Sunday, September 25, 2011

Old Age

I guess is should be no surprise that the older one gets, the older “old age” becomes. At 65, I don’t feel much different that I felt at age 25. For me, “old” starts to kick in at about 80, or maybe even 85 or 90.

When I was a kid, “old” people were easy to spot. The ladies had lavender hair and wore housedresses as home and shirtwaist dresses for shopping, and when they got dressed up they wore suits, hats and gloves. The men were bald and gray-headed and wore khakis for casual and pin-stripes for dress-up.

When I was middle-aged, “old” ladies had unnatural colored hair and wore polyester pants with elastic waist bands; when they got dressed up they wore sequins and high heel shoes. The men wore polyester and white shoes and let their gray hair grow longer.
Now “old” women dress pretty much the same way I do. The color for slacks is black and tops can be bright colored or patterned in distinction prints. Shoes are black and low-heeled. Gray hair is in, as is dyed hair, provided it looks natural. Old men wear khaki slacks and sport shirts- - a throwback to their 50s counterparts.

I realize that I am now Medicare eligible and quickly approaching Social Security age. My will is made, as is my living will and durable power of attorney. I have written “When I die” instructions to my family, and I have good life insurance in place. My organ donor box is checked. So, I at one level, I am “good to go.” I have done what I must do to deal with the inevitable.

But the reality is, I am not ready to go yet. In fact, I would like to live another 30 years – that is not that long after all. But that would make me 95, and most people don’t live that long – most especially overweight people with a family history of heart disease.

I know that I am well over the age where I could go live in a retirement community. I never have been much of one for organized activities, and I don’t think that will change at some magical point in my life. I hated that kind of stuff in kindergarten and I still hate it today. No thanks, I will stay where I am – aging place as they call it. If the time ever comes when I can’t live on my own, I am fine with assisted living. If I can’t take care of myself, I guess I won’t be fit enough to participate in those dreaded group activities either.

I have a hard time envisioning my own death. There is a part of me that somehow thinks that I will be one person who will beat this whole death thing and maintain the status quo forever. The days keep going by, day after day and I keep waking up each morning.

There will be a day when everything changes. Maybe I will be in an accident or go the doctor and get some horrible diagnosis or maybe be the victim of some criminal. Or maybe I will just die without warning (my preference.

But for today, that is all someday far away. I can’t think about death for very long, for I have to focus on living. I just hope that when the day comes that my affairs will be in good order and I will not have left a big mess for others to clean up. I also hope I will have accomplished a few things that will outlive me and that I have given my son and his family some valuable insights. I hope I will have solved more problems that I have created and that I have helped make some happy memories for someone else.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


I learned to tell time by the clock in the kitchen, and since that day my life my days are forever measured. There are set times for eating and for sleeping, and all the other things that punctuate my life; there are appointments and conference calls, meetings and TV shows. I am always racing the clock and traffic to be where I am supposed to be. I guess that is how it is for everyone.

Before I could tell time, I lived in the moment and I just “was.” There was day and there was night. There was “before”, “now” and “later” --- amorphous terms for existence. The adults were in charge and they talked about “o-clock” with a certain reverence.

When I cracked the code, with a little help from my grandmother and mother, time was no longer a mystery; it was for real and it mattered. The patterns of my life and my family’s life started to make sense. Daddy went to work at 8 and came home at 6; we ate lunch at noon. When I was six and went to school, it started at 8:30 and ended at 3:00. My life started to have its own independent rhythm.

I only recall that clock in the kitchen with its electric cord tail, but the adults all had watches that they wound up every day. Having a watch seemed to be something that came with maturity and responsibility.

When I was about six, my uncle sent my grandmother a fancy clock from Germany. It was called an “anniversary clock” – I have no idea why! It was gold and you could see all the gears turning around in it and the whole thing was covered by a glass dome. It sat proudly on the mantel for years. Not too long ago, I went to the local thrift shop to drop off some donations and there were six “anniversary clocks” all lined up in a row – all selling for $30 each. So much for the fragile treasures of another generation.

My mother got a clock-radio when I was about 8. It was dark brown plastic and the hands glowed in the dark. At night, she would listen to a local phone-in radio show called “The People Speak,” hosted by a fellow named Dave Campbell. I would lie in bed with her until the radio turned off automatically.

My grandmother had an electric clock next to her bed. It was a gift from my uncle; perhaps a BX purchase. It was round and was designed to look like a ship’s wheel. The adults said that the clock stopped when my grandmother died in 1957. My grandfather took that same clock with him to the nursing home and it sat next to his bed. When he died in 1961, that clock stopped again. I am not sure what happened to that clock and its magical properties.

I got my own clock radio in 1958 when we moved to the new house. It was white plastic and never seemed as sturdy as my mother’s, but it was MINE. It told time, but it also played music. I could play rock and roll music on it late at night if I kept the volume really low!

At about age 13 I was given a watch. It had a cloth band and you had to wind it. The business of being an adult had a downside. Remembering to wind a watch was not high on my list of fun things to do, though it only took a few minutes.

When I was ready to leave for college, I was given an electric alarm clock. My mother would not be there to wake me up to go to class. It was plastic and it was inexpensive, but it did the trick. We still have it. It is next to the bed our granddaughter sleeps in when she comes to visit. She has no idea that it was bought in 1964 and what a leap forward in independence it represented.

When we got married in 1969, our fanciest wedding gift came from my father-in-law. He was a clock lover, so he gave us the most impressive clock he could find – an Atmos LeCoultre mantel clock. It still sits on our mantel today. What is special about this clock is that it tells time using barometric pressure; it never needs winding. About once every 10 years it needs maintenance and we have to seek out an expert to repair it.

1969 was also the year of the battery operated wall clock, and we got two of them as wedding presents. One had a sunburst pattern with strips of wood, alternating with metal rods with balls on the end. It was iconic, but seemed to fit with our avocado and harvest gold world.

Most of my adult life I have had battery operated analog watches. The downside, of course, is that you have no idea when your watch battery is going to go. Suddenly time just stands still. It happened to me the other day. My watch stopped at 11:30 and I had to be at a meeting at noon. I was almost late. Fortunately, I was able to quickly get a new battery from a local jeweler for a mere $7.95.

My husband wants to know EXACTLY what time it is. As you might expect, he has an atomic digital watch that resets itself if pointed to Colorado. For me that seems excessive and obsessive, but he is definitely the person to ask if you want to know what time is really is.

I am reminded of the time my husband, son and I went to the Greenwich observatory. We arrived in the late afternoon and if one hurried there was just time before closing to climb a tower. I generally have no interest in climbing towers of any kind, and most especially towers without elevators. So instead of climbing the tower I waited outside and paced along a white line that was painted in the sidewalk. There was a big clock there, so I took the opportunity to set my watch. My husband has always chuckled about my response to “what did you do while we were gone?” It was simply – “I set my watch.” For that one brief moment in time my watch was right!

Today, we are surrounded by clocks, including the ubiquitous digital clocks that require cracking a code to reset. My phone knows what time it is all over the world. My computer also seems to know and they both say it is 9:24 a.m. – no doubt in total agreement with my husband’s watch. The wall clock in my office says it is 9:23 and the bank give-a-way clock in my desk says it is 9:40 (I kept that one fast because I fall for it every time and it helps me get places on time). The digital clock radio beside my bed says it is 10:40. That one hasn’t been right since the power failure and I can’t seem to figure out how reset it. Surely my grandson can help! There is nothing like a power failure to remind you just how many clocks you have around you. We have about 15 clocks in active service and most of them are not in agreement on the time.

Today I read in the paper that our public school system is buying $500,000 worth of classroom clocks and that is not even enough for all of the schools to get new clocks. They say they have to all be aligned with the bell system so that all the clocks in all of the classrooms say the same thing. By contrast, I remember buying clocks for my beloved Chesapeake Academy about 30 years ago when we moved into our new building. I bought ten clocks for ten dollars each. Our total investment was $100. I don’t know if they still have any of those cheap clocks left, but will check the next time I am there.

All I can say with certainty is that the seconds, minutes, days, weeks, months and years of life go faster as each year goes by. We should savor each moment as we age, but that is hard to do when we are surrounded by clocks reminding us of duties and obligations.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


When I was a kid, I used to love to go to Panama City, Florida with my family. We would stay a place on the beach and each night we ate seafood. Everything was fried in those days and only the most finicky of eaters and, of course, Yankees would think of eating seafood that was broiled. Some nights we would have fried red snapper, other nights, fried shrimp or oysters. For me a real treat was snapper throats – white succulent meat like nothing else! We had our rotation of seafood joints, including my favorite, Jessie Cooks, down on the dock in downtown PC (as Panama City is affectionately called by people from Alabama). Cholesterol and calories – who cared --- fried seafood was involved!

Our next door neighbor in Birmingham loved to fish, but I don’t think they much cared for eating fish. Many a night, my mother and father would come home to find our friendly neighbor had dropped off his catch, and they were swimming in the kitchen sink. No matter how late the hour, my mother would clean them right then and there. She chopped their heads off while they were still squirming and within a matter of minutes they were gutted and ready to fry. Crappie, bream and freshwater trout – a tasty assortment fried to perfection in corn meal.

Today catfish is plentiful and an aquaculture favorite. My family, however, always did like catfish, as long as it was “river cat” not “mudcat.” I am not sure what the difference is, but I know eating “mudcat” was something that “nice people” didn’t do. Being Southern by birth and training, I knew early on that I was expected to be one the “nice people.” That required adhering to a number of standards, including not wearing white after Labor Day and eating “mudcat.”

For all of my comfort with watching Mama clean fish at the kitchen sink, I was totally disturbed when at about age 12, at a fancy restaurant, I was served a brook trout with head still attached. This was in Boston, where people were more sophisticated and used to such strange customs.

That same trip to Boston, we went to Buzzards Bay on Cape Cod and stayed at little motel up on a hill. Across the street there was a restaurant where they had the most amazing bay scallops – fried, of course. For my family, it was love at first bite. Down south, we only had the big scallops that it was rumored were really cut from shark fins using a cookie cutter. On a recent trip to Cape Cod, we spent about an hour riding around looking for that restaurant. As far as I can tell, it is long gone, along with the small motel. But after all, it has been more than 50 years!

Another childhood favorite was salmon croquettes, made with left-over potatoes and canned RED salmon. We may not have been wealthy, but we always were able to afford RED salmon, as opposed to pink salmon. After all “nice people” ate red salmon! I never saw a fresh salmon until I was grown.

I grew up taking fresh seafood pretty much for granted, and even in college at Auburn, it wasn’t too hard to get one’s fill of fried seafood. When I was student teacher in Columbus, GA in 1968, my mentor teacher introduced me to the whole fish camp idea. My fiancĂ© and I were treated to our fill of fried catfish and snapper throats.

A favorite memory from graduate school was when a friend and her husband, whose family lived outside of Auburn, drained their pond and had the most incredible fish fry. The fish was great and so were the hushpuppies.

My roommate and I invited a friend down from Birmingham for the weekend, and we decided to broil a snapper. By then I had become more sophisticated and come to realize that broiled seafood could be very tasty. So we prepared the huge red snapper with stuffing and herbs, and put it in the broiler to cook. But after half an hour, that snapper was still only warm. We consulted our houseguest (whose father worked for GE). She opened the oven and asked where the fish was. I said it was in the broiler. She opened the drawer under the oven and explained patiently that we had been trying to broil the fish in the pots and pans drawer.

When we moved to Illinois, I discovered that fish was not so plentiful. In fact, in her rural Illinois town, nobody really sold fresh fish. One time I bought a fish the bakery (they just happened to have a fish), but I ended up throwing it out because it smelled so bad.
If you wanted seafood, it came in the form of a can of tunafish, or from chain seafood chain. I remember one day we were in Belleville and wanted to get seafood at the Cape Codder and didn’t have much money. We dug through the bench car seats and in short order found about $6, which was enough to buy a seafood dinner. For real seafood, we went to St. Louis!

When we got to California in 1971, fish was not exactly plentiful in the Inland Empire (San Bernardino area). One night we went to fancy restaurant called the Castaways and I ordered trout amandine. I wore an opal ring that night – it had about a dozen very small opals. When I got home, I discovered one opal was missing. We called the restaurant and they checked through the vacuum bag, but no luck. I think I ate it, and thought it was just a crunchy almond.
We found ourselves craving fresh seafood and would often take a long drive to Balboa Island and go to the Crab Cooker. They had wonderful grilled fish – and I understand they are still in business. I want to go back there – well, next time I am in Southern California that can go on the ”to do” list.

Maryland is a great place if you are a seafood lover. After 35 years of living outside of Annapolis, I find myself never tiring of local seafood -- crabs, rockfish and oysters – a all delectable, if not periodically endangered. Because this is a “seafood town” there is no shortage of seafood from all over – grouper, tilapia, catfish, salmon, scallops (both kinds), and supermarket and seafood market staples.

I love our periodic forays into New England and I overdose on lobster. A treasured memory is the lobster roll on the front porch of the National Hotel on Block Island. Nothing else comes close! Though I have to say that for more than 40 years I have fondly remembered that lobster supper at St. Ann’s Church on Prince Edward Island.

We also spend a lot of time in Grand Cayman. One or our favorite things to do there is to go out with Captain Ebanks for the day long snorkel trip with beach picnic. The snorkeling is fun and time at the famous Stingray City is special, but the highlight of the day is the conch salad and barbecued fish, freshly caught that morning and cleaned on the back of the boat while we are snorkeling. I remember when Stingray City was just the “sandbar” and we would stop there to look for sand dollars. The captain would clean the fish and the conch in preparation for our lunch; he would throw the entrails over the side of the boat. One year, we noticed a few stingrays, and were told not to worry – they were friendly. A few years later, we returned and by then, Stingray City had been featured in National Geographic. We asked about going to Stingray City, and quickly learned that was the “sandbar” we had been going to all of these years.

My other favorite thing to do in Grand Cayman is to eat at the Grand Old House. That is, hands down, my favorite restaurant – not just in Grand Cayman but in the world! Dinner there is a trip back in time and the food is incredible – especially the grouper. Following dinner, you can walk down to the end of the pier and watch the tarpon. Oh, the memories.
When David was a baby he used to love the song Molly Malone and Steve used to sing it to him regularly – you know, “cockles and mussels, alive, alive-o.” I always wondered about cockles were, but decades later we went to a gathering of the McNeill clan (my grandmother’s family) on the island of Barra, off the coast of Scotland. We took the ferry, but there is a once a day flight on British Air. There is no paved runway and the plane lands on the beach at low tide. The rest of the day, the area of open for people to harvest (I guess that is what you call it) cockles –small tasty shellfish. If you go to any one of the islands restaurants (there are several) cockles are on the menu, with a notation that they are from the local airport (and they mean flown in) daily.

When I think of Greece, I always think of seafood, so when we found ourselves on a small Greek island looking for dinner, we sought out a waterfront seafood restaurant. I looked at the choices and determined that what I wanted to order was something called “white bait.” My husband assured me that it was a mild white fish. Nobody discussed size, though the name should have cued me in. What I got was a plate piled high with what appeared to be minnows, beautifully fried, complete with heads and tails. I pinched off the heads and the tails and ate the middle part, probably much to the amusement of the wait staff. The bones were too small to see.
For our last day in Athens, we chartered a cab for a full day trip. At lunchtime, we had our choice of restaurants and we opted for a place on the waterfront. Our driver knew the place, otherwise we might not have gone there. Somewhat ominously, we were the only diners. Upon arrival, we were asked what we wanted to eat and we said “fish.” We were taken to a cooler and asked to select a fish. The fish was actually wonderful, thought I think it cost about $50 just for the fish. After that, we focused on other less costly Greek specialties.

I went to the grocery store yesterday and I bought two nice group filets. They weren’t cheap, but I know they will taste terrific. Obviously, I could fix them in some gourmet way and fall short of the Grand Old House for sure. I could broil them, now that do know how to use the broiler. But my Southern roots have won out. I think I will fry them with an egg batter and panko – my new favorite ingredient. Of course, I will use olive oil and blot them carefully on a paper towel. After all, fish IS healthy, right?

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Power Failure

The lights used to go out when I was a kid, but it was not a big deal. Late afternoon summer thunderstorms are a part of life in Birmingham and some days the fierce winds would knock down trees and power lines. Sometimes devastating tornados would race through nearby communities. No doubt the victims of these horrific events lost power for many hours, but for us power failures were rare and passed quickly by candlelight.

When I was a teenager, Birmingham experienced some harsh winter ice storms and the power went out for days. It was more of a grand adventure than a disaster. My father worked for the gas company, so we had a gas stove and grill. My mother would host a power failure party and invite all the neighbors.

More than two decades after I moved away, my mother was terminally ill with cancer. It was January and she was hospitalized for the last time. I got the call to come home, and managed to fly in on the last flight before the Birmingham airport was closed due to an ice storm. That same storm took out the power at my parents’ house. My father and I stayed at the hospital at my mother’s bedside until she passed away. That night, we went home to a dark and ice cold house. It was like walking around in death. My mother’s things were there, just as she had left them. The darkness was palpable and the cold, bone chilling.

In Maryland, power failures are common in summer storms, hurricanes and winter ice storms. We have talked about getting a generator, but haven’t yet. Somehow it seems once the storm has passed that it is hard to think about the next one.

The winter power failures are the worst; they go on for days. The cold is intolerable. It chills the soul and it reminds me of the night my mother died. The last time we had an extended winter power failure, we went to a motel.

We just finished with a 6 day power outage due to Hurricane Irene. What is scary is that by the 3rd day I found myself falling into a power-less existence. The restlessness passed and calm set in. I became accustomed to not having TV and finally stopped switching on lights when entering closets. I came to enjoy sleeping with the windows open and reading myself to sleep by electric lantern.

The electricity is back on now. Life is back to normal, but I am not. I keep thinking that I have lost something special that I was just beginning to grasp in the quiet and darkness of the power failure.