The helpfulness of neighbors

When it is least expected and most appreciated

What is it about a snowstorm that brings out the best in people? Is it the commonality of being snowed-in?

Is it the down-deep desire to be helpful in any way possible? Is it the freshness of the pure white landscape plastered with inches of snow? Or is it the clean, cold, wholesome air?

Or maybe it’s out of the genuine goodness of people’s hearts, the opportunity and ability to help where help is needed that stirs folks into action. Perhaps it is all of these things rolled into one.

Whatever the motivation, the results are the same. Neighbors come together for the common good of all simply because there is a job to do.

In this case, it was to clear driveways and sidewalks.

Our National Weather Service office did an excellent job of warning the good people of the Commonwealth that a winter storm was imminent. Just the mention of snow in the forecast in Virginia, and schools, factories, and offices close.

Even if you had missed the winter storm warning announcement, the crowds at every grocery store should have raised an internal alarm. Supermarkets become jammed the day before, with folks buying enough supplies to last for weeks. I figured for this storm that the only milk left in the county belonged to the dairy cows still in the milking parlor stanchions.

So, yes, we were ready for snow, and when we woke the next morning, we weren’t disappointed. A beautiful five-inches blanketed everything animate and inanimate all around our suburban neighborhood.

The forecast was for the quick burst of heavy snow followed by a lull with more snow once the low hit the east coast. The wrap-around snow later from the nor’easter provided another three inches over a much more extended period.

After I had measured the snow depth at 7 a.m., I shoveled our front sidewalk and a path out to the street. I came back in to send in my snow report via email to the National Weather Service and eat breakfast.

Before I could return to the shoveling, Neva hollered that our neighbor Frank was snow-blowing our driveway. I hurriedly dressed for the elements and headed back outside. I thanked Frank but told him that he didn’t need to be doing our driveway.

A beautiful early morning snow.

Frank chuckled and modestly said that his snowblower needed the dust blown out of it. Given how little snow we usually receive in the Shenandoah Valley, I understood his comment. However, this winter has been different, and this was Frank’s first opportunity to use his machine.

Frank had already cleaned his driveway and that of another neighbor before doing ours. When he finished at our place, he went to Janice’s across the street.

To our surprise, our good-neighbor assistance continued. Frank had no sooner left when our next-door neighbor Wayne showed up and started shoveling the remaining snow. I tried to wave him off, but he was determined.

Then out of nowhere popped Jonathan and his mother, Deb, our across-the-street friends. They joined Wayne in clearing all the leftover snow. Of course, Neva and I helped, too.

I could hear snowblowers on other streets in our nearly 500-home development. We weren’t the only recipients of neighbors helping neighbors.

Neva and I were both thankful and humbled by the spontaneous actions of generosity. It would have taken me much longer than the few minutes that Frank and his impromptu crew needed to clear our drive.

But where were we going to go? Virginia was closed for the day and, just for good measure, the next day, too.   

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Zooming through the pandemic

Zooming with cousins.

Because of the needed health restrictions, we stayed close to home for much of 2020. That didn’t keep us from visiting with family and friends, however.

We recognized that the issued restrictions were and continue to be for our own safety. So, we faithfully followed them.

Like everyone else, we missed our everyday human interactions with friends and family most of all. Then we discovered a satisfactory no contact substitute.

We Zoomed.

Zoom is a program that works on devices like laptops, smartphones, and iPads to share face-to-face. Many businesses and educational institutions use it to operate during the pandemic.

We enjoyed being able to interact with folks and see them, too. We attended lectures, joined college classes, and watched concerts remotely on our computers.

Impressed, I downloaded Zoom onto my laptop, figured out how to set up a meeting, and off we went. Of course, Zoom isn’t the only remote option around. It just seemed the most logical and straightforward to use, especially with groups.

The executives of Zoom are no dummies. Your first session is free with no time limit. After that, the program shuts down after 40 minutes.

I’m no dummy, either. I bought a subscription when it was on sale, of course, and we haven’t looked back.

Zoom helped save our social life without violating the physical distancing requirements. We set up meetings with friends and family far and wide, and we Zoomed away.

We Zoomed at Thanksgiving with our son and his wife in New York. Our daughter and her family were with us, and we managed a holiday family photo with our granddaughter holding her uncle and aunt on her lap. That’s what laptops are for, right?

Before the COVID-19 travel restrictions, we had scheduled a reunion with my wife’s cousins and spouses. We kept the date and met remotely via Zoom.

Everyone liked it so well that we met again two weeks later. We’ve kept that up ever since, with everyone making it a priority. One cousin remarked that we have met together more via Zoom than we had in-person all the years previous. Technology transcends state boundaries or mountain ranges or hundreds of miles.

We heard stories new and old. We laughed and laughed, especially at the play-by-play of a herd of wayward dairy cows. In these dark times, we need as much laughter as we can get.

I even took free Zoom classes to sharpen my hosting skills. I was one of the hundreds in the remote classroom, yet I never left home to learn. I didn’t have to raise my hand to use the restroom, either.

We Zoomed with friends and family in Ohio, North Carolina, and locally, too. My wife contacted some college friends and set up a Zoom meeting. The ladies enjoyed it so much that they also now regularly met.

They chat as if they were in a dorm room. After the classmates’ last Zoom gathering, their laughter carried out of my office clear to the great room.

We have also Zoomed for doctor appointments, church meetings, small groups, worship, and community service meetings. We have visited history museums and taken virtual field trips via Zoom.

Though we use other options to communicate remotely, Zoom is our go-to tool. For the record, I don’t own Zoom stock, and Zoom didn’t endorse my commentary.

Pandemic or no pandemic, we are glad technology has permitted us to continue our lives and personal connections and still stay safe and sound.

Our Thanksgiving Day Zoom.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Evening Grosbeaks

I had heard that flocks of Evening Grosbeaks were in the Rockingham Co., Virginia area. However, I could never discover where they were showing up on a regular basis. Then a friend from Ohio, where we used to live, sent me a text with a photo of Evening Grosbeaks that were regular visitors at her brother’s feeders. He lived a little more than 10 miles from our home.

I called and received persmission to photograph the birds. The home owner, also a birder, said the birds usually fed in the morning between 7 and 9. My wife and I arrived around 8 a.m., and I drove slowly up the farm’s long driveway. As soon as I reached the back of the house where the feeders were, about 30 Evening Grosbeaks flew to trees not far away. I lowered the van windows and waited for them to return.

And return they did! I had both of my cameras along, and I clicked away. I had seen Evening Grosbeaks before, but never this close or this many. Normally, Evening Grosbeaks don’t venture this far south in the winter. But during irruption years, they appear almost randomly at various locations in the east and midwest. It is thought that an irruption occurs when the hatch rate of birds is high, but their usual food supplies can’t match the demand. Other species, like Snow Owls, also appear in irruptions. The Evening Grosbeaks were feeding on black oil sunflower seeds.

“Evening Grosbeaks” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Merry Christmas!

From my family to yours, Merry Christmas! Whether you gather in person or remotely or in some combination of both, may this Season of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love bring purpose, meaning, and grace to each of you.

Thank you so much for following along all these years. Christmas Blessings to one and all!

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

How the pandemic has strengthened relationships

The old saying, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” has never been more apt than in the pandemic. It’s one of the realities of following governmental and health restrictions.

The ancient origin of this aphorism referred to lovers. Today’s version also applies to friends and family. My wife and I have missed the gracious person-to-person hospitality and warm congeniality of close friends and family members.

Since early March, Neva and I have taken great pains to follow the recommended health guidelines to avoid passing or contracting the lethal virus. Those precautions include avoiding entering buildings, including homes.

Following those procedures naturally means limitations. Regularly seeing friends and family has undoubtedly been one of the casualties. Relationships mean the world to us, so we have found coping alternatives.

We are fortunate to live nearby our daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren. We occasionally commune with them, mostly outdoors.

Physical distancing with our family early in pandemic.

We have visited and hosted friends, but again, always on patios or well-ventilated venues. With the weather growing colder by the day, that option may soon end.

We are unfortunate in not being able to visit in-person with our son and his wife, who live seven hours north of us in upstate New York. We haven’t physically seen them for a year and a half.

Our siblings, cousins, and close friends fit the same scenario. Virtual connectivity has replaced the real thing.

We so appreciate when folks make special efforts to connect. Unexpected cards, emails, texts, and phone calls from friends and family are great gifts.

Even better is when folks go out of their way to see us face to face. We’ll drive an hour or more to meet long-time friends who are passing through Virginia. We’ll gather at a coffee shop, sit around a table outdoors, and chat for hours about everything from baseball to the weather. We do the same with some local acquaintances monthly.

Though we want to, we don’t shake hands or hug. Elbow bumps and invisible embraces have respectfully replaced the more intimate contact, only for the sake of being safe for all concerned.

For now and the foreseeable future, that’s how we will continue to maintain friendships. Virtual and careful in-person contact will have to suffice until a proven vaccine is available to all. I wish we could do better than that, but that is the way it has to be.

Consequently, my wife and I have spent much more time together than if there were no pandemic. Yes, we still give each other space to breathe and do our own thing. But we also have settled into enjoyable daily routines of just being together quietly.

Am I saying that after nearly 50 years of marriage, I have a newfound and more profound appreciation for my spouse? Yes, I am, and yes, I have. It has taken me a long time to arrive at this station in our marriage. I especially appreciate Neva’s gifts of hospitality and creativity.

If the cautious semi-isolation of the past seven months has taught me anything, let it be this. I love my wife, my children, my grandchildren, my devoted friends more and more each day.

Enjoying quiet time together.

I do so because the pandemic has forced me to finally and fully be aware of each moment as it occurs. I try to minimize idiosyncrasies that I formally found irritating, and instead express my appreciation for those that make my life happier.

Committed and loving relationships with family and friends are critical to everyone’s quality of life. That’s especially true in a pandemic.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Great Expectations!


It wasn’t hard to miss these two young girls as they stepped along the river’s shoreline in search of just the right spot to fish. A few minutes earlier, their father gave them instructions and stepped back to let them do their thing.

Initially, the girl with the net had a fishing pole. However, she traded it in for the oversized net in anticipation that her fishing buddy would catch a whopper. The scene reminded me of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn on one of their adventures. The afternoon sun beamed down on the girls with their floppy hats, clunky boots, matching red shorts, and colorful T-shirts.

“Great Expectation!” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

What a year it’s been so far!

After the first year’s first sunrise, it has seemed all downhill from there.

Here we are at the end of August. Is it just me, or have these been the longest eight months ever?

With 2020 being a presidential election year, we knew things could be wacky. However, they quickly became excruciating with the arrival of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The virus has drastically altered all of our lives, some in catastrophic ways. Hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of cases, and both founded and unfounded fear have permeated our lives together on planet Earth.

We have all made changes in our lives, whether they be out of safety or fear, or perhaps both. Most health and government officials have done their best at providing direction and directives to keep us well against a previously unknown health threat.

Some of us have tried to follow the guidelines as best we can. Others have not.

Technology has helped relieve some of the tension of being faced with shutdowns, physical distancing, and other health guidelines by allowing us to share virtually. We have gathered remotely for school, worship, business, and community meetings rather than in-person.

My wife and I have participated that way with church services, yoga, college classes, doctor appointments, weddings, memorial services, and visiting with friends and family. Though we would prefer meeting in person, face-to-face via technology has had to suffice for now.

How long will it last? Las Vegas hasn’t even placed a bet on that one.

As a career public educator, I always looked forward to the start of school. I pity today’s teachers, administrators, and school support staff who have to make hard decisions that are for the best and safest for all.

Some schools, including colleges and universities, are starting with in-person instruction. Others will open with a hybrid version, alternating between in-person and online education. Still, others have chosen all remote learning.

I wish them all well, and the safest of school years. Likely, backup plans are in place if the COVID-19 numbers spike again as students gather.

Parents, grandparents, and other caregivers try to balance the worlds of work, household chores, and instruction for youngsters if schools are not entirely in-person. They need our sincere support.

Employment is another issue that has so far muddled 2020. Many people who were working have been laid off or furloughed. Ironically, some sections of the economy are going gangbusters, while others flounder.

First-responders, nurses, doctors, and all their helpers must take extreme precautions just to treat the sick. I try to be mindful of them every day.

I am most thankful that technology certainly has helped to keep society operating. This old guy even ordered groceries from an app on his cell phone.

Storm clouds have hung over most of 2020.
Of course, the pandemic isn’t the only life-changing event of the year. Historic wildfires have raged in the United States, Australia, and Siberia. Hurricanes and tropical storms have caused death and destruction in their path. Those storms are both more powerful and more frequent than in the past.

Professional sports aren’t the same, either. The NBA is holdings its playoffs in a Florida bubble, while MLB is playing a 60-game season with seats occupied with human cardboard cutouts instead of real paying fans.

I always welcomed September’s arrival with the hope of fairer weather and the sights and sounds of autumn’s appearance. But with the pandemic still raging and the presidential campaign heating up, a face mask won’t be the only accessory in my wardrobe.

A clothespin, a blindfold, and earplugs might also be warranted to reach 2021.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

A once in a lifetime man

An Amish farmstead near Kidron, Ohio.

Jay Lehman was the kind of man that you might meet only once in a lifetime. He embodied the very values of the community in which he was born, lived, and worked.

Jay died recently at age 91. He was the founder of the old-time general store Lehman’s in Kidron, Ohio. I was fortunate to have known him as both a friend and a business leader. Scores of others can say the same thing about Jay.

Jay Lehman.
That, however, is what impressed me so much about the man. We weren’t close as friends go, and we didn’t run in the same social circles. And, yet, whenever he saw me, he always went out of his way to call me by name, say hello, shake my hand firmly, and ask how I was doing. Jay was a good listener.

I got to know Jay the best through a cooperative marketing group that I facilitated. The original group included six Amish country, family-owned and operated businesses with a single location. Lehman’s was a founding member.

Jay pointing out one of the museum-quality pieces in the store he founded.
Jay started his little hardware and household goods business in 1955 at the crossroads of his rural hometown village. His original purpose provided necessary lifestyle items for the Amish community that surrounded Kidron.

Over time, the store’s purpose ironically flipped, becoming more of a tourist destination in Amish country. Jay embraced that change without losing sight or letting go of his and the community’s core values.

Faith, family, community, and a strong work ethic fulfilled humbly reflected not only the area’s priorities but Jay’s, too. Jay modeled those qualities in his personal and business life. That’s what made both Jay and his company tick.

In that success, Jay honored those values. He lived his faith by supporting the church and charities that he cherished. Even in a crowd of hundreds at statewide church conferences, Jay would acknowledge people by name and ask how they were doing. It might have been years since he had seen them. He understood the worth of healthy relationships.

That, in part, is what drew folks to Jay. He possessed a quiet, confident demeanor, and yet humility formed the mantle of his character. Even Lehman’s tagline reflects that concept: “For a simpler life.”

Jay Lehman at Lehmans in Kidron, Ohio.
Jay saw the future in the past. He preserved anything of locally historical value for posterity and education. A walk through the store reveals hundreds of antique relics that would have been lost were it not for Jay’s foresight. If you want, you can have lunch at Lehman’s while sitting in the old town jail.

Jay enjoyed the simple life, but he certainly was not a simple man. He loved a good “Rook” game with friends and family as much as he enjoyed traveling. Future generations were as vital to him as his Swiss ancestors, which he revered.

As the company grew and expanded, family members, friends from church and community joined in to help him run the store. When he reached retirement age, he passed the leadership on to the next generation. But he continued to be a dynamic presence at Lehman’s.

It was a joy to watch customers recognize Jay as he strolled around his much-expanded corner store. He was the living icon of Lehman’s, now an international business.

Jay’s legacy will live on through his successful entrepreneurship and his lifetime of kindness and generosity. Living those essential core values shaped that legacy.

His was a compassionate life. Jay lived not just for himself, but for all whom he so tenderly touched far beyond the little town of Kidron, Ohio.

Jay, shown with his daughter Glenda Lehman Ervin, often talked with visitors to the store.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Ambivalent about August

August in Ohio’s Amish country.

I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about August. I’m especially so this year, given all the ramifications of the ongoing pandemic.

When my wife and I lived in Ohio, August kept us busy as career public school educators. We each geared up for the start of a new academic year. As a principal, I created schedules and rosters and attended too many meetings. The excellent teacher that she was, my wife spent many hours preparing each classroom to be an inviting learning haven.

Canned peaches.
August also ushered in the food preservation season. We froze dozens of containers of sweet corn and apple sauce. We waited for the canning lids to sound the seal of approval with satisfying “pops” for the tomatoes, grape juice, beets, and peaches. Rainbows of goodness adorned our shelves.

Of course, we weren’t alone in these endeavors. After I retired, I savored sale mornings at the local produce auction. I loved the hustle and bustle of men and women unloading their trucks and horse-drawn wagons. The rhythmical cadence of the auctioneers barking out their persuasive banter was sweet music to my ears.

The growing season here in the Shenandoah Valley where we live now is a couple of weeks ahead of Holmes County, Ohio. So, we don’t have to wait as long to enjoy our first taste of locally grown veggies.

Farmers Produce Auction, Mt. Hope OH
Auction in action.

August is more than agriculture, though. The three H’s rule the eighth month: hot, hazy, humid. That’s not the main reason for my ambivalence, however. With the coronavirus continuing to run rampant, uncertainty abounds in everyone’s life.

The city schools where our grandchildren attend here were set to open with a combination of in-person and online instruction. The latest surge in COVID-19 has altered that plan. They’ll start the year learning remotely.

Mask-wearing is the norm, especially when entering stores or buildings. Neva and I have continued to be extra cautious about keeping our physical distancing. We truly miss the close socialization of friends and family.

Some states are doing better than others at slowing the virus. States that reopened with too few restrictions or where few people followed the guidelines are unfortunately paying the price.

A migrating black tiger swallowtail butterfly.
Since the governors have had to take the lead in issuing orders and health guidelines, rules and suggestions vary significantly from state to state. In part, that’s what has fueled our consternation.

We haven’t seen in person our son and his wife, who live in New York State, in more than a year. We have friends and relatives who have tested positive, but fortunately, they have all recovered so far. Too many others weren’t as fortunate.

County and street fairs, high school football, band shows, concerts, vacations, have all been canceled. Major League Baseball is trying to play a shortened season with no fans in attendance.

Virus or no virus, August will be August no matter what. Golden sunsets will blaze away in the hazy evening skies. Migrating birds and butterflies will begin to wing their way south.
We’ll continue to meet with friends, relatives, and worship remotely through technology.

Under the current dire circumstances, it’s the best and safest we can do. We’ll continue to do our shopping curbside.

Even given all that, I know that my August ambivalence must yield to patience, and patience to resolve. We have to see this global health crisis through for however long it takes. I’ll continue to be cautious, careful, and diligent. I am not ambivalent about COVID-19.

My challenge is not to let my melancholy deter my joy for living, for sharing, for helping others, even if it is with an altered daily lifestyle.

An August sunset.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

Celebrating July 4th, then and now

A Fourth of July parade in Lakeside, Ohio.

As a youngster, I remember having mixed emotions about the Fourth of July. It had nothing to do with my patriotism, and everything to do with my youth.

I joyously anticipated the fireworks displays, wherever and however we got to see them. The reality, though, was that this red, white, and blue holiday marked the halfway point of the year. More importantly, it meant in my young mind that we were already halfway through the summer. Schools would be starting before we knew it.

When my four siblings and I were young, we would gather on a starry July 4th night on the edge of the hill a block west of our brick bungalow. We would anxiously look south and wait for the sparkling pyrotechnic patterns.

On rare occasions, we talked our father into driving closer to Meyers Lake Amusement Park, where the fireworks were ignited to explode over the lake. To avoid the parking lot traffic jam, Dad chose a side street that afforded a decent view of the aerial show.

The fireworks tradition continued into my adulthood when my wife and I started our family. From our home on County Road 201, we could see fireworks from various towns north, east, and southeast.

The summer of 1988 may have been the best time for fireworks for our family of four. Flying back from a vacation in California, we left Chicago’s O’Hare airport right at dark for the last leg of our trip. We looked down from on high as multiple fireworks displays erupted until we landed an hour later at Ohio’s Akron-Canton airport.

Nature’s fireworks over Holmes Co., Ohio are just as impressive.

Years later, friends built a beautiful home high on a hill overlooking Millersburg. They had the perfect view of the fireworks shot from the safety of the former county fairgrounds location. Our friends made it a grand occasion, inviting one and all. A plate of food to share was the price of admission.

I enjoyed the fellowship of friends, former students, and some people I had only just met. We oohed and awed together once the colorful and noisy celebration began.

That’s one tradition we left behind when we moved to the heart of Virginia’s lovely Shenandoah Valley. Our city launches its fireworks display from a local park. We have enjoyed the show with our grandchildren on more than one occasion. Not this year.

A local resort, Massanutten, also holds a festival that features fireworks. However, like many locations across the nation, that won’t happen this year because of the pandemic. Officials were wisely concerned about keeping physical distances, which is much harder to do with crowds of people.

Massanutten Mountain, Harrisonburg, VA.

Some localities canceled everything, while others like Massanutten, canceled the festival. The fireworks will fly as usual.

These are the times in which we live. We need to accept that we are in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century. The viral repercussions range far beyond silent, darkened skies on the Fourth of July.

Declaration of Independence, U.S. ConstitutionOur Founding Fathers created the most daring democratic republic experiment ever attempted. It’s entirely up to each of us to make sure our democracy endures for all peoples to exercise each of their first amendment rights.

Whether watching fireworks live or on TV, let those symbolic rockets red glares and bombs bursting in the air be a rededication to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Can the sparks ignite a new fire of freedom for all the nation’s people regardless of race, color, creed, or religion? Isn’t that the intent of the First Amendment?

Only then can freedom truly ring.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2020