Sharing life stories created a watershed moment

snowbirds, ocean view
Our ocean view.

By Bruce Stambaugh

We were four snowbird couples, all in our 60s and 70s, gathered for dessert and discussion. We all vacationed in the same Florida condominium building. We had a lot of tales to tell, and plenty of time and opportunity to relate them.

I wasn’t quite sure how the evening would go, given that not all of the couples knew one another. I need not have worried. The ubiquitous congeniality and spontaneity to share kept the conversation moving smoothly, freely, flawlessly. Amtrak never ran so well.

These had been lives well lived, not arrogantly or haughtily, but for family, community, with purpose and genuine, earthy pleasure. Farming does that to you. Most had some rooted connection, directly or indirectly, to the land in their upbringing.

Holmes Co. OH farm
Farming roots.

The group was geographically diverse, too. Bermuda, England, Ontario, North Carolina, and Ohio were each well represented.

After dessert, the stories just flowed. We all sat around a plain rectangular table. The chatter rolled as naturally as the crashing waves on the beach that served as our winter front yard.

Despite our various backgrounds, we had a lot in common. We were all grandparents, each with two children. Surprisingly, the conversation centered on subjects other than the grandchildren and their parents.

Rather, reminiscing of careers, successes, failures, misadventures, heroics, and pure silliness filled the evening. I marveled at the wisdom that surrounded me. Not once did the current global politics enter the confab. That was an unspoken blessing.

morel mushroom
Morel mushroom.

Instead, true stories of hidden treasures, broken dreams, personal confrontations, changing priorities, and even morel mushrooms dominated the banter. Of course, smartphones did fact checking.

The comfort level with one another was sublime, not altogether surprising given the characters in the room. Years of experience from office managers, teachers, cooks, explorers, antique enthusiasts, carpenters, and community volunteers were present and accounted for.

Unfettered wisdom oozed from each participant. Despite some of the type A personalities in attendance, no braggadocios emerged. It was an equal-opportunity session, and all took advantage of the necessary give and take of listening and responding. I felt honored to be a member of this temporary social club.

We had originated from backgrounds that spanned rural, tropical, transient, suburban. That only enriched our camaraderie and the conversation. One refreshing tale led to another.

colorful parasail
An uplifting and colorful conversation.

Though no clergy was among us, it was pretty clear we were in the midst of a sacred moment that lasted more than three hours. There was no agenda, no order of service, no liturgy, no sermon, only immediate trust, mutual respect, adamant admiration, and unending inquisitiveness. The gathering was church defined.

Amid all the world’s problems, I found peace and hope in these kind folks and their faithfulness despite humanity’s all too frequent calamitous interactions. Our friends’ faith rang loud and clear, always, always in humble, gentle, kind voices.

Some of these individuals had just met, and yet here they were affirming and absorbing and encouraging one another without bias or inquisition. I was grateful to be counted among them. I felt safe, secure, sure, loved, appreciated, and appreciative.

In truth, the beachfront location was the magnet that drew us all together in this pleasant place. The genuine fellowship was the glue that cemented our budding friendships.

Humanity too often measures historical events in earth-shattering happenings. For me, this evening of pure, pleasurable fellowship instead modeled the way we all should go. It was a moving watershed moment that pulled me into this new, transformative year.

dawn, colorful sunrise
The dawning of a new day.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2017

A true friend, right down to the end

Edgefield School, basketball team
Edgefield School 6th grade basketball team. Two teammates wore light pants for the photo. Guess who they were?

By Bruce Stambaugh

There are friends, and then there are friends.

Dave and I have been friends for a lifetime. Given our age, that’s a long time. Just to be clear, Dave is several months older than me.

Growing up, we lived just a few blocks apart, though we didn’t necessarily run in the same gangs in our northeast Ohio neighborhood. In the 1950s, that meant we didn’t have the same circle of friends.

lifetime friend
My lifetime friend, Dave.

Still, we’ve been best buddies since grade school. We were in several classes together in our elementary school that overflowed with baby boomers. We have lots of fun memories from good old Edgefield School.

Not only that, but we also went to the same junior high school, high school, and college together. Shoot. We even majored in the same subject, journalism. Dave focused on marketing. I chose news writing.

A funny thing happened on the way to life. After completing our internships, his for a non-profit agency and mine at a major metropolitan newspaper, neither of us pursued that career.

We both ended up in rural Holmes Co., Ohio. Though neither of us was certified, we both became elementary teachers. Dave began his education career at Millersburg, Ohio. I started at nearby Killbuck.

Dave married the love of his life the first year he taught. I married during my second year of pedagogy to a beautiful woman I knew all of nine months. That was 45 years ago.

Guess who our best man was? Yep. Dave. Today, his wife and my wife are also best friends, two of a kind, kind of like Dave and me.

Dave and Kate had a girl and a boy. Neva and I had a girl and boy. We were even in the same Lamaze class together.

Now, no one would ever mistake Dave for me or me for Dave. I’m much more handsome than he is, and more modest too. Dave does have a better head of hair than me, which wouldn’t take much.

Dave and I came from similar God-fearing, middle-class families. His fine folks worked hard to ensure their two sons would contribute in the post-World War II world. Mine did the same, only with five raucous rascals to point in the right direction.

Cleveland Indians
Dave and I both like baseball, too.

Our parents instilled in us good manners, proper eating habits, and to keep the Sabbath like any good, church-going folks would. That meant after Sunday services, we played ball, went fishing or washed the car.

Dave and I dressed alike, too. Hand-me-down flannel shirts and blue jeans were appropriate for many occasions. That trait followed us into adulthood in an uncanny way.

On more than one occasion, Dave and I have shown up at the same event dressed as if we had agreed on the dress code before leaving. We didn’t.

Recently, we arranged to meet for dinner before attending a concert by Sonnenberg Station in Wooster, Ohio.

Right on cue, mostly thanks to our prompt wives, we arrived within minutes of each other. Dave had on a light blue shirt, dark blue sweater, beige khakis, and brown shoes. So did I.

When my wife told Dave’s wife that I was having a colonoscopy, Kate responded, “So is Dave!” The same day. Dave and I just laughed, until the preparations began.

I’m happy to report that we had the same results. We both see our gastroenterologists next in 2026.

I hope each of you have a friend like Dave. I hope you get a good report on your colonoscopy, too.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016

Breaking a long tradition for a heartfelt reason

cuttingthechristmastreebybrucestambaugh
The perfect tree.

By Bruce Stambaugh

My wife and I made an impromptu, important decision. We broke a long-standing tradition for the perfect reason.

For the last 40 years, we have always had a live Christmas tree grace our home. That won’t happen this year.

The live tree always stood centered in front of the living room windows for most of December. This year an attractive, used artificial tree retrieved from a local thrift store fills that spot.

Our first live trees weren’t cut either. They still had their roots bound in burlap. After Christmas, we transplanted the trees in the yard of our first home we built four years after our marriage. When we moved to our present home 36 years ago, we switched to live, cut trees.

Christmas tree, opening gifts, family
Christmas morning.

Both my wife and I had grown up with fresh cut trees in our homes for the holidays. My family often took excursions to select just the right tree. Dad used the saw, and us kids would help carry the piney prize back to the car.

We continued that Yuletide tradition with our children. We loved the family experience, the exhilaration of the nip in the December air in Holmes County, Ohio.

My favorite Christmas trees growing up were the Scotch pines. I loved their long, soft needs as opposed to the stiff, prickly ones of the Colorado blue spruce species.

In recent years, my wife and I tried Fraser, Douglas, and Concolor firs. They all kept their needles longer than other species and filled the house with a pleasant, conifer fragrance. Their soft, bluish-green coloration added a festive flair, too.

With all of these positive traits, why would we change now? The truth is, we hadn’t intended to switch.

We went looking for a Concolor that would serve a dual purpose. We would again get a balled tree first to serve as our Christmas tree. After the holidays, we would plant it to replace a mature blighted blue spruce removed from our side yard last summer.

Concolor, memorial tree
The Jenny tree.

We found a small, balled Concolor at our first stop. It was hardly three-feet tall, much smaller than we had in mind.

Then we got an idea. We bought the little tree and planted it where the stately blue spruce had been. We chose this lovely fir to serve as an evergreen memorial to our dear friend, Jenny Roth Wengerd, who died on Sept. 11 from a brain hemorrhage at age 47.

The tree was about the size of Jenny when we first met her at age three after her adoption from South Korea. Neva and I witnessed her naturalization as a U.S. citizen.

We often cared for Jenny and her siblings while their parents were away. She and her family stayed in our house the day their home burned down. We mourned with the family when Jenny’s brother, Steve, died of cancer at 25.

We had been through a lot together.

Jenny was as beautiful and compassionate as a human could be. She radiated love and joy to all who knew her. Planting a tree to her memory only seemed fitting.

Only a single ornament adorns this extra special Christmas tree. A simple, translucent angel watches over this dedicated evergreen.

We will celebrate Christmas with a fake tree this year just as joyfully as if it were a fragrant, beautiful fir. Outside our Jenny tree will sink its roots into the earth, a living memorial to our gregarious friend who died much too soon.

Paul Roth family
The Roth family.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

Friends of friends become your friends, too

friends, birthday celebration
Friends Ruth, Don and Ken before Gail arrived for the surprise. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

By Bruce Stambaugh

I contemplated the circuitous route of just how I happened to be sitting beneath a party canopy in this Ontario, Canada couple’s backyard. It’s a long but enjoyable story.

It all started when my wife was 14-years-old. Of course, Neva wasn’t my wife then. We married young, but not that young.

Neva accompanied her youth group to a church conference in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada in 1964. With hundreds of teenagers from around the U.S. and Canada attending, with the teens assigned to sleep in homes of local folks.

That’s where Neva met Ruth. Ruth’s family hosted Neva. Neva and Ruth connected right away, and they kept in touch. Seven years later, Ruth and her husband, Ken, attended our wedding in northeast Ohio.

They returned to Ontario. We set up shop here. We all began our careers and started families. We visited Ken and Ruth once when our daughter was just two. Now her youngest child is five. Time melts away, doesn’t it?

With the internet, texting, email, and online chatting science fiction, correspondence via regular mail diminished over time. Life got in the way of our long distance friendship.

About 20 years ago, that unexpectedly changed. Neva saw an advertisement for a tour. She called the toll-free number and guess who answered? Ruth.

friends meeting
Meeting place. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
Their personal connection was restored. Ken and Ruth have visited us here in Holmes Co., and we’ve returned to their place in Kitchener. We even vacationed together once. Sometimes we meet in between.

When Ruth learned that Neva and I had become snowbirds to Florida’s Amelia Island, she mentioned that their across the street neighbors also wintered there. That’s where our life circle began to expand.

Ruth exchanged contact numbers with their neighbors and us, and the result was pure magic. In February 2014, we arranged to meet Don and Gail at a coffee shop in Fernandina Beach, the island’s only town.

Before the first sip of coffee, the four of us were yacking away as if we had been lifetime friends. Gail was born in England and still has that lovely disarming accent that is as genuine and gentle as she is. Don was from Bermuda and carries that notorious island swagger with him still, even though he’s been a Canadian now for years.

We chattered like teenagers at a soda shop. It didn’t take long to discover that both Don and I had been volunteer firefighters. As if that wasn’t enough to cement our friendship, photography and nature were also common hobbies.

Having been to Bermuda a couple of times ourselves, we knew many of the locales they mentioned. Don shared stories from his childhood until the present.

true friends
Gail and Neva. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
Gail and Neva got along famously, too. While Don and I were off shooting too many photos, our wives were happy just to shop, browse thrift stores, or sit and share. They clicked like childhood friends.

A carpenter by trade, Don was intrigued to learn that the wood industry was king in our county. Over the next month, we would take day trips together, go out to eat, or just play dominoes. That pattern repeated last winter.

That brings me back to sitting under the canopy. We surprised both Don and Gail by crashing her surprise birthday party.

For that little coup, you can blame Ken and Ruth. That’s what lifelong friends do for one another. They help create other equally robust friendships.

That’s the thing about friendship circles. They enrich your life.

friends
Friends. © Don Brown 2015

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

A recipe that ensures lasting memories: good food, gracious friends

birthday meal, birthday celebration
Birthday celebration. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

By Bruce Stambaugh

Friends. Food. Memories. That’s a recipe to remember.

Some of my favorite memories come from sitting around a dinner table and sharing a meal with friends. With the passage of time, more often than not these are folks we seldom see on a regular basis for a multitude of reasons.

The excuses responsible for the separation are many and varied. A change of jobs, retirement, relocating, even a misunderstanding are just some of the possibilities.

Funny, isn’t it, how food enables meaningful conversation, neutralizes differences and bonds folks together. That’s true, of course, as long as I’m not cooking.

food and friends
Brunch with friends © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
Food flavors the conversational flow. Perhaps it’s the other way around. The intentionality of reconnecting is easier if food is the centerpiece.

The type of meal is insignificant. It could be at a fancy restaurant, or someone’s home or a relaxing picnic. The setting and type don’t necessarily dictate the buoyant demeanor that prevails. The results are the same.

My late father was notorious for instigating such gatherings. He called it the “annual Frith picnic.” Frith was my mother’s maiden name, and anyone directly and remotely connected to the Frith family of my mother and her two sisters was invited.

Grandma Frith, the mother of the three daughters, was always the queen of the feast. Us grandkids revered her. Her homemade pies had nothing to do with that of course.

Dad kept the reunion going as long as he could. We usually met at his company-owned park, along with hundreds of other employees and their families.

We played card games, softball, volleyball and miniature golf. Mostly though, we grouped in semi-circles or sat at picnic tables quizzing one another. As the grandkids grew, they began to have children of their own.

old friends
Marvin and Mary. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
Attendance and menu offerings expanded, and then lessened as family cells grew and spread across the country like the measles. I miss those get-togethers. I remember the intensity of the conversations though not the specifics. Shoot, I can’t remember what I had for lunch, and lunch was an hour ago.

I recall other smorgasbords as well.

I find sitting at the same table with people you once hired, shared offices, played on the same softball team or attended church with priceless. Between bites of seasoned casseroles and homemade desserts, we sit around like old grandparents and compare notes about our greatest blessings, our grandchildren. We do so because we are old grandparents, well most of us.

Stories long forgotten are retold as if they happened yesterday. We laugh to the point of tears. Quiet reflections often follow the expressive outpourings, sure signs that those times will never return nor be repeated. That may be for the best.

family and food
Family. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
If heads turn our way in public settings, they are accompanied by understanding smiles without knowing the context or details. The other patrons acknowledge the genuine fellowship with polite nods.

I especially love extended opportunities where the conversing spontaneously spills out long past the clearing of the supper table. Raucous rounds of dominoes or card games ensue. They are new memories freshly made.

I find it even more delicious if newcomers slide into the circle of friends. They ask clarifying questions that generate new information, more laughter, a rainbow of language, and new friends.

In such situations, I have learned another necessary ingredient that spices the relational recipe. Silent listening is the honey that sweetens the relationships and keeps me asking for seconds.

relaxing before the meal
Relaxing. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

An international rendezvous

sailboatbybrucestambaugh
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.

historictownbybrucestambaugh
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.

friendlystrangersbybrucestambaugh
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.

oldfriendsbybrucestambaugh
The rendezvous. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

© 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.

firstmeetingbybrucestambaugh
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