Sunday, May 27, 2007

I really like to travel, but I love coming home


(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel May 27, 2007)

Dorothy was right. There is no place like home.

My husband and I just returned from a relaxing weekend at the beach. We enjoyed sun and surf, sand and seashells and quiet nights beneath the stars. It was a great getaway, but coming home was even better.

After 120 minutes on the interstate, we turned onto our long dirt driveway. As usual on the last leg of a trip, the bumpy road triggered familiar feelings of gratitude and longing. I felt grateful to have safely navigated our way home and longed for the world we were about to re-enter.

Each of us lives in a place of our own creation where, whether we realize it, patterns and rituals rule our days. For me, those rituals include my morning row, my first (second and third) cup of tea, feeding the birds and taking walks around the lake.

Enjoying a change of pace and sampling new rituals is refreshing, but nicer still is returning home to familiar objects and routines.

The hotel bed was large and comfy, but it wasn't my bed. And no matter how much you pack, you can't take everything you want with you when you go away.

When our kids were younger, our family traveled extensively in an old Class C recreational vehicle. It was about as close as you could come to combining travel and home. Our camper was an affordable and practical mode of transportation for a couple with several small children. We could fix our own meals, use the onboard bathroom and stow huge quantities of supplies in efficiently designed storage areas. There were plenty of sleeping compartments for everyone and a cozy dining area for family meals.

But still, certain essentials were lacking. The camper's shower was minuscule, and room to stretch and exercise was nonexistent. Whenever we returned from one of our road trips, we were always awed by how spacious our real home seemed.

We no longer own the camper. The kids grew up, and many years ago, we sold the RV to a fellow in Montana. The few trips we now take are done in my van, the fold-into-the-floor seats providing adequate room to accommodate a futon mattress and several storage boxes filled with gear. Although our mode of transportation has been downsized, the supply of "trip necessities" we tote along hasn't diminished proportionally.

Our travel philosophy could be best summed up as, "It's better to have too much than not enough."

Of course, that means everything we take with us has to be loaded into the van and then unloaded when we return home. I'm the driver, while my husband, a less than enthusiastic traveler, spends most of the ride time resting on the futon.

In our family, the rule is that drivers don't have to unpack -- a good thing because I hate that part almost as much as Ralph dislikes sitting behind the steering wheel.

When we get home -- and it's almost always at night -- the only items I carry inside are my blanket and pillow. I hit the sack while my husband makes sure everything else gets brought inside and put away properly.

A successful division of labor is one where both parties feel they're getting the best part of the deal. That's our arrangement to a T.

On this most recent trip, we once again returned home late at night. While Ralph was dutifully carting in boxes and re- stocking the pantry and fridge, I came inside, flopped on the bed and simply lay there. Savoring the moment.

My own bed. My own room. How delightful.

The house -- our house -- is set up just the way we like it. Everything we need is close at hand. As I rested on my oh-so-familiar bed, I pondered the morrow.

First thing, I planned to go for a row. After that, I'd come inside, brew myself a real cup of tea -- no more hotel-microwave brew -- and sip it while sitting on the porch watching the birds. I fell asleep that night with thoughts of paddling drifting through my mind. My sleep was long and solid.

Maybe the best part of going away is realizing how good it is at home. If it takes distance to remind us of that, then sign me up for another trip -- but not too soon. I need to savor this feeling of contentment a wee bit longer.

There truly is no place like home.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Slipping and sliding no way to get home


(First appeared in the Orlando Sentinel May 20, 2007)

I live at the end of a dirt driveway accessible by one of two routes.

Choice No. 1 is the paved road, a quick-and-easy, two-lane route. It's direct and predictable.

Choice No. 2 is the Back Way. It's my favorite.

When I take the Back Way home, I bump along a curvy clay road rolling up and over gentle hills. I pass by several owner-built homes set on 1- to 5-acre lots where there's always something interesting to see. One house has goats, another sheep. Still another has acres of sago palms. It's a pretty road, and when I take it, I'm forced to go slowly, a good thing in these too-busy times.

But, being unpaved, the Back Way is ruled by weather.

During dry spells, it's not just bumpy; it's washboard wild. It makes no difference whether I inch my way forward or put foot to the pedal. At any speed, disaster feels imminent.

The rhythmically rutted road rattles the car convulsively. It shimmies and shakes with abandon, sending coins on the dashboard flying, and spilling any tea that might be left at the bottom of my cup.

Wet weather's no better.

When it rains, the road turns into an orange quagmire, slick and thick with clay.

The sodden mess sloshes and splatters onto every possible surface, including the front and back windshields. Hardly the ideal situation when visibility is essential.

When I mistakenly take the clay route home during a downpour, I have to grasp the wheel with both hands to prevent the car from sliding into a roadside gully. It takes all my concentration to control the errant steering. Even then, I'm not sure until I turn onto my driveway that I'll make it home safely.

Choosing the Back Way is not a smart move during inclement weather, yet I repeatedly pick that route during inopportune times.

Like yesterday, when under overcast skies, I found myself unconsciously heading toward the unpaved road.

The signs were there had I only read them.

The sky had clouded over. The air had become eerily still and thick enough with moisture to feel heavy against my skin. Large droplets had sporadically begun to fall as I mechanically steered onto the clay road.

At that point, there was still time to turn around and take the paved route home. That's what I should have done.

But I didn't.

Instead, I stayed the course as if entranced.

To emphasize my folly, the skies chose that moment to erupt, sending sheets of rain onto the previously parched ground. If you've ever taken a turn on your kids' Slip 'n Slide, you'll understand the feeling. Unwittingly I had ventured onto a slick platform of disaster. Within minutes, my peaceful ride home had morphed into a maddening glide to oblivion.

Clay went flying as I slid along roads suddenly rippled with rust-colored rivulets.

Eventually I reached my destination, anchoring my craft safely in the garage harbor.

It was then that I noticed the clay -- not just some clay, but a clay-filled stream seeping onto the concrete floor from my just-parked van.

In fact, clay was everywhere -- on the floor, on the doors, on the van's underbody and on my own clothing-covered body -- I must have brushed against something when I opened the door. Yes, it was a clay-colored world.

Today is a new day.

The sun is shining and, although overcast at times, rain has yet to dampen our streets.

We need the rain. The ground is thirsty, and lake levels are reaching an all-time low. Like most everyone else, I'm hoping for showers.

But, more personally, I'm hoping the next time it downpours while I'm on the way home, I'll have the good sense to choose practical over pretty.

There are times to slow down and admire the scenery, and times when it only makes sense to hurry home on the safest roads possible.

In extreme weather -- wet or dry -- Predictable trumps Beauty every time.

After 16 years of living at the end of an unpaved road, it's about time I learned that simple fact of life.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Best Mother's Day gift: Heartfelt love, no problem


(First appeared in the Orlando Sentinel May 13, 2007)

In the 27 years that I've been a mother, I've enjoyed some memorable Mother's Day gifts.

When my kids were young, I wanted nothing more than time to sleep. Ah, sleep, that most precious gift.

"Take the children out for four hours," I remember asking my husband. "I don't care where you take them or what you do, just leave me alone at the house for at least four hours. That's all I want."

And it helped.

With babies, I found that four hours was the perfect "recharge" time, just long enough to settle in and absorb the silence before missing the little rascals. As much as I love my children -- and I have four of the best kids anyone could want -- for the sake of my sanity, I needed the periodic break.

As time went by and the kids grew bigger, so did the messes that a family of six creates. One year for Mother's Day, I practically begged Ralph to clean out the garage.

"Take the trash to the dump," I pleaded. "All of it. Do that for me, and it will be the perfect gift."

It was.

Another year, I asked to have the windows cleaned. I could only tolerate smudged glass marked with handprints, cobwebs and assorted debris for so long. The sparkling panes lasted for months, filling me with pleasure each time I gazed through them.

Of course, not all of my Mother's Day gifts have been quite as utilitarian and self-orchestrated. I've been the appreciative recipient of many fine meals out with the family, handmade cards from the children, bouquets of flowers and the occasional wrapped present. But the most memorable gifts are the ones that truly filled a need, caught me off guard or touched me with their heartfelt message.

"I love you, Mama," began a note my daughter Jenny wrote me one year.

More than a decade later, her words still resonate. Taped to the wall above my computer, I see them every time I sit down to write. Simple words on a single sheet of plain white paper decorated with hearts, stars and black-ink designs. Jenny's gift -- and, through the years, each of my children has given me similar written expressions of love -- is a visual reminder of what Mother's Day is really about.

It's all about love -- about giving love away and watching it come back home to roost.

This year for Mother's Day I plan to take a walk, go for a row on the lake, feed the birds, read a book and enjoy a home-cooked meal with as many members of my family as are able to join me.

I'm no longer sleep-deprived, and there are no big chores begging to be done. Time alone in the house is still something I treasure, but I don't long for it as I did when the kids were little.

These days, the best gift I could ask for is to have a problem-free day during which I don't have to multitask or put out any fires. To that end, maybe I'll turn off the cell phone today, shut down the computer, open the window and hope for a breeze.

I can breathe in a bit of flower-scented air mingled with wonderful memories that 27 years of parenting have provided. Inhaling deeply, what could be sweeter?

Monday, May 7, 2007

Discarded mailboxes still deliver


(First appeared in the Orlando Sentinel May 6, 2007)

Last year, the city replaced all the mailboxes along a nearby highway.

For weeks I watched as the former letter receptacles -- some timeworn and battered, others fairly presentable -- lay in piles along the roadside. Nobody wanted them.

The homeowners had shiny new boxes, courtesy of the city, and seemed ready to relinquish their old ones to the landfill.

Unable to bear such waste, I drove out one day in the truck, gathered up a few and took them home. Despite their rusty hinges, dented sides and broken flags, I knew I'd find a use for them somewhere around our property.

A few months ago, I did.

Using sheet-rock screws and a cordless screwdriver, I mounted two of the mailboxes several feet apart underneath the wide eaves of our front porch. My hope was that the letter holders, with doors ajar, would make acceptable nesting boxes for some of the many birds that frequent our yard.

That's just what happened.

The first feathery creatures to investigate the mailboxes were a pair of Carolina wrens. Chatty biddies that they are, the wrens caught my attention one morning as I was enjoying my first cup of tea.

Throughout the day, I watched as the tiny bug-catchers busied themselves carrying bits of grass, fallen bamboo leaves and other litter into the mailbox. By the time evening arrived, the wrens had constructed a cozy nest tucked against the back of the box.

During the next few weeks, I watched as other birds checked out the remaining mailbox.

Doves came and peeked inside but, for whatever reason, decided against establishing a nest there. Maybe they harbored hopes of returning to our garage where they had raised two broods last summer.

Doves may be lazy nest-builders, but they have an eye for comfort. They must have decided that building a nest of twigs on top of our garage door opener -- last summer we often left the garage doors open for ventilation -- would be a secure spot to raise their young.

And it was.

All summer the doves stayed safe and dry on their mechanical platform, but their twiggy home proved inconvenient to us car-driving humans.
If we drove inside the garage and attempted to close the overhead doors, moving chains would destroy the nest. To avoid that, we left the garage doors up. The car frequently stayed outside in the hot sun -- a poor choice but better than parking inside beneath a family of none-too-tidy doves.

Open garage doors became open invitations to all sorts of critters, including mud-dauber wasps, stinging insects that prefer raising their young in protected spots in or around houses.

Determined not to repeat last year's mistake, my husband and I vowed this year to keep the garage doors closed.

So far, our diligence has paid off. Mud daubers have set up residence elsewhere, and no new dove nests have been constructed inside the garage. I hoped the doves would choose one of the mailboxes instead.

They didn't, but another bird did.

My son was the first to notice the new residents.

Early one evening while on the porch working on his laptop, Timmy heard a familiar sound.

Finding me in my office, he said, "Come onto the porch. I think there's an owl in the mailbox."

As soon as I entered the screened room, I agreed. Screech owls have a most distinctive cry. Some people consider it a plaintive wail, an unsettling, eerie sound. I think their tremulous whistle sounds more like the whinny of a tiny horse.

Remember the children's toy called My Little Pony? Imagine if that toy horse could whinny. That's what I think of each time I hear a screech owl cry.

Our family is familiar with screech owls because last summer -- the same season that the doves nested in the garage -- a pair of these 9-inch-tall owls set up housekeeping in a homemade papaya picker. My husband made the papaya picker out of a three-gallon black plastic pot attached to an 8-foot length of bamboo.

When not being used to snare fruit from atop leggy papaya trees, the picker rested against the porch wall. It barely fit under the overhanging eave and was often left unused for several days.

Screech owls must have liked the look of that papaya picker, because they soon claimed it for themselves. After pecking out a round hole in the side of the plastic pot, they raised their family in the bottom. All summer long, we climbed a ladder instead of using the picker to gather papayas.

Now the owls were back, nestled contentedly in the mailbox.

It has been about two weeks since Timmy discovered our newest residents, and I still thrill each night when the mama bird sings her trembling evening tune.

Every now and then, I catch a glimpse of the father owl swooping into the mailbox to take his turn sitting on the eggs, which take about 26 days to hatch. The other day I spied him in the daytime resting on the lower branch of a nearby hibiscus.

I'm glad I saved those mailboxes from being crushed or buried at the county dump. Like many dated items, they still had a lot of life left in them -- too old to look good but too good to be thrown away.

While some of the mailboxes may no longer be useful receptacles for incoming letters, at least one is still providing a most important service -- it's about to receive a special delivery any day now.