After Much Hype, Eclipsed by Clouds

Late last winter, another couple asked my husband and me if we wanted to “go to the eclipse” with them on August 21. We had nothing scheduled that far in advance. Although I’d heard about the coming solar eclipse that would pass through our part of the nation, it didn’t seem like a big deal.

“Sure,” we told our friends.

There was some vague mention of a road trip to St. Joseph, which is less than an hour north of our house in the Kansas City Northland. Then we thought nothing more about it.

I felt a growing sense of doom, however, when I read in the spring that hotel rooms in St. Joseph had been booked for months. I voiced some concerns about the need to plan our day, but we didn’t pursue anything. Then as August 21 approached, media hype over the solar eclipse grew.

As a good introvert and researcher, I investigated the eclipse more closely. I found maps showing the exact path of the totality. Our house was in it. I found a site listing the precise length of totality at every point along the path. Our house would have a full minute of total eclipse.

“We could just stay here,” I suggested. “Watch from our front porch.” (After the demise of our ash tree, our yard is pretty open.)

News reports grew more frenzied. There would be a thousand-fold increase in population in many small towns along the center path of the eclipse. Menard’s in St. Joseph was renting out its parking lot for $75/space for the day. Arrow Rock, Missouri, was worried about having enough porta-potties.

“Do we really want to leave home?” I asked.

Our group decided to abandon St. Joseph. We would go to Smithville, Missouri, where there would be over two minutes of totality, though not the full two minutes and thirty-eight seconds St. Joseph would have. My husband stores his boat in a garage near Smithville Lake, patrols the reservoir regularly for the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and knows many of the backroads around the lake. He suggested several viewing locations with easy access to restrooms. As a fallback, we could sit in the gated storage area where his boat is housed.

Then we learned Smithville Lake had several eclipse-oriented events planned. Three of four people I talked to one day in my neighborhood planned to see the eclipse in Smithville. I worried the hype would cause the hordes to find our off-the-beaten-path locations.

And weather reports were mixed. At first, there was a 20% chance of rain. Then AccuWeather increased its forecast to 51% chance of a thunderstorm on August 21.

“We could always stay at our house,” I said again. “Is the extra minute of totality worth dealing with crowds?” I hate crowds.

“Theresa’s not going to back out, is she?” our eclipse-party friends asked my husband.

“Nah, she’ll go,” my husband said.

When he told me of this exchange, I said, “Of course, I’ll go. But I’m just saying . . .” I would participate in the hype, but I didn’t have to like it.

We prepared to spend the whole day away from home—water, food, sunscreen, insect repellant, an awning, camp chairs—all the necessities for survival. We didn’t want to compete with the multitudes the media said would descend on the path of totality. We would be self-sufficient, prepared to stay off the grid if need be.

Our friends said they would arrive at our house at 6:30 a.m. They live in the south part of the metropolitan area, which was outside the zone of totality. On a normal traffic day, the drive from their house to ours was about 30 minutes. They worried 6:30 might not be early enough.

I mentioned again that we could always watch from our front porch if the traffic was too bad. But I knew none of the others would agree.

On Eclipse Day, our friends rang our doorbell at 6:10 a.m. I was just headed to the kitchen to pack our cooler. “Apple Maps showed heavy traffic. So we left early,” they said. “But we had no problem.”

At 6:19, the four of us left our house, caravanning northward in two cars because we had too much stuff for one vehicle. We reached Smithville in record time and inspected our potential sun-gazing locations. None was crowded. The best place seemed to be near Sailboat Cove—right on the lake, facing west for the best view, with well-maintained restrooms nearby.

Parking lot still had lots of space

We paid the parking fee and pulled into the mostly empty lot. A few people were there before us, but we still had a pick of picnic tables. We set up camp—spreading out enough food for a week and placing our lawn chairs to face the water. We got the awning frame out of the car . . . and discovered we’d left the cover at our house.

My husband drove home and returned by about 8:15. Again, no traffic. We raised the canopy and were ready for the show.

Our viewing location under canopy

With more than three hours until the partial eclipse began and four and a half hours until totality.

We ate. We read. We chatted. I did the sudoku and crossword puzzles from the newspaper. The sun streamed down, not revealing any sign of impending darkness.

Parking lot now overflowing, but lots of room for people

More people arrived at Sailboat Cove and the parking lot filled. Additional cars parked on the grass. But plenty of open space remained for viewers.

In mid-morning clouds churned in and blocked the sun. We held the awning in place through strong wind gusts. Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled off in the distance. Then it rained. And poured.

The partial eclipse begins (shot through a filter)

About the time the partial eclipse began, the rain stopped and the clouds thinned. We put on our special eclipse glasses and stared upward. I got a few good pictures with my cell phone camera, its lens covered by another pair of the special lenses.

Dense clouds obscure the sun more than the moon does

Around 12:30 p.m. dense clouds rolled in again. The partial eclipse disappeared from sight. The sky grew dark—but how much was due to the eclipse and how much to the looming thunderstorm?

As 1:08—the time of totality at Smithville—approached, disappointment spread like a plague through the watchers.

I decided I wouldn’t be able to see the total eclipse, but the sunset in front of me would still be worth filming. I started my camera’s video mode, something I’d rarely used before.  I shot a two-minute video of a lovely midday sunset through a rainstorm.

Then oohs and aahs erupted behind me (you can hear them at the end of the video). The total eclipse flashed briefly through the clouds, and some people—including my husband—saw a glimpse. But because I wasn’t looking skyward, I only saw the sunset.

And so it goes.

After the brief climax of the astronomical show ended, we sat under our tent and ate some more. Then a true Midwestern deluge unleashed its power and threatened to overwhelm the weight-bearing capacity of our canopy. We shook off the water, and when the storm slackened to moderate rain, we packed up and headed home.

Along with all the other sun-gazers.

We drove south on the highway in bumper to bumper traffic before bailing onto county roads as soon as we could. But in trying to avoid the crowds, we encountered two flooded intersections requiring detours—one of which sent us right back onto the crowded highway, and the other sent us north instead of south. What that morning had been an easy 30-minute drive from our house took an hour and a half on the return.

The hype had hit us after all. We’d beaten it in the morning, but it bit us in the afternoon.

Later I learned that the farther south one was in the zone of totality, the better—albeit shorter—the astronomical show was. In St. Joseph, north of us and our original destination, bad weather turned the eclipse into a bust. In Smithville, we had some nice views, though the critical two minutes were disappointing.

Near our home south of Smithville, I was told, the clouds parted and allowed viewers to see the total eclipse for the full minute.

Oh, well.

Though the total eclipse did not provide all the spectacle I’d hoped for, I had a pleasant day with friends in a beautiful setting on Lake Smithville. I got wet, but not uncomfortable because the temperatures remained moderate. I enjoyed the day and will have to accept it for what it was.

The part of the eclipse I saw will have to last me for a lifetime because I doubt I’ll travel to see the next U.S. total eclipse in 2024.

What did you see of the Great American Eclipse this week? Was it worth the hype?

First Wedding Present: Mixing Bowls

Sometime during the summer between our first and second years of law school, my husband-to-be and I decided to get married. We set the date for Thanksgiving weekend that autumn, back in my home town of Richland, Washington. Then we went about our graduate-student lives—going to classes, working on law review (me) and an international law journal (him), and getting through the pre-Cana program at a parish in California that my home parish would accept as the required pre-marital counseling needed to marry a Catholic girl and Protestant guy.

During an early week in that crazy period in our lives, two of my college friends visited me. Knowing that my fiancé and I would be married a couple of months later, they gave us an early wedding present—a set of mixing bowls.

I still have those bowls.

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The largest mixing bowl during cookie baking

The largest one is our go-to bowl for cookie dough. My husband (the primary cookie-baker in our family) used it this last weekend to make chocolate oatmeal cookies for his rowing club’s regatta. He also makes his pie crust in that bowl and pancake batter some Sunday mornings.

I sometimes use that large bowl for pasta casseroles. A couple of months ago, I made a meatball pasta dish for my sister-in-law and her two grandchildren when they stayed with us for the night. The kids later told their mother that, “Aunt Theresa’s house was the best part of the trip.” When asked why, it had something to do with sleeping bags on the floor and meatballs. That’s what five- and seven-year-olds like.

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The middle two bowls on the cupboard shelf

The bowl that is the next size down is perfect for many dishes, like pie filling or fruit salad. And down in size from that one, the third bowl is good for warming up leftovers. These middle two bowls probably get the most use, but the smallest one is best for mixing sauces and for warming up single servings.

The point is that we use one or more of these bowls almost daily. At least several times a week.

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The smallest bowl in the dishwasher

And every time I pull a bowl down from the cupboard, or put one back in the stack from the dishwasher, I think of my two friends. I remember our college days—the laughter and drama and evening chats in the dorm.

I remember also my family’s meals over the years—the harried suppers thrown together after days at work and school, the holiday pies, the weekend breakfasts of pancakes and bacon.

In retrospect, these mixing bowls proved to be one of the best wedding presents we received. A gift that began in friendship and love and built memories that deepened our family relationships and wove the web of our lives. Thirty-nine years later, this gift keeps on giving.

I hope that the wedding presents I’ve given have had a tenth of the impact on friends that this set of mixing bowls has had on me.

Which of your wedding presents were most meaningful to you?

World Gratitude Day

September 21 is World Gratitude Day, a day celebrated since 1966 when an international group meeting in Hawaii agreed to designate a day to express gratitude and appreciation for the many wonderful things to be found in the world.

Maui rainbox

Maui rainbow, 2011

I haven’t taken much time to be grateful in the last couple of years. I’ve been grieving the loss of my parents and managing their estates. I was busy with editing and publishing two novels. And I’ve been following with increasing disdain the political campaigns, while trying to maintain my dedication to our electoral process. There’s a lot to worry about in this world, along with the things to be grateful for.

But as my father said whenever I complained to him about the difficulties I faced, “That’s a high-class problem to have.” And he was right. I don’t worry about having food on the table, a roof over my head, or enough money each month to pay the bills. I have a lot to be grateful for.

On this World Gratitude Day, I am grateful for:

My family. I’ve lost my parents, but I have a wonderful husband and two great children. I’ve been married for almost 39 years, and both of our children are independent and productive adults. I have a sister and brother that I like as well as love (and their families along with them), and a good mother-in-law and other fine in-laws who have made my life easier over the years.

My friends. I may have few childhood acquaintances with whom I am still in contact, but I have a good college friend whose company I enjoy. I’ve maintained many relationships with the people I worked with, and have built even stronger friendships with some of them since I retired. I’ve been welcomed into a supportive community of writers in Kansas City, and the collective talent of this group awes me.

My health. I’m getting older—no doubt about it—and some problems are creeping up on me. But they are minor at this point, and I can enjoy all the activities I want (and even some strenuous endeavors I’d just as soon leave behind me).

My resources. I like my home and we’ve owned it outright for many years. We won’t be able to stay here forever, but we’ve enjoyed it for 32 years. My husband and I saved diligently when we worked, and we reap the benefits of our frugality now. We argue more over how to get rid of the things we have than we do over how to spend limited resources.

My focus. I set a goal ten years ago to publish a book before I died, and I’m about to publish my third novel. It’s been a steep learning curve, but an amazing experience to open myself up to creative endeavors after burying my talents for so many years.

. . . I could, of course, go on and on in this list of things I’m grateful for. The beauty of nature. The places I’ve been fortunate enough to have visited. The people who have passed through my life. Beaches. Chocolate. The list would never end.

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Photo from Flickr: Keoni Cabral, The feeling of sun on fingertips

There is a risk of sounding like the Pharisee when recounting all the things I have to be grateful for. I fear it sounds as if I’m boasting. True gratitude requires humility, a recognition that everything we have began with those who came before us and that ultimately we received these gifts from a higher power. We all start naked and helpless in this world and cannot achieve anything without the help of others.

My father told me shortly after my mother died, “Your mother and I had a blessed life.” Actually, he told me this many times, but despite the suffering he went through caring for her in the last years of her life, he said it after her death with conviction. And so on this World Gratitude Day, in humility I recognize that, thanks in large part to the strong beginning my parents gave me, my life has been blessed also. And I am grateful for this opportunity to reflect on my blessings.

What are you grateful for on this World Gratitude Day?

My Grandfather’s Clock as a Metaphor for Grief

grandfather's clock

My grandfather’s clock keeping time in my home

I’ve written before about my grandfather’s clock—how it formed a part of my childhood, first in my grandparents’ home and then in my parents’; how I deliberately let it wind down after my father died; how I shipped to to my house and got it working again. (see here and here) But even after I set it up in my house, it still felt like my grandfather’s—or at least my father’s—clock.

Over the past few months I have worked to make it my clock. I am less timid about winding it, no longer afraid it will fall apart as I turn the wrench that raises the weights. I decided earlier this year that I needed to help it keep better time. It was losing a few minutes a day, and I got tired of adjusting it every day. So I psyched myself up until I was brave enough to adjust the pendulum. After I made tiny adjustments every few days for several weeks, it now keeps pretty good time, losing a minute or less a week.

As I worked on the clock, it occurred to me that it has become my metaphor for my grief over my father’s passing. It wasn’t his clock to start with—it came from my mother’s family. But he had the care of the clock for so many years, probably from about 1967 until his death in January 2015. And now it has come to me.

Letting the clock wind down in the days immediately after his death was my initial letting go. Shipping the clock to my house was my attempt to hang on to the past. Overcoming my fear of winding it was my initial acknowledgment that I am now the senior generation in my family. And finally making the adjustments to get it keeping good time was my return to an even keel after losing my parents.

A friend told me after my father died that when our second parent dies, “we have only sky above us.” In other words, there is no one left who connects us to the past. I think that has been a large part of my grief. I lost my mother slowly to Alzheimer’s, but my father’s death was sudden and unexpected. I am the oldest child. The brother right behind me—the companion of my childhood—is estranged from the family. My younger siblings are much younger, and don’t remember my first decade of life. There truly was only sky above me.

Last December a Jewish friend of mine lost her mother. I went to my first Jewish funeral, and then later in the week I visited my friend as she sat shiva. We have since talked about our feelings about losing our parents, managing their estates, and the Jewish custom of mourning the loss of a parent for a year.

In my experience, a year of mourning is about right. It was about a year from when my father died until I was brave enough to adjust his clock’s pendulum—to assume full responsibility for my role as the clock’s owner.

I know that my grief is not over. In fact, I’m not sure I ever fully processed my mother’s death, because my father’s came so soon after. Just as the clock will sometimes stop, and may break down, so will I. But I am no longer losing time every day. I am ticking along just fine.

Today, April 25, 2016, would have been my father’s 83rd birthday. We held his memorial Mass a year ago today. I miss him, but I am moving on. I’ll keep ticking.

What possessions of yours are symbols of the past or present for you?

Hospitalized for Homesickness

I wrote in my last post about my son’s first experience at summer camp. When I was eleven, I went to summer camp myself for the first and last time.

It was 1967, the summer after my sixth grade year. Three fellow classmates and I—girls I liked, but not close friends—signed up for a Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) camp somewhere in the Cascade Mountains outside Leavenworth, Washington.

Leavenworth, WA, a Bavarian town in Washington State. Picture from city website

Leavenworth, WA, a Bavarian town in Washington State. Picture from city website.

I remember the bus ride through Leavenworth, but I cannot remember the name of the camp. I tried recently to find it on Google, but I was not successful. It might have been Camp Field, which CYO operated from the 1950s to the early 1990s. This location is now a resort called Sleeping Lady Mountain Resort, and the resort’s website mentions that it used to be a CYO camp. But I honestly don’t remember anything about the location beyond driving through Leavenworth.

All I remember about the camp was a lot of references to Okanogan, a National Forest in the region

All I remember about the camp was a lot of references to Okanogan, a National Forest in the region.

On the appointed day, my classmates and I met at our school for the bus ride to camp. We sat together on the bus, which was full of other girls from the Tri-City area (the Tri-Cities are Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco, Washington). The kids in our school tended to stick pretty much with just classmates, without much contact even between one class and the kids in the other class of the same grade (two classes per grade, at that time). I recognized a few other girls from our school, but the only kids I knew were my three classmates.

When we arrived at camp, they called us by name to assign us to cabins. My three friends were placed in one cabin. Because I was a year younger than everyone else in my grade, I was placed in a cabin with younger girls. I knew no one, other than one girl from my school. All I knew was her first name—Joanne. And since she had just completed fifth grade, she seemed like a baby to me, though we were about the same size.

And the camp was near the Wenatchee Forest, I think.

And the camp was near the Wenatchee Forest, I think. But I wasn’t much focused on the natural beauty around me.

My heart sank at being placed with strangers. But I gamely took my pillow and my suitcase off to my cabin, claimed a bunk, and headed to archery practice with everyone else.

I had never shot a bow and arrow before. I was lousy at archery.

For dinner we had hamburgers, which shouldn’t have been objectionable, but they put ketchup and mustard on every burger. And pickles. At the time, I didn’t eat ketchup or mustard. And I especially didn’t eat pickles.

I choked down some baked beans, ate a s’more at the campfire, and went to bed.

The next morning we had cereal for breakfast. That I could handle. Then we trooped off on a hike through the woods. It was hot. Blisteringly hot.

Back to camp for lunch. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I liked peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

But one look at the peanut butter, and I gagged. The oil in the industrial-sized jar of peanut butter had separated away from the creamy nuts. I’d never seen separated peanut butter before. In my family, the jars of Skippy peanut butter my mother bought never lasted last long enough to separate.

I rushed out of the dining hall retching.

A counselor followed.

I cried and said my stomach hurt, which it did by this point.

I was taken to the nurse’s station. A nurse took my temperature. Slightly elevated. I said I felt sick. The beds in the nursing station were full (on the first day of camp—go figure), so I got taken to the local hospital. I hadn’t been hospitalized since I went home after being born.

I was diagnosed with the stomach flu and put in a hospital room with another girl, who turned out to be Joanne from my school. She also had the flu. She had a real fever and was definitely sicker than I was.

I hated the hospital, which was really boring. I didn’t have a book. There was no television in the room. I think they gave me a couple of issues of Seventeen or something, or maybe a child’s book I’d read at age seven.

But at least I didn’t have to eat oily peanut butter. Or hamburgers with pickles. They fed me Jell-O and chocolate milk.

Two days later, a counselor from the Tri-Cities had a family emergency. The powers that be at camp—presumably with some consultation with parents—decided that Joanne and I should be returned to our homes. The counselor drove us back to Richland.

And that was the end of my summer camp experience.

Did I have the flu? Doubtful. Did I need to be in the hospital? Definitely, no.

I probably just had a bad case of homesickness, the problem of a young girl who had never been overnight with anyone but grandparents or close family friends, trying to adjust to a world where she couldn’t satisfy her finicky appetite.

That wasn’t the last of my homesick times. When I went to Europe on the People to People program, I spent my first night sick. Ditto when I went to college. On those occasions, however, I had to adapt. No one was there to let me go home. I learned to survive, and am happier for those experiences.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened if the counselor hadn’t been driving to the Tri-Cities. Would I have been sent back to camp to muddle my way through the remainder of the ten days? Maybe that would have been good for me.

When have you had difficulty adapting to a new experience?

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Social Media in Times of Stress

Before my father passed away on January 5, I had scheduled some posts on my Facebook author page about Clean Off Your Desk Day on January 12, and today’s Organize Your Home Day. I forgot about these posts in the middle of much bigger worries.

My desk

So in addition to my emotional posts from this blog this week and last about my father’s death, my Facebook Page readers can see two posts on these amusing non-events. (Well, they’re typically non-events in my life. I have already confessed that I am a pack rat who files on the floor. But I’ve worked in groups that take Clean Off Your Desk Day quite seriously.)

My attempt to schedule my humor now seems quite inappropriate.

Ironically, however, this year these “national days” are not non-events for me. I am spending time this week tearing my father’s office apart, trying to organize his records into what I need now, what I’ll need soon, and what I will probably never need. Clean off the desk? Not for awhile.

And I lie awake nights dreading the soon-to-come dismantling of my parents’ house, which I’ll need to do with the help of my brother and sister and the rest of the family. We will have to decide what to keep and what to toss from a fifty-nine year marriage. Organize the home? This year we are emptying it.

I write all this to show that one aspect of the Bad and the Ugly of social media is that items posted in advance may later seem inappropriate. Automation of posts and tweets is helpful in moderation, but the writer must always remain aware of what is about to be posted, as I have discovered this week. It may turn out the scheduled posts do not describe life as it develops. Life doesn’t always roll along as we plan.

But I have also experienced the Good of social media this week—the connections that can develop across distances and in short times. My heart has been warmed by readers both on this blog and on Facebook who have expressed their compassion for my family and me. Most of the people who have commented are people I know personally, but some are people I’ve met only through social media. Good people. Friends, even. And it is a comfort to know that so many people care.

On balance, are our lives better or worse because of social media?

Percy Murray’s Peppermint Ice Cream

One of the things I love about winter is peppermint ice cream. I’m not a big fan of ice cream generally, but I do have a few favorite flavors—peach in the summer, peppermint in the winter, and rich chocolate any time. These days, I typically buy the low-fat versions, but they are never as good as the old-fashioned ice cream I remember from childhood.

I can only find peppermint ice cream in the winter months. I don’t want mint chocolate chip, I want the pure peppermint, with chunks of candy in a vanilla base. Around Thanksgiving each year, I begin looking for it in the grocery store.

20140108_174129Most years I’ve bought Edy’s slow churned, which is of the low-fat variety. I couldn’t find the Edy’s this year, so I bought Belfonte Mama’s Choice Peppermint Stick premium ice cream (Mama approved, it says on the label).  I brought home a half-gallon and happily announced to my family that it was in our freezer.

It turns out, I’m the only one who is really fond of peppermint ice cream, though my husband will eat it “to save you from yourself,” he says. I’d never realized I was the only peppermint aficionado in the house.

One bite of the Belfonte Peppermint Stick, and my childhood returned to me. The ice cream is rich and creamy, with big pieces of peppermint candy, just like I remember from my preschool years.

530_IMG_5124_2 peppermint ice creamAs I savor the Belfonte this winter, I remember Percy Murray’s Klamath Falls Creamery in Klamath Falls, Oregon, where my grandparents bought me the first peppermint ice cream I ever tasted. Mr. Murray and his family were good friends of my maternal grandparents, so my grandparents patronized the Klamath Falls Creamery for all their dairy products.

I actually remember Mrs. Murray, Percy’s wife, more than I remember him. I called her Mrs. Mur-mur, and rode in the back seat of her Cadillac sitting on the arm rest in the middle. (No requirements that children be restrained in car seats in the late 1950s.)

Mrs. Mur-mur invited me to the first tea party I ever attended. And she gave me real tea, just like the grown-up ladies got! (Mine had a lot of milk in it, but there was also real tea in my china cup.)

My grandfather probably brought the peppermint ice cream home for us to eat after dinner. But I also remember sitting at a counter to eat it in an ice cream store. My father tells me I must be thinking of Binkley’s Ice Cream Store on Main Street in Klamath Falls, just east of the Klamath Variety Store on 9th and Main. All I remember is the brightly lit shop and the cool peppermint ice cream.

Both Percy and his wife have been dead for decades, though Mrs. Mur-mur lived well into her nineties. The Klamath Falls Creamery is now a brewery and restaurant. Binkley’s Ice Cream Store is long gone. Some things do not remain the same.

But when I take a spoonful of my Belfonte Peppermint Stick ice cream now, its rich creaminess slides over my tongue just like Percy Murray’s did when I was three. And when I bite into the crunchy candies, I get the same sharp burst of cool/hot mint that I did then. As I eat, the more than half-century of my life since that first taste drifts away. I am enchanted by the flavor now, as I was then.

What tastes bring back memories of your early childhood?