An international rendezvous

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Salient scene. © Bruce Stambaugh

By Bruce Stambaugh

When a friend learned that I was traveling across the border to the Niagara Falls region in Canada, she lightheartedly instructed me not to create any international incidents. She need not have worried.

My wife and I traversed a bridge over the churning Niagara River for peaceful purposes only. We had scheduled a reunion with some Ontario friends. The historic town of Niagara-on-the-Lake served as the point of rendezvous.

As it turned out, it was the ideal spot for our gathering, especially given the historical implications of the town and our connections with our acquaintances. We had known one couple, Ken and Ruth, for years. The other friends, neighbors to Ken and Ruth, we had met only last winter in Fernandina Beach, Florida of all places.

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A typical scene in Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
Ken and Ruth’s neighbors just happened to winter on Amelia Island, Florida. Knowing that we spent part of the winter there as well, Ruth suggested we meet up with Don and Gail. What a blessed suggestion it was, too.

Neva and I immediately hit it off with them. Just like we did with Ken and Ruth, we shared common interests, and enjoyed each other’s company and conversation.

After touring the historic Niagara town and enjoying a lovely lunch, we sat on two benches, men on one, women on the other, just like three old couples would in a park. That’s probably because we were three old couples, and we were in a park.

Old, of course, is a relative term. We were all grandparents, but to hear us cackling on that glorious day, we more likely resembled teenagers. Life has those golden moments you know. When it does, you want to harvest their nurturing bounty.

Sitting under those giant shade trees, we laughed, inquired, listened, observed, and pondered what life had brought us, and would bring us still. It’s what good friends do no matter what nationality.

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Friendly strangers. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
The setting, Queen’s Royal Park, seemed more than appropriate. Located along the town’s waterfront where the mouth of the Niagara River opened into Lake Ontario, sailboats, fishing boats and speedboats glided by.

On the opposite shore stood historic Old Fort Niagara in Youngstown, New York. This particular location had been the scene of many battles since the 18th century. We had a clear view of the impressive fort, and heard muskets fired during a battle reenactment.

Multi-nationalities had claimed these lands and waterways over the centuries. Native Americans, French, English, and Americans had all fought for this once strategic military position.

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This circle of colorful chairs in a side yard near the park symbolized our gathering. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
Though our little group represented several countries, our meeting was more than congenial. Among the six of us, one was born in England, one Bermuda, two in Ontario, and my wife and I in Ohio.

Our weapon of choice was sarcasm. I blamed the cool, wet summer weather on imaginary Ontario icebergs. My friends returned volleys of witticisms of their own. No injuries resulted from the friendly bantering.

During any visit to the Niagara Falls region, the global attraction to this magnetic place is obvious. We encountered cultural dress, various native languages, and many ethnicities wherever we went.

When we asked a stranger with a Caribbean accent to take photographs of our group, he gladly obliged. I wasn’t surprised. He and his companions were enjoying the same fair weather, agreeable setting and pleasing vistas as us. It was the perfect recipe for an amicable afternoon reunion of international friends all around.

The only significant shots we fired were with our cameras.

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The rendezvous. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

Fly on Flower

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Fly on Flower. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

My wife and I were walking along the sidewalks in picturesque Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada last week when I spotted this beautiful day lily. I had to take a picture of the fiery colors of the flower, bursting like a star against the sea. I thought the contrast of the warm colors of the flower and its long, lush leaves and stem stunning.

It wasn’t until I downloaded the photo to my computer that I noticed the iridescent green fly, which is officially called a Long-legged Fly. It’s emerald glossiness perfectly complemented the leafy background of the photo. Despite all the beauty we saw all through the historic town, and at Niagara Falls, too, I chose this still life as my Photo of the Week. I hope you like the photo as well.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

Remembering Dad in the very best ways

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Big Meadows, Shenandoah National Park.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I was certain I could hear Dad, and see him, too.

My wife and I were making marvelous memories with our daughter and her family in Shenandoah National Park. We drove a section of the Skyline Drive, and stopped to hike a couple of trails.

As we motored along the twisting scenic highway that runs the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia’s mesmerizing Shenandoah Valley, I remembered I had been there before. I said out loud to no one in particular, “I haven’t been here since I was a kid.”

Indeed, it was the same stretch of road that I had ridden along with my parents and siblings nearly 60 years ago. On that trip, we were on our way to visit some of Mom’s relatives in southern Virginia. Dad, always up for an adventure, insisted we detour to experience the vistas, floral and fauna that the famous Skyline Drive offered. I think we stopped at every turn out to embrace the views.

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The excursion with our grandkids was a diversion from the hectic schedule of finishing the school year and rushing from soccer matches to baseball games. I couldn’t have anticipated the emotions it would evoke in me remembering that long ago family vacation.

I could hear my late father in the rustle of the leaves of the forest canopy, the call of the Eastern Towhees, the fragrance of wild blossoms. I could see him point, index finger to lips, at the grazing white tailed deer that casually ignored us. I heard him shout, “There’s a bear,” as a young black bear scampered across the road in front of our van.

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Family photo.
It seemed Dad was everywhere we went, in the woods, on the spiny rocks on which we climbed and rested, in the beauty of the Big Meadow where Tiger Swallowtails fluttered free from bloom to bloom, and the field sparrows called from thickets of scrawny locusts and carpets of heather.

I certainly felt Dad’s presence as the grandchildren hoofed it up the trails, scampered steep, craggy rocks, and posed for pictures atop ancient outcroppings with more wavy mountains as the backdrops. I saw Dad’s smile in the grandkids’ smiles.

Once we scrambled to a place where we had a 360-degree view, I corralled the grandkids and their parents to stand for a family photo. Dad carried his camera wherever he went, too, documenting family outings.

The grandkids energy and enthusiasm for exploits carried them past their Poppy onto the heels of their own father while their mother and I lingered to absorb the views and catch our breath. Echoes of the past mingled with those of the present from forested ridge to forested ridge.

When we all assembled on the next precipice, my daughter used my camera to capture me with her trio of trouble and orneriness. The shot joyfully reminded me of my father surrounded by his own youngsters.

I don’t remember stopping at Big Meadows south of Luray on the trip with my family so long ago. As I lovingly watched the grandkids romp along narrow trails that snaked through lush carpets of knee-high grasses and plants, their excitement hit home.

A cool mountain top breeze hurried white fluffy clouds through bluebird egg sky. Emerald forests perfectly framed the sentimental scene. Amid the children’s giddy laughter, I thought I heard my father say, “You were here when you were young, too.”

“I know,” I replied silently with a smile and a tear.

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© Bruce Stambaugh

Living a dream in a dreamy, productive countryside

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A recent setting sun highlighted dandelions gone to seed.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Most times, when I look out the windows of our home or silently gaze across the landscape from our back porch, it seems like a dream come true.

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A typical Amish buggy seen in Holmes County, Ohio.
When I was a child, my father occasionally would pile his family into the car and head to Holmes County. He loved the rolling hills, the tidy farms, the stands of hardwoods interspersed with patches of multi-hued green and golden crops. The winding, hilly roads stitched together these living quilt blocks.

We wound our way on two lane highways through towns like Navarre, Wilmot, Winesburg, Berlin and on into Millersburg. For us impatient kids, the drive from our blue-collar suburb 40 miles away seemed an eternity.

Dad made the day trip even longer. We stopped to buy eatable souvenirs at the cheese houses, built with shiny, glazed tile blocks that mimicked the yellow chunks of Swiss. We couldn’t wait to unwrap the brown, waxed paper parcels secured with sturdy, white string. They perfectly represented the productivity of the land and its practical people.

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Workhorses.
Dad loved the slower pace of life in Holmes County, best modeled by the buggies drawn by satiny chestnut horses, and the afternoon sun highlighting the blond manes of giant workhorses pulling hay wagons through waves of emerald alfalfa. Neat white clapboard farmhouses, sometimes two abreast, and carmine bank barns brought focus to this dreamy world.

Dad would also stop along the way to photograph colorful landscapes, or just to enjoy the view. Sometime later, Mom would produce a watercolor that vividly depicted the same scene.

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I often ponder those excursions with Dad, noting how ironic it is that my wife and I settled in Holmes County. We made it our home, raised our children here, began and ended our careers here.

In the summer, I sit on the back porch eating heirloom tomatoes and drinking fresh mint iced tea while our neighbor and his circle of family and friends gather wheat shocks on a hot, sticky afternoon. Undeterred by my presence, hummingbirds zoom over my head to the feeder.

In the winter, American Goldfinches, Northern Cardinals, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Eastern Bluebirds and White-crowned Sparrows consume the seeds provided for them. A whoosh of wings announces a sneak attack by the resident Cooper’s Hawk, attempting to snag a snack, too.

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Ground fog.

In the spring, I watch with wonder as maple leaves unfurl ever so slowly. Yet it seems one week the trees are bare, and the next I’m under their shade.

I’ve never been to New Hampshire or Vermont to behold their fine fall colors of picture postcard scenes where hardwoods surround pristine, quaint villages. I intend to go someday. This fall, however, I’ll enjoy the equally colorful pallets around Charm, Beck’s Mills, Killbuck, Glenmont, Trail and Beechvale.

As pretty as our area is, its hardy people, though humanly and humbly imperfect, make it even more attractive. My wife and I are grateful for friends and neighbors who reside and work in and about our bucolic habitat. It’s a privilege to be among them.

Holmes County wasn’t the only enticing rural area our family visited on those trips long ago. But it was a favorite. I never dreamed I would end up living all of my adult life here, rooted to its rich, productive soils, and intertwined with its industrious, ardent inhabitants.

I tell people that I was born and raised in Canton, Ohio, but I grew up in Holmes County. Now you know why.

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Communion church.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

A detour of no inconvenience

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Snow on the Appalachian Mountains.

By Bruce Stambaugh

This winter’s wicked weather altered many well-laid plans, especially for travelers. My wife and I were no exception.

We delayed our trip south by a day due to a winter storm in the Appalachian Mountains. The extreme cold air followed us all the way to northern Florida.

As we readied to return home at vacation’s end, yet another major winter storm was chugging up the Ohio Valley. We weighed our options about our return trip. It would have been delightful to remain in place. But we needed to return home. It was time.

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Game night.
South Carolina and North Carolina were still recovering from one-two punches of unusually extreme wintry weather that downed thousands of trees and caused massive power outages. We didn’t want to risk being stranded there either.

Fortunately, we had an attractive option that would take us well out of the way home. We decided to visit our grandchildren in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, a year-round scenic place. It was a big sacrifice, I know.

We hadn’t seen our grandkids since Christmas. It was only logical that we should avoid the storm by detouring to Harrisonburg. It didn’t quite turn out that way.

Oh, we had a lovely two-day drive to their hillside home near the university where their daddy, our son-in-law, works. But the storm detoured, too. The morning after we arrived we awakened to three inches of snow overtop a quarter inch of ice.

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The heavy snow even cancelled class at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, VA.
It snowed all day, doubling the snowy accumulation. Of course, schools were closed, giving us bonus time with our three grandchildren, Evan, Davis and Maren. It was a vacation within a vacation, like finding a diamond ring in a box of Cracker Jacks.

The backyard where our daughter and her family live is perfect for sled riding. The day we left Ohio a month earlier, it was 15 degrees below zero. So I had plenty of warm clothes to wear, including the pair of waterproof shoes I wore while walking on the beach.

We bundled up, grabbed the day glow orange toboggans, and went out into it. We had a riot. Little Maren, the daring four year-old, really isn’t so little anymore. She laid supine in one of the sleds and zipped down the gentle slope and slid right into the neighbor’s backyard.

The boys whooped, and Maren immediately recognized her amazing accomplishment. She jumped up and screeched with glee, “That was just like a rocket booster.”

That’s pretty much how our two and a half days with them went. We would play outside until the cold drove us inside. As soon as his jacket was off, Evan was setting up the game boards, or dealing the playing cards. He loves table games, not only because he is competitive, but mostly because he usually wins.

Davis was content to unwind and warm up on his own, playing his creative, imaginary games with his Lego people and assembled utilitarian pieces. I hope I’m alive when he is awarded the Noble prize in the sciences.

If she’s not playing with Davis, Maren knows all the buttons to touch on the screens of the iPad or laptop whichever is available to her. When I get over my pride, I’ll have to have her show me how to operate them.

My wife and I may have arrived home a week later than we expected. But in this case, the delay was no inconvenience at all.

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Deer at sunset.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

Missing the charm and warmth of Amelia Island

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Historic Downtown Fernandina Beach, FL.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I’m glad to be home from vacation. But I have to be honest. I miss Amelia Island, Florida and all the charm and variety it has to offer.

I miss waking early in the day to welcome the sun, or rain or fog, whatever weather greeted me. It often changed quickly from good to bad or bad to good, just like in Ohio.

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I miss the rising sun painting with its broad brush, constantly rearranging the brilliant arrays of pinks, blues, oranges, yellows and reds on twilight’s canvas. I miss the sun’s shimmering, silver dance on its forever rolling sea stage.

Equally so, I miss the moon, full or half or quarter, glimmering its creamy, seductive light into our night lives. I miss being transfixed by its profound beauty.

I miss seeing the sun sink behind the trees beyond the Intercoastal Waterway. Unless the fog or rain clouds interfered, the alluring sunsets nearly took our breath away. Like the days began, each evening glow was emotionally evocative.

Morning and evening, I miss the dolphins slicing through the hoary sea, first one, then two, then three, then more, fins intermittently marking their gourmet gallop. Their appearing and disappearing mesmerized me.

I miss the slow walks on the beach with my wife. She hunted for seashells and shark’s teeth while I photographed birds, people, and patterns in the sand. Then I’d hustle to catch up.

I miss the delectable seafood meals Neva created. Locally caught, fresh shrimp sautéed in butter and olive oil, a little lemon and a dash of salt and pepper combined with locally made sweet potato pasta and flax seed rolls beat any pricy restaurant entree.

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I miss the strolls through Egan’s Creek Greenway, a salt marsh wildlife preserve set aside for painters, birders, photographers, joggers, bikers, walkers and admirers of all things nature. The Greenway is home to alligators, snakes, river otters, rabbits, bobcats, deer, wading birds, shorebirds, birds of prey and songbirds.

I miss the drives and walks through well-maintained Ft. Clinch State Park, a marvelous blend of ecosystems and history. It was equally easy on the eyes and wallet. The 3,300 ft. fishing pier that paralleled the inlet to the Amelia River afforded panoramic views and a perfect perch for birding.

I miss the charm of historic downtown Fernandina Beach, the only city on the island, and the nation’s oldest settlement. Founded three years before St. Augustine, the quaint town attracts customers from around the world.

I miss the eclectic mix of Amelia’s people. From tourists to shop owners to fishermen to photographers, everyone, I mean everyone, was friendly, like open books if you took the time to turn their pages.

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The Florida House Inn flies the eight flags that have flown over Amelia Island.
I miss the quirkiness of the island that has seen the flags of eight different nations fly over its humble geography. Florida’s oldest continuously operating hotel and bar stand less than a block apart. Businesses boldly display the scores of football games when Georgia’s Bulldogs beat Florida’s Gators.

Those in the know like to say that Fernandina Beach is the East Coast’s western most port. In other words, drive straight north, you run into Cincinnati, Ohio.

Of course, I miss the warmer weather, too. However, warm is a relative word. Our Florida vacation ended the way it began, wearing winter coats. Still, we had it nice compared to what much of eastern North America experienced in our absence.

I like it so much that I could live there. But I won’t. As incredible as Amelia Island and its people are, I like it right here in Holmes County, Ohio even better.

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Back home.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

From strangers to friends

By Bruce Stambaugh

We had never met this couple before, or so we thought. All we knew was that they were across the street neighbors from our long-time friends who live in Kitchener, Ontario, and this couple was vacationing at Amelia Island, Florida at the same time that we were.

Our common Ontario friends knew what they were doing. We made arrangements to meet these strangers one afternoon at a Fernandina Beach coffee shop, not knowing we had already “met” them the day before.

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Our initial meeting at the coffee shop.
What unfolded was nothing short of amazing. Don and Gail were already seated when Neva and I arrived. We joined them at the table, and it was like the starter’s flag had been dropped at the Daytona 500.

In speech, they weren’t your typical Canadians. Gail’s native Queen’s English accent was lyrical. Don couldn’t hide his Bermuda brogue if he wanted to. He didn’t. Don and Gail were kind enough to accept our Midwestern twang without comment.

Our conversation lasted longer than our afternoon tea. It turned out that we had much more in common than mutual friends.

Don and Gail were attracted to Amelia Island because of its laid back lifestyle, and her friendly people reminded them of their beloved Bermuda, an island country nearly identical in size to the barrier island. Neva and I said the same thing about the residents of Holmes County, Ohio, where we have live all of our adult lives.

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Neva, Gail and Don shared a laugh in the condo we rented.
Gail and Neva both rambled on about children and grandchildren. They discovered that Gail knits Linus blankets, and Neva knots them.

Don and I quickly discovered two shared interests. We both love photography, and we both served as volunteer firefighters for several years. Shoot. Don and I even wore the exact same kind of shoes, although I paid far less than he did.

Our connections went far beyond the Kitchener link. Neva and I traveled to Bermuda in 1995 to follow our son in a golf tournament. Gail and Don knew several of the people we had met there. They even knew the home where we stayed.

We arranged to meet Don and Gail for lunch at a local seafood restaurant on the pier, and then invited them over to see our rental. We talked and laughed for hours.

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Like me, Don enjoys photographing landscapes and wildlife.
That’s pretty much how it went for the next four weeks. Gail and Neva went shopping. Don and I went birding, hiking, shooting pictures all the while.

We went out to eat together. We explored the area’s many lovely state parks. When some of our friends from home visited, Don and Gail joined us, and the guests bonded with them as quickly as we had.

Here’s the kicker about connecting with this gregarious couple.

The day before the coffee shop meeting, the town held its weekly local farmers market. We checked it out with the intentions of buying locally raised produce and homemade bread and pastries.

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Don and Gail enjoyed playing dominoes with us.
As is my habit, I carried my camera. I took picture after picture of the luscious strawberries and the vibrant vegetables. Of course, I couldn’t help but include some people in the shots, too.

I review my horde of photographs from time to time to thin out the pictures I don’t want to keep. As I scrolled through the pictures, I couldn’t believe what I found. There behind the red, ripe tomatoes and assorted, leafy greens were Don and Gail.

I had taken their picture the day before we formally met. Mere coincidence? I doubt it.

One of my vacation reads was Anne Lamott’s “Traveling Mercies.” Lamott considers traveling mercies as events or people put in your path for specific, often unforeseen purposes.

I photographed strangers at a street market. Traveling mercies easily transformed them into extraordinary friends.

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Don and Gail making a purchase at the farmers market the day before we met.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014