Monday, March 30, 2009

Walking for Priscilla; Walking for Velcro shoes

This week I received an e-mail from the 3-Day that suggested I blog about training. Sorry 3-Day, but that blog would be pretty boring. I’m training, yes. I’m up to 6.5+ miles, which is a full 1.5 miles ahead of schedule. And as I spend most of the 6.5 miles either working my tail off on the elliptical or actually running on the treadmill, I feel like I’m at a decent place as far as training is concerned. I have until October to work up to three consecutive days of 20 miles anyway.

The point of all that is this:

When I started thinking about my next post for this blog, I was also sort of thinking about training. Suddenly I was hit with a very vivid flashback of my childhood: Priscilla liked to run. When I was five or six years old, she promised me a pair of Velcro shoes if I would start running with her. All the other kids had Velcro shoes and I badly wanted a pair of my own, which made this a particularly enticing proposition. I don’t remember how long our running experiment lasted, but I do have a memory of running around a lake with Priscilla. I can picture Priscilla’s long blond braid bouncing on her back while I struggled to keep up with her. She wore blue running shorts. I’ve probably glamorized the experience in my memory because I know that I’ve never enjoyed running.

At some point, Priscilla was given advice to stop running. At that time, she must have switched to walking as her primary choice of exercise. I do have lots of memories of taking long walks with Priscilla, mostly around various Arlington neighborhoods. These I did enjoy, and I’m sure that many family members have similar fond memories of walks with Priscilla. One walk stands out in particular; it was after her diagnosis and the weather was cool and brisk, although not yet cold. We left from Nell’s house (it was Priscilla and Dad’s house by then, but I’ll always remember Lexington Street as Nell’s house), walked up to Sharp Park and came back through lots of old houses on Ohio Street. Several neighbors along the way greeted Priscilla with a wave and mid-morning pleasantries. I felt comforted by this somehow, confident that Priscilla had established herself in a community so firmly that should she eventually die, her spirit would continue.

Walking with Priscilla was also one of those activities that was easy to do even when our walks were at a rapid pace uphill. Walking was about exercise, sure, but it was also about conversation. Walks were always peppered with commentary about our surroundings, questions about life decisions, and if you were lucky enough, lots of laughter. On Mother’s Day 2007, Priscilla and I took a walk around the block (this time in Boulder, not Arlington). Dad and I had spent the better part of that May shuttling Priscilla from one medical appointment to another, and that was only when she wasn’t in the hospital. She hadn’t been able to take a walk in some time. I remember feeling so encouraged by her spirit on Mother’s Day, delighting in her laughter when some neighborhood dogs blocked our path. We only made it halfway around the block, but we returned home with great smiles. One month later, we lost Priscilla.

So 3-Day, when I think about training, when I think about the purpose behind the 60 miles I’ll walk in October, I think about Priscilla’s spirit. I think about my stepmother and I think about my best friend. I remember that as a child, I watched Priscilla do her crazy floor exercises with hand weights, leg lifts, and three towels. Now I do my own set of crazy exercises in preparation for three days of honoring Priscilla’s spirit, surrounded by friends and family who will walk with similar memories of their own loved ones.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Yellowstone: What an adventure!

Dad stopped by for a visit on Saturday afternoon. (It was a lovely, sunny day in Colorado and we sat on the back porch watching the dog play in the backyard.) He had just returned from a camping trip in Utah and was catching me up on the details. At some point during our conversation, he recalled the summer that he, Priscilla and I vacationed out West for two weeks (summer of ’95 maybe?). Let’s just say that I was less than enthusiastic about a hiking and camping vacation. I greatly preferred our trips to the beaches of North Carolina and Florida, which featured amenities like running water, toilets, beds and privacy. This hiking and camping trip featured tents, streams and BEARS.

Yes, that’s right: BEARS. One painful day of this trip, we hiked up Slough Creek in Yellowstone. (You can see pictures of this hike at my picasaweb; we took the first portion of the hike again in October 2007 as a way to remember Priscilla.) We were warned of "high bear activity" at the ranger station on the way into the park, but Dad and Priscilla considered this normal and so we proceeded. I don’t recall the specifics of the first news of bears, but I think it might have been when we encountered another family that wanted to share our campsite because they had seen a bear at theirs. I know that at some point, we actually saw a bear up the ridge and it totally freaked me out. It was bad enough that I couldn’t use a blow dryer on the trip, but I was not about to spend several nights with BEARS. We abandoned the Slough Creek portion of the trip the next morning. I do have fond memories of the trip back down to the car: Dad fished while Priscilla and I lounged under some trees, alternating between napping and reading in the park's gentle breezes.

I was not the only person with a minimally enthusiastic experience on this particular trip. While Dad and I were chatting over the weekend, he shuddered when he remembered the night that we shared a tent sleeping in the wrong direction. Priscilla thought it would be preferable to sleep so that the tent was wider than it was long (not exactly how the tent was made to be used) – this way, three people could sleep without physically touching each other. She and I made out better in this deal than Dad did, however. I’m pretty short, so losing a few inches of length didn’t matter much to me. Dad’s a good seven or eight inches taller than me though, and the poor man slept all smushed up like a pretzel that night. He was in pain the next morning.

I only accompanied Dad and Priscilla on the first week of the trip. I headed back to Arlington, where Nell greeted me at the airport. Dad and Priscilla spent another week (maybe two) in and around Yellowstone. The trip must have greatly improved after my departure because it became an annual backcountry adventure for Dad and Priscilla. In a letter that Priscilla wrote to my father in 2004, she thoughtfully shared:

"...One of the most wonderful things you did for me was to take me to Yellowstone. The places we explored and the natural beauty and power of the place are one of the highlights of my life…
Even our home and the rewards of our garden in bloom did not connect me to America. That emotional sense of being in 'place,' of belonging to the earth, to a land, to country, really came to me in Yellowstone. The thing I owned least in all the world felt the most like mine. The wildness and utter impossibility of possessing it is what made me love it."

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Learning to love food

Once a week, my parents took me to the Chinese restaurant up the street for dinner. I looked forward to the one night my father would come home and not feel like cooking, although if it was a Thursday and The Cosby Show was coming on, I would try to rush us through dinner so that I wouldn’t miss a minute with the Huxtables. Priscilla always preferred moo goo gai pan, and she and I together would frequently talk Dad into moo shoo pork. His favorite dish was probably pork chung king, or maybe Mongolian lamb. Anyway, the weekly visit to Peking Pavilion was our tradition and I grew up eating really good Chinese food. My dad still makes the best fried rice I’ve ever tasted.

Food was pretty important in our family. Both my father and Priscilla were excellent cooks. Dad usually cooked weeknight meals after work, but Priscilla was the Master Chef for all holidays and special events. She was also a supremely talented baker – she made me the most gorgeous birthday cakes that were decorated like something you would see in a high-end bakery. Priscilla put exceptional effort into her cooking and she wanted us, understandably, to appreciate this. We were expected to dress in formal attire for holiday meals or birthday celebrations, and I was taught impeccable table manners at an early age.

At first, I didn’t know any differently and I did as I was told. As I grew up, however, I became more reluctant to put on a party dress for Thanksgiving. Some years I would purposely spend Thanksgiving with my mother simply to avoid all of the pomp and circumstance of Thanksgiving With Priscilla. The food wasn’t as elegant, but the atmosphere was definitely more relaxed. I guess that for most things in life there is a happy medium. I probably should have learned to apply this to holiday meals, but one of the benefits of having divorced parents is having options at holiday time.

Once I was old enough to have a say in the matter (probably around the time I obtained a driver’s license), I always split Christmas: morning/stockings/presents with Dad and Priscilla, afternoon with Mom at my aunt and uncle Lani and Larry’s house, and eventually dinner and/or dessert back at Dad and Priscilla’s. Priscilla made these incredibly gooey cinnamon yeast rolls every Christmas morning. They were so sticky and delicious! She always made two options – as a child, I strictly avoided the ones with nuts, but as an adult I learned that the nutty rolls were small gifts from heaven.