of Northern Virginia. For our family, it’s the month of roses. All around our back courtyard, they burst into glorious bloom.

The profusion of flowers and foliage appears all the more fabulous to us, because we remember too well the area when it looked strikingly different.

Our “back yard,” before, c. 2005.

Twenty-four years ago, when we bought our house, there was no real back yard, only an expanse of concrete leading to an ugly garage. In the spring of 2009, after years of idle talk and months of actual planning, we embarked on a major renovation, which included landscaping, a flagstone patio, a wrought iron fence, and a screened porch. (See Up from the Concrete, Roses, May 2021.) With every year that passes, we enjoy our back yard refuge even more.

May is the most fragrant month here, as well. Throughout our neighborhood, there are patches of undeveloped land, property of Fairfax County, which remain pleasantly unkempt. In May, these spots teem with wild roses and honeysuckle. All year long, they offer sanctuary and shelter to wildlife. I’m grateful to live in a place where every last bit of acreage is not overly manicured.

Peonies add their perfume to the rose-scented atmosphere of May.

A new addition to my mother’s back yard is a Teddy Bear Southern Magnolia, which we planted in November. As its cuddly name suggests, it’s a smaller variety. Its creamy white blossoms should be sending forth their luxuriant fragrance well into June.

This May has been marked by dramatic, sudden shifts from clear blue skies to fierce storms, and right back again, just as quickly. On Mother’s Day, after a heavy downpour, we were gifted with a lovely double rainbow.

As spring turns to summer, as May cedes the ground to June, may you push through all your cloudbursts to find the rainbows!

Once Again, and Daily, May We Honor our Hometown Heroes

The Hometown Hero banners are up again along the quiet main streets of little towns throughout upstate New York. They honor men and women currently serving in our armed forces. Most of the faces are young. So, so very young. They look down from flag-draped lamp posts along Union Street in the little village of Spencerport. Some are smiling, appearing hopeful and excited. Others are stoically stern. All of them should break our hearts.

Let’s carry such young faces with us, every day. May they be living reminders of the reality of the ongoing sacrifice taking place continually, here and in far-flung spots, for our precious American freedoms. Let’s honor these soldiers, like my twenty-one year old nephew in the Marines, who offer up years of their youth so that we may remain the unique country that our founders envisioned.

Keeping these young faces in our minds and hearts, let’s behave better toward one another. Let’s remember that they’re toiling now to keep us free. Free to voice our own opinions, and free to disagree with one another. But when we disagree, let us strive to do so with grace, thoughtfulness and kindness, recognizing our common humanity. So that we might discover common ground. And so that we won’t take impulsive actions that will jeopardize the republic for which these young heroes fight.

Also on Spencerport’s Union Street lies peaceful Fairfield Cemetery, which I first explored on a walk five years ago with my dog Kiko. As Memorial Day approaches, the graves of the war dead are decorated with American flags. Pictured above is the monument to those from the area who gave their lives defending our Union during the Civil War. Let us remember the devastating cost of a nation divided, and of going to war against one another.

As this viciously polarized election season ramps up, let’s take a deep breath and consider that our hard-won democracy might indeed be fragile. Let’s make choices that show we value the sacrifice of all our hometown heroes, of today and generations past. Let’s remember that they have fought and died, and continue to fight, to protect us from falling prey to tyrants. Let’s pay close attention. Let’s not be misguided by anger and spitefulness. Let’s be informed and seek the truth, even when it’s not the truth we want to hear. Let us not be fooled. Let us recognize those who try to manipulate us into willingly laying down our invaluable freedoms.

Long may our land be bright with freedom’s holy light!

America, Samuel Smith, 1832

With Mama, After the Fall

One of my favorite photos of Mama and me, in St. Augustine, Florida, 1968.

My first post of 2024 was about how I started the year off on a walk wearing mismatched shoes, or one wrong shoe. Just two days later, my mother started the year off with one wrong step. A seriously wrong step. As she was preparing to head upstairs for the night on January 5th, she fell. In recent years, she’s been quite the frequent faller, and her attitude toward falling is best described as cavalier. She rarely complains about the bruises and occasional cuts she acquires with each tumble. But this fall was different. She was unable to get up, or to contact us, and the pain in her leg was intense. Her little red Jitterbug phone lay just out of reach. Her emergency call pendant was by her bed. She spent twelve hours on her family room floor. I had checked on her around 6 PM, as I usually do, and she’d been fine. My husband or I should have noticed that her bedroom light never switched on. But we didn’t. We didn’t find her until the next morning.

Every time we hear the urgent wails of approaching ambulances and firetrucks (and we hear them often) we know that at some point, they’ll be coming for someone in our family. January 6th was one of those days. That morning, my mother was carried out on a stretcher, and I sat in the front seat of the ambulance. The paramedics couldn’t have been kinder or more thoughtful. We’re grateful to live within easy reach of excellent medical care.

Mama and me, 1970, in Atlanta. We’re wearing our of-the-moment midi and maxi fashions, sewn by Mama, of course.

Surgery to repair a badly broken femur was followed by four days in the hospital. On Day 3, Mama remarked that she was rather enjoying the stay; it felt like a rest in a nice hotel. Anesthesia and pain meds were masking the discomfort, no one was bugging her to try to stand up, and I was a constant presence in her pleasant private room. The staff was attentive and capable. Over the years, she has spent time in three Northern Virginia hospitals, and she found this stint to be by far the least miserable.

It was a different story altogether when she was moved to a nearby rehab facility. I could no longer be with her every minute, day and night. She had a roommate, whose demeanor vacillated precipitously between angelic and menacing. There was an ongoing, simmering dispute over the ideal room temperature. Mama could neither see nor hear the TV on her side of the room, yet her roomie’s TV was always on, too loudly, tuned to a station Mama would certainly not have chosen. There was considerable difficulty in ensuring that she received her prescribed medications, especially those for her asthma, and wasn’t dosed arbitrarily with unnecessary ones. As in any such facility, the staff are too few, and they’re doing difficult, often disagreeable work for low pay. It’s a place where no one wants to be. Mama described it simply as a house of horrors.

Atlanta, 1975

Not quite three weeks later, insurance abruptly decreed that her time in rehab was up. Thanks to a wheelchair-accessible transport van, Mama was summarily deposited back in her own home. For her, it was not a moment too soon, although my husband and I were not sure how we’d care for her effectively when her mobility remained so limited. There’s a good reason that babies are smaller than their parents.

We’ve all managed, somehow. Mama has learned to walk again. She’s progressed through a series of walkers, from wheel-less, to partially wheeled, to a rollator (a word I’d never heard until recently), the kind with four wheels and a little seat that can be used for carrying things. Several times a week, we do the exercises together that I watched her learn in physical therapy at rehab. She is getting somewhat stronger. She can do a few things for herself, including preparing simple meals.

Her falls, though, continue. Since her return from rehab, she’s fallen about twice a month, typically while making a transition from sitting to standing. Her legs simply “give out,” she says. With each episode, we make some changes and many suggestions. I remind her that I sleep in her guest room and can hear her summons on the baby monitor if she needs me in the night. She never expects to fall. So far, she’s suffered no further major damage. But we know that may not always be the case. The next broken leg, or arm, or worse–awaits.

Wales, 1988

Throughout her life, Mama was exceptionally active, involved in multiple projects–sewing clothes for everyone in the family, upholstering and refinishing furniture, decorating, gold-leafing, crafting–all while working part time at various jobs, reading voraciously, teaching Sunday School or Bible study, doing the housework, cooking, and being a devoted, compassionate wife, mother and daughter. (She and Daddy gave up their bedroom to move my grandmother into their home and care for her at the end of her life. ) Mama was generally too busy to consider physical exercise for its own sake.

Or for her own sake. And mine. If I could turn back the clock and change anything, it would be to encourage Mama to start weight training around the time I discovered it, in college. Why didn’t I try harder to get her to join me in regular work-outs, at home or at the Colony Square Athletic Club when I worked at the High Museum? Because she had too much else to do, of course. She would remind me that there was a time, when I was in grad school, that she and my father walked for exercise in the early mornings. At least they did that. Every little bit helps.

The frightening truth is that we’re all one small misstep away from catastrophe. That’s life. Our circumstances can change, for better or worse, in an instant.

So we keep on, doing what we can. I’ll continue the PT sessions with Mama. I’ll keep to my weight routine in our basement gym. My husband will, too. I’ll walk the neighborhood with my dog-mom friends, and he’ll use our treadmill. We’ll do our best to maintain our strength and balance. We’ll think of it as a gift to ourselves, to our daughter, and to anyone who may need to care for us one day.

Spring, in Full Swing

We’re in the midst of a gorgeous, lush spring here in Northern Virginia. Despite the perhaps more than unusually erratic temperature fluctuations, the season’s progress has been moving along at a consistent, stately pace. A fair number of rainy days have no doubt contributed to the luxuriance of flowers and foliage, and in contrast, the periods of sunshine have been all the more glorious.

Our Appalachian Red redbuds, marked by their brilliant fuchsia buds, were in peak bloom toward the end of April.

The lilac in our courtyard generously shares its delightful fragrance, so that we sense its presence even when it’s out of sight.

I love these mayapples, a gift from a garden-wise neighbor. Soon after sprouting, the plants resemble closed umbrellas. The leaves then unfurl, forming a flat canopy. A single white blossom grows beneath the foliage. After blooming, a small apple-like fruit forms, and its weight causes the plant to bow down toward the ground. Box turtles are attracted by the scent, and they spread the seeds (in their poop) along the forest floor. Like other native spring ephemerals, the mayapple is a humble beauty that may be easily overlooked.

Our azaleas, on the other hand, have been boldly emphatic in color and bloom.

Local Kwanzan cherry trees, past their peak, shower the ground below with their pink petals.

This towering jacaranda tree is an unusual one for our neighborhood. A native of South America, it bursts forth in late April with big clusters of fragrant lavender flowers, trumpet-shaped. Its seed pods break into neat halves, each resembling a small boat.

The edges of our courtyard and walkway abound with purple and white violets, bunched together like small, perfect bouquets.

So many of nature’s spring treasures, high above and on the ground below, are there for the seeking. I try to let each one remind me that even when so much of the world is caught up in conflict, animosity and division for its own sake, there is goodness, all around.

Let’s remember to search for, and to savor that goodness. And, when we can’t find it, maybe we need to embody it, to be and share that goodness. It abides with us, no matter what.

A blog about motherhood, marriage and life: the joys and frustrations, beauty and absurdity, blessings and pain. It's about looking back, looking ahead, and walking the dog.