Social distancing before it was required

Reflections at the alligator pond.

My wife and I were social distancing before we knew there was such a thing.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S., I made an all-day social distancing trip to Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. It was a mere hour’s drive from our winter hideout on Amelia Island, Florida.

I invited my lovely wife to accompany me. Having already visited there briefly with friends, Neva declined. Her aversion to snakes and reptiles made that an easy decision. However, I wanted to explore the place more thoroughly.

I didn’t mind going solo at all. We each believe that doing our own thing has contributed to the longevity and quality of our marriage. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

You might know the refuge by its more colloquial name, Okefenokee Swamp. That is what the locals call it. Take a tour, however, and you will quickly learn that Okefenokee isn’t a swamp at all.

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Native Americans gave the sprawling area the name centuries ago. In English, Okefenokee means “land of the trembling earth.” The moniker fits. In the less disturbed marshy areas, the land beneath reverberates with each step you take.

Okefenokee has been a national wildlife refuge since 1937. It was designated a World Heritage Site in 1974.

Much more than a shallow blackwater swamp, the 403,000 acres that comprise Okefenokee are a beautiful blend of hammock forests, creeks, wetland prairies, and cypress groves. Altogether, they serve as the headwaters for both the Suwannee River and the St. Mary’s River, which marks the Florida/Georgia boundary.

My heart jumped when I saw this woodpecker land on the trunk of this longleaf pine. It was a yellow-bellied sapsucker.
I arrived mid-morning under hazy, smoky skies in early February. My main objective was to find the elusive and rare red-cockaded woodpecker. Okefenokee is one of the last remaining sanctuaries for the endangered bird.

I drove down the eerily lovely Swamp Island Drive in search of the woodpecker. I had never seen one, and after spending the morning trying, I still haven’t. I did see plenty of nest holes high up in the longleaf pine trunks.

I wasn’t disappointed. Just being among all the beauty and the sounds and earthy fragrances of nature was sufficient.

Hundreds of sandhill cranes cackled unseen in the wetlands beyond the pines that surrounded a small pond. An alligator laid like a fallen log on the pond’s far lip. A brown-headed nuthatch foraged on a tree trunk only four feet from me.

Bigger alligators rested roadside along shallow ditches. I found it surprising how much the vegetation changed at the slightest rise or dip in elevation. The scenery was stunning despite the gray overcast sky and smoke from a nearby forest fire.


Only a few feet from the boardwalk trail, alligators absorbed whatever warmth the day offered. Neva would not have approved. By the time I reached the observation tower, the sandhill cranes had quieted and were out of sight.

I learned much more about Okefenokee on the afternoon boat tour. Our guide explained that the deepest water was only four feet. The vast geologic basin was filled with peat, which is why it quivered when stepped upon.

Our small flat-bottom boat cruised between stands of cypress graciously draped with Spanish moss, which isn’t a moss at all. Huge alligators lounged along the way, while a highly venomous water moccasin soaked in the filtered sunshine. Red-shouldered hawks screeched from high perches on old snags.

As I headed back to our condo, I savored the day that had buoyed me. For Neva and me, that style of social distancing helps enrich both our individuality and our affinity.

A cypress grove along the Suwannee Canal.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

‘Safe at home’ has a new meaning


Safe at home. It’s a phrase I always associated with my favorite sport, baseball. A player sliding into home plate trying to score around the catcher is one of the more exciting plays in baseball.

There will be none of that this spring. Whether watching my beloved Cleveland Indians or our grandson pitch for his high school team, baseball, along with most everything else in life, has been put on hold or canceled altogether due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Today, of course, safe at home has a much more significant meaning than scoring a run in a game. Clearly, our routines like yours have all been altered because of the virus.

Instead of bemoaning those facts, Neva and I have chosen to self-quarantine. Instead of venturing out much, we are playing it safe at home. We have sequestered ourselves for the duration of the coronavirus threat, however long that lasts.


Given our age and medical histories, it’s the right thing to do. Since we are both retired, it was an easy decision for us. Plus, given the medical guidelines, we both are in the high-risk category for catching the virus.

We feel for those who are required to follow the shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders issued by officials. The loss of incomes and the unfamiliar routine of merely being at home can be frustrating and fearful. Anxiety can play havoc with our psyche.

The most essential survival directive is to take care of yourself. We each own the responsibility for our individual mental and physical health. Radical times call for well-reasoned decisions.

Consequently, Neva and I have doubled-down on our daily exercise routines. We eat three meals a day. We stay hydrated, always a significant element in staying healthy, whether a pandemic is raging or not. We keep our bedtimes as consistent as possible and wake about the same time each morning. Of course, at our age, sleeping through the night is a coin toss.

Since we stay at home, our daughter includes our food or hygiene needs in her grocery shopping, done either locally in person or pick up, which requires several days’ advance notice. She often delivers our items, too.

My curbside-delivered gluten free waffle.
Like many other states, Virginia requires only carry-out orders from restaurants. To help them during these tough times, we order from some of our favorite eateries at least once a week. They bring the food right to the curb.

Another vital aspect of holing up at home is to not isolate yourself. We are social beings, after all, created to help, serve, and respect one another.

Bonding with others doesn’t have to be complicated. Phone calls, text messages, FaceTime, social media, even snail mail letters, and cards can uplift people and help you stay connected.

People find creative ways of helping others during these crazy times. They show kindness and compassion by placing teddy bears in windows for neighborhood children to enjoy discovering, like a scavenger hunt. They make and donate cloth face masks for local hospitals and medical personnel.

We are living in tough times. People are suffering, having lost jobs, income, and a sense of normalcy. Fear and frustration can haunt them. We all need to help others see this pandemic through.

As you have likely heard before, we are all in this together. Keep the faith. Hold on, be kind and compassionate to yourself and those you love each and every day.

By showing empathy and gratitude, we will endure and persevere together. That simply is how a caring community works.

youth baseball, grandson
Our grandson was safe at home.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

In like a lion, out like a lamb, or not

March snow in the mountains.

March is famous for its variable weather. After all, the familiar saying, “In like a lion, out like a lamb” references the month of March.

There’s a good reason for that. It’s easy to imagine our log cabin ancestors being more than ready for spring after enduring snowstorm after snowstorm. However, pioneer-era folklore was based more on hope than meteorological compilations.

They professed that if March began with yet more lion-like elements, then it had to end with gentler, calmer, warmer, more welcoming weather. Who could blame them?

It’s only natural to want more appealing weather than another cold spell. In animalizing weather, it’s much safer to deal with a lamb than a lion, especially if you were a 19th-century settler with a bad case of cabin fever.

Likely, there was more to it than that. Those hardy people believed in a balance of life. Aristotle’s “moderation in all things” was their mantra. So, they logically applied that theory to the weather as well. If March was harsh in the beginning, it should be mild by month’s end.

Unfortunately, the weather doesn’t work that way. We take what we get, and given what we have gotten in the past, March’s weather could be a doozy. A lot of factors come into play.


March’s normal weather, whatever normal is these days, has historically played hijinks with global societies. March is known to deliver every variety of weather in its 31 days, and not always where or when you might think.

My family has personal experience with March’s fickleness. Seven years ago, we traveled from Ohio to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to babysit our three grandkids, then ages eight, six, and three. Their parents went on a much-needed vacation to Florida.

Shortly after we arrived, a strong cold front moved through the eastern U.S. causing chaos. While Florida froze, the storm dumped a foot of heavy, wet snow on us. Babysitting was never so much fun as we frolicked in the winter wonderland. Sled riding, building snow forts, and snowmen filled much of our time.

When we returned home a week later to Holmes County, Ohio, the weather was dreamy. Under sunny skies, Amish farmers were plowing fields with horses. Now those seem like the good old days.

When we arrived home.

It’s easy to be nostalgic about March. I always thought of the third month as the bridge between winter and spring. Hoes and rakes replaced sleds and ice skates. The snow on the daffodils never lasted long.

It’s much harder to face the reality of the Marches of the 21st century. Now, severe storms are occurring more frequently and are much stronger than in previous times.

More than a hundred years of industrialization have drastically changed global climate patterns. Tropical areas that usually receive regular rains have been drought-stricken, resulting in catastrophic wildfires. Think Australia and California.

Globally, the last 10 years have produced nine of the warmest years on record. In fact, this January was the warmest ever. That could explain in part why many skiers, ice skaters, and ice fishermen far and wide had to feel abandoned by the nearly winterless winter weather.

That said, March will still be March. It just might be wilder than in olden years. Our forebearers rhymes may have had some wishful reasoning to them. The reality in the early 21st century may deliver more dramatic climatological results.

If we are fortunate, perhaps the meteorological lion and lamb will lie down together peaceably. That might bring spring weather of biblical proportions.

The signs say it all.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Technology can be a pain in the neck

The view from my Florida “office.”

For good or for ill, technology has impacted nearly every aspect of our lives.

Robots began to invade the workforce assembly lines when I was a youngster. Never could I have imagined how far they would be integrated into our daily lives. Technology is advancing so rapidly that as soon as you buy a new cell phone, for example, it becomes obsolete.

We are so dependent on technology that we become exasperated when it doesn’t always work. If the power source goes out, we are stymied. Our electronic gizmos seem to be controlling us rather than the other way around.

For all of the promises of making life simpler, easier, and more rewarding, technology can be a pain in the neck. In my case, the pain was real.

I recently took my laptop computer in for its annual checkup. I believe that it’s good to have a trained technician clean up your technology every now and then. That assumption turned problematic.

The railroad’s version of a pain in the neck.

Skipping all of the gory details, let’s just say the guy pushed the wrong buttons on my keyboard. Consequently, a newer operating system unintentionally replaced my old one. I was unaware of the far-reaching ramifications.

When I began writing in the word processor, I found myself typing in the cloud, wherever that is. Thousands of my photos disappeared along with hundreds of research bookmarks.

The techs were baffled. My mind raced, fearing all the negative possibilities. The good guys at the computer shop felt just as bad.

They said they would uninstall the new system and reinstall the old one using the info backed up on my external drive. The techs thought that would restore my lost data and photos. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Which cloud was I in?

I silently implemented my meditation breathing skills to stay calm. Apparently, I need more practice. I woke the next morning with a stiff and painful neck. I attributed the previous day’s stress as a likely cause.

I realize technology has done wonders for global societies. Thanks to solar power developments, remote third-world villages can generate power for their community water well. That ensures local residents have safe, clean drinking and cooking water.

Where would the medical field be today without the technological advances in equipment and practices that have simplified radical surgeries? Technology also allows medical personnel to communicate remotely, saving time, money, and, more importantly, lives.

Firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and police depend on high tech equipment to help them do their jobs better, more efficiently, and more safely. Thermal imagining cameras, for example, help first responders locate trapped or lost people.

Smartwatches and smartphones allow society to instantly communicate person to person or group to group. People once geographically isolated from world events now follow global news as it happens.

There are drawbacks as well. Universities have to paint warning signs on sidewalks for students to look up when they come to a crosswalk at a street corner. Why? Because nearly all of them are walking and talking on their cell phones, oblivious to their surroundings.

Don’t get me started on the misuse of social media, phone apps, or even the Houston Astros.

My world improved when the technicians were able to reinstall the new operating system and updated word processing software. I once again began typing on my computer instead of somewhere out there. Most of my photos were restored as well.

However, the irritating pain in my neck remained. I’m still working with technicians of a different sort to get that repaired.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

It’s always good to be home

A new day dawns in Ohio’s Amish country.

Home. It’s a four-letter word that conjures up both good and sad emotions. It all depends on one’s circumstances.

I was fortunate. Returning home has always been a rewarding, meaningful experience for me.

I have no recollection of living in my first home on a channel of a lake near Akron, Ohio. But I recall many stories told to me in my adolescent years. I still get chided for grinding up coal cinders from the driveway. Apparently, I thought they tasted good.

My earliest childhood recollection was when I was about four years old. My father handed me a cold Coca Cola while I sat overhead on a rafter of the house my folks were building.

I spent my formative years in the little red-brick bungalow in Canton, Ohio. Baby boomer families like ours filled that middle-class neighborhood. Pick up Whiffle ball, baseball, and football games were commonplace, along with hide and seek sessions that went long into warm summer evenings.

That modest home was always a welcome sight returning home from college. Though the house was sometimes filled with shouting and disagreements, I always felt safe there. It was my home and my family, after all.

All of that changed once I graduated and started teaching in Killbuck, Ohio. I met and married my wife, and we built our own home just out of town next to an old cemetery. My school principal built right next to us. I loved to tell people that at least we had good neighbors on one side of our home.

We spent 10 incredible years there. It’s where our daughter and son learned to walk, talk, and play. Oh, the stories I could tell of those good old days in that hardscrabble town. For now, it’s best to let them remain dormant.

After I became a principal in East Holmes Local Schools, we moved to near Berlin, Ohio. The house we bought was on an Amish farm, and all of our neighbors spoke Pennsylvania Dutch as their primary language. That wasn’t a hindrance at all.

Just like when I grew up, our daughter and son had plenty of children to play with. They often met at the giant old black oak tree across the road from us. It was a joy to be able to watch them interact and quickly solve any squabbles without an adult having to intervene.

We lived there for 38 years, longer than any other place, including our childhood homes. Our neighbors were friendly and helpful. Amazing sunrises and sunsets enhanced the already beautiful views that we enjoyed.

Despite our deep roots in the community, we decided it was time to be nearer to our three grandchildren, who were growing all too fast. We found a home only five miles away from them in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

We bought and remodeled a little ranch house amid nearly 500 other homes. Just like their owners, each one has a personality all its own. Instead of being in the heart of Ohio’s Amish country, we now live in the heart of the beautiful Shenandoah Valley.

We can watch our high school grandson strike out batters in a baseball game. We enjoy a middle school concert in which our other grandson plays the French horn. We watch and listen with pride as our granddaughter sings in a prestigious children’s choir.

In the words of Maya Angelo, “I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.”

Indeed, it’s good to be home, wherever that is. I hope that’s true for you as well.

At home in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Everyone needs a sanctuary


Everyone needs a sanctuary. Recent research shows that connecting with nature helps humans in multiple ways.

Nature helps heal, soothe, and restore individuals from pain, stress, and depression. We all need a place to escape, if only temporality, from the pressures and madness of the world.

When my wife and I winter in Florida, we are fortunate to have just such a place. Egans Creek Greenway is the first spot I visit after my wife and I get settled into our rental.

Egans Creek Greenway is an island inside an island. Covering more than 300 acres, the greenway is a city-run park on the north end of the 13-mile long Amelia Island, a barrier island northeast of Jacksonville.

The greenway is not your typical sanctuary, but it’s mine for many reasons. I get needed exercise walking its grassy trails. A variety of wildlife is in abundance. I can practice my photography hobby shooting landscapes and nature’s flora and fauna.

Please click on the photos to enlarge them.

Egans Creek winds its way through the two main sections of the greenway. A saltmarsh dominates the northern half. It teems with wading birds, birds of prey, songbirds, furry mammals, and intriguing reptiles. The Atlantic Ocean tides keep its waters brackish.

The southern section is part maritime forest and part freshwater ecosystem. The creek runs along the eastern side while a grid of manmade ditches from previous farming attempts crisscrosses elsewhere.

Mixed vegetation creates a habitat for a wide variety of creatures. Pileated woodpeckers fly their noisy flight high above momma alligator and her baby brood while a barred owl hoots from a branch of a giant live oak tree.

Scores of yellow-rumped warblers dart from the underbrush to palm trees, chip-chipping all the way. A red-shouldered hawk watches for lunch from high on a dead snag. A freshly hatched monarch butterfly flaps its damp wings on a Florida holly bush.

A reunion of soft-shelled turtles suns on the steep banks of the creek. A honeybee gorges on a clump of newly blossomed marsh-pink.

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Where the creek runs along the west side of the greenway, an osprey hovers before diving for an unsuspecting fish. In the process, large shorebirds are flushed. A great egret, wood stork, and a beautiful roseate spoonbill all take flight.

I am not alone in appreciating this preserve. Students stroll through on their way home from school. Seniors ride bicycles or walk in the sunshine of gorgeous days. Middle-aged joggers hustle by. This passive recreation is part of the park’s plan.

Strangely, concentration is essential to appreciate all the greenway has to offer. Surrounded by streets, houses, and businesses, the greenway is a quarter of a mile from the ocean. Horns, sirens, and roaring engines compete with the clacking call of the clapper rails.

So, too, to do the helicopters flying back and forth to the Mayport Naval Station 20 miles to the south. Commercial airliners, private jets, and noisy single-engine planes fill the air space overhead as they approach the local airport and Jacksonville International.

Besides a sanctuary, the greenway serves as an outdoor classroom. People stop to ask what I’m looking at or to tell me of a bird they saw. I love their smiles when they spot the eastern bluebirds devouring cedar berries.

I enjoy the greenway all the more when others accompany me. Multiple pairs of eyes and ears trump singular old ones. We help each other find and admire all the greenway’s splendor.

I am grateful for this island sanctuary, and that it reinforces the scientific evidence about nature.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

January dreaming


As a youngster, I remember those cold, blustery January days of sitting as close to the living room heat register as possible. I would grab the latest seed catalog that had arrived in the mail, and while myself away with luscious visions of warmer days ahead, corn on the cob, and fresh lima beans.

My brothers and sisters would sometimes join me in this communal dreaminess. We couldn’t wait to be harvesting our own fresh-picked pickles, ripe red tomatoes, and those buttery-colored ears of sweet corn. Of course, a lot of time, hard work, and patience would have to pass before all that deliciousness happened.

grandkids sled ridingBesides, we would often get interrupted when one of the neighbor kids arrived at our doorstep to ask us to go sledding. Kids being kids, we usually traded future pleasantries for present ones.

With the advent of technology and electronic interconnection, emails seem to have replaced those slick, thick printed advertisements. The contents have changed, too.

Smart marketers know most baby boomers now prefer discovery to husbandry, although I have plenty of peers who still love to get their hands dirty. It’s usually on a much smaller scale than 30 years ago, however.

My wife and I gave up gardening for the most part when we moved to Virginia. For a woman who loved her flower gardens, Neva furrows her forehead at any mention of planting a patch of wildflowers on our little slice of America.

Maybe the marketers have seen that expression, too. That could explain why we don’t get those tempting seed publications anymore. Travel brochures, invitations, emails, booklets, and yes, catalogs have replaced their agrarian counterparts, promoting fun-filled cruises, exciting explorations, and exotic destinations.

There’s a good reason for that. Since most boomers are retired or semi-retired, a majority of us apparently like to travel. Besides the printed and electronic information, television and computer pop up ads besiege us with romantic places to go.

That’s all right with us. Neva and I both like to travel, and since we fit the retired category, we try to visit as many places as we can as time and money allow.

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We also have to consider our age, our station in life, and our health, not necessarily in that order. We both know we are fortunate when it comes to our overall physical fitness. We also know that that may not last. So we must get in as much travel as possible while we still can.

Neva and I both enjoy learning about new places, cultures, languages, traditions, history, geography, and enticing locales. We also like familiarity, which is why we keep returning to our beloved Lakeside, Ohio, every summer.

Traveling allows us to enrich ourselves in all those subjects and much more. We know we aren’t alone because many of the offers we receive fill up quickly.

The land and ocean cruise we took to Alaska and the Yukon last summer was proof of that. Boomer-aged trekkers predominated at every stop and venue of the trip. In our group, only one young millennial couple dared to join our silver-haired entourage. Poor things, they were even on their honeymoon.

Because traveling is now so trendy and relatively easy, despite the security screening delays, cruises and group traveling are often planned a year or more in advance. You can dream in January, but if you don’t book right away, you may get shut out.

My touristy point comes full circle with personal disclosure. This January, I’m writing from Florida.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020.

Basking in nature’s unexpected gifts

Raining over the ocean.

I stood on the shoreline alone in joyous disbelief. This wasn’t supposed to be happening, and yet, it was, it did.

“This” was no ordinary sunrise. Our snowbird rental on the Atlantic Ocean northeast of Jacksonville, Florida, affords us striking views, especially at dawn.

The sea mirrored the sky as the celestial kaleidoscope slowly revolved from violets to pinks to oranges to gold to grays. I willingly allowed those siblings of earth and atmosphere to kidnap me.

My initial urge was to shout for joy, but that seemed irreverent, uncouth, and even sacrilegious. For once in my life, I stayed silent, sedated by the aura that engulfed me.

A renegade cumulonimbus cloud hovered miles offshore. Sheets of rain cascaded into the sea.

My eyes drew heavenward. The risen sun, hidden by clouds over the Gulf Stream, illuminated the universe, at least the part that I could see. It was heavenly, indeed.

With each degree that the sun rose into the clouds, the refracted rays altered the colors. As if someone had flipped a light switch, the violet hue transformed into orange, bathing everything it touched.

The scene was surreal. I felt like I had been pulled above the beach, the foamy waves no longer lapping at my feet.

It was then that I more fully appreciated the ocean’s contribution to this original, living painting. The gently swelling sea reflected both the water’s depth and the sky’s variable palate.

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Dabs of puffy clouds scalloped the sky. The ocean’s choppy undulating created a more linear composition. It was cottony above, corduroy below.

Though the consistencies remained the same, the colors continued to change. The wind scurried the dazzling clouds east while the ocean rolled west.

An instantaneous golden glow ensued when the sun finally peeked through the distant clouds hanging above the horizon. Overhead, the rain clouds just as suddenly converted the gold to gray unapologetically.

With the sky now spritzing droplets, I turned to retreat to the condo. And then I stopped to behold another divine marvel.

A brilliant double rainbow arched above our suntanned building complex. Once again, I was awestruck. I motioned for my wife to go look at the rainbow. She only waved back from the balcony. Desperate, I pointed to the sky, mimed a bow with my right hand, and pointed up.

This time Neva understood and rushed to the back of the condo. She returned before I could even begin to clean the sand from my shoes. Her radiance from seeing the double promise equaled that of the sky, which made me even happier.

By the time I made it back to the condo, the sky had darkened, and the rain pelted down. The morning’s free art exhibit was now washed out.

Other than the rain, none of this was expected. The official forecast had called for precipitation to overrun the northern Florida east coast overnight. But with the rain’s delayed arrival, we were treated to this transformative experience.

This ecclesiastical event seemed to last an eternity. However, the timestamp on the scores of photographs that I took showed only 10 minutes had elapsed.

The magical scene had changed so rapidly that I couldn’t take in all of the finite details as they occurred. A review of my photos revealed the dramatic, atmospheric sequence of changes in that short window of opportunity.

Appreciative is too small of a word to describe my gratitude for having viewed the wondrous display. But most grateful I am.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Mowing snow while mulching leaves

Before the leaves fell.

This time it wasn’t my fault. Every time I went to mulch the accumulation of leaves that covered much of our yard, something or someone else thwarted my good intentions. We all know where that road leads.

First of all, I wanted to wait until all of the red maple leaves in the backyard had fallen. For some reason, they clung like flies to flypaper. The leaves of the front yard red maple had all tumbled weeks earlier.

When the weather was sunny and warmish, which wasn’t that often in the late fall of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, we were gone. When we were home, it was too wet, or other commitments kept me from doing the job.

Even with a couple of gusty windstorms, the leaves clung fast to the tree. Meanwhile, the rest of the neighborhood’s assortment of dead foliage swirled around and landed in our yard like it was a leaf magnet.

The turkey.
It was nearly Thanksgiving before the leaves finally succumbed. Even then, it took almost a week before most of them lay on the ground. The leafy blanket was so thick I could hardly see the grass in spots.

Finally, the timing and weather seemed just right. However, because of a heavy frost, I waited until after lunch to make my move. I shouldn’t have.

I had just started the leaf blower when our yardman arrived. Rain was forecast for the next day, and he wanted to get the year’s last organic fertilizer on the grass despite the carpet of leaves.

He assured me that the rain would wash the fertilizer off the leaves and into the ground. I yielded the yard to him. It rained for three days.

After the rain subsided, it turned cold, freezing the leaves in place. I continued to wait and watch the forecast. It was now early December.

A skiff of snow caused another delay. Most of it melted, except for the snow in the north-slanting shadows of our backyard neighbor’s evergreens and the front of our north-facing house.

A storm with freezing rains was approaching. It was now or never to mulch the leaves.

A few of the neighbor’s leaves.
I set the mower to its highest level so that only the tallest growth of grass would be clipped. I donned my insulated coveralls, put on my waterproof shoes, and cranked up the mulching mower.

Around and round I went, reversing course with each completed trip of the yard’s parameter. The piles of dried leaves that I had blown out of the flowerbeds and shrubbery into the grass easily shredded to bits. The backyard leaves were a different story.

A messy mix of chewed up leaves and dirt began to stick to the wheels. The messiness increased when I hit the patches of thin snow. The pulverized blend of icy moisture and leaves turned to sludge. I stubbornly mulched on.

By the time I had finally finished, the poor mower looked like it had endured a motocross mud run. Brown muck covered much of the mower’s bright red body. The wheels were caked in a sticky mixture of chopped leaves and residue of red clay that poses as Virginia topsoil.

Shreds of green grass clippings topped off the muddy mess like colorful sprinkles on an ice cream cone. It was so sad and ugly that I couldn’t even take a picture of it.

But the mulching was done, and I was a happy man. The unusually difficult task of mowing my lawn had become an existential saga. And then the sun came out.

Not this much snow.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Reach out to those who can’t celebrate

As joyous and fun as the holidays are, not everyone can celebrate. All of the holiday hype merely adds fatigue and angst for those who have no family or who have lost loved ones this time of year.

Amid our own holiday celebrations, my wife and I have our moments of remembrances. My father died a few days before Christmas a decade ago. So did my father-in-law nine years earlier. A young adult friend, studying to be a doctor, succumbed to cancer, also at Christmastime.

I’m not writing this for sympathy. I’m sharing our story and asking for awareness. For us, the holidays bring mixed emotions. We can be joyously celebrating one moment, and suddenly out of nowhere, we are pricked with the painful reminder of those whom we loved but are now gone.

The sadness, the loss, the hurt all appear uninvited. What sets off the sensation is unpredictable. It could be a familiar fragrance, an innocent comment, or a peculiar sound. It could be nothing more than the thought of missing a father, mother, brother, sister, or friend.

In the cases of my father-in-law and my father, we were relieved when they finally could cross over to the other side. Dementia and cancer can be cruel, gut-wrenching deaths. Even if life’s end does come during the holidays, there is comfort in knowing their physical misery has finally ended.

It was especially so for my father. Dad loved Christmas. When he died 10 years ago, the Ohio winter weather was brutal. An extended cold snap and heavy snow guaranteed a white Christmas. Dad would have loved the brightly decorated church welcoming the holidays.

We said our goodbyes to Dad on December 26, which was a Saturday. We understood if folks couldn’t come. To our surprise, scores of people young and old braved the weather. We were glad they had taken time out of their own holiday plans to pay their respects and share their sympathies with our family at the visiting time and attending the service.

Every year, as we approach this most hallowed time, there are moments when I hear Dad’s voice as clear as if he were still with us. I think it’s a reminder of how childlike Dad embraced Christmastime his entire life. The thought brings a smile to my face every time. That’s the way our father would want to be remembered.

But for others, it can be different. When you lose a loved one no matter the age or situation, the loss can be a shock from which some never recover. If the death or traumatic accident happens during the holidays, the grief can even be more profound.

We must give both space and grace to those who grieve. They need their time alone to mourn, whether their personal loss was recent or decades ago.

However, we must also be inclusive of them, especially if they were left to live alone. That may mean including those who grieve in family gatherings, or it may mean visiting them on their own time and in their own surroundings. Whichever, they must not be forgotten.

The holiday season is meant to be a joyous time, one of celebration, good cheer, and gracious giving. We should always honor it that way.

We must remember, however, that not everyone can celebrate in that manner. Personal loss changes people. In our reveling, we must recognize and embrace their grieving.

Doing so may be the most appropriate gift that we give them.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2019