Cold weather can’t cool the warmth of a birthday party

Lego Dolphin cruise boat, grandkids
Ready to launch. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

By Bruce Stambaugh

We wouldn’t have missed this birthday bash for the world. As Maren’s grandparents, we were among the chosen few to attend her fifth birthday party.

Like we needed an excuse to visit. Nana and I would gladly traverse the 350 miles across eight mountain passes between our home and our daughter’s in Virginia’s always-lovely Shenandoah Valley to attend this special event.

Unfortunately, a dubious hitchhiker volunteered to accompany us on our trip. The nice Virginia weather changed to the stuff we had left in Ohio not long after our arrival in the valley.

We weren’t going to let a little discomforting inclemency spoil our celebrative spirits, however. The blue-eyed towhead Maren would turn five regardless of the climatological elements.

The party was just what Maren ordered. You would think a five-year-old girl who loves pink would go glitzy when given the chance to help plan her own party. But no, Maren only wanted family, plus a few close neighbors.

That is exactly what she got. She was the youngest in the cozy crowd.

Surrounded by her parents, her two ornery older brothers, and her MawMaw and Nana and Poppy, a festive evening of fun began with the opening of gifts and cards. What does a preschool girl get for her birthday? Why, jewelry of course, and books, and the one gift Maren hoped to receive, a Lego Dolphin Cruise liner.

The wet weather did postpone the only outside activity planned. The breaking of the piñata had to wait until the next morning.

While the kids went to a room to assemble the multitude of plastic pieces to create the boat, the table was set, and dinner prepared. Dessert was a delicious and preciously decorated cake done by a family friend. Of course, multicolored sprinkles, including pink, speckled the creamy white icing.

A candle in the shape of the number five topped the tiered, sparkly cake. A lone, perfect flame danced atop the crooked candle until one strong puff from the five-year-old snuffed it out.

Maren and her parents posed for a photo, and then it was back to the dry dock for the kids to complete the boat building. With three young engineers, the cruise ship was assembled in record time, encouraged on by teenage neighbors. The youngsters were all smiles when the last piece snapped into place.

birthday party, birthday cake, girl and parents
The Birthday Girl and her parents. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
However, there was one remaining meaningful gift for the birthday girl. The graduate school tenant who occupies the apartment in the basement of our daughter’s home brought a rather special surprise. It seems earlier in the year Miss Maren had secretly negotiated a contract with the tenant, who wanted to raise a garden, including watermelons.

Since Maren loves watermelon, she took it upon herself to wrangle a deal that had her receiving a portion of the ripe melons. Being a good sport, the tenant, majoring in peace studies, put her lessons into practice.

As the crops grew, however, nothing more was said about sharing the watermelons. Apparently, Maren was more satisfied with sealing the deal than cashing in on it.

Maren may have forgotten about the compact, but the tenant hadn’t. The last gift presented to Maren was a miniature watermelon saved just for her.

The watermelon gift was a cool idea that warmed the congenial birthday gathering all the more. Unless it was a stowaway, I don’t think the fruity cargo made the maiden voyage of the Dolphin, however.

birthday party, watermelon, gift
Watermelon surprise. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

Fireplaces provide benefits far beyond warmth

By Bruce Stambaugh

When I asked if anyone wanted to help bring in wood for the fireplace, only one person volunteered. Our two-year old granddaughter said she wanted to help.

On went her hat, coat, mittens, and the mini-muck boots that her older brothers wore when they were her age. Maren followed me around like a miniature shadow, constantly asking questions.
Firewood by Bruce Stambaugh
To play along, I asked questions too, like what color the blue wheelbarrow was. “Yellow,” she said without hesitation. I wheeled it behind the shed to the winter’s stacked wood supply.

I carefully tossed the split hardwood into the wheelbarrow. Of course, Maren wanted to imitate her Poppy. I handed her the kindling pieces. Now and then I gave her a weightier one, and the sharp little blonde quickly let me know that it was “too heavy.”

Maren hung in there like a trooper despite the cold. The tip of her nose turned red within minutes, quickly followed by her cheeks. She never complained, just kept helping to load and unload the wood from pile to wheelbarrow to garage. She even learned where the “little ones” went and correctly deposited them all on her own, while Poppy stacked the heavy pieces just outside the door to the family room.

Gathering wood is just one of the satisfying rituals of having a fireplace. The effort reaps more than needed wood. I enjoy the exercise, and find the aromatic discharge from the chimney invigorating as it mingles with the cold air. I even gain a certain satisfaction in watching the light smoke swirl from the top of the stubby brick chimney. Altogether it spells contentment.
Dancing fire by Bruce Stambaugh
Indeed, having a fireplace is really all about enjoyment. A fireplace may be inefficient. But I savor the all-inclusive ambiance of a blazing fire, its fragrance, its crackling sounds, the penetrating warmth and the simple beauty of a dancing fire.

There is nothing quite like the pure warmth of a fireplace fire to take the chill off of a frosty fall evening, to enhance the beauty of a snowbound day in Amish country, or to free you from the numbness of a damp and miserable spring day. In each situation, I sit in front of the fire until my bones are warmed.

Watching the fire flicker away in multiple colors, constantly changing shape and posture, and occasionally spraying golden sparks warms both body and soul. When family is home, like they were at the holidays, the fireplace becomes the center of activity Holiday gathering by Bruce Stambaughexcept at mealtime, unless roasted hotdogs and toasted marshmallows are on the menu.

I think I got this affection for fireplaces from my father. On rare occasion, he would light a fire in the living room fireplace at home. When that happened, it was truly a special family time.

Each home we have owned has had a fireplace for all of the aforementioned reasons. Even our cottage, which my parents built, hasCottage fireplace by Bruce Stambaugh two fireplaces, one on the main floor, and one in the walk out basement.

At home I buy my firewood each year, usually from a local farmer. It provides his family with extra income, and my family and me with immeasurable joy. Since the cottage is built in an expansive woods, we gather and split dead wood for our fireplace.

We often have a firewood frolic to get the job done there. The neighbor volunteers his hydraulic splitter. I round up some young, willing helper who enjoys showing off his youthful prowess to lift the heavy logs. My expertise is stacking the split wood just so.

Having a fireplace may be considered a luxury in some corners, an inefficient heating effort in others. Maren by Bruce StambaughI take a different view. Added altogether, the affable socialization, the exhilarating labor, the fire’s soothing pleasantries, yield rewarding results.

If your granddaughter helps bring in the wood, it’s all the better.

An empty nest is a good thing

By Bruce Stambaugh

We humans can learn a lot from bird behavior.

A pair of Rose Breasted Grosbeaks had frequented a backyard hanging feeder filled with sunflower seeds for much of the summer. Time and again they ferried nourishment to their young somewhere deep in the woods. When they were ready, the young fledged and flew the coop. The nest was empty.

Rose Brested Grosbeak by Bruce Stambaugh
A male Rose Breasted Grosbeak at the oil sunflower feeder.

My wife and I knew early on in our child rearing that the day would come when our daughter and our son would both be gone. They would grow up and begin lives of their own. That’s as it should be.

The main role of parents is to raise your children the best you know how, imperfectly to be sure, and then let them go. They are adults. They can use their own wings to fly through this crazy world of ours.

Still, I have encountered parents who long for the days when their children were younger. They just can’t give them up, even though they are adults. The comments have not only come from newbie nesters, also known as helicopter parents, who hover over their college freshmen. Veteran parents whose “children” left long before our own also seem melancholy.

Empty nest by Bruce Stambaugh
No post about the empty nest would be complete without a picture of an empty nest, in this case a House Wren's nest in an Eastern Bluebird box.

Ideally, the child/parent relationship should go something like this. As infants, the children are totally dependent on the parents. As they grow and mature, they change from children to young adults, responsible for their own actions.

By their late teens, the kids may go off to college, like our children did, or simply leave home to begin life on their own. It is at this critical point in the family relationship cycle that parents need to freely release their offspring.

Unfortunately, given the current extended downturn in the global economy, jobs are harder to come by. The reality for some is that out of financial necessity adult children and sometimes grandchildren have had to move back in with parents and grandparents.

In the 16 years since our nest has been empty, my wife and I have had opportunities to travel without the constraints of busy teenagers’ schedules. More often, we have simply enjoyed our quiet times together. Of course we continue to interact with our grown children and the grandchildren as frequently as we can. But we have also learned to give them their own space.

Flower garden by Bruce Stambaugh
My wife gets many compliments on her beautiful flower gardens.

The empty nest has had another unexpected benefit. My wife and I have also rediscovered one another, and learned to enjoy our own hobbies and interests. Some we do as a couple. Others, like gardening for Neva and birding for me, we enjoy separately. We have gained individually and as partners.

I know humans have a higher calling than birds. Birds at least instinctively know that their role as parents is to sit on those eggs until they hatch, feed the chicks until they fly, teach them how to forage for food and to fear predators. After that, they are generally on their own.

For me, that’s where the comparison tilts to our advantage. We should strive for interdependence with our adult children, keeping in contact with them, always loving and communicating with them, without controlling or smothering them. Achieving that optimum goal can help combat the emptiness of the empty nest.

A healthy, nurtured interdependence between parents and adult children can result in the empty nest being a good thing for all involved, birds included.
Family by Bruce Stambaugh

The lights of September 11, 2001

By Bruce Stambaugh

My memories from September 11, 2001 are bathed in an emotional kaleidoscope of lights that seemed to guide me through that infamous day.
Sun rays by Bruce Stambaugh
The first light broke with the sunrise as I readied for work. I stood awestruck at the beauty that played out before me. The light from the morning sun glinted in bright shafts of beams through and around the leafy branches of the giant black oak tree directly across from our home. A misty ground fog was rising, reflecting and refracting light beams every which way.

The haze had dissipated and the sky turned pure sapphire by the time I reached my workplace. The sun had no competition now. The brightness of the crystal clear day buoyed me.

A lengthy phone call interrupted my regular startup office routine, which included turning on the radio. The caller went on and on, unnecessarily repeating point after point.

The second line on my phone rang. By the time I could rid myself of the windy caller, the other call had already gone into my voice mail.

Soon the little red light on the phone began to blink, the signal that I had a message. It was from our son, who lived and worked in New York City. Despite the passage of time, I can still distinctly hear his words.

“Dad,” Nathan’s message said, “Something has happened at the World Trade Center. We don’t have Internet or TV. Can you tell me what’s going on?”

I hung up and quickly turned on the radio. The first thing I heard was that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. I bolted to the receptionist’s desk to find out what was happening. I was told that a plane had flown into one of the Twin Towers in New York City.

I tried to reach my son at his workplace, which was just south of Times Square. Neither his office phone nor cell phone would ring through. Fear gripped me.

Nathan's shadow by Bruce Stambaugh
Our son, Nathan, during a break while on a work project near San Marcos, Ocotopeque, Honduras

I went to a TV to watch what was happening. By then, the second tower had been hit, and reports were coming in of another plane down in southwestern Pennsylvania.

At 10:45 a.m., I was paged for a phone call. I picked up the line and it was my son.

“Dad,” he said trying to cover his anxiety, “I don’t know how I got a line out to you. I just wanted you to know that I’m OK but that Manhattan is locked down. No one is going in or out.”

Despite our mutual fears, an indescribable light of love connected my son and I through those phone wires. We spoke for about 10 minutes until Nathan said that others wanted to use his phone. By late afternoon we were calmed with the news that our son had safely returned to his apartment.
Holding hands by Bruce Stambaugh
At the end of that incredibly long, exhausting day another light shown. The live TV coverage broadcast a surreal scene. The evening’s sun filtered through the gray, smoldering debris at Ground Zero. A ghostly spire, all that structurally remained of the Twin Towers, reflected and refracted light beams eerily similar to those at the oak that morning. I hoped that some good could come of this horrific international catastrophe.

Now a decade removed, I still cling to that desire, though too many lives have had their own individual lights snuffed out. I long for the light of peace among all peoples, even if it means the need to share that light one person at a time.

A love affair with baseball

Slider with grandsons by Bruce Stambaugh
When Slider, the Indians maskot, hammed it up with our two grandsons, the score of the game became insignificant.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Baseball and I go way back.

I can’t remember exactly when I saw my first major league baseball game. But I do recall attending several as a youngster, often with my family.

I also recollect one of my first Little League games as a player. I was 7 years old, the youngest and smallest kid on the team. The coach put me at second base, possibly thinking that was the safest spot on the field for me. It didn’t work out that way.

Grandsons by Bruce Stambaugh
Our grandsons share my enthusiasm for baseball.

Those were the days when real baseball rules were followed no matter how young you were. The pitcher pitched, not the coach. The batters batted. T-ball was unheard of.

One hallmark of baseball is its pithy clichés. One axiom says put an inexperienced player on the field and “the ball will find him.” Well, it did me that day.

A batter lashed a one hopper right at me. The hardball jumped off the compacted all dirt infield and smashed right into my mouth. I walked to the bench with loose front teeth, bleeding gums, a fat lip and a bruised adolescent ego.

That should have been an omen. As much as I loved the game, I really wasn’t a very good player. Maybe that’s why I focused so much on my favorite team, the Cleveland Indians. I got my baseball fix by dreaming of playing third base for the Tribe.

In those days, before our home had a television, I listened to the games on the radio. I loved the cadence and opinionated passion that Jimmy Dudley, the Indians play-by-play announcer, put into calling the games. Each play came alive in my mind.

In the 1950s, the Indians were consistently good with great, inspiring players. Some made the Baseball Hall of Fame. Paige, Doby, Lemon, Wynn, Feller, Minoso, Score, and Colavito were just some of my idols.

Because we lived 60 miles south of Cleveland, we could only go to a couple of games each year. It was just too far and too expensive.

Grady at bat by Bruce Stambaugh
Excellent players like Grady Sizemore continue to be the exception rather than the rule for the Cleveland Indians.

But because he loved baseball, too, Dad made every effort to take us to a game or two when time and cash allowed. To get his money’s worth, we often went to doubleheader games. Dad reveled at seeing two games for one price. Those were the days when doubleheaders were played 20 minutes apart, not as two separately ticketed games like they are today.

You could take coolers and thermoses into the ballpark then, too. We must have been quite the sight with five children in tow carrying a big, red, metal cooler into the stadium. Dad wasn’t about to pay for food and drink when you could take your own.

Just as I was entering my formative years, a life-changing event occurred for the Indians and me. They traded my favorite player, Rocky Colavito, the previous year’s homerun champ, for Harvey Kuenn, the previous year’s batting champ.

The team’s fortunes soured after that. The players’ names changed, too. Tasby, Latman, Mahoney, Phillips, Klimchock and Kirkland were the regulars to root for, although there really wasn’t much to cheer about. The teams often started out well, but usually faded by late summer.

Baseball friends by Bruce Stambaugh
Enjoying a baseball game with friends is always a treat.

I still love our national pastime and attend as many games as I think I can afford. Despite my nostalgic affection for baseball and the cost of ballpark food, I am glad for one 21st century policy. Big red coolers are prohibited.