Why I wanted to be Uncle George

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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.

Musicians playing the button box for Uncle George

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.

When I grow up, I want to be Uncle George.

Military honors

Pool and virus

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Pool table in our apartment lobby

This pool table reminds me of my favorite Stephen King novel, The Stand.

The ball on the table hasn’t moved in almost a month.

 Long before any government said we shouldn’t hang out together, our apartment building banned people from its common spaces to stop the spread of the virus. Not that we hung out all that much anyway, but a round of eight ball might ease our boredom in the afternoon.

Here’s why that lonely cue ball reminds me of The Stand.

In the novel the Army sets off a pandemic that kills almost everyone when a bioweapon flu called Captain Trips escapes the lab. One solider panics, escaping as the gates are closing to seal the facility. He carries the virus into the world. That sets up a good guys versus bad guys scenario that is typical of King’s novels.

In an early scene, one of the last people left alive in the Army lab is sitting in his office looking at images on the surveillance cameras of the cafeteria where a man has died face down in his now congealing soup. The flu has stopped normal life and nothing will ever be the same for the novel’s characters.

As we walk across the lobby bridge to head up to our apartment after our daily walk, I always look down at that ball on the pool table. It’s become my congealing bowl of soup.

We’re not in a King novel. There’s no battle between good and evil with the good guy winning in the end. There’s only washing our hands, staying away from other people and waiting it out.

King’s novels always show the resilience of people. We’re experiencing that resilience with neighbors bringing food to neighbors, calling each other and saying Hi to strangers on the street from six feet away. We will get through this without a battle to end our novel. Just diligence. Normal life will return.

By the way, the ball moved last night.

Coronavirus comes to the Hannagans

Tissues in search of a nose

The coronavirus has hit the Hannagans.

I don’t have it. Joe doesn’t have it. No one we know has it.

The little virus causing so much havoc around the world has changed the way I deal with people and the things they touch.

Two weeks ago for the first time I grabbed an antiseptic wipe to wipe off the handle of the grocery cart in the Giant Eagle. I’d always thought people who did that were paranoid or silly. I’ve become one of them.

There were no large bottles of hand sanitizer on the grocery shelves. I bought a half dozen of the little ones you attach to your purse or backpack.

I read a lot of what I call apocalyptic literature where a virus, zombies or political upheaval turns the world upside down and puts us back in the stone age. I know how to prepare for the end of the world as we know it.

Two weeks ago I snuck in extra canned tuna into the grocery cart and told Joe we needed more canned veggies sneaking in those as well. I’m actually stocking up in case we get quarantined.

The following shopping trip Joe admitted that he’d been thinking the same way. We bought more canned veggies, a large bag of rice, noodles and extra spaghetti sauce. I haven’t added extra toilet paper to the list, but I have stocked up on cough syrup, Tylenol and tissues. We’ve made sure we have enough of our medications to last a month.

I stretch my long sleeves to cover my hands when I open doors in public bathrooms. I flush toilets by using my foot to karate kick the button or push the lever. (Don’t laugh, some of you do the same!)

I sing “This Land is Your Land” in my head when I wash my hands for 20 seconds.

This week we started bumping elbows with friends we meet at church.

Then there are the things I’m noticing about others such as how close we stand next to each other and strangers.

Grabbing a chai at Starbucks on the Ohio Turnpike I stood at least 6 feet away from the group ahead of me in line. I watched the barista push her hair off her forehead, scratch her nose and pour the tea into a cup before she handed it to me. The chai wasn’t contaminated, but I wondered what bugs her hands had left on the paper cup.

I’d never thought of that before.

When we arrived at a friend’s home for Sunday dinner, he went in for a big hug. I backed away and offered an elbow. He made a joke about it, then hugged me anyway. I stiffened.

Since Charley’s immune system is already compromised we’re trying to avoid her getting sick, Joe explained.

We’ll we’re not staying 6 feet away from each other, he replied with a laugh. I had already taken a couple of steps back bumping into the couch.

We’re not changing our other routines. I have a movie matinee date with a friend later this week. We’re still volunteering to serve community meals. We have tickets for the Empty Bowls fundraiser for the foodbank next Sunday.

We leave for Florida in our motorhome after my next treatment later this month to visit with friends and family, and do some disaster rebuilding with Nomads there.

I’m not paranoid about a virus, maybe a bit silly.

So, if you’re not my family, don’t expect a big hug when I see you. You’ll get a hearty elbow bump instead.

Feeling grateful

The West Penn Hospital parking bridge is strung with green garland, red bows and lights. It’s cheery.

Joe and I gasped at the same time the first time we saw it.

We cross that bridge …a lot.

West Penn is home to the Mellon Cancer Pavilion and where my cancer doc is located. I have metastatic malignant melanoma. Stage 4 skin cancer. There’s no cure for it.  There’s only keeping it at bay with treatments every 21 days to kick start my immune system.

I haven’t written in a while because I was terrifically depressed.

When I was first diagnosed, every night I lay next to Joe in bed and cried. Sad sobs, telling him I didn’t want to leave him. And how selfish me didn’t want him to be alone, but didn’t want him to take up with another woman either after I died.

(He is a catch. Devoted husband, father and grandfather who has supported me twice through cancer and still brings me tea every morning. I am spoiled.)

The first time I attended church I cried. The lady behind me handed me a pack of tissues during the service. I’m not angry at God or even questioning my condition. I’m just sad that I’m going  through it and sad for losing the life I had planned. Sad for my family.

Friends have sent me wonderful cards and best wishes. It’s nice to know people care.

Over the course of the month, really after my first infusion, my outlook lifted. I feel like something is being done. I have a slight rash, which the doc says occurs 90 percent of the time when the therapy is working.

I’m happier. I look forward to our changed future.

We’re stationary. We live in a one-bedroom apartment in a converted school in Pittsburgh. There’s a pool table in the lobby. Joe keeps making jokes about walking the halls wanting to tell students to get back to class.

The apartment is HUGE compared to the motorhome. One bedroom with big classroom sized windows and a dishwasher.

The future doesn’t include living full time in our motorhome, but we still plan to travel in it between treatments.

We can walk to the grocery, a really good bakery, restaurants, the drugstore, our bank and our church. We’re a mile from our daughter. We saw fireworks from the building’s rooftop on Light Up Night in Pittsburgh.

We’re still volunteering, just not traveling the country to do it. We hooked back up with the church we attended last year and volunteer with their community meals and food pantry. We fold clothes for the clothes closet. We painted the stage ceiling.

I love their vision: Love God, Love People and Do Something About it.

When the homeless shelter on Smithfield Street reopens we will volunteer there again too.

Joe’s back climbing at the rock climbing gym and I’m doing yoga there. We take long walks overlooking Pittsburgh. I plan to run a 5k in the spring.

And in July we’re taking the whole family, eight of us, to Hawaii.

I’ve decided not to put off the things I’ve always wanted to do. If I’m going to have a shorter life span, then I’d better get crackin. There are places to go and people to meet.

In the meantime, I’ll cross the West Penn Hospital parking bridge at least twice a month. I wonder if they decorate it for Easter?

Nikki’s last day

Nikki spent her last day doing the things she loved.

She rolled around on her back on the grass in the sun. She chased balls, chewed on a stick, tried to make a break for it and dug a hole in the soft dirt in North Adams, Mass.,where we are parked for a volunteer project. She sat patiently for biscuits after her walks and begged for pretzels after dinner.

Nikki was 12, or 13, or 14, no one is really sure of her age. She was old for a dog, but her death came suddenly. She died Monday morning with her pack around her on a frantic drive to an emergency vet clinic an hour away.

She joined our pack at 9 months old, when Joe  fell in love with the all black dog with the ice blue eyes staring out at him from a cage in the Auburn animal shelter.

She was striking and people would cross streets to ask the name of her breed. Part lab, part husky, maybe shepherd, but definitely all hound. The kind of dog that wasn’t above nosing through a bit of street trash or rubbing herself in deer scat.

Nikki was a gentle, faithful beast, a coward first class afraid of baby gates, the sound of keys or a newspaper, the stove, thunderstorms, fireworks, lakes, streams and the ocean.

Early on she was an escape artist, well known in the neighborhood for running out of any unlatched door, or when tethered in the backyard pulling on the steel cables so hard she broke them dragging the post behind her as she trotted happily up the street. 

A clever girl, Nikki learned to roll on her back and rub the carabiner hooking her collar to the chain unhooking it to set her free. Once gone, Nikki would reappear two streets away hanging around the porch of a nice Chihuahua who was her friend.

Indoors, Nikki curled up behind Charley’s chair while she worked at home, watching for any movement that would indicate a walk was imminent. She slept on the floor at the foot of the bed, and kept up the practice in the motorhome.

Returning home from work, the pack often found Nikki wearing a guilty look as she slowly slunk off the couch as the car pulled into the driveway.

Nikki became a companion to Rusty and later Pocket, felines who tolerated her presence.

Nikki joined the pack on its adventures in rving enjoying sniffing new places, exploring the beach and mountains and meeting new people. She put up with traveling in the motorhome often trying to fit her 50-pound body onto Charley’s lap when the road was bumpy.

It was obvious this winter that age was beginning to take it’s toll on our Nik.  Her walks were not so far, she tired easily and slept a lot more.

But on her last day, Nikki played with her pack, chasing sticks and balls, and rolling over for a belly rub.

We will miss her.

Travels with Nikki

nick - Copy

When we pull into a new place one of the first things people notice about us is Nikki.

Nikki is our all black dog with sky blue eyes. Little kids ask if she’s a wolf. Adults will cross hot parking lots to ask us about her breed.

That’s easy. Nik is an all-American mutt, part lab, part husky, maybe a little shepherd, and all fraidy cat. She  is a 50-pound lap dog, at least she would be if she could fit on your lap.

We were told she was nine months old when we rescued her from the pound. The trouble is Joe and I can’t agree when that was. Did we get her before 2005 or after? Either way the dog that used to pull my arm out of the socket on walks now is an old lady.

Before we went on the road people asked us if we would travel with our big dog. Of course! We never thought about leaving her behind, even if you have to be careful not to step on her in the middle of the night on the way to the bathroom,

On travel days Nik spends her time trying to crawl up on my lap or sitting on the floor between the two seats. If you drift into the rumble strips, Nik jumps up wanting to know what’s going on. Only wrapping her in a “thunder shirt” calms her down.

Once we park, Nik takes a walk around our new campground checking out the smells. Then she crawls under the motorhome for a nap.

Nik got a full check up before we left on the road. She’s a bit slim and a little gray around the muzzle. All in all, not bad for an old broad.

We were parked in a KOA in Lillian, Alabama on the Gulf Coast last week when we noticed Nikki wasn’t herself. She wasn’t eating or drinking much. She didn’t want to play with a tennis ball. She certainly didn’t want to walk very far and she panted, a lot. Was it the heat? Old age or something more?

The next morning Nik’s back legs wobbled and collapsed as we were encouraging her to drink.

My first thought was heart trouble. This is it we’ll be putting the old girl down soon.

Joe called three local vets before finding one able to see her at the Westside Animal Clinic over the border in Pensacola, Fla.

Our old girl gave a loud yelp when the doc touched her back haunches during the examination.

vet - Copy
Joe and Nikki waiting for the vet.

An x-ray and blood work later, showed that Nik is healthy, better than most dogs her age. But she has arthritis in her back. After a shot and pills for the pain we were on our way.

Nik still doesn’t pull your arm out of the socket on a walk. But, she chases balls again jumping to catch them in midair. If I let her go, the bunnies roaming the grounds of our latest stop in Dunedin, Fla., wouldn’t stand a chance.

Our old companion is feeling much better, and so are we.

 

The episode where we break down

As I write this I’m in a campground in the George Washington Jefferson National Forest in Virginia. Our home is parked in the middle of the Cave Mountain Lake Campground road where it died. repair

 

I keep reminding myself there’s joy in the journey, no matter what.

Originally I was going to write about the wonderful time we had in Pittsburgh. Joe’s veins are fixed and up to date. I had two teeth pulled and my jaw didn’t collapse.

We spent two holidays with my Uncle George and my cousins, which was great. We found a loving church near our apartment and settled in volunteering in Pittsburgh.

Last week Joe drove the motorhome to our Jayco dealer in Buffalo to have some warranty work done. Wednesday we waved goodbye to Western Pa. and headed south to the Virginia mountains.

Over seven hours of driving our rig performed well. There were no traffic tie ups, and except for Nikki, our big black lap spending her entire time shaking and trying to crawl onto my lap, it was an uneventful drive.

We pulled off I-81 and onto some back roads that took us through Buena Vista and headed for the Cave Mountain Lake Campground run by the U.S. Forest Service. The plan was to do a couple of days rustic camping before heading to the Smokies and eventually Baton Rouge where we are scheduled to help rebuild houses that were damaged in a flood.

We pulled into the campground and easily found our site. We were talking about unhooking the Mini Cooper and backing the rig in when Joe put the vehicle in park. Or I should say, he tried to put the vehicle in park.

The gear shift wouldn’t move. Joe shut off the engine. Tried to put it in park again. Now the engine wouldn’t turn on. We were stuck in the middle of the campground’s road.

Oh, and did I mention the mountain campground is rustic with a lovely rushing creek, beautiful trees, birds chirping, and no cell phone service whatsoever?

Lucky for us the camp hosts have a landline, for local calls only.

You may well ask where’s the joy. You’re stuck in a park with a disabled motorhome waiting for a tow that’s going to cost who knows what to take who knows how long to fix whatever.

If we hadn’t been stuck I wouldn’t have spent a wonderful evening chatting with Alison a New Englander who moved to Winchester, Va. , two years ago. She’s trying to understand Southern culture and visiting the parks in her new state. She’s also a mother reveling in her daughter’s college adventures while aching for a stepson who recently died after years of battling a drug addiction.

We wouldn’t have met Joan and her dog Todd, the camp host with a dry sense of humor that let Joe use her landline. I think Joe now owes her three dinners, maybe more, for her kindness.

And we wouldn’t have met Tom and Debbie, two more camp hosts who spent an hour keeping me company while Joe negotiated wreckers and Ford dealers. We spoke about RVs, the granddaughter they’re raised and life in general.

They all brought us joy amid a break in the journey.

As for the rig, well after being stuck almost 24 hours in the middle of the road and multiple phone calls to Ford dealers within a 100 mile radius who wouldn’t repair the engine, Joe finally found someone to tow and fix the rig. But first, the owner suggested he send out a mechanic to see if the problem could be fixed on site.

Roger from Auto Towing & Repair in Lexington showed up about 40 minutes later. He looked under the rig, moved the gears some and then removed the dashboard panel. A cable that connected the gear shift to the transmission had jiggled loose.

Roger reconnected the cable and then put a twist tie around it to keep it from jiggling out again. It was a ten minute repair.

Ten minutes and $120. Joe also gave him a tip.

Roger brought us joy, and a twist tie.

 

 

 

 

 

Merry Christmas, Beloved

VAnce

In the movie The Preacher’s Wife, Courtney B. Vance plays the discouraged Rev. Henry Biggs, who is helped by an angel. At the climax of the movie, the redeemed reverend gives a rousing Christmas sermon that begins with the word “Beloved.”

I love that movie. It contains the handsome Denzel Washington as Dudley the angel and Whitney Houston as the reverend’s wife. The story is as uplifting as the music.

Beloved.

It’s an old-fashioned word that goes beyond the word “love.”

Love gets around. It slips out in place of “goodbye” with a hug, on telephone calls, in emails and cards.

We “love” food and music, books and movies. We “love” people who are fun to be with. We sometimes “love” our work.

Beloved goes beyond that. It’s intimate, more than love.

It’s hugging your daddy, your face pressed against his white t-shirt and smelling cigarette smoke and Vitalis.

It’s the glances exchanged in the car, when you can’t believe this wonderful person is still sitting next to you after 40 years of growing up together.

It’s a grandchild, almost as big as you, crawling up on your lap for a snuggle

And beloved is of God.

The Bible tells us that we are God’s sons and daughters. We are His beloved. That most intimate of loves.

In his movie sermon, the Rev. Biggs says to look at face of someone you love is to see the face of God.

I see you.

Merry Christmas, Beloved.

 

 

We’re grounded

20181217_101051That’s right.

Joe and I will be spending our winter in Pittsburgh. Not a bad place to be, but not the sunny Texas gulf shores we had planned on.

Here’s how we got here.

After being on his feet for more than 30 years are as a retail manager and then a teacher, Joe has varicose veins.  This fall they started acting up while we were on the beach in North Carolina. He went to a doc in the box who recommended he visit a vein clinic.

He put it off. We were already scheduled to spend three weeks in Pittsburgh around the holidays where we had doctor appointments scheduled.

The doc at the Pittsburgh vein clinic evaluated Joe’s legs and recommended an out patient procedure. He could do it and Joe would be good to go in a week. But, that old ugly insurance raised its head.

The insurance company wants Joe to wear compression stockings for 12 weeks before it will even consider the surgery.  And the doc said the clotting in Joe’s legs is so severe he doesn’t want him to drive long hours.

That means we’re grounded, in a campground, in Pennsylvania, in the winter.

motorhome

We could skirt the camper with sliver insulating panels and buy lots of propane. I could wrap my self in throws and sit in the dark with the shades pulled to keep warm.

I mean, we could do it. But I wouldn’t be happy.

Joe’s mantra has always been “Happy wife, happy life.”

So we began looking for a short-term rental apartment, an expensive proposition. We found one in the city, near a park and children’s museum. It had a gym and  dog park. It would even take Nikki and Pocket, for a fee.

We put down a deposit and paid an application fee. Then the nice young rental agent wanted a picture of the dog, for the insurance company. The complex restricts dogs. They don’t accept “lock jaw dogs,” like pitbulls.

Nikki is a lab mix rescued from the pound. She has blue eyes, which makes us think she has some husky in her. She’s also 13 years old, sleeps a lot and is such a scaredy cat she runs when you jangle your keys.

nikki

 

The insurance company wanted us to guarantee her breed. There was a lot of faxing and phone calls back and forth with the vet. Bottom line, no one can tell you what the mix is and we’re out of an apartment.

Plan B.

Luckily, my son-in-law is part of a co-working space co-op called Work Hard Pittsburgh, which has an apartment above its space. The tenant is scheduled to move out Jan. 1. The co-op has kindly allowed us to rent the apartment for a short time and they don’t care what kind of dog we have.

work-hard-pittsburgh-logo-500

We’re three minutes away from my daughter, who has gym equipment and a washer- dryer in her house. There’s a park near by. And my cousins have graciously said they will allow us to park the motor home on their horse farm.

So, Jan. 1 we move in above an old hardware store. We’re reliving college. We don’t have a bed, a couch, a table or a lamp. We’re buying a futon and borrowing the rest.

We’ll be warm and close to family. If you have to be grounded, there’s no place I’d rather be than Pittsburgh.

Happy wife, happy life.

 

 

 

Nobody wants your junk

This is Harvey.

Harvey

He has guarded my box garden for years, through bunny invasions, liquid summers and pesky deer.

I’ve liked Harvey ever since I saw him in the Walmart garden center. I’m always happy to see him when I’m checking on the tomatoes. He hides behind them when the plants are full of leaves.

But we’re moving into a 32-foot motor home and Harvey, and all the other little things I’ve collected over the years won’t fit. They have to go.

The teapots I got as Christmas presents, the antique furniture, the books I had to have hard copies of, the fancy Christmas dishes and the Pampered Chef I bought out of guilt at my girlfriends’ parties, all has to go.

Here’s a hard truth. No one wants your crap.

In some countries it’s considered rude to die and leave your junk around for other people to ditch. Old people get rid of stuff before they die. In Sweden it’s called “death cleaning.”

So far, my daughters have passed on taking my childhood solid maple bedroom furniture, the child’s rocker Aunt Frankie gave me, the tea cups collected by my grandmother, the baseball signed by the Pirates who won the 1960 World Series.

They either don’t want the stuff because it’s not their style or they don’t have room to store it. They have their own junk.

A friend advised calling an auctioneer to sell the stuff off.

On the phone the auctioneer said he would be happy to come over to see what we had. When he came over he barely glanced at our stuff before trying to get us to sell the house through an auction, where we would pay for all the advertising up front and he would take a cut of the proceeds.

We said no thanks. We just want you to auction off our junk. He told us he couldn’t sell our stuff. There wasn’t enough of it to make it worth his while. I guess we should have been hoarders. Then he told a racist joke and left.

I’ve found homes for some things.

One daughter took her grandmother’s pedal sewing machine. I donated two other electric sewing machines. Another person has said she’ll take the piano for her church youth center.

And the rest of the stuff is gradually going to our local Rescue Mission. Maybe they’ll make some money off my junk.

What I’m finding is that I can do without. I don’t need fancy Christmas dishes to enjoy the holiday with my family. I don’t need heavy Pampered Chef cookware to make a meal. And I don’t need a blanket from World War II just because my mom got it as a wedding present.

So I’m saying goodbye to things including Harvey.

I ‘ll miss ya Harve. But I’m sure someone will pick you off the Rescue Mission shelf and put you in their garden. The tomatoes should be good this year.