When Our Days Were Magic

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It sometimes seems to me that we spend far too much time planning ahead, and far too little time just enjoying the moment. I see evidence of that tendency in all of my daily travels. For example, it’s barely the beginning of July and already the stores are filling with school supplies, uniforms, and fall clothing. It’s bad enough that we push our children back into the classroom before Labor Day, but now we begin eagerly preparing for that moment six weeks in advance. Why can’t we just give our children a break and allow them to enjoy unadulterated fun for a time rather than loading them down with mathematics packets, required summer reading, long essays to complete? We hardly ever give our youngsters time to think for themselves, to decide how to spend their hours. We seem determined to fill every waking hour with activities that we think will help them to achieve more in the future.

Many young folk don’t know the joys of waking up on a warm July day with no plans and no place to go. They have not had the wonderful experience of using their own creativity to make life more adventurous. I rarely see the children in my neighborhood gathering by themselves to play. There are no sounds of games or fort building or any of the many activities that filled my vacations as a child.

I can still feel the exhileration of waking up on those summer morns with the knowledge that we kids had total freedom to face down the day. I can’t recall ever feeling bored, but rather torn between so many ideas for having fun. We often spent the earliest hours of the day in outdoor pursuits because it was still a bit cooler then. We’d ride our bicycles pretending to perform stunts by standing up on the seats or letting go of the handlebars for a few seconds. We travelled to the woods down by the bayou and explored the area with the determination of Lewis and Clark. We’d listen for the calls of the birds and watch for specimens of nature that we’d claim for the cigar box collections that we prized.

Once the sun had climbed high into the sky, and the temperature soared we’d shift gears and begin playing board and card games. There was always at least one mom like mine who gladly offered the kitchen table for a gathering place. We’d have tournaments that lasted for days and pitted us good-naturedly against each other. There was nothing grander than using our skills and a bit of luck to become champions.

We dabbled in the creative as well. We produced plays, performed musicals, and wrote neighborhood newspapers. I remember reading a biography of Truman Capote that told of how he and his neighborhood friend, Harper Lee, used an old typewriter to compose stories about the people that they knew. We did that as well where I lived. None of us ever became famous, but I am certain that my love of writing began way back then.

Sometimes we’d ask our mom to take us to the library, or instead we would ride our bikes to the mobile library that stood by Garden Villas Park. We’d load up with as many titles as allowed, and lie in front of the open windows with the fan blowing on us, enraptured by the stories inside those pages. I was into mysteries back then. I could not seem to get enough of them, and it always thrilled me to unravel the twists and turns of the plots before the big reveal at the end.

Of course there was swimming at one of the city parks. Back then we had an hour to bask in the cool water and then we had to leave for the next group of kids waiting in along line for their turn to enjoy the pool. We’d walk through showers before we were allowed to get into the water and then we’d play Marco Polo and stand on our hands so that our bodies were under the cooling blue waves. It’s remarkable how quickly the time went by, so we celebrated if the life guard decided that the crowd was small enough to allow us an extra hour.

I don’t ever recall our television being on during the day either in the summer or when school was in session. We simply didn’t waste our time on such activities. We had way too many other ideas for amusement. It seemed that there was never enough time to fit our bounty of ideas into those lovely three months when we were our own masters.

It saddens me a bit that so few children today are able to enjoy the kind of childhood that was so commonplace in my youth. I realize that times are a bit more dangerous than those years when we slept with our windows open and rarely locked our doors during the daytime hours. Parents have to be more watchful than our moms and dads were back then. I also understand that taking classes or participating in sports can be meaningful life lessons, but sometimes it’s just as important to provide children with time to figure out things on their own. I suppose that I learned how to think critically, problem solve, and work in cooperative groups during those days of hanging with the kids from the neighborhood without parents organizing us. My free time prepared me for the future in immeasurable ways.

I wish that our children today might know the joy that we did. It was in the summer that I learned to cook or how to earn a little money by doing odd jobs or selling lemonade. I honed my negotiation skills toe to toe with my peers. It was a glorious time, when being a kid meant learning how to navigate and explore. Nothing was rushed. It was summer and each day was magic.

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Wanderlust

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I spent a whole lot of years keeping my nose the the grindstone of life. I had two children by the time I was twenty five years old and I devoted most of my days and nights to them. I did teaching jobs of one sort or another for over forty years. Over time I taught every age group from pre-school to high school and subjects ranging from religion to Algebra II. I was as devoted to my students as I was to my two daughters and I sometimes worry that they may have felt in competition with them. My mom struggled with mental illness whose symptoms began to display themselves fifty years ago about the time that mankind first landed on the moon. All in all I never felt comfortable taking too much time away from my duties. There always seemed to be someone who needed me to be around.

My husband was as devoted to taking care of the family and other people as I was. I can count on one hand the number of days that he took off from work, and he often let vacation time lapse because he felt so responsible for happenings at his places of business. Even during the  days when we were newly weds he labored in double shifts at NASA pulling electrical cable under the floor of the Mission Control building to insure that the historic moon landing went off without a hitch. Later he would become a banker and the type of person who spent long days attempting to be of service to his bosses and his customers.

Over the years we found that we had very little time to take trips, and often not enough money to make them extravagant. We eventually purchased a canvas tent and tossed it in the back of our various vehicles to travel across the United States in two week increments. We tended to enjoy vacations in cooler climates since we were depending on Mother Nature to keep us comfortable as we slept at night. We have fond memories of laughing and telling stories inside our humble traveling abode. We always felt safe and happy and blessed to be together enjoying the wonders of our country which we discovered are indeed many.

We created a number of rather corny traditions that still make us smile. We generally began each journey by playing Willie Nelson’s On the Road Again. We’d eat sandwiches for lunch and cook on our propane gas stove for dinner. Somehow the food always tasted better on those adventures than it did at home. We learned how to “rough it” in great style and on those long drives we read a ton of books that we often shared with one another when they turned out to be especially good.

Once our daughters were grown and gone we had a bit more time and money to expend on our explorations even as we spent years paying off the students loans that we had contracted for their college educations. We became a bit more willing to be extravagant on our vacations, flying instead of driving and staying in hotels rather than a tent. Our new found freedom and income spoiled us just enough that we one day found ourselves complaining about sleeping in a tent. It felt as though no matter where we chose to travel it was either too hot or too cold. Besides it became increasingly less comfortable to sleep on the floor and then arise in the morning ready to overcome multiple aches and pains.

We set aside our old camping gear and opted for a trailer instead. It’s not huge, but rather just right for our needs. We’ve taken it all around Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas and even all the way out to San Diego with two of our grandchildren. It’s nice to have an actual bed for sleeping and a real bathroom for taking care of all of our hygiene needs. We’ve had just as much fun in our Sonic as we ever did inside our tent without all of the nuisances that we endured when we were young and hardy.

Now that I am retired I get a case of Wanderlust quite often. I feel compelled to travel as much as I can while I can. While there are exotic places I like to see I find that short and simple trips have their own magic. I’ve discovered the beauty of east Texas and its people. It is a kind of hidden jewel that I had never before thought of as a great destination. I have learned that it is filled with green forests, rolling hills and breathtaking vistas that appear from out of nowhere. The little towns out there hold treasures like the Buttercup Cafe in Gladewater where a young woman and her family make the best hamburgers and coconut cream pie that I have ever tasted. I’ve visited a boutique winery in Mineola filled with amazingly interesting characters and elegantly tasting wines. I’ve wandered around an old home in Tyler that was filled with stories and objects from the past and I’ve sat of an evening in Tyler State Park marveling at the splendor.

I still long to travel across the Atlantic to see Paris and Rome and Vienna. I’d like to visit the towns where my Slovakian grandparents were born. I love New York City and think it would be grand to return there regularly. I’m longing to spend more time in Canada which I consider to be a kind of cousin to my own country. I have yet to visit Alaska or Hawaii and I’ve heard such wonderful things about both of those places.

The clock is ticking. I am going to be seventy one on my birthday this year. Many of my peers have already left this earth and some have been slowed down by illnesses. I want to keep going as long as I can. I have fewer responsibilities now than ever before. I have the time and the wherewithal for traveling, so I plan to take advantage of every opportunity to explore the world around me.

If my travels have taught me anything it is that we humans are even more amazing than the environments in which we live and the things that we have created. People are good everywhere. I’m looking forward to meeting ever more of them.

An Exceptional Plan

Great planning results in a great trip. Our recent foray into Great Britain was a success in part because we embarked on a great deal of research long before we departed for our journey across the pond. It began with a copy of Rick Steve’s book outlining the wonders of London that was gifted to us by our good friends Eric and Jenny Brunsell on the occasion of our fiftieth anniversary. Known as “Jeneric” on their travel blog the two have coursed across the globe on week long junkets. They encouraged us to do our homework and then create a master plan.

Once we had a general idea of what we hoped to accomplish on the trip we met with another good friend, Gerald Warren, who travels to London and environs at least once each year and has become quite comfortable leading tours to that great city. We sat down with him over dinner and he shared the nuts and bolts of where to stay, how to get there and the best sights. His insights were incredibly useful from noting that we would get a lower rate on fights from Austin rather than Houston, to helping us find a hotel where we would feel comfortable.

From Gerald we learned that the Holiday Inn Bloomsbury is both a bargain and a great place to stay. It is located in one of the safer areas of London while still being only a block away from the Russell Square underground station. The staff is exceedingly helpful. The food, especially the breakfast, is excellent. The rooms are clean. All in all staying there eliminated any worries that we may have had about where to sleep at night.

Gerald also alerted us as to the best way of getting from the airport to our hotel. We learned that the easiest and least costly route was to take the Heathrow Express train to Paddington Station and then get a black cab from there. His suggestion that we buy a round trip ticket saved us from a great deal of stress on our return trip home. We also spent far less money than we might have if we had simply jumped into a cab to journey to the hotel.

It was also Gerald who urged us to purchase an Oyster card at the underground station. There is a six dollar a day cap to charges on the card so all we had to do is calculate how many days we would be traveling around London and then put that amount on our cards. After that we simply used the card to go from one place to another without any problems. Once we had completed the trip we were able to get a refund on any remaining funds by filling out a form. The instructions for doing so were clearly posted in each station.

My husband Mike and sister-in-law Becky were both project managers in their working days and their skill in designing plans for our sightseeing were invaluable. We met at Becky’s home several months in advance of the trip to determine what we wanted to see and when we would do so. Becky kept careful records that included the cost of each event and the distance between venues. We borrowed from ideas in the Rick Steves book and from suggestions made by Gerald at our dinner meeting. Mike had the idea of using a London city map, also a gift from Eric and Jenny, to note where each place was located and then visit those venues in the same area on the same days. I reserved tickets at a number of places and found hotels or flats for our travel outside of London. Whenever I made purchases for the entire group Becky made note on a spreadsheet that she meticulously kept current so that we would be able to share all of the expenses equally.

Having different points of view led us to do things that we might otherwise never have considered. We ended up in Brighton because my sister-in-law Allison wanted to see a beach. While the area was not quite what we expected we nonetheless encountered situations that serendipitously made our trip even better. My brother Pat wanted to take the Jack the Ripper tour and that too ended up being a grand way to spend an evening. Allison also introduced us to the idea of spending some of our evenings playing games inside a local pub that in many ways was one of the highlights of the vacation. Our unique personalities created a nice balance for the trip and allowed us to experience many different kinds of places and events. 

Since my husband Mike had a stroke during a July 4th trip two years ago I was a bit leery of traveling to a place outside of the United States even though his health has been quite good for many months. Having a small group of people with us gave me far more confidence than I otherwise would have had. We looked after one another and I knew that if anything happened to anyone we would be able to work together to make things go well. My brother Pat and his wife Allison have both driven ambulances and cared for people as first responders. They know how to stay calm in an emergency and that alone eliminated any fears that I might otherwise have had.

Pat not only operated an ambulance but in his multi-faceted work life he drove a mail truck with the steering wheel on the right side, an eighteen wheeler delivery truck, and a fire engine. He was a natural choice for driving around the countryside and he did a yeoman’s job. Nobody else in our group would have been able to chauffeur us around as safely as he did. We instead would have had to take trains and as a result might have missed so many of the sights that we saw from our car.

My brother Mike was our Zen master. He is always so calm and flexible that he kept us all working together. He was our model of patience. He enjoyed himself regardless of the circumstances, never complaining or creating controversy. I often found myself looking to him to keep my anxieties at bay. Sometimes a quiet person who appears to just be following is in fact a kind of silent leader.

I can’t imagine having a more perfect trip than the one that we enjoyed. We used the suggestions and talents of many individuals and then just went into auto pilot once we landed in London. Ours was a memorable trip that none of us will ever forget. I’m hoping that we might be able to come together once again to perhaps travel to Vienna and from there to the birthplace of our grandparents in Slovakia. I know that I am more than ready to begin to planning.

The Final Adventure

All good things come to an end and so it was with our trip to England. On our final day we decided to go to the “High Street” shopping areas of London. We began our adventure at Harrods which is perhaps the most famous of the city’s department stores. To say that we were in awe of what we saw would be an understatement. We literally walked through aisle after aisle of every single floor and soon learned that we would not be purchasing much unless we decided to take out a bank loan.

I’ve never before seen such a variety of handbags, all of which were gorgeous with prices to match. Virtually every well known designer was featured in the clothing areas. I was drooling at the designs but didn’t feel too badly about having to pass on them because most of them were made for much younger bodies than mine. My sister-in-law Becky inquired about a sweater that she like but decided not to purchase it when she learned of its twelve hundred dollar price tag. The interesting thing is that so little of the merchandise came with a price tag which made me think of the old saw that if you have to ask how much something costs it’s probably too expensive for your pocket book. Nonetheless we enjoyed seeing so many lovely things and wondering who the people are who have the income to purchase them.

One of my favorite areas was the home section that featured incredibly lovely china. I actually bought a small bowl for one of my daughters and didn’t break the bank doing so. I also found a unique pot holder that was reasonable. I had to laugh at the idea that only I would walk through Harrods and end up with a potholder, but the truth is that I love to cook and I enjoy a well stocked kitchen.

I also broke down and bought a lipstick. Luckily the cosmetics were priced exactly the same as they are in Macy’s. I wanted a lovely berry color from the Mac Aladdin collection but they were sold out so I settled on a nice pink that I have already enjoyed wearing. Later I found the Aladdin lipstick at Macy’s and bought it there with fond memories of my foray into the upscale world of Harrods.

Eventually we found our way to the basement where all of the tourists go. The affordable items were down there. I bought a little purse for my granddaughter, some toffee for my grandsons, a couple of tea towels, some tea, and a bag that I now use to hold all of the books that I collected at the various places in London that we visited.

From Harrods we went to Oxford Street and wandered over to all of the bespoke clothing stores. These are places where men order custom made suits that are tailored to fit the individual exactly. I was interested in seeing them because one of my former students is hoping to one day open his own bespoke clothing business and also because Mike had told me about the methodical process used to make the incredible looking pieces. I took Mike’s picture in front of many of the establishments and we all joked with him that he should order one of the suits for himself. Sadly it takes six weeks to complete a suit with numerous fittings in between, not to mention a cost of many thousands of dollars.

Eventually we headed toward Selfridge’s Department Store with a few stops at other places in between. Selfridge’s was a fun place but the quality of the items just wasn’t as exceptional as those at Harrods, and yet the prices were not that much lower. We had lunch there and I splurged by calling a strawberry sundae my meal. Not only was the treat quite yummy but the people watching was great fun, not to mention noting that Selfridge’s sells fresh produce and meat right along with clothing and household goods. Who knew that one might do all of the necessary shopping under one roof?

We ended up purchasing some wonderful Earl Grey tea and a tin of biscuits at the store. The tea was so good that I am tempted to order more when we run out. I wanted the tin mostly because it celebrated Queen Elizabeth as the longest reigning monarch in the history of the country. It has a sweet photo of her and has ultimately become a respository for all of my trip postcards.

Ironically we all decided that we wanted to return to Harrods. Mike and I wanted to purchase a few more items from the gift shop but first we stopped for tea and found out that Harrods also sells produce and meat of very high quality with prices to match. We placed our packages on the floor as we sipped on yummy Earl Grey and shared a divine pastry. It was great to just sit and relax for a time before going back to the basement to get the rest of our purchases.

We had no sooner left the area where we had been enjoying our afternoon repast when Mike realized that he had left the package that he had been carrying. It was the one that held the items  that we had purchased from Harrods earlier in the day. We rushed back feeling certain that someone had found it, and given it to one of the employees. Sadly it was not there and the waitress indicated that a woman had briefly sat where we had been and then very suddenly announced that she had changed her mind about ordering something and had scurried off with a Harrods bag in hand. No doubt she had taken our things probably believing that she was going to find something wonderful inside. She must have been very disappointed to learn that she had a pot holder, two tea towels, some tea and a bit of toffee, along with a purse for a young girl.

We actually had a  good laugh and then rushed around repurchasing everything that we had lost. We did all of this with time to spare as we hurried to the designated meeting place where we eventually were reunited with the rest of our group. We felt that other than our driving adventures we had just experienced the best story of our trip.

We ended our wonderful day at an Italian restaurant that was surprisingly good. We sat back and enjoyed various forms of pasta and chattered endlessly about all that we had seen. It felt somewhat bittersweet to think about returning home but we knew that the morrow would be spent winging our way back to Texas. It had been the perfect ending to a perfect adventure and one that would hold a very special place in our hearts.

The Cotswolds

 

The Cotswolds are perhaps one of the most delightful areas of England. Filled with rolling green vistas, grazing sheep, fields of lavender, and quaint farmhouses the area is picture postcard delightful. We left the highway and journeyed down narrow lanes that were often devoid of traffic save for ourselves. We traveled slowly and almost aimlessly, enjoying whatever came our way, and stopping often to soak in the beauty.

The landscape was awash with wild flowers of every sort that captured our fancy and our interest. We seemed to stop every few miles to take more photos of what we saw. Along the way we encountered a trio of horses who immediately came over to greet my sister-in-law Allison when she called them to the fence that kept them corralled. They we beautiful animals and quite friendly as well. They enjoyed a snack of apples from the bag of fruit that we had brought along. It was such a delightful moment that we might have tarried much longer but we wanted to see as much of this lovely area as possible before the sun set.

Soon enough we came upon a little town called Stow on the Wold. It was a sheep shearing day but we never quite found the place where that was being done. Instead we wandered into the little town where we came upon a sweet antique shop that was filled with quite remarkable items. I found yet another piece of Willow Ware for my collection, a large platter for serving perhaps a Sunday roast. There were also some sweet framed sets of embroidered birds. My sister-in-law Becky and I liked them so much that I purchased four and she bought the remaining four along with a gorgeous antique tea set. I also found a child’s teapot for my niece, a trinket box for my granddaughter and a small dish for my daughter. Our men folk were rolling their eyes and wondering how we were going  to get all of the things into our suitcases and onto the plane for our return trip, but I already had a plan.

We had searched high and low for a tea towel or other such memento of baby Archie’s birth all to no avail when suddenly we found exactly what we wanted inside a toy shop that featured some of the most unique items that I had seen anywhere. I was also drawn to a little black sheep ornament that I decided to buy for the travel tree that I decorate each Christmas. It reminded me of the peacefulness of this part of England, but also of the hilarity of our conversations inside the car as we laughed our way down impossibly narrow roadways.

Sooner that we might have liked we left Stow on the Wold and continued our drive toward Chipping Campden, a small market town in the Gloustershire district of the Cotswolds. We were quite taken by the cottages with thatched roofs that seemed to be everywhere. Sweet English gardens stood in front of them making them seem to be right out of a fairytale. We wondered who the folks were who were lucky enough to enjoy living in such a picturesque place. It felt as though each new scene was more breathtaking than the next.

Before leaving the back roads we purchased some lavender products and walked through another quaint town but all too soon we were back on the main highway heading toward the hotel where we planned to stay the night in Cheltenham. We were quite excited to find that the Malmaison was a boutique inn that had fused old architecture with modern decor. It was far more lovely than we had imagined when we had made our reservations months before.

For some reason we were all craving Chinese food and we found a five star Cantonese restaurant not far from where we were staying. It featured a lovely setting that felt more like a perfect spot for a high tea with its chintz chairs, starched white table clothes, and delicate English china. Happily the food was scrumptious and the service was even better. We left quite satisfied and drove around town for a bit just to see what it was like.

We were quite tired from the day’s journey so we retired and slept peacefully in our beautifully appointed rooms. We rose early and ate breakfast at the hotel. We enjoyed eggs benedict, hot tea, and an assortment of rolls and jams. It was all quite yummy which ended up being fortunate because it would be many hours before we ate again. We were off and running toward Bath where we hoped to see the Roman structures built around the natural hot springs of the city.

Somehow we all agreed that we really wanted to spend more time in the Cotswolds just hiking and maybe even sitting on a porch taking in the views. It seemed too soon to be leaving such a spectacular area and somehow we secretly pledged ourselves that we might one day return until then we would have to be satisfied with our photographs and the sweet memories that filled our heads.