Memorial Day is for remembering

A Virginia man prepares his Memorial Day decorations.

Memorial Day is for remembering. As a septuagenarian, the bulk of my life is behind me. Memories fill my daily life, but especially so on this solemn weekend.

In the years between ages 21 and 51, I started my career as a public school educator. I met and married my energetic and valiant wife. Our daughter and son were born. I simultaneously served 27 years as a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician.

I consider those the best years of my life. That is true, not because of anything I did, but because of the people I met and interacted with in the communities where I lived, worked, and served.

To list all the folks would surely be impossible. So, I’ll share a few meaningful examples of those who helped me along life’s way.

Of course, I have to start with my parents, Dick and Marian. In the post-World War II era, men were the breadwinners, and women were for the most part housewives, teachers, nurses, or secretaries. That’s just how it was, and I am exceedingly glad those societal expectations are no longer the norm.

Dick and Marian Stambaugh at their 65th wedding celebration.

At 6 foot 2 inches, Dad cut an imposing figure for that era. But he lived like a child turned loose in the world. He loved our mother dearly, but he never saw the need to help much around the house.

Mom always had supper ready when Dad came home from work. After we ate, Dad would often go on some adventure, whether to tend the garden we had on a friend’s property two miles away or to a church softball game.

Mom took things in stride as best she could. None of us five kids ever doubted her love, but we sure tested her limits. Mom was as kind and sweet as she was stalwart and unafraid to have a necessary word or two with Dad or us when needed.

Dad served in World War II on the U.S.S. San Diego, a Navy light cruiser that saw action in 16 major Pacific battles. They never lost a man. Dad was proud of his service but seldom talked much about it. His father, Merle, served in the Army in France in World War I.

Grandpa was gassed by German forces and treated in a field hospital that kept no medical records. He suffered from those damaged lungs until he died at age 72. He never received the financial or medical help that he needed and consequently lived a hard life.

My wife’s parents, Wayne and Esther, took me in like the son they never had. I knew Wayne liked me right away because he ushered me to the barn to see the pigs on my first visit to the farm. My wife said it usually took suitors three trips before they got that introduction.

Family members weren’t my only influencers. I boarded with Helen, a kindly woman, the first year that I taught. We became lifelong friends. Never married, Helen graciously adopted our family as her own. Our daughter and son were the grandchildren she never had.

Many others guided me through life, too: teachers, friends, other family members, even strangers. I cherish the times they spent with me. They all revered the past, never feared the future but sensibly lived in and for the moment at hand. So should we.

You have your saints, too. Remember them we must, for that is what they would want us to do. It is what we all want once we are gone. It’s why we have Memorial Day.

Dad at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., Sept. 12, 2009 as part of an Honor Flight.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Mole Hill Sunset

Mole Hill is a landmark in Shenandoah Valley’s Rockingham County. The forested nob is actually the remnants of a volcano’s core. That hasn’t deterred locals from farming and living around its base.

Mole Hill is properly named. The Allegheny Mountains in the western background dwarf it in comparison. Still, Mole Hill attracts birders, bikers, and sunset gazers alike.

This photo was taken about two miles east of Mole Hill near Harrisonburg, Virginia. With evening fog setting in, the fiery sky looked as if it had recently erupted from this local favorite hotspot.

“Mole Hill Sunset” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Paying it forward creates multiple rewards

The horizon is the limit on paying it forward.

The bulletin board in the coffee shop caught my attention. I moved closer to read its contents.

I quickly discovered that this billboard that you often see in mom-and-pop establishments was no ordinary advertising venue. The notes posted on it were all different but had a common theme.

This public service space was a pay-it-forward board. Pay-it-forward is when a person pays for something for someone else, usually anonymously. Paying it forward can be contagious. Doing so often leads to others returning the favor for future customers.

The examples pinned to the café corkboard were self-explanatory.

“For a parent,” read one. “For an aspiring archeologist,” and “for a pharmacy technician,” read two others. The notes ran the gamut of the human experience, including medical workers for their efforts in fighting the pandemic.

Situated in a northern Virginia town close to the Appalachian Trail, through-hikers often frequented this café to refuel and refresh themselves. Generous donors recognized their likely needs and provided an opportunity for the trekkers to enjoy a prepaid lunch or latte. Individuals were free to take the specific note or envelope that fit their situation.

Other pay-it-forward messages were for National Park workers who spend their careers helping others enjoy the great outdoors. In this particular case, nearby Shenandoah National Park sprawls 105 miles along Virginia’s famous Blue Ridge Mountains.

The pay-it-forward bulletin board.

Regular visitors to the national park know that these dedicated park employees work hard for the money they earn. Many donate time helping out stranded motorists or searching for lost hikers.

I’m sure recipients appreciated the many kind gestures posted. I suspect that some may have also added their own pay-it-forward envelopes to the crowded board.

Last December, a pay-it-forward event that happened at a Dairy Queen in Brainard, Minnesota, received loads of media coverage. It became known as a chain of kindness.

Genuine benevolence began to flow during the lunch hour on December 3 when a man reached the drive-thru window and said that he wanted to pay for his lunch and the order for the car behind him.

That started a chain reaction of events that lasted into three days and involved 900 cars. Everyone kept paying for the vehicle behind them no matter what they had ordered. The Dairy Queen manager said that all of the kindness had energized her and her staff.

Paying it forward can be a spontaneous experience, too. During the devastating ice storm in Texas last February, the manager of an H.E.B. grocery store made an impromptu, impactful and gracious decision to pay it forward.

Customers seeking to stock up on food and household items to weather the storm and power outages packed the store. Suddenly, the store’s power went off. None of the cash registers worked without electricity.

Store employees asked all of the customers to come to the checkout counters. With shopping carts full, the lines of the crowded store were long. Customers expected an extended checkout when the line began moving.

Cashiers merely waved the customers through to the exit. People started crying when they realized what was happening. No one paid for anything.

In the parking lot, people helped one another load groceries into their vehicles. They, too, began paying it forward.

The grocery chain’s generosity didn’t stop there. H.E.B. donated $1 million in groceries to 18 Texas food banks.

Life offers a myriad of opportunities to pay it forward. As we go into this day and all the days ahead, let’s be alert for those unique chances to anonymously and graciously help others however and wherever we can.

Another beautiful sunrise, another day full of opportunities to pay it forward.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Reward at the Summit

Lunch with a view

Hiking has its rewards. Reaching the summit of a peak is one of them. Hikers often celebrate with some cool water and a light lunch to refresh their body’s energy. This hiker is doing just that while also enjoying the gorgeous view from Hawksbill Summit, the highest peak in Shenandoah National Park. New Market Gap in the Massanutten Range is in the distance.

“Reward at the Summit” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Slow down for the rest of May

Enjoying the outdoors is one way

Hightop Mountain, Shenandoah National Park.

Don’t look now, but we are in the middle of May already. May always goes too fast for my liking.

Ideally, it would be nice to put a speed limit on each of May’s 31 days to slow their pace. Of course, that is a romantic pipe dream.

There is an antidote. We can each slow down, take our time, enjoy all that is around us.

Here in the Shenandoah Valley, I am grateful to be part of a hiking group that helps me do just that. It’s a program primarily designed for retirees, so going slow is what we do.

The group generally hikes twice a month and almost always in the gem of the valley, Shenandoah National Park. Each outing is limited to a dozen hikers. The leader is a retired bank president who volunteers in the park by keeping trails open for hikers.

I can’t participate in every hike, but I try to do both hikes in May if I can. The leaves of the mountain forests have yet to unfurl, allowing many wildflowers and trees to bloom. Plus, hikers’ nemeses, heat, humidity, and insects, are scarce.

Our leader plans the hikes and reminds us to come ready for the cool mountain temperatures and bring plenty of water and a lunch. We often trek to a precipice that overlooks the rolling countryside that dominates the Shenandoah Valley.

Mosey might be a better way to describe our hikes. We usually take four or more hours to hike three to four miles roundtrip. Pokey we may be, but we indeed have a glorious time enjoying each other’s company and the beauty we encounter.

It’s not unusual for us to climb 1,000 feet or more in that distance and back down again. Along the way, we frequently stop to enjoy and photograph the floral display spread out for us like a colorful carpet on the forest floor.

On our latest trip, we enjoyed seeing both large and small-flowered white trilliums, patches of red trilliums, wild geraniums, yellow and blue violets, black haw bushes, and hawthorn trees in bloom. Wild strawberries blossomed low while towering tulip poplar buds opened high above.

To reach the summit of Hightop Mountain, we walked the Appalachian Trail (AT) that snakes its way the entire length of the national park. We meet other day hikers like us, section hikers, and through-hikers.

Section-hikers walk the AT one section at a time, returning multiple times later to do more hiking. Through hikers are the serious ones. Their goal is to hike the entire 2,500 miles of the AT.

Most start at the trail’s beginning in Georgia and hike north to its terminus in Maine. In doing so, they experience an unfolding of spring over and over from the south to the rugged northeast.

Our group tries to give way to these more experienced hikers, but they are often as curious about us as we are about them. They often share their trail names and hometowns, and off they go.

We then return to observing the songbirds singing and flitting all around us and the many varieties of wildflowers as we meander. At our age, we have no choice to simply take our time to be safe and to inhale both our surroundings and the refreshingly cool mountain air.

Perhaps that is a good lesson for all of us. Slow down. Take your time. Enjoy all you encounter, moment by moment, breath by breath. Maybe then the remainder of May will gladly join you.

Our lunchtime view with a through hiker.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Devil Strip Beauty

On a day trip last month, this two-toned beauty of a dogwood caught my eye. I hadn’t ever seen a dogwood blooming with both pink and white blossoms. It was ironic that this glorious tree was growing in the devil strip in front of a church in Luray, Virginia. For those unfamiliar with the term, a devil strip is the grassy area between the sidewalk and the curb. In my research, I found the origin of the term to be a bit fuzzy. Nevertheless, I wanted to share this lovely tree with you before we got farther into spring.

“Devil Strip Beauty” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Women who influenced my life

A Mother’s Day tribute

One of my mother’s watercolors that she gave to me.

My four siblings and I were most fortunate. We had a loving, caring, creative, dependable mother. We will miss her always.

Though our dear mother died nine years ago, I can still hear her soothing voice. I can also hear her sterner vocalization, to put it delicately. We weren’t perfect children, after all.

She did her best to discipline us appropriately when we needed it. Unlike my ornery younger brother, I never tasted a bar of soap, however.

Mom’s lovely paintings showed her creative side. But she was a perfectionist. My brothers, sisters, and I discovered piles of both finished and unfinished paintings that Mom thought were less than her best. Many of those watercolors now accent walls in our homes and those of our adult children.

Mom’s self-esteem matured as she aged. She learned to drive at age 40 and loved her grandchildren with matronly devotion.

Mom also had no hesitation about putting Dad in his place when it was appropriate. The specific inflective tone that Mom used always got Dad’s attention. Unfortunately, like most males, it didn’t register in his memory bank.

Mom was a near mirror image of her mother, Birdie Pearl. Grandma Frith’s kind and gentle lilt revealed her Virginia roots every time she spoke. We loved to visit her on the job at a local bakeshop, where each lucky grandchild left with a yummy sugar cookie.

Grandma Frith enjoying a boat ride.

Grandma Frith visited us for Sunday lunch every third week. We had to share her with Mom’s two sisters and their families, who lived nearby. Grandma Frith sat quietly at family gatherings, contented to watch her 17 grandchildren run wild. She was a stately woman indeed.

I also remember my grandfather’s mother, whom we called Mom. Like Grandma Frith, her curly silvery hair bespoke simple eloquence. The yellowy square homemade noodles of her chicken potpie were positively delicious. The chickens and eggs came right out of the coop behind the old rickety house.

Nostalgia, though, can’t rule my admiration for caring, gracious mothers. My wife and my daughter serve as prime examples, though I likely am prejudiced. These are two energetic women on missions. They leave no stone unturned in their quest for truth, justice, and their energy to get things done. Others often are the beneficiaries of their drive, desire, and creativity.

It’s been four years since we moved to the Shenandoah Valley to be close to the grandkids. We have enjoyed watching them grow. And grow they have. All three will soon be taller than Nana.

I have equally enjoyed observing the interaction between their mother and father. I am glad that our dynamic, expressive daughter has adopted and implemented different parenting approaches than what my wife and I used.

Ours weren’t wrong. I just wish we had been more patient and took more time to ask and listen to our children when they were children. Our daughter and her husband have a good handle on that with their active trio.

I also see new life and vibrancy in the mother that I love most, my wife. It took us a little while to settle into our Virginia setting, but Neva took her magic gift of hospitality to a new level once we did.

Neva smoothly shifted into high gear during the pandemic. She sewed, cooked, fed, washed, ironed, drove, delivered, and brightened the lives of grandkids, old friends, strangers, family, and neighbors.

I am grateful for caring mothers everywhere who have helped mold lives young and old, including mine. Faith poured into loving action does that.

Nana and our granddaughter icing cookies.

Mountain to Mountain

I live in one of the prettiest places in the world. I can be atop the Allegheny Mountains in less than half an hour. They are the mountains in the far distance, center to left in the photo.

In less than an hour, I can be driving on the enchanting Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, which runs 105 miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains. This photo was taken less than a month ago from Rockytop Overlook on Skyline Drive.

The peak in the center of the photo is the southern tip of the Massanutten Mountains east of Harrisonburg, Virginia. These old age mountain ranges can’t compare in beauty to the younger, sharper, snow-covered Rocky Mountains. Nonetheless, I find beauty in the mountains that border and bisect the Shenandoah Valley even on a mostly cloudy day.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Welcome to May

It’s a very merry month

Full moon setting over the Allegheny Mountains on May 5, 2020.

I always breathe a sigh of relief when we get to May. Don’t we all do that?

We gratefully welcome the fifth month, if only in anticipation of her fairer weather. She provides a hopeful reprieve from last month. After surviving April 2021, it is a relief to flip the calendar.

May tends to be more predictable on the weather front. The temperatures warm, flowers, shrubs, and trees all bloom in earnest. Lawnmowers work overtime.

When it comes to months, May might be the closest we get to paradise here on earth. The days lengthen, sunny days generally outshine the cloudy ones, and we can finally put the windshield scrapers away.

That doesn’t mean May won’t open the old icebox once in a while. Farmers and gardeners alike keep a wary watch out for dreaded frosts. Of course, this year, April might have already damaged the fruit tree crops with her one-two punches of snow and hard freezes.

Dancing around maypoles at an elementary school.

May has other things on her mind besides weather issues. May 1 is May Day, raucously celebrated around the world for various reasons that date back ages. Dancing around the Maypole is just one tradition that continues today.

Our Puritan forbearers naturally frowned on such frolicking. So, people invented more muted celebrations like May Basket Day, where folks would fill woven baskets with flowers and candy and hang them on the doors of neighbors, friends, and family.

In some countries, May Day continues as a time to celebrate the rights of workers. By month’s end, Memorial Day in the United States is a time to pause and remember those who have gone before us. An extended weekend instantly turns spring into summer.

A cemetery decorated for Memorial Day.

For me, May rings in a roller coaster ride of emotions. My wife and our daughter and son, along with several friends, some now deceased, all have May birthdays.

My wife pleaded with me to get off the riding mower and drive her to the hospital so she could deliver our daughter. When I heard those first cries of life, the half-mown lawn no longer mattered.

Our son’s birth was even more dramatic. I had just arrived at school when I got the call that Neva’s water had broken. Despite some unexpected delays, we made it to the hospital on time, and I’ll never forget Dr. Roth’s exclamation as he lifted our newborn by the legs.

“She’s a boy!” Indeed, Nathan was a gift from God, the meaning of his name.

Decades later, our son visited me in the hospital on his birthday after my robotic prostate surgery. I’m pleased to say that I’ve been cancer-free ever since.

May 4 stirs hard memories of unnecessary conflict and casualties. As a Kent State University graduate the previous year, I can never forget that day.

Hispanics celebrate May 5 as Cinco de Mayo with parades, food, music, and folkloric dancing. Today’s festivals are remanences of the original celebration of the Mexican Army’s victory over the French.

This May, a total lunar eclipse will occur on Wednesday the 26th. Unfortunately, we won’t get to see the eclipse to its completion here in the east.

May means warmer days and nights, fragrances, and sounds we haven’t smelled or heard for 12 months. The month serves up summer’s appetizers.

From beginning to end, all of creation springs forth in May. May is a time to celebrate, reflect, plant, play, and rejoice in all that life offers.

Given all that we have been through in this ongoing pandemic, is it possible for us to replicate May’s commitment to life itself?

The sun sets on Memorial Day long past.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021