Thursday, October 29, 2009

Still Great After All These Years

A few days ago I wrote about my birthday and the cake my mother used to always make. Debby recognized it and said she had made it before.

I've been out working for a couple of days and Wife caught up on my blog while I was gone. When I got home tonight, guess what was waiting for me in the kitchen? That's right. Wife had found a recipe and made the very cake that my mom used to make! And here it is! And it is just as good as ever!

Monday, October 26, 2009

I have photos!

Well Younger Son is here helping me to see if I can possibly post some photos from Wife's and my recent European trip. Several of you have been kind enough to ask, so I am going to try and comply with your requests. For those of you who did not ask, of course, I would never begin to ask you to look.

I am still challenged at posting photos and am having trouble with (a) getting them in chronological order and (b) attaching captions. So, before I delete them totally, I'll just give a quick narrative in the order they are posted:

1. Portofino, Italy.
2. Wife and me in Florence.
3. The Duomo -- cathedral -- in Florence.
4. Me on the Amalfi Coast in Italy.
5. Me sampling one of the Italian beers in Ravello, Italy. I felt it my obligation to support the local economy.
6. Fountains in Barcelona (our first day).
7. The French Riviera (Cannes, France).
8. Ezze, France.
9. Open air market in Rapallo, Italy.
10. Barcelona.

Monday Thoughts

It's sunny here in Middle Tennessee today, for which I am thankful. It's been so wet all across the south this autumn season and when we see the sun these days it almost brings tears to our eyes.


I just returned from my annual mission weekend to the Cumberland Mountains, just about 100 miles south of Nashville, but light years away from a cultural standpoint. This is the southern tip of Appalachia and is a beautiful area, especially this time of year. There is a year-round ministry there that I have been working with since 2002. Their purpose is to meet the physical, spiritual, social and emotional needs of the people who live there. It is an area of high unemployment and infant mortality. The drug culture has, unfortunately, flourished there and stolen away the lives of many young people.

This ministry (called Mountain TOP which you can read about here:, like so many non-profits, operates on a shoestring with a skeletal staff who live there year-round. What they provide for people such as myself is an opportunity to go and serve.

I took six people from my church. We left Thursday afternoon and went for a long weekend where we did home repair and construction. Anyone who knows me well and is reading this is probably holding back laughter but remember, God has a sense of humor. Sometimes that's why I think He called me into this in the first place. But I am of reasonable intelligence and I can follow instructions. I am always under enough supervision so that I don't destroy anything or screw something up beyond repair. So there.

Maybe I will elaborate another time about all the benefits I have gleaned from my various times on the mountain. I always come away feeling as if I received much more than I gave.

I worked on a house on Saturday that, along with the family of five, included as its residents a python (he was "tame"), a chinchilla, a tarantula, a dog cross-bred with a wolf, a tabby cross-bred with a wildcat, and assorted dogs and cats. The father of the family was a tattoo artist and would have gladly given me one.

Was God smiling? I don't know, but the more I reminded Him that this was way outside of my comfort zone, the more He reminded me that these people were made in His image.

The more I thought how painting their walls barely put a dent in the repairs they needed and wondered how on earth any effort I made would even begin to meet the aforementioned physical, spiritual, social and emotional needs, the more He helped me remember that He has been transforming lives and making beauty from ashes for centuries.

And He sure doesn't need me to accomplish that but, oh my, what a privilege to be a small part of it. Once again, I have come away changed.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Another One Gone

Last Sunday was my birthday.

Now, suffice it to say, at this juncture in my life I do not mark these occasions with any great fanfare and, like so many of us traveling through mid-life at warp-speed, I would just as soon forget how many years have now ticked off.

Still, family members and a few friends were kind enough to remember and I enjoyed lunch with part of my family as well as a couple of phone calls and e-mails to commemorate the date.

I now experience a weird sensation on my birthday, though. I really miss my parents.

My mother has been gone 13 years now and my dad left this Earth four years ago this January. I think about both of them every day and there are all kinds of mental and physical reminders of them in my life, not the least of which is the fact that every time I look in the mirror I see my dad, almost literally, staring right back at me with the receding hairline and crooked mouth that are identical to his.

As a 50-something adult (an early 50-something adult, by the way) who has lost both of his parents – just as millions like me -- I carry on with them very much in my heart, but I no longer grieve their passing.

For some reason, however, my thoughts turn more toward them on my birthday.

As a child, I did not have lavish birthday parties. I might have had a few friends over, but there were never the “destination” parties that would take place at the skating rink or bowling alley, nor was there ever a clown or pony. And of course in the small town where I grew up, the likes of Chuck E. Cheese or any such hot birthday spots were unheard of.

My mother always made my birthday cake. It was three layers, either chocolate or white, always made from scratch. I loved to scrape the moist, leftover crumbs off of the individual pans after she tapped each layer out on wax paper to cool.

The icing was this really sticky white stuff that she made in a double boiler on the stove, and it got hard after it was spread on the cake. It had little swirls and peaks all over it and I have never seen one like it or known anyone else to make one that is similar. It really was a beautiful cake. The pieces were cut in perfect wedges and a scoop of vanilla ice cream right next to it made a delectable treat.

Although a great cook, my mother was not in any way creative or artistic. The most I might have ever gotten on the cake, other than candles, were those little hard, sugary letters that spelled out, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY BOB” or, when I was a little guy, since my birthday was close to Halloween, little miniature plastic jack-o-lanterns that held candles.

My mother would never, in a million years, have even attempted to decorate a cake beyond these simple measures, nor would she have ever purchased a cake. I am ashamed to admit that I sometimes envied my friends who had the bakery cakes adorned with footballs or cowboys.

My folks always gave me presents, of course, but again, nothing extravagant.

Birthdays as a teenager are a blur. I’m sure my mom still made the cake. I remember sixteen because I got my driver’s license. The rest don’t really stand out.

Funny, but it seems that as I got older my birthday became more significant to my parents. In college they would usually try to come see me if I did not go home. I kind of found it interesting that they wanted to be with me, or at least talk to me, on my birthday.

My first year in law school, when I was struggling a bit, I went home for my birthday and my parents had arranged for some of my college chums to be there. There was a huge dinner and lots of old friends. They loved that.

Later, after I had married and lived a couple of hours away, they would get the biggest kick out of calling me from a pay phone in town (long before Caller ID and cell phones), pretending they were at home making my birthday call, then knocking on my door just a few minutes later and yelling, “Surprise!” and just falling all over themselves with tears of laughter. One time they showed up with the aforementioned cake in hand, my mother advising Wife that it was my favorite cake. That did not do a lot for the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship but they worked through it.

My last birthday with my mother living was Oct. 18, 1996. She was in the final stages of cancer and under the care of Hospice, but she called me and sang the most beautiful version of “Happy Birthday to You” I have ever heard, stopping after a couple of lines and saying that was the best she could do. She handed the phone to my dad, who was unable to talk to me. She died one week later.

Dad did his best to keep up the traditions after my mother was gone and I had moved to Tennessee, but there were no more “favorite” cakes from my mom (though Wife has more than adequately filled the gap with an Italian Cream that is to die for) and no more showing up at the door, just a phone call and a card Dad had bought at the discount store with a hundred dollar bill enclosed.

Now that I have raised my own children, I have begun to understand why my parents always wanted to talk to me, and, if possible, be with me on my birthday as I got older. They had learned, just as we all do as we move along in life, that life is short and that there are no guarantees as to how many of those special occasions we have left.

And now, that has all come full circle for me. If I could have had just one birthday wish granted last week, it would have been to see them at my door yelling “Surprise!” and doubling over with laughter.

But what great memories.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Back on American Soil

Well I am sitting in my hotel room with Daughter in Auburn, AL while she is preparing her speech for tonight. She is letting me use her cool Mac computer and I have hit the wrong button a few times.

Wife and I arrived safely back on U.S. soil (thanks for all who prayed) yesterday afternoon in Atlanta, drove to Auburn and managed to stay up until about 10 p.m. (just two hours short of being up 24 hours) before crashing.

I will not bore you with all of the details and I will post pictures later, but I am happy to report that we had a wonderful time in Europe. We both fell in love with Italy and, should my proverbial ship ever come in, I will rent/buy a villa in Tuscany or on the Amalfi Coast and spend at least part of the year there. Alas, I don't see that ship anywhere near my harbor.

Just a few of my thoughts/observations:

-- The flights both ways were uneventful but still mildly miserable. I wish I could afford the "business elite" class (what I guess we used to call first class) where those who sit in the luxurious spacious seats with at least twice the leg room of coach are served wine upon arrival. That contrasts greatly with us peons who are crammed into the cattle car/sardine can that the airlines call "economy."

-- I did not take the Valium my friend gave me (although it got close on the way home) but on the flight over I took advantage of the complimentary beer and wine with liberality. That helped some. The airline food, though -- where do they get this stuff? It's crap, pure and simple.

-- Upon arrival in Barcelona at 9 a.m. we immediately began to see the sights and tried to pretend we had slept but by noon we were zombies. We took about a 3-hour nap and were much better after that. This was against some strong advice from well-meaning friends but, sorry, when my body tell me to sleep, I sleep. We managed to get up and resume sight-seeing.

-- Our cruise was fine but, really, it was incidental to the trip -- just a mode of transportation and a place to eat and sleep at night. We had a nice state room with a balcony but, except for the last day which was at sea, we were off the boat every morning early and seeing the sights. We did meet some delightful people from England with whom we ate dinner every night. But other than that, we did very little aboard other than sleep. This was much different from our cruise to Alaska in 2006 with our entire family where we were at sea three days and off the ship three days.

-- Except for one day in Italy, our tours were all private, meaning we did NOT do the excursions offered by the cruise line. This was a little more expensive but well worth it. Every one of our guides, both in France and Italy, were superb. We got great personal attention and, especially in Rome and Florence, were able to absorb a lot of history in a brief amount of time.

-- It was very, very unseasonably warm in every port we visited. Highs in the 80s. I wore shorts each day except the day we visited Rome where long pants are required in St. Peter's (although I think some guys got away with shorts).

-- We made a waiter mad at lunch in Florence. Our guide recommended a really great looking restaurant where I though we would have the classic Italian meal. We were greeted with smiles upon our arrival and we smiled back but, after being shown to our table, we were obviously scorned as evidenced by being brought different food than we ordered and never receiving the wine we requested. That's still a mystery.

-- I had a ball trying to speak Spanish in Barcelona and I think Mrs. Fernald, my high school Spanish teacher, would be proud. Wife, on the other hand, was convinced that if she just spoke English LOUD enough to anyone, they would understand, even if they didn't speak a word of English.

-- I don't understand Europeans and bathrooms. I mean, don't they have internal plumbing just like I do? Yet their bathrooms are all remote and obscure tiny little structures for which you must beg for directions. They are also often unisex and there is often a fee charged. Never got that. I can tell you that, by the time I would reach one, I was willing to pay handsomely and I didn't care if I was sharing with a female. Some things can't wait.

-- We saw near-nude (i.e. topless) bathers on the beach in France. For documentary purposes only, I took photos (which will not be published). Amazing. Also saw men who might as well have been nude and their little speedos were not flattering.

-- I love the outdoor cafes where Europeans sit and have their food/drink of choice and watch the world go by.

-- I am happy to be back on American soil but we had a wonderful time. My thanks to Wife for planning and executing all of this, a wonderful way to celebrate 25 years of marriage.

-- I kept a daily journal but, again, I'll not bore you with that. When I get home and can get them loaded, I'll post a few photos.