Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Hang in There, Mildred

Friday, I had dinner with Mildred, who lives across the hall from me, Georgia, and Ethel. The conversation turned to age: Mildred said she was 91. Ethel said she'd soon be 90. and Georgia said, "I'm the baby. I'm only 81." "At 69, I must be the bigger baby," I said. The thing is, they don't act their ages. Georgia and Ethel do have hearing problems. But they are both quick witted and have no problems following a conversation they can hear.

Saturday, Suzi took the fourth spot at the table, and Tony was just hanging out there, talking with the ladies. I went to the other side of the dining room to eat. Ten minutes later, Tony yelled, "Call 9-1-1." Mildred looked dazed, but from where I sat, she appeared to be telling Tony, the other ladies at the table, and Bev, who had rushed in from the desk in the lobby, that she didn't need 9-1-1. Mildred asked that someone call her son, Dan.

Once things settled down, I wandered over to check on the situation. Mildred was smiling, laughing at herself from time to time. "I had a seizure," she said. "Her head went back, and her eyes rolled back," Ethel said, providing a little more detail. Bev had been able to get in touch with Dan, and he was on his way. Sunday morning, I stopped by the desk to ask if there was any news on Mildred. Sara said, Mildred was with her son, that she had either a seizure or a mild stroke.

Yesterday (Monday), I looked out the window while waiting for Jeopardy to come on. Dan's SUV was in the parking lot, Mildred was out there with her walker, and Dan and his wife were nearby. I figured they were coming in until Dan took Mildred's walker and put it in the SUV. Then they all got in the vehicle and left. 

Had they been here a while? I don’t think so. My TV wasn’t on. The music I was listening to was just loud enough to provide a pleasant background, not loud enough to block out sounds from the hallway. Surely, I would have heard three people leaving the apartment across the hall. Wouldn’t I? Was Mildred planning on coming back last night, but changed her mind as soon as she got out of the SUV? Or did Dan see something and say, “Mom, you better spend another night with us.”?

Mildred is a wonderful neighbor. When I see her in the hall, I always hope she has a few minutes or more to talk. I wish I could keep my mind from going there, but it keeps taking me back to Shorty, who lived here three years ago. With his unruly white hair and his glasses with black plastic frames, Shorty looked like Spencer Tracy in his later movies. “People ask me where I’m living now,” Shorty would say, “I tell them I’m in that place where people go to die.” Too often it seems that way.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

A Day Spent Looking Back

 Poor Daniel. Daniel is the PT assistant who has been visiting me twice a week for a month. This morning, he said August is nearly gone, and September and fall will soon be here. The mention of the seasons sparked memories, a flood of them. Daniel must have felt as if he were being swept away by the flood, as I talked about some of those memories. I'm sure I yakked more during today's session than I did during Daniel's other six visits combined.

The changing of the seasons is much more stunning up north. The leaves down here, I told Daniel, don't put on much of a show. The last few weeks of September and the first weeks of October are beautiful on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line. Any time was always a good time to visit Uncle Jim. But the best time for the drive to Pittsburgh to see him was in the fall.

From Ashtabula we'd head south on Ohio Route 11, always a relaxing experience. Route 11, a four-lane, divided highway, looks like an Interstate, except for the traffic, of which there isn't much. Dad once told me, Route 11 was built because some Ohio politicians were certain a superhighway linking the Astabula docks with the steel mills in Youngstown, so the ore could be brought south by truck rather than rail, would have steel companies rushing to shut their mills in the Pittsburgh area and relocating them in Youngstown.

Things didn't work out that way. Conrail and the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie remained the preferred routes for hauling ore from Ashtabula to the mills. And when steel jobs began disappearing, they disappeared more rapidly and more completely from Youngstown.

That left an underused highway, a thoroughfare you could safely navigate while appreciating the beauty of a fall morning. And the best was yet to come. I-80 east took us into Pennsylvania and the foothills of the Alleghenies. Mini-mountains, and forests alive with fall colors, created a fall-fabulous corridor for the trip down I-80 east and I-79 south. When the hillsides began showing signs of suburban life, bits of the Pittsburgh skyline started appearing when we got to a crest of a hill. A few miles more, and the cityscape was the view. And what a view it is as you cross the Ft. Duquesne Bridge on your way across the Point to the Fort Pitt Bridge. Then we went through the Ft. Pitt Tunnel and up the hill to the Green Tree exit. The drive ended a few minutes later, when we got to Jim's house on Kirsop Avenue.

Jim was a wonderful host and always had great suggestions for things to do while we were there. A day or two later, we pointed the car north and drank in the wonders of fall from the other direction. Outstanding weekends, they were.

After Daniel left, I made a cup of coffee, intending to quickly drink it and get on with the day. But as I sat looking out at the dogwood tree, the cars in the parking lot, and the wooded area that borders the parking area, the memories kept coming. They weren't memories suddenly dredged up from deep inside my mind. They were memories of moments I often recall. But this time they came more quickly, latched on to my attention more firmly, and kept me thinking of things past more deeply and with more reflection than ever before.

*                    *                    *

I remembered the August morning thirty-some years ago when Debbie and I accompanied Russ on his first day in kindergarten. Russ was in good spirits, and we did our best to help him get comfortable in this new place. Then he started to cry. Debbie asked what was wrong. "My name isn't up there. I'm not supposed to be here," Russ said, pointing to a large poster by the blackboard.

Mrs. Poros, the kindergarten teacher at Washington, had drawn balloons or flowers, I forget which, and put a student's name in each one. And, no, there was not a Russ in the bunch. Russ is Thomas Russell III. My dad was Bud to family and friends. When I was a preschooler, Mom, Dad, Nana and Uncle Jim called me Tim much of the time. No one else did, and I have always been Tom. When Russ was born, Debbie and decided, rather than run the risk of people calling the youngest T.R. Harris "Little Tom", we'd call him by his middle name.

Debbie pointed to the balloon with "Tom" in center and said, "See, here's your name." "That's not my name," Russ told her. We explained the situation to Mrs. Poros, and our son was "Russ" forever after in the Ashtabula Area City Schools.

*                    *                    *

I remembered a Friday night in late August 1995. I drove to Andover that evening to cover a high school football game. That 1995 season opener was a first for me: It was the first high school game in any sport that I went to as a sports writer.  The truth is, I hadn't written anything about sports - not ever - when, a few weeks earlier, I went to see Star Beacon sports editor Craig Muder about becoming a stringer for the sports department. He said they'd give me a call. They did, and I got my sports writing feet wet covering a couple Little League tournament games. 

Confidence wasn't oozing from my pores, but I did worry that a substance an angry coach, parent, or player might compare my game story to was oozing into my pants as I made my way to the press box to watch, keep stats and eventually write about Pymatuning Valley's gridiron battle with visiting Conneaut. The night belonged to PV. If I remember correctly, the Lakers scored a touchdown in each quarter on their way to a 28-7 victory.

Around Wednesday of the following week, when no one had reprimanded me for gross incompetence, I began breathing easier.

*                    *                    *

I remembered raking leaves on many fall Saturdays and Sundays. When Beth was young, she always came out to make sure I had fun. She would jump into the pile of leaves and bury herself in it. She had so much energy and was so full of laughter and mischief. Her antics might have resulted in me having to spend more time raking in order to bring order to the disorder she created. But the time went by so fast with her laughing, running, scattering leaves, and being so wonderfully high-spirited. From what she tells me about Hayden and MaKenna, I'm pretty certain they bring the same joy to the lives of Beth and Ken.

But I will have no sympathy for Beth should she ever complain about Hayden or MaKenna eating the food she's making as she prepares it. For a few years, I baked bread nearly every Saturday. As I mixed the dough, Beth would stick her hand in the bowl and pull out a little piece here and a little piece there and pop them into her mouth. It got worse while the dough was raising. Beth would sneak into the kitchen, lift the dish towel covering a loaf pan full of rising dough, pinch off a piece, and eat it. There were times when she must have eaten half a loaf of bread before it even went in the oven.

And Beth was downright demanding when she supervised me as I made tuna-noodle casserole. She told me exactly how I was to prepare it. She didn't offer guidance in order to ensure a better tuna-noodle casserole. No. She did it to make sure there was plenty for her to sample at each step of the way.

*                    *                    *

And I remembered two times I wasn't sure I would make it to the event I was scheduled to cover for the Star Beacon. But I did.

One Saturday morning in January, or maybe February 2002, I was awakened by the sounds of my next-door neighbor shoveling his driveway. I didn't think much of it; the neighbor was a fanatic about mowing grass in the summer and keeping the driveway and walks clear of snow in the winter. "He's probably shoveling flurries," I told myself. I had covered a basketball game Friday night and got home around midnight. I didn't see so much as a single flake along the way. "Nothing to worry about," I assured myself.

Staying in bed had its attractions, but I had to cover a girls basketball game in Jefferson that afternoon. I got myself out from beneath the covers, looked out the window, and said, "Holy shit." The world was white, buried in white, lots of white, at least a foot of white, maybe more.

After some orange juice, a bowl of shredded wheat, and a cup of coffee, I put on my jacket, gloves, and ski hat and went outside. A quick, close up look at the snow brought on another, "Holy shit." There was well over a foot of snow; a foot-and-a-half at least, maybe two feet. "Guess there won't be a game today," I thought. The game I was to cover was at Jefferson, which always got hit with more snow than the communities along the lake.

I resisted the urge to go back inside and have another cup of joe. I told myself, even if the game is postponed, and I was certain it would be, it was best to get right to the shoveling. If it warmed up the snow would get heavy and require twice the effort to move it. Shoveling two feet of snow isn't easy, especially when you are hemmed in by hedges on one side and the house on the other. You have to carry each shovelful around to a spot where the snow can be tossed. I took two or three breaks before I'd cleared a path from the car to Myrtle Avenue, which still hadn't been plowed.

Each time I went inside I checked the answering machine. Nothing. Don McCormack, the Star Beacon sports editor at the time was also an assistant girls basketball coach at Jefferson. I was sure he'd call if the game was postponed.

That call never came. So I ate a quick lunch, grabbed a score sheet, a notebook, a few pens, and headed to Jefferson. The first half block was the roughest. The city's street crews still had not plowed Myrtle Avenue, and there hadn't been enough traffic to wear a path in the snow. I was never so happy to be driving a car with a standard transmission. By going forward as far as the car would go, then backing up for a short distance, then repeating the process five or six times, I made it the half block to Walnut Boulavard, which, thank God, had been plowed. And so were all the other roads I traveled to get to Jefferson High School. The Falcons played Conneaut that Saturday. The Spartan faithful I talked to were surprised that the game wasn't postponed, and even more surprised that the snow was deeper in Conneaut than it was in Jefferson.

I headed back to Ashtabula thinking I would go home and have something for dinner. I forget what it was, but I remember there were some leftovers in the refrigerator that sounded pretty good. When I got to the corner of Walnut and Myrtle, the plans changed. Myrtle was still untouched by the street crews. I dined at McDonalds, quite a comedown from Chez Tomas.

Then it was on to the Star Beacon, where I typed in the Jefferson-Conneaut box score, wrote the game story, answered phones, and goofed off a little - or maybe more than a little - until it was time to go home. As I drove up Lake Avenue to the Harbor, a list of local motels ran through my mind, in case Myrtle was still not plowed. Not to worry. The plows had cleared Myrtle Avenue. In doing so, however, they pushed a generous amount of snow back into Tom's driveway. It took nearly a half-hour to get the pile at the end of the driveway out of the way. Needless to say, I slept well that night.

In October 2002, I was one of the sports guys assigned to cover the state cross country meet, which is held in Columbus. I was to do the stories on the girls races, and James Johnson would handle the boys races. That year, the three boys races (Divisions I, II, and III) were scheduled for the morning, and the girls races were run in the afternoon. A most fortuitous arrangement for a certain sports writer from Ashtabula, as it turned out.

I wanted to be there for the boys races and got myself up and on the road before seven o'clock. I was on the road for no more than ten minutes when I decided I needed a cup of coffee and something to eat. With that in mind, I got off I-90 at the Madison exit, a mere twenty miles into my trip. That might sound like laziness and the height of self-indulgence, but it was a very fortuitous decision on the part of your intrepid reporter.

The drive-thru window wasn't opened, so I parked the car and went inside to order a couple Bacon, Egg and Cheese Biscuits and a cup of coffee. The woman in her McDonald's outfit slipped the biscuits into a bag and handed it to me along with the coffee. I went outside, got in the car, slipped the key into the ignition, turned the key, and nothing happened. A few more attempts produced the same result.

I went back in McDonald's and told my problems to the woman at the cash register. She told me to take a walk. A walk to the garage a quarter of a mile "that way on the left. He opens pretty early." I did as she said. The garage was open, and I told the guy what happened. He brought a truck around and told me to get in. He drove down to McDonalds, asked which car was mine, and parked next to it.

"Get in the car," he said. I did, and he raised the hood. "OK, now start it." Nothing happened. He had me try again. Same result. He had me try a third time. When it didn't start, he said, "It's the starter." He said he could put a new starter in. I thought that was a great idea. So, he got the car started and told me to drive up to the garage.

The repair process was delayed when the guy realized he didn't have the starter he needed in stock. He told me he could get one, but he'd have to wait until the place opened. I couldn't see what was going on from the room where customers were sent to wait. I fretted and sweated for what seemed like forever, but it was only until 9:30. That's when he told me, "You're all set."

After making sure the credit card people still thought highly of me, he gave me the keys, and I was on my way to Columbus. It wasn't a relaxing journey, by any means. But I did get to where I needed to be twenty minutes before the first girls race. The car started right up when it was time to head home. And it kept on starting without hesitation for as long as I owned it.

To Bed, Perchance to Sleep

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