Venice Afternoon


“Today was good. Today was fun. Tomorrow is another one.” — Dr. Seuss

The January sun was warm, the sky postcard blue, so we drove to Venice — not the one in Italy, but the one down Tamiami Trail. We parked downtown about a half hour’s walk to the South Jetty.

A couple of soulless concrete condo buildings loomed near the 7-11 by the public beach. The cutest places, though, were the one-story rentals, with names like Bahai Vista and Point Whitecap. One had a gnarled old banyan tree crowding out the bougainvillea at curbside; another featured a trickling man-made stream and fountain. No luxury behemoths here, just old-timey  little places a seashell’s throw from the Gulf.

We passed the Venice Yacht Club, not as hoity-toity as its counterpart in Sarasota. Nice boats lined the seawall, but the blue and white building looked like any typical Florida supper club — probably no ascotted, blazer-wearing Thurston Howell III and his wife Lovey at the bar. Yacht club rentals, a strip of motel-sized units, hugged the water’s edge; a humble lawn chair or two lolled outside every screen door.

At the end of Esplanade, we followed the road as it curved past the Crow’s Nest Restaurant and Dock and changed its name to Tarpon Center Drive. At the tip was the South Jetty, a happening place on a sunny afternoon.

Venice snowbirds, guys in white Nikes, women in splashy-bright capris, flocked to the benches along the seawall to oversee life on the water. Others congregated on the deck of Anita’s Sand Castle, dining on her self-proclaimed World Famous Beach Dogs. Waiting for his order, a barrel-chested New Englander, arms crossed over a faded BoSox tee shirt, prognosticated about the upcoming baseball season with a Cinci Reds-hatted Ohioan. Their wives flashed “nice-to-meet-you” smiles and offered “beautiful day” platitudes. Laughter erupted from a picnic table nearby – old pals reminiscing over cans of beer. Were they new retirees like us, still giddy at being free from work?

We found an unoccupied bench in the shade. Near us, an old man absent-mindedly patted his dog’s head and stared blankly at the water. I stole glances his way. Was he lonely or just preoccupied? I mentally spun a tale of a bereft widower mourning the loss of his wife who’d often sat next to him on a South Jetty bench. A jollier character caught my eye – a chap in a macaw-colored tropical shirt and Tropicana orange trunks. Where was his wife? I wondered. How did he escape out the door in that getup?

This day’s entertainment featured three fishing boats manned by guys in waders – one wore orange; one, green; another white— casting nets into the waters of the inlet. Their feet planted firmly on the boats’ decks, their brawny arms swung in a rhythmic dance: hoist the net the air, drag it out of the water, then hoist; then drag. “They’re just fishing for bait,” Mike said, as if he knew what Gulf Coast fishermen do. As the fishermen pulled the nets on board, it seemed he was incorrect. The nets were heavy with good-sized fish flopping around, and the men threw the smallish ones, under a foot or so, back into the water. The sturdier fish that’d make a hearty family-sized dinner were shoved into a cooler. Pelicans circled the boats, on the alert for leftovers.

We watched the show for a while. Heading back, we detoured to ogle Roberts Bay near the yacht club, then turned on Venice Avenue where pretty homes faced a park populated by giant banyans with ropey limbs dressed in Spanish moss. A white stone arch proclaiming Venice Army Air Base, a remnant of WWII, stood at attention on the lawn.

Closer to our car, we rubbernecked at the shuffleboard courts where it was a competition day, with Venetians in yellow polo shirts competing against a traveling team in blue. Sure, shuffleboard was the stereotypical old-people pastime, but the players sliding the stick across the court to get the puck in just the right spot didn’t seem to mind being typecast.

How could we improve on a day like this? We headed home. It was almost time for a glass of wine before dinner.



Fairly Crafty

“I vow to drink more wine so I can do something crafty with the corks.” — Some e cards

Where can you get a fabric bag to hold your plastic bags, glass earrings, English toffee, American Girl doll clothes, a bedazzled cheese spreader, a leopard print eyeglass case, a subscription to the Venice Gondolier, and chip dip mix? At the Venice Craft Fair, that’s where.

The sky was brilliant blue,  but the temps were a little chilly for the beach,  so a walk through the craft show seemed like a good way to enjoy the sunshine. Mike came along, even though I repeatedly told him that I was all too happy to go solo.

We sampled and bought some English toffee right off the bat. Then we passed a few more booths selling olive oil, quilted beer caddies, garish signs proclaiming “It’s five o’clock somewhere,” and stained glass sun catchers. Mike said, “I thought this was a craft fair.”

“It is a craft fair,” I assured him.

“I thought there’d be art, like paintings.”

“That’s an art fair; this is a craft fair,” I said.

We kept on, shuffling along among other couples out for an afternoon of togetherness. Snippets of conversations wafted over us. “Since he just got the pins out of his sternum….” a woman explained to her friend. “I could use a beer,” a guy said to his buddy as they trailed behind their wives.

I wasn’t even tempted to stop at most booths, like the ones peddling  baked potato bags. Several years back, at another Florida fair, my uber-kind cousin Maureen took pity on an elderly  crafter and bought a potato bag in a Boston Red Sox print, even though we were baffled about how to use one.  At today’s fair, bag inventory was high. I wondered how many bags  and other weird handmade items these eager seamstresses sold in a day. Did they make any money at all? Or were they stuck attending fairs every weekend until they sold every last dish detergent apron and Kleenex box cover?

Some booths drew me in and I lingered over pretty silver bracelets, twisty earrings, a glass serving tray, and  delicate ribbon scarves in luscious colors. But I resisted. Nothing fell into the must-have category for me this time.

Still, I like perusing the booths, hoping to find something special. I guess I’ve always been a sucker for crafts. Ages ago, some girlfriends and I formed a craft club,  meeting once a month to eat brownies, create some cutesy item to display in our homes, and gossip. The club still meets once a month, and the only thing we’ve made for decades is restaurant reservations. Still, we reminisce about our hits— the folded fabric star in the embroidery hoop, the picture frames — and the misses — the baked plastic sun catchers, the dip and drape Santas. What we couldn’t do with some Elmer’s glue and some calico scraps!

I’ll probably head for the Venice Fair next year, if the sun is shining. Mike asked me to remind him that no matter what he says, he really, really doesn’t  want to come along. Works for me.


Home Sweet Home


“It takes hands to build a house, but only hearts can build a home.” — Author unknown

Ever since Santa brought me a metal two-story, I’ve loved dollhouses. My humble abode had painted-on curtains, bathroom towels, and area rugs, and plastic furniture, but its trompe l’oiel fireplace made it fancier than our real–life ranch-style tract home. My imagination moved right in and stayed there until my house was inevitably destroyed by my younger siblings.

When I had a little girl of my own, I wanted her to have a dollhouse, too, and not just a tin one like mine. My dream dwelling included a front porch, elegant furniture, crystal chandeliers, a winding staircase, maybe a smaller version of Colleen Moore’s magical fairy castle on display at the Museum of Science and Industry.

colleen moore

I seized my chance to live my fantasy when Katie was five. What could be a more perfect gift from Santa? First, I had to get Santa on board. Would Mike be willing to build her a dollhouse? Yes. Would our neighbors next door be willing to have him build it in their basement? Another yes.

Doll houses were pricey, but I scoured the Sears catalog and found a kit for a classic colonial that even included furniture. We ordered it before Columbus Day, figuring that we’d have oodles of time for Mike to assemble it. A week later, a hefty, flat box landed on our doorstep. Inside lay thin sheets of wood stamped with numbered parts. Tossed in were pages of assembly instructions, spelling out the steps for cutting, sanding, painting, gluing.

“Holy crap!” said Santa. “No wonder this thing was so cheap. It’s just a box of wood and instructions. Look at all of these steps!”

“Oh, you can do it! There are lots of steps, but it won’t be hard.” said Mrs. Claus. Silently I wondered just where were the elves, ready with their teensy hammers and saws.

Mike brought the kit next door where it was out of sight, out of mind. I may have mentioned to Mike that he ought to get started; he may have assured me that he’d get it done. November rolled around; finally, he went next door.

First, he had to cut out every pieces: walls and floors, Visa-card-sized shutters, heaps of Lego-sized shingles. He painted the exterior white, the shingles , chimney, and shutters blue. Then, on the bedroom walls, he pasted wallpaper, dainty scaled-down designs I found at a hobby store. He glued. And clamped. Sometimes the glue stuck; sometimes

it didn’t. The chimney toppled off, and toppled off again. There was some swearing involved.

Thanksgiving came and went; Christmas toy commercials ramped up on TV. With Christmas Eve looming, Mike became Daddy in absentia. All December, he’d come home from work, have dinner with the kids and me, and then, by 6:30, he was out the door.

“Why does Daddy have to help Marc every night?” the kids grumbled.

“Well, Marc needs him to help him in their basement,’ I explained while I oversaw baths, supervised teeth brushing, tucked kids into bed every evening without back-up. I pondered just what was going on next door, imagining Mike industriously humming along as walls went up, shutters were hung, windows were installed.

Around ten p.m., a bleary-eyed Mike would stumble in.

“How’s it going?” I’d ask.

“This damn thing is a nightmare. The glue won’t stick, and even when I clamp the walls, they fall in. Everything is so little and my fingers are too big. What the hell were we thinking?” he said, flexing his cramped hands and rolling his aching neck. Transforming a box of wood into a keepsake dollhouse for his little girl had lost its sparkle before we even got the tree decorated.

While I tossed out “you can do it” platitudes, I secretly questioned if it would it be completed for Christmas. Well, it had to be. Santa could hardly leave a note explaining that he didn’t get around to finishing her gift. The doors on our Advent calendar were nearly all open, and still there was work to be done. I found a nice family, a mommy, daddy, and two kids made of fabric, to move in, but what about furniture? The local hobby shop sold cunning pieces of authentic Queen Anne sofas, wing chairs, poster beds, and armoires, almost as expensive as our people-sized stuff. Not for a five-year-old’s toy; this wasn’t a museum showpiece. The furniture in the kit would have to do, and it needed assembling as well, and maybe some upholstery.

On the Saturday before Christmas, we hired a babysitter for the day, lying to our kids about where we were going. As soon as we waved goodby and shut the front door, we scuttled next door. Marc and Mike clamped and glued the remaining walls and roof top in place, Margie and I glued together bandaid-box-sized couches and beds and chairs smaller than a pack of paper clips. Our tongues between our teeth, we hand-stitched calico cushions and poked cotton balls into postage-stamp-sized pillows to add a splash of color to the décor. As if a fairy godmother had waved her wand, it was becoming the dollhouse I’d been dreaming about since I was five myself.

On Christrmas Eve, Mike and Marc reverently carried the it across the driveways as if it were a princess on a sedan chair. We placed it in front of our Christmas tree next to the gifts for Brady— the standard kind of three-year-old-boy stuff we found at Toys R Us.

I barely slept, my mind buzzing with anticipation. How would Katie react? Would she like it as much as I did? When Christmas morning dawned, the kids ran to the living room, and Katie stopped in her tracks when she saw her dollhouse. Yes, she did love it, and the evidence is tucked away in a photo album—a snapshot of our wide-eyed little blonde in her blue robe and nightgown, beaming next to her Santa surprise. Best of all, it was not one of those toys that gets ignored after Christmas. For a while, she spent any birthday money she had making upgrades: a brass coatrack, lamps, chairs and tables to replace the tacky balsa wood stuff.

When she no longer believed in Santa, it dawned on her that her dad had been the archtiect of her treasure. “Daddy, did you make the dollhouse?” she asked one day. When he acknowledged that he had, she wanted to hear all about how he’d managed to accomplish such an amazing feat. Kate got older, of course, and what high school girl needs a doll house in her bedroom? We covered it with a sheet and packed it away, then moved it to the basement of our new home the year before Kate got married.

More years passed; eventually we had two granddaughters. We lifted the sheet, revealing the old manse, time worn and dried out. A glue gun and some cleaner spruced it up a bit, but time had withered away its glamour. The tiny candlesticks, the crocheted rugs, the flimsy furniture were tired and tawdry. The little girls played with it a bit when they visited, but no one was as captivated as Kate had been so long ago. Now Maggie is eleven, past dollhouse age, while Francesca owns her own Swedish contemporary.

So, the Sears dollhouse, its sad old roof sagging even after some repairs, haunts the storage room, like some dilapidated grande dame in the seedy side of town. Recently, Maggie helped me clean out a closet and we came across a battered old box. I opened the lid to find long-forgotten Kleenex-wrapped treasures –blue metal spatterware dishes, a silvery teapot, a plastic Tiffany lamp, a wooden rocking horse, and even the pillows Margie and I made on that long-ago Saturday afternoon.

It should be time to say goodbye to the old home, too far gone for rehabbing. The box of furnishings? No need for those either. I could carry it all out the trash, I guess. Not right now, though. Not yet.





“Whoever dreamed up Scrabble had an exaggerated idea of how many seven-letter words have five I’s.” — Robert Brault

I’d like to say that I spend my free time reading the classics or that I write daily, crafting witty essays, sending them off to publishers clamoring for more.

I’d like to say that my closets and cabinets are thoroughly organized; my spices in alphabetical order.

I’d like to say that I spend my afternoons in the kitchen creating culinary marvels or that I’m out jogging or weight-lifting at the gym.

I’d like to say all of this, but, I can’t.

And it’s all because of Scrabble on my IPad.

With just a tap of my fingers, I am absorbed in any one of the eighteen games I’ve got going at once.

Some are with my best friend; others are with people I’ve never met. Pat in Ohio and I can spend an evening back and forthing. Elise, Maureen, Sunjay… who the heck are they? Liberal Democrats? Tea Party Republicans? Kind and generous? Mean and nasty? Neurotic? Schizophrenic? What do I care? They play Scrabble, and that’s good enough for me.

Any time… before I’m out of bed in the morning, while I’m making dinner, while I’m waiting for the dryer to stop tumbling, during commercials, at the end of every chapter I’m reading. Tappity tap and I’m in…

I know all of the acceptable two letter words, from aa to za. And big news! Scrabble has added a few new ones, so I can now plunk down te, po, and gi to my heart’s content. I know the importance of an S as a hook, the value of a blank, the enticement of an open triple word score space. Each game presents new challenges; too many vowels, a seven-letter word with no where to place it, a rack of unwelcome letters, like V or C. I face adversity with determination; I accept victory with aplomb.

My attention span used to be stellar. I could sit absorbed in a book for hours. Alas, that has been a casualty of the game. Even while I typing this, I took a five minute break to plop a couple words into a waiting game.

I used to be a purist, playing on a real board. I swore I’d never abandon the accoutrements of the game — the velvety bag of letters, the hands-on shuffling of tiles on the rack. Just like the book-only people now scrolling their Kindles, I eschewed my Luddite ways and dove in. Why worry about missing tiles, lugging around a big board, and relying on a paperback Scrabble dictionary when the IPad version does it all. Tap, slide, tap, and my best effort is flying through cyberspace to dazzle my opponent.

My best friend and I have whiled away hours over a couple of decades, sitting around in the kitchen or at a picnic table, moving around little wooden letters. We used to play on an old cardboard set that folded in the middle. Next, it was the Deluxe edition, with ridges around every square to keep the tiles from sliding. Then, we graduated to the 75th anniversary edition, a slick all-in-one with drawers to store racks and tiles. We’ve played Travel Scrabble on airplanes to Europe, cramping our fingers to manipulate the pea-sized letters. On vacations, we’ve sat on a French terraces, in Scottish hotel tearoom, at an Italian villa, playing game after game.

Those traditions tossed aside, we’ve succumbed to pass-n-play, tilting our IPad to avoid the sun’s glare, making a move, then handing it off to each other. Once content to play one leisurely game at a time, we now can have two going at once. No waiting for my turn while basking in the leafy surroundings of the park. No slow contemplation of my best choice — just tap and pass, tap and pass.

My TV watching has suffered as well. I can barely concentrate on a whodunit. Watching with one eye, playing with the other, I tell myself, is good for my brain. I’m multi-tasking! But I’m actually doing a lousy job at both endeavors. How could I not notice the sly look on the TV culprit’s face? How could I have not noticed the triple word score spot begging to be covered by my Q word?

A pastime? Or a reason for living? A good question to contemplate, but I’ll get to it later. Right now I see a seven-letter Z word raring to go.


Just Stuff


Old customs are easy to forget with the flashing of events in our lives. Easy to forget, like the heavy clothing we once wore to survive the winters. It is an old custom, the handing down of things. A good knife, a well-made pipe, a heavy robe. Tradition falls prey to constant change, and creativity becomes so revered that the past is a relic, only to be admired. Craig Childs, The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild, 2007 

A couple years ago, my husband’s Aunt Sue and I sat on her couch while she reminisced about her childhood in North Dakota, her aunts and uncle, her treasured heirlooms. Evidence of Sue’s mental unraveling surrounded us. Stacks of mail drifted across the dining room table. Food containers, Sucrets boxes of quarters, grocery store flyers, church bulletins, newspapers, and other flotsam buried the kitchen counters. Sue, oblivious to her inability to manage her life, smiled as she told me about her antique desk and the needlepoint pictures stitched by her deceased husband.

“Would you like to see my jewelry?” she asked.

I did, and we headed upstairs to retrieve her plastic jewelry cases. Back on the couch, Sue, her eyes twinkling, began by plucking pieces from their little slots and telling me some history.

“This is my high school pin….

These earrings I got from Aunt Gert…

Ray gave me this watch as an anniversary gift. He always bought me lovely things…

Mother wore these earrings…

This is my birthstone ring that I got from my godmother…”

Had Sue known what lay ahead of her, she would have entrusted the jewelry and her other cherished possessions to me right then and there. But she didn’t know. When we moved her to the dementia care facility a few months later, the bank that handled her trust sold her condo and her furniture, but refused to let us take her china, her silverware, her jewelry, or even her old books or photos. Instead, they kept some of it in a safe deposit box and the rest in a storage facility.


A couple of months after Sue’s funeral, the bank allowed us to collect her things. They handed over a fabric bag from the safe deposit box along with the keys to the storage facility. Behind the Safe Storage cubicle’s corrugated metal door in a box on the cement floor, sat the plastic trays Sue and I had looked through in her home on that July afternoon.

Mike and I loaded up the car with the boxes, and headed home, then dragged the boxes down to our basement. Just what had we collected? Technically, it didn’t belong to us but to Mike’s dad, age ninety, in an assisted living facility in Iowa, and his aunt Elizabeth, age eighty-four, in a nursing home in California. Of course, they didn’t want it, so the task of sorting through it all fell to me.

Time to divvy it up.

Grandma’s diamond engagement ring was the plum that should go to Mike’s sister Barb; after all, she was Sue’s only niece.

What about the rest?

I sifted through it all … tiny earrings with colored stones, watches with dime-sized faces , gold chains that Sue had kept untangled by threading them through drinking straws, rings to fit pencil-sized fingers, a silver bracelet or two, some turquoise, a couple of jade charms. Then, I lugged the bag into a local jewelry exchange where the owners examined every piece to see what was gold or silver. Just like Antiques Roadshow, I thought, as I hovered over the counter. Except, there was no “Eureka!” moment. There was a gold charm bracelet worth several hundred dollars, a few broken chains worth a little, and some silver. Those filigree earrings with twinkly green stones? The sweet ruby ring? Not saleable.

Would anyone want any of it?

I plucked a silver bracelet from the bag to keep for myself, one the appraiser valued at thirteen dollars. I chose Sue’s opal engagement ring, too. Later, I had my daughter and daughter-in-law poke through it all. A couple baubles caught their fancy, and, just for fun, Kate took Sue’s Northwest Airlines stewardess pin from the ‘50’s. They also selected some delicate earrings as keepsakes for our granddaughters. But they barely made a dent in the mishmash. I sent photos to my sister-in-law Barb and she passed them on to my nieces. What did they want? Each of them eyed a piece or two, and I convinced Barb to claim a marcasite pin that I knew she’d wear. The bag didn’t seem to be getting any lighter, and I pawed through everything one more time, taking plastic bangles in bright colors and a couple pairs of clearance-rack earrings.

I cashed in the gold bracelet whose charms held special memories for Sue, but not for us. I sold some silver and turquoise bracelets, and the high school pin. But the rest? Seems it’s worthless. A harsh word, worthless.

Some of the pieces were gifts given long ago, for birthdays, anniversaries, and special occasions. The givers and the recipients are all gone, and the memories of those special occasions have died too. Once upon a time, the ruby earrings made Sue’s heart sing; she wore that dainty watch with pride. Today, the remaining hodgepodge is holed up in my closet. I can’t bring myself to get rid of these leftovers from Sue’s life, even the tarnished, hopelessly out-of-style odds and ends.

I’ve been thinking about what’s in my own jewelry collection. Where will it all end up? All kinds of trinkets– my high school ring, the little pearl earrings I wore on my wedding day, and a green cocktail ring my husband bought me years ago– are nestled in their felt-lined places in my dresser….waiting. But I wonder, what are they waiting for? All of it, no matter how pretty it may be, is in the end, just our stuff.






Left Behind


“My parents didn’t want to move to Florida, but they turned sixty and that’s the law.” — Jerry Seinfeld

Back in October I purged my closet, rearranging what to take and what to leave behind. Our snowbirdism officially began a couple days later, when we headed south for the winter. Mike’s golf clubs, some Chicago delicacies –two frozen tubs of Italian beef, a couple jars of giardeniere, packets of Frontera mole sauce, piles of sandals, shorts, and tee shirts, the computer, and some cute new lanai throw pillows were smooshed into the car Clampett-style for our two day trip.

As a rookie snowbird, figuring out what goes and what stays took some thinking. Stuff I don’t wear either here or there ended up in a Goodwill-bound bag. But what to pack? No wooly sweaters, no winter coats, no boots – yippee! Black suede pumps? Scarves that aren’t fashion accessories, but a preventative for frozen nostrils? Those twenty long-sleeved tees that I layer under sweaters? The fuzzy Dearfoam slippers? A cozy robe? Left behind.

Left behind. Some of my life falls into that category, too. Stuff in the discard pile: Professional responsibilities. Weekly Grandma days. Monday shopping excursions with my eighty-nine-year-old mother. Book club. Lunches with old friends. Meetings for a glass of wine with the Baker Babes, my former teaching colleagues. Writers group. Some soccer games, dance recitals, swim meets that could use a grandma in the stands.

We’ve dipped our toes into snowbird life before. For twelve years, we’ve been flying down to Sarasota for little snippets of time. When I was no longer tethered to a school calendar, the snippets stretched – three days turned into five, seven turned into ten. Last year, we tallied a total of twelve weeks spread over six months, an all-time high. We even stayed for one seven-week stretch, when I read a lot, lolled at the pool, joined a card group, went for walks on the beach, made some new friends, trained to be a literacy volunteer, and settled in. That polar vortex back home? Missed most of it.

Now, we’re off for the whole winter. Except for the month of December, we’ll be here until May, living a life of leisure. The stereotypical retired couple moving to Florida? Yup, that’s us.

I’ve been responsible, organized, and task-oriented my whole life. I’ve been busy, real busy. One thing I’ve learned: busyness is not a virtue.

So, I’m giving myself some pep talks about this life transition. Give yourself a break, Ellen. Ditch that little shroud of guilt that you tend to wear if you sleep in a little, spend an afternoon reading a book by the pool, or fritter away an afternoon playing iPad Scrabble on the lanai while others are hunching their shoulders against Chicago’s brutal cold. Walk the beach or the Ringling Bridge, and love every step. Soak up the sunshine – slathered in sunscreen, of course–, admire the palm trees, and delight in the sandhill cranes that mosey through the neighborhood. Take a writing course, just for fun. Tutor, because you love it, not because it’s required.

One more thing that’s getting left behind? The feeling that I Have To (fill in the blank).