The Orchard

In 1968, I remember looking in awe at the catalogs with my father. The trees, heavy-laden with perfect ripe apples and pears, were low enough for the child in the picture to pluck them without standing on tiptoe.

When the trees arrived, I was even more awed. Surely these slender saplings would never – could never – look like the ones in the catalog.

The orchard in 1968

The orchard in 1968

Over the years the trees grew and yielded fruit. Small, imperfect, blemished fruit.

I grew in skepticism. Nothing is as it is advertised.

My father sometimes bemoaned the fact that he never sprayed the orchard. “We’re always in Myrtle Beach when I should get that first spraying in,” he would say, looking at the insect-ridden, blighted fruit.

It never seemed to bother my mother. She gathered the fruit, cut off the bad parts, and made apple sauce, pie, cake, crisp — you name it.

Over the years, I sort of forgot about the orchard.

Well, not really. I mean, it looks me in the face when I sit on the sun porch, which I do nearly daily. But you know how you see something so much that you just don’t see it anymore? Yeah. That.

This fall I’m seeing the orchard again. The trees are loaded with fruit. It is falling on the ground faster than anyone can pick it.

I’ve made some pies and crisps, but nothing like the production volume of my mother.

Bud gathers the rotting fruit off the ground so he can mow around the trees. Carts full of rotten apples are going to the compost.

Yesterday, I looked at the orchard and laughed. The trees are the very picture from those old catalogs.

I can reach right out and grab an apple — no device, no ladder, no step-stool.DSC05386

Their branches are weighed down with so much fruit.DSC05385

This morning I stood in the same spot my father must have stood 47 years ago and snapped this picture.

The orchard in 2015

The orchard in 2015

Bud cut up a bunch of apples for me yesterday. We are enjoying the fruits of his labor and my father’s so many years ago.

Apple crisp

Apple crisp

The skeptic in me has been silenced.

Perhaps that just it —

When I was a child I simply wasn’t patient enough or mature enough or something enough to see that the apple trees will eventually grow and bear fruit.

But the promises are true.


Enchanted Forest 1968

I can remember begging my father — begging! — to go to Enchanted Forest in Old Forge, New York. The advertising on television made it look like one of the most magical places on earth.

Needless to say, it did not live up to the advertising.


Paul Bunyan at the entrance to Enchanted Forest

Paul Bunyan, who greeted us as the entrance, was very tall and looked just like he did on television, but he was lifeless. And where was Babe, his Blue Ox?

I remember thinking the rides were fun. Sort of. For my younger brother.

the train at Enchanted Forest

the train at Enchanted Forest



This magic castle didn’t seem very magical even though I think it had a slide



But I did get to meet a princess.

Sitting with a princess

Sitting with a princess

One ride foreshadowed the Enchanted Forest of today. It’s now known as Enchanted Forest Water Safari, with the emphasis very much on its water rides.

the water ride?

the water ride

My sister definitely had more fun than I did — and I’m not even sure she wanted to go.

My brother and sister (and a couple of EF locals)

My brother and sister (and a couple of EF locals)

My sister and another brother

My sister and another brother

She was always so much cooler than I was.

The thing about that day, though — and the thing I keep coming back to — is that what made the day special had nothing to do with the cheesy statues or buildings. It had nothing to do with the lame rides or the creepy ride operators.

My little brother standing next to guy who could be a character in a Criminal Minds episode.

My little brother standing next to guy who could have inspired a character in a Criminal Minds episode.

What made the day special is that we spent it together as a family.  All of us.  Driving a couple of hours to Old Forge and tromping around roadside America.

It’s a good thing to remember when Laurel begs to play games together.

Or when we sit down to a family dinner.

Or watch a television show together.

Family is where it’s at.

Not the Enchanted Forest.

Leave Me Alone

“Where’s Mary?” I asked at lunch one day.

While my father was away, I took over  sitting with my mother at meal times. I loved the opportunity to spend time with her and to get to know many of the folks at her nursing home. I-can-do-it Mary has a seat next to my mother in the dining area. But when Mary was missing, I missed her.

“She has her blanket pulled over her head,” reported the aide. “Don’t nobody bother her when she’s like that.”

I peeked in Mary’s room, and, sure enough, she was in her recliner with her red fleece blanket stretched from her toes to over her face.

Mary had more and more blanket days as the weeks went by. Only at lunch time.

“She’ll eat a good dinner tonight,” staff would comment about her absence. And indeed she would.

“I learned the hard way,” one woman said, “to leave her alone when she’s got that blanket up.”

“Ah, the universal leave-me-alone sign,” my sister said when I was telling her about Mary.

Come to think of it, some of my children have done that — pulled a blanket up over their head when they want to be left alone.

Come to think of it, I’ve done that myself. I’ve stayed in bed and pulled the covers up over my face wishing the world would disappear, just for a little while anyway.

But the world doesn’t disappear.

The problems are still there when the blanket is removed.Magic happens under the blanket, though.  The warmth, the safety, the quiet retreat — somehow it all weaves together to fortify the blanket-hider.

We emerge to face the world feeling a little warmer, a little more rested, and a little hungrier from the missed meal.

Thankful today for red fleece blankets and people who understand us enough to give us both the space to hide and the grace to resurface.

Yogi Berra


I was feeding my mother her dinner last night when I heard the news.  I stopped and stared at the television in the residents’ lounge. Yogi Berra had passed away.

While other parts of our country celebrated the arrival of Pope Francis, Cooperstown mourned.

Now, I’m not much of a baseball fan, and I’m certainly not a Yankee fan, but I felt sad. Yogi Berra spoke for me. So many times. So many ways.

When I started coaching, a newspaper reporter called to interview me about the swim team and its prospects for the year. I spoke quite freely with him, but when I read the article that was published. Yogi Berra came to mind. I didn’t really say everything I said.

Sometimes, while driving, when I’m totally lost, to cheer myself up, I think of Yogi Berra, driving with his wife to Cooperstown. We’re lost, but we’re making good time.

Jonathan Rogers, in his course Writing Close to the Earth, spends a whole lesson on “Learning to See.”  Yogi sums it up in seven words — You can observe a lot by watching.

Yes, Yogi Berra was pithy.  Forget Robert Frost’s famous poem, The Road Less Travelled. (Not really — I love that poem.) Yogi Berra gave the same message in eleven words — When you come to a fork in the road, take it.

Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded. I’m right there with you, Yogi.

It’s like deja vu all over again. Yep. Yep.

Yogi, I’m sure you went to a lot of other people’s funerals so they’ll all come to yours.

I think they would come even if you hadn’t.

You will be missed.




Compassion is learned.

There used to be a freckle-faced girl. A scrawny one, with dirty blonde hair, and bandaids on knees and elbows. A little girl who used to accompany her father on house-calls.

Do doctors even do that anymore? Visit the poorest of the poor in their shabby homes that are overrun with cats? Go to them because they have no way to get themselves to the hospital?

I remember the stench of the cat lady’s home and how it seemed that my father didn’t notice it. He talked with the woman and cared for her while cats scampered across the keys of the out-of-tune upright piano that took up most of her living room. Cats lounged on top of it and other cats peeked out from behind it. I could see the dishes of food on the floor just inside the kitchen door. But everywhere — cats.

My father also took me to the county nursing home on weekend rounds. There old people lined the halls in their wheelchairs, some snoring, others calling for help. He knew all their names and greeted them.

When the patients reached out their hands to touch me, he reassured me that it was okay, that they rarely saw children, that it made them happy. Sometimes my face would be cradled by a wrinkled hand. Sometimes gnarled fingers reached for my hair, messy though it always was.

I understand better now, how mothers long to remember their days of holding a child and how their arms ache from the emptiness of it all.IMG_4191

My father taught me compassion from a very early age.

I think about it every single time I visit my mother in the nursing home.

I especially think about when my daughters accompany me.

All three of them have patiently endured the caresses of the elderly. Innocent caresses. Hugs. Kisses on their hands. Touches to their hair.

I think that’s why I bristled a little inside when the aides scolded Mary  (I-can-do-it Mary) for touching my mother’s face.

“Stop it, Mary,” one said quite sharply and glared at her from under crimson bangs.

Mary looked like a whipped dog.

She had been singing the I-can-do-it song. My mother was taking too long to eat, and Mary wanted to encourage her. She wheeled her chair right up next to my mother, cradled her face in her good hand, and said, “I can do it. I can do it.”

That’s when the aide scolded her.

It happened again, with a different aide, neither aide being a regular on the floor.

The second aide was nicer about the whole thing, but I could still see the hurt on Mary’s face.

“Mary,” she said, “she doesn’t like that. She likes you, but she doesn’t like you doing that.”

I looked at my mother, who was stone-faced, and wondered how the aide knew what my mother liked. My mother had also taken me to the nursing home more times than I could count. She cared for her mother and her mother-in-law. My mother was a very compassionate woman.

Bud explained it to me — “I think the aide didn’t like it more than that your mother didn’t.”

I am the Queen of the Personal Space Bubble, but I will gladly leave my throne for the sake of an elderly woman who needs the warmth of touch.

How can I do any less?

Mary hugging Mary

Mary hugging Mary

Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.

Pearl S. Buck

Time Capsule

When the workmen tore down the ceiling in my father’s home, a small cascade, composed of a Sports Illustrated magazine, a mouse-nibbled Wall Street Journal, and two envelopes, rained down upon them. They had found one of my father’s time capsules.

Last year, I had accompanied my father to his cousin’s funeral in New Jersey.  There he met the woman who now lives in the house where my father grew up.

“Did you find any of the time capsules?” he had asked her. He recalled each place he and his father had put notes and treasures for someone to discover under floorboards and inside walls. Unfortunately, she didn’t recall having found any of them.

But we did.

My first inclination was to simply place the time capsule in the ceiling of the new room, but Mary looked at it and asked, “Can we open it?”

The date on both envelopes was 1984. They had been placed there before any of my children had been born. Of course, it made sense for the next generation to see what had been placed there for them.

We stared at the envelopes for a good week before opening them.  In the meantime, I leafed through the Sports Illustrated.SCN_0006 (1)

I doubt many people today will know the name Debbie Armstrong. How quickly we forget the sweethearts of Olympics past. I better remember Kitty and Peter Carruthers, the brother-sister team from Massachusetts who won silver in figure skating pairs, and whose story also appeared in the magazine.

But, oh, the Sarajevo Olympics. The whole venue today is as crumbled as Yugoslavia. I found pictures on a site marking the 30th anniversary of those games. You can view them here: Is this the fate that awaits Socchi? So sad.

The Wall Street Journal proved much more fragile to read through. The only article that interested me on the front page was about AIDS. In 1984 we were still in the early days of panic. Mice, however, found this to be a tasty story and large chunks are missing.

We finally opened the envelopes.

One contained a family picture which happened to be the family photo from my wedding. My parents had used it as their Christmas card in 1982.


The other envelope contained a hand-written letter from my father.

16 March 1984

Who knows when (or if) this note will be found? After living here for almost 17 years we have finally gotten around to lowering the ceiling in this room and in the process converting an old pull-cord light to a wall switch.

My youngest son Jim and Bob Montione, a SUCO graduate student, have helped with the heavy work — lots of grunting and straining, a few expletives, some misdriven nails and we are almost done.

Why do we leave these mementos. My own father got me started on this 50 years ago when we left a message beneath the attic floorboards at our first home in Brookside, NJ.

We love this house, having moved into it when we left the US Army in 1967. Five children have grown up here — the eldest Stewart — 29 yrs old — now a Presbyterian minister in Jamesville, NY.  Donabeth – 27 yrs – our oldest daughter, works in Wichita, Kansas. Peter (25) works in Oneonta and Cooperstown, Sally – 24 – is married and living in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Jim age 20 attends Clark University in Worcester, Mass — A great family. My wife Elinor works part-time for the Red Cross as a Blood Bank nurse, and I devote my time to Mary Imogene Bassett Hosp as chief of Div of Community Medicine, Assoc. Director for Emergency Services.

The rest is history.

The note is signed by my father.

I made copies of it before I stuck the original back in a new time capsule.

The workers were getting ready to close up the new ceiling so I printed pictures of our family from Sam and Donna’s wedding, with a who’s who key written at the bottom. I printed a picture of Henry, the next generation.

Then I, too, wrote a note about the project being done and about family. Our family.

Bitter because I had to mention Stewart’s death and my mother’s dementia. Sweet because of Henry.

I stuffed my note, photographs, my father’s notes, a grocery store flyer, and a few other odds and ends into a Ritz Cracker tin.

The mice may want the Ritz crackers, but I doubt they can nibble through the tin.

The workers laughed when they saw it.

“I’ll bet whoever finds that will be disappointed there aren’t any crackers in it,” he said.

History is better than Ritz.

Prayer for a Cold

A week ago today, when I woke up and looked in the mirror, my eyes were red and teary, my nose running, my head aching.

I hate being sick.

The worst part was that I was in beautiful British Columbia. I was going to meet Anna Brown in a few hours. I was going to visit the Othello Tunnels in the afternoon. All I wanted to do, though, was go back to bed.

I didn’t. Instead I began my morning routine.

For 2015 I’ve been writing a prayer every week. It’s something I do on Saturday morning.

I stared at the blank page in my journal, feeling more than a little frustrated that I needed to write a prayer. I was not feeling thankful. Or prayerful.

One of my favorite stories in Corrie ten Boom’s book, The Hiding Place, is when her sister, Betsie thanks God for the fleas. Betsie believed in thanking God for everything, and that included the fleas in the barracks at Ravensbruck. That story flashed through my mind as I was grousing about my runny nose.

This is the sort-of-prayer I wrote that morning:

When I have a case of sneezles
And my nose runs wild and free
I want to pray — I really do! —
But the words won’t come to me.

When my eyes, bloodshot and bleary,
Only focus on my woes,
Like this pounding in my sinuses
And the dripping of my nose

When I sit with wadded kleenexes
Clenched tightly in my fist
When I think I’m tired of fighting —
Can I lean into this?

Leaning in — embracing —
The challenges of life
Surely, Lord, You didn’t mean
This snuffy, sniffly strife

Surely, Lord, You didn’t send
This aching in my head.
Surely, Lord, I’ve things to do
And not just lay in bed!

Surely, Lord, You do not give
Coughs and headaches here,
Or bigger, worse diseases
To the people You hold dear.

Yet, O Lord, I’ll rest in You
And sip my cup of tea,
And thank You for my blessings
All that You have sent to me.

Then I went to meet Anna Brown.

And later visited the Othello Tunnels — where there really is a light at the end of every tunnel.

Othello tunnels

Othello tunnels