A Bahamas Getaway

Four November days in the tropics.

Last week was my sister’s birthday. Because she was so incredibly supportive during my crazy divorce and while I was building my home, I decided to visit her in Florida.

And take her on a cruise to the Bahamas.

Regular blog readers may recall me writing about cruises just a month or so ago. They may have gotten the impression that I hated cruising. That isn’t true. My first cruise experience was amazing. My second was disappointing. I try to be open minded about these things. Maybe my second cruise was disappointing for reasons that had nothing to do with cruising. (Cruise companion, maybe? Just a thought.) I decided I needed to try it again to see if cruising was something I should embrace for future vacations or forget about.

Of course, I booked the cruise only a few weeks before the cruise date. And our dates were set — my sister had only certain days off from work. I needed a cruise that left from Florida and returned to the same place within the dates I had to work with. There were not many options, as you might imagine. I wound up going with the Norwegian Cruise Lines’ “4-Day” Bahamas cruise.

I put “4-day” in quotes because the cruise left on a Monday and returned on a Friday. Most tour companies would call that a 5-day cruise. But NCL is apparently not like most companies. We boarded at noon on Monday and disembarked at 9 AM on Friday. In my book, that’s almost five full days — even if most of Monday and Friday were spent in the Port of Miami.

Although I tried to keep the following short, there’s a lot to report and share. So grab a Bahama Mama and read on.

Day 0: Ft. Pierce and Miami Beach

We actually started in Elkton, FL, where my sister lives. That’s near St. Augustine in the far north of Florida. I waited until the last minute to tell her about the cruise. In fact, I waited until she asked me straight out where we were going. She’d guessed that we were going to Key West and I never told her whether we were or weren’t. I just replied that I liked Key West. But when she asked me on Saturday where we were going, I told her. Then I grabbed her passport and checked her in to stop the flood of email messages I was getting from the cruise ship company warning of dire consequences if we didn’t check in on time.

On Sunday, we drove down to Ft. Pierce. My 76-year-old dad is recovering from a motorcycle accident. Yes, he was the one on the motorcycle. A broken nose, 6 cracked vertebrae, 2 broken ribs, and 4 broken pelvis bones later, he’s got a lot of healing to do. Intensive care in the hospital followed by a week or two in rehab and now home with a hospital bed in the living room, wheel chair, and visiting physical therapist. It made sense that we should visit him on our way to Miami, so we did.

Three Langers
Three Langers: me, my sister Laura, and my daredevil dad.

He looks a lot better than I expected, but he’s lost a ton of weight. He never was very heavy (I didn’t get my fat genes from my father’s gene pool) and now he’s pretty bony. I hope he puts some weight back on soon.

But not before he can walk.

He knows his motorcycling days are over, but since he lives on the water, I think this is a perfect time for him to replace that old Honda with a WaveRunner. Hitting the water likely won’t break as many bones.

The Beacon
The Beacon Hotel on Monday morning. That’s Laura smoking in the shade out front.

After a great lunch at a local fish place, my sister and I hit the road, continuing our journey south. I’d made reservations at The Beacon at Miami’s South Beach. It’s one of the many historic art deco hotels right on the ocean. We got in just after dark and the whole Ocean Drive strip was hopping with live music and people enjoying food and drink at the dozens of sidewalk restaurants. I was very glad to hand over the car to a valet.

I’d mentioned in my reservation that it was my sister’s birthday and was pleasantly surprised to find a bottle of champagne chilling on ice in our room when we arrived. As you might imagine, I wasted no time opening up that puppy. The two of us drank about three quarters of it before Laura dozed off. When it became clear that she wasn’t fit for partying, I changed into something more suitable and went out on my own. After an invigorating walk up and then back down Ocean Drive — with plenty of photos taken along the way — I found a restaurant with a menu I liked. My dinner consisted of white gazpacho, escargot (in the shell), and a vodka martini with four olives. The key lime pie I got for dessert satisfied my craving — and south Florida is the only place you can get a decent key lime pie. I’d tell you the name of the restaurant, but I can’t remember or figure out on Google Maps which one it is. (Remember, I started the evening with about a half bottle of champagne in me.) I do know it was between 6th and 7th Streets, with outdoor dining that spilled over onto the sidewalk as most South Beach restaurants do.

South Beach at Night
South Beach at night.

Needless to say, I finished off the rest of the champagne when I got back to the room.

Day 1: Port of Miami

Miami Beach Sunrise
Sunrise at Miami Beach. I watched the sun rise on every single morning of my Bahamas trip.

The next morning, we were up before dawn and headed out to watch the sun rise over the ocean. I mean, why not, right? We saw a few cruise ships and a container ship come in. Then back to our hotel for our included breakfast. We called for the car, checked out, and loaded up for our real destination: the Port of Miami where the Norwegian Sky awaited.

There was a lot of traffic.

We were all checked in by 10:45 AM. Then the wait for boarding time. I didn’t realize that the check in time and boarding time could be as much as 2 hours apart. We had to wait until noon. Then we were in the first boarding group and on board the ship, checking out our cabin, by 12:15 PM.

A few things about the ship: Norwegian Sky is a smaller ship, built in 1999 but renovated most recently in 2013. It holds just over 2,000 passengers and just under 1,000 crew members. Passengers can access decks 3 through 12. There are three pools, 5 hot tubs, at least a dozen bars, 2 “freestyle” restaurants, a buffet, and 4 specialty restaurants. And a spa and a gym and some shops and a casino. You know — the usual cruise ship stuff. It was definitely not a deluxe ship, but it was in extremely good condition and immaculately clean.

I’ve always cruised with a balcony cabin and I’m not about to downgrade now, so I got us a midship outside cabin on Deck 9’s port side. The cabin was small but had two narrow beds, a small sofa, and a desk with a chair. The bathroom was small but functional and the climate control system was absolutely silent. The balcony was private with enough space for two chairs and a table.

Cabin 1 Cabin 2
Our cabin on the Norwegian Sky.

I know that some folks say that a balcony room is a waste of money. How much time do you spend on the balcony? In my case, a lot of time. My problem is that I don’t like hanging around with loud, drunk strangers (and their kids, who really should be in school). Apparently that’s a good description of about 50% of a cruise ship’s passengers. So while they lounge around the pool getting drunk[er], make repeat trips to the buffet getting fat[ter], and do their best to emulate a frat party at a school where academic achievement is not high on anyone’s priority list, I’m doing my best to avoid them. A private balcony overlooking the Caribbean or a port city is perfect for this.

Miami Beach
A view up Miami Beach from the comfort of our balcony as Norwegian Sky pulled out of port on Monday evening.

We spent much of the early afternoon wandering around the ship, getting to know it a little better. We found food and later found our bags as they were being delivered to our cabin. We unpacked. Later, we watched the ship pull out of port, which is something we’d do each day. Then we showered and dressed for dinner.

People who know me know that I’m a bit of a foodie. So when I booked the cruise and was offered a choice of beverage, dining, or $50 excursion voucher, you can bet I took the dining package. That entitled us to three meals at one of the specialty restaurants. These turned out to be rather impressive fine dining establishments with great food, wonderful service, and an atmosphere guaranteed to turn off most of the partiers. The regular price also played into who would dine at a specialty restaurant — they ranged in price from $19.99 to $29.99 extra per person. Of course, we didn’t have to pay this.

Lots of folks asked me if I got the beverage package. This would entitle me to all the alcohol I could drink every day. It also explains why so many people were perpetually drunk. But although I do enjoy wine with dinner and a nice vodka martini now and then, I’d much rather have good food every night than get shitfaced drunk every day. Does that honestly surprise anyone?

The first night, we had steaks at Cagney’s, the steakhouse on Deck 12. It was a great meal. At the end of the meal, they brought a third dessert and sang Happy Birthday to Laura.

Pool Deck at Night
The pool deck early in the evening, before things really started rocking.

We didn’t do much afterwards except walk around and marvel at the number of people crammed into the four hot tubs. I don’t know about you, but the idea of sharing a hot tub with up to a dozen drunk strangers grosses me out.

The party had begun.

The had boat started to roll a little in the offshore swells while we were at dinner. That brought back memories of my first cruise, when I’d battled seasickness one evening — formal night, of course — in rough seas. But things soon calmed down and it was smooth sailing by the time we went down to bed. The sea was kind to us for the rest of the trip.

Day 2: Freeport, Grand Bahama

We slept with the door to the balcony open. It was much warmer outside than inside, but with the air conditioner adjusted just right, it was very comfortable in the narrow but cozy bed. Best of all, we could hear the sound of the waves against the hull as the ship steered through the Straits of Florida on a dark, moonless night at about 8 knots.

How do I know we were moving at about 8 knots? The GPS on my phone. I am a geek.

I woke at about 3 AM and stepped outside. I could still see the glow from Miami far behind us, reflecting against some low clouds to the west. There were a handful of lights much closer and I used my binoculars to study them. Over the next few nights, I got the knack of distinguishing ships from lighted buoys and cruise ships from tankers and cargo ships.

Comm Tower Reflection
The communication tower at the front of the ship, shot from Deck 12. Note the reflection; the crew washed the decks pretty much every morning.

By 4 AM, I realized I wasn’t going to be going back to sleep. I slipped on a pair of lounge pants, grabbed my slippers and room key, and headed out in search of coffee. I’d been told the night before that coffee wasn’t available until 6:30 AM, but I suspected that wasn’t exactly true. I poked around a bit, wandering decks where crew members were busy cleaning up the previous night’s party. Two guys were hard at work power washing the wooden deck around the pool. I walked barefoot in the wet areas to keep my slippers dry and donned my slippers in the dry areas.

I discovered that the best place to see in front of us was the area outside the forward bar on Deck 11, where I could stand at the railing with the wind blowing through my hair and clothes. Upstairs, on Deck 12, the forward deck area had a high glass panel that blocked the wind and made photography sketchy.

Eventually, I made my way to the port side of Deck 11. Some crew members were working in the sport bar there and when I asked them about coffee, they guided me to a pair of urns — regular and decaf — positioned just outside the roped-off buffet area. I filled a cup while kitchen staff worked hard to stock the serving area with the cold and room temperature items we’d soon be eating: fruit, yogurt, jams, jellies, butter, dried fruit, granola, bread. The hot items would come later, just before the buffet opened. I was thrilled to get good, hot coffee before 5 AM.

Frankly, I think the cruise line is missing out on a revenue opportunity. If they kept the coffee bar on Deck 7 open 24 hours a day — instead of waiting until 11 AM to open (what’s up with that?) — they could be cleaning up on espresso and latte sales around the clock.

Coffee in hand, I went back to the cabin. Laura was still asleep. I drank coffee on the balcony, then got dressed, grabbed my binoculars, phone (camera), and journal and headed back out. I camped out on the aft area of Deck 11 with a fresh cup of coffee and wrote in my journal. My only complaint is that the music was too loud. Indeed, I’d later realize that there was music pretty much all over the boat almost 24 hours a day. So not only was our balcony the most private outdoor space, but it was also the quietest.

Laura found me a while later. We watched the sun rise as we came into Freeport Harbor.

Freeport Sunrise
Sunrise, on approach to Freeport Harbor.

Carnival Fantasy at Freeport
The Carnival Fantasy followed us into port.

Dock workers and crew men had almost finished tying up the ship when another ship crept into port. It was the Carnival Fantasy, a ship roughly the same size as ours, which we’d see again the next day. The port, which was dead quiet when we arrived, was soon very lively with shops and straw market booths. Things got even livelier as the ships began to disgorge passengers.

Freeport Harbor
Here’s Freeport Harbor after our departure. The Carnival ship left not long after us. By the time we pulled out, the port area had already closed up for the night and was completely deserted.

The whole cruise ship thing is so weird to me. Take a community with a few thousand inhabitants and park two mobile cities, each with 3,000 or more people, in it. Let the people out to shop, drink, and dine. Then, at the end of the day, gather up the mobile cities’ inhabitants and move them out, leaving the people who live there to clean up, count their revenue, and share stories from the day. Repeat daily — or almost daily — for most of the year. It’s just too weird for words. Maybe that’s why so many of the cruise ship ports are so far from where people actually live. Maybe that’s why they’re artificial environments, designed to meet tourists’ expectations rather that reflect the actual culture and lifestyle of the people who live there. And in nearly all of the shops in all of the ports were the same “Bahamas” branded, brightly colored dresses, shirts, skirts, and tote bags the tourists apparently want to buy.

I think that’s what bothered me most about the Alaska cruise I did back in 2007. There’s so much native culture in the area, but it was hidden away beyond the often tacky, touristy port areas few passengers left.

Laura Poses with Ship
Laura posed beside the ship in Freeport.

Don’t get me wrong — I know these people need to make a living. And I’m glad, in a way, that I can help them do so. But it’s unfortunate that tourists care more about buying trinkets and taking packaged tours than learning more about the natural and cultural history of the place they’re visiting.

Meanwhile, we’d signed up for a sail and snorkel trip. Laura had never been snorkeling and I’m always up for a sailboat ride. We got on a line, signed a waiver, got on a charter bus, and then drove across the narrow island to Port Lucaya. There were about 40 people in our group. The bus driver was a very friendly guy — heck, everyone who lives in the Bahamas seems to be friendly — who did his best to make the 20 minute bus ride informative and enjoyable. He mixed tour guide patter with lots of information about the Bahamas and Grand Bahama island. I actually remembered quite a bit of it, which was funny when the driver on the way back tested us and I knew most of the answers. Of course, he does it all for tips and we obliged on our way out.

A shot back at my fellow passengers on the port side of the sailboat before the sails went up. Is it my imagination or do they look bored and a little unhappy?

After giving us a safety briefing of sorts, they handed out swim fins, snorkel masks, and snorkel vests and put us on a large trimaran. For reasons I can’t quite comprehend, no one seemed interested in sitting on the netting between the hulls. Except me. I got myself a nice seat right up front. Laura hung back with our big bag of stuff. We headed out on engine power, navigating the harbor past other boats and businesses. Once we got out into open water, the crew — there was a captain with two crew members — hoisted up the two main sails. The breeze barely caught them, but the captain killed the engines anyway and we continued at a slow pace over shallow water, past parked dive boats and parasailing boats speeding by with parachutes in trail. After about 20 minutes of that, even the captain got impatient. He started the engine and we turned to the south, paralleling the beach and the reef we’d passed over. Then we turned east again, heading inland. When we got back over the reef, he killed the engine. The crew took down the sails and dropped anchor. We had arrived.

We snorkeled for a while. The water was a bit choppy but predictably warm. There were fish everywhere, but there wasn’t much variety or even color. The reef was below six to eight feet of water and showed signs of severe damage likely caused by storms, ship anchors, and uneducated tourists. I’d learned years before while snorkeling at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park at Key Largo that coral is extremely fragile to the point that simply touching it could damage it. Yet at no time were we warned not to touch the coral — except a certain kind that could cause pain or itching. (“Mustard color with white tip will surely ruin your snorkel trip.”) As a result, this frequently visited reef off the coast of Grand Bahama is a sad shadow of what it might once have been. I can only hope that there are lots of other coral reefs where they don’t take tourists every day. Still, I did see some nice coral specimens and some interesting fish. But not enough to keep me in the water. I was the first one back on the ship.

The trip back was direct and much quicker. They didn’t bother with the sails. My fellow passengers were much more relaxed and a few even joined Laura and I on the net area, although by that time I’d moved to the forward end of the port hull where I could dangle my feet over the water and get wet.

Freeport Food Tips

If you find yourself at Freeport or Port Lucaya, try these places for good food:

  • Big Daddy’s. This is the kiosk at Port Lucaya where we bought our lunch. Unbelievably fresh conch and lobster. This place has a big following; Google it and see for yourself. Or learn more about conch and Big Daddy’s in this blog post.
  • Bootleg Chocolates. Amazing chocolate made on the premises.
  • Pier One Restaurant. We didn’t eat here but a man from Chicago on line at Big Daddy’s was raving about it. Don’t let its outside appearance spook you; we passed it as we came into port and it looks a bit funky.

Back at Port Lucaya, we had about an hour to kill until our bus ride back. We were hungry and went in search of food. A fellow snorkeler mentioned a conch kiosk near the dock and we made our way there. Inside was a big man with a big knife cutting up the ingredients for conch salad while a companion worked over a fryer. We ordered “fried conch with fritters” which turned out to be exactly that: fried conch with a side of conch fritters. The fried conch was tender and tasty; the fritters were also good but mostly bread.

After watching a fisherman remove a few freshly caught conchs from their shells, we found a spot in the shade in front of nearby Bootleg Chocolates to eat our lunch. An older woman also enjoying the shade urged us to get some chocolate before leaving. She told us a little about the owner of the shop. Since we’d used their shade, I thought a visit was in order. Besides, I love chocolate. We walked away with a 12-piece assortment and chocolate covered espresso beans, all of which was consumed before the end of our cruise.

We caught the bus back to Freeport and the ship. We walked around the shops for a while. We each bought small, brightly colored purses and I bought a dress. Then it was back to the ship to relax. Laura napped and I watched the latest Mission Impossible movie in the theater. (Wouldn’t you know it? They made the departure announcement just as the ticking time bomb scene came on screen so I never did hear what Ethan Hunt told the bad guy to get him to release the hostage.) The movie finished right as we left port and I hurried back upstairs to our cabin to watch Freeport drift away.

Dinner that night was at Le Bistro on Deck 5, another of the specialty restaurants. We enjoyed nicely prepared French food and great service. And when I couldn’t decide between two different desserts, they brought both of them.

Storm Cloud
This storm cloud reminded me uncomfortably of the smoke clouds I saw in Washington State this past summer.

We walked around the decks while the evening party was just getting started. I’d soon realize that every night they managed to squeeze more people into those hot tubs. After watching a storm to the east — possibly the remnants of Tropical Storm Kate — fade away into the night, we stopped at the Outrigger Lounge at the forward part of Deck 11. This was, by far, the most pleasant place on the ship for a drink. It was also almost always absolutely empty. We sat at the bar, where I ordered a Courvoisier VSOP, and we kept the bartender company. Later, on the beach at Grand Stirrup Cay, she’d remember us — a feat I consider remarkable.

Day 3: Nassau, New Providence

I woke early again the next morning and spent some time watching the stars, listening to the rush of the water from the balcony, and peering at the lights of other ships through my binoculars. Although our balcony light was out, our neighbors on either side had left theirs on and the light drifted into our space. A quick peek around the dividers showed that both cabins had their drapes closed tightly. Chances were that neither cabin’s occupants even knew their lights were on. Later that day, when I saw our cabin attendant, I asked him to shut the lights off when he cleaned the rooms. He had partial success; the occupants of the room to our left refused cabin service for the entire length of the trip. (Can you say dirty towels?)

I got dressed and went directly to coffee. Laura eventually joined me and we watched the ship pull into Nassau’s port where a Royal Caribbean ship was already waiting and two Carnival ships would join us.

By this time, we’d learned that early risers could get a quick, hot breakfast without any crowds at the Deck 11 buffet. I found the omelet station and had a freshly made omelet every morning, along with a pastry or bagel or muesli or fruit. By 7:30 AM, the place was a madhouse. But by then, we were already moving on to other things.

This wasn’t my first time to Nassau. I’d been there in 2011 with my wasband on a business trip. Back in those days, he sold AstroTurf — the real trademarked stuff — for a company based in the Deer Valley area of Phoenix. I’m pretty sure that the trip was a sales award. I do know that a coworker and his wife, Chris and Ruth, were also along, although I can’t remember if his idiot boss was. I also know that we stayed at the Atlantis resort and that I caught a nasty cold that pretty much ruined the trip for me. Although the cruise line’s excursions included several to Atlantis, I wasn’t that interested in going back, despite the fact that they have a real kick-ass water park with a mile-long lazy river.

Instead, we’d decided on a Segway tour. I’d been on a Segway twice and Laura had been on one once. I really like them — probably a lot more than I should. They are unbelievably unpractical to own but undeniably fun to ride.

Nassau Port Panorama
When we left the ship, I stopped at the bow of the Norwegian Sky to make this panoramic image. The fourth cruise ship, which docked to our right, had not yet arrived.

After waiting here, there, and everywhere, our guide loaded eight of us onto a taxi van and drove us to the Segway base at the local cricket club grounds. There, we were outfitted with helmets, elbow pads, and knee pads, signed the inevitable waiver, and got a lesson. Because Laura and I and two other people had already ridden Segways, our lessons were short and we were let loose in a practice area to do laps. The others got more intensive lessons before practice. Then we set off behind our guide in single file while a second guide followed and rode up and down our line to make sure we were all comfortable with what we were doing and keeping up. He also had a Stop sign on a post and occasionally used it to stop traffic on main roads so we could cross in a group.

Laura and Maria on Segways
Do we look goofy enough in our protective gear on these off-road Segways?

I should mention here that Segways have two operating settings: beginner (or turtle) mode and standard mode. As you might have guessed, turtle mode is purposely slow, no more than 8 mph. Standard mode is faster, up to 12.5 mph. This particular tour company kept all of us in turtle mode for the duration of the tour. This was likely due to the rough terrain, which included grass, gravel, sand, cracked pavement, bumps, and tree roots. They used all-terrain model Segways, which featured larger, more heavily treaded tires.

We rode to Junkanoo Beach, where we stopped briefly and our guide gave us some background information about the area and took photos of us with our cameras. Then back on for a short while before another stop and more information. Then back toward our starting point with a third stop at the Fish Fry where we got a history lesson about the strip of restaurants in the area and lecture about the local food, beer, and drink. (I vaguely remember taking a limo ride to the Fish Fry from Atlantis on my previous visit to Nassau, although I can’t remember details. Cold medicine really hits me hard sometimes.) Although it was still early in the day, we all voted to stop into one of the restaurants, which were just opening, for a drink. Laura and I opted for a Bahama Mama. I figured I had to try one before the end of the trip and it must be a breakfast drink because it had juice in it. It was refreshing and I admit that it made the remainder of the morning a tiny bit more fun. Afterwards, it was back to the cricket club grounds for a race between riders on a slalom course set in the patchy grass. I was matched with one of the experienced German riders and I’m proud to say that I beat him, without knocking over a single cone, despite the rum I’d just consumed. (U-S-A! U-S-A!)

We parked the Segways and stripped off our protective gear. I spoke for a while with the woman who owned the business and got some interesting information from her. More on that another time.

We got a ride back into town where, after a short peek into a few shops, went back to the cabin for some rest. That’s when the fourth cruise ship showed up. It was quite a monster, with a huge, three-tubed water flume on top for the kids. It turned around in the harbor and backed into its parking spot right next to us. Seriously: watching ships park and depart was a huge source of entertainment for us.

We went back into town a while later. Although we thought we might try walking to the Fish Fry for a late lunch/early dinner, we never got quite that far. Instead, we walked around the straw market and shops. On the way back to the ship, I saw a guy selling conch shells and bought one as a souvenir, making him describe in detail how the conch is removed before I left with my purchase. He did better: he demonstrated with a hammer he had with him.

Once again, we watched the ship prepping for departure. Because the dock was under our balcony, we could watch the passengers return in groups. The Sky’s crew had laid out red carpets on the way to the gangway. As usual, there were tents set up with beverages and a crew member handing out cool, wet cloths for arriving passengers. That afternoon, two rows of crew members also danced to some loud local music blaring from a sound system. A woman wearing stilts danced along with them, and more than a few of the passengers danced their way on board. It was very festive and I can’t help thinking it was part of a show put on to show the Carnival passengers, whose ship was docked across from ours, how much more fun Norwegian was. They had no amenities other than an shade tent with chairs for returning passengers. It was kind of funny to see two of their passengers dancing down our red carpet with our crew members before leaving the carpet to join the others on their way to the Carnival ship.

The Carnival Fantasy, which had come in just after us that morning, was the first to leave. It backed out into the open harbor area, made a 180° turn, and slipped out of the port. We did pretty much the same maneuver. It looked as if the larger Carnival ship went next, followed by the ship that had been first to arrive. But back on shore, Nassau was still partying. With all the hotels in the area, the city never really closes down. The last bit of entertainment came when the pilot boat rode alongside our ship and the pilot climbed out of a hatch and down a rope ladder to leave us.

Nassau at Night
Nassau was still partying as we sailed away after dark.

We took it easy for the rest of the evening. We had sushi for dinner at the Plantation Club on Deck 12. Although this was a specialty restaurant, we decided to save our last dinner, which we’d eat in the Italian restaurant, for the last night. Dinner wasn’t costly at all, which is kind of a good thing because the sushi wasn’t that good.

At sometime that day, I recalled that I’d bought iSailGPS, a nautical charting app for my iPad for use when I took my boat out in charted waters. I’d never installed it on my new iPad. So I splurged for an Internet connection on the ship, downloaded the app, and downloaded the NOAA chart for the Straits of Florida, which included the Bahamas. Before going to bed, I’d not only plotted our location on the chart via GPS but had found our next destination and calculated the distance. I really am a geek.

Day 4: Great Stirrup Cay, a Private Island

I didn’t sleep well on Wednesday night and was up multiple times during the night. Each time I woke up, I’d step out to the balcony with my binoculars to see what was out there. Once, I didn’t even have to step outside: I could see the Norwegian Escape cruise by in the opposite direction less than a mile away, right from my bed. But the thing that pleased me most: both of my neighbors’ balcony lights were turned off, giving me a nice, dark platform for star gazing.

I also consulted iSailGPS a few times so I knew how fast we were going — very slow — and where we were.

By 4 AM, I was up for the day so I dressed and went for coffee. I don’t know if I was imagining things, but it seemed as if there were more passengers awake earlier that day than usual.

A pair of double-decker tenders transported us between ship and shore.

Great Stirrup Cay is a private island owned by Norwegian Cruise Lines. It’s the northernmost island of the Berry Islands south of Grand Bahama Island. It sits in an area of very shallow water, so there’s no port. Instead, Norwegian ships drop anchor on the north side of the island and double-decker tender boats come out from the island to transport passengers. There isn’t even a dock on the island. Instead, they just lower a ramp and we walk off the boat, kind of like cattle arriving at a slaughter house. But with a more pleasant outcome, of course.

The island isn’t big — you can easily walk from one side to the other, as we did twice that day. The north side, facing the ship, has a series of beautiful sandy beaches all set up with lounge chairs facing the water. Most of the chairs in the back rows are paired up with clamshell shades that beach-goers can rent for $30/day. We rented one right away; neither of us wanted a full day of full sun. Farther up the island are cabanas that go for considerably more. There are restrooms, bars (of course), and buildings where you can rent snorkel gear, rafts, and floats; sign up for a WaveRunner, kayak, or snorkel tour; and get a buffet lunch between 11 AM and 2 PM. There’s a fee for everything except the sunny lounge chairs and the buffet and I suspect that Norwegian owns everything, so the private island must be quite revenue rich for them. But it was also beautiful, clean (at least when we arrived), and stress-free. Although there was a little straw market of shops with the same tourist merchandise we’d seen everywhere else, the people who worked there didn’t shout out to get you in the door or try to haggle with you to sell.

We went for a WaveRunner tour. Laura had never ridden one. I’d owned a pair of them for a few years starting back in around 2005 and had a lot of hours on them, mostly in Lake Pleasant north of Phoenix. (I love them and if I didn’t currently have a little jet boat, I’d have one again.) The tour folks offered single and double riding. In an effort to save a few bucks, we went double and Laura did the driving. There was about 20 people in our group and about half were riding double. They made us watch a video, then handed out life jackets and loaded us on board three-seated Yamaha WaveRunners very similar to one of the ones I’d owned.

Laura got off to a shaky start, but soon got the hang of it. We raced around water so clear and shallow that we could see the bottom most of the time. The guides were very good at keeping an eye on us without holding us back. We all spread out quite a bit, then gathered together and drifted in an area with very shallow water. The guides jumped in and emerged from the bottom with huge starfish that they passed around so we could feel their hard shell-like bodies. One by one, the guides tossed them back in and we watched them drift gently to the sea floor. When we left, I looked into the water and saw dozens of them as we raced by.

Even though I didn’t do any of the driving, I think that was the most fun excursion of the trip. Not quite sure what that says. I know it made me really wish I could take my boat out again soon. It also got me thinking that maybe I should drag my boat down to Arizona this winter.

We grabbed lunch at the buffet and went back to our shady clamshell on the beach to enjoy it. Then we just relaxed for a while. Laura went back in the water to cool down while I opted for a fresh water shower on the beach. I visited the Bacardi bar for a so-so mojito — not quite sweet enough, even for me — and realized what a perfect viewpoint it was for a photo. Later, I came back with my camera and took the photo I consider my best of the trip.

Great Stirrup Cay
No other image can say “Bahamas Cruise” better than this one.

Caribbean Sunset
Just another Caribbean sunset.

We were back on board the ship by 3 PM, although the last tender wasn’t due to leave until 4:30. I napped for about an hour, woken by the glare of the sun through the open balcony door as the ship turned around to head northwest. We watched the sun set from our balcony.

I consulted iSailGPS for our course back. Although Miami was due west, the water on the direct path back was very shallow so we’d have to go north before going west. Still, I could tell the Captain was serious about getting home. He had the speed cranked up to 14 knots — the fastest we’d gone all week — and we could really hear the wake as he plowed through the water.

Dinner that night was in the last of the specialty restaurants, Il Adiago on Deck 11. Although the food was very good, the service was a problem. It all seemed centered around a member of the bus staff who apparently thought he was a waiter. He took orders for wine when it was obviously the waiter’s job. (He screwed it up, too, by ordering wine for both of us when only one of us wanted wine.) He took away plates for one of us before both of us were finished eating. And he committed the ultimate dining service sin: he asked us if we wanted anything else before I’d finished eating. I let him have it, letting my tone of voice say more than my words: “I’d like to finish my meal before I think about dessert.” He apologized and left, returning only when my plate was empty and letting the waiter take our dessert order. If language wasn’t such a barrier on board, I probably would have spoken to the woman who had seated us about it. But English was a second language for most crew members and it really didn’t seem worth the effort to offer my negative feedback. I just hope they get the guy some decent training before he ruins someone else’s meal.

While we wanted to enjoy some of the ship’s entertainment that night, we were completely wiped out from our day in the sun. So we spent the rest of the evening relaxing before turning in early.

Day 5: Port of Miami

It should come as no surprise that I was up early the next morning. It was dark and a bit foggy. Floodlights illuminated the lower half of the ship — I think it was the Captain’s effort to keep us very visible as we entered the deeper water shipping lanes between Miami and the Bahamas. I checked out the warning buoys we passed as we rounded the northernmost part of the Great Bahama Bank. Then, as we turned to the southwest, I started taking note of the ships that seemed to be on the same course for Miami.

When we got closer, I got dressed, got some coffee, and went up to the wide open forward area of Deck 11. I monitored our progress on my iPad and soon saw the lights of Miami out in front of us.

Miami Approach
On approach to Miami. The lights really glow at night.

We were the blue asterisk with the line indicating direction as we approached the Port of Miami’s ship channel. I downloaded more detailed charts of the harbor as we got closer. Have I mentioned that I’m a geek?

It wasn’t long before I got a good cell signal. By the time we were in the channel, passing quickly between red- and green-lighted buoys, I was broadcasting on Periscope, sharing our arrival with anyone interested in tuning in. The broadcast went very long because I managed to keep quite an audience. I answered lots of questions and was very pleased when several viewers told me that they enjoyed my broadcasts. It got lighter and lighter as we came in past two parked cruise ships, including the AIDAvita, which looked like the perfectly sized cruise ship for the kind of cruising I’d like to do. (Unfortunately, I don’t speak German and their website isn’t in English. Likely a smart strategy for AIDA.) We got to the end of the cruise ship terminal area, made a 180° turn, and parked right where we’d left from on Monday evening.

It was about 6:30 AM.

There was no rush to get off the ship — we had until 9:30. Laura and I went down for breakfast. We tried one of the sit-down restaurants, but it was still closed so we wound up back at the buffet. As we walked back down to the room later to pack, we saw many passengers already on line with their luggage, waiting to get of the ship.

We packed leisurely and went through the room several times to make sure we hadn’t left anything behind. I’d managed to lose an earring that morning but it never showed up in lost-and-found before we finally departed.

Back to reality: one last look at Miami Beach from the ship.

Exiting the ship went very quickly. Yes, there was a line to get off the ship and another at Customs, but the lines moved quickly. A woman at the start of the Customs line steered us to a line where a young agent was examining passports and customs forms. He wasn’t checking bags and he didn’t ask to check ours. He took our forms and compared our passport photos to our faces. He seemed to do a double-take when he looked at mine. I laughed. “I have longer hair now and I’m much happier,” I told him. “You look it,” he replied as he handed back the passports and sent us on our way.

We found the car, loaded up our bags, and paid for parking on the way out. After stopping for gas in Miami, we got on Route 95 and headed north, back to reality.

Closing Thoughts

This was the “tiebreaker cruise” — the one where I’d decide whether I ever wanted to cruise again. I went into it with very low expectations and a pretty small investment. The result: no disappointment, but no big thrill, either.

You have to look at a cruise for what it is. When you get on board, you’re checking into a resort where all the basics — food, a room, and some amenities like a pool — are included. Like any resort, it’s full of people who bring their own personalities, preferences, and expectations with them. Those might not match yours. The resort travels from place to place and you get the benefit of visiting all the places it stops at — without having to pack and unpack for each move.

While it is possible to do the cruise we did for as little as about $250/person including taxes and fees, that doesn’t buy you much. In fact, you won’t even have a window in your room. But where else can you get a 4-night stay at a resort with all meals and amenities for that kind of money? When I bought the cruise tickets, it was with the knowledge that a four-night trip to Key West would have cost at least what I spent if we stayed in a decent hotel and had good meals — but we wouldn’t get the daily change of scenery.

If you want to fully experience a cruise, however, you have to enjoy some for-fee services on the ship and port excursions. And those aren’t cheap. We spent nearly as much on our three excursions as we did for our balcony cabin. So while a cruise looks like it could be cheap, it could also be very costly.

Of course, excursions don’t need to be booked through the cruise ship. If you do your homework in advance, you can find local tour operators who might offer better, cheaper options. But I didn’t do any homework. I’m a lazy traveler sometimes and that’s who cruises are for.

So would I do this again? Yes, but only after I did some more research. I’d try harder to find a cruise that was a match for me. More sophisticated travelers. Smaller, newer cruise ship. More interesting destinations. More personalized service. No kids — is that possible? And yes, I know this would cost more. But for the right cruise — a cruise that will WOW me — I’m willing to pay more.

Just not for a few years. I honestly don’t think cruising is something I want to do very often, no matter how good it sounds.

Missing Grandma at Muir Woods

Funny what you think about when you’re wandering among the giant trees.

I went to Muir Woods on Saturday, on my way home from whale watching. It was my third or fourth visit ever.

Muir Woods National Monument is a valley just north of San Francisco that’s filled with groves of giant redwood trees along a small creek. It features a boardwalk and paved pathway, several other trails, and signage to help you understand the ecology and history of the woods.

All the other times I’ve been there have been late in the day when the place was mostly deserted. On Saturday, I arrived at 5 PM and although the place was definitely emptying out, it was pretty obvious that it had been packed earlier in the day; there were cars parked along the road for at least two miles leading up to the park entrance with so many people walking back to them that I thought the cars were for some big party at Muir Beach.

In Muir Woods
It was dark down at the base of the tall trees.

Along the creek
There wasn’t much water in Redwood Creek, but it was picturesque, anyway.

Because of the time of day and the angle of the sun and the park geography, the pathways were in dark shadows. But if you looked up toward the tops of the giant trees, you’d see the sun still shining on them. Still, I didn’t take many pictures. Instead, I just walked along the pathways along the creek at my own pace, thinking about what I was seeing and trying to tune out the noise of the tourists all around me.

I remembered my first visit to Muir Woods, years before in January. Back in the 1990s, I was a regular speaker at Macworld Expo in San Francisco. I’d fly out for a few days — usually with my future wasband — see the show, do my speaking thing, and then spend some time in the area. Airfare and hotel costs in the city were a write-off as a business expense. The vacation tacked on afterward was just fun. One year we visited Napa Valley, another year we visited Sonoma Valley, another year we went south to Monterrey and St. Louis Obispo, and another year we headed to Hawaii. Those were great trips in days long gone.

I don’t remember which year we first went to Muir Woods. But I do remember the quiet of the woods and seeing two salmon heading up stream to spawn in water that was barely deep enough to cover them. One male, one female, several hundred feet apart, struggling to move upstream. I wanted so badly to just grab one of them and put it with the other one in the same pool of water so they could go about their business and die.

I don’t remember the park being very crowded or noisy. I just remembered it being dark and kind of hushed.

It was dark on Saturday, but definitely not hushed.

Even when signs asked visitors to “Enter Quietly” — as they do upon entry to the Cathedral Grove — people called back and forth to each other and kids screamed and cried. I could have been at the mall.

I tried hard to tune it all out, focusing on the tall, straight trees. And when I made a turn down a pathway and found myself in a little cul-de-sac with a bench before a huge tree, I found myself thinking about my grandmother.

Born in 1912 as one of eight children, my grandmother was a hardworking woman who never experienced much outside the world of her home in the New York Metro area. In the 1980s, when I had a job that required a lot of business travel, and then later, when I traveled with my future wasband, I’d send her a postcard from everyplace I went. That and television were he exposures to the rest of the country. When she died in 2002, we found a shoebox with all those postcards inside it. She’d kept every single one.

I found myself thinking about the last time I’d gone hiking with her. She was in her late 70s at the time and still very active, working part-time as a hostess in a family restaurant. I’d taken her to the State Line Lookout in Palisades Interstate Parkway and we’d walked one of the trails through the woods. I’d been worried about her when I realized how steep the trail was in parts, but I didn’t need to. At one point, I saw her stabbing a branch she’d picked up as a walking stick into a hole alongside the trail. When I asked her what she was doing, she told he she’d seen a snake go in the hole. Someone else’s grandmother (or mother or girlfriend, for that matter) might have screamed and run the other way. But not my grandmother. She was tough.

As I stood in the clearing at the base of the tree, I realized that the path through the woods was made so that everyone could enjoy the wonder of the trees, no matter how old or young they were. I found myself wishing that I could have brought my grandmother there. I could imagine her awe as she looked up and realized just how tall that tree was. Or when she looked at the base of the tree and realized just how big the trunk was.

“For crimsey’s sake!” she’d say. None of us knew where that came from but we knew that when she said it, it meant she was impressed. It was like me saying “Holy cow!” (or “Holy shit!”)

I wished I could shown her the big trees. Or the Grand Canyon. Or the view from my helicopter on a flight along the Pacific Coast. Or even the giant cactus that grew in my yard in Arizona or the amazing view from my homesite in Washington. The incredible but normal things beyond her limited range of travel and experience.

The things we take for granted as we make our way through life. The things we don’t miss if we never see them at all.

I miss you, Grandma.

Julia’s Thanksgiving Cranberry Recipe

The real recipe; not the lazy-cook knockoff circulating among her family and friends.

My mother-in-law Julia may not have been the best all-around cook, but there were a few things that she made extraordinarily well. One of them was her Thanksgiving cranberries. For a kid who grew up with cranberries served out of a can — still shaped like the can, mind you — this was an amazing revelation that cured me of canned cranberries for good.

Thanksgiving 1996I first made Julia’s cranberry recipe for Thanksgiving dinner in 1996. This was an amazing meal served in my New Jersey home. Our Salvation Army-acquired dining table, expanded to its full length with the help of a homemade leaf fully five feet wide, made it possible for all 15 of us to sit together. Amazing timing with the help of a standard sized oven and the microwave I still own made it possible to serve the entire meal at the same time, fresh and hot. If there is such a thing as miracles, this was one of them. I’ll never be able to top that feat again.

Anyway, Julia gave me her cranberry recipe for that meal and I prepared the cranberries a day or two in advance to her specifications. It came out perfectly.

Recently, I obtained a copy of the recipe that was distributed to family and friends on the back of a card handed out at her funeral. I was shocked to see that it included canned cranberries. The recipe Julia shared with me didn’t have cranberries out of a can. It had fresh cranberries prepared on the stove — the way a real cook would prepare them.

Here, then, is the recipe Julia shared with me back in 1996. I’ll be making this for my friends to enjoy at Thanksgiving this year.


  • Cranberries
    Julia’s real cranberry recipe started with fresh whole cranberries.

    2 12-oz bags fresh, whole cranberries

  • 2 cups water
  • 1-1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 12-oz can crushed pineapple (packed in natural juice; do not drain)
  • 1 10-oz can Mandarin orange pieces (drained), crushed or chopped
  • 3 or 4 figs, fresh or dried, chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, diced (optional for crunchiness; I usually omit it)
  • 1 small apple, peeled, cored, and chopped
  • 1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
  • 1/4 cup Grand Marnier, Cointreau, or orange juice


  1. Rinse the cranberries and place them in a pot.
  2. Add the water and one cup of the sugar and stir.
  3. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to simmer, stirring occasionally.
  4. Listen for the cranberries to “pop.” When about two thirds of them have popped, remove them from the heat and allow to cool for at least 10 minutes.
  5. Drain away the cooking water and place the cranberries in a large bowl.
  6. Add the remaining half cup of sugar and still well. Sugar should dissolve.
  7. Cool thoroughly.
  8. Add remaining ingredients and stir well.
  9. Cover and store in the refrigerator at least overnight so the flavors will meld.

Finished Cranberries
Here’s what my cranberries look like this year.

Serve with turkey (for Thanksgiving!) or pork (any time of the year).

If you’re looking for something different with your turkey this year, try homemade mango chutney. That’s also good with pork.

By the way, the other thing Julia made so perfectly was a New York style cheesecake. I dreaded when she made it in my kitchen because she made an enormous mess. But it was worth it: creamy, delicious, and just sweet enough — if you could convince her not to top it off with something silly like cherry pie filling.

I miss you more than I thought I would, Julia. Rest in peace.

My New Old Tools

They just don’t make them like this anymore.

I finally get it. I understand why tools are a big seller at estate sales.

As I wrote earlier this month, my godfather, Jackie, passed away in late October. Although personal business in Washington made it impossible for me to see him before he died, I was able to join my mother and cousin a few days afterward, to help them go through the things he left behind in his house. I came home with the monkey lamp I’d always admired and a never-used Proctor-Silex toaster dating from about 1965 that I now use regularly.

I also came away with some tools. I didn’t expect to, but when I first laid eye on the marvelously shiny, new-looking nail clipper made in Italy, I just couldn’t let it go to Goodwill. You simply can’t buy something like that anymore — hell, everything in this country seems to be cheap crap made in China.

A while later, we stumbled into a drawer filled with more tools. Woodworking tools, garden tools, pipe wrenches, awls, and a manual drill. Every one of these tools were well used but still in great shape. Best of all, they were heavy duty, made in USA, proudly stamped with patent numbers or manufacture locations or both. The kinds of tools you simply can’t find anymore.

Although I was flying home on an airliner and didn’t know quite how I’d get the tools home, I chose a few I knew I’d be able to use — tools that would complement those I already had in my toolbox. (Even though I’m a girl, I have a remarkably complete toolbox that can help me get most jobs done.) I bundled them up in bubble wrap and eventually loaded them into my checked luggage (with the toaster and lamp base). I admit I was amazed when that bag weighed in at 48.5 pounds. (Another pound and a half and I would have paid a premium to get it on the plane.)

My New Old Tools
The tools I brought back from Jackie’s house.

I’ve already used some of the tools to get work done around my place. I like the way they feel in my hands — sturdy and stronger than me. I don’t think any of them will break — unlike numerous made-in-China tools I’ve destroyed in the past. In a way, I wish I’d dug deeper into his collection — perhaps in the garage — to find more old tools I could use. It would have been worth the extra baggage handling fee to get them home.

Now all I need is one of those big red toolboxes…

Return to New York

I take a trip back to my old stomping grounds.

Folks who know me well know that I’m not really from Arizona. I’m a New Yorker, born and raised in the New York City metro area. I lived half of my life in Bergen County, NJ: 15 years of childhood + 11 years as an adult. I also lived in Long Island and Queens, NY. I went to college at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY and my first job out of school, which I held for five years, was for the New York City Comptroller’s Office which was based in lower Manhattan.

A New Yorker.

I moved to Arizona in 1997. I used to go back to the New York area once in a while. My brother and sister lived in northern New Jersey and my wasband’s entire family was in Queens. In all honesty, I didn’t enjoy those visits very much. We’d spend most of the time in Queens, with my wasband’s family, and I really hated the place — it was crowded and dirty and not a very pleasant place to be. (My apologies to friends and others who still live there.) When my sister moved to Florida, it was one less reason to go back.

In fact, the last time I was in the New York area was in 2009 (I think) when my sister moved to Florida. I was the surprise companion for her trip; I flew out on a whim and drove down with her in the convoy that included my dad and his wife with another car and moving van. I’ll never forget my dad’s face when I showed up in the restaurant for that last dinner in New Jersey.

Bad News

In mid-October, I got the phone call most people dread: a family member was very ill and likely to die soon. In this case, it was my godfather — the Catholic kind, not the mafia kind — who was also my mother’s first cousin, Jackie. Jackie was in his 80s and had been suffering from a series of health problems for the past few years. Things took a serious turn for the worst when he began chemotherapy for some cancer. He was bouncing from rehab to the hospital regularly and things looked grim.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t come as quickly as I wanted to. I had a meeting in Goldendale, WA that I couldn’t miss. It was on Monday, October 21, and since I didn’t know how long it would go, I booked my flight for the following day. I’d go for a week. My mom was driving up from Florida and we’d visit Jackie together. Although my cousin Rosemary, who lived near Jackie, warned me that he was nothing like the man I knew, I was prepared. I wanted to say goodbye. I wanted to help give him some comfort with family members around him in his final days.

I lucked out with the plane tickets. Even though I booked them only 5 days in advance, I was able to use Alaska Air miles to buy them. Alaska Air has the best frequent flyer program — a round trip ticket from Wenatchee, WA to Newark, NJ with only one stop (in Seattle) each way cost me only 25,000 miles and $10. That’s it.

I went to my meeting in Goldendale on Monday morning. I had to leave Malaga at 4:30 AM to get there on time. The meeting went until 10:30 AM. I was on the way home, only 30 minutes out of Goldendale, when my phone rang. It was my brother. Jackie had died that morning.

The Flight Out

I went anyway, of course. I already had my plane tickets and I’d have to pay to have them changed for a future trip — if I needed a future trip. I had nothing else on my calendar. Besides, my mother was still on her way — no one wanted to tell her while she was driving alone — and she’d be there that night. I’d be able to help her and Rosemary with Jackie’s house. And frankly, I needed a change of scenery. A week of autumn in New York with my family would be nice.

Penny and I were on the 6 AM flight from Wenatchee to Seattle on Tuesday morning. I saw the dimly glowing yellow “porch light” on my RV as the plane climbed out of Wenatchee’s Pangborn Airport.

Although it was clear on the east side of the mountains, Seattle was socked in with fog. I could see it down below us in the pre-dawn light; the lights of homes and businesses glowed right through the white cloud blanket.

SeaTac Fog
The fog was very thick on arrival at SeaTac.

Casablanca -- NOT
I snapped this photo as I left the plane at SeaTac. Reminds me of the last scene in Casablanca.

The pilots came in from the north and descended into the top of the fog bank. There was nothing but white out the window. The descent seemed to last forever with no sign of the ground. I have to admit I felt a bit reassured when the pilot applied power and we started to climb out on a go-around. He came on the intercom and said that they were having trouble with some “low visibility equipment” and that they were working to “sort it out.” We did a high, wide traffic pattern above the clouds before descending back into the fog. Remembering a flight to Santa Barbara that had been diverted to Fresno years before, I wondered where they’d divert us to if we couldn’t land in Seattle. Wenatchee? That would not be a good thing. But we touched down with only one small bounce. The pilot braked hard and turned off the runway. The fog was so thick I could barely see the terminal.

Penny and I had about two hours to make our connection. I’d purposely skipped breakfast so I could have it at SeaTac’s excellent food court. I bought a breakfast pizza at Pallino Pastaria and went to one of the rocking chairs by the big window to eat it. Outside, the plane I’d just gotten off of — and others just like it — came and went. Because of the fog, I couldn’t see much past that. On the way to the gate, I stopped at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese where I spent too much money on cheese and bread for my on-board meal. Then Penny and I boarded the plane for our 5-hour flight to Newark.

I had a middle seat. I really couldn’t complain when it cost me less than $5.

The flight was smooth. I read and ate cheese. Penny behaved — not a peep out of her on the whole flight. She really is good on the plane.

In Newark, Penny and I made a pitstop outside before heading back in to claim my baggage. One of the drawbacks of traveling with a dog is that I always have to check luggage. But that isn’t always a hardship since I can take as big a bag as I want. I took my big wheeled duffle bag on this trip — the lightweight one — and had packed it with gifts for family members: local wine and some honey from my bees. There was room to spare, but I suspected I might be taking a few things home with me.

Seeing the Family

My brother met me outside baggage claim. I hadn’t seen him since that dinner in New Jersey years before, when I drove with my sister down to Florida. He looked good. I think he might have lost some weight.

This plate of paella could easily have fed six people.

Head-On Shrimp
Heads on or off — these shrimp weren’t shrimpy.

At his house, I saw his wife and their two dogs. My mom, who’d spent the day with Rosemary, showed up a while later. We all drove into Newark, to one of the Portuguese restaurants, Vila Nova do Sol Mar. My brother goes there for lunch — in fact, he’d been there earlier in the day. Since he raved about the “gigantic shrimp,” we got an order as an appetizer. They were whole shrimp and very big. He and I shared a paella — although it was for two, it could have easily fed six people.

Afterwards, we headed back to my brother’s house. My mom took the guest room while Penny and I curled up on the living room sofa for the night.

At Jackie’s House

The next day, my mom and I headed up to Jackie’s house. He’d lived in Yorktown Heights in Westchester County. For some reason, my mom’s TomTom routed us over the George Washington Bridge and through the Bronx. I would have preferred the Tappan Zee Bridge to avoid New York traffic. Still, the later part of the drive was very pleasant, with lots of fall color and beautiful reservoirs along the way.

Jackie had lived in a rambling ranch house for at least 40 years. The house had fallen into disrepair — it’s funny how some old people just let their homes go — and it was stuffed to the gills with a mix of trash and treasure. (I blogged a bit about that here.) It fell to my mom and Rosemary to go through everything, discard the garbage, and sort out the rest.

I arrived on the second day of their task and it didn’t seem as if anything had been done. The next day, Thursday, when I returned after the three of us working all day Wednesday, it still didn’t look like anything had been done. There was just so much stuff.

One Lamp of Many
Here’s one of the many lamps in Jackie’s house. Although most of the lamps are table lamps, this is a standing lamp that’s part of a bronze sculpture.

Jackie had been an antique dealer. He dealt with real antiques, not the collectibles and retro crap you’d find in an “antique mall” today. Years and years ago, he and his partner had three shops at the house. The ones in the basement and the small building out back had lamps and china and bronzes and paintings and all kinds of really nice — and very expensive — things. The big building out back was full of antique furniture. Later, after Jackie’s partner left, he did most of his business at antique shows in Manhattan. He also dealt directly with a number of regular customers who often referred others. He was always very proud when one of his pieces were bought by a celebrity — or even when one stopped by his booth at a show.

Over the years, as he aged and tried to simplify his business, he began specializing in lamps. I’m talking about lamps made by Tiffany Studios, Handel, Jefferson, and Pairpoint. Lamps like these and these. I loved the lamps, but I especially loved the reverse painted lamps. Those are lamps with glass shades painted on the inside. When you turn on the light, the scene in the lamp comes to life. (I own two of these lamps: my grandmother gave me one before she died and I bought another from Jackie about a year later.)

Time went on and he auctioned off many of his best things. But he still had a bunch when I showed up with my mom on that Wednesday morning. I greeted my cousin Rosemary with a big hug and we got right to work.

At the Pizzeria
I think the thing I miss most about New York is the food.

The only place I can get decent Italian pastry is in the New York metro area. Needless to say, I was starved for it. My favorite: custard pasticciotti.

By 2:00 PM, we were exhausted and hungry. We dropped off a dozen big bags of Jackie’s clothes and miscellaneous items at Goodwill and stopped at a real New York pizzeria for lunch: Peppino’s. Afterward, my mom and I went to Cafe Piccolo, an Italian bakery in Mahopac. We bought real Italian pastries and rainbow layer cookies.

We went back to work at Jackie’s house, but only stayed for another two or three hours. The whole time we were there, Penny went exploring around the house, never straying too far from me. I took her out a few times to do her business in the tall weeds and fallen leaves in the front yard. I remembered how the place had looked years ago with a neat trim yard out front and flowers in the planters. The road out front hadn’t been so busy then — but Jackie had lost at least one dog under the wheels of a passing car. I wasn’t going to let that happen to Penny.

It was getting dark when my mom and I headed to a hotel she’d booked in Armonk, about 30 minutes away. We weren’t hungry — lunch had been big. I dealt with email on my iPad and made some phone calls. By 9, my mom was asleep. I turned off the TV and nodded out, exhausted.

The next day, we returned for more of the same. I put myself in charge of the 1,500 VHS tapes he’d collected over the years, packing them up and placing an ad on Craig’s List to give them away to the first person who would come. (A woman came that evening and took them all.) Many of them were up in the attic and I burned plenty of calories walking up and down the stairs with Penny at my heels.

My mom and Rosemary went through the kitchen, sorting out garbage and Goodwill items. After another trip to Goodwill and lunch at the pizzeria, we went back for more. By that time, we’d made some real headway. We began sorting through items, gathering like items together. The dining room table became the candlestick holder depository. One of the bookshelves I’d cleared of VHS tapes was the place for crystal. Another bookshelf was for carnival glass. Lamps covered every horizontal surface in the living room; we’d even found power strips so we could turn them all on. Paintings were stacked against one wall. There was even a small table for soapstone.

Little by little, we were organizing whatever wasn’t garbage or for Goodwill. An auctioneer was coming on Saturday and he’d take away whatever he thought he could auction off — in other words, all the good stuff. What was left would be sold in an estate sale in the spring — although why they were waiting was beyond me.

Meanwhile, I’d packed up the lamp I’d always wanted and a bunch of American-made tools. (Jackie didn’t have any of that cheap Chinese crap; his tools predated what we can buy today.) I also chose a second lamp, although I didn’t get a chance to pack it. I helped my sister choose a lamp for herself based on photos I put on Facebook — she was in Florida and couldn’t come north to help out.

We headed out before five, exhausted again.

My Old Stomping Grounds

I rented a car and headed back to New Jersey. Although I didn’t think it was possible, I got lost along the way. It had been too long since I’d driven the route and it was so different. (Where did that mall on 287 near Nyack come from?) Darkness didn’t help. These days, I’m a nervous wreck driving at night.

Back at my brother’s house, they installed me in the guest bedroom. Although I got a decent night’s sleep, I was still up very early. I read with Penny curled up against me.

I spent most of the day working on a tribute to Jackie for my blog: “Dear Jackie.” (That’s where you can find more pictures of the lamps and information about the other things we found.) My brother had headed up to Jackie’s house to help out; his wife was working at home. She worked until afternoon, when we took a break to run some errands. I got a chance to shop at my favorite supermarket in the area, Wegman’s, where I bought more cheese — they have a huge cheese counter — and other goodies. Then we went to Dick’s Sporting Goods to buy some ammo. (My brother and his wife are active target shooters.) They were having a sale on the ammo my sister-in-law needed but they were limiting cases to one per person. So I bought one, too. (For her, of course; I have no use for ammo.) I also bought a nice set of Nikon binoculars so I could scan the cliffs behind my home for the mountain goats I sometimes hear knocking around up there. Coffee at Panera before heading home. Then a nice walk with the dogs.

The next morning, we had breakfast at a local diner — what a treat! (Did I mention that what I miss most about New York is the food?) My brother headed out for work while his wife and I packed up cheese and crackers and headed out with the rental car and dogs. I wanted to return the car in Westchester to avoid the $150 drop off fee. Dropping it off three days earlier would also save me more than $100 in daily rental fees. I’m saving up to build my home so every penny counts.

We stopped off for coffee and donuts at the Dunkin’ Donuts in Mount Kisco before heading back toward New Jersey. My sister-in-law was driving her Acura. I guided her to the one place I wanted to visit one last time: Peanut Falls.

Trail Marker
I’m pretty sure this fancy sign wasn’t here 20 years ago.

Danger Sign
Oooh! Scary! Sheesh. I wonder if the liability lawyers cooked this one up.

Penny in the Woods
The trail was rough in places. Can you see Penny?

Peanut Leap Falls
Here’s what the area at the base of the falls looked like in October 2013. The falls are on the left; only a trickle of water was falling this late in the season.

Benches at Peanut Falls
Twenty years ago, one or two of the pergola’s original columns were still standing.

Maria and Penny at Hudson River
Penny and I posed on the bank of the Hudson River for this shot.

Let me tell you a little about Peanut Falls. Twenty or so years ago, my former life partner and I somehow found out about a trail that went from route 9W near Nyack to the Hudson River. I clearly remember parking along the side of the road and walking through a break in a fence to get on a trail that wound through the forest along a creek. The creek came over a waterfall before forming a pool and joining the river. At this spot were also ruins. There were columns and benches and walls. I did some research years ago and found a book with information about the spot. Built by Mary Lawrence-Tonetti back in the early 1900s, it had once included beautiful sculptures. I left the book behind in my Arizona home so I can’t share any other information about it. In all honesty, I never though I’d get the opportunity to see the place again.

The area was different from what I remembered. There was now an official trailhead and even trail markers. We parked the car, got our dogs and picnic lunch together, and headed out.

It wasn’t long before Penny was off her leash, running through the woods while leaves fell all around her. It was a tiny big longer before my sister-in-law let her two Portuguese water dogs off their leashes. Soon all three dogs were bounding through the woods, meeting fellow hikers on the trail and having a great time.

It was only a little over a half mile to the river. The falls weren’t running with more than a trickle and the spot had changed quite a bit since the last time I was there. Some research told me that Hurricane Sandy had done the final bit of vandalism that destroyed the ruins. Some of the benches were sill there and many of the walls closest to the falls were still in good shape. But that was it.

Another thing that was different: there were lots of other hiker coming in. Most of them were Asian — this part of New Jersey has a huge Asian population — and few of them stayed more than 10 or 15 minutes. Twenty years ago, the place was almost completely private — like a secret we shared with just a few others. Now it was public knowledge.

As we sat along the river having some cheese and crackers while the dogs wandered, I felt sad about the changes. But, in a way, I was also sort of relieved about them. It wasn’t the place I remembered from those hikes with the man I’d later marry. The differences I saw gave me closure — at least on this one place. It was as dead to me as my marriage — indeed, as dead as the man I’d loved and visited the place with all those years ago.

We posed for photos. I got a nice shot of my sister-in-law and her dogs along the river and she got a picture of me and Penny.

Old 9w
Part of the trail was on old Route 9W, an autumn wonderland.

State Line Lookout
The snack bar at the State Line Lookout. How many hot cocoas did I drink there on early Sunday mornings in the 1990s? I’ll never know.

Palisades View
The Palisades and Hudson River. My trip was timed perfectly for peak color here. (I couldn’t do that again if I tried.)

On the way back, I suggested hiking south along the trail and old road to the State Line Lookout. This was a parking area with snack bar and view point on the Palisades just south of the New York/New Jersey border. Years ago, it had been the Sunday morning meeting place for the Sport Touring Motorcycle Club. We were members and we made almost every ride with them for at least five years in the 1990s. I can still remember those rides, most of which went north and wound along the Seven Lakes Drive area near Bear Mountain. I learned how to ride a motorcycle back in those days — and my fellow club members taught me how to ride fast on the twisty roads I grew to love.

We hiked back to the car along old route 9W. The dogs had one last chance to run loose. Then we were back in the car and heading to my brother’s house.

The Shoot

The next day we were up early for a trip to Old Bridge. My brother and his wife were participating in a shooting event at the Old Bridge Rifle and Pistol Club. I was coming along as a spectator. Penny would stay behind with the other dogs.

Let me take a moment to explain my views on guns. Yes, I’m pretty liberal. But no, I don’t really believe in gun control. Like the conservatives, I truly believe that if we limit access to guns, the only people who will have guns will be the criminals. I also don’t think that controlling guns will prevent lunatics from shooting up our schools. The crazies will always be able to get the guns, magazines, and ammo they need. Really. Unlike the conservatives, however, I don’t believe that we should all own guns because it’s our Second Amendment right. Or because we should take the law into our own hands (like certain Floridian neighborhood watchers). Or because the government is evil and we need to defend ourselves from “them.” I own a gun — a little Baretta 22 caliber semiautomatic which I keep in my home for personal security. Although I wouldn’t mind learning to shoot better, it’s not high on my list of priorities. All that said, I went to the shooting match because I was genuinely interested in how shooting matches worked.

Bagel with Cream Cheese
This is how you make a bagel with cream cheese. (Have I mentioned how much I miss the food in New York?)

On the way we stopped for breakfast at a bagel place. At first, I was disappointed: I’d really wanted a hot breakfast. But then my brain kicked in. New York bagel. What the hell was I thinking? Of course I wanted a New York bagel. I ordered it just the way I wanted it: sesame seed bagel, toasted (both sides), cream cheese, lox, a bit of red onion. You know how they made it? Exactly the way I ordered it. Imagine that!

Shooter Norb
My brother, in action at the shoot.

Pumpkin Stage
The left side of the pumpkin stage. Most of the targets were out of sight behind the fences. One of the rules of this stage: you had to start with your magazines in one or more pumpkins.

We were the first to arrive at the shoot. While my brother and sister in law helped set up the “stages” for shooting, I helped out with the registration. Soon, there was a constant flow of shooters coming in with forms and fees. Total count at the end was about 70. (Ladies, if you’re interested in meeting a man, this is the place to come. There were only 4 women at the whole event. Get a decent gun, learn how to shoot, and bag yourself a man.)

There were seven stages. Our squad of 10 people rotated through them like the six other squads of 10 or 11. It took most of the day. Some stages were pretty simple; others — like the pumpkin stage — were quite challenging. In each stage, shooters had to follow specific rules and stay within specific zones to shoot paper and steel targets. In some cases, shooting a target would cause another target to move, making it more challenging.

I helped out by taping up holes on the targets after scoring each shooter and resetting dynamic targets. I also picked up lots of brass. My brother loads his own rounds, so he was interested in recovering as much 40 caliber brass as he could. I left whatever other brass I picked up on the tables at each stage; someone took them because they always disappeared.

I had a good time and learned a lot about shooting matches. The people there were great — really nice. And safety was of utmost importance. The rules were followed and enforced by range observers. At the end of the day, we helped tear down the stage we finished up on. We hung around to talk with other shooters on other squads. But rather than go out to a diner with a group of people, we just went home.

A Day in New York, the Trip Home

The next day, Monday, was my last day in the area. I’d already decided to spend it in New York City. I had some personal business to take care of. But I also wanted to revisit the places that had been part of my life many years ago. Like the trip to Peanut Falls, I suspected that seeing them again, alone, would somehow give me some closure and help me move on.

My account of that day is rather long so I spun it off to a separate blog post.

My brother picked me up at the train station at around 6 PM and we went back to his house. After some discussion, the three of us decided to order out Italian food. A while later, the delivery guy showed up with eggplant rollatini for me, chicken parmesan for my brother, and a personal size pizza for my sister in law. The food was hot and good. (Ah, food in New York. Not only is it good, but it can be delivered.)

In the morning, my brother took me and Penny to the airport. Our flight was at 7:20 AM. I grabbed a breakfast sandwich at a coffee shop near the gate as boarding began. By some miracle, I’d been able to move my seat up to the window at Row 8. I settled in with Penny under the seat in front of me. A woman sat in the aisle seat. When the plane door closed, I realized there had been another miracle: the seat beside me remained empty.

The sun rose as the plane taxied out to the runway.

The flight was five hours and relatively smooth. I rented an entertainment device and used it to watch the Lone Ranger. It wasn’t very good, but it was better than I expected after reading so many reviews. It certainly kept me entertained.

As we approached central Washington, I looked down and realized that we would be passing just north of Wenatchee. I took a picture of the area from about 25,000 feet. My friend Jim, who is an airline pilot, sends me photos like this all the time, but I think this one is much clearer than any of his, especially after a trip through Photoshop to reduce the haze.

The Wenatchee Area from 25,000 Feet
My new stomping grounds from 25,000 feet. You can clearly see Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams in the distance, Mission Ridge (with snow), the Wenatchee area and Columbia River, Moses Coulee, Badger Mountain, and the Waterville Plateau.

Mt Rainier
As you might imagine from this clear shot of Mt. Rainier from an airliner window, the weather was amazing in Seattle the day I returned.

A little further along the way, I got a very good shot of Mt. Rainier. It’s rare that an airline window shot comes out anywhere near good enough to show.

We got into Seattle 30 minutes early. (Another miracle?) I hurried Penny outside for a pee, surprised that she’d managed to hold it for a total of about 6 hours (from the time I’d put her in her bag). I texted a friend who lived in the area. There was one thing I’d overlooked when I booked my flight: I had a 6 hour layover in Seattle. Yes, it’s true: I could have driven home. Twice. But the airline had my bag and I doubted that they’d put it on the connecting flight if I wasn’t on it.

My friend came to pick me up and we went out to an Indian restaurant not far away for lunch. Then we took a walk along a lake nearby, giving Penny a chance to run. We also hit a bookstore, where I wandered around with Penny in my arms resisting the urge to rebuild my library.

My friend dropped me off at 3. We went through security again and grabbed dessert at the food court. A while later, we were on the plane, heading toward Wenatchee. We were on the ground at 5 PM. I was home an hour later.

Some Final Thoughts

I didn’t realize how much I needed this trip until I took it.

Although I missed my chance to say goodbye to Jackie, I was strangely at peace about his death. All too often we try to prolong life far past the point where the quality of life makes it worth living. I’ve seen too many older people hanging on physically or mentally (or both), kept alive with constant pain and suffering through the use of medicines or machinery — simply for the sake of staying alive. Why do we do it?

Jackie had been ill for some time and his quality of life had definitely deteriorated beyond the point he’d find reasonable. Rosemary mentioned that he knew his time had come. He accepted that. He didn’t need to wait for me to come sit at his bedside and hold his hand one last time. He was finished with his life and he let it go. He was free from further pain and suffering. And I was happy for him.

He didn’t want a funeral service. He wanted to be cremated with his remains buried beside his grandmother’s in the family plot. Although I wanted to be present for that, his remains were not available until after I had to leave. I don’t think he would have minded. I don’t think he wanted a fuss.

I got some personal healing in my trips to Jackie’s house, Peanut Falls, and New York City. Everything was just different enough to be new to me — there weren’t any painful reminders of my life with the man I loved. It was good seeing family and friends, even if things didn’t work out the way we’d hoped. I left feeling tired but energized, refreshed for the work that lay ahead of me at home.

When will I go back? Who knows? Maybe never. And I think that’s why it was so important for me to do as many things as I did in that week. Just in case.

Dear Jackie

Thanks for the monkey lamp. I’ll miss you.

lamp1lamp2lamp3lamp4lamp5lamp6lamp7lamp8Just a few of your antique lamps. We lit them up and I photographed them to remember them forever.

Dear Jackie,

I’d hoped to see you one last time, to say goodbye and give you some comfort in your final days — the kind of comfort you can only get when people who love you are near. But it was not meant to be. I got the phone call about your death on Monday morning, while driving back from the appointment that prevented me from coming sooner. Although I was sad that I missed you, I knew that you likely welcomed that final sleep. You were finally out of pain after years of deteriorating health and illness, able to rest easy.

Still, the plane tickets were bought and paid for and the time was scheduled on my calendar. My mom was already on her way, driving up from Florida. (She missed her chance to say goodbye by less than 24 hours.) Although you’d made it clear that you didn’t want a service, I knew we’d gather to lay your ashes to rest per your instructions. And then there was your house and all the things inside it — my mom and cousin Rosemary would have quite a chore ahead of them. So I came, of course, and even though I wasn’t able to say goodbye in person, I was able to say goodbye by revisiting my memories of you though the wonderful things you left behind in your home.

And what things! Yes, your house was a mess — but among the clutter were the amazing things you collected over your long career as an antique dealer. No one could imagine the treasures stuck in every corner of your house. I hope you don’t mind that I shared photos of your lamps and candlestick holders and all those VHS tapes with my friends on Facebook. I wanted to give them a glimpse of what we were experiencing as we went through the crazy, wonderful, chaotic clutter you left behind.

First were the lamps. You know how I loved your lamps! After Grandma left me her Jefferson lamp — which she’d bought from you years before — I came to your home to buy a similar lamp to go with it. You sold me another reverse-painted lamp, a Handel. I got so much pleasure out of them in the living room of my home, making sure to light them when company came. They were the first things I packed when I prepared to move out at the end of my marriage; it was vital to protect them from the desperate old woman who’d already begun cataloging my things, so eager to take my place in my home. Everyone in the family had a good laugh at her ignorance when she listed them as “Pairpoint Puffs” on an inventory my wasband submitted to his lawyer.

But although you’d shown me many reverse-painted lamps that day back in 1999, you didn’t show me all of them. Or any of the other styles that really didn’t interest me. One by one, my mom, Rosemary, and I lit them up to admire them. I took photos. I knew that they’d go to auction and I wanted to remember them all. So beautiful! Handel, Pairpoints, Tiffanys, and names I’ll never know. I was tickled when one of my Facebook friends suggested putting them for sale on Etsy, a craft web site. She had no idea that these were the real deal, worth thousands at auction. I’m sure they’ll make many collectors and art lovers happy — at least as happy as I am to have mine.

The Monkey LampThe monkey lamp. Yes, its eyes really do light up.

And yes, I finally got the monkey lamp. You know how much I admired it — how many times did I try to get you to sell it to me? Such an unusual piece in such an unusual house. It reminds me of you and of all the times my family visited you there.

Visiting you at that house when I was a kid was like a trip to a museum. Even though I didn’t really understand what I was seeing, it was all magical to me. So many wonderful things — most of which I wasn’t allowed to touch! Back in the early days, when Victor still lived there with you, you still had the shops in the basement and backyard. I remember walking through that basement shop with my arms obediently at my sides, just looking. Once, you let me pick something from a cabinet — it was a small portrait of Abe Lincoln decoupaged to a piece of wood. Do you know I found that little picture when I was packing last year? I still had it nearly 45 years after you gave it to me!

I remember those days well, especially the Christmas visits. You and Victor always did an amazing job decorating the house with a real Christmas tree that climbed up to the ceiling, covered with antique (of course!) ornaments. A fire was always going in the fireplace — a real treat for us because we didn’t have a fireplace at home — and you’d always make it extra special by tossing in some sort of crystals that turned the flames all different colors.

Backyard The backyard is nothing like I remember it.

And the backyard — in those days it had a rough but well-trimmed lawn with concrete paths that sloped down to the shops in the backyard. But today the yard is a tangle of young trees, weeds, and brambles. The paths are hidden beneath the brush. The small shop is a pile of wood and the large shop is a mostly collapsed mess.

vhsWe found about 1,500 VHS tapes among your things. Why did you have so many? We’ll never know.

But this week, the house was dark with drawn curtains and shades. Even all those lamps couldn’t brighten it up. The air was musty — the same antique smell I remember from childhood, but intensified. We went through your things, organizing, gathering, and discarding while reminiscing about you. The candlestick holders filled your dining room table. The soapstone carvings filled another table in the living room. As I cleared shelves full of VHS tapes that you’d collected for reasons only you know — more than 1500 of them! — we filled those shelves with crystal and silver and carnival glass.We cleared your closets, giving your clothes — including so many pants and shirts that still had store tags on them — and linens to Goodwill. Why did you have so many ties? We’ll never know. And eyeglasses — I’d never seen you wear them, but they were all over the house. Now they’re in a bag, ready to donate to the Lions.

recordsEvery room of the house had boxes of record albums, but the attic crawlspaces were absolutely crammed with them.

The record albums, stored in liquor boxes in every room of the house, were beyond my capabilities. We sent my brother in to handle those. Even he gave up after a while. I don’t know how many there are, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were 5,000 of them. The boxes stretched into the darkness of the crawlspaces in your attic. We found a Craig’s List browser to take the VHS tapes for free; she came with her husband and a trailer. Those LPs, however, deserve better attention; a record dealer will be coming from New York to look at them on Monday and I hope he comes with a truck and helpers.

There were light bulbs in almost every drawer we opened — too many for even a lamp dealer to have on hand. And plastic bags — what was up with that? It looked to me as if you’d saved every plastic grocery bag you’d ever brought home and talked them into giving you bunches and bunches of brand new ones, too. Lots of paper towels and laundry soap — you must have gotten quite a deal on that stuff in the store to have been stocking up so much. More than once, the word “hoarder” came to mind, but although you saved a lot of things many people would have thrown away, I could never call you a hoarder.

I thought often during the week about our last few conversations on the phone. You’d heard from my mother all about my divorce ordeal, about the man I’d loved and trusted for more than half my life betraying me with lies and infidelity and trying to steal everything I’d worked so hard for my whole life. That’s when you confided in me about your own pain all those years ago, about Victor’s departure and some of the vindictive things he did to you. We had that in common: heartbreak. You understood my tears and tried to comfort me with words over the phone. I appreciated that.

Jack DeGaetano circa 1975.
Jack DeGaetano circa 1975.

I wanted so badly to see you before you slipped into the final sleep. I wanted you to feel the love of family members at your life’s end. I wanted to comfort you, if I could. I’m sorry I was unable to do that. I hope you’ll forgive me.

The monkey lamp is your parting gift to me and I will treasure it always. I promise that it will occupy a place of honor in my new home, never sold or given away. And when guests come by and comment about its oddness and glowing eyes, I’ll tell them stories about you and your home and your wonderful things. It’ll help keep you alive in my memory forever.

Your loving goddaughter,

Dear Julia

Dear Julia,

I was saddened — but not terribly surprised — to learn of your passing early this morning. After all, you’d reached that 90-year milestone and your health had never been very good throughout the 30 years I knew you. Both Mike and I were continuously surprised at your long life. “My mother is a force of nature,” he used to say.

At the Parade
Do you remember this day, Julia? I think it was Memorial Day, perhaps the first year Mike and I lived in New Jersey. You and Charlie were there, along with my family, watching the parade at the end of our street. It was so long ago — Mike almost had hair!

As I think back on all those years — the first twelve or so while your husband was still alive, and the later years when you were left without him — my mind recalls various scenes in which you were a player. In the beginning, you were a minor character, but over time you took on a more starring role.

I often think of the night your husband died so suddenly. Of getting that terrible phone call in the middle of the night — the one no one wants to get — and being at the wheel of Mike’s car with him sitting in stunned disbelief beside me as we sped the 30 miles from our home to yours. Of seeing the New York City police officers milling about your living room. Of seeing your husband Charlie laid out so peacefully on a bed in the spare room with a blanket up to his chest as if he were just sleeping. Of the shock you must have felt looking at your dead husband while the space he’d occupied beside you in bed only a short time before was still warm from his body and love for you. That morning was incredible, fixed upon my mind like an etching in stone. You were so unprepared for his death. One evening, you’re having dinner with him and 14 hours later, you’re shopping for his casket and cemetery plot. I honestly don’t know how you did it. You showed a strength that day that I know I don’t have. But I suspect that in private you were far more tearful than I am right now, just recalling and writing about it. (Yes, the tears are running down my face now as they have so many times in the past year when I think back to things that once were.)

Your family’s visit to our home at Christmas in 2005 was a bit trying, but not because of you.

Charlie’s death didn’t just change your life — it changed ours. It changed Mike’s role, forcing him to fill your husband’s shoes in caring for you. Charlie took such good care of you, handling all the little chores of life, that you could not manage so many basic things on your own. I clearly recall Mike and I teaching you how to write checks and balance your bank accounts. And the “honey do” lists you had for Mike! They were a bit of a joke — at least at first — and expected on every visit to your home. I have a clear image of you consulting a scrap of paper as Mike finished a task and asked you what was next. Oh, how he dreaded visiting right after the beginning or end of daylight savings time! All those clocks!

But Mike stepped up to the plate and did so many things for you — often without your knowledge. I did a few, too, but admittedly not as many as I could or should have.

Flying with Mike
I was really proud of you the day you climbed into Mike’s plane with him. I didn’t think you could do it; I should have known better.

Indeed, Mike was “the good son” and you wanted me to be the good daughter-in-law. How I must have frustrated you! The engagement in 1984 should have been followed by a wedding soon after, but I just couldn’t go through with it. I loved your son deeply — I still do — but he was sometimes mentally abusive to me, embarrassing me in front of family and friends. This was so painful to me and didn’t seem right. I remember how his father used to tease you and the bickering that ensued and I suppose Mike thought that was standard operating procedure for a married couple. But I hated it — just as I hated the bickering at your house. Marriage is supposed to be a forever thing — surely you and Charlie knew that — and there was too much doubt in my mind about my relationship with Mike. If I married, I had to be sure I could make it last forever — and I simply wasn’t sure. I kept putting off marriage so long that after a while it seemed like a silly idea.

After all, it wasn’t as if I wanted children. I know that bothered you too — as it bothers my mother to this day. Most women of your generation were raised to want children and grandchildren; I was not. And it likely bothered Mike — although I told him straight out, before I finally got my tubal ligation in 1997, that if he wanted kids he needed to find a different woman. I was not interested in motherhood, so I failed to give you and my mother the grandchildren you wanted.

The marriage did come many years later, but it wasn’t for the right reasons. Both you and my mother were cheated out of the big wedding you likely wanted to see. Because of the reasons for our marriage, our anniversary date became a source of pain for me. I flat-out told my stepmother to stop sending cards. And years later, in my divorce filing, I’d even get the date wrong.

But yes, I was a disappointment to you. No matter how much you bragged to your friends about me and my achievements, I know I disappointed you. We just never connected the way you probably thought we should. Although I’m sorry about the disappointment, please understand that I could not change myself to make someone else happy. My mother knows this, too. So does your son.

Mildred and Julia
I’m ashamed to admit it, but I always wished that you were more like your friend Mildred: fun loving, independent, happy. I knew that her death would leave an empty space in your life and it made me so sad for you.

In the later years of my marriage to your son you became a source of friction between us. As you aged, you seemed to become more and more dependent on Mike to help you with the chores of life. Even after we moved to Arizona, you had him near you a full week (or more!) every month — he maintained a separate home there! Later, when he gave that up, he spent all of his vacation time going back to New York to visit you, using Vitec business as an excuse. You spoke on the phone multiple times each day — hell, he talked to you more than me!

Was I jealous? Perhaps. But also frustrated. I couldn’t understand why you needed him so much and why he was so willing to put our life together aside to accommodate you.

Las Vegas
Do you remember that trip to Vegas? We flew up in my helicopter for an overnight stay at the Bellagio. I sent you a photo book to remember it and show your friends.

This all came to a head during your visit to Wickenburg in 2012. We’d arranged for a wonderful apartment for you in town. When Mike went to get you and Paul at the airport, I went to the store to buy groceries and other supplies. I stocked your fridge and cabinets with the kinds of food I thought you’d like, along with lots of fresh fruit and veggies. I bought flowers for your table. I wanted you to feel happy and welcome and at home in this place. After all, Mike had led me to believe that you were considering a move to Wickenburg and I wanted you to like the place we’d found for you.

I didn’t expect you to be at our home every evening, sitting at the table, playing cards with my husband. I didn’t expect everything we did for the duration of your two-month visit to include you. And I certainly didn’t expect you to laugh when I asked and tell me that you had no intention of moving to Wickenburg. I felt lied to, betrayed, manipulated — by your son. It should have warned me of things to come.

When Mike lost his job during that visit, I saw an opportunity for the two of us to get away for a few days in the RV before he started his next job, the dream job. A trip to Death Valley for the spring wildflowers. Some time away from home and the apartment. Some time to regroup and work out the tension that had formed between us since my return from Washington the previous fall. He said he wanted to go, but he delayed getting the plans together. He said he would tell you that we’d be gone for five days, but even the day before our planned departure you still didn’t know. And then he carelessly lost our friend’s dog in the desert and I snapped.

I was tired of being so far down on his list of priorities. I was frustrated with his inability to get his life together and make things happen. I was sick of listening to his excuses and feeling that he was hiding things from me. I was also tired of seeing how he feared you and your response to something that you might not like.

Yes, your son was afraid of you — as he was afraid of me. I’m sure he’s afraid of the woman who has taken our place, too: his mommy/girlfriend.

If only you knew how many times he lied to you — to “protect” you, he said. I realize now that he was lying to me, too.

I wonder how much stress you put on his relationship with that woman. I hope it was at least as much stress as you put on my relationship with him.

I’ll admit that if your son and I were still together, your passing would come as a relief to me. But now, estranged from your whole family by lies, betrayals, and misunderstandings, I feel only sadness and a sort of emptiness deep in my soul. Yes, we had our differences and you drove me nuts, but I respected you and your love for your children and your granddaughter. I respected your sacrifices for your husband, spending so many years making him a home. You did what you knew how to do and you poured your heart and soul into it. You did what you thought was right — even if it did have consequences you didn’t understand or even know about. I respected you for that.

Julia Chilingerian, 1922 – 2013

I regret that I was unable to talk to you one last time. To explain what happened between me and your son. To ask you if you knew why he gave up a 29-year relationship with the woman he claimed to love as recently as your last birthday for a manipulative stranger who led him astray. To forgive you for driving that wedge between us, for contributing to the friction that made him grow to hate me.

This letter will have to do. If there is an afterworld — a heaven, perhaps — you’ll know the truth.

I’ll miss you, Julia, as I miss the life I had with your son — good and bad. Rest in peace. You deserve it.

With love,
Your daughter-in-law,