Non-Vacations

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We all have an idea of what vacations should be. Whether it means a chance to reconnect with loved ones, a simple change of scenery or a whole new experience, usually relaxation is part of the equation. Not always, though. Some of my most memorable “vacation” experiences have had nothing to do with rest. Some don’t even involve time-off work!

There was the time I spent five days on a twenty-nine foot sailboat, as part of a three-person crew. In October! With a head-wind for the entire distance down Lake Huron! And I, seasick for most of the journey. Not quite a vacation, but it lives on in my memory as one of the greatest adventures of my life!

My first EarthWatch expedition was a trip to Grand Turk Island, now more than twenty-five years ago. It involved a lot of hard work, but also learning, and expanding my horizons and my life experience. I worked with people of all ages, from a seventeen-year-old young man recently graduated from high school, to an eighty-five-year-old woman retired from CitiBank in New York City. We put in a good eight hours of work every day, much of it on our hands and knees in the archaeological site. I learned excavation methods, survey techniques, and about the ancient Taino people.

In our off time, we drank local beers, explored the island, visited the museum, played Trivial Pursuit, and always ran down to the shore at sunset, in hopes of seeing “the green flash.” Every day was filled with fresh experiences, and I loved it. At the time, I thought I’d like to go on a similar expedition for every vacation.

Life gets in the way, though, of some of the best-laid plans. Grandchildren were born; my parents aged. A new mortgage on my house, taken out to pay off student loan debt, changed my financial situation. The years went by. Then, a letter from my friend, Warren, who I met on Grand Turk Island, reminded me of the possibilities. This year, my granddaughter, Madeline, and I went on an EarthWatch expedition together, in honor of her high school graduation. Once again, it was a lot of hard work, but worth every bit of it for the memorable experience!

Usually, I count the days when family or other visitors are on the island as “vacation.” Even though I don’t actually leave home. Even though none of the other work or life obligations go away. Even though it can be exhausting trying to fit dog walks, picking beans and throwing in a load of towels into days made more full by events shared with family and friends. In long summers without reprieve, any change is refreshing. When family and friends visit, my days are punctuated by trips to the beach, excursions to see the sights, and dinners looking across the table at the faces of people I know and love. At those times, my days are even busier than usual…but nicer, too.

When my two oldest grandsons were small, they used to visit every June. I would take a week off work when they were here. There was a lot of bedtime drama, of breaking up sibling fights, and arguments about house rules. Those memories pale, though. The things I remember best are mornings sitting on the beach at Iron Ore Bay, reading and drinking coffee while the boys built elaborate dams and bridges on the shore. We spent most of every day outside, no matter what the weather. Evenings, we’d drive around to see the deer. Those are the memories that hold.

Likewise, when the three younger grandchildren came to visit, there was a lot of shuffling of schedules and sleeping arrangements. There were peculiarities of food preferences and entertainment options. There were squabbles. What sticks in my mind, though, are the giggles and fun. Small hands in mine as we walked down roads and trails with the dogs. Little elbows and knees as they settled in when we gathered on the sofa to watch a movie. Bright eyes and smiling faces, sharing the adventure of Beaver Island. Not quite a vacation for me, but what a bright spot in my life!

Rest is a nice idea but, in my experience, there are much better things vacations have to offer!

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Vacations

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I wrote a week ago about “what I did on my summer vacation.” You may have noticed, it didn’t sound so much like a vacation. More like a “working adventure.” My life has been peppered with experiences like that. I’ll write about them at another time. I’ve had real and wonderful vacations in my life. That’s what I’m focusing on today.

When I was a child, vacations always brought our family to Beaver Island. We came in August, when the sun shone bright every day, nights were cool, and Lake Michigan waters were warm. We had freedom to explore the woods and fields, to walk the country roads, and to play in the old cars and in the barns and outbuildings. My grandparents were there, with their own ideas for entertainment. Bingo at the church hall, games of “Kings in the Corner” around the kitchen table, and trips to the dump to see the seagulls broke up our days. Those are still some of my fondest memories, and shaped my love of Beaver Island.

As an adult, vacation locales were more diverse, but also abbreviated, and rarer. There were weekend camping and canoeing trips, and visits to amusement parks and zoos. Once, we drove to Arkansas to spend the Thanksgiving weekend with my husband’s cousin and his family. After our move to Beaver Island, vacations mostly involved going to see family and friends. That’s the way it has held, though there are exceptions.

Several years ago, my daughter Jen brought me to Chicago for a long weekend. We found a little Italian restaurant with white tablecloths, excellent service and a great wine list. We went to an exhibit of Jasper Johns recent work; we wandered shops and stores.

Last summer, my daughter Kate and her family treated me to a trip to Chicago for my birthday. We toured the city, ate fabulous meals, and visited parks, galleries and museums. We went to see the musical, Hamilton! It was a fantastic, exceptional, once-in-a-lifetime experience!

My sisters and I have taken several trips together, each one memorable for its own sake. Our first trip to Florida, in the winter after the awful summer that saw the death of my sister Sheila and my mother, was a healing journey. Six sisters, finding our way forward with laughter, tears and lots of hugs. A trip to Chicago for Mother’s Day of that same year included four sisters and three nieces. Another step forward into life without our mother, surrounded by loved ones who felt the same loss.

A vacation in Tennessee a few years later was memorable because we knew it would likely be the last time my sister Nita would be with us. She had already defied the life expectancy handed out with her cancer diagnosis, but her health was failing. Even so, that trip held lots of laughter, and even some bickering between sisters. One line stands out: “Dying or not, there’s still no excuse for being a bitch!” That, along with my sister Cheryl being called away for a family emergency, and my sister Amy driving the rest of us home – in a very crowded car – through a raging blizzard, made it a trip I’ll never forget.

On our last “Sisters Vacation,” there were only five of us. There was less drama and sadness, but just as much joy and laughter. In fact, for every loss, there is a greater sense of the value of family, and the importance of time together. We went to Florida again. Each of us chose activities for the group. Each offered something special. The Titanic exhibit was outstanding. The psychic readings were fun and enlightening. Having never been to any of the Disney parks, and not feeling like I missed anything, I would never have planned a day at Disney Springs. That turned out to be one of my favorite activities of the whole trip!

The primary purpose of most every vacation, for me, is to spend time with loved ones. Relaxation is important, but secondary. Beyond being together, opening myself up to new sights and ideas, and taking part in memorable experiences: that, for me, is what makes an exceptional vacation!

Brother, David

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This is an old post…it has now been more than nine years since my brother died. But today is David’s birthday, and he’s been occupying my thoughts for several days. It seems like the right time for a repeat.

cindyricksgers

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There’s a story in my family that my brother, David, was given nine lives.

Speaking to David about his many misadventures, and later to his friends and other siblings, I would have had to place that number closer to twenty.

There was the sledding accident that broke long bones and left him chair-bound for months.  The fight that resulted in a broken jaw. Riding home at night on a bicycle, David was hit by a car. Once  “road-surfing” on the roof of a van, he took a nasty fall onto the pavement. There was a fall from a roof. There were several near-drowning incidents on Lake Nepessing, in all seasons of the year.

Once, walking home on the side of a narrow road, someone opened a car door as they went by, knocking David into a pole, then into the lagoon. He crawled out of the water covered with cuts…

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Bounty

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This is the season. This is the time of year when all of my efforts come finally, and seemingly all at once, to fruition. The tomato plants are doing their own version of the biblical “loaves and fishes” story, with an endless supply of bright red fruits. They, along with the cucumbers that keep getting ahead of me, too, are present at every meal.

The row of yellow squash, which hesitated to grow and refused to blossom for most of the summer, now miraculously produces a perfect squash – sometimes two – overnight. The peppers, slow starting, are now ripening all at once. I gathered the potatoes from one bin, and have been working my way through them, with two more bins ready and waiting.

I picked a mound of green beans, and put them in the refrigerator, confidant that I could wait for a better day to clean and process them for the freezer. “This will be the last of this year’s green beans,” I told myself, with a touch of melancholy. Two days later, I went out and picked an equal amount. A few days later, I did it again! Now, I have three grocery sacks of beans in the refrigerator, and they cannot be delayed a moment longer!

I have a row of drying peas along the fence that will need to be dealt with soon. I avert my eyes as I walk by, because I don’t have time today. Likewise, the kohlrabi is ready for harvest, just as soon as I make room for them in the vegetable bin. The corn has started to form ears.

On top of all that, the blackberries are ripening. I am a forager at heart, and cannot ignore food ripe for the picking. So, at the very least, I fill a colander each day from the brambles that border my yard. Yesterday, I loaded the dogs into the car and drove down to “the forty,” a woodland parcel that is owned by my family, and that my cousin Bob mows, in order to make berry-picking easier. There, I filled two big bowls and a coffee can with the sweet fruit. Sigh.

I learned that sigh from my mother. She perfected it during this same exact time of the year. She’d be sitting at the table, enjoying her first cup of coffee, maybe chatting with some of her children, and plotting out the day ahead. Then the back door would slam. Heavy footsteps through the back room and hallway would announce Dad’s entrance. He’d arrive at the doorway into the kitchen with a wide grin, and a bushel basket full of tomatoes. “This is just that far, short row,” he’d state with glee, “there are a lot more ready to be picked!”

Well. There was a large household to feed, and a long winter ahead. Mom would let out a big sigh, and rearrange her day. Whatever had been planned would have to wait until tomatoes were canned. There is no negotiating with time or tiredness or ripe fruit. Not right now, in this season of bounty!

Falling in Love Again

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It’s nice to get away. No matter how much I like my life, the grind of everyday living eventually takes its toll. No matter how beautiful the scenery, I take it for granted. Yes, that’s my view: brambles and trees and paths that wind through the woods as the sun shining through makes dappled patterns on every surface. Hard to believe, but one gets used to it. When I go away and come home again, everything here seems fresh.

I am reminded daily, sometimes several times a day, how special my life is. Fall crept in, just a little bit, while I was gone. The mosquitoes have just about disappeared; morning air is fresh and cool. The garden is relaxing into this end-of-season, giving up its last and most appreciated offerings. My window sill is lined with fat tomatoes; every meal features them in some way.

The dogs are cuter than ever, or maybe simply just as cute as ever. They give me a hundred reasons to smile every single day. Blackie Chan has taken to talking to me when he’s ready for his morning walk, or waiting for his dinner. Rosa Parks, following her brother’s example, has started cocking one rear leg high in the air to pee, but only when he’s around to see it. When she goes outside without him, she squats to pee, as usual.

Darla’s infinite patience with and kindness toward the little dogs makes my heart swell. If Blackie Chan wanders down the neighbor’s driveway, which he is not supposed to do, Darla waits there for him, a worried expression on her big face. When Darla and Rosa Parks join forces in the front window to bark at the road truck. Rosa sometimes loses focus, and barks at Darla, instead. Darla gives me a look, and a little grin, but just continues on as if she were not suddenly under attack.

My house was the same as when I left it. My yard was surprisingly quite presentable. I’d heard we had a rainstorm, so I fully expected the grass to have once again grown to unmanageable lengths, but no. Inside, the houseplants were slightly droopy but responded right away to being watered. Both house and yard were no worse off than when I left ten days before. Except that I’ve noticed, and appreciated, their simple comfort and beauty since I’ve been home.

My job was waiting for me, and I was happy to get back to work. It was nice to see my coworkers, and to get updates on everything here. When I got called in to work yesterday, on my day off, to help with a problem, I felt honored rather than put out by the request.

In fact, I have been spending this week falling in love, once again, with my life here. Sometimes, I just have to get away. I need to reconnect with family and friends, take in the bigger world, and open myself up to new experiences. One of the best things about leaving, though, is the coming home again.

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

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I don’t always get a summer vacation. Sometimes, summers are just a series of busy, busy workdays, followed by a couple days of trying to catch up on yard work, garden, housework and laundry. There are exceptions, and this year was one of them.

This year, I planned a trip, along with my granddaughter, Madeline, in honor of her high school graduation. We started talking about it last Christmas, when a newsy letter enclosed in a Christmas card introduced the idea. I met Warren twenty-five years ago, on an archaeological expedition on Grand Turk Island through the EarthWatch organization. He has continued to explore the world, taking several trips each year; his annual Christmas letter summarizes his adventures.

I love archaeology, and have participated in “digs” here on Beaver Island and elsewhere. Madeline liked the idea, too. She had traveled with her parents through the southwest, and was familiar with some of the history of the Mesa Verde region. It helped to spark her enthusiasm when friends and teachers told her how jealous they were of her plans.

Once we had made our decision to go, there was lots of planning, paperwork and scheduling to deal with. We consulted lists for packing. Co-workers stepped in to help me rearrange my work schedule. I depended on my daughter’s help for getting a good rate on airline tickets. My sister Brenda and brother-in-law Keith agreed to get us to and from the airport. It all came together! This year, my granddaughter and I spent a week on an archaeological dig!

The Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, in the Mesa Verde region of Colorado, conducts multi-disciplinary research into the ancestral Pueblo people. Their current endeavor, and the one we were a part of, is the “Northern Chaco Outliers Project.”

The Chaco Culture National Historic Park, in New Mexico, contains the most sweeping collection of ancient ruins north of Mexico. Many other sites in the “Four Corners” region show similarities in architecture and artifacts. One goal of the on-going Crow Canyon research is to explore how the people that lived in this area were influenced by or connected to the ancient people of Chaco Canyon.

After a crazy day that had started at 3 A.M. and was spent mostly running at top speed through airports to make our connections, we arrived at Crow Canyon on Sunday afternoon. We were given a brief tour of the area, and shown to the hogan that would be our home for the next seven days.

I took a nap; Madeline checked her internet connection. That was a harbinger of how we’d spend our free time for the next week: me, collapsing in exhaustion while Madeline – with ultimate patience and good-nature – entertained herself.

Dinner that evening was followed by an introductory talk on the work we’d be doing, and the questions the research was attempting to address. Monday morning was the start of our work week. Our time was divided between field work, lab work, and lectures. Every experience offered learning opportunities.

The field work was much more difficult than I expected. There was the dry heat (unusual to me, who has always lived in Michigan’s humid climate), and temperatures in the 90’s every day. There was the altitude: we were living and working in an area that was about 6200 feet above sea level, also totally out of my life-experience thus far. Then, much as I hate to admit it, there was my age. I am twenty-five years older than I was the last time I went on a similar working vacation. Though I was able to do it, and managed to keep up with the others, I sure felt it. I often set it as my personal goal to stay up until 8 o’clock; I was always fast asleep by nine!

Lab days were varied and always interesting. We sorted bags of artifacts brought in from the field. Bits of adobe, non-human bone and corn cob were separated from what would be submerged in a water bath. We washed everything else. We sorted, measured and catalogued pottery sherds. Shells, some types of stone, and red ware pottery all indicated trade. We learned to differentiate between earlier and later pottery styles, and to determine the size of a vessel based on a small fragment. Madeline enjoyed every aspect of the lab work, and excelled at it. I liked it too, but mostly loved seeing her enthusiasm.

Though we worked hard, we also had time for relaxation in the evenings. We had three good meals every day. We made friends. We learned a lot. I had a good time. The best part, though, of the entire week, was listening to Madeline’s fervent and animated discourse as she related her experience to my sister and her husband on the way back from the airport, and later when she told her parents about it. That solidified my belief that this would be a memorable experience for my granddaughter. That was my goal; knowing that it was makes the entire trip more wonderful to me!

Miss Demeanor

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Rosa Parks has been in my home longer than either of my other two dogs. Persistent ear infections have left her partially deaf; fatty tumors under both front legs limit her ability to run. She is blind in one eye. Rosa Parks takes it all in stride. She is confidant of her place in this family, and in my heart. And, for what she lacks in any other department, she makes up for it with attitude.

As a dog owner, it’s easy to become accustomed to blind adoration. Dogs are good at that. Rosa Parks, not so much. While the other two dogs gaze at me adoringly, she’s the one to raise a skeptical eyebrow, or offer only a cynical expression. She loves me, but she holds no misconceptions about me. She may honor me my sharing my seat, or sitting in my lap, but she won’t beg for it. She accepts a treat with a snap of her jaws that says, “about time!”

Likewise, Rosa Parks makes no excuses and feels no shame for her own behavior. Though it only takes a solemn, “This is not good, Darla,” to cause my big dog to hang her head in remorse, Rosa Parks feels no such compunction. In fact, if I’m reading her expressions correctly, she’s got a snappy response for every misdeed.

  • When she has used the laundry room floor as a bathroom: “Well, you were asleep. You don’t expect me to hold it, do ya?”
  • When she snarls and snaps at the veterinarian: “Hey, he was asking for it.”
  • When she digs her teeth into my hand: “You should’ve stayed out of the way; I was aiming for the vet.”
  • When she refuses to come when called: “I never heard a thing.”
  • When she hears the refrigerator door open from three rooms away: “Were you getting something for me? I’m starving!”

When others look at Rosa Parks, they may see a dog that shows some wear. She’s carrying a few extra pounds. She walks a little crookedly, and she has that cloudy eye. In this household, none of that matters a bit. Those of us that live with her can easily tell from her demeanor that Rosa Parks is royalty!