One of the things that happens when you travel in retirement is you see a lot of the big sites first. Places you’ve dreamed about. Sunrise on Cadillac Mountain in Acadia, elk in the Smoky Mountains, petroglyphs on an archway in the Grand Canyon and booming Old Faithful in Yellowstone.
Once you’ve hit those things you move on to smaller sites. Astronaut Gus Grissom’s museum in his hometown of Mitchell, Indiana, the Museum of the Gilding Arts in Pontiac, Illinois or Charleston, South Carolina.
Often you find the best surprises in those little places, like Kevin Costner in Hyman’s Seafood in Charleston.
We stopped at Charleston last week on the way down to a mission project in Florida. It’s a nice spot to spend a couple of days off the road.
I didn’t know much about Charleston.
I knew it has a big port that has been vital to the country since Colonial times. Francis Marion, AKA the Swamp Fox played by Mel Gibson in The Patriot, is from that area. Fort Sumter is there.
What I didn’t know was it was a large slavery center, that abolitionist icons the Grimke sisters were born there. Or that I could create my own perfume at a fancy shop or buy a puzzle box in a four block-long Charleston City Market.
Charleston’s tourist area isn’t that big. We opted not to pay for a tour, and instead chose to walk around on a cold January weekend with the air smelling like newly sharpened pencils.
I was fascinated with the porches with hardwood doors. It seemed odd, front doors opening to front doors.
Back in the main tourist area I spotted Hyman’s. People were outside waiting for a table in the old dry goods store that is now a restaurant serving seafood and kosher meals. Anytime the locals are waiting for food you know it’s going to be good,
Sitting on a joggling board and eating hush puppies, we waited 20 minutes for our turn inside.
“Table 31,” said the hostess after our name was called. “Follow the carpet upstairs to the second floor.”
Another hostess upstairs led us through the crowded room to a small wooden table by the window. The table had little plaques on it. Kevin Costner read one. Tara Lapinski another. Kyle Busch. Looking around, I could see the little labels on all of the tables.
Looking up, the walls held white plates that appeared to be signed by other famous people. I squinted to see better: Mel Gibson signed one, so did a member of the band Imagine Dragons.
Had Kevin Costner really sat at this table, I asked the server.
“That’s what they say,” she said. “I don’t know. I’ve only been here a year.”
We ordered generous shrimp and crab dinners allowing ourselves to dream that we were eating with Kevin Costner.
Last year was a hell of a ride. I started off in the hospital for my birthday in January, took a family trip to Hawaii in July and welcomed a beautiful new granddaughter in September. Serafean brings the number of grub grabbers in our family to three.
Our health is good.
I’m writing this from Charleston, South Carolina, the first stop on a work trip for Methodist NOMADS in Florida and Louisiana. We’re repairing a church in Florida before heading to Louisiana to repair homes damaged by hurricanes. By the way, we’ve been told the houses we’ll be working on in Grand Isle, Louisiana are perched on 14-foot- high stilts.
Of course, we’re stopping along the way to sightsee, repair flat tires, plug leaks, meet great people and eat wonderful stuff.
We’ll head back to Pittsburgh in March for doctor appointments before heading out in May for another project in Rhode Island. Back to Pittsburgh for the summer and then out again on projects in New York and North Carolina in the fall.
Expect to see more posts on the places we go, and lots of updates on our motorhome. (We’ve made a few changes as you’ll soon see.)
We’ve been handing out meals to the homeless in Pittsburgh for more than a year now and today was my hardest day yet.
I can’t stop thinking about four women I met today.
Elizabeth was at a busy intersection by the West End Bridge. The folded cardboard sign begging for money couldn’t hide her big pregnant belly. Neither could the green tank top or the unbuttoned, unzipped jeans open to accommodate a growing baby.
How are you? I asked as myself and a group of college kids on a mission trip from Tennessee handed her two bag lunches.
“Not so good,” she replied. “I’m having cramps. I’m due in a week.”
I offered to drive her to a hospital to be checked out. She declined. “I’m not in the mood to have this baby today,” she said.
We talked a little longer. Can I get you clothes? Anything for the baby?
She politely declined.
I offered again to drive her to a hospital, or anywhere. Again she declined. “They won’t take you anyway unless you’re five or six” centimeters, she said.
Can we pray with you? Sure, she said, but can we move further down?
She lead us down the sidewalk one hand planted on the concrete bridge abutment to hold herself up. It was clear Elizabeth was in pain, and it was also clear she was politely trying to get us to leave so she could get back to the business of collecting money from drivers stopped at the light.
We prayed with her and offered, yet again, to take her to the hospital.
She declined again before turning with her sign to face traffic.
Handing out lunches earlier in the morning we ran into Gretta, Helen and Samantha in the little park next to the Mount Washington fire station.
One of the park regulars, a big gray haired man named D, had a mental breakdown scaring Gretta his girlfriend of 20 years, threatening violence and throwing stuff into the street.
Gretta called the authorities. “He’s been 302’d,” she said.
Where is he? I asked.
“He’s in Western Psych!” Gretta shook her head in wonder that I didn’t know what a “302” was.
She called on two women on a nearby bench to confirm D’s crazy behavior.
Helen and Samantha, a mother and her daughter, slept on Gretta’s floor the previous night and witnessed the drama first hand.
They are newly homeless.
Helen’s boyfriend kicked her and Samantha out of his apartment. Everything they had is there. The women look shell shocked. They don’t know where they will sleep tonight, or what to do about it.
Helen has a shiner by her right eye that she’s unsuccessfully trying to hide with make up. Samantha’s front teeth are broken.
As we talk on the park bench, Samantha says she’s an addict. She started with alcohol, then uppers and now she’s smoking cocaine and doing heroin, she said.
Right now, however, she and Helen could use some clothes.
I tell them to meet me at 1:30 p.m. at the Send Relief Center’s clothing closet in the basement of Vintage Church on Bailey Avenue.
They show up on time. The women pick out a coat, shoes, pants and shirts. Samantha goes to the ladies room to put on her new clothes.
Helen’s story spills out in sorrow as we sit on an old church pew waiting for Samantha to dress.
Helen is an alcoholic. She’s been to rehab before, and at one point was successful enough that she had a job and an apartment.
But it didn’t last. Even the smell of hand sanitizer at the hospital where she worked would bring on the alcohol cravings, she said.
She hooked up with the boyfriend who goes to work and comes home to drink beer all night. “Isn’t that alcoholism?” she asks.
Helen said she knows she sabotages herself. The last time she lost sobriety she stopped returning her sponsor’s calls, stopped going to meetings.
She’s ready to return to rehab, she said. And she worries about her daughter who’s into stronger drugs.
Do you have somewhere to sleep tonight? I ask.
No one wants to go back to Gretta’s. So I show Helen how to use the Bigburgh app which shows all the homeless shelters in the city.
Samantha comes out of the bathroom styling black Hollister leggings that still had the tags on them when they were donated, new black Converse and a camouflage sweatshirt. The women gather up their bags of clothes and backpacks filled with food.
What about you? I ask Samantha. You going to rehab?
“I’m not there yet,” she replied.
I escort mother and daughter through the dark church, opening the door to the street.
Even though I’ve shown them how to find housing, I watch them walk away knowing they have nowhere to sleep tonight.
My heart aches for Elizabeth and her baby, for Gretta and Helen and Samantha.
Two years ago an oncologist told me I had stage 4 melanoma and it appeared our traveling days, and indeed life as I know it, was at an end.
“And now I get to deliver the bad news,” said Kendra, the nurse practitioner as she led me back to the treatment center where I would spend an hour every three weeks getting a dose of immune therapy to rev up my immune system to attack cancer cells. “There’s no cure. You’ll have treatment for the rest of your life.”
Well, maybe not.
The full body scans I get every three months have shown near constant improvement. I don’t have new spots, some spots are gone and others have shrunk. The most I’d hoped for was to be able to stretch out my treatments to every six weeks.
On Thursday, Dr. Hashem Younes, always a chipper guy even when I’m sobbing in self pity in his office, said my last scan results were “awesome.”
He wants to see another scan and then, maybe, I can go off Keytruda. Sometimes the revved up immune system keeps working, he said.
That means no more scheduling life around treatments every three weeks.
They laid my Uncle George to rest today with full military honors and a button box band.
It’s the way he would have wanted it.
I’ve often told people I wanted to grow up to be Uncle George.
George Unger met Ellen Stevick, my dad’s youngest sister, at a wedding. That night he told his mom she was the girl he was going to marry. They were married for 46 years and had four children.
I knew Uncle George the best out of all my Stevick aunts and uncles, probably because he was around the longest. The Stevicks were a large family of four boys and three girls who all died relatively young, many before retirement age. George outlived them all enjoying life more each year.
My first memory of Uncle George was when I was 12. I spent a week at his house visiting my cousin Joy. Joy and I are a month apart in age. We laugh at the same things. She gets my jokes. My husband says we’re each one half of the same brain.
That week Uncle George had a glass of wine with dinner. I thought it was the most sophisticated thing I’d ever seen. When my dad wanted a beer he went to the Churchill Valley Lounge.
While other couples bounced their way though polkas at family weddings, George and Ellen were elegant dancers, a polka Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. After she died in 1997, he held a picnic every year to celebrate her life.
Uncle George owned a vending machine business in the 1960s at first using his Volkswagen Beetle for deliveries. By the 1970s, he was also selling recreational vehicles.
He was the first person I ever saw using a Blackberry long before I stood next to Hillary Clinton’s aides tapping away on them during a rally in Central New York.
I never discussed politics with Uncle George. He certainly knew where I stood, however, and on my birthday he handed me a $3 bill with Hillary’s picture on it. Cracked me up!
George owned a Cadillac and a Smart Car. He fell in love with motor scooters, driving his kids to distraction whenever they learned where he had been on his rides. He bought his last one about two years ago to celebrate a good medical report.
He baked bread and made his own wine, freely giving both away.
George played the button box accordion practicing at all hours, holding jam sessions with his buddies in the barn and playing polka masses.
The Ungers always had a dog around the house, a series of collies or golden retrievers who greeted you as you got out of the car. The last was Lucy, a golden doodle who bounded after Uncle George when he drove his Gator, robe flapping in the wind, up the steep driveway to get the morning paper.
In January, Uncle George turned 89. He had slowed down. Cancer gnawed his bones. His ribs cracked. It hurt to breathe. He went to the hospital.
A couple weeks ago, Uncle George returned home. His children, Kevin, Joy, Jill and Heidi, and the grandchildren took turns watching over him. Lucy stayed by his side.
At about dawn on May 6, he died.
Today my Uncle George was buried in the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies. He picked a plot there because he told me he liked the view. There were full military honors, with a gun salute.
Oh, and a button band played at the funeral home before the service.
There’s something oddly missing in the area where tornadoes six months apart in 2019 and 2020 touched down damaging hundreds of homes in Mississippi.
There are no FEMA trailers. You know those ubiquitous small gray trailers that pop up after natural disasters.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency opted not to provide trailers for people whose homes were damaged by the storms, Robby Lawson, the construction manager for Restore Jones County explained to us one day during a break from painting walls at The Glory House in Laurel, Mississippi.
Due to Covid, FEMA opted to have drones flyover homes to determine tornado damage. That means no FEMA inspector ever entered the houses to see the inside damage, like waterlogged walls, thus the cost of those repairs didn’t figure in FEMA’s calculations, he said.
The overall damage to the homes here didn’t meet FEMA’s cost threshold for providing trailers, Robby told us.
So instead, a year after the last big storm, we saw some families living in small camping trailers parked on land still strewn with storm debris.
We volunteer for NOMADS, a Methodist group. The official name is Nomads on a Mission Active in Divine Service. The joke is the acronym really means Nice Old Methodists Avoiding Deep Snow.
NOMADS travel from project to project in their RVs, spending one to three weeks, repairing homes after disasters or fixing up churches or camps.
Right now our RV is parked in the parking lot of the former Mississippi Baptist Bible Institute in Laurel, Jones County, Mississippi. We’re repairing homes damaged by the tornadoes.
As always here’s a deeper story here than me and Joe painting a few walls and ceilings.
This is rural Mississippi, the Pine Belt. At one point Midwestern lumber barons discovered the piney woods here. They moved to Laurel, building big houses.
Laurel was the yellow pine lumber capitol of the United States, but that was around a century ago. Now there is a big chicken processing company, a few other manufacturers and little else.
Jones county is home to about 68,000 people. Some 20 percent of them live below the poverty line and the median family income is $34,000. The median household income for the rest of the U.S. is $68,000.
The biggest attractions here are Erin and Ben Napier, the hosts of Home Town. The HGTV show follows Ben and Erin as they rehab historic homes, cute cottages and bungalows in this small Southern town.
The tourists Home Town attracts drive slowly through Laurel’s historic area looking at the houses. The women buy candles or Erin’s signature headbands at her Laurel Mercantile Shop. Men slip over to the Scotsman General Store and Woodshop to pay $53 for an heirloom hammer like the one Ben uses.
The tourists line up to eat at Pearl’s and the Bird Dog Café and then stand at the end of the couple’s driveway to catch a glimpse of Home Town celebrity.
Few of tourists pass by The Glory House, the 104 year-old house that served as a pilot to interest HGTV in Ben and Erin’s show. The Glory house was founded by Hope and Grant Staples.
The house is the headquarters for the Staples’ ministry of serving the community that includes a food bank, a Sunday worship service, children’s camps and community meals that regularly serve 400 neighbors in the park across the street from the house.
When the tornadoes struck, the team at Glory House swung into action. They set up six disaster centers over three counties coordinating with churches to offer meals, clothing, furniture, food and cleaning supplies to those who needed it.
In those first days Glory House served 26,000 meals to disaster victims, volunteers clearing debris and workers repairing the electrical lines. Hope and Grant coordinated with churches and restaurants every night to deliver hot meals to victims scattered among local hotels.
Then Jones County asked the Staples to step out to meet an even greater need. Could they coordinate the long-term rebuilding and repair of damaged homes here?
The couple prayed about it for a week before agreeing to create Restore Jones County. That’s the group Joe and I are working for.
Many homeowners had little or no insurance when the storms hit in 2019 and 2020. FEMA and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency haven’t offered homeowners much cash either, Robby explained.
So there’s little money or manpower to rebuild damaged homes.
Restore is meant to fill that gap.
NOMADS and the Mennonite Disaster Service are providing teams of free labor to repair or rebuild homes from the ground up. Restore uses donations to buy materials.
The materials aren’t cheap.
There’s the price hikes you pay whenever there’s a natural disaster. The cost of hiring roofers has skyrocketed, for example.
There’s a shingles shortage. The cost of lumber has tripled. You can’t get a variety of plastic electrical boxes. (We don’t know if that last one is disaster, Covid or Chinese tariff related.)
In the last 10 months Restore has raised $200,000 to pay for materials. That falls far short of what’s needed.
Hope estimates Restore needs $500,000 to build just six houses from the ground up. That doesn’t include the money needed to replace water damaged ceilings and floors, for example, in the homes that are still standing.
So while people from California are buying up cute homes in Laurel with the hope of being on Ben and Erin’s show and tourists pour into the block-square downtown to buy antiques, there are people in Jones County living in camping trailers parked on property strewn with tornado debris.
He’s the watchdog at The Glory House a non-profit in Laurel, Miss. We’ve been painting a room in this wonderful old home that houses volunteers as they rebuild homes here that were damaged by two tornados in 2019 and 2020.
Technically Porter isn’t allowed in the house. But he spent the day laying on the brick floor while we moved ladders and drop cloths around him. During breaks he dropped his balls at our feet looking for a playmate.
It’s been 18 months since Joe and I have been on the road volunteering for NOMADS, a Methodist mission group for Rvers. We had planned to be galivanting from project to project around the country in our retirement. But, well, life got in the way.
I was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma in October 2019. I have treatments every three weeks, which keeps me close to my doctors in Pittsburgh. Then just when we thought we could do some traveling again the Covid pandemic hit shutting everything down.
It’s not like we sat on our hands in Pittsburgh. We kept busy volunteering at the SEND Relief Center at our church, helping in the clothing closet and with Grow Living Stones serving meals to our less fortunate neighbors.
On Mondays you’ll see our little red Mini zipping through the South Side and Downtown where we give out lunches to homeless people.
So here we are. The immune therapy is working. The tumors are shrinking. We’ve gotten all our shots. And we’re back on the road.
Our first project is in Laurel, where the program “Home Town” is filmed. We’ll spend two weeks working on houses here before returning to Pittsburgh for treatment.
For now it’s good to be back in our house on the road.
I had intended to write a post about a little community park we found in Erie, Pa., but instead I’m writing about gym class.
This morning I watched my granddaughter do gym online. She didn’t move for 45 minutes.
Grace goes back to full-time, in-person school next week. She can’t wait to see her friends and get back to some semblance of normal. I can’t either.
Joe and I are back living in her family’s basement for the week. We’re supervising Grace and Charles as they attend class online. Charles doesn’t go back until Nov. 16, just in time for the Thanksgiving break.
This morning Grace sits on a chair pulled to the kitchen table. She sits like a frog with her knees up by her ears. She’s early for online class. There’s a note from her teacher. She’s going to be late. The younger students are already in school and she’s supervising the morning arrival chaos.
Ten minutes later the teacher shows up online. The class does the Pledge of Allegiance. The teacher begins reminding students when they need to be online when Grace’s computer decides to update. Five minutes later she was back online, having missed some announcements.
Now it’s time for a “special,” gym.
Up front let me say I have a lot of respect for teachers, including gym teachers who get a bad rap. I know in your mind you hear a big “but” coming. Here it is.
This teacher took 20 minutes to get a video about soccer skills online. She explained that she was on a different computer. She works in different buildings and for some reason the computer in this building wasn’t working with her video.
Grace played with her hair.
Finally catchy music started. The video glitched. The kids offered ways to fix it. I glanced over Grace’s shoulder at the screen showing a ball between two feet. It was a demonstration of soccer footwork.
Teaching soccer, online.
When the video finished the teacher suggested students practice their footwork, in the house. Those of you who know how can juggle the ball practice your skills, she suggested. Or you can turn a laundry basket on its side and shoot balls into it.
Of course you need your parents’ permission, she added.
I heard a chorus of mothers’ voices in my head: “Don’t play ball in the house!”
If you want you can go down to the basement, or go outside to practice, the teacher suggested. The kids point out it’s 30 degrees outside this morning.
Grace doesn’t have a soccer ball. She doesn’t play soccer and neither does her brother. She sat watching as the one or two students already on teams practice.
The teacher, meanwhile ate an Egg McMuffin, drank coffee, munched a donut and had a sports drink, according to Joe who was watching the screen.
This a teacher Grace likes. I don’t want her not to like her.
I have a very readable face, which I’m trying to keep neutral. Inside I’m thinking how unprofessional. This isn’t teaching the kids anything about exercising or being healthy.
Grace tells me that last year when they had class the teacher often drank coffee and talked with other teachers while the students were doing drills or exercising. Teachers go to work early and they have to eat breakfast at school, she says.
The teacher plays another video. This time the kids are supposed to exercise. Some kids do planks, some do jumping jacks. I suggest Grace exercise. No one else is exercising, she says continuing to play with her hair.
The video ends. We’re going to be together for class next week, the teacher says. We’ll have to be socially distanced. What activities would you like to do, she asks.
The kids suggest they have a shoot out or play games with balls or hula hoops. They could bring in their own equipment to be safe, they tell the teacher.
The teacher puts the kibosh on that. I don’t think the principal will allow you to bring your own equipment. We can’t use the school’s equipment because I’d have to disinfect it between each class, she says.
Joe, Grace and I look at each other.
Why can’t she give the students spray bottles filled with disinfectant and have them wipe down the equipment, Grace asks us. We saw some bottles at Lowe’s for $1 a piece, she says.
The class ends. Grace has a break between classes.
She puts on her jacket and heads out to her swing. She’s out in the fresh air pumping her legs for 20 minutes before returning to the computer for class.
Later today we’ll probably ride bikes to the school playground. Grace will climb the wrong way up the slides. She’ll scamper up the climbing wall and hang on the monkey bars.
As a reporter with more than 35 years of experience covering elections for newspapers large and small in New York and Pennsylvania, I have one word for President Donald J. Trump’s assertions that elections are rigged: Bullshit.
I’ve covered village elections in a rural New York county where only 13 people showed up to vote for trustee. If voter fraud was going to take place it would have happened there because no one was paying attention. It didn’t.
In my first election as a reporter in the stone age before computers, I drove door to door to schools and churches in suburban Philadelphia with a flashlight in one hand and a notebook and pen in the other copying down final vote tallies posted on polling places. At the time papers had to tally the votes themselves in order to find out who won.
(I talked my way out of trouble that night when a curious cop shined his big flashlight on me copying the vote totals off a door at an elementary school in Lansdale, Pa. )
The next year I watched election officials from across the Montgomery County race up the courthouse steps in Norristown to get the counted ballots to the election bureau as quickly as they could. Plenty of opportunity for votes to get lost on the ride in. They didn’t.
Election officials, regardless of party affiliation, are a pretty straight bunch. At the polls, they’re the grandmothers you see year-after-year, at least one Republican and one Democrat. They hand out the ballots, answer any questions and generally point you in the direction of the elementary school bake sale fundraiser to hit on the way out after voting.
It’s your friends and neighbors who count the votes at polling places.
The results are sent to counties, who in turn send them to the state. The winners are unofficial until the official count is done, usually a week later.
Trump and his cronies would have you believe that mail-in ballots will be a problem.
Election boards across the country are about to be deluged with absentee ballots. Many of those ballots will be posted by first time absentee voters, like me, who don’t want to stand in line with strangers during a pandemic.
I got my mail-in ballot three days ago. I’ll be very careful in filling it out. I plan to drop it off at the official ballot box at the Allegheny County board of elections well before any deadlines. And I know it will be counted.
The reason our election system works so well is because we trust our neighbors, our friends, to do the right thing and count our ballots correctly.
Trump doesn’t trust anyone. And he doesn’t want you to trust anyone either.
I’m sitting at my daughter’s kitchen table as I write this.
Nine-year-old Gracie is typing on a computer with one finger. Her school district is not doing in-person instruction, although it is doing in-person football. Her mom and dad both work outside the home. Gracie and her brother have been doing online classes, at home, alone.
We’re here to provide support for the kids and comfort to the parents that their children are learning.
It’s Monday morning and Grace is sitting in a red t-shirt from the church Christmas play and pink flannel pajamas. Her legs are scrunched up like a frog’s in the chair. She’s one-finger typing a piece of fiction. It’s a writing assessment. She was supposed to have it done last week. Her first online meeting with her fourth grade teacher is 11 a.m.
Grace has an hour to get this done. In this she’s like her grammy. I can’t do anything unless I’m under a deadline.
Grace stops typing to pick a loose piece of skin off her finger.
I tell her she’s procrastinating. Teacher Joe gently tells her to get back to work.
She types a little, stops to ask how to spell some words and then we drift off into a discussion of when the wheel was invented.
I tell her she’s procrastinating. Joe gently gets her back to work. Click, click, click.
“What did they have at the cider mill back then?” she asks out of nowhere. Apparently the story takes place at a cider mill in 1914. There’s more discussion.
She’s procrastinating, again. Joe nudges her back to work. Click, click, click.
The typing stops. Grace points to the small chalkboard on the wall behind the kitchen table. “Mom never fixed that,” she says of the outdated menu.
Joe encourages her to go back to work. Click, click, click.
Joe goes into the living room to read the morning papers on his computer. He gets up after two minutes, wanders into the kitchen, and surreptitiously looks over Grace’s shoulder.
He wanders into Charles’ room. The 11-year-old middle schooler had to be online for Spanish class at 7:50 this morning. At one point Charles has turned his computer screen to the ceiling. He is lying on his bed with his eyes closed listening to his teacher.
Joe nudges him out of bed and back in front of the computer.
Class is over and Charles announces he does not need to be online again until 9:30. He wants to play with the dog. Joe tells Charles he’ll take care of Ringer, and to go back to work.
Joe is outside and I can hear Charles stretching and moaning. He’s begun to work on another project and has five minutes before his next online class.
Grace finishes her story. She copies her work and sends it to her teacher.
She moves on to math work that should have been done Friday. There’s a lot of complaining about rounding numbers and the number of problems that must be done. I’m no help. I don’t know how to patiently explain rounding numbers. Joe and the bouncy dog come back in.
We’re all talking at once. I tell Joe to help Grace. Grace is complaining. Joe is explaining rounding. The dog is barking.
It’s 9:30. Charles comes out of his room and warns us to be quiet. He’s in class.