We Called her Piggy

Hanging out with my parents is a quilt of emotions. There’s laughter, frustration, admiration, impatience, love and sometimes sheer surprise. My mom has dementia which makes things very interesting; you never know when a nugget of raw wisdom or blur of confusion will enter the conversation. Yesterday was a great example.

When we visit them at their apartment, it throws my parents off their routine. They have a very specific and regular routine that revolves around the television programming schedule and meals. Not that they eat much anymore, but meals are the cornerstone of their daily lives. Normally my dad will wake up first around 7 a.m. followed very closely by my mother who can hear and see things at that hour; she knows when my dad is up and apparently doesn’t trust him to manage himself alone in their small abode, so she gets up when she knows he’s on the move. My dad is now the family short order cook since my mother can’t see well and her memory isn’t great for short term items (did someone say they wanted a coffee?). My dad is content to head to his “office” (the den with the extra large tv … I hate watching it with him as it’s like being in the front row at the theatre … he loves it and that’s all that really matters) and “flick” while mom hops around the kitchen putting a fruit plate together. If you ask mom what she has for breakfast, even though she likely doesn’t really remember, she will tell you by rote the usual menu: sliced fruit, bread or cracker with cheese and coffee. My dad has eggs which he makes himself.

However, we were there yesterday and something got lost in translation when we discussed the amended routine to accommodate our presence and Rudy was heading out around 8:30 a.m. to head to an appointment. That small tweak threw my dad for a loop. He woke up at 5:30 a.m. to ensure he didn’t miss making Rudy’s breakfast. When he got up at that ungodly hour, he (according to my mother) thumped around the room and turned on the light in the bathroom without shutting the door to block the light from the room where my mom was still sleeping. My mother was adamant that my dad did this on purpose to which he replied simply: I needed to put in my teeth. The breakfast did get made and Rudy hit the road. No problem.

The next mission was getting my mom to the dentist. Getting her going at any time is a process. You let her know that we are leaving in 15 minutes and it would be a good time for her to start the steps: bathroom break, shoes on, cane and sunglasses etc. She dutifully gets up from the table (she is loathe to miss any conversation and resents that she needs extra time to prepare for an exit) and starts into the next room. On the way to the next room she has to pass through the adjacent kitchen area; this is a trap for her as she can’t resist feeling her way around the counter and in this action she forgets that she was actually on her way to the washroom. I remind her that she needs to pee before we head out. Oh … she says, that’s right; I was on my way. Distractions are deadly. My dad is quite happy that he’s off the hook for now and can take his time showering and getting ready. In the getting ready sense, my dad is a bit of a diva. He always strives to look fresh and shaven and well dressed if he knows there’s someone to see or something to do. In this case it was the pedicure nurse coming later in the morning. Take your time he says. I chuckle to myself thinking that’s how parents might have felt leaving their kids with a willing and able babysitter.

I bring mom to the dentist office. She hates wearing the mask that’s required these days; I tell her to keep it on her chin just for appearances. I don’t see the point of wearing it to the dentist office where the whole idea is to get your teeth checked; pretty hard to do that with a mask on. In any event, she wobbles in where the nurse says she will take it from there and don’t worry about the mask. I tell mom I will be back to fetch her as soon as they give me the nod. Off she goes. About 30 minutes later the nurse comes out and waves at me in the parking lot. Your mom is ready and wanted to wait for you to get her. How cute! The nurse could have brought her out (she came out to wave at me) but mom told her: my daughter is here to get me and I will wait for her. I grab mom and bundle her into the car. Off to the grocery store.

It’s my brother’s birthday. My parents beam reminiscing how on this day 53 years ago their baby boy bounced onto the planet at around 7 p.m. They would love to speak to him, but I remind them its a work day for him and may not be possible. The truth is, my brother lives far away and has for years; he doesn’t get to feel the emotion of the family umbilical cord as acutely as my sister and I do. I sent him a text the day before to ask when a good time might be to FaceTime …. crickets. He’s often in his own (western) world. So plan B is to get a couple of birthday “cakes” and sing happy birthday on a video which I will send him. Mom and dad think that’s a great idea so we head to the bakery after the dental visit. I pick up the cakes and candle (one for each of them) and when we get home we create the video which is hilarious and painfully cute. My parents are now kids. I have to remind myself often that they are the parents and have a wealth of knowledge and experience and raised three kids. It can be hard.

The pedicure nurse arrives and I take that opportunity to venture out to visit my aunt. She’s been living in a retirement home since my uncle died last year. It has been excruciating for her (and most seniors in her predicament) as the plandemic has isolated them and crushed their spirits. Finally after months of “jail” time, we are able to visit in person. When I arrive in her suite she is sitting at the window and working on a word search puzzle. She’s surprised and happy to see me. I ask her if she would like to walk outside and sit under the tree as I have Molly in the car and it’s a hot day. So we mosey outdoors and the three of us sit under the big shady tree in the front yard of her building. She seems a lot happier now than she was last time I saw her and she has gained some weight back; she still misses her husband, but is getting used to being alone. It makes me want to cry thinking about how her life has changed so much. She tells me that she calls my dad just to hear his voice (she says it’s similar to her husband’s and that’s comforting) but he seems disinterested. I let her know that he’s super hard of hearing and if he’s not sure who he’s talking to he’s a bit ornery. She thought she might have caught him in the middle of a soccer game on tv; that’s very possible! Her son (my cousin) has retired since my uncle died so he’s been the main source of care and support for my aunt. He took her to the grave site and she mentioned how happy she was that my dad had kept up the garden around the grave stone. She noticed that there was a lantern at the stone and asked about it (she asked my dad on the phone but that conversation didn’t go very well). I explained to her that when my dad and my uncle were young boys and were displaced from their family farm after the war, each of them was sent to different farms on either side of the valley in their village. The young boys made a pact with each other to communicate across the valley via lantern. Each night at the designated time, each brother would hold up a lantern and swing it in the air like a signal. They would each see each other’s signal and know that all was well (under the circumstances). My sister installed a lantern at the grave of my uncle and an identical one on my dad’s balcony and every night the battery operated lantern lights up. The story brought a tear to my aunt’s eye and she said that the brothers were connected in life and in death. I waited until I was in the car alone before I let the tears flow.

Back at my parent’s apartment the daily lunch routine is underway. I brought soup and fresh bread. With their toes neatly primped, lunch is in order. Dad is heating the soup and mom is busy looking for utensils (…. he knows I can’t see!! why can’t he put things back where they belong!!??). We sit down to eat and mom pecks at her soup adding more salt and seasoning … enough to make anyone cringe. She eats most of her bowl before she declares herself full “up to here” drawing a line across her throat. Dad wolfs down his soup and bread so fast and I wonder what the rush is. Then it’s clear! He wants to attack the birthday cakes!! One is a fudgy caramel creation that is burning desire into his palate!!

After lunch we play cards until it’s time to head out again. Cue the departure routine where mom, on her way to the washroom, stops in the kitchen and wonders aloud when we are going to have lunch. Oh dear. We just ate and she’s forgotten already? Her hearing aid appointment is scheduled for 2 p.m. This is an extraordinarily busy day! Dad is coming for the ride this time as we will be stopping at the grocery store and the gravesite on our way. At the hearing aid centre mom and I head in leaving dad and Molly in the car with the AC on; dad declares that both will be napping for sure. sugar rush???

Inside the clinic (mom with her mask around her chin) the receptionist asks mom the covid questions (seriously, we are at the hearing aid place! hearing is not the strong suit); I respond to the questions on her behalf. They allow me to accompany mom into the testing room where they perform a hearing test on her. The audiologist is super patient and accommodating; I guess that’s par for her job daily. At the end of the test we go into her office to review the results. While seated in front of her desk, mom has to cough. My mom has a very gross phlegmy cough (that disgusts me to no end! I joke that she should start smoking to justify the cough!!) and as she coughs she looks at me and then at the young audiologist. I’m sorry, she says, my daughter hates it when I cough, but I’ve had this terrible flu …. I immediately jump in at that point and clarify that there’s been no flu (fearing the covid death squad to enter the office at any minute) that my mom has this cough and it’s nothing to be concerned about. Did my mother know that her words were potentially dangerous??? We continue through the rest of the appointment which includes my mom trying out a new pair of aids (and the audiologist standing behind her and asking questions to test the clarity … wouldn’t you know it, one of the questions was “what did you have for lunch” … I cringed inwardly until mom answered and said “my daughter’s soup”) and the end result is new hearing aids required; her hearing has declined significantly and better technology would help with background noise reduction and clarity. Also, these aids are rechargeable! no more batteries.

When we get in the car, my dad wants to know what happened. I let mom fill him in and she mostly remembered the whole episode. A moment of clarity. Whew. Off we go to the store and the gravesite. At the cemetery we let dad out to water the plants while mom and I take Molly for a stroll. On our walk we run into a lady who steps up to us and starts talking like we were long lost friends. She’s tending to her friend’s grave (Mrs. Culliton) and starts to fill us in on how her friend would be so sad to know the troubles befalling the eldest son (who’s a lawyer in town and presently going through a law society and police investigation for fraud). This is titilating information for my mother who can’t decide (as we walk away from this stranger) if it’s more important to ask who that person was or what was the son doing?? My mother loves good gossip!! As it turns out, my dad was done watering and watched the exchange of conversation between us from afar. He’s also craving the scoop … who was that?? what did you talk about?? my mother is delighted to fill in the story to which my dad says “I read about that in the paper”. This throws my mom right off her game: what do you mean you read it in the paper??? why didn’t you share that with me??? she’s getting hot and bothered at the notion that my dad would keep such juicy tidbits to himself. My dad looks at me sadly and then turns to my mom: I did read it to you …..

There’s a moment of unpleasant silence as the reality of dementia slithers back into daylight. It’s painful for everyone. But the moment was just that. A moment. When we leave the cemetery we drive past my mom’s old friend’s house; it’s a small government assisted apartment building near our middle school. My mom’s friend is in the hospital and we don’t know the status. My mom says she’s sad that she hasn’t been able to see her friend in over three years (for some reason, mom seems to have three years as her go to date for things she can’t remember); I console my mom by telling her that we saw her friend a few weeks ago on her birthday and she was so glad my mom could hug her and wish her a happy birthday. My mom relaxed after that. For a moment.

We drive through town and pass another building. Out of the blue my dad says, I wonder if you could look someone up on your computer (referring to my cell phone); there’s a guy that lived in that building and I wonder if he’s still alive. (lately my dad has been obsessed with how many of his friends and colleagues have died and lamenting that he’s the only one left) My mom wants to know who he’s talking about and he starts to explain. My mom says: I don’t know that guy. Dad says: Yes you do. He was married to Piggy. I practically drive off the road; grateful that along the park drive it’s so slow reaction time is not an issue. Piggy? My mom: Oh, ya. Piggy. That was the clue she needed. I need to know: Why did you call her Piggy?? Dad, who comes up with very hilarious (and unconventional) vocabulary says: Because she was distorted. She was short and round and had a round pig face. Your mom and I nicknamed her Piggy. Then we all laugh. It was another moment.

You are my Sunshine

It’s been cloudy and rainy and miserable for a few days. We aren’t used to it. Although the rain was necessary (gardens, lawns and farms were a bit desperate) it gets old after a few days. Enough already. Let’s get back to summer!!

We spend as much time outside as possible doing activities such as biking, golf, pickleball, kayaking, walking etc. That when it rains our routines are out of whack. Now that outdoor dining in restaurants is open we tried to dine “out” with friends. It was like eating on Maid of the Mist. The rain and wind made the experience like a national geographic adventure. Then the power went out. Our waitress patiently plied us with chiabatta bread and chimichuri and wine. Adapting is the new normal. Yesterday we met our friend in a similar way; breakfast huddled under a dripping umbrella while the indoor tables sat empty with chairs stacked on top upside down. That’s our world. Upside down.

There’s one thing that’s as constant as the North Star. Molly. Our almost ten year old bouvier is unfazed by life’s curve balls. She has her thing and she’s sticking to it. During this lousy streak of weather we are slow to get up (slower than usual as I’m not amor big person and why hop out of bed in a hurry to look at gray skies and rain?? Ugh) and Molly is all about a good sleep in.

Going to bed at night is her thing too. She lets us know she’s ready and then off we go. We have a large king size bed. Molly hops in first and claims the middle. At 120 lbs you are at her mercy to get your piece. At first she’s accommodating. But once the lights are out and I roll over she’s quickly in her final sleeping position which is spooning me to the edge of the bed. We stay glued for the night. In the morning she senses movement as we wake from sleep. This is her signal to migrate back to the middle and look for cuddles. Rudy moves first so he’s the morning cuddle dude. Molly isn’t particular she just wants love.

She lays patiently in bed until we rise. Rudy’s always first. And I take longer to get in motion … toilet, contacts, bra, hearing aids …. it’s a process. Rudy’s process is pants. That’s it. He therefore is the Molly pee guy. She barks (annoyingly) in excitement knowing her day is underway.

After a pee and sometimes quick walk (she will tug on the leash letting you know there’s a need) she is ready for breakfast. She waits while her and Rudy’s food is prepared. Then she eats her breakfast next to Rudy. There’s always a little extra off his plate for her. Then she’s ready for her couch. It’s the centre of our house making it the centre of her universe. She can see all or nothing from her perch.

It’s the same everyday unless there’s something special going on. Then she’s on high alert ready to take on any mission. No complaints. No hesitation. Ready or not.

There’s huge comfort for me in her steadfastness. I remind my mom on a daily basis not to sweat the small stuff. Molly is my daily reminder. Just her easy going demeanour is relaxing. It makes her approachable by strangers. She’s the conversation piece. Yesterday in our walk there was an older man walking alone. He wanted to say hi to Molly. So we stop and indulge answering questions about her breed and other things. I enjoy this interaction as it’s benign and friendly. (I sense Rudy’s impatience with this interlude and explain to him after that I hope if I’m nice and friendly to an older man that someone else is doing the same with my dad … )

Molly loves the car. She’s a great traveller. In fact, as long as we are with her she will do anything! Flying in the helicopter was proof! The best wingman.

I wouldn’t change a thing. ♥️

A Mile in her Shoes

While we were in Florida this winter a special person passed away. We weren’t able to attend any ceremonies or comfort the widow and her children in person. All we could do was sit n shock. 60 is too young to die.

Chef Mick was a big part of our life and business starting in 1998. He came to us for an instructors position and never left. Until the day he died. He was a special person with a unique skill for working with students of all ages. They loved and respected him. It’s how he met his wife. They were meant to be and created a loving home for their kids and dogs. He was a family man through and through.

We share many fond memories. There are so many stories and situations that put a giant smile on my face. But today we smiled through our tears as we met his widow in person for the first time since his death in late April. We curse covid for bringing on such cruel restrictions and wreaking far more havoc on people with rules than the actual virus. What a shame.

As we sat and talked about the ordeal around his death all I could think about was being in her shoes. Waking up alone in bed. Smelling his clothing and seeing his face in every room. It’s hard not to wallow in the shear isolation. My own fear of being alone is overwhelmed in these scenes of love lost. How do you carry on without the love of your life and soul mate by your side? I told her I was in awe of her strength and resolve. Screw resolve. Give me my husband back.

They have two kids still in highschool. Life does go on. Others live through it and come out the other side. Why did this happen?? My range of emotion and thoughts is trying to find words of comfort. There aren’t any. It’s a shitty sad mess.

Her family wanted to be by her side. But they are internationally based and didn’t get the “compassionate permit” to travel until he was gone. She suffered alone and watched him dwindle to eternal rest. A small concession was the warp speed of his demise. Three weeks after being diagnosed he slipped away surrounded by his family. It’s a tragic end to their love story.

He leaves many legacies in addition to his children. Thousands of students and their families, coworkers and friends mourn his passing. He’s left a mark on so many lives. I wish the survivors all peace as they reflect on the memories.

My heart is heavy. Seeing her today has made it real. RIP Cheffie.

EB

My sister nicknamed my mom EB. It stands for Evil Baby. It’s a fitting moniker for a feisty senior (84 years old) who loves to push buttons and lash out in frustration most days. But my visit the other day was different.

I think in a familiar crowd EB tries to find the right mix of angry and helpless that gets everyone jumping. A crowd is anything more than three people. It doesn’t take much to wind up the EB spewing machine. I say familiar crowd because the antics rarely appear around strangers. Strangers (anyone not in EBs regular world) have the opposite affect. Suddenly EB is a sweet old lady who everyone adores.

The other day it was just me. And Molly. So EB was quite ok. No major outbursts. Just the usual requests to keep my dad (her personal servant apparently) hopping. My hearing aids are beeping. I need more wine. The light in the hallway is on. Did I take my pills? Turn the TV off if you’re not watching. Switch the dishwasher on. Tune in the news. Where’s my radio? It goes on. My dad loves to play cards and that drives my mom nuts with jealousy. When I ask her what’s wrong she says “I can’t see anything”. She suffers from macular degeneration leaving her with limited peripheral vision. I ask what she would rather do than watch us play cards. The response is everything she can’t do. Ah. The pity party. We are all invited.

My dad shoots me glances that let me know he’s heard all this before. His patience (so short during his working years) is now endless. He answers all the questions EB throws out and thoughtfully explains things when she’s confused. I’m so grateful they have each other. They need each other and rely on one another. A perfect team.

Dad and I are successful moving EB from the pity party back to the card table. We do this by reminiscing. EB isn’t so great on short term memory but her ancient past is crystal clear (we have no way to fact check but her words are her reality so we go with it). During this visit EB felt the need to confess. She tells us she did a lot of bad things. What I get is how some of her history has rubbed off on me and how those same thoughts shaped her perspective.

EB had two step sisters. My grandfather had been married previously (before my grandmother) and had two daughters. When he met and married my grandmother (9 years his junior) they went on to have four more kids. My mom was the second oldest and only girl. Her older brother Hans ;the first born ) was her mother’s favourite. He could do no wrong. The step daughters (there’s some confusion around their departure) were sent to live elsewhere. They were unruly. All step kids are unruly. Lesson learned by my mom: don’t marry an older dude with kids. Big mistake. Oops.

My mom, in her mind, was often saddled with babysitting the younger brother. The fourth child came years later when my mom was sixteen. So she was wedged between the golden child and the burden child. Claus, the younger brother by six years took the brunt of my moms frustration. On weekends the three children were allowed to climb in the parents big bed. My mom peed in the bed (anxiety? Excitement? Didn’t want to take the time to pee in the bedpan for fear of missing out on something?) and in order to hide her faux pas she plopped her diapered baby brother on the wet spot. EB.

During the war (WWII) the three small children were often left behind alone while their parents foraged for food. The parents would work long hours on nearby farms in exchange for provisions. My mom recalled having to share her meagre rations with the golden boy. There was never enough to eat. Her mom (my grandmother) contracted TB. In those days you were placed in a sanitarium to recover. If you did recover. My grandfather was sent assistance of nannies by the Third Reich; the nannies came to help with childcare and housework. One of the chores was bathing the children. While filling the tub with water, you had cold water from the tap and boiling water was added, my mom held the younger brother. The toddler. As the hot water was poured into the tub, EB held her brothers seem under the boiling stream.

Meanwhile, the golden boy was a “pech Vogel”. Literally translated it’s bad luck bird. EB says he was a klutz and very accident prone. Apparently his dorkishness followed throughout his life. He was constantly hurting himself or his things. His parents bought him a scooter. Within a day it was mangled and he was injured. Later in life he splurged on a new car. Within a week it was crashed. But nonetheless, he remained golden. Was my moms take away from yore that the more needy you are the more attention you get? I recall that my mom was fiercely independent and strong always telling us we could do and be anything. Where did that person go??

I would like the opportunity to ask my uncle (the very youngest boy and sole survivor of the brothers) his take. Being so much younger he must have a unique perspective on these recollections (confessions).

After a lengthy trip down memory lane with several refills of merlot, EB needed “to move”. Moving for her is fidgeting in the kitchen or with laundry or collecting the mail from the building lobby. Or, in this case, to feed the dog. Molly knows that when EB hits the kitchen it’s a giant likelihood that there’s a snack nearby. Molly is never disappointed.

Molly embraces EB without judgement or concern. I’m going to do the same.

In the Rearview

I suppose that everyone gets to a point in life where there’s more in the past than the future. Every now and again a vivid image of something or another from years before pops into your present mind and gives you a jolt. A little trip down memory lane. Funny when you’re working and tied up endlessly with junk that’s thrust onto your plate you don’t have a lot of time to reminisce. It used to be the distracting joy of Facebook before it got political and no longer fun. I enjoyed seeing what “old” comrades were up to. Like being a bit of a voyeur. Not that I cared too much about their amazing breakfast or opinion on economics or their quest for sponsorship. Alas. I dropped Facebook like a hot potato last year. No regrets. So now my meanderings into the past happen as I daydream.

It’s the random images that sometimes make me laugh out loud. Like high school toga parties. Whose idea was that and why was it even a thing? Thank god there was no social media around then. I recall getting bed sheets from a friend because that would have freaked out my mom. You need my linens for what?? Of course none of the parties were held in dry, indoor places. They were usually outdoors and things could get messy.

I mentioned another random thought to my sister. While I was in the pool (alone) in Florida I recalled a vivid memory of our family’s above ground pool and how we (whoever was swimming that day) would run in circles around the pools edge causing the water to form a whirlpool. When the current got strong enough we could simply float and let it carry us in endless circles. Or, in the brilliance of the moment, decide to fight the current by running against it. We could amuse ourselves for hours!

Also in Florida I happened upon a vintage store that sold, among a zillion other things, vinyl records. Our next door neighbour just bought a turntable so I picked out an album for him. While doing so my mind flashed back to my own very first album purchase. Selected with pride at the local Woolworths https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crazy_Horses the Osmonds were all that. And, with just as much gusto, a follow up limeade drink at the cafeteria counter. Red vinyl stools and booths of course. With Formica table tops.

Our friends jokingly mentioned watching Lawrence Welk and as they laughed about the timelessness of the show (they actually still watch as do my folks when they can find it on tv) I recalled gathering around our one family TV set and watching the Sunday lineup. Wild Kingdom. Sonny and Cher. Walt Disney. My sister and I used to envy the hair flipping Cher was famous for. Jet black poker straight long hair. Wow. Lacking the natural hair to copy Cher we repurposed my mothers nylons or our tights by fastening them on our head do that the legs hung down like hair. We would sing and pretend we were Cher while flipping our “hair”. Our parents didn’t grasp the concept or the hilarity in it or else there would be photographic evidence of our performances.

I wish there would be no photo evidence of my early encounter with the local swans. Clearly my parents thought that my horror would be cute on film as I was surrounded and then swarmed by angry swans as I held the bread bag trying to feed them. I wasn’t fast enough apparently so the swans took the matter into their own beaks. As I sat crying on the banks of the river, being attacked by crazed swans, my parents laughed and took photos. WTF. I think I was two or less since my sister was no where in sight.

I admit that all of the really old memories are fond. Nothing troubling… and mostly quite hilarious. I find myself literally laughing out loud at the thought(s). It’s easy to forget that each day we make new memories. Time flies.

Pirates & Cigars

Where do you go when you want to mash up history, food, coffee, pirates and cigars. Look no further than historic Ybor City in Tampa. Today we took the plunge in 90+ F weather to check out the area that we have heard about for so long. We were not disappointed.

I booked a historic food walking tour. The food wasn’t historic by any means, but the area is a phenomenal lesson in local history. Our guide Ashley (herself a dedicated unapologetic foodie) https://yborcityfoodtours.com is originally from Alabama and transplanted herself in Ybor City 5 years ago without regret. Her passion was contagious and her knowledge impressive.

Our tour starts at the Centro; a large fairly new venue next to the Spanish Social Club (one of many cultural clubs in the area) where we meet in front of the statue of the areas founder http://Vicente Martinez-Ybor. Originally from Spain via Cuba this entrepreneur and visionary settled in what was excellent swamp land and built cigar factories and casitas for his workers http://tampahistorical.org/items/show/117

By offering the American dream, Ybor was able to lure settlers from Germany, Cuba, Italy and even Romanian Jews (who created the beautiful iron works including fencing and entranceway gate). The result was a melting pot of cultures. Each group erected their own social club which provided community services to their members including healthcare, English classes and dance parties (apparently these were legendary in the day and continue to present day). The cigar factories allowed the employees to hire “el lecture” https://whnt.com/community/hispanic-heritage-month/the-historic-role-of-el-lector-in-educating-cigar-factory-workers/ whose role was to stand on a raised platform and read to the employees as they worked. Educating the workers however resulted in some unrest as they realized they were being overworked and underpaid. The concept, however, was ingenious.

The bustling factories enticed an array of related businesses to the area. Cigar box makers and printers of wrappers (largely the Germans), shop keepers and food stores (where the Cuban sandwich was invented), coffee roasters and of course entertainment venues. The Latino influence in the area is the reason that chickens and roosters roam freely (and are protected by law). The Central Park area is a wonderful barnyard of clucking and crowing.

We sampled food and beverage including the famous Cuban sandwich, Latino inspired rice and beans with Pico de Gallo sauce (a nice spicy heat), NY NY pizza (where the Bucs got their post Super Bowl snacks!) and caffe con leche and chicken wings made famous by Guy Fieri in the local brew pub. Two thumbs up all around. No disappointments here.

In one establishment we were seated upstairs in a pseudo loft. What was interesting about it was the moveable bookcase leading to the “spook easy”. Literally a bar with a theme of supernatural. The decor was perfect with its plush high backed red velvet settees and wing chairs. Candelabras with dripping candles. Ouija board and other occult paraphernalia adorned the walls. Recesses filled with skulls and other eerie artifacts. I’m glad we were there during the day! Creepy stuff loses some of its creep in daylight. Nonetheless we felt our neck hairs tingle. They offer special events such as fortune telling and palm reading. Intriguing for sure.

Equally as interesting is the pirate lore. Some say it’s bunk, but the legends are fascinating anyway even if they are someone’s wild imagination. We learned about the infamous pirate Jose Gaspar (nicknamed Gasparilla). https://www.abcactionnews.com/news/local-news/the-legend-of-jose-gaspar-and-the-history-of-gasparilla. The story is captivating and makes the area even more intriguing. In his honour they host a parade and festival that’s the place to be in late January (canceled this year of course).

We wind up at the end for a coffee Latino style in a cafe/cigar making and smoking venue. A tiny place with oversized leather chairs and humongous Corona cigar ashtrays. You can watch the cigar making process as you lounge or take a peek into the humidor for a variety of options.

All in all a really interesting and enjoyable afternoon. Next time we come we will try out the street car trolley that chugs from Ybor City to River Walk in downtown Tampa. And enjoy dinner at the Columbia Restaurant https://www.columbiarestaurant.com. There’s more to see and do … we will be back!

Rudy in front of Mr Ybor statue
Centro
Visitors Centre
The Castle nightclub
Casita
Gaspars Grotto
Mural honouring the rooster 🐓
Gaspars Grotto
9-11 memorial

Mother Nature

Sometimes our world is a thing of beauty. These days it may be more difficult to stop and notice given the challenges and frustrations people are facing. I’m glad to be retired. Retirees have, generally speaking, the time and place to “stop and smell the roses”. Today was one of those days.

We had little on the agenda until later in the day. Our friends invited us for dinner and a sunset boat cruise, so we had the day to kick back. Normally we are on the go either to the gym or pickleball or golf or biking and we return home mid afternoon only to head out again in the evening. But today we did nothing for a change.

After a neighbourhood walk with Molly and a light breakfast, we took our reading material outside with our drinks (coffee) and settled into the loungers. It was hot and sunny with a gentle warm breeze. Typical of what we’ve come to expect. When you sit still for a moment you have a chance to clear your mind. Watch the clouds melt through the sky. Feel the sun on your skin like a warm blanket. Hear the birds (everything is mating!). It’s a cleansing feeling. Sigh.

I marvel at the little lizards as they scurry around the lanai (outside thankfully). There’s a bunny rabbit that’s been frequenting the side yard (don’t tell Molly!) and there’s plenty of food in the buffet. The birds are incredible; lots of different species. And everything is in full bloom. The colours of bougainvillea and azaleas and other tropical plants is vivid like 1960’s wallpaper.

At 3:30 pm we make our way after walking and feeding Molly. Our boat cruise and dinner is in Winter Haven which is a 20 to 30 minute drive. We arrive at Harbourside Restaurant where our group is waiting for us on the outdoor patio next to the canal and lake. The specialty of the place is seafood. Go figure. I have the early bird special which is grilled salmon with a baked potato and house salad. No disappointment here.

Our sunset cruise departs at 6 pm. There’s 8 of us so there’s four in front and four in the rear of the pontoon boat. The sun is still high and hot so I’m grateful for my sun hat. We set off to the canal and a tour that was very educational; our captain was well informed and shared her insights throughout the voyage. There are over 20 lakes on the “chain of lakes” system and they were connected by man made canals and locks in order to transport citrus fruit (the main industry in the area years before) to the railroad. These are fresh water lakes that vary in depth so smaller crafts with less draw are ideal. Hence the pontoon boats that are so popular. The citrus was transported on barges.

Aside from citrus the lakes are home to the former Cypress Gardens which is now Legoland (a family amusement park). But they kept some of the former assets such as the botanical gardens and the waterski show. The area around the park is a waterski haven and there are ramps and buoys to be seen. The jungle like shoreline is full of cypress and palm trees and many are loaded with Spanish Moss. Cypress trees are protected in Florida as they are slow growers and only grow well in water. One member of our group said that when buying real estate watch for homes with cypress trees as the trees will be under water in the rainy season. Yikes. Good to know!

In addition to the amazing homes and trees along the shoreline, the bird watching is intense. Our guide took us to the nesting areas and Mother Nature put on a show for us that made our night. Huge nests, many fashioned out of twigs and moss, were numerous in the trees. It’s mating season and so many of the nests had babies in them with one or both parents hovering nearby. The views were breathtaking and heartwarming. In one area there was an osprey momma sitting in her nest. The guide said by getting close with the boat we would anger the mom and she would summon the male. When the mom squawked we waited and within seconds the male swooped in and circled overhead. It was amazing to see how the male protected the nest and his partner. When we pulled away he stopped his circling and joined his mate in the nest. It was beautiful to watch.

The sunset is postcard worthy. As we cruise towards the sunset on our final leg back to the dock it occurs to me that life is good. Very good. I drift for a moment to think about how lucky we are to have such an amazing experience. To be on a cruise with the warm summer breeze caressing our faces and enjoying the best that Mother Nature has to offer.

We cap the evening off with an ice cream from Andy’s which is a local landmark. They even had maple walnut. Sweet.

Gator lounging on the dock
Thick moss
Lake house
Crane
Andy’s menu

Til death do us part

Today we lost a legend. Rudy and I might be the operations people behind Liaison College, but Chef Mick was the Chef. This morning he succumbed to https://www.webmd.com/brain/what-is-creutzfeldt-jakob-disease a super rare disease. We are in shock.

When Liaison College started in 1996, there was a need for trained chefs and cooks. The food network had become a must watch station and culinary arts was getting traction. In 1998 we were approached by a mild mannered Brit who had a superb culinary background. Including such highlights as apprenticeship under Anton Mossiman in England at the Dorchester and cooking for the Queen and the German Olympic team in 1988. Hello Chef Mick; aka Michael Elliott.

Things were never the same after Chef Mick came on board. He was a culinary champion and his students did everything to earn his respect. He was the consummate trainer who always put his students needs first. They loved him and thrived under his tutelage. He inspired budding culinarians to be their best and he won many competitions as a coach. His trademark sayings were legendary among students and alumni.

His life was devoted to culinary arts until he met the love of his life and together they achieved the excellence and success they earned and deserved. For many years they built their dreams into reality and created a successful business and also a loving family. It was an absolute pleasure to watch them grow and thrive.

Chef Mick took on every role with gusto. His gentle, easy way was magic with those he interacted with on any level. Everyone respected and admired him. I interviewed one of his graduates for a magazine article and she told me how he inscribed her text book at graduation and she has it proudly on display in her bakery. As she spoke about Chef Mick she smiled as she recounted anecdotes about her experiences with him as her instructor. I was so proud of her. And him.

One year for our Christmas party I arranged a car tour to the other campuses. To have a bit of fun I played “name that tune” with an 80’s CD I had in my car. Chef Mick, unbeknownst to me, was an 80’s aficionado and aced the quiz. We laughed about it for a long time because one of the songs was https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=0aqLwHP4y6Q

I have many fond memories of Chef Mick. Too many to recall here. Enough to make me feel the tremendous loss that today brings. Chef Mick loved culinary but he loved and cherished his family more. He will leave a void in the life of his four children and his beloved wife. I hope they, like so many others touched by him, will find some comfort in the wonderful memories left behind. I’m grateful for the time we had to enjoy Chef Mick. Thanks for the memories.

Godspeed, Chef. Heaven now has a new standard of food. Now it’s sexy.

The Venice of Florida

Today we grabbed our friends and enjoyed a lively double date in Winter Park. It’s hard to believe we’ve been here three months already! My laundry list of places I want to check out is still pretty long. One got the check mark and it was dandy.

The Scenic Tours of Winter Park are (according to our witty guide) the second oldest tourist attraction in Florida. They started in 1938 (with different boats of course) and have been a must do since then. We aren’t beach dwellers and prefer the proximity to golf courses and other activities than hanging at the beach. That’s a change for us since we are on permanent vacation rather than trying to soak up as much sun and sand as we can in a week off. So our idea of water is on one of the numerous (and I mean hundreds) of fresh water lakes.

The tour of the Winter Park canals and lakes is referred to as the Venice of Florida. And the weather was stellar at about 27C and sunny. We gather at the docks in the heart of WP (Winter Park) and join dozens of others who have chosen the same outing. Tours leave every hour and there are 4 or 5 pontoon boats which can hold about 12 passengers plus the captain. They run a well oiled machine getting people off and on the boats in record time. We shove off and the tour is underway. https://www.scenicboattours.com

The tour includes two lakes and two canals. The views of the lakefront mansions is breathtaking and a glimpse into the lifestyle of the Uber wealthy. The homes and gardens surrounding them are truly magnificent; magazine worthy. The guide gives us tidbits of trivia along the way and mentions that the home owners (many are known celebrities) are grateful for their privacy. They appreciate that the tour isn’t a Hollywood map of the stars. The most we got was “that’s an NBA player and he added a 20,000 square foot addition to accommodate an indoor basketball court”. One of the homes was under construction and will be (at 40,000+ square feet) the largest in the lake and will include a movie theatre, bowling alley and gun range. Really.

After the tour we headed into WP for a bite to eat and a cold drink. We ended up at an al fresco resto on Park Ave which is the main drag in town. https://310restaurant.com It is a fashion show in every sense: amazing cars, designer clothes on leisurely shoppers, flower pots brimming with colourful plants. A truly enchanting village setting with a picturesque train station and park area that’s manicured to the nines. Not to mention the shops: an eclectic selection of boutiques, eateries, wine and cocktail venues, a few brand name stores such as Restoration Hardware/Pottery Barn/Williams Sonoma, a cigar lounge and humidor (buy a stogie and smoke it in the lounge if you like). Basically a grand place to spend a few hours and a few bucks.

Our lunch was delightful and the best part was the view of the bustling sidewalk and road traffic. We savour the ambience and the conversation. But at the end we part ways: gentlemen exit stage left for the cigar lounge and ladies make off for the shops. My friend bought a kimono here last year and was hoping to recreate the vibe; she is not disappointed. There’s a great selection AND they are on sale. Bonus. We make our way down the street and stop in to the shops that are inviting of which there are many. Finally we return to the cigar lounge where we find the men enjoying their stogies and having met a new friend. He’s also puffing away (something he says is a daily event) and we find out some interesting things about him. He lives in one of the homes on the lake we cruised. He has annual trips to Calgary with his polo team. He thinks Cuban cigars are overrated (spoken like someone who’s country had them outlawed for years). All in all a very nice unassuming gentleman who was clearly in a financial stratosphere beyond our galaxy.

Cigars done we make our way via car to our final pit stop of the day. Lombardis Seafood. https://lombardis.com At Lombardis you can literally feel like you’re at the sea. They have every type of briny delight including our favourite (and reason for stopping in) Florida stone crabs. We try to indulge at least once while we are in Florida. We were first introduced to this delicacy by our friends who wintered here for years before us. Since then we’ve been hooked. The sweet crab meat is buried in the most hard thick shell ;aka stone??) that the fish monger busts with a hammer in store if you want. It’s typically served with a yummy mustard sauce. Delicious!!

We wrap our day revelling at the fabulous weather and the freedom to have done what we did. Florida; fuck yeah!!

Notice the black birds … they are pelicans!

One Man’s Castle

They say that everyone has their ideal castle. In the case of Howard Solomon it is clear. He built the castle of his dreams. Now it’s on show for anyone who wants to visit.

I think I would have enjoyed meeting Howard. He sounds like an interesting bird. His castle is a reflection of his dreams and that makes him all the more interesting.

Our friends are always trying to show us around Florida. We bike and walk the sights and scenes. When they invited us to see Solomon’s Castle we were on board as usual (we rarely turn them down). It sounded intriguing. We had no expectations and if you search on line there’s very little to glean.

Our private tour (we are a group of ten as our hosts are mindful of distancing) starts at 10 am. we are 90 min away so we have to be on the road at 8:30. That’s early for us … we savour our bed time. But Rudy sets the alarm (secretly I think he likes the early wake ups especially when it’s on someone else’s schedule) and we start the process. It’s a slow go for me. I’d rather stay in bed. But we muster. Ugh.

I snooze on the ride there. Our destination is Ona Florida and there’s no major highways to get there. It’s a scenic route to the middle of nowhere. We pull into the parking lot and our group is gathering. There’s our regular friends and another couple from St Pete’s. The husband is a retired oncologist; he’s had his vaccinations so I find his constant cough annoying rather than threatening. When we walk from the parking area to the ticket office it occurs to me that we are in a weird place.

There’s a castle which looks like it’s made from tinfoil and beyond it is a ship (I would describe it as a mini Noah’s ark) and other buildings behind it. Mr Solomon had a vision and we were in the midst of it. Our tour guide met us at the castle door which was flanked by knights in metal holding swords. We stepped inside the foyer as she pointed out the handmade stain glass windows all depicting nursery rhymes. I liked the cow jumping over the moon. As we stood in the main front room it occurred to me that there was zero natural light and a dank (think moist basement) odour. Our guide tells us that the place is set directly on swamp land beside a creek. When the property was purchased in the month of March many years ago, it was dry and lush. When the rainy season came the creek filled and flooded the property. The guide lamented the various hurricanes that caused water to rise and fill the castle. “See the water marks on the wall? ….”. Totally explained the smell.

Each room was filled with the whimsical creations of the artist using wood and assorted scraps of metal and other junk. As a cabinet maker by trade he used a lot of wood. His wooden paintings were very intricate and elaborate in some cases. According to our guide she was reciting the tour spiel in accordance with the artists written directives. It turns out he had a quirky sense of humour and especially liked to play on words. For example he created a cow sculpture using scrap metal; the udder was a gear wheel (round with notched outer edge and a hole in the middle). The hole was there so the cow could produce “whole” milk. Groan. There were many of these puns throughout the tour. The artist was very particular and in control of every aspect.

We wind through his house (which is now a museum curated by his children) and each room is cluttered with punny creations. The mans mind moved quickly and in staccato as evidenced by the pieces ranging from tiny statues to giant sized animals weighing in excess of 400 lbs! Quite breathtaking and disturbing at the same time. This artist held down full time work and managed commissioned art pieces and personal projects in between. Apparently he couldn’t sit still. Ever.

After the first tour segment we went to “the boat” for lunch. You could eat on the boat or in the jungle grotto outside which we chose. The menu offered a wide range of comfort food items. It was as delicious as expected and the desserts were heavenly. After lunch, propelled by our new energy, we walked to the “barn” for the second part of the tour. As we walked through the open pasture (yes, there’s animals and stuff) I realized what a sunny hot day it was. The blazing sun was baking us at 31C.

At the barn we are ushered inside (whew there’s ac) to the first chamber. It turns out that Mr Solomon was, in addition to his artistic flair, also an astute business man. He predicted the crash of 2008 and liquidated all of his stocks to purchase antique cars. He only purchased those carefully restored to their natural state. Wow. Scattered among the room are also model airplanes and other modes of transport built by the artist. In his typical punny way, he created a “bar car” – literally a car with the back seat set up to display bottles of booze. Clever.

There were about 12 cars in total and some of them had license plates. Some had crank shafts! And a couple had rumble seats (also known as the mother in law seat because of the general discomfort … your mother in law would only want to try it once!) The earliest Fords were only available in one colour: black. Then years later 4 other colours were added. It was an interesting lesson in the progression of Ford (the artists personal favourite) auto manufacturing.

At the end of the tour we part ways with our group. Some of them are heading on to the phosphate museum. Apparently it was a big industry in the day. Unfortunately (fortunately) we had to go home to our girl Molly.

Looking forward to the next adventure!