August Travel

During the drive from home to being away, my mind travels extra time merging memories of past trips with plans for the next weeks. The years that pacifier inventory and gentle shampoo were critical has slowly morphed into double checking the packing of face creams, medications and comfortable shoes. Very slowly, but with determined forward motion, until time starts happening instead of moving. 

Corn grows as far as the eye can see along the highway. Rivers and ponds look high for a second or third year. Construction has moved about twenty miles further south than the prior trip, but large trucks are still annoying in the cone-formed single lane. Too early for lunch, breakfast’s beverage wanting out, the discussion changes from the morning news and towards where to stop for a comfort break or whether to push on for an early burger. 

August has always been vacation month for our family. What started out of necessity because of participation in post-season youth ball tournaments grew into tradition. Kids would get new sneakers and fresh summer clothes to avoid back-to-school shopping after returning home. Vacation in September is sweeter once untangled from kid schedules, but some places close Labor Day weekend making it hard to rent a kayak or find a soft-serve cone after time on the beach.

Weighted down by sun screen and sun prevention clothing, watching birds swoop into the water for food and parents with preschoolers playing in the shallow spots, I remember a skinny teenager in a two piece subconsciously flirting with a boy, an older teen stranded with a car breakdown near a forbidden quarry, a honeymooning young woman and all the years leading to this person in this moment. Feet resting in shoreline water, a comfy chair, an umbrella and a book. Storing up another year.

Twisting Traditions

Living alone in his final years, my father developed a soft spot for Hallmark Christmas movies. From Thanksgiving through early January his television choices were predictable: football any time a game was broadcast, morning news on NBC, midday news on a local show, Hallmark Christmas movies from dinner to the FOX nightly news.

He knew every plot twist and how the pretty young woman and handsome young man would find a future together. He probably didn’t discuss Hallmark movies with his dining room buddies, but he and I talked about them. We shared the inability to remember the names of characters or their imaginary hometowns, but we could connect on parts of the shows that reminded us of times in our past. We had different memories about my reception to Santa riding through Luxemburg, WI on Christmas Eve. He would laugh about my dismay when ordered to hand over my babysitting money to my brother who decided December 23rd that he had to drive from Milwaukee to Philadelphia to be with the woman who would become his first wife. We treasured the wonder of having a newborn under the Christmas tree.

Every year holiday traditions twist apart a bit. A month ago I wasn’t ready to think about Christmas. I don’t track each evolution, but changes are noted. Some are mourned. Some are a released with relief like producing multiple fancy meals while wearing dressy clothes, make-up and heels for example. Or the discomfort of sitting on folding chairs in the grade school’s basement to watch Christmas services on a large screen, when it is easier to stay home and watch a televised version.

The pandemic is shaking traditions out of the holidays faster than a cat knocking ornaments out of a decorated Christmas tree. Economic hardships make generous gifting feel off. Hunger in the community demands assistance. Uncertainty has crawled into of all our minds and souls.

My father’s example has helped in thinking through 2020 holidays. He could have been morose about losing his wife and son. He could have been clingy. His memories of sitting at the head of the holiday dinner table with children and grandchildren could have overshadowed the simplicity of a small tree in his apartment and a side seat at our table. He found other ways to mark the season– contributing more to favorite nonprofits, listening to seasonal music, wearing holiday socks, relishing when we crowded together to cheer on the Packers, and watching Hallmark Christmas movies. 

A change noted: We don’t always know the lessons taught until after the teacher has left. 

In memory of Roman Frisque: January 21, 1927 – December 26, 2012

Holiday Wishes

This year’s Thanksgiving turkey is in the freezer. Ten pounds will be too much for two of us, but that’s no big deal. The big deal is that the United States is approaching a quarter of a million COVID deaths. Three friends move into the holiday season without their fathers who died of COVID. The world keeps spinning and for every family in mourning, there are others marking other happy events. Both those grieving and those celebrating share this very different international holiday season. 

Letting go of every tradition helped our family clearly think about Thanksgiving. Tentatively we’ll celebrate by putting up outdoor Christmas decorations together. Masked and socially distant, the hour we spend hanging lights and garland will make the day special. And we’ll prepare Thanksgiving favorite foods to send home for our meals shared later on Zoom. Notice the word tentatively– the weather could make being outside horrible or the pandemic could become more dangerous. This is 2020. Many surprises are not happy. We’re not talking about Christmas yet. One week at a time feels like the safest planning cycle.

Our parents and grandparents spent holiday seasons physically separated by war. Somewhere family members passed the holiday in danger. Military families today may face the same emotions plus deal with COVID’s impact. Working on 40 Thieves on Saipan made that separation more real to me than stories I heard as a child. For the majority of us, accepting the pandemic as an international public health war equals distance holidays for 2020..

One in three Americans say they will pass on this year’s holidays. But for those who do plan to do something special, now is the time to start thinking about how. Turkeys should be in grocery stores soon although small birds could be scarce. Good news is that butter is less expensive. There’s time to bake, send treats, and to remember those who may be struggling.

Here’s hoping the 2020 holiday wishes you hold come true. But mostly, here’s hoping you and yours stay healthy and safe. Whether your special people are around a common table or visible on a screen, those of us fortunate to be within the sound of their voices are thankful. 

In Memory

Door County, WI: Sunsets are earlier. Black-eyed Susan dominates gardens as hydrangea fade. Squirrels fearlessly dart across sidewalks, decks and paths to grab early acorns. Field mice and chipmunks are in the same race for food stores.

Trees are beginning to change. Yellowing leaves increase in numbers each day. Kids still run on beaches and play wherever a swing set is not closed. Young people gather with cases of beer, many without masks. More cautious folks crowd outdoor dining places. Multi-generational families wander about as if it were August 1, not September 1. COVID has changed the normal rhythms of summer while Mother Nature delivers heat and humidity where houses didn’t need air conditioning ten years earlier. Lake Michigan pushes beyond its all-time high water mark, devouring docks and houses’ front yards.

When it already feels as if the stars are out of synch, COVID has taken the fathers of three friends or relatives. Three members of the Greatest Generation, living in three different states, in congregate facilities for three very different reasons. Friends and family called them Jim, Dom, and Marlin. They had eleven adult children among them plus almost four dozen grandchildren or great-grandchildren. Two were veterans and one farmed his entire life. Family photos show them joking with great, tall grandsons, sitting with the newest grandbaby resting on an arm, in wheelchairs by Christmas trees. These were men who loved and were loved.

Thanks to COVID, they died comforted by staff members as their families were mostly kept away. In the heat of August, sons and daughters mourned the once strong fathers who built businesses, walked fields, fixed tractors, painted houses, taught them to throw a ball, sang next to them in church, made the final journey of life without endangering family.

The Greatest Generation is disappearing as COVID ignites within our communities. They fought for our country’s freedom, raised families, built the cars and houses and machines of the 20th century USA, fed the world. In turn COVID has left us unable to protect them, not even gather for proper farewells.

As summer sneaks away, as our elderly pass in the settings meant to keep them safe, as our days of small social gatherings and playing games outdoors with our grandchildren are numbered, COVID is like the spreading black-eyed Susan which left unchecked threatens to obliterate the beauty of other blooms.

In honor of James Armstrong, Dominic St. Peter, and Marlin Hunt. With sympathy to their families and to all who have lost loved ones to this pandemic. Friends, please help friends stay healthy and strong.

Black-eyed Susan

A Larger Force

Healthy exercise respecting social distance in the neighborhood appeared difficult with a cluster of kids playing soccer, family groups stretching across walks and streets, dog walking people following the direction of their pets. We drove to the quiet side of a nature preserve where trails are seldom used on weekends. One car stood empty in the parking lot. Parents with a preschool child exited a different car.

We waited for them, but as shoe tying and other preparations continued we made our way to the trail map. The youngster, possibly unaware of social distancing, ran to join us and told her parents that she wanted to be lifted to read the map. Offering her their hands, they assured her they knew the way. We backed away as the child threw a hissy complete with screaming, stomping, and slapping. The right trail choice was any that would create space from the unhappy kid.

As grandparents we’ve learned about giving young children time to make wise choices instead of forcing action on them. Children of privilege are supported in making choices many times daily from choosing to wear clothes to daycare through patient questioning of resistance at bedtime twelve hours later. Family, friends, complete strangers, might be expected to wait while a child tests the limits or can’t choose. It takes a village after all.

Then comes COVID-19—no negotiations, no children making choices, no endangering strangers by ignoring social distance guidelines. The village has been forced into change.

From closed schools, to prohibited playgrounds that look the same as open playgrounds, to stores asking only one family member do household chores; parenting has pivoted in answer to the dual wham of pandemic and economic storms. Parental instincts to keep things normal for the kids are strained as jobs are lost, employers demand long work hours in the family’s home, distance learning replaces classrooms, and being homebound stretches. Hugs of grandparents, cousins and close friends disappeared with no known date of return. Parents have had little time to concentrate on adapting to new burdens, to problem solve, to explore their personal fears or worries.

Experts say our kids experience anxiety of this crisis just like adults. Some will lose a loved one or friend. The soundtrack of childhood has been interrupted to never play in quite the same way. COVID-19 is drawing new lines on the future maps of kids’ adulthood. Our six-year-old family member misses her classmates, her neighborhood friends, going places with her parents. She understands that the sickness means she can’t ride her bike with other kids, climb or swing at the park, be physically present with her friends. The sickness is beyond her parents’ control. She can make good decisions about a snack or activity, but bigger forces now set the limits beyond the front door.

Technology gives us time to talk, play games, be with family. A plate or two on the table and tiny faces on a screen may be how we celebrate this spring’s holiday and holy day traditions with those we love. Better than no connection, a card or a phone call. COVID-19 denies us the powerful comfort of each other’s warmth, smell, physical presence whether around the dining table, at a special event, at a hospital bedside. Some of us will stay healthy. Some of us will die in the company of strangers. No screaming, stomping or slapping can change what we have to keep doing. We will gather to celebrate or grieve in the future. God willing.

Stay home. Stay safe. Keep others safe. May your holy day traditions provide comfort.

GIFIjEQkRfGDZbThEEbPgw